Recommended Reading: Why Homer Matters, by Adam Nicolson

photo 1I wish I’d read this intriguing book before I picked up the Iliad for a re-read last year (lucky for me, I have the Odyssey still to go on my Classics Club list). Adam Nicolson’s Why Homer Matters* (published in the UK as The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters) is difficult to classify, genre-wise; it is part travelogue, part literary criticism, part history, part ethnography, part memoir. It’s beautifully written, for Mr. Nicolson deeply cares about his subject and its place in civilization:

This is also a book about epic poetry, and about the value of epic in our lives. Epic is not an act of memory, not merely the account of what people are able to recall, since human memory only lasts three generations [. . .] Nor is it a kind of history, an objective laying out of what occurred in a past to which have little or no access. Epic, which was invented after memory and before history, occupies a third space in the human desire to connect the present to the past: it is an attempt to extend the qualities of memory over the reach of time embraced by history. Epic’s purpose is to make the distant past immediate to us as our own lives, to make the great stories of long ago beautiful and painful now. (3)

The foundational belief of the book is that “Homerity is humanity” (31). Its specific premise is its author’s belief that Homer arises out of a meeting of two cultures: nomadic steppe warriors from north of the Black Sea, and city-based, literate, hierarchical Mediterranean societies. In Mr. Nicolson’s formulation, this clash or melding of worlds occurred around 2000 B.C.; for him, then, Homer’s origins are about a thousand years older than those ascribed to the poems by modern scholarship.

It’s a fascinating idea, but what matters more than its veracity is the way in which Mr. Nicolson illustrates his arguments. His travel has been extensive, and his descriptions of what he sees, at home and abroad, are full of evocative detail. In a bay in Scotland, for instance, “the seawater itself is green with the reflected woods, an ink of molten leaves and boughs” (36).

While I’d say the book leans more toward discussion of the Iliad, Mr. Nicolson, a keen sailor, is just as interested in the Odyssey. Here’s how he describes the relation of the two poems:

The Iliad is soaked in retrospect. The Odyssey, the twin and pair of it, is filled with heroic adventurism and the sense of possibility, as if it were an American poem and the Iliad its European counterpart. [. . .] where the Iliad is a poem about fate and the demands that fate puts on individual lives, the inescapability of death and the past, of each of us being locked inside a set of destinies, the Odyssey, for all its need to return home, consistently toys with the offer of a new place and a new life, a chance to revise what you have been given, for the individual—or at least the great individual—to stand out against fate. (64)

Put another way, “the Homeric condition” is “the Odyssean promise of delight enclosed within the Iliadic certainty of death” (71).

This book is steeped not only in knowledge of the ancient past, but in the more recent literary canon. Take, for example, Mr. Nicolson’s exploration of how the mines in southern Spain might relate to the poem; his description of the “toxic spoil” of the landscape (132) is chilling, filled with images and sounds and tactile effects. It is a portrait of Homer’s Hades:

There is a sense of transgression at Chinflón, a feeling that the this place was once alive and that the miners hacked at its life, as if they were hunting it, digging out its goodness, a form of rough and intemperate grasping, the masculine dragging of value from a subterranean womb. (134)

Consciously or not, I think Mr. Nicolson is channeling the description of another kind of Hell: one that belongs to Mammon and the other demons in Milton’s Paradise Lost:

Mammon led them on,
Mammon, the least erected Spirit that fell
From heav’n, for ev’n in heav’n his looks and thoughts 
Were always downward bent, admiring more
The riches of Heav’ns pavement, trod’n Gold,
Then aught divine or holy else enjoy’d
In vision beatific: by him first
Men also, and by his suggestion taught, 
Ransack’d the Center, and with impious hands
Rifl’d the bowels of their mother Earth
For Treasures better hid. Soon had his crew
Op’nd into the Hill a spacious wound
And dig’d out ribs of Gold. (PL I.678-90, emphasis mine)

It’s this kind of engagement, with both landscape and literature, that makes Why Homer Matters so endlessly interesting.

As you can see from the picture below, there were many passages that I found especially fascinating or moving, too many to reproduce here. However, for my reader who finds poetry to be a “difficult concept” (as a Vulcan might find humor), here’s an excellent way to think about poetry, especially epic poetry: “Epic is different from life. The present moment might be seen as a blade, cutting the past from the present, severing now from then, but poetry binds the wounds the that time inflicts” (102).

photo 2

This is a book that wanders, but never rambles; that contends, but refuses to be bogged down in certainty; that is erudite, but not didactic. It’s a book deeply interested in both the concreteness of place and the protean possibilities of language. To turn the pages of Why Homer Matters is to be transported. Highly recommended reading.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.


In Brief: (Less) Recent Reads

Herewith, Dear Readers, a gathering of books I recommend and have been meaning to write about for months, in no particular order.

photo 2 (1)The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky

Perfect for: Almost anyone who has experienced or is currently experiencing adolescence.

I wish my high school’s sophomore English class had included this book in the curriculum instead of The Catcher in the Rye, but I suppose there are about ten reason that would never have happened (including the fact that The Perks of Being a Wallflower came out the same year that I started the tenth grade, so not a lot of vetting time there . . .). Charlie is far and away more interesting and less self-centered than Holden Caulfield; he’s a gifted, introverted teenager who befriends some of his high school’s gloriously interesting misfits during his freshman year. Life lessons ensue, as they tend to do in bildungsroman. I loved the book’s emphasis on compassion; it’s the kind of YA novel I’m going to leave on the shelf in the hope that my son will pick it up someday and find it useful. Bonus: It’s an epistolary novel.

photo 3Barracuda*, by Christos Tsiolkas

Perfect for: Anyone who needs to get out of a reading rut.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this novel. It might sound strange, but it’s incredibly refreshing to read a book that’s about rage, which seems to be Danny Kelly’s primary emotion. Danny is an teenage Australian swimmer who dreams of making it to the Olympics; thankfully, there’s no swelling inspirational music in this tightly-plotted, intricately structured novel. Danny is almost totally unlikable, but so utterly fascinating that it doesn’t matter. Rage isn’t a primary emotion; it’s a symptom of the mess of feelings roiling beneath the surface. Mr. Tsiolkas brings those feelings to brilliant life.  I’m not Australian, and the look into modern Australian culture in this novel was a real eye-opener. No koalas, no kangaroos.

photo 1 (1)Em and the Big Hoom**, by Jerry Pinto

Perfect for: Anyone looking for a novel off the beaten path.

Published in the U.S. this year, Jerry Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom is a moving, raw, funny, and tender portrait of a family in crisis, set in modern Bombay. Mr. Pinto uses dialogue, interviews, stories, and anecdotes to create a collage-like portrait of Em, who suffers from bipolar disorder, her husband the Big Hoom, and their children. Em’s shifting moods and crippling depressions leave the family on edge, and the novel is framed as her son’s attempt to understand his mother’s mind. The dialogue is absolutely brilliant, and I kept marking passages to return to later– at least fifty in a very slim volume. Jerry Pinto isn’t as well known here as he should be, and I hope that changes soon.

photo 4Stone Mattress: Nine Tales, by Margaret Atwood

Perfect for: Anyone.***

Margaret Atwood. Short stories almost entirely about older people. Killer last lines. Need I say more?






*I received this book through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program, which did not affect the content of my review.

** I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

*** Okay, not kids.

“Stay, I said / to the cut flowers”: Jane Hirshfield’s “The Promise” from Come, Thief

Come, ThiefOn vacation earlier this month, Mr. O and I visited the well-appointed Island Books in Middletown, Rhode Island. One of the things I liked best about this little shop was its poetry selection, which included recommended titles handpicked by the bookstore’s staff. Thanks to their recommendation, I picked up Jane Hirshfield’s 2011 book Come, Thief, which I highly recommend.

In this collection, Ms. Hirshfield focuses on small scenes, both natural and domestic, as she reflects on attentiveness, change, and beauty; of special note are several exquisite poems about aging and the inevitable failures of body and mind.

In “The Promise,” which you can read here, the speaker wishes that things both small and beautiful (a cut flower, a spider, a leaf) and large and wondrous (the body, the earth itself) would not change or fade or leave, while acknowledging the inevitability of those kinds of losses. It’s a wistful but lovely poem. drooping flower

Recommended Reading: Kate Racculia’s Bellweather Rhapsody

Bellweather RhapsodyIn Bellweather Rhapsody*, her second novel, Kate Racculia conjures up a tale of conductors, students, chaperones, guests, and hotel staff thrown together at a statewide high school music festival — at a very creepy hotel in 1997 upstate New York. Everyone has a secret, no-one’s being completely honest, and there’s a snowstorm coming.

Then a girl goes missing from Room 712 — the same room where a murder-suicide took place fifteen years earlier, and those secrets aren’t safe anymore.

Bellweather Rhapsody is a piquant mixture of genres and tones — mystery, comedy, bildungsroman, thriller — which together form a perfectly seasoned piece of literary fiction. It’s that rare kind of novel that captures not only what it’s like to be a teenager on the verge of adulthood, but also what it’s like to be an adult and wonder if you’re getting it all wrong.

The characters are unforgettable: Rabbit Hatmaker, a shy bassoonist; Alice, his diva-like twin sister; their chaperone Mrs. Wilson, who has a gun and might have used it once; Fisher Brodie, Scottish conductor who once was a piano virtuoso and now comes across as rather mad; Minnie, a young woman still reeling from the traumatic events she witnessed years before, comforted now only by her deaf dog and horror movies; Mr. Hastings, a genteel concierge who remembers the Bellweather in her glory days; and Viola Fabian, a Lady Macbeth-style sociopath — with a daughter.

As its title suggests, Bellweather Rhapsody is about not only the characters gathered under the hotel’s roof, but also about music itself, and its strange power. Ms. Racculia clearly loves music and understands it. Her descriptions of the experience of music — hearing it, playing it — are thrilling in their accuracy. If you’ve ever lost your breath listening to Holst or Beethoven or Debussy, this book is for you. And if you haven’t, read this book, and you will.

(Bonus: Delightful and sly 90s references!)

Friday: An interview with Kate Racculia, author of Bellweather Rhapsody

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.