This book blew me away with its depth of feeling, characterization, fast pacing and deceptively simple language. I was also astonished at how seamless...moreThis book blew me away with its depth of feeling, characterization, fast pacing and deceptively simple language. I was also astonished at how seamlessly Madeline Miller interweaves her own smaller stories into the larger backdrop of the Iliad.
I'm a huge Greek mythology nerd, have been so since childhood, so this is a book I theoretically could have written: taking something huge, like the Iliad, and adding your own small details to it. Filling in between the broad strokes of these archetypal characters. Retelling this ancient story in a modern way, while retaining a sense of its epic scale.
It accomplishes that by deliberately limiting its perspective to that of Patroclus, Achilles' beloved companion. Patroclus does not participate in the fighting until the very end; he stays with Achilles in his tent, and sometimes helps the medic, Machaon, tend the wounded. So the epic battles are largely happening in the background. What's in the foreground is Patroclus's relationship with Achilles, which is told to us in a series of vignettes covering a much broader time interval than the Iliad does, starting in their shared childhood at Achilles's father's court.
We see the action of the Iliad approaching, first from a distance, and inching closer and closer as the book progresses. The seeds of the Trojan War are planted early in this narrative, in a scene placing the child Patroclus in a room with all the other kings and heroes vying for Helen's hand, and swearing the oath with them to come to the defense of whomever Helen marries if anyone steals her from him.
There were a couple of other things I loved about that scene, besides the foreshadowing: first, Miller's ingenious sketching of all the other major Greek heroes of the Trojan War --- she gives only a few lines to each man, but those lines are so evocative that you immediately know who everyone is before she names them --- and second, her impressive rendering of Helen. Helen appears only once in the story, in this betrothal scene, and Miller makes the counterintuitive choice not to describe her.
(What ambitious writer could resist the temptation of describing the most beautiful woman who ever lived? There were lots of points in this book at which I had to stop and acknowledge Miller's cleverness as a storyteller, and the decision to keep Helen veiled was one of them.)
Anyway, once that scene is over and the war, and Patroclus' and Achilles' deaths, are looming ominously in the distance, there's a long lull in which Patroclus and Achilles become close friends, and then lovers. The scenes between them are probably the most romantic thing I've ever read. I can't do them justice in this review.
Besides their heartbreaking tenderness, these scenes also stand out for their characterization of Achilles. Reading Miller's writing of Achilles feels a lot like watching someone walk a tightrope, or successfully make a series of increasingly precarious leaps. There is so much that could go wrong trying to write a novel about someone like that, someone so much larger than life. The most obvious risk to me is making him seem arrogant, selfish, spoiled or rude. It would also be easy to make him a Mary Sue, too perfect to be believed. Somehow Miller manages to give him flaws, make those flaws believable, and also keep the character likeable without compromising the disastrous nature and grand scale of his flaws.
(Another masterful bit of foreshadowing: when Achilles is just getting to know Patroclus, and asks him what he did that his father would exile him to Achilles's father's kingdom, Patroclus answers that he killed another boy who was trying to take something from him. Patroclus wants to know what Achilles would've done in that situation, and Achilles says something like, "I don't know, no one has ever tried to take anything of mine! I imagine I'd get quite angry at them if they did." And does he ever.)
Around the same time Achilles and Patroclus are falling in love, we meet Thetis, Achilles's sea-nymph mother. Her characterization was another thing I thought was absolute genius on Miller's part; rendering a convincing, psychologically complex and realistic character who is also obviously not human is HARD, and Miller does it beautifully. This Thetis has a lot more going on than the Thetis we see in the Iliad, who acts solely as Achilles's advocate to the Olympian gods. Her interests are identical to his in the poem, but not in this novel! Here, she has certain ideas about what kind of a person she wants Achilles to be, and what kind of life she wants for him, and those ideas are not necessarily what Achilles wants for himself. He's torn between Thetis's dreams of godlike glory for him and his love of Patroclus, which brings him closer to the human side of his nature. Accordingly, this Thetis hates Patroclus and tries to chase him away from her son.
I also just like the way Thetis is described. You tend to think of the Greek gods as looking just like people, writ large, because that's how they act most of the time, but yet you also know that in their true forms they're almost unbearably fearsome. Miller's description of Thetis walks this line perfectly; she's a woman, with black hair and pale skin, but she's also scary and otherworldly. Her voice is not a woman's voice; it's a horrible rasp, a noise made by saltwater and stone, not vocal cords. Miller always uses the same sets of similes to describe her: her skin is as pale as bone, the line of her jaw is like the blade of a knife, her mouth is a jagged red rent in her face. She doesn't blend into a scene: she appears, and there is one or two people in particular she's appearing to; no one else even registers to her. You get the impression that she sees people --- mortal people --- as annoying brief intrusions on her timeless, eternal solitude. Characteristic of her are the words with which she dismisses Patroclus the first time she meets him: "You will be dead soon enough."
The last thing I want to single out in this review is Miller's handling of the relationship between Patroclus and Briseis, the girl taken prisoner by Achilles and then taken from Achilles by Agamemnon. In the Iliad, we never really see them together (they're both secondary characters who don't get a whole lot of lines in the poem, though Patroclus gets more than Briseis) and don't get the idea that there's any special bond between them until Briseis speaks at his funeral, saying she loved him. This novel, with its more intimate scope, shows us this relationship from start to finish. It also gives Briseis a personality and desires of her own, which is tough when your only role in the story is that of human MacGuffin to be fought over, and traded between other, more important, characters.
That's probably the essence of this book's genius, right there: centering the book on characters who are secondary, or even peripheral, in the Iliad and giving them enough depth to anchor a novel.
This is the book I will probably always wish I had written.(less)
As with any Austen work, calling Lady Susan a "romance" is to court controversy. This is because the title character doesn't have a romantic bone in h...moreAs with any Austen work, calling Lady Susan a "romance" is to court controversy. This is because the title character doesn't have a romantic bone in her body, and she --- along with just about every other female character --- regards courtship and marriage as less a search for True Love and happiness and more as a woman's only way to provide for herself and, eventually, her daughters.
Lady Susan is more frankly mercenary than any other Austen character, and she is not facing down the spectre of poverty, so she's more a hilarious, cynical antiheroine than a sympathetic character. She's no Elizabeth Bennett, one of many daughters of an obscure gentleman of modest means; she's the widow of one rich husband seeking out a second, and also trying to set her (maddeningly obtuse) daughter up for life with a rich husband of her own.
This is a very early Austen work, so the satire is much more pointed and direct, and there isn't as much subtle shading of character or gentle fun poked at the eccentricities of the landed gentry.
I also felt like the epistolary structure of the novel made it harder to follow the plot, especially near the beginning when there are so many different characters to keep straight. And while Lady Susan's letters are delightfully wry and catty, I didn't think any of the other characters was given enough space to establish a voice of their own. They mostly act as either hapless dupes or disapproving spectators of Lady Susan's schemes.
So, Lady Susan is a lot of fun, but Lady Susan is kind of a lightweight novel whose structure works against it. (less)
As you can probably surmise from the huge collection of tags I've attached to this book, there is A LOT of stuff going on here!
Even the structure of t...moreAs you can probably surmise from the huge collection of tags I've attached to this book, there is A LOT of stuff going on here!
Even the structure of this book is complex and multifaceted: two stories, told by two narrators, in alternating chapters. The first narrator is Shira Shipman, a young, upper-middle-class Jewish woman who has recently become a wife and mother. Her life is also almost completely controlled by her employer, a huge biotechnology corporation, not only because they have a very strict, conformist corporate culture (there are even rules, unwritten of course, dictating how women of varying degrees of seniority within the company should dress), but also because Shira lives in what is essentially an upscale version of the company town: it's like a sealed-off, climate-controlled suburb/office park where everyone in the middle and upper ranks of salaried workers and management lives and works. Shira's narration, especially in the early chapters, is therefore suffused with nervousness, and a sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop, since her husband has recently been promoted and their family moved into a bigger, nicer house. Shira is certain there must be a catch, since she knows she's not exactly a team player, and not exactly in her bosses' good graces.
When the other shoe does drop, Shira packs up and leaves, heading to a place that's the polar opposite of the stuffy corporate-controlled environment she's just fled: it's a free Jewish settlement out in the middle of nowhere, unaffiliated with any of the major corporations that dominate this denuded, radiation-spoiled future Earth. Her grandmother (who brought her up) lives there, and she soon learns that her mother, who left her when she was born, is also coming to stay there. She also soon finds that her grandmother and the father of one of her childhood friends are working on something mysterious and fantastical: a robot that looks, talks thinks and feels exactly like a person, but has superhuman physical and mental abilities.
This robot, who is named Yod (a letter in the Hebrew alphabet; Aleph through Tet were his predecessors, all but one scrapped because of horrible, sometimes deadly, flaws), might be the most interesting character in this novel. That's saying a lot, because this novel is stuffed to the gills with interesting characters. Unfortunately, Shira Shipman isn't one of them --- that's the biggest thing that disappointed me about this book, that practically all of the real-time narration is done by the most boring character. (The other narrator, Shira's grandmother Malkah, spends almost all of her chapters telling the story of the seventeenth-century Rabbi Judah Loews --- also called "the Maharal" --- who created the Golem to protect his people, living as they did in the ghetto of Prague, where Christian mobs could attack them at will. This story is also hugely interesting, but because it's all very external to Malkah herself, the reader doesn't spend as much time in her mind as they do in Shira's. And that's a pity, because Malkah's mind seems like a fun place.) Yod owes his moral and emotional complexity entirely to Malkah's programming; her involvement may well have been the thing that saved Yod from the fate of all the failed attempts before him.
(And now, a random note on terminology: Yod is not a cyborg. There are some cyborgs in this book, but Yod is an android. Cyborgs are people who have been technologically augmented; androids are humanlike technological constructs. Carry on, then.)
Chaos ensues once people outside the tight circle of people who've been working on "the project" learn about Yod and his abilities. There's a lot of corporate-espionage type stuff, amped up by both the apparent absence of laws in this future world (assassination raids, abduction and hostage-taking are apparently standard practice), and the immersive nature of the "cyberspace" the denizens of the free settlement must navigate to earn their livelihood, since they specialize in cybersecurity. (Cybersecurity being very important in this world, what with all the aforementioned corporate espionage.)
This conception of cyberspace --- a three-dimensional "space" that you, virtually embodied as an avatar, move around in to talk to other people, download data, build firewalls or "patrol" existing firewalls looking for signs of intrusion --- is pretty much ripped from the pages of William Gibson's novels, as is the anarchic, impoverished megacity in which Everyone Else (i.e., the poor and the non-corporate) lives. "The Glop" (from "megalopolis," which is one of my favorite science-fiction neologisms ever, and one of the minority that seems like real people might use it) looks a lot like a lower-tech version of the Sprawl from Gibson's novels; Marge Piercy even acknowledges this debt in an afterword.
Derivative as all this is, I still found the worldbuilding in this book to be pretty solid. It helps that Piercy spends most of her time developing settings that aren't the Glop or corporate bubbles: her most original, most interesting "world" is the small, tight-knit community of Tikva, which marries freedom and openness with airtight security and a technological specialization that basically buys them their autonomy. (As in, every major corporation wants to buy their firewalls, so they all tolerate the upstart little city-state's existing outside any one of their control). It's a really interesting, well-realized picture of an intentional community, with a sharp focus on day-to-day survival in an uncertain world.
Another juxtaposition this settlement (and the book as a whole) tries to embody is that of future and past. Everyone in Tikva is a practicing Jew, and Jewish religious and cultural identity are just as integral to the place's cohesion and survival as its cutting-edge technology.
But the best thing, in a novel where everything is done amazingly well, has got to be the characters. I did not find Shira very interesting, but almost every other character who was in the book for longer than a scene or two was absolutely fascinating. And even Shira, though boring (to me), was well-developed, believable and even relatable. She evolves over the course of the book, and we see a lot of different aspects of her character: her feelings of confusion and betrayal when she has to confront her mother for the first time, and her slow metamorphosis from a closed-off, emotionally stunted, timid woman to someone bold, spontaneous and loving, which coincides with her finally moving past a schoolgirl crush on another character. And Yod! Yod is an absolutely masterful work of creation; he's not human, exactly, and he's also not male in the way that a man is male (psychologically, that is; physically he's quite male), but he is certainly a person, and despite the title he is not an "it." (His ambiguous status comes up when he wants to participate in some ritual, I forget which, that is restricted to Jewish men. He wants to be considered, not just human, not just a man, but specifically a Jewish man). His emotions were about half familiar to me (as an autistic person, I am well acquainted with the angst of wondering whether one is really human or not) and half alien (he was made for violence, and takes a predatory delight in it that bothers the moral and relational parts of his psyche), and all beautifully described and conveyed through his confused-but-eloquent speech and his halting, work-in-progress manner. He's definitely one of my favorite non-human characters I've ever encountered.(less)
At the start of this installation in the Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss and her friend and teammate from District 12, Peeta Mellark, are getting ready...moreAt the start of this installation in the Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss and her friend and teammate from District 12, Peeta Mellark, are getting ready to go on a victory tour through the twelve districts. The creepy President Snow tells her that it's her responsibility to calm the people in the districts down, as there's been unrest in several of them since Peeta and Katniss's defiant refusal to kill each other at the end of Book One. (The way she's supposed to do that is, inexplicably, to keep pretending to be madly in love with Peeta, only MORE! And BETTER! Or her whole family will DIE!! ... yeah, I found that whole storyline annoying, ludicrous and contrived).
I can't say too much else about the plot of this book without spoiling it, but I can tell you this one is just as exciting and action-packed as the first, with the suspense ratcheted up several notches now that Katniss has made an enemy of the Capitol. In this book, the influence of "Battle Royale" starts giving way to the influence of "Spartacus."
There are other elements besides the plot worth discussing: relationships between characters get a lot more complicated and messier in this installment, as Katniss, Peeta, and Katniss's other close-friend-and-possible-love-interest, Gale, have to deal with fallout from Katniss and Peeta's very public romantic entanglement during the previous year's Games. (See, Katniss had been faking the romance to try and catch the interest of outside sponsors who could help her get through the Games, while Peeta meant every word he said. And as this book starts, he has just found out that Katniss hadn't meant every word *she* said ...) It's a classic love triangle, and while there's nothing new here, the characters are well-drawn enough and the emotions real enough that it works. Which is more than I can say for the reality-show aspect of the novel.
We also meet more interesting supporting characters (and delve deeper into the background and motivations of existing supporting characters, like Cinna the costume designer and Haymitch Abernathy, the District 12 winner of an earlier Hunger Games who "mentored" Katniss and Peeta, coaching them on how to stay alive in the arena) and see more of the other Districts. District 12 has also changed, very much for the worse, since Katniss and Peeta's victory: there's been a brutal law-enforcement crackdown, with a new Head Peacekeeper just sent in from the Capitol. Katniss realizes that the reason for the crackdown is her defiance of the Capitol, and she agonizes over what she ought to do to protect the people she loves from further punishment.
Now, the thing that bugged me the most about this book: President Snow. He's got a huge country to run, and a civil war to avert, and yet he has all this time just to hang around giving Katniss the creeps? The man behaves like no despot I've ever heard of, and while his actions make no sense in the context of statecraft, or rebellion-quashing, or the consolidation of power, they are very obviously intended to ramp up the drama for Katniss. So when he's not being one-dimensionally, cartoonishly Evil, Snow is, essentially, relegated to the role of dramatic background music. Dun dun DUNNNNN!
(I realize the above doesn't really read like a four-star review ... I guess what that means is that, while the book has lots of problems, I still really enjoyed it, and it's problems aren't so bad that they got in the way of me enjoying it. It was less, "okay, Book, you've lost me" and more "This is ridiculous! .... But what happens next??")(less)
I liked this book more than I liked Jane Eyre; this one seems to have everything Jane Eyre has, plus a lot more, and it doesn't take anywhere near as...moreI liked this book more than I liked Jane Eyre; this one seems to have everything Jane Eyre has, plus a lot more, and it doesn't take anywhere near as long to get going.
The plot centers around a young British woman, Lucy Snowe, who is genteel but poor and without parents or any other relatives with whom she might live. She has been working as a sort of companion for an elderly woman, but when that woman dies Lucy has to find another job --- and residence --- quickly. She goes to the fictional European country of Labassecour and takes a job as an English teacher in a girls' school in its capital, Villette. While she's there, she meets several people with whom she goes on to have fairly eventful relationships: there's Ginevra Fanshawe, a pupil at the school and fellow Englishwoman, who becomes Lucy's friend and foil; Dr. Bretton, another fellow British expatriate who turns out to be a childhood friend of Lucy's, and on whom Lucy develops a crush; Madame Beck, the insatiably curious, prying headmistress of the school; and M. Paul Emmanuel, a temperamental cousin of Madame Beck's who also teaches at the school.
Like Jane Eyre, Lucy Snowe tells her own story. She seems to be telling it as a much older woman, reminiscing --- she makes passing references to lots of time having passed, and to herself having changed a lot since the events she's narrating actually occurred.
I liked Lucy quite a bit; there's a sly, dry humor in her that I didn't see in Jane Eyre. Lucy is also a very subtle, many-faceted character; different characters see different sides of her, and each one seems to think this facet is the key to her character. That might be the biggest factor explaining why I liked this book so much more than the similar, but better-known, Jane Eyre; I liked Lucy more than I liked Jane, and with these lengthy, confessional first-person narratives, you have to like the protagonist quite a bit to care what happens to her five hundred densely written, claustrophobic pages later.(less)
I thought this book was way too long for the amount of story and character development we were given. It bogged down a lot, especially pre- and post-R...moreI thought this book was way too long for the amount of story and character development we were given. It bogged down a lot, especially pre- and post-Rochester. I also didn't like how Bertha Rochester remained a cipher even after we learned her history.
There were some bright spots: in moderation, I love the fierceness of Charlotte Bronte's prose, especially when she's speaking through Jane. Jane is given some very witty internal monologues at times, and her righteous rage can be refreshing. (It's a Victorian novel; any unfiltered emotion is refreshing).
I also liked the physical descriptions of Jane and Rochester, and the pains Bronte went to to make sure we understand, in no uncertain terms, that her romantic leads are UGLY. I thought that was an interesting choice, given the usual expectation that the hero and heroine will be smitten by each other's beauty. But no, the romance here is intellectual and spiritual.
Mostly, though, the book just drags under its own weight. (less)