My June reads focused on my two reading projects: Ancient Greek literature and the Gilmore Girls reading challenge (which we’re doing at Books, Ink). Perhaps unsurprisingly, my library holds many of these titles already.
I apparently have a lot to say about my June reads, so we might as well jump right in:
Blue Nights and Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
Joan Didion is one of my favorite nonfiction writers. It was a treat to read/reread her work for the Gilmore Girls Reading Challenge. (My piece for the challenge is here.)
Blue Nights has been languishing on my bookshelf for years. Who knows why? Maybe I wanted to wait, to savor it. Maybe I was scared of how sad it would be. She wrote it after her daughter’s death, which followed shortly after her husband’s death. As you might expect, it explores grief and loss—both of others and, as we age, of the self we have known. The blue nights of the title provide an overarching metaphor for how brilliance prefigures its own end. This notion is threaded throughout this moving, poetic memoir.
Slouching Toward Bethlehem may be my favorite essay collection of all time. It’s Didion’s 1968 nonfiction writing about, among many other topics, the Haight-Ashbury, Las Vegas weddings, morality, self-respect, and writing. It’s gorgeous and awe-inspiring—a must read for nonfiction writers.
In the Preface to the collection, Didion writes that being “so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate” may invite others to overlook her, to their detriment. Because, Didion continues, “Writers are always selling somebody out” (italics in the original). It’s harsh, but possibly too often accurate. What I love so much about Didion’s nonfiction is, she never lets us forget that she’s there. She never lets us forget that what we’re seeing isn’t objective truth but what she saw and experienced. It’s a kind of integrity I aspire to, and not just in my writing.
Jason and the Argonauts by Apollonius of Rhodes (bought this year)
In this epic poem (dating to the third century BC), Pelias, the king of Iolcus, sends Jason on a quest to recover the Golden Fleece from Colchis. This is because Jason is the rightful heir to the kingdom, and Pelias wants to get rid of him. Hence the impossible quest. Jason gathers a group of heroes, and they face treacherous challenges and setbacks along the way (obvi).
I might love this more than The Odyssey, for the following reasons:
Jason seems more self-consciously flawed than Odysseus. He’s often overwhelmed, indecisive, fearful, insecure, and even, at times, incompetent. His quest succeeds because of the sorceress Medea’s help rather than because of his own heroic deeds.
It’s self-consciously funny. I often found The Odyssey humorous, but not necessarily because it was intended so. For instance, on the beach at Ogygia, Odysseus weeps with homesickness and for missing his wife Penelope. He then proceeds to comfort himself by having sexy-time with Calypso all night. I’m thinking that wasn’t intended as humorous, but it did make me laugh. Jason and the Argonauts, on the other hand, has intentional jokes: When Heracles gets into the heroes’ ship, it sinks a little because he’s so huge. The heroes accidentally leave Heracles behind, and then bicker among themselves over whose fault it is (evoking the “Home Alone” family) and how now they’re doomed (which doesn’t show a lot of confidence in Jason, their purported leader).
It can be kooky. In one scene between Aphrodite and her son Eros, Aphrodite promises him a new toy—“If you are good and do what Mommy says,/she has a treat for you. A nice bright ball!/All striped and shiny!” All he has to do shoot one of his arrows into Medea so she’ll fall in love with Jason. Just your average toddler’s chore, ha.
It’s captures human nature so acutely, whether through human interactions or those among the goddesses. Aphrodite complaining to Hera and Athena that Eros doesn’t listen to her may be every mother ever. The heroes wanting to give up but Jason pushing them to keep trying may be every team effort ever. The poem is full of relatable human moments—Jason feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of his task, Medea fearing abandonment and lashing out at the heroes preemptively, Jason comforting her and feeling for her because she’s vulnerable, Hera advising Aphrodite not to quarrel with her son since he’ll grow up before she knows it.
Medea’s plight is gut-wrenching. Her father is Aetes, the king of Colchis who is furious that Jason wants to take the Golden Fleece back to Greece. He devises a series of tasks designed to kill Jason. But Medea, pierced by Eros’ arrow, falls in love with Jason. She goes against her father and her family and uses her magic to ensure Jason’s success. She knows she’s acting outside of her personal choice and will but is powerless to resist.
We feel Medea’s vulnerability and fear, her sense of isolation and dislocation. She’s terrified of being abandoned once she has fulfilled her purpose to help Jason get the Fleece. Within the poem, he doesn’t abandon her. He marries her and brings her back to Greece. But we know that, eventually, he does betray and abandon her. That knowledge hanging over the poem makes it utterly heartbreaking.
Helen, Trojan Women, and Medea by Euripides
After reading Jason and the Argonauts, of course I had to read Medea. It tells the story of their marriage’s implosion in the years after Jason brought her to Greece: Jason returns to Colchis with the Golden Fleece, but Pelias refuses to give up his throne. Medea tricks his daughters into chopping him up (they think he’ll reform stronger than before, but he just ends up in pieces…literally). Medea and Jason end up exiled to Corinth, where the king decides Jason would make an excellent husband for his daughter, Glauce. Jason’s marriage to Glauce devastates Medea, and she concocts a horrific plan for revenge. The myth has several endings, depending on who’s telling it. In Euripides’ version, Medea’s revenge is to murder not only Glauce and her father but also her two sons with Jason.
This play is brutal. In the first of two confrontations between Jason and Medea (one before and one after their sons’ deaths), it’s clear Jason was too scared to tell Medea about his marriage to Glauce. This seems very in keeping with Jason’s character in Apollonius. His lack of communication and transparency serve to intensify Medea’s despair and rage. She is monstrous—uncompromising, vengeful—but she’s also desperately hurt. She’s not just upset because Jason’s marriage has displaced her social position. She’s distressed by his sexual relationship with the princess. She was in love with him, and he has betrayed her.
Trojan Women describes the fate of the, yes, Trojan women after the fall of Troy. It’s horrific, of course: They’re divided up and distributed as prizes to the Greek warriors. What struck me is how intensely the horror is depicted. In this sense, the play seems empathetic of these women’s plights. It’s hard to read—they suffer terribly through no faults of their own and have no way to change their fates. And of course, the resonance with the real-life situation of women in the ancient world makes it especially devastating.
While Trojan Women and Medea are all tragedy, all the time, the core plot of Helen—which I’ve heard described as a precursor to the romance novels of the Roman period, including Daphnis and Chloe—isn’t tragic. The play revolves around the happy reunion of Helen and Menelaus in Egypt after the Trojan War. Turns out, she was never in Troy. Hermes had spirited her to Egypt, where the local king, Proteus, kept her safe. What Paris brought to Troy was Helen’s phantom double.
After the war is over, and the Greeks are blown off course on their way home, Menelaus ends up in Egypt. There—you guessed it—he eventually discovers Helen has been loyal all along. However, Proteus has died, and his son wants to make Helen his wife. She and Menelaus must devise a plan to escape. Menelaus, predictably, comes up with a violent plan (king of Sparta and all that), while Helen comes up with a clever strategy that doesn’t require raising an army.
So why is this play called a tragedy? It lies more in the implications of the plot: That the Trojan War need not have been fought since Helen was safe, and loyal to Menelaus, all along. You can’t read The Iliad and Trojan Women, the catalogue of lives torn apart, and not see Helen as a tragedy. Even if it is masquerading as a romantic reunion.
Classical Literature: A Very Short Introduction by William Allan (bought this year)
This is a fantastic overview of literary genres in Ancient Greece and Rome—drama, poetry, oratory, prose, and more. As I’ve said before about these “very short introduction” books, they can’t possibly be exhaustive. But they’re great for getting an idea of what you might want to study in more depth … or maybe they’re not so great: My TBR has, once again, exploded.
Babe: The Gallant Pig by Dick King-Smith
When my friend Jessica gifted this book to me, she said, “It’ll only take a couple of hours to read, but it’ll be a great two hours.” She was so right, as usual.
A farmer called Mr. Hoggett wins Babe in a “guess the weight” contest. At Hoggett’s farm, Babe makes friends with a sheepdog called Fly. He longs to become a sheep-pig and asks Fly to show him the ropes. Will Babe achieve his dream? To find out, you must read this delightful story about the power of being polite.
Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White
I reread this novel for the Gilmore Girls Reading Challenge (the piece can be found here). Every time I read it, it takes my breath away. It is brilliant in juxtaposing simplicity and complexity and in the depth of its insights on community life, loyalty, the value of taking care of each other. This novel has everything.
“You have been my friend,’ replied Charlotte. “That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.”
Well, well, well. Here’s another month with no new book purchases. I may just be getting the hang of this “download samples”/“stop being so impulsive” thing at least some of the time.
How were your June reads? Anything to recommend?