The Reason Zeus Is Still Here

Let’s say that you’ve got an Ancient Greek hanging out with you while you’re running around doing errands. Likely as not, your day would go something like this:

You: Man this red light is taking forever

Ancient Greek: The story of the slow red light begins when Zeus distracted his wife Hera by building a fancy water park on the island of Crete. Hera, unable to resist boogie boarding in the wave pool, grabbed all of her maidens and left Zeus alone on Mount Olympus. Free from his wife’s jealous eye, he transformed into a bucket of jumbo buttered popcorn and attempted to seduce

You: Light changed

Ancient Greek: The story of the changing traffic light begins when

You: Give it a rest, Xanthos

The Greeks have a big story for EVERYTHING. Seriously. Pick a subject. Weather? Oooohh, let Xanthos tell you about the shenanigans on Mount Olympus. The seasons? See, Persephone really needed her me time and that’s why trees bloom. Mirrors? Bad hair days? Oak trees? I can do this all day, because the Greeks had every base covered with stories from a complex and intricate community of gods, goddesses, and endless variations of human/immortal hybrids with social lives that rival any Shondaland plotline.

Of all the things the Greeks lauded in their storytelling-beauty, athletic ability, cool chariots-they valued one attribute above all else. The brass ring, the Stanley Cup, the Shake Shack burger of Greek attributes is immortality. No goal was more desired than that of living beyond human limitations, of achievement that would catapult an ordinary man to off the planet to Olympus altitudes. Immortality is the spokesman for the franchise, the thing that defined what sacrifice and nobility meant to the Greeks. We are talking about immortality today because it is immortality that is the center of one of the few books that made reading life bearable for me in 2018, a story about an immortal woman banished for eternity back when eternity meant serious business, not just how long it felt to wait in line to check out at Trader Joe’s.

What would you do with unlimited circles around the sun? Not that Greeks perceived the Earth circling the sun, HAHAHAHAHA AS IF. Ancient Greece pegged itself as the center of the known world, the sun cheerfully charioting around the earth during the day (waves to Helios) and then non-sun time revealing an imaginary sky city full of star dot people, star dot Zodiacs, and some star dot bears. (Yes, astrology is bullshit, but just try saying that to ancient Greeks. They will straight cut you. Are they wrong though? If I have to pick my arbitrary magical personality prediction system, astrology wins every time because it’s fun and there are lots of branding opportunities. You know what Renaissance England gave us as personality predictors? The Humours, featuring Bile and Phlegm. It didn’t get better in the UK until JK Rowling redeemed everything with the Hogwarts sorting hat.)

Anyway….Greek something something….OH. Right. Book!

Madeline Miller, a classics scholar and Greek/Latin teacher, takes the Greek idea of immortality and gives it her full, formidable attention in her gorgeous and compelling novel Circe. Circe is Miller’s second book and a continuation of her novelization of Greek mythology (go read her first book, Song of Achilles, RIGHT NOW.) Circe is a daughter of Helios, the cranky sun god, and niece of Zeus, the cranky thunder god. Zeus becomes angry (duh) with Circe when she offers assistance to Prometheus, who…okay, we cannot go down the Greek-god-family-tree-and-why-Zeus-is-a-butthead rabbit hole right now because we will be here all day. Suffice it to say that Zeus was a control freak who was a little hypersensitive about loyalty and a creative streak when it came to revenge, and Helios backed him up on everything due to Fear Of Thunderbolt To The Face. To punish Circe for her transgression, Zeus banishes her for life to an island off the coast of…Greece, probably, but this is not a map blog so let’s not sweat that detail either.

“Banished for life” is a bummer phrase, but if you’re an ordinary human, at least there’s an end to banishment because death comes for all mortals eventually. I mean, you are only going to have to come up with so many ways to fill time. But what if you’re part god and “banished for life” means you’re never getting off that island, times infinity? What is it to have endless time in solitary confinement? In some of the most marvelous passages in the book, Circe takes on her Island Challenge. With the occasional visit from Hermes, a cousin from the Gods Squad, she establishes a home, tames a lion, and invents witchcraft. Banishment sucks, yes, but real estate and an exotic animal farm sure soften the blow. Just ask Lisa Douglas.

Book recommendation validated: Check
Greek gods recognized as creeps: Check

If you read Homer’s The Odyssey – and if you did, give yourself a big high-five – you probably remember Circe as a sorceress who turns Odysseus’s crew into pigs. She exists primarily to give Odysseus yet another obstacle to overcome as he earns his place in the company of the immortals, becoming the hero whose story is told time and again. Miller’s book asks the question: Why does an island-bound goddess want to turn anyone into a pig in the first place? And as it turns out, pig-dude transformations are the least interesting thing about Circe. This book presents a deity growing into her inherited power and making it her own, an origin story for a woman who decides that immortality is as much her destiny as that of any of the powerful men who try to negate her with geography.

Madeline Miller’s attention to detail and lavish treatment of her subjects has her on pace to publish a new book every ten years, but I’m going to need her to pick up the pace. At this rate, I’m only going to get to read a couple more of her books. Not all of us are immortal, Madeline.


Action Item

In loving memory of fellow book nerd Linda Brown, a fiercely beautiful soul who had her own amazing trove of epic stories. I hope everyone on Mount Olympus knows how lucky they are to have her.

The Reason We’ve Already Met

One of the best icebreaker questions is the one about choosing a superpower. Personally, I am Team Control Things With My Mind. Having ESP, or telekinesis, or the ability to speak to ghosts-those are some quality characteristics to have if you want to stand out at the next Justice League meeting. There is one mystical phenomenon, though, that’s so common everyone experiences it at one time or another: déjà vu. Translated from French, déjà vu means “already seen”, and people who experience it are overwhelmed with a sense of already having done something concurrently while doing that actual very same something. The sensation gives a bit of a rush that comes from feeling that you are in the past and the present at the same time. Déjà vu also causes anyone having déjà vu to announce “HA HA YOU GUYS OMG I AM TOTALLY HAVING DÉJÀ VU RIGHT NOW” to everyone in the general vu-cinity.

I, too, experience déjà vu, but not the sexy paranormal kind. For instance: every Labor Day weekend, I have dinner with a couple of out-of-town friends. Owing to circumstances and location, we always have dinner in the same restaurant, which oddly enough is a sports bar at a Marriott. It’s not that we’re really passionate about buffalo wings and giant nacho platters, it’s just what works. (OK FINE I LOVE NACHOS ARE YOU HAPPY) We’ve been meeting there every Labor Day for a few years now, and this year, as our meal was winding down and we were getting our check, I complimented our waitperson on her very pretty nail polish color. My compliment led to a very involved, ten minute avalanche conversation about why she’d painted her nails-she was going on vacation and she’d gotten her hair done for her trip too and she was going to a big Caribbean resort and she was afraid to scuba dive but the pool would be soooo fun and did we think she should parasail? This was followed by a detailed report on her bathing suit inventory.

Dazed as I was from the lighting quick speed at which our relationship had gone from distant but polite to besties who tell each other everything, I started to have that very strong “I have definitely lived through this before” feeling. I gloated for a minute, congratulating myself on being a super-spiritual empath who is open to vibes from dimensions that humans cannot even comprehend, and then I remembered: in that very same restaurant, a year to the day before, I had complimented our (different) waitperson on her very attractive (but different) nail polish color, a compliment that led to very involved, ten minute avalanche conversation about how her baby was just learning to walk and she was going to have to fire her babysitter and it’s so very difficult to decide when to have another baby but she thought she was ready but her husband didn’t think he was ready and WHAT THE HELL. I didn’t know that admiring someone’s manicure could inspire such catharsis. Can I please have some non-absurd déjà vu? Where’s my past life as Elizabeth I at?

Putting things on repeat happens in my reading life too. I’ve definitely picked up a book and gotten through the first chapter before figuring out that the reason it’s so familiar is that I’ve already read it. (Picture me slamming the book shut, tossing it over my shoulder, and grabbing the next one on the pile. Except since I’m practically married to my Kindle that doesn’t happen, but there is zero dramatic tension in poking a screen to download another book.) The other book déjà vu that’s all déjà too is reading a book that reminds me of another completely-unrelated-yet-completely-similar book, something that happened to me recently as I was reading a book about another one of my favorite icebreaker superpowers, reincarnation.

Casual Friday

Me inventing Casual Friday when I was Elizabeth I

The Forgetting Time The Forgetting Time is documentary producer Sharon Guskin’s debut novel. It’s an intriguing book that explores the question of reincarnation and past lives, specifically the phenomena of children speaking languages, reporting experiences, or describing places about which they could have had knowledge. Jerome Anderson, an academic who has made the study of such instances his career, meets Janie Zimmerman, a desperate mother who is at her wit’s end trying to manage the odd behaviors and intense phobias of her only child, four-year-old Noah. Hoping to parlay Noah’s case into a book that will justify his life’s work, Dr. Anderson works to unravel the mystery of Noah’s struggles. By turns suspenseful and emotionally raw, The Forgetting Time is made all the more interesting by Guskin’s inclusion of case studies from real-life researcher Dr. Jim Tucker’s work documenting children reporting past life memories. I enjoyed this book, but while I was reading it memories of another book kept popping up in my thoughts over and over, a book that I’d actually never read….

Audrey Rose Hahahaha just kidding. I was flinging some dramatic exposition there. I have, in fact, read Audrey Rose, the 1975 horror novel by Frank De Felitta. The book was inspired by De Felitta’s young son, who was so precocious that it was suggested that perhaps he was manifesting talents from a previous life. (Ok really? That is some extreme competitive parenting. “My Bobby is terribly smart but he’s not gifted. He’s reincarnated. We have him with a tutor that specializes in using past lives to get better standardized test scores because just ‘paranormal’ on your resume won’t get you into Harvard anymore. And of course, he goes to Mommy and Me once a week.”) In order to read Audrey Rose, I had to steal it from my dad’s Forbidden Grown-Up Book Stack, a stash of paperbacks that he thought he kept well hidden. I was attracted to the lurid cover, a depiction of a girl walking out of a grave through flames AND YET HER DRESS WAS NOT ON FIRE WHAT POWERFUL ADULT MAGIC WAS THIS? Audrey Rose introduces the Templeton family; they are super happy, except for the part where youngest daughter Ivy is tormented by nightmares of dying a violent death in a car accident. When the father of a child who died in a car accident shows up to share his theory that Ivy is actually his dead daughter, the regression hypnosis for Ivy starts, because the 70s. Spoiler alert: It does not go well.

I love the synchronicity of books existing in parallel, eventually intersecting in the hands of a passionate reader. (ME, I’M THE READER) I don’t think I can claim any kind of special psychic gifts here. It’s basic math. The more I read, the more likely it is that I’m going to get the feeling that I have been there before. It’s like putting my favorite song on repeat. No matter how many times I hear it, I am going to enjoy all over again, every time I press play.  I’ve definitely learned my lesson about complimenting someone’s manicure in a sports bar, though.

Action Items
Dr. Jim Tucker has written a book about his research into children and memories of past lives.

The Reason I Need A Break

I don’t have much of a sweet tooth. I am not claiming any kind of healthy moral high ground here because I have a profoundly developed wine and cheese tooth. Sweets, though? Meh. I have one enjoyable exception to this, however. If you are the kind of person that likes your occasional chocolate indulgence with a streak of OCD, then you already know where I am going with this sentence: KIT KAT BARS. From a sensory and organizational perspective, a Kit Kat meets all of the key candy bar criteria. They are crunchy, sweet, and you can sing that cool jingle while you’re eating them. I know what you’re saying: there are many junk foods that meet these qualifications. What’s so damn special about Kit Kats? PIPE DOWN. I AM TELLING YOU.

Kit Kats are in my personal Candy Bar Hall of Fame because they are thoughtfully, perfectly, and perhaps a bit neurotically pre-divided into segments THAT ARE ALL THE EXACT SAME SIZE THAT YOU CAN CONSUME IN THE EXACT SAME NUMBER OF BITES PER SEGMENT. There is glorious symmetry and precise portioning packed into those bright red wrappers. It’s thrilling to be able to get so much of my crazy addressed in one little foodstuff. I can take that little bar and break it apart into exact-sized pieces and there are so many ways to do it. Halves, quarters, remove one quarter at a time and nibble on it all day…so delicious. (HAHAHAHAHA it never lasts all day I always eat it in like 15 minutes.) So crispy. So anal-retentive. It scratches my OCD itch, hard.


I would 100% chip a tooth on this phone case

Of all the delightful aspects of eating Kit Kats, the most delightful one for me is the Kit Kat Sister Rule, which states that the only time I’ll indulge is if I can share one with my sister. Kit Kats have a recurring role in our sisterly interactions. It is the loveliest of things because our shared DNA has bequeathed us a shared preference for chocolate eaten following our Chocolate Consumption Rubric, but that same DNA spares us from having to explain our crazy to each other. We just get it. At the movies with my sister? One dinner-plate sized Kit Kat and one jug of Coke, please. (Concession stand sizes…amirite) Traveling with my sister? She always brings a Kit Kat for the plane (any size is allowed under Chocolate Consumption/Travel, but generally the longer the flight the bigger the bar), to be brought out after the beverage cart shows up. Family functions? We hide a Kit Kat in someone’s purse to keep it from the masses while we surreptitiously break off parallel rectangular bites. It’s a tasty ritual that binds us and defines our sisterhood. All of these great things-symmetry, compulsive chocolate disbursement, and how even the smallest of things reveal a family story-swirled around over and over in my head while reading Yaa Gyasi’s complex, layered, astonishing novel Homegoing.

Homegoing tells the story of a family dynasty that originates in the 17th century on Africa’s Gold Coast with half-sisters Effia and Esi. Born to the same mother but unknown to each other, the sisters are absorbed into the transatlantic slave trade. Esi is sold into slavery and taken to the American colonies on a British slave ship. Effia is taken as a wife by the British governor of the Cape Coast Castle, a coastal fort where captured slaves were kept in dungeons before being taken to the New World. Gyasi threads the stories of these sisters across years and through generations, revealing shared characteristics and fragile connections of lives lived on two continents, of families disrupted and displaced because of the capricious and fickle nature of war, politics, and the chaotic and hateful echo of slavery. Tribal conflict, the American Civil War, Ghana’s establishment as an independent nation-all serve as a backdrop as Effia’s and Esi’s descendants find ways to survive lives broken by indifferent and powerful forces.

There are a lot of reasons to read Homegoing, but what I and my OCD self could not get enough of is how perfectly structured this book is. Book structure doesn’t really get enough love when talking about why a book is good. We will dress up as our favorite book character for Halloween or wear socks with favorite book quotes, but when is the last time you saw tote bag for sale at the bookstore that says “Narrative Arc Really Turns My Pages”? You haven’t, not only because that’s a terrible slogan, but because literary architecture is a little more subtle than other parts of a novel. It’s underneath all the flashy stuff, with a solid story structure making the difference between a buoyant reading experience and “UGH THIS BOOK JUST NEVER ENDS I’M DYING”. Gyasi takes Homegoing’s themes of home and history, of fire and water, and breaks them apart into perfect, symmetrical segments, segments that seamlessly come together, with every word in the book serving as counterweight to the words that come before and after. It takes the epic scale and grounds it into an intimate, rich, effortlessly paced book. Gyasi makes the heavy lifting look easy. I read Homegoing in one sitting and snarled at anyone who tried to interrupt me.

For some, genealogy is a privilege, because records exist that tell you where you come from. For others, family history is lost, accessed only through wistful speculation. Homegoing imagines a lost history recovered in a perfectly balanced novel that breaks apart for ideal consumption. Feel free to read it, then go share a Kit Kat with someone who just gets you. Don’t ask for mine, though. My sister and I aren’t sharing. It’s a family tradition.

Action Items

This is Yaa Gyasi’s first book. IT’S ONLY HER FIRST BOOK. Cannot wait for the second one. Click on the link for her interview with Trevor Noah on The Daily Show.

According to the internet, everyone is making this Kit Kat cake.

Photo courtesy AliExpress