Tuesday, September 05, 2006


Of course I feel a bit guilty about it, but I must confess that certain issues of the New York Review of Books go almost completely unread round here--sometimes I just look at the table of contents and my frivolous heart sinks. (The TLS never gives me this feeling of overseriousness but I must also admit that it's a psychic obstacle the way it comes wrapped in plastic, if I'm very busy they just pile up without even being opened and then I have to skim through a whole bunch at once and be highly selective about which pieces I'm actually going to read.) But the fall books issue of the NYRB is full of delightfully good articles, just the kind of thing I like, and I thought I would give a heads-up to other frivolous readers that they should make sure to take a look.

Most of it isn't available for free online, but there's a great piece by Hilary Mantel on Pankaj Mishra, Larry McMurtry on the Texas Rangers, Ian Buruma on the Nanjing Massacre (including some fascinating stuff about manga denials of Japanese atrocities during the war in China), Jonathan Spence on Mao's Great Terror, Alma Guillermoprieto on Bolivian politics and Brian Urquhart on two books about the Middle East (I am actually capable of reading about politics in the Middle East, just not when it's very policyish, Urquhart's piece is superb & includes a very compelling account of Emma Williams' Jerusalem memoir), Lorrie Moore on Eudora Welty and literary biography (that one you can read for free) and Fred Anderson on Gordon Wood's character sketches of the founding fathers. If every issue of the NYRB was like this, I would read it from cover to cover the moment in arrived in my mailbox....

Other than Daniel Mendelsohn's 9/11 essay, which I blogged about late last week, two pieces particularly interested me; a few thoughts follow below. The first is an excellent essay by Allen Orr that to my mind provides a model for how a review may be at once fair and highly critical ("Reject the book wholesale and you reject important truths; embrace it wholeheartedly and you embrace a good deal of nonsense"). On balance, it falls down on the critical side, and yet I suspect that many people who read Orr's piece will be driven to go and buy and read Wade's book and see for themselves, and that quite a few of those readers will be more sympathetic than Orr towards Wade's "adaptive tales."

The other piece that sparked thoughts was Jasper Griffin on Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad, which I am rather curious to read. It too is very beautifully written, but I was especially interested by Griffin's opening thoughts on the Iliad versus the Odyssey. "The Greeks themselves always ranked [the Odyssey] below the Iliad; that was the Great Poem, but later generations have often disagreed with their verdict," he says; and I started to think about how strongly I prefer the Iliad to the Odyssey, and always have.

Of course the Odyssey is the great narrative of storytelling and embedded narratives and so forth, and I love the role the scar episode plays in Auerbach's book on mimesis, but I think the only part of it that really falls on my own short list of most essential literary things is the voyage to the underworld in book 6, and the reappearance of Agamemnon and Achilles.

It's the Iliad that really gets me; somehow everything about the mood and the issues and that amazing character stuff going on with Agamemnon and Achilles is just exactly what I love, and the ending is unbelievably moving. If I am a retired old lady with time on my hands I am going to learn Greek and read a lot of this stuff in the original, it is really inexplicable how that couple hundred years of Greek culture produced the most amazing stuff.

(The Greek play I most want to adapt for a modern audience is Euripides, The Bacchae. I am determined to do it, just not quite yet.)

Anyway, my question is this: do you think that everyone is either an Iliad or an Odyssey person, and if so, which are you?


  1. Odyssey person, definitely. The Fitzgerald translation should be enough to make anyone an Odyssey person - and Fitzgerald's breathtaking Afterword will only add to the effect.

  2. I like The Odyssey better. But I think it's mostly because I've read it three times, and so the details of it stand out to me more than those of The Iliad (which I've read once). Plus I really like that one Ducktales episode that runs through a few of the books. I did enjoy The Iliad, though, and would like to read it again. I think it's generally neglected in lower education because the different sections aren't as distinct from one another, compared to The Odyssey. (and you can't so much make a 24 minute cartoon out of parts of The Iliad.) I should re-read both of them now that I'm a grown up, and then come back and write a better reply...

  3. A few links with Breakfast for Pandora about the new Lombardo audio recordings, which happen to be tops on my Christmas list for my daughter. (My children claim I always buy them presents I'd like for myself...)




  4. I sympathise about the problem of churning through the NYRB every fortnight or so. Being a bit dim, I never managed to skim it and felt compelled, because I'd paid for it, to read every word of (almost) every article. After two years of it, and not getting much other reading done, I didn't renew my subscription. For this, and many other reasons, I do so appreciate the sumamries and highlights you provide on your blog.

  5. Odyssey, definitely, but due more perhaps to repeated exposures to it during childhood, whereas The Illiad was an left untouched until late in college.

    That and I played Penelope in 5th grade--she fascinates me.

  6. heyzeus!: No, I don't think I'd need to learn Greek for the Bacchae project I have in mind; I'd take a literal translation and adapt it, it's a more modern and freer adaptation I have in mind. And I could always check with a classicist friend as needed.

    Ryan G.: Yes, Odyssey better suited to cartoons!

    Lee: Thanks for the links, I don't think I know those at all.

    James: Glad occasional summary/highlight posts are useful: but I think you must blame the NYRB rather than yourself for its sometimes-dullness! Anyway, we (most of us) are just reading these things for pleasure, if it stops being a pleasure it is quite right to stop.

    A Lady: I think I read bits of the Iliad as a kid and then the whole thing in tenth-grade history class and that's partly why it has its sway over me. Though come to think of it, although I am prone to homesickness & that part of the Odyssey makes sense to me, of course I am more excited about the Iliad's vision of fame/immortality and also inter-team conflict (the whole Achilles/Agamemnon thing is like being on a really tough committee!) than about the travel/domesticity paradigm of the Odyssey....

    Sara: I am glad SOMEONE shares my Iliad preference! Really, it seems to me so much incomparably both the greater and the more appealing poem....

  7. We gave up the NYRB years ago because we never read it, and I have to admit that I was completely disgusted by the dearth of women reviewers. I wonder if it has gotten any better, but back then it was maybe one or tops two an issue, often none. Funny, I was just thinking today about what makes a good review, and how the NYRB used to frustrate me because the reviewers too often used the book simply as an excuse to riff upon the subject at hand, while the NYT too often simply describes and summarizes without opining. I do think the TLS is probably best, and I read it in the bathroom at my in-laws', but I feel that if we subscribed, it too would pile up unread, because that's how we are...