This year's summer reading comprised a light and frothy mix of literature and non-fiction through the ages, from the Iliad to The Grapes of Wrath.
Ok, so the only "light and frothy" tome on that mantle is Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad (unless Homeric bloodsplattering counts towards frothiness...). Though after several summers spent careening through the waters of postmodernism and putting up with the sometimes-brilliant, usually-perverse prose of George R. R. Martin, it felt good to read some substantial, important books for once. (Yes, I did read Faulkner's Light in August last summer. No, I don't remember any of it.) (I was doped up on post-surgical painkillers at the time, give me a break.) Even though my regular school year reading lists are heavy enough to begin with, I rarely get to read books that I would have actually chosen to read myself--thus, the Slightly Heavier Than Your Average Summer 2013 Reading List™. The flip side: since I wasn't reading any of these books for class, my thoughts (assembled below) run about as deep as the slots on an ice cube tray; thankfully, there's no law barring me from rereads.
*Note: at the time of writing, I haven't finished the last three books (this summer ain't over yet!) , but I will be updating this post over the next two weeks as I finish them off.
Oedipus Rex, Antigone, Electra (Sophocles) — Not sure why this particular Oxford edition packaged Electra in here instead of Oedipus at Colonus , but no matter: as much as I liked revisiting the two Theban plays with a bit more Classical knowledge in tow (I originally read them in a high school English class), Electra easily struck me the most. And as it is wont to do, gave me an idea for a film adaptation...
Works and Days, Theogony (Hesiod) — Not much commentary to add here, other than that if you want to bulk up on your Greek mythology, you may as well go right to the source rather than read it from a textbook; the poems are short enough that you really don't have any excuse ;). I wish I had read these earlier on, as they would have cleared up a lot of small questions in all of my Latin classes through the years (the five ages of man? yup, right here).
The Iliad (Homer via Richmond Lattimore) — Unfortunate confession alert: ........I had never read the Iliad before this summer. I KNOW, I KNOW, I'm a terrible Classics major, but at least I did it now. Having read some Homer in Greek last spring, I was able to appreciate a lot of the Homeric quirks much more ("In this way the grey-eye goddess Athena spoke, and Hera of the oxen eyes spake thusly her reply..."). OTHER COOL THING: right around the book where Patrokles dies (spoiler alert), I discovered that a tin plate that had been hanging in my Yiayia's dining room for as long as I've been breathing actually depicts a an Iliadic battle scene! (Menelaus attacking Hector after the fall of Euphorbos, for those of you who were wondering) </geekmoment>
The Penelopiad (Margaret Atwood) — And then in the realm of nonessential reading, there's Margaret Atwood's meringue-light retelling of the Odyssey from the eyes of long-suffering Penelope, which makes for perfect reading as you're stuck in traffic for two hours on your way back from your Yiayia's house. The book's value lies almost entirely in the issues it raises about sexual norms and double standards in ancient Greece and through the ages; I wouldn't recommend it otherwise. I trust that Atwood is a great writer when she puts her pencil to more substantial storytelling—I've been meaning to get around to The Blind Assassin for years now, so I think next summer will finally bring the opportunity for that.
Confessions (St. Augustine) — This fall I'm taking a course on Christianity in classical culture, and since the syllabus is structured entirely around Augustine's City of God, it seemed best to read his more widely-read work first to get a better sense of who he was before jumping into his larger opus. Some parts of the Confessions were moving and relatable; others gave me strange and unwanted flashbacks to my days of translating Lucretius' De Rerum Natura .
The Abolition of Man (C.S. Lewis) — No, I couldn't have just picked the more well-known of the C.S. Lewis classics to read on the side this summer. As this was mostly my bedside reading, I'm going to have to give it another look in order to get the most out of it. Though it started out a tad esoteric (and I didn't realize that the Tao he kept referring to was explained in the appendices until after I had finished), the book/treatise/essay/whatever got around to expressing some interesting ideas in the end.
The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck) — Now here's the real meat and potatoes of my summer! (cruel joke?) It was only fitting that I read the Great American Epic to complement the Homeric one. While there were plenty of tough moments to get through, especially in the last hundred or so pages—by which point I had thankfully already crossed that magical threshold after which you can't do anything else until you've finished reading—Steinbeck's prose is pretty spectacular. I especially loved the format of chapters alternating between the tribulations of the Joads and the omniscient narratorial observations of the migrants in general, a technique that made for some very effective storytelling and some compelling and instantly memorable passages.
The Art of Fielding (Chad Harbach) — This year's entrant in the token contemporary fiction category falls somewhere in the middle of the Tim Markatos Brand-spectrum that spans Jonathan Franzen's Freedom to David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. Harbach is clever enough with words to keep you interested in the story, a weird mashup of baseball, college life, sexual rediscovery, Herman Melville, and inappropriate pederastic relationships (see? Classics majors *are* relevant after all!). The resolution after the climactic final ball game is quite obviously aspiring to greatness, but it feels both forced and unearned. I wouldn't consider the book a waste of my time, as I did enjoy it overall, but it unfortunately played up some of the themes I hate the most (I'm looking at you, infidelity) in novels like this.
- For the Life of the World (Fr. Alexander Schmemann)
- Suite Française (Irène Némirovsky)
- Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking (Susan Cain)