Book Review: The Odyssey

odysseySo with John Green starting his second run of Crash Course Literature, I realized there are a few classics I’d never read. The Odyssey by Homer being one of them. I snagged Robert Fitzgerald’s translation from the library and became enthralled. I wasn’t expecting it to be so easy to read! For being a 462 page poem, it flowed incredibly well and kept my attention the entire way through.

The Odyssey is the story of Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, who went away to fight in the wars in Troy caused by the abduction of Helen. This story takes place after the war is over, when everyone – or almost everyone – has gone home. Odysseus, through a series of mistakes and misfortunes, has been marooned on an isle for many years, and his family has begun to think he’s dead. Sons of most of the nobles in Ithaca have taken residence in Odysseus’ palace, courting his queen while eating his food and drinking his wine. His queen still waits for him, and puts off her suitors in a variety of ways. (The most famous of which being her claim that she must finish a weaving before taking a suitor, and while she weaves every day, she unweaves her work at night, but the suitors figure that one out and make her finish it.)

One thing kept bugging me through the entire story, though – while much is made of Odysseus being gone, and his trials, and the people waiting for him at home – the fact that his ENTIRE CREW OF SHIPMATES, heroes all, dies on the journey is somewhat glossed over. Maybe it’s my history as a military spouse, but what about THEIR families? There are surely women and children waiting in Ithaca for them as well, but nary a mention is made of them. Only the King’s story is important enough to talk about. In a 400 page book, is a paragraph about the other families too much to ask? I suppose, given how long ago the book was written, the fact that Homer writes sympathetically (albeit briefly) about a woman’s suffering for her husband might have been revolutionary on its own, and asking for some concern for anyone lower than a Prince would be unheard of.

That aside, it’s an amazing story. Here’s John Green’s take on it:

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Book Review: Chronicle of a Death Foretold

deathforetoldChronicle of a Death Foretold
by Gabriel Garcia Márquez
120 pages
Published 1982
Fiction

I’m honestly not sure what I just read. I’m used to fiction plots having twists, or making you wonder what’s going to happen, or having a moral lesson. This – didn’t really do any of those things. You’re told what’s going to happen in the first sentence of this novella. There’s only one question, and it’s never answered. I’m not really sure what the lesson is, if there is one. I’m just baffled at the entire thing.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold, by Nobel prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is a novella about a man’s death. A woman gets married, her bridegroom discovers she’s not a virgin, returns her to her family, and her brothers kill the man who stole her virginity. That’s really all there is to the story. The brothers are completely open about what they plan to do – the narrator thinks they didn’t really want to carry out the murder and were hoping the townspeople would prevent them from doing so. The narrator is one of the townspeople, a friend of the victim, who is investigating the entire incident some twenty years later, trying to figure out why it happened and why exactly no one was able to prevent it.

Garcia Marquez writes well; his descriptions flow beautifully, his characters are interesting. Chronicle of a Death Foretold was not very linear, starting on the morning of the man’s death and hopping between the events of that day and twenty years later. I don’t mind slightly non-linear books, but this one annoyed me a bit. (Strangely, I loved The Time-Traveler’s Wife, which is not linear in the least.)

I’ll be reading another Garcia Marquez book soon – Love in the Time of Cholera – and plan to watch the movie, too, before I review it here. So I’ll give him another shot. But Chronicle of a Death Foretold just…confuses me.

From the back of Chronicle of a Death Foretold:

A man returns to the town where a baffling murder took place 27 years earlier, determined to get to the bottom of the story. Just hours after marrying the beautiful Angela Vicario, everyone agrees, Bayardo San Román returned his bride in disgrace to her parents. Her distraught family forced her to name her first lover; and her twin brothers announced their intention to murder Santiago Nasar for dishonoring their sister. 

Yet if everyone knew the murder was going to happen, why did no one intervene to stop it? The more that is learned, the less is understood, and as the story races to its inexplicable conclusion, an entire society – not just a pair of murderers – is put on trial.

Book Review: The Dark Monk, The Beggar King, and The Poisoned Pilgrim

dark monkThe Dark Monk
by Oliver Pötzsch
463 pages
Published 2009
Historical Fiction/Mystery

The Beggar King
by Oliver Pötzsch
466 pages
Published 2010
Historical Fiction/Mystery

The Poisoned Pilgrim
by Oliver Pötzsch
496 pages
Published 2012
Historical Fiction/Mystery

I cracked open the pages of The Dark Monk with a certain amount of satisfaction and glee – to be rejoining a world I lost myself in with The Hangman’s Daughter – to catch up with characters I’d fallen in love with some months ago – is always a heady feeling. I reviewed The Hangman’s Daughter on this blog already, and mentioned I’d be looking for the sequels. On my last trip to the library, I happened to see all three of them, so I snagged them with a grin that made my husband laugh. Pötzsch has continued his amazing storytelling in these three books, and I’m still amazed that books originally written in German can flow so well – lyrically, even – in English. I’m sure that’s in large part due to the excellent translation work of Lee Chadeayne.

beggar kingJakob Kuisl (the hangman of Schongau), his daughter Magdalena, and her beau Simon Fronweiser are again up to their old tricks in these three books, letting their curiosity lead them into mysteries they perhaps should have stayed clear of. In The Dark Monk, the three find themselves embroiled in the hunt for lost Templar treasure. In The Beggar King, Jakob is framed for the murder of his sister, and must prove his innocence with the help of Magdalena and Simon. The Poisoned Pilgrim takes place a few years after The Beggar King, and involves the three attempting to prove the innocence of one of Jakob’s oldest friends. Woven throughout the mysteries are portrayals of everyday (and not so everyday!) life in 17th century Bavaria, from taking care of the sick to child-rearing to executions.

One thing that continues to impress me about the books is how they treat torture. Torture to achieve a confession is a regular duty of a Hangman, but it’s not treated lightly in these books. It’s described, and it’s treated as a horrible thing, but it’s also not so descriptive that it crosses the line into gore. It’s a mark of Pötzsch’s skill that he can take a man that does this regularly – tortures and executes people, even people he knows are innocent, if he can’t get out of it – and makes him likable. He makes us sympathize with him.

I enjoyed these three books just as much as I did the first. The action is well-paced, the plots are well-thought out and complex, and the characters are rich and enjoyable. It’s easy to see the amount of research Pötzsch has put into his setting, and the books are richer for it. I love this series.

pilgrimFrom the back of The Dark Monk:

1660: Winter has settled thick over a sleeping village in the Bavarian Alps, ensuring that every farmer and servant is indoors the night a parish priest discovers he’s been poisoned. As numbness creeps up his body, he summons the last of his strength to scratch a cryptic sign in the frost.

Following a trail of riddles, hangman Jakob Kuisl, his headstrong daughter Magdalena, and the town physician’s son team up with the priest’s aristocratic sister to investigate. What they uncover will lead them back the Crusades, unlocking a troubled history of internal church politics and sending them on a chase for a treasure of the Knights Templar.

But they’re not the only ones after the legendary fortune. A team of dangerous and mysterious monks is always close behind, tracking their every move, speaking Latin in the shadows, giving off a strange, intoxicating scent. And to throw the hangman off their trail, they have made sure he is tasked with capturing a band of thieves roving the countryside, attacking solitary travelers and spreading panic.

From the back of The Beggar King:

1662: Jakob Kuisl, the hangman of a village in the Alps, receives a letter from his sister calling him to the imperial city of Regensburg, where a gruesome sight awaits him: her throat has been slit. When the city constable discovers Kuisl alongside the corpse, he locks him in a dungeon, where Kuisl will experience firsthand the torture he’s administered himself for years. As nightmares assail him, Kuisl can only hope to prevail on the Regensburg executioner to show mercy to a fellow hangman. 

Kuisl’s steely daughter, Magdalena, and her young doctor paramour, Simon, rush to Regensburg to try to save Jakob, enlisting an underground network of beggars, a beer-brewing monk, and an Italian playboy for help. Navigating the labyrinthine city, they learn there is much more behind the false accusation than a personal vendetta: a plan that will endanger the entire German Empire. 

From the back of The Poisoned Pilgrim:

1666: The monastery at Andechs has long been a pilgrimage destination, but when the hangman’s daughter, Magdalena, her doctor husband, Simon, and their two small children arrive there, they learn that the monks have far larger concerns than saying Mass and receiving alms. It seems that once again the hangman’s family has fallen into a mysterious and dangerous adventure.

Two monks at the monastery experiment with cutting-edge technology, including a method of deflecting the lightning that has previously set the monastery ablaze. When one of the monks disappears and his lab is destroyed, foul play is suspected. Who better to investigate than the famed hangman Jakob Kuisl? But as the hangman and his family attempt to solve the mystery of the missing monk, they must deal with the eccentric denizens of the monastery and villagers who view the monks’ inventions as witchcraft that must be destroyed at all costs.

The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch

hangman's daughter

The Hangman’s Daughter
by Oliver Pötzsch
435 pages
Published 2010
Historical Fiction

I spent my entire day at the Maryland Renaissance Festival yesterday. (And man, do my feet hurt!) But it was an absolute blast; we watched the three sirens of “Sirena” sing some haunting melodies (and “steal” my husband’s soul and eat it as part of their act!), watched a couple of hilarious comedy shows (Fight School slayed me) and watched the final round of jousting. Did you know jousting is Maryland’s official sport? How cool is that?

On the way to the fair I finished The Hangman’s Daughter. The Hangman’s Daughter was originally written in German by Oliver Pötzsch, but my version was translated to English by Lee Chadeayne. I didn’t realize until I read the “About the Author” followed by “About the Translator” that it wasn’t written originally in English! It flowed exceptionally well. The story revolves around the mysterious deaths of three children, the midwife the town wants to pin it on, and a mystery surrounding the sabotage of the leper house being built just outside the walls of the town. The Hangman is actually one of the most sympathetic characters in the story, which I found unique. Usually the executioner/torturer is painted as evil. Along with his daughter and the town doctor’s son, an accomplished doctor himself, they attempt to solve the mystery of who’s killing children before the town can convict and sentence the midwife.

There are three more books in this series, The Dark MonkThe Beggar King, and The Poisoned Pilgrim. Definitely going to look for those!

(Edit: I have since read the aforementioned sequels, and reviewed them here. They were excellent!)

I REALLY enjoyed this book, and I will probably try to track down other English translations of this author’s work. I don’t read too many mysteries (though I do have a few more in the queue at the moment) but this book really swept me up and carried me along for the ride. It’s set in 17th century Bavaria, 70 years after the last witch craze. Jakob Kuisl is the town’s Hangman, and, as it turns out, one of the author’s ancestors! The author apparently wrote the novel as a way of connecting with his roots; he is descended from the Kuisls, who were Hangmen for generations.

I don’t want to say too much for fear of spoiling the mystery, so I’ll go straight to the back of the book.

From the back of The Hangman’s Daughter:

Simon turned the boy on his belly. With a vigorous tug he ripped open the shirt on the back as well. A groan went through the crowd.

Beneath one shoulder blade there was a palm-size sign of a kind that Simon had never seen before – a washed-out purple circle with a cross protruding from the bottom.

For a moment, there was total silence on the pier. Then the first screams rose. “Witchcraft! There’s witchcraft involved!” Somebody bawled: “The witches have come back to Schongau! They’re getting our kids!”