The Folio Society

Folio Friday: If Not, Winter (Fragments of Sappho)

Over the next four weeks, I’m excited to share some selections from the The Folio Society‘s spring catalog! As many of you know, I’m a devoted fan of The Folio Society editions of classic literature, and the three I received so generously from the publisher last month have done nothing but encourage my adoration. Today’s featured edition is IF NOT, WINTER: FRAGMENTS OF SAPPHO.

I’m always drawn in by the incredible cover art and interior illustrations that The Folio Society are known for, and one  thing I truly appreciate about their editions is the thought and design they put into their sturdy slipcovers.

The London Review of Books writes of this translation, “Carson loves the spaces almost as much as the words . . . a haunting translation.” This description of the text is equaled in the design and presentation of the edition’s cover and slipcase, both of which are softly beautiful and expertly crafted to reflect the beauty and craft of Sappho’s remarkable work.

If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho

  • Translator and Introducer: Anne Carson
  • Artist: Jenny Holzer

While interpreting her work in the 19th century, translators and writers ascribed derogatory terms to the poet, misconstruing sexual enlightenment for promiscuity, prostitution or sorcery. The snippets of her work were misappropriated and overwritten until it became almost impossible to find the genuine voice of Sappho. [London Review of Books]

Anne Carson’s beautiful, brave and unadorned translation of Sappho’s complete surviving work is printed letterpress throughout to evoke the original papyrus fragments onto which the words were transcribed. In a careful consideration of the text, this large-format edition presents the English translation of each fragment facing the original ancient Greek, each page individually typeset so the spacing and breaks are precisely replicated.

About the Author: Sappho was a musician who lived on the island of Lesbos from about 630 BC until her death no one knows when. She devoted her life to composing songs to be sung to the lyre’s accompaniment. Alexandrian scholars collected her songs in nine books, all of which are lost. Sappho was also a poet. Whether she was literate is not known but the words to her songs were written down during or soon after her lifetime and existed on papyrus by the end of the fifth century BC. Of the nine books of lyrics that Sappho composed, only one poem has survived complete. All the rest are fragments. [Biography by Anne Carson]

About the Publisher: For 70 years, The Folio Society has been publishing beautiful illustrated editions of the world’s greatest books. It believes that the literary content of a book should be matched by its physical form. With specially researched images or newly commissioned illustrations, many of its editions are further enhanced with introductions written by leading figures in their fields: novelists, journalists, academics, scientists and artists. Exceptional in content and craftsmanship, and maintaining the very highest standards of fine book production, Folio Society editions last for generations.

Book copy and all images are courtesy of The Folio Society. Feel free to visit their NEWS AND BLOGS page for more information. In case you missed them, take a look at my Folio Friday features for Mary Beard’s S.P.Q.R. and other Folio Society books.

100 Days Journal

The Third 10 Days #100DaysJournal

Hello there!

Here’s another update (my third!) on my 100 Days of Journaling project.

First of all, I cannot believe that an entire month has gone by already. I’ve been waking up an hour or two earlier every day (I’ve been doing this for a few months, actually, but more specifically these last 30-days in order to get my daily writing done), and it isn’t always easy, but so far it has been and continues to be rewarding. It’s nice to know that I’ve already accomplished something for myself before the rest of the days tasks, errands, chores, and responsibilities begin to call my attention.

In my first 10-day checkpoint review, I noted that I’d been doing a lot of self-criticism, and this continued in my second 10-day review, too. I’m a little disappointed to report that these last thirty days were not much different. It seems like, no matter the prompt, a lot of what I do is complain about something. That said, for Day 30, I was intentional about focusing on what I appreciate most in my life right now. I tried to come up with 5 things that I’m actually happy with, proud of, etc. It was a nice way to wrap-up this 10-day period, especially knowing I’d be sitting here writing this little reflection.

So far, I’ve written 50 pages. This is a bit of a slow down, as I was averaging about 2-pages per day through the first 20 days. I’m now getting about one page written, but part of that is due to the fact that, while I’ve still been waking up early, I haven’t been waking up quite as early. Yes, I’ve taken to hitting that snooze button on my phone’s alarm, or waking up in the middle of the night and changing the alarm from 5:30am to 6:30am. Whoops! If I were a better sleeper, I think I’d be better at waking up early, too. Alas.

Here are the last 10 prompts:

  • Day 21: What do you need to do by the end of the year to make this year meaningful?
  • Day 22: The most unfair thing about capitalism is…
  • Day 23: If given the choice, which time period (past or future) would you like to live in and why?
  • Day 24: What (career) advice would you give your 16-year-old self?
  • Day 25: If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be and why?
  • Day 26: The most unfair thing about socialism is…
  • Day 27: Describe a time you felt lonely.
  • Day 28: What are your views on fame and celebrity culture?
  • Day 29: What traits and habits do your parents have that you don’t want to adopt?
  • Day 30: What do you appreciate most about your life right now? Why?

I can’t believe I’m about to head into a 5th week, and will soon even hit that 50-day mark. What a ride. Onward!

Feel free to follow along with my #100DaysJournal project on Twitter!

Andrew Smith, Middle Grade

The Size of the Truth by Andrew Smith

I can probably count on my ten little fingers the number of authors whose complete published oeuvre I’ve read. On just one hand, or five little fingers, I can fit those whose books I pre-order as soon as I hear there’s a new one coming. Andrew Smith fits into both of these categories. He is, in other words, a two-handed experience in my reading life. I won’t go so far as to say I’m double-fisting, because innuendo. But you catch my drift.

It is both safe and fair to say that I’ve enjoyed every Andrew Smith book I’ve read, and that would be all of them. When a new one is coming, I know I’m probably going to like it. This is what we call an “informed opinion” based on prior experience. It’s a dangerous thing, though, because, well, what in the world would happen if I were to read a dozen books by a beloved writer, let myself get worked up over a new release, and then find it to be completely disappointing?

What would I do if Andrew Smith let me down?

The answer: I have no idea, because it still hasn’t happened.

The Size of the Truth is Andrew Smith’s first middle grade novel, and what an achievement it is. The book itself stands out to me as one of Smith’s best, even without taking into consideration that he has shifted from a young adult to a middle grade audience. That said, I’m beyond excited that a new demographic of young reader is about to be introduced to one of today’s finest contemporary writers, and that these readers will have such a catalog of options available to them as they get older and discover Smith’s other works!

For those familiar with Smith’s catalog, you might be excited to know that The Size of the Truth takes us back to the world of Winger and Stand Off. It is in effect a prequel to Stand Off, in that its protagonist is a younger Sam Abernathy, the precocious, dorky, adorable, troubled younger roommate to Ryan Dean West of Winger/Stand Off fame. What Smith does so well in the earlier novels, he continues and even builds on in this one.

Friendship and family, masculinity and identity, coming-of-age and coming into one’s own. These are, as always, the core themes in Smith’s new novel; but in this case, these themes revolve around a mysterious trauma, a mistaken memory, and the biggest question of all: what is true? In other words, how do we find the courage to acknowledge painful and difficult realities, ones that we might not even fully comprehend?

This kind of exploration, this kind of wonderment about life and dreams and passion, is the kind of thing Andrew Smith does in the most paradoxically unique but ubiquitous ways, in the most timeless but timely fashion. That he follows this path with Sam Abernathy, of all characters, is testament to just how deeply Smith think about the world and how seriously he takes the joys and pains of growing up, the sorrows and brilliancy of simply being in the world – an individual in the chaos.

Truth – like love, like fear- is one of the most elusive concepts I can think of. The idea that it can be described or narrated, illustrated or made universal, would have been, just a week ago, almost laughable. But as Smith introduces us to young Sam Abernathy, the boy in the well, and we witness how this boy deals with his trauma, how he builds troubling friendships with armadillos but avoids meaningful ones with the real life humans around him, we begin to understand the size of the truth and to experience what it feels like to discover the meaning of it for one’s self.

Middle grade? Young adult? Retiree? Much like little Sam Abernathy’s well, with its winding tunnels and ancient mysteries, The Size of the Truth is big enough for us all.

Bill Konigsberg, LGBT, Young Adult

The Music of What Happens by Bill Konigsberg

Bill Konigsberg’s THE MUSIC OF WHAT HAPPENS takes its name from a Seamus Heaney poem, titled “Song.” In the final couplet of that poem, Heaney’s poet tells of, “that moment when the bird sings very close / To the music of what happens.” And, in a nutshell, this is the same song, the same spirit, at the heart of Konigsberg’s surprising young adult novel. 

I was not prepared to enjoy this new release as much as I did. Indeed, about 60-pages into the book, I wondered if it and I were ever going to “click.” And then something very strange began to happen. I started picking up the book more frequently. I started refusing to put it down again. I started sneaking in bits of reading between grading papers, running errands, or watching news segments, muting commercials so I could read for 90-seconds before Rachel Maddow popped back onto my television screen. The beauty of an experience like this is that it feels so natural. Without realizing it, I was myself immersed in the music of what happens in Max and Jordan’s lives, in their bumpy relationship, in their sometimes cozy but sometimes horrid home worlds, and in the circles of their friendships, which sphere separately and then converge. 

The two protagonists take turns telling their parts of the story, in an intercalary format that has become ubiquitous in the YA genre. Max is a handsome, popular, masculine latino teenager who seems to have everything going for him. He is gay but only selectively out. Jordan is quieter, a poet. He is gay and more openly out, though as an introvert, he doesn’t talk to many people besides his two best friends and his problem-ridden mother. They come from very separate households and backgrounds, but the magic of a 1980s food truck brings them together, and the rest is the music that develops as their two souls and experiences meet. They learn from each other; they learn how to be with each other and they learn to bring their two worlds into harmony. Like all good stories, and good romances, though, there are struggles along the way. Max must deal with an absent father and a painful secret. Jordan must deal with a single mother who acts more like a child, and with worldly inexperience that leaves him possibly unable to help Max when he needs it most. 

Race, gender, masculinity, friendship, family, economics, sex and romance, sex and assault, first loves, first jobs, first times. I’m not sure what else a novel could tackle, but this one seems to do it all. Yet, far from being overwhelming or overstretched, Konigbsberg allows Max and Jordan the time and space, the introspection and extroversion, needed to experience, process, and grow from all of these experiences. It’s a near-masterful coming-of-age novel in this way, and an equally delightful romance. A book I will hang on to, to learn from and to enjoy again someday. 


100 Days Journal

The Second 10 Days #100DaysJournal

A quick update on my 100 Days Journal project.

First, I’m happy to announce that, yes, I’m still going! It’s very rare that I can stick to any kind of time commitment-based project. I don’t know why. The structure is actually helping me this time, though, and I think my positive success (so far) is in large part due to the fact that I’m accomplishing writing as a part of this project.

My reading challenges, for example, often suffer because a) I’m going to read no matter what, so why force myself into constraints about what type and how much? and b) I end up doing too much reading for my writing habits to keep up with, find myself with a stack of books to review, and decide to throw my hands up and say, “forget it!”

In my first 10-day checkpoint review, I noted that I’d been doing a lot of self-criticism. I think I’m still doing that, but something else has happened, too. While I’ve been noting a lot of places where I continue to struggle, fail, or disappoint myself, the tone of those criticisms has changed somewhat. For example, I often added a little more explanation about why I was failing at something, or how I might improve. So, perhaps one of the benefits of this journaling project might be to combine self-reflection with self-improvement. There’s an idea!

I’ve also found that I’m writing a lot more about my goals, and manageable ones at that. Just this morning, for instance, I wrote 5 things I would like to achieve by the end of the year. Some of them will be terribly difficult, one or two of them super easy. It seemed helpful to make a list for myself so I could see what really is important to me right now, what will make me feel like a success, and where I can find a balance between “easy” improvements/accomplishments and more challenging ones.

Here are the last 10 prompts:

  • Day 11: If you could solve one big world problem, what would that be?
  • Day 12: When you feel bored, where does your brain wander to?
  • Day 13: If you weren’t concerned with what other people thought, what would you like to be doing with your life? (this was a zinger!)
  • Day 14: What did you want to be growing up? Why?
  • Day 15: Describe your earliest memory.
  • Day 16: Where in the world do you have no desire to travel? Why?
  • Day 17: When are you happiest in relationships?
  • Day 18: If you could choose jobs for your child, which would you choose? (I had to work around this one, since I’m not a parent.)
  • Day 19: What don’t you have enough time to do? Why?
  • Day 20: What is something not many people understand about you? (this one was painful.)

Working from prompts has been really helpful, but to be honest, I modified almost every single one of them in some way, or found a way to answer the prompt while also writing about whatever was already on my mind that day. It’s been an interesting exercise in thoughtful synthesis, so far! Onward!

Feel free to follow along with my #100DaysJournal project on Twitter!

Books, Non-Fiction, writing

Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin is a fantastic writer. I thoroughly enjoyed A Wizard of Earthsea (it was the University’s common read a few years ago. I really should read more of the series!) and have always wanted to read more of her work. So, last year, I picked up a couple of her books on writing, including this one and Conversations On Writing. I haven’t read the latter, yet, but I’m looking forward to it after having finished Steering the Craft.

The title is of course a metaphor for writing. Le Guin approaches the writing process with a wonderful sense of humor and beautifully helpful analogies to life and other messes, er, situations. What I find most helpful about the book is its design. First, each chapter is a distinct topic, important to the writer (the writer of fiction, primarily.) Unlike some fiction writing guides, however, Le Guin does not focus on the big-ticket items, like character. Instead, she moves in on things like grammar, voice, and point of view. Then, within each chapter on a single topic, she breaks things down into a few components: A) thoroughly enjoyable narratives on what she means by the topic, including definitions and her own explanations plus relationships/experiences with the topic; B) helpful examples from excellent sample pieces, like Jane Eyre, that help her illustrate what she means and gives the reader-writer a better idea of how someone does “this thing” well; and C) one or more practice exercises so that the reader-writer can test out their new knowledge in a practical way, and get to doing the work of writing, which is why she should be reading the book in the first place.

So, the book is not just a guide to a writing, but it is also a prompt for writing, too.

Another helpful element is the appendix, where Le Guin gives all sorts of useful advice about how to form and run and participate in a writing group, be it in person or online. She outlines some of the most helpful guidelines and articulates some of the problems and pitfalls, too. This might not be necessary for everyone (many reading are probably solitary writers, although, as Le Guin makes clear, that’s a habit worth breaking), but even if the reader-writer is already experienced in writing groups and/or has no current interest in them, they might find helpful information for themselves, here.

Finally, Le Guin is just fun. She’s brilliant and entertaining. She treats the reader-writer like a peer, not a customer or some “noob” to the scene. Reading the section on “the sound of your writing” and realizing that Le Guin has her audience in mind, just as she encourages the reader-writer to have his audience in mind, is a great way to begin, as it demonstrates her ethos in the most effective way. She tells, shows, does, and then asks the reader-writer to do the same. This is a teaching method I’ve been practicing myself for years, and it was seriously comforting to see a master writer doing the same. I’m eager to get back to her fiction, but also, especially, her Conversations On Writing.

Contemporary, Fiction, Literature, Madeline Miller, Mythology

Circe by Madeline Miller

Have you ever read a book that left you feeling completely stunned? It happens to me rarely, but when it does, I have this thing where I can’t do anything with my thoughts afterward. I can write about a good book, even a great one. I can write about a bad book, even a terrible one. But sometimes, a book completely knocks me out, and I can sit on it for days, weeks, even years without ever being able to articulate a damn thing about it. That’s what happened to me with Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles. You won’t find a review for it here, because I simply could not do it.

So, it was with excitement and strange terror that I returned to Miller once again for her highly anticipated and well-received follow-up, Circe. This one, like Song of Achilles, explores the life of one mythological character in great detail, imagining her life “behind the scenes” of the sparse details we get from classical storytelling. What Miller did so brilliantly in her first novel, exploring the more interesting elements of a well-known hero, Achilles and his lover, she does again here with Circe, who is treated to centuries’ worth of imagined biography.

I will say that I did not respond to Circe in the way that I responded to Song of Achilles. I’ve been wondering how much of this is simply biased, considering I am and was more interested in and more familiar with Achilles’s story in the first place. His story, and particularly told in the way Miller chose to tell it, through the eyes of his lover, is something I’ve always wanted to read. I wasn’t as familiar with the mythology of Circe, nor did her story draw me in as deeply or passionately. It’s an unfair comparison, perhaps, because I felt intimately connected to Song of Achilles, and not necessarily because the book was “better.” In fact, Miller here writes one of my favorite lines from any book I’ve ever read: “[T]here are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.”

Objectively speaking, though, I do think Achilles is a masterpiece, and that Circe is wonderfully well-done. The prose is not quite as interesting, this time, and the story does not move at the same pace. Indeed, because so much seems to happen in such a long period of historical time, but so shortly in narrative time, it sometimes feels oddly wind-swept and slightly disjointed, though never out of control. Miller knows what she is doing, and the story is powerful, interesting, and even joyful in its terrible sadness. The choice of Circe as protagonist is brilliant, too, because she is able to think and feel and interact with mortals in a way that Greek mythology does not allow of its gods, who are always (and to an extent must be) completely unconcerned with human needs, desires, pains, et cetera. (Rick Riordan has been playing with this, too, in his latest series re-imagining the god Apollo as a mortal teenager living in the contemporary era.)

To be fair, I find I’m still left spoiled by–wrecked by–Achilles. This might always be the case and, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that my experience with it must have, on some level, colored my reading of Circe. That said, Circe is a compelling novel whose reception is well-deserved and easy to understand. It’s also a particularly powerful statement in our time, as we confront head-on issues of gender and power. Miller crafts a flawed and sometimes ignorant hero whom I knew little about and for whom I struggled, at first, to champion; in the end, she convinces me.

Notable Quotes

“In a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.”

“Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.”

“I thought: I cannot bear this world a moment longer. Then, child, make another.”

“I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open.”