book review: Medea by Christa Wolf


MEDEA by Christa Wolf
Nan A. Talese, 1998
originally published in 1996


About a year ago I read and loved David Vann’s take on the Medea myth, Bright Air Black. It follows the original story very closely and offers few surprises in terms of plot for those already familiar with the tale, but it endeavors and succeeds in giving Medea a narrative voice, allowing her to tell her own story. Christa Wolf’s Medea, published 20 years earlier than Bright Air Black, is another feminist victory for this narrative, but interestingly, Wolf’s and Vann’s interpretations of Medea’s character couldn’t be more different. I love them both.

Vann’s is very straightforward. Though he at times renders her character sympathetic in a way that’s deeply unsettling, his Medea is every bit as violent and vindictive as you’d expect. Wolf approaches the narrative from a different vantage point altogether. What if Corinth stood something to gain from Medea being painted as a monster? This is the question Wolf explores in this politically-driven retelling, narrated in a series of monologues by Medea, Jason, Glauce, and other individuals in the royal court at Corinth.

The first thing that struck me as soon as I finished Medea’s first chapter and started reading Jason’s was how startlingly different their narrative voices were, which I think is such an incredible and impressive feat to accomplish in a book like this, which hinges on different characters’ perspectives telling the same story. The other thing that struck me was the mastery and lyricism of Wolf’s prose (translated beautifully from the German by John Cullen).

It’s possible they sense my unbelief, my lack of faith in anything. It’s possible they can’t bear that. When I ran over the field where the frenzied women had strewn your dismembered limbs, when I ran over that field, wailing in the deepening darkness, and gathered you up, poor, broken brother, piece by piece, bone by bone, that’s when I stopped believing. How could we be meant to come back to this earth in a new form. Why should a dead man’s limbs, scattered over a field, make that field fertile. Why should the gods, who demand from us continual proofs of gratitude and submission, let us die in order to send us back to earth again. Your death opened my eyes wide, Apsyrtus. For the first time I found solace in the fact that I don’t have to live forever. And then I was able to let go of that belief born out of fear; to be more exact, it repelled me.

I mean, that’s stunning.

What I love so much about mythological retellings; the reason I read the same stories over and over again written by different authors, is that each retelling offers something new, each author interacts with the original story in a different way. That’s clear in the stark contrast between Medea and Bright Air Black, how one can render Medea as a victim and the other as a villain, while both staying, in their own way, true to the original myth. Wolf’s retelling is also concerned with the greater political context of Corinth at the time of Medea and Jason’s arrival – it reflects on how a community is willing to turn a blind eye to its leaders’ faults, which is relevant not only in our current political climate, but also to Wolf’s own life, when you consider that she grew up in the GDR. This is what I mean when I talk about the universality of myth, and how it belongs to everyone, and how individuals from different cultures and different backgrounds can all draw different conclusions from the same story, and why Euripides’ and Seneca’s versions of Medea remain so important thousands of years after they were written. Wolf’s Medea, beautifully written, thoughtful, and resonant, is the perfect reminder of this story’s relevance.


discussion: Retellings, Canon, & Fanfiction

This post is inspired by a brief series of tweets that I wrote earlier, followed by an interesting conversation with a friend that got me thinking about this even more critically… I’ll start with my tweets, which are as follows:

I get unreasonably annoyed when people refer to mythological retellings as fanfiction. There is no hard and fast canon for mythology – that’s the point. Even Sophocles and Euripides told the same stories in different ways.

Mythology belongs to everyone. We have fragments of stories and glimpses of these characters from 3000 years ago and we all draw different conclusions. That’s the magic of it. Every interpretation is valid.

Side note – I am not bashing fanfiction! I love fanfiction. But in reviews of contemporary mythological stories, it’s used as a pejorative to try to undermine legitimacy. What exactly makes something a valid contribution to a canon which isn’t fixed to begin with?

I also think there’s probably something gendered in this….. you see the fanfiction criticism leveled against Christa Wolf and Madeline Miller much more often than Robert Graves or Colm Toibin.

Anyway, as I said, I then got talking to a friend who admitted that she’s referred to things like Paradise Lost as fanfiction, not to discredit the legitimacy of Paradise Lost, but to uplift fanfiction, which we both agree is a perfectly valid form of storytelling. We realized we were coming at the exact same conclusion from two different vantage points – I was saying ‘none of it is fanfiction; it’s all valid’ and she was saying ‘all of it is fanfiction; it’s all valid.’

Where do you guys fall on that? In general do you think published retellings should be considered fanfiction?

Anyway, what adds a level of complication to this when you’re talking about mythology is that mythological canon itself can be so hard to pin down. What do we consider ‘canon’ in Greek mythology? The Iliad, certainly, even if that story was around before Homer. What about the Aeneid? Even though it was written 900 years after the Iliad and uses many of its same characters? What about Dante’s Divina Commedia – do we accept that Odysseus/Ulysses burning in hell for his trickery is the definitive conclusion of this character’s narrative?

Fast forward several thousand years – let’s look at something like The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, or Medea by Christa Wolf, or Bright Air Black by David Vann. None of these novels are ‘retellings’ in the sense that they, for example, take the story of Achilles and set it on the moon.  They’re all set in the same time period as the original stories, and they attempt to expand on the characterizations that we’re familiar with.  Do we classify any/all of their interpretations as fanfiction? Or do we embrace them all into an ever-expanding concept of mythological canon, even if Medea and Bright Air Black contain contradictory interpretations of Medea’s character?

And finally, what do you think of the gender argument – do you think the fanfiction criticism is more often leveled against female writers (whether consciously or not) in an effort to undermine their credibility?

Sorry, I know I’ve asked a lot of disjointed questions here… I just thought this was some pretty interesting food for thought. Do you guys have any thoughts on this? Let’s discuss!

book review: Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard


2017, Profile Books

We only need to look at the size of Women & Power: A Manifesto – 128 pages – to know that this isn’t going to be an in-depth academic text which rigorously examines the themes it presents. But that’s okay. Instead, it’s a concise and thought-provoking introductory text for anyone interested in feminist theory, who maybe isn’t quite sure where to start.

Women & Power is a combination of 2 essays, which each began as a lecture that Mary Beard – classicist and outspoken feminist – gave somewhat recently in her career. The first essay concerns itself with the role of women in the public sphere, and the precedent of silencing women’s voices, using both historical and literary examples. The second essay shifts to our societal conception of power as a male-dominated domain, to which women are still somewhat grudgingly granted access.

My main piece of advice going into this is to keep your expectations reasonable and remember the page count. If you don’t find this kind of brevity suitable for this subject matter, this is definitely not the text for you. But if that doesn’t put you off, I’d highly recommend taking an hour to read this. Mary Beard’s ideas are brilliant and well-articulated, and the way she links current events with classical precedents is something that I found particularly engaging and unique about this. This isn’t exactly a treatise on where we go from here, on how we change the way we have perceived power for so long, which some may find disheartening, but Beard leaves this question up for discussion and contemplation. Books like this are a necessary step.

book review: Happiness by Aminatta Forna


HAPPINESS by Aminatta Forna
Atlantic Monthly Press, March 6, 2018

I’m so conflicted about Happiness. I think there’s a really extraordinary novel in here – I just think it occasionally gets too caught up in its meandering structure, and loses focus too often. At its best, it’s striking and thought-provoking; at its worst, it’s a slog.

Happiness is a quiet, contemplative novel that meditates on themes like trauma, cultural differences, the relationship between humans and animals, and what it means to be happy. The novel begins with a chance encounter between two expats in London, an American woman named Jean and a Ghanaian man named Attila. It takes place over the course of about a week (though it feels much longer), and it follows each of their narratives as they weave in and out of each other’s lives.

I’ve seen this compared to Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, but it actually reminds me more of The Unconsoled. Not the whole Kafkaesque element, but one thing that struck me was how Jean and Attila kept encountering minor characters, getting caught up in their drama, and getting derailed from their main story – reminiscent of Ishiguro’s character Ryder (not to mention that Attila and Ryder are both meant to be preparing for exhibitions of sorts – a psychology lecture for one and a piano recital for the other). But anyway, these proverbial rabbit holes that they go down feel less like subplots than they do side-quests, and as a reader I couldn’t help but to go through Happiness with a touch of impatience, waiting for the narrative to regain focus. This not-quite-linear structure is deliberate, but it didn’t completely work for me.

I thought Forna’s prose was really excellent, and I highlighted so many passages on my Kindle that I found striking. But I also couldn’t wait to be done with this after a while. While it’s certainly a unique novel that has a lot to offer, I just wish it had been subjected to more rigorous editing. Maybe that’s just a personal preference, though. Recommended if you’re in the mood for something thoughtful and character-driven, that ultimately examines the role of trauma in shaping our lives.

Thank you to Netgalley, Atlantic Monthly Press, and Aminatta Forna for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book (play script) review: By the Bog of Cats by Marina Carr


BY THE BOG OF CATS by Marina Carr
originally published in 1998

One of the many reasons I love Irish lit is that its signature fusion of comedy and tragedy is something I find so shockingly, painfully honest. I love reading something that has me laughing out loud on one page, and has me covering my mouth in horror on the next. Mastering that tonal shift is a fine line to walk, but Marina Carr manages it with aplomb here.

By the Bog of Cats is a play about a traveller woman called Hester, who feels a deep connection with the bog she lives on, but who’s being forced to leave because her former partner is now marrying a younger woman and the two of them forced Hester to sign over the rights to her property. Throughout the course of the play we see Hester defend her relationship to the land, while she’s also tormented by memories of the mother who abandoned her.

Though there are more than a fair share of comedic moments, the heart of By the Bog of Cats is pitch-black, and the conclusion is absolutely harrowing. It’s also a deliberate nod to Greek tragedy, and I am nothing if not predictable. I absolutely loved this. I read it in an hour this weekend, but I’d love to see it performed live one day. Until then, I can only recommend the script very highly to those who love stories which are in turns shocking, disturbing, and darkly funny.

The Feminist Book Tag

I wasn’t tagged for this, but I’ve seen it going around and I wanted to do it in celebration of International Women’s Day… and now I am several days late, but oh well.  I’m a feminist every day.

1- Your favorite female author

I wouldn’t even know how to pick just one.  Hanya Yanagihara, Donna Tartt, Agatha Christie, Han Kang, Mary Renault, JK Rowling, Min Jin Lee, Lisa See, Celeste Ng… and then my classicist faves: Anne Carson, Caroline Alexander, Emily Wilson, Mary Beard.

2- Your favorite heroine

17333319So many.  I’m trying to not use the same answer I give every time, which is Sansa Stark, so I’ll mix it up and say Agnes Magnusdottir from Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.  Agnes was actually a real person – the last woman to ever be sentenced to death in Iceland – though her personality in Burial Rites is mostly invented by Kent.  She’s a strong, complex, brilliantly crafted heroine, and her journey in this novel haunts me still.


3- A novel with a feminist message

cover_girl_waits_with_gun_amy_stewartGirl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart.  This is a historical fiction novel which fictionalizes the life of the first female police officer in New Jersey in the early 1900s, and it’s a major feminist triumph.  A group of three sisters are being harassed by a local bigwig business man, and the three of them are able to fight back on their own while rejecting the help of the male figures in their lives.  It’s a very entertaining novel, but also, it’s hard not to feel empowered by the end of it.

4- A novel with a girl on the cover


All of these.

5- A novel featuring a group of girls

29981261The Butterfly Garden by Dot Hutchinson.  Ok, this is a bit of a morbid answer, as it’s a novel about a man who imprisons girls in his ‘Garden’ before assaulting and eventually killing them.  However!  The really great and surprising thing about this book was the focus on the camaraderie between the girls who have been captured.  This book is as much about female friendships as it is about the horrors that occur in the Garden – it’s less about the gruesome details and more about the psychological impact, and I’d highly recommend it.  Though, obviously, trigger warnings for rape and violence apply.

6- A novel with a LGBTQIAP+ female character

220px-funhomecoverFun Home by Alison Bechdel.  This graphic novel is Bechdel’s autobiographical account of growing up in a funeral home, but it also focuses on coming to terms with her own sexuality, as well as her complicated relationship with her closeted gay father.  I’m not usually a big graphic novel reader, and I only decided to check this out after falling in love with the musical that’s based on it, but I ended up loving the book too.  Bechdel’s prose is really superb, and it’s a really honest and heartfelt account of a young girl realizing that she isn’t straight.  (Or you could just watch this performance of Sydney Lucas singing Ring of Keys at the 2015 Tony Awards if you want to cry a lot about that.)

7- A novel with different feminine POV

35412372Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi.  Admittedly I’m not 100% sure what this question is asking, but, this book has the most ‘different’ POVs I have ever encountered.  It’s narrated by a chorus of the main character’s ‘selves,’ which she conceptualizes as Nigerian ogbanje.  This is one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in expanding their horizons with some less traditional but still feminist lit.


8- A book where a girl saves the world

220px-the_hunger_gamesThe Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.  Creative, I know.  I don’t really read YA fantasy, so this is all I could come up with.  I did really love these books, though (with the exception of Mockingjay) and Katniss is still one of my favorite fictional heroines.



9- A book where you prefer the female sidekick to the male MC

15827344The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater.  I’m bending the rules for this one a little bit – Puck isn’t Sean’s sidekick, and I’d say they share their narration equally… but I couldn’t come up with anything else, so, here we are.  I practically fell asleep every time I was reading one of Sean’s chapters, but I found Puck so compelling and sympathetic.


10- A book written by a male author and featuring a female character

12903397Venus in Fur by David Ives.  It’s a play, not a book (I’m doing a great job following the rules in this tag aren’t I) but Vanda is one of the most enigmatic and formidable female characters ever created.  If you haven’t read this script, you absolutely should – it’s a fascinating meditation on gender roles, and it subverts all of your expectations.


Tagging: Steph, Chelsea, Callum, Hannah.  Feel free to pass, etc.

book review: Circe by Madeline Miller


CIRCE by Madeline Miller
Little Brown and Co, April 10, 2018

Like so many other readers, I was a huge fan of Madeline Miller’s debut The Song of Achilles. I wouldn’t call it a flawless piece of literature or even a flawless Iliad adaptation, but it utterly consumed me, I couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks, and I have no hesitations when I say that it’s one of my favorite books. My feelings about Circe are much more complicated.

In many ways, you could argue that it surpasses The Song of Achilles from an objective standpoint. The scope of Circe is much larger, and Miller crafts an absolutely stunning arc for her titular character. I put Circe down feeling so satisfied with the conclusion that I wanted to give it 5 stars solely for that mastery… but clearly I did not end up doing that, so let’s back up.

My first issue with Circe was the unnecessarily languid pace. For one thing, there is no reason this book needs to be nearly 400 pages. There is just not that much going on. And for another thing, so many of the subplots in this novel happen offstage, so to speak. In case you aren’t familiar with the original story: Circe is exiled to the island Aiaia and unable to leave. Consequently, a lot of background information is obtained secondhand, from other characters visiting the island and relaying information to Circe. It doesn’t exactly make for the most thrilling narrative.

This ties into that, but due to Circe’s immortality, the stakes in this novel are constantly low. Any altercations that could theoretically result in Circe being killed or injured have absolutely no tension, because you know it’s all going to be okay (physically, at least, if not emotionally). Circe’s immortality is approached beautifully on a thematic level, but not necessarily on a narrative one.

Now let’s talk about Circe herself. This is something I’m sort of conflicted about. Circe is one of those characters from Greek mythology who doesn’t have her own literature, but she features into the background of so many different stories (the Odyssey, notably, but also Theogony, the now lost Telegony, the Aeneid, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, to name a few). Though none of these stories explore Circe’s life in the way that Miller has endeavored to do, we do get a sense of who she is – a ruthless witch who dwells in solitude and turns men into pigs for sport. That… is not the Circe that Miller gives us. Hers is soft, tame, misunderstood – and the thing is, none of it blatantly contradicts anything from mythological canon. Circe in this novel does turn men into pigs – and Miller shows how she gets there. But at times I still felt like I was reading about an original character, and not Circe. I mean, it all turned out okay. Like I said, the arc that Miller wrote was brilliant. It just took some time to adjust my expectations of how I thought this character was going to be portrayed. (Also, this is only sort of related, but another point of confusion for me were some of the myths that Miller decided to incorporate into Circe’s narrative… though some of her invented stories fit very well. It was sort of a mixed bag for me.)

I know this has been largely critical, but I did like this. It was super readable, I thought the background characters were fascinating (Pasiphaë in particular was really excellent), and I adored the ending. And, as always, I love Greek mythology. I’d rather read Greek mythology retellings than almost anything else. I loved diving back into this world, especially so soon after re-reading the Odyssey. But, I’ve said this before: I tend to be critical of the things I love the most. This is a solid book that many fans are going to love just as much, if not more, than The Song of Achilles. I’ll be very curious to hear what everyone else thinks.

Anyway, this is a very solid 3.5 – I’m rounding down for now solely because I seem to have written a 3-star review instead of a 4-star one, but I may revisit my rating after I’ve thought about this some more.

Thank you so much to Little, Brown and Co and Madeline Miller for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.