The Odyssey

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A Year in Reading: Anna Wiener

I spent a lot of this year trying to write a book: lying on the floor, making spaghetti, chewing on my fingernails, staring at the wall, reading. I wanted to figure some things out, and surrounded myself with books that I thought would help. Instead of reading them, I got distracted. I read an endless number of articles and essays about politics, technology, politics and technology. I stuffed my brain with information. Wikipedia. I was thinking about Yelp culture and V.C. culture, so I read a lot of Yelp reviews, and a lot of tweets from venture capitalists and nascent venture capitalists. Medium posts. Hacker News.

After a while, this became boring, and I remembered how to read for pleasure. I read, or reread: Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay; Things I Don’t Want to Know; Stone Arabia; Asymmetry; Housekeeping; Fierce Attachments; The Maples Stories; Twilight of the Superheroes; Talk Stories; To the Lighthouse; Mating; Imperial San Francisco; The Book of Daniel; White Noise; The Fire Next Time; Close to the Machine. Essays from Happiness, and The Essential Ellen Willis, and The White Album, and Discontent and Its Civilizations, and The Earth Dies Streaming. This Boy’s Life and Stop-Time. I meant to reread Leaving the Atocha Station, but it fell into the bathtub; fine. 10:04. A stack of books about Silicon Valley history, many of which I did not finish; a lot of them told the same stories.

I read a 1971 edition of the Whole Earth Catalog, and the free e-book preview of The Devil Wears Prada, and some, but not all, of The Odyssey, the Emily Wilson translation. I got stoned before bed and read What Was the Hipster?––? I read Eileen and The Recovering and And Now We Have Everything and The Golden State and Chemistry and The Boatbuilder and Normal People and Breaking and Entering and Notes of a Native Son and Bright Lights, Big City and Heartburn and That Kind of Mother and How Fiction Works and Motherhood and Early Work and My Duck Is Your Duck and The Cost of Living and Who Is Rich? and The Mars Room. Some more pleasurable than others but all, or most, satisfying in their own ways.

I read the Amazon reviews for popular memoirs and regretted doing that. I did not read much poetry, and I regret that, too.

A few weeks ago, I read What We Should Have Known: Two Discussions, and No Regrets: Three Discussions. Five discussions! Not enough. I was very grateful for No Regrets, which felt both incomplete and expansive. Reading it was clarifying across multiple axes.

I wish I’d read more this year, or read with more direction, or at the very least kept track. I wish I’d read fewer books published within my lifetime. I wish I’d had more conversations. Staring at the wall is a solitary pursuit. I didn’t really figure out what I hoped to understand, namely: time. Time? I asked everyone. Time??? (Structure? Ha-ha.) Whatever. It’s fine. Not everything has to be a puzzle, and not everything has a solution. Time did pass.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2017201620152014201320122011201020092008200720062005

A Year in Reading: Edan Lepucki

To start, a list of the books I enjoyed very, very much:

I expected to like Lydia Kiesling’s debut novel, The Golden State, not only because she is my friend, but because I only made her be my friend after reading her genius nonfiction on this very website. However, I did not like the book. That puny, superficial word doesn’t portray my experience with this powerful, singular work. Never! The novel’s anxiety-laced vulnerability, its at once mundane and urgent first person narration, was a revelation. Of course!  This is what parenting a young child is like!  The novel begins, “I am staring out the window of my office thinking about death when I remember the way Paiute smells in the early morning in the summer before the sun burns the dew off the fescue.” Its brilliance never lets up.

My favorite nonfiction book of the year was Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy by Angela Garbes. In her book, Garbes shares her personal experiences as a pregnant person and mother, and balances these with larger investigations into the history and science of reproduction, pregnancy loss, childbirth, breastfeeding, and so on. Her writing is accessible and compassionate, and filled with wonder at the miracle of the female body. (I get it! The placenta, for instance. HOLY SHIT.)  Garbes’s project takes on political weight as it becomes increasingly clear how the medical and scientific communities have ignored and/or devalued women, especially black and brown women, which is perhaps why it’s taken this long to get a book this good.

This summer I found myself about to get on a plane without a book. The horror! I ran into the nearest Hudson Gum and Magazine Store and bought the first novel that looked the least egregious. I have to admit, I wasn’t planning to read Less by Andrew Sean Greer. Sure, it won the Pulitzer, but I’d read and not cared for a previous novel of his, and the premise, about a writer trying to avoid his ex-boyfriend’s wedding by accepting every literary invitation to come his way, and thus traveling the world, sounded annoying. Writers! Who cares? Well, turns out, I do. Less was by such a delight: funny and moving, with paragraphs that made me weak. The writing made me at once jealous and full of joy. Everyone and their mom has read this book, but if you’ve resisted, please just give in and read it. Here’s a taste: Greer describes a jellyfish as  “a pink frothing brainless negligeed monster pulsing in the water.” Negligeed.  Isn’t that perfect?

For professional events, I re-read two books that I had the pleasure of reading for the blurb-industrial-complex the year before: Invitation to a Bonfire by Adrienne Celt and And Now We Have Everything by Meaghan O’Connell. Celt’s second novel takes its inspiration from Vladimir and Véra Nabokov’s famed marriage: it’s got sex, intrigue, a vicious all girls boarding school in 1920s New Jersey, and lines like, “On a budget, eggs are the perfect food, until they’re not.” It’s delicious and smart and I want HBO to adapt it into a mini-series. O’Connell’s is a collection of funny, irreverent, cry-fest-inducing essays about becoming pregnant by accident at age 29, and follows her pregnancy and the beginning of her son’s life. Yep, another motherhood book, and a necessary one. In the tradition of A Life’s Work by Rachel Cusk, And Now We Have Everything doesn’t hold a single thing back in its mission to convey the mindfuckery that is becoming a parent for the first time.

I read these and many other wonderful books in 2018 all by my lonesome: in the bath or in bed or over lunch, or, as mentioned, on an airplane. My favorite reading experience, however, occurred with another person—my son, who turned seven in June. Most of the time, since I am busy putting his sister to bed, or making school lunches, or hiding in the corner with my phone, he reads alone or with his dad. However, a few times this year, I took over. Have you recently read a chapter book to a child? Sometimes they cuddle. Sometimes they wipe their snot on your shoulder. Sometimes they pace the room as you narrate. Sometimes you have to argue about the division of labor (in our house, it’s supposed to be two pages per person, back and forth). The experience is different from reading a picture book, for there is no shared visual to comment upon; it’s a comforting alone-together feeling, each of us projecting images inside our own brains as we read from the text.

Together we’ve read Because of Winn-Dixie, and the first Harry Potter, and began the new translation of The Odyssey (but, I admit, stalled out at Book 3). My favorite book I got to read with him, though, was Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I love the beauty of the sequel, the more famous Little House on the Prairie (there is an image of the stars in the sky that pretty much ruined me…), but Wilder’s racist depiction of the Osage Indians—and the fact that the family is taking their land—is, though an important history lesson, not my favorite book to share with my kid.

Little House in the Big Woods, however, takes place in Wisconsin, before the family moves to “Indian Country” and it offers some of the same pleasures as the later, more problematic books, including detailed-yet-simple descriptions of their everyday tools and domestic duties. We learn how Ma colors the butter with some carrot-soaked milk, and how Laura and her sister Mary get a pig bladder to toss around like a ball, and how to smoke some Venison in the hollow of a tree. Wilder’s prose is clear and easy for a young reader, but it’s not without its poetry. The final paragraphs are the best thing I read all year:

“She thought to herself, “This is now.”

She was glad that the cozy house, and Pa and Ma and the fire-light and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.”

Reading these words, I recalled what it was like to be a child, to be seven again, my son’s age.  I didn’t just think about it, I felt it.

What a gift reading is.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

2018 National Translation Award Longlist Celebrates Translated Works

The American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) announced the Poetry and Prose longlists for the 2018 National Translation Awards (NTA). In its twentieth year, the annual award celebrates translated fiction, poetry, and literary nonfiction by examining “both the source text and its relation to the finished English work.”

Here are the two 2018 NTA longlists (with bonus links):



Poetry

The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa; translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa
Directions for Use by Ana Ristović; translated from the Serbian by Steven Teref and Maja Teref
Hackers by Aase Berg; translated from the Swedish by Johannes Göransson
I Remember Nightfall by Marosa di Giorgio; translated from the Spanish by Jeannine Marie Pitas
If I Were a Suicide Bomber by Per Aage Brandt; translated from the Danish by Thom Satterlee
Magnetic Point: Selected Poems by Ryszard Krynicki; translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh
My Lai by Carmen Berenguer; translated from the Spanish by Liz Henry
The Odyssey by Homer; translated from the Greek by Emily Wilson (An essay on Odysseys)
Oxygen: Selected Poems by Julia Fiedorczuk; translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston
Sonic Peace by Kiriu Minashita; translated from the Japanese by Spencer Thurlow and Eric Hyett
Spiral Staircase: Collected Poems by Hirato Renkichi; translated from the Japanese by Sho Sugita
Third-Millennium Heart by Ursula Andkjær Olsen; translated from the Danish by Katrine Øgaard Jensen


Prose

Affections by Rodrigo Hasbún; translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes
August by Romina Paula; translated from the Spanish by Jennifer Croft
Compass by Mathias Énard; translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell (Featured in our own Lydia Kiesling’s 2017 Year in Reading)
Dandelions by Yasunari Kawabata; translated from the Japanese by Michael Emmerich
Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag; translated from the Kannada by Srinath Perur
The Impossible Fairy Tale by Han Yujoo; translated from the Korean by Janet Hong
The Invented Part by Rodrigo Fresán; translated from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden (Fresán’s novel also won the 2018 Best Translated Book Award)
Italian Chronicles by Stendhal; translated from the French by Raymond N. MacKenzie
Moving the Palace by Charif Majdalani; translated from the French by Edward Gauvin
Old Rendering Plant by Wolfgang Hilbig; translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole
Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg; translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak
The World Goes On by László Krasznahorkai; translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes, Ottilie Mulzet, and John Batki (The Millions‘ review)

The American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) will announce the 5-title shortlists in September.

The Millions Top Ten: April 2018

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for April.

Looking for additional book recommendations? One of the benefits of subscribing to The Millions is access to our exclusive monthly newsletter in which our venerable staffers let you know what they’re reading right now. Learn more here.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

5 Year Diary
5 months

2.
3.

Her Body and Other Parties
5 months

3.
4.

Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process
6 months

4.
5.

Fire Sermon

4 months

5.
7.

The Immortalists
3 months

6.
9.

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden

4 months

7.
8.

Sing, Unburied, Sing

5 months

8.
10.

My Favorite Thing is Monsters

4 months

9.


The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath

1 month

10.


Frankenstein in Baghdad

1 month

 

We sent both Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach and Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere to our Hall of Fame this month. It’s the second time Egan has attained this honor – her last novel A Visit from the Goon Squad reached the Hall in 2011. Egan joins twelve other authors who’ve had two works ascend to our Hall of Fame, and if the current pace holds true we can expect her third book to reach some time in 2025. If you’re keeping track at home, we’ve now had thirteen authors send two books to our list; four have sent three; and then David Mitchell has sent four.

The rest of our list shifted up the ranks accordingly. Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties moved from third to second position; John McPhee’s Draft No. 4 from fourth to third. You get the idea.

Two very different books fill the open spots on this month’s list.

Occupying ninth position is The Recovering, Leslie Jamison’s sweeping exploration of addiction and those who grapple with it. The hefty volume was recently hailed by Michael Bourne as “a welcome corrective to the popular image of addiction as a gritty battle for the addict’s soul and recovery as a heroic feat of derring-do.” He noted that Jamison’s gifts are on display, and that the book “shimmers throughout.” However Bourne was not without some criticism. The work could’ve used more “ruthless editing,” and “there is little in The Recovering that wouldn’t be twice as compelling in a book half as long,” Bourne wrote.

Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad claimed the tenth spot after several months among the near misses. The book, which was translated for English readers by Jonathan Wright, was recently shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. (While on the topic of honorifics, it had previously made an appearance on Lydia Kiesling’s Year in Reading.) In our Great 2018 Book Preview, I looked ahead to Saadawi’s latest:
The long-awaited English translation of the winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2014 gives American readers the opportunity to read Saadawi’s haunting, bleak, and darkly comic take on Iraqi life in 2008. Or, as Saadawi himself put it in interview for Arab Lit, he set out to write “the fictional representation of the process of everyone killing everyone.”
This month’s other near misses included: LessAn American MarriageThe Odyssey, The World Goes On, and The Overstory. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: March 2018

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for March.

Looking for additional book recommendations? One of the benefits of subscribing to The Millions is access to our exclusive monthly newsletter in which our venerable staffers let you know what they’re reading right now. Learn more here.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

5 Year Diary
4 months

2.
2.

Manhattan Beach
6 months

3.
3.

Her Body and Other Parties
4 months

4.
4.

Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process

5 months

5.
5.

Fire Sermon
3 months

6.
6.

Little Fires Everywhere

6 months

7.
10.

The Immortalists
2 months

8.
7.

Sing, Unburied, Sing

4 months

9.
8.

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden

3 months

10.
9.

My Favorite Thing is Monsters

3 months

 

This month brought nothing new to our list and the top half remains unchanged. The first six titles from February are also the first six titles for March. Mercifully, titles seven, eight, nine, and ten switched places, which gives me enough material to write at least this single sentence.

Most of this month’s near misses carried over from February as well. The lone newcomer is Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage. In our Great 2018 Book Preview, our own Nick Ripatrazone observed that, “In our greatest tragedies, there is the feeling of no escape—and when the storytelling is just right, we feel consumed by the heartbreak.” He highlighted Jones’s “powerful new novel” as an example of this feat, stating that despite the book’s tragic turns of plot, its author “makes sure … we can’t look away.”

Next month at least two spots will open up after Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere and Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach graduate to our Hall of Fame. Which books will take their places? Will they be new releases or some of the near misses from our previous lists? There’s only one way to find out.

In the meantime, those looking for recommendations on what to read should consider subscribing to our monthly “What We’re Reading” round-up, which is sent to Millions supporters. You can learn more about the (extremely affordable!) program over here. In recent months, these round-up emails have featured Hannah Gersen on Future Sex, Iľja Rákoš on Penguin Lost, and yours truly on The Trees The TreesShelter, and It to name just a few. The round-ups provide quick, snapshot book recommendations from Millions staffers and special guests which serve as digital recreations of the staff picks shelf stickers at your favorite bookstore. In the past four months, I’ve added at least a dozen books to my “to read” pile thanks to them.

This month’s other near misses included: The OdysseyFrankenstein in BaghdadBelladonnaDon’t Save Anything, and An American Marriage. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: February 2018

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for February.

Looking for additional book recommendations? One of the benefits of subscribing to The Millions is access to our exclusive monthly newsletter in which our venerable staffers let you know what they’re reading right now. Learn more here.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

5 Year Diary
3 months

2.
2.

Manhattan Beach
5 months

3.
3.

Her Body and Other Parties
3 months

4.
4.

Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process

4 months

5.
5.

Fire Sermon
2 months

6.
8.

Little Fires Everywhere

5 months

7.
7.

Sing, Unburied, Sing
3 months

8.
10.

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden

2 months

9.
9.

My Favorite Thing is Monsters

2 months

10.


The Immortalists

1 month

 

This month, the top half of our list is the same as it was last month. In fact, most of the list is the same as it was last month. What is it about February? Three years ago, we had the same thing happen, and I wound up calculating Shaquille O’Neal’s height in stacked books. It was as if I had been possessed by Harper’s “Findings” section.

But one person’s boredom is really another person’s consistency, and there is comfort in steadiness. On our list this month, the top half remains unchanged, but slight jostling occurred in the bottom. Two books graduated to our Hall of Fame: Victor LaValle’s The Changeling and Laurent Binet’s The Seventh Function of Language.

Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing is Monsters fills one of the open spaces this month. Ferris’s fictional graphic diary had previously debuted on our December 2017 list, but dropped out last month, and is back again today. At that pace, look for it to reach our Hall of Fame around Thanksgiving. In her Year in Reading entry two months ago, Emily St. John Mandel said Ferris’s book “pierced [her] haze of unhappiness” and imparted “the sense of having encountered something truly extraordinary.” She raved, “Sometimes you read a book and you think, Oh. This is what a book can be.”

The other opening on this month’s list was claimed by Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists. In our Great 2018 Book Preview, Janet Potter previewed Benjamin’s second novel by saying it sounded so good that she’d have to “break [her] no-novels-about-New-Yorkers rule for this one.”

This month’s other near misses included: The OdysseyDon’t Save AnythingBelladonnaMy Absolute Darling, and Frankenstein in Baghdad. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: January 2018

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for January.

Looking for additional book recommendations? One of the benefits of subscribing to The Millions is access to our exclusive monthly newsletter in which our venerable staffers let you know what they’re reading right now. Learn more here.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

5 Year Diary
2 months

2.
2.

Manhattan Beach
4 months

3.
3.

Her Body and Other Parties
2 months

4.
8.

Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process

3 months

5.


Fire Sermon
1 month

6.
6.

The Seventh Function of Language: A Novel

6 months

7.
4.

Sing, Unburied, Sing
2 months

8.
5.

Little Fires Everywhere

4 months

9.
9.

The Changeling

6 months

10.


The Largesse of the Sea Maiden

1 month

 

Exit West exits our list this month, following a parabolic stint on our Top Ten: it debuted in 7th position on in July, and later rose to the 4th, 3rd, and 2nd spots in subsequent months before winding up once more in 7th position to close. As Mohsin Hamid’s novel buoyed up our list and down again, it earned praise from no fewer than five of our Year in Reading participants: Jamel BrinkleyMichael David LukasHeather Scott PartingtonShanthi Sekaran, and Jeff VanderMeer. (That last author also gave a shout out to Belladonna, which is among this month’s “near misses.”) It also received critical examination from Eli Jelly-Schapiro, who remarked for our site about its author’s attempts at “tracing the fissures in human community and global space, and reflecting on the possibility of their transcendence.” Jelly-Schapiro continued:
Orbiting earth, Hamid’s novel maps the divides that structure the current global order. But it also charts one necessary future, the advent of what Aimé Césaire called a “humanism made to the measure of the world.”
Now, Hamid’s novel is off to our Hall of Fame.

Elsewhere on our list, it seems little has changed. Our 1st, 2nd, and 3rd spots belong to the books which held those spots in December. So, too, do our 6th and 9th spots. Still, some surprises can be found if one looks carefully. Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing somehow dropped three spots a scant two months after it won the National Book Award, which seems odd. Denis Johnson’s new collection, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, finished not long before the author passed away, appeared at the bottom of our list. Meanwhile, Jamie Quatro’s Fire Sermon pops up in 5th position, following callouts in not only our Great 2018 Book Preview, but also in four Year in Reading pieces. Our own Hannah Gersen invoked a heavyweight in her praise:
I feel bad for the new fiction I read this year, because I was always comparing it to Proust, and nothing could really stand up to that epic reading experience. However, there was one novel that swept me up with its passion, intelligence, and spiritual reach: Jamie Quatro’s Fire Sermon, which will be published in January 2018. I look forward to reading it again next year.
This month’s other near misses included: The OdysseyDon’t Save Anything, My Absolute Darling, and Belladonna. See Also: Last month’s list.

Three Odysseys

Odysseys come in all shapes and forms, from epic to personal.  Three recent odysseys range in time and theme from ancient to dystopian.  Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey launches from Homer’s epic, 2017 National Book Award-winner Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing road trips to the Mississippi State Penitentiary, and Jesús Carrasco’s Out in the Open follows a young boy’s harrowing escape from abuse across an unnamed landscape.  No matter their geography, these books share exceptional writing, mining vast expanses of the human experience.

Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey is, unsurprisingly, a roadmap to Homer’s Odyssey (which, incidentally, has just received a new translation by Emily Wilson).  It introduces relevant scholarship and translations, discusses how the epic shaped the Western canon, sprinkles in choice etymology as well as descriptions of Mendelsohn’s Classics training, and provides a multitude of other, arresting details.

And yet.  An Odyssey is really a braided memoir woven with three strands: the semester that Mendelsohn’s 81-year-old father, Jay, asked to audit Daniel’s Odyssey class at Bard, a subsequent cruise by father and son that retraced the Homeric voyage, and the roadmap of The Odyssey.  Jay Mendelsohn died shortly thereafter, framing not only his fatherhood and his life, but also An Odyssey.

The memoir’s architecture is remarkable.  Its structure presented Mendelsohn with a difficult challenge that he discussed in a recent interview with The Millions.  Mendelsohn chose to echo Homer’s “ring composition,” in which the narrator begins the story, then pauses and loops back to some earlier moment
… a bit of personal or family history, say—and afterward might even loop back to some earlier moment … that will help account for that slightly less early moment, thereafter gradually winding his way back to the present, the moment in the narrative that he left in order to provide all this background.
Mendelsohn loops back to early memories of his father and gradually fills in a man of fierce discipline and determination.  Dad was a passionate reader and do-it-your-selfer; the more difficult and unpleasant something was for him, “the more likely it was to possess…the hallmark of worthiness.”

Mendelsohn takes us from beginnings to endings.  In Dad’s first class, Daniel unfolds the “Homeric Question,” an ancient debate about how Homer’s epics came into being.  There was no single Homer, rather—
… the bards who performed the epics, itinerant singer-performers … at once reproduced material that earlier poets had composed while refining it and adding new material of their own…
The epic’s opening reflects that oral tradition—“Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twist and turns/driven time and again off course….” [Robert Fagles translation].

Initially, Daniel cringes at having his father in his classroom.  Proclamations from Jay—Odysseus is no hero because “he’s a liar and he cheated on his wife!”—call into question the wisdom of trying to teach Dad.  But the memoir gradually evolves into an interrogation of the Mendelsohn father-son dynamic.  Mendelsohn the son travels a road of discovery that is a crescendo of revelations about his father.  Daniel unearths secrets and inconsistencies that cause him to rewrite not only the received wisdom from Jay, but his own self-concept; just as much of Homer’s The Odyssey is “devoted to father-son relationships….”
“Who really knows his own begetting?” Telemachus [Odysseus’ son] bitterly asks early in the Odyssey.  Who indeed?  Our parents are mysterious to us in ways that we can never quite be mysteries to them.
Mendelsohn’s readers journey with Odysseus down to ghost-filled Hades and back up to the end of Homer’s poem, where Mendelsohn notices Homer’s continued ”preoccupation with the rites of burial.”  In The Odyssey’s final book, Homer summons Hades again, recounting a conversation between the ghosts of Achilles and Agamemnon.
It is hard not to feel, in this final book of the poem, that in its repeated climactic references to tombs and burials… [that] the Odyssey is “burying” the Iliad…
Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward’s most recent novel, is another kind of ghost-riddled odyssey, written in prose as lyrical and expressive as a bard’s singing.  Jojo, who anchors the book, is the son of a black mother, Leonie, and a white father, Michael, imprisoned upstate.  Jojo lives with his black grandparents—Mam, who is dying, and Pop, who serves as Jojo’s guiding light.  Leonie comes and goes, in thrall to addiction and to her longing for Michael.  At 13, Jojo takes responsibility for his toddler sister, Kayla (named Michaela for her absent father), and struggles to become a man.
I follow Pop out of the house, try to keep my back straight, my shoulders even as a hanger; that’s how Pop walks.  I try to look like this is normal and boring so Pop will think I’ve earned these thirteen years….
The voyage in Ward’s novel is the trip to pick up Michael, set for release from the Mississippi State Penitentiary—Parchman—where Pop did time decades ago.  Along the way, Leonie stops to buy gas—but doesn’t provide Jojo with enough money to buy food for him and Kayla—and at a sinister house to pick up Misty and Leonie’s next fix.  There, Jojo steals a pack of saltines and two bottles of juice—


I open my stolen bottle and drink the juice down, then pour half the other bottle into Kayla’s sippy cup.  I hand one cracker to Kayla and slide one into my mouth.  We eat like that:  one for me and one for her…. Neither of the women in the front seat pay us an attention.
It’s not hunger, or heat, or Kayla’s vomiting on Jojo, or Leonie and Misty getting high, or the blinding, torrential rain during the car trip.  It’s absence—Leonie’s from her children—as well as the ghosts of the dead—family and others—that thread this trip with adversity.  In a version of ring composition, Ward loops the dead in with the living, entangling brothers with sisters, fathers with sons.  As the car pushes on, Ward fills in hellish, heartbreaking details from the family’s past, details that are also congruent with our nation’s past.

There’s the ghost of Given, Leonie’s murdered brother, who haunts Leonie when she’s high.  There’s Richie, a dead boy, with whom Jojo is acquainted from hearing Pop’s Parchman stories—
Richie wasn’t built for work.  He wasn’t built for nothing, really, on account he was so young.  He ain’t know how to work a hoe, didn’t have enough years in his arms for muscle…
The four riders—Leonie, Misty, Jojo, and Kayla—arrive at Parchman, reunite with Michael and begin the return trip.  It turns out they’ve picked up Richie’s ghost as well—visible only to Jojo.  Richie recites vivid memories of Jojo’s absent, dead father, River, whom Richie loved.  Richie knows Jojo is River’s son—
… by the way he holds the little sick golden girl [Kayla]:  as if he thinks he could curl around her, make his skeleton and flesh into a building to protect her from the adults, from the great reach of the sky, the vast expanse of the grass-ridden earth, shallow with graves.

I want to tell the boy in the car this.  Want to tell him how his pop tried to save me again and again….

But I don’t tell the boy any of that.  I settle in the crumpled bits of paper and plastic that litter the bottom of the car.
The return trip is as emotionally harrowing as the trip to Parchman.  Michael has no interest in Jojo, and Leonie’s primary interest is in Michael.  Not until Leonie is stopped for “swerving,” and a cop handcuffs Leonie and points a gun to Jojo’s head does Leonie realize—
It’s easy to forget how young Jojo is until I see him standing next to the police officer.  It’s easy to look at him, his weedy height, the thick spread of this belly, and think he’s grown.  But he’s just a baby.
If the unburied are buried by the conclusion of Jesmyn Ward’s novel, it is in hearing their stories told, where dogs are not like Odysseus’s faithful old dog, Argos (who recognizes Odysseus after a 20-year absence, then dies in peace), but instead are vicious killers; where Mam’s agonizing death from cancer is less painful than the violence inflicted on her family members.  Where Jojo grows up, caring and grounded, without a mother or a father, because his grandfather loves and mentors him.

Jesús Carrasco’s debut novel, Out in the Open (translated by Margaret Jull Costa) presents a third odyssey.  An unnamed boy flees an unnamed village through a dry, merciless landscape that feels like Carrasco’s native Badajoz, Spain.
From inside his hole in the ground, [the boy] heard the sound of voices calling his name, and as if they were crickets he tried to pinpoint the precise location of each man within the bounds of the olive grove….Tensing his neck, he raised his head so as to hear better and, half closing his eyes, listened out for the voice that forced him to flee.
The boy is escaping the village bailiff’s sexual abuse, suborned by his father who himself uses a leather belt—
Afterward, the only witnesses would be the thick stone walls that supported the roof that kept the rooms cool.  A communal prelude to his father’s worn leather belt.  The swift copper-colored buckle slashing dully through the fetid kitchen air.
Hiding and moving only at night, the boy soon runs out of food and drink.  He spots an old goatherd who, with basic human decency and limited language, teaches the boy how to survive “out in the open.”  The deepening relationship between boy and man is built with deceptively simple encounters among the goats.  Over time, the boy ends up caring for the failing old man.
They woke before dawn and set off along the towpath.  The old man riding the donkey, his head drooping, and the boy leading the way, with a stick in one hand and the halter in the other.
Part dystopian allegory, part primer on the power of humanity, Out in the Open’s meticulous attention to detail affirms that a child damaged by trauma can forge a path forward with the right kind of mentor.

“Mentor,” Mendelsohn tells us, was what Athena named a so-called friend of Odysseus whom she conjures to provide Telemachus with “an experienced and trusted adviser.”  In giving the boy a substitute for his absent father, Athena connects him not only to Odysseus, but also to “all his ancestors, male and female.”  Jojo, too, has a mentor in the steady guiding presence of his grandfather, connecting Jojo across generations.

The word mentor stems from the Greek word menos, usually translated as “heroic strength.” “But really,” says Harvard Professor Gregory Nagy, “menos is not just strength of any kind—it is mental strength…a mentor is someone who gives mental strength to someone else.” And thus, Out in the Open’s old goatherd centers the fleeing boy so that he can free himself from his abusers.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

A Year in Reading: Lydia Kiesling

I was pregnant with my second child for most of the year and I was also working from home, which meant I was very sedentary and slothful, and able to spend a lot of time reading articles that made me miserable. And since I was working on a book, and the pace and nature of that work were utterly different from any other kind of work I’ve done, I was grumpy and anxious a lot of the time even without reading anything at all. And I worried about being miserable and anxious and grumpy, and sedentary and slothful, wondering what it would do to the fetus, and whether the fetus would want to be around someone like me.
 

The reading I did while gestating the baby and my book was catch-as-catch-can and felt mostly like a reprieve and a cheat when I should have been working or doing something civic-minded. Books and the time they went with are blurring together for some reason. I think I read and was ruined by Housekeeping last year, but I can’t be certain it wasn’t this year. I think I read Private Citizens this year and found it spiky and perfect, but I’m not actually sure I didn’t read it in 2016.  I do know this year I read The Idiot, which is among other things a delightful evocation of ostensibly fruitless but formative romantic pining, and Sport of Kings, which is absurdly ambitious and devastating. I read The Regional Office Is Under Attack, which is weird and transporting. I gratefully blew off my work for New People, The Windfall, MarlenaThe Reef, Hunger, and Conversations with Friends. I read White Tears and The Changeling and Frankenstein in Baghdad on the bus to the OBGYN and marveled at the ways great writers are documenting the effects of the unholy past on the unholy present. I read 10:04 in a lovingly serene and receptive state after spending $60 to float in a very salty pool in the dark (I was trying to make the fetus turn head-down). When I was freaked out about everything the only book that sort of soothed me was the phenomenal new translation of The Odyssey, which is modern but not jarringly so, and highlights the sense of human continuity we apprehend from an ancient text. I re-read Off Course, a wonderful California novel that has become one of my favorite books in the last few years. I re-read A Suitable Boy to get ready for A Suitable Girl, which is allegedly arriving in 2018 and which I’ve been waiting for my entire adult life. I read The Golden Road, Caille Millner’s gemlike memoir about growing up. I read a Word document containing the first half of Michelle Dean’s excellent forthcoming literary history Sharp, and I’m clamoring for the rest of it. I read a Word document containing the entirety of Meaghan O’Connell’s forthcoming essay collection, And Now We Have Everything, and it is a stunningly insightful book that I’m hesitant to say is about motherhood because it might turn away people who might otherwise profit from it. I loved my colleagues Edan and Claire and Sonya’s novels Woman No. 17 and The Last Neanderthal and The Loved Ones, which are about motherhood (and fatherhood, and daughterhood, and a lot of other things too). More mothers: I cried over Mr. Splitfoot in an airplane after reading Samantha Hunt’s “A Love Story” in The New Yorker.  The book I thought about most during my gestational period was Mathias Énard’s Compass, which is a love story of a different kind. I don’t think I’ve read another book so deft in transmitting both the desire and the violence that are bound up in the production of knowledge, another complicated act of creation.

In October I had the baby. I wouldn’t suggest that anyone have a baby just to shake things up, but babies have a way of returning you to your body and adjusting your relationship to time that I’d hazard is difficult to find elsewhere in the arena of positive experiences. First you have the singular experience of giving birth; then you have the physical reminders of that experience, and a baby. If you are lucky you get good hormones (if you are spectacularly lucky you get paid leave, or have a spouse who does). The morning she was born I looked at the baby lying in her bassinet and felt like the cat who swallowed the canary, or a very satisfied hen. Animal similes suggest themselves because it is an animal time: you smell blood and leave trails of it on the hospital floor; milk oozes. You feel waves of such elemental fatigue that rational thought and speech seem like fripperies for a younger species. Even now, nine weeks later, sneezing reminds me viscerally of what the flesh endured.

This is what I mean when I say the experience returns you to your body. If it’s your second child, it also makes you a time traveler. I spent my first child’s infancy desperate to slow down time, to fully inhabit this utterly strange nesting season of my life and hers before we were both launched into the future.  When the second baby was born I got the unhoped-for chance to live in that season again. I had forgotten so much: the comically furtive and then plucky look a newborn gets when she is near the breast, and the bizarre thing her eyes do when she’s eating—zipping back and forth like a barcode scanner apprehending some ancient sequence. The sound she makes after sneezing, like a little wheeze from an oboe.

Since, during this period, I felt I had a legitimate excuse to not read every dire news item for at least a couple of weeks, and since I experienced a wonderful if brief disinclination to open Twitter, and since sometimes I got to sit in clean linen sheets that are my prized possession and nurse a tiny brown-furred baby, I fell in love both with the baby and with every book I touched. I started re-reading Mating when I was waiting to give birth and finished it the week after. I read it for the first time three years ago when my older daughter was born and felt so incredibly altered by it then, and I slipped back into that state immediately. Right after Mating I read Mortals, and after Mortals, I read Chemistry, and forthcoming novels The Parking Lot Attendant and That Kind of Mother, and I loved them all too.

Being with the baby and reading deeply and more or less avoiding the things that make me miserable was such an unanticipated return to Eden that even the bad things I now remembered about having a baby were good: the strange combination of agitation and dullness that enswaddled me when the sun went down and made me weep; the sudden urge to throw beloved visitors out of the house; visions of stumbling, of soft skulls crushed against sharp corners; fear of contagion; agonizing knowledge of other babies crying and drowning and suffering while your own baby snuffles contentedly in a fleece bag.

But even when the blues fluoresced what registered was not the badness of the thoughts, but their intensity. The shitty hospital food you eat after expelling a baby is the best food you’ve ever had because you had a baby and you didn’t die. And like a person on drugs who knows a cigarette is going to taste amazing or a song will sound so good, an exhausted, oozing postpartum woman can do her own kind of thrill-seeking. I re-read Under the Volcano, which really popped in my altered state. It’s a hard book to follow but I found to my delight that I’ve now read it enough I’m no longer spending a lot of time trying to understand what is going on. Its insane, calamitous beauty was perfect for my technicolor emotional state; rather than despairing over my inability to form a sentence I put myself in the hands of a pro, shaking though Malcolm Lowry’s were as he wrote.

It hasn’t all been déjà vu. There have been new things, some of them bad: namely the feeling of being driven absolutely bananas by my poor sweet firstborn, who is no longer tiny and blameless and new, but a harum-scarum toddler who jumps on the bed and windmills her arms and kicks and screams WAKE UP MAMA and refuses to put on her jacket. On this front one of the random galleys that pile up in the vestibule was a surprise hit—a children’s book from the Feminist Press called How Mamas Love Their Babies.  My daughter loves this book, which has beautiful photo collage illustrations. It is a progressive book that encourages workers’ solidarity in a way I was not necessarily prepared to address with a just-turned-three-year-old but am now trying to do in my poky fashion (“Some mamas dance all night long in special shoes. It’s hard work!” the book reads, and my child peers inquisitively at a photo of platform lucite heels). It also helps me: I look at myself in the mirror and note that some genetic vandal has lately streaked what looks like raspberry jam across the skin of my hips and one (!) breast (“Some mamas care for their babies inside their own bodies,” the book reminds me). When the baby was three weeks old I got pneumonia, and that was a bad new sensation too, although even that interlude had its attractions. I discovered coconut water, and read Swamplandia in a febrile, almost louche state of abandon in my increasingly musty sheets, a perfect complement to the novel’s climate—its rotting house and the visions and moods of its protagonists.

During early nights of nursing I read a galley of a memoir by a writer who also got good hormones and who became addicted to having babies, having five in fairly rapid succession. If nothing else, I understood the irrational drive to overabundance. In the first weeks of this new baby’s life I astonished myself by wanting more, more, more. Around week five I actually googled “is it morally wrong to have a third child,” and if you are a well-fed, utilities-using first-worlder like me, yes, not to mention yes, in philosophical terms (not to mention we can’t afford it, not to mention it would surely drive me batshit). Everything you read about life on this planet, including some of the novels I read this year, suggests you should not have children, and if you must, that you should have only as many as you have arms to carry them away from danger. Even that formulation is a consoling fallacy.

Things are less technicolor now, but the hormones are still there, propping me up. (I read over this and see they’ve even led me to write a somewhat revisionist history of what the past few weeks have been like.) Last week, week eight, I finally read Open City, which is a few years old but speaks to the state of the world today in a way that is depressing. I love how it is a novel of serious ideas and style, but is also approachable and pleasure-making for its reader. I love that it is a humane book even as it is gimlet-eyed. Now I’m reading Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck and finding it similarly humane and gimlet-eyed and serious and pleasure-making. It is about the state of the world at this moment. It also speaks to the double consciousness of people like its protagonist, who are living not necessarily with suffering but with a metastasizing awareness of suffering, and how it changes them, and this is on my mind. The novel also seems to be about time and space and how people are altered when their time and space are altered. It’s about the difference, not between “us” and “them,” but between “you” and “you.” I’m thinking about that too as I time travel this winter.

I know I need to prepare for the moment when all this gladness provided gratis by Mother Nature will deflate and disappear like a wet paper bag. And there will be a time—I feel it coming on as I type this and hope the baby stays asleep in her bouncer—when the deep satisfaction of one kind of generative act, this bodily one, will be supplanted with the need for other kinds of creation. I think Cole and Erpenbeck’s novels will help me with these eventualities. I’m counting on them, and on all the beautiful things I hope to read next year. You know what they say about books: they’re like babies; when you have one you’re never alone.

More from A Year in Reading 2017

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

A First for the Odyssey

The New York Times Magazine profiles Emily Wilson, the first woman to translate the Odyssey into English. Her translation is one of our most eagerly anticipated for November. “One way of talking about Wilson’s translation of the “Odyssey” is to say that it makes a sustained campaign against that species of scholarly shortsightedness: finding equivalents in English that allow the terms she is choosing to do the same work as the original words, even if the English words are not, according to a Greek lexicon, ‘correct.'”

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