Category Archives: Book Review

Valar Morghulis

For one of my current classes, we were given the extremely morbid task of creating our own obituary. What do we want to be the centerpiece of our life? How can we accomplish these goals? Clearly, around here, our accomplishments would center around reading. How the stories we’ve read and fantasy lands we’ve visited impact us every day. Honestly, it’s probably clearest in my love for parties. BOY, do I love a themed party!!!! With Game of Thrones FINAL SEASON premiere this weekend, why don’t you throw a premiere party?!

Here’s some inspiration from a party we threw last month; it centered around a Westeros inspired Charcuterie Spread. I created a mini menu for each region and made a little flag (complete with sigils) to display the menu. BOY, WAS IT A SPREAD:


One section for (almost) each main region of Westeros: Below are the North (top right), the Vale (bottom right), King’s Landing (front, almost center), the Reach (back left), and the Iron Islands (back left). In the very background is a large map of Westeros. Below is a close up

Essos & Dorne selections

Almost all of the charcuterie and accompaniments were from Trader Joe’s. It included the staples: Unexpected cheddar, blueberry chevere, sopressata. Want a complete list? Let me know in the comments! Who is going to end up on the thrones? Who will die? (Probably everyone). How will Dany continue to blow a 3 Dragon lead? Guess we will have to tune in Sunday to find out.

Valar Dohaeris all the parties. -Hannah

*This post is not sponsored but I wouldn’t be mad if HBO or Trader Joe’s sponsored our next one.

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(Kinda) Back to Books – Short Stories Save the Day + a Goal

I have a terrible memory, so I don’t remember most of the things I was made to read in high school, but I do remember many of the ones from undergrad. That was my real introduction to the power of short stories, especially in my Science Fiction in Lit class, and I’ve been hooked on short stories ever since. Sidebar research question: What short stories do you remember reading in high school/college and loving? Which ones did you hate?

Well, our district changed from four 9 week units to six 6 week units this past year and my team and I had trouble adjusting to that change in pacing. As a result, unit 5 was reduced to only two weeks instead of six. Obviously, we still had to cover the standards specific to that unit, in order to make sure kids were prepared for the EOCs, but we didn’t have enough time to cover the 400-page novel we intended to use to teach those standards. Thus, we turned to short stories, as we always do when we need the biggest bang for our buck. Whenever we need to maintain the focus of the kids but also get across a point, short stories are the perfect solution. In fact, we start the year with short stories, because they’re the best way to segue from the “no-reading-lifestyle” of summer to longer texts during the school year.

However, I’ve found myself recycling the same stories for multiple purposes; I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing now and then, since a second reading can often take students below a surface understanding to deeper meaning. Nonetheless, I want to get more short stories under my belt so I can bring in tons of stories from tons of authors with tons of backgrounds and experiences.

So, I found a few lists of awesome short stories and I split them into two groups: ones I’ve read and ones I haven’t read. I plan to read as many on the “Haven’t Read” list as I can before next year and make a document that lists all the important factors (length, difficulty, literary elements, etc.) so I can just refer to the list when I’m looking for a story with Pacing or Plot elements, interesting POV, Persuasion Techniques, etc.

If all goes well and I can remember this blog on my busiest days, I’ll post a handful of short story reviews now and then. I think short stories get overlooked all too often, but a well-written short story can contain as much value and entertainment as a full-length novel. I’m going to get these stories some well-earned readers, be they you all or my students.

Short Stories I HAVEN’T Read:

  • All Summer in a Day – Ray Bradbury
  • Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keyes
  • To Build a Fire – Jack London
  • The Ransom of Red Chief – O. Henry
  • A Sound of Thunder – Ray Bradbury
  • The Lady, or the Tiger – Frank Stockton
  • Hearts and Hands – O. Henry
  • The Rocking Horse Winner – D. H. Lawrence
  • Miss Awful – Robert Cavanaugh
  • Charles – Shirley Jackson
  • The Moustache – Robert Cormier
  • The Sniper – Liam O’Flaherty
  • The Veldt – Ray Bradbury
  • The House of Stairs – Barbara Vine
  • The Landlady – Roald Dahl
  • The Fun They Had – Isaac Asimov
  • The Interlopers – Saki
  • The Revolt of Mother – Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
  • The Open Boat – Stephen Crane
  • American History – Judith Ortiz Cofer
  • Through the Tunnel – Doris Lessing
  • Geraldo No Name – Sandra Cisneros
  • The Scarlet Ibis – James Hurst
  • The Stolen Party – Liliana Heker
  • The Story of an Hour – Kate Chopin
  • The Necklace – Guy de Maupassant
  • Like a Winding Sheet – Ann Petry
  • Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been? – Joyce Carol Oats
  • Everyday Use – Alice Walker
  • You’re Ugly, Too – Lorrie Moore
  • A Temporary Matter – Jhumpa Lahiri
  • The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas – Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Girl – Jamaica Kincaid

Short Stories I HAVE Read:

  • Harrison Bergeron – Kurt Vonnegut
  • The Tell-Tale Heart – Edgar Allan Poe
  • There Will Be Soft Rains – Ray Bradbury
  • The Lottery – Shirley Jackson
  • Young Goodman Brown – Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • The Most Dangerous Game – Richard Connell
  • The Black Cat – Edgar Allan Poe
  • Masque of the Red Death – Edgar Allan Poe
  • The Pedestrian – Ray Bradbury
  • The Gift of the Magi – O. Henry
  • A Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge – Ambrose Bierce
  • Thank You, M’am – Langston Hughes
  • Miriam – Truman Capote
  • The Cask of Amontillado – Edgar Allan Poe
  • The Yellow Wall-paper – Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • A Good Man is Hard to Find – Flannery O’Connor

Are you also a lover of short stories? Do you have any to add to the list? Any you think I should avoid?

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Review Via Pros and Cons: Brown’s “Origin”

I’ve read all of Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon Series. I don’t usually consider them to be high literature (said with a smarmy expression while adjusting an invisible monocle), but some of them I have considered a downright good time. In fact, I thought Inferno was very entertaining, like a literary scavenger hunt! Some of Brown’s novels, though, are more successful in my esteem than others, and upon finishing his most recent novel, Origin, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. You know what to do!! When in doubt, hash it out (via pros and cons, my favorite review process)!

But first, this obscenely long blurb from Goodreads:

Robert Langdon, Harvard professor of symbology and religious iconology, arrives at the ultramodern Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao to attend a major announcement—the unveiling of a discovery that “will change the face of science forever.” The evening’s host is Edmond Kirsch, a forty-year-old billionaire and futurist whose dazzling high-tech inventions and audacious predictions have made him a renowned global figure. Kirsch, who was one of Langdon’s first students at Harvard two decades earlier, is about to reveal an astonishing breakthrough . . . one that will answer two of the fundamental questions of human existence.

As the event begins, Langdon and several hundred guests find themselves captivated by an utterly original presentation, which Langdon realizes will be far more controversial than he ever imagined. But the meticulously orchestrated evening suddenly erupts into chaos, and Kirsch’s precious discovery teeters on the brink of being lost forever. Reeling and facing an imminent threat, Langdon is forced into a desperate bid to escape Bilbao. With him is Ambra Vidal, the elegant museum director who worked with Kirsch to stage the provocative event. Together they flee to Barcelona on a perilous quest to locate a cryptic password that will unlock Kirsch’s secret.

Navigating the dark corridors of hidden history and extreme religion, Langdon and Vidal must evade a tormented enemy whose all-knowing power seems to emanate from Spain’s Royal Palace itself… and who will stop at nothing to silence Edmond Kirsch. On a trail marked by modern art and enigmatic symbols, Langdon and Vidal uncover clues that ultimately bring them face-to-face with Kirsch’s shocking discovery… and the breathtaking truth that has long eluded us.

Now, to weigh out the Pros and Cons to decide if I liked this novel:

PRO: Robert Langdon. I like the character of Robert Langdon, the Harvard professor who keeps finding himself in mess after life-threatening mess. His knowledge is obscure but somehow repeatedly pivotal to saving the world. Maybe more of us should be Symbologists, just so we don’t have to rely on Robert Langdon so hard and so often. Regardless, the small touches, like the claustrophobia and the Micky Mouse watch, make Langdon likable and slightly more believable.

CON: These novels are intended, I believe, to be able to stand alone from the series as a whole, meaning you could easily read Origin as your first Brown novel and not lack any information. In a way, I think this is a good thing, but also, it’s unrealistic af!! Throughout the series, Langdon has been THROUGH IT! This man has been kidnapped, he’s been pursued by police and criminals, he’s been chased through inaccessible historical monuments, and his life has been threatened innumerable times in innumerable ways. So you’re telling me that he wouldn’t learn from these experiences?? He’s just following anonymous instructions and trusting people like he doesn’t know better?? I can’t get on board with that. He would (understandably) have PTSD by now and would be way more cautious.

PRO: Artificial Intelligence plays a big part in this novel. In fact, I’d say the AI is one of the main characters. The way “he” is portrayed feels a bit unrealistic at times, but the point of the novel is that one man has contributed to the advancement of technology in ways we didn’t think were possible, so I was willing to buy into it. The AI is often likable, helpful, suspicious, and all other human-like characteristics.

CON: I figured out the “bad guy” pretty early. There were a few loose ends that eluded me until the end, but overall, I assumed relatively early on who was orchestrating all the evil. I vastly prefer a novel that keeps me in the dark the whole time, or even misdirects my attention. The ending still managed to be something of a surprise, but once I figured out the major instigator, I lost a bit of interest.

CON: Each novel in the series focuses on a different “search” and they’ve all set up organized religion as the ultimate bad guy in one way or another. Origin is no different. However, instead of analyzing historical locations or documents, Origin predicts scientific advancements and the repercussions such revelations would have on the religious community. At this point, I was still on board, but quite often, the text dives into the science of potential origin theories, advanced technology, and more, and it flew right over my head. Brown tried to talk down to me, but I was apparently further “down” than he anticipated.

PRO: New City – New Google Search History! I am now somewhat acquainted with Bilbao, Spain. As always, I can’t read a Dan Brown novel without having WIFI, since it lists a million pieces of art or landmarks that I feel compelled to research. For instance, have you seen the Tree of Life monument outside the Dohany Synagogue in Budapest? I can’t believe this is the first time in my Holocaust-researching-life that I’ve heard about it. I learn a lot from reading these novels. I think that PRO counts for double.

CON: Same as above. I love that I learn from these, but it almost makes it impossible for me to read the novel when I don’t have access to internet. In fact, at one point I had to mark a few pages so I could go back to them in order to Google something when I got home later. It’s an overload of information sometimes.

CON: I lost interest well before the ending. It took me almost a month to read this book. Yes, it’s almost 500 pages, but still. That’s too long to read that much. I just got bored. There was a great deal of science-talk within the last 50 pages and since it was flying right over my head, I lost motivation to keep reading.

PRO: I guess there’s the potential for another Tom Hanks movie?? Have they made all the other ones? I saw “The Da Vinci Code” and maybe “Angels and Demons” once, but did they make the others? I feel like Inferno would make a great addition to the franchise, but Origin might be a little too… thought-heavy. Nobody likes to think!!

I wrote more CONS than PROS, but I really do think they balance out. This wasn’t Brown’s best, but I don’t guess I regret reading it. I imagine I’ll forget all the details in no time at all.

Have you read it? Did you like it? Do you typically like Dan Brown novels?

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Review: Shen’s “Legendary Ladies” and “Bad Girls Throughout History”

First off, a funny story: yesterday, I was giving my (9th grade) classes a quiz over figurative language (personification, onomatopoeia, metaphor, etc.) and before the quiz, my 4th period decided that Hyperbole is when someone is “just being so extra.” I gave examples that I’ve heard in the halls, like “OMG if I don’t see my boo right now, I’m gonna die” and “ugh, this class is taking, like, forever.” We finished the quiz and I walked by a table group that (sometimes, very unfortunately) has a bf/gf couple, who were playing keep away, or something dumb. I told them to STAHP or they were going to make me throw up, and the whole table group yelled “HYPERBOLE!!! That’s a hyperbole, CT!!” I cackled with laughter and gave them all “Glad Points” as a reward for using their knowledge AGAINST ME.

Now, to the review. As specified in my last post, I asked for these beautiful books for Christmas. Thanks to my mom and mom-in-law, I was gifted both and devoured each in a day. Although they are by the same author/illustrator and, on the surface, look quite similar, they have substantial differences that need to be sussed out. Therefore, I’ll be taking them one by one, starting with my favorite!

Aphra Behn, first female professional writer. Sojourner Truth, activist and abolitionist. Ada Lovelace, first computer programmer. Marie Curie, first woman to win the Nobel Prize. Joan Jett, godmother of punk. The 100 revolutionary women highlighted in this gorgeously illustrated book were bad in the best sense of the word: they challenged the status quo and changed the rules for all who followed. From pirates to artists, warriors, daredevils, scientists, activists, and spies, the accomplishments of these incredible women vary as much as the eras and places in which they effected change. Featuring bold watercolor portraits and illuminating essays by Ann Shen, Bad Girls Throughout History is a distinctive, gift-worthy tribute.

Goodreads.com

Bad Girls Throughout History: 100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World was published in 2016 and features 100 women spanning many centuries and cultures who did “bad” things (more on that in a bit) or were considered improper by their (and sometimes also our) society. The women are featured chronologically, so our amazing, gender stereotype-breaking ancestors segue gently to modern glass ceiling-breakers.

Now, when it comes to calling these women “bad,” I assumed it would focus on women who did things considered improper for women during their time. However, the term “bad” seems to be used more loosely than I had thought. Yes, of course misogyny runs rampant through each story in some way or other, but not all stories are focused on what these women did in reaction to oppression. Intermingled among the Queens, scientists, adventurers, and visionaries are murderers and thieves. As it should be, “bad” is subjective. I especially appreciate this in reference to my intentions to make this book available as a point of inspiration for the upcoming research unit. ELA is all about the ability to argue and support your point, so if someone wants to argue that Bonnie Parker is a hero, I look forward to hearing that argument.

From the beloved author and artist behind Bad Girls Throughout History comes this lushly illustrated book of goddesses from around the world. Aphrodite, the Greek goddess whose love overcame mortality. Mazu, the Chinese deity who safely guides travelers home. Lakshmi, the Hindu provider of fortune and prosperity. These powerful deities and many more are celebrated in gorgeous artwork and enlightening essays that explore the feminine divine and encourage readers to empower themselves. Ann Shen’s signature watercolors make Legendary Ladies a unique, gift-worthy homage to the mighty women within.

The other book, Legendary Ladies: 50 Goddesses to Empower and Inspire You, focuses on goddesses from various cultures. The book seeks to inspire the reader, so Shen even goes so far as to suggest the strengths of each goddess and when the reader might want to “call on” each one for different benefits. I appreciated the variety of cultures featured in this book and learned a great deal about various origin stories. I honestly wish it had been longer, like its 100-page predecessor, but I imagine a tremendous amount of research had to go into this book; I also imagine that this one stands more of a risk of offending readers, since Shen attempts to add so much variety that she is inevitably treading (bravely, I think) on unfamiliar territory and might risk getting something wrong, here and there.

So, obviously, the showstopper is the illustrations. Each woman listed in both texts has her own accompanying original illustration. Again, the amount of research that must have gone into these is amazing, especially in the goddesses text, since each woman is drawn “in her element.” Shen apparently got her start in illustration and has worked for some impressive, well-known companies, so I like to think that all that experience is what made it possible for her to produce these works of obvious passion. I can’t imagine that anyone would take lightly the responsibility to educate readers about the history of womankind; however, since she does so not only through words but all through illustrations, this book will naturally appeal more to younger audiences, who benefit from visual stimulation for prolonged attention, than those that convey the same information without illustrations. I would gladly, after choosing very carefully, read some of these to student audiences (and might do so in the weeks leading up to the research unit). I honestly wish someone would make a similar illustrated compilation with male rule-breakers.

Now, to discuss the only major issue I noticed. The number of European goddesses vastly outnumbered those of Asian, African, South American, or North American heritage. Legendary Ladies featured one “ancestor” from Native American heritage (I don’t know what to call these characters collectively, since they’re not all goddesses), a few Africans, a few Pacific Islanders, a few more of Celtic, Welsh, Aztec, or Egyptian origin, a good number Hindus, as well as Chinese, but predominantly featured Greek goddesses. On the one hand, I loved seeing them since I have studied Greek mythology extensively, but it seemed disproportionate to the numbers featured for other cultures. I should acknowledge that this might be greatly due, at least in part, to the fact that Greek mythological beliefs were passed to all conquered nations and, although it is not still a practiced religion, the impact of that belief system is still evident in classical texts, as well as all those that were inspired by the classics. I mean, for goodness sake, like I teach each year when we read The Odyssey, Greek mythology still permeates our culture, even Spongebob Squarepants, for crying out loud. Greek mythology is inescapable. But that almost adds to my desire to see less of that which we already know and more of that which is not as well-known globally. Surely there are more African and Native American ancestral ladies that could have been featured?

Obviously, I greatly recommend these texts to anyone and everyone. The illustrations are dazzling and I could look at them all day, but they don’t necessarily mean that this text is directed at younger audiences. These women are painted in a realistic light, for better or for worse, and learning about each one of them is well worth your time.

Has anyone else read these? If so, did you read them just for fun or do you have ulterior motives, like me? Does anyone have any other recommendations for texts featuring compilations of notable men or women?

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Review and Rumination: Shay’s “Odysseus in America”

It’s been a while. I know. The only reason I’m even here now is because my students are between big writing assignments, so I have a very brief respite from reading and grading and grading and reading. Plus, I’m monitoring Saturday School.

My last review was of Circe and I recall being optimistic that I might be able to incorporate it into my Odyssey Unit. Well, time has brought us to this moment, when we have just finished reading The Odyssey and we’re incorporating supplementary texts this coming week. All year, I’ve had grand aspirations that I would delve into the deep questions of whether Odysseus has PTSD or not. For that reason, I got a copy of Jonathan Shay’s Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming.

In this ambitious follow-up to Achilles in Vietnam, Dr. Jonathan Shay uses the Odyssey, the story of a soldier’s homecoming, to illuminate the pitfalls that trap many veterans on the road back to civilian life.

Seamlessly combining important psychological work and brilliant literary interpretation with an impassioned plea to renovate American military institutions, Shay deepens our understanding of both the combat veteran’s experience and one of the world’s greatest classics.

My hope was that this book would provide me with some excerpts, especially regarding the chapters in which Odysseus returns to Ithaca, that would shine a light on Odysseus’ behavior as a result of what he endured during his 20-year-expedition (or odyssey). Not only does it do so, but it includes a step-by-step analysis of Odysseus’ behavior for each of the 15 stops on his journey home. Shay compares Odysseus with Vietnam veterans whom he has counseled in the years after their return home. He sheds light on possible motivations and meanings behind Odysseus’ words, actions, and choices, as well as shows how similar words, actions, and choices look under a modern lens. Though this epic is estimated to be almost three thousand years old, Shay helps readers see how trauma and its effects are timeless. Odysseus in America was a tremendous read and it elevated my understanding of The Odyssey, but more importantly, it illuminated the suffering of combat veterans, as well as non-veterans who have navigated horrible circumstances and live life in the wake of those experiences. I am more motivated than ever to incorporate this text into my teaching of The Odyssey.

However, despite this motivation, I will not be doing so this year, or possibly for many years. Despite the fact that there is substantial and meaningful learning to gain from this book, there is not enough time to do it justice. I have less than a week to dedicate to reading supplementary materials and writing something. We already only had a week and a day (5 class periods) to get through reading the epic, which is ridiculous! It’s full of action and monsters and love stories, so it’s just about the most captivating thing I can offer to them, and to blaze through it in just over a week is already robbing the kids of so much fun and meaning. The lack of time is a big issue, one that goes “all the way to the TOP” (sorry, MFM reference – SSDGM, Murderinos) and I obviously can’t resolve the problems with the American public school system here on this blog. I feel strongly that kids would learn from reading Odysseus in America, as well as the many other literary works that highlight the effects of trauma. I’m inspired by this text, but I honestly think that this could be an entire class, a multicultural lit elective, looking at the effects of trauma in and through literature. I’m going to work on building that class so that when I have enough teacher street cred, I can fight with more “ammo” (what an unfortunate metaphor in this instance) by having a concrete idea of the class. In the meantime, I’m convinced that to make a pit-stop on the topic of PTSD would satisfy my desire to talk about it, but would do so in a way that didn’t give the necessary time for evaluation, discussion, and argumentative writing.

The difficult thing for me is that I got into teaching because of the books (a taboo statement in this field of work). I wanted it to be my job to read and geek out about books. At times, that goal comes true; I’ve had so much fun reading The Odyssey with ~140 students stretching across all demographics and backgrounds. Not only is it satisfying to read one of my favorite classics as my JOB, but it’s thrilling to see it through their eyes every year as they make connections (they always yell “that’s just like Spongebob!” when we read about the bag of wind or talk about Neptune) and form opinions about Odysseus as a hero, as a leader, as a male. I know it would be endlessly fun to dive into the topic of PTSD with them, but after only a year and a half of teaching on my own, I’m realizing that although I got into it for the fun of the books, the learning of the kids is more important. If my PTSD pit-stop is just for fun, meaning that more time would be necessary in order to expand on their learning enough to validate doing it, then the kids deserve better. I have to prioritize the kids over the books.

Thusly, I’ll stick to the old-faithful argument of whether or not Odysseus is a hero. The epic ends before we get to see the effects of Odysseus’ return and we’re never afforded the benefit of anyone other than Odysseus’ perspective on his actions. So, luckily for me, I get to incorporate two of my favorite Greek-inspired novels: The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood and Circe by Madeline Miller.

One final thing: before school started, I read The Song of Achilles, also by Madeline Miller, and really enjoyed it. She is clearly very knowledgeable about mythology but gracefully incorporates her own spin on the classics. She brings to life, especially, characters who have never had the opportunity to tell their own side of the story, which is why I was such a big fan of Circe. Hannah mentioned that she liked The Song of Achilles better than Circe, but I must admit that I’ve grown rather bored of the male perspective, even the submissive, underdog male. I also never much liked Achilles; he always seemed too self-obsessed and while Miller effortlessly depicts a sympathetic, loving side of Achilles, the overall story doesn’t change and his hubris is still the star of the show. Nonetheless, I’d recommend it to any and all.

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Review: Miller’s “Circe” and Lindsay’s Opinion vs. Mrs. C-T’s Opinion

What a beautiful respite from my reading slump! Of course, after my long trek through the desert of boring books, I was over-thirsty for quality and, thus, finished Madeline Miller’s Circe in a few days, so now I’m back to square one. What will I read now?

Hannah finished Circe before I even received it and texted me a few afterthoughts; it sounded like she was somewhat underwhelmed, but I was adamant that I would go into it as a “blank canvas” and let it paint all over me. I was not disappointed.

In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child—not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power—the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.

Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus.

But there is danger, too, for a woman who stands alone, and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful of the Olympians. To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.

Now, I am rather well-acquainted with Circe as a character from Homer’s The Odyssey, which I teach to freshmen every year. I went into this reading hopeful that it would contain something I could incorporate into this year’s unit (more on that in a bit), but due to my recent bad luck with books, my number one goal was to read and be entertained, to enjoy a book as I haven’t done in a while, regardless of academic application potential.

I loved this novel. The story was narrated from Circe’s 1st-person perspective and felt almost like sitting by the fire listening to story time. She was looking back on her life and telling her story to an anonymous audience (me!) and occasionally interjected her past story with musings about how naive she was or how later she would think differently. Due to these brief snaps back to the “present” story time, the vibe of the book was easy-going and familiar, which made it all the more enjoyable.

Considering the fact that most people only know Circe as a witch and temporary love stop on the Odysseus Express, imagine my surprise when the emotions and relationships weren’t 50 Shades levels of cringe. Mythology is fascinating, so we all roll our eyes and shrug at the unhealthy relationships and mistreatment of women, as though they’re just as unbelievable as gods wielding thunderbolts or six-headed sea monsters, but the truth is that misogyny seems to have weathered the test of time in a way that gods and monsters didn’t. I give 100% credit to Madeline Miller for her interpretation of Circe’s story, as well as her story-telling ability. Instead of relating every detail of each copulation session (be it willing or forced, so yes, be trigger-warned), she implies and leads the reader to understand what’s happening, but dedicates her time to the why.

The Odyssey presents Circe as a witch who transforms men into pigs because it pleases her and only Odysseus could outsmart her, changing her heart of stone to typical female emotional mush. FINALLY, Circe is portrayed as an individual, whose life was difficult and complicated long before Odysseus came along and made it more complicated. She is given a why. Why transform the men? Why be there waiting for him? Why be so enamored by a turd like Odysseus? Like all women, Circe is a complicated being and she existed outside of her connection with literature’s most well-known “hero” for centuries. Homer wrote The Odyssey around 800 B.C.E., so we’ve known one side of the story, the male’s perspective, for almost 3000 years. Let’s hear HER side of the story!

Okay, I can feel that I got on my soapbox there. The point was to say that depending on how deep down the Mythology rabbit hole you’re known to go, anywhere between a little to a lot of this novel will be yesterday’s news to you. Spoilers aren’t really that big of a threat, since we know how it will end, generally. However, the refreshing and necessary thing about this novel is that we are given insight into the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of an ancient woman.

So, from what I’ve seen, people have disliked this when they aren’t fans of historical interpretations. Again, this is a tale as old as time, but Miller’s work came from embellishing stories and creating a new perspective. Some times, her embellishments stray from the original and a lot of hard-core mythology junkies reject any creative license. For instance, in The Odyssey, Odysseus is given moly by Hermes, he eats it, drinks Circe’s potion, and is not transformed, thus beguiling her with his “power.” It doesn’t go that way in Circe and I could be mad about it and be all “look at me; I’m so smart; I know the original; this is wrong; I’m right” but what’s the point in that? It’s no fun to be such a know-it-all that you can’t enjoy anything but the original. Chill.

The other thing about that divergence from the original is that it must exist for a reason! That is one of the most well-known plot points; anyone can point it out (so calm down, know-it-all’s), so why would Miller change it? The new version must serve a purpose in telling the audience more about Circe. This is where my mind swaps from Lindsay, the “for fun” reader, to Mrs. C-T, the critical reader. The wheels were turning nonstop towards the end of the novel, to the point where I had to get out some post-its so I could refer to important excerpts later. Here are some teachery thoughts that are still mulling and taking shape in my pre-planning mind (we won’t get to our Odyssey unit until November, so I have time to hammer out details). However, I must say that these sort of critical reading thoughts and questions do not exist exclusively in a classroom; anyone can read, but it is an entirely different skill to read critically, allowing texts to tap into your mind beyond surface-level enjoyment. Even if you are not a teacher or student, even if you don’t enjoy when this reader blog crosses the line over to a teacher blog, I encourage you to take a look at the questions posed below. You don’t have to be a student to continue to challenge your thinking. Now, to the musings:

  1. Read Book 10 of The Odyssey and then read the excerpt of their meeting from Circe. Consider how the two main characters’ vices and virtues are shifted and challenged with the difference in narrative. How are the narrators biased? Which story do you believe? Why? How are you biased?
  2. Our textbook does not include Book 11 (Odysseus’ trip to the land of the dead) but I think it is interesting/important. Last year I just did story time for missing sections and I’ve asked my department chair for a class set of Gareth Hinds’ graphic novel, but if those options fail or fall short, I can use the excerpt from Circe where she gives him guidance.
  3. This one is exciting: include our article about PTSD to read after Odysseus comes home and he and Telemachus slaughter all the suitors and “unfaithful” servants. Also, include the excerpt where Telemachus talks about what Odysseus was like when he came home. Is it human nature to hope “they all lived happily ever after”? Why do so many stories lack falling action and end after the climax? What do you think life was like for Odysseus/Penelope/Telemachus after his return? Why? How does Telemachus’ account support or challenge that?
  4. Include excerpt of Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, specifically including the Chorus from the servant maids Odysseus killed. Then, include excerpt from Circe that gives Penelope’s account of Odysseus’ return. Why is it so unbelievable that Penelope and Circe would meet and interact so positively? How are readers of The Odyssey led to believe these women would treat each other? How does Penelope’s account shift your perception of Odysseus? Recall how Odysseus portrays Penelope in The Odyssey: how does Penelope’s portrayal of Odysseus in Circe and/or The Penelopiad compare/contrast? How do these characters show bias?
  5. After completing the epic, discuss whether Odysseus is a hero. Further discuss whether he fulfills the steps of Joseph Campbell’s Heroic Journey. Can one fulfill the steps but fail to be a hero? Can one be a hero without being “heroic”? Include an excerpt from Circe where Telemachus talks about Odysseus’ life and legacy. Does the inclusion of personal experience and opinion alter your perception of Odysseus’ heroic status? How could it be biased? Can one determine heroic status without the inclusion of personal accounts?

As you can tell, I LOVE to include various perspectives in my classroom. I know that it is human nature to form opinions and, sadly, some people spend more time building their own opinions by ignoring or attacking the opposition and stacking up supporting arguments than by exploring and engaging those adverse opinions in constructive discussion. It is my goal that students learn to explore the opposition as much as their own side, challenging their own biases as well as those of others, and building informed, malleable opinions. Circe will undoubtedly help me work towards this goal.

Hope you enjoyed this and I’d love to hear any and all thoughts!

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Dino Fever

If there’s one thing that’s always piqued my interest, may be surprising to some of our loyal readers, it’s DINOSAURS. Yes, I’m a 5 year old boy at heart. What can I say? Giant creatures, the mystery, the madness, the end result. What’s not to like?

I picked up The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of the Lost World a week ago at my local big box bookstore and had no regrets since opening that fresh cover. Written by a paleontologist himself, Steve Brusatte, is a master of explanation. The science is simplified, the imagery is masterful, and history is all true, obviously!

The story starts 200 MILLION YEARS AGO – yeah, not a typo, and begins with the ancestors to these fearsome creatures. Following evolution, we visit the fossil sites themselves, showing how these dinosaurs started as small shadow dwelling creatures and became the colossus himself, the Tyrannosaurus Rex. The history takes us all the way to the mass extinction and even brilliantly explains how the dinosaur ancestors are still living amongst us today. Dispersed in the text are hosts of photographs of the eclectic cast of characters, fossils, and original drawings inspired by the scientific text.

For all you Dinosaur lovers, this one is for you in all ways, shapes, and forms. Even if you consider yourself a casual dinosaur enthusiast, this book is a wealth of information and I certainly will cite it as a impeccable source when I win the Dinosaur category on Jeopardy!

Dino

As always, Happy Reading!
-Hannah

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