You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

The Lost Books of the Odyssey

The Odyssey has been one of my favorite stories for a long time. I've always enjoyed the fantastic tales, then I appreciated the mythic structure and rich background. Lately I've come to an appreciation of the poem's later stages as Odysseus spends years with Calypso and returns home as a beggar to scope out the situation at home. The whole story has such rich layers from fascinating material. I've occasionally wondered what other stories there might be of Odysseus. Dan Simmons' Ilium was a great story that used the material from The Iliad and The Odyssey and made a totally new science fiction work.

I had read a review of The Lost Books of the Odyssey, Zachary Mason's debut novel, so when I found it at the library I snatched it up. First off, it's not really a novel so much as a series of short short stories. There's no overall structure to the book. Instead each story looks at the character of Odysseus or one of the related characters and presents a different view. There is the story about Odysseus coming home and finding the island of Ithaca deserted. Another tells of his return as a beggar and warning that the master will be home soon, and returning the next day as the true king of Ithaca to find that all the suitors have been killed and Penelope playing the part of the dutiful wife (though Odysseus knows better). In a masterpiece of irony, one story finds Odysseus at Troy faced with a man who claims to be him, including knowledge that only the true king of Ithaca would know. He sends the man away with some food and gold and the parting advice that perhaps he is better of being without any ties or responsibilities. When he finally returns home after years of war and wandering the sea, he finds the same man in his house with his wife. The man sends him off with the same gifts and parting advice.

One story tells the story of a sympathetic Polyphemus, who suffers blinding at the hands of a nefarious captain. Another tells of Telemachus as he waits for the return of his father and witnesses a great wave that washes over Ithaca. The visit to Circe's island is retold as we watch Odysseus make the decision to join the witch in bed after realizing all his men have been killed.

Some of the stories twist around in a sort of meta story. One tells of Odysseus as he leaves the Trojan War to become a storyteller and hears the stories of his adventures grow. Another piece describes how the Iliad grew out of the elaborations of a chess manual.

I enjoyed reading the further adventures of one of the greatest mythic heroes. These stories are great variations on a theme. Achilles is recast as a golem made of mud. Agamemnon becomes a tyrant who demands the secret of the universe. The final piece shows Odysseus retracing his steps as an old man, finding the world changed and feeling much smaller. One story has Odysseus fall into the sea on the way home only to be plucked out by Agamemnon on the way to Troy, and he is forced to relive the whole war again. While the book has no central structure, the themes are built and woven and remade into a vast new look at the ancient Greek myths. The book is both new and old at the same time, quite a feat with the oldest stories around. A

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