The Odyssey and more February and March reads

Ooops … time got away from me, and it has been too long. But here I am again with two months worth of reading adventures, including what I’m confident will be my favorite read of 2018: Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey.


The Odyssey and more on Ancient Greece

The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson

This is the fourth translation of the The Odyssey I’ve read in three years. It is by far my favorite. I will write more about why in a future post. For now, I will say this is the first translation I have read where the language pulls me in instead of keeping me at a distance. It’s in a contemporary, though not trendy, register. The fluid, elegant iambic pentameter, the natural rhythm of English, makes the poem speed along. Wilson also favors descriptive words that lack overt judgment. Critics have highlighted this especially in reference to the slave women Odysseus has killed because they entertained Penelope’s suitors. Earlier translators refer to the women as “whores,” etc. Removing sexist language—which Wilson says does not exist in the original (I wouldn’t know myself, as I don’t read ancient Greek)—introduces ambiguity about whether their murders were just. It also enables readers to see these women as tragic figures worthy of empathy.

OdysseyI also want to emphasize how transformative Wilson’s choices are to the poem as a whole. All the characters become more rounded and dimensional, including Odysseus. In Wilson’s translation, he seems less heroic but more poignantly human. Here is a moment that seemed barely worthy of notice in my previous readings but that commanded my attention in Wilson’s version: Odysseus has arrived at the land of the Phaeacians (due to Athena’s helping hand). Athletic games have been put on, as is custom, and a young man has tauntingly challenged Odysseus. He competes well in the discus then monologues (he does love to monologue) about his past achievements.

At the end, he frets about the one thing he might not be able to win:

George Herbert Palmer (prose translation):

“Only I fear that in the foot-race some Phaeacian may outstrip me; for rudely battered have I been on many waters, having no ease at sea for any length of time; therefore my joints are weakened.”

So he spoke, and all were hushed to silence; only Alcinouäs answering said: “Stranger, without discourtesy to us in all you say; you merely seek to prove the prowess that is yours, indignant that the man beside you in the ring insulted you, though surely no man would dispraise your prowess who knew within his heart what it was fit to say.”

Robert Fagles (verse translation):

“Only at sprinting I fear you’d leave me in the dust. / I’ve taken a shameful beating out on heavy seas, / no conditioning there on shipboard day by day. / My legs have lost their spring.”

He finished. All stood quiet, hushed. / Only Alcinous found a way to answer. ‘Stranger, / friend—nothing you say among us seems ungracious. / You simply want to display the gifts you’re born with, / stung that a youngster marched up to you in the games, / mocking, ridiculing your prowess as no one would / who had some sense of fit and proper speech.”

Robert Fitzgerald (verse translation):

“Only in a foot race I fear one of the Phaeacian might outpass me; I have been through too much and shamefully battered / on many rough seas, since there could be no orderly training / on shipboard; because of this my legs have lost their condition.’

So he spoke, and all of them stayed stricken to silence. / Only Alkinoös spoke up and gave him and answer: “My friend, since it is not graceless for you to speak thus among us, / but you are willing to show that excellence you are endowed with, / angered because this man came up to you in our assembly / and belittled you, in a way no man would properly find fault / with your excellence, if he knew in his heart how to speak sensibly.”

Emily Wilson (verse translation):

“I am only concerned that one of you may win the footrace: / I lost my stamina and my legs weakened / during my time at sea, upon the raft; / I could not do my exercise routine.”

The crowd was silent, but Alcinous / said, “Sir, you have expressed, with find good manners, / your wish to show your talents, and your anger / at that man who stood up in this arena / and mocked you, as no one who understands / how to speak properly would ever do.”

The first thing you might notice is that Wilson’s uses the fewest words and achieves the greatest clarity. I also notice, in Wilson’s version, Odysseus fretting over not being able to do his exercises. Unlike in previous translations, the emphasis is not on external forces acting on Odysseus (i.e. the rude or shameful battering at sea). It’s on a middle-aged man worried about how he will hold up against younger, fitter men. The description of the crowd in all of the first three translations implies that Odysseus’ monologue has cowed the crowd to silence. In Wilson’s, the reason for the crowd’s silence is left open. To me, it seems like an awkward silence.

The overall effect of Wilson’s translation is it enables me to relate to the humanity of these characters even as the world itself feels so remote. If you’re interested in translation, do follow Wilson on Twitter @EmilyRCWilson. She discusses her process in fascinating detail.

The Lost Hero, The Son of Neptune, and The Mark of Athena (Heroes of Olympus Series #1-3) by Rick Riordan

Riordan’s Heroes of Olympus series bring Greek and Roman demigods together to—what else?—save the world. I enjoyed rereading this series, though Percy Jackson and the Olympians is still my favorite.

One reason Heroes of Olympus isn’t my favorite is purely personal: In general, I don’t find ancient Rome as compelling as ancient Greece. I was going to make a jokey disclaimer discounting my Greek heritage as a factor. But maybe it is a factor … if being Greek means being innately suspicious of authority and not liking to be told what to do. I’m inclined to believe this was as true in ancient times as it is today. As such, the two main things I associate with Rome—power and empire—don’t especially engage me.

Besides that, the multiple perspectives don’t entirely work for me. I usually favor this narrative style, but it becomes frustrating with Riordan’s suspense emphasis. All chapters end on cliffhangers, which is fine when the next chapter gives me the resolution. But when a chapter ends on a cliffhanger then I have to wait eight chapters to return to that character’s point of view, I can lose patience and interest.

OdysseyWhat I most appreciate about this series is how Riordan characterizes Greek and Roman cultures. In general, it feels fairly on point. The story arc brings the two versions of the gods into the same space cleverly while also illuminating key differences between the two cultures. As always, Riordan’s knowledge of Greek and Roman mythology impresses me. (Though he mentions Greeks wearing togas. False! Greeks wore chiton and peplos. Togas were a Roman thing.)

Overall, it’s fun to see how he will riff on source material and bring it into the contemporary world. Possibly my favorite episode is an amusing section on Amazons running Amazon.

The rest

The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani

I’m not a big fan of fairy tales and don’t recall ever having been. They never held, for me, the appeal of Aesop’s Fables, which was one of my favorite books to be read as a child. Fairy tales seemed either to be sanitized morality tales conflating beauty with good and evil with ugliness or intensely dark and remorseless. Aesop’s Fables, on the other hand, felt more gentle. They weave observations about human nature into subtle advice. I found them thought-provoking and inspiring.

All this is to say, I wasn’t sure how I’d get along with The School for Good and Evil, a series that riffs on fairy tales. But my friend Jessica recommended it highly. Her recommendations have never steered me wrong, this book inclusive. It’s the story of two unlikely friends who are kidnapped from their village and enrolled in the eponymous school. One goes into the “Good” division, the other into “Evil.” Despite the apparent binaries, Chainani complicates ideas about good and evil, beautiful and ugly. Books two through four are already in the world, and a fifth is on the way.

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

I reread this for a book group. I appreciated this book when I first read it in 2015 and enjoyed rereading it. In particular, I love Smith’s witty turns of phrase, the sense of the absurd that pops up, and the way the story embraces complexity. You can read more of my thoughts and impressions here, if you’re interested:


Ancient Greece

OdysseyCyclops by Euripides, translated by John Davie

Cyclops is the only complete satyr play to have survived from antiquity. As I mentioned in my piece on The Oresteia, satyr plays were performed at the end of tragic trilogies. Trilogies unfolded over the course of a full day. Satyr plays were meant to lighten the audience’s mood at the end of a long, depressing day.

Cyclops tells an episode from The Odyssey: Odysseus’ meeting with and blinding of Polyphemus the Cyclops in Book 8 … now with satyrs. I always find it interesting, if not a little disturbing, to see what ancient Greeks thought of as funny. More on this one soon…

The House of Hades and The Blood of Olympus (Heroes of Olympus Series #4-5) by Rich Riordan

The last two books provide a strong end to the series. Riordan captures the dualities that complicate mythic figures and make it difficult to reduce them. In Homer, this comes through in, for example, the poignant description of the suitors being led into Hades. After hundreds of lines of verse in which they exploit Penelope’s socially-required hospitality, I end up feeling sorry for them. It’s brilliant. Riordan captures this ethos effectively not only by showing gods behaving badly but also by showing that monsters can have feelings as acute as humans’.

OdysseyWoman & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard

Mary Beard is always fun to read. She has a lively, conversational voice and makes history accessible and relevant. This book is two speeches, and they read like it. Which has its downsides. I would not have objected to more content, context, and examples. I will have more to say about this one soon too.

The rest

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

OdysseyI read this Pulitzer Prize-winner for a book club. It’s in conversation with Shakespeare’s King Lear but told from a woman’s point of view. The narrator is Ginny, the oldest of three sisters of an abusive father.  He’s irredeemably evil, actually. So that’s a departure from King Lear. Anyway, the story is set in Iowa farm country. If my writing about this book feels flat as a sheet of crepe paper … I found reading it to be a slog from the first word to the last. A massive storm hit the night before the book club meeting, knocking down trees and taking out power lines. The meeting ended up being cancelled. I was not sorry.

A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from History’s Most Orthodox Empire by Anthony Kaldellis

OdysseyMy reading of ancient Greek literature and history has made me interested to learn more about my people’s long and fascinating history. I studied it in Greek school as a child but recall precious little, especially about the Byzantine Empire. So I picked up this intriguing little book  last fall. It’s a well-curated collection of stories and trivia about the Byzantine Empire. Primary sources reveal views on food, saints, emperors, war, marriage, sex, and more. I began flipping through it not expecting to read the whole thing but then couldn’t put it down.

Y No Se Lo Trago La Tierra/And the Earth Did Not Devour Him by Tomás Rivera

I read this for a work project. Well, I read the English half. It’s presented in a bilingual edition. Set during the Korean War, it presents 14 stories and 13 vignettes about a community of Mexican migrant workers based in Texas. It has been called a novel and a short story collection. I come down on the “novel” side. The stories are interconnected, though how exactly doesn’t become clear until the final chapter. The narrative style is stream of consciousness, meaning leaps back and forth through time, gaps in chronology, random bits of dialogue. Rivera makes stream of conscious work brilliantly for this story and its purpose. I recommend it!

What have you been reading this year? Any standouts or disappointments?

4 Replies to “The Odyssey and more February and March reads”

  1. I really enjoyed how you shared the different translations of the same passage. Thank you for that – just a really great approach to see what you appreciated about Wilson’s translation. It IS remarkable how much her version of the passage’s last paragraph is so much clearer than the other ones.

    I do have to say, though, that I LOVE the Robert Fitzgerald version of “The Odyssey,” which is the only version I’ve read in full. It has nothing to do with the quality of his work compared to others’; it’s simply that the way he orders his words makes a music that utterly enchants me. It’s sort of this readers’ version of shallowness, like having a movie star crush who will attract you to a movie no matter what it’s about (lucky for me, ’90’s Johnny Depp at least chose some really interesting projects…).

    As for what you wrote about Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, I laughed, because I feel completely the opposite way. Well, I am interested in both, but I relate to Ancient Rome on a visceral level. In fact, my husband and I believe that if there are indeed past lives, we were ancient Romans. I just feel like, despite their society’s many evils and downsides, I have so much in common with them, from enjoying baudy jokes and trompe l’oeil paintings, to appreciating – even expecting – creature comforts like plumbing and central heat and air.

    All that aside, it’s interesting how you wonder if your Greek heritage plays a role in how you feel, as well; I’ve often thought that maybe my Italian ancestry also influenced this preference in some way.

    As for your other reviews, what you wrote about book club being canceled for “A Thousand Acres” cracked me up. I’ve never read it but it’s one of those books I’ve always felt would fall into my hands one day. Now you make me sort look forward to that day a bit less….

    I am glad you liked “White Teeth”, though – I thought that was such an enjoyable reading experience.

    As for good books we’ve read so far, I’m currently enjoying “The Invention of Wings” by Sue Monk Kidd, and I was BLOWN AWAY by “Pure” by Andrew Miller, which I had been wanting to read for years, and ended up randomly finding in a used bookstore for 2 euros! I have read a lot of historical fiction, but have never read anything quite like Miller’s approach. His use of vivid, yet simple, modern language to convey 1785 Paris and Parisians, was so refreshing and surprising – and most surprising of all, it worked so well!

    Speaking of blown away, I sincerely loved your reading from “Bacchae” by Euripides that you did for the Book Cougars Podcast. You have such an amazing reading voice!

    1. Hi Alysa! Thank you so much for your kind words about the Bacchae reading. I can’t watch or listen to myself. If I did, I’d never record anything. And thank you also for this wonderful comment. I so enjoyed reading and thinking about it, especially the ancient Greece and Rome question and the (possible?) influence of genetic makeup. It’s fascinating to think about. The way you describe your connection to ancient Rome as “visceral” – I so relate to that. It’s how I feel in Athens for sure.
      ALSO, thank you for sharing about “The Invention of Wings” and “Pure”! I think I might have “Pure” on my Nook based on someone’s recommendation. In any case, it’s a book that was on my radar before I got subsumed by ancient Greece. 🙂 I’m sorry to have discouraged you from A Thousand Acres! I’ve heard lots of people who enjoyed it, so it might just be me…

  2. That is so interesting to see the translations side by side. I think I’d prefer to start with Wilson’s because of what you said about clarity – I kind of know the story but I’ve never read it and it sounds like her translation would be a really good introduction.

    I wonder with all these translations that you’ve read (and I saw on Twitter that you’re planning to read more), have you ever read adaptations of The Odyssey? I have no idea what exists out there but I’m thinking some must have been inspired to write their own stories based on this

    1. Yes! I definitely recommend starting with Wilson’s. For clarity and easy of introduction, I also like E. V. Rieu’s prose translation, but Wilson’s is beautiful in its own right. A couple of classicists have expressed what seem like reasonable concerns about some of her line translations, though I can only imagine that is to be expected. No translation can be perfect as no book can be perfect. Still, for a first experience, it’s hard to imagine a better option.

      It’s funny that you mention Odyssey adaptations. I was thinking I want to read novelizations of the story (there’s a graphic novel as well as kids versions). I also have “Circe” and a novel called “Ithaka.” James Joyce’s “Ulysses” is, of course, inspired by it. In short, I haven’t read adaptations, but I do want to. I am taking recommendations!

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