book review: Country by Michael Hughes

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COUNTRY by Michael Hughes
★★★★☆
John Murray, 2018 (UK)

 

Country is the most literal Iliad retelling I’ve ever read, which came as a surprise given that its premise is worlds away from Ancient Greece. Michael Hughes’s interpretation is set in 1990s Northern Ireland, twenty-five years into the conflict known as the Troubles, and yet despite the wildly different setting it hits all the same beats as Homer’s tale, each scene and character a perfect mirror to the original story, and easy to identify with names like Achill (Achilles), Nellie (Helen), Henry (Hector), and Pat (Patroclus).

This level of faithfulness was a double-edged sword for me: it led to moments of brilliance and moments that were a little too on the nose. Mostly brilliance, so let’s start there: the decision to adapt the Iliad to the Troubles was an inspired one, a pairing linked by the tragedy of lives lost needlessly to a cause whose rhetoric is shrouded in talk of honor, but whose reality is starker and more senseless.

This passage in particular as the Hector figure, a war-weary SAS man, is on the verge of death called to mind a passage from the Iliad that hits home its driving thematic conceit:

“The fucking spooks, the fucking politicians. Moving the pieces on the board, doling out life or death with a flick of the wrist. Not one of them was in harm’s way. Not one of them could ever die this death. He was charged to defend their will, their country’s honour, but all he could ever defend was his own life. It wasn’t their blood on the road. It never would be. They didn’t understand.

No. They understood. They didn’t care.”

– Michael Hughes, Country

“So the immortals spun our lives that we, we wretched men
live on to bear such torments—the gods live free of sorrows.”

– Homer, The Iliad, translated by Robert Fagles

Used as a pawn by gods in one case and government and/or paramilitary leaders in the other, the individual lives affected amidst the brutality are the focus of both texts, and Hughes capitalizes on the opportunity to tell this story with the abject tragedy it deserves.

And overarching themes aside, the level of detail here is just delightful for Homer fans: the SAS base is called Illiam because the W fell off the William Castle sign; the IRA pub is referred to as ‘The Ships’ in reference to the Greeks’ camp outside the walls of Troy.

However, there were some bits that didn’t translate perfectly: Achill’s widely accepted irreplaceability felt shoehorned in – the role of the individual in modern-day warfare just isn’t perfectly equitable with ancient battle. And a few scenes felt like they were only there in the name of keeping the structure as close to the Iliad as possible – I wouldn’t have minded, for example, the omission of a few scenes like the funeral games (which went into a level of detail that was admirably authentic but frankly excessive) in favor of adding a bit more heft to the weightier scenes like Achill’s confrontation with the Priam character.

I was very cognizant as I was reading that this wasn’t going to be an easy book to recommend; it’s not, so to speak, baby’s first Troubles book. You don’t exactly need a PhD in Irish History to be able to follow this, but I do want to be clear that almost none of the dialect (which Hughes renders beautifully) or cultural references are explained or contextualized (read Say Nothing first!). I’d actually stress that an interest in the Iliad is much less essential to get something out of this than knowing a bit about the Troubles. Still, for the right reader this is a sharp and cleverly written retelling whose literality is an asset more often than not. Though it did strike me that I may, ironically, be a bit too familiar with the Iliad to be this book’s ideal reader.


You can pick up a copy of Country here on Book Depository.  It will also be published in the US in the fall.

book review: The Cassandra by Sharma Shields

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THE CASSANDRA by Sharma Shields
★☆☆☆☆
Henry Holt, February 12, 2019

 

Writing this review hurts me a little because this was easily one of my most anticipated books of 2019, but I’m sorry, this was pretty terrible. The premise was genius: it’s the story of the Greek mythological figure Cassandra retold and set at Hanford, the research facility in the U.S. that developed the atomic bomb during WWII. But I had four main problems with The Cassandra that I just couldn’t get over: characters, plot, themes, and its success (or failure rather) as an adaptation, so let’s get straight into it.

Every single character in this book was one-dimensional. Within seconds of meeting Mildred (the Cassandra figure), her inexplicably awful mother and sister, her wise and worldly best friend Beth, the charming but cruel Gordon, and the pathetic but well-intentioned Tom Cat, you know what each one of their roles in this story is going to be (which has nothing to do with the myth at the heart of the narrative – more on that in a minute). Every single one of these characters is just pitifully one-note. None of their painfully obvious characterization is developed or explored or subverted, they all just exist comfortably as conduits for the story to advance where it needs to go.

Which brings us to the next problem, how the plot drives the characters and not the other way around. The book starts with Mildred relaying to the reader that she’s had a vision which tells her that she needs to go to Hanford, so that’s exactly what she does. She gets on the bus to head to the facility and she meets Beth, who shakes her hand and promptly declares that the two of them are going to be best friends, and that’s exactly what happens. We’re informed that Tom Cat falls in love with Mildred, because he just does, apparently; we don’t get to see anything develop in a natural or organic way. There’s no rhyme or reason to be found, the story just kind of zips along and you’re meant to accept that the characters’ actions makes sense even when there’s no basis to any of it.

And this would all be somewhat okay if the themes were sufficiently rich and engaging, but they just weren’t. Mildred starts having visions that ‘the product’ being developed at Hanford will wreak havoc and destroy innocent lives, but when she tries to warn the researchers, her concerns are ignored. Mildred then has to grapple with her own role in working for the facility that’s developing this weapon: even as a secretary, does she hold some kind of responsibility? There’s not… a whole lot of thematic depth to engage with there, despite very obvious present-day parallels, but this conflict is the main driving force in the story. And at another point, about 70% through the book, Mildred is brutally raped (as in, seriously brutal, do not enter into this book lightly), and Shields comes close to making some kind of point about how not believing Mildred about her visions has parallels to not believing women who are assaulted, but not much is really done with that opportunity.

And finally, this has to be one of the laziest myth adaptations I have ever read. There are two recognizable elements from the original story: that Cassandra can see the future and no one believes her prophecies, and that she’s raped. One of my favorite things about reading retellings is trying to discern which characters played which role in the original, and of course as a contemporary writer playing with an established story you should be allowed to invent characters and subvert character types and put your own unique stamp on the story, because otherwise what’s the point? But in this case, the original myth was such a rudimentary blueprint that it felt like the author wanted to use the myth only as an excuse to incorporate visions into the story without the reader questioning it too much. Mildred is Cassandra, of course (but why does Mildred get these visions in the first place? there’s no backstory involving an Apollo figure to rationalize this, it’s just another thing we’re meant to accept), and the person who rapes Cassandra is obviously Ajax the Lesser, but do not expect many other elements from the original myth to come into play. I certainly admired Shields’ research into the Hanford facility, but maybe she should have cracked open a copy of the The Oresteia while she was at it.

So, all things considered this was a pretty big disappointment. If you’re looking for a contemporary reimagining of a mythological story I’d suggest Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie or Everything Under by Daisy Johnson, or if you’re looking for feminist mythology there’s The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker or Circe by Madeline Miller. With so many fantastic mythological retellings published in the last few years, I think you can safely skip this one without missing much.

Thank you to Netgalley and Henry Holt for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review – sorry this didn’t work for me! 😦

book review: The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

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THE SILENCE OF THE GIRLS by Pat Barker
★★★★★
Doubleday Books, September 11, 2018

 

It’s so hard to divorce my love of the Iliad from my experience reading The Silence of the Girls, but I think that’s partially what makes this such a fantastic retelling. Told primarily from the perspective of Briseis, a Trojan captive given to Achilles as a war prize, Pat Barker’s novel endeavors to tell the unsung story of the female characters who litter the background of the Ancient Greek epic. And she does a pretty brilliant job.

The pleasure I derive from reading retellings, and especially retellings of Homer, is twofold: I want to see the author’s unique slant on the narrative and feel that they’re contributing something new to the story, otherwise what’s the point, but I also want to be reminded of my love of the original. On both fronts, The Silence of the Girls is a resounding success. Pat Barker captured the grandiosity of these characters and events in a way that really struck a chord with me; I felt constantly on the verge of tears reading parts of this novel because Homer’s musings on fate and free will and grief and glory – in short, what makes the Iliad so epic and timeless – are all echoed in Briseis’ narrative. But Barker also manages it all from the sidelines, zeroing in on the experiences of a war slave who has no choice but to watch events unfold around her with no personal agency. Briseis is fully aware that she is not the hero of her own story, that she’s narrating these events as a spectator to her own life. You could argue that at times she almost has a bit too much awareness of this fact, but as she’s narrating these events from years later, the time and perspective have clearly allowed her to form the big picture.

I also felt these were some of the best depictions I’ve ever read of these characters, notably Achilles and Patroclus. I find that certain writers have a difficult time reconciling Achilles’ brutality with his heroism, and likewise Patroclus’ ruthless streak with his kindness. But Barker frankly addresses that, in times of war especially, these characteristics can easily coexist. I really felt that these characters had walked straight out of the pages of the Iliadinto Barker’s story, in a way that I haven’t seen achieved by any other retelling I’ve read (except maybe Ransom by David Malouf, which until now has been my go-to recommendation for modern Iliad retellings). Briseis is a very minor character in the original, and as such, Barker had a lot more leeway with her protagonist, but I was also satisfied with the result; I was immediately invested in Briseis and I thought she added a much-needed and underrepresented perspective to the story.

My biggest issue with this novel the unwieldy execution of the point of view shifts. Though this retelling focuses on Briseis, so much of the backdrop and what drives the characters’ motivations hinges on the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, and for Briseis to narrate that to us any more than she already does would verge too heavily into ‘telling rather than showing’ territory, so I really didn’t mind the occasional inclusion of the male perspectives. But the first person/third person switch feels arbitrary and messy, especially since Briseis herself spends so much time observing and narrating Achilles’s actions. I felt like Barker could have played with this a bit more; played up the uncertainty that maybe we aren’t reading Achilles’s thoughts, but rather, Briseis’ interpretation of Achilles’s thoughts…. but nothing is really made of this opportunity, as it’s clear that we’re supposed to be in Achilles’ head, but rather unclear why we’ve switched over to his thoughts at any given moment.

But aside from that, this book was pretty much everything I wanted it to be. It’s subversive yet subtle; affecting yet understated. It captures the epic scale of the Iliad and the quiet moments of beauty in the story and everything in between. It’s definitely a subtler feminist retelling than the likes of Circe and The Penelopiad, but I have to say I much, much preferred The Silence of the Girls – though I would readily recommend it to anyone who enjoyed the aforementioned novels. But for all my talk of retellings and Greek classics, I really don’t think you need prior knowledge of any of that before starting Barker’s novel – it’s a stunning story that should stand on its own just fine.

Thank you to Netgalley, Doubleday Books, and Pat Barker for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: Medea by Christa Wolf

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MEDEA by Christa Wolf
★★★★★
Nan A. Talese, 1998
originally published in 1996

 

About a year ago I read and loved David Vann’s take on the Medea myth, Bright Air Black. It follows the original story very closely and offers few surprises in terms of plot for those already familiar with the tale, but it endeavors and succeeds in giving Medea a narrative voice, allowing her to tell her own story. Christa Wolf’s Medea, published 20 years earlier than Bright Air Black, is another feminist victory for this narrative, but interestingly, Wolf’s and Vann’s interpretations of Medea’s character couldn’t be more different. I love them both.

Vann’s is very straightforward. Though he at times renders her character sympathetic in a way that’s deeply unsettling, his Medea is every bit as violent and vindictive as you’d expect. Wolf approaches the narrative from a different vantage point altogether. What if Corinth stood something to gain from Medea being painted as a monster? This is the question Wolf explores in this politically-driven retelling, narrated in a series of monologues by Medea, Jason, Glauce, and other individuals in the royal court at Corinth.

The first thing that struck me as soon as I finished Medea’s first chapter and started reading Jason’s was how startlingly different their narrative voices were, which I think is such an incredible and impressive feat to accomplish in a book like this, which hinges on different characters’ perspectives telling the same story. The other thing that struck me was the mastery and lyricism of Wolf’s prose (translated beautifully from the German by John Cullen).

It’s possible they sense my unbelief, my lack of faith in anything. It’s possible they can’t bear that. When I ran over the field where the frenzied women had strewn your dismembered limbs, when I ran over that field, wailing in the deepening darkness, and gathered you up, poor, broken brother, piece by piece, bone by bone, that’s when I stopped believing. How could we be meant to come back to this earth in a new form. Why should a dead man’s limbs, scattered over a field, make that field fertile. Why should the gods, who demand from us continual proofs of gratitude and submission, let us die in order to send us back to earth again. Your death opened my eyes wide, Apsyrtus. For the first time I found solace in the fact that I don’t have to live forever. And then I was able to let go of that belief born out of fear; to be more exact, it repelled me.

I mean, that’s stunning.

What I love so much about mythological retellings; the reason I read the same stories over and over again written by different authors, is that each retelling offers something new, each author interacts with the original story in a different way. That’s clear in the stark contrast between Medea and Bright Air Black, how one can render Medea as a victim and the other as a villain, while both staying, in their own way, true to the original myth. Wolf’s retelling is also concerned with the greater political context of Corinth at the time of Medea and Jason’s arrival – it reflects on how a community is willing to turn a blind eye to its leaders’ faults, which is relevant not only in our current political climate, but also to Wolf’s own life, when you consider that she grew up in the GDR. This is what I mean when I talk about the universality of myth, and how it belongs to everyone, and how individuals from different cultures and different backgrounds can all draw different conclusions from the same story, and why Euripides’ and Seneca’s versions of Medea remain so important thousands of years after they were written. Wolf’s Medea, beautifully written, thoughtful, and resonant, is the perfect reminder of this story’s relevance.

discussion: Retellings, Canon, & Fanfiction

This post is inspired by a brief series of tweets that I wrote earlier, followed by an interesting conversation with a friend that got me thinking about this even more critically… I’ll start with my tweets, which are as follows:

I get unreasonably annoyed when people refer to mythological retellings as fanfiction. There is no hard and fast canon for mythology – that’s the point. Even Sophocles and Euripides told the same stories in different ways.

Mythology belongs to everyone. We have fragments of stories and glimpses of these characters from 3000 years ago and we all draw different conclusions. That’s the magic of it. Every interpretation is valid.

Side note – I am not bashing fanfiction! I love fanfiction. But in reviews of contemporary mythological stories, it’s used as a pejorative to try to undermine legitimacy. What exactly makes something a valid contribution to a canon which isn’t fixed to begin with?

I also think there’s probably something gendered in this….. you see the fanfiction criticism leveled against Christa Wolf and Madeline Miller much more often than Robert Graves or Colm Toibin.

Anyway, as I said, I then got talking to a friend who admitted that she’s referred to things like Paradise Lost as fanfiction, not to discredit the legitimacy of Paradise Lost, but to uplift fanfiction, which we both agree is a perfectly valid form of storytelling. We realized we were coming at the exact same conclusion from two different vantage points – I was saying ‘none of it is fanfiction; it’s all valid’ and she was saying ‘all of it is fanfiction; it’s all valid.’

Where do you guys fall on that? In general do you think published retellings should be considered fanfiction?

Anyway, what adds a level of complication to this when you’re talking about mythology is that mythological canon itself can be so hard to pin down. What do we consider ‘canon’ in Greek mythology? The Iliad, certainly, even if that story was around before Homer. What about the Aeneid? Even though it was written 900 years after the Iliad and uses many of its same characters? What about Dante’s Divina Commedia – do we accept that Odysseus/Ulysses burning in hell for his trickery is the definitive conclusion of this character’s narrative?

Fast forward several thousand years – let’s look at something like The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, or Medea by Christa Wolf, or Bright Air Black by David Vann. None of these novels are ‘retellings’ in the sense that they, for example, take the story of Achilles and set it on the moon.  They’re all set in the same time period as the original stories, and they attempt to expand on the characterizations that we’re familiar with.  Do we classify any/all of their interpretations as fanfiction? Or do we embrace them all into an ever-expanding concept of mythological canon, even if Medea and Bright Air Black contain contradictory interpretations of Medea’s character?

And finally, what do you think of the gender argument – do you think the fanfiction criticism is more often leveled against female writers (whether consciously or not) in an effort to undermine their credibility?

Sorry, I know I’ve asked a lot of disjointed questions here… I just thought this was some pretty interesting food for thought. Do you guys have any thoughts on this? Let’s discuss!

book review: Circe by Madeline Miller

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CIRCE by Madeline Miller
★★★☆☆
Little Brown and Co, April 10, 2018

Like so many other readers, I was a huge fan of Madeline Miller’s debut The Song of Achilles. I wouldn’t call it a flawless piece of literature or even a flawless Iliad adaptation, but it utterly consumed me, I couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks, and I have no hesitations when I say that it’s one of my favorite books. My feelings about Circe are much more complicated.

In many ways, you could argue that it surpasses The Song of Achilles from an objective standpoint. The scope of Circe is much larger, and Miller crafts an absolutely stunning arc for her titular character. I put Circe down feeling so satisfied with the conclusion that I wanted to give it 5 stars solely for that mastery… but clearly I did not end up doing that, so let’s back up.

My first issue with Circe was the unnecessarily languid pace. For one thing, there is no reason this book needs to be nearly 400 pages. There is just not that much going on. And for another thing, so many of the subplots in this novel happen offstage, so to speak. In case you aren’t familiar with the original story: Circe is exiled to the island Aiaia and unable to leave. Consequently, a lot of background information is obtained secondhand, from other characters visiting the island and relaying information to Circe. It doesn’t exactly make for the most thrilling narrative.

This ties into that, but due to Circe’s immortality, the stakes in this novel are constantly low. Any altercations that could theoretically result in Circe being killed or injured have absolutely no tension, because you know it’s all going to be okay (physically, at least, if not emotionally). Circe’s immortality is approached beautifully on a thematic level, but not necessarily on a narrative one.

Now let’s talk about Circe herself. This is something I’m sort of conflicted about. Circe is one of those characters from Greek mythology who doesn’t have her own literature, but she features into the background of so many different stories (the Odyssey, notably, but also Theogony, the now lost Telegony, the Aeneid, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, to name a few). Though none of these stories explore Circe’s life in the way that Miller has endeavored to do, we do get a sense of who she is – a ruthless witch who dwells in solitude and turns men into pigs for sport. That… is not the Circe that Miller gives us. Hers is soft, tame, misunderstood – and the thing is, none of it blatantly contradicts anything from mythological canon. Circe in this novel does turn men into pigs – and Miller shows how she gets there. But at times I still felt like I was reading about an original character, and not Circe. I mean, it all turned out okay. Like I said, the arc that Miller wrote was brilliant. It just took some time to adjust my expectations of how I thought this character was going to be portrayed. (Also, this is only sort of related, but another point of confusion for me were some of the myths that Miller decided to incorporate into Circe’s narrative… though some of her invented stories fit very well. It was sort of a mixed bag for me.)

I know this has been largely critical, but I did like this. It was super readable, I thought the background characters were fascinating (Pasiphaë in particular was really excellent), and I adored the ending. And, as always, I love Greek mythology. I’d rather read Greek mythology retellings than almost anything else. I loved diving back into this world, especially so soon after re-reading the Odyssey. But, I’ve said this before: I tend to be critical of the things I love the most. This is a solid book that many fans are going to love just as much, if not more, than The Song of Achilles. I’ll be very curious to hear what everyone else thinks.

Anyway, this is a very solid 3.5 – I’m rounding down for now solely because I seem to have written a 3-star review instead of a 4-star one, but I may revisit my rating after I’ve thought about this some more.

Thank you so much to Little, Brown and Co and Madeline Miller for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

Greek and Roman Mythology – Literary Masterlist

So, it’s no secret that I love Greek and Roman mythology.  I feel like I mention it about twice a week.  So I thought it would be fun to give you guys some mythology recommendations!  This initially started as just a list of books I’ve read and enjoyed, but then I felt weird excluding some notable ones that I’ve read and did not enjoy, and then I felt weird excluding some notable ones that I haven’t read at all, so basically this turned into a masterlist of any and all Greek and Roman mythology books that are on my radar.

A few notes before we continue!

This is decidedly NOT a comprehensive list.  I am not claiming to be citing every book that has ever been written about Greece.  That said, if you feel like there are any major ones I’ve left off the list, feel free to let me know!

Books which I have read include my star rating and a link to my review where applicable.  This list will be updated with each one I read.

For Greek plays, I am ONLY including ones that I have already read.  There are just too many to endeavor to list them all, and it’s tricky to nail down which the ‘main ones’ are.  Again, this list will be updated with the more I read.

For retellings, I am focusing on ADULT FICTION.  So, there will be no Rick Riordan and no YA romances on this list.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with these books, but if you google ‘Greek mythology retellings’ you will find Rick Riordan on every single list.  I’m hoping to focus on some more obscure ones that often get overlooked.

So, here we go, the list:

The Classics

  • Aesop: Aesop’s Fables
  • Apollodorus: The Library of Greek Mythology
  • Apollonius of Rhodes: The Argonautica
  • Aristotle: Poetics ★★★★☆
  • Aristotle: The Nicomachean Ethics
  • Herodotus: The Histories
  • Homer: The Iliad ★★★★★
  • Homer: The Odyssey ★★★☆☆
  • Hesiod: Theogony/Works and Days ★★★☆☆
  • Ovid: Heroides
  • Ovid: Metamorphoses ★★★★★
  • Plato: The Republic ★★★☆☆
  • Plutarch: On Sparta
  • Sappho: If Not, Winter (translated by Anne Carson) ★★★★☆
  • Thucydides: History of the Peloponnesian War
  • Vergil: The Aeneid ★★★★☆
  • Xenophon: The Persian Expedition

The Classics – Greek Theatre

  • Aeschylus: The Oresteia ★★★★☆
    • Agamemnon ★★★★☆
    • Libation Bearers ★★★☆☆
    • Eumenides ★★★★☆
  • Euripides: Alcestis ★★★☆☆
  • Euripides: The Bacchae ★★★★☆
  • Euripides: Iphigenia at Aulis ★★★★☆
  • Euripides: Medea ★★★★★
  • Euripides: The Trojan Women ★★★★★
  • Sophocles: Philoctetes ★★★☆☆
  • Sophocles: The Theban Plays ★★★★☆
    • Oedipus Rex ★★★★★
    • Oedipus at Colonus ★★★☆☆
    • Antigone ★★★★☆

Greek Mythology Overviews

  • Buxton, Richard: The Complete World of Greek Mythology
  • d’Aulaire, Ingri: D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths ★★★★★
  • Graves, Robert: The Greek Myths
  • Hamilton, Edith: Mythology
  • Various: xo Orpheus

Modern Retellings: adult fiction, literary fiction, poetry, plays

  • Anouilh, Jean: Antigone 
  • Albanese, Pauline: The Closed Doors
  • Atwood, Margaret: The Penelopiad ★★☆☆☆
  • Barker, Pat: The Silence of the Girls ★★★★★
  • Baricco, Alessandro: An Iliad 
  • Beutner, Katharine: Alcestis ★★★★☆
  • Brennan, Marie: Daughter of Necessity
  • Carson, Anne: Autobiography of Red ★★★★☆
  • Carson, Anne: Red Doc>
  • Cook, Elizabeth: Achilles 
  • Corona, Laurel: Penelope’s Daughter
  • Dillon, Patrick: Ithaca: A Novel of Homer’s Odyssey
  • Elyot, Amanda: The Memoirs of Helen of Troy
  • George, Margaret: Helen of Troy
  • Geras, Adele: Troy
  • Haynes, Natalie: The Children of Jocasta
  • Johnson, Daisy: Everything Under ★★★★☆
  • Le Guin, Ursula K.: Lavinia ★★★☆☆
  • Lewis, C.S.: Till We Have Faces ★★★★★
  • Lochhead, Liz: Medea
  • Logue, Christopher: War Music
  • Malouf, David: Ransom ★★★★☆
  • Mason, Zachary: The Lost Books of the Odyssey 
  • McCoullough, Colleen: The Song of Troy
  • Merlis, Mark: An Arrow’s Flight ★★★★★
  • Miller, Madeline: Circe ★★★☆☆
  • Miller, Madeline: The Song of Achilles ★★★★★
  • Oswald, Alice: Memorial
  • Peterson, Lisa & O’Hare, Denis: An Iliad ★★★★★
  • Phillips, Marie: Gods Behaving Badly
  • Renault, Mary: The King Must Die
  • Ruhl, Sarah: Eurydice ★★★☆☆
  • Shakespeare, William: Troilus and Cressida 
  • Shamsie, Kamila: Home Fire ★★★★☆
  • Shields, Sharma: The Cassandra
  • Smith, Ali: Girl Meets Boy
  • Smith, Ali: The Story of Antigone 
  • Tempest, Kate: Hold Your Own
  • Toibin, Colm: House of Names ★★★☆☆
  • Vann, David: Bright Air Black ★★★★★
  • Wolf, Christa: Cassandra 
  • Wolf, Christa: Medea ★★★★★

Historical Fiction About Ancient Greece & Real Life Classics Figures

  • Graves, Robert: Homer’s Daughter
  • Malouf, David: An Imaginary Life (Ovid) ★★★★☆
  • McCoullough, Colleen: The First Man in Rome
  • Renault, Mary: the Alexander the Great Trilogy
  • Renault, Mary: The Last of the Wine

Nonfiction

  • Alexander, Caroline: The War That Killed Achilles – currently reading/on hold
  • Burkert, Walter: Greek Religion
  • Hamilton, Edith: The Greek Way
  • Hughes, Bettany: Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore
  • Kagan, Donald: The Peloponnesian War
  • Wood, Michael: In Search of the Trojan War

Which of these books have you guys read and which ones do you want to read in the future?  And are there any other adult/literary mythology books that should be on my radar?  Comment and let me know!

book review: Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis

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TILL WE HAVE FACES by C.S. Lewis
★★★★★
originally published in 1956

 

“When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”

This book is something rare and extraordinary. Though ostensibly a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche (I’d recommend reading Lewis’s afterward before you begin if you’re not already familiar with the story, as he provides a succinct summary), it’s told from the point of view of one of Psyche’s sisters, Orual, a princess cursed with an ugly face. I think if I’d been informed before starting this book that so much of the focus would be on Orual rather than Psyche, I would have been disappointed – and that disappointment would have been very misguided indeed, because Orual captured my heart. This strong, flawed, broken young woman is honestly one of the most complex and haunting female protagonists I’ve come across.

I hadn’t read any C.S. Lewis except for the first three (I think) books in the Chronicles of Narnia series when I was younger, and, as evidenced by the fact that I only read the first three (I think), I was not a huge fan. Honestly, he was an author I never had much interest in, but after reading Till We Have Faces, I am distraught that more of his fiction doesn’t appeal to me (I’m not a big science fiction fan). I love his writing – the passage I quoted above is only one of many that I had to pause and reread because I found his prose so striking.

It’s hard to summarize this book, or even fully wrap my head around it, as it’s one of the more thematically complex things I think I’ve ever read. It’s a book that almost demands to be read more than once. That’s not to say that it’s dense to the point of incomprehensibility – I read it in two days, and doing so was an absolute joy. But Lewis provides a thoughtful meditation on beauty and ugliness (with a startling commentary on how a woman’s worth is wrongly determined by her appearance), as well as the symbiotic nature of love and hatred, before delving into even deeper philosophical and theological themes, examining the very nature of man’s relationship with God (or, in the case of mythology, the gods). It’s heavy stuff, but in a rewarding way. This book will stay with me. (Also, on a personal note, I’m not religious. I can’t comment on whether having a vested interest in Christianity is essential for reading any of C.S. Lewis’s other works, but I found that, despite the religious themes, this was really not the case here. I’d recommend this to absolutely everyone.)

Till We Have Faces achieves everything I like to see in a retelling – it fleshes out the stories of minor characters who only play bit parts in the original, it interrogates and expands on the original themes, and it captures the wondrous atmosphere that makes mythology so compelling. I’m in awe of this book.

book review: An Arrow’s Flight by Mark Merlis

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AN ARROW’S FLIGHT by Mark Merlis
★★★★★
St. Martin’s Press, 1998

I loved this book, but I’m not really sure who I’d recommend it to. Having some kind of knowledge or passion for Greek mythology seems requisite going in – I can’t imagine getting much enjoyment out of this if you aren’t familiar with the original stories that Merlis is adapting and expounding on and subverting – but this is not your run of the mill Homeric retelling.

You start the novel with Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, and you think you’re going to Troy. That’s how the story goes, anyway – Achilles dies, Pyrrhus takes his place as leader of the Myrmidons, and with the bow of Philoctetes, Pyrrhus takes Troy. Mark Merlis has other plans.

What starts as a (granted, wildly unconventional) retelling of the tale of Pyrrhus quickly morphs into something bigger, via a detour to Sophocoles’ Philoctetes – an allegorical commentary on the AIDS crisis in 1980s America. And it’s just weird enough that it works, beautifully. This is a quietly powerful and unsettling story that starts with the Trojan War and ends up having a lot to say about fate and free will and gay identity.

We’re held at arm’s length from our anti-hero Pyrrhus for the majority of this story. Self-centered, lazy, and apathetic, Pyrrhus is ostensibly difficult to root for. And yet. He gets under your skin, as do all of Merlis’s characters. In that way, this isn’t necessarily an easy book to love. It’s deliberately provocative and graphic, and it shows an ugliness to human nature that isn’t easy to stare in the face. But it’s an even stronger achievement for that, I think. Merlis is able to take this dark and cynical story and infuse it with just enough hope and romance that you’re compelled to see it through to the end – with beautiful payoff once you do.

Merlis’s prose is witty, droll, and surprisingly incisive. It ranges from mildly amusing to positively breathtaking. There were so many lines I had to stop and reread just to take in the full effect. Passages like this:

Did they just not believe it, the Trojans? Or did they believe it the way you believe you’re going to die? With certainty and utter incredulity so perfectly balanced that they fight to a draw, leaving the ignorant animal in you free to get out of bed in the morning.

And this:

The most terrifying thing that could happen to anyone: to have to stand there and hear, from someone who knew everything, the worst you’ve ever thought about yourself.

If you’re looking for a modern but slightly more straightforward Greek mythology retelling, try The Song of Achilles (Madeline Miller) or Ransom (David Malouf) or Alcestis (Katherine Beutner) or Bright Air Black (David Vann). If you’re looking for a powerful gay epic that touches on the AIDS crisis, try Angels in America (Tony Kushner) or The Heart’s Invisible Furies (John Boyne) or Tell the Wolves I’m Home (Carol Rifka Brunt). If your interests are niche enough that you’re looking for a combination, boy do I have some great news for you about An Arrow’s Flight.

top 5 tuesday: Favorite Retellings

Top 5 Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the fantastic Bionic Bookworm.  This week’s topic:

AUGUST 22 – Top 5 Retellings

To absolutely no one’s surprise, I am a little obsessed with Greek mythology, and so to absolutely no one’s surprise, I am cheating big time with this prompt.  I tried to narrow it down to five and failed spectacularly.

Bright Air Black by David Vann
The original: Medea by Euripides & The Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes

Bright Air Black is one of the most stunning books I’ve ever read.  The prose is gorgeous and lyrical, and the characterization of Medea is everything I could have asked for.  Vann renders her as a sympathetic figure without losing any of the ferocity that makes her such a fascinating and iconic figure.  Because this novel is so character driven, I’d recommend familiarizing yourself with the story of Medea before reading it, probably through reading the Euripides play, though the Apollonius of Rhodes story also factors heavily into Vann’s narrative.

Lavinia by Ursula LeGuin
The original: The Aeneid by Vergil

I’ve read The Aeneid about a hundred times, and I have to admit, that probably clouded my judgment of Lavinia just a little bit – I don’t personally love this quite as much as the others on this list.  But it felt unfair to omit it.  It’s a beautifully written book that tells the story from the point of view of Aeneas’s wife, in a way that’s both inventive and also incredibly faithful to the original.  I wouldn’t say it’s necessary to have read The Aeneid before reading Lavinia – in fact, reading Lavinia first might be a better way to approach the story.

Alcestis by Katherine Beutner
The original: Alcestis by Euripides

The play by Euripides is one of the only remaining Greek ‘tragicomedies’ that we have access to (though scholars still argue about how exactly to classify it).  It’s undoubtedly tragic and comedic at the same time.  Basically, the story is that king Admetus had been promised by Apollo that he could cheat death, as long as when the day of his death came, someone would agree to die in his place.  That person ended up being Admetus’s wife, Alcestis, who ends up going to the underworld before being eventually retrieved by Herakles.  In Beutner’s retelling, when Alcestis dies, she falls in love with the queen of the underworld, Persephone.  This isn’t a flawless book, but the prose is lovely and evocative, and I loved the lesbian twist to the story.  All things considered, I really enjoyed reading this.  It’s certainly not necessary to have read the Euripides play before reading this novel, though with its short length I’d recommend going for it.

Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
The original: Herakles & Geryon from The Geryoneis by Stesichorus

Autobiography of Red isn’t an autobiography at all, but a retelling of this rather obscure Stesichorus poem.  This is a ‘novel in verse,’ so basically a lengthy poem about the life of Geryon, the monster who in Carson’s story is actually the protagonist.  There’s also a gay twist here where Geryon is in love with Herakles.  This book is absolutely striking and unlike anything I’ve ever read.  Anne Carson is a goddess.  It’s absolutely not necessary to read the Stesichorus before reading this book – there’s an introduction that explains away any questions you might have.

An Iliad by Lisa Peterson & Denis O’Hare // Ransom by David Malouf // The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
The original: The Iliad by Homer

Retellings of The Iliad are my raison d’être, so I couldn’t choose just one.  Each of these retellings is completely unique and brings something different to the story.

An Iliad by Lisa Peterson & Denis O’Hare: This is a play which spins The Iliad in a firmly anti-war direction.  This play is a one-man show, where the main character, ‘The Poet,’ recounts the story of The Iliad, focusing on the conflict between Achilles and Hector.  In this interpretation, the Poet is forced to recount the same story again and again until there is no more war.  It’s an incredibly hard-hitting interpretation of the story.  I would love to see a live performance of this, but even reading the script was very entertaining.

Ransom by David Malouf: This short little book is a beautifully written retelling of books XXII – XIV of The Iliad, where the Trojan king Priam crosses battle lines to ransom the body of his son Hector from Achilles, who had murdered Hector and has been publicly desecrating his body.  Malouf’s prose is vibrant and lyrical, and his characterization is stunning.  This is a must-read for all Iliad fans.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller: Probably the most famous Iliad retelling, The Song of Achilles tells the story of Achilles and Patroclus, which Miller depicts as an explicitly romantic relationship.  This book is gorgeous and devastating and while not 100% faithful to The Iliad, Miller pays homage to it in a satisfying way.  I love this book a lot.

BONUS: One more!  I had to include this non-mythological retelling:

East of Eden by John Steinbeck
The original: Cain and Abel from the Bible

East of Eden is one of the most beautiful family sagas I’ve ever read.  It tells the story of two families in Salinas Valley California, the Hamiltons and the Trasks, whose two family stories come to mirror the fall of Adam and Eve and the story of Cain and Abel.  You don’t need to be religious to appreciate this book – even without the biblical undertones, this book is striking.

So those are my top five eight retellings – what are some of your favorites?  And what do you think of my choices?  Comment and let me know!