Discovering Ithaca, the homeland of Odysseus, becomes the goal of one downtrodden youth, Jason Lowry, when he has a fateful meeting with a girl at the swamp outside of his town in Ireland. The two lost souls seek an escape from poverty and neglect in exchange for adventure and whims in this heartbreaking yet often humorous story. Though Ithaca is subtle in plot, it is well-crafted in wit and its deep look into the mind of a young boy with an absent father.

Jason is an 11-year-old in pursuit, a boy trying to understand his father’s identity in the middle of his own problems. He and his mom cannot pay for any of their bills. She sinks to emotional manipulation to skirt payment. She spends her time with a new suitor that robs Jason of any kind of proper role model. Jason’s only escape is his own mind and his time with this girl from the swamp. Much of his pursuit in the novel is meandering. The book is very sensory, and more about the boy’s point of view, how he views everyone and his world. The meandering nature and the strong point-of-view reminded me of Salinger’s Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye. Jason is much younger than Caulfield, however, and still possesses a level of innocence – though Jason isn’t entirely innocent either, and does resort to meddling kid shenanigans.

The quest for Ithaca becomes the symbol of the quest for the seemingly impossible. The lines between Jason’s quest and Jason’s escapism blur until you find that wanting to understand and wanting to escape may be one in the same. If you’re looking for a book with strong character, voice, and style, Ithaca is a great choice. The language and personality swept me up. I gobbled it in just three days.

Overall – 3.8/5

The Once and Future King has all the ingredients of a rousing epic, though T.H. White’s particular depiction of King Arthur’s legend had its highs and lows. For me it teetered between tear-inducing poignant in substance but tedious in style.

You might be locked into the Meryln’s worldly teachings one minute along with Arthur’s ongoing debates on civilization and morality yet tuned out of the pacing at which quests, battles, and conflicts are told. You might be locked into the drama of Arthur’s secret affairs with the former queen, and the sordid relationship of Lancelot and Guinevere yet less interested in Gareth, Gawaine, Pellinore, Pallomides, Grummore, and the lot of them. Yet in its richness of characters, the book also offers something special. It offers the chance for the reader to go back and revisit the side stories, analyze, and decide which one is their favorite. For me it was the Questing Beast, because that was such a fun imaginative, mysterious creature that was never quite described the same way – a barking, reptilian, cat-like-but-huge monster (with feelings!)

There is a great deal of literary value in reading this book. This epic lies the foundation for many types of stories – stories of star-crossed lovers, stories of the underdog turned hero, revenge stories, tropes you find in fantasy novels. If you aren’t into reading the entire book, there is still value in flagging sections to read and discuss in a book club or a classroom. There is a great deal of symbolism, ethics, and history to dissect.

In its style, the book goes in and out of being self-aware. Not in the modern sense of breaking the forth wall, but rather it will go off on tangential opinions on Medieval Europe’s customs, its geography, its architecture in relation to the story. The writer also makes anachronistic conceits, but that can be the best thing about telling a story set in the past. You can use the historical context to craft a cautionary tale or the historical context can provide inspiration for the reader to seize their future. Arthur’s goal as a king – or his most epic quest – became shaping what we now would call “civilization” which readers can reflect on in the present and think, of course he was right in wanting to move away from brutality of Middle Age warfare to something new. But he had to be willing to be brave and bold to try new things. That seems to be the most enduring quality of the heroes we love – they learn and they do differently, because in learning and applying new ideas, the world can become a better place.

A modern reader can still get value out of this book. If you want to learn more about Arthur’s legend, love Medieval England, or are an English teacher who wants to dig down deep into the hero’s journey, it’s worth a read. Beyond the hero’s journey, it will leave you thinking about the morality of war, and what it means to be civilized and just. Here is a lovely quote to leave you with on the last few pages of the novel:

“There would be a day…with a new Round Table which had no corners, just as the world had none – a table without boundaries between the nations who would sit to feast there. The hope of making it would lie in culture. If people could be persuaded to read and write, not just to eat and make love, there was still a chance that they might come to reason.”

– T.H. White

Overall – 3/5

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In this period epic, two families lives – that of the Trasks and Hamiltons – entangle in biblical fashion. Spanning the length of generations, this tale highlights the human condition of these families and their kin as they also encounter historic events. East of Eden provides a study of morality – blurring the lines of what it means to be truly good or bad. This novel, although published in 1952, is still a remarkable example of how the epic can be applied to recent history.

Adam and Charles Trask, the first brothers of the Trask family are oddly enough not the ones who take on the responsibilities for their kin. In the whole of the novel, the individuals seeming to be most generous (or at least wisest) are Lee and Sam, the caretaker and the patriarch of the Hamilton family, respectively. They provide much of the light and guidance in the script. The women are another story. Cathy/Kate Ames – a woman who crosses paths with the Trasks, changing their lives forever, represents Eve. In representing Eve, she embodies the original sin of mankind, and like Eve, in her enlightenment she also spreads evil. Aron and Caleb, sons of Adam, must fight the schism pulling them a part much like Cain and Abel.

While all this comparison to the bible may seem like a spoiler, this book has been dissected for decades now; there really isn’t much in the way of spoilers. There is also little to hide regarding the biblical allegory; it is blatant. In fact the biblical allegory feels so blatant at times, it becomes a matter of dramatic irony for those familiar with the Christian bible. Will these characters live up to their biblical counterparts? More importantly, are they fated to or can they choose another path? What is free will? The most important theme stated within East of Eden is the idea of “thou mayest” – that God has given you the power to make choices which shape your goodness or badness.

The final component of “thou mayest” is that as long as the individual is able to live – they must continue to prevail – regardless of their mistakes. That although our lives seem fated, we still bear responsibility for our choices. We must continue to live with them, and hopefully develop from them.

Something about the fact that the setting of the book is so relatively recent, 1862- through WWI, makes it feel a lot more tangible and a lot less legendary. Most of East of Eden is small – just two families living their day-to-day on a farm. The Trasks and the Hamiltons live their lives in a seemingly insignificant manner much like we live our own – days blurring into weeks, not necessarily realizing how history passes through us. But like our own lives, East of Eden‘s monotony is punctuated with intense, dramatic moments that come to shape people’s character. In that way, it is still epic in nature, and could even make you understand how your own life is unique, meaningful, and up to you to shape.

The caveat to this book; it is dated. It contains commentary about ethnicity (specifically regarding the character of Lee) and gender that reminds you this book was written in 1952. But if you need a book to reflect on humanity – if you are feeling like an insignificant cosmic spec of dust – if you are feeling like you have no control – that you are predetermined to be good or bad – this book may remind you of your own resilience as a human.

Everyone is dealt a certain hand at birth, but from there the question begins – how good is the card player?

Overall – 4/5

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We might recount the story of Odysseus in the Odyssey, but fail to reflect on the those left in Odysseus’s path – particularly one key figure, Circe, the demi-goddess of Helios turned banished-seaside-witch in this Epic of her life.

The most we probably know about Circe is that upon Odysseus’s visit to the island of Aeaea, Circe lured Odysseus’s unsuspecting shipmates into her den and turned them into swine. But have we ever stopped to think why? What might have driven Circe to distrust these passers-by so much?

Circe delves into the backstory before this fateful encounter with Odysseus and his men and extrapolates beyond it tracking the story of her relationship with Odysseus on his quest to return to Ithaca. The novel ties in several figures from mythology (Glaucus and Scylla, Hermes, Daedalus and Icarus, and more). If Greek mythology is your thing, the book provides an engrossing, detailed environment of mythological intersection. Even if it’s not your thing, the spellbinding nature of story makes it worth reading. Circe is a woman living in her father’s godly shadow, who must fight against prejudice, her own limitations, her corrupted family, her passions, even the Goddess of Wisdom, Athena, and discover what it means to find contentment and repentance in a world intent on despoiling all that she holds dear.

Miller’s novel is not a glorified version of the Odyssey – in fact – the Odyssey – the supposed quintessential adventure – is only one part of the larger adventure in Circe. We come to understand the geography of her home kingdom and her new home of Aeaea as well as we know the male-dominated Shire in Lord of the Rings. This new geography feels wholly full of femininity – that is in the goddess sense meaning earthen, magical – and provides an updated adventuring realm that rivals the usual male-centric Greek myths. Circe becomes a kind of keeper of stories in Aeaea as individuals share their travels, their trespasses, and their secrets. Circe is no Katniss Everdeen or Arya Stark – filled with impossible talent to survive. Though she becomes skilled at witchcraft, she is fallible, and in her fallibility she possesses great strength. She does not feel fallible in a way that makes it okay for a misogynist to accept her character – quite the opposite. She is fallible in that she – just like anyone – must own and learn from her mistakes in order to grow into a powerful witch and guardian and maybe even find love. Miller’s ability to craft such a three dimensional protagonist is what makes Circe so compelling to read from beginning to end.

Perhaps the late Homer has a run for his money…

Overall – 5/5