Archive for January, 2014

January 27, 2014

Scott Huler: “No-Man’s Lands”

No-Man's Lands

At the first stop the air was chilly, and the bus driver and I shared a smile. Perhaps I was in the care of Hermes, god of travelers. How would I know if Hermes had taken human form as a bus driver? What characteristics would the perfect bus driver have?

Non-fiction
Full Title: No-Man’s Lands: One Man’s Odyssey Through the Odyssey
Pages: 274
First Published: 2008

Synopsis: When NPR contributor Scott Huler made one more attempt to get through James Joyce’s Ulysses, he had no idea it would launch an obsession with the book’s inspiration: the ancient Greek epic the Odyssey and the lonely homebound journey of its Everyman hero, Odysseus.

No-Man’s Lands is Huler’s funny and touching exploration of the life lessons embedded within the Odyssey, a legendary tale of wandering and longing that could be read as a veritable guidebook for middle-aged men everywhere. At age forty-four, with his first child on the way, Huler felt an instant bond with Odysseus, who fought for some twenty years against formidable difficulties to return home to his beloved wife and son. In reading the Odyssey, Huler saw the chance to experience a great vicarious adventure as well as the opportunity to assess the man he had become and embrace the imminent arrival of both middle age and parenthood.

But Huler realized that it wasn’t enough to simply read the words on the page – he needed to live Odysseus’s odyssey, to visit the exotic destinations that make Homer’s story so timeless. And so an ambitious pilgrimage was born … traveling the entire length of Odysseus’s two-decade journey. In six months.

Huler doggedly retraced Odysseus’s every step, from the ancient ruins of Troy to his ultimate destination in Ithaca. On the way, he discovers the Cyclops’s Sicilian cave, visits the land of the dead in Italy, ponders the lotus from a Tunisian resort, and paddles a rented kayak between Scylla and Charybdis and lives to tell the tale. He writes of how and why the lessons of the Odyssey – the perils of ambition, the emptiness of glory, the value of love and family – continue to resonate so deeply with readers thousands of years later. And as he finally closes in on Odysseus’s final destination, he learns to fully appreciate what Homer has been saying all along: the greatest adventures of all are the ones that bring us home to those we love.

Part travelogue, part memoir, and part critical reading of the greatest adventure epic ever written, No-Man’s Lands is an extraordinary description of two journeys – one ancient, one contemporary – and reveals what the Odyssey can teach us about being better bosses, better teachers, better parents, and better people.

No shortage of places for the Odyssey pilgrim to visit, and once you’re on Ithaca, you can find them all. In fact, you can find each of them several different places and on several different islands. What, you thought that just because Odysseus lived on a Greek island called Ithaca and there’s still a Greek island called Ithaca that the search was over? Have you been paying no attention at all?

My Thoughts: I think my favourite thing about the above summary is how it tries to impress us with Huler’s plan to fit twenty years of travel into six months, conveniently forgetting to mention that for at least eighteen of those twenty years, Odysseus wasn’t moving.

In truth I don’t have much to say about No-Man’s Lands, but perhaps a shorter post once in a while isn’t a bad thing. Basically: I really, really enjoyed this book. It’s funny, intelligent and readable and I whipped through it in three days. I don’t always love modern travel literature, but happily this book avoided most of the annoyances I have with the genre. As a foreign language major, I am most excited to report that after only a few instances of “I went to a foreign country of my own volition and now I’m going to complain about not being able to read anything,” Huler made a good effort to speak to the locals in their own languages.

While I might not completely agree with Huler’s interpretations of Homer (e.g. I’m not entirely convinced that the Odyssey was intended to be a collection of lessons), I really enjoyed reading them. I liked his musings on why the Odyssey is still relevant, especially the passages where he compares it to various pop culture phenomena, and I got a kick out of his attempts to craft a Homeric epithet for himself.

Sprinkled throughout the book are summaries of the work that’s been done in an attempt to figure out where, exactly, Odysseus went. I find all of it really interesting but I can also appreciate Huler’s somewhat casual approach to the task of deciding which line of argument he should follow when choosing his destinations. After all, as he argues, perhaps it’s just not possible to figure out where a man who may or may not have existed may or may not have traveled, especially when we’re talking about a poem that includes a trip to the Underworld. Having said that, though, my favourite part of this book was learning a bit about how Odysseus has (or has not) made a mark on the areas he’s said to have passed through, and whether or not he’s still present in the minds of the people who live there.

Unfortunately, I do have a few complaints. I know that keeping Huler’s trip connected to the Odyssey is the point of the book, but there were definitely parts where it felt like a stretch to say “This reminded me of that part in the Odyssey when …” I would have been more than okay if Huler had written about his experiences without feeling required to compare every single one of them to the poem. I was also thrown off by a couple of his odder musings, most notably the one in which he claims that the reason men fight is because they can’t give birth. Because … that’s ridiculous.

I also felt that not including photos in this book was an odd choice. The edition I read included a few small (uncaptioned) photos on the title page; after that, Huler talked about taking pictures but none were included and there wasn’t even a note to encourage readers to check out the photo album on the book’s web site. I don’t know why the photos were left out of the book but I definitely missed them.

Even with those criticisms, I did really enjoy No-Man’s Lands, and it ended on a great line that still makes me smile when I think of it. My first thought when I finished reading the book was “I look forward to rereading that someday.” Whether or not I actually will is another question entirely, but still, I think that’s pretty high praise.

Also: the title is a pun. I mention this because I was halfway through the book before I realized it, and would like to save you from the same embarrassment.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

Queen Anne’s lace grew in the weedy places, and the blossoms bob and twirl in the wind. For ten years that wind would have been the constant companion of Odysseus as he racked his brain to solve the impenetrable riddle of the conflict. Whether those ten years were fictional or real seemed utterly beside the point: The wind was real – eternal and real.

January 16, 2014

Colleen McCullough: “The Song of Troy”

The Song of Troy

He looked at me long and steadily. ‘Have you a heart, Odysseus? I fancied it’s only mind you possess.’
Something stung momentarily at the back of my eyes: I thought, Penelope, and then her image faded. I gave him back his stare. ‘No, I have no heart. Why should a man need one? A heart is a severe liability.’
‘Then what men say of you is true.’

Novel
Pages: 483
First Published: 1998

Synopsis: The story of Troy is one of the greatest ever told – a three thousand year old saga of love and hate, vengeance and betrayal.

In The Song of Troy, the bestselling author of The Thorn Birds recounts the tale of Helen and Paris, the immortal lovers who doomed two great nations to a terrible war. It is told through the eyes of its main characters: the sensuous and self-indulgent Helen; the subtle and brilliant Odysseus; the sad old man Priam, King of Troy; the tormented warrior prince, Achilles; and Agamemnon, King of Kings, who consents to the unspeakable in order to launch his thousand ships. This is an unputdownable tale of love, ambition, delusion, honour and consuming passion.

‘Believe me, Paris, you are important,’ he said in a tired voice, then got up abruptly. ‘I must find Kassandra. Quite often we see the same things, even when we are not together.’
But I too felt a little of that dark, webbed Presence, and shook my head. ‘No. Kassandra will destroy it.’

My Thoughts: Truth be told, I finished this book in October and am only now sitting down to write about it. All apologies if this post is of an even lower quality than my usual low quality.

The Song of Troy was one of the first Trojan War books I read when I first became interested in the myth as a teenager, and I liked it a lot – enough that I was hesitant to revisit it, fearing it wouldn’t be as good as I remembered. While it’s true that the scenes I had remembered as being mindblowingly amazing weren’t quite the same the second time around, there are plenty of great scenes I had completely forgotten about, and on the whole I am happy to report that the book definitely holds up. Devolving into point form as usual …

· Perhaps this book’s most noticeable feature is that it’s narrated in the first person by a variety of different characters. This could potentially allow the author to explore quite a wide range of viewpoints on the events of the story, so I admit I was disappointed when I counted up the chapters and realized the narrators are not as diverse as I had remembered. Of the seventeen total narrators, twelve of them are Greek or with the Greeks, while only five are in Troy. Fifteen narrators are men and only two are women; out of thirty-three chapters, these two women narrate only five. Maybe it’s not fair to bring this up when I don’t have any real criticism of it as it relates to the story, but it would have been nice to see this narrative strategy used to give a few more characters a bit of extra attention.

· One of my favourite things about this book is how it plays with the idea that these events will become myths. Things like Achilles’ talking horses or the creation of his weak heel are given rational explanations, but are still presented in such a way that you can easily see how they would gain their supernatural trappings and become legend. Similarly, I love how we often witness a perfectly realistic event only to later hear a character describing it in mythological terms. Of course I don’t think the myth of the Trojan War is as closely related to historical fact as this might lead a reader to believe, but I still love that McCullough hints at the process of fact becoming fiction. Also, it would seem that I was lying when I said that Elizabeth Cook’s Achilles was the only novel I’d read in which Achilles fights the river.

· Related to the above point: the chapter in which Iphigenia appears was one of the parts that blew me away the first time I read the book, and I still love the way it plays with the reader’s expectations about what is going to happen while also showing how a myth might come into being.

· Odysseus in this book is pretty fantastic. I feel like Trojan War adaptations often don’t use Odysseus to his full potential. He usually gets to recruit Achilles at the beginning and he usually gets to think up the Horse at the end, but in between he’s too often restricted to providing some sort of comic relief in the form of clever one-liners. So I was really impressed by how Song of Troy shows Odysseus using his intelligence throughout the war. His constant insistence that the Greek army use strategies that are less humane but more effective was also really in-character and makes a lot of sense. I was really happy to see Odysseus doing so much during the war and I am probably going to be frustrated now when other novels don’t let him.

· One criticism I had of Adèle Geras’ Troy was that it kept introducing plotlines but never doing anything with them. It seemed to me that Geras wanted to include as much of the Trojan War mythology as possible, but didn’t actually want to make use of a lot of it. Song of Troy also seems to want to include as much of the mythology as it can, but I think it takes a better approach: instead of introducing a minor plot once and then forgetting about it entirely, Song of Troy will introduce it, leave it alone for a while, and then return to it to show us why it’s important. (See its treatment of Philoctetes for an example.) This way, the stories don’t take up much time, but they can still be completed, have a proper effect on the rest of the novel, and give us a sense of the world beyond the characters that are being focused on.

· I really liked this book’s portrayal of Aineas and his rivalry with his Trojan relatives. For whatever reason, I found the constant murmurs about his desire for the throne and whether or not he will be heir to be really compelling. I also really enjoyed the scene where the Trojans set the Greek ships on fire and was especially impressed with the endless wait inside the Horse. McCullough is really good at creating intense and desperate situations, which is perhaps why I so enjoyed the strong sense of time apparent throughout the novel. It really feels like you’re reading about people who have been in a terrible situation for a decade and now every step they take is a step closer to their breaking point. My only complaint about this is that I think the last few lines of the novel would have more impact had they been given to a different character; other than that it was fantastic.

· As well as creating a strong sense of passing time, McCullough also creates a strong sense of geography, including a lot of details that really help to make the world the characters inhabit feel as real as possible. She provides a lot of details about the armies as well – I was really impressed by how frequently concrete figures are provided when characters are discussing things like the number of soldiers on the field. I’m not in love with the book’s narrative style (people keep “propping” and I’m not sure what that means?), but everything else that I liked more than made up for that.

· As I’ve said before, I am 100% okay with authors changing parts of the myths to suit their purpose, but in this instance I was confused by details that were changed without having an effect on anything. Why is Iphigenia the youngest child in her family? We never see her siblings, so what does this affect? And why make Paris older than Hektor if Hektor is still the heir? I was also thrown off by important scenes being much shorter than they usually are – blink and you’ll miss the ransom of Hektor – although that’s more of an observation than a criticism.

· (Minor spoilers!!) Achilles in this novel suffers from seizures. I thought this was a really interesting idea and kept waiting for McCullough to really do something with it; unfortunately she never did. But augh, an Achilles who’s not physically perfect – whose body sometimes acts against him – but is still the best of the Greek warriors? I would love to read a book that takes that idea and runs with it.

· Not to repeat myself in what is already a too-long entry, but: this is a really solid take on the Trojan War that features some great scenes and some great details and I definitely recommend it.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

‘So I handed Priam the red tablet with the symbol of Ares on it and he stared at it as if he had never seen anything like it. His hand shook so much that he dropped it on the floor. It broke. Everyone jumped. Then Hektor picked it up and took it away.’