We have a lot to talk about this month, so let’s jump right in: Usually with these reviews, I discuss books in the order in which I read them. Since several of my reads happened concurrently and this impacted how I read them, the only way I can talk about them that feels satisfying is together.
But first we need to satisfy my inner stats nerd with numbers:
Number of books read: 12
Number of pages read: 3,971
Number of formats read:
Number of genres read: 7
Adult fantasy (2)
Adult fiction (1)
Ancient history/scholarship (3)
Ancient reception (3)
Ancient literature (1)
How-to, writing (1)
YA fantasy (1)
Full list of books read:
The Masked City (The Invisible Library #2) by Genevieve Cogman
Back in April, I enjoyed book one in this series revolving around Irene, a librarian for an extra-dimensional library that collects copies of every book ever written. Irene’s job is to fetch books from alternate worlds and bring them back to the Library (that’s its official name). In installment two, fae kidnap someone close to Irene and bring that person to an alternate version of Venice, where chaos reigns and it is always Carnival.
Truthfully, I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as I did the first, for one primary reason: I didn’t love the kidnap premise. It separated two characters whose dynamic made the first book such a fun reading experience. Since I had been looking forward to seeing them interact, the kidnap soured my mood from the jump. I’m not ready to give up on the series, though. The characters are endearing, and I’m curious about the larger narrative arc developing across books.
Plato: A Very Short Introduction by Julia Annas
The Aeneid by Virgil, translated by Allen Mandelbaum
Fireborne (The Aurelian Cycle #1) by Rosaria Munda
The setting of Munda’s YA fantasy, which caught my attention via Book of the Month, is inspired by Plato’s Republic and features a central cultural text inspired by Virgil’s Aeneid. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to revisit Plato and Virgil via Annas’ short survey of Platonic thought and Virgil’s homage to my compatriot Homer (not really, but you know...wink).
Though they typically earn mixed reviews, I'm fond of the Very Short Introduction series. The key is managing your expectations. No book of, say, 150 pages is going to give you a thorough anything. It’ll provide a window, a survey, an overview. It exists to familiarize you with the terrain and whet your appetite for more. (No, have not been paid to endorse the series...why do you ask?) Annas’ Plato was just the jolt my memory needed, but I I’m not sure how valuable it will be to readers completely unfamiliar with his body of work. Maybe very? Maybe not at all?
Virgil and I just don’t get on well. The Aeneid begs and pleads to be compared to Homer, and in the words of my husband, “Not even Virgil thought he was better than Homer.” (Virgil famously requested the text be burned after his death. No one ever listens.) Obviously I would call it derivative, but someone who loves the text could just as easily claim that he transforms Homer into a fiercer, more potent epic.
That might be exactly why I don’t care for The Aeneid. The Odyssey is about the restoration of a family, about the concessions we must make to survive, about the ways that we justify ourselves to ourselves and others, about the human need to endure suffering (imposed from within by our own mistakes and without by the gods or whatever). The Aeneid is about (dramatic pause) ROME (cue the fireworks display). Aeneas is on a journey of empiric destiny. Odysseus just wants to go home. Both poems feature ambiguity (what was Virgil trying to say anyway?), but I find in Homer a sweetness, a recognition of human fragility, a humble acceptance of paradox that speak to me.
If I were to be fair, I would admit that Virgil probably never had a chance with me. Obviously they are both extraordinary cultural and literary works. It's a matter of taste. My soul, like my passport, is Hellenic, and the foundation of our shared identity is Homer. We invented him so that he could invent us. It’s possible that I resent—perhaps unfairly, perhaps not—that Rome absorbed Hellenic culture to the point that, two millennia on, people talk about “Greek mythology” not realizing that they’re referring to myths refashioned by the Hellenic world’s conquerors. (The words "Greek" and "Greece" are, themselves, Latinizations.) Maybe the Hellenes represented mythic stories likewise, or maybe the Romans adapted the myths to suit their agendas and beliefs. In the absence of clear answers, it's unseemly to generalize the meaning of thousands of years of cultural output that varied broadly across time periods.
But enough of all that. My feelings about Virgil did not in any way mar my experience of Munda’s wonderful thought-experiment of a novel.
The story is told from two perspectives, Annie’s and Lee’s. The two grew up together in an orphanage having lost their families during a brutal people’s revolution that replaced an aristocratic hierarchy with a skill-based one. The ruling class tests all citizens and, based on their performance, divides them into employment classes, and employment status equals identity. Annie and Lee both tested into the highest class and are given an opportunity to train as dragon riders, who provide aerial defense for their island nation.
Some complications: Annie’s family was in the “peasant” class under the previous regime while Lee’s was the ruling class. Having internalized her place under the old regime, Annie struggles to assert herself in a leadership role, which comes easily and naturally to Lee, who had been groomed for the role since birth. Annie witnessed her family murdered by aristocrats while Lee witnessed his family murdered by revolutionaries. Both Annie and Lee recognize the old way’s errors but, when war with a nearby nation looms, struggle with the current regime’s choices, including censoring The Aurelian Cycle (Aeneid-parallel alert) because its complex message may “confuse” the simple-minded masses.
The novel explores provocative questions, e.g. how far can we take dispassionate reason? To what extent can we avoid elitism of one sort or another? Why does power corrupt, and is there any way for it not to? Who deserves our loyalty, and why? I cannot wait to see where Munda takes this story.
The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
Homer: The Resonance of Epic by Barbara Graziosi and Johannes Haubold
When I first read The Penelopiad (about two years ago), I enjoyed it for the dry humor and the wry way Atwood weaves (pun intended) together mythical stories about Penelope. Atwood places her in the underworld, 2,000 or so years after the end of The Odyssey, where she reckons with the events of that time. After reading Homer: The Resonance of Epic, though, I don’t read Homer’s Penelope quite the same way, and as a result, I can’t read The Penelopiad the same way.
The Resonance of Epic seeks to understand the poem in its own context. Rather than seeing it as the beginning of Western literature and analyzing it as such, it looks at the poem as a historical artifact. You might say that instead of reading the poem teleologically, it reads it ontologically. What might this poem have meant to the audiences of its time, and how can considering this help us understand the poem in our time?
To answer these questions, Graziosi and Haubold pair analysis of Hesiod (Theogony and Works and Days) with analysis of Homer. It’s debated, sometimes passionately, who came first, but according to Graziosi and Haubold, that isn’t really the point. The “resonance of epic” refers to the “web of associations and implications” that exist within the broader epic tradition. In other words, ancient audiences would have been familiar with the individual mythic stories recounted by Hesiod and Homer and seen them as part of a whole, an overarching narrative about gods and mortals that "explains" the human condition.
Within Graziosi and Haubold’s argument, Hesiod provides a macro understanding of the pantheon and the god-mortal relationship. In Theogony, he traces the gods’ genealogy, from the earliest iterations to Zeus and the Olympians. Works and Days elaborates on the relationship between gods and men, who angered Zeus by getting (with the help of Prometheus) uppity. Zeus devised two punishments for men: work and women (beginning with Pandora), who would be a source of pleasure but also pain, in the form of (for example) longing and jealousy. Key points include that Zeus decreed it is just for humans (men and women) to work and to endure suffering, that Zeus is exceptionally concerned with stability among the Olympians, and that women are not, like men, in the gods’ direct lineage.
According to Graziosi and Haubold, Homer provides a micro exploration of the god-mortal relationship through the figures of Achilles, Odysseus, Penelope, etc. Their journeys—Achilles’ to reconcile his mortality and Odysseus’ to endure his labored journey home—illuminate what must be accepted about the human condition, as dictated by Zeus.
While the argument had some gaps, it was illuminating simply to mentally shift my perspective on the epic. The book answered questions I hadn’t realized had been nagging me, especially about the wholesale grafting of 19th and 20th century social and literary theories onto the ancient world. This has never felt satisfying to me, and I understand a little better now why. Insisting that everything is exactly the same across time—enslavement, colonization, gender relationships—blurs the edges. I understand the need and desire to see ourselves in the other, but doing so can also mean we don’t see others in their uniqueness, complexity, and wholeness. I also appreciate the need and desire to trace a problem to its roots, but the idea that we can, and that doing so will enable us to “fix” the past, is itself a myth. Ideally, we become comfortable with paradoxes: We both are and are not the same; we both can and cannot find the answers we seek, solve the problems that we want to solve.
That, ultimately, is what I valued so much about reading The Resonance of Epic and why I didn’t enjoy The Penelopiad as much as I did the first time I read it. Upon rereading, it seems fundamentally ungenerous in the way it reads The Odyssey and Penelope within it. Like Madeline Miller’s Circe, it appropriates antiquity to tell us a story about ourselves rather than reading the myths as fundamentally other and approaching them as such.
Classical Literature: An Epic Journey from Homer to Virgil and Beyond by Richard Jenkins
I love the whimsy of this subtitle, like it can’t decide whether to be super serious or just a little bit fanboy. The book is a chatty literary analysis of ancient works beginning with Homer and carrying through the prose fiction of the second (or so) century AD. The book assumes familiarity with the texts and provides thought-provoking analysis from an expert in the field.
Practical Magic (Practical Magic #1) by Alice Hoffman
Practical Magic revolves around a family of New England witches, so was a perfect October read. The novel essentially follows three generations of sisters. At the center are Gillian and Sally, who after their parents’ deaths go to live with their witchy aunts. The girls witness their aunts performing spells at the behest of people desperate for love. The often unforeseen and sometimes sinister consequences of these spells traumatize the girls, and in adulthood, they go in opposite directions. Gillian becomes the wild child and leaves town while Sally keeps herself small and contained. A tragic event brings the sisters back together, at which point we also see the third generation of sisters: Sally’s daughters.
This is very much a study of family dynamics, a reflection on how individuals process and attempt to negotiate trauma, and the search for love, familial and romantic. I was lukewarm on it until sometime around the three quarter mark, when something happened that touched my heart in an unexpected way.
Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor
Set in what I read as a middle eastern-inspired fantasy setting, the novel follows Lazlo and Sarai. He is a war orphan who was raised in a monastery and now serves as a librarian. She is also a war orphan who lives a world away from Lazlo. The story gradually moves them together. When I say “gradually,” I also mean painstakingly, as in one scene stretched over 60 pages. The lovely prose and endearing protagonists kept me hooked, but this is the slowest of slow-moving stories.
One moment that especially resonated with me: “The function of hate, as Sarai saw it, was to stamp out compassion—to close the door in one’s own self and forget it was ever there. If you had hate, then you could see suffering—and cause it—and feel nothing except perhaps a sordid vindication.”
Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need by Jessica Brody
I wish I could remember where I saw this fascinating book featured, but alas, I do not. The only thing I recall is what drew me to the book: It was lauded for brilliantly breaking down plot. Organization as a whole—and narrative arc in particular—eludes me as a writer human, thus my interest in this book. Also, I signed up to do NaNoWriMo for the first time and needed some organizational inspiration.
Brody outlines narrative arc (aka plot) dividing it into three acts and 15 “beats,” meaning 15 moves a book needs to make to be engaging. She then identifies 10 story types (e.g. Rite of Passage, Superhero, Golden Fleece, Monster in the House) and shows, by analyzing published novels in each category, how the 15 beats play out in each story type. It’s fantastically clarifying. The book’s value is obvious for writers, but reading this book has also helped me, as a reader, clarify why a novel does or doesn’t work for me.
The Bone Season (The Bone Season #1) by Samantha Shannon
Samantha Shannon’s debut fantasy novel, The Bone Season is set in a future dystopian world in which clairvoyance is criminalized and clairvoyants practice their crafts in illicit gangs organized and run by “mime-lords.” Naturally the main character, Paige Mahoney, is a clairvoyant embroiled in one such organization..until she finds herself trapped on a train and threatened with capture. That moment is what Brody would call the catalyst that launches the plot. I could say more but better that you discover it for yourself.
Notables about this book that might be helpful to potential readers: The writing can veer toward melodramatic, but at the same time, it has that “it” quality—something enjoyable about the arrangement of words that made me want to keep reading. Also, Shannon throws you into the deep end from the jump: new world, new rules, new vocabulary. This is to say, if you’re the type of reader who can’t stand not knowing what the heck is happening, you might find this frustrating at times (though she does include a glossary). Personally, I found it invigorating and look forward to continuing the series.
Lifestyles of Gods and Monsters by Emily Roberson
I loved this YA retelling of the Theseus and Ariadne myth to bits and pieces. Roberson stays remarkably close to the myth’s standard version (i.e. the one that’s most often repeated), especially considering that her version features a reality show and all the social media trappings we’re used to in our world. I want very much to tell you about the original myth and the tweaks Roberson makes, but that would spoil the fun. If you don’t already know the myth, do yourself a favor and do not look it up until after you read Roberson’s book.
Roberson’s Ariadne lives on the island of Crete with her sisters, who have their own reality show called The Paradoxes, and parents, who also have a reality show called The Labyrinth Contest, in which 14 Athenians compete to kill the Minotaur. The show is broadcast around the world and includes makeover segments, human interest angles, and lots of social media action. Over the years, however, the outcome has become so predictable that ratings have been steadily dropping. When Athenian prince Theseus volunteers, however, the stakes rise considerably.
It’s startling (or maybe not at all startling) that Roberson can find so much contemporary resonance with hardly any changes to the core storyline. She smartly avoids over-explaining the minutia of the world. As in ancient Greece, Athens and Crete are discrete city-states with their own power structures, but with the trappings of modernity. And the ending! It was perfection.
How was your October in books and life? *props chin on palm and waits with longing to hear*