Reviewed in short: New books by Charlotte Higgins, Jan Grue, Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen, and Jonn Elledge

Greek Myths: A New Retelling by Charlotte Higgins
Jonathan Cape, 336pp, £20

Reimagining classical myths from a female perspective is not a new idea. The Roman poet Ovid did it over 2000 years ago with the heroines, and since then, people like Penelope, Helen, and Circe have had countless opportunities to reclaim their stories. What is Charlotte Higgins trying to do? Greek myths is different. She not only revises the myths, but the entire storytelling apparatus. The stories we are so familiar with—the creation of gods and men, the tragedy of Oedipus, the Trojan War—are not recited or told but woven: by eight mythological heroines on eight ancient looms, spinning their own interpretations.

Feminism is subtle but persistent, first indulging in Greek teachings about the role of women and the subordination of mothers, then gently interrogating them. Pandora is not a villain; Penelope’s enduring allegiance to Odysseus is not all it seems. This is not about imposing modern values ​​on ancient texts – Higgins never strays too far from her source material and her compendium deftly follows Ovid’s format Metamorphoses, one story fades into another. But even readers who think they know their classics will discover some surprises.
By Rachel Cunliffe

[See also: Natasha Brown: “It’s important to celebrate difficult novels”]

I Live a Life Like Yours: A Memoir by Jan Grue, translated by BL Crook
Pushkin Press, 272pp, £14.99

Sometimes you read a book where after one or two chapters you have to stop emphasizing the parts that touch you, otherwise you underline the whole text – and this is one of them. I live a life like yours, first published in Norwegian in 2018, is the writer Jan Grue’s memoir about living with congenital muscular dystrophy. It describes the limitations and frustrations of the medical institutions he has had to visit, and the discrepancy between the life others expect of him and the life he actually leads. Lyrical reflections on otherness, love, grief and family are interspersed with criticism – Michel Foucault on the institutional view, Erving Goffman on stigma – and excerpts from the clinical notes documenting the development of Grue’s childhood, describing a person who is both himself if someone is he does not recognize it.

About everything from fatherhood (“I write after being a father for a year and a half. It’s long now, the moment stretches and swallows the horizon”) to time (“Time is inelastic. I need the time I need “), I live a life like yours is an in-depth, reflective work about living with a disability and life as a human being.
By Pippa Bailey

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The Library: A Fragile History by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen
Profile, 518pp, £25

This history of the library, from the Assyrians to the digital age, is itself a wonderful collection of knowledge. Libraries have always been more than repositories of human wisdom: they are also indicators of a society’s value system. With an eye for striking detail, the authors chart such episodes as the rise of the printed book and the resistance to it (the Muslim world largely rejected the typeface, and in the West manuscripts remained the documents of choice for wealthy patrons); the invention of the right bookshelves – the gift to posterity of Fernando Colón, the son of Christopher Columbus; individual collectors such as Thomas Bodley; and the late 19th-century development of the public library, propelled by the robber baron Andrew Carnegie.

Of course, there are major book destructions, whether it be the legendary library in Alexandria, French revolutionaries setting fire to the monastic libraries, or the Nazi book burnings, which became massive as the Red Army approached. This is a book full of fascination and ultimately one of optimism too. “In the endless cycle from destruction to greatness,” the authors say, “libraries are always restored.”
By Michael Prodger

[See also: Claire-Louise Bennett: “The brink of adulthood is a very uncomfortable time”]

The Compendium of (Not Quite) Everythinghuhing: All the Facts You Didn’t Know You Wanted to Know by Jonn Elledge Hachette, 304pp, £14.99

In a genre as busy as trivia, it helps to have a distinctive voice. In The Compendium of (Not Quite) Everything, the NS Online columnist Jonn Elledge serves readers a generous helping of obscure facts laced with sardonic humor. The book reads like a relaxed Wikipedia “speedrun” in which users try to navigate between two specific, but unrelated pages as quickly as possible, with pit stops on politics, people and pop culture. Elledge works from “creation myths” on one end of the book to “a selection of things that could kill us all” on the other.

Meanwhile, he examines how history comes full circle, from England’s 20th-century “cod wars” with Iceland (which bear an uncanny resemblance to Brexit issues), to the “undetected arms race” of today’s “flagpole war”, where authoritarian countries including Saudi Arabia and North Korea compete to outdo each other and build the world’s tallest flagpole. This book is unashamedly geek and a fact-filled insight into both the familiarity and idiosyncrasy of the human experience.
By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

[See also: Booker Prize-winner Damon Galgut: “South Africa is not a country that speaks with one voice”]

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