What I Learned in my Atwood Seminar
Dec 22nd, 2017 by Dr Karma

This quarter, I taught a seminar on Margaret Atwood–we read poetry and short fiction, but focused on The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, Alias Grace, and Hag-Seed. It was a great course, and my students were engaged.

A few observations:

  • the current socio-political climate came up during discussions of each book–they’re frighteningly apropos
  • I had to explain second wave feminism, female genital mutilation, the difference between r and x rated films, and many other fascinating things as they came up in discussion
  • my students think Alias is pronounced uh-lie-us
  • a couple of my students, prior to taking the course, thought “feminist” meant its opposite; when one kept saying the commander was being “so feminist,” we cleared it up

My favorite part of the course was on the last day, when we talked about what, if anything, we’d learned together. One of my students said that what all the texts had in common was a warning to pay attention–to wake up to the world around us and to do something about it.

Thank the universe for Atwood.

The Handmaid’s Tale: Now on Hulu!
Apr 26th, 2017 by Dr Karma

For much of my youth, I was put off by dystopic visions. I’m not sure if this was because I was so frightened of what my own future could become, if I was horrified by the dark glimpses into human nature that dystopias provide or because I’d been frightened by a childhood viewing of an HBO special on Nostradamus, featuring explorations of a coming apocalypse that were rather hysterical (in both senses of the word). I eschewed all of the texts that would later captivate me (like Bladerunner) and settled on comforting visions of the future (like the socialist near paradise that was Star Trek). Then, in high school, there was The Handmaid’s Tale. One relative, who had not read the book, but who had heard some rumors about it, tried to deny me access, even though it was required reading. Luckily, I prevailed. It entranced me, both with its ideas and its language—which could be poetic and tragic and comic all at the same time. When Aunt Lydia tells the girls that they are rare and valued, like pearls, our narrator contemplates the metaphor: “I think about pearls. Pearls are congealed oyster spit” (145)—it was exactly the type of close reading that I was prone to do.

Perhaps the text drew me in because I identified with it. Atwood wrote parts of the novel in Alabama, very near where I was growing up (in “Florbama”—the part of Florida directly underneath Alabama). Her world seemed very real to me—I was deep in the Bible belt; our world history teacher was forbidden to acknowledge that there was any history before the ancient Egyptians, as that fact offended parents who believed the Earth was only 6000 years old; abstinence only education was standard; an abortion provider, David Gunn, was murdered in my town right around the time we encountered the handmaid’s repressive society.

I was electrified. Not all students responded the same way, of course. I remember one girl complaining that she didn’t like the book because it was disturbing. And I remember the teacher’s response: “Good. It’s supposed to disturb you.”

Those are the first three paragraphs of my introductory essay to Atwood’s Apocalypses.

I’m crazy excited about Hulu’s premiere today. It’s taking all my willpower to do work this morning instead of watching. Fingers crossed that this is better than the much maligned film (with a screenplay by Nobel Prize winner Harold Pinter)!

A review of the start will be coming soon.

In the meantime, are you excited about Atwood? Consider liking The Margaret Atwood Society on Facebook or following us on Twitter (@atwoodsociety)–we post lots of Atwood news there–for free!

Full membership is only $15.

What I’m Reading
Apr 9th, 2017 by Dr Karma

Years ago, I read Jane Eyre for class while sick with the flu. It’s fitting that I had Lyndsay Faye’s Jane Steele to read during my week of the spinal cord stimulator test. Jane Steele‘s narrator is very much like Jane Eyre, and Faye manages to capture 19th century storytelling in a captivating way. This narrator has more spunk than the original Jane–more desires of her own and less patience with prurient males and idiots. She’s more like us, except she’s killed more people.

I also just finished (and enjoyed!) Julia Claiborne Johnson’s Be Frank with Me, about a young woman in the publishing industry who is assigned to help a famous reclusive writer pen a second novel. Helping means taking over the full-time childcare of the author’s precocious, socially awkward son.

While I was traveling to Chicago a couple of weeks ago, I started The Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne. I read the first novel in a day–it’s delightful urban fantasy with a great comic touch. The hero is an old druid living in the modern world–with a penchant for Shakespeare and helping people know their sprites from their fairies and their adjectives from their adverbs.

And everyone’s read Hag-seed by Atwood now, right? BECAUSE IT’S AMAZING!

MaddAddam: A Review
Aug 30th, 2013 by Dr Karma

This Tuesday, September 3rd, will see the release of the third and final installment of Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam TrilogyMaddAddam.

Although I read the book several months ago, I decided to wait to review it until more of you could get your hands on it, so as not to make you hate me (more) for getting it early. Where did this great gift come from, by the way? Let’s just say I have a friend at the bookstore.

maddaddamI was able to read the book in almost one setting, as I got hold of it when I was recuperating from my surgery in May. It was absolutely the best thing about being laid up.

The MaddAddam triology is a dystopic fiction of a post-apocalyptic world in which a very smart young man has unleashed a virus that has killed almost all of the world’s human population. This smart young man designed another race to take our place–yet they’re vulnerable to the few remaining humans.

Atwood’s vision demonstrates her unique ability to see trends before the rest of us do. She wrote about body image before it was popular to do so, about girl on girl crime before Mean Girls, about the oncoming debt crisis before it hit. The technologies and trends in the trilogy are all based on things that are in development, have been developed, or are logical extensions of things in development. Some of these things are scientific, some are religious, some are ecological, etc.

I’m going to try not to spoil anything in this short review of the end. The most important thing to know is that it’s a good read. Fast, solid, funny, and touching all at once.

Most of the book comes from Toby’s point of view (whom we know from the previous book). We learn more about Zeb’s past and about Adam through her storytelling to the Crakers. In this fashion, some blanks are filled in. And the story does end–you get a sense of how the lives of our characters will end and how life will go on from where we are.

However, not every hole is filled in. While we get a few more fragments of Crake–a few more sightings–we end the series without ever going into his non-neurotypical head. Thus, we still have to put together the pieces of why he did what he did from the pieces Atwood gives us. Did he ever love Oryx? Was that Oryx? Why did he kill her? What did she know? Did she enjoy Jimmy’s company or was she sent to him as a distraction?

I have my own ideas about these questions–as I’m sure you do.

And that’s why I’ll enjoy re-reading these texts from years to come. I have a whole story–but not the WHOLE story. And I’m fine with that. (If I weren’t, I couldn’t be an Atwood reader and scholar.)

Every time I read any of Atwood’s texts, I see new things. (Each time I read Alias Grace, I change my mind about whether she’s guilty or not.)

Her books keep me guessing, keep me working, but they don’t disappoint–I don’t feel like I’m missing any thing just because some viewpoints are incomplete–indeed, that’s what makes her writing so intriguing and so realistic.

A final note. Oryx and Crake focused on the science and the powerful. The Year of the Flood focused on the faith and the powerless. MaddAddam focuses on a world beyond science and faith and their ethical quandries* and on pragmatism and survival. This survival is all about storytelling, which is how knowledge will be passed on, how the Crakers will understand their place in the world, and how future generations will understand their human and Craker progenitors.



*It is not, however, a world of superscience and sorcery, which is what you’re supposed to get after an apocalypse, as I learned from watching Thundar the Barbarian (which, by the way, claimed that the end of the world came in 1994).

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Comic-Con 2012: A Top Ten
Jul 15th, 2012 by Dr Karma

So this week, I packed my Zuul costume and too much eyeliner and headed down to Comic-Con. So did 149,999 other people (well, not the zuul part). I managed to make it out in time to get into preview night, where I saw my friends Scott Shaw and Lonnie Millsap. I was also able to talk to the artist for Kill Shakespeare (one of the writers, Anthony, is skyping in with my class this next Wednesday).

Karma & Scott

Then, on the way home, I was lured in to a downtown restaurant by a live rockabilly band.

So it was a good start. I won’t give you a day by day play by play, as it’s all a bit of a blur now, but here are the highlights.

1. Margaret Atwood was here for a Bradbury retrospective panel. Naturally, when she walked past me in the hall, I caught up to her to get a picture. I lovingly reminded her that I edit her journal and that I used to be her Society’s president. I hoped she didn’t think I was weird for being dressed as Death. I also completely ignored the two relatively famous authors with her, except for when I requested that they take our picture:

2. One of the times I wandered over to the Bongo booth (which I do once a day whenever they’re near), Matt Groening was there! Now, I’ve met several Simpsons/Futurama people (and I love my Bongo guys), but I’d never met the big man. So I got Nathan Kane’s (the new exec whom I’d just met the day before) attention and got him to take a picture of us. Nathan was very patient and Matt remembered something I’d left at the studio for him a year ago. I thanked him profusely for my entire academic career and successfully didn’t wet myself.

3. The Simpsons panel: Did I get to see the new Maggie short? Did I miss the Futurama panel due to the absurd line? Was Carrie Fisher briefly on stage? Yes. Yes. Yes.

4. Zach was there! When I flipped through the program the first time, I didn’t see Zach Weinersmith (of SMBC fame)’s name, but he was there! Zach has spoken to my class and to UCD at large. His work is hilarious, and it’s always nice to see him. Alexander is going to be totally jealous (the sign says “hi, Alex”)!

5. I got to see Joss Whedon! Okay–I’m not one for standing in lines, but I did get in line for The Simpsons and for Joss Whedon. I mean, I’ve given three different presentations this year on Joss’s work, so I had to go. Joss is hilarious. He riffed on how he’s his own favorite production company (he really gets what he’s trying to do), threatened to murder some guy’s family (after the guy said killing our favorites appeared to be Joss’s thing), talked about being a girl who can’t say no when it comes to projects (don’t think anyone else in the room got the Oklahoma reference), complained about the lack of strong women in the media and female action figures all looking like porn stars, and asserted that our country was no longer about blue and red–it’s about people who believe in the dignity of themselves and others and wackos who believe Jesus personally founded America.

6. I got to dress up. As Death: And as Zuul: That guy totally tried to drink my margarita:

7. I got to be in the same room as the following people at some point (besides those I already mentioned): Joe Magtegna, Yeardley Smith, Romo Lampkin, Joe Hill, Kristin Bauer van Straten, Sarah Wayne Callies, Anna Torv, Lucy Lawless.

8. There were protestors! Yes, apparently people who love Jesus don’t love Comic-Con. As someone dressed alternately as one of the Eternals and a Babylonian demi-god, I tried not to start a fight. I did, however, note to myself that there are people starving in San Diego right now who probably could have used some help if someone actually wanted to enact WWJD stuff.

9. Saw some awesome panels and things on the floor. The highlight, of course, was Scott Shaw’s presentation of wonderful sex, drugs, and rocknroll covers. One example:

Our panel on Superman (my particular talk was on Mark Millar’s Red Son) went well. One of the first people I met introduced himself as a Tea Party member and said we might not get along. I said that the text merely indicated that we needed to put aside ideology to find pragmatic solutions to our problems. He smiled and nodded, but left halfway through. The rest of the audience seemed to grok me, however.

10. People were in awesome costumes!

Ah, March
Mar 11th, 2012 by Dr Karma

I usually manage to juggle the various commitments in my life rather well. Last night, however, while trying to fall asleep, I made the mistake of confronting my schedule for the next week five weeks. Three conferences, the end of one quarter, the start of another, a special lecture for the book project, hosting an amazing author, bunches of writing, bunches of grading, and all the rest of life. I’m fearing that something’s going to give–sanity, sleep, something . . .

And that’s why I haven’t had the time to write everything I want to here. I want to write all about my adventures at AWP and about being the nerd queen.

There isn’t really time to do it all justice, but I want to give it a few minutes.

Margaret Atwood was the keynote speaker at AWP this year. I got VIP seating due to my Atwood history and ties.

Atwood is my hero and I wish I could just transcribe the whole talk for you. The highlights: she mentioned the Atwood Society (of which I’m the former President). She was warm and funny. She made one of the best observations about the state of some young writers today: “If you want to be a writer, but you don’t want to read, then you don’t actually want to be a writer. You want people to come sit near you while you tell your sob story.”

Denise and I were able to go see Tiffany, Ben, and the new baby (Jack) while I was in Chicago as well. Now, I’m not really a baby person. I loved my own baby, of course, but I can resist the charms of others most of the time. Jack is different. I had an annunciation dream at the moment he was born. He’s also a particularly adorable and good-natured darling. Thus, I held him for so many hours that my pecks hurt when I got home. Denise kept having to demand him from me. I would post pictures, but a) I haven’t transferred them from the camera and b) I somehow look awful in every shot. Denise looks awesome, though, so I’ll eventually get around to sharing the pics of her holding him.

Finally, I’ll be heading to WonderCon this week. I’ll be giving a talk on The Simpsons on Friday and a talk on Buffy comics on Sunday. My consequent nerd/geek queen status has been verified and immortalized here:

Remember to catch up with me at my column at I’m also on Twitter now (@KarmaWaltonen).

Also, be sure to check out The Simpsons tonight–Homer’s going to say my first name (and call me names, too!).

Happy Birthday, Margaret Atwood
Nov 18th, 2010 by Dr Karma

If you know me at all, you know that I love Margaret Atwood (who sometimes refers to me as Karmel). My dissertation was on her work, I’m the former President of the Margaret Atwood Society, and I run a weekly book group that started out as an all-Atwood reading group some six years ago. One of the great pleasures in my life is getting people to read Atwood if they haven’t done so already.

Like most people, my first glimpse at Atwood was with The Handmaid’s Tale, which we read in High School. It was banned by the district, so my private program required it be bought. One of my aunt’s found it in a used bookstore and came home to announce that I shouldn’t be allowed to read it. Apparently, there was sex with three people described vividly. My mother decided I could handle whatever it was. The sex scene referred to was far from sexy (it was the opposite of sexy, actually), but the book was glorious. It was poetry and it was social justice. It scared me and thrilled me.

After I left high school and before I went to college, I found a book of Atwood’s poetry. I wasn’t in the habit of reading poetry then, but I had loved Handmaid’s Tale so much that I took the book home and read it. If you’ve never read her poetry, check out “Variations on the word Sleep,” “Siren Song,” “This is a photograph of me,” and “you fit into me.”

If you haven’t read Atwood, you should. Because of her breadth and her use of various genres, she’s written at least one thing you would like. Not everyone loves Handmaid’s Tale, but if you’re a sci-fi person, you need to read Oryx and Crake. If you like historical novels and/or psychology, you will love Alias Grace, which is based on a true story. Shoot me an email; tell me what you like; I’ll find an Atwood for you.

My book group is throwing Atwood a birthday party in absentia today–we’re having our favorite main dish (crock-pot lasagna) and a birthday cake on which a flying pig will wish all our dreams come true. And then we’ll raise a glass to her and wish her happy birthday and many more years (and many more books).

Atwood under attack
Nov 12th, 2010 by Dr Karma

A prominent critic of the “theory” of climate change wants Margaret Atwood to be removed from her position on PEN. (article here:

PEN is an organization Atwood has been at the forefront of for years–it fights for the free speech of authors around the world (it’s akin to Amnesty International, but has a specific focus).

The critic seems not to like Atwood because of their differing views on climate and the environment, but is using a petition Atwood signed as the main evidence that Atwood should be removed. You see, Atwood signed a petition against a FOX News-like channel coming to Canada.

(There are many reasons why someone might sign such a petition. Perhaps you think the channel won’t be clear about news versus entertainment–Bill O’Reilly was on Bill Maher last week and when Maher asked him about a fact that FOX had reported, O’Reilly’s response to the completely wrong fact was that FOX wasn’t “reporting” it because it was on one of the entertainment/opinion shows. If you’ve seen the show, you know that the distinction is not at all clear. Perhaps they should change their tag to “we give you the facts (well, on the following shows, which don’t air when most viewers are watching–on the popular shows, we’re saying whatever comes into someone’s head); you decide).”

Or perhaps you might object because FOX news breaks up families. All 24 hour news makes my head hurt and the crawl seems only to have been invented to make me want to cut myself, but FOX makes me especially wary about going home, because it is impossible to avoid there.)

To recap: Atwood signed a petition. This critic says her signing the petition means she’s anti-free speech & thus should lose her position.

Petitions are free speech, though. I believe in free speech. I believe that I have to fight for your free speech, even when I think you’re wrong (unless that speech is an incitement of violence). However, I get to say that you’re wrong. I get to say that you shouldn’t say x, because x is a lie or because x is irresponsible. (Shouldn’t is different from can’t–one is censure and one is censor.) Signing a petition is exercising free speech & this critic doesn’t have to like it & this critic can say Atwood shouldn’t have, etc., but you shouldn’t say someone hates free speech because they said something you didn’t agree with.

I know I haven’t posted in a long, long time. Fall quarters are always really hard and this may be the hardest. If I stopped to list all the reasons why, I’d be late to class. Let’s just say that I was hanging on by my fingernails & then I got the stomach flu and it broke my nails.

Meeting Margaret Atwood
Jun 25th, 2010 by Dr Karma

I’ve wanted to meet Margaret Atwood for a long time. I first read her in high school; the essay I wrote to get into my PhD program was on her; my dissertation was about her work; my Atwood reading group has been meeting weekly for six years or so. As the former President of the Margaret Atwood Society, I have had the opportunity to correspond with her (with her assistants, probably, but still).
Thus, I was very excited to be in the same room with her last week. My friend and colleague, Ted, who had hosted Atwood at his institution earlier this year, introduced us. I mentioned that I was the former President and, smiling, she asked if I’d been deposed. I explained that it had been a peaceful transfer of power. A few hours later, I was able to get her autograph, though by that time, I’d become Karmel, apparently.
The great disappointment was finding out that a lunch I’d skipped at the conference had her in attendance–I might have been able to have lunch with her! Oh, well, next time.
What struck me most about her was how luminous she was–she glows. I hope I look half as good when I’m in my early seventies. I hope I’m as smart and funny, too, but somehow I doubt it–I’d have to reach her level before I started worrying about whether age could take that level from me.
She was also shorter than I expected.
And how must I have seen to her? Young and giddy.
It made me think about how young I am, actually, which is why I was really surprised to have my friend Jason say that he had met a “fan” of mine while out smoking at one of the events. She apparently asked him what drew him to the event. He started to say he was there with his friend, but she cut him off and said “Karma.” She then went on to say that she’d read some of my work and that she’d heard me speak and that while she was an Atwood scholar, she wasn’t at my level.
Is this middle age? Feeling constantly like a child, while tired like an older person? Revering some and being revered by others?

Seeing Margaret Atwood
Jun 23rd, 2010 by Dr Karma

Okay–it’s been awhile since I’ve written. First, I had to get the blog to stay up–let us all thank my faithful friend and reader, Ken, who donated his time and money to enable me to do so. Then, it was finals, and then I headed off to Canada for ten days.

Today I wanted to share my impressions on seeing Margaret Atwood at the 11th Short Fiction Conference in Toronto. I’ll talk about meeting Margaret Atwood the next time I log in.

Last Friday, Margaret Atwood had a talk with a former colleague and fellow writer at the short fiction conference. He, unfortunately, did not prepare questions–I think he was counting on knowing her for 40 years and on the audience’s interest in knowing that both of them started writing at the same time. I’m sure that I, as well as any of the other Atwoodians in the room, could have led a better discussion. At one point, even Atwood cut him off to say that she thought they should be talking about short fiction–he got a bit defensive and said he was trying to cover her entire body of work, although three of his questions were designed to get her to talk about her depiction of Toronto in her novels.

There were some highlights, though. Apparently, she and I pronounce Penelopiad the same way (there are three ways). She mentioned Colin Firth’s shirtless scene in Pride and Prejudice (we watch the same movies!). She also said that a friend had observed of The Handmaid’s Tale that it was surprising that no one had noticed that it was a veiled depiction of Harvard’s English Department from when Atwood was in graduate school there. Also, apparently, there was supposed to be a voice-over in the film version of The Handmaid’s Tale–she said that Richardson was playing against the voice over (so we could see what she was repressing), which added a lot to the role, but that the director cut it.

One woman asked a common question about Atwood not calling her work science-fiction. She managed to make the question sound hostile. Atwood’s answer was perfect. First, she explained that in terms of lineage and her own definitions, there was no debate. She sees Wells’s work as science-fiction–aliens and technology we don’t have, etc. She sees Verne’s work as speculative fiction–technology and ideas that are in development currently. She clearly falls into the latter category. She also noted that she doesn’t see one as better than the other, but that she was only good at the latter. Then she mentioned fantasy and how she simply can’t write dragons, though she loves to read about them (and said Le Guin’s Earthsea dragons were the best). She then talked about her overall enjoyment with the whole sci-fi/fantasy/spec-fic spectrum and said that she was the person who knows which orc wears a watch in Lord of the Rings and wonders too long about how Gandolf gets his staff back.

Later than night, Atwood did a short reading at the Toronto Public Library–she opened with “Our Cat Goes to Heaven” from The Tent. She then read the first part of “The Headless Horseman” from Moral Disorder. Those aren’t necessarily the works I would have picked, but the audience found them endearing and very funny. Atwood kept laughing herself at “The Headless Horseman”–I think it was the laughter of remembering the moment, as she’s mentioned that that particular story is completely autobiographical.

More to come–but do check out my new column on Katharine Hepburn at

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