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The Lost Books of the Odyssey: A Novel Paperback – Bargain Price, January 4, 2011
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“Zachary Mason has achieved something remarkable. He’s written a first novel that is not just vibrantly original but also an insightful commentary on Homer’s epic and its lasting hold on our imagination.” —John Swansburg, Slate.com
“Mason has a big heart beneath all his narrative trickery, and he uses it to bring a contemporary sensitivity to the myths.” —Jeremy McCarter, Newsweek
“Jubilant in execution. Perverse and irreverent.” —Katherine A. Powers, The Boston Globe
“Mason’s prose is finely wrought....His imagination soars and his language delights.” —Adam Mansbach, The New York Times Book Review
“Clever, compelling, and often poignant...Mason’s puckishly archaic diction, a wiseacre’s revision of Richmond Lattimore with swing and jazz, is such a pleasure.” —Jesse Berrett, San Francisco Chronicle
“Marvelous...The stories’ wonderful variety reflects the cunning, resourceful character of Odysseus himself.” —Timothy Farrington, The Wall Street Journal
“An absolute delight.” —Alan Cheuse, NPR’s All Things Considered
“[The Lost Books of the Odyssey] is, to my surprise, a wonderful book. I had expected it to be rather preening, and probably thin. But it is intelligent, absorbing, wonderfully written, and perhaps the most revelatory and brilliant prose encounter with Homer since James Joyce.” —Simon Goldhill, The Times Literary Supplement
“A subtle, inventive, and moving meditation on the nature of story and what Louis MacNeice calls ‘the drunkenness of things being various.’ ” —John Banville, Booker Prize–winning author of The Sea
“Spellbinding. In his versions of these ancient myths, Mason twists and jinks, renegotiating the journey to Ithaca with all the guile and trickery of Odysseus himself. Rarely is it so reassuring to be in the hands of such an unreliable narrator.” —Simon Armitage, author of The Odyssey: A Dramatic Retelling of Homer’s Epic
“A stirring revelation: Zachary Mason’s astounding glosses of the Odyssey plunge us into an unforeseeable and hypnotic dimension of fiction. Of the three possible interpretations of the work that he proposes—Homeric stories anciently reproduced by recombining their components, a Theosophist dream of abstract mathematics, and pure illusion (that is, it was all made up by him)—the result is one and the same. This enthralling book is his doing, whether as translator, conjuror, or author. I vote for number three.” —Harry Mathews, author of My Life in CIA
“Mason’s delightful, inventive collection takes the raw materials of Homer—wily Odysseus, faithful Penelope, wrathful Poseidon—and then recombines, warps and twists elements of his well-worn tale.” —Philadelphia City Paper
“Mason’s fantastic first novel, a deft reimagining of Homer’s Odyssey, begins with the story as we know it before altering the perspective or fate of the characters in subsequent short story–like chapters . . . This original work consistently surprises and delights.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“These imaginary lost books of The Odyssey enhance Homer’s epic tale with alternative scenarios and viewpoints. A finalist this year for the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Award, Mason employs clear, crisp prose and a clever sense of humor to propel the action briskly . . . A paean to the power of storytelling.” —Library Journal
“Though none of these brilliantly conceived revisions fits neatly into Homer’s classic poem, each resonates with something of the artistic vigor of the ancient original . . . A daring and successful experiment in fictional technique.” —Booklist
“[A] literary adventure in which everything—the hero, the author, even the reader—is up for grabs . . . The epic as kaleidoscope.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Reading Zachary Mason’s forthcoming The Lost Books of the Odyssey, I’ve been in danger of missing my subway stop . . . Funny, spooky, action-packed, philosophical—the mood keeps shifting, and you keep wanting to read just one more.” —Barnes and Noble Review
About the Author
- Item Weight : 0.8 ounces
- Paperback : 240 pages
- Dimensions : 5.48 x 0.64 x 8.27 inches
- Publisher : Picador; Reprint edition (January 4, 2011)
- Language: : English
- ASIN : B005MWJ1HO
- Best Sellers Rank: #4,337,924 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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In musical terminology the chapters could be read as variations on a theme (the Odyssey), or mathematically as a series of permutations. The book could also be thought of as an illustration of the Many Worlds Theory of Quantum Mechanics, which says that every possible outcome to every event exists in its own history, so that everything that could possibly happen in our universe, but doesn't, does happen in some other universe. But what makes it a novel is that it somehow creates a sum over all these possibilities. It's like a diagram of Richard Feynman's Principle of Least Action, in which the photons in a beam of light go off in all kinds of crazy directions, even backward in time, and only when the beam hits its target does it seem to have obeyed the familiar laws of physics.
One of the best doppelganger stories I've read -it could take its place beside Poe's and Dostoevsky's--is Mason's Chapter 3, "The Stranger," which ends like this: "Sometimes my mind will go with you as I tend to my duty here--of the two of us I think that you, freed from necessity, are the happier." The only necessary world is the one we live in.
In another chapter the Cyclops wrote the Odyssey. In another, Odysseus ends up in a nursing home, suffering from Alzheimer's. In another, Achilles is a golem. In chapter 42 the Iliad and the Odyssey are records of a chess game. In another, sick of the sea, Odysseus, anticipating Melville's Ishmael, puts an oar over his shoulder and walks inland until nobody knows what he's carrying.
The anachronisms are annoying at first because they contradict the premise stated in the preface--that these variations are translations from "a pre-Ptolemaic papyrus excavated from the desiccated rubbish mounds of Oxyrhynchus." We then read of an ancient book of a thousand pages compiled for Agamemnon (codex books weren't invented until the 1st century A.D.), which includes a chapter about "every whole number from zero up to the largest number that had yet been conceived of by men." Zero had not yet been conceived by men at that time. It was invented in India in the 9th century A.D., some 1800 years after Homer, and the term "whole number" wouldn't have any meaning for Greeks until the time of Pythagoras, maybe seven or eight centuries after the Trojan War. (Surely, I thought, a "Professor of Paleomathematics," as Mason called himself in the first version of the book, would know this!)
And then Odysseus and his crew are practicing celestial navigation, "but our calculations were never in agreement." Even if they had had numbers to calculate with, the stars were used only for direction until the Arabs invented astronavigation in the 7th century A.D. Odysseus also encounters steel cables, white noise, Confucius and Sun Tzu's Art of War, to name only a few historical violations. All these anachronisms would have been fine if it hadn't been for the premise. I hope Mason does away with the Preface altogether in the next edition.
But all is forgiven as the voyage nears its end and we realize that there is a protagonist, a hero, but he is not Odysseus. Someone, call him Nobody (as Odysseus called himself, meaning Everyman), maybe a war veteran, is recalling his life, in disguise, asking himself, "What if ...?" It's as if Nobody is writing down-- in the words of Athena in Chapter 36--"the metaphors with which I describe myself, like a hand trying to grasp itself by reaching into a mirror." This is an allusion to recursion, which Mason claimed was the mathematical basis of his book : infinite regress. Or is it infinite regret? It's really a novel about possibility and necessity: the lost books of the self.
The writing is often almost painfully lyrical. "Somewhere," Odysseus says to himself near the end, "I must have made a mistake. Turned down the wrong street, opened the wrong door, failed to make a sacrifice when the god was willing. And now I am old and not far from nothing, and everything I knew has turned to smoke."
Familiar stories are up-ended by being re-told from the point of view of the supposed villain, like Polyphemous and Medusa. Alternative explanations are given which challenge the traditional explanation for why things happened as they did. We are given rich character backstories which greatly enrich our understanding of their later actions. For anyone who has found themselves roaming before the walls of Troy or following Odysseus on his journey back to Ithaca, "The Lost Books of Odysseus" is an incredible treat which will remain with you long after you have put it down.
As an aside, Mason's command of language-- particularly the archaic --is considerable. Unless words like termagant, casuistry, and verdigrised roll of your tongue, you might want to either have a good lexicon by your side, or (like me) read this work on your Kindle, which allows for easy lookups without interrupting the flow of the narrative.
Top reviews from other countries
I didn't read the tales in order. Someone else reviewing them bemoaned the brevity of so many of the pieces, but I loved the clean, stripped sharpness of each episode. The author preserved just enough of the feel of formula and epithet of epic without labouring those characteristics. In any case, to do so might have dulled the originality of the collection, or made it seem merely some sort of pastiche.
In taking away some of the elements the ancients valued, Mr Mason adds dimensions of personality. Greek heroes are often uninteresting in their one-dimensional consistency, but Odysseus here is complex and ambiguous and (!) likeable.
I'm sure all keen readers go through spells when they read just because it's what they do, but long for a book that enraptures and engages and requires a real effort of will power to put down so that there will still be some of its joys to enjoy later. They do come along every now and again.
This is most certainly one of them.
It's not the Odyssey, nor does it try to be, but it's a tribute and an ornament to its inspiration.
The stories are varied and short enough to stay interesting, and Mason has a strange (in a good way) and haunting imagination that seems well suited to creating dreamlike worlds where logic and meaning changes and merges form one sentence to the next in the matter of forming myth. Our world bleeds in, Homer makes a show, Odysseus lingers around every corner.
All in all, I couldn't recommend it highly enough, and I can't wait to see what a talent like this will write next.
Note: Not for you if you want one coherent story, or something loyal to the Odyssey. It explodes and remakes shards of the Odyssey. I hope the review made that clear, but I thought I'd spell it out to be sure.