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.
It’s not often that I find a good book about the fairy lore of Ireland that isn’t a book of old tales. The Hunter’s Moon was an adventure from start to finish. The plot revolves around two young girls, Findabhair and Gwen, whose plans to visit the ancient Faerie sites and historical monuments, only to be caught up in the world of Faerie itself when the King of the Fairies takes Findabhair for his queen. It is not long after that Gwen becomes “fairy-touched” as well.
I became interested in reading this book first because of how much took place in different parts of Ireland. Then I was pulled in by the world of Faerie and the lore that went with it. O.R. Melling does a fantastic job of putting two modern girls into an Arthurian, mythical tale, akin to the Pearl Poet’s “Gawain and the Green Knight”, abounding in monsters and daring, heroic quests – my favorite kind of story!
I already loved fairy lore, but now I want to learn more about the history of it, not only to better understand the references in The Hunter’s Moon, but also because it is simply fascinating. I was surprised at how much Christianity Melling incorporated into the fairy lore, but I don’t know to the extent they are actually connected historically, and I will need to do some fun research.
Melling also did a great job with the characters: all are very strong, especially Gwen. Here is a girl of sixteen going on the adventure of a lifetime. She holds her own very well, but I am happy to say she is not afraid to ask for help when she needs it, which I think is something many of us need to learn. She is loyal to all her friends, and they in turn are loyal to her, and are also people who won’t shy away from an adventure.
My biggest criticism for this book is that I feel the climax of the book came very last minute, and I wish there would have been more hints to it earlier and more incorporated with the references to fairy lore that were already in place. The conclusion seemed a bit rushed, and I think it could have used another 50-100 pages.
Overall The Hunter’s Moon is full of nonstop adventure from start to finish. I recommend this book to those who love Ireland, fairies, and daring quests!
I’m eager to see what Melling has in store in the next book of the series, The Summer King.
I started reading No Matter by Jana Prikryl not knowing at all what to expect. What I did not want was more poetry of heartbreak. I wanted poetry that worked with language not only to connect with the reader, but also to absolutely confuse them. Jana Prikryl does just this, and I cannot be more grateful for such a master of language.
I had picked this book of poetry from a selection of titles on NetGalley because of its description on the website: “Set in cities toppling past the point of decline-and-fall–Rome, London, Dublin, and most of all New York–these poems capture the experience of being human in the late days of empire, when the laws protecting weak from strong are being torn away.” As a classicist studying ancient Roman literature and myth, this seemed right up my alley.
It is true that most of these poems are set in New York – and I probably would understand them better if I knew more about New York culture and geography – but many of the poems are set against language that evokes ancient myth and history. The physical descriptions of the city also use language that hints at archaism, especially the use of “brownstone” to describe the bridges and buildings.
The theme of most of Prikryl’s poems reminds me of The Aeneid, my particular area of study – ergo my interpretation of these poems focuses mostly on that. Prikryl compares New York to Troy in her poem “Ambitious”, telling how heroes pass through and make the city his own and that of his own people (an allusion to Aeneas’ journey from Troy to Italy). Prikryl also features well-known characters from this epic. The character that shows up in the titles of many of the poems is the Sibyl, an oracle who helped Aeneas on his journey into the Underworld. Here she is presiding over what seems to be the change of cities and the people described in these poems. In the second-to-last poem, also called “Sibyl”, there is imagery that alludes to things, especially plants, that grow in the Underworld. Dido is another character from the Aeneid who is featured in this book, exactly twice. With her we see what could’ve happened between Aeneas and Dido if he had to redo his actions. The fact that Prikryl uses the Sibyl more than Dido as a featured voice is really interesting; it is possible that if Dido were the main voice there would be more reference to love rather than the change the Sibyl represents as the liminal figure between the Underworld and the world of the living. A symbol of change.
The way Prikryl uses language in these poems, besides the language that reference The Aeneid, is astounding. The manner in which she constructs her verses really draws the eye to what’s important. The way I feel reading it is how I imagine my own thoughts would look if they were written down on paper.
My biggest issue was understanding a lot of the poems, though I would say that is the way it is with most poetry. It is personal, and not every poem is meant for everyone (and, as I said before, I am sure New Yorkers would have a much easier time understanding). However, even if we don’t understand, I wholeheartedly recommend giving Prikryl’s verse a chance, even if just to enjoy the clever mastery of language and ancient allusions.
The Mozart Girl by Barbara Nickel is an excellent introduction into the life of one of history’s most obscure composers – though thankfully now she is becoming less and less obscure, thanks to historians and writers like Barbara Nickel. Nannerl Mozart, older sister of composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, is one of my favorite historical figures, especially since I have also been a young lady musician for most of my life. I am always looking for works written about her, whether they are biographical, epistolary, or fiction like this book of Nickel’s.
Even though I knew what was going to happen to her from what I know of her history, I nervous and excited, and, I must say, pleasantly surprised while reading The Mozart Girl. I was compelled by young Nannerl Mozart’s dreams of becoming a famous composer and musician. In her actual history, Nannerl did not become nearly as famous as her brother Wolfgang due to her position as a woman in 18th century Europe, and I was very pleased with the changes Nickel made to Nannerl’s successes in this retelling of her early life. I will not say what these changes are, but know going into the book that they are quite satisfying.
Nannerl goes through struggles not only because of her position as an adolescent girl, but also because of how much her brother stole the spotlight. I think many older siblings go through some jealousy over the attention a younger sibling gets, even if that sibling is not a prodigy like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Many young readers of this book will empathize with this particular struggle of Nannerl’s, and her struggles to fit into the world around her.
The Mozart Girl is a compelling story that readers, young and old, will enjoy. I especially recommend giving this book to young and aspiring musicians.
I am always interested in fairytale retellings. I’ve read Michael Cunningham’s rough take on the familiar stories; Angela Carter’s Bloody Chamber, dark and full of unvarnished guts. Transformations was the first time I have read fairytales in the form of poetry for a while, and I absolutely loved this take. It felt like going back to what tales used to be. Not necessarily what these specific tales were, but how those older were presented, all in poetry, in some form of meter, bringing the reader or auditor into a certain rhythm (or even throwing the reader completely off it).
Anne Sexton tells each fairytale – some familiar, some new to me – in their traditional ways, though her thoughts come into it like an omnipotent presence knowing the ways humans are, the hearts of man. Knowing where things will go wrong and why – all in poetic psychology.
I was not bored for a moment. Each poem-tale had me compelled to read on, to find out what sort of revelation would appear at the end. I saw the characters differently from how I traditionally know them. I would have never realized without Sexton’s take that the stepmother in all her jealousy was in love with the maiden; that the kind man was more afraid than anyone else of being cheated in life. I cannot get over how terribly human Sexton makes each character, and I want more.
I really have no criticisms to give on this collection of poetry, and I am eager to read more of Anne Sexton’s work.
I recommend Transformations to anyone who loves fairytales and real, human characters.