San Francisco, California

A Year Without Books

I haven’t read a book all year. During the course of the pandemic I haven’t been able to focus enough to get through anything longer than a blog post or a newsletter. Typically I’ll start reading something, the novelty will wear off, and then I’ll have no interest in pushing forwards. It’s like I can’t hold all the pieces of the story in my mind right now — the plot either gallops off leaving me behind or it’ll freeze in its step and I suddenly find myself begging to speed things up.

And yet, and yet.

A picture of me holding the novel Circe

Madeline Miller’s novel Circe is a revelation. I picked it up a week ago and before I knew it I had let it consume every moment of my time. It was like stumbling upon a TV show that gets you and is impossible to describe why it’s so important to anyone else; it was mysterious and thrilling and un-put-downable.

And it was, as all stories should dare, entirely novel.

Miller writes from the perspective of Circe, the daughter of the sun god Helios, and I only knew vaguely about her; I remembered her name, and that she was one of the gods that Odysseus was stranded with on his way back from the Trojan wars in The Odyssey. Beyond that I knew nothing about her story. But now Circe is my favorite of the gods.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about this story though is the way that Miller sets up a universe with specific rules. Yes, there are spells and magics and gods that can snap their fingers and realign the stars in an instant—but!—it all works. The rules make sense.

Most magical worlds fall flat in this way for me. Take the Snyder cut of the Justice League for example: in a flashback they cut to Zeus and I started laughing hilariously because it’s a man dressed like fucking Zeus and he seems so out of place in a world with a dude called Batman in it. His magic seems...incorrect and out of balance with the world. In Circe however, all the magic is in perfect balance. Even Zeus himself becomes this terrifying and permanent force throughout the novel despite you never seeing him. His power is overwhelming and deadly even to other gods.

Anyway, I know I’m rambling incoherently here but Circe is such an important story to me because Miller took all these mythologies that are thousands of years old and wove them into something new. It’s like all the stars aligned in my garden at just the right time to drop this thing in my lap because throughout the novel Circe must confront her immortality; she watches the people she loves age and die around her. And during the pandemic I’ve felt precisely like Circe—trapped up inside my apartment I feel like an immortal god where the world is spinning around me uncontrollably and from very far away I’m watching everyone hold onto their lives, gasping for every last breath.

Circe confronts her survivor’s guilt within these pages and yet what makes her a hero to me is that despite that doom bearing down on her shoulders—a world impossible to overcome—she fights until the very end.

Miller writes:

I wake sometimes in the dark terrified by my life's precariousness, its thready breath. Beside me, my husband's pulse beats at his throat; in their beds, my children's skin shows every faintest scratch. A breeze would blow them over, and the world is filled with more than breezes: diseases and disasters, monsters and pain in a thousand variations. I do not forget either my father and his kind hanging over us, bright and sharp as swords, aimed at our tearing flesh. If they do not fall on us in spite and malice, then they will fall by accident or whim. My breath fights in my throat. How can I live on beneath such a burden of doom? I rise then and go to my herbs. I create something, I transform something...

So Circe has taught me that in moments like these we must do something brave: we must go to our herbs.

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