I read The End We Start From by Megan Hunter for the Reading Rush challenge: read a book with 5 or more words in the title.
I picked up this book randomly at the bookstore with absolutely no expectations. The only thing I noticed about it was that the text was structured very poetically. The style is as if stream of consciousness and elegy merged together to create the floating and uncertain language appropriate for a dystopian novel centered around the flooding of the world (in a manner of speaking).
The story is narrated by a woman who is a new mother, separated from her husband for most of the book when a flood takes over London and forces most to flee. The language used in this mother’s narration compares birth and motherhood to the floodwaters, as well as using words associated with the sea for the development of her baby, one of them being the word “cruising”. The uncertainty of the floodwaters and the sea reflects the uncertainty of the mother and those she meets on her journey of survival. In between the mother’s narration, Hunter has inserted what seems to be quotes from the story of Noah’s Ark, almost completely parallel to the mother’s journey, the babies being brought up in the aftermath of the flood representing the renewal of the human race after Noah finds land.
I recommend this book to those who love poetic text, intertextuality, and the uncertain, free-floating images of water.
I read “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” for the first day of the 2019 Reading Rush, for the book to movie adaptation challenge. The short story is very different from the 2008 film, taking place from the late 19th century to the early 20th. The only thing that is the same is the fact that Benjamin Button ages backwards.
Because this book was written in 1922 and takes place first just before the American Civil War, there were some things I as a modern reader had to get used to, like the sort-of-subtle racism and antisemitism that were the norms at the time.
However, psychologically and socially this book was very interesting. First because the anti-aging of Benjamin Button was clearly inspired by the genetic disorder progeria, basically by which a person is born already aging, and these people generally do not live long. With Benjamin Button, though, his disorder or whatever it is also affects his personality, giving the reader a different perspective on the idea of growing up and coming of age.
One of the big social aspects in this story corresponds with how people even today treat mental illness, chronic illness, and simply illness in general. Most of those close to Benjamin Button blamed him for his disorder of aging backwards, claiming he was being stubborn in not stopping it, and having no consideration for anyone else in relation to it. Sound familiar? I wish I could say things have changed, but this is a very good representation of how people react to such things.
I thought this story gave an interesting social commentary on life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and is worth a read even now. It’s no Great Gatsby, but “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” has a depth all its own.
This is a challenge taking place from July 22-28 wherein the participants must try to read as much as they can during that week. There are also challenges that the participants can follow, for example: read a book with a purple cover.
This challenge will be really great for me personally as it will help me knock some books off my tbr in a time when, because of grad school, my time for fun reading tends to be limited. This also means more book reviews! Yay!!
Check out my Reading Rush profile for the books I will be reading during that week, and look out for reviews of all of them!
And all of you, even if you are not in the Reading Rush, let me know what you are reading! I am always looking for new reads, AND I love to know what you all enjoy!
The past few years as a full-time classicist have seen a boom for me in the reading of modern retellings of classical myths and tales. Of all the ones I have read so far, Lavinia has been the best. Perhaps this is because this novel is based on the last six books of my favorite ancient work and author, the Aeneid by Vergil.
I was first told about this novel by my graduate advisor, with whom I am working on research about Vergil’s pastoral poetry. While Lavinia references the Aeneid and not Vergil’s other works, there are elements of contact with nature, which I will elaborate on below.
For those who don’t know, or have only a vague idea, Lavinia is the daughter of King Latinus, whom Aeneas married when he settled down in Latium, the area of Italy that would one day become Rome.
The first half of the book talks about Lavinia’s early life in the palace of her father. What I loved about this was that it illustrated the importance of her role in the palace as the virgin daughter of the king (religiously, etc.). It also touched on her connection to nature and certain higher powers such as oracles, and more importantly Vergil himself, the half-dead spirit of whom she communes with in sacred spaces of the woods. It is here where she learns the future of hers and Aeneas’ story. Le Guin gives us readers a look at how Vergil might have felt at not completing his story with Lavinia as a non-speaking character. I’d like to think he would have been as remorseful about this as Le Guin made him, how much he regretted not giving Lavinia a voice. Le Guin more than makes up for that in this novel. Lavinia speaks her mind to Vergil, to her father, to all those who would try to control her.
The latter half of the book looks at the war and then her marriage to Aeneas and life after. It illustrates what could have been, what Vergil could have written if he had the chance to continue. Le Guin makes Lavinia an immortal character, acknowledging the fact that because Vergil never gave her an ending, she cannot die in the same way as Aeneas or other heroes.
That is one other thing that Le Guin illustrates very well in this novel: the idea of living up to the standards of a legendary hero. We see Lavinia herself try to keep the house and rule of Aeneas alive through her resolve and the future of her son. Ascanius, Aeneas’ first son, does the same, but because Aeneas’ standards end up being so high, Ascanius is destined to fail as a ruler. Even if one doesn’t read this book, this is an obvious interpretation of Ascanius’ life.
To have one of my favorite stories be retold by a woman and through the eyes of a silenced woman is so refreshing and I could not ask for a better story. As a (still) young woman, I feel I can relate to Lavinia’s character, feeling uncertain about my own future among others whose futures are already set.
I recommend this novel to all classicists, lovers of myths and tales, and to those who are uncertain in life and want to run away into the woods to commune with spirits of dead poets.
I usually love myself some good, old-fashioned tales about witches. When reading the description and looking at the cover as I browsed the horror section at The Last Bookstore in LA, I thought Witches of Lychford by Paul Cornell would be right up my alley. I am disappointed to say that this novella did not at all meet my expectations, so much so that I really did not think the book was worth finishing.
Firstly, the style of writing was rather awful. Cornell has tried to make a book almost solely of the characters’ thoughts, and, in my opinion, putting too much effort into it. He also provides too much explanation of mundane things while failing to explain important points to the plot at large. It would have been helpful to know more background on the town of Lychford in the beginning, whereas it is hard to know what it’s all about until about page 80 (more than halfway through the book already!).
Secondly, the progression of the plot with the implied themes of the book did not match up. I stopped reading on page 90, and still there are no mention of witches, only implications. What there is are hints at other worlds, similar to fairy worlds one would see in books about the lore of England or Ireland. But the way it is presented by Cornell is all very random. All of a sudden things start happening with no history or indication of why it should be, other than vague experiences hinted at by the characters. That is the big trouble, this book is one big hint, which makes for rather un-compelling reading.
I would go into more detail, but I think that covers a lot of the reasons why I do not like this book. I do not recommend to anyone, unless you like big hints.
Imperfect Pastorals was the most fortuitous find for me this Spring. I am in the midst of writing my thesis on the reception of Vergil’s pastoral poetry in contemporary pastoral poetry, and after copious amounts of research and digging in places beyond the scope of my field, I came across Gail Wronsky’s wonderful collection. I have read this collection through the perspective of my thesis, and enjoyed wonderfully how Wronsky referenced Vergilian themes within the theme of pastoral, such as liminality (of life and death represented by both nature and through myths like that of Orpheus), man vs. nature, Lucretian philosophy, and of course Vergil’s famous bees.
All of the poems are in un-rhyming verse, and yet Wronsky has structured the poems to be read at a certain rhythm. Though there is no meter as Vergil puts in his works, Wronsky divides stanzas to be each read alone or with the others, employs internal rhyme where it fits, and uses other poetic structures that make the poems flow or jump to representations of nature.
Aside from the classical references, there are mentions of pastoral in the context of Wronsky’s own pastoral landscape of Topanga Canyon, CA (also right in my own hometown), designating her as a Los Angeles poet writing particularly Los Angeles idylls. It is a genre of pastoral all its own, evoking, at least to myself, paintings of Los Angeles by artists such as David Hockney.
I recommend this collection to those who find meaning in the connection, or even disconnection to nature, and its philosophy; and to those who are, like myself, fascinated with the Vergilian and non-Vergilian ideas of myth in pastoral.
I am always a lover of fairytale/folktale retellings, especially when the author has decided to focus on the darker, perhaps hidden aspects of the tale. This is how Mallory Ortberg has retold tales in The Merry Spinster. What is really interesting is how Ortberg has chosen to portray human behavior in the characters of these tales, which I find to be the most uneasy and horrifying aspect.
The tales he has written include those inspired by the well-known tales such as Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and various other tales from the Grimms et al. However, Ortberg has included other well-known stories that do not necessarily fall under the cannon of fairytales we all know, or are else rather obscure. My favorite of these that he has included under this category is The Daemon Lover, which I came to love due to Shirley Jackson, to whom Ortberg has a similar writing style, thereby making me personally love The Merry Spinster all the more. Others include The Velveteen Rabbit, Frog and Toad, and various biblical references. The fact that Ortberg has chosen these other stories instead of just the usual cannon of fairytales makes him quite unique as an author and a storyteller, and I would love to see what other stories he can make into tales of horror.
The only story that really did not meet my expectations was “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Mr. Toad”, based on The Wind in the Willows. I felt like the story could be longer, with a bit more explanation, but that simply could mean that this particular tale is not for me. Nonetheless I found it interesting and not out of sync with the rest of the book.
I recommend this collection of stories to anyone who likes a good, twisted fairytale, and to those who, like me, are big fans of Shirley Jackson’s tales of everyday horror.
Bartlett’s Yule Be Dead is a cute mystery centered around a farmer’s-market-type shopping center called “Artisans Alley” in the lovely Victoria Square. The protagonist, Katie Bonner, the boss of Artisans Alley, must deal with cranky vendors, shoplifters, the arrival of her mother-in-law, and on top of all that she finds herself entangled in a murder mystery. To deal with all Katie uses her unfailing wits and courage and the relationships she cultivates and grows.
While Yule Be Dead is labelled as a mystery, I would say that it is more of a slice-of-life drama novel with a mystery as one of the side plots. I do wish the murder mystery was more of an issue in the plot (and perhaps involved more than one murder). There were a few issues I had with the writing style. Katie as a character has a lot of issues to deal with, and Bartlett does have her solve these issues, only to come back around again to question them. Usually when one has come up with a solution there should be little questioning to do, and I think if Bartlett cut some of that out the plot would feel a bit more concise and less in a loop. It also felt as if Bartlett had Katie find a problem in everything she faced, which is fair, she was having a bit of a time, especially in the face of murder. However, this pattern of writing makes the story lack some normalcy, and, again, it could have been a bit more concise. In addition, characters got angry at each other a lot, which felt quite repetitive.
Overall Yule Be Dead was a fun read for a mind that needs a break from a lot of effort (especially if it is like mine reading academic texts all day). And who wouldn’t want to read a cute mystery that takes place in a quaint little town?
Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss is about a young girl named Silvie, whose father brought her and her mother along on an archaeological trip to the north of England to experience what it was like to live in Iron Age Britain. Her father has an unnatural obsession with the ancient history of England, but also of the traditions he supposes went with it, including “traditional” roles of men and women, almost to the degree of cultist thought. Silvie is our narrator, through whose perspective we experience the land that belonged to her Iron Age ancestors, and experience her father’s abusive relationship with her. Thankfully Silvie makes some friends among the archaeology students and local residents during her stay, so that not all hope is lost for her.
Ghost Wall is a compelling read, not just because of what Silvie must go through with her father – though that is the most of it – but also because of Silvie’s relationship with the landscape. Moss describes the forests and coasts and bogs of the landscape through Silvie’s perspective so clearly that it is very vivid and easy for me to imagine being there myself. I kept wanting to know what new wonders Silvie would find in those woods, and I was impressed by how knowledgeable she is about the natural world as well as the ancient world.
That was the reason I had first picked up this book. As a classicist of course I would be interested in a book about archaeologists studying and pretending to live in Iron Age and Roman Britain. And of course there are the bog bodies, which give this book its subtle horror.
I was very happy that Moss had Silvie make such strong connections with other female friends such as Molly, the student Silvie admires (and very likely loves as more than a friend), and Trudi the town midwife who helps Silvie and Molly through their troubles.
I have no real criticisms to make of this book, and I now want to read more of Moss’ work.
I recommend Ghost Wall to everyone, but especially those who love ancient history, England, the natural world, or those who think they might relate to Silvie herself.