The Wicker King (Review)

The Wicker King by K. Ancrum

33158541The format of this book hits you first. The chapters are really (really) short. There are photos, documents, and other “visuals” that help tell the story. The narrator is unreliable and his friend is unreliable. Because of all of these things, it’s sometimes hard to figure out what is going on or what a character is actually thinking or feeling, rather than what they appear to be thinking or feeling. The prologue starts in media res, and the narrator occasionally has memories or flashbacks of memories throughout the book, so the story isn’t very linear, either. But August (the narrator) clearly notes when that is happening, rewarding your close attention. Your mileage may vary just based on the structure and format, but I loved it.

The narrator’s best friend, we learn, is suffering from hallucinations, so part of the plot is the narrator trying to figure out what to do about the hallucinations in terms of a mental illness, and part of the plot is the narrator trying to figure out what to do about the hallucinations in terms of actual real things that are happening in another world.

So yes, this is a tricky book to read, but well-worth it. It explores mental illness, toxic friendships, healthy friendships, child neglect (degrees of), child abuse (degrees of), and what real emotional and mental support is. I loved the two main characters, as well as their “staff” of supporting characters: the twins Peter and Roger, who care too much and are Angry About It; Rina, the lonely graduate trying to make it; and the rest. I liked that even though August and Jack were trapped in some ways, and felt 100% alone and trapped, the book was subtly showing all of the helpers that they had around them, who ultimately keep them from a Real Bad Ending.

I do have some problems with the book, mostly in how the third act plays out. It seems too neat, considering the GIANT MESS OF PROBLEMS that the characters have to deal with. Mental health is important and difficult, and I didn’t feel like either of the MCs had properly dealt with the co-dependency, everything else aside. I worry about Jack and August in the future, whether they’ll learn to lean on their support system, whether they’ll learn to not lean on each other so much; whether they will let go of the hallucinations or if those will still play out in their lives somehow (that last page implied that they’ve still got some serious kinks to work out, pun intended).

 

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Scripture Sunday (48)

Scripture Sunday is a weekly quote-post to highlight Bible passages I’ve read recently that I found particularly interesting. I’m not a qualified expert in any way, so I will keep my thoughts to my highly-subjective impressions. My translation is the New International Version.

From my reading this week:

First:

Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”

Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.”

But he said, “Yes, you did laugh.”

-Genesis 18:13-15

And then later:

Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” And she added, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”

-Genesis 21:6-7

Why I chose it:

Sarah has her problems like the rest of us but I appreciate that she has a sense of humor. She doubts God’s promise to her and Abraham,  and is chastised for it. However, when God fulfills the promise, she isn’t grudging or grouchy. She invites everyone to enjoy how wrong she was and how right God is.

 

Myth Monday: Izanagi and Izanami Do Some Stirring

As I’ve mentioned on previous Myth Mondays, my mythological education was primarily in Western Classics, so I’m most familiar with Roman and Greek mythology (with a little Norse and Egyptian in there too). I’ve been challenging myself to learn more world mythology. Last year I learned a lot about Mesopotamian/Akkadian/Babylonian mythology. This year I’m focusing on Japanese mythology and Irish legends. Because of my background, my Japanese series will occasionally veer into comparative mythology. I love drawing lines of comparison between different ancient stories and characters, and finding patterns in them.*

For this post, I’m focusing on the Japanese creation myth and some of the oldest gods and goddesses. You can find my sources at the end of this post, or in the links buried in the post. If you have sources on Japanese mythology you would recommend, let me know in the comments!

Izanagi and Izanami

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Source

Back in the old old old days, there were a bunch of gods that lived in heaven, but no earth, just an abyss. Izanagi and Izanami weren’t the first gods ever, but they were the first to be born: brother and sister deities. One day they were standing on the stairway between the heavens and the abyss-that-isn’t-earth yet, and looking down at the abyss. Seeing as it was a big waste of space, they went to work on it like craftsmen. They took a giant, magical, jewel-encrusted spear, and poked it into the abyss, stirring it. When they lifted it, drops fell off of the spear, and the drops formed islands.

And so Izanagi and Izanami created the islands of Japan. Having made such an excellent place, they decided to go live there. Along the way they got inspired to get married to each other.** The marriage ritual involved walking around a pillar in opposite directions. In one version I read, this was so they could happen upon each other as if they just met each other as a man and maiden. But in others there’s less detail and it’s just the way the ritual goes.

In any case, they get married. Everything goes fine for a while for Izanagi and Izanami, who are creating islands, rivers, lakes, etc etc etc, which are all deities, or kami, in their own right (according to Shintoism). Kami are the essence or spirit of any thing in nature, such as a rock, a river, or a plant.

In some sources the first kid that Izanami gives birth to is disfigured Hiruko/Ebisu, god of fishermen. In some sources, Izanami has a bunch of kids after Hiruko at this point, ending with Kagu-tsuchi, the fire-god. In the more trust-worthy sources those kids are born later so I’m going to stick with Kagu-tsuchi for now. When Izanami gives birth to Kagu-tsuchi the fire-god, it is very uncomfortable and dangerous, and Izanami becomes ill and eventually passes on to the Japanese underworld, Yomi.

Izanagi is NOT OKAY with this development, and tries to get her back by going to Yomi. Izanagi finds Izanami, but it’s too dark to see her. Izanami understands the natural way of things better, and tells her husband that she really shouldn’t go back to the land of the living; she already ate Yomi food anyway, which as we all know means she has to stay in Yomi forever.*** But if Izanagi insists, Izanami will try to negotiate with the lord of Yomi. The only condition is that Izanagi can’t look at her.**** Izanagi agrees, but to NO ONE’S SURPRISE he breaks his promise and sneaks in to see her. Izanami, being dead, is rotting away and covered with maggots and gods of thunder (I….don’t know why thundergods are relevant).

Izanami is understandably pissed off, and Izanagi decides he had better get the hell out of there (pun intended). Izanami sends Eight Ugly Females to pursue him. Through some chicanery and wiles, Izanagi successfully escapes, and puts a boulder across the entrance to Yomi.

Izanagi is covered with gross Yomi stuff at this point, so he goes through a cleansing process that is the inspiration behind Shinto purification rituals. During his cleansing, the other primary Shinto gods and goddess are born. The first is Amaterasu, the sun-goddess. Amaterasu is very important in the Shinto religion, being the sun and live-giving and all that, just as Ra is a primary Egyptian god and Apollo is a primary Greek/Roman god (granted, Apollo has to kick out Helios for the privilege). I wrote about Amaterasu very briefly in a previous Myth Monday post on eclipse myths. After Amaterasu, Tsuki-yumi the Moon-god is born, and then Susano/Susa-no-wo, the storm-god. Amaterasu and Tsuki-yumi are content and satisfied with their career tracks. Susa-no-wo, not so much.

TO BE CONTINUED ON A FUTURE MYTH MONDAY

*nerrrrrrrrrrrrrrd
**this happens a LOT in world mythology, not only Japan. Wikipedia has a whole page on it but other famous married siblings include Zeus&Hera (Greece) and Osiris&Isis (Egypt).
***This is similar to the Greek myth of Persephone, who is kidnapped by Hades and taken to the Underworld, and could have returned home if she hadn’t eaten three pomegranate seeds.
****This reminds me of the Greek Orpheus and Eurydice myth. Mortal Orpheus can rescue his wife from the Underworld only if he leads her out without once looking back to make sure she’s there.

Sources

Ancient.eu on Izanagi and Izanami

Davis, F. Hadland. Myths and Legends of Japan. Dover Publications, 1992.

Japanese Mythology on Izanagi and Izanami

Scripture Sunday (47)

Scripture Sunday is a weekly quote-post to highlight Bible passages I’ve read recently that I found particularly interesting. I’m not a qualified expert in any way, so I will keep my thoughts to my highly-subjective impressions. My translation is the New International Version.

From my reading this week:

And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”

-Genesis 9:12-16

Why I chose it: 

I LOVE A GOOD RAINBOW. I love this passage and never get tired of it. It’s really hopeful in spite of the fact that almost all life was just wiped from the earth. According to my Bible, the word “remember” here isn’t the opposite of forgetting but the act of giving attention to someone or something; so every time a rainbow appears, God is giving attention specifically to us and the promise he made.

December Reading Wrap-up

I’ve been doing so many end-of-2017 and beginning-of-2018 posts that I forgot to do my monthly reading wrap-up post! These are mostly for me so I can look at the month as a whole and see what kinds of things I was reading, how much I read, and which ones I loved.

The holidays took up a lot of my spare time this month, which was great because I love the holidays. I also reread more books than usual this month because the holidays always get me in the mood for old favorites.

Fiction

Glass Slipper Scandal by Tansy Rayner Roberts (4/5 stars)

The Legends of Luke Skywalker by Ken Liu (5/5 stars)

Romeo And/Or Juliet by Ryan North (5/5 stars)

Cobalt Squadron by Elizabeth Wein (4/5 Stars)

That Inevitable Victorian Thing by EK Johnston (4/5 stars)

Rereads

Scarlet by Marissa Meyer (4/5 stars)

Letters From Father Christmas by JRR Tolkien (5/5 stars)

My True Love Gave To Me ed. by Stephanie Perkins (4/5 stars)

Smith of Wootton Major & Farmer Giles of Ham by JRR Tolkien (5/5 stars)

The Adventures of Tom Bombadil by JRR Tolkien (4/5 stars)

Bartholomew’s Passage by Arnold Ytreeide

Graphic Novels/Comics

Wonder Woman: The Truth by Greg Rucka (4/5 stars)

Nonfiction

The Generalship of Alexander the Great by JFC Fuller (3/5 stars)

The Book of Hard Words by David Bramwell (4/5 stars)

Come Let Us Adore Him by Paul David Tripp (5/5 stars)

Rec-post: Alexander the Great

I really like history, and I really like ancient history, but Alexander the Great is probably my favorite historical subject. I have a bad habit of finding books about Alexander whenever I wander into a physical or virtual bookstore;  I enjoy reading them even though they’re all hypothetically telling the same story and relaying the same facts. Alexander historians have a LOT OF OPINIONS and they disagree most of the time, which keeps it interesting if I ever get tired of the Siege of Tyre and the invasion of Persia (spoiler: I don’t).

If you are interested in reading a book about Alexander, or you have read some but want more, or you have read a LOT and want to tell me how wrong I am, look no further! Listed below are my favorite books on Alexander the Great, whether they’re novels, biographies, or picture books.

If you have Alexander the Great recommendations for me, please share them in the comments!

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A famous mosaic or whatever 

 

Nonfiction

The Age of Alexander by Plutarch: If you don’t know anything about Alexander the Great, this would be my first nonfiction recommendation. Plutarch was a Roman historian who wrote a few centuries after Alexander, but he was working off of the primary sources (biographies written during or soon after Alexander’s lifetime). That being said, he is an anecdotal writer, so he embellishes where he feels he needs to, and slathers his Roman bias all over everything. Still, it’s a great place to start and pretty entertaining to read. Plutarch knows how to tell a good story. Later biographers tend to use Plutarch and Arrian the most.

The Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian: Arrian is probably the best, most comprehensive source in existence for Alexander. Like Plutarch, Arrian was a Roman writer using the primary sources to write his own Alexander biography, but Arrian does his best to accurately record Alexander’s military exploits. Arrian has less fun storytelling than Plutarch, but more accuracy (in relative terms) and lots of specifics military details.

Head of

Everyone knows that Alexander the Great didn’t have pupils.

The History of Alexander by Quintus Curtius Rufus: If you really want to cover all the main secondary sources, you should tackle Rufus as well. He has really strong opinions about Alexander, like the others he slathers his Roman bias all over everything, but he’s a lot closer to the source material than we are. Rufus gets only a half-hearted recommendation from me because he includes a lot of embellished speeches, he is obsessed with Darius (king of Persia) and he kind of hates Alexander.

Note: Other main sources include Diodorus and Justin, but I haven’t read those guys yet.

Alexander the Great and the Macedonian Empire (Great Courses) by Kenneth Harl: I listened to these lectures but there are DVDs available as well. This is a fantastic and  comprehensive run-down of Alexander, his historical context, and his legacy. My only complaint is that Harl has a huge crush on Alexander, and tends to rationalize or justify some of Alex’s less awesome choices. If you like audiobooks, this would be my #1 rec.

Alexander of Macedon by Peter Green: This is the best biography; I want to eat it up. This and the Harl lectures are the best of the more modern biographies I’ve come across so far. Peter Green doesn’t hate Alexander, and he doesn’t love him, but he respects Alexander is a megolomaniac genius and admires his skill in manipulating everything and everyone around him. I subscribe to this view also, in part because of this book.

The Nature of Alexander by Mary Renault: This is Mary Renault’s nonfiction treatment of Alexander the Great; see below for her fiction treatment. Like Harl, Renault has a huge crush on Alexander and she will stop at nothing to justify any torture, genocide, or palace burnings that her dear Alex gets up to. Like, relax. Sometimes people do bad things but they can’t be boiled down to that one bad thing.

Alexander the Great by Paul Cartledge: This book is repetitive and boring at times, but Cartledge does a great job of analyzing the sources and rejecting the less plausible versions of Alexander episodes. This book isn’t as readable or engaging as some (see Freeman, below), but it is one of the more accurate biographies, and Cartledge has a dry humor that comes out in places.

Alexander the Great by Philip Freeman: If you’re new to Alexander the Great, this is a nice contemporary overview of his life. It’s very readable, but Freeman is not very discriminating with his sources. He’s here for the sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

Fiction

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Alex’s mom Olympias gets a bad rap but at least she got some good coinage out of it.

Stealing Fire by Jo Graham: This book is set after Alexander’s death, but has a lot of flashbacks to various points in his career. It’s told from the perspective of one of Alexander’s officers, who made his way up through the ranks from being a groom. who The plot revolves around the theft of Alexander’s body by one of his generals, and that same general taking over Egypt. You know, the fun stuff. This is a great historical fiction book with some fantasy elements. My main complaint is that Alexander isn’t physically present for most of the events depicted, but his presence is felt throughout by the other characters and in the flashbacks.

Fire From Heaven and The Persian Boy by Mary Renault: These books have a couple of big problems: Mary Renault has a huge crush on Alexander, and the female characters are generally thrown into the whore or witch categories. However,  Renault tries to give an accurate, engaging view of what happened and illustrate what kind of man Alexander was personally. He comes across very positively in these books which is problematic in some cases, but as a work of fiction, it is well-crafted. I haven’t read the third book in the trilogy, The Funeral Games, because it’s post-Alexander and I’m not about that.

Alexander the Great by Demi: If I was going to make a picture book version of Alexander, this is what it would look like. Yes, it’s very idealized. Yes, it mostly draws on Plutarch anecdotes which may or may not be have actually happened. But the storytelling is coherent, and as a broad character study, you get the gist of Alexander’s personality and goals. The art is gorgeous, and the use of gold is absolutely perfect. I want to stare at every page for hours. There’s an epic quality to the illustrations that, yes, romanticized, but go big or go home, unless you’re satirizing the guy. He’s Great, after all.

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These sarissas were 18-feet long so that ancient Macedonians could fit all their enemies on one shish-kabob.

A Choice of Destinies by Melissa Scott: This is my favorite Alexander novel I have read so far, but it’s an alternate history. This book explores what might have happened if Alexander hadn’t gone to India, had an heir that’s old enough to have a chance once Alexander dies, and various other differences. I don’t recommend reading it if you don’t know much about Alex, because you will be very very confused and probably be convinced that he fought Romans. The book doesn’t make clear if Alex still dies of a fever in Babylon, but it does emphasize that his Empire is stabilized in his lifetime and survives for a long time. It has science fiction undertones, but what I love most about this book is how believable the alternate events are, and how well Scott characterizes everyone believably considering the historical sources. I also love the emphasis on Alexander’s engineers: those guys were smart and crucial to Alexander’s campaigns.

 

Myth Monday: Dionysus and A Resurrection or Three

It’s been a while since I’ve continued my series on Dionysus, son of Zeus and god of agriculture, madness, and a few other things. You can catch up on the other Dionysus posts here.  Previously, we went through Dionysus’ birth and childhood, and looked at his worshippers and some of the stories of his infectious madness ruining kings and pirates. Dionysus has a tendency to inspire passionate frenzy in his followers and frenzied outrage from his opposition.

Tough Love

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“The Kiss” by Gustav Klimt illustrates Dionysus and Ariadne on Naxos.

One of the mythical figures most associated with Dionysus is his wife, Ariadne.

Ariadne is probably most famous for her role in the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur. Ariadne falls in love with a boy (Theseus, prince of Athens) and betrays her family (the royal line of Crete) to help said boy defeat her monstrous half-brother (the Minotaur) and escape the Labyrinth. After everything she goes through, Ariadne is abandoned by Theseus on the island of Naxos. Understandably, Ariadne does not take the break-up well and curses Theseus, sending the Furies after him.

Dionysus finds Ariadne’s agony and fury extremely hot. You’d think Ariadne would be super done with guys at this point, but she lets herself be swept off her feet and marries Dionysus. There’s a story of a miracle on Naxos, in which wine gushes from the spring located where Dionysus and Ariadne were married. If anyone was going to have a magical wine-spring at his wedding, it would be Dionysus, who invented it.

AND THEN THEY LIVE HAPPILY EVER AFTER, RIGHT?

Nope.

Dionysus ends up in a war with Perseus (of the Golden Fleece fame), because Perseus is one of those kings who just won’t fall in line with the Dionysian cult. Ariadne is accidentally killed during their battle. Whooooooooooooooops.

After Ariadne dies, Dionysus throws her wedding diadem into the night sky and it becomes the constellation Corona Borealis.

Corona Borealis, Bootes

Dionysus, in spite of his raucous followers and orgiastic habits, doesn’t have a bunch of mythical lovers, and definitely had fewer than his dad Zeus, for example. Ariadne is the primary spouse or lover he’s got (although he had a couple of kids with a couple other mortal ladies).

You Can’t Keep A Good Girl Down

Dionysus regularly loses the important women of his life, but he does try to get them back. Remember his mom Semele, who burst into flame while pregnant after seeing Zeus’ true form? At some point Dionysus decides that was a Bad Deal and goes on the traditional underworld quest to get her back. He’s a bit luckier than Orpheus and Dionysus doesn’t have to do any of that “Don’t look back” nonsense. However, he does have to bribe* a certain shepherd (named either Hypolipnus or Prosymnos or Polymnus) to help him find an entrance to the underworld. Once Semele has been retrieved, Dionysus guilts Zeus into making her a minor goddess named Thyone.

There are stories that Dionysus rescues Ariadne and makes her a goddess as well, but those are more obscure and came along later. I like them, though, because Ariadne had a rough enough time as it was.

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Cerberus, three-headed guard dog of the underworld, by William Blake

Aside from the occasional rescue, Dionysus has a complicated relationship with the underworld. In his cult, Dionysus dies every year and resurrects in the winter with the grapevine, symbolic of his status as the god of agriculture and wine. The ancient author Hesiod uses the epithet “he who eats flesh raw” to describe Dionysus, which he also uses to describe Cerberus (three-headed dog of the underworld) and Echidna (the mother of monsters). This implies that Dionysus has at least some monster-attributes linking him to the more overt mythological monsters, if not an actual monster himself.

In some versions of his myths, Dionysus is in fact the son of Zeus and Persephone, but complications lead to Zeus moving the baby to Semele’s wound instead because THIS IS MYTHOLOGY AND NOTHING IS NORMAL. The Orphic Hymns (attributed to Orpheus, another dude who went to the underworld to try to save a girl), say that Dionysus hangs out in Persephone’s house during the time of year when he is dead (Orphic Hymn 53). Another Hymn (46) says that Dionysus was raised in Persephone’s house, rather than being raised by nymphs of Nysa.

So, like Persephone, Dionysus has a lot of seasonal connotations for his worshippers and a cycle of power and decline that he goes through every year.

TO BE CONTINUED on a future Myth Monday!

*Not a monetary bribe; Dionysus generally took the form of a really really really attractive younger dude. USE YOUR IMAGINATION OR DON’T, I’M NOT HELPING YOU.

Sources

  • Mythology by Edith Hamilton: This is my favorite mythology retelling collection so far. Hamilton does a good job of condensing everything but still telling a good story and telling it well, so that it’s entertaining and terrifying, but still getting across all of these random details and encompassing all of the many characters in Greek mythology.
  • The Age of Fable by Thomas Bulfinch: This does the same job as Edith Hamilton’s book, but his writing style isn’t as poetic or engaging. He includes details and stories that Hamilton doesn’t, though, and he tries to be as comprehensive (I was tempted to say “unbiased,” but no one ever manages that) as possible.
  • Dionysus: Myth and Cult by Walter F. Otto: Otto likes Dionysus. A lot. So much. It’s a little terrifying. Anyway, this book delves into the cult that worshiped Dionysus, the different rites and versions of Dionysus’ story, and the cultural and religious impact of the Greek god.
  • The Meridian Handbook of Classical Mythology by Edward Tripp: This is a more recent find, but it’s a decent encyclopedia of Roman and Greek mythological characters.