Book Review | Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood Stone Mattress Nine Tales Book Cover Review

[I received a copy of Stone Mattress by its Canadian publisher Random House Canada. This does not affect my opinion of the book.]

I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read very many Margaret Atwood books (embarrassing, I know). The only other book I’ve read by her is the Canadian classic The Handmaid’s Tale, which I was incredibly blown away by (you can read my full review of it here – it was my first ever review on this blog!). So, when I heard that there would be a new short story collection coming out, I was immediately intrigued. Now, I feel like I should start this review by saying that I’m not incredibly well-read on the short story front, so I’m not sure if my unfamiliarity with the form was a factor in my enjoyment of the tales as a whole.

As the title suggests, Stone Mattress is made up of nine tales. Some of them are interconnected, some are purely stand-alones. There are a few writerly characters, some characters that have been holding grudges, and characters that have secrets. From the book jacket:

“A recently widowed fantasy writer is guided through an ice storm by the voice of her late husband in “Alphinland,” the first of three stories about the romantic entanglements of a small group of writers and artists. In “The Freeze-Dried Groom,” a man who bids on an auctioned storage space has gruesome surprise. In “Lusus Naturae,” a woman born with a genetic abnormality is mistaken for a vampire. In “Torching the Dusties,” an elderly lady with Charles Bonnet syndrome attempts to cope with the little people she sees while a newly formed populist group prepares to burn down her retirement residence. In “I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth,” we remeet Tony, Charis, and Roz from The Robber Bride -by years later- as their nemisis recurs in an unexpected form. And in “Stone Mattress,” a long-ago crime is avenged in the Arctic via a 1.9 billion-year-old stromatolite.”

I had mixed feelings about this collection. There were stories that absolutely gripped me (the three interrelated stories, “The Freeze-Dried Groom”, “Torching the Dusties”), but there were also stories that I didn’t really respond to (“I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth”). The latter I attribute to my unfamiliarity with short stories and of Atwood’s other works, because I do think that Atwood has interesting ideas and things to say. She was recently on the CBC’s The Next Chapter talking about Stone Mattress, and was quoted saying “There is a reason why religions stress forgiveness. It’s very hard to do.” When I think about the collection in terms of forgiveness, the thread I was looking for to tie all the stories together appeared. It’s true: many of the characters have either trouble forgiving those who have wronged them, or have worked very hard to find it in them to forgive. I think I’m going to have to re-read the stories with that theme in mind and see if my reading experience is better the second time around.

Something that stuck out to me as I was reading the collection was Atwood’s portrayal of men. In these stories, more often than not, the men are seen objectifying women, barely seeing past their physical attributes. If not that, then they’ve done something terrible and misogynistic in their past. While I applaud Atwood’s frank depiction of her male characters, I couldn’t help but hope to see different types of men, ones that perhaps respected women a little bit more. Is this a recurring theme in Atwood’s writing? Not having read very much by her, I’m not sure.

That being said, I do applaud Atwood’s imagination. She is one of Canada’s most prolific writers and I admire her so much for having so many ideas and stories. Even though I couldn’t fully understand or appreciate Stone Mattress, I’m looking forward to reading more from this beloved Canadian icon. (Seriously – she’s so cool.)

Verdict: Overall, I think Stone Mattress would be a wonderful book club book. I am not always the most creative when analyzing texts and would have loved to have someone to discuss these tales with. (This is where you come in, Internet!!) Like I mentioned above, just hearing Atwood talk about the book in terms of forgiveness offered a new way to understand the stories as a whole, and I look forward to hearing different interpretations!

Read if: You’re an Atwood/CanLit fan, enjoy reading short stories, want to find out what exactly a “stone mattress” is.

Are you a Margaret Atwood fan? Have you read Stone Mattress yet? What did you think?

24 thoughts on “Book Review | Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood

  1. rivercityreading says:

    I’m still learning to love short stories, but I really loved this collection. Like you, there were some that I enjoyed more than others (and I think that’s common), but I didn’t struggle through any of them. As for the men, I think she’s making a bigger statement about the women opposite them. Each of the stories had strong women, with many of them taking revenge on those horrible men in some way.

  2. Naomi says:

    I love Margaret Atwood, and I loved this book. In fact, I was nervous going into it that I wouldn’t like it enough (not being a big short story reader), so I was surprised how much I liked it. But, mostly I just enjoy her writing. She’s so smart and funny, and she uses the best words and constructs some doosey sentences.
    I do think it would be great to have a bunch of people to help figure out the stories. One person just can’t get everything out of it alone. There can be so many different interpretations. That’s also the fun of it!
    My review is right behind yours- it will be up tomorrow!

    • kmn04books says:

      Yes – I love the book blogging community because reading all of your guys’ reviews helps me suss things out! It’s been so great seeing everyone’s perspective. I’m glad you loved this! I think I need to learn how to love short stories as a format more 🙂

      • The Paperback Princess says:

        I just never seem to enjoy Canadian books! I want to like them, I try to enjoy them and I always feel like they are not just not quite right, like there is something missing that would make them whole. So I just stopped reading them on purpose.

  3. citygirlscapes says:

    I love Margaret Atwood! I’ve read most of her books, she is so smart and creative and imaginative. I was worried about picking up this short story collection, though. Like most other commenters here, I have trouble with short story collections, but reading your review first might help put things in perspective and make it a bit more enjoyable. Thank you!
    – ashley

    • kmn04books says:

      No problem, I’m glad I could help in some way. I definitely like thinking about it in terms of forgiveness; it cleared a lot of tings up for me and made the collection pull together in a very interesting way. I hope you enjoy reading Stone Mattress!

  4. Amy @ Read a Latte says:

    I haven’t read much Margaret Atwood at all, but I’ve always meant to. I did read one of her short stores called “Rape Fantasies”
    Which is another that appears to allow men to do something horrible, but I think is really empowering to women and encouraging them to take charge of their sexuality. At least that was my interpretation of it! These sound interesting though, I’ll have to check them out at some point!

    • kmn04books says:

      I think you’re totally right. That’s what I loved so much about The Handmaid’s Tale – Atwood’s take on gender relations and what could happen if we reduce women to nothing. It looks pretty scary, if you ask me!

  5. tanya (52 books or bust) says:

    Based on your review, I’d say we are back to some classic Atwood and about time! I have a problem with short stories too. When I was in university i read a lot of them because i didn’t have much recreational reading time, but now that I can read as much as I want i only seem to read novels. Either way, I’m excited for this book. I think Atwood is genius.

    • kmn04books says:

      I can’t wait to hear what you think, Tanya! I’m definitely more of a novel-reader. I don’t know what it is about short stories that don’t *exactly* work for me. I somehow always feel like they’re too short?! (Even though they’re clearly called short stories for a reason…) However, I do like to be open-minded, so I would definitely give another short story collection a go 🙂

  6. Milliebot says:

    I like what you had to say about different depictions of men – while I haven’t ready anything by Atwood *hangs head in shame*, I understand your point. I do have Handmaiden’s Tale though and someday I want to pick it up!

    • kmn04books says:

      You should definitely read The Handmaid’s Tale if you have it! When I finished it (I read it for the first time earlier this year) I had to ask myself why it took me so long to get to it! It’s so chilling and so well-written.

  7. Leah says:

    I’ve only read The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace (but have a few more on the shelf waiting to be read), and I can’t wait to read this book. I think my copy is arriving in the mail tomorrow? I’ve been hearing such good things about it!

    • kmn04books says:

      Ooh, that’s awesome! I can’t wait to hear your take on it. I have Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood waiting to be read, so I think those will be my next Atwood reads!

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