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Second Words: Selected Critical Prose is the first of Margaret Atwood’s collections of critical prose pieces.  The pieces in this collection are miscellaneous and range from the simple book reviews to book introductions to essays on topics as varied as Canadian humour, Canadianism or being a woman writer.  If you like Atwood, it will give you a good insight into where she is coming from.

I read it from cover to cover (for study purposes) and this might not be the best way to do it, although, as the pieces are organised into three chronological periods, it gives you a good idea about where Atwood stood in each period.  The collection spans the years from 1960, when Atwood was at Victoria University, to 1980, when she had already become an established writer.  She herself explains that the logic behind her organisation:

“The first, or Rooming House, runs from 1960 to 1971, during which I moved about fifteen times, always to places with a lot of stairs to climb and inadequate heat.  It was during this time that I was developing some of the ideas set forth in Survival.  The second, or Dugout, period runs from 1972 (or publication of Survival) to 1976, and covers a time when I was being attacked a lot; much of what I wrote then was in response to some of these attacks, the more intellectually serious ones, I think . . . It also corresponds to the peak of cultural nationalism and the popularization of feminism.

The third period, which has no name yet, runs from 1976, in which I published Lady Oracle and had a baby, thus becoming instantly warm and maternal and temporarily less attacked, to the present [1982].  It covers my growing involvement with human right issues, which for me are not separate from writing.  When you begin to write, you deal with your immediate surroundings; as you grow, your immediate surroundings become larger.  There’s no contradiction.”

The reviews can become a little tedious when read one after another.  It is the same as when reading book blogs: you rarely read all the reviews you come across.  I read them all because I did not want to miss a thing.  Since Atwood’s writing is good, and funny at times (although she is more serious in her reviews than in her essays), they are enjoyable – albeit, if you space them a little.  Her reviews are actually enlightening in considerations of her own writing and they also give a good sense of the context in which the books were written and thus of Atwood’s own context (for contemporaneous books).  For instance, her reviews of Adrienne Rich’s work provide a glimpse at Atwood’s position regarding feminism.  They are also an excellent way to discover the work of authors unknown to you and to, perhaps, raise your interest to works you would not have considered reading before, as is the case with any review.  As they feature some Canadian authors, such as Gwendolyn MacEwen, Audrey Thomas and Timothy Findley, but also Canadian magazines, they are also a kind of commentary on the state of Canadian literature at the time.

The essays are typical Atwood; they are witty and thoughtful.  Some of them are autobiographical, while other consider contemporaneous issues.  For instance, a piece like “Travels Back” recounts Atwood’s early book tours in some remote town (a topic also evoked in her short story “Lives of the Poets”, but also considers what writing means to her.  In fact, many of these essays examine various aspects of writing: “On Being a Woman Writer: Paradoxes and Dilemmas” and “Writing the Male Character”, for instance.  Others examine Canadianness, and Canadian literature in particular, as well as the relations between the US and Canada.   

I might look at these essays more closely in the future, as I really enjoyed reading them, but for now, I will share a few quotations with you.

“‘They’ had been taught that they were the centre of the universe, a huge, healthy apple pie, with other countries and cultures sprinkled round the outside, like raisins.  ‘We’ on the other hand had been taught that we were one of the raisins, in fact, the raisin, and that the other parts of the universe were invariably larger and more interesting than we were.” (“Nationalism, Limbo and the Canadian Club”)

“If I create a female character, I would like to be able to show her having the emotions all human beings have – hate, envy, spite, lust, anger and fear, as well as love, compassion, tolerance and joy – without having her pronounced a monster, a slur, or a bad example.”  (“The Curse of Eve – Or, What I Learned in School”)

“How much better if children could be chosen, and loved for what they are, not viewed as an inadequate substitute for a ‘career’ or some kind of parasitic burden?”  (“Adrienne Rich: Of Woman Born”)

“Occasionally our critics get a little heavy and start talking about the human condition, but on the whole the audience prefers art not to be a mirror held up to life but a Disneyland of the soul, containing Romanceland, Spyland, Pornoland and all the other Escapelands which are so much more agreeable than the complex truth.”  (“Amnesty International: An Address”)

“If a man depicts a male character unfavourably, it’s The Human Condition; if a woman does it, she’s being mean to men.”  (“Writing the Male Character”)

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This is my 4th year taking part in the Earth Hour, a global event aimed at raising awareness about sustainability issues.  This year, I have decided to write a daily post during the month leading to the event in order to share some thoughts about the environment and give tips the little changes we can make in our daily lives.  There will also be some guest posts by fellow bloggers who will share their own views on a topic related to the environment.  You can read my introductory post here and access the Earth Hour website here.

I encourage you to comment and share your own tips, ideas and experience.  In the last couple of days before the event I will do a few posts about what readers had to say.  I believe we can learn a lot by sharing!

As today is World Book Night, I offer you a literary interlude to celebrate.  The exerpt below is from the last chapter of Margaret Atwood’s Payback in which she considers the debt we owe to nature. 

In this chapter, Atwood asks readers to imagine a modern Scrooge, “Scrooge Nouveau”, a businessman loaded with money and whose only concern is his money.  The description she makes of him is a hilarious satire, which seems so true.  Although the tone remains playful, the subject matter becomes grimmer as the story goes.  Along with Scrooge Nouveau, we are brought into the past, the present and the future to see how humans have become indebted to Nature and what happens as they cannot payback.  The future offers two possibilities, depending on the choice we decide to make regarding the environment. 

Of course, these are things I think about on a daily basis (each time I make the choice to turn off the switch of the plugs in my house), but the way Atwood writes about it is powerful and brought tears to my eyes.  I am not sure if these were tears of sadness or anger, probably a bit of both.  It made me want to send the book to all the businesses that leave their lights on at night.  I want to talk about it, I want to make people aware that we can make decisions to help our planet.  Every time I bring up this topic, I hope I get the person to become conscious that s/he has a choice and  believe it is a small victory.

Enough for now, here is the passage:

“But the clock is striking twelve, and under his hands the Spirit is dissolving.

It’s changing to something dry and scaly.  Now it’s a giant cockroach. ‘I am the Spirit of Earth Day Future,” it says in a rasping voice.

. . .

At first Scrooge barely recognizes his future self.  He’s gaunt and frantic, and pushing a wheelbarrow full of cash.  As he watches, his future self tries to exchange this mountain of money for a can of food, but it’s no deal.

. . .

‘The mills of the gods grind slowly, but they grind exceeding small,’ says the Spirit.  ‘Mankind made a Faustian bargain as soon as he invested his first technologies, including the bow and arrow.  It was then that human beings, instead of limiting their birth rate to keep their population in step with natural resources, decided instead to multiply unchecked.  Then they increased the food supply to support this growth by manipulating those resources, inventing ever newer and more complex technologies to do so.  Now we have the most intricate system of gizmos has ever known.  Our technological system is the mill that grinds out anything you wish to order up, but no one knows how to turn it off.  The end result of a totally efficient technological exploitation of Nature would be a lifeless desert: all natural capital would be exhausted, having been devoured by the mill, and the resulting debt to Nature would be infinite.  But long before then, payback time will come for Mankind.'”

You can see the entire review here.

EXTENSION: you have until tomorrow 10am (GMT) to enter.

As some of you might already know, I have been chosen as a giver for World Book Night.  Following the example set by other bloggers, such as Boof @The Book Whisperer and Teadevotee @amused, bemused and confused, I have decided to hold a giveaway on this blog.

World Book Night is a massive event organised for the first time in the UK and Ireland.  To celebrate World Book Day, publishers, authors and other parties have got together to create World Book Night.  For the occasion, one million books will be given on that night (day).  People were asked to choose from a set list a book they would like to share and explain why.  20000 givers were then chosen, each will receive 48 copies of the title.

On Friday night, a public event held at London’s Trafalgar Square will welcome 10000 people to listen to readings from some of the authors.  Margaret Atwood, Mark Haddon, Philip Pullman and many more will be present.  I would have loved to go – I think it will be a fantastic night – but, unfortunately, I reside a bit too far.

I was over the moon to see that The Blind Assassin, written by Margaret Atwood and published by Virago, was on that list.  Margaret Atwood is my favourite author and The Blind Assassin is a fantastic book, which I have shared many times before and will be delighted to share another 48 times on Saturday.  This week, you have thus the opportunity to win one of the copies on this blog.

To win, it’s simple (actually not THAT simple; I like a bit of a challenge!).  Fill the form below with your details and the answers to the following questions (you can find all the answers on this blog and I will be nice and give you a hint: click on Atwood!).  This giveaway is open internationally and will end on Friday night at midnight (GMT).  Good luck!

  • Next fall, a new Atwood’s non-fiction book will come out.  In Other Worlds is a collection of lectures she gave on science-fiction.  In the past, she has published other such books; one being a collection of the Empson lectures she gave at Cambridge.  What is the name of this book?
  • Atwood has published eight collections of short stories/fictions.  Only one of them is a short story cycle or hybrid-novel.  What is the name of its main narrator?
  • Atwood playfully, but very seriously also, revises Dickens’s A Christmas Carol to highlight the debt we owe to the planet.  What is the title of the book in which she does that?

For those of you who have not been chosen, but still would like to share a book on this particular day, an alternative way of celebrating has been suggested.  Although I do not entirely believe the giveaway will affect independent bookshops badly, as has been suggested, I think this alternative World Book Night is a great and fun idea to still take part in the event.  It simply consists of people buying a book from an independent seller and giving it away on that day, thus supporting the book industry.  It has been said that World Book Night could impact negatively on independent booksellers, but I think the event is about sharing your passion for reading and for a certain book and ultimately could increase sales.  I certainly hope that people who receive a book from me will rush to buy more of Atwood’s books!

One last treat for you: a link to a page where you can find interviews of some of the authors featured in World Book Night.

Last week, the Tools of Change for Publishing Conference was on in New York.  One of the keynote addresses was given by Margaret Atwood.  She discusses the publishing industry, but also a topical issue of ebooks vs paper books.  Watch it if you haven’t already done so.  Not only is it informative, but it is also highly humourous.  I must also say that her Powerpoint presentation, with her own illustrations, deserves a special mention.

She also gave an interview for the occasion.

And for those of you who want to improve their book blogging skills, here is the advice that was given by some experts at the conference.

Salomey was a dancer, she did the hootchie kootch, And when she did the hoochie kootch, she didn’t wear very mooch (skipping rhyme quoted in Negotiating with the Dead by Margaret Atwood).

Who is Salomé?

I am not well versed in biblical studies, but, from what I have gathered, Salomé was the daughter of Herodias and stepdaughter of Herod.  It seems that on the occasion of Herod’s birthday, she danced for him and asked, to her mother’s request, the head of John the Baptist.  John the Baptist, who had announced Jesus’s coming, had been made prisoner by Herod because he had denounced his unlawful marriage to Herodias.  She thus stands as a Christian warning against dancing and female seduction.

This weekend, I read Salomé by Oscar Wilde (you can easily find an online version).  It is a short play, which was first written in French in 1891.  His version seems faithful to the original story of Salomé but emphasises even more Salomé’s seductiveness. 

Illustrations and photos for Wilde's Salomé (Tiger Books)

During the banquet given by Herod, the Young Syrian admires Salomé, while his friend is admiring the moon, which is compared to a woman.  The Young Syrian keeps looking at Salomé despite the warnings of his friend: “You must not look at her… Something terrible may happen.”  Both also notice how Herod is looking at Salomé.  Salomé then leaves the banquet because she cannot stand her stepfather looking at her constantly and joins them.  When she hears the voice of the prophet, Jokanaan, she asks to see him.  The two friends refuse.  However, Salomé, aware of her seductive power on the Young Syrian, convinces him.  She immediately falls in love with Jokanaan.  She is fickle in her tastes.  She first admires his body, but ,after his rejection of her because she is the “daughter of adultery”, she admires his hair and finally his mouth, which she wants to kiss: “Let me kiss thy mouth.”  This last remark brings the Young Syrian to kill himself. 

Beardsley's illustration for Wilde's Salomé (Tiger Books)

When Herod and his wife come out, Herodias keeps asking him to stop looking at her daughter.  Not paying attention, Herod begs Salomé to dance for him, offering her whatever she desires in exchange.  Salomé asks for Jokanaan’s head to the satisfaction of her mother, who felt insulted by Jokanaan’s words.  Salomé, still filled with desire for Jokanaan, kisses his head.  The play ends as Herod orders to have Salomé killed.

The way I see this play is as a critique of women’s vanity, fickleness and power of seduction.  However, there are some other meanings to it.  One could see it as a comment on religion, Judaism in particular, as the Jews keep having ridiculous arguments and never seem to agree with each others.

I do not find this play as enjoyable as Wilde’s other works.  I think it is not as entertaining and witty, although I smiled on a few occasions.  Maybe more research on it could help me to appreciate it?

I find Margaret Atwood’s take on Salomé in The Tent much more sarcastic and entertaining.  Atwood uses the story of Salomé and sets it up in our modern world.  The tone is that of gossip and the story becomes a kind of tv drama.

Atwood's own illustration for "Salomé Was a Dancer" (The Tent, 50)

In this little story entitled “Salomé Was a Dancer”, the narrator tells us how Salomé seduced her Religious Studies teacher because he gave her a bad mark.  According to the narrator, this is not surprising “with a mother like hers . . . Divorced, remarried, bracelets all up her arms and fake eyelashes out to here, and pushy as hell.”  Salomé started to do beauty contests and dance shows at an early age, as in the school play, when “Seven layers of cheesecloth was all she wore.”  Salomé also has a stepfather, a banker, who had “promised her a Porsche when she turned sixteen.” 

Salomé got caught with her teacher, there was a scandal, but the narrator suggests that the banker pulled a few strings and now the teacher has “grown a beard, looks like Jesus, crazy as a bedbug.  Lost his head completely.”  Atwood then gives an ending descent of this modern version of the depraved woman and by doing so expands on Wilde’s own version.

Atwood says that “strong myths never die”.  Indeed, in this modern version she revives the myth of Salomé and turns it into a satire of pop culture and our avidity for tv drama.

Although it seems that the story of Salomé occupies only a small part in the New Testament, she was not even named, the myth of the femme fatale she created has certainly taken bigger proportions.

You can also read Carol Ann Duffy’s poem “Salomé”, another modern take on the story.  There is also a short story by Flaubert called “Salomé”; I must try to dig it up.

Have any of you read any of Margaret Atwood’s books for children?  I haven’t but I am very curious about them.  I would imagine them as being witty and I wonder if they can be read at multiple levels.  Anyway, these are on my to-be-read list; it’s just a matter of getting them.

Next May, this list will be growing as her seventh children’s book, Wandering Wanda and Widow Wallop’s Wunderground Washery, will be published.  An interesting title, to say the least!

In 2000, Margaret Atwood delivered a series of lectures on writing in Cambridge as part of the Empson lectures.  These were later published by Cambridge University Press in a little volume entitled Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing

I have recently read Strange Things and Payback, which I really enjoyed.  I also enjoyed reading Negotiating but found it more difficult to follow as some of the connections she makes can be quite obscure.

In her introduction, Atwood gives her usual disclaimer that she is not a scholar and that her voice is that of a writer.  The set topic she had for these lectures was: “Writing, or Being a Writer”.  She considers the long list of motives given by writers when asked why they write and, then, tackles the question of “what it feels like to be a writer”.  From the answers received, she deduces that it is what her book is most about:

“Possibly, then, writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out to the light.  This book is about that kind of darkness, and that kind of desire.”

Each chapter focuses on a specific aspect of writing and she poses questions such as: why does the writer write? who does s/he write for? what is the motivation behind the writing? does s/he have a moral responsibility? what relationship does s/he have with the reader?  She explores possible answers to these questions and, as always, provides a profusion of literary examples to illustrate her argument.  All her considerations are interesting and well-written and she touches on many topics that should enlighten both readers and writers, although some might find them disturbing. 

“All writers are double, for the simple reason that you can never actually meet the author of the book you have just read.”

It is a book in which the activity of writing is thought out and explained to an audience.  As such, it might destroy the glamorous idea you had of the writer.  She also argues that writing is an act of communication and, in the end, it is the reader who receives the work and interprets it.  In that sense, writers cannot have any definite control on their books and what they try to transmit.

“. . . the secret is that it isn’t the writer who decides whether or not his work is relevant.  Instead it’s the reader”

I was not too sure what to expect when picking up this book.  However, I recently read Strange Things, another collection of lectures by Atwood, and really enjoyed it, so I was confident when starting it.  I was not disappointed.  Payback discusses a topic I would not necessarily read about, debt, but in an enjoyable way.

I think what I like most about Atwood’s lectures is their liveliness.  She has done her research and her talks are informed, but the serious matters are lightened up by her humour and wittiness.  I particularly like all the little anecdotes Atwood has to say and her references to literature are varied, which makes her topic more approachable.

In Payback, Atwood considers the concept of debt and where it comes from.  She goes all the way back to ancient Egypt to explain how the concept of debt derives from the idea of fairness and the principle of justice.  She also analyses the connection between debt and sins, which brings her to consider the concept of pawn shops and of sacrifice.  Another focus is on what happens when we cannot pay back and she looks at the idea of eternal debt, but also the concept of revenge, which is another type of debt.  These considerations are illustrated by examples from literature and one of her chapters is devoted to debt as a plot, in which she discusses the fairy tale “The Girl Without Hands”, a story present in various way in her writings.

Finally, she considers the debt we owe to Mother Nature.  This is my favourite part.  She asks readers to imagine a modern Scrooge, “Scrooge Nouveau”, a businessman loaded with money and whose only concern is his money.  The description she makes of him is a hilarious satire, which seems so true.  Although the tone remains playful, the subject matter becomes grimmer as the story goes.  Along with Scrooge Nouveau, we are brought into the past, the present and the future to see what humans have become indebted to Nature and what happens as they cannot payback.  The future offers two possibilities, depending on the choice we decide to make regarding Nature. 

Of course, these are things I think about on a daily basis (each time I make the choice to turn off the switch of the plugs in my house), but the way Atwood writes about it is powerful and brought tears to my eyes.  I am not sure if these were tears of sadness or anger, probably a bit of both.  It made me want to send the book to all the businesses that leave their lights on at night.  I want to talk about it, I want to make people aware that we can make decisions to help our planet.  Every time I bring up this topic, I hope I get the person to become conscious that s/he has a choice and  believe it is a small victory.

Enough for now, but I will leave you with a short passage:

“But the clock is striking twelve, and under his hands the Spirit is dissolving.

It’s changing to something dry and scaly.  Now it’s a giant cockroach. ‘I am the Spirit of Earth Day Future,” it says in a rasping voice.

. . .

At first Scrooge barely recognizes his future self.  He’s gaunt and frantic, and pushing a wheelbarrow full of cash.  As he watches, his future self tries to exchange this mountain of money for a can of food, but it’s no deal.

. . .

‘The mills of the gods grind slowly, but they grind exceeding small,’ says the Spirit.  ‘Mankind made a Faustian bargain as soon as he invested his first technologies, including the bow and arrow.  It was then that human beings, instead of limiting their birth rate to keep their population in step with natural resources, decided instead to multiply unchecked.  Then they increased the food supply to support this growth by manipulating those resources, inventing ever newer and more complex technologies to do so.  Now we have the most intricate system of gizmos has ever known.  Our technological system is the mill that grinds out anything you wish to order up, but no one knows how to turn it off.  The end result of a totally efficient technological exploitation of Nature would be a lifeless desert: all natural capital would be exhausted, having been devoured by the mill, and the resulting debt to Nature would be infinite.  But long before then, payback time will come for Mankind.'”

 And if you have the time, you can watch this video of Atwood discussing her book (she does it much better than I do):

Literary Blog Hop
 The Literary Blog Hop is a weekly event held at The Blue Bookcase prompting book bloggers to answer a question.

What makes a contemporary novel a classic?

This is another tricky question.  First of all, I am not sure we can consider a contemporary novel a classic.  My definition of a classic would be those works that have survived through the ages, and we can not be sure which works are going to survive.  Some works might be popular now, but they might not be relevant to future generations.  I would also equate the classics with canonical literature, that is works which feature in the curriculum; however, this is another subjective and slippery concept.  I believe that what we might consider as contemporary classics are the works that have received much attention and honourable awards, such as the Booker’s Prize, or that are regularly featured in “top” lists published by newspapers and such.  Again, this is extremely subjective.

I believe that the contemporary novels that will survive and become classics are literary novels making a strong commentary on our society and displaying literary characteristics that will be deemed as representative of our age (possibly illustrating some literary movements, although I believe writers do not necessarily use techniques in order to be part of a movement, but rather because they suit their purposes).

Once more, I am going to choose an example by Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale.  I would have liked to consider an Irish novel but I cannot think of one that would be considered as a classic rather than an Irish classic.  This reflection actually foregrounds another dimension to the definition of a classic: classics will most likely come from English or American literature (although this is changing, but I do not find this evolution striking enough yet).  However, Atwood, who is from Canada, a country on the margins, is recognised as a major author in a large part of the world.  Her works are translated in many languages and are studied in many schools and universities worldwide, but not necessarily as part of a course on Canadian studies, which I find highly significant.  I remember that The Handmaid’s Tale used to be part of the curriculum in Nantes University (although I left the course before reaching that year and studied instead Lady Oracle as part of my Irish degree; again, Atwood was one of the rare authors who were not Irish or English/American in our course).  I believe The Handmaid’s Tale is/will become a classic.  Like George Orwell’s 1984, it is a dystopian novel set in a near future.  Its themes are universal and contemporaneous and it makes a harsh critique of society and its ideological discourses.  Technically, the novel displays postmodernist characteristics, while not adhering strictly to the movement (if it can ever be called a movement).  I can also be read from a feminist perspective, despite its ambiguity towards the Feminist movement.  I think its concerns with language and storytelling will also be features why this novel will be remembered.  Although this is not my favourite novel by Atwood, I believe it is probably the one that had been deemed as the most important, thus giving it the status of a classic.

I hope I am not boring you by mentioning Atwood once again, but her works are at the moment part of my everyday life and I find it difficult to avoid discussing her works on a regular basis.

Now, time to read what others think!

I’m not really into Halloween celebrations, but I’ve read so many posts about Halloween lately that I feel the envy to join in a little bit.  BE WARNED, this post might make you… smile!

Recently, I reviewed Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood.  One of the stories in this collection, “The Headless Horseman”, is about Halloween.  You might here recognise the reference to Washington Irving’s story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, which was most famously adapted by Tim Burton.  Steph coincidentally wrote a post about it today if you want to know a bit more about it.

Anyhow, the narrator in “The Headless Horseman” is familiar with Irving’s story, which she has studied at school, and she decides to dress up as the Headless Horseman for Halloween.  Despite the great care she puts into making her outfit, people fail to recognise whom she is dressed at, maybe because her costume is not that recognisable or they might have never heard of the story.  However, the head is kept and enjoys a second life after it is found by her little sister in the trunk room.  The head becomes Bob, one of her sister’s play companion.  She is very protective of it and takes personally any mockery about the head.

This story, which alternates between past and present, is the occasion for the narrator to remember how awkward her sister was as a kid.  She had difficulties to socialise and to differentiate between play/fiction and reality, a theme recurrent in Atwood’s work.  There is of course a lot more to this story but I let you discover this for yourself.

Here is a little extract from the story, which I hope will make you smile and release the tension on this Halloween day:

I tried on the entire outfit in front of my mirror, with the head held in the crook of my arm.  I could scarcely see myself through the eyeholes, but the dark shape looming in the glass, with two sinister eyeballs staring out balefully from somewhere near the elbow, looked pretty good to me.

On the night itself I groped my way out the door and joined my best friend of the moment, whose name was Annie.  Annie had done herself up as Raggedy Ann, complete with a wig of red woll braids.  We’d taken flashlights, but Annie had to hold my arm to guide me through the darker patches of the night, which were numerous in the badly lit surburb we were traversing.  I should have made the eyeholes bigger.

We went from door to door, shouting, ‘Shell out!  Shell out!’ and collecting popcorn balls and candy apples and licorice twists, and the Halloween toffees wrapped in orange and black waxed paper with designs of pumpkins and bats on them of which I was especially fond.  I lovedthe sensation of prowling abroad in the darkness – of being unseen, unknown, potentially terrifying, though all the time retaining, underneath, my own harmless, mundane, and dutiful self.

There was a full moon, I think; there ought to have been one.  The air was crisp; there were fallen leaves; jack-o-lanterns burned on the porches, giving off the exciting odour of singed pumkin.  . . .

I was disappointed, too, at the response of the adults who anwered the doors.  Everyone knew who my friend Annie was portraying – ‘Raggedy Annie!’ they cried with delight, they even got the pun – but to me they said, ‘And who are you supposed to be?’  My cape had a muffling effect, so I often had to repeat the answer twice.  ‘The Headless Horseman.’  ‘The headless what?’  Then, ‘What’s that you’re holding?’ they would go on to say.  ‘It’s the head.  Of the Headless Horseman.’  ‘Oh yes, I see.’  The head would then be admired, though in the overdone way adults had of admiring a thing when they secretly thought it was inept and laughable.  It didn’t occur to me that if I’d wanted my costume to be understood immediately I should have chosen something more obvious.

However, there was one member of the audience who’d been suitably impressed.  It was my little sister, who hadn’t yet gone to bed when I’d made my way through the living room en route to the door.  She’d taken one look at the shambling black torso and the big boots and the shiny-haired, frowning, bodiless head, and had begun to scream.  She’d screamed and screamed, and hadn’t been reassured when I’d lifted up the cape to show it was really only me underneath.  If anything, that had made it worse.

I was lucky to see Margaret Atwood read an extract from this story when I was in Toronto.  I also learnt that day that she did actually dress up as the Headless Horseman one Halloween when she was a kid.  I enjoyed the reading a lot, but what I enjoyed the most was to hear her giggling while she was reading.  I tried to capture her laugh on video.  They’re short but sweet and always make me smile. 

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