What I read in March

Recently, a conversation with my husband led me to a new language for thinking about my reading: reading for the journey vs. reading for the destination. The distinction itself isn’t what’s new. I’ve written before about the different kinds of reading I do, for work, research, relaxation. But admittedly, none of the language I usually use has felt satisfying, which is to say accurate.

I tend to resist categorization. I accept that it can be necessary, but “balance is best in all things” (Odyssey 7.355, Fagles translation). Meaning, we sometimes need categories, and we sometimes need to blow them open. In this case, the categories “journey” and “destination” aren’t ironclad (when are they, really?), but they’re illuminating.

When I read modern fiction, I’m reading for the experience of reading. I want to spend time nestled into my chaise, a blanket across my lap, an iced coffee at my side, a book in my hands. I want to read the words and form pictures, impressions, thoughts. I’m seeking that creative conversation between words and my imagination that simultaneously transports and grounds me. The former because I’m taken out of myself and the second because I’m connected to human experience—whether it’s the communal experience of reading a book read by others, or the conversation between the author and me, or the insights the story gives me about what it means to be human.

When I read ancient literature and history of and scholarship around ancient literature, I may still be reading for the journey, for the experience of it, but I’m also reading with a specific knowledge goal in mind. For example, I want to know more about a particular aspect of Homeric epic or to expand my knowledge of the sub-fields within Homeric scholarship or to read ancient poetry that carries on a conversation with Homeric epic. The reading experience may transport and ground me, but that’s not my explicit purpose. My explicit purpose is to expand my knowledge.

This month, I thought it would be interesting to assess my reading through the lens of these two categories and see how that impacts the way I assess the books themselves.

The journey:

These are the books I picked up in March when I wanted to get lost in a book, wander around an unfamiliar world, etc.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

Chambers’ adult SFF novel follows a group of space travelers as they undertake a dangerous mission. It’s a slow-paced study of character and group dynamics. The social commentary can feel a bit heavy-handed at times, but overall, I enjoyed reading this and would recommend it for readers who like SFF that is character-driven and humorous.

The Sound of Stars by Alechia Dow

This is a debut YA SFF novel about human Ellie and alien Morris who form an alliance, go on a cross-country road trip, and attempt to overthrow the alien empire. It’s a well-meaning novel with quite a few satisfying plot twists. It reads on the young end of YA, perhaps in part because of the blunt force of the social messaging.  

The Two Lives of Lydia Bird by Josie Silver

I picked this up because it has an alternate dimensions element, and plays on time are one of my favorite conceits. The story revolves around Lydia, who is grappling with the untimely death of her fiancé, Freddy. Each time she takes her doctor-prescribed sleeping pills, Lydia falls asleep into a world in which Freddy is still alive. The novel never answers whether her sleep-life with Freddy is an alternate dimension or vivid dreams because that is beside the point. What matters is Lydia’s evolution in each of her lives and how increasingly irreconcilable these two Lydias are. The novel is an interesting and at times insightful thought experiment, especially on grief, personal growth, and relationship dynamics. I saw the ending coming from page three, and I have my quibbles with some of its subconscious messaging. I won’t say here for the sake of spoilers, but anyone who wants to discuss it can find me @bookishinCT on Instagram or Twitter. That aside, this was an engrossing book. Once I started reading it, I didn’t want to put it down.

The Last Magician (The Last Magician #1) by Lisa Maxwell

Here is another novel I picked up because it promised (and delivered) a time travel element. Esta, a magician from modern-day New York, travels back in time to recover a precious artifact that can save the persecuted Mageus, practitioners of an old form of almost extinct magic. The story was absorbing, with plenty of plot twists, some I saw coming and some not. I liked the balance between character development and dramatic events and would recommend this for readers who enjoy fantasy that is not too dark and violent.

A Pinch of Magic by Michelle Harrison

This middle grade novel found its way onto my bookshelves last year when I was on a layover in London and fell in love with the cover. Embarrassing, but it happens. Happily, I can tell you that the story on the inside was just as lovely as the outside. It follows three sisters who are cursed to never leave their town. They go on a quest, and I’m sure you can imagine what will happen. The fun is the twists and turns along the way. Also important: The way the novel resolves speaks to the importance of empathy and care. This is a novel that can teach young readers about being humble and unselfish.

The destination:

These are the books I read for my research and freelance work projects. I’d recommend any of them to readers who are interested in expanding their knowledge of ancient Greek literature.

Idylls by Theocritus, translated by Anthony Verity

This is a collection of poems by Theocritus of Syracuse who was active during the third century BC. The style and content of the poems vary—from vignettes of daily life, to hymns in praise of the Ptolemies in Alexandria, to brief narrative myth retellings. Consistent throughout the poems is the juxtaposition of ephemeral moment and lurking doom. As a result, the poems can be deeply witty and charming, but they are also guarded, aware of themselves within poetic tradition and human institutions subject to the whims of human power.

The World of Odysseus by Moses I. Finley

This is a bit of a classic in Homeric scholarship. Originally published in the 1950s, the book’s central argument, supported with close reading of the Homeric poems, is that they represent the social mores and values of Iron Age Greece. I found the chapter on household, kin, and community especially illuminating. That said, we should always be aware, when reading scholarship and history, that evidence is interpreted, and interpretation inevitably reflects the beliefs and values of a particular person and time.

The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson

This was a reread for me, and since my first reading, I’ve read some 10 or so different translations. I have yet to read one that is as accessible, fluid, and well-paced as Wilson’s. As with Stephen Mitchell’s Iliad translation, Wilson’s verse makes me want to keep reading. As with all translation, hers does some things extraordinarily well and others things less well. In the former category is the beautiful iambic pentameter verse and overall rhythm. In the latter category, the lack of epithets can invite misreading, and some of her translation choices overdetermine the poem’s meaning, blunting the nuance and ambiguity that can make reading Homer equal parts thrilling and maddening.

Medea by Euripides, translated by Rachel Kitzinger

Euripides’ tragedy concerns the priestess of Hecate from Colchis, the eponymous Medea, who helped Jason capture the golden fleece and return to Greece with it. Along with the prized fleece, Jason brought Medea back to Greece. They married and had two sons, but when the play opens, Jason has taken a second wife, and Medea is very unhappy indeed. Modern readers can approach the play from any number of vantage points. What I find most fascinating are the debates between Jason and Medea, apropos of a play performed in democratic 5th century Athens. I encourage everyone to read this play as a reminder that women’s stories and perspectives were told in antiquity, albeit typically by men.

The Cambridge Companion to Homer by Robert L. Fowler

This is a collection of essays on topics in Homeric studies. They’re quite accessible and endlessly fascinating.


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