Circe by Madeline Miller (audio)

Madeline Miller, winner of the Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles, follows with another retelling from Homer’s great works with Circe. Remember, Circe was the witch-goddess who turned Odysseus’s men to swine on her enchanted island, then slept with him, and successfully tempted him to stay with her there for a year before he was able to tear himself away and continue on his ill-fated journey home (eventually successful in that he gets there, but not in too many other senses). Circe is the daughter of Helios, the sun god, and a nymph named Perse.

I had no idea that Circe had such an extended backstory – I knew her only from the Odyssey. Her story is further enlarged upon in Miller’s lovely telling here: her birth and childhood in the halls of the gods, ignored and unliked by her immortal parents, teased and picked on by the nymphs. Her love of the fisherman Glaucus, and his transformation; his love for the nymph Scylla, and Circe’s spell that transforms her in turn to the monster Scylla we know (again, from the Odyssey and other sources). Her minor role in the punishment of Prometheus, another god with a sympathy for mortals, and her eventual banishment to the island Aeaea (pronounced in this audiobook as ai-aye-uh). Then, her centuries (recall, Circe is immortal) on the island, developing her skills of witchcraft and enjoying a few sexual liaisons: first, with Hermes; later, with Daedalus; and eventually with her most famous guest, Odysseus.

Spoilers follow below (in white text – highlight to read). These are features of Circe’s history that come from myth; but they were stories I’d never encountered before, for all my love of Odysseus’s story, so they may be new for some of you, as well.

We get a lushly detailed version of Circe’s turning men to swine episodes, from her point of view and more justified than in Homeric tellings. We meet Odysseus, well into the length of Circe; and while it’s all been lovely, I have of course been leaning toward this event. Well, Odysseus through Circe’s eyes is rather a different beast (no pun intended), although recognizable. They have a relationship; his men get restless; he prepares to leave, but not before Circe (following a message from Hermes) passes on the prophecy regarding his visit to the underworld. She advises him; he pours the blood and waits for Tiresias, etc. (Pardon my glossing; this is where I know the story well.) And then… After his departure, and without his knowledge, Circe gives birth to Odysseus’s son, Telegonus. His name is a play on that of Telemachus, Odysseus’s older son with Penelope; it also means ‘born afar,’ which for Circe means born far from his father’s land of Ithaca, yes, but also far from her own family – far from the whole world, you might say. Telegonus is a difficult baby but a fine young man.

From his birth, the grey-eyed goddess Athena tries to kill him, but she won’t say why. Because of this threat, Circe worries. She spins massive spells that bear down on her; she works herself weary to protect her child; and she shelters him beyond even the average protective mother. But of course, she can’t keep him away from the world forever. It is Hermes, in fact, who secretly helps him build a boat with which to leave sheltering Aeaea. Telegonus is determined to go find his father. In one of her acts of astonishing strength, Circe wins the poison tail of the older-than-old sea god Trigon, with which she poison-tips a spear for Telegonus – to keep him safe, she thinks. But as is so often the case in Greek myth, this poison spear instead becomes the instrument of fulfilling another prophecy. In an accident, born of the miscommunication of their first meeting, Telegonus’s spear grazes Odysseus, and the yearned-for father dies. I had never known how Odysseus died! Telegonus ends up bringing Penelope and Telemachus back home to Aeaea with him, which Circe does not initially appreciate; but more unforeseen events will arise from here, not all bad. (I have to leave something untold, don’t I.)

Whew.

I was exhilarated by the retelling of Odysseus’s time spent with Circe, and its fallout, following him beyond the end of the Odyssey. All of Circe was compelling and well-told, with style; but I was always waiting for this, the headline act. I was intrigued by a different version of Odysseus than the one I’ve known before. Miller’s is a testier, more temper-prone, less admirable man. And while I don’t like having my heroes messed with, this worked out well for me. Miller’s Odysseus fits within Homer’s; they are not at odds. He was always a little apt to cruelty, and certainly self-serving, the cunning one. And Circe’s perspective necessitated the changes, I think.

A feminist retelling? I suppose, in the spirit of Atwood’s Penelopiad or Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, the women’s version might always read that way. I feel like that’s a simplification, though. It might be better classified as a correction of “history told by victors.” The victors tend to be men, but it’s not just that; it’s their power and ruthlessness and erasure of others. This is at least as much about correcting erasure (generally) as it is about the woman’s POV. Although, those men to swine, man. Well done, Miller.

I do love this Circe, who is (especially when younger) mercurial and passionate, stronger than she realizes (in her witchcraft, yes, but in other ways as well), and eventually a crafty and wise woman. She is loyal and devoted but also clever and practical. She is, in fact, Odysseus’s match. For fans of the mythology, I feel there is much to love here.

And for those less familiar, still: the storytelling is nuanced and full and rich. It might perhaps drag a bit, especially as we wait for Odysseus to appear (or is that just those of us who do know the original stories, and feel he’s the headline?); it’s a longish book. But episodes along the way intrigue and compel, too. I loved the Daedalus/Minotaur subplot.

This audio version, read by Perdita Weeks, is luscious, with a rich accent I’d call vaguely British (I am not good with accents). (Weeks is Welsh.) It feels… sumptuous. This lends a certain effect to the novel that may not suit every reader; it’s a bit grand; but it felt right for the story and for Circe’s larger-than-life (indeed, immortal) story. I’d spend another 12 hours this way, easy. I can’t wait for what’s next from Madeline Miller.

Circe is absolutely recommended for fans of the Greek myths, and for anyone who likes a good, involved, winding yarn about men and women and gods and power struggles and grudges and fantastic magic, and more.


Rating: 8 ground-up leaves.

Main Street Theatre presents Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley (2018)

My lovely Houston friends – the same ones who rented Rent for us – took me to see the sweetest play at Main Street Theatre. Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is, of course, a sequel to Pride and Prejudice. It takes place at Pemberley after Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, and Jane and Mr. Bingley, have been married a few years. Jane is pregnant; Lydia is still married (not entirely happily) to Mr. Wickham; and Mary and Kitty are still at home. The entire family is now converging on Pemberley, along with an unexpected guest or two: Mr. Darcy’s unpleasant Aunt de Bourgh has just died, and a distant cousin Arthur de Bourgh will be arriving for Christmas as well, having just inherited.

The Miss Bennet of the title here is Mary, the middle sister, whose life has begun to chafe. She loves to read, study, and practice her pianoforte. No one she knows understands her interest in a life of the mind; and while she loves traveling between the pages of books, she aches for a wider-traveled life in the real world, too. At Pemberley, amidst the giddy happinesses and dramas of her sisters, she wishes for more. And more may be in the cards for her just now, to start the new year…

Romantic? Sweet? Rather predictable? All of these things, yes, but so enjoyable. It’s clever and funny and plays at my emotions adeptly. I think it’s really saying something to tell you that while I saw each plot move, more or less, coming, I was still on the edge of my seat, because I had such sympathy for each character. What can I say. Buying into fictional plots might be a specialty of mine.

I loved every bit of this evening. The clever references to Austen’s original (including the genius line about “a truth universally acknowledged, that a single woman in possession of a good fortune…”), the heartfelt acting, the sweetly familiar setting and simple, charming set. I believe Main Street Theatre qualifies as amateur theatre, but it was very professional. Mary’s piano playing was no small accomplishment in itself; no one broke or stumbled over a line for the whole thing; it was excellent all around. Overall, I think this production accomplished everything intended by the play (by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon). It made appropriate reference to the inspired original and made playful use of my emotions. It was at every turn sweet, and (the idea goes) ’tis the season for sweetness. Here’s to the latest Miss Bennet.


Rating: 7 books with blue covers.

Everything Under by Daisy Johnson

This surreal, riverine, gender-bending retelling of Oedipus Rex will fascinate and fire the imagination.

Shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, Everything Under is a dreamy, twisty-turning tale set in modern Oxford but calling on mythology and upturning societal norms. Daisy Johnson’s first novel (following the story collection Fen) requires its readers to wonder and follow along for a while before its connections begin to form, but the payoff for that patience is well rewarded.

“The places we are born come back.” At the novel’s opening, Gretel is a lexicographer who mostly keeps to herself, caught up in her mysterious past: “I’d always understood that the past did not die just because we wanted it to.” She lives in a remote cottage with her mother, Sarah, whom she has recently found and brought home. Then time shifts, and for much of the book the reader sees Gretel’s unusual childhood, and the long stretch of adulthood during which she searched for her missing mother.

Gretel grows up living with Sarah on a river, in a houseboat that never moves. They forage for food and remain apart from society: “River people aren’t like other people. You won’t see the police down here.” They make up their own language, words that make sense only to them. It is a watery world of shifting gender identities and slippery, changing rules. Gretel is shaped by self-sufficiency, words, fluidity and a fear: something under the water called the Bonak. When she is 16, her mother disappears, leaving Gretel to take care of herself.

In the flashback chapters, an enigmatic third character appears. “What happened to Marcus?” Gretel asks her mother, in the later timeline when they live together again, the older woman having lost her memory and the words that mattered so much. But it takes many more pages to reveal who Marcus is.

Many chapters are named for settings: repeatedly, “The River,” where Gretel grew up; “The Cottage,” where she lives as an adult; and “The Hunt,” when she was actively searching for Sarah. In those chapters on “The Hunt,” Gretel explores the countryside near the river, visiting a couple who lost their teenaged daughter years ago. She meets a failed prophetess, collects a stray dog and excavates her memories. This action is every bit as wandering, confused, seeking and amnesiac as Gretel herself.

This is a complex plot with profound themes: a monster under the water, the shape of fear itself; the importance of language; the death grip of the past; fate versus free will; flexible gender identities; unanswered questions. Everything Under remakes the ancient Greek myth of Oedipus, with its prophecy that will be fulfilled, no matter how strangely it must twist. Johnson’s singular, hallucinatory storytelling is well up to her book’s ambitious form. The result is spellbinding.


This review originally ran in the October 29, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 rolls of cling wrap.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

This retelling of the Trojan War by one of the women on the side of defeat is essential, and essentially human.

The Iliad is the story of the Trojan War told by the victors, and by men. At long last, another perspective is offered, in Booker Prize-winner Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls. Briseis was queen of a city near Troy and, after it fell to the Greeks, she was given as prize of honor to Achilles. After Apollo compelled him to forfeit a concubine, Agamemnon took Briseis for his own. This indignity inspires Achilles’s famous sulk, which begins the Iliad.

In the tradition of Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, The Silence of the Girls is a much-needed retelling. Where men sing of honor and glory, women experience a different war. They are controlled by men: by their fathers and husbands, and then by their captors. Briseis is beautiful and royal; she hates her new status as concubine, but sees the far worse treatment of the “common women” who sleep under the Greeks’ huts, with their dogs, and are used by any man who pleases. She is clever and gives nuanced portraits of many characters in the Greek encampment below Troy’s walls. She is proud, angered by the indignities of slavery. One of the book’s themes is the question of authorship: she knows that it is Achilles’s story that the world will hear, but she searches for her own within narratives of men and war.

Strong, beautiful Achilles is cold, but stops short of cruelty. Gentle Patroclus eventually befriends Briseis. Ajax, Agamemnon, Odysseus and Nestor are profiled; but equally important are the other slave women. Briseis has friends, allies and antagonists among them, but always considers their struggles. For example, Ajax’s concubine is one of several women who recommend pregnancy above all other strategies. Briseis does not love her captors. But one of her revelations involves how the Trojans will survive, in the end: the sons of the Greeks will remember the Trojan lullabies their captive mothers sang to them.

The Silence of the Girls, like the classic it’s modeled on, is an epic. Briseis’s uncertain situation brings tension and momentum. At just 300 pages, this novel feels much bigger than it is, but is never heavy. Even with the atrocities, violence and loss it portrays, the protagonist’s thoughtful, compassionate point of view emphasizes humanity. It would be too much to say she weighs both sides of an issue evenly; she is loyal to her family and angry with her captors, but she also sees the tragedy in ranks of young Greek boys killed.

This mature, reflective narrative manages the cataloging of Homer’s telling (how many tripods offered, how many bowls of wine mixed), but with a grace and an interest in individual people that is fresh and novel. Barker uses metaphor and animal imagery deftly. Her prose flows easily, like storytelling between friends. It’s an absolute pleasure to read for any devoted fan of the Iliad, but equally accessible to those new to the Trojan story; indeed, The Silence of the Girls might make the perfect entry.


This review originally ran in the August 9, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 waves.

Ithaca: A Novel of Homer’s Odyssey by Patrick Dillon

This retelling of the Odyssey gives Telemachus more voice than ever before.

ithaca

Homer’s Odyssey recounts Odysseus’s 10-year journey home from the Trojan War, to where his wife and son await him. His adventures along the way take center stage. Ithaca, Patrick Dillon’s retelling, resets that center to the son. With substantially more insight into Telemachus than readers have had before, this version also offers a more fallible Odysseus, with all the drama and yearning of the original.

Dillon remains true to Homer’s setting, but the novel is told in Telemachus’s voice, and the weighty absence of a father he never met defines his existence. At 16, he worries over his role and responsibilities, and his inability to protect his mother: he has no one to teach him how to fight. These interior workings bring Odysseus’s iconic son to light as a nuanced and fully formed character. When the wise warrior Nestor assigns his daughter to be Telemachus’s traveling companion, the story gets an appealing twist: Polycaste is headstrong and capable, and her friendship has much to offer Telemachus. The gods are less present this time around; Telemachus is openly dubious. Veterans of the Trojan War roam Greece as bandits and vagabonds.

Though only slight details are changed, Ithaca is a vibrant and fresh revival; Telemachus’s struggles are illuminated through the use of his own voice. The well-loved classic is present: Penelope is beautiful, determined, fading; the suitors are shocking; Menelaus and Helen fight bitterly; the aging Nestor tries to guide Telemachus true. Dillon’s achievement is in characterization while retaining the heart and passion of Homer.


This review originally ran in the July 8, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 arrows.

The Whale: A Love Story by Mark Beauregard

Careful research supports this story of a love affair between Hawthorne and Melville that birthed a classic.

the whale

In 1850, Herman Melville was in debt and struggling professionally, particularly with the novel-in-progress he was then calling The Whale. That summer, on a family trip to the Berkshires, he met the older, successful author Nathaniel Hawthorne, and began a relationship that would be passionate and painful, fraught and inspirational. Mark Beauregard explores the intimate friendship between these two literary legends in The Whale: A Love Story.

Based on primary sources including letters and journals, and meticulously researched, this novelization follows the historical record closely, as detailed in an epilogue. Hawthorne’s letters to Melville, lost to history, are re-created here using his other letters and journal entries; Melville’s letters to Hawthorne, however, are reprinted faithfully (with few, documented exceptions). Melville dives deeper into debt to move to the Berkshires and be near Hawthorne. As they discuss cerebral, spiritual and literary matters, grow close and suffer estrangements, Beauregard charts a full-blown love affair. In this telling, Moby-Dick is a labor of love and obsession directed not at a whale but at a man. Melville’s novel (which was dedicated to Hawthorne) continues to compel and confound readers today, and The Whale: A Love Story offers one possible explanation for its tortured mysteries.

In Beauregard’s fittingly emotive account, Melville is preoccupied and fervent, and Hawthorne is changeable, by turns sensitive and cool. Set against a literary community that helped define American letters of the time, this high-spirited story evokes a singular relationship and the complexity of Moby-Dick.


This review originally ran in the June 17, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 flashes of lightning.

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler successfully reinterprets The Taming of the Shrew in a modern, pleasingly nuanced novel.

vinegar girl

Vinegar Girl is the third in Hogarth Shakespeare’s line of retold classics by the Bard (The Gap of Time, Shylock Is My Name). Anne Tyler’s delightful, clever novelization sets The Taming of the Shrew in present-day Baltimore, Md., holding faithfully to Shakespeare’s plot and concept but presenting far more complex characters, with absolutely charming results.

Kate is 29 and lives with her absent-minded microbiologist father, Dr. Battista, and her younger sister, pretty and air-headed Bunny. She serves as housekeeper and chaperone, not that they appreciate her efforts. She also works at a preschool, where the kids adore her but the adults have trouble with her sense of humor. Her real passion is gardening. As Vinegar Girl opens, Dr. Battista faces a problem: his gifted foreign assistant, Pyotr Cherbakov, is in the U.S. on an extraordinary-ability visa that’s about to run out. Dr. Battista feels sure he’s on the verge of a breakthrough, but he needs Pyotr to be able to stay a little longer. The reader realizes well ahead of Kate that what her father has in mind is an arranged marriage.

The prickly Kate feels she’s been taken advantage of long enough; she finds Pyotr pushy, and she isn’t looking for a husband, anyway. Kate repeatedly corrects him: she is not a “girl” but a “woman.” As she sees more of him, though, it appears that some of his awkward heavy-handedness may be related to his difficulties with the English language. And her father’s plan to satisfy the immigration authorities doesn’t mean she’d have to be married forever…

Vinegar Girl‘s modern setting and language enliven a classic tale of controversy and gender politics. The novelistic form illuminates the inner workings of Shakespeare’s characters, revealing attractive nuances. Tyler’s Kate is more soft-hearted, and a view of her inner workings exposes her insecurities. This Kate is quite sympathetic in both senses of the word: she empathizes with her eccentric father and the homesick Pyotr, and calls upon the reader’s sympathies. Pyotr is awkward and lonely, but appealingly smitten by Kate’s independent nature. Even Dr. Battista (despite his objectionable motives) and the maddening Bunny are revealed as intricate and ultimately likable characters.

Readers unfamiliar with The Taming of the Shrew will have no problem enjoying this novel, which is funny, fun-loving and uplifting. Those who know the original well will be intrigued by Tyler’s riffs: Is the new Kate less shrewish, or simply better characterized, her motives and anxieties better understood? In either case, the surprising ending, which deviates from Shakespeare’s in important ways, makes for a heartwarming conclusion to a quirky, timeless tale.


This review originally ran in the May 23, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 servings of meat mash.
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