Circe by Madeline Miller
In her follow-up to her 2012 novel The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller revisits the world of Greek myths, this time with the witch-goddess Circe. Circe, the daughter of Helios, a Titan, and a water nymph, never feels at home in her father’s halls. She is mocked for her strange voice and lacks the beauty and power of her parents and siblings. Instead, she finds herself drawn to mortals and prefers them to the vain and petty gods around her. When her latent powers are made known, she is considered a threat by Zeus and is exiled to the island Aiaia. On the island, she begins to practice pharmakeia, witchcraft using herbs and other elements to create powerful spells. She is particularly adept at transfiguration.
Circe briefly leaves Aiaia when she is summoned to Crete by her sister, Pasiphae. While at Knossos, she meets her niece, Ariadne, the inventor Daedalus, and has a memorable encounter with the Minotaur. After returning to exile, Circe is more keenly aware of her loneliness than before and throws herself into working her magic. Despite her isolation, Circe does have the odd visitor. Sometime lover Hermes comes to tell tales of the outside world. Circe’s other niece, the witch Medea, seeks her out after fleeing her kingdom with Jason. Ships of men also find their way to her island and, at first, she welcomes their company. After a sailor’s brutal betrayal, Circe transforms him and his crew into pigs. Thereafter, most men who find her island meet the same fate. One day, as foretold by prophecy, Odysseus makes his way to Circe’s shores. If you know your mythology, you already know how the story plays out. However, in Miller’s hands, the story feels fresh and utterly compelling.
Circe is a complex and sympathetic heroine. Her struggles to find her voice and wield her power are both ancient and completely of the moment. Circe may be about a goddess, but it has a lot to say about being not only a woman, but a woman with power. A particularly potent theme throughout Circe’s story is how men fear powerful women and attempt to suppress them. Miller’s vivid, evocative writing brings the Greek gods and monsters to life in a unique and fantastic way. Readers who enjoy stories about women’s lives, and those who read literary, historical, and fantasy fiction will all find something worthwhile here.
The Glass Universe, by Dava Sobel
An absorbing history of women in astronomy and stellar photography, for readers of Hidden Figures. I enjoyed reading about the women computers and astronomers who worked at the Harvard College Observatory from 1877 through the 1930s, examining glass photographic plates of stars, and analyzing the data, working at half the pay of men. The observatory has a library of these photographs going back more than a hundred years, which is being digitized. These photographs led to several advances in astronomy, as did photographs of stellar spectra. Annie Draper, wanting to see her late husband’s work continue, funded much of the observatory’s work for years. Edward Pickering was the director for many years, followed by Harlow Shapley, and they oversaw new telescopes, expansion of the buildings, grants for women doing graduate work in astronomy, and new mountain observatories in Peru and South Africa. Sobel, known for her witty books on the history of science, such as Longitude, used information found in letters, memoirs, diaries, and notes of astronomy conferences to bring the women, including Annie Jump Cannon and Cecilia Payne, vividly to life.
The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel
Reporter Lily Koppel, who wasn’t born until after the last Apollo mission, became fascinated by a photo of the astronaut wives in Life magazine, and wanted to learn their stories, which have never been told. The wives of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts were suddenly thrust into the spotlight after years of living quietly on drab military bases. The astronauts had training, all kinds of it, but the Mercury wives didn’t even get any advice from NASA on how to handle their new roles. Life magazine had exclusive access to the astronauts and their families, but their photos and stories didn’t tell the real story; the emotional side of the space race. The wives strove to be supportive while raising their children and maintaining their homes almost single handedly while worrying about their husbands when they were training or on a mission. They did meet monthly, in an informal group, and were always there to be supportive during missions or after a death, but didn’t share all of their fears and doubts until years later. Many of the marriages crumbled under the stress. Today, many of the astronaut wives are still friends, and are now telling what they remember of those stressful, exciting years when they rode in parades, went to balls and the White House, and were married to men who became instant celebrities.