Ancient Greece, Annabel Lyon, Book Review, Classical History, Fiction, Historical Fiction

The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon

Oh, how I wanted to love this book.  I had no doubt in my mind, given the subject, the blurb, and some of the reviews (not to mention the great cover art), that this was going to be a brilliant read. Unfortunately, I was a bit mistaken. This is not to say that the book was bad – it really wasn’t, and if you are looking for a quick, easy, superficial book about the time period and some of the relationship between Aristotle and his superstar pupil, Alexander, then this book might be right up your alley. Aristotle and his wife move to Pella to visit King Phillip, an old friend of Aristotle’s. While there, Aristotle meets the young princes. He first begins, on his own, to tutor the elder brother, a mentally handicapped teenager.  n time, Alexander comes to like and approve of Aristotle, so he too (and his friends/lovers) become pupils of the master. There are some mentions of the tensions between neighboring city-states, as well as wars and the assassination of Phillip, which brings Alexander to power but, all-in-all, for the amount of time this book covers, and the lofty subject matter, it probably should have been (and could have been) another 300 pages long.

Two major things about this book bothered me, and really brought down the overall impression of it for me. The first was its disappointing characterization and lack of character development. This book deals with some of the most impressive people who history has ever known and, in particular, one of the most interesting student-teacher relationships of all-time. Yet, the characters fall flat. Pythias and the bit of Plato/Cleopatra the reader sees are slightly interesting, as are some of the minor characters (like Hephaestion and Athea) but Alexander and Aristotle, the two “main” characters of the story seem so far from the story, as if there is almost a physical distance between what is happening the story, and who is playing in it. Perhaps this does have something to do with the author’s possible intent to make this book somewhat of a play (a character list appears at the start, for instance, and the book is laid out in five long parts, rather than in chapters). Since the book is written in prose, though, and not in drama form, this intent is lost, and the characters remain “actors” of characters in a larger story, never fully developed because there is no substantive connection. This would be what an old creative writing instructor would call a case of “telling, not showing.” 

Setting aside the disconnect between the author’s possible intent and what was actually accomplished or decided on, the overall prose is satisfactory and even enjoyable – it is probably the best element of the book in general. Lyon certainly has great technical ability, and she does express emotion and humor very well through prose and dialogue. The language was engaging and the reader can certainly relax into this book, enjoying pages at a time with ease. What was problematic; however, were the instances of “flashbacks” into Aristotle’s past. These sections of the story are segmented into different enumerated portions; however, there is no clear distinction of what is happening when. At times, I could not remember (or figure out) whether I was getting Aristotle’s boyhood, or Alexander’s.

The second major disappointment was in the lack of deeper meaning from this text, or the potential edification that a text like this could have provided. There were certainly names, dates, places, and events, but none of this really seemed to mean anything. It was almost as if Aristotle and Alexander were living out their drama in suburban Wisconsin – some big cities, some small, but so what? At times, I even forgot where and when this book was taking place, so much so that I expected references to electricity or telephones at any moment. For a story about classical Greek history, this is not a good thing. Sure, it makes the book easy to read and accessible to a larger audience, but so much that could have been, just wasn’t.

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Ancient Greece, Classics, History, Marcus Aurelius, Philosophy, Stoicism

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius was the Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180. Marcus Aurelius was known as one of the “Five Good Emperors” and was, indeed, the last of those. Having followed such Emperors as Caligula and Nero, Marcus Aurelius, a stoic general, fair but fierce, was well-respected in his time and remained so afterward, although his son Commodus thought he was weak (mistaking patience, poise, and temperament for weakness). My edition is the Penguin Classics Clothbound, which has both a brilliant introduction and exceptional end notes. 

The Meditations are essentially a collection of diary entries. Marcus Aurelius takes a philosophical and introspective approach to assessing his own personal and political life, including his relationships with family, friends, and teachers. He treats his daily and his whole life as a constant work-in-progress. One of the more unique aspects of this text is that they were never meant for public consumption, so one might argue that they have a rare honesty  and vulnerability in comparison with other classical texts.

When I first read the Meditations, I took them one at a time. This was a slow process, as each entry tends to be just a few lines in length, and there are hundreds of them. This time, I read them rather quickly, as a refresher/re-introduction to Stoic philosophy, which I am practicing much more practically and conscientiously this year (I am reading a variety of stoic writings but also engaging in a year-long daily stoic reading and writing exercise). Reading Marcus Aurelius was a helpful start because, like many of us (and probably more than most), as an Emperor and general, he was an extremely busy man. He felt the weight of the world on his shoulders and had to spend a lot of time on others’ needs. As a stoic, he often reminded himself to distinguish between what is necessary and what is frivolous, what he could control and what he could not; and he maintained perspective by writing daily, whenever he could find the time (usually in the morning or the evening).

In that spirit, I have been doing the same: reminding myself to control what I can, and to let go what I cannot. It has also been important to find time to write every day. Most of Marcus Aurelius’s writings seem to be reflections, which means he probably wrote them at night before bed; I have been trying to write briefly in the morning, pondering a particular stoic teaching and beginning my day with it in mind, and then writing briefly at night, reflecting on where I was successful or where I could do better. The exercises have been helpful in my personal and professional life so far, and thinking about them in context with one of the original and most prominent stoic philosophers has been an interesting experiment.

The Meditations are separated into twelve books, each with its own theme (sometimes tightly woven, sometimes a bit looser). They range from reflections on politics and his role as Emperor, to lessons learned from the important people in his life, to thoughts on religion and spirituality, atheism and the afterlife. Whether taking a single entry at a time, or one book at a time, or any combination thereof, the Meditations reveal the perpetual process of a thoughtful man determined to live a good life, to treat others better (though that was a daily struggle), and to find peace in the chaos.

Some of my particular favorite entries:

“It is ridiculous not to escape from one’s own vices, which is possible, while trying to escape the vices of others, which is impossible.” (7.71)

“Vanity is the greatest seducer of reason: when you are most convinced that your work is important, that is when you are most under its spell.” (6.13)

“Think of the whole of existence, of which you are the tiniest part; think of the whole of time, in which you have been assigned a brief and fleeting moment; think of destiny – what fraction of that are you?” (5.24)

“Fit yourself for the matters which have fallen to your lot, and love these people among whom destiny has cast you – but your love must be genuine.” (6.39)

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Ancient Greece, Book Review, Fiction, Gay Lit, GLBT, Historical, History, John Steinbeck, Literature, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Religion, Satire, Sexuality, Suzanne Collins, William S. Burroughs

Brief Thoughts on 8 Books

The books listed below are those I read for last week’s Read-a-Thon.  I planned not to write a review for each, because I don’t really have time to play catch-up on 8 book reviews, particularly with National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) starting in two days.  I did want to get some thoughts and a “rating” down for all of them, though.

1. Teleny, or The Reverse of the Medal by Anonymous (Oscar Wilde) 5 out of 5

2. The Red Pony by John Steinbeck 5 out of 5

—While I did not enjoy this one quite as much as The Pearl, it is still incredible.  The Red Pony is actually a tightly woven collection of four short stories about the same young boy and his family.  Steinbeck is one of America’s greatest storytellers, and I’m reminded anew of just how brilliant he is every time I pick up and read something by him.  The way he recreates rural and poverty-stricken American life goes beyond genuine accuracy – it is perfection.  The emotions he evokes, the nationalism (not patriotism) he inspires, and the history he harkens back to — I am never disappointed.  The story of Jody, his parents, and their farm hand is the story of every American boy and his wide-eyed American dreams.

3. The Diaries of Adam and Eve by Mark Twain 4 out of 5

—Absolutely hilarious.  I almost don’t know what else to say about this book.  It is simple but imaginative.  Hilarious but poignant.  The book is a reimagining of the Creation, through the diaries of Adam and Eve.  The reader first sees the world’s creation and the discovery of all life and things, including Eve, through Adam’s eyes.  The diary entries are typically “male” – not much concern for anything but hunting and gratification (“What is this annoying thing that talks, talks, talks, and gets wet in the eyes when I ignore it?”).  Then, the reader sees the same events and things through Eve’s eyes, which is wholly “feminine” – the pretty lights in the sky that one could reach if they only just climbed a bit higher in their tree, the moon that someone steals each morning and brings back each night, the animal friends and the new babies to love and nurture (which Adam believes must be another species – perhaps bear? Perhaps kangaroo?).  Not my favorite Twain, as it is a bit simple, but it is still classic Twain – witty, cynical, holier-than-thou.

4. The Cat Inside by William S. Burroughs 3 out of 5

—For those not familiar with William S. Burroughs – he was the “godfather” to the American Beat generation.  He did a lot of drugs, had sex with a lot of boys, and shot his wife when trying to aim at an apple on her head.  He was a strange, twisted, brilliant man who had a bizarre love for cats.  He worshipped them in a way near to the adoration given cats by the ancient Egyptians.  Burroughs believed cats were the ultimate species and he allowed them to run rampant on his ranch, feeding them, playing with them, forcing friends to care for them when he had to be away.  This book is a sort of collection of diary entries about his life with cats.  It certainly tells of Burroughs and there are many “Burroughs-esque” elements to it but, overall, it’s probably one which could be skipped. Unless, maybe, you’re a bizarre cat lover.

5. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins 3.5 out of 5

—The final book in The Hunger Games trilogy, and definitely my least favorite.  I enjoyed certain aspects of the book – such as the inside-look at District 13 and how it is managed, not to mention the way it must readjust to the influx of new residents, as people from the other Districts flee their homes.  I also appreciated that this book took place in the “real world,” outside the games – and was not just all about the champions (although, largely, it was).  I was disappointed in the ending, though – it felt haphazardly constructed and unfulfilling.  Too much time was spent inside District 13, doing not much at all (even the group’s attempts at rescuing the captured champions in the Capitol is left to the imagination) – too much politics, too much angst, and too quickly resolved sub-plots.  The finale was predictable (though a bit welcome) and the fate of one of Katniss’s love-interests (and that relationship) was sadly, sadly deconstructed, as if Collins just got sick of having Katniss so indecisive so made up her mind for her.  It was an okay book, but not a great conclusion to an otherwise interesting series.

6, 7, & 8 The Oresteia (Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides) by Aeschylus 4 out of 5

—I definitely enjoyed this trilogy more than I expected to, especially since I was reading it in the late, late hours of the read-a-thon (somewhere around hour 18).  It is hard to rate these as separate plays, since the trio really only works together in total – but they are separate plays and were written and performed separately at times, until the collection was completed.  All-in-all, I found Agamemnon to be the strongest of the set, but each of the three were interesting.  The Eumenides, in particular, with its examination of morality and judgment, a new judicial system and the struggle between old and new gods (old and new belief systems, moral structures, punishment processes, etc) was fascinating to read, particularly as precursor to modern-day judicial systems (the presence of the first ‘jury of peers’ is here).  Aeschylus and The Oresteia are definitely worth the read.


November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I will be writing my very first novel (at least 50,000 words) and would truly appreciate your sponsorship. All donations go to The Office of Letters and Light – a great charity working for a great cause! If you can spare even $5 (or more) – please Sponsor Me and help me stay energized to write my book and WIN NaNoWriMo!

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Ancient Greece, Aristophanes, Classics, Drama, Play

Review: Lysistrata by Aristophanes

Lysistrata by Aristophanes
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
YTD: 19

Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.
How did I miss this one?  It had been sitting on my shelf and “TBR” list for far too long.  Lysistrata is one of the original “dramadies” – a mixture of dramatic and comedic elements, though this one leans toward the comedic.  Still, some of the themes Aristophanes tackles, such as War, Power, and Gender are serious, and have severe implications. Fortunately, Aristophanes writes his main character, Lysistrata, and her gang of women to be witty, sarcastic, and rather crude – which is a lot of fun. The story itself is about a decision that the women of Greece make, to withhold sex from their husbands and lovers, until they finally write a peace treaty and put an end to all of the wars.

Characterization:
3 – Characters well developed.
I sometimes have a difficult time analyzing characterization and character development in plays, because oftentimes the story itself is the character, and plays tend to be so short that there isn’t much time for any development.  What makes Aristophanes’ characters great, though, is that they are all distinguishable from one another, and they serve a purpose.  There is Lysistrata, the leader and “ideas” woman, driving the sexual battle. Then, there are those surrounding her – the beautiful girl-child who represents Peace, the right-hand warrior, who is hot-headed and ready to strike any man at the slightest provocation.  The men, too, are well drawn – fully engorged and all.  There is the husband who comes crawling to the women’s camp, in agony over his lack of “relief.”  Also, the captain of the men’s army, who stands toe-to-toe with Lysistrata as his men cower and run away.  So, though the story is short and moves quickly, there is still clarity of roles and purpose.

Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

Let’s face it.  Aristophanes was a brilliant writer.  In general, he had a mastery of poetics and prose, so that his language flowed smoothly, his dialogue and description worked, and his scenes are set up in a way that is conducive to the plot (without ever being in the foreground – because, as happens with plays – the story and characters are and should be at the forefront).  He is also hilarious – his bawdy humor and tantalizing puns rival Ovid – I was at times reminded of Ovid’s The Art of Love which is, itself, a description of a type of sexual/gender battle.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

Aristophanes is really engaged in multiple conversations here, but all to the same end: communication.  He is clearly denouncing the senseless, continuous wars.  And he is addressing the issue of gender roles and subjectification of women.  I also think he is saying something about the art of humor itself – he is pointing out two very real problems of Greek culture and politics, but he does so by laughing at it.  Of course, this is the modus operandi of the greatest satirists – to call serious attention to problems by magnifying the problem to a grotesque and then making fun of it.  As with some of the other greats (Wilde, Vonnegut, Shakespeare), it works – perfectly.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level:  Adult
Interest: Ancient Greece, Gender Roles, Gender Politics, Sexuality, Politics, War, Satire
Notable Quotes:
“It should not prejudice my voice that I’m not born a man, if I say something advantageous to the present situation. For I’m taxed too, and as a toll provide men for the nation.”
“When the soldier returns from the wars, even though he has white hair, he very soon finds a young wife. But a woman has only one summer; if she does not make hay while the sun shines, no one will afterwards have anything to say to her, and she spends her days consulting oracles that never send her a husband.”
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