All right, so I had to admit at the end of last year that I hadn’t read any 2018 books and 2019, with a different stage of noveling, would afford me the chance to pick up on what I left off. All the book covers that I ignored, even though they were in my face.
Did I mention I finished the third draft of my novel and it will be sent out? And now I need to work on getting my other stuff out there? So I shouldn’t be binge reading, but here we are.
A Book of Mythology or Folklore:
Circe, Madeline Miller
Characters in mythology and fairytales are one dimensional creatures. They are only meant to be vehicles in stories, creating explanations for the natural world. This leaves them ripe for re-tellings where their stories, personalities, and vulnerabilities can be fleshed out. They can have reasons other than jealousy and control. They can be people. Circe is made to stand out with empathy, something she is mocked for among the other immortals with whom she struggles to belong, but make her endlessly appealing to the reader.
I had to peek at Wikipedia to polish up on the Circe from Greek mythology. I did some humanities in college, reading bits of the Aeneid, and I can recognize elements of the Odyssey and the Iliad. I like that her story is filled in, about how she went from being born of immortals to a witch on an island, how she was scapegoated and rejected, and how some of the animals on her island were her friends, not just men transformed into pigs. And Wikipedia says ‘displeased her’ and in the book they were men intending to rape her, and maybe this is in the original stories, but if it is not, I commend this change. I love humanizing a historical/mythological/fairy tale character. To show how they may have possibly been misunderstood. Women in that time and place, even immortal ones, needed to wrestle and cage any freedom that wandered into their path. I can see how this is timely with women gaining more power in this age. We will root for our sisters working on the same thing across the ages. Fortunately now we don’t have to have potions and incantations to do it.
Other than enjoying the story, because I love me a witch with a decent character arc, I liked the pacing changes of this one. Circe is immortal and will have huge inconsequential stretches of time and then other focused periods of interest. I liked how she could speed it up and then slow it down, although sometimes she would be slowing down something I really wanted her to speed up, but that was my own discomfort, not her lack of artistry. Circe was still finding herself in the longer stretches of time and her solitude. She was still figuring out her place in the world where she seemed to be born into all the gray areas. But when time needed to slow down, Miller did it in a way that wasn’t obvious, but that I noticed when I started to worm with the intensity and wished I could just find out what was going to happen in the scene.
The good thing about my reading multiple books for each category, other than it being an excuse to binge read when I should be writing, is that often I have books I have owned forever that fit these categories, so two birds with one stone. This one I have had almost two years now, waiting for its chance:
Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller
Again, Miller turns one dimensional historical figures human under her astute pen. This is about Achilles but through the viewpoint of his long time companion, Patroclus. Achilles is much more than a warrior in this book. I forget these boys are supposed to be raised in Sparta, which my education has told me was mostly about churning out warriors. Which seems to be the opposite of empathic creatures. But although Achilles is aware that his main function is to be a warrior, he is many other things, the warrior piece only being apparent when he goes to fight in the Trojan War. And even then he struggles with the trauma of war and doesn’t want to kill unless he has to. Even then he sees others as whole people rather than shadows only to be categorized based on if they gratify or frustrate his needs, which often happens when men are raised only to be weapons. He is loyal to his one lover, does not take others, and assures that Patroclus is treated as an equal to him, even though he is not. And Patroclus is empathic to Achilles as well, respecting him and loving him apart from, and before he came into, his glory.
These qualities made the men appealing and I rooted for them all the way and I didn’t read Wikipedia to know exactly how it would end. The prophesy of Achilles’ dying after he kills Hector is discussed way before the end, but I wanted to see him win up to that point. However, I thought on multiple occasions how there was no template in these men’s lives to be so kind and loving, to know how to treat each other and be in a healthy, monogamous relationship since they were teens. Keeping a healthy monogamous relationship alive through the greater part of your life isn’t only work but insight and skill, and I don’t know where these guys would have gained the skills they show in how they treat each other. Neither one’s parents had a healthy marriage based on equal power footing; neither of them were made via a consensual encounter. But they don’t know how to be angry with each other in a world that runs on anger and power. Maybe it is only in the fact they know themselves to be pawns, despite the power that Achilles has, and some ways they betrayed one another were inevitable and not personal, and they both understood that. Maybe Achilles’ mother, as formidable and controlling as she seems to Patroclus, helped him to become the human, multidimensional man that he is. These are famous warriors, and in the book they are empathic toward slave women and loyal to one another above all else.
I may think these men’s personalities are a bit implausible based on their contexts, but I don’t know if any other book could have hooked me through a retelling of the Trojan War. I knew some of it but I don’t so much care about stories of war, as any reader of mine can probably tell. But I was hooked on this all the way through because of the strong character/human element. Kudos to Madeline Miller. I can see why she’s one of the big writers out there.
I realized near the end of filling this category that I also desperately need to read American Gods, which was put on my radar more than ten years ago and is a popular show, and I have wondered multiple times when it would be my time to read it. I even recommended it to a friend who read it and is now telling me to read it. The time must be coming.