Margaret Atwood Reading Month: Wilderness Tips and CWWA Symposium

For this third annual Margaret Atwood Reading Month (#MARM), hosted by Canadian bloggers extraordinaires Marcie of Buried in Print and Naomi of Consumed by Ink, I picked up Wilderness Tips, a short story collection I’m not sure I’d even heard of before I liberated this battered paperback from the Hay-on-Wye Airbnb where we stayed in September (shhhhhh!).

I also listened in to one of the papers given at the Contemporary Women’s Writing Association’s mini online symposium held to mark her 81st birthday yesterday.


Wilderness Tips (1991)

If pressed to give a one-line summary, I would say the overall theme of this collection is the power that women have (or do not have) in relationships – this is often a question of sex, but not always. Much of the collection falls neatly into pairs: “True Trash” and “Death by Landscape” are about summer camp and the effects that experiences had there still have decades later; “The Bog Man” and “The Age of Lead” both use the discovery of a preserved corpse (one a bog body, the other a member of the Franklin Expedition) as a metaphor for a frozen relationship; and “Hairball” and “Weight” are about a mistress’s power plays. I actually made myself a key on the table of contents page, assigning A, B, and C to those topics. The title story I labeled [A/C] because it’s set at a family’s lake house but the foreign spouse of one of the sisters has history with or designs on all three.

“Uncles,” a standout, didn’t fit into my framework. Susanna’s three uncles played a major role in her life, so when she got a job with a Toronto newspaper she welcomed her colleague Percy’s avuncular attentions. To her surprise, though, his tell-all autobiography reveals he wasn’t so happy about his protégée’s success after all. Two overall favorites were “Hairball,” about a mistress’s superbly executed act of revenge, and the final story, “Hack Wednesday,” in which Marcia takes stock of her life as she prepares for her children coming home for Christmas. Swap the Berlin Wall and Noriega for, I don’t know, Syria and Trump or suchlike, and it would be absolutely current, what with her partner Eric’s eco-warrior escapades (and hypocrisy) and her wish to situate herself in the context of history but also transcend it. I marked out the most passages in this one, and so many made me laugh:

Time is going faster and faster; the days of the week whisk by like panties. The panties she’s thinking about are the kind she had when was a little girl, in pastels, with ‘Monday,’ ‘Tuesday,’ ‘Wednesday’ embroidered on them. Ever since then the days of the week have had colours for her: Monday is blue, Tuesday is cream, Wednesday is lilac. You counted your way through each week by panty, fresh on each day, then dirtied and thrown into the bin. Marcia’s mother used to tell her that she should always wear clean panties in case a bus ran over her, because other people might see them as her corpse was being toted off to the morgue. It wasn’t Marcia’s potential death that loomed uppermost in her mind, it was the state of her panties.

“One of these days I’m going to kill that beast,” says Eric. … “You poor baby!” says Marcia, scooping up the cat, which is overweight. It’s on a diet, but mooches in secret from the neighbours. Marcia sympathizes. “I just let the damn thing out. In, out, in, out. It can’t make up its mind,” says Eric. “It’s confused,” says Marcia.

Marcia will get a little drunk on the eggnog, and later, after the dishes are done, she will cry silently to herself, shut into the bathroom and hugging in her festive arms the grumbling cat, which she will have dragged out from under a bed for this purpose. She will cry because the children are no longer children, or because she herself is not a child any more, or because there are children who have never been children, or because she can’t have a child any more, ever gone. Her body has gone past too quickly for her.

My rating:


CWWA Symposium

To open the afternoon program, Dr. Fiona Tolan of Liverpool John Moores University spoke on “21st-century Gileads: Feminist Dystopian Fiction after Atwood.” She noted that The Handmaid’s Tale casts a long shadow; it’s entered into our cultural lexicon and isn’t going anywhere. She showed covers of three fairly recent books that take up the Handmaid’s red: The Power, Vox, and Red Clocks. However, the two novels she chose to focus on do not have comparable covers: The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh (my review) and The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood. I was unfamiliar with the premise of the Wood. Ten young women who have been involved in public sex scandals (e.g. with politicians) are kidnapped and imprisoned in a compound in the Outback; their heads are shaven and they are forced to undertake hard labor. Although it’s a female-dominated space, the patriarchy is perpetuated. Is sisterhood a possibility here?

Atwood has said, “Some books haunt the reader and some haunt the writer.” Tolan argued that Handmaid’s clearly does both, since Atwood chose to return to Gilead with The Testaments. While Tolan believes Atwood’s overall emphasis has always been on liberty, she notes that the author has been reluctant to be associated with feminism as a movement.


I feel like my #MARM participation has been somewhat half-hearted this year – I won’t be getting a Bingo on this chart! – but I always enjoy engaging with Atwood’s writing and thinking. With any luck, I’ll still get to read her new poetry collection, Dearly, for review in 2020, and before long I can start planning what I’ll read for this challenge next November.

13 responses

  1. I enjoyed this take on two different bits of MA, so thank you! I’ve done nothing for it, as usual!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Do you have favourite books of hers?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have a book of her essays I like, and then I have liked re-reading Handmaid’s Tale and going on to Testaments. I remember liking Cat’s Eye but not much about it. Matthew has done the sci fi trilogy but came unstuck on the singing a bit!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s so great to have a snippet on the Symposium – something that I didn’t even make it to in the end (although I was registered for it and intended to “go”). So, I’m so happy you attended! And it sounds like an interesting topic – so many books these days are compared to The Handmaid’s Tale. Whether people like the book or not, it’s not going anywhere!

    Funny… I actually just read The Natural Way of Things for AusReading Month! Hopefully I find the time to write about it (and all my novellas) before the end of the month!

    Thanks for joining in, Rebecca! It’s not easy with all the other good bookish stuff going on. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I meant to go to more of the symposium, but I don’t think I’d realized it was going to last several hours, with papers of about 40-45 minutes. I had the one talk on while I was working in the afternoon, but found that my attention wasn’t holding through the next.

      Oh, that’s neat, you’ll have to say whether you noted similarities between The Natural Way of Things and Handmaid’s!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. That’s a good idea, to work while allowing the “talk” to play. Somehow once I’ve gotten the idea that something is in a video format, I feel as though I need to sit and pay attention and watch, whereas in an audio format I can wash the dishes or do straightforward cooking (no new recipes!) and enjoy the time. But if they’re reading papers, it probably doesn’t matter much if one’s eyeing the screen? I think you’d doing a fine job of MARMing. It’s been way too long since I read Wilderness Tips and the fact that I only remember summer camp means I should likely revisit! If you’re having fun with the BINGO, you can always continue to play with it. I’ve filled a number of squares recently, enough that I can “see” pathways to lines and am curious how long it would take for a blackout. LOL

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t have a webcam on my PC anyway, so I joined the Zoom meeting but was happy just listening and keeping a tiny pop-up window in the corner of my screen as a visual. The first speaker showed the book cover images but otherwise just spoke to camera, whereas the second one had a PowerPoint and I found my attention drifting.

      I think I’m all caught up on your comments — these last responses were keyed in while listening in to the Booker ceremony 🙂 At which MA herself made a brief appearance!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Even though I’ve been registering the prize for ages, even if not always following and reading along, I have never watched: I should probably try one! 🙂


  4. […] 18th was Margaret Atwood’s birthday. Ali wrote a birthday blog post for the occasion, and Rebecca attended the CWWA Symposium. I was tied up most of the day, but did manage to bake some ginger […]


  5. […] represented, with Mel at The Reading Life dipping into Dancing Girls with “The Man from Mars”, Rebecca at BookishBeck reading Wilderness Tips and Ali reading a later collection, Moral […]


  6. […] years, I’ve read Surfacing and The Edible Woman, The Robber Bride and Moral Disorder, and Wilderness Tips. This year Laila of Big Reading Life (a private blog) and I did a buddy reread of The Blind […]


  7. […] challenge, I’ve read Surfacing and The Edible Woman, The Robber Bride and Moral Disorder, and Wilderness Tips, and reread The Blind Assassin. Today is Atwood’s 83rd birthday, so what better time to show her […]


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