Sunday, February 25, 2018

What I'm Reading

I had the flu (I'm almost over it), and I always read a lot when I'm sick, since I usually can't do much except that and sleep.

So I've plowed through more than the usual number of books lately. Some are re-reads -- re-reading for comfort when sick is also a habit of mine.

But here are the new books:

Helene Wecker, The Golem and the Jinni.

I can't remember which blogger recommended this one, but it's not bad. Set in early 20th century New York City for the most part, it concerns a golem woman created to be a man's wife, except that the man who she is bound to dies almost at once. Now she is an unbound golem -- a creation that must find her own purpose. The Jinni has been entrapped by a sorcerer, though he doesn't remember who or why, and can't be freed until he learns that. As almost the only two supernatural beings in the city, these two become friends and then allies. (They don't become lovers, which was such a relief, I cannot even tell you.)

Besides the fish-out-of-water tales (what is it like to be a golem?), there's a wealth of lovely historical detail here. Weckler visits two main cultures in New York -- Jewish and Syrian -- with forays into other cultures as well. Nice writing, nice plotting. It's a very fat book, clocking in at just under five hundred pages, but it never felt too long.

Patrick Ness, Release

I like Patrick Ness, who wrote -- among other works -- The Knife of Never Letting Go, which I recommend highly. This one I liked less.

As usual with Ness, it's very readable. And the set up is a good one: we have, more or less, a retelling of Virginia Woolf's Hours, except the main character is a gay son of an Evangelical preacher. Adam wants desperately to leave his small town and his family, but since his father's church is failing, and his parents favor his older (het) brother over him, his chances of getting to college, and thus out of his small stifling town, seem slim.

The whole story takes place during a single day, the day of the going-away party for Adam's ex-boyfriend, who Adam still loves, to the frustration of his new boyfriend.

His best friend and refuse is Angela, who is bisexual (maybe pansexual -- she doesn't like labels), and one of the best characters in the book.

The story starts well, and I enjoyed all the references to Woolf's book. Adam's voice compels us enough that we keep reading. But there's a supernatural thing going on with a dead girl which never quite meshes with the main narrative, and then the ending is disappointingly flat. Or maybe I mean predictable?

It's an okay book. Just not up to Ness's usual standard.

The Odyssey, new transl. by Emily Wilson

One of the big reasons I studied Greek and Latin as an undergrad and graduate student was so I could read Homer in the original. It was a long slog -- I think five years before I reached Homer himself -- but well worth the effort. Homer in the original Greek is more beautiful than you can imagine. I still remember how individual lines made me stop, blinking with awe and pleasure.

That said, if you don't have five years to devote to the language (and I encourage you to do it if you can! Classical Greek is a beautiful language, and not that hard to learn, despite what you may have been told), this translation is a really good one. It comes closer to the original than any other translation I have read. (I like Fitzgerald's translation for sentimental reasons -- his was the first I ever read -- and also because it's so readable; but it's not particularly good at conveying the feel of the Greek.)

I also like what Wilson does with the women and the slaves in this version. One reason I always liked The Odyssey was its number of women characters, from the young Nausicaa to Penelope to Athena herself -- not to mention Calypso, who sees what she wants and enslaves it. But aside from the gods, the women, even the upper-class women, are clearly property of some man. Other translations don't always make that clear.

Nor do they make the status of the many slaves clear enough. This includes Odysseus' slave women who Telemachus hangs for being "disloyal" to his house. These are the slave women that Penelope's suitors have either coaxed or coerced into sleeping with them -- Telemachus is furious that they had sex with the suitors, and other translations go along with Telemachus's anger, blaming the slaves for what they did. Wilson's translation makes the status of these women clear, and clarifies the injustice of Telemachus' reaction. This is an honor killing: these women die to purify his honor, to set right his sense of himself as someone who can rule his household.

The Iliad can be read as an anti-war book, because of how clearly it shows the results and consequences of war. The Odyssey, especially in this translation, clearly shows the consequences to women of an unhindered patriarchal system.

There's also a really good introduction from Wilson, which I highly recommend.


Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I really would love to read this translation of The Odyssey. I have been teaching a feminist reading of Trojan War literature in Humanities the last couple of years, and it is, in a word, tremendous.

delagar said...

It's really worth reading, especially if you have an interested in classical lit. It's also really pricey, but my local public library librarian, when I asked if she could get me a copy through interlibrary loan, said, "Hmm, that sounds like something we should own."

And then she did it! And sent me the copy as soon as it arrived. Public libraries are the best.