Friday, November 29, 2013

The Prequel

In January, when I read The Odyssey by Homer, I was left wanting more.  Luckily,  I had Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller on my TBR list, and The Iliad sitting in my nightstand.  I read Song of Achilles first, and liked it, and now I have just finished The Iliad.

The Iliad seems to be a book by which people define themselves.  Sometimes when I am reading reviews, the reviewer will say something like, "yeah, but I'm also one of those people who likes The Iliad better than The Odyssey, so take that for what it's worth", implying that most people, or normal people at least, prefer The Odyssey.  For a change, I think that I am in the "normal" camp, in that I preferred The Odyssey too, which I didn't expect.

After reading Helen of Troy by Margaret George, I was excited to read The Iliad, since I expected it to cover all of the same material:  Helen's engagement to Menelaus through the fall of Troy.  I was surprised when Homer started his story after the war over Helen had already begun.  In fact, although the version that I read covers 594 pages, The Iliad takes place over just a few weeks during the last year of the Trojan War.  We actually end  before we hear about the Trojan horse.  Homer's works are only two of the eight books of The Epic Cycle, including four that cover the period from when The Iliad ends until The Odyssey begins. Homer's version also differs from George's in the extent to which the gods are involved.  Homer treats the mortals as pieces in the gods' chess game, while George involves the gods only when the humans need an excuse.

While I really shouldn't question Homer's writing style, given that we are still reading him centuries later, I have to say that large portions of The Iliad read more like a census report than a poem.  Countless times, Homer mentioned a character for the first time only to tell us who his father was and how the character was killed.  For example, we have "Aphareus, son of Kaletor, Aineas hit his throat as he turned toward him and cut it with his sharp spearpoint . . . " and ". . . Teukros shot Glaukos, powerful son of Hippolokhos, with an arrow . . . "

So yes, check the box, I read The Iliad, and you probably should too.  But if you'd like a more interesting version of the same story, you should try either Helen of Troy by Margaret George, or Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller first.  This brings me one step closer to completing the Off The Shelf Challenge.

Next Up On CD:  The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Still Reading:  Upload by Mark McClellend

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

It's Here!

Yep, it's here.  What?  The New York Times' list of Notable Books for 2013, of course!  When I read My Education by Susan Choi, I promised that if Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld made the Notables list, and My Education did not, I wouldn't link you to the list.  Fear not - neither book made the list.  So HERE is your link.  In fact, none of the books published in 2013 that I have read made the list, which was sort of a surprise.

On the other hand, just about every book on my TBR list made it:  The Circle by Dave Eggers; The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt; The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer; and Manson by Jeff Guinn all are listed.  MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood hasn't made my TBR list yet, but it most likely will after I finish the second book in the Oryx and Crake series, The Year of the Flood.  Also, I managed to pick up We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo at a used book sale, which also is a notable.  Looks like I will have lots of good books to blog about in 2014!

Usually after I see the Notables list, I add a ton of books to my TBR list.  Not so much this year.  The only one that I am adding is Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.

And now that I have the list, let the holidays begin!  Happy Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Black Friday everyone! 

Still Reading:  Upload by Mark McClelland

Almost Done Listening to:  The Iliad by Homer

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Typical Book Report - 16

Last night, the Typical Book Group got together to talk about The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan. There were 7 of us there, but for me it was a pretty short night since I had to get home to help my kids study for some tests.  Our host, Lynne, had seen one of the bronze sculptures of Marie at an exhibit many years ago.  We even had a miniature Marie as a centerpiece.  This was surely one of the reasons why Lynne picked the book.  However, none of us was wildly excited about the story.  We all liked it, but it just didn't seem like there was much to talk about.

Right now, GoodReads is asking readers to vote for the best books of 2013, and The Painted Girls is still in the running for Historical Fiction.  Truth be told, I even voted for it, since it is the only one of the eight finalists that I have read.  I guess that I'm a little surprised that it has made it so far when our opinion was so unenthusiastic.  Perhaps we aren't that typical after all.

Next month we'll read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce.  Everyone who I know who has read this one has loved it, so I'm looking forward to reading it.

Still Reading:  Upload by Mark McClelland

Still Listening to:  The Iliad by Homer

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Such is Life

The True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey is a novel.  Well, duh, right?  Not so fast.  As an American, I had never heard of the Kelly Gang, but it is quite a big deal in Australia.  In fact, the National Museum of Australia is developing a collection of "Kellyana", as they call it.  So, True History could have just as easily been nonfiction.

Ned Kelly and his family lived in the late 1800s in Australia.  His father was an Irish man, who was brought to Australia as a prisoner.  His parents became settlers, seemingly like American settlers in our West.  They were able to get an inexpensive piece of land, but were subject to strict rules as to what they had to do to keep it.  The police took an unusual interest in the Kelly family, and the Kellys believed that they were being unfairly targeted for prosecution.  One thing led to another, and Ned Kelly and his brother, Dan, became "outlaws" in the style of Jessie James, with a large dose of Robin Hood.

The most unusual thing about Ned Kelly was that he wrote letters to members of the government and others that he hoped would be published in the newspapers that explained what he was doing, and why he was being unfairly pursued.  Some of his letters are so long that they are sometimes referred to as "manifestos".  What Peter Carey does in his True History is to turn these letters into a 368 page novel.  Carey tells the story in Ned's voice, and with an almost complete lack of punctuation.  At first (as in on the first page) it is hard to read, but one quickly becomes used to the style and voice.  In fact, the narration reminded me a lot of the voice of Zachry in the "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Everythin' After" section of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. The interesting thing about this comparison is that Mitchell was writing about a fictional character in the (hopefully) distant future, and Carey was writing an authentic voice from the past, but somehow the same style works in both cases.   Don't let that comparison scare you off - if you like reading westerns, this one will fit right in.

The True History of the Kelly Gang won the Man Booker Prize in 2001.  That same year, David Mitchell was shortlisted for number9dream.  Cloud Atlas was shortlisted in 2004.  This is also one more to cross off my list for the Off the Shelf Challenge.

Next up:  Upload by Mark McClelland

Still Listening to:  The Iliad by Homer

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Speculative Snowman

Where should I start talking about Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood?  If I start at the beginning I'll be starting at the end, but if I start at the end I'll start at a new beginning.  It's all so strange, and yet frighteningly familiar.

The book itself starts with post-apocalyptic Snowman, explaining simple objects to people who he calls "the children of Crake".  He is naked, with few possessions, and he sleeps in a tree to avoid the genetically modified animals who might attack him on the ground.  The time shifts between Snowman's present and his memories of his past, starting with his childhood.  Snowman, who was then known as Jimmy, grew up in a compound, like everyone else that he knew.  The compounds were owned by competing corporations, working to secure the smartest people who they could find to create new breeds of animals, new cures for diseases, and new sources of food.  The normal people who were thought not to be as smart as those living in the compounds lived in "pleeblands" between the corporate bases.

Growing up among the elite brains of the era, Jimmy lived a fortunate, but highly guarded life.  He never left the compound.  Ever.  The ocean was a few miles away, but he had never even seen it.  Still, he was certain that his life was better than that of the pleebs.

Jimmy's best friend in the compound was Glenn, who was also known as "Crake".  Together they played computer games and surfed the Internet.  There were sites where the tweenagers could watch live executions, sites where they could watch people commit suicide, and every variety of porn site that a person could dream up.  It was on an Asian kiddie porn site that Jimmy and Crake first saw Oryx.  While still kids themselves, they were mesmerized by something about Oryx's eyes as she looked into the camera.  They took a screen shot of her face, and each kept a copy.

The years go by, and the boys grew in different directions, with Crake becoming a rising star as a bioengineer.  Soon he was basically running his compound, and designing things that no one else fully understood.  Jimmy was working in a third or fourth rate compound when Crake brought him to work for him, eventually making Jimmy his second in command.  Obviously, since I started out by referencing an apocalypse, something goes wrong.  Jimmy/Snowman questions his culpability as he tires to help Crake's children make their way in the new world.

Atwood apparently does not feel that this book is science fiction, but instead is "speculative fiction", because it doesn't deal with "things that have not been invented yet."  That is scary, and I hope that she is exaggerating.  While listening to Oryx and Crake I thought a lot about what science fiction is, and why I am finding myself so attracted to it lately.  I was specifically thinking about Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore and whether that is science fiction or not.  In Penumbra's case, I think it's even more likely that the technology mentioned in the book may already exist, in the hands of a chosen few.  With that in mind, Penumbra might also be considered speculative fiction. I'm tagging these, and the other sci-fi books that I've reviewed here as "Sci-Fi-ish" in deference to Atwood's assertion.  Whatever it is, I like them both.  With no offense intended to the reader of Oryx, I think that if Jeff Woodman or  Wil Wheaton had read it, I might have been persuaded to add it to my list of favorites.

Oryx and Crake was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for 2003.  It was also a NYT Notable for that year.  I hadn't heard of Oryx until I read a review of the book that is the third in the trilogy, MaddAddam, and I thought that if I wanted to read that one, I should probably start at the beginning (there I go again) with the first book in the series.  The second book is Year of the Flood, and I will be adding that to my TBR list.

Next Up on CD:  The Iliad by Homer

Still Reading:  True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

Friday, November 8, 2013


It's time again for my library's semi-annual used book sale!  This time, I came prepared with a list of the books that I wanted.  I've learned my lesson - there were no Murakamis or McSweeneys on my list.  Right off the bat, I found what I was looking for.  The first 3 books that I grabbed were on my list, and then I found 4 Advanced Placement test study guides for my son.  He'll be thrilled!  Actually, not.  There were only three books on my list that I couldn't find - Where'd You Go Bernadette? by Maria Semple, Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon and Mary Enig, and Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood.  I think I was too early on Bernadette - if any copies were donated they were probably snatched up by volunteers.  From what I hear everyone loves Nourishing, so maybe no one would donate it.  And the problem with Year of the Flood is guessing where the volunteers would put it.  It should be in sci-fi, but is equally likely to have been grouped with fiction, or even history.  Enough complaining.  What did I find?  Here you go:

New York by Edward Rutherfurd was one of the three books that I got from my list. The other two are Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks which I've looked for the last few sales, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.

I seemed to be attracted to non-fiction tonight, starting with Henrietta Lacks.  I also picked up Kitchen Confidential with Anthony Bourdain, even though I've never seen his show and (disappointingly) it doesn't look like any recipes are included.  The last non-fiction book that I got was The Hemingses of Monticello, by Annette Gordon-Reed, which I had in my hot little hands at an earlier sale, but let go. 
Lastly, I picked up two randoms that I had heard something, but not much about - This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper and Rules of Civility by Amor Towles.  When I was checking out, the volunteer who took my money raved about Civility, but said that she wished that she had read the Afterward first.  That's the kind of advice that I like to get, as I've had that problem before.
Now I've got to get reading!  Can't wait to start.
Still Reading:  The True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey
Still Listening to:  Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood.  As you may have guessed, since the sequel, The Year of the Flood was on the list of books that I wanted to buy tonight, I have warmed up to this story.  In fact, I'm almost done with it.  Stay tuned.

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