Review 1636: Everything Under

Best of Ten!
Everything Under is a powerful rendering of the Oedipus myth, but don’t let that put you off if you’re not interested in stories based on myths. I found this novel to be truly affecting, and I’m guessing it will be on my best of the year list.

Water is an important motif in this novel, which is set mostly by rivers and canals, and the shifting narration reflects the fluidity of this story about human depths and gender identity.

Gretel has found the mother who deserted her years ago when she was 16. Periodically during her adult life, she has searched for Sarah, but recently she received messages from her asking for help. Finally found, Sarah is fairly deep into dementia. But she has lucid moments, and Gretel has questions, especially about what happened to Marcus, whom she last saw when they moved away from the canal.

During her search for Sarah, Gretel finds a couple with Marcus’s last name, Roger and Laura. When she visits them, she learns that the couple have been searching for their daughter, Margot, for years. She left home at 16 after their neighbor Fiona, who claims to be a psychic, told her something. Fiona, a transgender woman who now lives in Roger and Laura’s shed, refuses to tell what she told Margot.

Several times the novel checks in with Margot as she comes to live nearby a canal. There she takes on the identity of Marcus and is befriended by a blind man living on a canal boat. Marcus also hears rumors of a creature living in the canal who is eating animals and even people. Abut the community of people wo live along Britain’s canal system, this novel is atmospheric and interesting. I read it for my Man Booker Prize project.,

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Day 1085: House of Names

Cover for House of NamesColm Toíbín has written some unusual novels, and such is House of Names. It is basically the Oresteia, and we can’t expect happy endings from the Ancient Greeks.

The novel begins with Clytemnestra. On his way to the Trojan War, Clytemnestra’s husband, Agamemnon, summons her and her daughter, Iphigenia, telling her that Iphigenia is to marry Achilles. But Agamemnon is lying. Iphigenia is to be sacrificed for the cause of favorable winds that will get the soldiers across the sea to Troy.

Clytemnestra despises Agamemnon for the deception and his readiness to sacrifice their daughter. She vows to murder Agamemnon when he returns from the war. To take command of the kingdom, she allies with Aegisthus, the enemy whom Agamemnon has kept captive for years. But Clytemnestra finds that she is not in charge after all.

link to NetgalleyOrestes is a boy when Iphigenia was sacrificed, but he sees what happens to her from afar. Returning home, he is imprisoned with the country’s other boys in Clytemnestra’s attempt to intimidate the villagers. But Orestes has been taken prisoner by Aegisthus. Clytemnestra did not intend him to go with the other boys.

And then there is Electra.

Beautifully written like all of Toíbín’s work, this novel is an interesting interpretation of an old legend, based on the plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripedes. It is eerie and harrowing.

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Day 1016: Orfeo

Cover for OrfeoBest Book of the Week!
Richard Powers is clearly a lot smarter than I am, for I did not always understand him. But I enjoyed his novel Orfeo immensely. It is by coincidence the second reworking of a Greek myth that I’ve read recently.

Peter Els had a career as an avante-garde composer, although with one exception most of his works were only heard by a few hundred people. Now retired, he has taken up a hobby in chemistry, the field he originally intended to work in. Although he has broken no laws, he is trying an experiment to compose music that will last forever, in the genetic code of bacteria.

When his dog unexpectedly dies, an unfortunate series of incidents brings the police to his door. They are alarmed by his chemical periphernalia. He thinks all he will have to do is explain himself, but when he arrives home to find Homeland Security raiding his house, he flees in alarm.

During his flight, he revisits the memories from his past. Most of these have to do with music, and Powers’ use of prose is lyrical as it describes what Peter hears and imagines. The world for Peter is full of music, from bird song or a penny whistle to the most formidably intellectual modern composition. I wasn’t familiar with many of the pieces Powers describes, but his descriptions make me want to hear them.

Although Powers’ writing can be so cerebral that it is thought by some to limit its emotional power, I did not find that to be the case with this novel, even though I did not grasp every idea. Ils decides to visit the important people from his past to make amends for any wrongs he’s done them. As he travels, we continue to revisit his memories. A strong theme of paranoia in the post-9/11 world also prevails.

I found this a touching and powerful novel, full of the joy of music. It probably also includes the best evocation of the creative scene from the 60’s that I’ve ever read.

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Day 943: The True Heart

Cover for The True HeartThe True Heart is the book chosen for my Classics Club spin on Monday. I’m reviewing it this week because I have Literary Wives on the same day. It is the first book I’ve read by Sylvia Townsend Warner, and it is an interesting mix.

On the surface, it is a simple tale about the efforts of a naive young woman to win her love. But it has allegorical overtones and Warner admitted that it is her retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. Let me just say that stories of women who labor long and hard to prove their love for men (and, actually, the other way around) have never been my favorite.

Sukey Bond, straight out of an orphanage school, is sent to work on a farm as a servant girl. Her escort part of the way is Mrs. Seabourn, a clergyman’s wife, and even though Sukey is afraid of the unknown, she is sure that Mrs. Seabourn would not take her anywhere bad.

On the Noman’s farm, she meets Eric, who appears to be another farm worker, but no one seems to mind if he doesn’t work. Sukey is very naive and inexperienced, and she is surprised when Eric seems to like her. She doesn’t notice how he is different than the other workers. They begin meeting each other away from the farm and decide they are in love.

But one day Eric has an epileptic fit after he sees Sukey kill a chicken. It is not until then that Sukey learns Eric is considered an “idiot.” (He is odd, certainly, but doesn’t really seem mentally lacking so much as on another plane of existence.) It is also not until then that Sukey learns Eric is Mrs. Seabourn’s son. This puts him well above her in social station, but she thinks Mrs. Seabourn would be happy that Eric has her to take care of him. So, when Mrs. Seabourn comes to take Eric away, Sukey quits her job and follows.

But Mrs. Seabourn is not the person Sukey thinks she is. She is ashamed of Eric and horrified and angry when Sukey presents herself. She sends Sukey away, and the girl is penniless and friendless until she finds work at another farm.

At the home of her new employer, she hears a garbled account of Mrs. Seabourn being snubbed by a “princess” at some event. She decides that if she were to go to Queen Victoria and get Mrs. Seabourn a bible from her, Mrs. Seabourn might be grateful and relent. So, she quits her job again and is off to London.

I hardly know what to think about this novel. On the one hand, it seems unlikely that events, which could go so horribly for Sukey, depend on her constantly receiving help from unexpected people. Too, it was difficult for me to imagine a person could be so simple-minded and naive. (Of course, I assumed she was a little older than she actually was until they told her age at the end.) On the other hand, I don’t think we’re supposed to take this apparently simple tale at face value.

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Day 554: The Testament of Mary

Cover for The Testament of MaryIt is years after the crucifixion. Mary is living a quiet life in Ephesus, visited by two of her son’s disciples. It is clear their visits are unwelcome, as they have been trying to force her memories to agree with the documents they’re writing. But Mary has always seen her son’s followers as men with something lacking in them, and she insists on telling her her own truths.

This provocative novella takes the position that Mary was not a believer but was simply trying to save her son from his fate. She grieves his loss and regrets that at the end her courage failed her. While the disciples try to place her and Mary (Toíbín does not name anyone Mary Magdalene, but that is whom he means, I assume) at the grave witnessing a resurrection, they were actually fleeing for their own lives.

While the novella seems to accept some of the miracles, the raising of Lazarus is more of a horror than a wonder. Mary also notices that the jugs of water are brought forward quickly at the wedding at Cana and that only one of them was opened beforehand. Toíbín evokes an atmosphere of feverish excitement and hard fanaticism during these scenes, wherein both Jesus’ enemies and his followers push her son toward his fate.

This novella, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, is thought-provoking in its exploration of cult-like origins for Christianity and the shaping of Christian myth after Jesus’ death. As always with Toíbín, it is meticulously and beautifully written.

Day 546: Boy, Snow, Bird

Cover to Boy, Snow, BirdI find it fascinating when someone takes a well-known story and puts a wildly creative spin on it. Such is the case with Boy, Snow, Bird, Helen Oyeyemi’s re-imagining of the story of Snow White.

The story begins in the 1950’s with Boy Novak. Boy flees to a small town in New England to escape her verbally and physically abusive father. Although Boy is a strikingly beautiful icy blonde, she has no sense of herself, so much so that when she looks in a mirror, she sometimes cannot see herself.

Boy meets Arturo Whitman, a widower with a little girl named Snow. Although Boy believes she loves someone else, she marries Arturo. It is not until she has her own dark-skinned daughter, whom she names Bird at Snow’s suggestion, that she learns she has married into an African-American family passing for white.

Boy is appalled to learn that Arturo has a sister, Clara, whom she has never met. Arturo’s mother Olivia sent Clara away as a child because her features were too African-American.

Boy is also worried about Snow, a beauty who has always been fawned over by her family for her pale skin. Boy sees something hidden in Snow and begins to fear for Bird. Finally, she has Arturo send Snow away to live with Clara.

Bird takes up the story at the age of fourteen. She shares her mother’s problems with mirrors. She is a bright, lively girl who is intensely curious about her sister Snow. Soon she begins a correspondence with Snow. When Boy, Snow, and Bird are finally reunited and other secrets emerge, they are forced to explore the differences between appearance and reality.

The setting of this novel during the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement adds dimension to this truly original novel. It is also beautifully written. I felt it slowed down a little in the section where Snow and Bird are corresponding, but it was otherwise absorbing. Although the novel has a realistic setting, it harks back to its fairy tale beginning through dreams, a few hallucinatory moments, and the symbolism of the mirror.


Day 530: Literary Wives! The Crane Wife

Cover for The Crane WifeToday is another Literary Wives review, where the wives explore the depiction of wives in contemporary fiction. Please be sure to check out the reviews of all the Literary Wives.

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George is awakened in the middle of the night by a strange cry. When he looks out the window, he is astonished to see a wounded crane in his garden. He removes an arrow from the crane’s wing, and the crane flies away.

The next day he is doodling at work when he gets the urge to cut up an old book. He makes a paper crane. When a woman named Kumiko arrives at the shop, she takes away his crane and unites it with a tile of feathers she has made, creating a wonderful sculpture.

Women have always left George, deeming him to be too nice. Kumiko, though, quickly becomes his lover and promises to be his wife.

George’s daughter Amanda is feeling lonely. Because of her anger and acerbic wit, she has never kept her friends. It is beginning to look like her friendship with coworkers Rachel and Mei is going south. She loves her ex-husband Henri, but her anger drove him away. Only her four-year-old son JP and her father seem to stay.

The stories of these characters are periodically interrupted by a fable about the love/hate relationship between a goddess and a volcano. Eventually, these two threads intersect, overlaying the everyday story with mythic and magical overtones.

I was much more interested in the everyday story of George, Amanda, and Kumiko than I was in the mythic elements, which at times seemed to be trying too hard to be profound. The everyday story was touching and sometimes funny, the character Mehmet being particularly amusing.

What does this book say about wives or the experience of being a wife? In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

There are two wives in the story. One is Amanda, who loves Henri. But her self-hatred is so strong that she feels something must be wrong with Henri for him to love her back. So, she fights with him until he leaves her. Eventually, she has to settle for being his friend.

Although she and George never actually marry, the other wife is Kumiko, the crane wife. She is a self-sacrificing figure. To stay with George and make their works of art, she tears the feathers from her own body. In her mythic self, though, she offers forgiveness at a terrible price, by ripping out a person’s heart and blinding him, then turning him to stone.

Is Ness saying that we’re only forgiven if we are blind, heartless, and turned to stone? Or are we only free of pain in that condition? Ness’ vision of love, that it is greedy, angry, or self-sacrificing, is a strange one. The goddess’s love is harrowing while Kumiko’s makes her give up everything. All of these ideas seem at once confused and simplistic. Literary Wives logo

I think Ness is saying more about love than about being a wife—that true love is more self-denying than greedy. George becomes obsessed with learning everything he can about Kumiko instead of accepting what she can give—and that leads to unhappiness.

But my question is, is either view of love a true one? Is it healthy or even right to be so self-denying that you literally mutilate yourself for love?

Day 408: Folktales of the Native American

Cover for Folktales of the Native AmericanI have read some of the folk tales of the Celtic peoples (mostly Irish and Welsh) and the Norse and Russians as well as the more recent ones of the Grimm brothers. Last year, I reviewed Robert Graves’ book about Greek myths. Except for the really amusing and cynical fairy tales of Charles Perrault, I find them almost uniformly violent–full of murders, rapine, and theft. (Of course, kids love that kind of stuff.)

What strikes me about the Native American tales assembled and retold by Dee Brown is that even though some are about battles, they do not focus on the gruesome, as European tales are prone to do. More of them are about how things were created or how some animals got their markings, or they are comic tales about trickery and deceit. The stories seem to be more similar to the few African ones I have read than to European myths.

The tales are simply told, most of them no more than two or three pages long. I think in general folk tales suffer from not being told aloud. In print they lack the tale teller’s expression and gestures.

Day 269: The Song of Achilles

Cover for The Song of AchillesMadeline Miller has attempted a difficult task in The Song of Achilles–to make the story of Achilles, Patroclus, and the Trojan War more understandable to a modern audience. To some extent she succeeds, but in some cases I think she interjects too modern a sensibility into the ancient tale.

I have never been a big fan of Achilles. The image of him sulking in his tent because of pique while the Greeks get slaughtered is not a pleasant one. But for the benefit of those who are not familiar with The Iliad, if there are any, I will leave that part of the tale for them to discover.

The novel is narrated by Patroclus, who is exiled as a boy after accidentally killing another boy. In Miller’s novel this gives him a horror of killing and he never learns to fight–the first instance of that modern sensibility I mentioned. Not only is there no evidence in the Greek myths that Patroclus didn’t fight, there is evidence to the contrary.

In exile, Patroclus is brought up with Achilles, son of the goddess Thetis, and Miller makes the interesting choice of having the gods and goddesses be characters in the novel, just as they are in ancient stories. Patroclus and Achilles become close companions and eventually lovers.

Here again is where modern sensibilities come in, not because the two were lovers–they almost certainly were–but in the way she treats the relationship. I’m no Greek scholar, but I’m fairly sure that such relationships were rather common, and I’ve read somewhere that in some armies they were encouraged because the friends fought better for each other. Yet here, the two hide their relationship, and Thetis despises Patroclus from the first. In fact, in The Iliad, the relationship is implied but not commented upon, more as if it is accepted.

I don’t want to sound too particular, though, because almost despite myself I was drawn in and ultimately touched, not by Achilles as much as by Patroclus.

In a class discussion of The Iliad years ago, when the students were commenting on Achilles’ behavior, the instructor made it very clear that despite what we may think of him today, to the ancient Greeks he was indisputably a hero. So, modern sensibilities come in again, as Patroclus worries that the Greeks will begin hating Achilles because he refuses to fight, and they do.

To a great extent, most of the characters in the novel are one- or two-dimensional–Agamemnon is stupid and brutish, Odysseus is wily and clever, and so on. Only a few characters are more fully developed. But then, the narrator is Patroclus, and his life revolves around Achilles, who is unbearably proud and full of himself. Yes, I still don’t like Achilles. To Miller’s credit, I don’t think I’m supposed to. Despite my caveats, though, I enjoyed the novel and am looking forward to reading another book by Miller.

Day 183: The Greek Myths

Cover for The Greek MythsThe Greek Myths is classicist and writer Robert Graves’ well respected and unconventional translation and interpretation of a comprehensive collection of Greek myths. Graves explains that rather than interpret the myths psychologically (i.e., Oedipus), which he appears to have some disdain for, it is more useful and accurate to look at them in combination with the findings of archaeology, as a sort of historic record. Graves relates each myth, with all its variants, and then provides sometimes copious notes to explain each facet. He also points out the many similarities among world myths, showing the relationships between Greek myths and those of the Celts, Sumerians, Jews, and others.

It is Graves’ contention that most of the Greek myths with which we are familiar were manipulations and distortions by the Hellenes of the religious beliefs of the people they conquered. There were four migrations of the Hellenes into Greece. After the first two, the patriarchal Hellenes adopted the matriarchal religions of their hosts, but in the last two, the Hellenes forced the existing tribes to follow their beliefs and then consciously distorted their mythologies to reflect this change.

For example, there are many instances where Zeus chases and rapes various nymphs. In the earlier myths, the three-headed goddess in one of her forms would have been chasing the king as part of a ritual ceremony, so the myth has been turned on its head. Similarly, many a Greek hero’s exploits that involve fighting and killing an opponent are a perversion of the ritual whereby the king is “killed” by his tanist–or alternate ruler (“twin” or “son”)–at the end of his reign and then in turn actually kills the tanist to take up his reign again. Grave states, “Like Aeschylus, Euripedes was engaged in religious propaganda.”

The ideas Graves espouses are very interesting and the book is extremely well written. However, the sheer number of names and places and similar incidents can be overwhelming. Some deities or other figures go by six or eight names, for example. And there’s only so much killing and rapine a person can take. I finally bogged down over Heracles, who has more than 100 of the 600+ pages devoted to him (and whose adventures are very similar to those of Gilgamesh). Heracles, I feel, was a thug, and round about his tenth labor, which was particularly rambling, I gave up on him.

My intention in reading this work was to come out with a more coherent idea of the whole of Greek mythology, but ironically, I feel this book is too comprehensive for me to meet that goal–that something simpler would have worked better for me. However, for serious students of mythology, this is probably required and interesting reading.