In preparation for my upcoming review of Colm Tóibín’s House of Names, based on the bloody story of Orestes, Electra and Clytemnestra, I thought I’d make a short list of all my favourite books that are based on Greek mythology. As it turns out, by some strange coincidence, they all feature some form of gender bending. Readers, if you know of other great books based on Greek myth, I’d love to hear about them in the comments–the stranger the better!
1. Fran Ross, Oreo
One of the weirdest, smartest, funniest books I’ve ever read. A retelling of the myths of Theseus (who did more than just slay the Minotaur), but starring an Afro-Jewish teenage girl with a gift for wordplay and martial arts, Oreo is jam-packed with multi-lingual puns, sophisticated literary references, silly comedy (including bawdy, slapstick, and scatological), social satire, and general feminist badassery. Fran Ross was as good as Joyce and Pynchon at bending words every which way, and it’s a tragedy that she never wrote anything else.
2. Matt Fraction and Christian Ward, ODY-C
(trigger warning: rape)
The Odyssey! In space! With an almost all-female cast! And spectacular psychedelic illustrations! ODY-C is an ongoing comic series, but the first two volumes, Off to Far Ithicaa and Sons of the Wolf, are already available at good libraries and bookstores. Both volumes are relatively self-contained, so you don’t have to read 1 in order to appreciate 2. However, the whole thing is weird, and does require a minimum of preparation: first, read a short interview with the creators, so you know what they’re trying to accomplish; second, though it may not look like it, all the text is in verse, so it needs to be read with a certain rhythm (don’t worry, you’ll figure it out). If you don’t read about the authors’ intentions and don’t treat the words as verse, your experience of these books might be frustrating. I didn’t do either when I first read Off to Far Ithicaa, and I was mostly confused. I hope this doesn’t intimidate you, because, for one thing, these are comics, so they don’t actually take that long to read, and, also, it’s a miracle that something as weird as this is even being published, and it should be supported. Off to Far Ithicaa is a relatively straightforward retelling of Odysseus’s adventures up till his encounter with Polyphemus the Cyclops, while the more ambitious Sons of the Wolf is a nuanced meditation on the sexual violence that is so frequent in world mythology, mixing Hercules, Sumerian myth, Helen of Troy and her husband Menelaus (gender-swapped, of course), as well as a bit of Scheherazade.
3. Ali Smith, Girl Meets Boy
A delightful retelling of the story of Iphis and Ianthe. Briefly: A child is born, but because she’s a girl and her parents are poor, they decide to kill her, except the goddess Isis stops them and convinces them to raise her as a boy named Iphis; when Iphis grows up and falls in love with a girl named Ianthe, Isis transforms Iphis into a man. Smith’s story doesn’t follow this structure particularly closely: the main plot concerns two Scottish sisters who work for a soulless water corporation, and features activism, feminism, toxic work environments, creepy corporation stuff, and romance. However, there are several key thematic parallels, and there’s a long section in the middle in which one of the sisters tells her girlfriend the story of Iphis and Ianthe, and the way she does it is fresh and delightful and funny. In fact, the whole book is fresh and delightful and funny, and it’s a mere 161 pages long. I’ve read it twice: first to myself, and then, aloud, to my then-girlfriend, now-wife.
4. Kate Tempest, Hold Your Own
Kate Tempest is an amazing performer, whose work is likely to make you experience the whole spectrum of human emotions, usually all at once. I love her album Everybody Down, and her second album, Let Them Eat Chaos, is so raw and intense it’s too much (I remember listening to it and crying while shopping, on the day after the last American election). All the best hip-hop artists walk a very fine line between poetry and music, and Tempest is no exception–except that, unlike many other amazing hip-hop artists, some of her work has been published as straight poetry, including Hold Your Own. This book opens with a long retelling of the story of Tiresias, who once stumbled on a pair of copulating snakes, poked them with a stick, and magically turned into a woman. The other poems are more autobiographical, with childhood memories mixed with passionate screeds against consumerism, though Tiresias does recur as a character, and I thought his ability to experience life as both a man and a woman fit well with Tempests’ exhortation to her readers to lead as rich and bold a life as they can. Inspiring stuff. I recommend reading the entire book, of course, but I also highly recommend this video, in which Tempest recites a selection of poems from Hold Your Own in front of a crowd. It’s electrifying.