[ Book Review ] Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad

Melissa’s Review: The Penelopiad, a novella by Margaret Atwood

 
Atwood’s response to Homer’s Odyssey was first on my list of fun reading while on break from graduate studies. Having been on a steady diet of classics, I’m getting a little sick of the male protagonist and his heroic adventures.

Please, somebody pass the microphone to a woman on the scene. (Oops, not her. That guy just turned her into a tree.)

Here is Penelope’s epic–her own story, not simply her take on her husband’s renowned exploits. (Cyclops, or one-eyed tavern keeper?)  Penelope speaks to us from the underworld, having seen the intervening centuries come and go, changing the world as she knew it.  History has made of Penelope a figure of obedient loyalty; of Odysseus, a god-like hero. Behind the scenes, we find, things are not as glorious as they seem.

Far from a book-by-book translation of Homer, Atwood’s version focuses on a startling little detail from Book 22: the tale of the twelve murdered maids.

Homer tells us the maids were disloyal sluts, sleeping with the disrespectful suitors vying for Penelope’s hand in Odysseus’s absence. In the gruesome scenes of revenge that follow his return, Odysseus orders his son Telemachus to murder the maids for their disobedience, after forcing them to clean the bloody mess of the hall. Telemachus hangs the maids in a single row.

Atwood tells us the maids were essentially innocent, their flirtations with the suitors a kind of strategic reconnaissance mission ordered by Penelope in her attempt to preserve her family’s wealth from greedy hands.  The maids are “like sisters” to Penelope, bringing youthful energy, songs, and sweets to her room at night, where they help her unravel Laertes’ burial shroud. Their assistance in this dangerous deception is actually a gesture of loyalty.

And it’s also kind of fun. “There is indeed something delightful about being able to combine obedience and disobedience in the same act,” Penelope says of the maids’ mirth in their complicity.

In the voice of the maids, Atwood is often direct about this witty balancing of accounts:Atwood’s own delight is evident in this reworking of myth. Though obedient to the task at hand, her work is skillfully defiant of accepted academic perspectives– on Penelope and the maids specifically, and on the validity of feminist critique of myth. In the dark tenor of the maids’ songs and sea shanties (they act as a tragicomic Greek chorus, turning the story wheel between chapters), we can hear both the maid’s disobedience and Atwood’s.

“You don’t have to get too worked up about us, dear educated minds. You don’t have to think of us as real girls, real flesh and blood, real pain, real injustice. That might be too upsetting. Just discard the sordid part. Consider us pure symbol. We’re no more real than money.”

The comparison is an apt one for a novella exploring the ways in which one human life assigns value to another. Money is the paper symbol of a currency’s value; a story is the fictional symbol of real human dramas. How we see the maids, and how we see Penelope– hell, how we see women in myth– says as much about the story as it does about us.

Which is the whole point of mythology.

The Penelopiad is the second volume (2005) in Canongate’s Myth Series, “a long-term global publishing project where some of the world’s most respected authors re-tell myths in a manner of their own choosing.” (The latest edition is Phillip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (2010). A.S. Byatt’s Ragnarok, a retelling of the Norse myth of end times, will be out in January.)

There will be critics of this kind of modernization of classic stories. The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller’s reworking of The Iliad, underwent considerable critical fire for its efforts to bring the tale to a modern audience.

And there are some pitfalls of the process of modernizing an ancient story. For me, the weakness (here) lies primarily on the level of language. Though Atwood’s response to Homer is written in the same forthright, gripping language that makes her novels so compelling and masterful, it admittedly pales in comparison to the metered poetry of The Odyssey.

But maybe that’s not such a bad thing. This is, after all, not a translation but a kind of poetic riffing: a story in its own right, and an important antidote to the hard-to-stomach female-bashing of so much of classic literature. A traditionalist might DQ me for reading Homer and Ovid through my 21st century glasses, but I argue there’s a great deal to be gained from Atwood’s refreshing revisioning, and from this kind of intelligent engagement with myth.

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What say you, Canaries? What is your favorite myth/fairytale retelling?

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[ Book Review ] A Zombie Walks into a Presidental Election…

Meg’s Review: Feed by Mira Grant

When an author decides to throw literary mechanics out the window, one of two things happen:

1. They sprout wings and carry the narrative over the rainbow-of-awesome-new-literary-skills.

or

2. They go splat.

So there I was, reading Feed, and along came the absolute climaxthat very moment when I should have been gasping/crying.

And I laughed.

Mind, the moment was heart-breaking—it truly was a masterfully-planned twist—but the author made such a bizarre narrative choice that I was utterly thrown. I wasn’t winded by the blast of emotional angst. Instead, I choked on it. Author, what did you just do?

And this still colors my feelings towards the rest of the book.

But let us start at the beginning.

Feed follows adoptive siblings Shaun and Georgia Mason and their friend Buffy as they blog about the campaign trail of presidential hopeful, Senator Peter Ryman with whom they’re traveling. Sounds benign enough until you realize the entire world is now overrun by zombies.

I expected a straight-forward zombie-shooting adventure, but Feed actually leans more towards political thriller with the added complication of the walking-dead running around. And that pleased me greatly: I love me some political thrillers, and there is nothing that scares me more* than zombies. A wicked conspiracy is rumbling just below the surface of the entire narrative, even as the main characters have to survive to untangle it.

The story itself is told 90% through the eyes of Georgia Mason and 10% through the characters’ blogs. The tactic is a clever spin on a first-person narrative, like a modern call-back to the epistle writing that was so popular in the 19th century. Indeed, I suspect I’d have enjoyed the book all the more if Grant had gone the whole way and presented the story entirely in blog form: Georgia Mason narrative voice rubbed me wrong as it meandered between valley-girl-aloofness and downright snarky, righteous bitch. On the other hand, I was quite fond of Rick and Shaun and would have liked to have more of their voices present in the story.

"Every person on the planet is infected."

The blogs also served another purpose—back-story. Georgia’s narrative focuses almost exclusively on her attempts to uncover what was causing the zombie attacks to occur with scary regularity in Ryman’s camp. But the blogs told the story of how the zombies came to be (a nifty bit of science that was just vague enough to work) as well as how the world dealt with the aftermath. I was enthralled with the world Grant created, especially with the mechanics of the zombie infestation; one does not have to be bitten by a zombie in order to become one. Every person on the planet is infected; once you die, you are immediately reborn as a brain-nomming monster. (This has to be an excellent world to be a hitman in, I thought while reading. Every person has to be killed twice, which means double the assassination fees.)

So after all this praise, why the confused canary?

Well, I can’t tell you. It would completely ruin the end of the book. Instead, let me make an analogy:

Just like Feed, I read Twilight at a breakneck pace. I had to know (HAD TO KNOW!) if Bella and Edward ended up together. Immediately after finishing Twilight, I rushed out and bought New Moon—but, actually ended up reading a book in between (the first Dresden Files book, for the curious). And when I went back to read New Moon, I was picking it up when a voice in my head said, “Wait…Twilight wasn’t even a good book. At all.” I dropped the book and never looked back.

And the same thing happened with Feed. I read it in a couple days, quickly bought the sequel, Deadline, and then had a family dinner that effectively derailed my inertia-driven enthusiasm. When I finally did sit down to read, that same voice said, “Are you really going to engage the sequel after the first one did THAT with the narrative?”

"Grant broke a cardinal rule of writing, and I can't decide whether she pulled it off."

I still haven’t decided if the voice in my head is just a book snob who needs to get over herself, or whether she has a point. I mean, Feed is about 800-million times better than Twilight, but I think Grant broke a cardinal rule of writing, and I can’t decide whether she pulled it off. And I’m too flustered with the indecision to commit to Deadline.

That said, I would definitely recommend Feed to anyone who enjoys zombie fiction, political intrigue, or has a less persnickety internal voice than mine. It’s a fast, multi-layered novel that even kept me reading through my zombie nightmares.

* Except sharks, but that’s a phobia to be dealt with in a review of Jaws.

[Book Review] Wil Wheaton in my ears!

Meg’s Audiobook Review: Boneshaker

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Audiobook read by Kate Reading and Wil Wheaton

I’m happily haphazard in my audiobook tastes. Whatever Audible recommends, I take without too much investigation. So imagine my surprise when I pushed play on Boneshaker and heard:

“Audible presents Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, read by Kate Reading and Wil Wheaton.”

Wait. What? Back up there, Audible. Wil Wheaton. THE Wil Wheaton? Wesley is going to read me a story along with my #1 favorite reader, Kate Reading?

Oh, please don’t suck, plot. Please don’t suck!

Boneshaker is an alternative history novel that is part steampunk, part zombie horror. When an invention created by Leviticus Blue rips up downtown Seattle, it releases noxious gas that turns anyone who inhales it into flesh-hungry rotters. The poisoned part of the city is walled off, and the former booming city is left to wallow out a living while the Civil War wages off to the east. But when Zeke, Leviticus’ son, goes back into the city to find evidence to clear his father’s name, his mother and Leviticus’ widow, Briar, must chase after him, fending off the rotters and fighting a mysterious new villain, Dr. Minnericht.

The world in Boneshaker is amazing, a place where Firefly meets Dawn of the Dead. I was completely drawn into the story, eagerly listening as Priest builds the drab, dangerous land of Seattle bit by bit. Priest is gifted with the ability to write with just the right amount of purple prose: not so descriptive that it is distracting, but a little more verbose than most would dare tempt without going overboard.

The prose and world building are so well done that I didn’t even notice that the characters are extremely one-dimensional and there is very little by way of plot. Nothing really happens in Boneshaker. There’s a lot of appearance of action: running from rotters and flying about in air ships. But it’s just hand-waving, distraction from the fact that the overall story trajectory is superficial at best. There’s no second level of meaning in the book — just movement and dialogue that does not leave a lasting impression. But it is so well done that I didn’t mind. Hell, I didn’t notice until I was past the half-way marker.

I was in love with the novel. Completely and utterly, gushing to Canary The First at every beautiful turn of phrase. And then, about three-quarters through, the book took a nosedive that knocked two canaries off the rating perch and left me feeling very disgruntled.

Where the novel really falls apart is in the villain. For most of the book, Dr. Minnericht is this enigmatic rumor, a person described differently with each new story, every account making him seem more deadly and more dangerous—and each time it’s made more clear that the man may in fact be the infamous Leviticus Blue. I was so eager to finally meet him, to see the man around whom the entire world revolved. And when he did appear, he was such a whiny bitch that the entire story deflated. The weakness of Priest’s characterizations became so evident that it made the rest of the book completely lifeless.

As far as readers go: Kate Reading was brilliant as always. And Wil Wheaton was pleasantly good. The whole thing was very easy on the ears, even if the plot wasn’t too interesting to listen to.

I do think that Cherie Priest is an author to watch. Her style of writing is superb, and she clearly knows how to make a world. She just needs to find a stronger plot on which to hang her words.