Monthly Archives: December 2012

Smugglivus: Discovering Fantasy


Today, I can be found over at The Book Smugglers, where I talk about how I discovered the wonder of fantasy books in 2012, with many thanks to Thea and Ana for inviting me over and for “the other” Ana for recommending many of the books mentioned.

I am very honoured (and inevitably a little nervous!) for being invited to write a guest post for this year’s Smugglivus. I hope you will click over to check it out.

What Happens When You Take Iris to London…

…You arrive home with a teddy bear and books, of course!

Apologies for the quality of the picture.

Apologies for the quality of the picture.

  • I had the most wonderful time in London. We did a lot of the tourist-y stuff, but we also took our time just wandering around and looking at all the beautiful Christmas lights. Perhaps I’d find London a little too big and busy for everyday life, but I definitely love it as a visitor.
  • I did not do that much literary stuff, as this was the first time Bas and I visited London together (and Bas’ first time there). I did visit a few bookshops on Charing Cross Road, any bookshops we came across while wandering, and of course Persephone Books, so I cannot complain
  • I found The Diary of a Provincial Lady in a secondhand bookshop. I own the hardcover cloth bound VMC edition of the first book, but I couldn’t resist taking this edition that also has The Porvincial Lady Goes FurtherThe Provincial Lady in America, and The Provincial Lady in Wartime in it.
  • The same goes for Thank Heaven Fasting. This book might be around everywhere in the UK in secondhand bookshops for all I know, but I had been looking for it for a while online. Unsurprising, I had no luck in Dutch bookshops, so I was very happy that I finally came across it at a very friendly price.
  • As for the Persephones: I knew I had to get Consequences as it might just be my favourite Persephone. I also really wanted another Dorothy Whipple as I’ve enjoyed her fiction before (especially Greenbanks, which might be my next favourite). So I bought They Were Sisters, which I was told is pretty depressing, but so is Consequences so I figured I’d give it a try. The third book is The Home-maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, which I was advised to pick up after I asked for advice. It sounds really interesting.
  • The most embarrassing moment might have been when Bas mentioned to the person I asked for advice in the Persphone shop that we had brought old clothes with us so as to have space for books on our return journey. I am pretty shy and embarrassed talking to someone from a publisher I like so much anyway, so I basically became a severely blushing and stumbling Iris.
  • Now that I’m speaking of embarrassment, I might have also literally jumped for joy when I found out there is a Moomin shop in Covent Garden. We were standing next to the huge advent calendar when I saw it and went “Bas *jump* Bas! *jump*, they have a Moomin shop! A MOOMIN SHOP!” I browsed the shop two times over, but I couldn’t settle on anything that would fit and/or not break on our return journey, and so I only brought two buttons. Next time…
  • Next time, I also hope to meet up with some bloggers. I am very sorry that I did not get to do so this time, but as this was the first proper vacation Bas and I had together since finishing our Bachelor, I felt I wouldn’t be justified in spending part of that time meeting with friends and leaving him alone. I am sure he would not have had a problem with it, it was just a matter of making the best of our limited time together and then settling on a next time for meetups.

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

The Penelopiad - Margaret AtwoodThe Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus – Margaret Atwood
Canangate Myths, 2005
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *

I see what you did there, Margaret Atwood. You are slowly worming your way into my brain and convincing me that women’s stories deserve to be heard, especially those that have been doubly forgotten. (Um, as if I needed any convincing, but it is nice to see it “in action” so to speak). And you do it so eloquently.

Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?

“Now that I’m dead I know everything”. This is what I wished would happen, but like so many of my wishes it failed to come true. I know only a few factoids that I didn’t know before. Death is much too high a price to pay for the satisfaction of curiosity, needless to say.

Since being dead – since achieving this state of bonelessness, liplessness, beastlessness – I’ve learned some things I would rather not know, as one does when listening at windows or opening other people’s letters. You think you’d like to read minds? Think again.

The Penelopiad is the story of Penelope and Odysseus – although I really feel that subtitle is deceiving; this is the story of Penelope – retold by Penelope, interchanged with a chorus of the twelve maids that were hanged when Odysseus returned, from the perspective of the afterlife, or, you might even say, from a contemporary perspective, as Penelope appeals to what the readers would be familiar with, when she tries to explain her story, the setting, and her decisions.

Atwood makes it pretty clear in the short introduction accompanying this retelling, that she did not want to offer the story of Penelope as the perfect and faithful wife, who waited for her husband to return from battle in the Trojan war, even when rumours kept reaching her that he was sleeping with other women on his way home. I imagine that in Atwood’s vision these stories cast both Penelope and the maids as women without agency, held up by men as examples of bad or good behaviour, but unable to tell their own version of the stories. Penelope as the victim of the stories told about her, while the twelve maids are the victim of their untold stories. Or am I oversimplifying things? I do not know, I have not read the”original” myth (it feels a bit weird to refer to one version of a myth as the original – I meant, of course, the version of Homer).

So what Atwood gives us is Penelope’s version of her story. She has watched her story being told and retold over the centuries, and now she’s given us her version. What stands out in her version is that it is as if she’s constantly defending herself, as to some unknown listener. She defends her actions, she feigns (?) or tells of (?) her innocence, her purity, her faithfulness. At the same time, the chorus of maids offer a counterpoint to Penelope’s version of events. They offer a less innocent picture of Penelope. They also offer a window into their own world, the world of girls who are not “royalty”. This is where class and gender intersect. This is where Atwood had me most interested.

Overall, The Penelopiad  was interesting. It was a short read, and a read that kept me engaged the whole time. The change in format, especially the different formats used by the maids to get their version of events across, shook me awake from the overall rhythm, in a way that worked really well for the most part. Nevertheless, my engagement was no feverish turning of the pages, as it was when I read The Song of Achilles, but I enjoyed it well enough.

(Have you discovered a theme in my posts yet? It’s “let’s start with the retellings instead of the originals” – week)

Other Opinions: Lifetime Reading Plan, Ela’s Book BlogJules’ Book Reviews, Opinions of a Wolf, A Book Blog. Period., Book Clutter, Curious Book FansLinus’s Blanket, Rantings of a Bookworm Couch Potato, Geranium Cat’s Bookshelf, Becky’s Book Reviews, The Reading Life, Adventures in Reading, Always cooking up something, Books Under Skin, Stuck in a Book, eclectic/eccentric, Things Mean a Lot, Rhinoa’s Ramblings,  Reading With Tea, bookgirl’s nightstand, Wandering in the Stacks, Booknotes by Lisa, The Written World, The Magic Lasso, Stella Matutina, Fizzy Thoughts, So Many Books, Buried in Print, The Captive Reader,  lotusreads, Sasha & the Silverfish, A Work in Progress.
Did I miss your post about this book? Let me know and I will add it to the list. 

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Orange Reading: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles - Madeline MillerThe Song of Achilles – Madeline Miller
Bloomsbury, 2011

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The Iliad and The Odyssey have been sitting on my shelf for a while now. I am ashamed to say that I never really had much interest in reading them. I know. Homer! First historian! One of those “stories of stories”! And yet.. nope, never really interested me.

The Song of Achilles, however? Why should not I be interested? It won this year’s Orange Prize, it is universally loved by bloggers.. I could not wait until my hold would finally come in at the library.

Can I give you the short version? I loved this. I started reading. I could hardly put it down. I stayed up ’till far past midnight in order to know what would happen, how it would happen, even though I knew what would happen, even though I knew we would irrevocably come to that tragic ending. And yet, I loved every page along the way of getting to that end. I loved the end, even though it had me in tears.

If ever a book had me interested in reading the original, it is this one, for this version of Achilles and Patroclus’ life before and during the Trojan war is stellar.

There is just one question that has been nagging at me these past weeks months since finishing the book. Yes, it was definitely one of the top reads of this year, and apparently I am not alone given the praise it receives everywhere.. But I often find that books like this one, that have me feverishly obsessed with the characters and the story and the prose, have me questioning if, when I return to it one day, I will find it as good and as beautiful. Because stories like this can feel a little bit like a dream, that is too easily popped. I hope that won’t turn out to be the case for The Song of Achilles. I even feel a little guilty for daring to mention it.

Other Opinions: Savidge Reads, The Allure of Books, Vulpes Libris, Rivers I Have Known, Novel Insights, A Fiction Habit, Devourer of Books, A Work in Progress, Page247, Always cooking up something, She Reads Novels, Fleur Fisher, The parenthesis and the footnote, nomadreader, Sam Still Reading, Killin’ Time Reading, Buried in Print, The Literary Stew, Fizzy Thoughts, The Broke and the Bookish, Farm Lane Books Blog, Musings, Gossamer Obsessions.
Did I miss your post about this book? Let me know and I will add it to the list.

* These are affiliate links. If you buy a product through either of them, I will receive a small percentage of the purchase price.

Gil Marsh by A.C.E. Bauer

Gil Marsh - ACE BauerGil Marsh – A.C.E. Bauer
Random House Books for Young Readers, 2012

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Gil Marsh is the name of the main character of this book. He is an athletic and popular boy, who feels threatened when a new boy, Enko, shows up at school at first. Enko seems to be able to run harder than Gil can, and quickly snatches up the girl Gil was supposed to have as a date to a highschool dance. However, Gil soon learns that Enko does not intend him to be jealous, and they become friends. However, that’s when tragedy strikes. Enko dies of an aggressive form of cancer. His parents bury him in Canada and Gil is unable to let go of his former friends. Opposed by his parents, Gil emerges on a trip to find the grave of his friend, and to come to terms with his loss.

A few years ago, in my first year of religious studies, I took a class on the Old Testament in its cultural context. One of the books that was repeatedly mentioned was the Epic of Gilgamesh. I vividly remember the teacher’s descriptions and I admit I cannot hear the name of that tale without some form of fascination taking hold. Of course, I have failed utterly in following up on that impulse and actually reading the epic. I hope that will change someday.

I am not telling you this story to let you in on my failure to read classics. Instead, I hope that it explains why I could not resist requesting the egalley of this Young Adults contemporary retelling of the Gilgamesh epic when it appeared on Netgalley. Due to time restraints and the inevitable expiration date on egalleys I never read it. Now, a few months later, I ended up reading it in print, which is perhaps better because this means I won’t have to sent a disappointed opinion straight to the publisher.

Why was I disappointed?

Firstly, the plot felt a little underdeveloped. The friendship between Gil and Enko felt a little too sudden, especially for Gil to feel so lost when he lost Enko. Sure, we are told that they were the closest of friends before Enko became ill, and yet I would have liked to have read about it more. At the very least that would have enabled me to feel more for Gil.

Which brings me to the second point at which this book disappointed: the characterisation of Gil. We are told that Gil is athletic, smart, and popular, and yet, that smartness never really shows throughout the story. I will allow any character its faults in a book, but the craze with which Gil pursues his idea of finding Enko’s grave, without thinking it through or consulting Enko’s parents for clues.. it’s all a little bit farfetched. I do not know much about the Epic of Gilgamesh, but I can imagine how in that book a search for meaning is explored as a consequence of loss. I feel that the same is attempted in this book, but the circumstances under which Gil pursues meaning are not easy to commit to as a reader. He thinks his parents won’t understand, and he cannot ask for the help of Enko’s parents because they would know where he was once his parents found out he had run away.. I don’t know, it’s all a little too convenient to allow Gil his trip on his own.

And once he’s on that trip, the decisions he makes feel so out of the blue. There are moments when I sighed because of the way he acts. He takes the help of so many strangers for granted, in a naive and sometimes selfish manner. He doesn’t seem to think of consequences before he acts, at any step on the way of his trip. Perhaps this was meant as a “coming of age” theme in the book, but for me personally, it did not work. Instead, I was left with the feeling that Gil was a little too selfish. But most of all, I think I do not like it when teenagers are depicted as solely self-absorbed. Yes, I was selfish in my sadness back when I was fifteen, at times, but it’s a leap to go from that to the behaviour of Gil. I know I was not meant to take it that way, but with the way the story was build up, I feel that my sympathy was lacking exactly because I got so little time to acquire any for him.

And yet, I did finish reading this book. Reading it was not a punishment. I think the problem is that I constantly felt that it could have been so much more. That it might have been a very deep and meaningful exploration of what loss does to people, and how we all have to find a way to deal with that. Or it might have been an exploration of the meaningful friendships humans can establish. Gil Marsh, however, only seems to skim the surface of both themes, which meant that it ended up being unsatisfactory.

P.S. I am starting to think that perhaps I just have trouble with this kind of travel tale. I felt a similar detachment for this story as I felt when I read Away by Amy Bloom, which I also felt only skimmed the surface of what it could have been.

Other Opinions: The Book Smugglers,  bookshelves of doom, Lauren’s Crammed Bookshelf, Yours? 

* These are affiliate links. If you buy a product through either of them, I will receive a small percentage of the purchase price.