Curious Pursuits Occasional Writing

Curious Pursuits Occasional Writing


Curious Pursuits is a collection of personal essays, book reviews and articles from the fierce, ingenious mind of Margaret Atwood, ranging from 1970 to the present.

Atwood remembers moving to London as a starry-eyed teenager in 1964 and her first attempts at gardening; she discusses feminist utopias in fiction, and writes moving odes on beloved classics like Anne of Green Gables.

Personal life and fiction are shelved side by side in this revealing, insightful collection of Atwood's non-fiction writing.

Our Review

I chose to read Curious Pursuits: Occasional Writing simply because it was by Margaret Atwood.

Curious Pursuits is in her own words, “a grab-bag of occasional pieces written for specific occasions.” She began writing occasional pieces in the 1950’s when she was 16. This collection contains pieces from the 80’s onwards and is a treasure trove. You can dip in and out of it as you choose but each piece has its own merits.

My reading list, which was already quite large, grew massively just by reading this book. Atwood mentions various books that have influenced her, a few books she had written that I hadn’t heard of and some books she had written reviews of which are included in this book.

One of the things I enjoyed about Curious Pursuits was reading more about Atwood’s view on a variety of topics including reviewing books.

“I don’t review books I don’t like, although to do so would doubtless be amusing for the Ms Hyde side of me and entertaining for the more malicious class of reader. But either the book is really bad, in which case no one should review it, or it is good but not my cup of tea, in which case someone else should review it. It’s a great luxury not to be a professional full-time reviewer: I’m at liberty to close a book that doesn’t seize hold of me without having to savage them in print.”

I don’t review full time, but I do feel obliged to review every book I request for review even if it is terrible, but I always feel bad when I have to say that I hated a book or couldn’t bring myself to finish it. “

She also writes about various things that have an effect on what she chooses to write and how she writes it such as never writing about anything that doesn’t arouse her curiosity.

However, my absolute favourite bit about Curious Pursuits is that Atwood offers insights to do with my favourite book – The Handmaid’s Tale.

For example, she talks about living in West Berlin when she began writing The Handmaid’s Tale and whilst there she also visited Poland, East Germany and Czechoslovakia. In Curious Pursuits she talks about these visits having an impact on the atmosphere of the book because all totalitarian dictatorships have a climate of silence and fear.

In ‘Writing Utopia’ she discusses why The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t science fiction but speculative fiction.

“I define Science Fiction as Fiction in which things happen that are not possible today…but in The Handmaid’s Tale nothing happens which the human race has not done at some time in the past, or which it is not doing now.”

Additionally, she discusses the premise that all fiction starts with the question ‘What if?’ In terms of The Handmaid’s Tale the ‘What Ifs’ were numerous. Such as, ‘What it can happen here?’, ‘What kind of city would it be?’, and ‘What if you wanted to take over the US and set up a totalitarian government, the lust for power being what it is?’

She wondered, ‘How would you go about it?’, ‘What conditions would favour you?’, and various other things such as how this new government would stay in power and what their slogan would be.

One of the articles I enjoyed most in the book include ‘The Curse of Eve – or What I Learnt in School’ in which Atwood points out the vast differences in the way female authors are portrayed in their biographies compared to males.

 “The most lurid cautionary tales provided by society, however, were the lives of actual female writers themselves. Women writers could not be ignored by literary history: at least not nineteenth-century ones. Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, Christina Rossetti, Emily Dickinson, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning were too important for that. But their biographies could certainly emphasise their eccentricities and weirdness, and they did…These women were writers, true, but they were somehow not good women. They were bad role models, so their biographies implied.”

In ‘Nine Beginnings’ she talks about her writing processes and why struggles to write about what motivates her to write and how the question itself has often been levied at her with the underlying implication that women shouldn’t or cannot write.

“Many of us, in my generation at least, ran into teachers or male writers or other defensive jerks who told us women could not really write because they couldn’t be truck drivers or marines and therefore didn’t understand the seamier side of life, which included having sex with women. We were told we wrote like housewives, or else we were treated like honorary men, as if to be a good writer was to supress the female.”

In ‘Spot-Handed Villainesses: Problems of Female Bad Behaviour’ she discusses why evil women have been necessary in stories.

“First, they exist in life, so why shouldn’t they exist in literature? Second which may be another way of saying the same thing – women have more to them than virtue. They are fully dimensional human beings, they too have subterranean depths, why shouldn’t their many-dimensionality be given literary expression?’

I enjoyed reading ‘The Grunge Look’ which documented her first experiences living in England and the places she visited such as Nottingham and York.

One of the other things I loved was Atwood’s description of her visit to pre-war Afghanistan and it’s influence on The Handmaid’s Tale.

Six years after our trip, I wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, a fiction story about an American theocracy. The women in that book wear outfits derived in part from nun’s costumes, partly from girl’s school hemlines and partly – I must admit – from the faceless woman on the Old Dutch Cleanser box, put also partly from the chador I acquired in Afghanistan and its conflicting associations. As one character says, there is Freedom to and Freedom from. But how much of the first should you give up in order to ensure the second? All cultures have had to grapple with that, and our own- as we are now seeing – is no exception. Would I have written the book if I had never visited Afghanistan? Possibly, would it have been the same? Unlikely.”

As well as information about The Handmaid’s Tale Atwood shares some things about the events surrounding the writing of Oryx and Crake which is another book of hers I absolutely love. More specifically Sept 11th happened whilst she was in the midst of writing.

“I stopped writing for a number of weeks. It’s deeply unsettling when you’re writing about a fictional catastrophe and then a real one happens. I thought maybe I should turn to gardening books – something more cheerful. But then I started writing again, because what use would gardening books be in a world without gardens, and without books?”

Again, Oryx and Crake doesn’t include any technology/science in it that doesn’t already exist in real life.

Fans of Margaret Atwood should check this out but if you aren’t a fan it is still a very interesting read.

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