A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit
Short stories and essays are not my thing, but sometimes an author’s best work is in this genre, and then I make an effort. Alice Munro, for example.
This books of memoir-ish essays was worth it – although I didn’t finish, because something was wrong with my Kindle version and if I shut the book, it opened at the start and then I had to thumb through till I got to my page. Which was bearable until I was at about 50 per cent of the book, and then it got old. This was exacerbated by the fact that with dense essays of this sort, I tend to start and stop and come back to it.
I’ll leave you with a taste:
Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself come from, and where you will go.
The things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation. Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration – how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown. n territory, about becoming someone else.
It is the job of artists to open doors and invite in prophesies, the unknown, the unfamiliar; it’s where their work comes from, although its arrival signals the beginning of the long disciplined process of making it their own. Scientists too, as J. Robert Oppenheimer once remarked, “live always at the ‘edge of mystery’ – the boundary of the unknown.” But they transform the unknown into the known, haul it in like fishermen; artists get your out only that dark sea.
Something About You, Julie James
This is updated Harlequin, something I haven’t read in ages. Read my thoughts here.
Bringing Down the Duke, Evie Dunmore
This is one of the best, if not the best, things I read this year. My thoughts here.
A Rogue of One’s Own, Evie Dunmore
Hard to decide whether I liked this one more than Bringing Down the Duke. Lucie is who I identify with more, but my romantic prototype I like to think is more Bringing Down the Duke. My thoughts here.
Margaret the First, Danielle Sutton
This is a very whimsical, episodic life of Margaret Cavendish, the 17th C philosopher, scientist, and writer. My reaction to it reminded me of how I felt when I first watched Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth. I was nonplussed but then the impressions stayed with me, and it’s become one of my favourite films. I can’t say the same is going to happen with this book, but I enjoyed it, and I learnt about a fascinating woman, one of those we should but don’t learn about in philosophy class.
A Thousand Ships, Natalie Haynes
I’ve been trying to get a hold of this forever – a retelling of the Illiad from the point of view of the women – and I finally did. I was predisposed to love it, and I did like it a lot, but with a smidgeon of the disappointment. For one, there was too much tragedy (but that’s basically what happened to the women, tragedy without the glory).
I also found Calliope, the muses’ pronouncements, a bit too much. It was fine for one chapter, but then she spelled everything out too much. The idea of the war as something of an ecological cleansing – too many people, how to get rid of them – was timely, but it’s an idea I’m not fond of so I was vaguely irritated.
But also, there wasn’t enough getting into the women’s own heads, and more of them commenting on the actions of the men. I liked the bits on Polyxena and Briseus best (the latter became something of an obsessions with me thereafter. It never struct me before how Briseus – who I thought was a minor character – is actually a parallel Helen, a woman who changes the course of the war, but by pausing it).
Because of Madeline Miller, I am wedding to the idea of Achilles-Patroclus as the great love story, and the idea of it being “only friendship” doesn’t sit quite well with me. Of course, I began craving to read Miller again, but then I downloaded a whole pile of Troy novels and that faded. I basically fell down a Troy rabbit hole for the rest of the month.
The Song of Troy, Colleen McCullough
So, once one knows the mythology, the fun of reading new takes is how they explain the unexplainable. This version provided some backstory that I didn’t know and also contextualised the war as an economic conflict – a trade war as it were. But I didn’t find some of the explanations entirely convincing: why did Priam insist on getting his sister back? It’s understandable that Agamemnon would want an excuse for a war, but why would Priam provoke one? Helen falling in love with Paris was also not entirely plausible – which is why the myth provides a divine explanation (Aphrodite’s promise, but this novel ellided that).
Odysseus’ rationale for goading Agamemnon into killing Iphigenia was also not solid – he said that if he lost his son, Agamemnon should lose his daughter, but Odysseus’s son wasn’t dead. And if Odysseus didn’t want a war in the first place, why would he encourage a sacrifice that would prolong the war?
What struck me is the similarity between the Troy myth and the Mahabharata. A Thousand Ships suggested the real reason for the war was the need for a cosmic cleansing, an idea also suggested in the Mahabharata. The story of Thetis and Peleus was similar to the Shantanu/Ganga story in the Mahabharata.
McCullough provides a lot of details about the strategic choices in the war – splitting the army, for example. She also provides a political implications – Agamemnon’s need to defend the new (patriarchal) religion over the old.
Finally, McCullough’s take on the Achilles-Patroclus relationship is that it is just a friendship, a proposition that seems somewhat heretical to me, seeing as what got me started on this trip was Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles, which was basically and Achilles-Patroclus love story. Could this be “just friendship”? Maybe, but McCullough’s take a pretty heteronormative, centering Achilles and Briseus and turning Patroclus into a sullen reject.
Girl, Woman, Other – Bernadine Evaristo
Years ago, Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman was a pop-feminist sensation, although I don’t think it has aged particularly well. This novel should replace it – a fictional portrayal of the many permutations and combinations of (black) womanhood.
The Silence of the Girls, Pat Barker
Another female perspective on the events of Troy, this time narrated primarily through Briseus, who I now realise I’ve been fascinated with ever since the Troy movie (starring Brad Pitt as Achilles and Diane Kruger as Helen).
13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, Mona Awad
Apparently, a fat girl can’t win – even if she’s thin. This is one of those angsty, clever girl novels, that I realise I’m not 100% a fan of. However, because she is not a manic pixie goth girl, but a fat girl, I was more interested. It’s also good that the novel goes beyond the teenage years, but unfortunately, she remains consistently unhappy.