One of the coolest things about being a librarian is that I get to hear about all the nifty new books in advance (and put my name first on the hold list). I was immediately intrigued when I heard about the new "Myths" series from Canongate publishing: the kickoff would be a nonfiction Short History of Myth by religious writing superstar Karen Armstrong, and two short novels by Jeannette Winterson (Weight, a reflection on the myth of Atlas and Heracles) and Margaret Atwood (The Penelopiad, retelling the Odyssey from Penelope's point of view).
Most of the reviews I've read say that The Penelopiad is slightly better than Weight, and I'd have to concur; but only slightly better. Both are excellent. Weight in particular has an interesting take on the nature of myth, with its recurring line "I want to tell the story again."
Maybe The Penelopiad has an advantage in being a better known myth. I already knew that Heracles once took over Atlas's job of holding up the cosmos, and had to trick Atlas into taking it back, because I have been a mythology geek from childhood, but everybody knows the story of the Odyssey, if only because they were forced to read the thing in school: how Odysseus went off on twenty years of adventures and Penelope was stuck at home in Ithaca fending off the men who wanted to marry her and take over the kingdom.
It's interesting to look at that story again from a 21st century feminist viewpoint.
Originally posted at MySpace on 2/11/06