Last month, I mentioned wanting to bump up my relaxation reading, and my Scribd subscription helped with that in October. For my reading the Odysseys project, I started Stephen Mitchell’s translation (it will be in my November review). I also focused on contextualizing by familiarizing myself with Homer scholarship and reading more reception literature.
Enraged: Why Violent Times Need Ancient Greek Myths by Emily Katz Anhalt
I’m troubled by the way popular culture can seem to celebrate rage, provided it’s in the name of the correct cause. In social media rants, in book titles and reviews, I’ve seen rage represented as becoming, righteous, or eloquent, something to be “cherished,” to quote Mary Beard. As I’ve made quite plain, I believe this is dangerous. Rage is a destructive force with its own trajectory. Once in the grip of it, we are controlled by it and can’t predict its impact. Even when we want something to be destroyed, depending on rage to make it happen means we are no longer in control of what gets destroyed. I don’t want to suggest that I’m a pillar of self-control. I’m not, which is exactly why I am so very wary of rage and why I was so drawn to Anhalt’s book.
She argues that we need ancient Greek myths as portrayed in Homer and Athenian tragedy because they reveal:
- the destructiveness of rage
- the importance of questioning our own values
- that empathy and recognizing our obligations to each other are more productive paths both for our communities and our own physical and emotional well-being
- that discussion and debate can bring out the best ideas
- the limits of democracy.
To evidence her claims, she analyzes sections of Homer’s Iliad and the plays Ajax by Sophocles and Hecuba by Euripides. I so admire and respect what Anhalt is trying to do in this book, and she often argues insightfully and convincingly. It pains me to admit that the book’s execution can feel laborious and heavy-handed and its conclusions too tidy. Perhaps she is asking too much of the myths. This is to say, just because we know where we go wrong doesn’t mean we can stop ourselves from going wrong.
Just ask the 5th century Athenians. They boasted about their democracy—see Pericles’ Funeral Oration in Thucydides—while brutally suppressing resistance to their empire building in other parts of the Hellenic world. Athenians adored discussion and debate, as long as they didn’t interfere with strengthening Athens’ power and enriching its treasury. Athens’ empiric aspirations led them into an ill-advised war with Sparta and an even more ill-advised expedition to conquer Sicily. Incidentally, these were undertaken at the same time that Euripides’ plays were being staged. I don’t say this with disdain but to highlight how difficult it is to achieve our ideals.
I believe the myths can be revelatory for a number of reasons, including for those Anhalt describes. But while I value them, I don’t think the myths are the only place we can find the message that empathy is more productive than rage or that debate can help us expose bad ideas and uncover great ones. I believe we need the myths to show us how long we have been fighting the same monsters and how long we have been failing in that fight. While some might find this depressing, I hope it will instead inspire us to be humble and to seek greater harmony between ends and means.
Homer (Understanding Classics series) by Jonathan S. Burgess
This is a concise overview of Homeric studies. Meaning it provides a thorough review of approaches to and interpretations of Homer and the poems attributed to him. Examples include exploration and history of the Homeric Question, various theoretical approaches (Marxist, Feminist, Narratological, etc.), and reception of Homer. Of course I’m obsessed with the attached bibliography.
The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason
As you may have divined from the title of Mason’s book, The Lost Books of the Odyssey claims to be alternate versions of Odysseus’ journey that did not make it into the text we read today. The conceit cleverly plays on how Odysseus’ travels appear in Homer’s classic: in quotes, as Odysseus’ recitation of his exploits at the court of the Phaeacian king. Odysseus is an admitted liar and trickster, i.e. Western literature’s original unreliable narrator.
Mason’s many and varied versions provide witty, sharply observed, and endlessly intriguing re-imaginings. Even if you don’t particularly like The Odyssey (GASP), Mason’s gorgeous prose may just sweep you up in its tide (pun very much intended).
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Harry Potter #5) and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Harry Potter #6) by J. K. Rowling
Quite obviously, Rowling’s novels are not about ancient Greece. But since I’m reading them for my series on intersections between the worlds of Harry Potter and of Homer, I put them in this category.
Sunset in Central Park (From Manhattan with Love #2) by Sarah Morgan
Morgan’s first three books in her Manhattan with Love series follow the love lives of three New York City-based best friends. The second book revolves around the love story of Frankie, an introvert who struggles to trust in love. My sentiments about this book mirror what I said about the first book in the series. I can see how charting Frankie’s emotional evolution may give hope to readers who struggle with similar issues. I also loved how the book highlighted the perspectival nature of interpretation. Frankie’s interpretations are skewed because she sees what she expects to see. Finally, on a purely personal level, I enjoy books set in New York City because it is my hometown, and I love it, even though it can drive me crazy.
Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz
In this meta murder mystery, book editor Susan Ryeland receives a proof copy of a murder mystery called Magpie Murders by star author Alan Conway. When she realizes several pages are missing, she investigates the mystery behind them and realizes the story inside the book may be as much truth as fiction.
The audio narration is a treat. My house has never been so spotless: I kept inventing new chores to do so as to prolong my listening. I think of the novel as a murder mystery version of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino.
The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
This was a weird, whimsical book that I hugged when it was over. Set in medieval times, it follows a young hunchbacked boy as he sets off with a pilgrim who is seeking seven relics.
A Barnes and Nobel bookseller recommended this to me after I told her how much I loved The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz and about my research into Homeric reception literature. I can see the parallels: seekers on a quest, a long and rambling journey in search of belonging. I think the prerequisites for enjoying this book are a tolerance for paradox and reverence for the unknowable.
Neverworld Wake by Marisha Pessl
You may have heard this young adult psychological thriller compared to E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars, which may or may not be fair enough (I’m not telling). Pessl’s novel follows five friends who gather together a year after the mysterious death of their friend Jim. The narrator is Beatrice, Jim’s girlfriend.
I think it’s best to leave it there. The novel is filled with hairpin turns, and the less you know, the better. Even the jacket copy is too spoiler-y.
The Afterlife of Holly Chase by Cynthia Hand
I heard this novel billed as a contemporary A Christmas Carol with Scrooge recast as a teen girl and immediately had to consume it. If I had any sort of patience when it comes to books, I’d have waited until December and read it alongside my annual rereading of Dickens’ original. I don’t have patience with books, but since I listened to The Afterlife of Holly Chase on audio (loved the narrator), I might read the paper version alongside Dickens’ classic in December anyway.
Yes, I liked it that much. Full disclosure: I adore A Christmas Carol. I’ve read it at least 15 times and still get weepy every time. Hand’s revision features twists and turns, and she weaves lines from Dickens’ texts (from A Christmas Carol and beyond) throughout. It’s a moving homage to the original and a fun, uplifting read in its own right.
Wicked Witch Murder (A Lucy Stone Mystery #16) by Leslie Meier
After the final trick-or-treaters rang my doorbell, I was in the mood to read a Halloween-y book. This cozy mystery series is set in Tinker’s Cove, a small town in Maine. Lucy Stone is a journalist for her town paper, a mom, and an amateur detective who manages to get herself into one life-threatening situation after another. If I were her, I doubt I’d leave my house, ever.
This installment begins during the summer and continues through Halloween. A charismatic witch called Diana opens Solstice, a shop concerned with all things witchy. She also gives startlingly accurate psychic readings. When the leader of her coven is found dead, she faces danger from multiple sources. But which among them is responsible for the coven leader’s death?
Ungifted (Ungifted #1) by Gordon Korman
I’d not hears of this book when it was assigned to me and ended up quite enjoying it. It’s a middle grade novel revolving around Donovan, a a 12-year old boy who is accidentally transferred to a school for gifted kids. The book did an admirable job of tackling difficult-to-answer questions about how we educate children and how our expectations for them affect how they see themselves, without oversimplifying. In a way, I think the book is saying there’s no perfect solution, which feels honest and thus valuable.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
The first time I experienced this book was in audio back in 2016. The narration was excellent, and the story touched my heart. This time, I read the hardcover and loved the book even more. It’s firmly on my “favorite books of all time” list. I’ve heard it described as a post-apocalyptic novel, but that categorization does not do the story’s richness justice. Also, calling it a post-pandemic novel is more precise. But even if you think you’re not into *that kind of book*, it’s worth giving this one a shot.
The story weaves back and forth between before and after a catastrophic pandemic that kills off 99+ percent of the earth’s population. Experiences and artifacts connect characters who don’t make it to “after” with those who do. The slow reveal of how they’re all tied to together almost makes this feel more like a mystery. It asks, what does it mean to be civilized? It meditates on memory and nostalgia, loss and renewal, art and hope, and the human quest for meaning and wholeness. These quests can lead us astray, and they can save us.
How was your October? Or for that matter your November, as we’re almost at the end of it? Read, see, or experience anything you’d like to share?