Review: Eye by Marianne Micros

I was provided a digital advance reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I suppose you could say the cover of this book… caught my eye. After reading it, I’m not quite sure what to make of it. Eye is a loosely thematic collection of short stories that mostly center around, you guessed it, the eye. About as strong is the focus on Greece: its myths, its history, and its superstitions, most prominently the “evil eye.” The author is a retired English professor of Greek heritage, and both of these facts come through in her writing.

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The first half of the book includes stories that take place on various Greek islands, most of them about the evil eye, the advent of modernity in rural Greece, or both. The similarities between the stories make them tend to run together, especially when the same handful of names is recycled across stories. It’s unclear whether the author intended some characters to be present in different stories or if she simply wanted to emphasize how common these names are.

With so many stories in similar settings with similar topics, it becomes clear that some are weaker than others, less fleshed out, scraps that could easily have been excised from the collection. “No Man” is a decent introduction to the concept of the evil eye, so I understand why Micros chose to place it at the beginning, but as a story, it falls flat compared to the eerie tone that was likely intended. “The Midwife” and “Thirteen” are likewise unimpressive, and “Paved” is just difficult to read.

Here is where I may have a difference in opinion with someone with an M.F.A. Most notably with “Paved,” but also in some of the other stories, Micros uses experimental, semi-poetic formatting. Her previous publications have been mainly poetry. While I do enjoy poetry, I have limited patience for experimental formatting in prose or prose-like works unless it is done exceptionally well. In my view, Micros uses tired textual tricks that do little to enhance the stories and simply make them less accessible. If this sort of thing is your bread and butter, though, you may find it more interesting than I did.

Out of the swath of stories about traditional Greek life, the title story “Eye” is the most complex and complete, and it forms a clear nucleus to the other works in this section of the text. “The Sacrifice” and “The Secret Temple” also have some freshness to them, although they still aren’t top-tier.

The second half of the collection branches out into more diverse topics, both more fantastical and more realistic than the first. “One Hundred Eyes” takes something of a risk with perspective by telling the tale of Io, who was turned into a cow, in the first person, but ultimately not much is added to the myth with this retelling. “The Cave of Lust” is the most bizarre of the collection and leaves the reader with some food for thought. It is based on Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, which I have not read, and so I do not know how the original might inform the impression of someone who has read it. “The Changeling’s Brother” has a decent but predictable twist.

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Juno Discovering Jupiter with Io by Pieter Lastman.

The strongest of the collection are “The Minotaur” and “The Birthday Gift.” “The Minotaur” has a unique protagonist and concept, and my only complaint is that the metaphor involved is a bit too ham-fisted. “The Birthday Gift” is a curious, insightful comment on the nature of superstition.

The final story, “The Invention of Pantyhose: An Autobiography” is another dive into the word salad-y prose that I disliked in “Paved,” which is a shame, because there is some good content in there.

So, what’s the verdict? These stories aren’t poorly written, exactly, not even the ones with disagreeable formatting. They are structurally sound, as meticulously pruned as one might expect the words of an English professor to be. In terms of content, though, many of the stories suffer from unbearable homogeneity, and that extends to the voices of the characters as well. Each of the first-person narratives reads the exact same way, which defeats the purpose of first-person perspective. I would like the author to have examined a bit more closely who each of her characters are and try to express that through their narrations.

This book is not my cup of tea, but if you are particularly interested in Greek culture or enjoy a poetic, university English department-approved style of writing, it might be for you.

Rating: 2/5 stars.

Buy Eye here!

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Review: Circe by Madeline Miller

When I was in middle school, it was one book craze after another. Harry Potter. Warriors. And, of course, Percy Jackson and the Olympians. Those were the books that drove waiting lists. My friends and I discussed what Greek gods could be our parents with the same fervor as we did our Hogwarts houses. In eighth grade, my best friend and I jumped at the chance to take Latin at the high school even though we’d have to get up an hour earlier for it. Percy Jackson ignited a passion for mythology in not only me, but an entire generation.

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Was there a girl out there who didn’t want to be Annabeth Chase?

With that in mind, it’s no wonder that Madeline Miller’s books have done well. Swamped with schoolwork, the craze for The Song of Achilles passed me by, but I still heard about it and saw it on stands in the library. Now, Circe is the book that everyone is talking about, and seeing Rick Riordan’s stamp of approval, I couldn’t help but check it out.

Circe certainly speaks to the demographic that grew up on Percy Jackson, but when it comes down to it, this is a very different sort of book. More tragedy than comedy, it echoes with the pain and wisdom of millennia. Circe’s voice is distinct, that of a soft-hearted woman who has loved and lost countless times, collecting scars like so many flowers. She narrates her life story in the first person from start to finish, only once getting ahead of herself when she prematurely mentions Odysseus.

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As I read the book, I would occasionally pause to wonder whether an incident belonged to established mythology or was an invention of the author. More often than not, when I looked it up, it turned out to be the former. I slowly realized that both my freshman English class, which cast Circe as a capricious sorceress, and my Latin education, which largely ignored mythology that wasn’t to do with Aeneas, had completely failed me on the subject of Circe. Beyond that, while I am able to draw lines of relation where they are most essential, my teachers rarely had the time to explain the big picture of Greek mythology, like how the house of Atreus so often mentioned in Homer has its curse originate in Tantalus, or how Circe is related to figures such as Helios, Pasiphaë, and Medea. When I read these tales, I used to read them in isolation.

Of course, the Circe of the Odyssey is one of many obstacles for Odysseus to outwit, an exotic sorceress who he seduces and strips of her powers against him. In that sense, her story as told by Homer is that of a male power fantasy. With the slightest critical eye, though, it’s easy for a woman to find a recognizable face in Circe. She turns men into pigs? We’ve all met a man more porcine than human at some point. She’s a witch? In the modern day, it’s accepted that “witches” are often just women who have gained more power than is socially acceptable. With those associations at her fingertips, Miller leans into a sympathetic, feminist portrait of the character.

This is no lazy attempt to capitalize on trends, however. Miller is a scholar of classics, and her expertise shines through in the text. She draws on tales both familiar and unfamiliar to create a cohesive life story rather than a collection of pieces. Her take on Glaucos and Scylla I thought was particularly inspired.

In a thread she introduces through Glaucos and Scylla, then returns to throughout the text, Miller explores the concept of becoming one’s true self. Circe, an oddball among gods and mortals alike, struggles to find a companion in a cruel, isolating world. She searches for fulfillment in her brother Aeëtes, in her various lovers, and in her son Telegonus. No matter where she looks, the gods are too uncaring and the mortals too transient. Immortality proves to be a curse rather than a blessing. In this version of the story, at least, she does find what she’s looking for in the end.

I shouldn’t neglect to say that the prose is gorgeous. Circe’s narration is shot through with description that channels the sort of nostalgia we humans tend to have for lost ages we have never seen with our own eyes.

I recommend this book for anyone with an interest in Greek mythology and to lovers of strong female characters. In fact, Miller seems to argue through the text that Circe is the prototypical strong female character. Even if you don’t have a hunger for either of those things, Circe will satisfy your appetite for a well-told story.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars.

Buy Circe here!

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Check out my masterlist for the rest of my reviews!