Monday, March 14, 2011

Bookmoochin' and reviewin'

Been buried in some excellent books lately, ever since I joined Bookmooch and rediscovered my library card! 

Bookmooch is a international free book trading network. You earn points for listing books that you're willing to send to others so you can then spend those points getting books from others for free. Of course, the site is inundated with DaVinci Codes and John Grishams and Harlequin romance novels, but I've already mooched two wonderful books and am eagerly awaiting a third (Angela Carter's Heroes and Villains). 

Jo Graham's Black Ships was the first I received. It's a retelling of Vergil's The Aeneid from the perspective of Pythia, a priestess of the goddess of the underworld, born into slavery after the destruction of Troy. Though the original story involved a truckload of deities wreaking havoc in the lives of mortals, magic and the supernatural in this book were kept to a minimum. Pythia's powers are the result of her keen intuition and intellect. Even Aeneas' trip to the underworld is hinted to be perhaps a "trip" of another kind brought about by the berries of the Golden Bough. 

Even with these more earthy explanations of the supernatural, the spirituality of the exiled Trojan people is beautiful and moving. There is a scene in which Pythia scrapes together the necessities for a festival to celebrate the return of spring and the ritual is described as a way for the lost and landless to participate in something hopeful and familiar.

The only slight problem that irked me was the distracting romantic subplot. Anyway, Black Ships was intriguing enough that I sought out another book at the library based on The Aeneid to stay in that world a little longer: Lavinia by Ursula K. LeGuin

I expected this to be a beautiful book (because it was written by LeGuin) and it didn't disappoint. Lavinia was the Latin princess that Aeneas eventually married in The Aeneid, a union that was the mythical foundation of Rome. In Vergil's poem, she is almost a nonentity and never speaks. 

Seemingly out of nothing, LeGuin built the detailed, sensuous world of pre-Roman Italy. I love the way she described the sounds of the forest at night at Lavinia's old sacred grove and her cherished rituals of home and hearth. I love that even her unlikable characters are sympathetic (Queen Amata). Lavinia herself is a quietly determined, self-aware heroine whose short romance with Aeneas seemed perfectly right and perfectly gorgeous, even though what drew them together was a prophecy and Vergil's will. 

It's rare when I enjoy a book as much as Lavinia, but even rarer that I read something equally good the next day: Octavia E. Butler's Kindred. Described by Butler as a "grim fantasy", it's about a black woman named Dana who is mysteriously transported to the antebellum South whenever her distant ancestor gets into life-threatening trouble. This is complicated by the fact that her ancestor is the white son of a plantation and slave owner and that she must try to keep him alive long enough to father a child with a black woman who will be the first of her family line. 

I won't lie, this book made me anxious and vaguely sick from beginning to end, but I couldn't stop reading. The danger and inhumanity of slavery has never felt so vivid, though I've read other books about that era. I can't even adequately explain why it is more vivid... Maybe it's because Dana is able to jump back and forth in time and the horrible circumstances of the past are so sharply contrasted with her life in the 20th century. Maybe because she is aware of how intensely real the past was to the people living when the past was present.

Anyway, three great books. Read them!

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