Book Review: Circe by Madeline Miller

cover art of Circe by Madeline Miller
Cover Design: Will Staehle*

I’ve loved Greek Mythology for as long as I can remember. One of my older sisters told me myths as bedtime stories (I still remember first hearing the tale of Baucis and Philemon from her). My family had a copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology tattered from much reading. And mythology has influenced my writing, including the novel I’m working on now. So I was quite intrigued when I saw Madeline Miller’s Circe ** at my local indie bookshop. When I read the first page, though, somehow I wasn’t pulled in to read more. I’m not sure why – it may be that her vision of the Greek gods and Titans wasn’t mine. But when the pandemic hit, I wanted to support my local bookstore, and so I ordered it from them – it was the first book, but not the last, that I got via “curbside delivery.”

This time when I opened that first page, I was hooked. I think this speaks of the power of Miller’s writing, and also the power of commitment – that book was now mine; I was literally, though in a small way, invested in it. Whatever the reason, I was pulled in and didn’t want to stop (it happened again, when I glanced inside to write this review).

Her vision of the Greek divinities is indeed different from mine, which has formed over decades. But her portrayal is vivid, visceral, and immediate – you feel in their presence. The Titans and gods in her story are so very human – sometimes petty and squabbling. But they can also be chilling, even terrifying.

From the time I read of Circe as a kid (in Edith Hamilton), I always felt some sympathy for her. After all, the way she treated Odysseus’ sailors felt like poetic justice. Madeline Miller has made Circe deeply sympathetic – starting as a child hungering for her father’s attention and basking in his literal radiance. (He is Helios, Titan of the sun, and his gaze can warm – or scorch.)

I loved how the writer wove so very many beings from mythology into the story. It was startling to realize Circe’s brother was Medea’s father. And how had I forgotten, or not known, that Pasiphaë, mother of the Minotaur, was Circe’s sister? I’d always thought of bull-besotted Pasiphaë as cursed and somewhat pitiful. The author has transformed her into something – someone – quite different. With Pasiphaë comes the tale of Daedalus, the Labyrinth, and the Minotaur – no longer distant and misty, but close, vivid, and as frightening as a bull-headed monster should be.

Prometheus also appears; it’s one of my very few regrets in the book that we don’t see or hear of him again. And of course, Odysseus plays a major role. But his appearance is not the end of Circe’s story. In some ways, though he comes in late in the book, he marks a new beginning for Circe.

I highly recommend the novel, not only because of its Greek Mythology, but because it is a novel of rich story and characters, centered on a vibrant female narrator.

When I finished Circe, I wasn’t quite ready to leave the world of mythology. I pulled out an old book of mine that seemed promising – The World of Odysseus by M.I. Finley.

Cover art of World of Odysseus
Cover: Kylix by Exekias*

It’s a slim, dense, scholarly book that uses the Iliad and Odyssey as sociological documents to learn about the environment Odysseus lived in (which the author believes was Iron Age Greece). It feels dated, which is no shame to the book – it was first published in the 1950s and revised in the 1970s, so no wonder there. But it is jarring, even repellant, when he refers to some modern-day non-industrial cultures as “primitive” or “savage” – even if only in quoting the titles of works he refers to. He does have some interesting insights into life of very ancient Greece. But I did not enjoy reading it enough to whole-heartedly recommend it.

What I can whole-heartedly recommend is The Trojan War – A New History by Barry Strauss.

Cover of Barry Strauss' The Trojan War
Cover design: Honi Werner*

His work draws not only on much more recent archaeology, but also on other sources including Hittite and Egyptian texts, to make a compelling case that the Trojan War was not only real, but occurred in the Bronze Age (earlier than the Iron Age, and in the general period Homer said it did). Even better, he paints scenes as colorful and dramatic as any novel, then expands on them with what he’s gleaned from other sources, while treating the characters of the Iliad and Odyssey as real people with real, Bronze-age motives. He not only treats Homer with respect, but helps make that world come vividly to life. His book also includes a very helpful timeline (for those of us who need help keeping the Bronze Age separate from the Iron Age and from Homer’s time), and a series of maps with ever-increasing detail, which give the reader a firm footing on where and when the Trojan War took place.

I’m sorry to see that Barry Strauss’ book may not be available in print, though it does appear to be available as an e-book, and I recommend it as a good read.

For more about the archaeology of the Trojan War, PBS has an excellent show: Secrets of the Dead: The Real Trojan Horse; Barry Strauss is one of the experts who speaks. And the magazine Archaeology has online an interactive map of the many layers of Ancient Troy, with context: Uncovering Troy

The book Circe is about so much more than the Trojan War and Odysseus, though. It begins when the world is young and the wounds of the Titans’ war with the Olympians are still raw. Hesiod’s Theogony tells of that war and of the birth of the world and all its divine beings. I read two translations of the Theogony, one by Norman O. Brown and one by Dorothea Wender; they returned me to the world of myth and wonder. And there, near the end, Circe is mentioned, bringing me back full circle.

Covers of Hesiod's Theogony, 2 translations
Right cover: Detail of Parnassus by Andrea Mantegna*

If I were to do it over, I’d skip The World of Odysseus and read Barry Strauss’ The Trojan War instead. And I’m glad I reread the Theogony. But it’s Madeline Miller’s Circe which lingers with me. I look forward to reading it again someday.

*All book cover photos are of my copies. I could find no art credit for the left-hand Theogony.

**The word nerd in me was pleased and surprised to read that Circe’s name means Hawk. The masculine form, Circos (Kirkos in Greek) is a particular kind of hawk named for its circular flight. Circe, Madeline Miller’s novel says, was named for her golden eyes and piercing cry.

 

 

 

Joint Interview with Gemma and Aud

Writers Aud and Gemma have two things in common: they attend the same critique group and both have short stories in Running Wild Anthology of Stories, Volume 3. (Available at independent bookstores, through Bookshop.org, and from Barnes and Noble and Amazon.)  They are also good friends who, during the pandemic, came together via Zoom to talk about writing and to share their creative plans for the future.

Gemma and Aud across space!

Gemma: So, Aud, it tickled me that our short stories were next to each other. And you have a story in Running Wild’s third Novella Anthology, too!

Aud: First, me too! I’m excited that we’re not only both in the short story anthology, but my story comes directly after yours!

G: So tell a little bit about both of your stories.

A: My short story in Running Wild Anthology of Stories, Volume 3, “Monkey in the Middle” is about a marriage falling apart as seen through the eyes of the couple’s young daughter, who has no clue what’s going on. My novella in the Novella Anthology volume 3, book 1 is called “Broken Soul to Broken Soul,” about two characters, suffering from separate traumas, who come together to form an unorthodox friendship that might lead toward healing.

Home of Broken Soul to Broken Soul

G: I love both of those stories – in different ways because they’re so different. My piece in the Anthology of Stories, “The One that Got Away,” catches a group of fishermen in the middle of swapping tall tales. The one my story’s about is the tallest one of all!

Cover of Running Wild Anthology of Stories Vol. 3
Our Shared Anthology

A: I reread your short story and liked it even more this time around. It is so well done and with such a short number of words!

G: Thanks, Aud!

A: I don’t know if I ever told you this, but your blog inspired me to start one. I had one years ago, but not about writing. Can you talk a little about your blog?

G: Wow, I didn’t know my blog inspired you to start yours – I’m glad you did. My blog’s focus is reading and writing, and also my love of words. That’s why I subtitled it “Writer and Word Explorer” – also ’cause it’s a fun sorta-pun. I love words. I haven’t explored that facet as much as I want to on my blog, things like word origins.

A: You’ve done some of those. I remember some of those, yeah.

G. It’s one of the things I love. And highlighting other authors, giving them one more opportunity to be out there. It’s a nice way of networking and I get exposed to new things that way, too. And I can’t wait to start posting character interviews. Including one of yours! How about you, Aud? What’s your blog’s focus?

A: The writing process and how to get there, namely through living, reading and writing, which is what it’s called, “Live, Read, Write.” That’s my process; have experiences, read early and often and after that’s all done, digest it, and spit it out in the form of fiction.

G: [Laughter] So what are you currently reading?

A: I am currently reading a travel memoir by an English guy named Tony James Slater and it’s called Kamikaze Kangaroos! It’s about his year traveling through Australia with his sister and his sister’s Australian girlfriend. I’m almost finished that one, so on deck is a cozy mystery that takes place on a Caribbean cruise ship. I never heard of the author, but I like cozy mysteries, I like Caribbean cruises and I like 99¢ for eBooks on Kindle.

G: [Laughter]

A: And, there’s a reason that I like 99¢ eBooks – they’re not always good. I learn more from the bad stuff than the classics.

G: That is an excellent point. I think you have a lot of patience because I want to get lost in the books I read. I don’t want to be critiquing them.

A: Well, I’m not really critiquing them either, but I’ll read something and think, “Aww! I wish that person had a critiquing group because they wouldn’t have done that!” But it doesn’t stop me from enjoying the story. And I read so fast, that I just zip right through them. [Editor’s note: Aud has already read 12 more books since this joint interview. She is currently rereading Judy Blume’s classic middle grade novel, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. ]

G: You’re a fast reader. I know there have been some books I’ve read where I thought, “Oh man! My critique group wouldn’t let that fly!”

A: That’s exactly it, yeah! I know you’re also a big reader, Gemma. What book is on your nightstand right now?

G: I’m not nearly as fast as you, though! Right now I’m savoring Circe, by Madeline Miller. It’s the story of the nymph Circe from The Odyssey. She welcomed Odysseus and his crew to her island and gave them a feast. Because the men acted like pigs, they were turned into pigs. That’s the myth, and we’re seeing her from her birth. She’s just a minor nymph at the beginning and she’s not loved by her parents. The gods and Titans are very human in some sense – they squabble – but they’re also bigger than life. I’m really enjoying it. It’s an interesting view of mythological things. It’s well written, detailed but not too detailed. She captures the scene with just a few words and I love that. I’m trying to learn from that. [Editor’s note: since this interview, Gemma has finished Circe, still loves it, and is now reading The World of Odysseus by M. Finley.] So, tell us a little bit about what you’re writing.

A: I am editing the never-ending upper middle grade novel, This Way/That Way about a girl drummer who learns about love and acceptance after befriending a schoolmate whose father is suffering from cancer. I might change the title because during this latest edit, it seems to be heading toward the spiritual. I’m wondering if I can make a cross-over story. I don’t want it to be 100% Christian, but God will have a cameo. What are you currently working on?

G: I am working on a novel that the idea for came to me decades ago. It’s about a girl who finds out, when she’s a teenager, that there’s a prophesy that she will become so beautiful that people will wage war, there will be battle and bloodshed and death over her. And she’s horrified. She thinks, “No! I’m not going to be responsible for the ruin of my people. I’m going to do everything I can to prevent that.” To do that, she has to become a warrior. That’s where I am in the story right now. I have the general course of the story planned out. And I know how it’s going to end, but between here and there a lot will happen.

A: Do you know, This Way/That Way is over 80,000 words long right now?

G: Wow.

A: I can’t have that for middle grade or upper middle grade. No way. I’ve gotta cut some of that back. There’s a question they ask in the Quaker Sunday school after they tell a Bible story: “What can we take away from this story and still have everything we need?” That’s a really good question that I want to answer while editing.

G: Yes. I’m telling myself that now as I’m writing a scene. “Do I need that?” Nope. It can go. That’s the challenging thing. But you’re the one who told me this — you don’t know what you need until you get to the end.

A: That segues us to the benefits of a critique group. I’m impressed that you’re able to be in two critique groups. You read everybody’s pieces, comment on the pieces, write your own piece, plus do your blog! I don’t know how the heck you find time to do all of that!

G:  It’s challenging sometimes. I used to take people’s pieces out to Starbucks or the library or a bookstore and enjoy reading them over a coffee. I miss that.

A: Do you think there’s a time when a critique group gets too comfortable since we’ve known each other so long? I wonder if we ever let each other sort of get away with stuff because we know the story. Like if we’ll read one of the pieces and fill in blanks that aren’t technically there.

G: That can be a good thing, because you’re supposed to trust your reader and let them fill in the blanks. But it can also be a troublesome thing. In our own group I think we do cut each other some slack. We have faith in each other. But on the other hand, we don’t necessarily let each other get away with stuff. Like you guys will call me on things. It’s not just typos, it’s like, “Wait. Don’t you remember this?” or “Would somebody really say that?” or “Wouldn’t somebody ask this?” So, I think we can get too comfortable sometimes, but we can remind ourselves, “Okay, I’m coming to this as a reader.”

A: The bottom line is, you as the author, have to decide what’s right for the story. Sometimes our group says majority rules but maybe not. It might be the one person is correct and the other two are not quite right.

G: Once it was told to me by a wise person, “A tie goes to the author,” so if you’ve got opposing opinions, go with yours. There can be times where someone makes a really valid point, or somebody comes up with a cool idea. And I think, “Yeah, that would be cool, but that’s not the story I’m telling.”

A: Sometimes when a critiquer asks, “What’s the person thinking here?” There isn’t really an answer. Sometimes, the character doesn’t have time to think, she’s just acting.

G: And that’s tricky to bring the reader along with that. There was a PennWriters session once where an author was saying, “Don’t overuse emotional words, but in the first draft use them all you want.” Then, when you’re rewriting it, try to bring the reader with you so the reader doesn’t need to be told the character is heartbroken, the reader is heartbroken with the character. But not in the first draft, because that’ll just paralyze you.

A: Right. Make it authentic. For me, the first draft is the hardest thing to write. My work around is I’ll use present tense. I’ll write, “Nickie looks up and asks if classrooms are up there.” When my inner editor sees that it thinks, “Oh, we’re not serious because we’re not in past tense.” That’s how I get past the inner critic.

G: That is so tough.

A: How do you handle your first draft? Your blank page as it were.

G: I guess I try to write when the inner editor’s not looking. [Laughter] “You go do something else. Your turn will come when I revise.” Sometimes I hear – I’m not proud of this – but I’ll hear the voice, “Well, Aud would catch this,” and “Steve would catch that, and Laura would say this.”

A: That’s what I do! Yup, I’m doing the same thing. [Laughter]

G: And I have to say, “They don’t always. I may be wrong.” I find first drafts easiest if I’m not thinking about all the revisions I’m going to have to make. [Laughter]

A: That makes me feel better, knowing I can fix it if it’s not quite right. [Laughter]

G: There’s that too, there really is. What does your writing schedule look like right now?

A: I’m out of school for the summer, so I take early morning walks. I keep a pen and little notepad in my pocket. As I walk, I think about the story. Whenever I hear dialog or description in my head, I’ll stop cold and start writing. Sometimes I don’t even stop. I walk and write.

G: Cool!

A: I try to type my notes as soon as I get back because writing while walking isn’t always legible. Then I try to work on my computer outside until it gets too hot. I try to work until lunch and then I read in the afternoon. Sometimes when I’m just not feeling it, I don’t write at all. Which I know isn’t good. You have to make yourself sit in front of the computer. It’s been said before: Just put your butt in the chair and work. One thing I love is my laptop can read to me. When I hear back what I wrote the day before, it gets me in the mood to write. But even with that, I don’t think I’m as productive as I should be.

G: It goes both ways. Sometimes you have to sit down and do it. I’ve told myself, “Oh, I never got anything written today, but I don’t write after dinner.” I remember one day I just sat down after dinner and wrote. “What do you know? I can do it.” But generally I’m kind of a morning person. It often works well if I get up early and go for a walk and think about what I want to write next. I’ll often rehearse scenes in my head. On a good day, once I’m home I’ll sit down and write it. Revising usually happens after my second group has met. I’ll go through and think, “these are the little things I can do right now.” But for big things, I have a file of notes to revise –  “Think about this in the future.” If I can’t decide if I want to go this way or that way – no pun intended – I will make notes about it, or if it’s too big of a change and I can’t face it right now – “Let’s not and pretend I did.” [Laughter] So, it’s a lengthy process but that’s sort of what mine is like right now.

A: Have you ever gotten inspiration in the middle of the night?

G: Not so much in the middle of the night, but sometimes when I’m getting ready for bed, or reading before bedtime. I do have a pen and a pad of paper next to me so I can scribble it down. More than one time, I looked at it the next morning and thought, “Oh what the heck was that?”

A: [Laughter]

G: I must have been half asleep when I wrote that.

A: I’ve got a clipboard and a pen on the floor beside the bed. In the middle of the night I’ll write it down but can’t always read what I wrote. For some reason, when I get a magnifying glass and look through it, sometimes I can figure out what the letters are and then it’ll click. “Oh, right, that’s what I meant!” Or I’ll get inspiration in the night and some of the times you’re thinking, “This is genius!” Then the next morning go, “This isn’t genius at all. This is stupid.”

G: [Laughter]

A: I’ll write it down any way, just in case.

G: You never know. It might be good.

A: So here we are, stuck at home. How has covid19 affected your writing?

G: It’s been hard sometimes, admittedly. It’s just because it’s so overwhelming. On the other hand, sometimes writing’s been a real welcome release. I can make happen in a fictional world whatever I want – I can tell myself that it doesn’t even have to be good. I can see that justice prevails in my story. Things will be done right in my story. And that’s helped. But sometimes I’ll have to go off and read something totally unrelated to world events and to my own writing. How about you?

A: I would say Covid gave me some writer’s block. What saved me from that was when a local theater group, the People’s Light, offered prompts for people to write about what they were experiencing. Later, the actors acted them out on Zoom. The prompts they suggested were things that I never in a million years would have thought to write about. I really liked that it got me writing again.

G: That was wonderful, and I’m so glad it helped with your writer’s block. What would you like to do differently in your writing life going forward? For me, I want to get back to taking morning walks and writing. I want to get more into the part of the story that matters. And to have a sense of urgency about it so it doesn’t take me another twenty-five years to finish it! How about you?

A: I want to be more productive than I am right now. When I start school in the fall, I’m going to look back and think, “Look at all these full days I had where I could have spent all this time writing and didn’t.”  I have a tablet with sound effects. So, I’ll sit outside under my umbrella with my ice tea and my laptop with ocean waves playing in the background while I write. Boy oh boy, that’s fun! It got a little hot yesterday. I had some water and I doused my head and pretended I went swimming. [Laughter]

G: [Laughter] That’s cool. I used to go to Starbucks, especially when I was writing Green Midnight, I had earphones and I would play forest soundscape while I was writing. It put me in the mood.

A: Yeah. That’s cool. Anything that can get the creative juices flowing. Speaking of that, we better stop and get back to work! Happy writing!

G: Thanks for this chance to chat together, Aud! Happy writing to you, too!

P.S. from Gemma: check out this interview on Aud’s blog – she’s got fun audio snippets! And you can read a transcript of Aud’s piece, and the others, on People’s Light here.

Adventures at Home: Compendium

I have planned to post this for a couple of months. With all the uncertainty of where and when it’s safe to travel, and what places are open, this seems a good time to compile my posts of some opportunities for enrichment and inspiration.

Please note: I have not revisited most of the links, and some things have undoubtedly changed. Also, I hope people are able to find ways to get outside that are safe and healthy for themselves and those around them.

Click here for virtual travel to:
Museums
Gardens
Libraries
Unusual destinations
Fantastic worlds and their soundscapes

Click here for ways to experience:
Theater
Old Time Radio
Audiobooks and storytelling
Shakespeare’s sonnets
Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Sessions of world music
More arts and music

Click here for mostly off-screen adventures, like:
Reading
Audiobooks (again)
Jigsaw puzzles
Coloring pages for adults and kids

And for a small fee you can take a virtual tour of a mystery house, or explore some of it via still photos for free.

May you all find ways to stay creatively engaged and connected.

VT Dorchester’s Interview of me

I’m pleased to note that my writing colleague VT has posted an interview of me.

Desk of Gemma Brook

VT was an excellent host, and  asked some very good and thought-provoking questions, some of which actually took days of thought for me to put answers into words. I hope you’ll have a look. And while you’re there, have a look around the blog; VT writes very good and candid reviews of books (especially Westerns) and movies (not just Westerns), not to mention recommendations of Old Time Radio shows to listen to.

Thanks, VT!

VT Dorchester Portrait by Scarlet Frost

 

Book Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

A powerful, gripping, timely story.

When I saw Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give in my local bookstore, I admit the title made me wary. But when my husband brought it home to read for himself, I glanced inside, and read. And read. And read. I could hardly put it down, and finished it in record time.

I’m pretty new to reviewing books, but the turmoil of our recent times moves me to try to do my best by this remarkable novel. I’m working from memory of when I read this perhaps a year ago. The details may be fuzzy, but the story has stuck with me.

16-year-old Starr is dragged to a party that she doesn’t want to go to. The one good thing is she reconnects with her childhood best friend, Khalil. When Khalil is driving Starr home, they’re pulled over by a policeman for no visible reason – and Khalil, unarmed, is shot and killed.

Starr is grief-stricken, her life and world turned upside down. Her friendships are stretched to breaking. Over time, everyone she cares most about is in danger. And Starr is faced with the dangerous decision of to speak out, or not.

Starr’s story is told with power, with surprising humor, and with love. The people in it are all so very real, flesh and blood human beings. I felt like I got to know Starr and her family, and that was a privilege. I cared deeply about them, and got swept up in what was happening to them, the harrowing choices they had to make.

My husband reads more nonfiction than fiction, but he, too, could barely put this book down. We saw the movie together. It differs from the book in a few significant ways, but author Angie Thomas was an executive producer, and that gives me some assurance that the changes had her permission. The ending may even be more powerful than the book’s.

Both the book and the movie have my highest recommendation. They are excellent in their own rights, and so very important, especially now. I really haven’t begun to do them justice; to do that, read and see them for yourselves.

Black lives matter. Black voices need to be heard. Black stories need to be told.

Publisher’s Weekly has made lists of antiracist fiction and nonfiction reading for adults. You can find the fiction list here, and the nonfiction list here.

For antiracist nonfiction for younger people, have a look at Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi. I have not yet read it, but an interview with the authors – and some high school students who read their book – make a very compelling case for it.

But as black author Shanna Miles said on twitter, “By all means pick up books about how to talk about racism but then you must pick up books about black kids being kids. If you don’t you teach your children that the natural state of being for black folks is suffering.” She links to some books on that twitter comment, and has made a Goodreads list as well.

Her feelings on this matter are echoed by Christine Taylor-Butler, a black kid lit author who said on twitter, “I’m a parent, author, and a former college interviewer. Please hear me – in this time of stress people want to ‘flood’ their kids with books about racism. Please provide 20 joyful books for every one book on racism. They also need to know POC kids are like every other kid.” She has written a blog about why diversity matters in science fiction and fantasy.

These authors opened my eyes to a new perspective. I’ve added their books to my reading list. I welcome more recommendations on these subjects in the comments.

 

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