My dear ones, how are you faring in these persistently uncertain, unsettled times? That seems like a relevant question when we're talking about books and journeys and destinations, does it not?
The ones featured in this piece took place in April, under the larger banner of the OWLs magical readathon. It was a month when I was meant to take several literal journeys. I didn't, of course, but the literary ones were, overall, quite satisfying.
Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson
Elisabeth has spent her whole life among the grimoires at the Great Library of Summershall. After an accident implicates her in an act of sabotage, she’s sent away to face charges and discovers the narrative that she has been told her whole life is not the full story. Relatable, am I right?
This YA fantasy novel features romance, magic, battles, and books with consciousness. My expectations were quite modest, and I enjoyed this book, especially the lovely writing. The romance did rate on the cheese meter, but the larger story was charming. At its heart, the novel is about realizing the world isn’t as simple as you believed and expanding your view accordingly.
Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov, translated by Mirra Ginsburg
In Soviet Moscow, a physician undertakes an experiment that turns a stray dog into a man. Complications ensue.
Bitingly funny and quietly tragic, it’s a fable about the danger of flawed humans achieving their ideals. More narrowly, it’s a commentary on the Soviet Union. It’s not hard to imagine why Bulgakov was suppressed.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Harry Potter #3) by J. K. Rowling
I couldn’t do the OWLs Magical Readathon without rereading at least one of the Harry Potter novels. This is one of my favorites in the series, probably because it has a time travel element, one of my favorite conceits.
Besides time travel, I love how this book starts to flesh out the world and the characters. The first two books involve a fair bit of caricature, but this book starts to dive deeper.
Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak
At Christmas, a British doctor returns home from treating victims of a virulent flu (ahem) and must remain in quarantine with her family for seven, drama-filled days.
The first third dragged, but after the halfway point, the story sucked me in. Plus the California character through British eyes is adorable. Ultimately, this is a touching and at times hopeful portrait of a family in crisis. (Though a certain thing that happened at the end was not necessary...email me if you know what I'm talking about.)
We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faisal
This young adult Arabia-inspired fantasy revolves around two central characters, Zafira and Nasir, whose paths cross when they go in search of the same magical artifact.
This novel's strengths are the lovely writing, setting, and plot reveals. Uneven pacing was my biggest struggle getting through it. At times, I couldn’t put it down while at other points it dragged.
The Pale Dreamer by Samantha Shannon
A novella prequel set in Samantha Shannon’s Bone Season world, it begins with Paige Mahoney joining the gang and going out on her first big assignment, hoping to impress.
The story has a “this is for the fans” vibe to it. Nothing ground-breaking or revelatory, but it was nice to be back in this world while we hit for book four.
Works and Days by Hesiod, translated by A. E. Stallings
In this archaic Greek didactic poem, you will find out about the stages of mankind, the creation of Pandora and women, and lots of random advice about sailing, farming, reading natural signs, and lucky days for undertaking assorted activities, absolutely none of it relevant to the modern world...probably?
Alicia Stallings uses mostly rhyming couplets, with modern language. It's an invigorating combination that lends a sense of age and tradition to the translation without bogging it down with archaisms. It’s briskly paced!
If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, translated by Anne Carson
Sappho, even in fragments, captures the acuteness of longing. Anne Carson’s translation includes brackets to indicate breaks in surviving text. This transformed my reading of Sappho’s poetry, aligning my incomplete reading experience with the feelings so many of the fragments describe.
Sappho was active in the late seventh century BC. She may have been from a prominent family. She may have been involved with a school for girls. Much of her actual life remains shrouded in mystery, as per usual with archaic poets. What we do know: Called the 10th muse, she was read and admired in antiquity.
Nobody by Alice Oswald
Alice Oswald’s collection of Odyssey-inspired poems follow threads that are hinted at but not part of the central story. The poems collapse boundaries thematically (e.g. past and present, poet and audience) and structurally. Sentences spill over and run into each other, evoking the pounding surf and Homer’s “winged words.”
I read this in one sitting. The narrative point of view felt like a bird in flight, surveying the landscape, occasionally swooping down for a closer look. It was magical.
The Iliad: A Graphic Novel Adaptation by Gareth Hinds
I haven’t read many graphic novels simply because what I love about reading is imagining the characters and the world. But I couldn’t resist seeing how Gareth Hinds would bring Homer’s world to life.
This is a great intro to Homer for younger readers Hinds distills the story without losing its key themes and motifs. Supplementary notes are helpful without being overwhelming, and the illustrations add impact in ways that I hadn’t anticipated. I highly recommend this.
Jason and the Golden Fleece by Apollonius of Rhodes, translated by Richard Hunter
Composed during the third century BC, Jason and the Golden Fleece, aka Argonautica, narrates the myth of Jason and the Argonauts’ quest to Colchis to capture the golden fleece, Medea’s role in their success, and their fraught journey home. Preceding texts to read alongside it include the Odyssey, Euripides’ Medea, and Pindar’s Pythian IV.
Jason is not your Homeric hero. He’s uncertain and inept, overshadowed by Heracles, even when the later is not present. Apollonius’ play on Homeric analogies is witty and biting:
“With these words he sprang up and, filthy with dust, shouted over the wastes to his companions, like a lion which roars as it seeks its mate through the forest; at the sound of its deep voice the mountain glades far away resound, and the cattle in the fields and the herdsmen of the cattle shudder with fright. But Jason’s voice did not terrify the Argonauts, as it was a comrade calling to his friends. They all gathered around him, their heads lowered in despair.” (Richard Hunter translation)
If Homeric heroes annoy you, you might especially enjoy this send-up of them. Argonautica is self-conscious about its place in poetic traditions and preoccupied with human power and institutions.
A Tale Without a Name by Penelope Delta
A fable originally written in Greek in 1910/11, it tells the story of a once-great kingdom’s decline (due to indolence and corruption) and rebirth under a humble, ethical, and hardworking prince. This is best read in the context of Balkan history of the early 20th century.
Delta was born in Alexandra, eventually moving with her family to Athens. Their family home is today the Benaki Museum. She wanted to create a national children’s literature and wrote several books, but she struggled with limitations on and expectations for women, which are tragically/ironically reflected in this fable.