BOOK REVIEW: Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare

Troilus and CressidaTroilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This play combines a piece of the story of “The Iliad” with a love story that wasn’t part of the Iliad, but which is based on minor characters from the Iliad. [For those unacquainted, “The Iliad” tells the tale of the siege of Troy after a prince from Troy, Paris, returns home with Helen, the wife of the Spartan king Menelaus, and the Greeks launch “a thousand ships” to try to get her back.] Even the romance isn’t original to Shakespeare as the Troilus and Cressida tale had already been told and retold, and Shakespeare’s telling is said to have been influenced by Chaucer’s.

While most of Shakespeare’s plays are readily categorized as comedy or tragedy, this is one of the few that defies such characterization. In terms of how the story resolves itself, one might call it a tragedy, but the tone throughout is often more comedic.

The part of the Iliad that is told is largely about the Greek generals trying to get Achilles back in the fight because he is the best match for Hector, the mightiest of the Trojan princes. The love story pivots on Cressida being given to the Greeks as part of a prisoner exchange, and – as is often the case – features a heaping dose of jealousy that sours this great love affair.

This is definitely a worthwhile read, despite criticism that it feels muddled. One doesn’t need to have read the Iliad, though it may help to make it more entertaining.

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BOOK REVIEW: Circe by Madeline Miller

CirceCirce by Madeline Miller
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Circe is a minor goddess / sea-nymph in Greek mythology. While her father is the powerful Titan sun-god, Helios, she is the runt of the litter. She has a weak voice by godly standards, has few and limited powers, and is sympathetic to the fates of humans in a way that is considered ungodly. (The latter was strengthened by her affinity for Prometheus, the god who introduced fire to humanity and was subsequently punished by having his liver eaten each day by an eagle.) Circe’s underdog status would only go so far in producing an interesting story, but things become more intriguing when she begins to develop her skill as a witch. This makes her more powerful, and the increasing power of a minor deity threatens greater gods. Some of her abilities as a witch may result from her divinity, but it’s made clear that even mortals can practice witchcraft. Her gift for witchcraft is especially prominent in her abilities of transformation.

Circe’s adverse reaction to the Cinderella treatment she gets at home in addition to the increasing and unexpected threat she presents as a witch – seen when she turns a mortal into a god and another nymph into a monster — gets her exiled to an island. While it would seem that her story would get uninteresting while she’s exiled to a remote island, she’s visited by a number of mythic figures – mortal and god alike – who keep her tale fascinating, these include: the master craftsman Daedalus, the messenger deity / trickster god Hermes, and – most crucially to her story – the heroic king of Ithaca, Odysseus. She also makes a couple of trips off the island, such as when her sister, Pasiphaë, gets a special dispensation to temporarily break the exile in order for Circe to attend to the birth of Pasiphaë’s child. (This might make it seem that the siblings were close, or at least liked each other, but that’s not the case at all. The only family member she has a decent relationship with is her younger brother, Aeëtes, but he is not so much warm to her as he is tolerating of her affections, and even that alliance of convenience is doomed.)

Miller presents readers with a Circe who is both sympathetic and intriguing because she’s no match for the forces arrayed against her and can only survive by her wits and self-knowledge. Circe’s diligence in practicing her craft and her knowledge of her strengths and limitations allows her to persevere in the face of great dangers. She faces hordes of horny sailors, familial dysfunction, and, most crucially, a dire threat to the child who results from her dalliances with one of her most prominent visitors. The story features the many twists, common in Greek Mythology, resulting from gods and men trying to outwit the Fates, but it’s also the straightforward story of a mother who’ll do anything to keep her child safe against a hostile world.

I’d highly recommend this book for all readers of fiction, regardless of whether they have a specific interest in Greek Mythology. It’s a great story, well written, readable, and featuring characters who one can love and others who one can loathe.

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BOOK REVIEW: Treasury of Greek Mythology by Donna Jo Napoli

Treasury of Greek Mythology: Classic Stories of Gods, Goddesses, Heroes & MonstersTreasury of Greek Mythology: Classic Stories of Gods, Goddesses, Heroes & Monsters by Donna Jo Napoli
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book consists of 25 biographical sketches of figures from Greek Mythology. It’s one of those books that grew on me, and the reason it grew on me was a few of the chapters toward the end were engaging, such as those about Heracles, Jason, and Helen. This also means that the number of stars I gave it is fairly meaningless. It was in no danger of getting 5 stars nor 1, but could’ve been anywhere in between at various points in my reading.

The problem with the book is that the unit of interest isn’t the myth, i.e. not the story, but rather the mythical figure, the various gods and heroes of ancient Greece. Because of this organization, some of the chapters have a tight and memorable story, such as that of Heracles and his 12 labors, while others are just piles of genealogical facts mixed with odd mythical happenings (e.g. who burst from whose forehead) and tossed with that mythical figure’s bit parts in larger myths. The book is a good, solid reference book for schoolkids doing research on Greek Mythology, but much of it’s not very engaging to read.

The graphics are beautiful and colorful, if a bit artsy (not always instantaneously clear in subject.) There are maps, a timeline describing happenings of ancient Greece — real and mythical, a bibliography, and a quick guide to the characters that would make more sense if the book wasn’t a collection of relatively brief biographical sketches to begin with (but repetition has its merits, particularly for children.)

If you’re looking for a collection of biographies of mythical Greeks (i.e. a reference for children,) then this is a good book for you. If you’re looking to get your kids intrigued by the Greek myths, then you might want to shop around. Put another way, if you’re looking for a version of what Neil Gaiman did with this “Norse Mythology,” only for the Greeks, this isn’t it.

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