Tag Archives: Feminism

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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L: Reviews of Smith’s “Grasshopper Jungle” and Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”

Lots to talk about, so let’s get started.

Review of Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle:

First things first:

This is the truth. This is history. It’s the end of the world. And nobody knows anything about it. You know what I mean.

In the small town of Ealing, Iowa, Austin and his best friend, Robby, have accidentally unleashed an unstoppable army. An army of horny, hungry, six-foot-tall praying mantises that only want to do two things.

Immediate thoughts upon finishing: “Now THAT was an ending.” I’ve written before about how endings of books or series often feel like afterthoughts, like the author planned in vivid detail the exposition, rising action, and climax and then threw a good enough but unsatisfying resolution onto the end and called it a day. Smith’s ending to the long and complicated saga that was Grasshopper Jungle was completely unexpected and utterly satisfying.

Since the Goodreads synopsis was wildly insufficient, I’ll elaborate by saying that the main character is sixteen-year-old Austin, who is navigating puberty in an ungraceful but painfully honest chronicle of what he calls “the end of the world.” Austin dates Shann. Austin is in love with Shann. Austin’s best friend is Robby. Austin is also in love with Robby. As if that isn’t complicated enough, Austin and Robby accidentally set in motion a series of events that lead to a world-wide epidemic and they’re the only ones who can save the world.

Sounds familiar, right? Yes, it sounds like every other YA book where the world and the fate of humanity rests on only slightly qualified teens. That’s the popular fantasy: the hero’s journey; “in a world of 7 billion, I’m special.” I get it. We all want to feel like there is something that sets us apart, so it’s no wonder this is such a popular theme in YA lit. The thing about Grasshopper Jungle, though, is that it’s absolutely ridiculous and it knows it. Almost as though making fun of the hero’s journey, our narrator, Austin, is a freaking mess of a boy. He’s faced with the likely end of the world and all he can think about are typical teenage boy things; it’s unrealistic to assume that weight of the world suddenly forces maturity, so he’s thinking about the end of the world and also threesomes or whether presidents poop or what he should name his testicles or his Polish lineage.

I’ve seen people criticize that it’s too weird and it jumps around too much. Yes, it’s weird; no doubt about that. Yes, it jumps around. Smith incorporates so much backstory and ancestry and parallel character lines into the story that, at times, he spends a whole page describing all the many ways that everything is connected. Without knowing it, everything, everywhere, and everyone involved is connected. If you go into reading this seeing the value in that, you’ll be fine. Let me be clear in saying that this book will NOT bee for everyone. Read this if you like and/or don’t mind the following: YA Contemp. Lit, small town stories, sexuality exploration, heritage exploration, hero’s journey, giant bugs, graphic detail, adventure, and action. It was a little long for my taste and I often had trouble relating, but I never had trouble enjoying it.

Review of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale:”

Go ahead and start practicing your “sick” phone voice, because you need to call in sick to work tomorrow.

Last summer I read Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and had a lot of feelings. I’ve been seeing the *COMING SOON* ads for Hulu’s adaptation of the tale and I finally penciled in a day where the hubby was away long enough for me to binge the three released episodes. Reliving this story is, again, an emotional rollercoaster. I refuse to say that the show is better than the novel. Won’t say it. I WILL, however, say that they are so incredibly different that I can’t imagine how I existed with only one instead of both.

I’ve been trying to think of how to verbalize how different they are and I think it hinges on seeing it. When you’re reading something, you visualize it; for Handmaid, visualizing it was about imagining what it would look like to be oppressed and owned. Offred gave detail in a way that almost felt blasé to me. I think that was purposeful, on Atwood’s part, since our narrator had been living in this oppressed state and was used to punishment going along with speaking out, standing up, or even remembering. Our narrator has to be cautious and callous, since failing to get her *ish* together could get her killed. I have never experienced Offred’s horrific circumstances nor have I (yet) lived in a society where I have anything but complete freedom. Thus, imagining and visualizing could only take me so far.

The show, however, forces perspective. Offred’s experiences are right in your face, for better or for worse, so you MUST acknowledge them for what they are. Raw. A Dystopia at its finest. While the book allowed you to escape since it felt like it was all in the past, the show forces you to parallel the society with today, meaning that you, the viewer, have to acknowledge that this regression of freedoms is still entirely possible. It lays it all out via flashbacks and inner thoughts, detailing how the government tricked the public into thinking that a terrorist cell attacked and individual rights are being suspended in order to protect citizens. You see the brutality; you see the consequences; you see respectable individuals fight and beg for today’s basic rights; you see the 1% thrive and the 99% suffer. This is exactly the show that we all need to be watching right now.

Has anyone else seen it? I got a lot of buzz on my review of the novel, so I’d love to know if those same souls and others have feelings on the show. Talk to me!

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L: Review of Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”

I think most people have at least one book, if not many, that have taken up permanent residence on the TBR shelf. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is one of those books for me. It’s like when people move to a town for school/work/family thinking “oh I’ll just be here for a year or two” and then suddenly 10 years have gone by and you are registered to vote there. Handmaid was a registered voter on my TBR shelf, not because I was avoiding it, but mostly because there was always something higher on the list, more urgently in need of my attention. But nothing rearranges one’s TBR list like a school assignment, so Handmaid finally got her day in the sun!

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now…

I’ve read a lot of dystopic literature; dystopias got really popular within the last few years, what with the recent revival (pun intended) of zombie lit. However, as scary as the idea of zombies can be, what’s scarier to me is the thought of things that could actually happen, like the downfall of society and the oppression of women back into subservient roles. In this way, The Handmaid’s Tale was a truly disturbing depiction of the possible demise of America and the freedom that we all take for granted today.

The book begins… slowly. Details are secreted away and gradually worked into the story through flashbacks and memories. Offred’s former life sounds as though it was pretty typical by today’s standards, but the power and oppression of the new government have changed her daily reality into a test of her possible contribution to society. She is one of the few women (after some radiation episode) who may still be fertile; she can either produce a child for the master of her household, or she will be sent away, likely to her death, since he has proven her lack of ability and worth.

I will not turn this post into a rant on women’s rights. Atwood’s ability far outreaches my own, so just read it yourself. Suffice it to say, however, that she manages to show how fragile our security in our freedom could be, and how it really only takes fear and violence to reduce people to a status that we currently think impossible. Atwood makes readers think about the dangers of blindly following orders, the risks in challenging those orders, and the necessity for basic human rights and freedom. As is to be expected, many of the characters are loathsome, while others are “reminiscent” of the freedom of speech and personality that people enjoy today. This was one of those books that had my emotions riding roller coasters; there were few moments of joy, but there was plenty of intrigue, fear, anger, manipulation, and mystery. By no means is this a “feel good book;” I doubt I’d even recommend it as a summer read, since the book just feels grey. However, the lack of bouncy playfulness does not equal a lack of meaning, so do yourself a favor and read it.

Now, it is worth noting that when reading a book of my own choosing, my rule of thumb is that there are far too many books to waste time on one I don’t like, so I give it 50 pages to snag me. I kid you not, this book did not interest me until page 134. After that, it was unexpected, thought-provoking, challenging, uncomfortable, hopeful, and profound. While the first 134 pages took me days of self-motivation and boredom, the remainder of the book took 1 day of utter fascination. It started on an express train towards 1 star and suddenly and surprisingly earned itself 4 stars. If you can make it through the first part, you’ll be rewarded with the second part.

Regardless, this is a valuable read. Not only is it a “classic,” but it is as relevant today as it has ever been, what with the upcoming electoral candidates. Yipes. This would be a great book for a student interested in feminism or politics, and might do well paired with other political dystopic texts, like 1984 or The Time Machine. I will absolutely have this one in my classroom!

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