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.

Book Review, Classical History, Classical Roman, Classics, Dante, Literature, Mythology

Review: Inferno by Dante Alighieri

Inferno by Dante Alighieri

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 52


4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful.

Dante’s Inferno is the first part of a three-part epic poem, followed by Purgatorio and Paradiso. This first part is Dante’s journey through the nine circles of Hell, guided by the poet Virgil.  At the beginning of the story, a woman, Beatrice, calls for an angel to bring Virgil to guide and aid Dante in his journey, so that no harm will befall him.  Interestingly, the inspiration for the poem seems to be the real-life Beatrice, Dante’s love (in life) who died young.  She plays a minor role in Inferno but will likely be more prominent in the later books (since Dante would hardly place Beatrice in Hell).  The nine circles of Hell are (in order of entrance and of severity):  Limbo, Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Anger, Heresy, Violence, Fraud, Treachery.


3 – Characters well-developed.

As an epic poem, characterization is not likely to be a strong point.  I debated writing a general review rather than my typical, structured review for this reason.   Having been written in the early 14th Century, though, the characters do seem more rounded and developed than some of those in the earlier Greek and Roman plays (comedy or tragedy – and which is this, by the way?).  Dante’s character is a bit flat, but the way he interacts with the people he meets, and with his guide Virgil, is interesting to watch and is round (his character responds harshly to those he believes have sinned greater, and his character reacts warmly to those he might pity, such as his mentor).  I couldn’t help comparing this to the Robin Williams movie, What Dreams May Come which is an interesting spin on Dante’s story, but which does much more with characterization.  Had Dante perhaps spent a bit more time on the Beatrice sub-story, for instance (which, admittedly, will likely come later) or had the Dante character had to endure more personally, rather than just being inquisitive and asking “Oh, what famous people do we know in this circle, Virgilius?” all the time- it might have enhanced the story elements a bit. 


4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

I read the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow edition of this book, which was the first American English translation.  I did this for two reasons:  first, to stay as true to the main story as possible, while reading it in English (Longfellow was in fact criticized by some for how literally he interpreted the Italian – which is what I wanted) and second, because I wanted to simultaneously read something by Longfellow (sure, it’s not his story – but it’s his translation and that is definitely something).  In any event, it turned out to be a great decision.  Longfellow kept the story in its original structure (9+1) and managed to make the language and delivery work.  He did seem to overuse certain words at times – it seems he would get a particular word in his head for a while, let it go, then find another word to reuse for a while.  Aside from that, though, and some minor “clunkiness” due to the literal translation, which at times made the story read like a book narrated by Yoda, it was generally beautiful.  I did not expect the pages to turn as they did, nor did I expect some of the more graphic imagery (one man eating another’s brain, for instance, or demons tearing limbs from torsos).  The prose is what kept the story advancing, when characterization just wasn’t doing it for me.  Striking.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.

4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

Admittedly, quite a bit of this poem went over my head, as I am not all that familiar with ancient Christian history, ancient Italian political/social history, or even that much Greek and Roman mythology.  I have read Ovid, Plato, Sophocles, Euripides, and others, so I was certainly familiar with many of the main characters (the Greek gods and heroes), but not as familiar as I would like to be, seeing as this poem was so referential to those classics.  A deeper understanding of not just who they were, but of what they did and why Dante might see them in a certain light would have been helpful.  Still, that Dante re-writes these classic characters in a way (placing treasured and beloved gods and heroes, like Paris and Achilles, in Hell) that is so daring was truly interesting to read.  It certainly caused me to pause and reflect on the lessons Homer and the gang may have been trying to tell, versus those of Dante.  Also, the commingling of Christian themes and pantheistic themes was surprising, not just in its presence but in how well it was done and in how natural it seemed.  Medusa and Judas in the same story – why not?!  Dante’s Inferno is absolutely brilliant – in a truly brilliant way, not in a “that ice cream flavor is EPIC” kind of way.  It helps to have a strong background in the histories and mythologies, but the prose and story itself are enjoyable either way.  I look forward to finishing the next two books in The Divine Comedy. 

Suggested Reading for:

Age Level: Adult (High School +)

Interest: Mythology, Ancient Literature, Italian Literature, Christianity, Heaven/Hell    

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!

2011 Historical Fiction Challenge, Art, Art History, Book Review, Catholic History, Classical History, Creative Biography, Irving Stone, Italian History, Michelangelo, Reformation, Renaissance

Review: The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone

The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0

YTD: 22

4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

The Agony and the Ecstasy is a biographical novel of the life of Michelangelo.  The story begins when Michelangelo is a young apprentice and ends with his death at 89.    All in all, the book is put together brilliantly.  Michelangelo was tormented throughout his life – never left to satisfy himself as he was always at the mercy of political and religious leaders’ desires.  The reader is afforded an intimate look at how difficult and dangerous Michelangelo’s days were – Popes, Cardinals, and Political leaders were assassinated regularly; even Michelangelo’s own life was threatened on more than one occasion.  Michelangelo was forced to create at the whim of various Popes for the majority of his life, under threat of being thrown in prison if he were to deny his services to the Vatican.  Not only is the political atmosphere interesting to witness, but so are the personal relationships Michelangelo has with his family and friends, as well as other artists.  Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Martin Luther, and Machiavelli are all alive and working during Michelangelo’s days (Donatello had died not too many years before), so much of what they are doing, and their works in relation to Michelangelo’s, is included.  Stone gives modern day readers an incredible look at what it was like to live during the Reformation and Renaissance, for the artist and for the everyman.

4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.

There are so many characters in this book, it is almost ridiculous.  Of course, the book is nearly 800 pages long and spans nearly 80 years of Michelangelo’s life, so this is appropriate.  It was difficult, though, to connect with characters other than Michelangelo.  There are certain people, like Topolino family – stone cutters who tend to be more a family to Michelangelo than his own biological one is- as well as Tommaso and Il Magnifico who are written very well,  even beautifully, and who truly demonstrate the good nature possible in humanity. They are also written (as are some of Michelangelo’s masters) with a clarity of inspiration and impact on Michelangelo’s life and works, so that hundreds of pages (decades of time) after they are no longer in Michelangelo’s life, their presence is still felt in his creation.  Conversely, there are the rotten apples as well – such as the irritating Popes (some better than others, but almost all a nuisance and dictator to Michelangelo) and the disgusting Aretino of Venice, who spends his life earning money by blackmailing others.  The different people and portions of Italy, too, become characters.  There are the Florentines – lusty, artistic, and wealthy; the Romans – dangerous, dark, self-involved; the Carrara – interdependent, suspicious, isolated; the Bolognese – joyous, hearty, uncultured.  As Michelangelo travels and interacts with these different people, their cultures come to life and these too have lasting impact on Michelangelo’s works and methods.  The only complaint would be that Michelangelo is truly the only character in the book to be cared about which, while granting the fact that this is a biographical novel of Michelangelo, is still somewhat disappointing given the number of characters involved.

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

It was surprising to find a few grammatical errors in the book, particularly as this is not a first edition and the book was a #1 NYT Bestseller, but one cannot fault the author for items which should have been caught during the editing process.  Those tiny complaints aside, Stone is a powerful and entertaining writer.  His prose and language are both intelligent, yet fluid.  It would be easy to imagine a book of this length, which takes place 500 years ago, being incredibly difficult to read.  Fortunately, this was not the case.  Stone uses many Italian words and phrases for emphasis, but translates these words into English immediately following their use (in dialogue or description).  This is incredibly effective, as it allows the reader to stay in period and to learn something, but also allows the reader to continue the story without confusion or without stops to search for a word’s meaning.   He is also adept at dialogue in general, as well as in timing/transitioning from prose to poetics.  There are moments where the general prose breaks off into a poem, a letter, or a list – and these moments are seamless and natural.  The chapters, too, are an appropriate length and seem to be pre-planned, so that the right amount of information is covered in the correct amount of time (and this information is also cohesive with the present time/situation in the story).  It was not as vividly written as Lust for Life, which at times seemed to read like one was watching a film; but, it was appropriate to the time and mood of Michelangelo’s life and work.  Michelangelo was much less emotionally extroverted than Vincent van Gogh, and his works were more soulful than passionate, so the prose followed appropriately.

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

What is most appealing about this novel is that it was written with the help 495 of Michelangelo’s personal letters (all translated from Italian for the author to create this book specifically), as well as his contracts and professional records.  This is the same method which Stone used to write his brilliant book, Lust for Life, a biographical novel of Vincent van Gogh, and it works again here, just as well.  It took 6 years from the start of research to the completion of the book, and Stone spent many of those years living and researching in Italy, specifically in the various cities where Michelangelo spent much of his time and which were therefore important to his life story.  This incredibly detailed study resulted in a brilliant work that is both factual and creative – much of the dialogue had to be recreated, of course, and specific happenings in Michelangelo’s travels and studies were also necessarily created by Stone.  With so much historical fact, though, and so much based on Michelangelo’s own letters, coupled with the extensive research that Stone did, the book ends up reading as if it were written by a first-hand observer of Michelangelo’s life.  Stone was careful not to take liberties too far, as well; for example, he wrote in the important decades-long relationship between Michelangelo and Tomasso, including the “scandal” that was invented by a jealous fan and known blackmailer of information (contemporary readers should think of a 1500s-era Rita Skeeter) over their relationship; however, he left the nature of that relationship largely open to interpretation, which seems appropriate as there is not much firm evidence to support either opinion (lovers or just master/apprentice).

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+

Interest: Art History, Michelangelo, Renaissance, Italian History, Catholic History

Notable Quotes:

“For what is an artist in this world but a servant, a lackey for the rich and powerful? Before we even begin to work, to feed this craving of ours, we must find a patron, a rich man of affairs, or a merchant, or a prince or… a Pope. We must bow, fawn, kiss hands to be able to do the things we must do or die.”

“Still, it is true: people who are jealous of talent want to destroy it in others”

“Listen, my friend: it’s easy to get used to the expensive, the soft, the comfortable. Once you’re addicted, it’s so easy to become a sycophant, to trim the sails of your judgment in order to be kept on. The next step is to change your work to please those in power, and that is death to the sculptor.”

“He knew that many artists traveled from court to court, patron to patron, for the most part well housed, fed and entertained; be he also knew he would not be content to do so. He promised himself that one day soon he must become his own man, inside his own walls”

“Art has a magic quality: the more minds that digest it, the longer it lives.”

“Humanism … what did it mean? … “we are giving the world back to man, and man back to him. Man shall no longer be vile, but noble…. Without a free, vigorous and creative mind, man is but an animal and he will die like an animal, without any shred of a soul. We return to man his arts, his literature, his sciences, his independence to think and feel as an individual, not to be bound to dogma like a slave, to rot in his chains”