Ecstasy and Terror by Daniel Mendelsohn – Book Review

I don’t remember how I came across Ecstasy and Terror but I knew when I read its blurb that I would love it. Having read every one of the essays in this collection, I’ve found myself not only loving it but hungry for more of Mendelsohn’s writing. This anthology by Mendelsohn(who is Editor at Large over at the excellent New York Review of Books) has the apt subtitle From the Greeks to Game of Thrones, which might as well have added the following two words: And Beyond, and would still have been every bit as true.

Mendelsohn’s most interesting and illuminating essays draw connections to Ancient Greece and parallels to modern times; the first section, Ancients sees him exploring tragedies such as Euipides’ Bacchae and Sophocles’ Antigone, the role of the poet Sappho and her sexuality in Greek culture, the place of the Aeneid in modern society and the links between JFK’s assassination and Greek myth.

Following up is the weakest of the three sections, Moderns, which is by no means dull reading; it’s that some of the essays here speak of novels whose themes and problems hardly ever interested me. And yet Mendelsohn’s exceptional skill as a critic offers plenty to enjoy in “The Women and the Thrones: George R. R. Martin’s Feminist Epic on TV” and in “The Robots are Winning!: Homer, Ex Machina and Her“. Equally captivating was a review of an epistolary novel looking at the first emperor of Rome, Augustus. The remaining essays, while interesting to read due to Daniel’s ready supply of wit, left less of an impression, perhaps because the works examined by him pose little intrest to me at this time.

The third and smallest of the sections, titled Personals, I found as fascinating as Mendelsohn’s takes on Classical culture. Whether he spoke of his correspondence with Mary Renault, a lesbian author of historical fiction through his childhood – how her novels affected him and made him fully accept his sexuality – and early adulthood in the 70s or about the role and responsibility of the critic in the excellent piece “A Critic’s Manifesto”, this last section is stellar. It gave me a glimpse into a man whose work I’ve come to admire over the 377 pages of this remarkable collection and for that, I am all too happy.

What is there left to say? Plenty – I could speak about each of the essays, and you know what? I think I’ll make a weekly column out of it. I won’t talk about each and every one of these since, as I said before, I don’t have nearly enough to say about all of them. I’d encourage you to read Ecstasy and Terror for yourself, but in case you need more convincing, I will share with you a few of my favourite essays – what they are about, why they left an impression and what they taught me; because if there’s one thing I cannot stress enough, it is this: You will learn a lot from Daniel Mendelsohn.

Rating this anthology is a task I’m woefully underqualified for, and yet – since I will be cross-posting this to Goodreads, this is an unequivocal 5 out of 5 Stars. I cannot recommend it enough.

Reading Diary: Uprooted by Ectasy, Terror and Doctor Hoffman’s Infernal Devices

I am drunk on words.

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I’ve read quite a lot this past week. After finishing Sanderson’s Starsight, whose review you can find here (Spoilers, I thought it was beautiful), I moved onto listening to an old favourite, one of the very first books I ever wrote a teeny, tiny review for. The book in question is Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and revisiting it was excellent fun, thanks in no small part to the narrator, Katy Sobey. I couldn’t believe how much I’d forgotten about some parts, and how my mind had played a trick on me, giving a greater role to characters whose roles really weren’t all that important. Funny how the mind will twist things up.

I moved onto The Devil’s Apprentice (review on the blog just yesterday!), since I was running out of time – my review was supposed to go up on the eighth, a mere four days away! Thankfully, The Devil’s Apprentice was a remarkably easy book to read — I read it in about two hour and a half long sittings. What did I think about that one? Just scroll below this post and you can find out. Or, if you’re prodigously lazy, click here.

Two books down by Friday (Sixth of December), two to go.

The weekend was consumed by postmodernism. Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman was a trippy, bizarre read, albeit wonderful for its strangeness and exquisite language. It’s brutal, though; deeply pornographic, chock-full of acts of pure desire. I have a big essay to write on it, and on Anna of the Five Towns and on To The Lighthouse, all about the ontology of reality through three very different literary currents.

In-between chapters of The Infernal Desire Machines, I read essays by Daniel Mendelsohn from his recently released Ecstasy and Terror. This paperback with its glazed pages is separated into three – Ancients, Moderns and Personals – nouns which encapsulate what the author’s essays are about.

Mendelsohn’s work is quite illuminating. I will take an in-depth look at it eventually, once I’ve read through all the essays and picked my favourites but regardless of whether you prefer the art of Ancient Greece as compared to that of the contemporary world, you will find plenty of note here. My personal so far is a piece called Girl, Interrupted: How Gay was Sappho? and is, of course, all about the Ancient Greek poet known for her poetry as much as for her outrageous sexuality.

My final read–listen–was Alan Cumming’s Not my Father’s Son. This one was horrifying, heartwarming and hilarious all in equal parts. Nothing like the autobiographical works of some ‘stars’, which might as well be screams for attention. I wouldn’t have picked this up as a paperback but I love Alan, I love his voice, I could listen to him for hours and when I saw the audiobook – was it at a sale? – I knew, immediately, I would enjoy every last minute of the man’s velvety voice. I’ll write more about this book later but suffice to say, this one really goes in-depth as to the fuel originally behind Alan’s creative drive. It also plays out like a proper mystery, which delights and excites both. A short review of this one, I think, should appear on the blog within a few days – if I’ve the energy to spare.

This post is somewhat chaotic, written more for myself than for anyone else – that said, I had fun recollecting some of my reading experiences.

As for this coming week? I did start listening to Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities – might as well continue it, aye? It’s interesting enough – Dickens takes awhile to warm up. Probably due to the fact that he got paid by the word. No rushing that one.

I also dabbled into a Horus Heresy audiodrama – Little Horus. That was fine, not quite as much as I’ve come to expect from Dan Abnett – but it was exceedingly short so I’ll hold no ill will towards him. And hey, I finally got to see what Horus’s Legion looks like after Isthvaan III and V – hooray!

I’ll have to unpack Philip K. Dick’s Ubik for my Researching Literature class, as well. Oh, and plenty more essays on postmodernism to read! And don’t even get me started on the self-published novels I’ve got to get through…

How about you? What’s your reading looking like this coming week?