Overdue! My September Reads

My September reads are long overdue. What can I say? It has been a hectic month!

September reads:

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Having loved The Goldfinch, I was pleased to scoop this up during a Nook sale … several years ago. As this has become my Year of Reading Classical Literature, it was a perfect time to (finally) read this novel about a group of Classics students.

At the beginning, we learn the group has murdered one of their own. The story then travels back in time to follow the events leading up to the murder and moves forward in time to follow its consequences. Because it begins with the murder, the novel’s tension derives from knowing bad things are coming but not being able to stop them.

What makes this so interesting to read (as someone currently obsessed with Ancient Greece): The story is very much in conversation with the values and preoccupations of ancient Greek literature. And I’m not just saying this because the story involves a Bacchic ritual. The novel also explores the paradoxes at the heart of ancient Greek literature: beauty is harsh, love is pain. The ancient Greeks loved symmetry but understood that perfect symmetry is an illusion. They understood that our best qualities can also be our fatal flaws.

I enjoyed reading this mesmerizing novel. Which may seem like a weird thing to say about a book about murder. All things considered, maybe it’s appropriate.

September readsThe Bacchae by Euripides

I wished I’d read this right before reading The Secret History. Instead, I read it immediately after. Which was okay too.

The Bacchae is stressful to read for the same reason The Secret History is: You know characters are making terrible decisions but are powerless to change anything. All you can do is watch events play out.

Prince of Thebes Pentheus wants to keep Dionyses’ followers, the maenads, out of the city. The maenads are women who give themselves up to frenzied dancing in Dionyses’ name. Pentheus mistrusts them. He doesn’t believe that Dionyses in a true god.

Dionyses disguises himself as one of his own his priests to challenge Penthus. Pentheus mocks and imprisons Dionyses, but he escapes and causes Pentheus to go mad. While attempting to spy on the maenads, Pentheus is captured by them. Led by his mother, Agave, the maenads tear Pentheus apart. Literally tear him from limb to limb. It’s graphic. And gross. Agave carries Pentheus’ head back to the city, thinking she has killed a wild beast. Eventually, her Dionysian frenzy lifts, and she realizes she has murdered her own son. She and her father, Cadmus, are exiled from the city and lose everything.

Apparently, there has been debate about what Euripides’ point was. Did he intend to criticize the gods or encourage people to respect them? It think it’s both.

In support of the former, there’s a point at the end when Cadmus tells Dionyses he went too far with his punishment. Gee, you think? Dionyses explains that he was insulted to be ignored. Cadmus tells him “in anger gods should not resemble mortals.” In support of the latter, Cadmus also says, “If anyone does not respect the gods, / look at the death of Pentheus, and believe.” The last line of the play doesn’t exactly clarify things: “[…] many / are the unexpected actions of the gods. / Our predictions do not come to pass; / the god finds a way for what we don’t expect. / This is what has happened here today.” The gods will always get you. So.

I see this play being about humility. It’s a value that can get lost in the modern world. We can see it threaded through ancient Greek thought and in Greek Orthodox theology as well. Pentheus was arrogant in his certainty that Dionyses did not exist. He didn’t listen to anyone or consider the possibility of an alternative to what he believed. The more he mocked and abused Dionyses (in the guise of a priest), the more enraged Dionyses became. Until his rage exploded into horrific vengeance.

Here is my favorite passage (because it feels so timelessly true):

“One kind of happiness is to survive.
a storm at sea, and reach the shore in safety.
Another is to triumph over hardship.
Another is surpassing other people,
moving up in wealth and strength and power.
Or one can hope; there are so many hopes.
Some human hopes succeed
and other fail.
But a truly happy life
is happiness day by day.”

September readsLucius; Or, The Ass and A True Story by Lucian of Samosata

Lucian was a Syrian writer who wrote in ancient Greek around the second century A.D. I stumbled on him while reading Apuleius’ The Golden Ass. Apuleius was a North African writer who wrote in Latin. His book is about a man who is accidentally turned into a donkey (aka an ass). I hadn’t intended to read The Golden Ass in its entirety but wanted to read the story of Psyche and Eros, which is recounted in the story.

Somewhere in all this (maybe in the intro?), I discovered that Apuleius’s concept (man turned into a donkey) is also the narrative of Lucius. I was fascinated that these two writers would be telling a similar story, around the same time, in two different languages. I had picked up a digital edition of Lucian’s collected works when A True Story first came to my attention. So I read that one and Lucius in September. And I’m now planning to read the whole of The Golden Ass as well.

Anyway … I adored the narrative voice in these two stories. It’s so wry and witty. It’s almost eerie how alive the voice feels.

He begins A True Story by throwing shade at Homer for presenting fantasy as truth and says he, Lucian, is the only honest storyteller because he admits he’s a liar. Then he launches into a hyperbolic adventure story. The narrator and his crew go off to sea and travel to the moon on a water spout. That’s book one. Book two finds them back on earth, eaten by a whale, and trying to escape. It’s outlandish and ridiculous fun.

Lucius is quite the randy story, both before and after Lucius is turned into a donkey. It’s amusing but also, at points, mildly horrifying.

The Lost Property Office by James R. Hannibal

This charming story found me via a Nook book sale. It’s about a boy who discovers a secret about himself and his family. It was a quick and fun read.

September readsMary Poppins by P. L. Travers

I reread this for the Gilmore Girls challenge and am so glad I did. The piece I wrote on it is here.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

I’d vaguely heard of this and was intrigued enough to bite when it turned up in a Nook book sale. It’s about a group of regular kids who sit on the sidelines while “the chosen ones” fight nefarious elements in their society.

I adored the concept of this book and the way it was executed. I love what following the “regular kids” does to our sense of perspective. It makes us think about how and what others see. It makes us aware of what we see from where we stand in ways we might not otherwise consider.

There’s clearly a satiric element — poking fun at “The Chosen” one narratives. But there’s also an important message underlying the satire: That goodness, happiness, and care don’t have to be massive, global, and world-changing to make a difference. Most of us don’t have that kind of power, and that is okay. What matters are the people in your chosen family, the community you create, and the way we take care of each other in small but significant ways.

September readsThe Sea of Monsters (Percy Jackson and the Olympians #2) by Rick Riordan

Apparently, I’m rereading the Percy Jackson series. And loving every minute. I guess I’ll refrain from discussing the plot for anyone who hasn’t read it yet.

Books for Living by Will Schwalbe

I started this during the summer, which now feels light-years away. It’s a collection of 26 essays, each on book that has meant something to Schwalbe. It’s a meditative book, the kind that inspires you to think about the books that have meant something to you too. I wrote a bit more about this in my August wrap-up.

Beautiful Blue World (Beautiful Blue World #1) by Suzanne LaFleur

So … I’ve been a bit naughty in the Nook bookstore. But at least I’m reading the books I’m buying. This was set in a fictional world where a war (reminiscent of WWII in Europe) is raging. Children with special talents are trained to help with the war effort.

The story was gorgeously written. It’s elegant as poetry. Just as magical is the complexity at the heart of the story: What counts as patriotism? What is a productive way to engage someone who thinks of you as an enemy? How do we deal with competing visions of the same event?

When I’m tempted to say the best books being written today are being written for children, I’ll point to this book.

Books in progress

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

I’ve been slowly working my way through one of my favorite Harry Potter novels in Greek. It’s a great way to improve my vocabulary and keep up my language skills while I’m in the States!

Life of Theseus by Plutarch

I finished this at the beginning of October so will have more to say in my next wrap-up.

Heroides by Ovid

In September and October, a library near me hosted a workshop on Heroides. It was fabulous. And it gave me an opportunity to rediscover Ovid. More next wrap-up!

Books purchased

This month wasn’t too bad, all things considered. I bought three books and read them all this month.

The Lost Property Office by James R. Hannibal

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

Beautiful Blue World (Beautiful Blue World #1) by Suzanne LaFleur

So those were my September reads. How about you? What books are you reading these days? Any season (or general) recommendations for me?