Circe – Madeline Miller

Book Review of Circe by Madeline Miller, published by Bloomsbury in 2018 (my copy 2019).

I asked myself, ‘Shall I discipline myself to write my own words this morning as planned, or write about hers?’ Having just finished this book (333 pages, it took me 3 days to read), I am full up with her voice, so hers take precedence and maybe, in doing that, I will free my own.

Circe is a tale of Everywoman, and you don’t hear that phrase very often.

Circe is not wrought of clever poetry, but is consummate storytelling. Being a Classics scholar, Madeline Miller will know the famous texts inside out: Homer’s Iliad (try Emily Wilson’s translation), and the two Electra, by Sophocles and Euripedes, for example. In this book, she has embodied the bard and found her way to the page with it. Born in America in 1978, her first book, The Song of Achilles, was the winner of the Orange Prize (now the Women’s Prize for Fiction) in 2012, the same year it was published. Circe, too, won awards, The Red Tentacle being the most enticingly named, an American Library Association Alex Award. She describes herself as ‘a Latin and Greek teacher, director of Shakespeare plays’, and there is something good about knowing she was a tutor to high school students for so long. In her acknowledgements, she thanks them for engaging ‘passionately with these ancient stories’ and stopping to tell her about it.

The renowned stories spin, one after the other, familiar and yet not, because they are spun from the female point of view (as much, that is, as any woman can when she is born into a male world). Contrasting the eternal with the everyday, opposing everlasting life with mortality, and pitting struggle and war against the acceptance of ‘a simple mending of the world’ with herbs and carpentry, the author knits her threads ever quicker as the tale unwinds. This retelling does not have the sound of epic adventures told by a traveller, but an altogether more intimate, late-at-night uttering, by crone to virgin, in preparation for womanhood.

I felt I could hear this enduring, female voice speaking through Miller, either that or she is a very wise woman for her years. It seemed as if I was hearing what I have read about: that once a true writer has identified a character and started to ‘talk’ with its voice, it then continues to speak its truths and knowledge through her, a knowing which is deeper than her own. In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert writes about stories needing someone to tell them, that when they come to you, you must serve them, allow them to be told. That made sense when I read this book.

Miller throws every Greek God and Goddess that you have ever heard of, and more, into the mix, however, at root it revolves around Circe, daughter of Helios (the sun) who, of course, being male, is the one who we more usually worship. Witch, lover, daughter and mother, Circe cannot die or age and this is a magnificent device allowing Miller to entice us through the seven ages of woman one by one, slowly learning as she goes. Like Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Circe gets another shot, and another, and …. well I won’t spoil it for you. Suffice to say that her power is hard-won. Against all odds, she finds she can subvert this very mechanism because she has proved that she can live through everything an earthling’s life involves: birth, joy, disappointment, hurt, and grief, and can therefore finally face the ultimate challenge.

Recently, I have been submerged in loss (I lead workshops and have just written a book about it), so it was perhaps inevitable that those were the parts which affected me the most. I wept with recognition when Circe realised that she had to let go of her child. And be glad for him. Oh, my mother-heart broke again because I too longed for children, bore them, became completely immersed in them and then gave them to the world never to return. (And yes, that is a dramatic turn of phrase, but here is the magic of storytelling – it gives us a universal language with which to speak about the parts of humanity which are known by all, but so often unspoken.)

255px-Angelica Kauffmann, Circe enticing Odysseus
Circe enticing Odysseus by Angelica Kaufmann

I did resist, I will be honest. I didn’t want to read of Circe’s faults and mistakes, only of her spells, defiances and transformations (what woman would not want to find such a delicious way to deal with the men who rape her). I railed to my own daughter when I had finished the part with Odysseus, of how Circe listened to him, and pandered to him, and healed him, or tried to. Then again, I did know, who of us hasn’t tried that? But on I read. Why? Because I sensed that Circe was looking for a way to know and befriend herself, to throw off her inheritance. (As am I. As are we all?) And then it came:

‘I had been old and stern for so long, carved with regrets and years like a monolith. But that was only a shape I had been poured into. I did not have to keep it.’

We can choose, Circe said to me, we can let go of the roles we have been handed by our parents and ancestors. If we can face all the things that life throws at us and live, then we have the strength we need to choose to be ourselves.

Now am I ready to write?

Electra 1869_Frederic_Leighton_-_Electra_at_the_Tomb_of_Agamemnon
Electra at the Tomb of Agamemnon by Frederick Leighton

You may also be interested in The Long Path to Wisdom – a collection of Tales from Burma by Jan-Philipp Sendker

How women are making the classics their own – Guardian article (accessed 27.1.20)

Death and Loss in Shiatsu Practice: A Guide to Holistic Bodywork in Palliative Care

Written by Tamsin Grainger (FwSS T). Published by Singing Dragon on August 21 2020. Available to buy now in paper or kindle formats – see link below

Here is a link to an interview with Carola Beresford-Cooke about the book on YouTube (23 mins)

Here is a shorter video with information about the contents of the book, also from YouTube (3 mins)

Richard Reoch wrote ‘this meticulous book is a work of love’ in his foreword to the book. Richard is author of Dying Well.

Who is this book for?

This guide is for Shiatsu and other complementary therapists, especially bodyworkers. It is also for those who are looking after, or working with people who are grieving, facing a life-threatening diagnosis, or working in end-of-life and palliative care. It covers the private and public sectors, and so is appropriate for physiotherapists, doctors and other careworkers. It is for those who are interested in the marriage of CAM and allopathic medicine, or who want to understand more about how both approaches can sit happily side-by-side for the benefit of patients. Many parts are relevant to people who work as self-employed therapists or counsellors (for example, the legal and administrative aspects of preparing for your death and caring for your clients in that eventuality; and the self-care necessary to support you in carrying out this, sometimes emotionally stressful work). Additionally, if you are curious about finding a holistic way to look after yourself or your loved ones when they are dealing with loss or preparing for a Good Death, this book will give you information about the nature and benefit of Shiatsu and other complementary therapies, which may be of interest.

Is it just for UK practitioners?

No, it uses statistics and information pertinent to the US, Canada, Europe, New Zealand and Australia, as well as the UK.

Some examples of ritual and traditions, from the past and across the world, are used for inspiration.

Japanese funeral setting. Picture credit: Plaza Homes

What is covered in this book?

There are sections on how change of all sorts can involve grief: moving house, breaking up with a lover, getting older; on dicing with death through our everyday behaviour and activities; on loss and bereavement; about the meaning of touch where grief and loss are concerned; the variety of beliefs different people have about death; suicide and mental health; the language we use to describe and communicate about this subject; working in extreme life/death traumatic situations; how death affects all ages differently; and how we support ourselves and others who are living through the death of babies, parents, partners, children and older people.

There are chapters on:

  • Theory – Chinese and Japanese Medicine, and the cycle of life
  • The client – types of people we come across who are dealing with death or the fear of it
  • The practitioner – practical matters like preparing your clients for your own death (client notes, your digital will), and spiritual ones (with a section on self-care: how we all need R.E.S.T)
  • The client-practitioner relationship – boundaries in this deep work, listening, the philosophy of dying, and love
  • Working in the NHS and other primary care settings including working in teams with other healthcare professionals
  • An extensive bibliography which also details websites, blogs, films, and much more
  • There is a section for teachers with lesson plans for including death and related subjects in the training curriculum, dealing with dying students, and teaching when you yourself are grieving
  • Finally, there are some exercises (physical and mental) and meditations (with diagrams and photos) for practitioners who want to develop their chi for this work, engage with CPD (continuing professional development), and tackle these subjects in small community or study groups

Death and Loss in Shiatsu Practice shares knowledge from the author and others who have many years of experience in this field.

About the author Tamsin Grainger
You can pre-pre-order now from Amazon

Marram – Leonie Charlton

A review of Marram, Memories of sea and spider-silk, non-fiction by Leonie Charlton published by Sandstone Press

Marram, memories of sea and spider-silk would have made a great Xmas gift! Published by Sandstone Press, it is a lilting account of the author, Leonie Charlton and her friend’s ride on Highland ponies across the Outer Hebrides from Barra to Callanish on Lewis. Charlton, author of short stories and poetry, dedicated her first full-length book to her mum, a jeweller, with whom she had a tricky relationship (‘I’d wondered if life would be better without her. Then she died and I was broken’). Charlton takes a bag of her beads on the journey, and leaves them in nooks as she meanders the ‘necklace’, ‘strung on streams of salt and fresh water’.

Marram grass growing beside the sea, not in the Outer Hebrides in this instance, but the east neuk of Fife

The carefully chosen language, the delicacy of description, is one great strength of this travelogue – it invites the reader to smell and touch the landscape. It causes us to slow to a walking pace and admire the ’empty, sun-bleached snail shells’ at our feet, and to look up and listen to the Arctic terns which ‘serrated the air with their cries’. Marram is full of colour: ‘the aubergine hue of the South Uist hills’; a drake Mallard, a ‘startle of tourmaline’; the ‘gold-gilt ‘of the title’s grass; and tones of dappled grey and cream dun taken from the coats of their four-legged friends. Indeed, for those who love things equestrian, there are many parts which will delight. Alongside the lush detail lies narrative and some reported conversation, intimate shared memories, meetings with islanders who offer grazing, and much fascinating local history – who knew that horses came to Scotland with the Spanish Armada, staying and enriching the local breeds?

‘a pilgrimage of love and personal sea-change’ p. xv

With a few more travel books by women thankfully being published nowadays, some featuring extreme treks and adventures, Charlton moves around with a refreshing and altogether Shepherdian * disregard for clocking up the miles or achieving great summits. The group endure their fair share of turbulent weather, not only dreich terrain and sodden camping, but silent striding which allows for recollections of sick beds to surface and feelings to be bravely faced. Although they dine on oysters and prosecco, they also display capability and strength when called for.

Which it is! We are pre-warned, but it is nevertheless shocking when, towards the end, there is a hair-raising account of some serious difficulty all four characters encounter and the established pace and style of the writing changes to reflect this incident. However, despite the occasional humorous episode (one horse takes a very long pee in a church carpark!) and a few joyous beach gallops, the overriding gait of the ruminative narrative is steady throughout. This is indeed a quiet, attentive book which brings the remote country alive, and reminds you to go off and explore.

*Nan Shepherd Scottish writer best known for ‘The Living Mountain’, a collection of essays about walking and living in the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland.

Marram will be published on 19 March 2020

Have you read this? Please leave a comment and tell me what you thought.