It’s nine degrees out now, two earlier this morning. A fire is roaring in the fireplace here, the sun is going down (though it seems as though it was just lunchtime), and the pug is snoring on the couch. A tea is at my elbow and the house is making creaking noises. It’s reading season. I have just ventured upstairs and gathered up a few of the books I have read since last time we spoke. I am now back at my seat by the fire (which I do not intend to leave anytime soon), ready to go.
And why leave one’s comfortable, snow/ice/wind-free spot by the fire when one can travel to the golden lands of the ancient gods without so much as moving a single toe? Circe by Madeline Miller is a page-turner, a magic potion, a dream, an enchantment. I wasn’t sure at first. I had read about the book somewhere—I don’t remember where, and, when I first began it, was not happy that it wasn’t about real people but rather naiads, nymphs and river gods, mythic palaces, enchanted islands. What the heck? I wasn’t sure that it would sustain my interest.
But about four pages in, I was caught like a dolphin in a goddess’s silver net and swiftly drawn into a shimmering world of nymphs, monsters, messengers, rocky palaces, moonlit mountains and deserted beaches. Circe is narrated by Circe herself, product of the naiad Perse and Helios, a Titan, who fell for Perse while visiting her father Oceanos’s palace.
Explains Circe, “(My mother’s) hair was a warm brown, each strand so lustrous it seemed lit from within. She would have felt my father’s gaze, hot as gusts from a bonfire. I see her arrange her dress so it drapes just so over her shoulders. I see her dab her fingers, glinting, in the water. I have seen her do a thousand such tricks a thousand times. My father always fell for them. He believed the world’s natural order was to please him. “Who is that?” my father said to Oceanos. Oceanos had many golden-eyed grandchildren from my father already, and was glad to think of more. “My daughter Perse. She is yours if you want her.”
Circe was a disappointment from day one. Her hair was striped like a lynx, her chin was too sharp and her eyes amber and strange. To make a very long story short (and to avoid ruining the story for those of you who might read it), Circe is banished to a deserted island where she lives, sleeps and dreams, studying and practicing witchcraft and herbology, and where she manages to cross paths with various gods and mortals, including Hermes, Odysseus, Penelope and Telemachus. Again, I don’t want to tell you too much but instead urge you to read this beautifully written, fascinating, bewitching novel for yourself.
The narrative voice is surprising, intriguing…and I found myself strengthened and inspired by Circe’s observations and responses, her life and adventures—her devastating exile, her connection to the natural world, her passionate attachments and her many losses. As I said, it took me a moment to succumb to this magical, mythical world, but it took me a lot longer to extricate myself from it. It left an impression on me; Circe left an impression on me—her house, her herbs, her lions, her island, her courage, her solitude, her contentment and her longing. A wonderful book. Highly recommend.
“Synchronicity” is a word derived from the German synchronizitat and is a concept originally introduced by Carl Jung, which holds that events are “meaningful coincidences” if they occur with no causal relationship but seem to be meaningfully related. I bring this up because it seems oddly synchronistic that I picked up Circe just after reading Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, which takes place in ancient Troy. Many of the same characters appear in both books: Achilles, Agamemnon, Patroclus and some of the same gods. I really liked this book, too. Quite different from Circe, it deals mainly with mortals (who really aren’t all that much different from nymphs, naiads and gods, actually; “we all get happy, get sad, fall in love, mourn, seek revenge…”).
This novel is also narrated by a female, in this case, a young woman named Briseis, a prisoner of war and Achilles’ concubine. Briseis is a prize of battle, one of many conquered women who serve the Greek army, which is at war with Troy—and it is fascinating to experience this strange world through her eyes. This is a book filled with bloody battles, ruthless warriors, heroes, kings, captive women and complicated relationships. It explores the thin line between myth and history, gods and mortals, love and hate. From a woman’s point of view. I loved it. Didn’t want it to end.
Moving from gods and goddesses to wizards and witches…I know there are many, many Harry Potter fans out there, some young, some less so. I am one among this vast coven of fans and read the series with anticipation and delight when it first came out and also listened to it years later (the excellent Jim Dale version). I suspect I will read or listen to it again at least once more before my reading days are done, but in the meanwhile there are these very interesting and very good books by Robert Galbraith, who is really (in case you didn’t know) J.K. Rowling in disguise.
But don’t go reading these later books expecting a return to butter beer, sorting hats and magic wands. (If so, you will be sorely disappointed.) But do try these Galbraith books for good prose, interesting plots and intriguing characters. Lethal White is the fourth book in the Cormoran Strike series by Galbraith. It is a little bit dark; a mystery…beautifully written, entertaining and unsettling. There are no wizards, but there is a crime, or two, or three, to unravel…and a romantic tension braided through the drama, a little bit like that of Jim and Pam in the TV series “The Office,” now that I think of it; you will see what I mean when you read it. Very different stuff from Harry Potter, but excellent in a different way.
And in an altogether different vein, there is Jane Green. Have you read her? She is delightful. Her books are light, fun, easy reading. I read a few of her novels a few years back and figured I had exhausted all of her work. But one day, while idly perusing the fiction shelves of a bookstore somewhere, I came upon a whole stash by Jane Green I had never known existed. I felt as though I had come upon buried treasure! (You mean there’s more?) Come to find out Green has written about a dozen novels—not just two or three, as I had assumed.
I promptly picked up Dune Road and Promises to Keep. I read them a bit the way my chocolate lab eats his dinner, one right after the other. I hesitate to call them beach reads, because God knows there aren’t any beaches to read on these days, unless you have truly extraordinary outdoor gear or plane tickets to Jamaica. But they are light, like a good beach read is light—a little like Elin Hildebrand (who I love, who writes books set on Nantucket) but in some ways more wholesome.
Green’s novels have a lot of heart. It’s really quite striking. Not that all her characters are sweet and affectionate and well-behaved, but there is a lot of love in her novels, and it comes through, kind of the way the heat from this beautiful fire in my living room is coming through, warming and comforting me, making me want to draw close and not go away. Dune Road is a romance and a mystery, very good reading. And Promises to Keep is a story about starting over, family, death, friendship and enduring love.
I love that there are a few more unread Jane Green’s out there in the world to brighten my reading days. If you are in the mood and haven’t tried her, or have tried her and haven’t exhausted the treasure trove of her work, you are in for a treat. Probably perfect for Valentine’s Day, now that I think about it.
Speaking of which, it is February, and so Happy Valentine’s Day (I guess that is the next major holiday coming up). And always, every day, happy reading, whether you are on a beach, or sitting by the fire, or biking fast in your pajamas on a recumbent bike in your basement. Stay warm, stay cozy, enjoy the snow. Till next time!