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Jack Mitchell (1977-) was born in Sackville, NB and grew up in Ottawa. He holds a Ph.D in Classics from Stanford University and now works as an Associate Professor of Classics at Dalhousie.
Mitchell is a prolific writer and performer. Prior to his Star Wars epic, he wrote an historical poem about the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, and performed the poem in cross-Canada tours in 2000 and 2005. He is also the author of three Young Adult novels set during the decline of the Roman Republic, and a book of Aphorisms, entitled D, focused on art, character, friendship, divinity, and politics. His writings also include essays, poems, and academic articles.The Odyssey of Star Wars is Mitchell’s latest, and as he describes it “most ambitious” literary project.
The Odyssey of Star Wars
This epic poem is not a retelling of The Odyssey, nor is it just another packaging of the Star Wars story. The “Odyssey” parallel lies partly in the overall structure: both are about a longing for home, a dangerous quest that takes years through many different and fantastic places, formidable forces of opposition, monstrous monsters to overcome, death possible at every corner, great battle scenes, the deaths of companions. Another parallel is the attributes associated with Odysseus but here exhibited variously by the three main characters of Leia, Luke, Han: courage, wiliness, determination, fortitude, planning, martial skills.
I don’t know when anyone last wrote and published an epic poem, but The Odyssey of Star Wars is a singular achievement. It provides a greater knowing, and appreciation, of the Star Wars story. Drawing on his skills as a poet, and training as a classicist, Mitchell has expanded and deepened the moral themes of the story, along with the depth of the characters and their actions. This modern epic, though set in a far distant future, is part of a continuum of ancient tales, fables and myths that stretches back thousands of years. The themes and structures of Homer and Virgil are evident, but I also hear echoes of Gilgamesh, Oedipus, Herodotus, Beowulf. Mitchell firmly shows the power of epic poetry that is a pleasure to read in bringing to life a rich and complex story with detailed descriptions and actions.
All of this is accomplished through Mitchell’s strong writing. He connects to the ancient world, not just through the structures and rhythms of epic poetry, but through imaginative similes and metaphors that use natural events and images common across the eons. His descriptions of places, events, and actions are immediate and colourful, often better than the movie scene.
Two overarching themes weave through Mitchell’s epic, referenced many times by various characters. One is the interconnectedness of all living things: a sense of fate expressed through individual lives and larger social and historical movements. Another is the tension of the dichotomy of evil and good that exists in everyone even, and especially, in Darth Vader.
Each chapter begins with an “Invocation” that functions as a sort of Greek chorus. They evolve in their focus as the story progresses. Reading through them as a piece presents a guide for the story and the themes Mitchell explores and develops: good, evil, truth, justice, courage, wiles, forbearance, love, friendship, perseverance, time, sacrifice, fate, the levelling effects of hubris.
A word on the production and presentation of this book. The binding is strong and conveys a sense of substance; you don’t see hard-cardboard covers much any more. There are sidebars throughout the text that serve as useful signposts for those of us not as familiar with the plots of the movies. The lines are numbered as one would see in a translation of, for instance, Homer. These are helpful references for readers who like to make notes on the text.
In the end, I can easily imagine a wandering minstrel in a Star Wars future singing Mitchell’s poem of the Force and the foundation stories of Han, Luke, Leia, Vader, etc, etc.
But we can enjoy it today.
Maaza Mengiste Mengiste (1974-) was born in Addis Ababa, but left the country at the age of four when her family fled the Ethiopian Revolution. She spent the rest of her childhood in Nigeria, Kenya, and the USA. She studied in Italy as a Fulbright Scholar, and earned an MFA in creative writing from New York University.
Emily St.John Mandel
Mandel (1979-) is a Canadian writer, born in Comox, now living in New York City. She has published five novels. Station 11 was her fourth, and best known novel; it was nominated for a number of prizes and won two. Her latest novel, The Glass Hotel, was shortlisted for the Giller in 2020.
The narrative spark of the novel is timely: a viral pandemic wipes out most of the world’s population in no time: catch the virus and you are dead in two days. The spread of the disease is global, rapid, unchecked and uncheckable. Economies and societies quickly unravel. Life becomes constant conflict in a struggle for survival. The superficiality of the modern world is highlighted through memories of what people once thought was important in life. Mandel skilfully manipulates the lives of a number of characters, moving back and forth between the pre- and post-pandemic worlds. The latter principally around the members of a travelling group that performs Shakespeare with musical support. The lives of a number of characters crisscross each other, from their pre- and post existences, usually without being aware of the antecedents. The book was written in 2014, and is eerily prescient about the actions, fears and reactions that we see with COVID.
I found the novel strangely unsettling in its depiction of how easily our vaunted modern world of electricity, transportation, potable water from a tap, food from grocery stores, communications, antibiotics, order, sense of future: all could disappear in a heartbeat, and we could become one of the millions of species that have become extinct, or live in small enclaves where every stranger is feared and where cultish obsessions can take root because people look for ‘meaning’ and ‘reasons’ and think they can pray their way to deliverance, too often at the expense of the lives and rights of others.
The novel ends on a hopeful note, or rather, a few hopeful signs, without veering into simplistic resolutions. A realistic, sobering, well-plotted, and well-written novel.
Stefan Hertmans: War and Turpentine
Hertmans (1951-) is a Flemish-Belgian writer. He has published six novels, two shortstory collections, six essay books, and twelve collections of poetry. He has won a
number of literary prizes. This book was first published, in Dutch, in 2013, translated and published in English in 2016.
Marieke Lucas Rijeneveld
The author is 29. (Rijeneveld is non-binary and uses they/their as personal pronouns). This is their first novel and they are the youngest recipient of the International Booker Prize. Other winners since 2015 have been Laszlo Krasznahorkai, Han Kung, David Grossman, Olga Tokarczuk, and Jokha al-Harthi. The Prize is awarded annually for a single book translated into English and published in the UK or Ireland
Brigid Grauman was born in Geneva to an Irish mother and American father. She spent her childhood in France, Israel, and Belgium. According to her autobiographical note, this book was “inspired by her quarrelsome and very literary Austro-Hungarian family, many of whom were among the Nazis’ millions victims.”
Olga Tokarczuk Tokarczuk (1962-)
Tokarczuk is a Polish writer, activist, and public intellectual. She has been described as one of the most critically acclaimed and successful authors of her generation. The novel, Flights, brought her international recognition when it won the 2018 Man Booker International Prize.
Juan Gabriel Vásquez
Juan Gabriel Vásquez (1973-) is a Colombian writer, translator and
journalist. He studied law in the University of Rosario in Bogota and then
moved to Paris,1996-1999, and received a doctorate from the Sorbone in
Latin American Literature. He lived for a year in the Ardennes, in Belgium,
followed by about ten years in Barcelona. He has lived in Bogota since
Min Jin Lee
Lee (1968-) was born in Seoul and moved to the USA when she was seven years old. She studied law in university and worked for several years as a corporate lawyer in New York. She lived in Japan 2007-2011, and now lives in New York. Her first novel: Free Food for Millionaires was published in 2007. It was included in a number of lists for Top 10 Best Novels for that year. Pachinko was published 2017; it received strong reviews and again was included in a number of Top 10 lists.
Review by John Klassen
Juan Gabriel Vasquez
Vasquez (1973-) was born in Bogota. He studied law there in university, then
moved to France where he obtained a PhD in Latin American Literature at the
Sorbonne. He lived in Belgium for a year, then Barcelona until 2012. He now
lives in Bogota. He also works as a translator and journalist. His novel, The
Sound of Things Falling won the 2014 International IMPAC Dublin Literary
Award; it also won the Premio Gregor von Rezzori award for foreign fiction
translated into Italian.
Aharon Appelfeld: Badenhiem 1939 and Walter Kempowski: All for Nothing
Aharon Appelfeld (1932-2018) was a prolific Israeli novelist. Badenheim 1939 was originally published in 1978 and then in English in 1980 (translated by Dalya Bilu). Walter Kempowski (1929-2007) was a prolific German author (with a very limited number of his books translated into English). All for Nothing was published in 2006; translated into English by Anthea Bell and published by New York Review Books in 2018.
2017: TOP TEN FICTION
Madeleine Thien: Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Winner of the Giller Prize, 2017;shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) Saga exploring upheavals in Chinesepolitics from 1949 to the present through several generations of friends, families and lovers; intersecting destinies overturned by social, political,economic events.
Roy (1961-) won the Man Booker prize in 1997 for her first novel, The God of
Small Things. Since that success, she has been a prominent political activist and
critic concerning a wide range of contentious domestic and international issues.
She has also written non-fiction and numerous essays on contemporary politics
and culture. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is Roy’s second novel.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
Mario Benedetti (1920-2009)
Benedetti was an influential member of Uruguay’s Generation of 1945, an intellectual and literary movement that included Juan Carlos Onetti and Amanda Berenguer, among others and which preceded the Latin American Boom of the 60s and 70s. The Truce was the inspiration for the 1974 film of the same name, the first Argentinean film to be nominated for an Academy Award (for Best Foreign Film). The novel is one of over ninety-five works of poetry, fiction, drama, and essays that Benedetti wrote during his lifetime, very little of which has been translated into English.
Erpenbeck (1967-) was born in East Berlin. She became an opera director and has several productions to her credit. In the 1990s she turned to writing and became a substantial literary presence with her books: The Old Child, The Book of Words, Visitation, The End of Days.
Vann (1966-) was born in Alaska. He is a novelist and short story writer, and now professor of creative writing at the University of Warwick in England. He has received a long list of international literary prizes. Vann describes himself as a "neoclassical writer" and says, "My novels are all Greek tragedies...".
Toibin (1955-) is an Irish novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, journalist and critic. House of Names is Toibin's eleventh book. Other popular novels include The Master, The Blackwater Lightship, Brooklyn, The Testament of Mary, Nora Webster.
Grossman (1954-) is an Israeli author.. He has written a number of fiction and non-fiction books, and has garnered a long list of literary prizes, the most recent being the International Man Booker for his novel: A Horse Walks into a Bar.
Yokoyama (1957-) worked for twelve years as an investigative reporter for a regional newspaper in Japan before turning to crime fiction. He has written six books. Six Four sold a million copies in the first six days when it was published in Japan; it is the first of Yokoyama's novels to be translated into English.
Farrell (1935-1979) was born in Liverpool, of Irish descent. He died at 44, swept out to sea while fishing from the shore in Ireland. Farrell wrote eight novels (two published posthumously), but he is best known for the Empire Trilogy: Troubles (1970), The Siege of Krishnapur (1973), and The Singapore Grip (1978). The overarching theme of the Trilogy, which is clearly on display in Troubles, is the human and political consequences and costs of British colonial rule.