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An Appreciation of Margaret Atwood

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Margaret Atwood is best known for her 1985 novel The Handmaid's Tale. But that classic of speculative fiction is just one of dozens of expert works by the Canadian author -- with another book, In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, coming this fall.

Why is Atwood, 71, such an impressive author? Let me count the ways:

1. She is amazingly prolific. Among her creations are 13 novels, nine nonfiction books, seven short-story collections, seven children's books, and 17 major-press poetry collections. In fact, Atwood was a published poet for several years before her first novel was released -- a career arc like Sir Walter Scott's.

2. Her novels embrace a variety of genres. She has written contemporary fiction (such as 1993's The Robber Bride), historical fiction (1996's Alias Grace), speculative fiction with a male protagonist (2003's Oryx and Crake), and even a book from the perspective of Odysseus' wife Penelope as her legendary hubby is off adventuring (2005's The Penelopiad).

3. Her books are extraordinarily layered. Atwood shifts scenes from the present to the past to the present in many of her works, while managing not to confuse her readers. The Blind Assassin even includes a novel within that 2000 novel. And several of Atwood's fiction books contain poems, letters, newspaper stories, and other plot-advancing devices.

4. Her characters are complex, three-dimensional people. Even her "heroines" are flawed, as is the case in Cat's Eye. That 1988 book stars Elaine Risley, a middle-aged artist whose quirks include being ill at ease with other women. It certainly didn't help that the younger Elaine was bullied by her childhood "friends," as the novel recounts in flashbacks.

5. Atwood's books can be heartbreaking and intense, but they're often leavened with humor. For instance, the three hyper-intellectual apartment mates in 1969's The Edible Woman are definite chuckle-inducers. She also puts mystery elements in some of her novels, such as 1972's Surfacing.

6. Like Barbara Kingsolver, Atwood is socially conscious without being preachy. This is certainly the case in The Handmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake, and 2009's The Year of the Flood -- three dystopian novels that say a lot about things like women's rights and the despoiling of the environment but do that via the books' interesting characters and plots.

7. Atwood does a huge amount of research for some of her novels. One particularly well-researched book is Alias Grace, which focuses on the real-life Grace Marks and whether or not she was truly guilty of helping with an 1840s double murder that put her in prison for decades. In this work of historical fiction, Atwood smoothly threads in countless details about Grace's case and the 19th century (including the clothing, the transportation, and the chamber pots).

8. Her books are set in both North America and abroad. While Atwood often places her characters in Canada (particularly Toronto), she has also used locales such as the U.S. and Europe. For instance, the Italy scenes in Lady Oracle are crucial to that 1976 book.

No appreciation of Atwood would be complete without an example of her wonderful prose. In the "Hairball" story that's part of her 1991 collection Wilderness Tips, Atwood describes her character's name this way:

During her childhood, she was a romanticized Katherine, dressed by her misty-eyed, fussy mother in dresses that looked like ruffled pillowcases. By high school she'd shed the frills and emerged as bouncy, round-faced Kathy, with gleaming freshly washed hair and enviable teeth, eager to please and no more interesting than a health-food ad. At university she was Kath, blunt and no-bullshit in her Take-Back-the-Night jeans and checked shirt and her bricklayer-style striped-denim peaked hat. When she ran away to England, she sliced herself down to Kat. It was economical, street feline, and pointed as a nail.

Another Wilderness Tips story is "True Trash." None of Atwood's books will ever be confused with the second word of that title.