Archive for ‘1990s’

November 20, 2014

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

August 4, 2014

Clemence McLaren: “Inside the Walls of Troy”

Inside the Walls of Troy  Inside the Walls of Troy

We had accumulated six years of memories, Helen and I – of teaching each other our languages and laughing at the mistakes, of sharing patterns at the loom and and playing knucklebones with Laodice and Polyxena during the long afternoons. I still found such women’s games pointless. But I loved to listen to Helen’s stories, to hear her laughter. Even as angry as I was, I knew how I would miss her.

YA Novel
Pages: 199
First Published: 1996

Synopsis: Helen is renowned as the most beautiful woman in the world. Her divine beauty will lead her to a lifetime of adventure – from being kidnapped at age twelve, through her arranged marriage, to a passionate affair that will ultimately bring about the Trojan War.

Cassandra, the sister of Helen’s true love, has the gift, or curse, of predicting the future. When she foresees the ruin of her family and city, caused by Helen’s arrival in Troy, she is outraged. Yet Cassandra cannot help being drawn to Helen, and as the war rages around them, the two young women develop a deep friendship.

Through their eyes, the classic tale of the Trojan War and its mythic cast of heroes is romantically, grippingly told.

“Crazy woman!” he screamed. “How long must we endure your ravings? You would destroy a gift from the immortals?”
“You’re eating your last food!” I shouted back. “You’re already starting down a road used by ghosts.”

Review: Here it is, my friends. The entire reason I am a Trojan War fangirl. I bought this book when I was thirteen because I was surprised to see a novel about something we’d (briefly) talked about in my seventh grade social studies class. I read it in one day while I was home sick from school, and then I was awake half the night just thinking about it. Within a year, I had read at least four more books about the Trojan War and was pretty well hooked.

Fourteen years have passed since then, and while this book has always had pride of place as the book that started my interest in the Trojan War (and Greek mythology in general), I had never reread it. Now that I’m trying to (re)read and post about all of the Trojan War books I own (instead of buying new ones all the time as is my wont), I decided that it was time.

I guess it’s probably a good thing that my tastes have changed since I was thirteen, is the roundabout way I will begin this review. Let’s start with the positives. I like that it passes the Bechdel Test within the first two pages. I like its portrayal of Theseus, although he’s very much the sort of Theseus that could only exist in YA. This might be the only novel I’ve read so far where Polyxena and Helenus get to fulfill their roles as major influences on the course of the war, which is awesome, although I didn’t love how those storylines were handled. And in retrospect, I’m glad that the first Trojan War novel I read follows the mythology and the Iliad so closely; in that way at least, it’s a good introduction to the story.

Unfortunately, although all the important parts of the story are there, the novel suffers quite a bit from being so short. It covers thirteen years in less than two hundred pages, and only eighty of those pages are dedicated to the war from the arrival of the Greeks to the fall. The narration rushes from one event to the next and even major characters feel underdeveloped. My biggest complaint is about Paris. The book is narrated in the first person, with Helen narrating the first sixty-five pages and Cassandra the rest. Unfortunately, we barely see Paris from Helen’s point of view before we spend the rest of the book seeing him from Cassandra’s. Cassandra openly dislikes him, disapproves of his actions, and refers to him as “mean-spirited.” It’s frustrating to me that the book’s first narrator falls in love with someone we only see in a negative light. Even Helen speaks ill of him, as she does in the Iliad, and worse than that, she’s “afraid to be alone with him”! But we’re supposed to believe they’re in love? The only reasons given for their being together are a) Aphrodite decided they would be (but whether this book considers the gods to exist or not is unclear), and b) they look alike (I’m not joking). Maybe I wouldn’t be so bothered by all of this except that I’m tired of YA novels that try to convince us that their terrible relationships are beautiful and romantic.

Perhaps also due to the short length of the book, the worldbuilding is very sparse. The author’s note seems to indicate that McLaren did her research, but all that shows on the page is what the average person might know about the ancient world. Wine! Kohl! Spears! The geography is also very vague and there are whole scenes where we aren’t told where the characters are, which makes things hard to picture.

Another thing that struck me as weird comes when (SPOILERS??) Cassandra learns that Agamemnon has claimed her as his war prize:

“You’ve never even noticed him fighting his duels right below the gate where you stood,” Helenus was saying … “He’s been trying to get your attention for years.”

McLaren has just reduced the horror of Agamemnon taking Cassandra as his slave to Agamemnon trying out for the football team so that Cassandra will notice him.

So clearly I’m no longer as completely taken with Inside the Walls of Troy as I was when I was thirteen, but I think I’m okay with that. I will forever be grateful to this book for introducing me to the Trojan War, and I’ll be happy to pass it on in the hope that it will have a similar effect on another reader’s life.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

“Listen, girl, Menelaus will be an impeccable husband. He’s a good man, if somewhat lacking in imagination, and he loves you more than he should.” Theseus reached for my hands. “Here is the last piece of advice I’ll ever give you: Be satisfied with what you’ve got.”

May 4, 2014

Valerio Massimo Manfredi: “Heroes”

Heroes The Talisman of Troy

He walked away, and Telemachus scampered after him. ‘Tell me,’ the boy said, ‘have you seen him of late? What does he look like? What does my father look like?’
Diomedes stopped for a moment. ‘He looks like you imagine him. When you see him, you’ll recognize him.’

Novel
Original Title: Le Paludi di Hesperia
Alternate Title: The Talisman of Troy
Pages: 275
First Published: 1994 (in Italian), 2004 (in English)

Synopsis: A castaway tossed onto a deserted beach is the last survivor of a world that no longer exists. He has a terrible, fascinating story to tell – the true reason for which the Trojan War was fought … The protagonist of this tale is Diomedes, the last of the great ancient Greek Homeric heroes, who seeks to return to his beloved homeland after years of war against Troy. But destiny has other plans for him. Betrayed by his wife, who plots to murder him, and persecuted by hostile gods, he has no choice but to turn his sails west, towards Hesperia, the mysterious mist-shrouded land that will one day be called Italy. He ventures boldly into this new world, for he carries with him the magic Talisman of Troy, a mysterious, powerful idol that can make the nation that possesses it invincible …

‘A goddess once mounted my chariot and fought at my side,’ he said. ‘Do you believe me?’
The girl came closer. ‘If you believe it then I believe you,’ she said.
‘No, you don’t believe me,’ said Diomedes. ‘For the man you see before you is not the same, and this land is not the same and not even the sky is the same.’

Review: The above is a bit of an odd summary in that it ignores the novel’s entire second storyline. I feel I should at least let you know that Clytemnestra, Menelaus, Orestes and Pyrrhus have important roles in this book, and Helen and Aeneas also make decently sized appearances.

· First, my compliments to the translator, Christine Feddersen-Manfredi. The style of this book is solid and includes some really beautiful lines. If I hadn’t already known it was a translation, I don’t think I ever would have guessed.

· I can be really picky about dialogue, and when I first started this book I was a little irritated by how characters often said more at once than is realistic. It took me longer than it should have to realize that Manfredi, in these longer speeches, is imitating Homeric dialogue. And then I realized that he actually does it quite well! Again, the style of this book is pretty great.

· There’s a number of scenes near the beginning of the book that include strong supernatural elements, many of which are pretty creepy. It’s been a while since I read a Trojan War novel with such overt fantasy in it and I enjoyed these scenes. Unfortunately, they show up less and less as the story progresses – which would be fine, except for all the unanswered questions this leaves. One supernatural event that I thought was going to drive the plot was instead just abandoned without explanation.

· I really liked this book’s discussions of how the world around these characters is changing and how sharply their current way of life contrasts with the way they lived in the past. There’s a great scene where Diomedes is excited to run into a Trojan because he’s been longing to find someone who’ll follow the rules of the world he used to inhabit, the rules that make sense to him. As someone with an interest in culture shock, I found this fascinating. There are also hints here and there that, as the years pass, the characters begin to feel like nothing they did at Troy ever even happened. That was also really interesting.

· So Penelope is introduced with the line “her breasts were high and firm like all the women of Sparta.” Yes, unfortunately this is another book where female characters are rarely introduced without a description of their breasts. Anyway, if this ~all Spartan women have the same breast shape and placement~ thing is a part of the mythology of Sparta that I just haven’t heard of till now, I’m okay with ignoring it, but if this is Manfredi’s invention then I wonder why he picked a body part notorious for changing size and shape due to age, menstruation, pregnancy, nursing, exercise, clothing, and basically everything ever.

· This book begins with Aigialeia betraying Diomedes and Clytemnestra killing Agamemnon; they then team up and try to convince other queens to turn against their kings. I don’t have a problem with this storyline in theory but I’m not a fan of the way this book handles it. There’s no real exploration of these characters’ motivations, no real insight into their thoughts or actions. They’re little more than one-dimensional villains. This also sets up a bit of a dynamic where female characters who follow and obey male characters are portrayed as good and sympathetic and female characters who don’t are portrayed as evil. The only female character who does her own thing and isn’t vilified for it doesn’t even get a name. I would have appreciated a slightly more nuanced approach to the women in this novel.

· There are two revelations, both related to the aforementioned “true reason for which the Trojan War was fought,” that come near the end of the book. I could tell that the novel was leading up to them for a while and so I expected them to have a major impact on the plot. But … they didn’t. They were mentioned, accepted, and forgotten about and I’m not sure what the point of either of them was.

· I don’t want to be too hard on this book because I don’t think it’s that bad and I can see someone enjoying it. But it just really wasn’t my kind of book. It took me a long time to get interested in the story because so much of the first half featured Diomedes wandering around aimlessly, which is not a type of story that I really enjoy. I started to get into it in the second half, when more was happening and more characters were involved, but the closer I got to the end the more rushed everything became and the more unanswered questions I realized I was going to be left with. I suspect the final scene was supposed to be solemn and moving but I found myself laughing while reading it because it happened so quickly and, to be brutally honest, it made me wonder what the point of the novel was. Like, I’m not sure what the point of reading so many pages of aimless wandering was if that was going to be the conclusion. I didn’t hate this book but I didn’t love it, either. It was neither a joy nor a slog to read. I think in the end I just feel indifferent towards it.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

Diomedes hid his face in his cloak. ‘Oh great Atreid!’ he murmured to himself. ‘Watch your back! We are no longer beside you, we are no longer … we are no longer.’

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.’

Review: 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.’

September 23, 2010

Jonathan Shay: “Achilles in Vietnam”

Achilles in Vietnam

Non-fiction
Full Title: Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character
Pages: 246
First Published: 1995

Synopsis: In this strikingly original and groundbreaking book, Dr. Shay examines the psychological devastation of war by comparing the soldiers of Homer’s Iliad with Vietnam veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Although the Iliad was written twenty-seven centuries ago it has much to teach about combat trauma, as do the more recent, compelling voices and experiences of Vietnam vets.

My Thoughts: (What follows is a review I wrote on June 1, 2009.)

This book compares the combat trauma experienced by American soldiers in Vietnam with the combat trauma portrayed in the Iliad in an attempt to better understand both. As you might imagine if you know me at all, I found this book hugely interesting. Seriously, the more I learn about the Iliad, the more in awe I am of it. For example: in the Iliad, especially after the death of Patroclus and even moreso after the death of Hector, there are all these comments about how Achilles feels he is already dead, his mother is mourning him as if he is already dead, and when Priam goes to visit him, the scene is set up as though Priam is making a journey to the Underworld – as if Achilles is already in the Land of the Dead. In my Greek Epic class, the prof talked about how this could all be considered foreshadowing; Achilles dies after the events in the Iliad, so this could be the poet’s way of including his death without actually including it. In Achilles in Vietnam, Shay makes the case that it’s not uncommon for soldiers suffering from combat trauma to feel the way Achilles feels: that they are already dead, or at least that they won’t make it home alive. The idea that the Iliad accurately portrays combat trauma and, at the same time, uses that trauma as foreshadowing – it really kind of blows my mind. Like, did they even have words for “foreshadowing” and “combat trauma” three thousand years ago?

One small criticism I have of Achilles in Vietnam is that I would’ve liked to see Shay complete his analysis of the Iliad, and actually deal with the scene between Achilles and Priam. I have read at least one article that argued that the Iliad is the story of the “taming of Achilles,” and that this scene marks his return to humanity. My Greek Epic prof argued the opposite (saying quite explicity that she believes Achilles would never be able to return to civilian life), and I believe Shay would do the same (he writes that the Iliad is the story of the undoing of Achilles’ good character), but it would’ve been nice to see him tackle this scene more than he did.

In conclusion: I have no idea how anyone else would feel about this book, but I thought it was fascinating.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca