Burning Questions is my third collection of essays and other occasional pieces. The first Second Words, which began in 1960, when I started publishing book reviews, and ended in 1982. The second was Moving Targets, which gathered materials from 1983 to mid-2004. Burning Questions runs from mid-2004 to mid-2021. So, twenty years, give or take, for each volume.
After reading Liz @Adventures in Reading‘s review of Burning Questions earlier this year, and the various comments she made about it on her blog and on mine, I determined to take my time reading these essays. Liz enjoyed the essays a lot but felt she had rushed them instead of savouring each one properly.
It may be giving you more information than you ever need to know about me, but Burning Questions became my bathroom book. The shortish length of most of the essays meant that each one could be read in one (ahem) sitting, so to speak.
In case you were wondering, I have books stashed all around the house and in various bags so that I am never without the option to read. The pile of half-read books by my bed is ridiculous and not worth mentioning here, but I also have two books on the coffee table (one non-fiction and one children’s book), one non-fiction book in my walking backpack and another in my work backpack. Another fiction title is being slowly read at work during my lunch breaks and a non-fiction book sits next to my home laptop. The calico bag that I take up to the mountains every time we go also has a non-fiction book tucked inside, just in case!
This is why it takes me such a long time to finish non-fiction books. I not only have more than one book on the go at once, but they are room specific as well. Burning Questions took me eight months to read this way. I certainly savoured every single essay!
One advantage of reading this way is that it gave certain essays time to influence my other books.
Burning Questions had a number of wonderful such connections, from the nature of writing and translation, women’s issues, climate change and the recognition that we all get older eventually. Atwood and I also share a fascination with Ryszard Kapuściński, Alice Munro, Anne of Green Gables, Charles Dickens, Hilary Mantel, Rachel Carson, Stephen King, Shakespeare, Ray Bradbury, Anna Akhmatova, Simone de Beauvoir and poetry.
Atwood uses her introduction to explain how she divided up the book and the things that were concerning her most at the time (the aftermath of 9/11, the Obama years, climate change, her partner Graeme Gibson’s dementia diagnosis, the Trump years and, of course, the pandemic).
I am not going to discuss every single essay – that would be tedious for all of us concerned! But I will highlight some favourites.
Scientific Romancing: for instance did you know that the French have two words for short stories – contes and nouvelles – ‘tales’ and ‘news’ or perhaps ‘daily life’. This struck me as important in a way I hope/plan to tease out more as I reread and rediscover William Trevor’s short stories in the coming year with Cathy & Kim. In this essay, Atwood went on to define science fiction proper as “things we can’t yet do or begin to do, like going through a wormhole”. For her the science part is about knowledge while the fiction is about our desires and/or fears.
She obviously has a thing about this, as it comes up regularly in her essays and talks.
She prefers to call her writing speculative fiction with its focus on “the consequences of new & proposed technologies” and “changes in social organistaions” i.e. utopias and dystopias. For anyone who has read anything about Atwood’s thinking or writing processes with The Handmaid’s Tale you will already know that everything that happened in the story, was drawn from real events in history, or was a logical/possible extension of something that had already happend to women somewhere in the world at some point in history. She wasn’t making stuff up, she was simply combining it into one futuristic story, a story about the possible consequences of following a certain politico-religious line of thinking.
Polonia: made me laugh out loud when Atwood commented on the wisdom of giving advice to the young. “Hands up, everyone who’s ever taped laundry instructions to the washer-dryer for the benefit of their teenage children.” I taped ours on so well, it is still there! B22 though, continues to blatantly ignore the bit about how much powder is actually required for each load based on the slowly growing layer of powder detritus in the drawer. He believes that more is better. It may also have something to do with not having to cover the cost of replacement powder….yet!
Everyone would much rather be told that things are fine, the world is safe, we’re all nice people, and nothing is anyone’s fault – above all, that we can keep on doing exactly whatever we like, without taking any thought or changing our so-called lifestyle in the least, and there will be no bad consequences.
Literature and the Environment is her essay on climate change and the role of writers to represent these topics in their books, from her 2010 PEN Congress, Tokyo speech. Her comments fueled my enjoyment of Haven by Emma Donoghue.
Bring Up the Bodies 2012: Having reread the Hilary Mantel trilogy only last year, this essay was informative. But Atwood also nailed what it is that I love about historical fiction. It’s not about the timeline, dates and places. It’s about the people and how they lived through such times, not knowing what was coming next. Good historical fiction takes us there.
We read historical fiction for the same reason we keep watching Hamlet: it’s not what, it’s how. And although we know the plot, the characters themselves do not.
There were various pieces on writing the MaddAddam trilogy which made me realise that, yes, I do want to finish this trilogy after all. I read Oryx and Crake about ten years ago. I enjoyed it but not excessively so, therefore I didn’t bother when the next two were published. Atwood describes Oryx and Crake as “an adventure-romance coupled with a Menippean satire.” What? Normally she explains such things, but for some reason she left Menippean hanging out there.
A duck, duck, go revealed that it is a form of prose satire named after the Greek cynic, Menippus (3rd century BCE) that is ‘characterized by attacking mental attitudes instead of specific individuals‘ (thank you yourdictionary).
A number of her essays refer to her love of early science fiction writers. I now want to read more Ray Bradbury stories thanks to Atwood and We by Yevgeny Zamyatin.
The essay about being the first author selected for The Future Library prompted me to check out my 2020 post on the Library. I have now updated the authors to 2022 and wordpress-ised the formating.
Shakespeare & Me 2016: I totally agree with the comment below, but also would add that some book characters are not easy to spend time with. Their unlikeable, objectionable traits can make it difficult for a reader to continue unless the writing, or plotting, or topic make up for this somehow.
People who object to works of literature because the characters in them are not people you would want to marry or have for a room-mate have entirely missed the point.
Oryx and Crake 2018: The above and this quote is something I’ve tried to keep in mind as I’ve been reading Voss this month. Voss may not be likeable and Laura may the only person who would ever want to ever marry him, but Patrick White’s writing is stunning. What questions PW was asking though, is something I’m still grappling with.
Novels don’t provide answers…novels ask questions.
Growing Up in Quarantineland 2020: Atwood lists six ways of dealing with difficult times. I like to think I put into action 1,3,5 and 6 during the pandemic, although Mr Books and I may have consumed quite a bit of cheese and wine between March 2020 – January 2022, suggesting a little bit on number 2 was in play.
- Protect yourself.
- Give up and party…
- Help others.
- Bear witness (my Covid Chronicles series)
- Go about your life.
Also this friendly reminder, that it is not over yet. The end, the After, is not here yet. We may not be in the middle of the pandemic any longer, these may be the dying days of it that we are currently living through. But it is still a part of our lives. The variants are changing almost monthly. People are still catching Covid and getting sick, and some people are still so sick from it that they end up in hospital and some of those are dying. We may live with the social, economic and political ramifications of this time for many more years to come. I wonder how history will judge us?
We just need to make it through this part, between Before and After. As novelists know, the middle section is the hardest part to figure out.
I found most of these essays fascinating, interesting, engaging and/or amusing. For such a large collection that is quite an achievement! Highly recommended for Atwood fans.
Favourite Quotes: Two comments struck me anew as I was thumbing through the book for this post. History and what we can learn from it is obviously an obsession that both Atwood and I will take with us to our graves!
History is simply human beings doing stuff….History isn’t what happened – it’s the stories we tell about what happened. How we interpret and present what happened….the past as we know it is always changing.
I write books about possible unpleasant futures in the hope that we will not allow these futures into reality.
- Read for Margaret Atwood Reading Month 2022 #MARM hosted by Marcie @Buried in Print.
Title: Burning Questions: Essays and Occasional Pieces 2004-2021 Author: Maraget Atwood ISBN: 9781784744519 Imprint: Chatto & Windus Published: 1 March 2022 Format: Hardback Pages: 496 Dates Read: 29th March 2022 - 21 November 2022
- This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.