Mildly Enthusiastic Review: The Lost Books of the Odyssey

er-thelostbooksoftheodysseyThe Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason

Category: Books

Find it on: LibraryThing

What it is:
A collection of 44 short stories, all centered around the character of Odysseus as he appears in the Iliad and the Odyssey but, of course, completely transformed through postmodern sensitivity. In fact, each short story – they’re unrelated and only called a novel to mess with you – consists of an intellectual exercise: What if Odysseus was Homer? What if the books were really a chess manual? What if Penelope was a werewolf?

How I found it:
I had it on my reading list to read after the real Odyssey, which I finally finished and followed up with this collection.

Summary judgment:
An impressive intellectual and literary exercise that I enjoyed more than the actual Odyssey.

Best things about it:
Well, if you read the Odyssey, you might have similar doubts that I had when I finally read it. I mean, Odysseus is a psychopath. (I know, I simplify without taking the times and circumstances into account but seriously, just look at the story.) We never get enough insight into his psychological life to understand him – because literature wasn’t big on psychology yet. I feel like Mason’s book makes the mythical story more approachable and intriguing, filling in some gaps left by the original narrative and trying to answer questions a modern reader will have. It also does it in a subtle, poetic and mostly unpretentious way that I enjoyed.

Worst things about it:
As is the case with collections, some of these stories are weaker than the others. I personally preferred staying closer to the original with fewer direct modern references.

Other pluses:
When I was just starting to read short stories my father told me this theory that a good short story has to have a surprising conclusion that twists the whole thing around in the last paragraph. I might have discovered since then that it isn’t always, or even usually, the case, but I still on some level expect such a construction from a short story and “One Kindness” scratched that particular itch.

Other minuses:
Only a small complaint about misrepresentation: this is in no way a novel. The cover lies. (It’s a good cover, though.)

How it enriched my life:
It made me understand the Odyssey better and feel more curious about the story than Homer’s work did.

Fun fact:
Zachary Mason wrote another book but professionally he’s a computer specialist who works in a startup. That makes this book a true work of passion and makes me even more impressed by it.

I’m not sure there’s a direct follow-up but I’m always interested in a reinterpretation of a classic myth.

Recommended for:
People somewhat interested in Greek mythology who would like to see a different approach to it. I recently saw it on a list of recommended books by a translator of the Odyssey‘s modern edition, so that should be a recommendation enough.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: 13 Reasons Why


Fairytale in New York: The Golem and the Jinni

er-thegolemandthejinniAround St. Valentine’s I happened to read something more or less love-related so here comes a thematic post.

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker will appeal to all you (us) Gaiman fans, at least those who always thought there’s too much pop culture savviness in his books and not nearly enough tenderness. It tells a story of end-of-nineteenth-century New York with its crucible of cultures, each of which brings its own legends and, unknowingly, magical creatures. Yes, something like American Gods but with less sex and way less gods.

As the title immediately informs, the protagonists are the golem, come from around Gdańsk, who represents Jewish culture, and the jinni, from a Syrian desert, who lives with Christian Syrian community. Their stories start separately but come together somewhere in the middle of the book, the encounter possible thanks to the magic of New York.

While the love that will ensue (is this a spoiler? I guess it’s obvious from the title) is not particularly thunderous (it evolves rather than erupts), another love dominates it: the one for the city of New York. New York of the novel is a mythical place, not only inhabited by magical creatures but also, like any true myth, it brings together opposites. The rich and the poor meet in the same parks and people exist both as a part of their secluded community and of something bigger that grows out of it. I quite enjoyed walking this city with the characters.

Like the city, the golem and the jinni struggle to unite oppositions: their generic nature that makes them act one way, and the confusing expectations of humanity that they’ve joined. Like most fairy tales, this is not particularly difficult or nuanced but the attempt to understand human beings – resulting in deciding to join their society – is interesting. Of the two creatures, I found golem much more engaging. She struggles maturely with her situation, not like a brat whose toys are taken away, the way the jinni sometimes acts. But also, the Jewish community itself held more attraction for me, maybe because of Gdańsk (or, historically accurate, Danzig, but we don’t like this name) and because Jewish culture is part of the literature I come from.

I also felt that the natures of the golem and the jinni reflected on, rather stereotypical, natures of women and men. The golem is born to submission, she lets caution guide her actions and passes the time with drudgery. The jinni rebels against caution, human ways and boring jobs, walks the city at night and leaves heiresses pregnant in his wake. I was wondering what would happen, were they the opposite and decided the male golem would be dull and the jinniyeh (which is apparently female jinni) irritatingly loose. So, I guess those stereotypes are not going anywhere. But the character who steals the show is actually the villain, the golem’s creator who arrives to New York in quest for eternal life: the author manages to make him both repulsive and fascinating as a villain should be.

Definitely not one of those grand reading experiences that stay with you forever, The Golem and the Jinni still read great and kept my interest; it even managed to be poetic at times. Sometimes (or, quite often) that’s all you ask of a book. Happy Valentine’s, especially to those of you who spend it with a book.

PS. The one scene that intrigued me was when the golem and the jinni met a couple of other unidentified-but-probably-supernatural creatures. I like that it was never explained who they were.