THE OTHER SIDE OF THE ODYSSEY: CIRCE

I have to say right off the bat that from the time I first read The Odyssey, my favorite character was the witch goddess Circe, who turned Odysseus’ sailors into pigs, and would have (I always believed) turned Odysseus into one as well if he hadn’t cheated (e.g., gotten help from the god Hermes to protect himself).  When my daughter was growing up, she and I listened to the Odds Bodkin version of The Odyssey, in which Circe cheerfully sings, “Pigs, pigs, pigs, is what you are!” as she changes the people into pigs, which was simply adorable. I was always disappointed when Odysseus moved on from Circe’s island, even though Circe does show up as a minor or supporting character in other Greek myths (for instance, she cleansed her niece, Medea, from her guilt for killing her brother as Medea and Jason fled with the Golden Fleece).  So you can imagine my delight to see that Madeline Miller has a new novel, Circe, which tells the story of my favorite character from her point of view.

It’s an excellent book.  Let’s just start with that.  Circe comes across as a real person, a very complicated person who’s neither goddess nor mortal but somewhere in between, someone very different from the nymphs who were her mother’s kin and the titans who were her father’s,  someone interested in mortals but not really able to understand them.

Do you need to know the story of the Odyssey or Greek myths in general to be able to follow this book?  Not at all. Circe tells you everything you need to know in the course of the story (and there’s a very helpful index at the back of the book, explaining who’s who and how people are related to each other, because there are a lot of interrelated characters and sometimes it’s hard to keep track).  However, if you DO have some knowledge of the source material, it is a bit more fun, so that when you first meet Pasiphae, Circe’s sister, your mind immediately goes to the birth of the Minotaur and that colors your thinking about her throughout. It’s a pleasure the first time you see characters with whom you’re familiar, and to see them in a new light, but trust me, you’ll get a sense of who Daedalus was and what Scylla was like just by Circe’s descriptions.

If you do know the basic stories of Greek myths, you’ll still be carried along on Miller’s plot, which tells the stories in a new way, giving you a different perspective on well-known characters and stories, without doing an injustice to the classic stories. So, for instance, the story of the punishment of Prometheus, which normally I don’t associate with Circe, comes into play here (and we meet Prometheus himself), and while we’ve all seen Scylla in The Odyssey, here we discover what Scylla was before she became this horrible monster, and who was responsible for the transformation.  

Miller writes vividly: the scene where Circe witnesses the birth of the Minotaur is visceral and terrifying; Circe’s first encounter with Scylla in the latter’s new form is nerve wracking and powerful.  Circe’s encounters with various gods and goddesses (not to mention various titans) make those characters more than human and at the same time recognizable to us mere mortals.

Her encounter with Odysseus is, naturally enough, the heart of the book.  We understand why Circe changes men into pigs (hint: they pretty much earn it), and why she treats Odysseus’ crew that way, and Odysseus’ trick, which infuriated me and seemed unfair in the original story, is something Circe takes in stride.  Unlike some versions of the story, in this version Circe doesn’t immediately bow down to Odysseus, but treats him and his men as her guests for three seasons before he leaves, and does her best to help him and them on their way back to Ithaka, not because she’s cowed by Odysseus but because she cares about him.  He comes across as a complicated human being, manipulative and intelligent, charming and not necessarily trustworthy, someone you could see Circe being attracted to.

Of course there’s more to the story, and if you’ve ever wondered what happened or what might have happened to Odysseus after the end of The Odyssey, whether he was able to return to being a mere king in Ithaka after having been one of the heroes of the Trojan War, what his relationship with his wife and his son would be like after his return, Circe gives you some answers, plausible and entirely within the characters of the people in the story.

At about the three quarter mark, when once again Circe was trying to protect herself and those she cared about from the malice of the gods, I was beginning to worry that there couldn’t be a happy ending or even a satisfying ending for this book, but I’m glad to report that I was wrong. It’s an excellent read, a lively and entertaining rethinking of Greek myths, not exactly feminist (Circe wouldn’t understand the concept, so kudos to Miller for not getting anachronistic here), but with a different and refreshing viewpoint.

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HANDS-ON LESSONS: THE KISS QUOTIENT

Sometimes you just need to read something light, something a little out of the ordinary that will make you feel a bit better about the state of the universe (or at least your small portion of it).  And if the book in question is a little romantic and kind of sexy (all right, more than just “kind of sexy,” a book that definitely spends a lot of time and energy on sex), well, so much the better.  I’ve just described the debut novel of Helen Hoang, The Kiss Quotient.

Stella Lane, the 30 year old protagonist of the book, is absolutely brilliant at math.  She believes mathematics defines the universe and she’s developed an algorithm that predicts customer purchases, and she’s wildly successful and well-paid. Still, in the eyes of her mother, she’s not really a success because she’s not married and having babies.  Sounds familiar? Well, it’s a little more complicated than the ordinary career-woman-needs-to-get-a-personal-life story, because Stella is on the autism spectrum. Touching other people is very hard for her, kissing strikes her as bizarre, and as a result, she believes she’s never going to find a man until she knows how to do sex right.  So she hires Michael Phan to teach her what she needs to know about sex and touching.

He’s half-Vietnamese, half-Swedish and gorgeous, a man who’s working as an escort once a week.  He has strict rules about his business, most importantly that he never goes on more than one date with a client, to avoid stalkers and other nasty experiences.  However, there’s something about Stella that makes him want to break the rules. He may be the only man in her life who’s ever really understood Stella, and he’s certainly the only man in her life who’s ever made her comfortable with the physical side of a relationship.  

Are they Made For Each Other?  Of course they are, though (this being a romance) there are obstacles the two of them have to overcome before their inevitable Happily Ever After.  The two main characters are real, warm human beings with flaws and virtues, and Stella’s autism is treated as a part of who she is and not a damage or something that makes her less.  If you liked The Rosie Project (as I did, and our book group did), and if you’re comfortable with a sexy romance plot, definitely pick up The Kiss Quotient and prepare to be charmed.

A MODERN DAY GOTHIC THRILLER: THE DEATH OF MRS. WESTAWAY

Ruth Ware, bestselling author of thrillers like In a Dark, Dark Wood, and The Woman in Cabin 10, has written a new thriller that harks back to the classic Gothic novels of old, The Death of Mrs. Westaway., and it should be a lot of fun to read.

The heroine, Hal (confusingly short for Harriet), is not one of your classic innocent Gothic heroines.  She’s in a bad place at the outset of the book: living alone after the death of her mother, trying to make money by doing tarot card readings as her mother taught her, and struggling to pay off debts she’s never going to pay off. Then she receives a mysterious note telling her about the death of a Mrs. Westaway who’s supposedly her grandmother, and informing her she’s one of the heirs of this woman.  Hal knows immediately that this can’t be true; she knows all her grandparents are already dead and she’s never heard of this person. On the other hand, she also knows she has some skills at cold reading people, and the thought of getting some money and maybe getting caught up with her debts is very attractive. So she decides to go to the funeral of the deceased woman and pretend she’s entitled to this inheritance.  

Things aren’t as she expects.  She goes to the (isolated, of course) family mansion, and begins to get a sense that she may indeed be related to the dead woman, and that there’s more to this family and this inheritance than she knows.  She also realizes that someone, maybe more than one someone, knows the secrets of this household and is willing to do anything to keep those secrets. The house is filled with “uncles,” both ordinary seeming and sinister, and a housekeeper who, in classic sinister fashion, knows all the secrets of the family and keeps them to herself.

The book has been compared to the works of Agatha Christie, but with a modern flair.  If you like mysteries that let you play along with the main character, looking for clues and inferences as she does, and you like atmospheric books where the setting is as important as the people in it, you should definitely check out The Death of Mrs. Westaway.

LOSS OF SHADOWS, LOSS OF MEMORIES: THE BOOK OF M

There are all kinds of books suggesting a dystopian future, involving things like alien invasions, zombie plagues, nuclear winter, global warming, the list goes on and on.  However, The Book of M, by Peng Shepherd, has an absolutely unique reason for the world’s ending: people start losing their shadows, and with their shadows, their memories.  If you’ve ever dealt with someone who’s suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, you’ll immediately realize how nightmarish the prospect of someone’s losing their memories is, and you can easily imagine what a horror show it would be if millions of people began suffering the same syndrome at once.

The Forgetting, as the syndrome is aptly called, started in India with one person losing his shadow, and nobody understanding what was happening or where this would lead.  Soon, however, the disease spread around the world like a plague, with people losing their shadows and then their memories and then turning into something other than human.

The book starts with Ory and Max, a married couple hiding out in the wilds, hoping to escape the disease by staying isolated and away from what passes for civilization (which, of course, would be devastated by millions of people losing their memories, and that’s without considering the other side effects of the Forgetting). They almost live a normal life until the day Max’s shadow starts to disappear.  Frightened by the prospect of what she might do to Ory if she loses her memories altogether, Max runs away, but Ory refuses to let her go and follows her trail through a strange and damaged America. Both Max and Ory encounter bandits, would-be warriors, and a weird cult that worships the shadowless ones. The world around them loses its coherence and sense along with people’s memories of an ordinary world, as if the only thing that made reality follow accepted laws is people’s willingness to believe that it does.

It’s not just a dystopian novel; it’s also a love story, a reflection on the importance of memories and human connections.  If you loved Station Eleven (as I did), or if you’ve had experiences with people losing their memories, this is definitely a book you’re going to want to read.

 

COMPLETELY OUT OF OUR HANDS: NATURAL CAUSES

Barbara Ehrenreich is a treasure, as anyone who’s read any of her bestselling books (including the wonderful Nickel and Dimed: on (Not) Getting by in America and Dancing in the Streets: a History of Collective Joy and Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, just to name a few) can readily attest.  She is not someone who takes any received “wisdom” for granted, no matter what kinds of “experts” (all quotations deliberate on my part) espouse that “wisdom.”  She’s got a great skeptical mind and a willingness to dig deeply, and I’ve never yet read one of her books without at least one “Really? That’s amazing!” reaction to something she reports.  Ehrenreich is also a good writer, funny and pithy, so you can just sail through her books without even looking at the footnotes if you like (though, if you are an inveterate reader of footnotes, as I am, you’ll find that she can and does document everything she asserts that seems surprising).  

With all that in mind, I heartily recommend her latest book, Natural Causes: an Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer. While of course we don’t judge books by their covers, in this case the cover is a perfect reflection of the contents of the book, both funny and (if you think about what she’s saying) a little horrible.

She takes aim at the medical profession first, and all the tests we put ourselves through, and whether those diagnostic tests are necessary.  This is radical enough, but then she goes deeper and suggests not just that the tests might not be necessary, but that getting these tests is actually harmful to us.  Putting her money where her mouth is (so to speak), Ehrenreich, a breast cancer survivor (who would probably hate to be so described, so I apologize), refuses to get regular cancer screenings and explains to us and to her doctors why.

She goes after a lot of the fads revolving around “wellness”, and mocks the idea of people living forever, or for hundreds of years at least.  When she starts talking about how our bodies really work, and how little control we have over anything that goes on inside us (including the absolutely amazing and terrifying fact that sometimes our immune cells actually help our cancer cells grow and spread, as if they’ve turned against us when they’re supposed to be protecting us), the book is both enlightening and somewhat disturbing, but always a fascinating read.

If you’re in the mood to turn a skeptical eye on many of the basic ideas we have about the control we have over our bodies and our futures, or if you’re a Barbara Ehrenreich fan, this is the book you should definitely read. Come in and check it out.

FAR AND AWAY THRILLERS

A good thriller can do more than just keep your pulse up and keep the pages turning as you rush to figure out what happened and whether something worse is going to happen soon.  It can also introduce you as a reader to another time, another culture, without reducing any of the tension. Two new thrillers take us to unique and unusual times and places, so if you’re interested in the wilds of Montana in the present time or Iceland during World War II, you’re in luck.

A Sharp Solitude, by Christine Carbo, is set in the gorgeous and very wild Glacier National Park in Montana, and the setting is an essential part of the story.  A journalist, Anne Marie Johnson, was staying near the Canadian border in the wilderness of the Glacier National Park, researching for an article about a canine program where specially trained dogs help do scientific research.  She was interviewing Reeve Landon, owner of one of the dogs in the program, just before her murdered body was found, so Landon is obviously one of the main suspects in her death. Landon contacts his former lover, the mother of his child, FBI investigator Ali Paige, and asks her to help him.  Of course she’s not supposed to be working on this case at all: the crime appears to have been committed outside Federal land, and her relationship with the chief suspect would disqualify her even if the FBI had jurisdiction. But that doesn’t mean she can turn her back on Landon, and so she starts working to find out who really killed Anne Marie, as Landon runs deeper into the wilderness to hide from the tightening noose, at the same time feeling he might deserve this persecution because of a terrible thing he did when he was younger.  The book switches back and forth between his viewpoint and Ali’s, as the characters discover that even in the vastness of the Montana country, no one can truly outrun his past.

Arnaldur Indridason’s The Shadow Killer takes place in 1941 in Iceland, where the British army forces are leaving the island and being replaced by American ones.  A man is murdered in a small apartment in Reykjavik, shot through the head with an American weapon, the blood drawn into a swastika pattern. Two people, neither of whom has much experience investigating murders, are brought together to investigate what happened and who’s responsible.  Their investigation begins with difficulty, as the main suspect, the murdered man’s roommate, is nowhere to be found, and things get more complicated as people who might be suspects include the dead man’s former girlfriend, who had left him to fraternize with the soldiers, and some of the soldiers stationed in the city.  The more the investigators dig into the background of the roommate, the more unsavory it seems, especially his involvement with a Nazi experiment on young children. There are too many secrets people are keeping in this environment of spies and counter spies, locals and foreigners and the background of the war complicating everything, and the question becomes more than just who committed this crime, but encompasses the whole changing world of wartime Iceland.

 

AN ALTERNATE HISTORY OF JFK: THE SUMMER I MET JACK

The administration of John F. Kennedy ended more than 50 years ago, and yet there’s still this fascination with the Kennedys, with what JFK actually did, with what he and his siblings might have done, with that whole era of American history, so recent and yet so far removed from today.  In some ways, the Kennedys are our home-grown version of royalty in terms of the way people follow all the gossip and doings of generations of the family. If you are a Kennedy watcher, then you may be interested in a new book by Michelle Gable, The Summer I Met Jack.

As you might be able to guess from the title, the narrator and main character of the book is not herself a Kennedy. She’s based on a real person, and the story is grounded, at least initially, in events that actually happened.  Alicia Corning Clark arrived in Hyannisport, Massachusetts, in 1950 to work as a maid for the Kennedy family. A beautiful Polish refugee, Alicia was entranced by the family and especially by Jack, the eldest son and a rising politician. The two fell in love and even, in this book, were engaged to be married, until Joseph Kennedy, Jack’s father, flew into a rage and forbid the marriage.  

This might or might not have broken Alicia’s heart, but she left Massachusetts for Hollywood, and found plenty of consolation there, with relationships with people like Gary Cooper and Kirk Douglas, and marriage to a wealthy Singer (of the sewing machine business).  Through all her adventures, though, she kept in touch with Jack Kennedy, and then, on the eve of his inauguration as President, they met again, to confront their past and the effects of their behavior on each other.

Whether the two of them did have a child together, as the book suggests, is an open question. J. Edgar Hoover claimed she was blackmailing JFK over their illegitimate child, so someone believed it was possible at least. The Summer I Met Jack is a sort of alternate history novel, a following through on the “what if”s of the Camelot period of our history.  If you’re a Kennedy fan, or curious about what might have happened, check out The Summer I Met Jack.

BECOMING (MORE) HUMAN: ARTIFICIAL CONDITION

You wouldn’t necessarily think a series of novellas about a security bot which refers to itself as “murderbot” would be my cup of tea.  Yes, I like dark writing (hello, Jo Nesbo!), and have a somewhat quirky sense of what’s interesting, but the whole military science fiction subgenre (to which a book involving security bots killing people would seem to belong) isn’t something that usually lights my fire.  

However, Martha Wells’ Murderbot series is absolutely wonderful, and I will gladly read the next book, or the next three books, or however many she chooses to write in this series. I loved the first book, All Systems Red, and her newest book, Artificial Condition, picks up where the first one left off and is a great fast and even funny read, without sacrificing any of the deeper questions her main character raises.

Murderbot is the narrator of the books, and a great deal of the fun of the series is Murderbot’s character.  A security bot with built in weapons that can kill and disable humans and bots very effectively (we see this a few times so far in the series), Murderbot disabled its governor a while before the first book, which means it cannot be controlled by outsiders, including the people who own it or rent it out.  You would naturally expect that a device built to kill would, when the governor’s no longer restraining it, turn into a classic killing machine and go rogue and destroy everything and that would be the plot of the series (think of the artificial people in the Aliens series, for instance), but you would be wrong.  What Murderbot wants to do is watch videos in private and do as little of the killing and destroying as it can. It is shy around humans, and, as we discovered in the first book, has real trouble when people treat it as an equal and not as a tool for them to use.  

Without too many spoilers (you can read my review of All Systems Red, or you can just read All Systems Red itself; it’s short and fast), by the end of the first book, Murderbot is free and capable of determining its own destiny.  It isn’t completely free and clear, of course, because if anyone knew that there was a security bot running around without a governor, the authorities would immediately go after Murderbot and at the very least reinstall a governor and wipe its memory, and at the worst, destroy it altogether.  

Murderbot knows there was something that happened to it before the mission in All Systems Red. It doesn’t remember what happened other than the vague outlines that it was involved in killing people. Whether that was the cause of its disabling its governor or the effect, it’s not sure, and obviously that makes a difference to it as a moral being (and yes, Murderbot is, despite its claims to the contrary, a moral being), so it sets out to find out what happened.  Along the way, it finds itself working with a sentient transport (whose every communication with Murderbot is, according to our protagonist, to be imagined being said in the most sarcastic way possible), and, as a matter of disguise, signing on as a security consultant to a group of humans who are negotiating for the return of some stolen files from an untrustworthy and dangerous former employer.  Murderbot takes on this job solely to get authorization to get on and under the surface of the planet where the past incident (all records of which have been scrubbed from the public interfaces) took place, but, being what it is, it feels a duty to the people it’s protecting, and ends up helping them and actually protecting them rather than just dumping them when it’s convenient.

Along the way, we have revelations about what actually happened in the “incident”, and some serious, thought-provoking scenarios that make us question the extent to which these bots are like humans themselves.  I don’t want to make this sound too heavy; there are some very funny exchanges between Murderbot and the ART (the transport), and a scene in which one of Murderbot’s clients, taking it to be human, tries to comfort herself by cuddling Murderbot, to the bot’s horror, and on the whole the mix of serious and amusing is just about perfect.

Artificial Condition, like its predecessor, All Systems Red, is a fast and fun read, and Murderbot is probably the only killer robot I’d ever be willing to follow through the galaxy.  Introduce yourself to the series, and you’ll probably agree.

 

THE BOOKS OF SUMMER, 2018

It’s obviously not summer yet according to the thermometer and the (lack of) sun these days, and even by the calendar it’s not going to be summer until late June, BUT in the world of books, summer reading starts much earlier than actual summer.  Which makes perfect sense, really: when do you really want to read about beaches and vacations? When you’re actually at the shore or actually taking a vacation, or before that, when you still have time to dream about those things and long for them?  I don’t know about you, but I’m in the “read vacation books BEFORE vacation” group. Fortunately for me, and for people in this category, The Field Library has a collection of summer reads already, in late May, for your reading and dreaming pleasure.

Mary Kay Andrews is well known to people who want a good beach read, or a good pre-beach read.  Her latest, The High Tide Club, gives us everything we want in a summer read: a gorgeous location (the barrier islands of South Carolina), family intrigue, characters coming together to either discover their relationships or rediscover them, and intrigue as well.  Brooke Trapnell is an attorney who’s very surprised to be summoned to the crumbling pink mansion, Shellhaven, of rich and incredibly eccentric 99 year old Josephine Bettendorf Warrick. It’s not that she doesn’t know of Josephine by reputation, but she has no idea why Josephine would summon her for legal work when they’ve never met before and Josephine already has a high powered Atlanta law firm doing all her legal business.  Josephine tells her a story of old friendships, betrayals, and a long unsolved murder. She wants Brooke to bring together the heirs of her old friends, the members of the High Tide Club (a name they chose after some skinny dipping escapades) so that she can make amends to them, and unite these disparate strangers for the first time. But while Brooke is willing to do this, she’s also inadvertently digging up some old secrets which just might make someone incredibly rich, or the victim of a murderer.  

Another of the great beach read writers is Mary Alice Monroe, especially with her Beach House series, set in the Isle of Palms off the coast of South Carolina.  The newest book in the series is Beach House Reunion.  This is not a series where you have to read all the books in order (though it helps ground you with the characters if you do); you can start with this one and then go back and see what happened to these people in this place before the events of this book.  Doesn’t everybody need a place to go where their friends and family are around to support you, listen to you and give you advice when you need it, a safe haven that’s in a beautiful location to boot?  For Cara Rutledge, still grieving for her dead husband and now taking on the responsibility of a new adopted baby, the Isle of Palms is the perfect place to return to, a place where her late mother’s influence is still everywhere and where her friends and family remain, a place she can start over.  For her niece, Linnea, who recently graduated college but hasn’t found a real job yet, it’s a place where she can work as a nanny for Cara’s baby, Hope, while she gets her bearings and decides what she really wants to do with her life. It’s a home, it’s the shore, it’s a place to move forward and try new things in the comfort of old friends and old memories.

And if you’d like some beach atmosphere a little closer to home, there’s Judy Blundell’s The High Season, set in the Hamptons on our own Long Island.  Ruthie Beamish has her house in a quiet Long Island town, and she intends to keep it, despite her divorce from her husband.  It’s her nest egg, her retirement savings, her daughter, Jem’s, college fund. The problem is that she has to rent it out every summer in order to afford to stay there the rest of the year. So on Memorial Day, she and her daughter move out so that Adeline Clay, this summer’s renter, can move in with her gorgeous stepson.  But this summer turns out to be different from the usual: Adeline starts trying to take over Ruthie’s life, her friends, her home, her ex-husband, and even making trouble for Ruthie at her job, at which point Ruthie has to start fighting back. The same summer, Jem is beginning to spread her wings with an independent job, but she’s also getting in over her head. Add social climbers, Ruthie’s former lover, mysterious millionaires and all the intrigues of a summer at the Hamptons, and you have the ingredients for a summer that will leave no one unchanged.

AND THEN SUDDENLY EVERYTHING COMES UNDONE: THE GLITCH

The protagonist of The Glitch, a debut novel from Elisabeth Cohen, is a type of character we’ve seen frequently, either in real life or in popular culture: the overworked, overscheduled having-it-all modern woman.

All right, so Shelley Stone might be taking things a little farther than most of us do.  She’s the CEO of a tech company called Conch, whose product is an app that whispers in people’s ears about what they should be doing right now to make their lives better. She’s a wife and mother of two, and she believes she has it all under control.  She’s scheduled her “me” time at 3:30 a.m. while she’s on the treadmill, she schedules sex with her husband when they’re already folding clothes together, and she takes naps while she’s standing in line. She has a nanny, a cook, a driver, an assistant, her kids are overscheduled (learning Mandarin, among other things), and she makes notes to herself to “practice being happy.”  You just know from reading this far that something is going to come crashing down, and of course that’s the plot of the book.

The form of the crash is what makes it interesting.  A young woman shows up, introducing herself as Shelley Stone.  She has the same scar in the same place as our protagonist does, and she claims to be a younger version of Shelley, which she might actually be, except that Shelley doesn’t believe it’s possible.  So what is this person? Is she a spy sent by some rival corporation to undermine Shelley’s company? Is she evidence that the space time continuum is springing a leak and about to disintegrate altogether?  Or is her presence a sign that Shelley is finally cracking under the pressure?

For all of us who feel our lives are too complicated, who occasionally wonder what our younger self would say if she could see us now, for all of us who enjoyed the perspective shift of Liane Moriarty’s What Alice Forgot, for all of us who want a good laugh at ourselves and people like us, The Glitch is just what the doctor ordered.