Fall Reading : Odyssey, Celestial Bodies and Obsessions

Autumn can be described as “golden,” “melancholy” or “rainy,” but I like the Japanese epithet of autumn as “the season for reading,” dokusho no aki. There is something particularly inviting about the image of sitting down with a book and a steaming cup of tea on a rainy day. Or I like to take a favorite book of poetry to a park and read a few stanzas as I wade through the fallen leaves. This fall, however, I’ll more likely be reading at train stations and airports as I have several trips lined up. Whatever the circumstances, I made a list of books to read. For the Bois de Jasmin fall reading list, on the other hand, I want to share the books I’ve read and enjoyed. As always, I look forward to your lists and recommendations.

Homer, The Odyssey

I’ve decided to re-read The Odyssey after I finished Mary Beard’s Civilisations: How Do We Look/The Eye of Faith. Beard observes that certain works of literature influenced our culture to such a great extent that we take it for granted. Two of the most important books in the history of Western literature, as well as the oldest, are Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey. I’ve selected The Odyssey, because it was my favorite when I was a student, and the copy we had at home was a French translation by Leconte Lisle circa 1860’s. It’s a translation in prose, but I found it beautiful and suspenseful.

Yet, once I finished it, I happened upon a new English translation of The Odyssey by Emily Wilson, and I liked the several passages I read enough to recommend it here. Wilson’s translation has musicality and a beautiful rhythm. Consider this passage, describing the grove concealing the cave of the nymph Calypso.

The scent of citrus and of brittle pine
Suffused the island. Inside, she was singing
And weaving with a shuttle made of gold.
Her voice was beautiful. Around the cave
A luscious forest flourished: alder, poplar,
And scented cypress.

The Odyssey is often described as a story of one man’s delayed homecoming, but re-reading it, I find the poem to be more complex–about love and loyalty, duty and patience, and above all, about Penelope. Though in several passage she’s told in no uncertain terms by her son to remain quiet, her character has strength that many others lack. Odysseus (or Ulysses) too is a complex character. Homer underlined it by giving him the epithet of polutropos, which translates from Greek as “much turning.” Wilson renders it as “complicated,” which describes the protagonist of the epic well.

Laura Jacobs. Celestial Bodies: How to Look at Ballet

I remember watching a documentary on the Paris Opera ballet, and one of the dancers interviewed confided that she originally wanted to become a nun, but having experienced ballet, she felt that she could channel the same emotions through dance as through service to God. At first, I found the idea surprising, but as I reflected longer on it, I realized that it made sense. Ballet demands complete devotion and discipline. It also requires passion to work through pain and to aim for perfection.

Explaining it to someone who hasn’t been through ballet training–much less to someone who doesn’t have much familiarity with ballet–is difficult, which is why the book by Laura Jacobs, Celestial Bodies: How to Look at Ballet, is such a discovery. It gives an excellent introduction to this art form through personal stories and descriptions of famous ballets, but above all, Jacobs conveys her own passion for dance, which makes this book an absorbing read. Jacobs is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and the dance critic for the New Criterion, and if like me, you find yourself missing her voice after finishing the book, you can always turn to her column.

Honoré de Balzac, César Birotteau (The Rise and Fall of Cesar Birotteau)

Part of Balzac’s Human Comedy series, The Rise and Fall of Cesar Birotteau is the story of a Parisian perfumer. He owns a fashion boutique called La Reine des Roses, The Queen of Roses, and as the novel opens, he’s at the peak of his fame. He decides to launch a new product, a hair oil, and then his empire comes crushing down.  Reading it reminded me how much I love Balzac’s satire.

Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom

“Most people, in fact, will not take trouble in finding out the truth, but are much more inclined to accept the first story they hear,” the great Greek historian Thucydides said more than 2000 years ago. His words ring eerily accurate for our times. (Do you need another reason to re-read more classics?) Snyder’s book is an examination of how we arrived at our current world of fake news, post-truth and mixed messages.

At first glance, The Road to Unfreedom is the history of Russia, but Snyder’s narrative runs deeper to examine how a certain constellation of ideas in the Russian political sphere has been exported to other countries. A prominent historian, whose book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin won the prestigious Hannah Arendt prize, Snyder examines how democracies fall apart and why we live in dangerous times.

Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, Black on White

In 1928, Jun’ichiro Tanizaki wrote three novels, two of which-—Some Prefer Nettles and Quicksand—became famous. The third, Black on White (Kuroshiro), has been translated at last, both into French and English. It’s a dark, obsessive and brilliant detective novel about a writer who creates the perfect murder plot, only to find himself drawn into it. Like many of Tanizaki’s character, the protagonist is flawed, and the deeper he descends into the hell of his own creation, the more gripping the plot becomes.

Odysseus and Penelopeby Francesco Primaticcio (Wildenstein Collection).

I’d love to know what you’re reading these days and what books you’d like to read next. On my list is another Balzac, La Peau de Chagrin, and a new novel by Kamila Shamsie, Home Fire. Please comment if you’ve read them.

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71 Comments

  • Annabel: What a coincidence, Victoria! I’m actually reading Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey. September 3, 2018 at 9:18am Reply

    • Victoria: How are you liking it? I read only a few excerpts, but I thought that it was beautiful. September 4, 2018 at 4:33am Reply

  • donna m. inlow: a most sincere thank you for your erudite
    writings on all things beautiful…have
    always read the works of great storytellers and here are a few perhaps you would
    consider reading…
    ISAK DINESEN
    THEODOR FONTANE
    NAGUIB MAHFOUZ
    ORHAN PAMUK
    I have enthusiastically read all their
    writings and am enthralled at their
    gift with words…
    best regards
    DONNA September 3, 2018 at 9:35am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much for your recommendations, Donna! September 4, 2018 at 4:33am Reply

  • mj: I will take note of Celestial Bodies. I studied ballet when I was a girl, and still love to go to representations.
    Right now I’m reading “Kindred”, a science-fiction novel about time traveling. It’s an absorbing book where the main character, Dana an African-American woman in the seventies USA, travels back to slavery times in the USA and lives through very difficult situations. It is not reading about how terrible and humiliating were those times, but the author make you live, along with Dana, through all of that.
    Next will be Ivo Andric’s The Bridge Over the Drina. September 3, 2018 at 9:36am Reply

    • Victoria: I liked Ivo Andric’s The Bridge Over the Drina, which was recommended by a Bois de Jasmin reader. Would like to hear what you think of the novel as you start reading it. September 4, 2018 at 5:44am Reply

  • Klaas: A couple of weeks ago, lounging on a day bed in a shady garden somewhere in Tuscany, I read Amy Blooms exquisite short novel White Houses, on the passionate love affair between first lady Eleonor Roosevelt and newspaper reporter Lorena Hikock. It is one of the most beautiful accounts of love in middle and old age I have ever read, while the setting (the White House during Roosevelt’s presidency) makes the account all the more enticing. It is also based on true events, their relationship really happened. There’s a very funny perfume reference in it as well…… September 3, 2018 at 10:12am Reply

    • Victoria: That sounds very interesting. I’d like to read more about that era. September 7, 2018 at 9:06am Reply

  • joseph: Speaking of translation, just started “The Little Art” by Kate Briggs, a an artful meditation on the art of translation. Very fine. September 3, 2018 at 11:11am Reply

  • Tara C: I recently read Sylvain Tesson’s book about the Odyssey, in French. Quite interesting and worth a re-read. September 3, 2018 at 11:18am Reply

    • Victoria: It came up in my search and I made a note. Now you’ve reminded me to check it out. September 7, 2018 at 9:08am Reply

  • Marge Clark: Was finishing our September newsletter and seeking an “aromatic quote” for September. Thank you for serendipitously offering it!

    The scent of citrus and of brittle pine
    Suffused the island. Inside, she was singing
    And weaving with a shuttle made of gold.
    Her voice was beautiful. Around the cave
    A luscious forest flourished: alder, poplar,
    And scented cypress. September 3, 2018 at 11:41am Reply

  • Filomena: I will have to check these books out…thanks for the list. I am also going on a big trip to Italy and Sicily in late September. I have not been to Europe for over 10 years and am really looking forward to it. As I will be flying by myself, a good book is always a great companion. September 3, 2018 at 1:31pm Reply

    • Victoria: How exciting! What places are you planning to visit? September 7, 2018 at 9:08am Reply

  • OnWingsofSaffron: I‘m in Greece on the wonderful Cycladic island of Antiparos and came here with—among other books—Stephen Fry‘s book „Mythos“, a retelling of the Greek myths: entertaining!
    Then in the lodge‘s quarter where the travelers read books are left for the next visitor, I stumbled over Yanis Varoufakis‘ „Adults in the Room: My Battle with Europe‘s Deep Establishment“. Now this reads like the most suspenseful Scandinavian crime novel: Greece just before and after the Syriza election, and it David & Goliath battle against the EU, the Troika, the banking system etc. As a German, it‘s a truely mortifying read, leaving one deeply humbled by the sheer generosity of the Greeks one meets every day. Highly recommended!! September 3, 2018 at 2:38pm Reply

    • Victoria: Stephen Fry’s book has been on the bestseller lists for a while. Glad to hear that you liked it. September 7, 2018 at 9:09am Reply

  • Gabriela: I would like to share one of the best books I have read, In the distance by Hernan Diaz. It’s so beautiful, it talks about solitude, friendship, history, very worth the read. September 3, 2018 at 3:32pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you! I’m not familiar with this author. September 7, 2018 at 9:10am Reply

  • Niels: Thank you for the list, and reminding me I need to catch up with some more of Balzac. I only read Lost Illusions from him, but I regard that one very high.

    As for my own reading, right now at home I´m completely immersed in The Thibaults from Roger Martin du Gard, about two brothers who grow up in Paris right before and during the First World War. And for my commuting (with train) I’m re-reading The World of Yesterday: Memories of a European from Stefan Zweig. One of the most impressive memoirs I know, and one that I re-read every other few years (now I thought it was a good a match together with The Thibaults). September 3, 2018 at 4:02pm Reply

    • Carla: Thanks for mentioning this book by Zweig I might like it. September 4, 2018 at 9:08am Reply

      • Victoria: I also can’t recommend it enough. September 7, 2018 at 9:17am Reply

    • Victoria: I can’t agree more with you on Zweig’s memoir. Immense. September 7, 2018 at 9:11am Reply

  • Gabriela: Victoria, thank you for your list. My mom wanted to be a nun and then a ballet dancer so Laura Jacobs book is on our list now. September 3, 2018 at 4:15pm Reply

    • Victoria: Laura Jacobs’s reviews and articles are also excellent. September 7, 2018 at 9:11am Reply

  • Eric Brandon: I read this too! My friend works at a small bookstore and said it was by far the staff favorite last year. September 3, 2018 at 5:37pm Reply

    • Eric Brandon: This comment was for Gabriela, for the book In the Distance.

      Just yesterday I finished Yesterday and Today by Larbi Layachi. I absolutely adored it, a day-by-day recounting of his life in newly independent Morocco. It wasn’t eloquent by any means, but I really enjoyed the tale. I’ll be looking for more of his books in the future.

      Today I’m reading D.V. by Diana Vreeland. I bought it years and years ago but toasty I’m finally laying into it. I feel a sense of deja vu commenting about this one. Have you mentioned it before, Victoria? September 3, 2018 at 7:56pm Reply

      • Gabriela: Eric, I will seek out the book Yesterday and Today as we might have the same taste for books plus I love Morocco. September 4, 2018 at 4:12am Reply

      • Victoria: Perhaps one of the readers did?

        Larbi Layachi’s book is on my reading list. Thank you for your recommendation. September 7, 2018 at 9:12am Reply

  • Qwendy: I love reading about what you all are reading, thanks for getting us started, Victoria! Some great suggestions here!
    I am reading Philip Roth’s American
    Pastoral, which I am finding fascinating, love his writing, my first from him.
    And I have on the back burner Joan Dejean’s The Essence of Style, about how Louis XIV and Colbert basically invented the ideas of Fashion, Style, and France that are still contemporary; and a reread of Fred Vargas’ A Climate of Fear, her best and most unconventional – and that’s saying a lot – to date …. a kind of policier that dips into a Revolution re-enactment society and an Icelandic sea monter. September 4, 2018 at 3:27am Reply

    • Victoria: What a great–and tempting list! September 7, 2018 at 9:13am Reply

      • Qwendy: The Roth is awfully depressing, but the other two are just fabulous! I am so happy to have all of these interesting recs going into Fall! Great post, thank you! Xxx September 8, 2018 at 2:36am Reply

        • Victoria: Still, it sounds like a worthy book to add to one’s list. September 8, 2018 at 9:05am Reply

  • Neva: Dear Victoria, your post comes at the right time. The temperatures have dropped, the autumn rains have begun – now comes the right time for reading sessions. Balzac and Tanizaki go to my “to read” list.
    I’ve finished Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things and it left me speechless (or rather breathless) at times. Such a beautiful emotional and warm book. Next on my reading list is Isabel Allende’s Zorro. I really like Latin American authors for their sensibility. September 4, 2018 at 4:00am Reply

    • Victoria: Still my favorite book by Arundhati Roy, although her latest one was also powerful and at times painful. September 7, 2018 at 9:14am Reply

  • Silvermoon: Nice coincidence! Just a couple of weeks ago, my daughter bought Stephen Fry’s Mythos and I got Robert Graves ‘ The Greek Myths. Of course, my favourite Graves books are I, Claudius and Claudius The God.

    Victoria, have you ever read Gore Vidal’s Creation? It’s a novel about Zarathustra ‘s grandson (fictional) and the Persian kings Xerxes and Darius. Vidal has a fantastic way with words. I thought this might be up your street given your interest in Iran and historic Persian culture, etc. (and it also partly plays out in India). September 4, 2018 at 8:11am Reply

    • Carla: I Claudius was good! September 4, 2018 at 9:06am Reply

    • Victoria: I haven’t, but you’ve made me curious! September 7, 2018 at 9:16am Reply

  • Carla: Along the lines of The Odessey I recently read Circe by Madeline Miller. I recommend it and plan to read her book Tale of Achilles. I have Celestial Bodies from the library but haven’t read it yet. Right now I am re-reading I Capture the Castle. I forgot how it turns out so it’s a pleasure. It is so perfect as a Bildungsroman. (I enjoyed Balzac’s Lost Illusions which is perhaps also a Bildungsroman among other things, slightly less perfect than its English relative David Copperfield but still brilliant.) I recently sadly put aside Michael Ondaatje’s new novel. I just wasn’t enjoying it. I was sad because I adored him in high school. Next I will read a recent purchase, Renaissance Woman, Life of Vitoria Colonna, unless I decide on something else. It was fun to share! September 4, 2018 at 9:05am Reply

    • OnWingsofSaffron: Yes, you are absolutely right on „Circe“: what a fantastic novel! I read it greedily in one or two goes, and was mesmerized. September 5, 2018 at 9:35am Reply

    • Victoria: I’m planning to read Circe next! September 7, 2018 at 9:17am Reply

      • Carla: Enjoy Circe! I have to tell you how much I like your blog. I spend as little time online as possible (still too much) and it is really the only blog I visit regularly. September 7, 2018 at 10:15am Reply

        • Victoria: Thank you very much, Carla!

          By the way, I didn’t forget about your question regarding learning languages. Must get to it soon. September 8, 2018 at 8:58am Reply

  • Elisa: My favorite novel I’ve read so far this year is The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen, a wonderful curling-up-on-the-couch book so I recommend waiting until it is cold enough to cozy up with blankets and candles. I also loved Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith. And in translation — The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (perfect for last gasps of summer!) and Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg. September 4, 2018 at 9:46am Reply

    • Victoria: Family Lexicon is one of the best in the memoir genre, and in general, Ginzburg’s style appeals to me. She captures all of her characters so vividly. September 7, 2018 at 9:18am Reply

  • Andy: I just finished Beard’s Civilizations on my Labor Day holiday, and thoroughly enjoyed it (thanks for the recommendation!). The Emily Wilson translation of The Odyssey sounds like a wonderful follow-up, as I too enjoyed it as a young student. I read some excerpts of Wilson’s translation online, and they are arrestingly beautiful in their articulation, just like the passage you have shared. Now I have my next read all lined up 🙂 September 4, 2018 at 10:22am Reply

    • Victoria: I’m very happy to hear that you liked Beard’s book! September 7, 2018 at 9:20am Reply

  • Potimarron: I loved Song of Achilles- I’ll check out Circe as I loved the author’s take on myths. Thank you for the recommendation! September 4, 2018 at 11:21am Reply

    • Victoria: Oh, I’m tempted to read the Song of Achilles too. September 7, 2018 at 9:20am Reply

  • Potimarron: My favourite books this year: Reamde by Neal Stephenson (a total page-turner with strong, clever female characters); Folk by Zoe Gilbert (a poetic voice over a scale of decades on an island where the supernatural is ever present); Himself by Jess Kidd (fun, mysterious and written with a keen ear for accent and dialect). I like a bit of spookiness as the nights begin to draw in. September 4, 2018 at 11:26am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you! More to consider for my reading list. September 7, 2018 at 9:21am Reply

  • CateHerself: I enjoyed Emily Wilson’s Odyssey very much! Madeline Miller’s Circe is well worth a read too. Her take on the story is compelling and, as a weaver and dyer, I was tickled pink by her care in describing looms and dye plants, and how they work. Reseach combined with good storytelling — heaven. September 4, 2018 at 2:20pm Reply

    • Carla: How interesting about the weaving! Madeline Miller is one of those female writers, along with Eleanor Catton and some others, whose brilliance makes me emit a poignant sigh in admiration of their talent, since they are my age and of my sex. Accomplishments far beyond me… September 4, 2018 at 9:31pm Reply

      • CateHerself: Thank you for reminding me of Eleanor Catton. I’d meant to place a library hold on The Luminaries when it won the Booker Prize (5 years ago!) and somehow did not. I hope you enjoy Miller’s Song of Achilles — it’s quite good though, sadly, not many looms pop up in the battlefields of Troy … September 4, 2018 at 11:03pm Reply

        • Carla: The Luminaries is brilliant, pun intended. I advise you read it quickly and carefully so as not to lose the intricate thread of plot woven through every detail. Metaphor intended! September 5, 2018 at 9:05am Reply

          • CateHerself: I will! Thank you! September 5, 2018 at 10:30am Reply

    • Victoria: I agree. That’s an unbeatable combination. September 7, 2018 at 9:21am Reply

  • maja: I’ve been on a South American kick recently and right now reading Cape Horn by Francisco Coloane. Excellent short stories about people (and animals) living in harsh conditions in Patagonia. Before that, I absolutely loved Alvaro Mutis’ The Tramp Steamer’s Last Port of Call, I just couldn’t put it down.
    Eagerly waiting for my delivery of Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane by F. Starr this Friday. 🙂 Back to central Asia with Peter Frankopan later. September 4, 2018 at 3:57pm Reply

    • Victoria: Starr’s book is fascinating! I need to make a list of favorite on this topic. September 7, 2018 at 10:49am Reply

  • Therése: I am definitely putting Celestial Bodies on my reading list!

    I am currently reading The Dandy at Dusk by Phillip Mann, a fascinating read on dandys and dandyism. September 5, 2018 at 8:39am Reply

    • Victoria: Celestial Bodies is one of my favorite discoveries this year, and that’s saying something. September 7, 2018 at 10:50am Reply

  • rickyrebarco: I just finished reading Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag, a powerful short novel about a family slowly moving toward an inexorable act. These books sound amazing. It has been years since I read The Odyssey and I would like to revisit it now. September 5, 2018 at 10:03am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s been on my reading list for a while, and I must get to it soon. September 7, 2018 at 5:13pm Reply

  • ramin1215: How many times have I decided to read this book, but every time I drop it half way, maybe this time … Maybe
    Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971) by Doris Lessing September 8, 2018 at 3:18am Reply

    • Victoria: That does happen to me too. September 8, 2018 at 9:05am Reply

  • Karen: Today is the first day I had to wear a sweater – hooray! I have been more than ready for this welcome change of weather.

    Fall makes me think of classics, too, both books and films. I have recently re-read Jane Eyre (and watched the only film adaptation I hadn’t yet seen, the one with Ruth Wilson); Agnes Grey; Sylvia Plath’s Ariel poems; Wuthering Heights (book and film); and am currently re-reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein after watching the new Mary Shelley film.

    The mood evoked in all of these classics perfectly compliments the graying weather. And reading them again after such a long time reminds me of what I loved about them to begin with~ September 8, 2018 at 11:45am Reply

  • Aurora: Thank you so much for your timely list, Victoria. The Odyssey was my first ‘adult’ book when I was six, it was a Xmas present from my father, a leather bound edition. It is somewhere in France, sigh. I remember l’Aurore aux doigts de rose, I found that expression enchanting.
    Wonderful to see Balzac on your list, when I finish Henry James (recently the Aspen Papers) I might decide to read all the Comedie Humaine, I’ve read almost all but in bits and pieces: my favorites are Illusions Perdues, La Duchesse de Langeais, Le Pere Goriot. There is a book talked about at the moment, the Iliad through the eyes of women, The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker but I heard a negative critic on the radio. September 8, 2018 at 12:56pm Reply

  • Yana: Hello, Victoria. I like your reading plan. I have finished Caligula by Camus, highly recommend, if you haven’t read it yet. Right now I am trying to finish Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. It’s a mix of pleasure and pain, I must say, but I absolutely love the depth of thought, beautiful images of the Alps, characters and symbolism. Also, absolutely loved Pascal Quiniard’s Tous les matins du monde. Incredibly poetic, I actually had tears in my eyes several times. Haunting and beautiful. I am also reading his Secret Life right now and a lot of thoughts and observations on life resonate with me. I think all of these could be in autumnal reading category. Melancholic and contemplative. September 9, 2018 at 2:46pm Reply

  • Julie: Can I recommend Only Yesterday by S.Y. Agnon?
    One of the most beautiful novels of the 20th century that has been translated into English for quite some time, but for some reason has always remained on the periphery of world literature. October 1, 2018 at 10:09am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for mentioning S.Y. Agnon. This novel is on my list. October 2, 2018 at 5:25am Reply

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