Caroline Alexander says in her Preface to The War That Killed Achilles that "this book is about what the Iliad is about; this book is about what the I...moreCaroline Alexander says in her Preface to The War That Killed Achilles that "this book is about what the Iliad is about; this book is about what the Iliad says of war."
I loved this book! It is extraordinarily well-written, and to the point at 225 pages in length (plus another nearly 50 pages of end-notes). While scholarly, it reads very well. Alexander takes us through the Trojan War's cast of characters in chapters that cover topics like "Chain of Command", the "Terms of Engagement", "In God We Trust", "Man Down", "No Hostages", "The Death of Hektor", and the last chapter "Everlasting Glory". Alexander's book hones in on the seven or eight months that are covered in Homer's Iliad, and while it speaks to the historical context of Troy, Mycenaean Greece, and the Trojan War itself, I think the real message of her book is the psychology of the War and the psychology of the humans involved in it.
It is perhaps easy to come to the conclusion that the Iliad is really the story of the "rage" of Achilles. I don't know if it is that simple though, and I don't think Alexander does either. She spends a lot of the book discussing why Achilles is 'angry' with Agamemnon, and it is much more complicated than Agamemnon having relieved Achilles of his concubine, Briseis. She postulates that Achilles reaches the conclusion that Agamemnon is an inept and incompetent military commander, that this is really an unjust war, and that he--Achilles--really 'doesn't have an axe to grind' in this fight. All of this was very thought-provoking for me, and caused me to carefully reread the Iliad and rethink my feelings about Achilles' actions (or, inaction, as the case may be).
Alexander makes a strong case too, that both sides in this nasty little war were just worn out. The Greeks and the Trojans had been fighting for nearly ten years, with little in the way of tangible results other than seeing hundreds of their comrades killed or maimed. That can't be good for your overall mental health. The psychological toll of losing friends in combat must have been huge, and anger and guilt (i.e., 'survivor's guilt'), and post-traumatic stress disorder must have, by this time, affected all of the combatants. When Achilles' best-loved friend Patroclus is killed by Hektor, one can begin to understand how Achilles could have 'snapped' and just gone berserk. Particularly as one knows from Homer that Achilles, in essence, facilitated Patroclus' death at the hands of Hektor. Combat is violent, combat is horrific--whether it is in the Bronze Age on the Plain of Troy, or in 2011 in the Korangal River Valley in Afghanistan--and the human cost is always incalculably high.
Finally, Alexander finishes her book with a discussion about Achilles coming to terms with his own role in the Trojan War, and acceptance of his destiny and what Fate had in store for him, and the choices involved. Could Achilles have really packed up his 2,500 Myrmidon warriors and sailed back home in his 50 'black-hulled' ships to a peaceful and quiet obscurity? Could he have left without avenging the death of his beloved friend, Patroclus? Alexander is compelling as she lays out the case that Achilles was able to, as Homer alludes to in the poem, sort through the pros and cons of what faced him, and was able to 'make peace' with himself. Alexander, I think, believes that it was through Achilles reaching a resolution to these issues that freed him to fully embrace the warrior ethos of his time and meet his destiny and fate with honor and integrity--on the battlefield, or late at night in the parley with the Trojan king, Priam. Maybe the great Lycian warrior, Sarpedon, a Trojan ally said it best in describing the warrior's code when he tells his friend, Glaukos--
"Man, supposing you and I, escaping this battle, would be able to live on forever, ageless, immortal, so neither would I myself go on fighting in the foremost nor would I urge you into fighting where men win glory. But now, seeing that the spirits of death stand close about us in their thousands, no man can turn aside nor escape them, let us go on and win glory for ourselves, or yield it to others."
That's powerful stuff, and this is a very powerful book that Caroline Alexander has written. She's right too. This book is about "...what the Iliad is about; this book is about what the Iliad says of war." (less)
At just under two-hundred pages, I read this novella in one sitting, and enjoyed it immensely! Also, having just finished reading Robert Fagles' marve...moreAt just under two-hundred pages, I read this novella in one sitting, and enjoyed it immensely! Also, having just finished reading Robert Fagles' marvelous translation of Homer's The Odyssey, finding and reading The Penelopiad seemed more than serendipitous. This is a retelling of The Odyssey from the perspective of Odysseus's wife, the 'patient' Penelope. Atwood uses humor, pathos, and a significant dose of imagination and creativity to tell the story of Penelope and the twelve maids. With one of the niftiest opening lines I've read in some time, this is an innovative piece of modern writing that finds Atwood cleverly reaching back to the ancient Greek dramatists as she structures the entire book as an ancient classical drama, with the interesting literary device of the 'Twelve Maids' providing the voice of the Chorus. The Chorus of the Maids interjects quite frequently (eleven chapters) in the midst of Penelope's soliloquy (eighteen chapters) to share their perspective of Penelope, Odysseus, and the on-going events in the palace on Ithaka. Some of these choral interludes include bits of funny poetic doggerel, a lyrical and well-written lamentation, a folk song, an idyll, a sea shanty, a ballad, a drama, an anthropology lecture, a court trial, and a love song. I have to say that each of these choral interludes works very well in bringing to life these twelve, largely unknown, maids.
At first blush the reader might be tempted to dismiss this little book as nothing more than a light-hearted bit of fun that Atwood has at the expense of elements of Homer's great epic. In my opinion, that would be a mistake though. There's a lot going on in this book, and much of it doesn't manifest itself immediately. I re-read it this morning on the train to the office, and I'm now even more in awe of Atwood's talent as a writer. While acknowledging the patriarchal and male-centric tone of The Odyssey, Atwood in her The Penelopiad has brilliantly explored the feminine side of the Palace of Ithaka, as well as in Hades (the Underworld) where Penelope; her cousin, Helen-of-Troy; and the maids now all reside. Atwood tastefully, but emphatically, uses her brief little tale to illustrate the double-standard that existed between men and women, not only that contained in the oral tradition of Homer's epics, but that of the ancient classical world. After my recent reading of Homer, I found her use of a completely different voice and gender to tell the story of Odysseus' return to his home after twenty years, and the horrific violence he inflicts on 'the suitors', as well as the Twelve Maids, to be simply fascinating. Also, while Homer goes to great lengths to highlight Odysseus as the "trickster", "dissembler", and "tactician", Atwood is equally successful in causing the reader to continually sift through Penelope's thoughts and statements for the kernels of Truth in her story, and in this task it is sometimes wise to pay attention to the Chorus.
Is The Penelopiad intended to be a feminist interpretation of Penelope, or The Odyssey? No, I really don't think so. This wonderful novella seems to be nothing more than Atwood's contribution to the Canongate Myth Series (a terrific series of books, by the way), and simply addresses the Odyssean mythology from the perspective of one female protagonist and a series of events that have received little scholarly or literary attention prior to this. Having said that though, I found the book to be a very well written and cleverly constructed story by one of Canada's great living authors. In sum, I thoroughly enjoyed The Penelopiad, and I'm quite glad that it has taken up a permanent home on my shelves. For me, this book rates a solid four stars out of five.(less)
I found this very well-written and interesting book the other day on the bargain table at my local Barnes & Noble bookstore. Christopher Benfey’s...moreI found this very well-written and interesting book the other day on the bargain table at my local Barnes & Noble bookstore. Christopher Benfey’s A Summer of Hummingbirds, while just a touch over 250 pages in length, is a fascinating look at a series of seemingly unconnected historical events involving a group of prominent literary, theological, scientific, and artistic Americans during the late-1860s through the 1880s. Interestingly, what seems to link these persons together was their unmitigated passion for hummingbirds!
As Dr. Benfey writes, “they wrote poems and stories about hummingbirds; they painted pictures of hummingbirds; they tamed wild hummingbirds and collected stuffed hummingbirds; they set music to the humming of hummingbirds; they waited impatiently through the winter months for the hummingbirds’ return.” Dr. Benfey puts forward the proposition that this fascination was one result of the great tragic, but ultimately liberating, experience of the American Civil War. Benfey believes that “Americans during and after the Civil War gradually left behind a static view of existence, a trust in fixed arrangements and hierarchies. In science and in art, in religion and in love, they came to see a new dynamism and movement in their lives, a brave new world of instability and evanescence. This dynamism, in all aspects of life, found perfect expression in the hummingbird.”
The book kicks off with Thomas Wentworth Higginson and his black Union soldiers near Jacksonville, Florida, during the American Civil War. Before his military service began, Higginson wrote an essay entitled, The Life of Birds, that was published in The Atlantic in 1862. He began the essay with a long look at hummingbirds which, in his words, were “an image of airy motion,” and wondered if “gems turn to flowers, flowers to feathers, in that long-past dynasty of the humming-birds?” A fanciful nod to Darwinism, perhaps.
Higginson, during the war years, was already corresponding with Emily Dickinson, the shy and reclusive brilliant poet of Amherst, Massachusetts. In fact, in 1862, Dickinson sent three poems to Higginson for his opinion and asked if they had the potential for publication. Dickinson, it seems, was inspired by Higginson’s nature essays to begin writing poems about hummingbirds, including this example:
“Within my Garden, rides a Bird Upon a single Wheel— Whose spokes a dizzy Music make As ‘twere a traveling Mill—
He never stops, but slackens Above the Ripest Rose— Partakes without alighting And praises as he goes”
I learned some interesting new things about Emily Dickinson, Henry Ward Beecher, his sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe (the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin), Mabel Loomis Todd, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. To me though, I was most intrigued with Martin Johnson Heade. Heade was an artist, largely a landscape painter, of the American mid-19th century “Hudson River School;” that also produced artists like Thomas Cole, Thomas Moran, and Albert Bierstadt. Heade loved painting nature and the wildlife that lived in it. It appears that he also had a bit of wanderlust in him as he traveled all over the globe in pursuit of practicing his art. He particularly loved to paint hummingbirds in their natural habitats, and visited Central and South America in pursuit of these little flying jewels. Many prominent Americans, including Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) ownws paintings by Heade.
Generally, the book gives a wonderful overview of each of these amazing people and what made them important in their own time. The real point of the book though, in my opinion, is Dr. Benfey’s contention that there was a convergence, of sorts, of most of these people in and around Amherst, Massachusetts from the mid-1870s to the mid-1880s, for a variety of reasons. I really don’t want to give anything away, but there are some really interesting and juicy tid-bits concerning Henry Ward Beecher, Austin Dickinson, the beautiful and talented artist Mabel Loomis Todd, Martin Johnson Heade, and Emily Dickinson.
Benfey’s book then, in a sense, is really a ‘string-of-pearls’ of connected, or quasi-connected, relationships among the book’s principals. These relationships occur over the twenty-year period following the Civil War, the so-called 'great American Golden Age,' and culminate with Henry Flagler’s promotion and development of Florida as a winter travel destination. As I mentioned above, the book starts in Florida with Higginson; it goes full-circle and ends in Florida with Flagler and Heade and Flagler's fabulous resort hotel in St. Augustine, Florida.
This was a very thought-provoking and fun book to read. I have to say that learning more about Emily Dickinson, the person and woman, has increased my appreciation of the brilliance and genius of her amazing poetry. Getting to know her brother Austin, and sister-in-law, Susan, and her friends David and Mabel Todd was an added bonus. Discovering Martin Johnson Heade’s life and paintings was fantastic, as I am a huge fan of the Hudson River School, landscape art in general, and especially paintings of birds. Finally, the book includes an excellent collection of end-notes and a superb index. This is a fast read and will make a wonderful addition to anyone’s American literature bookshelf. I highly recommend Dr. Benfey’s A Summer of Hummingbirds.(less)
"Bleak House" is clearly in my top four or five most favorite Dickens novels. It is dark and rich, and so completely immerses the reader in the charac...more"Bleak House" is clearly in my top four or five most favorite Dickens novels. It is dark and rich, and so completely immerses the reader in the characters and plotting. Somehow, I am most affected by Dickens' strong heroines; and Esther Summerson is just such a woman; even though she doesn't believe it of herself. The "Little Woman", "our dear Dame Durden", is such a kind-hearted and loving soul that you just can't bear to imagine anything untoward happening to her. The biting social satire that Dickens applies at all levels of the plot and subplots in the novel really made me stop and think about what life must have been like in Victorian England. This novel, for me, is right up there with "Little Dorrit", "Dombey and Son", and "Our Mutual Friend". If you love Dickens, or are just finding Dickens, this is a must-read novel.(less)