MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
There are many version of Margaret Atwood. You might know her as an award-winning poet. You may remember her dystopian novels "The Handmaid's Tale" or "The Year of the Flood." Maybe you're familiar with her books for children, her essay collections, or her work as an environmental at activists. Or, you might know Margaret Atwood from Twitter. The 74-year-old Canadian has more than half-a-million followers. Well, now we're going to hear about her latest publication, a collection of short stories called "Stone Mattress." Here's Meg Wolitzer with a review.
MEG WOLITZER, BYLINE: Writing short stories can be a way for authors to show different sides of themselves. You can be tough, tender, minimalist, maximalist, funny and sad all in one book. But in "Stone Mattress," Margaret Atwood emphasizes one side in particular. For lack of a better word, I'll call it the wicked side.
The title story is about a woman named Verna a serial husband-killer who signs up for an Arctic cruise. Meeting the other passengers, she notes the nametags - a Fred, a Dan, a Rick, a Norm, a Bob, another Bob, then another. There are a lot of Bobs on this trip. One of them turns out to be the man who sexually assaulted Verna in high school. he doesn't recognize her, which makes it easier to exact revenge. Her weapon is a piece of fossilized stromatolite. The word comes from the Greek stroma, Atwood writes, a mattress coupled with the root word for stone.
It turns out to be an ingenious weapon, and since the whole collection is called "Stone Mattress," it may be even better as a metaphor. Atwood seems to be addressing the way we all roll around on nothing more than a big slab of rock doing various unspeakable things to one another for generation after generation. She's candid in her description of old age, which runs through the book like a theme or a warning.
In the most powerful story, "Torching The Dusties," an old woman named Wilma lives in an upscale nursing home. She has a vision problem that makes her see tiny people who she says wear multiple frills and grotesquely high beflowered wigs. This miniature grotesqueness becomes life-sized when a band of murderous protesters stands outside holding signs that read, time to go. They want the old people to leave not just the place where they live, but the earth - to vacate the big stone mattress once and for all.
There's one story that revives characters from one of Atwood's earlier books. "I Dream of Zenia With the Bright Red Teeth," made me wish for the full-strength original instead of this spinoff. But I loved the other stories. They're wild and strange and sharp. They take on death and dreadfulness and the uses of fantasy. Is Atwood being wicked here exactly? Maybe what I really mean is that she's a writer who's having a little fun while insisting on telling the truth.
BLOCK: The collection of stories by Margaret Atwood is called "Stone Mattress." Meg Wolitzer had our review.
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