Reading Effort 2017

Fall reads: October & November

Oh, hello. It has been a while! I did so much work-related writing in October and November that I could not bring myself to write another word. Now that I have some breathing room, I give you my fall reads, in one handy place.

Fall reads

October:

The Life of Theseus by Plutarch, translated by George Long

I read this while researching ancient sources on Theseus for a Gilmore Girls Reading Challenge piece on Logan and the Minotaur.

Plutarch addresses the mythical and historical elements of Theseus’ story. In the translation I read, his voice is so alive. (Though, fair warning: the sentences were a mile long.) I could feel him thinking through the mythical stories and imagining how they might have been constructed to explain historical events. In the introduction to my edition, Aubrey Stewart writes, “Plutarch can gossip pleasantly while instructing solidly, can breathe life into the dry skeleton of history, and show that the life of a Greek or Roman worthy, when rightly dealt with, can prove as entertaining as a modern novel.” I’d say this captures him perfectly.

Fall readsThe War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

If you have emotions, this book will probably gut you, but in a good and important way. Eleven-year-old Ada lives in a one-room apartment in East London with her single mother and younger brother Jamie. Her physically and emotionally abusive mother never lets Ada, who has a club foot, leave the house. When World War II breaks out, children are evacuated from London, including Jamie. Distraught at the prospect of being separated from her brother, Ada sneaks away with him.

I don’t want to tell you anymore except that you should read this book immediately. It is raw, honest, difficult. I don’t recommend reading it on public transport or in a cafe because weeping will likely ensue while reading this.

The Ship of the Dead (Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard #3) by Rick Riordan

Riordan’s final book in the Magnus Chase series was just what I expected: an amusing, clever adventure.

The Titan’s Curse (Percy Jackson and the Olympians #3) and The Battle of the Labyrinth (Percy Jackson and the Olympians #4) by Rick Riordan

My reread of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series continues. It’s such fun to read this while also reading Greek myths.

Chasing Odysseus (Hero Trilogy #1) by S. D. Gentill

This was the most vexing book I read this year. I loved the idea of it: an alternate view of The Odyssey’s events. The main characters are four adopted children (three sons and a daughter) of Agelaus, a herdsman who lives outside the walls of Troy. He provides food for the Trojans but also makes a deal with Odysseus to provide food for the Greeks. Except Odysseus doesn’t realize Agelaus is primarily loyal to Troy.

During the fall of Troy, Agelaus and his sons help some of the Trojans escape, but one of the Trojans, Scamandrios, doesn’t trust the herdsmen. Scamandrios holds Agelaus responsible for helping the Greeks enter Troy and kills him. Agelaus’ sons decide they must clear their father’s name by tracking down Odysseus and getting him to admit that he used the Trojan Horse as a ruse to get the Greeks into the city.

As a general rule, I love seeing the same story from multiple perspectives. At first, I found Chasing Odysseus clever. Then it became mildly annoying. Then I wanted to throw the book out a window.

 

via GIPHY

It went wrong for me when it twisted the events of The Odyssey so out of shape that it no longer felt like an alternate perspective but some weird grudge against Odysseus. Who, by the way, was not a real person in history. Just FYI.

For instance, in The Odyssey, a god gives Odysseus an herb that prevents Circe from turning him into a swine, as she does to his crew. In Chasing Odysseus, Odysseus is saved by Agelaus’ sons because they want to keep him safe until they can get him to clear their father’s name. How they managed to protect him is plausible and thus feels clever. A section that drove me batty was when Calypso cries to Agelaus’s sons that she can’t get rid of Odysseus. He wants her to make him immortal so he can stay with her forever. She wants to him to hightail it back to Ithaka. There’s no plausible explanation that is in conversation with The Odyssey. In The Odyssey, Odysseus pines for Penelope and his homeland. Calypso offers him immortality, and he turns her down. So Chasing Odysseus‘ version feels cheap and pointless, a way to drive home how self-absorbed Odysseus is but without actually giving us an explanation for why the turn.

What I love so profoundly about ancient Greek literature is that it’s rarely about good guys vs. bad guys. Your greatest strength can also be your fatal flaw. You can start out on the “right” side and go terribly wrong. You must always be on your guard and never get too comfortable with your loyalties. The Odysseus of The Odyssey is not a good guy or a bad guy. He’s a complicated (Emily Wilson’s excellent word) man who has flaws and strengths, as we all do. I felt Chasing Odysseus did not do justice to this. It was disappointing.

Classical Mythology: A Very Short Introduction by Helen Morales

I love the “very short introduction” series. The writing tends to be lively and fun, though the books’ biographies tend to be very dangerous for my bank account. Morales looks at the various ways the myths have become interwoven into how we think about and understand our world and ourselves, for better and worse.

Growing Up by Russell Baker

This is a moving memoir of growing up during the Depression and coming of age during World War II. Baker devotes as much time to the family members he grew up around as he does to his own stories. The result is he is never more important that the people around him. It’s quite powerful and moving. And the writing is lovely.

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

Have you seen the trailer for this film? Selznick was involved, so I expect it will be beautifully done.

 

Anyway, after seeing the trailer, I had to reread this. It features two narratives. The first, set in the 1920s, tells the story of Rose using images only. The second, set in the 1970s, follows a boy called Ben living in New York City in the 1970s. It’s told through words only. The chapters alternate between Rose’s and Ben’s points of view and build to reveal the connection between the two narratives. Reading Selznick is always an Experience (captial-E). Highly recommend this beautiful story.

This is my favorite page from the book:

Fall reads

November:

The Witch With the Glitch by Adam Maxwell

This is a cute story about two children who climb into books and have adventures there. I started it on Halloween because 1) I wanted to read something Halloween-y and 2) it was on sale in the Nook bookstore. It made for relaxing bedtime reading.

Little Witch by Anna Elizabeth Bennett

This was also on sale in the Nook bookstore. I was still in the mood for Halloween-related reading after finishing the above. The story: Minx doesn’t like being a witch’s daughter. She is not allowed to go to school or have friends. Other children are afraid of her. Her mother forces Minx to make potions that transform children into plants. One day, she decides to defy her mother and begin attending school. I must tell you, this story surprised me with its twists and turns. It was quite delightful!

Nightfall (Keeper of the Lost Cities #6) by Shannon Messenger

I’d been eagerly anticipating this since finished the last book in the series a year ago. I bought it the day it came out and gulped it down in two days. I won’t get into the plot in case you haven’t read the series yet. And if you haven’t, what are you waiting for?

Fall readsThe Complete Poems of Sappho, translated by Willis Barnstone

Reading Sappho’s fragments is an eerie experience. I don’t know why they’re so magical and transporting. But they are. Perhaps it’s the gaps, the sense of possibility, the curiosity about what’s missing. I don’t understand how it’s possible even to translate them as fragments. Words can have multiple meanings, so without context, how is it possible to know, as a translator, that you’ve hit the right word? Reading this collection makes me want, more than ever, to learn ancient Greek. Oh, to read these in the original!

One piece that absolutely slayed me was this: “I don’t know what to do. / I think yes—and then no.” I mean…

Percy Jackson and the Singer of Apollo (Percy Jackson and the Olympians #5.5) by Rick Riordan

This is a short e-book in which Percy and Annabeth have an adventure. I read it during a lunch break. So satisfying.

Serafina and the Black Cloak (Serafina #1) by Robert Beatty

I bought this ages ago. If I were still trying to read my own books, I’d be quite pleased that I finally read it. But clearly, I’m not longer particularly concerned about reading my own books. So now I’m just pleased I read it because it was a touching mystery. It’s about a young girl who lives in the basement of the Biltmore Estate with her father. He tells her never to go into the forest and never to be seen. She does not obey. It’s the first in a series, which means not all the mysteries were solved at the end of the story. I guess I’ll just have to read the next two books to find out.

Fall readsLysistrata by Aristophanes, translated by Alan H. Sommerstein

I don’t know how I feel about Aristophanes. Ancient Greek humor is … awkward. In this play, Lysistrata comes up with an idea to finally end the Peloponnesian War between the Athenians and the Spartans. She gets all the Spartan and Athenian women to agree not to have “relations” with their men until they agree to stop fighting. As I think about it, maybe I’m not as interested in Aristophanes because his plays seem so grounded in their time, so engaged with the politics of the moment.

Miracle on 34th Street by Valentine Davies

I read this over Thanksgiving weekend. It’s a novelization of the film of the same name. Interestingly, the plot is more lean in the book than the film but just a sweet and moving. I read it last year at the same time (more on my thoughts here). It was the perfect read to usher in the holiday season.

I Have Lived a Thousand Years by Livia Bitton-Jackson

Bitton-Jackson wrote three memoirs about her life–during the Holocaust and after the war when she immigrated to the United States. This one is about how she survived the concentration camps. Prior to the war, her family lived in a Slovakian village that became part of Hungary in 1938. After the Nazis invaded Hungary in 1944, her family was deported first to a ghetto then to Auschwitz. For the next year, she was shuttled among concentration and labor camps and a German factory before being liberated in 1945. Her memoir is classified as YA, but it’s a story for every age.

Books I read parts of:

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling, translated into Greek by Katie Eikonomou

Heroides by Ovid

Books bought in October:

My book buying got out of hand in October. I just kept clicking “purchase” on e-books. Plus I picked up a couple of hardcovers. Plus I attended Kate DiCamillo’s author talk, which resulted in an additional purchase. I put a star next to books I’ve already read hoping to see what a great good job I did reading books I bought. But … not so much. Le sigh.

Clara’s War: One Girl’s Story of Survival by Clara Kramer

Fall readsThe War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley *

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Karina Yan Glaser

The Witch With The Glitch: A Halloween Adventure by Adam Maxwell *

The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co. #1) by Jonathan Stroud

Chasing Odysseus (Hero Trilogy #1) by S. D. Gentill *

The Ship of the Dead (Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard #3) by Rick Riordan *

The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Christmas at the New Yorker, Foreword by John Updike

Book bought in November:

November was a marginally better … comparatively.

Fall readsThe Odyssey by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson

Little Witch by Anna Elizabeth Bennett

Nightfall (Keeper of the Lost Cities #6) by Shannon Messenger

Percy Jackson and the Singer of Apollo (Percy Jackson and the Olympians #5.5) by Rick Riordan

Ship of Dolls by Shirley Parenteau

The Borrowers by Mary Norton

The World’s Greatest Detective by Caroline Carlson

Aunt Sass by P. L. Travers

So those are my fall reads. And just in time as it’s almost winter. Now it’s your turn: What were your fall reads? Any favorites or recommendations?

4 thoughts on “Fall reads: October & November

  1. The trailer for Wonderstruck, and the book, look beautiful! I’ve just added it to my TBR 🙂

    I read Plutarch’s Lives for a Classics course a number of years ago. Can’t remember them too well but I did enjoy his style of writing

    1. Thank you for visiting, Sam! I hope you enjoy Wonderstruck! If you haven’t read The Invention of Hugo Cabret and The Marvels, those are also awesome.
      It’s nice to hear someone else who enjoyed Plutarch. 🙂 I’m struck by how much personality and energy there are in the writing (or, I should say, the translation).

  2. I’ve missed reading your posts! Thanks for this one – it was a doozie! Not only some great summaries and thoughts, but also that gif that is my favorite thing of that whole movie – I remember bursting out laughing. You are really skilled at choosing gifs, btw. I feel like someone should tell you that.

    There are many things here I haven’t read, but want to now, thanks to you. I’ve always planned to read Sappho’s poetry and I love how you describe the experience – and like you, I’m also curious about how they can translate her work out of context. Maybe Ancient Greek words were more precise? Like how French is, compared to English? Still, I imagine that would still be hella hard.

    Lastly, I saw “Wonderstruck” a few weeks ago here . It was one of those movies that seemed so magical, I wanted to see it on my own. It’s interesting how you describe the book being done – there’s a bit of a different dichotomy in the movie in terms of narrative style, but somewhat similar all the same. Overall, it was interesting with a twist, but didn’t completely sweep me up. Still, it was an engrossing mystery and the acting was great and the cinematography was perfection. And I did cry. …Although I cry at everything .I’d still highly recommend it – and would love to read your take on it compared to the book.

    Thanks again for another great post, and Happy Holidays!

    Oh – also – “the dry skeleton of history” – I am turning this phrase over and over in my mind. It doesn’t feel right to me – I feel like history can be so close to us, it’s just what we find to look at. Like how in Pompeii, some guy had a mosaic that was essentially a welcome mat. No skeletons there. No plaster casts, either. Maybe, would it be better to say history is simply a corpse, or maybe a mummy? I will be thinking about this for a good long while, so thanks for that.

    1. Yay, it’s so nice to see you in my comments section, Alysa! Thank you for your thoughts on the Wonderstruck film. I do want to see it and appreciate the post idea. I loved the cinematography of Hugo Cabret and have high expectations for Wonderstruck (hopefully not too high!).

      I’d put off reading Sappho for a long time, partly because I couldn’t understand how fragments could be beautiful. Well, now I know. My translation didn’t indicate where the gaps are but presented the fragments as if they were whole. Now I want to read another translation that puts dashes so you can see where parts are missing. Another one I loved is called “To Eros” and has one line: “You burn us.” It just gives me chills. I love your thoughts on “the dry skeleton of history.” It makes me think of the difference between reading a historical account vs. a novel, for example. You’ve inspired me to think more about it, as you always do. 🙂

      Happy holidays to you too, Alysa!

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