Arcadian Nights: The Greek Myths Reimagined by John Spurling

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


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.

short pieces: Walker, Tolkein, Stegner and more

Ah, the irony: I said just the other day that I was done with Faulkner, and yet here we are. In a continuation of going through those pages that have been piling up, I’ve read a few essays and short stories – including one by Faulkner.

A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner: This may be the format for him & me, because I found him perfectly comprehensible and amusing in this short form. It seamlessly evokes a small Southern town with its prejudices and whisperings and feelings of rectitude; it has atmosphere. It also has an engrossing, entertaining, and fully-formed story in it. And I think this is a mark of the master of the short story: that it can feel complete. Those less adept at it leave us feeling like we missed out on something. Not so here. I won’t say any more about the story itself, except that yes, Faulkner can be enjoyable; and if you’ve balked before, as I have firmly balked, you might consider giving this one a try. If you hate it, it’s only six pages long.

An interview with Terry Tempest Williams from YES! magazine: “Survival Becomes a Spiritual Practice.” I still love Terry Tempest Williams. She is wise, even when she can be kind of gauzy and dreamy, as here. I like that this interview addresses two “places” that “we” are in just now: a state of the world, as well as her own geographical placement, moving back and forth between Vermont (where she teaches part of the year at Dartmouth) and her home in the Utah desert.

The Sense of Place” by Wallace Stegner: If I ever get my hands on an audio-cassette player, I have a whole collection of “sense of place” essays by Stegner, read aloud by the man himself, and I cannot wait to hear them. Send me a tape player, somebody.

This essay rounds out that inaccessible collection, as I understand it. Stegner describes us as being defined by place as well as defining place. He presents a possibly controversial idea, that

at least to human perception, a pace is not a place until people have been born in it, have grown up in it, lived in it, known it, died in it – have both experienced and shaped it, as individuals, families, neighborhoods, and communities, over more than one generation.

A few lines earlier:

The deep ecologists warn us not to be anthropocentric, but I know no way to look at the world, settled or wild, except through my own human eyes.

I like this honesty, because I acknowledge and respect the caution not to be anthropocentric; but Stegner makes a true point that we can only know the one perspective, really. (I guess I would counter that being less anthropocentric should simply involve acknowledging that there are other perspectives. I think Stegner gets that, though.) He gives equal airtime to those who have, perhaps, grown up nowhere, too.

If the rest of this essay collection continues on this path – of exploring what we mean to our places and vice versa, how we define one another – I need to hurry up and find that tape recorder.

Leaf by Niggle” by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (because that is how his name is spelled out at this link. Funny, I never knew what J.R.R. stood for, I don’t guess). What an enchanting story! Niggle is a “little man… who had a long journey to make.” He doesn’t want to take his trip, but he knows he has to. He’d rather finishing this painting first: a painting of trees and countryside. He wants it to be perfect. But there are other pulls on his time, and he ends up being forced to go on his journey without perfecting his work. In fact, he’s so rushed he does not even pack a bag. I won’t tell you the rest…

I wondered throughout if this was a big beautiful allegory for art, for the making of art – Tolkien’s own writing, or any of ours. There are some lovely images and moments:

He had a number of pictures on hand; most of them were too large and ambitious for his skill. He was the sort of painter who can paint leaves better than trees.


There was one picture in particular which bothered him. It had begun with a leaf caught in the wind, and it became a tree; and the tree grew, sending out innumerable branches, and thrusting out the most fantastic roots. Strange birds came and settled on the twigs and had to be attended to. Then all round the Tree, and behind it, through the gaps in the leaves and boughs, a country began to open out; and there were glimpses of a forest marching over the land, and of mountains tipped with snow. Niggle lost interest in his other pictures; or else he took them and tacked them on to the edges of his great picture. Soon the canvas became so large that he had to get a ladder…

Can’t you just see Middle Earth developing, demanding that Tolkien attend to it, in the same way?

“My picture!” exclaimed Niggle.

“I dare say it is,” said the Inspector. “But houses come first. That is the law.”

Ah, and there’s the rub.

This story can be said to comment on religion, the value of art, the question of what we owe our neighbors; it indicates some of Orwell’s 1984; there is a great deal in this short story (nine pages). Strange and fanciful and lovely, like all of Tolkien’s work.

My Father’s Country is the Poor” by Alice Walker, 1977, The New York Times. In a short two and a half pages, Alice Walker paints beautiful, heartbreaking pictures: of her father and her own life, of a visit to Cuba, of the difficulties of race, culture, class, and their inextricability. She tells us “what poverty engenders… what injustice means.” Only Alice Walker, and even in 1977, so much that we should attend to. I don’t want to comment too much on this; better that you go read her words, which are few and flawless.

Writers by Barry Gifford

Barry Gifford’s brief fictional scenes of celebrated authors are funny, tragic and insightful.


The prolific and versatile Barry Gifford (Wild at Heart; The Lost Highway) has a little fun with a range of literary figures in Writers, a collection of dramatic scenes “intended to be read as stories as well as performed as plays.” Gifford begins with “Spring Training at the Finca Vigía,” in which Hemingway showcases his famous bluster and paranoia while hosting two Brooklyn Dodgers at his Cuban home; Martha Gellhorn also makes an appearance in this longest of Gifford’s imaginings. Most run around 10 pages in length, and are short and pithy.

The settings range from “relatively realistic” to “wholly imaginary,” Gifford warns, and include a conversation between the living Roberto Bolaño and the ghost of Jorge Luis Borges. Arthur Rimbaud tells his sister on his deathbed, “I have been bitten by life before and survived.” Marcel Proust’s final words are likewise recorded. Herman Melville laments the public’s reaction to Moby-Dick to a passing policeman, who worries that he is suicidal. Emily Dickinson questions her sister: “Why? I’m nobody. Who are you? Aren’t you nobody, too?”; James Joyce and Samuel Beckett exchange silences. Joining these cameos are Kerouac (with characteristic openness and affinity for drink), Albert Camus, Nelson Algren, Jane Bowles, Baudelaire and others.

Gifford’s imagined anecdotes occasionally reference the absurd, but overall tend to confirm readers’ impressions of large and troubled personalities. These famous artists appear surreal and often ugly, but by caricaturing them he also reasserts their humanity. The result is both entertaining and thought provoking.

This review originally ran in the November 24, 2015 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 sets based on my personal affinity.

Selected Shorts: Pets! (audio)

I just said I wasn’t going to do any more audiobooks any time soon; but this different format (and a road trip) convinced me.

petsThis collection includes six short stories, read by six different narrators, around a theme. The interpretation of “pets” varies, from cats and dogs through a mostly-wild parrot and a few mythical (or horrific) creatures. My feelings about the stories vary a little, too, but overall it was great fun.

In my opinion, we start off less than strongly with T. C. Boyle’s “Heart of a Champion,” read by Isaiah Sheffer, which parodies Lassie’s superdog perfection and the perfect haplessness of little Timmy, before winding up with a different and slightly sinister twist. Mom & I (on the road together from Fort Worth to Houston) agreed that this one was less engaging than the others, and didn’t exhibit the taut packaging of the very finest of short stories. Robertson Davies’ “The Cat That Went to Trinity,” read by Charles Keating, was delightful: a gothic story of academic rivalry, in which a professor at Massey College laments that institution’s inability to keep a college cat. They all go to Trinity. In homage to a certain gothic novel our professor (a specialist) is teaching, a questionable project is attempted. The tone of this story is intense parody of that gothic genre, and is completely hilarious. I enjoyed it very much.

Molly Giles’ “Pie Dance,” read by Kate Burton, presents a change of pace. An woman narrates a visit from her ex-husband’s new wife, and the story that unfolds is complicated, multi-layered, and thought-provoking; a person could listen to (or read) this story several time looking for the little clues. It is a real piece of artistry, and very funny to boot, behaving like a fun and entertaining piece and only creeping up as a more complex one. This story is certainly one of the strongest points of this collection. On the other hand, Ana Menendez’s “Story of a Parrot,” read by Jacqueline Kim, is a different kind of literary undertaking, featuring a Cuban couple relocated to Florida, where they do not get along as the wife dreams of a missed stage career. It is dreamy and gauzy, and though intriguing in many ways, it didn’t come together perfectly for me.

Max Steele’s “The Cat and the Coffee Drinkers,” read by Paul Hecht, was another fun one, told by a former student of Miss Effie’s kindergarten, which is very much a nontraditional classroom. It has its moments of poignancy and the opportunity for serious points, but overall is easily appreciated for its tongue-in-cheek humor.

But the best by far was the story that brought me to this collection in the first place: Gail Godwin’s “St. George,” read in fine form by Jane Curtin. A lonely and socially awkward medieval scholar cracks an egg to discover a tiny but very real dragon. Her attempts to raise it up are a comedy of errors, fanciful and hilarious and perfectly portrayed (of course) by Curtin. This story was riotous and smart, and offered a surprising final solution; it also exemplifies the way a short story can be a nicely encapsulated literary experience in miniature, where structure is so important. I’m glad I sought out “St. George” and will have to keep my eyes open for Godwin.

Each of these stories ran 20-30 minutes, a great format for short listening opportunities and one I’ll look for again. Every one was not equally outstanding, but I am pleased.

Rating: 8 pearls.

(Collections are hard. “St. George” would have gone 8 or 9, and the Lassie story maybe a 6. But it was good fun all around.)

The Wild Swan: And Other Tales by Michael Cunningham; illustrated by Yuko Shimizu

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Cunningham darkly reimagines classic fairy tales, with moodily appropriate illustrations.

wild swan

Michael Cunningham (Pulitzer Prize-winner for The Hours) takes a fresh and dark look at a selection of classic fairy tales with A Wild Swan: And Other Tales. His brief, richly imagined new stories, often based only loosely on their models, are accompanied by detailed, atmospheric black-and-white illustrations by Yuko Shimizu.

An introduction teases readers to acknowledge that they, too, enjoy seeing the fairy tales’ “manifestations of perfection”–those with “comeliness that startles the birds in the trees, coupled with grace, generosity, and charm”–cut low. Cunningham then proceeds to do just that with his versions of originals by the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen and others.

Here readers will find the “crazy old lady” who lures Hansel and Gretel to her cottage of candy in the woods; but Hansel and Gretel are pierced and tattooed, and sexy “with their starved and foxy faces.” Snow White’s prince is obsessed with the beautiful deathly version of her he discovered in the coffin, and troublingly insists on replaying the scene over and over again. Rumpelstiltskin is surprisingly well intentioned–for the most part. Rapunzel’s life following the closure of the Grimms’ tale is revealed, and it’s a good thing she kept her severed braids. The Beast has grown to be a bad boy, even after Beauty gives him her love. He is “impeccably handsome” with “a lascivious, bestial smile; a rapacious and devouring smile,” the one who might catch your eye on the subway or at “the after-hours party your girlfriend has insisted on,” but you’ll come to regret it. And in the title story, the princess is successful in transforming all of her brothers but one back to their fully human forms.

Cunningham sometimes brings these stories into more or less modern times, but the point of this collection is not to recast the classics with smartphones and fast cars, and the setting of some remains unchanged. Rather, these are playful riffs on well-known stories, almost always with a still gloomier tone than even the Brothers Grimm applied. The mood of these tales of disturbing fetishes, murderous schemings and pedestrian human flaws such as hubris, laziness and jealousy is eventually relieved, however, by Cunningham’s final flourish, entitled “Ever/After.”

A Wild Swan works expert mischief with backstory, aftermath, interludes and retellings of well-known favorites. These tales are not always for the kids, of course, but will appeal to an intersection of dark humor and nostalgia for timeless stories, or anyone with an appreciation for a deliciously spooky imagination.

This review originally ran in the November 5, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 7 minutes under the lid.

Pieces of White Shell by Terry Tempest Williams

pieces of white shellThis memory from my childhood was every bit as good this time around. Terry Tempest Williams is a curator at the Utah Museum of Natural History in the early 1980’s, and in encountering Navajo people and their stories, she begins to learn her own natural history, her own and her (Mormon) culture’s connections to the earth, and how to find and tell stories herself. The tone is fanciful, but also grounded in the literal ground of her local environment in the Utah desert. In her first chapter, she shakes a small leather pouch out onto her desk and finds a sprig of sage; rocks, sand, and seeds; turquoise, obsidian, coral; pieces of white shell; yucca; a bouquet of feathers bound by yarn; coyote fur; a bone from Black Mountain; deerskin; wool; a potshard and some corn pollen; and the Storyteller, a clay figurine from Jemez. These objects, collected during her communion with people and place, form the chapters of her book. I’m not sure whether to call these stories or essays; they are both. There is an element of dreaminess: she is sure she heard the drums of the Anasazi, and tells of transforming into Flea to hide out and listen to the stories the animals tell on Black Mountain. These are not literal truths in the scientific world as we understand it. Does that make these stories fiction? Allegory? Spiritual journeys? I’ll leave it to you. I am not a spiritual person by any standard definition, but Terry Tempest Williams holds me in thrall. This book is still the one of hers that touches me most deeply.

I don’t know how many times I read this book as a child, but it clearly made a deep impression on me. Several lines echoed like I just read them yesterday, or like I’d copied them into countless margins and scrawled them in notebooks over the years. “How could I tell him the mind creates those things that exist. I couldn’t, and so I concentrated on birdlife to avoid a confrontation.” “No one culture has dominion over birdsong. We all share the same sky.” “If we all live, and continue to increase as we have done, the earth will soon be too small to hold us, and there will be no room for the cornfields” (says Coyote in one of the Navajo stories). And new lines jumped out at me on this reading. Because I’m working on processing my relationship with place: “Sometimes you have to disclaim your country and inhabit another before you can return to your own.” “Each of us harbors a homeland. The stories that are rooted there push themselves up like native grasses and crack the sidewalks.” Like all the best books, then, I’m continuing to discover it.

The stories Williams tells in each chapter of this book are from her life, living and working at the very four corners of the four corners states. A Utah Mormon, she gets to know the Navajo and their stories, and sees certain similarities between these two cultures which share a place. She explores Navajo stories and the storytelling tradition, the animals and plants and places they interact with, and uses these to map her own life; she explores story as tool for communication, history-building, and wise and respectful relationships with our earth, and its human and nonhuman inhabitants. In reading these stories, as a child, I was enchanted by the stories of animals like Coyote, Bear, and Badger, and characters like Monster Slayer and Child-of-the-Waters, who were twin sons born to Sun and Changing Woman. I learned about the flora and fauna of New Mexico and Utah deserts (quite exotic to me then, and now). In rereading the same stories as an adult, I get more of Williams’s search for answers about the world, about her family, her homeland, its significance, and her spiritual and cross-cultural questions. It is a rich experience.

My mother asks if this is a children’s book. I did first find it as a child and loved it then, in elementary school. Its origins in my family are unknown; I feel like it just appeared on a bookshelf. Someone must have bought it – for me specifically, it seems likely. I am an only child. But we don’t know. Neither of my parents remembers it. As it turns out, Pieces of White Shell is not marketed as a children’s book. But Williams worked with children (as well as adults) when she wrote it, and in the stories she tells. It is certainly accessible to a child, in its tone of wonderment and simple joy and careful observation.

This was published in 1984, and Refuge in 1991, and I can see some of the evolution. In Pieces of White Shell, Williams is still getting to know her world; in the later work, she more confidently moves in it and speaks of it, although she has retained her capacity for wonder (still alive and well in her recent retelling, The Story of My Heart). Refuge is also necessarily much sadder, as it studies personal loss while Pieces of White Shell takes pleasure in discovery.

Terry Tempest Williams was and is a remarkable, completely singular voice. “You always hear wings,” her family tells her in an anecdote in her prologue. I marvel, and I continue to learn from this deceptively simple grouping of stories. She is better known for other works but this is still my gold standard.

Rating: 9 coyotes.

The Early Stories of Truman Capote

These previously unpublished stories written in Truman Capote’s youth are instantly recognizable.

early stories truman capote

The Early Stories of Truman Capote contains 14 stories, most previously unpublished, written in Capote’s teens and 20s, and only recently unearthed among his papers in the New York Public Library archives. Presented with a foreword by Hilton Als of the New Yorker, these are short pieces, studies of subjects Capote would continue to favor in the later works for which he is known: sensitive young children, fractious ladies, the poor and the disenfranchised. They are set in the Deep South, in New York City, in swamps and in small towns.

The talents of the author of In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s are evident in this early work. His descriptions are simple but strongly evocative: “curly, wig-like grey hair” and eyes “bright, like bubbles of blue glass.” His characters tend to be laconic but expressive, with interjections speaking as loudly as words. In “Swamp Terror,” a boy chases a convict into the woods and gets a bigger taste of adulthood than he bargained for. In “Louise,” a schoolgirl lets her petty jealousies do irreparable harm. “Traffic West” presents a remarkable collection of characters and events, in experimental form. In other stories, a young boy finds the dog of his dreams in a park, but the dog belongs to another child; and two wives muse on the hypothetical murder of their husbands.

These easy-reading, alternately amusing and haunting stories offer a fresh, new glimpse of Capote’s genius, and simultaneously feel intimately familiar.

This review originally ran in the November 6, 2015 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: 7 deaths.

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 529 other followers

%d bloggers like this: