Mini-Reviews #1

All three of the books in this post are worthy of having a big long rambling post to themselves. Alas, I have been terrible at staying on top of my reviews this year, with the result that I have forgotten much of what I wanted to ramble about! So, with apologies to my readers and to the authors below, I present my first (hopefully of very few) post of mini-reviews.

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Cassandra Princess of TroyHilary Bailey: Cassandra, Princess of Troy

Novel
Pages: 325
First Published: 1993

My Thoughts: I reread this book in January and put off posting about it forever because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to properly express how much I love it. The first time I read it, I declared it to be my favourite Trojan War novel. Now I would perhaps say it is my second favourite (after The Song of Achilles, which chewed up my emotions and spat them back out), but it is a very close second.

The novel is narrated by Cassandra, who has survived the war and is living in Greece. The chapters alternate between her present life and her memories of the war, although later in the book there are also chapters from Clytemnestra’s point of view. Occasionally, there are also one-shot chapters narrated by other characters, which actually might be my least favourite part of the book because it’s never explained how these chapters ended up in what is supposed to be Cassandra’s memoir.

Ignoring those questionable one-shot chapters, one of the things I love most about this book is how realistic it feels. Bailey’s Troy is smaller and less imposing than it’s usually portrayed, the lives of the princes not as glamorous (Hector works on a farm!), and the focus on the royal family not as tight. Regular citizens are mentioned frequently, which helps the city feel more populated and alive. Some of the novel’s most haunting images are of regular people struggling to survive a war. Bailey’s depiction of the city under siege is fantastic – she considers even the smallest details and uses them to ground her story in reality. We see characters going hungry, turning on each other, facing danger every time they leave the city. I also like how committed Bailey is to keeping Cassandra’s viewpoint realistic. Well that probably doesn’t at all say what I want it to, but what I mean is I really like how some of the most famous events of the Trojan War are described in just one sentence, because Cassandra wasn’t there to witness them.

I also really like Paris in this book, which is something I rarely get to say! I think Bailey builds him up just enough as a good older brother in the beginning that I was able to feel sympathy for him later.

Cassandra, Princess of Troy is a book I recommend without reserve.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

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How to Stage Greek Tragedy TodaySimon Goldhill: How to Stage Greek Tragedy Today

Non-fiction
Pages: 248
First Published: 2007

My Thoughts: The title of this book might lead you to think it’s a strict step-by-step guide, but it isn’t at all. The book is divided into six chapters, each covering a major issue that must be considered by anyone staging a modern production of a Greek tragedy. As listed on the back of the book, these six issues are: “the staging space and concept of the play; the use of the chorus; the actor’s role in an unfamiliar style of performance; the place of politics in tragedy; the question of translation; and the treatment of gods, monsters, and other strange characters of the ancient world.” Goldhill discusses how each of these would have been handled in their original context, then analyzes the approaches taken by a variety of recent productions in the U.S. and western Europe. He pretty plainly states which productions he thinks were successful and which he thinks failed, but I really liked reading about all of them – it definitely made me want to watch more Greek tragedy!

This book’s writing style is a bit of an odd mix of ~fairly casual~ and ~so academic I had to put effort into understanding it~, but it still grabbed me enough that I finished it in a weekend. Goldhill brings up a lot of points that I had never considered before, and I think I learned just as much about how Greek tragedy was originally performed as I did about how it might be performed today. The chapter that surprised me the most was the one about translation; I had never even realized that a translation style might be chosen based on the director’s overall goals for the production. Goldhill shows us three different translations of Cassandra’s speech from Aeschylus’ “Agamemnon,” and I was kind of fascinated by the three completely different styles. I never thought there could be so many different possibilities in the translation alone!

I also liked that Goldhill interviewed people who have been involved in modern productions of Greek tragedy. He quotes two different actresses talking about how sick they were after finishing a run as the title character in Sophocles’ “Electra”! Another thing I never realized is how intense that role must be.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

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David A. Traill: Schliemann of Troy: Treasure and Deceit

Non-fiction
Pages: 365
First Published: 1995

My Thoughts: This is a biography of Heinrich Schliemann, and somehow I think it’s the first proper Schliemann biography I’ve actually read?! How did that happen??

I would not be surprised if this book is a controversial one, seeing as how it takes one of the most famous archaeologists in history and shows him in a less than flattering light. Having said that, however, I really think Traill is careful to treat Schliemann as fairly as possible, and I don’t think his goal in writing this book was to tarnish Schliemann’s name. He provides sources for everything he says, most of them from Schliemann’s own writings. One thing I really liked about this book is how frequently Traill quotes primary sources. He is constantly examining and comparing Schliemann’s diary, his letters, his published books, and the writings of his friends, family, and colleagues in an attempt to figure out where Schliemann was telling the truth and where he was fudging or fabricating. The book includes large portions of these primary sources so readers can examine them as well. I can’t claim to be an expert on Schliemann, but I found Traill’s interpretations very thorough and convincing. I can’t recommend this book if you want to like Schliemann, but I got a lot out of it and enjoyed reading it.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

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