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: The Erotic Poems by Ovid, tranlsated by Peter Green

Erotic PoemsTitle: The Erotic Poems
Author: Ovid
Translator: Peter Green
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Paperback: 464 pages
Source: Own
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

This collection of Ovid’s poems deals with the whole spectrum of sexual desire, ranging from deeply emotional declarations of eternal devotion to flippant arguments for promiscuity. In the “Amores”, Ovid addresses himself in a series of elegies to Corinna, his beautiful, elusive mistress. The intimate and vulnerable nature of the poet revealed in these early poems vanishes in the notorious Art of Love, in which he provides a knowing and witty guide to sexual conquest – a work whose alleged obscenity led to Ovid’s banishment from Rome in AD 8. This volume also includes the “Cures for Love”, with instructions on how to terminate a love affair, and “On Facial Treatment for Ladies”, an incomplete poem on the art of cosmetics.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5

I started reading this collection a long, long time ago back in the days of college, but other things came up and since I wasn’t assigned to read the whole thing for college, I didn’t end up finishing it. Finally, it came up on my reading list, so finally, I got around to reading the whole thing.

A few things struck me while reading this. I admit, I was biased to look for it, because the whole point as to why excerpts from it were assigned in college is that a lot of what Ovid talks about is still so relevant to today’s world. Even while the same laws aren’t in place, similar concepts remain constant. For example, a lot of his writing tries to assure the reader that he is not giving them advice for committing adultery or having a liaison with a highborn woman — while we are a bit more free with our views, or are at least jaded enough to accept that adultery happens, if someone were to publish a book with advice for how to successfully commit adultery, they would be heavily criticized in our society (especially America). So, while we don’t really have laws against it here, it’s still taboo, which is an interesting thing to talk about.

Another thing I loved about this particular version is the translation. Green is a hero. He is so good at translating not only just the words but the flavor of them in English that we can understand. Pop culture phrasing and literary devices are used with skill what he feels is Ovid’s attitude, which I found to be wonderful. This version is one of the most readable translations I’ve read of this particular collection because of that, and I immensely appreciated it.

I understand that some might find this collection a tough read, with the formal language and numerous mythological allusions, but even with my rudimentary understanding of mythology, I was able to grasp the basic allusions and still enjoy his language and storytelling. If you’re into classics, for sure read this one. It’s an interesting look at Roman culture during Ovid’s time, and Green does a fantastic job in giving an easily readable translation and enough background history for the reader to understand the context in which it was written. I admit that it won’t be for everyone, but I enjoyed it.