Galatea by Madeline Miller

Although I found Circe less mind-blowing than I did The Song of Achilles, I will still follow Madeline Miller anywhere. I was very excited about this new book, which is labeled as a short story, but packaged as a freestanding little hardback. The story is very short – just 50 pages plus an afterword.

50 little tiny pages

According to Wikipedia, “Galatea is a name popularly applied to the statue carved of ivory by Pygmalion of Cyprus, which then came to life in Greek mythology.” In Ovid’s version of the myth, in Metamorphoses (which Miller indicates is “almost solely” her source for this work), she does not have a name. Pygmalion is a sculptor so horrified by real, live women that he can only be happy with the ivory statue of one he creates for himself, in perfection and perfect, chaste silence; he prays to Venus for her to come alive, and she does, to bear him a child but (in Ovid’s telling) to remain silent and modest. (Delightfully, and disturbingly, in the poem “Pygmalion’s Bride” by Carol Ann Duffy in The World’s Wife, she defeats his sexual advances by pretending to reciprocate them.)

Here, Miller gives us Galatea’s first-person voice from the hospital room where she is institutionalized, imprisoned, on Pygmalion’s orders. He visits in order to fetishize and rape her. Having born him a daughter and seen how limited their child’s life will be with such a domineering, misogynistic father, Galatea has tried to escape him and save her daughter, but so far failed. When he tells her what his latest project is, however, she tries again.

In Miller’s writing, Galatea’s voice is lyrical and grim. “The door closed, and the room swelled around me like a bruise.” She handles her husband’s abuses with an impassive stoicism that reads as strength rather than stoniness, because she feels strongly toward her daughter (and hides well her disgust with Pygmalion). She is brave, clever, and grandly terrible, worth of Greek myth and the empowerment we want for her. This is a brief but powerful triumphant retelling of an upsetting myth. Miller is awesome and I will preorder anything she writes. Go read it now.


Rating: 8 cups of tea.

Maximum Shelf: Clytemnestra by Costanza Casati

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on November 15, 2022.


“Kings are brilliant / mighty / godlike // Queens are deadly / shameless / accursed.” Such has been the literary fate of Clytemnestra–adulteress, wife and murderer of Agamemnon in the Ancient Greek canon. Costanza Casati’s debut, Clytemnestra, is a dynamic retelling of the story of the much-maligned Spartan princess, sister of Helen, queen of Mycenae, mother of Iphigenia, Electra and Orestes (and others). Aeschylus, Homer and Euripides generally portray Clytemnestra in a negative light, but Casati’s reframing–from her title character’s point of view–emphasizes the difficult circumstances that challenged a strong-willed woman in a time and place that did not reward such a quality. Clytemnestra is a masterpiece of justified rage on the protagonist’s part, and a subtly subversive revision of a story many readers know from a different perspective. She will be called ruthless, merciless, “cruel queen and unfaithful wife,” but viewed from another angle, Clytemnestra fights honorably for her own well-being and for that of the people she loves.

The events of Clytemnestra’s life are not much rearranged here. As a princess in the Spartan court, she is trained as a warrior and huntress, surrounded by violence and death even in her privilege to sit in the megaron with her father, King Tyndareus, where they hear the villagers’ requests. This upbringing emphasizes martial training, physical skill, obedience and the ability to suffer. Her first marriage, to Tantalus, was for love and was a meeting of minds, but it ended in murder and betrayal, and with a forced second marriage to the Mycenaean king, Agamemnon, whose brother Menelaus in parallel marries Helen. Clytemnestra’s later lover, the traitor Aegisthus, is a complicated, enigmatic character in his own right. This proud queen, treated as a pawn in political power struggles, wrestles to keep her dignity in the Mycenaean court under the brutalities of her husband, but never loses her sense of herself as a warrior and a survivor. The events of this novel close where Aeschylus’s Agamemnon opens, thereby gifting a complex backstory to a woman often portrayed as villain.

Clytemnestra dips its toes as well into the stories of the queen’s famous family members: her brothers Castor and Polydeuces, boxers and horsebreakers; her sister, Helen, whose legendary beauty led to the Trojan War; her mother, Leda, who was seduced by Zeus in the form of a swan (or was she raped?). Her children include Tantalus’s unnamed infant son; Iphigenia, sacrificed at Aulis to summon wind for the Greek ships on their way to Troy; and Electra and Orestes, whose stories expand only after these pages close. This Clytemnestra is very close and loyal to her siblings; family ties for better and for worse shape her decisions all her life, even at great distances. For instance, meeting a new face, she thinks of her siblings: “Helen would have charmed him with her beauty and subtle cleverness, softening him until he opened like a peach. Castor would have mocked him, pricked him with words like needles, until he talked.” Clytemnestra’s cousin is Penelope, eventually famous as Odysseus’s queen and faithful wife, in marked contrast to the Clytemnestra in traditional representations; here, again, the reader sees a new and complex side of a familiar character, as she is courted by the cunning Ithacan king.

The gods in this version are mere myth, not actors in real events; Clytemnestra, like her mother, is skeptical, even scornful of the gods and their followers. She understands that kings and not queens rule in her world, but she continues to demand the respect she deserves even when it’s unlikely she will get it, and consistently calls out the rapes and attempted rapes that often go unmarked in the courts and villages of both Sparta and Mycenae. This retelling is a deepening of Clytemnestra’s story and her character. Helen, her beloved sister, likewise grows more multifaceted in Casati’s nuanced novel, but the beautiful one is not gifted with physical prowess or the confidence of the fierier Clytemnestra: “Clytemnestra dances for herself; Helen dances for others.” Timandra, one of their younger sisters, is fierce like Clytemnestra, but with a different burden in their strict society. These female leads are glittering, glowering, admirable and sympathetic, and the result will reignite (or ignite) readers’ interest in the stories of ancient Greece and emphasize their relevance in any time.

Clytemnestra is a stunning, standout contribution to the growing genre of modern treatments of the Greek myths. Casati brings both a solid grounding in the canon and imaginative venturing into the inner workings of a woman who has long been famous but little understood. Her writing is gorgeously descriptive and emotive: “She thinks of those white flowers blooming against the rocks of the Ceadas. For years she wondered how they survived down there, among the corpses and darkness. But maybe this is how broken people keep living…. Outside the light is golden. It shines on them as if they were gods.” Casati’s Clytemnestra is modern in her staunch demands for dignity and respect, but believably rooted in ancient times. This is a necessary novel for fans of mythology, strong women, the pushing of boundaries and epic dramas of family, power and love.


Rating: 8 cuts.

Come back Friday for my interview with Casati.

rerun: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Fun fact: I interviewed Miller for the podcast Critical Wit, and that interview posted on the same day (May 31, 2012) that she won the Orange Prize for this novel, which was a fun piece of synchronicity for all of us, I think. That interview can be heard here.

This review originally posted on May 17, 2012.

I read this book in a day, rapt and tearful and awed. Madeline Miller, I love you. Write more, please.

I expect that most people are at least vaguely familiar with the story of the Trojan War, even if you never read the Iliad, yes? The Greeks sail to Troy in pursuit of Helen, “the face that launched a thousand ships” (that’s these ships!), the most beautiful woman in the world, stolen from her king-husband Menelaus by the Trojan prince Paris. They fight at the gates of Troy for ten years before Odysseus’s characteristically clever notion of the big wooden horse (the Trojan horse of idiom) wins the war for the Greeks. Achilles is a hero of the war, on the Greeks’ side. He had been sitting the war out in protest against an offense to his pride when his close friend (and, most scholars agree, lover) Patroclus goes into battle and is killed. In the opening scene of the Iliad, Achilles is mad with grief and rage, about to rush into battle, kill Hector, and be killed by Paris.

That’s the background. Miller, a scholar of ancient languages (including Greek) and theatre has written a novel from Patroclus’s point of view. This gave her quite a bit of leeway, since Patroclus is not given much coverage in Homer or in ancient myth generally; she got to do what she wanted with him. Here, we see him grow up from a boy: he was a disappointment to his father, then was exiled in dishonor and sent away to be fostered in another kingdom, where Achilles is the prince and heir. The two boys form a decidedly unlikely friendship, with Patroclus the dishonored and weak following in the footsteps of Achilles, whose future is prophesied to be something enormous: he will be Aristos Achaion, the greatest of the Greeks.

Patroclus joins Achilles in his studies and their bond grows closer until they become lovers. They are not eager to join the Greeks and sail to Troy to fight for another king’s wife, but circumstances (and Odysseus, the crafty one) conspire to see them off. From there, you can revisit my synopsis of the Iliad, above – except that we keep Patroclus’s perspective, which actually made the Trojan War that I thought I knew so well spring fresh from the page.

And that is one of the several strengths of this book: that an ancient myth that is familiar to many readers, like me, becomes so real, new, crisp and juicy in Miller’s hands. It definitely made me want to go back and reread the Iliad, as well as other cited works. (Check out the Character Glossary, whether you think you need it or not, for background as well as mentions of other books you’ll want to go find.) The myth of the Trojan War comes alive with Patroclus as it hasn’t before.

Another great strength is the emotional impact Miller achieves. This book is moving, sweet, heartfelt, powerful, in its tragedies as in its loving moments – and the tragedies are plentiful. There is visceral wrath in Achilles’s mother Thetis and her hatred of all mortals and Patroclus in particular; that emotion comes through just as strongly as the love that makes Patroclus put aside jealousy and envy, makes him put Achilles’s needs before his own. I noticed that the first-person voice of Patroclus rarely uses the name Achilles, but just refers to his lover as “he” – thus emphasizing the extent to which Achilles is the center of his world.

As I said at the start of this review, I want more of this! It’s so well done. If you’re taking requests, Ms. Miller, I would like to read a book about what happened to the happy family of Odysseus, Penelope and Telemachus following the conclusion of the Odyssey: how does Odysseus manage to gracefully step down from power and transfer to Telemachus without sacrificing any of his machismo? Reading The Song of Achilles raised this question for me – how a king could step down and preserve his dignity and quality of life. I wonder, too, whether Penelope ever gets grumpy about all the philandering Odysseus did along his homeward journey, while she was standing strong against the suitors.

In a nutshell, this retelling of the Trojan War and the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is lovely, loving, sweet and deeply emotional; it preserves the grand, sweeping scale and feeling of humanity and drama in the original, but brings it freshly alive in an appealingly different format. The Song of Achilles made me sigh and think and cry, and I wanted more when it was all gone. This may very well be the best book I’ve read in 2012.


Rating: a rare 10 loving caresses.

The White Hare by Jane Johnson

Love and mourning, betrayal and hope, ancient legends and modern conflicts come together in the atmospheric Cornish countryside in this engrossing novel.

Jane Johnson (The Sea Gate; The Tenth Gift) transports readers to rural Cornwall in the years just after World War II in The White Hare, a fanciful novel of family, village life, history, mythology and more.

In the opening pages, first-person narrator Mila, her daughter, Janey, and her mother, Magda, arrive at their new home, a grand but dilapidated Cornish seaside estate, in the summer of 1954. Timid Mila is fleeing an unnamed scandal in London; the irascible Magda has taken charge of their little troop. Janey, age five, is eager to explore her new surroundings, accompanied by Rabbit, her stuffed toy and best friend. The estate, purchased with unexplained but apparently significant funds, has a mysterious history; locals make foreboding remarks and then clam up. “Best not talk about unlucky things too much, or you may attract unwanted attention,” Mila is warned. Magda plans to refurbish and open a grand guest house, with Mila to cook and clean. Immediately and surprisingly latching on to their odd household is Jack Lord, a local who is (like all these characters) unforthcoming about his past, but handy with repairs and good with high-spirited, imaginative, clever Janey. Things go bump in the night, there are hints of ghosts and old crimes, and the vicar in town is inexplicably, aggressively sinister.

Mila and her parents immigrated from Poland just before the war, so she must deal with several layers of outsider status in this insular and remote setting. Janey and Rabbit are oddly at home in the natural world and its legends, while Mila struggles with local culture; her mother’s hostility is considerable, but Jack’s influence is calming, if enigmatic. The White Hare is jam-packed with slowly released secrets: those between mothers and daughters, those kept by the villagers, and those locked away within traumatized minds. It addresses class and war, mysticism and folklore, the persistent influence of history and bloodshed; it dabbles in romance, but remains centrally concerned with the relationships of family, community and place. With lush descriptions of fashion, food and especially nature, Johnson’s prose appeals to sentiment and expertly evokes an often-menacing mood. The intrepid, uncanny Janey and her Rabbit, however, joined by several wise women of the village, offer hope that Mila and her family can move into a happier future in the end. The White Hare is enthralling, as filled with secret passages as the stately home in which it’s set.


This review originally ran in the August 22, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 Latin phrases.

Maximum Shelf: Ithaca by Claire North

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on June 22, 2022.


Claire North (The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August; The Pursuit of William Abbey) offers a new take on a familiar tale with Ithaca, a richly imagined, thought-provoking novel of Penelope’s trials during the Trojan War and its aftermath. The forgotten or misrepresented women and goddesses of ancient Greece bring joy, sorrow, humor and wit.

A lengthy space of time falls between The Iliad‘s story of the Trojan War’s conclusion and The Odyssey‘s story of Odysseus’s protracted homecoming. On the island of Ithaca while its king, Odysseus, is absent, Penelope, his queen, rules uncertainly, beset by unruly suitors wishing to become king, and the hopes and ambitions of her son, Telemachus, an infant when his father went to war and a young adult by the time he returns. Into this gap comes Ithaca, which follows the challenges faced by Penelope and the other women–queens, wives, mothers, goddesses, slaves–who surround her and fight their own often overlooked battles.

The Homeric myths are well-known and familiar territories for many readers and indeed many writers, who have reimagined and retold these stories in abundance. But despite the richness of such retellings, Penelope remains an enigma, and North’s contribution to the genre is unique and welcome. While the Ithacan queen is in some respects its protagonist, Ithaca is narrated by the goddess Hera, wife (and sister) to Zeus, and frequently represented as bitter, jealous and vengeful. Hera’s interest in Penelope is self-serving: as the goddess of women, wives, queens and motherhood, she resents the ways in which Penelope is disregarded by her male counselors, her absent husband, her suitors and her son. While Hera’s stepdaughter, Athena, is chiefly concerned with the hero Odysseus, Hera is entirely here for the women. In fact, it is not Penelope whose fate concerns her first: “No one ever said the gods did not have favourites, and it is Clytemnestra I love best, my queen above all, the one who would be free.”

Clytemnestra’s crime of husband-murder is reframed by the recounted sins of Agamemnon, and when the murderess-queen hides on Ithaca, readers are reminded that she and Penelope are cousins. Next arrive Orestes and Elektra, who seek to avenge their father’s death; Orestes is near-mute and disengaged, while his sister is a magnetic, powerful force, barely remembering that she must at least seem to defer to the will of a man: “aware that she has been perhaps a little too forceful… [she] adds, ‘My brother will issue his commands shortly.’ ” Clever Penelope is more practiced at the trick of subtly sliding her wise points into conversations while seeming to demur. Telemachus is a bit silly, a boy hoping to be a man. Odysseus is entirely off-screen, “groan[ing] in the nymph’s pearly bed.” Both Artemis and Athena make appearances, annoying their stepmother with their own agendas.

Penelope is of course harassed by the unwelcome suitors who place the queen in a sort of stalemate, as she can neither accept their offers of marriage (both because Odysseus may still be living, and because to accept one would be to provoke the others quite possibly to war) nor send them away (because of the culturally sacred host’s obligation). In this version, Penelope is additionally beset by pirates attacking her island nation–pirates dressed as Illyrians but wielding the short swords of Greeks. There seems to be intrigue afoot, offering a whodunit mystery subplot for Penelope and her subtle female counselors (in contrast to her blustering male ones) to investigate. Women warriors lurk in the shadows of this Ithaca. And North does not forget the maids, who are also slaves, and also in some cases Trojans: “Death to all the Greeks,” one of them repeatedly mutters under her breath. The maids are frequently bedmates of the suitors; but to what end, and with what choice in the matter?

Thus is Ithaca the story not only of Penelope, Hera and other queens and goddesses, but of less famed women as well, down to the teenaged village huntress who opens these pages. Hera is quick to remind her audience that the stories that get passed down are written by poets, whose narratives may be purchased, and who rarely notice the contributions of women: “That girl is not remembered now”; “No poet will ever do her homage.” “Freedom only increased the efficacy of her work, though there is not a single poet in all of Greece who would dare breathe of such an outcome.” Hera’s voice is humorous, whimsical, imperious, frequently scornful. But she is also surprisingly easily cowed by the other Olympians, knowing that Zeus holds power over her. “I was a queen of women once, before my husband bound me with chains and made me a queen of wives.” While this story is on its face about Penelope, Clytemnestra, Elektra and the rest, Hera is an engrossing and masterful character in her narration.

North’s prose is clever, funny and as wise as Penelope herself, with an eye for pleasing images as well as deeper meanings. In her capable hands, this ancient landscape is both fresh and timely. Ithaca is the first in a trilogy, and having come to know this three-dimensional Penelope, North’s readers will eagerly await the next two installments.


Rating: 8 dreams.

Come back Monday for my interview with North.

Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths by Natalie Haynes

This classicist’s reconsideration of famous Greek myths from various female perspectives combines cultural and literary criticism, humor and wit.

Classicist Natalie Haynes (The Furies; A Thousand Ships) brings her prodigious expertise to Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths, a thorough consideration of the perspectives, reputations and visibility of some of ancient Greece’s most famous female characters. The title refers to the first correction Haynes offers: rather than the mythic Pandora’s box, Pandora in the original Greek opened a jar, which is only the first of several misconceptions. Not that there will ever be an authoritative version: even Homer, Haynes reminds us, drew on earlier sources. Myths “operate in at least two timelines: the one in which they are ostensibly set, and the one in which any particular version is written,” and Haynes has a firm grasp of numerous iterations. In her capable hands, Pandora and others appear as multifaceted, complex characters, even across conflicting accounts. Best of all, despite its impressive depth of research, Pandora’s Jar is never dry, and frequently great fun.

After the opening chapter’s title character, Haynes introduces readers to Jocasta, Helen, Medusa, the Amazons, Clytemnestra, Eurydice, Phaedra, Medea and finally Penelope. Readers unfamiliar with their stories are guided through the relevant versions. These myths involve traumas of marriage, motherhood, rape and betrayal; their themes are serious and unforgiving. Perhaps surprisingly, some of the misogyny and erasure that Pandora, the Amazons, Eurydice and others have experienced have surprisingly modern origins. “Not for the first time, we see that an accurate translation has been sacrificed in the pursuit of making women less alarming (and less impressive) in English than they were in Greek.” Among Haynes’s subjects, “some have been painted as villains (Clytemnestra, Medea), some as victims (Eurydice, Penelope), some have been literally monstered (Medusa),” but each contains depths: “Medusa is–and always has been–the monster who would save us.”

Haynes’s authorial voice is remarkable: expressive, nuanced, impassioned. Her tone is absolutely accessible, even conversational, and often laugh-out-loud hilarious. Haynes (also a stand-up comic) is as well versed in the modern world and its concerns as in the ancients. The book opens with 1981’s Clash of the Titans, and refers to Beyonce and Wonder Woman with the same ease and mastery as it does Homer, Ovid, Euripides, Aristotle, Aeschylus and many more ancients and more recent writers. Haynes’s assessments of the visual arts (from ancient pottery through Renaissance paintings to modern television and movies) offer another dimension in this meticulous study.

The classics are as relevant, subversive and entertaining as ever in this brilliant piece of work. Clever, moving, expert, Pandora’s Jar is a gem, equally for the serious fan or scholar of Greek myth, for the feminist or for the reader simply absorbed by fine storytelling across time and geography.


This review originally ran in the January 18, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 gazes.

The World’s Wife: Poems by Carol Ann Duffy

I got this title out of Pandora’s Jar (review still forthcoming!), and it’s every bit as good as I’d hoped. These are the women’s stories, from myths and classics and fairy tales, reconfigured. Many of these women are new to their tales, like Mrs. Aesop, Mrs. Sisyphus, Queen Kong, Frau Freud, and Pope Joan. Others already had their own myths before Duffy arrived to rewrite them: Penelope, Demeter, Circe, Salome. The book begins, for example, with “Little Red-Cap,” whose relationship to the Big Bad Wolf takes a different angle. A few of my very favorites are “Mrs. Midas” and “Mrs. Darwin,” although I’m also captivated by Duffy’s Eurydice, who was so relieved at the quiet of the Underworld and so sorry to see that damned Orpheus again. Clever, clever, cynical Eurydice.

I am pretty confident in calling these persona poems: each takes the first-person perspective of a female hero we’ve not heard enough of until now. Each has its charms and its surprises; I have been slow in writing this review over more than a week–unusual, and a bad hole to fall into usually, but they haven’t left the top of my mind in that time. I think Duffy was the perfect author to do this job, the new highlighting of both familiar traits and of delightful surprises. (Guess what body part Frau Freud assigns no fewer than 31 nicknames to in fifteen lines.) These poems are often funny, often fraught and moving, and always lovely. See these images: “a thousand windows, each with its modest peep-show / of boredom or pain, of drama, consolation, remorse.” And these judgments: “The Devil was evil, mad, but I was the Devil’s wife / which made me worse.” What else has Duffy written? I would read more poetry if it all worked like this: easy to access but inviting lots of processing time, deep and rich and wide.


Rating: 8 teeth of the rich.

movie mini-reviews: Clash of the Titans (1981) and Wonder Woman (2017)

Thanks to Natalie Haynes’s brilliant Pandora’s Jar (review forthcoming), I watched two movies over winter break that make reference to the Greek myths that I love so much.

Unsurprisingly, this one from 1981 that relies heavily on special effects plays more comically than originally intended; those special effects are almost unbelievably bad now… but the themes of the movie hold up well, and the hubris that forms such an essential turning point in the story still rings true, and fits with the Greek myths it arises from (where hubris was such a frequent theme). Clash of the Titans mashes up its myths: Medusa’s head will be weaponized against the Kraken, so Scandinavian meets Greek, but who cares: it’s actually quite fun, and the female love interest is less useless than she might have been, for her time. (Natalie Haynes writes, “It is hard to escape the conclusion that the Clash of the Titans kraken is so named purely for the delight of audiences in hearing Laurence Olivier – who plays Zeus – say, ‘Release the kraken.’ For the record, I consider this a perfectly legitimate reason to ignore any amount of mythological chronology and geography.”)

Fairly wacky, and hasn’t aged extraordinarily well (special effects!!), but still diverting, and I’m pleased to know where Haynes got her start into the myths. She’s doing them better justice herself, though.

Wonder Woman of 2017, on the other hand, was a fine romp, and I had a much easier time getting into the groove. (One wonders what this will look like in another 36 years.) There is a large dose of romance at its heart, even as the movie dances around that concept, and the astonishing good looks of leads Gal Gadot and Chris Pine make a difference. But the girl-power Amazonian island is both an appealing concept and nicely portrayed visually here, too. From their man-free paradise, Gadot’s Diana thrusts herself into the “real world” of World War I, which offers only horrors by contrast. The movie does a decent job of portraying both the light and the dark, and combines humor (Diana being “not from around here”) with pathos (war) engagingly. There’s no question this one relies on visual appeal, but that can be lovely when done well. And if it’s a bit of a simplification (of both myth and complicated gender dynamics), it’s still an empowering adventure tale. I do recommend.

The Hero by Lee Child (audio)

Not a Jack Reacher novella, but an essay. Lee Child (as himself, for the first time in my reading experience) explores the concept of “the hero,” as archetype and as cultural tradition, in this hour-and-change. It opens with the history of opium, or rather of humans’ relationship to opium, in its various forms, as revealed by the archaeological record. This brings us to the book’s subject via that coined name for an opium derivative: heroin, as relates to hero. Etymology as guiding principle! I love it! Some of the reviews on Goodreads are laughably harsh, but that’s an issue of people not appreciating etymology or failing to grasp the concept of “essay” (and to be fair, some of these poor souls thought they were getting a Reacher novella. Which actually I did as well, but I transition between Reacher and the essayistic form more easily than some).

From opium and heroin we move through archaeology and the history and development of human societies (comparison of homo sapiens to homo neanderthalensis), including the move from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to agriculture, always with a focus on the developing importance of storytelling. Storytelling, Child writes, is a survival mechanism, part of evolution. “Encouraging, empowering, emboldening stories… somehow made it more likely the listener would still be alive in the morning.” Stories are instructive, he explains, and developed from the first use of language which was strictly nonfiction. There was no evolutionary advantage to claiming that there was a predator over the next rise, or prey or berries to be had around the next bend of the river, if it wasn’t true. The move to fiction was a big jump, and had to serve other purposes. Encouraging, empowering, emboldening, and instructing. The girl who met a tiger and ran fast and got away; later, the girl who met a tiger but she carried an axe and successfully fought it off.

Which brings me to a feature of this essay that I appreciate: that it centers women. Child tracks his own link to early homo sapiens and homo sapiens sapiens through the female line. As his own mother had no female child, he considers that line to have died out. Women tend to be the storytellers, and the early protagonists, in the histories he tells. It’s refreshing, when history is so often male-centered.

Another central feature is the importance of language, etymologies, and the joys and rigors of linguistics. (Child’s daughter Ruth is a linguist.) Words matter; and they tell stories. Rivals were originally in competition for rivers or for riverfront real estate. Heroin is named for the concept of the hero.

Reacher’s usual confidence in making logical connections and claiming theories is recognizable here as Child’s own. I’m not an academic in the field of human evolution as told through the archaeological record, nor am I a linguist; I have the sense that he sets forth some theories that are perhaps less than orthodox, but he does so with great assurance. It’s a style of writing that works well for me. This is Reacher as an academic. Jeff Harding’s narration feels spot-on.

A contemplation of language, story, and the archetypal (and ever-evolving) hero in human history: if this stuff sounds like your cuppa, and especially if you like Reacher too, do yourself a favor and check out this novella-length essay. It’s engrossing. (Also, there’s a nice, representative sample available here. Or another here.) Or if you just want a laugh, go check out those Goodreads reviews. Not every book for every reader…


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.