Archive for ‘non-fiction’

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

September 15, 2014

Margalit Fox: “The Riddle of the Labyrinth”

The Riddle of the Labyrinth

Non-fiction
Full Title: The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code
Pages: 346
First Published: 2013

Synopsis: In 1900, while excavating on Crete, the charismatic Victorian archaeologist Arthur Evans unearthed inscribed clay tablets amid the ruins of a lavish Bronze Age palace. Written by palace scribes circa 1450 B.C., the script they displayed – featuring outline drawings of swords, chariots, and horses’ heads, as well as other tiny pictograms – resembled no alphabet ever seen. Evans named the script Linear B, and from the start it posed a deep mystery. No one knew what language Linear B recorded, much less what the curious inscriptions meant. If the tablets could be deciphered, they would open a portal onto a refined, wealthy, and literate society that had flourished in Greek lands three thousand years earlier, a full millennium before the glories of the Classical Age.

The Riddle of the Labyrinth is the true story of the quest to solve one of the most mesmerizing riddles in history – Linear B – and of the three brilliant, obsessed, and ultimately doomed investigators whose combined work would eventually crack the code. […] Following the three investigators as they hunt down, analyze, and interpret a series of linguistic clues hidden within the script itself, The Riddle of the Labyrinth offers the first complete account of one of the most fascinating conundrums of all time.

Review: So you may have guessed that this book is not very much about the story of the Trojan War! But it’s about a Bronze Age script and it mentions the war enough that I feel justified posting about it, although in a rather shorter post than usual.

The Riddle of the Labyrinth tells the story of the decipherment of Linear B by following its three major players: archaeologist Arthur Evans, professor Alice Kober, and architect Michael Ventris. According to its introduction, this book is “the first complete account of the decipherment,” filling in what was previously unknown about Alice Kober’s years of work on the script. All three sections of the book are interesting, but I especially enjoyed reading about Kober and how dedicated she was to the decipherment at a time when it surely couldn’t have been easy to be a female scholar. I really appreciated how Fox handles this section, especially the way in which she only briefly mentions Kober’s apparent lack of interest in traditionally “feminine” goals, doesn’t disparage her for it, and then never brings it up again. Awesome!!

Before reading this book, I glanced at a couple reviews that suggested that a background in Linguistics would help readers to understand the discussions of the decipherment. I happen to have such a background, but I think what was more helpful was my familiarity with Japanese, a language that uses syllabic writing systems similar to the syllabic writing system Linear B turned out to be (spoiler?). But this book is definitely written for the general reader, and Fox includes enough explanation that I don’t think there’s any reason to worry. I suspect that anyone who’s interested in reading this book will have little problem understanding it.

As a big fan of Bronze Age Greece and an even bigger fan of languages, I super enjoyed this book. I learned a lot about how one goes about deciphering an ancient script and it was fascinating to read about the kind of perseverance the process requires. I even nerdily enjoyed reading the correspondence between scholars discussing their theories about Linear B. If any of the above appeals to you, I suspect Riddle of the Labyrinth will be as unputdownable for you as it was for me.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

May 7, 2014

Jon Solomon: “The Ancient World in the Cinema”

The Ancient World in the Cinema

Non-fiction
Pages: 326
First Published: 2001 (revised and expanded edition)

Synopsis: This entertaining and useful book provides a comprehensive survey of films about the ancient world, from The Last Days of Pompeii to Gladiator. Jon Solomon catalogues, describes, and evaluates films set in ancient Greece and Rome, films about Greek and Roman history and mythology, films of the Old and New Testaments, films set in ancient Egypt, Babylon, and Persia, films of ancient tragedies, comic films set in the ancient world, and more. The book has been updated to include feature films and made-for-television movies produced in the past two decades. More than two hundred photographs illustrate both the films themselves and the ancient sources from which their imagery derives.

Review: As the synopsis says, this book sets out to catalogue, describe and evaluate every non-documentary film that fits into one of its chapters: Greek and Roman History; Greek and Roman Mythology; the Old Testament; the New Testament; Babylon, Egypt, Persia, and the Ancient Orient; Ancient Tragedy and The Satyricon; Ancient Comedy and Satirized Ancients; and the Muscleman Epics. This includes films silent and sound, American and overseas, Hollywood and made-for-TV. Although it’s a little out of date now (the most recent movie it mentions is 2000’s Gladiator), the book’s large scope ensures that it remains a fantastic resource for anyone interested in the genre.

I do want to mention that this is not a book I recommend reading cover-to-cover unless you feel particularly inclined to do so. Before I started reading it, I expected it to be a book of film analysis, but it really isn’t. The closest it comes to analysis is in the muscleman chapter, where Solomon attempts to describe the plot of every muscleman film in one go. The rest of the time, depending on how much he has to say about a particular film, he’ll introduce it, talk a bit about what went on behind the scenes, describe the plot and any scenes he finds especially important, comment on how the film compares with what we know of the history it’s based on, and then give his evaluation. (If you want to skip all that, you can flip to the list of film titles, ordered by subject, in the back of the book.) Absolutely this book is a great resource, but it makes for dry reading if you try to read it all the way through. I also think that the fact that Solomon started this book in the 1970s really shows in the way he describes the films. Now that it’s easy to watch movies at home, it isn’t necessary for an author to devote three pages to a thorough description of the chariot race from Ben-Hur. If Solomon decides to release a third edition, I think it would make sense to shorten the scene summaries for movies that are widely available.

One thing I do really like about this book, however, is Solomon’s stance that “historical accuracy and artistic necessity belong to different families.” He has no problem praising a historically inaccurate film if he feels it’s successful as a film – a breath of fresh air when so many people seem to believe that “this movie deviates from its source” is the exact same thing as “this is a bad movie.”

Since this is a Trojan War blog, I should perhaps mention that pages 103 to 111 and 263 to 268 are the pages to check out for movies about the Trojan War and its aftermath. I was surprised to learn that there are a few I haven’t seen yet! I’m really looking forward to watching them, as well as more than a few other movies introduced to me by this book, which I definitely recommend as a solid reference book for anyone interested in movies about the parts of the ancient world that it covers.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

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?

Review: 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.

May 6, 2012

Bettany Hughes: “Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore”

Helen of Troy  Helen of Troy

Exhibit no. 13396 in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens is a slightly larger-than-life-size statue of Paris, frozen at the moment the Trojan prince stretches out to offer the golden apple to Aphrodite. Even in the bustle of Athens’ busiest museum the Trojan prince commands attention. He challenges one to stop; a proud expression, perfect features. When I have been in the museum before opening hours, cleaners, fags dangling, who have swept past Paris at 5:00 a.m. for years, still pay him their respects with a nod and a sigh.

Non-fiction
Pages: 343
First Published: 2005

Synopsis: As soon as men began to write, they made Helen of Troy their subject; for close on three thousand years she has been both the embodiment of absolute female beauty and a reminder of the terrible power that beauty can wield. Because of her double marriage to the Greek King Menelaus and the Trojan Prince Paris, Helen was held responsible for an enduring enmity between East and West. For millennia she has been viewed as an exquisite agent of extermination. But who was she?

Helen exists in many guises: a matriarch from the Age of Heroes who ruled over one of the most fertile areas of the Mycenaean world; Helen of Sparta, the focus of a cult which conflated Helen the heroine with a pre-Greek fertility goddess; the home-wrecker of the Iliad; the bitch-whore of Greek tragedy; the pin-up of Romantic artists.

Focusing on the “real” Helen – a flesh-and-blood aristocrat from the Greek Bronze Age – acclaimed historian Bettany Hughes reconstructs the context of life for this elusive pre-historic princess. Through the eyes of a young Mycenaean woman, Hughes examines the physical, historical and cultural traces that Helen has left on locations in Greece, North Africa and Asia Minor. Vivid and compelling, this remarkable book brilliantly unpacks the facts and myths surrounding one of the most enigmatic and notorious figures of all time.

Homer’s poetry roars and whispers. He talks of passion and revenge and duty and disloyalty, of loss and love … At its most complex, [the Iliad] is an exploration of the relationship between gods and mortals, women and men, sex and violence, duty and desire, delight and death. It asks why humanity chooses paths it knows to be destructive; why we desire what we do not have.

Review: · According to the huge number of overwhelmingly positive reviews quoted on the cover of my copy of this book, more than a few people felt they knew Helen better after reading it. My experience was the opposite: after reading this book, I felt I knew Helen less. But I also think maybe that’s closer to the book’s point. If its focus were actually the Helen who might have existed in ancient Greece, as the synopsis above claims, then why would Hughes talk about any of the fictional Helens who were created long after she was gone? To me, this book was much more about exploring the way the Helen character has been portrayed across time, cultures, and media. I finished this book after a full evening of reading, and spent the rest of the night feeling as though all of these Helens who had been created truly existed, and all of them were the real one.

· I’m actually surprised I wasn’t left with that haunting impression more often, as I basically binge-read my way through this book. It’s clear that Hughes has spent years and years thoroughly researching this topic, but the result is that there is SO MUCH information on every page that I found it easier to keep reading than to stop and try to remember everything that had happened for when I picked the book up again later. The amount of knowledge on display here is impressive but for me personally it made for a tough reading experience. I often felt that the book moved on too quickly — before I’d had time to digest a point or figure out how it tied into everything else (or, on occasion, what it had to do with Helen at all), we were already on to something else. The short chapters in this book make for quick reading but I would not have minded at all if they had been longer, allowing more time for their arguments to develop.

· It isn’t until almost the very end of the book that Hughes clarifies her position on Homer. I wish she had done this much earlier, as I spent most of the book getting the vibe that she believed Homer to be the ~one true bard~ with an intimate knowledge of the real Helen and if only he’d written a little more about her we would be able to understand her completely.

· The book begins with the Minoans and ends in the Elizabethan Era. Two more modern interpretations of Helen — The Private Life of Helen of Troy and Troy — are mentioned, but only in the footnotes, and while the first receives vague praise the second is simply brushed off. Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not about to claim that Troy is a cinematic masterpiece. But in ignoring the majority of the Helens created after 1700, Hughes seems to agree with a sentiment that I absolutely can’t agree with: that modern media is unworthy of serious study. Now, I admit that I might be reading something into this book that isn’t there at all, but as Hughes’ decision to end her book where she did goes unexplained it leaves me wondering. Why is every Helen up to a certain year worth exploring, but after that they’re not? Why are modern versions of Helen less valid or worthy of comment than the Helens of the past?

· Now that I’ve got my criticisms out, let’s round up what I enjoyed. I loved that Hermione got an entire chapter to herself, as did the portrayals of Helen in Elizabethan theatre. And Paris’s hotness got itself at least two pages, which was amazing. I very much enjoyed Hughes’ descriptions of her visits to the sites she mentions, as well as the museums where certain artifacts are kept. If she ever put out an entire book of these travel journal-type sections, I would definitely read it. I don’t really mean to be so negative about this book; I enjoyed it enough that one night I stayed up till four a.m. reading it. If you’re at all interested in Helen of Troy and the different ways she’s been portrayed throughout the centuries, you should definitely seek this book out.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

So Helen in her lifetime could well have walked the earth, light-footed. And after her death, memories and tales of this incandescent creature kept her spirit alive. Now that she is established as an immortal in the popular imagination, though, she becomes many things in the minds of men – a princess, a queen, a wife, a lover, a whore, a heroine, a star, a goddess of sex. And whatever her guises there is one constant – she is for ever Helen – ‘Eleni,’ the shining one.

September 23, 2010

Caroline Alexander: “The War That Killed Achilles”

The War That Killed Achilles  The War That Killed Achilles

Non-fiction
Full Title: The War That Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War
Pages: 320
First Published: 2009

Synopsis: A groundbreaking reading of the Iliad that restores Homer’s vision of the tragedy of war, by the bestselling author of The Bounty.

Few warriors, in life or literature, have challenged their commanding officer and the rationale of the war they fought as fiercely as did Homer’s hero Achilles. Today, the Iliad is celebrated as one of the greatest works in literature, the epic of all epics; many have forgotten that the subject of this ancient poem was war – not merely the poetical romance of the war at Troy, but war, in all its enduring devastation.

Using the legend of the Trojan War, the Iliad addresses the central questions defining the war experience of every age: Is a warrior ever justified in standing up against his commander? Must he sacrifice his life for someone else’s cause? Giving his life for his country, does a man betray his family? How is a catastrophic war ever allowed to start – and why, if all parties wish it over, can it not be ended?

As she did with The Endurance and The Bounty, Caroline Alexander lets us see why a familiar story has had such an impact on us for centuries, revealing what Homer really meant. Written with the authority of a scholar and the vigor of a bestselling narrative historian, The War That Killed Achilles is a superb and utterly timely presentation of one of the timeless stories of our civilization.

My Thoughts: (What follows is a review I wrote in June 2010 and edited in August 2014.)

So my review of this book can be summed up the same way almost all of my Trojan War-related reviews can be summed up: this book is FASCINATING. Now, for all I know it could be filled with information that everyone else already knows; I heart the Trojan War but it’s only recently that I’ve started reading academic works about it, as opposed to novels. But oh man this book was amazing and if I didn’t have such a huge pile of library books to get through I would totally have started rereading it already.

The subtitle of this book is The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War, which I don’t think fits it. This book isn’t about finding out the historical truth behind the Iliad; rather, it’s about breaking down the idea that the poem glorifies war. Alexander makes the case that the poem has a very bleak view of war, telling as it does the story of a man who “will die in a war that holds no meaning for him whatsoever.” (It’s kind of funny to me that she felt this was something that needed to be argued – although maybe it is, I don’t know – when one of the very first impressions left on me by the Trojan War story was that war leaves everyone involved with an unhappy ending.) Along the way, she also takes down other impressions people have about the Iliad – like, for example, the idea that Achilles was a wuss for “sulking in his tent.”

I really enjoyed the parts of the book where Alexander gathered together little pieces of information that are scattered throughout the Iliad and attempted to make a clearer story out of them. I’d never seen so much attention paid to Peleus before, but Alexander creates a really interesting character profile for him that she then uses to highlight some of the repeating themes in the poem. Seriously, I feel like I say this all the time, but all of the different characters and plotlines and levels and themes in this poem, the way it was touched by so many different poets and yet managed to emerged as a cohesive whole that just works, the way I can read article after article and book about book about it and always see something new, it just blows my mind.

I was also pretty excited to see that I’m not the only person who gets freaked out by Patroclus’ death scene. Seriously! Everyone focuses on the scene where Zeus gets bored with watching Troy and looks away, but to me that scene is not even a quarter as scary as the death of Patroclus, who is in the thick of battle when Apollo lands on the plain, unseen, and just starts ripping off his armour, opening him up to attacks. Says Alexander:

Of the many deaths the Iliad records, no other resembles that of Patroklos. Nowhere is the pitiful vulnerability of a mortal so exploited as it is by the savage malevolence of Apollo’s blow and the hounding of the wounded man as he tries to shun death among his companions.

Ugh, exactly. That scene is terrifying.

I also really liked this bit, when Alexander is talking about how Achilles is willing to call a truce so that the Trojans can mourn Hector properly:

Priam and Achilles meet in the very twilight of their lives. Their extinction is certain and there will be no reward for behaving well, and yet, in the face of implacable fate and an indifferent universe, they mutually assert the highest ideals of their humanity.

So in conclusion: this book was awesome and pointed out a ton of stuff I’d never noticed before, and I definitely want to reread it and then seek out all her sources and read them too, and now if you’ll excuse me I think that last quote has left me with a bit of dust in my eye.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

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