I’ve ragged on a few New York Times Bestseller’s recently, so I wanted to share one I did love. Piranesi is that rare contemporary book I can wholeheartedly recommend to all my friends with no reservations. It’s well-written, superbly plotted, and has just the right amount of nods to the classics without coming across as trying too hard. Probably I mostly like it because the author is clearly playing with a Magician’s Nephew theme and you all may have noticed that I’ve never outgrown my childhood love of Narnia.
For the Moms
To be clear, this book is for you, mom, not your kids. Well, if you have a high schooler they might like it too, but mostly I’m thinking of moms here. If you love fantasy, or mystery, or art, or fairy tales, or books about social issues, you’ll probably enjoy this book. That’s a pretty eclectic list, I know, but this is a book that keeps you guessing. It defies categorization. I was telling a friend, “It’s like a mystery… noooo, more of a suspense…. no, actually, more fantasy. You just have to read it.”
Piranesi plays with contrasts: ancient versus modern consciousness, freedom versus bondage, contemplation versus action. There’s a compelling sense of place. A touch of art history. It deals with important topics like misuse of power, but in the most powerful way: through the story. It’s that rare book with great depths to ponder, but you read it in 24 hours. Then, if you’re me, you re-read it.
I really don’t want to give away any spoilers, but here’s a few tips on how to read it. First, this book is all told in diary form by an unreliable narrator (echoes of Wilkie Collins). Second, it helps to have read The Magician’s Nephew recently. Third, enjoy the mystery of it and don’t get turned off by the intentional strangeness of the first few chapters!
You can buy Piranesi through my Amazon affiliate link: Piranesi
Greek Mythology wrapped in modern language and agenda anyone? Some are calling this bestseller a modern classic. I’ve always been enthralled by mythology so I eagerly read Circe by Madeline Miller. Miller retells the story of the minor goddess Circe, but so much more. In these pages you learn about Scylla, Odysseus, Helios’ family life, and what happened to Penelope after the Odyssey. A lot of readers I respect loved this retelling. And I see why: it’s reasonably well written and has a unique focus on the Titans as opposed to the usual Olympians. But I have to confess: in the end I disliked this book.
We all know The Iliad and The Odyssey. There’s another epic, NOT by Homer, that purports to continue the story of Odysseus. The origins of this epic, called the Telegonia (Telegony) are controversial. The best guess seems to be that it was written at least 2 centuries after The Odyssey. The text of the Telegony is lost, but a synopsis remains. And I, among others, consider it to sound like mediocre fan fiction based on The Odyssey.
Have you ever tried a sequel to a classic, written after the authors’ death? Aren’t they always and universally disappointing? That’s how I imagine the Greeks must have viewed the Telegony: a disappointing sequel centuries after the death of Homer.
Unfortunately, Miller draws heavily on the plot of the Telegony to inform the storyline of Circe. Why does this matter? Well, did you like Telemachus and admire Penelope in The Odyssey? You may not after Circe. Adding onto the plot in the Telegony that Odysseus had an illegitimate son by the nymph Circe, Miller imagines the fallout. Penelope ends up a manipulative witch. Telemachus falls in love with his father’s mistress who gave birth to his half brother already. Weird, right?
Catholic opinions diverge dramatically when it comes to comfort level with reading books about “good” witches and wizards. I believe you have to take books on a case by case basis. Listen to what each individual author is trying to tell or show. In Circe, Circe and her 3 siblings discover a predilection for witchcraft, which in this book means using herbs and spells to do things like raise the dead, make transformations, and so forth.
Early in the book, Circe explains her love of witchcraft as a love of power. She says learning witchcraft was hard work, but she desired the power it gave her. “I learned that I could bend the world to my will, as a bow is bent for an arrow. I would have done that toil a thousand times to keep such power in my hands.” Circe’s siblings, and even Circe herself, often use their witchcraft for evil ends. But I consider Circe to take an ambiguous stance on witchcraft. Miller takes the position that there’s nothing inherently good or evil about spells and potions; the will, end, and intentions of the witch determine the morality of the action. This, of course, is in direct contradiction to the Biblically-derived zero tolerance for witchcraft policy that we must abide to as Christians.
Intentional Feminist Agenda
At the end of my copy of Circe, there’s an interview with Madeline Miller in which she states that she intentionally wrote the book to push a feminist agenda. Ouch. We can all grant that the ancient world often undervalued and marginalized women. But twisting ancient myths to suit your 21st century agenda is not going to win my approval, ever.
Miller thinks that as a culture we distrust “powerful women.” In Circe, she seeks to destigmatize them. I’ll admit I didn’t think this book actually helped that case. The female goddesses are terrible. Penelope is portrayed as incredibly manipulative. Circe herself misuses her power fairly often, though she later tries to fix some of the damage she does. There’s that typical root misunderstanding of what true feminism means.
Of gods and men
A big theme over the course of the book is the difference between the gods and mankind. The pagan gods are cruel, selfish, merciless, and proud. Most of the humans in the book don’t seem particularly virtuous either: the lustful sailors, manipulate Odysseus, unfaithful Glaucos, and so on. But Circe envies them for their ability to change and die. In the last few lines of the story, she says “I thought once that gods are the opposite of death, but I see now they are more dead than anything, for they are unchanging, and can hold nothing in their hands.” She then chooses to become a mortal.
On the one hand, this was a superbly plotted ending if you grant her point. Throughout the book, Circe has gradually changed, moving towards unselfishness and forgiveness. She’s changed so much she is no longer a god, but a mortal who can die.
But on the other hand, I didn’t agree with the equation she writes for us: divinity = unchanging = unmerciful/unloving/bad. It doesn’t follow or flow, at least to my Catholic mind. I have no idea if Miller is pushing an atheist agenda in addition to a feminist one, or simply trying to justify her ending.
Better Greek Mythology
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In The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer, fairy tales meet science fiction. In this exciting series, a deadly disease is ravaging earth, a totalitarian moon queen is threatening war, and true love wins as some creatively portrayed princesses find their princes. These popular books are clearly aimed at teenagers, and the question is: are they indecent, innocent, or somewhere in between?
The Biggest Positive
The Lunar Chronicles had a surprising number of positive aspects. I’ll admit, I was skeptical about the covers! The best part about the series was its staunchly pro-life and anti-discrimination theme. In both earthen and lunar society, there is a lack of respect for the dignity of all human life.
On the earth, people who have received robotic parts, such as hands or feet, are considered as fair game to be used for medical research against their will. Labeled as “Cyborgs,” these people lack many of the rights and protections other earthen citizens have. Some, like the heroine of the series Cinder, are treated as property.
In lunar society, on the moon, some people are born with the “gift,” which is the ability to manipulate others by controlling their bio-electricity. Those unfortunate lunars who aren’t born with this “gift” are labeled as shells and torn from their parents at birth to be killed since they are “defective.” Some shells, like Cress, the heroine of the third book, do survive, but only as slaves.
Meyer does a fantastic job showing the appalling injustice of treating Cyborgs and shells as less than human. In our current society, this is truly a valuable theme. Any Catholic reader will immediately see parallels with abortion and euthanasia.
Other great themes in this book include an emphasis on showing the dangers and threat of totalitarianism and fascism. The lunar queen’s greed for power and adoration lead her to establish a dictatorship built on mind control and illusion. While her court lives in luxury, her people are impoverished and abused.
To give her full credit, Meyer does not fall into the trap of portraying the root of the queen’s evil to lie in the monarchy. Although the monarchy on the moon is portrayed as the example of fascism, Meyer fairly portrays several earthen countries as also having monarchies that are just. The problem is not the monarchy; it’s the coercion and injustice. However, in the end of the series, Cinder, crowned as moon queen, decides to dissolve the monarchy in favor of a republic.
Strong friendships have a prime place in the series. Without their mutual trust and respect, the four heroines could never have overthrown the moon queen’s evil regime. The girls’ friendships with their princes, and even android robots, become important in resolving the crisis. Loyalty, sacrifice, and love are the real tools that bring down the evil regime.
Redemption is another important motif in The Lunar Chronciles. Most of the “princes” are in need of redemption when they enter the story. Wolf is a volatile, genetically modified man with a dark past. Thorne is a cocky thief. Jacin is a palace guard with divided loyalties. The third heroine, Cress, also is plagued with guilt for working for the lunar tyrant for years as head programmer. Each of them finds redemption through sacrifice and reparation by the end of the series.
Unlike many teen novels, The Lunar Chronicles are relatively clean overall. Minimal crass language. Minimal mentions of alcohol or drugs. Almost no sexual content: there are several passionate kisses between main characters, but it doesn’t go farther than that. There are some passing mentions of “companionship” rooms and “escort” droids, which I deduced had to do with some kind of prostitute droids. But that’s it.
Sounding pretty great so far? Read on for the not so pretty.
One concern I had with the series was how Meyer handled the Red Riding Hood retelling in book two, Scarlet. Scarlet was great: fiery and tough. But Meyer chooses to twist the story so the Wolf becomes the “prince.” I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, there’s great redemption here: the Wolf repents when he falls for the girl and spends the rest of the books trying to help the good side. But on the other hand, I think Meyer twisted the spirit of the original fairy tale by changing the wolf into the good guy. I generally don’t like plots where a villain symbol is portrayed as a good guy. And in fairy tales, wolves are the bad guys. But then, in fairness, St. Francis did redeem the wolf of Gubbio, so there is a certain precedent to redeeming the wolf.
Also, Wolf’s genetic engineering and past training as a wolf-man brings some other challenges to the series. His wolf-like instincts make him very protective of his “mate” Scarlet, but also bring violence into their relationship. At one point, he almost rips her throat out while under the mind control of a lunar villain. The thing that bothered me here and in a few other Wolf-Scarlet scenes was there seemed to be a sensual-sexual aspect to the violence. Almost a BDSM vibe. Subtle, but there in my opinion.
The violence is minimal in the first book, but quickly ramps up in the rest of the series. There is an awful war, with some truly terrible genetically engineered creatures running amuck. There are descriptions of people cutting their throats and shooting themselves under lunar mind control. Wolf-men rip out people’s throats. Lots of bloody fights. Overall, I considered these books a little heavy on the graphic violence.
Another element in the plot that never seemed to be adequately addressed was the mind control question. Mind control is portrayed as an evil overall, yet Cinder, the heroine, frequently uses it to protect herself and others. She also uses it to fight, and sometimes, in anger, to humiliate. In contrast to Cinder, Princess Winter in the fourth book simply refuses to use mind control for any reason… until in the end she does once to save her love. The question is: if mind control is evil, is it licit for Cinder and Winter to use it to protect others? Morally speaking, if mind control is inherently an evil act, using it for a good end still makes the act evil. Food for thought.
One final negative with The Lunar Chronicles is that they’re simply not all that well-written. Yes, it’s a fast-paced, exciting plot with lots of action and dialogue. But there is little to no descriptive language to flesh out the story. These books read like what they are: typical 21st century YA fiction.
Overall, The Lunar Chronicles are a gripping, fairly clean series with lots of action, romantic tension, and a great pro-life theme. But on the other hand, they’re not particularly well written, not great literature, and have some concerning elements like the confusion about mind control, sensual violence at times, and overall graphic violence. Worth reading? Maybe if you have an older teen who really enjoys science fiction and wants to use them for a book report to delve into some of the controversial topics. Otherwise, I’d give them a pass.
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen is a very popular novel about circus life in the Great Depression. Jacob, 93 years old, retells his adventures one life-changing summer when he happens upon a job as a veterinarian for a traveling circus. The story bounces between Jacob’s frustrations with life in an assisted living facility, and his circus memories of meeting his future wife and the animals he learned to love. A depression-era traveling circus is an intriguing and colorful setting for a book, and one that held a lot of promise. But on several levels I found this book unsatisfactory.
First of all, an integral part of the plot is Jacob falling in love with his future wife, Marlena, who just happens to be married. At first, Jacob expresses guilt over his feelings for a married woman. But once it emerges her husband is abusive and schizophrenic, the implication is he is free to succumb to his feelings for her. Which he rapidly does.
Enter problem two with this book: a truly ridiculous amount of sexual content. Jacob spends way too much time talking about his desire to be rid of “the burden” of his virginity. I would even describe it as a minor conflict point: when and to whom will Jacob lose his virginity? There are also descriptions of masturbation, fornication, adultery, strippers, pornography, and more. It’s bad on a moral level, and also unnecessary on a storytelling level. Honestly, even if I hadn’t been repulsed by the blatant sexual content, the amount it interrupted the flow of the plot ruined the book.
A relatively minor quibble is I found what I call the “unforgiving, judgmental Catholic parent” theme, which I see often in popular modern books. A Catholic character (in this case Marlena) makes a blunder by the so-called Catholic standards of her parents. These supposedly Catholic standards are often not even in line with Catholic teaching; in this case Marlena is disowned for marrying a Jew. The parents then utterly disown and refuse to help the character ever again period. This drives the character out of the Catholic Church and also justifies all his or her future morally questionable actions. I really dislike this portrayal of Catholics as irrational, unforgiving people.
I was so disappointed with this book overall. The focus on the sexual content resulted in the circus itself really got short-changed. The enjoyable parts of the book were about the animal performers and the friendships Jacob forms with the other crew members. I wanted to read more about the elephant, Rosie. And the liberty horses act. And the other performers and crew members. If this book had focused more on the circus and less on an adulterous relationship, it might have been worth reading. But it didn’t. So my advice is don’t bother reading it, and given the graphic sexual content definitely do not allow your children to read it.