Review 1676: The Last of the Wine

It’s the fifth century BC, and the Peloponnesian War has been going on as long as Alexias can remember. As a boy almost reaching manhood, he is more interested in his training as a runner and the teachings of Sokrates. He is often at odds with his father, who has a poor opinion of the Sophists, in which group he includes all the philosophers. Alexias is a beautiful boy who fends off in disgust the advances of his father’s friend Kritias, but he eventually falls in love with Lysis, a man about 10 years older than he, and they form a fast friendship.

Things change as his father Myrom is dispatched to fight against Syracuse. The city of Athens has approved an attack proposed by the charismatic, mercurial Alkibiades. Then, shortly before the fleet is due to leave, someone destroys all the Herms in town, and Alkibiades is accused of this impious act. He leaves with the fleet and is found guilty in his absence without a trial, so he flees, leaving the fleet without the only leader who could have prevailed. Myron is sent with the second wave of warriors.

Before Alexias has even reached his official manhood, he goes off with Lysis to fight Spartans encroaching into the Attican farmlands. The Spartans attack every year to steal or spoil the harvest. The novel follows the two in war, under siege, in famine, and in civil conflict through 10 turbulent years in the history of Greece.

As usual, Renault’s novel is meticulously researched and elegantly written. After so recently reading her Alexander trilogy, though, I began to feel a sameness about her writing. The narration from book to book sounds the same to me, not like different characters (except the one narrated by the Persian boy), and she examines the same themes in Greek culture, although the books are set in different times. Maybe I’m just a little tired of ancient Greece. I read this book for my Classics Club list.

Related Posts

Fire from Heaven

The Persian Boy

Funeral Games

Review 1479: Funeral Games

It may surprise some readers that (spoiler!) Alexander the Great dies at the end of the second book in Mary Renault’s Alexander trilogy. What, then, could the third book be about? Actually, I found it the most interesting of the three novels, as it deals with the intrigues and battles for power over his empire after his death.

Alexander died leaving no named heir and three unlikely possibilities—his half-witted half brother, Arridaios, and two unborn children by Roxane, the vicious daughter of a Baktrian hilltop chief, and Stateira, a Persian princess. Stateira was living with her grandmother, but before Stateira can find out about Alexander’s death, Roxane writes a summons purporting to be from him. When she and her sister arrive, Roxane poisons them.

This act of treachery is the first of many, as Alexander’s generals and surviving relatives struggle for power. His sister, Kleopatra, makes a play for power through marriage to one of the generals. His half-sister, Euridike, has been betrothed by Alexander to Arridaios. He is used as a pawn by various regents trying to grab power, but the downfall of Euridike and Arridaios comes when Olympias, Alexander’s mother, whom he always kept way from power, takes them prisoner.

The book follows Alexander’s legacy—what happens when the empire he reigned is taken by ordinary people. The best off of his former generals becomes Ptolemy, who sensibly retires to Egypt to form the Ptolemaic dynasty and writes a book about Alexander’s life.

Related Posts

Fire from Heaven

The Persian Boy

House of Names

Review 1393: Friends and Heroes

Cover of Fortunes of WarAt the end of the previous book of Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, Harriet Pringle flew out of a besieged Bucharest without knowing whether Guy would be able to follow. She ends up in Athens, and the first person she meets is Prince Yakimov. Although he betrayed the Pringles to the Germans through his foolishness, Harriet is happy to see a friendly face.

Guy does arrive in Athens in the hope of getting a teaching job at the Academy. He finds Duderat and Toby Lush ensconced there as teachers. Although he employed them in Bucharest despite their lack of credentials, they do not repay his kindness with assistance. Instead, they lie to the director about him to prevent him getting a position. The director will not allow the Pringles to live at the Academy, so they find themselves with only a room to stay in and no money.

Even after they manage to establish themselves, Harriet feels alone. She understands that Guy considers her part of himself, but he therefore expends himself in work and helping others and hardly thinks of her. Out of loneliness, she finds herself attracted to a young soldier.

I didn’t like the turn the plot took with the soldier, whom I thought tiresome, but I have found this series more and more interesting. Although Friends and Heroes is the third book in the Balkan Trilogy, it ends with another evacuation and feels incomplete, so I feel compelled to read the second trilogy in the series Fortunes of War, the Levant Trilogy.

Related Posts

The Great Fortune

The Spoilt City

Munich

Review 1358: Literary Wives! A Separation

Today is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Eva of Paperback Princess
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

* * *

The unnamed narrator of A Separation receives a call from her mother-in-law, Isabella. Isabella has been trying to contact her son Christopher, the narrator’s husband, and demands to know where he is. What Isabella doesn’t know is that the narrator has been separated from Christopher for six months because of his infidelities. She has promised him to tell no one, which has become awkward because for three months she has been living with another man, Yvan.

Isabella can’t believe the narrator doesn’t know where Christopher is. His mother has traced him to a hotel in rural southern Greece and demands that the narrator go there to find out what is going on. For some reason, Isabella is alarmed.

The narrator makes some inexplicable decisions during this novel, almost as though she is obeying instinct rather than thinking. The first one is in not telling Isabella that she and Christopher are separated. The second is in actually doing what Isabella asks.

When she arrives at the hotel, she finds that Christopher is indeed staying there, researching a book on death rituals. However, he has been away for a few days. The narrator decides to wait for his return. Soon, something happens that forces her to re-evaluate her relationship with Christopher.

This novel is a carefully observed work about the complexities of marriage, love, betrayal, and loss. As the narrator, with her secret, is forced more and more back into the role of wife, she uncovers feelings about her husband that she didn’t know she had. Although a fairly simple story plotwise, the novel delves into the layers beneath the facades of marriage. This is a much more intelligent, sophisticated look at marriage than we have yet read in this club.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

This novel is one of the most complex and true-to-life that we have read for this club, while not really looking at what the marriage was like while the couple were still together. Even though the narrator considers her marriage over, and in fact, goes to Greece planning to ask for a divorce, she finds that the bonds of marriage affect her more strongly than she would have guessed. She finds herself forced back into the role of wife, for example, experiencing the dichotomy of having to make decisions she doesn’t feel she has the right to. The situation forces her to re-evaluate her relation to Christopher and his family. She is bound in ways she didn’t expect.

Literary Wives logoEven though Christopher was the one who strayed and her relationship with Yvan didn’t begin until after they separated., she feels she has betrayed him in some way through that relationship.

I wonder about Kitamura’s decision to make the narrator the only unnamed character in the novel. I have only seen this device used a couple of times, and I can only put a name to one of them now, Daphne du Maurier’s shy, self-effacing narrator in Rebecca. Surely the reason that Kitamura used this device is not the same. Of course, the novel is narrated in first person, and we don’t think of ourselves by our names. Still, no one calls her by her name, either. Perhaps Kitamura uses the device because in some ways the narrator seems to be functioning blindly and is at times an unreliable narrator because she is unaware of her own motivation. I wonder if anyone else has an insight into this.

Related Posts

Stay With Me

After You’d Gone

First Love

 

Review 1342: The Garden of the Gods

Cover for Garden of the GodsThe Garden of the Gods is a fitting conclusion to Gerald Durrell’s Corfu Trilogy. In the book, we meet a few more eccentric characters and are treated to funny events and lush descriptions of the island of Corfu.

The centerpiece of this book is a visit to Corfu by the King of Greece. This event brings about a multitude of opportunities for incompetently executed patriotic displays.

One of the most entrancing new characters is Jeejee, a visitor from India whom Mrs. Durrell takes for royalty because of his first name, Prince. (That is, Larry sends her a letter saying that Prince Jeejee is arriving for a visit.) He is a charming person who entertains us with his attempts at levitation.

Cover for the Corfu TrilogyThe final chapters of the book deal with a typically over-the-top party that the Durrells throw for Jeejee’s birthday. All goes well until Margo’s cabaret, in which the various characters entertain the other guests with acts that include an interminable saucy sea chanty by Captain Creech and an escape act by Mr. Kralefsky and Theodore that goes badly wrong.

The trilogy is funny and entertaining. Although the first book is the source of the original Masterpiece series, the newer series is suggested by characters and events in the last two books. I think most people would enjoy these memoirs.

Related Posts

My Family and Other Animals

Birds, Beasts, and Relatives

H Is for Hawk

Review 1332: Fire from Heaven

Cover for Fire from HeavenIt seems like I’m in the middle of a lot of trilogies lately. I just wrote up my review of the last of Gerald Durrell’s Corfu Trilogy (coming soon) and in two weeks the review of the first book in Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy will appear. I actually just finished reading the second book in that trilogy (review coming in a few months) and liked it enough to purchase her Levant Trilogy. Now, here’s the beginning of another trilogy. Fire from Heaven is the first book in the great Mary Renault’s trilogy about the life of Alexander the Great. Renault, of course, is known for the historical accuracy, admired by authors and classicists, of her novels set in Ancient Greece.

Fire from Heaven follows the life of Alexander from the age of four to nineteen, when he became king of Macedon. His life is plagued by the battles between his mother, Olympia, allegedly a sorceress, and his father, King Philip. Philip’s crime is to have taken additional wives, even though Olympia is at total enmity with him. She sees this as a mortal affront and teaches her children to hate him. She is also cagey about whether Philip is actually Alexander’s father, hinting that he is not.

As Alexander gets older and begins learning about fighting and diplomacy from his father, they begin to understand each other. Olympia’s machinations and Philip’s womanizing continually create problems and misunderstandings, however.

An important person to Alexander is his friend Hephaistion, who becomes his lover. The two are inseparable, and Alexander is fascinated by the Sacred Band of Thebes, a group of soldiers composed of pairs of lovers, said to fight the more doggedly because of it.

This novel is rich in the intrigues among the city-states of the area, the myths surrounding Alexander’s life, and the depth of characterization. I read it long ago but found I didn’t remember it well and am pleased to have begun rereading this trilogy.

Related Posts

The Silence of the Girls

The Secret Chord

Dictator

Review 1325: Exit West

Cover for Exit WestIt’s difficult to describe Exit West. Part embedded in a slightly futurist reality, a small part speculative, part romantic, the novel is mostly a parable. Those of you who know me, know I don’t really like parables and I seldom appreciate magical realism, so this probably wasn’t the best choice for me, but I read it for my Man Booker Prize project.

Saeed meets Nadia in class as their unnamed city succumbs to war. They secretly see each other while a war goes on between religious fundamentalists and the government. As the situation deteriorates, Saeed’s mother is killed.

Saeed and Nadia hear rumors about doorways that can take refugees to other parts of the world, and we take a few side trips from their stories to witness people emerging in other countries. In some countries, the doors are guarded to keep the refugees safe. In others, the governments are trying to keep refugees out.

Saeed and Nadia decide to leave, but they cannot convince Saeed’s father to go with them. They eventually go, emerging first in Mykonos, where they live in a refugee camp, then in London, and finally in Marin County. Everywhere they go, they join swarms of refugees.

Hamid isn’t as interested in the grueling journeys of refugees as he is in the psychological effects of their journeys. Quiet, reflective Saeed has more difficulty adjusting than does the more adventurous Nadia.

Because this is more of a parable, though, the two main characters are mostly ciphers. We don’t really get to know them or care that much about them. Hamid’s lightning glimpses of other people’s lives open up the novel a little bit. It’s a technique similar to that used by David Mitchell, but in this novel it doesn’t work as well. Sometimes these glimpses seem to have little point, although most of them are linked to the doorways.

Aside from the timeliness of this novel (which I’m guessing is what has made it so popular especially with predictions about climate refugees to add to our current economic refugees and those fleeing violence), this novel was interesting but not altogether successful.

Related Posts

The Alchemist

The Parable of the Sower

The Forty Days of Musa Dagh

 

Day 1294: Birds, Beasts, and Relatives

Cover for Birds, Beasts, and RelativesWhen I began reading this sequel to Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, I assumed it would begin sometime after the first book, which ended with the Durrells leaving Corfu and heading back to England. Instead, it seemed to be about to cover the same ground, starting with an abbreviated account of their arrival.

Cover for the Corfu TrilogyAlthough this novel is slightly repetitious of the previous one, briefly reintroducing some characters and summarizing important events, for the most part it covers different events and introduces new characters. We meet Larry’s friends Max and Donald when they arrive at the house, drunk, at 2 AM. We also meet the disreputable Captain Creech, and Sven, the accordian-playing sculptor. There are also old friends like Theodore and Spiro.

The book relates memorable events, such as what happens when Margo agrees to take care of Gerry’s baby hedgehogs and how the family receive a performing bear that follows Gerry home one day. Although I began the book worried that this memoir would cover too much of the same material, I ended up charmed again by the stories of this eccentric family and their stay in Corfu.

Related Posts

My Family and Other Animals

The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos

The Pursuit of Love

Day 1281: My Family and Other Animals

Cover for My Family and Other AnimalsI first was charmed by My Family and Other Animals many years ago, but it is only recently that I learned it was part of a trilogy. So, I am reading it again to kick off the trilogy.

Gerald Durrell was a boy in 1935 when an impulsive decision on a dreary summer day lead to his family deciding to move to Corfu. This book is an account of the indefinite period of their life there before Mrs. Durrell decides they must move back to England for Gerry’s continued education.

The Durrell family members are all the types of people who know their own interests from an early age. Larry, who becomes the well-known literary novelist Lawrence Durrell, fills the house with his literary and artistic friends. In fact, the family is forced to move to a larger villa to accommodate them. Leslie is interested in hunting and is constantly shooting things. Margo likes sunbathing and clothes and has an atrocious taste in young men. With Gerry, it’s animals, and he proceeds to fill the house with them.

Cover for the Corfu TrilogyThis memoir is very funny, with a humor that derives from the family just being themselves and the eccentric friends they make. It also has lush, gorgeous, and sometimes stunning descriptions of the setting and flora. Durrell says that he intended to write a book about Corfu’s flora and fauna, but his family kept intruding.

Whether the family decides to give a small party and just invite ten people—at which point each of them invites ten—journey off on an outing in a perfectly round boat, or give another party when the dog is in heat and snakes are in the bathtub, I assure you, you’ll be laughing.

Related Posts

Merry Hall

The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos

Diary of a Provincial Lady

Day 1236: A Most Extraordinary Pursuit

Cover for A Most Extraordinary PursuitHaving read Juliana Gray’s second Emmaline Truelove novel, A Strange Scottish Shore, a few months ago, I decided to read the first. Juliana Gray, by the way, is a pen name for Beatriz Williams, known for her historical romances.

It is February 1906, and Emmaline is finishing up the details for the funeral of her employer, the Duke of Olympia, when the Duchess sends for her. It seems that Maximillian Haywood, the heir to the dukedom, has not been heard from in months. He was off working at the newly discovered archaeological site of the palace of Knossos, but he has not sent in his expected report or responded to any messages. The duchess asks Emmaline to go find him, accompanied by Lord Silverton, a renowned womanizer but apparently also some sort of government agent.

As Emmaline sets off on her journey aboard the duke’s steamship, she finds herself re-evaluating her first impression of Lord Silverton as a simpleton. She also can’t deny he has his charms. Unfortunately, nor can most of the women they meet.

This is a fun adventure story with a bit of a twist—time travel! You’ll like the practical, redoubtable heroine, Emmaline, and the charming Lord Silverton and will probably have a good time along with them on their journey.

Related Posts

A Strange Scottish Shore

At the Water’s Edge

The River of No Return