Tag Archives: Magic

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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Review: Cantero’s “Meddling Kids”

First things first, I recently posted about my love for tea and as much as I hate that the internet monitors my searches, it sure does benefit me from time to time. Pinterest recommended a monthly tea subscription service and I got my first delivery a few weeks ago. I was able to tell them about my aversion to cloves and got a very kind “Welcome!” email from the CEO and the Facebook group community. My first style was an Orange Blossom Black Tea and it is so fragrant and delish! They also have a shop with lots of other varieties (all hand blended without any unwanted, mass market additions) and tons of covet-worthy accessories. I’m in love and already spreading the recommendation far and wide, hither and yon. Very much looking forward to my next delivery in a week or so. I was going to put this at the end, but it’s important to talk about what you love.

 


I recently finished Edgar Cantero’s novel Meddling Kids and, overall, I very much enjoyed it. But it made me think: why must there always be a love interest? Why?!?

From the moment I found out that this novel existed, I was excited to read it. It ticked several of my boxes, being inspired by my childhood obsession (Scooby-Doo and the Gang) and containing elements of the supernatural and true crime. I want to say I first hear about it on a list of books that “will legit scare you;” it did not scare me even remotely, but it was a good mystery/thriller, nonetheless.

1990. The teen detectives once known as the Blyton Summer Detective Club (of Blyton Hills, a small mining town in the Zoinx River Valley in Oregon) are all grown up and haven’t seen each other since their fateful, final case in 1977. Andy, the tomboy, is twenty-five and on the run, wanted in at least two states. Kerri, one-time kid genius and budding biologist, is bartending in New York, working on a serious drinking problem. At least she’s got Tim, an excitable Weimaraner descended from the original canine member of the team. Nate, the horror nerd, has spent the last thirteen years in and out of mental health institutions, and currently resides in an asylum in Arhkam, Massachusetts. The only friend he still sees is Peter, the handsome jock turned movie star. The problem is, Peter’s been dead for years.

The time has come to uncover the source of their nightmares and return to where it all began in 1977. This time, it better not be a man in a mask. The real monsters are waiting.
 

For a while, I was worried that it might risk irritating me, since I was far from casual about my love for Scooby-Doo. Call it what it is: obsession. Sometimes, if things based on beloved originals take too many liberties, it risks offending the sensitive feelings of the fans, especially if formerly innocent teen characters are portrayed as drug-addicted, alcoholic, suicidal, mentally unstable twenty-somethings. However, I went into it knowing it was one person’s interpretation, so if it didn’t parallel my interpretation, or at least entertain me, I could always opt-out.

At times, the supernatural elements got a little eye-roll-inducing. However, it was at least consistent. It didn’t pepper it in there for occasional flavor; it established a supernatural element pretty early and maintained the “wtf is happening”-ness, but it at least had the decency to have the characters acknowledge the oddness of it all. Cantero meshed some characters, so that both of the girls had Daphne elements and both had Velma elements. Fred’s character (they have different names) was dead but still an active participant (hello, supernatural), and Shaggy’s was decidedly un-Shaggy-like throughout. He made the characters his own while still leaving “Easter eggs” of relevance for the die-hard Scooby fans. I’m also a big fan of a mystery that surprises me; I get a little bummed when I figure out the big reveal before-hand. I didn’t see this one coming and it was a nice surprise.

So that just leaves the ill-fitting love story. Why did that have to exist? In no way is it a spoiler for me to reveal that there was something of a lesbian interest constantly bubbling on a back-burner. That was made evident within the first few pages. However, this was one of those rare, end-of-the-world scenarios that was somehow overshadowed by inconsequential arguments and confusing emotions. These “kids” would find out that supernatural beings exist, and they’d put a pin in that in order to get to the more pressing matter of someone unexpectedly saying the l-word. And what’s with the unrealistic depiction of a girl who is loved by and lusted for by every single other character?!? Please. Enough.

I have little patience for jamming a puzzle piece where it doesn’t fit in order to appeal to more readers, and this just felt like pandering. It’s as though Cantero wrote a perfectly love-free novel and his publishers went back and said, “okay, but this won’t appeal to people who like love stories, so we need to force that in somehow.” No, you don’t. Some books appeal to some people but very few (a.k.a. none) appeal to all, so why taint those that truly appeal to one audience by diluting them with essence-of-other-people’s-interests? The love story was uncomfortable and inorganic, and after suffering through it for 300 pages, it wasn’t even resolved in a way that offered a satisfying ending. They have a VERY rocky road ahead of them.

I won’t even go into my thoughts on a thirty-something male writing the perspective of a teen lesbian. I’m going to let that sleeping dog lie.

Anyway, I gave it four stars, since the overall experience was a pleasant one. Worse comes to worst, I can always skim sections that are dripping with unnecessary sappiness. Am I alone in this?

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L: Review of “A Darker Shade of Magic” by V. E. Schwab

Recently finished A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab and I’m not sure what to say about it. I liked it while I read it, then I finished it, and completely forgot about it. It wasn’t one of those books that lingers in your mind for days after finishing it; as a matter of fact, I finished it a week ago and just plum forgot to write a review. I finished it, shrugged, picked up the next book, and moved right along with my life. It was interesting, unique, well-written, and altogether unremarkable.

A Darker Shade of Magic

Click here for Goodreads

Schwab’s main character, Kell, is one of very few advanced magicians who possess the ability to travel back and forth between parallel Londons. Red London, Kell’s home, is a peaceful and prosperous land where magic is widely used and revered; Grey London is impoverished and almost entirely ignorant of the existence of magic; White London is ruled by whichever murderous rogues can take the throne from the previous murderous rogues; Black London was destroyed by magic and is no longer mentioned. Kell’s official position under the throne of Red London is to carry messages from the monarchs of one London to the others, but he secretly, and illegally, smuggles minor artifacts from each realm to interested, paying parties in others. One day, Kell’s smuggling gets him into trouble and threatens the safety and prosperity of Red London and its inhabitants. With the help of an enthusiastic thief, Lila Bard, Kell must attempt the impossible and try to cross all the realms in order to save them all.

I liked the idea of parallel versions of the same city and the ability to travel between them; I thought that was unique and I appreciated reading something original. However, I think a few issues were glossed over in order to get down to business that should have been explained a bit further. We’re not sure why there are four versions of the same city and how they came to be this way; we don’t know if it’s four parallel worlds and thus every city has other versions, or if London is the only one; we know that Kell is part of a long tradition of randomly-selected specialized magicians, and we get the impression that there is one other like him in White London, but we know of no others in any city in any of the four worlds. I understand that the focus of the story is on the Londons, but it seems that too little focus was placed on the rest of the world(s) which creates holes in my perception of this plot line. If there are only two of Kell’s kind, why are they both in London(s)? Wouldn’t it be prudent to spread them out so the other cities/countries can also have magic men? And if London is the only city with parallel realities, why isn’t anybody freaking out about this? I understand that these issues may make no difference in terms of what’s happening during the book, but when an alternate reality is created, questions will understandably arise, and a quick sentence or two to answer those questions is preferable to just ignoring something as obvious as the world outside of London.

I have a lot of questions about this book, but overall I liked it. The main characters were relatable, the villains were hatable, and the plot was unique and much appreciated. It’s apparently the first in a series, so I’m sure one day I’ll pick up the others. Read it if you want, but if you don’t, it’s no skin off my back. As always, let me know what you think. Am I making a mountain out of a mole hill, or does it matter that the surroundings be as developed as the main plot lines? I’m plowing through Jurassic Park now (and loving it) and I’ll work on The Grace of Kings until my holds become available. For now, let’s campaign to get Hannah to come back!

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