Mythos by Stephen Fry — Reread Review

I don’t remember how I got interested in Greek myths. It might have been Disney’s Hercules, though I feel like I already knew a bit about them by then. Maybe it was just absorbed knowledge of satyrs and fauns and centaurs from The Chronicles of Narnia. Either way, I like Greek mythology and I like Stephen Fry, so Mythos was very much a sure bet!

Stephen Fry modernises the language of the myths, without quite going so far as to refer to Cadmus as a ‘homie’. He manages to link some sections of myth together into overarching narratives, but some pieces still feel disconnected. I don’t think that’s any fault of the writing; it’s just the way the source material is.

The name [Electra] is interesting; it is the female form of ELECTRON, the Greek word for ‘amber’. The greeks noticed that if you rub amber vigorously with a cloth it magically attracts dust and fluff. They called this strange property ‘amberiness’, from which all our words ‘electric’, ‘electricity’, ‘electron’, ‘electronic’, and so on, ultimately derive.

Mythos, Stephen Fry

There’s an emphasis on places where our modern English words and idioms come from the names of gods or heroes, or the punishments enacted by one on the other. So Stephen Fry highlights that we still use ‘Sisyphean‘ to describe a futile task. But he also relates bits of the Sisyphus myth that I wasn’t previously aware of. The reason Sisyphus needed to be punished was that he’d cheated death twice, and even managed a ‘happily ever after’ the second time around!

Hera grasped the bird by the beak so that he could hardly breathe and was about to punish him in some strange and dreadful way that would forever have altered our conception of chaffinches, when his mate fluttered about her ears and hair bravely calling out.

Mythos, Stephen Fry

My favourite myths are the ones that resemble ‘Just So’ stories – that explain how the world came to be the way it is. There are plenty of these – more than I was previously aware of – but my favourite is still Arachne, who boasted of her spinning so much that Athena came down to challenge her. Only I didn’t know that, after losing, Arachne was so distraught at the thought of never weaving again that she hung herself. And so Athena transforming her into a spider could actually be seen as a merciful act.

Mythos does a good job of making the Greek myths as narratively satisfying as possible, and even somewhat relatable.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt — Reread Review

I picked up The Secret History mostly because I’d heard of it. I had some idea that Rebecca had enjoyed it, though I don’t recall us every talking about it beyond that. I wanted to reread it because I didn’t really remember what I made of it. Which hasn’t worked out so well, because having finished it for a second time, I’m still not sure what I make of it.

Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw’, that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature?

The Secret History, Donna Tartt

It’s got a great ‘first’ line, especially for someone like me who reads entirely too much writing about writing and values character development over just about everything else. (It’s actually the first line past the prologue, but we’ll count it!) Overall, Donna Tartt’s writing is compelling. I always wanted to read more, and only very briefly found my interest waning (around the funeral) before it picked up again.

A November stillness was settling like a deadly oxymoron on the April landscape.

The Secret History, Donna Tartt

As often happens, I found myself wondering what genre to put The Secret History in. It’s about a crime, certainly, but it’s not a ‘whodunnit’. The first half of the story is, I suppose, a ‘whydunnit’, but even that doesn’t accurately capture the second half of the novel. I described it to Caroline as either a ‘dark spin on a coming of age story’, which feels more or less right to me. The characters certainly leave behind the innocence of childhood in a pretty significant way. They’re coming to cynicism, and responsibility. From what I know of Atonement, I’d describe that in a similar way.

So there is character development, even if it’s mostly that the cast go from people I don’t much care for to people I definitely dislike. That’s fine, I don’t need to Richard and Henry and the rest of the students in this kind of story. I find them interesting, I want Donna Tartt to tell me more and more about them, even if I wouldn’t want to break bread with any of them!

I believe that having a great diversity of teachers is harmful and confusing for a young mind, in the same way I believe that it is better to know one book intimately than a hundred superficially.

The Secret History, Donna Tartt

There isn’t much else for me to say about The Secret History. It’s a well-written book. It’s even a good book, one that I enjoyed reading more than once. But perhaps it’s not my kind of book in the way that some others are.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The Little Book of Ikigai by Ken Mogi — New Review

The Little Book of Ikigai: The Essential Japanese Way to Finding Your Purpose in Life was a very fitting gift from Lindsey, because I have been asking what my purpose in life is since I graduated university. Before that, I felt my life had a road map: finish GCSEs, finish IB, finish university. Afterward achieving those goals one by one, not knowing what to do next felt like being adrift in the open ocean, suddenly without landmarks of any kind. It still feels a little bit like that.

What will it be?
Where will it be?
My purpose in life is a mystery!
Gotta find my purpose!
Gotta find me…

Purpose, Robert Lopez & Jeff Marx

Maybe the fact I’ve been looking for purpose for over a decade should have tipped me off that I wasn’t going to find it in an 196-page book. But The Little Book of Ikigai was still interesting reading! I enjoyed the bits about the Japanese cultivation of ‘perfect’ fruits, and the description of the temple that gets rebuilt exactly the same way over and over again. I just felt that it lacked clear instructions on how to implement these pillars of Ikigai into my own life.

The Japanese seem to distinguish between many different nuances of experience.

The Little Book of Ikigai, Ken Mogi

This was most frustratingly apparent in the chapter titled ‘How to Find Your Purpose in Life’ – which didn’t tell me how to do that at all. It told me, if I recall correctly, about sumo wrestlers who might not be the best at fighting but find joy in performing other ceremonial activities. And yes, I can see that I’m meant to apply that to my work and conclude that even if editing puzzle magazines doesn’t feel like my one true calling there are still aspects of my life around my job that I can find purpose in. But Ken Mogi provides no insight into how I might go about identifying what they are. Except this, which is the conclusion to the chapter:

You need to find your ikigai in the little things. You’ve got to start small. You need to be here and now. Most crucially, you cannot and should not blame the environment for a lack of ikigai. After all, it is up to you to find your own ikigai, in your own way.

The Little Book of Ikigai, Ken Mogi

Helpful.

I don’t mean to sound entirely negative. If you’re interested in Japan and Japanese culture, this book gives you a lot of great jumping-off points for further research or reading! Just… don’t expect it to tell you what the point of you is. Or even, really, how to figure it out for yourself.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

What Katy Did by Susan M Coolidge — Reread Review

Ah, yes, that charming children’s classic that begins with the author eavesdropping on some aliens. At least, that’s what I always thought when I read What Katy Did growing up. As a child who had never lived in Australia, South Africa, Canada or the United States, I had never heard of a ‘katydid‘. I didn’t find out until years later that they’re a kind of insect. And even looking back on the description now that I’m more informed, Susan M Coolidge still makes them sound a little more like Hannah-Barbera’s Zorak.

I got up from my seat to see if I could find the speakers; and sure enough, there on one of the cat-tail bulrushes, I spied two tiny pale-green creatures. Their eyes seemed to be weak, for they both wore black goggles. They had six legs apiece,—two short ones, two not so short, and two very long. These last legs had joints like the springs to buggy-tops; and as I watched, they began walking up the rush, and then I saw that they moved exactly like an old-fashioned gig.

What Katy Did, Susan M Coolidge

At least I’m not alone. Rebecca also thought they were aliens. We’ve had many conversations about the awfulness of Cousin Helen and her ‘school of pain’. And in a way, they are awful. Saccharine sweet, all about self-denial and how an ill person needs to comb their hair not to become an eyesore to those around them. What Katy Did is definitely dated. People say that there’s too much sermonising in Little Women, and while I see what they mean, I actually see it more in What Katy Did.

The reading part began with a dull little piece of the kind which grown people call an editorial, about “Neatness”, or “Obedience”, or “Punctuality.” The children always fidgeted when listening to this, partly, I think, because it aggravated them to have Katy recommending on paper, as very easy, the virtues which she, herself found it so hard to practice in real life.

What Katy Did, Susan M Coolidge

Despite all that, What Katy Did still gets me, every time! The sermons work – they make me want to be a better person. They make me want to be more patient through my struggles, and to find ways that I can make other people happy even when I’m having a bad day. Not to mention, I love seeing the way Katy develops through her hardships. It’s definitely a problematic depiction of injury and suffering, but it’s so satisfying to see Katy transform!

I wanted to be Katy, more than I think I ever wanted to be Jo March. I wanted to be good at telling stories and inventing games. I definitely once tried to talk my two friends into playing Kikeri.

As I read What Katy Did this time, it struck me how very realistic a character she is. Her character development isn’t to conquer one fault once and then be done with it, but to struggle with multiple faults, over and over again. Katy keeps resolving to be better, but even at the end of the novel, she doesn’t believe she deserves praise because there are still days that she fails! As someone who also resolves to be better, fails, and then resolves again, it made me love Katy even more.

Miss Carr was very faithful to her duties: she seldom left the children, even for an evening, so whenever she did, they felt a certain sense of novelty and freedom, which was dangerous as well as pleasant.

What Katy Did, Susan M Coolidge

I also felt a lot more sympathy for Aunt Izzy this time around! This poor woman, who has no husband or kids of her own, possibly who never even wanted children that weren’t in a Sunday School sermon, uproots her entire life to look after her nieces and nephews. And they drive her crazy, because they’re so unlike what she was like, but she gives looking after them her absolute all anyway. I want a book about Aunt Izzy, what her childhood was like, what her life was like before she moved in with her brother and his six kids!

It’s hard to know how to rate What Katy Did. It’s definitely flawed. Not just the ‘school of pain’ stuff, which is definitely distasteful to anyone with a modern view of chronic pain and other such conditions. There’s also the fact that I can barely tell any of Katy’s siblings apart, except for Elsie.

But I still love it. It makes me tear up and want to be a better person. And I still kind of want to be a Katy, even if I can how the self-denial that Cousin Helen preaches could play into issues of already low self-esteem.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Next in the series: What Katy Did at School.