Sunday, November 23, 2008

Reading Update

Book #49 was The Group, by Mary McCarthy. This book came out in 1963 and was already a bit of a historical novel at that time, since it deals with the lives and preoccupations of eight classmates at Vassar, the class of 1933. I found it a bit turgid in places. (Here's a sample passage: "Her eyes, which were a light golden brown, were habitually narrowed, and her handsome, blowzy face had a plethoric look, as though darkened by clots of thought. She rarely showed her emotions, which appeared to have been burned out by the continual short-circuiting of her attention. All her statements, cursory and abbreviated, had a topical resonance, even when she touched on the intimate; today she made Helena think of the old riddle of the newspaper - black and white and red all over. She spoke absently and with an air of preoccupation, as though conducting a briefing session from memorized notes.") Still, it is a fascinating look at the ideas, attitudes, and concerns of a particular class of women at that time, touching as it does on birth control, mental illness, infant routines, and many other topics. I read that McCarthy based several of the characters on her own friends, and when they recognized themselves they were understandably put out.

Book #50 was The Hunger Games. This was recommended on someone's blog and I ordered it because it sounded like something my students would like. After reading it I saw that Stephenie Meyer is recommending it for readers of her books who are now hunting for something else to read. It's not much like the Twilight books but it's just as absorbing. The story is set in a dystopian future United States, now called Panem and divided into twelve districts. Once a year, two "tributes" are chosen from each district to appear in a televised contest called the "Hunger Games." It's the ultimate reality show, a combination of entertainment and punishment for a long-ago uprising against the Capitol. Many of my eighth graders are enjoying this book and already asking when the next one is coming out (it's supposed to be the first of a trilogy). I'm surprised by how many errors have made it into the text - pronoun errors, problems with mixed-up tenses, that kind of thing - but I have a feeling there will be many more reprintings where these can be corrected.

Book #51 was What Child is This?, by Caroline Cooney, whose books are popular in my classroom. This is different from her others I've read. It's a sweet Christmas story about foster kids. I liked it very much - a quick read and an uplifting one.

Book #52 was Elizabeth George's latest, Careless in Red. While the last book in the series was a virtuoso performance, I'm glad to be back with the familiar characters. Great stuff, as always.

Book #53 was The Year of Fog. I expected this book to be a page-turner, but it was much better written than I thought it was going to be. It's about a child disappearing, yes, but also about memory and how people cope with loss. I saw a review comparing it to The Deep End of the Ocean, by Jacquelyn Mitchard (the book, not the movie, which wasn't nearly as good), and I think it's a good comparison. I stayed up very late finishing this one and then couldn't sleep for hours thinking about it.

Book #54 was the third in a trilogy about the Trojan War. The author died before finishing it so I had resigned myself to not getting to finish the trilogy, but his wife finished writing it. I was sorry that it had been so long since I had read the first two books, since they were not fresh in my mind at all, but I loved Troy: Fall of Kings. Again, I loved the way you see the myth developing even as the real events take place - Odysseus figuring out how he's going to retell the story, for example, and the discussion of Helen and how the soldiers remember her. Practically everyone in the story has a different fate from his or her namesake in the original story, so you have to keep reading to the very end instead of thinking you know what's going to happen. And the ending is the best part, with all the many, many threads brought together. Even the Trojan Horse isn't what you're expecting, and wait until you read what happens after the sack of Troy! My only complaint - way too much fighting - is an unfair one, given the subject of the book. And it's the same complaint I have about the next book...

Book #55: I finally finished reading The Iliad! I thought that since I keep holding forth about it with very little knowledge to go by (here, for example), I really should read the original. I'd read excerpts but this is my first time through the whole thing. And yeah, there's too much fighting. I got tired of reading exactly where the sword or spear went into every single person and how his innards fell out. Blech. However, there are wonderful, wonderful things in this book. I guess that's why it's still read about twenty seven hundred years after it was written. These characters, mortal and immortal, are finely drawn individuals. Helen points out all the Greeks to Priam and tells him all she knows about each one. Menelaus wants to show mercy, but his brother Agamemnon mocks him until he kills Adrestus. Andromache begs Hector not to go fight, leaving her a widow and their son Astyanax fatherless. Astyanax recoils in horror from his father,

terrified by the flashing bronze, the horsehair crest,
the great ridge of the helmet nodding, bristling terror -
so it struck his eyes. And his loving father laughed,
his mother laughed as well, and glorious Hector,
quickly lifting the helmet from his head,
set it down on the ground, fiery in the sunlight,
and raising his son he kissed him, tossed him in his arms,
lifting a prayer to Zeus and the other deathless gods:
"Zeus, all you immortals! Grant this boy, my son,
may be like me, first in glory among the Trojans,
strong and brave like me, and rule all Troy in power
and one day let them say, 'He is a better man than his father!"

Zeus tells Hera how much she appeals to him by listing all the other women to whom she's superior, in a moment that made me laugh out loud. He even takes a moment to mention the "marvelous ankles" of one of his former loves, all to finish up, "That was nothing to how I hunger for you now!" We learn about the fine points of chariot racing, the burial customs of the Greeks and the Trojans, the amazing armor that Hephaestus makes for Achilles...a whole epic's worth of memorable moments. Not that I have anything to compare it to, but Robert Fagles' translation is readable and beautiful. I highly recommend that you read this, one of the original classics.

4 comments:

Tricia said...

I saw Year of the Fog in an airport bookstore earlier this year, and was intrigued by it. But then I wondered if it was in the bookstore because it was trendy but not worth reading. Based on your review, it sounds like it probably is worth reading.

Ruth said...

That's exactly the impression I had of it when I saw it in Target. I didn't buy it, but later when I got a chance to read it, I was pleasantly surprised. Hope you agree it's worth reading!

Jessica said...

I love to read your book reviews. I'm going to write these down. But, um, maybe not the Iliad :)

Ruth said...

Not the Iliad? Didn't I make it sound interesting enough? ;-)