The Penelopiad

pen

“I knew he was tricky and a liar, I just didn’t think he would play his tricks and try out his lies on me.”

In The Odyssey Penelope is both the wife of the titular character Odysseus and cousin to Helen of Troy. While she’s the driving force for Odysseus to return home to Ithaca not much is known about her own story. The Penelopiad by Margret Atwood takes this woman’s tale, spinning it with a modern take, and answers the haunting question of what lead to the hanging of 12 maids in Penelope’s care when Odysseus does return home.  

*Review may contain spoilers*

I love Greek myths and could drown myself in the tales for days on end if I had enough books on the subject. But, alas, I don’t and so I find myself hunting down these stories, old and new, to keep my obsession in check.

Now, I was a bit hesitant about reading The Penelopiad. Not because it’s about Penelope, but because I always seem to find myself with a hit or miss when it comes to Margret Atwood’s writing. Beside The Handmaid’s Tale, I haven’t particularly enjoyed any of her other stories and hopeful this would change that.

Though I know the basics of The Odyssey I could not for the life of me remember the 12 maids who are hanged after Odysseus returns home and all the suitors are murdered. I had to pick up my own copy to make sure I wasn’t being messed with. But, sure enough, there it was. A couple of lines, claiming they were to be killed for disrespecting Odysseus, and that’s all.

The explanation of how time has passed at Hades and how the world’s evolved, which Penelope and everyone else knows about, was extremely well done. It allowed for a modern twist and allowed Penelope time to understand her story and how to tell it. I also loved how main characters were brought up every now and then within Hades, having conversations with Penelope in order to further her thought process of past events. And though the second life stuff wasn’t exactly my favorite it made sense to show each character’s ability to handle their actions in the former lives.

Honestly, I’m just a sucker for Hades.

And, it was good Atwood changed up Hades the way she did since that was the only major change in the entire story, which relied heavily on the original subject matter.

See, when these ‘her side’ stories come about they either succeed or just rehash what we know about said character. Unfortunately, for The Penelopiad, the latter occurred, as if Atwood just cut Penelope out from The Odyssey and pasted her in this book, wiped her hands, and said done.

There was nothing new to Penelope. She’s still the same loyal, loving woman who cleverly keeps her suitors at bay until Odysseus comes home. Yes, there’s more distinction of her dislike of Helen (making her every cliché of ‘I’m not pretty enough so I have to rely on my wit’ archetype) and her understanding of Odysseus’ true nature (which I felt she knew in the original anyway), but the only different thing she does is the whole ‘secret spying pact’ with the maids. Which, genuinely, wasn’t all that clever, causing their fate to be lackluster.

And though the maids give insight into their lives throughout the story, which, compared to Penelope, was awful, but since this is Penelope’s story the maids try to prove her responsibility in their deaths, but never succeed because the story is about Penelope after all, and she really didn’t mean to get them killed.

I was also irritated that it took almost 100 pages for this novella to finally pass the Bechdel test, which only occurred when Helen starts talking about modern fashion.

And for a book claiming to be about Penelope it clearly gave the men credit as its predecessor has for centuries.

I wished the story had been about what happened after the events of The Odyssey, showing how powerful and disturbing those 12 deaths were to Penelope and Odysseus’ relationship. Granted, the insight we are given, at the end, is beautifully written and perhaps the best part of the book, but there was just so little it didn’t fully satisfy.

While I do have many issues I found myself generally enjoying it, especially by giving the 12 maids acknowledgment, and luckily, it pulled me out of my funk with Atwood, which, hopefully, will continue with her other works.

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Memories of My Melancholy Whores

Memo

 

“Now you know, Delgadina, that fame is a very fat lady who doesn’t sleep with you, but when you wake she’s always at the foot of the bed, looking at us.”

Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel García Márquez follows the ninetieth year of an unnamed narrator who celebrates his birthday with “a night of wild love” with a virgin. However, much to the narrator’s surprise, he doesn’t make love with her, but rather falls in love with the girl as the year progresses, telling how this love changed him for better and worse.

*Review may contain spoilers*

This is my first Márquez and it was a nice introduction to the author’s style and constant themes of his career. I don’t know where or how I learned of this novella, but I wanted a shorter book this past week in order to have more October reads.

While I liked the initial story and the idea that love at 90-years-old isn’t that unlikely despite being a strange concept to the world, I couldn’t get pass the sexism and passive woman obsession that oozed with every page.

The narrator is a self-proclaimed lover of whores, being a bachelor his entire life and having no wish to settle down. Though there were memorable women in his life he was never tied down and lived his life as he wanted. Which is fine with me; do as you want dude. But it becomes appallingly clear that he has no regard in thinking these women as people as the story progresses.

The first glimpse into this is how he’s treated his housekeeper, taking her when he wanted and never taking her feelings into consideration. It’s further explored when he mentions his first time with a whore and how it came to be. To him, if a woman can’t please him she has no reason to be in his life.

Then, when he meets this 14-year-old virgin, he, thankfully, doesn’t make her have sex, but slowly becomes obsessed with her, wanting to ‘preserve’ her innocence and calls it love. He later begins writing love letters, which are published in the Sunday paper and propelling him into slight fame though no one knows whom, or how old, the girl he’s ‘in love with’ is.

But when he suspects the girl, whose real name is never given and the narrator calls her Delgadina in response, has been unfaithful he blows up, calls her whore, and thinks her no better than all the other women he’s slept with.

That’s not how the story ends, but I couldn’t help feeling sick at the idea that I’m supposed to sympathize with this man, a sexist old man who’s supposed to have fallen in love for the first time yet treats his ‘true love’ with the same regard as any other women with the only difference being that he hasn’t slept with her.

It also doesn’t help that this novella won the Nobel Prize for Literature, further propelling the acceptance that if a man discovers love that it deserves to be celebrated.

Despite these problems, I find myself in love with Márquez’s style of writing and look forward to reading more of his books in the hopes that it’s not all about old men and celebrating their actions toward their whores.

 

The Butterfly Garden

Butter

 

“My secrets are old friends; I would feel like a poor friend if I abandoned them now.”

FBI agents Victor Hanoverian and Brandon Eddison are currently investigating “The Garden”, which was run by a man known as The Gardener, who collected “Butterflies”, women he kidnapped then tattooed to resemble the creature. One of the girls, called Maya, is questioned, but as she tells her tale of becoming a “Butterfly” the agents must uncover what else she’s hiding and why in The Butterfly Garden by Dot Hutchison.

*Review may contain spoilers*

Okay, confession time: I didn’t exactly read this entire book.

I know, I know, that’s bad, but after hitting page 75 I just couldn’t take it anymore and decided to skip ahead to the last 20 pages or so to see if anything significant actually happened.

And, nothing did.

But, let’s start from the beginning, shall we?

I read the blurb and my interest was peaked. A potential serial killer who tattoos his victims as butterflies? It gave me déjà vu of The Collector, and I seriously couldn’t wait to start it.

It wasn’t until probably 15 pages in that I became aware something was annoying me though I couldn’t possibly say what. 15 pages after that, the feeling was still there and I knew it wasn’t because of the subject matter. So, like any good reader, I stopped reading and searched for reviews to see if I could get a grasp on what was so annoying or if anyone else had the same problem.

And, they did.

The underlining problem I couldn’t pinpoint was the amateurish writing of the entire story (which I immediately agreed with when I read the first few comments of reviews), making every conversation or thought the characters had cheap and unconvincing. At one point, FBI agent Victor ‘deduces’ that Maya moved to New York because, “…she said trains instead of metro or subway – that meant something, didn’t it?”

What? Who has ever said that? Like, trains are a totally different concept than metro or subway. I’m from fucking Wyoming where we have no metro system, but plenty of trains. Yet you don’t find me confusing the two, do you? It just…it’s just so stupid.

It also doesn’t help that the book alternates between the interrogation and Maya’s story, which she is currently telling the agents. It helps not bear down the story with telling instead of showing, but makes the real conflict play second fiddle through the entire blurb is about The Garden and not Maya’s eight roommates.

As I said before, I reached page 75 before I decided I was done. This book, which was promoted as a thriller, felt nothing more than a story of Stockholm Syndrome victims and their want to please their captor. There are plenty of mentions of other women trying to escape, but when Maya gets there no one ever does even though there are like 21 ‘Butterflies’ and only one Gardener. They just accept their new life, a few make a fuss but that’s about it, and it was the most unrealistic nonsense I’d ever read.

It was then I decided to skip to the ending just to see what the major ‘twist’ was and why Maya was hiding her real identity. To which I will say this: unless your character is a spy they have no need for three names in a book.

And everything I needed to know was explained within those last 20 pages. Everything. There was no need for me to read the rest, except maybe to understand who was who and why Maya thought they mattered, but in the end, it honestly didn’t matter. I’d learned about Sophie beforehand and the so-called ‘mystery’ of Maya’s real identity was solved.

Granted, maybe there was information about why The Gardener created The Garden and kept so many ‘Butterflies’ in the middle, but it didn’t seem to matter in the end except why Maya didn’t try to find a way out or fight for her life, an explanation I laughed at because it was so ridiculous.

Had I spent my time actually reading the entire thing I would have been just as upset as I was. I’m just glad I decided to STTLC (skipped to the last chapter) when I did.

The only good thing to come out of this was the fact that it passed the Bechdel test. Granted, I didn’t think ‘Maya’ counted since she acknowledges that it isn’t her real name so I decided to count it when her roommates talk about the apartment with one another. So, I guess there was something worthwhile about this book, but it came too late to help me.

The Daylight Gate

Day

“Only humans can know what it means to strip a human being of being human.”

The year is 1612 and King James’ book Daemonologie has taken England by storm. Tensions continue to rise when two women of Pendle Hill are accused of witchcraft and their loved ones try to rescue them by enlisting the help of Alice Nutter, a woman who’s old yet appears young, and has a history shrouded in mystery. In The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson, Alice and the other witches must use their power, for good or evil, in the hopes of saving themselves before its too late.

*Review may contain spoilers*

I happened to find a BBC documentary about the Pendle Witch Trials and I was taken with the story immediately, so much so I started looking up books on the topic as soon as I could. The Daylight Gate was a happy accident find at the local library and became better the moment I saw there was, in fact, an author note in it (see The Last Nude review for clarification.)

All I knew about these trials before reading is what the documentary told me. So there were some conflicting notes, but not enough so to think someone was lying through their teeth.

Winterson keeps things simple and concise, not giving much detail of surroundings or personal thoughts of the characters. And, if any of you know me, I love simple. It allowed the story to keep a steady pace and maintain suspense.

This isn’t a long book. In fact, I’d say it could be finished in a day, no problem. I, however, did not; taking a two-day break before finishing, which I honestly believe messed up the book for me.

See, I stopped right before Alice and Elizabeth become lovers and the major, and sometimes hardcore, witch parts, so when I picked it up again I swore it was some sort of satanic, romance novel than the historical fiction I’d picked up days before.

The main attraction I had to the Pendle Trials was the fact that Jennet Device, a nine-year-old at the time, condemned her mother, sister, and brother for witchcraft. Her testimony was the ultimate evidence, which helped condemn the others accused at trial as well. Afterward, Jennet may have been accused of witchcraft herself, but records don’t show what happened to her afterward.

I suppose I thought this book would be more about Jennet than Alice Nutter, who was considered an odd choice for accusing since she was a significant woman in the community. And, I’m not saying it was bad, but I just didn’t like it in the end.

The beginning, before I paused for two days, was my favorite as it followed the real events pretty closely. But then it turned into a campy, supernatural rave with the whole Elizabeth plot, Alice’s youth mystery, and the real witches of Pendle, along with a talking corpse head and talking spider.

It was just…strange.

Maybe it was to show how desperate the women, and Jem, became after being locked up for so long, which I can get behind. It was just the whole ‘Alice is The One and the Devil is coming’ stuff that I just didn’t…meh.

I also didn’t care for the Christopher Southworth subplot or hashing out the ending in a very sporadic way. I wanted more of the true aftermath of the trials than how Southworth deals with the death of Alice.

I appreciate the creative take Winterson decided to explore, but in order for it all to work in the end, she needed to focus more on both supernatural and real stories equally, and together, than separating them creating a weird, fan fiction version of the story.

 

 

*Passes the Bechdel test, barely

The Last Nude

Nude

“Come to my show next year, if you can, and see: this time, I have painted your eyes open.”

Rafaela Fano is struggling to support herself in Paris in the summer of 1927. After all, not only did she run away from her arranged marriage and arrive in Paris knowing no French, she is barely 17 years old. Short on money for a work dress Rafaela is approached by the artist Tamara de Lempicka to model for her and agrees. Little does Rafaela know how she’ll inspire Lempicka in her art, but how time as a muse will teach her the hardest lessons in love and desire in The Last Nude by Ellis Avery.

*Review may contain spoilers*

I’m planning on writing a paper on how literature needs a Bechdel test of its own. For those unfamiliar the Bechdel is a test for films which has three rules:

-There must be at least two, named women

-These women must meet

-And they must have a conversation about something other than a man

Most people would say this could be applied to any work of fiction, but it’s usually just associated with film, hence why my paper will focus on why literature not only needs to start applying this test, but one with additional in-depth rules for it to work.

To make my life easier I just Googled for books that passed the current test and The Last Nude (and many others in future reviews) was one of them.

I’ve seen some of Lempicka’s work throughout my life thanks to my art teacher mom though I know next to nothing about her life and, before reading The Last Nude, merely glanced over her weak Wikipedia page to know the basics.

Set in two parts (and, yes, I was anything but pleased) the first part is told through Rafaela’s POV, explaining how she came to meet Lempicka, their relationship, and fall out. We’re also given background on her life, how she arrived in Paris, and her current methods of survival.

It’d be too cliché to say she’s beyond naïve, but that’s one of her key characteristics, which later bites her in the butt and isn’t played off as something “cute”. A fact I liked. But, beyond that, there’s not much else to Rafaela until her dressmaking skills come into play, allowing her to become more than just a literature sex doll.

And though she might not be the brightest there’s something familiar about Rafaela, making her likable enough to tolerate. A trait Lempicka does not have.

Part two is set a massive time after the events of part one (seriously, I have no idea how much time has passed and I have fucking reread this as much as I can bear) and is told through Lempicka’s POV as an old woman living in Mexico…(?)

Part two not only dismisses answering these simple questions and switching character POV, but decides to make this book about Lempicka, ignoring everything readers have gone through with Rafaela up to this point.

Look, I’m all for making characters grey, both good and bad, but trying to convince me Lempicka was at all remorseful for her actions toward Rafaela, or anyone she manipulated, put an awful taste in my mouth. This book was promoted as Rafaela’s story. Not Lempicka’s redemption. Also, the whole “I saved her from the Holocaust” was the lowest form of patting oneself on the back I couldn’t even manage giving a single fuck.

In fact, there was another way this could have ended and it’s when Rafaela and Lempicka re-meet. It’s mentioned on page 303-304 and it’s the most interesting thing of part two. This reunion could have been continued on by Rafaela and given closure for her character and story rather than “redeem” Lempicka.

I’m most irritated by the fact that Avery did not include a notice in the book explaining that, maybe, no one knows who the model Rafaela was and Avery was taking liberty with the ending. Maybe there’s information somewhere, but just doing a quick search on Rafaela’s name came up empty-handed. Yet, nowhere does Avery, a writer who had 11 people help her research the story, explain this.

Yes, this is a work of fiction; but compare it to The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff, which supplies an author’s note explaining, “This is a work of fiction loosely inspired by the case of Einar Wegener and his wife.” And, “Some important facts about Einar’s actual transformation lies in these pages, but the story…is an invention of my imagination.”

Yes, Avery supplies a Further Reading page, but with no Author Note or a simple explanation or even a makeshift version of the title card before every Law and Order episode was painfully needed. Not only to answer many glaring questions, but show Avery is, in fact, a competent author of the 21st century.

The writing isn’t anything spectacular yet I’m not terribly upset about it though some conversations I skipped over, mostly the ‘art people’ ones, because my eyes couldn’t roll any further into the back of my skull.

I’m glad this book passed the Bechdel test with flying colors, with multiple, named women having conversations about things other than a man, but this accomplishment is overshadowed by the glaring problems Avery created and ignored.

 

PS: I found a Q&A with Avery and when asked what ‘creative differences’ she took she only admitted to moving an apartment into a ‘better neighborhood’ yet I learned the character of Anson Hall was a creation of her own imagination, a Hemingway cop-out if you will, a fact I would never have known had I not found the Q&A.

House of Names

House

“It is not right for me to be in love with life.”

Iphigenia, daughter of King Agamemnon, is sacrificed so the winds will change for her father’s fleet to head to war. Having been deceived by her husband, Clytemnestra seeks revenge for Iphigenia in the form of her husband’s murder, which in turn makes her remaining children, Electra and Orestes, desire vengeance of their own. House of Names by Colm Tóibín reinvents this classic Greek tragedy by exploring how lust, power, and hate force these characters to do unspeakable acts they find justifiable.

*Review may contain spoilers*

Having been published this past May House of Names fluttered about the book world of Instagram and I fell for the trap. The premise, a retelling of a Greek tragedy, caught my interest and though I didn’t know much about the story I went in blind and hopeful.

The beginning was fantastic. It allowed readers background on what happened to Iphigenia, why it happened, and the obsessive revenge Clytemnestra developed, which in turn led to her killing her husband and her final state of mind.

But, then, her story took a break to begin the one of her son, Orestes, switching not only characters, but tenses from 1st person from 3rd. Thankfully, Orestes’ first section wasn’t tedious and I found myself liking it. But, yet again, it switched back to 1st for the character of Electra who only gets one section compared to the others.

This was when I found myself struggling to care.

There’s nothing special about Tóibín’s version of this tragedy except he wrote it from the imagination and claims he didn’t have a singular source material. Though, if that were the case, I believe there would be more to this story. The end result just felt like a repeat of the tragedy with a few differences, which ultimately had little or no effect on the plot.

The characters were nothing different from the revenge-mad minded Greeks they’ve always been. I did feel bad for Clytemnestra and she’s the only one I felt true empathy for, but as her ‘evilness’ continues it starts feeling like cheap acting from an early 90s soap opera. The children weren’t as developed, though they did the whole soap opera nonsense as well, and I just don’t care or believe their reasoning’s for their actions. Especially Electra.

This family is dysfunctional and Tóbín successfully portrays this (ultimately being the best use of his writing skills in this entire book) but because the characters are bare-boned carcasses with such basic issues there’s nothing exciting about them, no matter how creatively Tóbín tried.

Maurice

Maurice

“You confuse what’s important with what’s impressive.”

Maurice Hall lives during the elegant Edwardian period and has a bright future ahead of himself with his father’s firm. Everything seems incredibly normal about him, that is, except for the fact that he is homosexual. The story of Maurice by E.M.Forster follows this young man and his journey in accepting himself as he is and not the way the world wants him to be.

*Review may contain spoilers*

This was a spur buy. Like, I put it in my online cart to make the amount needed for free shipping. I knew nothing except what the blurb said and thought it would an interesting read considering the subject and history of its publication.

Also, I haven’t read anything else by Forster.

Originally, the story caught my attention, but once I put the book down after a while I found myself a bit reluctant to continue. It wasn’t as if I didn’t dislike it, but I just was a bit meh about it. It didn’t change as time went on; in fact I kept putting it off. And I think it’s because I knew the ending wouldn’t satisfy me.

See, I appreciated that Maurice wasn’t the brightest blub. It almost made him endearing (I’m still upset about how he treated his family.) His relationship with Clive had a nice start and their feelings felt genuine though it was clear Clive was the dominant one.

But it just felt like something was missing.

We’re given the start of the relationship and then a brief explanation of their two years together before Clive decides to end things and the aftermath. There’s plenty of philosophy about what it means to be happy and personal desires, but it weighed down the potential for an enduring story. It focused too much on Edwardian morals rather than the characters.

One of the main problems was that Clive was given a pass at the way he treated Maurice. There are only a handful of chapters dedicated to his inner thinking when he decides he isn’t in love with Maurice, or men for that matter, and acts as if nothing mattered and they can still be friends. If there was an award for biggest douche of a boyfriend, well, Clive Durham deserves it.

Maurice’s relationship with Alec didn’t feel right either. And, maybe, it was due to the slight hope that Clive would do the right thing and apologize that I didn’t care for it, but the blackmail plot probably did it in for me. It just felt forced.

In the end I respected how Maurice came to terms with his sexuality and realizing how Clive was holding him back, providing my favorite quote, “You care for me a little bit, I do think,” he admitted, “but I can’t hang all my life on a little bit.”

Though I didn’t feel a deep connection to the story or characters I understand the importance of this story through its publication history and subject matter.