In September, I worked on finding balance in my reading life. I’ve been so consumed with ancient Greece and The Odyssey that I’ve neglected my relaxation reading, meaning the reading I do to clear my mind at bedtime and when I first wake up. It can feel so self-indulgent to read without any destination or purpose other than relaxation and the pleasure of getting lost in a story. But I’m trying to allow myself this simple joy.
Ancient Greece reads:
It has been a couple of months since I’ve read a translation of The Odyssey cover to cover. As soon as I get 10 stanzas in, I start wondering how the version I’m reading compares to the versions I’ve read. Comparing translations is so fascinating that I get distracted from reading beginning to end. At the same time, I’m missing being immersed in the whole.
In addition to comparisons, I’ve also been feeling the need for more context on Homer and the ancient world. For this, I’ve been reading nonfiction as well as contemporary retellings and Athenian tragedies.
I have such respect and admiration for this meditative book. It incorporates history, literary analysis, cultural criticism, memoir. Nicolson focuses most heavily on The Iliad and the Homeric world’s warrior culture. He looks at contemporaneous stories from other cultures, showing how The Iliad‘s story might read from alternate perspectives of the same time. He touches on what can and cannot be known about Homer. He explores the oral tradition and its implications for the relationship between myth and history. For such a short book, the reader comes away with quite a lot.
It’s also clear he approaches Homer from a specific perspective, and I appreciate that clarity. Obviously, I’m currently more interested in The Odyssey—especially in how Homer frames the relationships between men and women. Nicolson deals with this aspect of Homer fairly briefly, though compellingly, but his book overall gave me so much to think about and so much context and information. I highly recommend it even if you’re not (like me) obsessed with Homer.
Antigone by Sophocles, translated by Frank Nisetich
It has been years since I read this play. I was reminded all over again why it is so often included on college syllabi. It follows the conflict between Creon, king of Thebes, and his niece Antigone after a civil war in which her brothers fought on opposite sides, one with and one against Creon. Creon decrees that the second brother, Polyneices, be left unburied. Antigone defies Creon, and tragedy ensues.
One thing I’d forgotten about this play is the commentary on women’s roles. Antigone argues that Creon’s decree to deny Polyneices proper burial violates the gods’ laws. This frames the conflict between her and Creon as one between godly and human authority. But there’s another layer as well. Women carried out burial rites, so taking those away from Antigone is stripping her of her social responsibility and her power.
This is a classic feminist history of women in antiquity, originally published in 1975. Academic writing can be hit or miss for people who actually want to enjoy reading history (ha). Pomeroy is a “hit” for me. Her writing is fluid, elegant, and compelling. Some of her findings may be outdated 40+ years on, but her work was groundbreaking for its time, and I wanted the context.
Gratuitous personal aside: I love her analysis of Euripides.
Andromache by Euripides, translated by Philip Vellacott
I do so love Euripides. His plays (that I’ve read) are so empathetic. Unless you happen to be a Spartan. Andromache follows the fate of, yes, Trojan-princess-turned-slave Andromache but also Achilles’ father, Peleus.
In The Iliad, Andromache is the wife of Trojan hero Hector. After Troy falls to the Greeks, Hector and Andromache’s young son is killed and Andromache enslaved to Achilles’ son Neoptolemos. They have a son called Molossos. Meanwhile, Neoptolemos receives another prize: Hermione (daughter of Spartan king Menelaus and his runaway wife Helen) as his bride. However, Menelaus had previously promised Hermione to Agamemnon’s son, Orestes.
Euripides’ play picks up Andromache’s story after she hears of a plot to murder Molossos. She prays to Achilles’ mother, the nymph Thetis, for help. It seems Hermione has been unable to bear Neoptolemos any children. She accuses Andromache of making her barren via witchcraft. They face off. Menelaus arrives to back up Hermione. Achilles’ father, King Peleus, intervenes on Andromache’s behalf. Meanwhile, Neoptolemos has gone to the oracle at Delphi, where Orestes has him killed before running off with Hermione.
The play’s ending focuses on Peleus’ grief at losing his son (Achilles, in the war) and grandson (Neoptolemos, at Orestes’ order). Thetis arrives to console him. She tells him everyone has to die, and he needs to let it go. Besides, Andromache is married to a fellow called Helenus of Molossia, and her son with Neoptolemus survives to “beget a prosperous dynasty of kings.”
The play was produced in the mid-420s BC during the first years of the Peloponnesian war fought between Sparta and Athens. This helps explain why the Spartans are portrayed as such jerks. Thetis’ words feel very much like they could be a message for the people of Athens as they confronted the war’s first casualties.
Recently, someone retweeted a two-year-old tweet of mine in which I requested a novel version of The Iliad from Briseis’ point of view. I’ve no recollection of writing this tweet, but apparently the universe heard me. Barker’s novel tells in first person the story of The Iliad’s Briseis, who Greek forces capture when they raid and sack cities around Troy.
In The Iliad, the powers that be initially award Briseis to Achilles. But Agamemnon appropriates Briseis after he is forced to return his “prize,” Chryseis, a priestess of Apollo. Her father arrives at the Greek camp to request her release in exchange for considerable treasure, but Agamemnon initially refuses. Her father calls upon Apollo, god of the plague, to punish the Greeks. He obliges, and the Greeks pressure Agamemnon to return Chryseis. As leader of the Greek forces, Agamemnon decides he cannot be without a prize. Achilles, the Greeks’ most effective warrior, challenges Agamemnon’s authority. What better way for Agamemnon to put him in his place than by appropriating his prize? Insulted and furious, Achilles recalls his troops from battle. And the story goes from there.
Barker incorporates all of the above events in her novel and carries it forward beyond those covered in The Iliad. I found it riveting. On a whim, I picked the book up off my shelf and read the first line … then stayed up until 4:30 a.m. to finish it. She portrays ancient Greece in all its brutality and paradox. It can be difficult to read (the plague scenes are not for the squeamish). But it made me think and feel, and the writing is intense.
This book pairs well with, obviously, The Iliad (Stephen Mitchell’s translation is stunning) and Euripides’ Trojan Women (I love Emily Wilson’s translation, which appears in The Greek Plays).
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Harry Potter #3) and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Harry Potter #4) by J. K. Rowling
It seems I cannot go a year without rereading this series. This time, I’m focusing on—what else?—ancient Greek elements woven into the series’ characters and themes. I’ll have more to say in my series on this topic.
Ugh, I absolutely adored this book about a woman who converts a van into a mobile bookshop in Scotland. The main character felt deeply relatable as a book lover who sometimes has to remember to put down her book and live her life. And now I want to move to Scotland and open a bookshop. Though to be fair, that has been a long-time fantasy of mine. I certainly have the inventory for it.
Death of a Nag (Hamish Macbeth #11) by M. C. Beaton
Ah, this cozy mystery series set in the Scottish Highlights is delightful. You don’t have to read the books in order, but I’m doing so to make sure I don’t miss a single one.
I found this book a pure delight. Morrigan Crow is a cursed child destined to die on her 11th birthday. But when the time comes, a fellow called Jupiter North whisks her away to a secret world called Nevermoor. There, Morrigan is given the opportunity to join a secret society. First, though, she must make it through the trials.
I’ve heard this book compared to Harry Potter, and I can see why. It’s whimsical and imaginative. The Christmas chapters are hilarious and clever and meaningful. There will, from what I’ve heard, be nine books in the series. I’m looking forward to seeing where this story goes.
Sleepless in Manhattan (Manhattan with Love #1) by Sarah Morgan
I discovered this series through Bree Hill’s delightful booktube channel. She also keeps a blog called Falling for Romance, where she has written about loving this series set in my beloved hometown. I’ve been wanting to experiment with genre lately. So when Sleepless in Manhattan turned up in a Nook book sale, I snapped it up. Of course I did.
The series follows three best friends (Paige, Frankie, and Eva) who move from a New England island to Manhattan. This first book revolves around Paige’s love story. The narrative was quite affecting. It surprised me. In the story, the barriers to romantic commitment are old wounds and fear of being hurt again. I felt like this book could be comforting to someone who struggles with vulnerability. I don’t mean this so much because of the happy ending. It’s more because of the way the book models how to communicate and how to receive love. I love how reading this book made me appreciate a genre I’ve often overlooked. Thank you, Bree!
How about you? What have you been reading/wanting to read/doing?