2015 Book Roundup // My favorite picks of the year

2015 was a good book year. My total count is at 40, which is pretty standard for me. Every year I try to read a book per week, but I’m a notoriously slow reader, and I also try to have somewhat of a social life! So here are my top 5 favorite books of 2015:

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5. Helen of Troy: Beauty, Myth, Devastation

I loved this book. Helen of Troy as a myth is one of the most interesting cultural concepts to me. This book explored most of the ways Helen of Troy was written about in ancient Greece, and what she continues to mean for a modern audience.

4. Paper Towns

LOVED Paper Towns, because it was an exploration of what it means to know someone, what it mean to fall in love, and what it means to love an idea more than you love a person. And for the record, I adored Cara Delevingne as Margo in the movie.

3. Paris

One of my favorite genres is historical fiction, and Edward Rutherfurd’s novel about the city of Paris is historical fiction at its peak. It tells the story of half a dozen families in Paris from the middle ages to the 60s, and the main character is the city itself. I adored it.

2. The Penelopiad

By Margaret Atwood, this novella retells the story of The Odyssey from the viewpoint of Penelope. She’s hanging out in Hades in the fields of asphodel, and decides to tell her side of the story, especially the guilt she feels about the hanging of her twelve maids.

1. Trilby

Number one this year was George du Maurier’s Trilby, about a tone-deaf artist’s model who is hypnotized by the greasy, sinister Svengali. I loved the setting of 1870s Paris, the commentary about the corruption of the world, and the innocence that was Trilby and her love for Little Billee. She was an innocent soul ruined by the world.

What were your favorite books this year?

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Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Penelopiad’—retelling Penelope’s story

Officially obsessed with Margaret Atwood, though that should come as a surprise to no one. But prior to reading The Penelopiad, the only Atwood book I’d read was The Handmaid’s Tale, and her poem Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing. Similar to the poem, in this book, Atwood takes the part of Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, and Penelope tells her own version of the events surrounding the Trojan War.

17645Penelope is always seen as the antithesis to Helen, who was painted as the ultimate “bad woman.” On the other hand, Penelope is always depicted as the perfect, loyal wife, who waits for 20 years for Odysseus to come home, successfully keeping her hundred suitors at bay out of loyalty for a husband she doesn’t know will ever return. However, this story gets plenty updated in The Penelopiad, and Penelope becomes a woman with sass, agency, impatience, and a penchant for plotting.

Penelope begins her tale in the vast, shadowy underworld of Hades. This is a Greek underworld, complete with the fields of asphodel. It’s present-day, and Penelope has seen much in the thousands of years since she died. Finally, she says, it’s time to tell her story.

“Now that I am dead, I know everything,” she declares. And she does. She begins her story by describing her mother the naiad, and how her cousin Helen loved admiration so much she chased it down, and caused the deaths of thousands of Greeks. But more than anything else, Penelope tells the story of her 20 years without Odysseus—weaving the shroud, fending off her suitors, and taking Telemachus down a couple notches.

But Atwood also makes some important changes to the story we know. Most notably, Penelope states that she totally recognized Odysseus through his mask, but that pretending not to was all part of the plan. And most important: the twelve maidens who were hanged for betrayal were, in fact, spying on the suitors on Penelope’s request, thus making Odysseus’ act one of murder. The hanging of the maidens weighs heavy on Penelope’s long-dead shoulders.

The flashbacks are interspersed with Penelope’s musings in the underworld. Down there in Hades, she sees Helen still fending off flocks of admirers, and she sees Odysseus too ashamed to come near her, instead opting to become reincarnated so that he can avoid her. It’s often silly and irreverent:

“I picture the gods, diddling around on Olympus, wallowing in the nectar and ambrosia and the aroma of burning bones and fat, mischievous as a pack of ten-year-olds with a sick cat to play with and a lot of time on their hands. ‘Which prayer shall we answer today?’ they ask one another. ‘Let’s cast the dice! Hope for this one, despair for that one, and while we’re at it, let’s destroy the life of that woman over there by having sex with her in the form of a crayfish!’ I think they pull a lot of their pranks because they’re bored.”

But it is also, at its heart, cultural commentary about the agency of women and how they’re portrayed. Atwood has done her best to challenge stereotypes and still bring to life these allegorical, classical figures, giving them voices beyond their epic songs. And even though the tone of the book is whimsical at times, there are still moments of chilling truth, and disturbing beauty, such as the chapters where the 12 hanged maidens sing their songs:

“Then sail, my fine lady, on the billowing wave —
The water below is as dark as the grave,
And maybe you’ll sink in your little blue boat —
It’s hope, and hope only, that keeps us afloat” 

At its heart, this amazing, slim little book gave me the same eerie feeling of truth that Atwood’s Helen of Troy poem gave me. She obviously has a deft hand with satire and cultural commentary, but to weave those together with classic Greek mythology and make it all accessible and funny? Truly magical. I just adored this book, and it quickly became one of my favorites!

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Why are we still obsessed with Helen of Troy?

I’m going to direct that question to myself: why am I still so obsessed with Helen of Troy? I read this book recently that tried to answer that question for me, and I think I have the answer.

The book is Helen of Troy: Beauty, Myth, Devastation by Ruby Blondell. It’s a critical analysis of the ancient Greek myth and literature surrounding the dazzling Helen of Troy, and what she meant for ancient and classical Greek society. The implications are, of course, what she means today.

16179837A while ago I shared this Margaret Atwood poem that imagines Helen of Troy as a countertop dancer, i.e. a stripper. The poem is a reminder that Helen of Troy, and what she represents, are still so incredibly relevant today.

So why is she so relevant? Why am I, like the rest of the world, obsessed with figuring out Helen of Troy?

Because she’s the most beautiful woman in the world, and thus she embodies the problematic nature of female beauty. The ancient Greeks knew that, and countless playwrights, writers, orators, and sophists used her as the embodiment of how they felt, and treated, women in their society. Ruby Blondell’s book sheds so much light on what Helen of Troy represented.

Blondell explores several Greek writers who included the character and “device” of Helen of Troy in their works; most notably Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey (obviously), Sappho’s poetry, The Oresteia, Gorgias’s Encomium of Helen, Euripedes’ Trojan Women and Helen, and Isocrates’ rhetorical speeches. Each writer deals with Helen in a different way, either defending her, making her a victim, making her a villain, or reducing her to something not worthy of living.

Blondell’s exhaustive analyses of each of these works comes to one conclusion: that for men, female beauty is both an asset and a risk. Beauty is essential for a wife, but beauty also makes a wife supremely untrustworthy, because she can always use it as a weapon. She can always use her beauty as a way to emasculate men, and make cuckolds of them. Therefore, Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman who ever lived, is the ultimate example of what the ancient Greeks defined women as: literally a “beautiful evil.”

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There’s this eloquent passage from the book’s introduction that adequately sums up why beauty is problematic for men—because they have to control it in order to reduce the risk of emasculation:

“Helen of Troy is the mythical incarnation of an ancient Greek obsession: the control of female sexuality and of women’s sexual power over men. As the most beautiful woman in the world, and the most destructive, she is both the most in need of control and the least controllable.”

I think these themes are still so extremely relevant today, to an alarming degree. We still have these ridiculous notions of female beauty, narrow beauty standards, and we have an image of this “ultimate woman” as if there were any such thing. Despite the strides we’ve taken, Helen of Troy is still here today.

Some men still feel compelled to control women, and control the power of female beauty. Even in such small instances as telling their girlfriends how much makeup they should wear, or not letting their girlfriends wear certain things so they’re not flaunting their beauty and making themselves attractive to other men. There’s still this philosophy of containment, that female beauty has to be controlled and limited so that it can be owned. Obviously, this mode of thinking and acting turns female human beings into objects.

Helen of Troy, as she is described in these works and a million others, could only have been created by men. Nowhere in classic literature is she understood as a thinking, acting individual with agency who is allowed to make mistakes. She is only a device used to promote misogynistic ideals. But she’s also experiencing something of a feminist renaissance, courtesy of works like Margaret Atwood’s, in which her beauty is still extremely problematic, but in which she takes back her story.

Having constructed female beauty as a threat, and imagined an absolute standard of beauty fulfilled by a single woman in whom that threat culminates, Greek men spent considerable energy attempting to analyze, contain, disarm, deny, or appropriate the power accorded to their own creation.

In this world, we can understand Helen’s story much more simply: a woman unhappy in marriage leaves her husband because she has fallen in love/lust with another man. Is it her fault that her husband and his brother killed hundreds of people to take back what they saw as her property?

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I think it’s kind of ironic that the blame traditionally lies with Helen, when a modern lens will obviously come to the conclusion that Helen’s husband is to blame for starting a 10-year war to begin with, and for treating her (and her beauty) like a commodity. Thus, in this modern world, Helen has become an example of the negative effects of the patriarchy. And Helen is no longer abused for expressing unbridled sexual passion—for the most part.

Short answer: the reason I find Helen so ridiculously entrancing/interesting is because even in the society she “lived” in (mythologically), she still managed to break free and cause a whole lot of trouble. I guess that’s my third-wave feminist lens talking. 😉

Definitely check out this book if you want to learn more about 1. Greek mythology, 2. gender politics in ancient Greek culture, 3. classic literature, 4. a woman with growing cultural relevance (who never truly became irrelevant). I only read about half of the works discussed, and it’s so easy to just get lost in these pages.

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Helen of Troy, as told by Margaret Atwood: a poem

Today I wanted to share one of my favorite poems ever. This is “Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing” by Margaret Atwood. I’ve been thinking a lot about this poem recently, because I’m reading this book about Helen of Troy through the ages, Beauty, Myth, Devastation by Ruby Blondell.

I first read this poem in college and since Helen of Troy is a source of constant fascination to me, I wanted to share this fantastic, amazing poem and my thoughts. My last essay I ever wrote as an undergrad dealt with Helen and this poem, and it’s been dear to me ever since.

Here it is:

Helen_of_TroyThe world is full of women
who’d tell me I should be ashamed of myself
if they had the chance. Quit dancing.
Get some self-respect
and a day job.
Right. And minimum wage,
and varicose veins, just standing
in one place for eight hours
behind a glass counter
bundled up to the neck, instead of
naked as a meat sandwich.
Selling gloves, or something.
Instead of what I do sell.
You have to have talent
to peddle a thing so nebulous
and without material form.
Exploited, they’d say. Yes, any way
you cut it, but I’ve a choice
of how, and I’ll take the money.

I do give value.
Like preachers, I sell vision,
like perfume ads, desire
or its facsimile. Like jokes
or war, it’s all in the timing.
I sell men back their worse suspicions:
that everything’s for sale,
and piecemeal. They gaze at me and see
a chain-saw murder just before it happens,
when thigh, ass, inkblot, crevice, tit, and nipple
are still connected.
Such hatred leaps in them,
my beery worshippers! That, or a bleary
hopeless love. Seeing the rows of heads
and upturned eyes, imploring
but ready to snap at my ankles,
I understand floods and earthquakes, and the urge
to step on ants. I keep the beat,
and dance for them because
they can’t. The music smells like foxes,
crisp as heated metal
searing the nostrils
or humid as August, hazy and languorous
as a looted city the day after,
when all the rape’s been done
already, and the killing,
and the survivors wander around
looking for garbage
to eat, and there’s only a bleak exhaustion.
Speaking of which, it’s the smiling
tires me out the most.
This, and the pretence
that I can’t hear them.
And I can’t, because I’m after all
a foreigner to them.
The speech here is all warty gutturals,
obvious as a slab of ham,
but I come from the province of the gods
where meanings are lilting and oblique.
I don’t let on to everyone,
but lean close, and I’ll whisper:
My mother was raped by a holy swan.
You believe that? You can take me out to dinner.
That’s what we tell all the husbands.
There sure are a lot of dangerous birds around.

Not that anyone here
but you would understand.
The rest of them would like to watch me
and feel nothing. Reduce me to components
as in a clock factory or abattoir.
Crush out the mystery.
Wall me up alive
in my own body.
They’d like to see through me,
but nothing is more opaque
than absolute transparency.
Look—my feet don’t hit the marble!
Like breath or a balloon, I’m rising,
I hover six inches in the air
in my blazing swan-egg of light.
You think I’m not a goddess?
Try me.
This is a torch song.
Touch me and you’ll burn.

I love this poem because it’s somewhat an updated interpretation of Helen of Troy’s persona for the 20th century, and also because it makes clear that Helen is still relevant today. We still struggle with gender inequality, and as a society, women are still objectified and reduced to something less than human for expressing sexuality, and are demonized for practicing agency.

Gender norms and sex politics are all there in the story of Helen of Troy, and Margaret Atwood’s take just makes that so much clearer in this poem, rich and striking and beautiful and uncomfortable.

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APOCALITERATURE

Forgive the all-caps. I’m in a state of frenzy after seeing Divergent. I’ve written about this briefly before, but I am so intrigued by the saturation of dystopian fiction and film these days. On the YA side, you’ve got the formula of shy-girl-turned-revolutionary a la Hunger Games and Divergent and on the literary fiction side, Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy and The Handmaid’s Tale and of course, the classic 1984 or the book that scared the living daylights out of me. Why? George Orwell responded to the aftermath of World War II and the rise of communism, and Aldous Huxley to worldwide industrialization and to what he considered the dehumanization of mankind following the first World War. What are we responding to today? And why is it so successful specifically with teenagers?

fan-noi-gian-khi-divergent-bi-goi-la-the-hunger-games-ban-moiYA dystopian fiction is the new vampire romance. It’s trendy and exciting, and it definitely makes a good story. I sat immobile in the theatre after seeing Divergent, unblinking and in awe at what had just happened. I connected with Tris the same way I connected with Katniss (forgive the inevitable comparison) because both were stronger than they knew or seemed, and pushed themselves constantly to save what they loved, or fight for a cause. They’re incredibly brave, but they’re also vulnerable and dynamic and complicated. So, I see why characters like Tris appeal to teenagers (and adults!). She is “dauntless,” after all. But what about the situations they find themselves in? The fights to the death, the hostile governments, the constant struggle for survival? What’s going on here?

When I read The Handmaid’s Tale earlier this year, I read a blurb in the back that described the dystopian government’s rules and strictures on women as “the logical conclusion” of certain societal trends and ideals. Victim-blaming in rape instances, for example, is the norm in Atwood’s world. In Huxley’s Brave New World, women are immunized against child-bearing, people are bred in factories, and everyone is high on soma all the time to dull the pain and pleasure of living. So in these instances, the dystopian “future” is the logical conclusion of the scary things we see happening all around us on a daily basis, if these terrible things became normal, or if they became enforced law.

So what does YA dystopian fiction tell us about how teenagers see society? Is it just storytelling and plotting, or is it something else?

I feel like in the case of Divergent at least, the answer is in the title. Teenagers are afraid of being different, being weird, being ostracized (aren’t we all?) and people like Tris and Katniss, who break the molds and find this immense inner strength, offer all kinds of hope for young people. It’s okay to diverge, people. Difference makes you beautiful, and all that. In the case of Hunger Games, the answer is a little less clear because the world-building is less clear. Katniss is fighting an amorphous force whose only clear method of cruelty is the whole children-killing-each-other thing, and maybe the wealth disparity between the districts. So if she’s fighting for a vague “freedom,” then teenagers relate to her strength and courage, and admire her as a role model. I can definitely get behind that.

Strangely enough, I think dystopian novels of all kinds give people hope. It’s all about the struggle, the fight, the never-giving-up. It’s idealistic in the best way, because dystopia suggests an opposite: a utopia of ideals, a perfect method of living, a peace that we all idealize and wish to strive for in this world. Even if it’s unattainable, if we keep writing about fighting, if we keep noticing things in our world and reacting to them, if we keep up the struggle, then hopefully that dystopian future will stay in the realm of fiction.

Confession: I actually like Tris better than Katniss. Please don’t kill me. I’ll fight back.

APOCALITERATURE

Forgive the all-caps. I’m in a state of frenzy after seeing Divergent. I’ve written about this briefly before, but I am so intrigued by the saturation of dystopian fiction and film these days. On the YA side, you’ve got the formula of shy-girl-turned-revolutionary a la Hunger Games and Divergent and on the literary fiction side, Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy and The Handmaid’s Tale and of course, the classic 1984 or the book that scared the living daylights out of me. Why? George Orwell responded to the aftermath of World War II and the rise of communism, and Aldous Huxley to worldwide industrialization and to what he considered the dehumanization of mankind following the first World War. What are we responding to today? And why is it so successful specifically with teenagers?

fan-noi-gian-khi-divergent-bi-goi-la-the-hunger-games-ban-moiYA dystopian fiction is the new vampire romance. It’s trendy and exciting, and it definitely makes a good story. I sat immobile in the theatre after seeing Divergent, unblinking and in awe at what had just happened. I connected with Tris the same way I connected with Katniss (forgive the inevitable comparison) because both were stronger than they knew or seemed, and pushed themselves constantly to save what they loved, or fight for a cause. They’re incredibly brave, but they’re also vulnerable and dynamic and complicated. So, I see why characters like Tris appeal to teenagers (and adults!). She is “dauntless,” after all. But what about the situations they find themselves in? The fights to the death, the hostile governments, the constant struggle for survival? What’s going on here?

When I read The Handmaid’s Tale earlier this year, I read a blurb in the back that described the dystopian government’s rules and strictures on women as “the logical conclusion” of certain societal trends and ideals. Victim-blaming in rape instances, for example, is the norm in Atwood’s world. In Huxley’s Brave New World, women are immunized against child-bearing, people are bred in factories, and everyone is high on soma all the time to dull the pain and pleasure of living. So in these instances, the dystopian “future” is the logical conclusion of the scary things we see happening all around us on a daily basis, if these terrible things became normal, or if they became enforced law.

So what does YA dystopian fiction tell us about how teenagers see society? Is it just storytelling and plotting, or is it something else?

I feel like in the case of Divergent at least, the answer is in the title. Teenagers are afraid of being different, being weird, being ostracized (aren’t we all?) and people like Tris and Katniss, who break the molds and find this immense inner strength, offer all kinds of hope for young people. It’s okay to diverge, people. Difference makes you beautiful, and all that. In the case of Hunger Games, the answer is a little less clear because the world-building is less clear. Katniss is fighting an amorphous force whose only clear method of cruelty is the whole children-killing-each-other thing, and maybe the wealth disparity between the districts. So if she’s fighting for a vague “freedom,” then teenagers relate to her strength and courage, and admire her as a role model. I can definitely get behind that.

Strangely enough, I think dystopian novels of all kinds give people hope. It’s all about the struggle, the fight, the never-giving-up. It’s idealistic in the best way, because dystopia suggests an opposite: a utopia of ideals, a perfect method of living, a peace that we all idealize and wish to strive for in this world. Even if it’s unattainable, if we keep writing about fighting, if we keep noticing things in our world and reacting to them, if we keep up the struggle, then hopefully that dystopian future will stay in the realm of fiction.

Confession: I actually like Tris better than Katniss. Please don’t kill me. I’ll fight back.

Fashion: Only a Word

“Faith is only a word, embroidered.”– Margaret Atwood

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I got these boots for Christmas from Modcloth. I love the Victorian feel they have, and especially the blue laces which offer many opportunities for fun color combinations. Half of this outfit is borrowed from my sisters’ closets 🙂

top from my sister, cardigan from my other sister, skirt from Forever 21, boots from Modcloth, necklace from Etsy

1st Book of 2014: The Handmaid's Tale

I’ve started off 2014 with a bang with Margaret Atwood’s 1985 classic The Handmaid’s Tale. When I was reading the last hundred pages of the book, I frequently closed it and put it down and buried my face in my hands and said, “I can’t take it. The pressure is too much.” It’s frightening at times but unlike 1984 (my guidepost for all things dystopian), the frightening aspects are not tied to the plot exactly, but rather, the fear lies in the elements of the world itself: Atwood has created a world in which women are truly second-class citizens, in which they are valued (or not valued) for the ways in which they are used sexually by men.

handmaids-tale-reviewThere are the Wives, capital “W”, who are revered. There are the Daughters, clad all in white and kept completely separate from the world. There are the Unwomen, those who cannot produce children and who are shipped off to the Colonies to perform dangerous and menial tasks. And then there are the Handmaids, dressed all in red, like our protagonist, Offred.

Our setting is Gilead, a new nation instated after the President and Congress have been annihilated, after the Constitution is suspended, and after a theocracy has been established. The birth rate has plummeted and the Handmaids are those women who have been assigned to copulate with the high-ranking Commanders, to have the children the Wives cannot, and they only have three chances (three cycles of Commanders) to birth a child before they are deemed Unwomen and shipped off to Colonial hell. These women don’t even retain their names; Offred is called such because she is the handmaid “of Fred.” This is a world where a woman’s worth is tied to her purity and/or fertility, and she has no identity independent of her assigned Man.

The present narrative of Gilead is punctuated by Offred’s nostalgic recollections of a normal 1980s American existence. She fought with her feminist activist mother, debated with her outrageous best friend Moira, conducted an affair with a married man and when he divorced and married her, Offred can remember her five-year-old daughter, who was taken from her. She remembers being placed in the Red Center, where other future Handmaids were taught to think of themselves as empty vessels to be filled with babies. They were taught a strict Christian ideology, taught to be pure, that sex is not to be enjoyed, and that rape is their fault. Stripped of all natural human rights, of their previous lives and loved ones, controlled by fear, Offred’s tale is a haunting one full of truths of what would happen if contemporary abuses against women become not only the norm, but the law.

Mother, I think. Wherever you may be. Can you hear me? You wanted a women’s culture. Well, now there is one. It isn’t what you meant, but it exists. Be thankful for small mercies. (127)

As a dystopian tale, the novel is lacking in several ways. The voice of the speaker, whose real name is never revealed, feels distant and somewhat unrelatable. The world she builds is also riddled with holes and feels allegorical. I tend to think these features are deliberate, however. I feel like Atwood used the dystopia trope to highlight more important issues, and her undeveloped world may be due to the narrative method: Offred, as a sheltered Handmaid, doesn’t know what is actually going on in Gilead. We see what she sees. We know only what she knows.

The Handmaid’s Tale feels more like a collection of all the ways women can be abused/controlled/exploited than a novel with a tight plot and exciting characters. It’s a cautionary tale more than anything else, but in this way it seriously delivers. I judge a dystopian tale by the terror it instills in me and the amount of despair it manages to elicit in the reader (I like depressing, soul-shattering reads, apparently). In the first respect, The Handmaid’s Tale receives top marks; in the second, thankfully, it sort of falls flat. Offred’s fate is left uncertain but there’s nothing like that one-two punch at the end of 1984 where the reader realizes that there is no escaping the strong arm of the government. I feel like an ending like that is powerful for a reason: it is much more effective in ramming the message down the reader’s throat that this world is possible, terrible, and must be actively warded against.

A Commander on the status of women in Gilead:

This way they all get a man, nobody’s left out. And then if they did marry, they could be left with a kid, two kids, the husband might just get fed up and take off, disappear, they’d have to go on welfare. Or else he’d stay around and beat them up. Or if they had a job, the children in daycare or left with some brutal ignorant woman, and they’d have to pay for that themselves, out of their wretched little paychecks. Money was the only measure of worth, for everyone, they got no respect as mothers. No wonder they were giving up on the whole business. This way they’re protected, they can fulfill their biological destinies in peace. With full support and encouragement. Now, tell me. You’re an intelligent person, I like to hear what you think. What did we overlook? (219-220)

What, indeed?

References

Atwood, M. (1985) The Handmaid’s Tale. Anchor Books.

Margaret George and Margaret Atwood Tackle Helen of Troy

The thing about historical fiction is that often it’s more fiction than historical. Nowhere is that better illustrated than in Margaret George’s Helen of Troy, a faux autobiographical novel narrated by Helen of Troy, who almost definitely didn’t actually exist. Margaret George is well known for her pseudo autobiographies: The Autobiography of Henry VIII was a bestseller, and her Memoirs of Cleopatra was a favorite of mine in high school. But by the time I read Helen of Troy, I felt too skeptical to truly accept Helen of Troy as a woman with twenty-first century motives and desires. Sure, it’s nice to read about her as a real person and not as a trophy wife or a shameful woman (a la The Iliad and literally every interpretation of her since antiquity) but I came away from reading the book feeling as if no light had been shed on the what Helen of Troy represents, only what she would have been like if Sparta were a city in contemporary America.

Helen of Troy reviewI won’t deny that the narrative and characterization are refreshing in terms of the immortal Helen of Troy: she’s an intelligent young lady who manages to take the reins in her seemingly predetermined princess’s life. When the time comes to select a husband, Helen asserts her independence and requests that she be allowed to choose the man she will marry, a departure from the canonical account and the historical Spartan tradition of a parent-arranged marriage. In her marriage to Menelaus, she cannot find happiness because he fails to please her sexually, a very modern notion. Helen also hates her beauty and wishes it away, deeming it an unnecessary burden upon her freedom and happiness. Most importantly, the decision to leave Troy with Paris is entirely hers; though the narrative incorporates Aphrodite cursing Helen with insatiable sexual desire for Paris, the goddess of love does not force Helen’s hand. Rather, Helen debates and despairs and ultimately decides her course of action.

What we’re left with is a portrayal of Helen of Troy as smart, capable, compassionate, and most importantly, a sympathetic character readers are meant to understand as a normal woman, albeit the most beautiful woman in the world. Helen of Troy’s first-person narration relates the events of the Trojan War in their entirety and manages to make clear her motives, desires, frustrations, and regrets, as well as the way she relates to and understands her beauty. What emerges is a complex, tangible Helen that perhaps does too much explaining. Because readers may be more inclined to assume her guilt, George goes to great lengths to mitigate Helen’s blame and emphasize her humanity. She’s an apologist in moments throughout the novel, cursing her beauty and her decisions, to the point where it becomes exhausting and makes Helen seem a bit whiny. George does well with responding to a historical tradition that deprives Helen of a voice and turns her into an ideal or an archetype. However, George’s Helen is modern one whose treatment of the “problematic” nature of beauty represents a contemporary society in which the significance of beauty takes a backseat to intelligence and competence. 

George wants to say: it’s okay that Helen was so dangerous and beautiful, because she was smart and independent, too. But what if she wasn’t? What does Helen’s dangerous beauty mean, really? Margaret Atwood thinks she has the answers.

If you haven’t read the poem “Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing,” literally stop everything you’re doing and read it. I’ll wait 😉 It’ll change ya life.

In “Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing,” Atwood creates a modern-day Helen with the same parentage and fearsome beauty her ancient counterpart possessed, but instead of a queen of Sparta she is an exotic dancer. Atwood’s Helen comes closest to highlighting the nature of beauty: that it is perceived as dangerous and therefore must be controlled or mitigated. This Helen is unabashed by her profession as a countertop-dancer, even though she is aware that using her sex appeal is disgusting to most women. Those women tell her she “should be ashamed” of herself, that she should “get some self-respect and a day job.”

This Helen knows she is being exploited by using her beauty, but she is also aware that denying her beauty is also exploitation. Atwood’s Helen believes that working as a cashier “selling gloves” is more demeaning than being a stripper, because at least as a dancer, she sells something powerful and “nebulous”—desire. Either way she is oppressed, so she’ll “take the money” anyway. Helen in this form is hyper-aware of her power over men and that the desire she arouses inspires just as much loathing: “Such hatred leaps in them, my beery worshippers! That, or a bleary hopeless love.” Most importantly, she understands that everyone who gazes upon her wishes to control her, or else define her so that they may diminish her power. Helen purrs, “the rest of them would like to watch me/and feel nothing. Reduce me to components/as in a clock factory or abattoir./Crush out the mystery./Wall me up alive/in my own body./They’d like to see through me.”

Yet she defies every effort to capture or cage her. At the close of the poem Helen declares her divinity: “Look—my feet don’t hit the marble!/Like breath or a balloon, I’m rising,/I hover six inches in the air/in my blazing swan-egg of light./You think I’m not a goddess?/Try me./This is a torch song./Touch me and you’ll burn.”

In the context of contemporary feminism, Helen is both fascinating and problematic. Third-wave feminism differs from its previous manifestations because it acknowledges, and in some cases embraces, the idea that beauty is powerful. Whether it should be used, or some would say abused, remains a controversial question. Verifying the power of female beauty is problematic because some perceive Helen’s seductive power as less congenial than the violent method of taking control her sister, Clytemnestra, exhibited by killing her philandering and murdering husband. Control through “femininity” treads dangerous ground by making a man’s gaze necessary to a woman’s power, and by dismissing her other strengths like intellect or self-dependence.

In this social environment, Helen of Troy has been abused. It is too easy to dismiss her as the self-hating woman, or exonerate her on the grounds of divine intervention in order to fit her into a neat, easily-understood package. Attempts in antiquity and recently have tried and failed to define her mystique, reducing Helen either to a face without a brain or a brain without a face. In Margaret George’s case, she tries to discount the power of Helen’s beauty by creating a character with agency who desperately wishes to look normal. Only in Atwood’s poem do readers see a complex analysis of precisely what makes Helen of Troy so seductive, complex, powerful, and ultimately immortal.

Plus, I want this:atwood1