Book Review: Ithaca by Patrick Dillon

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Title: Ithaca: A Novel of Homer’s Odyssey
Author: Patrick Dillon
Publisher: Pegasus Books
Hardcover: 352 pages
Source: NetGalley
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

Telemachus’s father, Odysseus, went off to war before he was born … and never came back. Aged sixteen, Telemachus finds himself abandoned, his father’s house overrun with men pursuing his beautiful mother, Penelope, and devouring the family’s wealth. He determines to leave Ithaca, his island home, and find the truth. What really happened to his father? Was Odysseus killed on his journey home from the war? Or might he, one day, return to take his revenge?

Telemachus’s journey takes him across the landscape of bronze-age Greece in the aftermath of the great Trojan war. Veterans hide out in the hills. Chieftains, scarred by war, hoard their treasure in luxurious palaces. Ithaca re-tells Homer’s famous poem, The Odyssey, from the point of view of Odysseus’ resourceful and troubled son, describing Odysseus’s extraordinary voyage from Troy to the gates of hell, and Telemachus’s own journey from boyhood to the desperate struggle that wins back his home … and his father.

*I received a free copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

Overall Rating: 3.5 out of 5

I have very mixed feelings about this book.  On the one hand, the idea of telling a classic Greek tale through the perspective of another character in the story really intrigued me.  I love The Odyssey and was super excited to sink my teeth into a story from Telemachus’s perspective.  And I have to say, on that count I think this book was super interesting and successful.  Part one of this novel sucked me in, and I could not wait to keep pushing my way through the story.  I thought Telemachus was a completely fleshed out character and a lot of thought had gone into the effect not knowing his father would have on him.  I also thought that his exploration with Polycaste was one of the strongest parts of the novel.  Partly because she was another super interesting character and partly because this is a part of the story that has not been told to death and was rather innovative.

The rest of the book began to fall flat for me, though.  Odysseus being discovered and recounting his tale is when I started to drift out of my engagement.  I do not know how else the author could handle this (if someone has not read The Odyssey then they need to know what happened), but having Homer’s epic condensed to a chapter in plain English felt more like I was reading sparknotes than anything else which kind of bummed me out.  It also has the problem that the reader knows how the story is going to end and the final few scenes playing out are kind of a let down for that reason.

So again, I am torn.  I think that this book is really amazing at its best parts.  The characters are well developed and the take on various characters’ psyches is super interesting.  The idea that many of the heroes in these epics are brutes that are romanticized was a super interesting thread throughout, however, in the end it just feels like a lesser telling of a story we already know.  I do not know how this could be worked around, since changing the source material would obviously also be a problem, however, if this book were completely from Telemachus’s perspective and followed the format of the first part throughout, I think I would have enjoyed it much more.

That said, I have several students who either really love The Odyssey or think it is interesting but can’t get past the language.  I think this is the perfect book for either of those kinds of students since it is more accessible but also adds new ideas and viewpoints to the story.  I would happily have a copy of this book in my classroom to recommend to those students and think it could lead to some interesting discussions about the values of various societies.

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Book Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

where'd you go, bernadetteTitle: Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Author: Maria Semple
Publisher: Little, Brown
Hardcover: 330 pages
Source: Borrowed from Chicago Public Library
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she’s a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she’s a disgrace; to design mavens, she’s a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom.

Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette’s intensifying allergy to Seattle—and people in general—has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic.

To find her mother, Bee compiles email messages, official documents, secret correspondence—creating a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter’s role in an absurd world.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5

The story behind this book: Andrew’s cousin Liz once recommended this to me while we were visiting her during spring break. We were so busy exploring Seattle, however, that I never got around reading to it. So, when our local book club had this listed as the book they were reading next, we both thought that it’d be a good way to: read the same book at the same time, finally read the book his cousin recommended so long ago, and meet new people in the process.

ALYSSA

I had a hard time getting into this, but once it got going, I was fully immersed. I think that Semple does a really good job of finding the humor in intense situations and really plays that up in this book, which I found enjoyable.

The best moments for me were the crazy PTA parents and Bernadette’s ways of getting back at them. In a lot of ways, I identified with Bernadette, which is kind of scary, but I’m not going to think about that too much. :p Having visited Seattle, it was a huge bonus for me to sort of know the neighborhoods and stereotypes that are portrayed. It added some nuance and detail to the story that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.

While I very much enjoyed the middle, I found the end to drop back down to how I felt in the beginning. There isn’t much of a satisfying resolution and everything feels ridiculous; unfortunately, Semple goes past humor and goes into drama for drama’s sake. Without getting into spoilers, there were a lot of actual problematic issues going on that were sort of glossed over and made to look like they were resolved. Regardless, I enjoyed this book overall (still rated it a 4!) and it was an entertaining, easy read for what it was. I think anyone looking for a bit of good fun will enjoy this — it’s very approachable and deals with situations that almost anyone can relate to. Great book club book, for the record.

ANDREW

This could be my bias towards love of architecture coming out, but I wish they had spent more time revisiting Part II, where it talks about Bernadette’s career as an architect. It was one of the more compelling parts of the book, and I wish it had been a bigger part of the story instead of glossed over and just used as background information. Additionally, it gets strangely meta at the end, and I don’t think that it was done as well as it could have been.

Overall, however, it’s really funny. I laughed quite a bit while listening to this. It’s well written, and I think that the e-mail/letter format is well done and interesting. For the most part, the format fits the story nicely. I listened to this as an audiobook, and I do recommend it if you’re a fan of audiobooks; the narrator does a really good job. I think you could read the book and still enjoy without knowing Seattle, but having a rough knowledge of the neighborhoods and atmosphere of the city definitely helped me better enjoy the story.