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Yokainoshima: Island of Monsters by Charles Fréger

A rich collection of photography explores the Japanese mythology that both celebrates and protects longstanding traditions.

yokainoshima

Yokainoshima is a lushly beautiful collection by photographer Charles Fréger (Wilder Mann: The Image of the Savage), with commentary by experts on his Japanese subjects. Yōkai are “spirits, ghosts and other monsters,” or, literally, “bewitching apparitions.” On Yokainoshima, the “island of monsters,” and in Japanese culture, these gods and ghosts emphasize links to other worlds, in which humans are not the only inhabitants.

The bulk of Yokainoshima is filled with nearly 200 glossy color images of masked and costumed performers representing specific yōkai in grassy fields, beaches, forests and snowfields. Standing alone, these powerful, vibrant photographs offer stories and evoke emotions. Descriptions of the depicted characters, groups and customs (located at the back of the book) elucidate the mysteries offered by the images: seasonal rites requesting fertility, abundance and protection. Short essays portray a culture defined by its spirits, monsters and connections, enriching Fréger’s striking visual art.


This review originally ran in the November 22, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 pieces of straw.

The Motion of Puppets by Keith Donohue

This reworking of the myth of Eurydice features a woman locked in a world of sentient puppets.

the motion of puppets

With The Motion of Puppets, Keith Donohue (The Boy Who Drew Monsters) evokes a bizarre underworld with an array of mythological references in a story of lovers seeking reunion. Newlyweds Kay and Theo Harper have come to Quebec for the summer, where she works as an acrobat in a cirque and he wrestles with a work in translation between semesters teaching French literature in New York City. The first line of the novel reads: “She fell in love with a puppet.” And this is where the trouble begins.

A puppet shop in Quebec’s Old City draws Kay’s attention daily, but the door is always locked, the lights off. One night, when returning from a party after midnight, she fears she is being followed and, finding the door unlocked for once, slips inside. Theo contacts the police when she does not return home, but no trace can be found of her. The rest of The Motion of Puppets alternates between their two experiences. Theo searches Quebec all summer for his wife, then returns to New York City and his work, distracted and mourning. Meanwhile, Kay adjusts to new circumstances: she has become a puppet. Along with the other puppets shut away in the shop she once admired, she is able to speak and move on her own only between midnight and dawn–once she learns how to move again in her new body. Eventually, she takes pleasure in performing (with the help of a puppeteer) for audiences, as she had in the cirque. And she makes new friends, especially with the one puppet who also remembers and yearns for her human form.

This dreamy, sinister novel alludes widely to history, literature and legend. Theo’s translation project is a biography of the photographer Eadweard Muybridge, whose work involved scientific knowledge of human and animal locomotion. Muybridge shot and killed his much younger wife’s lover, a story that preoccupies Theo, also an ardent–if not clingy–older husband. One of Theo’s colleagues is a professor of antiquities who is equally eager to find relationships between past and present. Most pointedly, however, Kay’s predicament is a reference to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, in which Orpheus misses his wife so terribly that Hades agrees to let her leave the underworld and return to life with him, under one diabolical condition. In Donohue’s novel, Theo’s ability to save Kay from her incarnation as a puppet relies on his ability to trust her. But first, she must make him recognize her in her new form.

An engrossing novel of love, fancy and enchantment, The Motion of Puppets offers a perfectly wrought moodiness, detailed settings and an unsettling plot. Kay and Theo are underdeveloped as characters, but serve the mythic proportions of the story well. Smart, eerie and moving, this puppet show holds the potential to transport its reader to another world.


This review originally ran in the August 30, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 hinges.

Ithaca: A Novel of Homer’s Odyssey by Patrick Dillon

This retelling of the Odyssey gives Telemachus more voice than ever before.

ithaca

Homer’s Odyssey recounts Odysseus’s 10-year journey home from the Trojan War, to where his wife and son await him. His adventures along the way take center stage. Ithaca, Patrick Dillon’s retelling, resets that center to the son. With substantially more insight into Telemachus than readers have had before, this version also offers a more fallible Odysseus, with all the drama and yearning of the original.

Dillon remains true to Homer’s setting, but the novel is told in Telemachus’s voice, and the weighty absence of a father he never met defines his existence. At 16, he worries over his role and responsibilities, and his inability to protect his mother: he has no one to teach him how to fight. These interior workings bring Odysseus’s iconic son to light as a nuanced and fully formed character. When the wise warrior Nestor assigns his daughter to be Telemachus’s traveling companion, the story gets an appealing twist: Polycaste is headstrong and capable, and her friendship has much to offer Telemachus. The gods are less present this time around; Telemachus is openly dubious. Veterans of the Trojan War roam Greece as bandits and vagabonds.

Though only slight details are changed, Ithaca is a vibrant and fresh revival; Telemachus’s struggles are illuminated through the use of his own voice. The well-loved classic is present: Penelope is beautiful, determined, fading; the suitors are shocking; Menelaus and Helen fight bitterly; the aging Nestor tries to guide Telemachus true. Dillon’s achievement is in characterization while retaining the heart and passion of Homer.


This review originally ran in the July 8, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 arrows.

iDiOM Theater presents The Love of the Nightingale

nightingaleAnother perfectly lovely, intimate performance from iDiOM. (See an earlier one here.)

The Love of the Nightingale is a play by Timberlake Wertenbaker based on the Greek myth of Philomele. The iDiOM describes it as “a tale of sisterhood, betrayal, and revenge, in a poetic, beautiful, funny and modern retelling.” I’m not so sure about the modern part – it seems the play was written so that it could have been staged with or without modern dressings, but this version was fairly stripped down. There were a few moments of commentary on modern times by comparison to the tragedies of Philomele’s story. Essentially, it felt very Greek to me: deeply tragic, gory, inexorability revolving around a fatal flaw; willing and inevitable murdering of immediate family members. Wonderful stuff, if you’re in the mindset for a really dark storyline.

The acting was as wonderful as ever. These are extraordinary players, and I feel lucky to see them. Not that there weren’t a few faults: when the chorus speaks in unison (particularly the male chorus), they are not quite in unison, so their words are garbled; and the set’s steps and platforms, constructed of wood, squeaked and creaked loudly enough to obscure some of the actors’ speech. (Also, we found use of a ventriloquist-style dummy for the young child an odd choice. I think it would have been less distracting to just have an adult actor take the part.) As I’ve said before, though, these small imperfections just remind me that we are part of a small community watching incredibly talented but basically amateur performers do what they love.


Rating: 7 questions.

Arcadian Nights: The Greek Myths Reimagined by John Spurling

Classic Greek myths starring Herakles, Theseus and more are reborn in vivid, funny, fresh forms.

arcadian

From his home in a hillside Peloponnesian village, John Spurling (The Ten Thousand Things) charmingly retells some of Western literature’s best-known stories. He balances careful attention to the originals with his own humorous voice, honoring well-loved classics with a fresh eye.

Each section focuses on a hero: Perseus, Herakles, Apollo, Theseus and the ill-fated Agamemnon. Chapters begin and end with Spurling’s own Arcadian vista, on the Gulf of Argos, which inspires his imagination. Through these lenses, Arcadian Nights (re)familiarizes readers with the curse on the House of Atreus, the Twelve Labors and the complexly intertwining genealogies of mortals and immortals in a storied era somewhere between history and myth. Spurling notes commonalities with other cultures’ and religions’ fables, and infuses the established legends with added detail: imagined dialogue lends well-known characters extra personality, and Herakles gets a perfectly apt new piece of apparel. The occasional modernization enlivens the tales, as when the newly dead line up to cross the River Styx into Hades–it “was a little like going through security in an airport today”–but this is no clumsy 21st-century resetting of Aeschylus. Rather, Spurling’s gentle, clever wit complements the originals’ themes of heroism and romance, and their reminders of the importance of hospitality, humility and memory.

Spurling’s passion and enthusiasm and the best of Greek myth shine through this new version, equally appropriate to introduce new readers or reinvigorate the appetite of those who already honor such names as Zeus, Achilles, Athena, Poseidon and more.


This review originally ran in the February 16, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 golden apples.

War Music: An Account of Homer’s Iliad by Christopher Logue

This epic retelling in verse of Homer’s Iliad is worthy of the classic.

war music

Upon his death, poet Christopher Logue left unfinished a full-length reimagining of Homer’s Iliad. His fellow poet and friend Christopher Reid applies a careful editorial hand to the papers Logue left behind to release War Music, which includes both previously published works and new material.

The result is as epic and evocative, as emotional and resounding as the original, yet also surprisingly novel. Logue employs memorable images, as when the two armies meet “like a forest making its way through a forest.” He is unafraid of wild anachronisms: “As many arrows on [Hector’s] posy shield/ As microphones on politicians’ stands”; “Blood like a car-wash.” But this is no attempt to modernize; the rage of Achilles, Helen’s beauty, capricious gods and customs of battle remain set in Homer’s Greece. Rather, it is an enrichment of a well-known and loved story, in swelling verse and with the same clever eye for tragedy and sly humor of its model.

Reid finds Logue’s “capacity for the grand conception dashingly and convincingly executed,” as near “pure Logue” as possible. His preface and comments in the appendix (where the manuscripts were roughest) offer insight for readers unfamiliar with Logue, who references Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare, Keats and Tennyson, as well as Homer. Expertise with the original is unnecessary to enjoy this version; although such knowledge will increase the impact, the grandeur of War Music is gripping and suspenseful regardless of the reader’s background. No fan of Homer will want to miss Logue’s contribution.


This review originally ran in the January 19, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 topaz saucers heaped with nectarine jelly.

Atlas of Cursed Places by Olivier Le Carrer

Sailor Olivier Le Carrer guides readers on an enticing tour of frightening places around the world, with maps and pictures.

atlas cursed places

Olivier Le Carrer’s Atlas of Cursed Places: A Travel Guide to Dangerous and Frightful Destinations profiles 40 locations around the world, so that tourists may avoid risk and the adventurous may be satisfied that “many mysterious places remain to be explored and understood.” In his introduction, which recognizes Adam and Eve as the origination of curses, he describes these spots as falling into three categories: spiritual or paranormal curses; natural hazards; and human-caused threats. Le Carrer, a sailor, then sorts them by the oceans they lie nearest.

Historic religious conflicts qualify Gaza and Jerusalem: of the latter, Le Carrer writes that “mankind is capable of transforming even the most beautiful holy stories into a nightmare.” Other places are cursed by animal activity, as with Kasanka National Park in Zambia, where five million fruit bats descend annually, and Cape York in Queensland, Australia, where crocodiles reach 17 feet in length and live alongside eight of the 10 most dangerous snakes in the world. Le Carrer’s attitude toward his subjects varies, as he addresses the Bermuda Triangle rationally (“people navigate the area every day without incident, and there are often logical explanations for any incident”) but concludes mysteriously of Area 51 that “accursed nature strikes again.”

Le Carrer’s descriptions of place are designed to entertain and comfortably frighten his readers. His brief, playful evocations are accompanied by historical maps and period illustrations in this large-format book, which will please travelers and trivia fans alike.


This review originally ran in the – issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 6 possible explanations.
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