Circe – A Witchy Goddess for Our Times

Image of Circe Book Cover

🏺The Greeks attributed both good times and misfortune to the whims of the gods.  With the world still in turmoil, we are all hoping the gods get tired soon of tormenting us poor humans – enough already.  We need some good times. Reading Madeleine Miller’s Circe has me wishing for some spells or maybe an errant lightning bolt.

If you are a fan of Greek mythology as I am, having D’Aulaire’s children’s book as one of my most treasured still on my shelf, you will enjoy the retelling of how the world was once occupied by goddesses and nymphs, with unusual powers.  Although a minor character in Greek storytelling, Circe is the focus of Miller’s story, as she interacts with her father, the Sun, and Odysseus on his travels.  Miller cleverly weaves in other gods – Hermes, Athena, the Titans – as well as lesser known humans with skills – Daedalus, the architect and father of Icarus, as they interact with the main character.  The minotaur makes a brief appearance as Circe’s nephew, and Medea as her niece.

Impatient for a resolution to some of the teasing narrative, I often flipped to google to remind myself how the story progresses in the famous Greek poems. Why was Athena so worried about Circe’s son?  How was the famously beautiful Helen related?  Whatever happened to poor Prometheus and his liver? Who was Achilles’ lover?

But Miller has her own agenda for retelling the old tales with Circe as the heroine, “ a reclamation of one of myth’s reviled women.” as noted by author Clare Messud in her review of the book. Annalisa Quinn for NPR says: “{Circe is } a fierce goddess who, yes, turns men into pigs, but only because they deserve it.”

Though most readers may recall Circe from her dealings in the Odyssey,  Miller extrapolates a world from the few short lines from Homer’s poem to create more of her life, from her lonely childhood with Helios, the sun, as her scorching father, her first romance with a human and later a true love with Odysseus. Circe’s discovery and development of her magical powers gives her the well earned accolade of witch and her heritage makes her a goddess.

I downloaded Circe to my phone in 2018, when it was first published, but have not felt the urge to read it until now.  I’m glad I did.  The story was entertaining and flowed easily.  I knew how the story ended, but I persisted to finish.  From the pages, I noted a few lines relevant to me today I might not have appreciated two years ago:

“Beneath the smooth, familiar face of things, is another that waits to tear the world in two.”

 

“…the floor was always clean, the tables gleaming. The ashes vanished from the fireplace, the dishes washed themselves, and the firewood grew overnight. In the pantry jars of oil and wine, bowls of cheese and barley-grain, always fresh and full.”  A dream come true.

 

“Your wife sounds like a clever woman {says Circe to Odysseus}. {He answers} – She is. I cannot account for the fact that she married me, but since it is to my benefit, I try not to bring it to her attention.”

 

“What was the fight over? Let me see if I can remember the list.  He ticked his fingers. Vengeance, Lust, Hubris, Greed, Power.  What have I forgotten? Ah yes, vanity and pique.”

 

 

 

Library Books to Start the New Year

Libby, the email librarian, has been offering me “skip-the-line” books lately, with a seven day deadline to finish.  Ready to meet the challenge, I finished two books in record time, while ignoring others under the usual three week time frame.  The pressure to finish before Libby surreptitiously swallows my book back into the void is a challenge I cannot ignore.

The Vanishing Half

Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half did not tempt me when it was first published, despite accolades from Barack Obama, the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, and others.  I usually buy a book immediately – hardback, if I can wait a few days,  or ebook, if I need it now  – sometimes even preordering, when a new book is one I want to read and review immediately.  When I order from the library, I  expect I will have forgotten why I did by the time it appears six months later on my screen, but Libby’s “skip-the-line” brought The Vanishing Half forward sooner than expected.

Mirroring the theme from the film Imitation of Life, with a black woman passing as white, Bennett creates a novel about twin sisters, one choosing to live her adult life as a black woman and the other as a wealthy white woman. Desiree returns to her mother’s house in the small Southern town where she grew up, while Stella moves on to the big city to marry a white man who knows nothing about her background.  Their lives grow predictably different, with one struggling through poverty and the other eventually becoming a college professor.  Their daughters meet as adults, with one in medical school in love with a transgender and the other a struggling blond actress.

A Local book club picked this book for a future zoom discussion and questions rifle through the story as well as in the ending. Looking beyond the issues of race, this all white female book group might consider Libby’s pointed analysis of the book: “how a person’s past shapes decisions, desires, and expectations, and explore… {how some} feel pulled to live as something other than their origins.”

Hidden in Plain Sight

Eighty year old author and former member of Parliament, Jeffrey Archer, is still writing compelling stories with delicious hanging threads at the end to tease readers into the next novel with his characters continuing their adventures.  Hidden in Plain Sight is the second book featuring Detective William Warwick. As with the Clifton Chronicles, the Warwick novels create a family saga, as the novels follow William through his career, his loves, and his family.  Using his trademark twists, Archer chronicles the characters’ triumphs and tragedies,   This one was easy to finish quickly, and a nice distraction from the present day world.

 

 

Looking Forward to 2021 in Books

Author Sophie Hannah reminded me that when I curse an inanimate object for getting in my way, causing me to smash my toes or bruise my elbow, it is, after all, not the inanimate object’s fault.  In an article listing her favorite books for the new year, Hannah notes:  “I’ve heard many say good riddance to 2020 and I understand why, but it also makes me want to correct the misunderstanding. A year is a moral-value-free and agenda-free unit of time. It has neither agency nor culpability. It’s merely a container inside which we have experiences.”

She suggests you start your 2021 reading with Abigail Dean’s Girl A a psychological drama about a girl whose new life starts when she escapes from an abusive family. “It’s a riveting page-turner, and full of hope in the face of despair.”  Publication: February 2

Fans of Kristin Hannah will be happy to know she has a new book – The Four Winds – set in the depression era of 1934 Texas. Elsa Martinelli must make the choice between the land she loves and moving west in search of a better life.   Publication: February 2, 2021

 

Here are a few more books to look forward to in 2021:

Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishaguro focuses on what it means to be human in his new novel Klara and the Seed.  Klara, an Artificial Friend, smiles and nods to customers in the store while tracking each day by the sun’s arc. When a mother and daughter adopt Klara, repressed emotion springs open, fleshing out Ishiguro’s themes of resilience and vulnerability in our crazy world.  Publication: March 2, 2021

Remember The Nest?  The author Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney returns with her next novel in Good Company, a tale of a marriage in mid-life and the secrets that threaten to upend the relationship between Flora and her husband, as well as with her best friend, Margot. Publication Date: April 6, 2021

Chris Bohjalian returns with a new thriller in Hour of the Witch. In Boston in 1662, A young Puritan woman plots her escape from an abusive marriage while being careful to avoid any accusations of witchcraft. April 20, 2021

The first novel in nearly a decade by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahira, Whereabouts is set in an unnamed city with the story’s first-person narrator a single woman in her mid-40s.   Lahiri wrote the novel in Italian and translated it into English. Publication: April 27, 2021

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead is an historical novel about a female aviator at the turn of the twentieth century whose disappearance becomes the basis for a big Hollywood production a century later. Publication: May 4, 2021

Jean Hanff Korelitz, whose book You Should Have Known became the basis for the HBO series The Undoing,  returns with another tale of deceit and betrayal. Jake, looking for his next bestseller, tries   literary theft to rise to stardom in The Plot.  Publication: May 11, 2021

More books to come.  Ann Patchett is promising a collection of essays in November, and Beatriz Williams has a new historical fiction in June.

Finally, back to author Sophie Hannah for a final recommendation – The Enchiridion by Epictetus

Epictetus was a slave and a Stoic who believed that “men are disturbed not by the things that happen, but by the opinions about the things”. We can’t control what happens in the world, or even to our own bodies, but Epictetus believes we can always control our own minds by, for example, deciding to …be at peace with whatever we cannot prevent from happening.

I just ordered the paperback for $1.99 but you can get it for free on Project Gutenberg.

Looking forward to next year and more great books…

Happy New Year!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review of the Year That Shall Not be Named – in Books

With the end of a year like no other, I am again looking back to list the twelve books, one for each month, I especially loved reading.  This year, however, is tinged with the evolution of 2020 from high expectations at January to slow disintegration as the months wore on.

One of my favorite authors, humorist Dave Barry, offered his observations in his Year in Review 2020 – giving a few laugh out loud moments in following his monthly reminder of a year gone awry.  He inspired me to think about how my reading morphed with my own view of the world as history marched through a challenging year.

Here is my list of twelve books read and reviewed (click on the title to read the review) throughout the year.  My favorite has a star.

January:  What better way to start than a book with January in the title and doors magically opening to new worlds- Alix Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January

February: The world news was getting a little scary, so I kept escaping to fantasy land with A.J. Hackwith’s The Library of the Unwritten

March: The world was really looking grim by now, so I turned to Jose Saramago’s story of how it all could be worse in Blindness

April: Spring didn’t really look like a flowery bower, so I buried myself in Eric Larson’s epic observation of Winston Churchill in The Splendid and the Vile

May: As the pandemic raged on, many of us wondered what life would have been like if 2016 had brought a different president; Curtis Sittenfeld filled the void with Rodham

June: By now, I was looking for a fictional world I did not live in; thankfully, Anne Tyler, one of my favorite authors, came through with a delightful The Redhead by the Side of the Road  *

July:  We all knew the pandemic was real when we heard beloved actor Tom Hanks had it in March, but his recovery led to his role in the movie adaptation of Paulette Jiles’ News of the World in July.  In July, I enjoyed Jiles’ new book Simon the Fiddler 

August:  By now it was clear my European travels were going to be curtailed for a while, but my dreams of Paris were fed vicariously by Liam Callanan’s Paris By the Book

September: Although I couldn’t visit my Los Angeles family, I could revisit favorite landmarks in Abbi Waxman’s The Bookish Life of Nina Hill

October: Graphic novels with short but philosophical views of life are hard to find these days. Calvin and Hobbes is in retirement, but Allie Brosh has her own brand of art and humor, easy to read and fun to explore, in Solutions and Other Problems

November: By now I was watching more TV than reading, and Netflix lured me into a series called “The Undoing.”  When I discovered it was based on a book, I had to reread Jean Hanff Korelitz’s You Should Have Known

December: The year is finally coming to an end, and I have been drinking a lot of coffee to wash down all the cookies, but none taking me back into the past like the Japanese translation of Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s Before the Coffee Gets Cold

* Although I am still careful to drink up all my coffee before it gets cold, Anne Tyler’s Redhead by the Side of the Road was my year’s favorite.

What books do you remember from this year?  Any favorites to recommend?

What Me Worry – You Better Believe It

Today is Boxing Day or St. Stephen’s Day or just the day after Christmas.  St Stephen was the first Christian martyr, so maybe he is the best symbol of the season.

I discovered I have access to HBO Max last night.  I opted for the slow moving Meryl Streep, Dianne Wiest, Candace Bergman tale of three old friends on a reunion voyage on the Queen Mary II.  Meryl is a Pulitzer prize winning author (of course she is) about to win a prestigious literary award.  The other two are along for the ride, which turns out to be long-winded (a lot of talk, mostly awkwardly improvised) and little action until the end.  It put me to sleep and fit my grinch mood.  Try the new Wonder Woman instead, or just rewatch one of the old classics, if you really want to laugh or be moved (The Christmas Story or It’s a Wonderful Life).

I have the new Jeffrey Archer Hidden in Plain Sight and have been alternating between the fictional Royal Governess and the true story of The Little Princesses – all on my iPhone, but today I think I need to hold a book in my hand.  Maybe the William Kent Krueger paperback I’ve had sitting on the shelf.  He is usually an author who inspires or at least commiserates.

I’ve pretty much had it with the holidays and cooking and being good – bah humbug.  I hear about people traveling on planes anyway, the vaccine being delayed to the islands, the surge and the next surge as the virus keeps rolling along morphing into a different form, the Congress hoisted by their own petard, the president playing games, and on and on.  I know I should be looking for things to be grateful for, but, as I said, I am tired of being good.  I want to have coffee with a friend again, I want to go out to dinner again, I want to walk around the block and along the ocean without worrying about who is coming toward me again, I want to get on a plane again, I want to live my life again. Please.

Tomorrow I will raise myself back up to be a positive purveyor of optimism, but today I think I’ll just watch the rain, read my book, and wallow.

“4:00, wallow in self-pity. 4:30, stare into the abyss. 5:00, solve world hunger, tell no one. 5:30, jazzercize; 6:30, dinner with me. I can’t cancel that again. 7:00, wrestle with my self-loathing. I’m booked. Of course, if I bump the loathing to 9, I could still be done in time to lay in bed, stare at the ceiling and slip slowly into madness.” — The Grinch