Ka by John Crowley, Not Finding Quite What You Want on Black Friday, & Literary Links

The People had stories, but no history; everything that had happened was still happening.
Ka, by John Crowley

The hero of John Crowley’s brilliant new novel,  Ka, is a crow, Dar Oakley, who traverses both the realms of crows and human beings. Dar Oakley is an inquisitive crow, flying farther than most birds, and returning with arcane information about geography and anthropology.  His stories seem fantastic to the other crows, who laugh at him until they finally follow him on a journey.  Dar Oakley is the first crow to give himself a name, and starts the trend of individual naming.

John Crowley is a versatile writer who has won the World Fantasy Award and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in English.  I am a great fan of his Aegypt, a quartet of novels about philosophy, science, magic, and love. (For more information, follow this  link to Goodreads.)  I also enjoyed his historical novel, Lord Byron’s Novel, in which Bryon’s daughter Ada discovers an unpublished manuscript of a novel by Byron.  But Ka is very different, a kind of prose epic.

On one level,  Ka is an unputdownable story of a talking crow.  I love the bird’s-eye view of history, and the mythic journeys of Dar Oakley.  On another level, it explores the meaning, or lack thereof, of  life and death.  And the crow’s autobiography is occasionally interrupted by a dying human narrator,  who is reconstructing the story from his own conversations with Dar Oakley.  This man, who lives in a dystopian near-future, is dying of a new disease.  He has already lost his wife, and has little to live for.  One day he rescued Dar Oakley from the back yard where he found him ill, near death, he thought.

illustration by Melody Newcomb

Crows have a close relationship with humans, in that they follow them to find  food, the remains of animals they have hunted, their crops, or even human corpses.  But Dar Oakley is not just a scavenger. He learns human language. And he accompanies his human friends to the Underworld, or realm of death, where he steals immortality (which is a burden to him).

Because of the gift/curse of immortality, he lives for 2,000 years.  His companions include a shaman named Fox Cap; a monk; and a Native American storyteller.  Dar Oakley outlives them all; he also outlives his mates and his children.  And, in a brilliant reimagining of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, Dar Oakley travels to the Underworld to attempt to rescue his beloved mate, Kits.  Like Orpheus, he fails.

Crowley’s language is beautiful; there are allusions to Dante, Virgil, and doubtless many other books I do not know.   I found this an enthralling read, really hypnotic.  This is one of my favorite books of the year (and why didn’t it make any award shortlists?).  It reminds me slightly of Kazuo Ishiguro’s literary fantasy, The Buried Giant.

There are also lovely illustrations by Melody Newcomb.

NOT FINDING WHAT YOU WANT ON BLACK FRIDAY.  It was a lovely day yesterday so I bicycled to Barnes and Noble.

What was on my list?  Emily Wilson’s new translation of the Odyssey.  In a way it’s a blessing they didn’t have it, because I have three other translations, and anyway I’m an Iliad person.  But I did find another book I wanted, Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and an Epic.  When his 81-year-old father signs up for Mendelsohn’s class in the Odyssey at Bard College, their relationship undergoes some changes.


1.  I very much enjoyed the Books of the Year list at the Spectator. There are many lists, but  this is the only list from which I copied several titles.   I also listened to a podcast  called Can Anna Karenina Save Your Life?, in which Sam Leith interviews Viv Groskop about her new book, The Anna Karenina Fix:  Lessons from Russian Literature.  

2  I am a great fan of Mary Wesley, and was very excited to read a review in the TLS of Darling Pol:  The letters of Mary Wesley and Eric Siepmann, 1944–1967 The reviewer very much enjoyed it–and what a relief that was, since I had just been traumatized by a snotty review of one of my favorite books of the year, Yopie Prins’s Ladies’ Greek!

The reviewer LINDSAY DUGUID writes,

Examining the lives of novelists, especially female novelists, has become an accepted way of approaching their work. The facts unfolded in biographies and the feelings expressed in letters can also be found in their fiction, where they appear again and again in different guises. The long and interesting life of Mary Wesley (1912–2002) can be seen as a rich source for the series of novels she wrote in old age, in which familiar themes recur.

I do hope this is published in the U.S. eventually.

Three New Books & The Scarlet Letter: “B” Is for Bookish

Demi Moore as Hester Prynne in “The Scarlet Letter”

I was doing very well at not buying books.

And then the urge struck me.  I bought three books and smuggled them into the house, so as not to be lectured by Himself.

I am not a bookish Puritan, but I felt a bit like Hester in The Scarlet Letter, only with a scarlet “B” for “bookish.”

But really I enjoy books too much to wear the “B.”

Here’s what tempted me:

 John Crowley’s Ka.  Crowley’s books are fantasy/literary fiction, loved by critics Harold Bloom and Michael Dirda as well as by fans of brilliant, entertaining novels.  He has won the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award in Literature and the World Fantasy Award.

I have just begun his new novel, Ka.  It is the story of a crow, Dar Oakley, who is our guide through 2000 years of history.  If you loved Watership Down, you’ll find Dar’s account of crow life fascinating, and a bit  post-modern.

Here is a passage from Elizabeth Hand’s review in the L.A. Times.

So yes: John Crowley is a writer’s writer, the rare stylist whose stories can feature both downtown New York City bars and 16th century cosmologist and martyr for science Giordano Bruno. Yet Crowley is also a serious reader’s writer. As with Middle Earth, his imaginary worlds so enchant and entice that many fans read and reread his books obsessively, the closest we can come to inhabiting them. But, unlike Tolkien’s legendarium, most of Crowley’s fiction is resolutely set in our own world. Even those works that venture onto other planets maintain quicksilver ties to this one. Decades before George R.R. Martin’s series “A Song of Ice and Fire,” Crowley’s first novel, “The Deep” (1975), recounted an ancient, seemingly endless conflict that evokes the War of the Roses and its precursors. In his second novel, 1976’s “Beasts,” humans and genetically engineered sentient animals make their way across a near-future U.S. devastated by civil wars and a totalitarian government.

Virgil’s Aeneid, translated by David Ferry.  Ferry, a National Book Award winner, is one of my favorite American poets.  He is also a brilliant Latinist who knows his Virgil:  his translations of the Eclogues and the Georgics are lovely.

I reread the Aeneid every year in LatinSo why buy Ferry’s translation?  His style is brilliant, and I am anxious to see how he handles problems in translation.

As I grow older I appreciate the Aeneid more and more, particularly Virgil’s brave characterization of the first weak hero.  (I am calling it the first, but I should say my first.)  I first taught the Aeneid as a T.A. many years ago, and many, many times later as a prep-school Latin teacher.

I’ve been thinking about Latin descriptions of passion.  Virgil often uses the words amens (pronounced ah-mens, and literally meaning “out of one’s mind”).  In Book II, during the fall of Troy, Aeneas is amens  when he loses his wife Creusa as they are running away during the fall of Troy.  Ferry translates it “in my frenzy.” (And that is an excellent, popular translation.)  But I keep visualizing the more pictorial amens   (“a” means “away from” and mens “mind”):  a diagram of  a man outside his mind.  Later, in Book IV, Dido, the queen of Carthage, is amens when she falls madly in love with Aeneas.  So perhaps Aeneas was only really passionate about Creusa?  Poor Aeneas.

Sara Maitland’s Three Times Three.  In Shaun Bythell’s The Diary of a Bookseller, he mentions  Sara Maitland.   Three Times Three was one of my favorite novels of the ’90s.  I ordered a cheap copy online, and it arrived today.  I can’t wait to reread it!