October 20, 2011


Gifts from the Gods: Ancient Words & Wisdom from Greek & Roman Mythology. By Lise Lunge-Larsen. Illustrated by Gareth Hinds. Houghton Mifflin. $18.99.

Jane Austen: Blood Persuasion. By Janet Mullany. Morrow. $13.99.

     Here are two different ways to rethink the past – or remake it. Gifts from the Gods, intended for young readers, is a vocabulary book with a difference and also a myths-retold book with a difference. That is, it is a book of both types, intermingling two formats that would not seem to fit naturally together. Lise Lunge-Larsen joins them neatly, taking words and phrases well-known today and connecting them with their Greek and Latin origins by first giving a modern instance of their use and then telling the stories on which the modern uses are based. For example, Lunge-Larsen first defines “fate,” then offers a snippet from Lemony Snicket’s The Slippery Slope: “Fate is like a strange, unpopular restaurant, filled with odd waiters who bring you things you never asked for and don’t always like.” Then the author explains about the three sisters – Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos – believed by the Greeks to spin each person’s thread of life, measure it and cut it when a person was to die. And then she explains that the thread of life was called the stamen, which helps explain the modern word “stamina” and also the name given to the pollen-producing part of a plant; and she adds that the Romans called Atropos – who cut the thread of life – Morta, from which name come such words as mortal and immortal. This is a lot to pack into the four pages devoted to “fate,” but Lunge-Larsen does a good job of packing her book with information without overloading it or coming across as too didactic. Gareth Hinds’ illustrations help: they bring a touch of reality to mythic figures such as Achilles, Athena and the frightening Furies, and visually explain such concepts as that of the personal spirit known as a Genius by the Romans and a Daemon by the Greeks. Along the way, Gifts from the Gods explains some ancient behaviors that seem curious to us today, such as the Greeks’ spitting on their own chests to prevent Nemesis, the goddess of justice, from deeming them braggarts in need of a severe lesson. Coupling well-known stories (such as Pandora’s box) with less-known ones (such as the reason the god Pan’s name has given us the word “panic” – a section in which a full-page Hinds illustration is especially good), Gifts from the Gods presents modern vocabulary and old stories alike in a particularly vivid way.

     The times are not as long ago and the remaking of the past is very different in Janet Mullany’s sequel to Jane and the Damned, a frothy little vampire novel called Jane Austen: Blood Persuasion. Although not quite as clever or outrĂ© as the earlier book, this (+++) work – which is decidedly for adults – will be great fun for those who enjoyed Mullany’s original portrait of Jane as a vampire. From the first, “Oh, stop talking nonsense and make tea for us, Jane,” to the eventual “Jane was very good at keeping secrets,” the book is steeped in knowledge of the real-world Jane Austen that Mullany uses to spin a story of flirtation, intrigue, murder, dark lurkers and some thoroughly Victorian elements (including a significant and naughty role for Jane’s silk stockings). Mullany does a good job of weaving references to Austen’s novels into this book, offering speculations about ways in which vampires might just have figured in the plots, or in original drafts of the plots. Austen fans will find these asides delightful. Other elements of the book are less interesting, though, such as a looming civil war among the Damned and the inevitable return of Jane’s vampire characteristics after she had managed to avoid permanent vampirism at the end of the previous book. In these aspects, Jane Austen: Blood Persuasion becomes almost formulaic, although not quite: “The anger and despair burned within her.” “There were protocols that should have been observed. They were not.” “You may offer me eternity, but in this case it is not yours to grant.” Much of the story here revolves around Jane’s niece, Anna, whose interest in vampires seems a 19th-century reflection of modern teenage and young-adult fascination with the creatures of the night; readers’ response to her, positive or negative, will have a significant impact on their enjoyment of the book. Mullany writes, most of the time, with wit and skill, and certainly those who wondered what happened to Jane after the inconclusive conclusion of Jane and the Damned will enjoy and appreciate this followup. But there cannot, it seems, be another book in this series; Mullany closes the door rather definitively here. Perhaps it is just as well to allow vampire Jane, along with real-world Jane, her well-deserved rest.

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