Best lines from Circe

It’s been a loooooooooooong time since I wrote a ‘favorite lines from…’ kind of post. I can’t think of a better one to start back up with than Madeline Miller’s Circe. Miller’s prose is simply magical. Every pun intended. Assume there will be spoilers below.

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  • When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.
  • That word, nymph, paced out the length and breadth of our futures. In our language, it means not just goddess, but bride.
  • Nothing is empty void, while air is what fills all else. It is breath and life and spirit, the words we speak.
  • What was I truly? In the end, I could not bear to know.
  • It was not a word I knew. It was not a word anyone knew, then. Pharmakis,’ I said. Witch.
  • I thought: this is how Zeus felt when he first lifted the thunderbolt.
  • ‘Tell me,’ he said, ‘who gives better offerings, a miserable man or a happy one?’ ‘A happy one, of course.’ ‘Wrong,’ he said. ‘A happy man is too occupied with his life. He thinks he is beholden to no one. But make him shiver, kill his wife, cripple his child, then you will hear from him. He will starve his family for a month to buy you a pure-white yearling calf. If he can afford it, he will buy you a hundred.’

Fear of failure was the worst thing for any spell.

  • My sister might be twice the goddess I was, but I was twice the witch.
  • This was how mortals found fame, I thought. Through practise and diligence, tending their skills like gardens until they glowed beneath the sun.
  • Whatever you do, I wanted to say, do not be too happy. It will bring down fire on your head.
  • But in a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation he was to me.
  • As it turned out, I did kill pigs that night after all.
  • When there is rot in the walls, there is only one remedy. …Tear down, I thought. Tear down and build again.
  • Brides, nymphs were called, but that is not really how the world saw us. We were an endless feast laid out upon a table, beautiful and renewing. And so very bad at getting away.
  • They never listened. The truth is, men make terrible pigs.
  • War has always seemed to me a foolish choice for men. Whatever they win from it, they will have only a handful of years to enjoy before they die. More likely they will perish trying.

Witches are not so delicate.

  • Most men, in my experience, are fools.

Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.

  • Would I be skimmed milk or a harpy? A foolish gull or a villainous monster? Those could not still be the only choices.
  • When Achilles puts on his helmet and cleaves his red path through the field, the hearts of common men swell in their chests. They think of the stories that will be told, and they long to be in them. I fought beside Achilles. I stood shield to shield with Ajax. I felt the wind and fan of their great spears.
  • I was a golden witch, who had no past at all.
  • They have wrinkles, but no wisdom. I took  them to war before they could do any of those things that steady a man. … I fear I have robbed them not only of their youth, but their age as well.
  • Heroes are fools.

When you are in Egypt you worship Isis, when in Anatolia you kill a lamb for Cybele. It does not trespass on your Athena still at home.

  • I washed him and rubbed oils into his skin, as carefully as if he could still feel my fingers. I sang as I worked, a melody to keep his soul company while he waited to cross the great river to the underworld.
  • I touched the thought like a bruise, testing its ache.
  • He showed me his scars, and in return he let me pretend I had none.
  • I would look at him and feel a love so sharp it seemed my flesh lay open. I made a list of all the things I would do for him. Scald off my skin. Tear out my eyes. Walk my feet to bones, if only he would be happy and well.
  • Her only love was reason. And that has never been the same as wisdom.
  • Gods and mortals do not last together happily.
  • Witchcraft transforms the world. He wanted only to join it.

‘…I cannot say how I knew. It was as if…as is all this while, my eyes had been waiting for just that shape.’ I knew the feeling. It is how I had felt first looking down at him in my arms.

  • But perhaps no parent can truly see their child. When we look we see only the mirror of our own faults.
  • ‘It is strange to think of a goddess needing friends.’ ‘All creatures that are not mad need them.’

I remembered what Odysseus had said about her once. That she never went astray, never made an error. I had been jealous then. Now I thought: what a burden. What an ugly weight upon your back.

  • ‘I warned her once that grief would come of her marriage. There is no pleasure in hearing I was right.’ ‘There seldom is.’
  • Penelope said, ‘What makes a witch, then? If it is not divinity?’ ‘I do not know for certain. …I have come to believe it is mostly will.’ She nodded. I did not have to explain. We knew what will was.
  • That is how things go. You fix them, and they go awry, and then you fix them again.

Life is not so simple as a loom. What you weave, you cannot unravel with a tug.

  • …some people are like constellations who only touch the earth for a season.
  • One of us must grieve. I would not let it be him.
  • ‘You have always been the worst of my children,’ he said. ‘Be sure you do not dishonor me.’ ‘I have a better idea. I will do as I please, and when you count your children, leave me out.’
  • Do not try to take my regret from me.
  • ‘We are not our blood,’ he answered. ‘A witch once told me that.’

He does not mean that it does not hurt. He does not mean that we are not frightened. Only that: we are here. This is what it means to swim in the tide, to walk the earth and feel it touch your feet. This is what it means to be alive.

Black Lily

39305353Black Lily by Philippa Stockley

I read it as an: ARC

Source: HNS*

Length: 253 pp

Publisher:  Pimpernel Press

Year: 2018

**This review very much contains spoilers**

Black Lily is the tale of Zenobia and Lily. Zenobia was born into poverty, the daughter of an impoverished young girl who became the mistress of a shipping mogul. It is possible he was Greek or Middle Eastern but if it ever said, I missed that part. He was surprised when Zenobia was born blonde. Lily is a black woman who was brought to London from the Caribbean on a sugar and slave ship as a toy to a rich lord. She was a kept woman for a rich merchant who ended up being connected to Zenobia in a surprising way. The lives of these women  continue to intertwine in intricate, often horrific, ways, and they both have to learn how to navigate society to her best advantage when her value is entirely decided by the men who control them. Lily ends up being a hidden driving force throughout Zenobia’s entire adult life in ways she never even knows. In turn, Zenobia unwittingly is a savior of sorts to Lily. Another woman, Lily’s maidservant, Agatha, is yet another link between the three women, forging deeper connections and bonds that are strong enough to keep the secrets they all hide from society and the men around them. Read More »

The Winter of the Witch

42082394The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Kathleen Gati

Source: my own collection

Length: 14:00:00

Publisher: Random House Audio

Year: 2019

Picking up right where The Girl in the Tower left off, Vasilisa Petrovna finds herself the focus of the rage of Moscow’s people after inadvertently burning down a large part of the city. Accused of witchcraft, with the mob’s hatred fanned by the insane monk Konstantin, Vasya manages to escape into the realm of Midnight, a place where all midnights of the past, present, and future exist, but not before making a sacrifice that absolutely gutted me. In Midnight, Vasya meets many new characters, some friendly, others not so much. One of the best was the little mushroom spirit who made it a point to tell everyone that he was the first to support her quest. Baba Yaga also makes an important appearance. Vasya also learns that she has some surprising new abilities and the reasons for them, which draw the attention of the winter king Morozko. His twin brother, Medved, is bent on creating chaos in the spirit world and world of men, and Vasya and Morozko have to find a way to stop him. As if that all weren’t enough for her to worry about, Vasya also has to navigate the politics of the secular world to help save Rus from an invading horde of Tatars.

There isn’t really a good way to summarize this book. It is a satisfying end to the trilogy and I loved it, though I do think it is my least favorite of the three. I am not sure if it is simply because I was listening to it on audio (as I did the other two as well) and, because of work and personal schedules and things, I had a lot of days where I wasn’t able to listen at all, or not with my full attention. It felt a little disjointed in places, but that could have been me. In any case, Arden’s writing remains as lush and evocative as ever. I think I have to buy physical copies of this trilogy and eyeball read them all now, I loved this series that much.

Winter of the Witch dealt closely with destiny, identity, and loyalty, and how those influence people and their interactions. Just so many factors come into play – love, lust, fear, hate – and each one leaves its mark on Vasya. She learns hard lessons and makes some horrific sacrifices. She finds the only kind of love she could tolerate. She finds the place she belongs. She’s grown from a wild little girl into a strong and capable woman, with her own skills and secrets and pain and joys. Any woman would be proud to have a daughter such as her.

Favorite quotes:

“There are no monsters in the world, and no saints. Only infinite shades woven into the same tapestry, light and dark.”

“Yesterday she saved your life, slew a wicked magician, set fire to Moscow and then saved it all in a single night. Do you think she will consent to disappear, for the price of a dowry – for any price?’’

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Image courtesy of Pixabay. Maybe it’s Solovey?

“I was asleep but those two woke me up. I missed you.”

“Who is to say, in the end, that the three guardians of Russia are not a witch, a frost-demon, and a chaos-spirit? I find it fitting.”

Openly Straight

16100972Openly Straight by Bill Konigsburg

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Pete Cross

Source: my own collection

Length: 09:01:00

Publisher: Dreamscape Media

Year: 2017

Rafe is openly gay and lives with the full support of his parents and community in Boulder, CO. The problem, as he sees it, is that everyone sees his label first. He’s always the gay boy, the gay soccer player, the gay writer, never just Rafe. He finally decides he is tired of it and wants a fresh start, which he will get by moving across the country to an all-boys boarding school near Boston. Where he tells no one he is gay. He doesn’t go back in the closet, he argues, he just doesn’t advertise that he’s gay. Naturally, things get out of hand. One little white lie about not being gay snowballs into Rafe actively asking his family and friends in CO to pretend he’s straight. And then there’s Ben, the quiet, kind soccer teammate who Rafe can’t help but fall in love with, and who may or may not be discovering things about his own sexuality that he doesn’t want to confront.

This was a very interesting and quick read. Well, I listened to it on Audible, but still. I am straight and have never had to deal with coming out, so I can only imagine what it’s like for people always to be labeled as “the gay ____” of the group. I would hate that, and I really hope I have never done that to anyone. If I have, I apologize. It was inadvertent. Which is the point. Labels suck, and they are often placed unconsciously. This realization leads to the two best parts of the book. The first was the discussion in Rafe’s literature class when everyone was talking about tolerance. It really isn’t a very positive word, which is something I have said forever. To tolerate something – she is tolerable, I suppose – implies that it is just on this side of not making you vomit. You don’t actively hate it. You allow its presence but don’t welcome it. I tolerate the cat but I can’t fucking wait not to have a cat. So why do we say that tolerance is good in society? Wouldn’t something like acceptance or inclusion be infinitely better? I wouldn’t want someone just to “tolerate” me. Rather than being tolerant, let’s work on being accepting. Even better, let’s be inclusive. Accepting is better than tolerant, but it is still not perfect, since to accept something has an implication of resignation or surrender about it, that you may not like something but you know you can’t change it so you’re going to just let it go. It is better than tolerating something, but I think embracing or including a person or an idea or whatever is perhaps the best way to go about it.

The second part that I really liked, which may be a spoiler, I don’t know, so consider yourselves warned, is when Rafe realized that the “cameras” he was always so worried about were rarely actually focused on him. He realized that he had been staring at a guy in his group but he was thinking about himself and how concerns and realized what people think didn’t have anything to do with his own sense of worth or his own masculinity or identity. And then he had that lightbulb moment and realized that when others stare at him, it isn’t necessarily that they are judging him, but that they are thinking about themselves and reflecting on something utterly unrelated to him. I think a lot of people need to figure this out, that they aren’t the center of everything and that people aren’t always concerned with them. I know teens tend to have those imaginary audiences a lot, but I think many people never outgrow that. As my grandmother says, “you don’t worry so much about what people think about you if you knew how seldom they do.” It’s true – I think people think about themselves far more than anyone else and, for the most part, don’t care what other people do so long as it doesn’t affect them too much.

I’m a bit off YA at the moment, but this was still a very good book even though it wasn’t one of my favorites. The whole thing was just an interesting discussion and I am glad I read it. The writing style was easy and enjoyable, and apparently the author is local for me. Maybe one of these days I’ll see him at a book thing or something, which would be cool.

Born a Crime

33632445Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Trevor Noah

Source: my own collection

Length: 08:44:00

Publisher: Audible Audio

Year: 2016

Trevor Noah is known to most American audiences as the newest host and replacement for Jon Stewart on late night comedy. But this book chronicles his childhood in South Africa in the last few years of apartheid, through the years immediately after with their unrest and violence, and his own experiences with abuse. And yet, through it all, he kept his innate goodness and kind nature, despite seeing some horrific things. I don’t know that I could have come through as happily as he did.

I’m not generally a fan of memoirs, though I find that I’ve been reading more lately. So I don’t know, maybe I’m more of a fan of them than I thought. In any case, Noah managed to discuss some really heavy topics like apartheid, racism, domestic violence, and crushing poverty with genuine humor. I never thought I would have laughed out loud over eating “dog bones” because you’re too poor to buy better food, but goddamn the way he told it was hilarious. Maybe the best way to effect change is to make people laugh about a thing. I don’t know. But by turning it into something laughable, it kind of felt like it was a little disrespectful. But I am not the one who lived through it, so I also feel like I don’t really get a say in it. In any case, I enjoyed this book and I learned a lot about many things. I definitely recommend this whether you enjoy Trevor Noah as a comedian or not.

Priestess of Ishana

Priestess of Ishana by Judith Starkston

I read it as an: ARC, finished as a paperback

Source: from the author, and I bought a copy for my own collection

Length: 453 pp

Publisher: Bronze Age Books

Year: 2018

Tesha is the 15 year old high priestess of the goddess Ishana, a deity of war and love. Her duties and devotion to the goddess are strong and she carries out her role faithfully at the temple, believing she knows her life’s role. Until one day, two shepherds discover the charred remains of a man’s body in a cave, who had been killed by sorcery, a crime punishable by death. When the Great King’s younger brother, Hattu, arrives to Tesha’s city to deliver a great treasure to the temple as a sign of his devotion to Ishana, he is arrested for the murder of the man in the cave. Tesha and her blind sister, Daniti, are convinced that Hattu is innocent, but their father, Pentip, the Grand Votary and High Priest, believes otherwise. Acting against her father, Tesha meticulously searches for the truth that will set Hattu, with whom she shares an inexplicable bond and visions, free of his prison and save him from execution at his own brother’s command.

You guys. YOU GUYS! This novel is Hittite historical fantasy! Let me say that again:

HITTITE. HISTORICAL. FANTASY!

This is exactly the historical fantasy novel you were looking for to round out your 2018 reading! The world building is intricate and painstakingly drawn, which is always pleasing. The pacing has a nice blend of faster action sequences combined with complex (but not convoluted) politics and religious rites. Each character has depth and personality, some of whom you love to hate. I thought Tesha in particular was a complex person, a woman in her own right who had some power as a respected priestess, but who was also a woman in a very different and much earlier society who adhered to some patriarchal rules. It was fascinating to see her carry out her duties as well as her investigation within the scope of the limits her society imposed upon her.

The excellent author’s note at the end gives further insight into both the creation of the novel itself as well as the Hittites. I think a lot of people don’t know about the Hittites at all, or else only what is mentioned about them in the Bible. But their civilization was enormous and they had a ton of influence on the ancient world. They were literally lost to the sands of time and were only relatively recently rediscovered. There is still a lot we can learn about them, and frankly, learning history by way of well written fantasy novels isn’t a bad way to go. I think Judith Starkston has struck on a totally unique niche within the historical fantasy genre, and I can’t wait to see what she comes up with in her next installation in the series!

**A slightly different, probably longer and better version of this review will also be posted at the very awesome book review site Discovering Diamonds. You should go check them out.

Underground Airlines

35051774Underground Airlines by Ben Winters

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: William DeMerritt

Source: my own collection

Length: 9:28:00

Publisher: Hatchette Audio

Year: 2016

The premise of this alt-history novel is WHAT IF America had never had a Civil War? What if slavery was enshrined in the Constitution? There are four states – the Hard Four – which still have slavery, a highly regulated system with a lot of checks and balances. People like to think that it is not the slavery of the 1800s or even “fifty years ago,” but those people are incorrect. And it’s fucking slavery. Enter Victor, a young man who had once been a slave himself and managed to escape. He maintains his freedom by working for a shady government official as a runaway slave catcher, a job he is very good at but which gives him a great deal of conflict. His newest case is to track down a runaway named Jackdaw who is thought to be headed to Indianapolis. Along the way, Victor encounters shades of his past that he had tried to escape or push down, and learns that even the shady people he reluctantly works for are not at all what they appear to be.

This was a horrifying book, mostly because I don’t think something like this is really that far from truth. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to envision an America that still has slavery, judging from the revolting news we see everyday. There is rampant racism and neonazis and white supremacists and other disgusting groups who would probably jump at a chance to live in a world Winters portrays here. The poverty wages that many, many people earn are hardly better than slavery in this country, and in many other countries, there are sweathouse jobs that I would argue do constitute slavery conditions. So yeah, this book was terrifying. It is too easy to see this as reality. Let’s keep books like this fiction.

For as horrifying as I found this book to be, I was actually kind of bored with it. I thought the pacing was uneven and the plot a bit disjointed. It made it hard for me to follow at times. The characters as well felt rather flat and were hard to connect with. The narrator did a great job, though, using a variety of voices to differentiate everyone, which made it more appealing to listen to. I would still recommend this book, but perhaps not as an audiobook. I think I might have been more interested if I had eyeball read it instead. Maybe. I still think the characters would have felt one-dimensional and the pacing would still be uneven.

Wings of Fire: The Dragonets of Destiny

 
My 8-year old daughter was watching me grade some assignments my college students had submitted. She decided she was not impressed and thought she could do better. Frankly, this is something I have often said. She spent half the day on Thanksgiving making a PPT on a Wings of Fire book she’d read recently. She didn’t do the whole hero’s journey part, which is what my students were supposed to have done, but she still made a better presentation than many of them did. I don’t think I’m being biased… 
 

 

Doc: A Novel

8911226Doc: A Novel by Mary Doria Russell

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Mark Bramhall

Source: library

Length: 16:38:00

Publisher: Random House Audio

Year: 2011

This historical fiction novel focuses on the life of John Henry “Doc” Holliday from his early years, before he was famous for his role in the gunfight at the OK Corral. He was born to be a Southern gentleman, but he moved to Texas in hopes that the hot, dry air would ease the tuberculosis that was already ravaging his lungs. When the job market proved to be less than he had hoped, he started professionally playing poker. At the urging of Kate Harony, the Classically trained Hungarian whore he lives with, Doc and Kate move to Dodge City, KS and start fresh. And Doc becomes friends with a young man named Morgan Earp and his brothers Wyatt and James and the rest, as they say, is history. Or is it?

This book! I read this book just to check off the “Read a Western” box on the Read Harder challenge, and it was the only one immediately available that sounded remotely interesting. I’m not a fan of westerns. I did not expect to enjoy it all that much, it was just something to get through. I had no idea that I would discover the book that is probably my favorite book of 2019! This novel was just absolutely delightful. Doc Holliday was not the man he is portrayed by history, at least not according to Mary Doria Russell. He was a quiet, mild mannered, Southern gentleman who loved playing the piano, reading Classical literature, and speaking Latin. He was born with a cleft palate, and he was one of the first babies the have his fixed. He was fiercely loyal and did not seek out fame or notoriety. This Doc Holliday was a person I genuinely cared about.

The narrator, Mark Bramhall, delivered a superb performance. He shifts seamlessly from Doc’s slow Georgia drawl to the sharper twang of the Texas cowboys to the cheerful Irish brogue of the local town drunk. He gives dry wit a biting edge that made me laugh out loud more than once, and imbued his voice with such sadness or nostalgia at times that only the coldest person would remain untouched. I hope he narrates other books, because I definitely want to hear his voice again.

There was almost nothing I didn’t love about this book. Some of my favorite scenes were when Doc fixed Wyatt’s teeth and gave him dentures to replace his missing teeth. Wyatt was so happy to see his own smile, it was heartbreaking. He had to practice saying his S’s and TH’s and he was determined to get it right, which was also somehow endearing. Doc was proud of his work and delighted to be able to give a person back some of their self confidence and health, which he vigorously defended later to Kate when she was nagging him about how dentistry doesn’t pay any money. I also loved the scene near the end when Doc was playing The Emperor piano concerto. That whole scene made my face leak on my drive to work. I want to buy this for my own collection. I would listen to it again, or eyeball read it. It was enthralling.

Medusa the Mean

12052534Medusa the Mean (GoddessGirls #8) by Joan Holub

I read it as a: paperback

Source: our own collection

Length: 240 pp

Publisher: Aladdin

Year: 2012

In Medusa the Mean, there are only two things Medusa really wants – to be immortal like her sisters and the popular girls and for Poseidon to like her. To achieve these dreams, Medusa decides she needs The Immortalizer, a magical necklace she saw advertised in a magazine. The problem is that it doesn’t seem to work, of course. In the course of trying to become immortal, Medusa is also trying to find the perfect wedding gift for Zeus and Hera’s upcoming wedding, try to figure out how to bond with the kindergarten buddy she’d been saddled with, and make sense of the weird visit to the Grey Ladies she’d been forced to attend. And, since this is for pre-teens, there is plenty of angst and wondering about why she kinda likes Dionysus when her crush is on Poseidon.

I actually liked this one quite a lot. I’ve enjoyed the others well enough, though I think most are too involved with crushes and getting crushes and who likes whom, and hetero-normative reinforcement. But this one, though it had its share of crushes, focused a lot more on things like why Medusa was so mean. She was one of a set of triplets, but her parents treated her like she didn’t exist. Her sisters were born immortal but not Medusa. She was bullied in her hometown and had no friends. She is excluded from everything and to protect herself from being hurt, she starts shutting people out and being mean to keep them away. Which is completely normal, and really fucking sad. This is a great example of why you treat people nicely and try not to be a dick, because it can have real repercussions for people when you aren’t.

When we were reading this together, there were many times when my daughter said she felt really bad for Medusa. So did I. It opened up a dialogue of why kindness matters, and why maybe some people behave like they do. I’ve always told her that people who are mean didn’t get enough hugs when they were children. This is why we read literature, because it teaches and reinforces empathy. I don’t like all of the GoddessGirl books very much, but this one was definitely a win.