Greek Myths: A New Retelling by Charlotte Higgins
Jonathan Cape, 336pp, £20
To reimagine classical myths from a female perspective is not a new idea. The Roman poet Ovid was doing it more than 2,000 years ago with the Heroides, and since then the likes of Penelope, Helen and Circe have been given countless opportunities to reclaim their stories. What Charlotte Higgins attempts in Greek Myths is different. She doesn’t just overhaul the myths, but the entire storytelling apparatus. The tales we are so familiar with – the creation of gods and men, the tragedy of Oedipus, the Trojan War – are not recited or narrated but woven: by eight mythological heroines on eight ancient looms, who spin their own interpretations.
The feminism is subtle but persistent, first indulging Greek tenets about the role of women and the subordinance of mothers, then softly interrogating them. Pandora is no villain; Penelope’s enduring faithfulness to Odysseus is not all it seems. This isn’t about imposing modern values on ancient texts – Higgins never strays too far from her source material and her compendium deftly tracks the format of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, one tale blurring into the next. But even readers who think they know their classics will discover some surprises.
By Rachel Cunliffe
I Live a Life Like Yours: A Memoir by Jan Grue, translated by BL Crook
Pushkin Press, 272pp, £14.99
Sometimes you read a book where after a chapter or two you have to stop highlighting the bits that floor you or else you’ll underline the entire text – and this is one of them. I Live a Life Like Yours, first published in Norwegian in 2018, is the writer Jan Grue’s memoir of life with congenital muscular dystrophy. It describes the limitations and frustrations of the medical institutions he has had to frequent, and the disconnect between the life others expect of him and the one he actually leads. Lyrical reflections on otherness, love, grief and family are interspersed with criticism – Michel Foucault on the institutional gaze, Erving Goffman on stigma – and extracts from the clinical notes that documented Grue’s childhood development, which describe a person who is at once himself and someone he does not recognise.
On everything from fatherhood (“I am writing after one and a half years as a father. It is a long now, the moment stretches out and swallows the horizon”) to time (“Time is inelastic. I require the time that I require”), I Live a Life Like Yours is a profound, contemplative work about life with a disability, and life as a human being.
By Pippa Bailey
The Library: A Fragile History by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen
Profile, 518pp, £25
This history of the library, from the Assyrians to the digital age, is itself a wonderful collection of knowledge. Libraries have always been more than storehouses of human wisdom: they are also indicators of a society’s value system. The authors chart, with an eye for the telling detail, such episodes as the rise of the printed book and the resistance to it (the Muslim world largely rejected type, and in the West manuscripts remained the documents of choice for wealthy patrons); the invention of proper bookshelves – the gift to posterity of Fernando Colón, Christopher Columbus’s son; individual collectors such as Thomas Bodley; and the late 19th-century development of the public library, driven by the robber baron Andrew Carnegie.
Of course, book destruction features large, whether the fabled library at Alexandria, French revolutionaries torching the monastic libraries or the Nazis’ book-burning, which became wholesale as the Red Army closed in. This is a book full of fascination and ultimately one of optimism, too. “In the endless cycle from destruction to greatness,” say the authors, “libraries have always recovered.”
By Michael Prodger
The Compendium of (Not Quite) Everything: All the Facts You Didn’t Know You Wanted to Know by Jonn Elledge Hachette, 304pp, £14.99
In a genre as crowded as trivia, it helps to have a distinctive voice. In The Compendium of (Not Quite) Everything, the NS online columnist Jonn Elledge serves readers a generous helping of obscure factoids laced with sardonic humour. The book reads like a relaxed Wikipedia “speedrun” in which users try to navigate their way between two specific yet topically unrelated pages as quickly as possible, with pit stops covering politics, people and pop culture. Elledge works from “creation myths” at one end of the book to “a selection of things that may kill us all” at the other.
Meanwhile, he explores how history comes full circle, from England’s 20th-century “Cod Wars” with Iceland (which bear an uncanny resemblance to Brexit issues), to the “unnoticed arms race” of today’s “flagpole war”, where authoritarian countries including Saudi Arabia and North Korea are vying to outdo each other and build the world’s tallest flagpole. This book is unashamedly geeky, and a fact-filled insight into both the familiarity and peculiar nature of human experience.
By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio
This article appears in the 10 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Behind the Masks