Almost halfway through May, and I’m just getting to wrap-up my April reads. Ah, what a reading month, though. I met my ongoing goal for 50 percent of my reads to come from my existing library. And, well, there’s a little surprise at the end. I won’t spoil it. You’ll see (wink).
An Introduction to Greek Philosophy by John Victor Luce
This is a lucid and engaging overview of Ancient Greek philosophy from the Milesian School circa 625-525 BC to Plotinus and the Neoplatonism of the Roman era. Luce covers each philosophical period in brisk, concise chapters. I especially appreciated how he explains conflicting approaches and interpretations and which theory he finds most credible and why.
Gratuitous personal aside: In the first chapter, “The Birth of Philosophy in Ionia,” I was excited to see Chios (where my family is from) mentioned: “Already by c.650 the people of Chios had inscribed their constitution on a stone pillar (which was found in the south of the island in 1907). The most significant phrase on it is ‘The People’s Council’, which shows that the Chiots were already some distance down the road to democracy.”
Enchiridion: A Manual for Living by Epictetus
I read about Epictetus, a Greek Stoic philosopher from Anatolia who lived from around 50-135 AD, in Luce’s book. I have a soft spot for Stoicism (which sounds borderline ridiculous, but you’ll see what I mean).
In his early life, Epictetus was a slave who ended up in Rome, where he was permitted to study and teach philosophy. One of his masters, Epaphroditus, a secretary to Nero, grew fond of Epictetus and his intellect. Eventually, he was emancipated and went on to develop his own brand of Stoicism. Enchiridion is a collection of his maxims for living that revolve, essentially, around calm resignation of what is. Don’t wish for things to be different from what they are, he advises. Wish for things to be as they are.
As with (in my view) Stoicism as a whole, his maxims have their limits. It’s not always so easy to determine what we should calmly resign ourselves to because it cannot be changed. But on an individual, personal level, his maxims can be profoundly therapeutic. “Men are disturbed not by the things which happen, but by the opinions about the things,” he writes. “On the occasion of every event that befalls you, remember to turn to yourself.”
It’s a concept I’m familiar with courtesy of my dad. “The one thing in your life that you can control,” he would tell me (and still does), “is your attitude.” I mean, I can’t … always. Sometimes, my attitude gets away from me. But when I can control it, I’ve found I then have more control to shape my immediate environment. When overwhelm about everything in the world I can’t control creeps up on me, I find it comforting to remember this, to have faith in this. It beats driving myself insane and becoming a ranting lunatic. Obviously?
Simon takes Norse mythology as her inspiration for this atmospheric YA novel. It tells the story of Hel, reluctant goddess of the Underworld. The daughter of Loki and a giantess, she’s born with a robust, attractive upper body and the rotting legs of a corpse. Odin chucks her (literally) down to the land of the dead. There’s not much plot, but no matter: mood and character carry this darkly comic novel.
Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods by Rick Riordan
As anyone who has spent much time with me knows, I adore the absurd. I don’t know if I could find the strength to get out of bed every morning without it. Riordan’ books are extremely absurd—the funny, entertaining absurd that I live for. I don’t care what age demographic these books are written for. They amuse me, and I love them.
Riordan’s absurd humor pairs well with the Greek gods because, honestly, the Greek gods are themselves exceedingly absurd. I mean, horrible, brutal, and selfish, but also utterly ridiculous. It was interesting to read Riordan’s hilarious rendering of the Greek gods’ stories after reading Edith Hall last month. Two qualities she attributes to Ancient Greeks are “suspicious of authority” and “individualistic.” With these two qualities in mind, it seems quite fitting that the Ancient Greeks would conceive of gods who are no better—and probably often worse—behaved than humans themselves. What do you think?
Talking as Fast as I Can: From Gilmore Girls to Gilmore Girls, and Everything in Between by Lauren Graham (borrowed from the library)
I read “celebrity” memoirs like it rains in the Sahara. But I was looking for a fun audiobook to listen to while driving and exercising (two tasks I dislike in roughly equal proportion). I have a hard time listening to fiction because I prefer to construct the fictional world myself. Listening to someone else read a story messes with my creative flow. My friend Heather, who has similar concerns, once told me she most enjoys audiobooks when they’re nonfiction narrated by their authors. My library had this one. Plus it was a short 4+ hours. I gave it a go and am so glad I did.
Graham is a delightful, inspiring, and wise narrator of her own experiences. She’s humble and funny and kind. Ah, this was a lovely book to spend time with.
Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix (borrowed from the library)
My friend Jessica said I had to read this. She described it as “a time travel book without actual time travel,” which…yes. It’s about a girl called Jessie who lives in a Williamsburg-style historical settlement (but with a later setting). Only Jessie doesn’t know it’s a constructed settlement. She thinks it’s actually 1840. When a diphtheria epidemic threatens the lives of the settlement’s children, Jessie’s mother sends her out into the real world of 1996 for help. And that’s when the real adventure begins.
I picked this up for Dewey’s 24-Hour Readathon and ended up reading it in one sitting the night before. It was gripping and thought-provoking, with twists I didn’t entirely see coming.
This was another title on my Dewey’s TBR that Jessica recommended. Readathon day ended up being filled with household tasks that needed to be accomplished. I didn’t get to reading until late in the day. And? I ended up staying up until 4:30 in the morning to finish it. I refused to go to sleep until I got to the end of Willow’s story.
Willow is a highly gifted only child adored by her parents. That’s basically all I want to tell you. I guess I can also say it’s about finding beauty and creating community. It’s heart-breaking and soul-nurturing at the same time. And oh, the very last page! *insert weeping emoji*
Mary Beard is a deeply engaging writer. Still, if I’m honest, I might not have picked this up if I’d known how much of the book is devoted to Rome. This is partly because I’m Team Ancient Greece and partly because her larger thesis in Confronting the Classics elaborates on her thesis in Classics: A Very Short Introduction, which I read last month. I’m very glad I read Confronting the Classics, though. Beard is a brilliant storyteller, terrifyingly knowledgeable, and (the icing on the cake) witty. (P.S. Icing is my favorite part of cake.) I get the feeling, reading her, that she’s having a grand time, and that spirit is infectious. I almost began to appreciate Rome (ha, only joking…sort of).
Takeaway: Sometimes, it’s good not to know too much about the books we dive into, else we might chuck a book onto the “reject” pile not realizing what we’re missing.
In the Preface, Beard tidily summarizes the book as “a guided tour of the classical world, from the prehistoric palace at Knossos in Crete to that fictional village in Gaul, where Asterix and his friends are still holding out against the Romans.” Just so you know, it covers everything in between (and I do mean everything). She opens with a version of her 2011 New York Public Library talk called “Do Classics have a Future?” (Spoiler alert: Yes.) The subsequent chapters comprise a collection of her essays and book reviews. An Afterword lays out her approach to reviewing books about the ancient world. Threaded throughout is a debate about how to “do” classics and its unique challenges for scholars (much like Classics).
The Afterword turned out to be one of my favorite chapters simply because it provides a helpful frame for reading her essays and reviews. I wished it had been at the beginning of the book instead of the end. Let me explain:
About three-quarters of the way through, I was getting a distinctly Hermione-from-Harry-Potter or Oscar-from-The-Office vibe: You know they’re probably right most of the time, and it’s…kind of annoying.I say this partly because I have several of the books she reviews on my shelves, and her harsh critiques made me rue my investment.
After reading the Afterword, though, I respect how seriously she takes her responsibility to assess the merit of these books’ scholarship. As a non-specialist reader who enjoys reading ancient texts (in translation) and scholarship about them, I appreciate the quality control, so to speak. I can still read the books she critiques harshly, perhaps alongside her reviews of said book. A point Beard returns to repeatedly is how challenging it is to interpret and make grand claims to knowledge about the ancient world. Oftentimes, her critiques highlight this point. Other times, her critiques give the impression that she’s drawing on a store of absolute knowledge that sort of chaffs against the book’s thesis that such a thing is impossible.
So perhaps most importantly, I appreciate how the Afterword places Beard inside the debate about classics rather than above it. The Afterword clarifies what makes scholarship exemplary vs. flawed, for example in the case of mistranslations of Latin or Greek words or interpretations that account for more material evidence than others. This is something I’m familiar with in literature as well. A great literary work can sustain multiple credible interpretations, but to meet the credibility standard, they must take into account the text as a whole. My favorite example is Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Less Travelled,” which may be the most misinterpreted poem in American literature. In interpreting the poem, readers have shown a tendency to cherry-pick their favorite lines without taking into account context (Frost wrote the poem as a joke for an indecisive friend) and contradictory evidence within the poem (the road taken is described as both “less traveled” and “worn about the same” as the road not taken). Point being, readers may see what they want to see depending on what they’re looking for, their expectations, their preconceptions.
What I enjoyed about the Afterword is how it made evident Beard’s own preconceptions. This isn’t a criticism but rather a comforting fact. All scholars have them. Accounting for them is part of what enables credible research.
Books in progress
The Odyssey by Homer, translated by George Herbert Palmer
Last year, after weeks of ping-ponging between Fagles’ and Fitzerald’s translations, I finally committed to Fagles’. Shortly after completing it, I read an article by a classicist who didn’t like either of these verse translations. This classicist felt the specific poetic conventions and merits don’t translate well into English. The takeaway: you might as well read a prose translation. Several months later, I’m finally doing just that.
I’m enjoying it. I don’t know if I’m enjoying it more than Fagles’, necessarily. Then again, as I’ve not read The Odyssey in its original Ancient Greek, I can’t comment on what Fagles captures and doesn’t from the original. Maybe I just really like The Odyssey?
The Cambridge Companion to the Greek and Roman Novel, edited by Tim Whitmarsh
I became fascinated with Greek novels of the Roman era after reading Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe. I discovered this Cambridge Companion while searching Tim Whitmarsh, a scholar Jean at Bookish Thoughts mentioned in this video on ancient history books. So far, I’ve only read a few pages of the introduction, written by Whitmarsh, and am pleased with how accessible and engaging the writing is.
Percy Jackson’s Greek Heroes by Rick Riordan
Per above, Riordan’s books and I are a match made on Mount Olympus (wait, maybe not). He is funny, and I like to laugh. According to sources in my life, this means I have a 13-year-old boy’s sense of humor. I’ve decided I can live with that.
The Lightening Thief by Rick Riordan
I took this out of the library to reread during Dewey’s 24-Hour Readathon. I might reread it to the end, or not. We’ll see!
Are you ready for this? *dramatic pause*
I did not buy any books in April.
Ahem. For myself. I bought books for my son, but they don’t count here. I downloaded a boatload of samples onto my Nook. Still, I did not purchase them. I almost pre-ordered The Dark Prophecy. Spoiler alert: as of this moment, I’ve purchased and read it. But that was in May. So my April record stands. I’m going to savor it because I have tons of books I want to buy in May, and the frenzy has already begun. Good thing it’s my birthday this month?