Recommended Reading: “Blue Skies,” “Thus Was Adonis Murdered,” “The Real Charlotte,” and “The Essential Peter S. Beagle”

I love Edward Gorey’s cover art (Dell edition)

“What should a woman read in May?” I asked myself, sitting cross-legged in bed and gazing at a pile of books.

This is a tough question, since I have so many books on the TBR, but I’ve been reading widely and wildly lately, so here are four quick recommendations.

First up, there’s T. C. Boyle’s comical, sad, satiric novel, Blue Skies,  which centers on a family dealing with climate change on both coasts.   Cat, a hard-drinking young woman whose fiancé constantly travels for his job,  lives a lonely life in a rickety beach house in Florida, where the sea is rising and the streets are usually flooded.  Her parents and brother live in idyllic California, which is not idyllic anymore:  it is on fire all the time.  Boyle has a flamboyant imagination but this novel is disturbingly realistic, and what has not  happened seems likely to happen soon.  This is a fast read – one for the dystopian novel collection.

And then there is Sarah Caudwell’s witty, smart mystery, Thus Was Adonis Murdered, first published in 1994 and recently reissued by Bantam.   Caudwell was famous for never revealing  the sex of the narrator, Hilary Tamar, an Oxford don and amateur sleuth who applies scholarly methods to solving crime.  

In this comic novel, the scatterbrained Julia Larwood,  a London barrister who shares an office with Hilary’s friends, has gone to Venice on an Art Lovers’ tour, hoping to meet an attractive man.  She writes very funny letters about her dream man to her friend Selena, which Hilary and the others chortle over at lunch.  But then there is a disaster:  Julia is accused of murdering the man.  Her friends know that clutzy, disorganized Julia could never have committed a murder, but proving it is problematic. 

Have you heard of the 19th-century writers,  E. O. Somerville and Martin Ross?  These two Anglo-Irish women co-wrote novels under the above  pseudonym. I recently read The Real Charlotte, a disturbing novel about the dangers of jealousy.  Charlotte Mullen,  a clever, unkind, middle-aged, well-to-do spinster,  is extremely  jealous of her much younger second cousin, Francie Fitzgerald, who has come to live with her. The lively Francie attracts every man in sight, including Mr. Lambert, an estate manager on whom Charlotte has a crush.  What horrors Charlotte manages to accomplish are almost beyond imagination.  

I am thoroughly enjoying The Essential Peter S. Beagle, a  two-volume collection of the award-winning author’s short stories.  As a child I loved his novel, The Last Unicorn, and am delighted to find the same feats of imagination in his short stories.  In “Lila and the Werewolf,” a young man, Farrell, is distraught to learn that his new girlfriend, Lila, is a werewolf. Farrell’s gift is for acceptance, but the problems of lycanthropy multiply speedily.   In a sweet, comical story, “Professor Gottesman and the Indian Rhinoceros,” a rhinoceros follows the professor home from the zoo.  The animal insists he is a unicorn, which the professor tells him is impossible.  The two live together for  years and argue constantly about philosophy. Is the rhinoceros/unicorn real?  Yes, I believe !   More on the stories when I get to the second volume.

And what are you reading?  Anything I should add to the TBR?

Infinite Variations on Reimagined Myths

A quirky, neglected novel

I hadn’t supposed that mythological creatures lounged about discoursing in dactylic hexameter all day. Nevertheless, numerous reconcilements were required between what I had imagined a deity, even a modern one, to be and what the flesh-and-blood deity in fact was. But even with willing and alert adjustments, there were moments of incredulous silence on my side. – Mrs. Demming and the Mythical Beast by Faith Sullivan

There’s something about a reimagined myth.

Readers love myths, and the retold or reimagined myth has been a popular genre for thousands of years. Even in the twenty-first century, when presumably fewer readers study classical mythology, the fascination remains. Madeline Miller’s best-selling novel, Circe, has been adapted as an HBO series (not yet released). In David Malouf’s short, perfect novel, Ransom, he reimagines scenes from the Iliad, focusing on Priam’s attempt to ransom the body of his son Hector from the implacable warrior Achilles. In 1999, Canongate commissioned a series of retold myths by Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson, Ali Smith, and other renowned writers. The first three books in the series were published in 2005.

Why are myths so popular? We are fascinated by the volatile antics of the gods and goddesses and the struggles of heroes (half divine, half human) unfortunate enough to attract their attention. Myths help us understand human dilemmas. They showcase the implacability and arbitrariness of fate. We pore over Greek tragedies, horrified by mistakes sometimes caused by unwitting hubris, but more often apparently by nothing, which end in disaster. In the Iliad and the Aeneid, we mourn the deaths of young soldiers, most of whom are farmers.

I prefer some retold myths to others. Ovid’s poem Metamorphoses is, naturally, the best. I stopped reading Madeline Millers’ Circe after an abortive attempt to listen to the audiobook, but perhaps I’d do better with the actual book.

And yet many worthy retold myths that were not best-sellers or well-publicized are worth reviving. Take a look at these four you may not have heard of. One might be right for you.

The dreadful cover of this mass-market paperback has nothing at all to do with the novel!

Mrs. Demming and the Mythical Beast by Faith Sullivan. No one has read this book since it was published in 1985, except me, I swear. It is forgotten, neglected, wacky, hard to categorize, and the cover of my mass-market paperbook is not a good sell. In this witty novel, set during a magical summer in Belle Riviere, Minnesota, the heroine, Larissa, an amateur artist, participates in an ecology campaign to fight the development of condos on the riverbank. She also has an affair with the god Pan, who, it turns out, has been stuck in Minnesota for most of the century. (P.S. I just learned this fun read is available from Kindle, so it IS more or less in print.)

Homer’s Daughter by Robert Graves. In this neglected feminist masterpiece, the author of the Odyssey is not Homer, but Nausicaa, the intellectual princess and rescuer of the shipwrecked Odysseus in Book VI of The Odyssey.  I loved this novel: in fact, I’m due for a reread. Your may already be acquainted with Graves’s The Greek Myths, or his famous novel I, Claudius.

The Penelopeia:  A Novel in Verse by Jane Rawlings.  Published in 2003, this is a sequel to Homer’s Odyssey, written from Penelope’s point of view. It is not a masterpiece, but the free verse flows and is easy to read. The plot does not center of Odysseus: when he returns from the war after 20 years, Penelope reveals that she gave birth to twin daughters after his departure and hid them at her father-in-law’s house to keep them safe from enemies.  Both Odysseus and their son Telemachus feel betrayed by this revelation. Much ado…

Summerlong by Peter S. Beagle. I very much enjoyed this novella, a retelling of the Persephone myth, set in Seattle and Puget Sound. Due to a divine quarrel between Persephone and Hades, Persephone hides out in Seattle, working as a waitress who calls herself Lioness. During a summer that continues into fall because Persephone is not underground, Hades and Demeter search for her, but the real focus is on the human protagonists. Abe, a retired history professor and a blues fan, rents his garage to Persephone/Lioness;  and his longtime lover, Joanna, a fiftysomething flight attendant, is is not only sick of flying but worries about her lesbian daughter Lily’s crush on Persephone. This sweet novella is a myth about climate change.

What are your favorite retold or reimagined myths? There are so many to choose from!

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