Book review: Circe by Madeline Miller

They say that writers should read widely, so not all my book reviews will be crime, though bloodshed may prove to be a common theme. Recently I dived into Greek Mythology. Madeline Miller’s Circe is a feminist spin on the epic tale of the immortal nymph sea witch by that name. Circe appeared as a minor character in the Homeric poem, The Odyssey.

Circe, the protagonist is the daughter of Helios, the sun god. As a child she is made brutally aware of her inferior status by her family. She was not born a god, is plain to the eye, and has the voice of a mortal. In her youth she was tormented by her siblings and barely seen by her parents.

I asked her how she did it once, how she understood the world so clearly. She told me that it was a matter of keeping very still and showing no emotions, leaving room for others to reveal themselves.

In coming to know love, jealousy and rage, Circe discovers her sorcerer powers, which she unleashes on her sister, a beautiful sea nymph, and the object of her envy. As punishment she is exiled to a picturesque, unpeopled island called Aiaia by her father.

Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.

Circe eventually comes to revel in her solitude and spends her time developing her occult arts and witchcraft, and taming the animals of Aiaia for company.

This was how mortals found fame, I thought. Through practice and diligence, tending their skills like gardens until they glowed beneath the sun. But gods are born of ichor and nectar, their excellences already bursting from their fingertips. So they find their fame by proving what they can mar: destroying cities, starting wars, breeding plagues and monsters. All that smoke and savor rising so delicately from our altars. It leaves only ash behind.

It is on the island, surrounded by tame wolves and lions and pigs – the latter formerly sailors who she turned to swine after they tried to attack her – that Odysseus comes across Circe. He becomes her lover and she bares his child.

I was captured by Miller’s lush poetic prose, which is like reading a song. Her reimagining of the myth brings one of the women from the original tale into the light. Her work was criticised by a few crusty old blokes for historical inaccuracy, perhaps because they prefer the original misogynist fantasy, but I found a beautiful remake of Homers epic poem in Circe. The novel gives a nod to other myths as well, including Daedalus and Icarus; Medea and Jason with the Golden Fleece.

I loved Circe’s chutzpah, she is a woman who will not be silenced and turns an ancient tale of female subjugation into one that is teeming with contemporary reverberations of empowerment and courage. Circe is Miller’s second novel and rivals her first, The Song of Achilles, a stirring reimagining of another of Homer’s epic poems, The Iliad. The Song of Achilles received the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2012.

I highly recommend Circe, which was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year. It’s a particularly good read for writers who seek inspiration, and to broaden their writing technique, style, and craft skills.

No wonder I have been so slow, I thought. All this while, I have been a weaver without wool, a ship without the sea. Yet now look where I sail.

Ducking into Adelaide Writers Week

Literary Koala

Adelaide comes alive with festivals in Autumn; The Fringe, Adelaide Festival, Adelaide Writers Week and WOMADelaide, and I am on my annual pilgrimage and arts binge this week.

The city is surrounded by parklands that encase it in a figure eight of open green space of bushland, parkland and the Torrens River. I am fortunate to have a place to stay at St Peters, a north eastern suburb very close to the Torrens River parklands with access to walk all the way to the city through the green corridor that abuts the river.

Each morning this week I have walked the three kilometres along the flood plains of the Torrens River through the traditional lands of the Kaurna people, who’s country includes the Adelaide Plains. The walk takes me from St Peters to the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden where Adelaide Writers Week is held .


The trail winds along the Torrens watercourses lined by sedges and rushes, past remnant river redgums, SA Blue Gums and through silent stands of Allocasuarinas. I disturb a large flock of Galahs feasting in the grasses, skinks scurry out of my way, and a young koala, stunned by this strange person invading its home, trots along the ground and up a eucalyptus trunk out of harms way. As I approach the city, just past the outskirts of the Adelaide Zoo, the bush land gives way to landscaped, manicured riverside gardens dotted by sculptures, sleeping Pacific Black Ducks, signs warning citizens not to feed the pelicans, which bite, or to touch the bodies of bats fallen from trees in case they carry the deadly Calicivirus.

I have attended three Adelaide Festival events this week (Out of Chaos…Gravity and Other Myths; By Heart; and Sarah Blasko) and spent most of my days at Adelaide Writers Week listening to authors and commentators talk on a range of fiction and non-fiction books in the shade of large poplars. The trees were chosen by the designer Elsie Cornish to represent: protection and love (the holly oak and myrtle); love, generosity and devotion (honeysuckle); and memory, protection, youth and tenderness (lilac); for the gardens developed as a tribute to pioneer women. I watched and listened and jotted down reflections and quotes that caught my attention…

…muscle and sinew find order in the sweat of chaos and a physical flight of fancy…

…sex is not an intellectual event…

…Bitcoin is the cash currency of Silk Road, the eBay for drug dealers on the dark web…Nimbin online…

…truth is stranger than fiction…

Rebecca Makkai

…Dread Pirate Roberts ran Silk Road. It was his Utopian dream. Until dealers started to blackmail him, threatening to release the personal details of their customers. Dread Pirate Roberts started putting out hits on them, got a taste for it and the Utopia ideal started to unravel…

…some boffin in the tax department stumbled across Dread Pirate Roberts email and he was tracked down by authorities who nabbed him working in the library …

…you can hire a hitman on the dark web for bitcoin, but most of them are scams…

…despite humorous elements there is real evil on dark web…it has created a safe place for bad people to meet and talk and normalise one another’s behaviour…

…complexity needs to be digested in its entirety and then filtered to make it digestible for the lay person…

…there’s nothing more vivid than a human being, but vivid writing is not a substitute for lack of substance…

…Humour makes things more accessible, particularly difficult subjects…

…if you’re writing about things that need to be fixed in the world you need to have a sense of social responsibility and be prepared to talk about taboos…

…sciences writers can bring in information that scientists can’t to help understand issues. For example to solve sanitation issues that cause diarrhoea, the biggest killer of children, we need roads. Without roads we cannot build sanitation’s infrastructure or get soap into communities…

…if you want to grow up to be a science writer, get a job as a fact checker…

…non-fiction: defining a writer by what they are not…

….the last thing to leave our dying lips may very well be a poem…As though it were aware of the fragility and treachery of man’s faculties, the poem aims at the target of human memory, because memory is usually the last thing to disappear, even when our whole existence crumbles around us…

Torrens Parkland

…a Portuguese man teaches ten strangers Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30 by heart while he laments the loss of an old woman who taught him that words once held inside our hearts can never be lost…

…when writing characters different from yourself you need to write a fully formed human being, you need a soul…don’t try too hard…ask yourself am I doing good by writing this book? If the answer is yes, it’s more likely books on similar diverse topics will be published in the future…

…a novel is an entry way into certain uncomfortable topics for people and a pathway to empathy…We’re not telling these stories as often as we should be…

…is a person with an intellectual disability culpable? What about electricity companies that failed to maintain infrastructure?…Huge number of people with intellectuals disabilities in the legal system…what does this say about our society?…Was the Arsonist a product of systemic failure to provide adequate supports for a child with a disability?…This fire unleashed evil, but we have to do better in our society for kids at risk of creating harm Chloe Cooper…

…it’s getting warmer and more fire prone every year, fires burning hotter and longer all around world. Coal contributes to the systemic problems that create these conditions…It will not be the last time we have to deal with devastating fires resulting in loss of life…We have evolved alongside fire…it will outlast us as a species…

…writers look for character…interesting people to inhabit your books…

…the power of the words unspoken become the power of a book…it’s the definition of show don’t tell…

…language is magical…

Taking flight

…grief is dangerous and tenacious, it appears unexpectedly and tips you over…

…art stills the whole world in an image…forward time stops and cools around you…you are intercepted by something beautiful…the collapse of time…

…writing is about encounters…disturbing encounters that seed the need to make sense…reading and writing are not propositional…they do not explain the world…they are about an imaginative encounter…to be lost in the beautiful and the terrible…

…writing is an act of composition…reading and writing tutors our lives to notice things…to make our hearts open…

Books I will add to my reading list after listening to the authors:

  • Call Me Evie, J.P. Pomare
  • Too Much Lip, Melissa Lucashenko
  • The Darkest Web: Drugs, Death and Destroyed Lives, Eileen Ormsby
  • The Girl Without Skin, Mads Peder Nordbo
  • The Great Believers, Rebecca Makkai
  • The Arsonist, Chloe Hooper
  • Boy Swallows Universe, Trent Dalton
  • The Death of Noah Glass, Gail Jones

I have been filled with ideas, and inspiration from other people’s creative journeys through life and am thankful for these opportunities to stimulate my own thinking. I am also looking forward to four days of the magical mystery tour that is WOMADelaide this weekend.

Main image: Literary Duck

Xanadu - Sue Beyer, The Exquisite Palette exhibition at Tacit Galleries, Collingwood

Creative seeds

The ancient Greeks believed creativity to be something that resulted when a person was bereft of their senses. Goddesses controlled the creation of art and literature and spoke P'ulur'ette - Jen Drysdale, Tacit Galleries to the artist as their muse. In reality sometimes the subject itself acts as the muse and when you give a group of creatives the same task you will get very different outcomes – as many as the number of artists involved.

I attended the opening of an art exhibition at Tacit Galleries in Collingwood recently because a friend had a piece in the show. I had not read the blub about it before I arrived at The Exquisite Palette and the demonstration of creativity and divergent thinking in the exhibition blew me away.

Paper Boat.  Susan BarbicHundreds of artists took a simple blank plywood artists palette to use to create an artwork. The palette’s became a playground for the imagination of the participants, and were indeed exquisite. No two palettes were alike but all shone with the passion and inspiration of the artists. One palette was untouched except for a pencil sketch of a cats head stuck to it with masking tape. It was as if the artist had mocked the process itself. Some were painted with scenes that inspired the creators and incorporated the palette hole into the design. Others were completely deconstructed and no longer recognizable from their original form. Palettes ranged from playful, through elegant, novel and disturbing and used a range of materials from paint to pewter to blood, glass, shells and feathers.

When you speak to creatives their processes are as varied as the number of IMG_0573artists themselves across all art forms. Regardless of whether the creative output is painting, sculpture, writing or design within industry the process begins with a seeding incident, something that inspires curiosity and exploration.

I know that when I write, the starting point is usually either a strong feeling, an image that sticks in my mind or a snippet of a conversation that sparks my imagination. I rarely know where the idea will go, or indeed how I will get there but the seed of inspiration is what drives productivity in creation.

The initial inspiration for the book I have been working on (for what seems like forever now) came from a mashing together of an incident I saw cycling home one day and a IMG_0565 (1)conversation with a work colleague. I let the story take me in the first draft and expect that the end product (if I ever get there) will only contain a shadow of the original spark as development of ideas themselves change and evolve as they progress. Someone else who had the exact same two experiences might have written a romance or science fiction novel.   I was drawn to crime fiction.

The rewrite of the opening of my story which I mentioned in an earlier blog was partly inspired by a throw away comment a friend made over lunch.  I manipulated it into a new context to develop a new character and a different path into the story.  Like a blank palette, a comment or a visual stimulus can bend into new forms and ideas to inspire us in new ways and create fresh works of art.

How does your process begin?

Images in order:

Sue Beyer – Xanadu;

Jen Drysdale – P’ulur’ette;

Susan Barbic – Paper Boat;

Lino Savery – Unfortunate Death (from set of three);

Various artists – wall of palettes at Tacit Galleries.

Jacqui Stockdale, Mann of Quinn from the series The Boho - 2015, Adelaide Biennial of Art, 2016. Art Gallery of South Australia.

Finding inspiration in the heart garden

We slipped past the Shrine of Remembrance and crossed Birdwood Avenue in the dark to Jardin Tan. A waxing crescent moon hung low over the Aloe barberae tree illuminating the observatory dome like an Istanbul mosque. The theme of the nights soiree hosted by Melbourne Writers Festival was the heart garden and is one of the monthly events around Melbourne leading up to the festival.

Approaching seven o’clock an array of exotic creatures began to arrive. They included a garden gnome, Aphrodite, and people wearing an variety of flower decorated costumes and head dresses. The guests wandered into the space and settled at tables decorated with leaves, flowers, fruit and vegetables.

The question was asked, what grows in the heart garden? On reflection my answer would have to be inspiration. Writing is a solitary pursuit, but the imagination needs stimulation and for that we must get out and feed our curiosity away from the keyboard or pen.

The practice of ekphrasis, creating another art form from one that already exists, is quite common in poetry writing. The creative act of subjectively reflecting on and narrating a story from another art work such as a painting expands and renews the meaning of the original work. Ekpharasis is an ancient Greek term. An early example is Homer providing a narrative description of the elaborate scenes embossed on the shield of Achilles in The Iliad.

The practice of ekphrasis can equally be used to inspire the narrative form of writing as it can poetry. And inspiration can come from animated as well as static art forms. Pay close attention with curiosity to the sight, sound, light, color, movement and feeling of an object or event. Then allowing yourself to experience it through your senses rather than your analytical mind. This enables us to recreate what we experience in new ways in our writing. In the performance arts, inspiration can be drawn from the performance piece itself, the artists presentation, or the feeling the act gives us as the observer.

The heart garden treated us to an evening of music, poetry and even a botanical drawing class. Whimsical events like the Book of Fete lend themselves to opening up my imagination in new ways and leave me with a sense of creative sustenance, ready to return to the solitude of the keyboard.

My main sources of inspiration are in nature, immersion in the arts and the complexity of everyday interactions. What inspires you?

Image: Jacqui Stockdale, Mann of Quinn from the series The Boho – 2015, Adelaide Biennial of Art, 2016. Art Gallery of South Australia.

hair art at WOMAD 2015

Music to my ears

In March each year I make the pilgrimage to Adelaide to the alternative universe that is WOMADelaide (World Music, Arts and Dance Adelaide). It’s a four day global music festival in Adelaide’s Botanic Park. I usually don’t know most of the bands and there are always several new discoveries for me that get added to my play list. Without WOMAD I would not have found the desert sounds of Aziza Brahim whose roots are in the Sahrawi refugee camp in Algeria, the indie pop of Lake Street Dive and the uplifting South African a cappella group, The Soil. All of whom have enriched my music collection.

When the Adelaide thermometer is turned up high, WOMAD can be tough and dusty. There are times when you need to find a shaded spot away from the crowds and stimulation to chill out. The park provides plenty of beautiful big old trees under which you can park yourself and do some writing.

I generally prefer silence when I write, but have spent most of the last two years writing on the bus on the way to work and have learnt to detach myself from background noise. A creative space, like a music festival, can be quite stimulating for the imagination also. One day I will set a story at a festival I expect.

Many writers have found inspiration away from the desk. Gertrude Stein often wrote from the drivers seat of her Model T Ford, Agatha Christie liked to plot in her Victorian bath eating apples and my personal favourite Sir Walter Scott penned his epic poem Marmion whilst riding his horse through the Scottish hillside.

Some writers require a very specific environment in which to work, some must have silence, some noise. The writers idiosyncrasies about the place where they write is curious given that when fully absorbed and writing well the place disappears into oblivion altogether. One wonders if it is the place that creates the ambiance for writing or the writers superstition that they can only find their creative muse in a particular environment that drives attachment to a setting.

Perhaps it is the simple act of creating a routine and habit that is the key to a writers creative and productive endeavors and the place and physical trappings are simply props. As EB White, the author of Charlotte’s Web famously said, “The writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”

Where do you like to write? What are your rituals and habits? How and why do they help your writing?

Image: WOMAD 2015