Day 1032: Strangers in Company

Cover for Strangers in CompanyWhen I was in my teens, I loved reading Jane Aiken Hodge’s historical romantic suspense novels, so when a novel I hadn’t read became available on Netgalley, I thought I’d see if I still enjoyed her. Strangers in Company, unlike the Hodge novels I read when I was young, is set in the time it was written, the early 1970’s.

Marian Frenche married a famous rock star when she was very young, but he deserted her when he learned she was pregnant with twins. Now that the twins are 18, they have in turn deserted her to go live with their father. Mark Frenche has abruptly stopped paying support, so when a tour company contacts her with a job offer, she takes it. All she has to do is accompany Stella Marten on a tour of Greece. Her doctor thinks this is a good idea, because she has been feeling nervous lately, as if someone is watching her. She is warned that Stella may be difficult.

Stella certainly seems to have an uneven temper, but Marian finds they get along most of the time. But almost immediately, things begin to go wrong with the tour. The originally scheduled courier is injured, so they get a history teacher with no experience. On the first expedition, a Mrs. Hilton complains that someone was following her and a boulder nearly hits Marian.

Later, another member of the tour is almost run over by the tour bus, and Mrs. Hilton is killed in a fall. Two schoolteachers fall ill, and one is injured in a fall.

Stella is behaving oddly, too. When Marian finally gets her to confide in her, she is shocked at what she hears.

link to NetgalleyThe novel is set against the backdrop of a recent Greek revolution, during which the country apparently underwent a military coup. I was not really familiar with these events, but not very much was explained.

This novel is clearly an homage to some of the work of Mary Stewart. It has resemblances in its plot line to My Brother Michael, which Marian just happens to be reading. I still much prefer Stewart, but Strangers in Company made an enjoyable light read.

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Day 1030: Outline

Cover for OutlineIt was hard for me to decide what I thought of Rachel Cusk’s novel, Outline. It is a difficult novel to describe and seems to be an experiment in fiction. It consists of a series of dialogues where most of the time only one side of the conversation is reported.

The almost unnamed narrator, Faye, is a writer on her way to Athens to teach a writing class. Something about her encourages the people she meets to tell her their stories. The narrator herself seems to be exploring the possibilities of passivity so that she doesn’t herself do or say much; instead, things happen to her. But not much, and that isn’t the point.

The characters’ monologues are written as little gems—sparely expressed and containing interesting intellectual ideas. But there are too many of them for me now to remember which concepts struck me. The overall effect is very cerebral, even though some of the characters express strong emotions.

I am not generally fond of monologues. It was hard for me to tell whether we are to assume that the narrator seldom speaks or whether, as one reviewer assumed, her part of the dialogue has been excised. In addition, the monologues are not written as speech but mostly as narrative, lending even more inertness to the work. I remember going to a play called “Danton’s Death” where instead of talking to each other, the characters took turns declaiming. The effect to me was a series of rants. This novel doesn’t have that effect because of the narrative. I was interested in the characters’ stories, but I wasn’t moved by them.

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Day 776: Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure

Cover for Patrick Leigh FermorWhile reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s retrospective trilogy about the journey he made in his teens, walking from Holland to Istanbul and then Greece, I was struck by the references to what seemed to be an exciting and unusual subsequent life. So, I soon looked for a biography and found this one, by British writer Artemis Cooper, the granddaughter of Leigh Fermor’s good friends and a woman who knew him from when she was a child.

Cooper goes into a little more detail than Leigh Fermor (known by his friends as Paddy) about his childhood, making clear there was a split between his parents and a good deal of neglect from both. Still, he had a happy childhood growing up in a rural setting, and his problems only began with the regimentation of school. Having failed in an academic setting and with the army, Paddy got the idea to go on his fabled walk.

Cooper summarizes the route of this walk, only she reveals the true names of the people he met (he used pseudonyms) and tells us when the stories are invented or conflated. When I read the trilogy I wasn’t aware that any events were invented or conflated, but I should have known that the level of scholarship reflected in the writing was not that of an eighteen-year-old. (Well, I did know, but he wrote the books much later in his life.)

picture of Princess Balasha
Princess Balasha

After his journey, Paddy settled in Athens and then Rumania with Princess Balasha Cantacuzene, a fascinating older woman separated from her husband. However, after World War II broke out, he hurried back to England, not realizing how long it would be until he saw her again.

Paddy spent most of the war in Crete working with the resistance. He is famous for kidnapping a German general and removing him to Egypt, an act meant to improve Cretan morale. (A movie, Ill Met by Moonlight starring Dirk Bogarde as Paddy, was made about this feat, but Paddy was unhappy with how far it drifted from the facts.) For the rest of his life, despite the unfortunate political differences that evolved between England and Greece after the war, Paddy was beloved in Crete.

picture of Joan Fermor

After the war, Paddy lived a gadabout life with many famous friends, only settling down in Greece with his wife Joan in his late middle age. He and Joan had been together 27 years before they married and for many of those years, had an open relationship.

Paddy chose the profession of writer and wrote several books about his travels and adventures. He was a raconteur who demonstrated an impressive range of knowledge and was interested in everything. Apparently very charming and loved by many people, he was not always sensitive to the feelings of others.

This biography is a well written, fascinating, and occasionally funny portrait of a remarkable man. At times, the sheer number of people mentioned made me unsure of who they all were, and there was certainly an assumption that readers would know who was meant. I didn’t always, which made the book a little more difficult to follow, but that was only on occasion.

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Day 580: The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos

Cover for The Broken RoadIn December 1933, eighteen-year-old Patrick Leigh Fermor began a journey on foot from Holland to Istanbul. Last year I reviewed the two books that cover the first two legs of the journey, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, but had to wait until this third volume was published to finish the journey.

Unfortunately, Leigh Fermor never completed this book. He actually began writing it first, about ten years after his journey, but stalled. Many years later he wrote the other two books and finally returned to this one. The editors explain in the introduction that they had to piece bits of it together from the manuscript, one of his surviving diaries (others were lost), and other documents. They did a great job, for it only seems fragmentary for a few pages in the middle.

This travelogue picks up at the Iron Gates by the Danube in Rumania but almost immediately moves to Bulgaria. Leigh Fermor spends a great deal of the book traipsing around the Bulgarian countryside meeting colorful characters before abruptly deciding to go to Bucharest. As most of this section of the book is written from his memories of what happened because of his lost diaries, I can only say that his memory must have been remarkable. He writes in a vividly descriptive style, allowing you to imagine yourself along on his trip through a world that is long gone.

It is remarkable also that almost everywhere on this journey he meets with kindness and hospitality. Only one night as he miserably hobbled along in Bulgaria after his foot was rubbed all day by a boot nail were his requests for a ride on two different passing wagons met with demands for money. Since he was living on a pound a week, wired periodically by his parents, he chose to walk. That same night his appeal for shelter at one house met no response from inhabitants who were clearly home. But farther down the road some charcoal burners cheerfully took him in.

Only at all disappointing is his description, which is almost nonexistent, of Istanbul. (He persists in calling it Constantinople.) I can only suppose his visit was in some way spoiled, as it is clear from his comments on the way there that he had romantic notions of the East. A footnote repeats his remark that he never left Constantinople without a lightening of the heart.

Leigh Fermor’s book ends where his green diary picks up, with his travels all over Mount Athos, Greece’s Holy Mountain. There he visited one Eastern Orthodox monastery after another. This section is fascinating for its glimpses into this unusual mode of life. Fermor came to love Greece so much that he lived there much of his life, and this was his first experience of it.

I actually found this book easier to read than the other two more polished efforts, as enjoyable as they are. I think it is because it was written by his younger self. For although he was kicked out of prep school before this journey and never returned to a formal education, he plainly was frightfully well read and knowledgeable and constantly lost me in the earlier books with classical or poetic allusions that I was too lazy to look up.

Apparently Leigh Fermor, who was clearly adventurous, went on to live an exciting life. I have a biography of him waiting for me in my pile.

If you have read my reviews of Leigh Fermor’s other books, you may have noticed a discrepancy. In those I say he was nineteen at the beginning of his adventures. Well, that’s what he said, but since he celebrated his 20th birthday at a monastery in February 1935 and started his journey in December more than a year before, even I can do the math. I did notice him referring to himself as twenty before he actually turned it, so that’s probably what happened in the earlier books.

Day 269: The Song of Achilles

Cover for The Song of AchillesMadeline Miller has attempted a difficult task in The Song of Achilles–to make the story of Achilles, Patroclus, and the Trojan War more understandable to a modern audience. To some extent she succeeds, but in some cases I think she interjects too modern a sensibility into the ancient tale.

I have never been a big fan of Achilles. The image of him sulking in his tent because of pique while the Greeks get slaughtered is not a pleasant one. But for the benefit of those who are not familiar with The Iliad, if there are any, I will leave that part of the tale for them to discover.

The novel is narrated by Patroclus, who is exiled as a boy after accidentally killing another boy. In Miller’s novel this gives him a horror of killing and he never learns to fight–the first instance of that modern sensibility I mentioned. Not only is there no evidence in the Greek myths that Patroclus didn’t fight, there is evidence to the contrary.

In exile, Patroclus is brought up with Achilles, son of the goddess Thetis, and Miller makes the interesting choice of having the gods and goddesses be characters in the novel, just as they are in ancient stories. Patroclus and Achilles become close companions and eventually lovers.

Here again is where modern sensibilities come in, not because the two were lovers–they almost certainly were–but in the way she treats the relationship. I’m no Greek scholar, but I’m fairly sure that such relationships were rather common, and I’ve read somewhere that in some armies they were encouraged because the friends fought better for each other. Yet here, the two hide their relationship, and Thetis despises Patroclus from the first. In fact, in The Iliad, the relationship is implied but not commented upon, more as if it is accepted.

I don’t want to sound too particular, though, because almost despite myself I was drawn in and ultimately touched, not by Achilles as much as by Patroclus.

In a class discussion of The Iliad years ago, when the students were commenting on Achilles’ behavior, the instructor made it very clear that despite what we may think of him today, to the ancient Greeks he was indisputably a hero. So, modern sensibilities come in again, as Patroclus worries that the Greeks will begin hating Achilles because he refuses to fight, and they do.

To a great extent, most of the characters in the novel are one- or two-dimensional–Agamemnon is stupid and brutish, Odysseus is wily and clever, and so on. Only a few characters are more fully developed. But then, the narrator is Patroclus, and his life revolves around Achilles, who is unbearably proud and full of himself. Yes, I still don’t like Achilles. To Miller’s credit, I don’t think I’m supposed to. Despite my caveats, though, I enjoyed the novel and am looking forward to reading another book by Miller.

Day 183: The Greek Myths

Cover for The Greek MythsThe Greek Myths is classicist and writer Robert Graves’ well respected and unconventional translation and interpretation of a comprehensive collection of Greek myths. Graves explains that rather than interpret the myths psychologically (i.e., Oedipus), which he appears to have some disdain for, it is more useful and accurate to look at them in combination with the findings of archaeology, as a sort of historic record. Graves relates each myth, with all its variants, and then provides sometimes copious notes to explain each facet. He also points out the many similarities among world myths, showing the relationships between Greek myths and those of the Celts, Sumerians, Jews, and others.

It is Graves’ contention that most of the Greek myths with which we are familiar were manipulations and distortions by the Hellenes of the religious beliefs of the people they conquered. There were four migrations of the Hellenes into Greece. After the first two, the patriarchal Hellenes adopted the matriarchal religions of their hosts, but in the last two, the Hellenes forced the existing tribes to follow their beliefs and then consciously distorted their mythologies to reflect this change.

For example, there are many instances where Zeus chases and rapes various nymphs. In the earlier myths, the three-headed goddess in one of her forms would have been chasing the king as part of a ritual ceremony, so the myth has been turned on its head. Similarly, many a Greek hero’s exploits that involve fighting and killing an opponent are a perversion of the ritual whereby the king is “killed” by his tanist–or alternate ruler (“twin” or “son”)–at the end of his reign and then in turn actually kills the tanist to take up his reign again. Grave states, “Like Aeschylus, Euripedes was engaged in religious propaganda.”

The ideas Graves espouses are very interesting and the book is extremely well written. However, the sheer number of names and places and similar incidents can be overwhelming. Some deities or other figures go by six or eight names, for example. And there’s only so much killing and rapine a person can take. I finally bogged down over Heracles, who has more than 100 of the 600+ pages devoted to him (and whose adventures are very similar to those of Gilgamesh). Heracles, I feel, was a thug, and round about his tenth labor, which was particularly rambling, I gave up on him.

My intention in reading this work was to come out with a more coherent idea of the whole of Greek mythology, but ironically, I feel this book is too comprehensive for me to meet that goal–that something simpler would have worked better for me. However, for serious students of mythology, this is probably required and interesting reading.

Day 144: This Rough Magic

Cover for This Rough MagicBest Book of the Week!

When I want to read something light, I re-read one of two authors who have been favorites for years. One of them is Mary Stewart, best known for her Merlin trilogy, which is excellent. However, it is her romantic suspense novels written from the 1950’s through the 70’s that I love to read. She continued writing into the 90’s until she was 85 years old, but her best romantic suspense work is from this earlier period.

Most of Stewart’s novels take place in exotic locales and feature appealing, literate heroines with a habit of quoting poetry. I am not normally a romance reader, although I like a good romantic suspense novel. Stewart’s books are well written, her characters intelligent and sympathetic, and her stories so well plotted that I go back to them again and again. Her descriptions of the settings are so vivid that on my travels I have caught myself looking out for places she has written about, although sadly, most of them no longer much resemble the out-of-the way places she described.

For this review, I’ve picked one of my favorite Mary Stewart novels, This Rough Magic. Lucy Waring is an actress on vacation in Corfu visiting her pregnant sister, Phyllida Forli. The Forlis are a wealthy Italian banking family who own three houses around a private bay on the island. The big gothic main house is occupied by a tenant about whom Phyllida is teasingly secretive. The other house is rented by a photographer named Godfrey Manning, who has been spending some of his time photographing Spiro, the teenage twin brother of the Forli’s housekeeper’s daughter, Miranda, swimming with a dolphin.

Lucy soon meets one of the tenants of the main house, a man who thinks she is a trespasser and tries to throw her off the property. But she is then welcomed to the house by the other occupant, the famous Shakespearean actor Julian Gale, in retirement since the tragic death of his wife and daughter. He entertains her with his theory that Corfu is the setting for The Tempest, a theory he has also related to Miranda and Spiro, as he is their godfather. The other man is Julian’s son, Max, a well-known composer. Although Julian is charming, Max is gruff and unwelcoming, and Lucy can tell something is wrong with the Gales. Later, at the Forli’s house, Lucy meets Godfrey Manning, a dashing man who is ready to admire her.

Lucy’s island idyll is broken in one harrowing day. First, when she is swimming in the bay with the dolphin, someone fires a gun at the animal, and the bullet almost hits Lucy. After a big argument with Max, whom she suspects of doing the shooting, she goes back to the Forli house to find Phyllida in distress. Godfrey has just returned from a shipboard night photography expedition to report that Spiro fell overboard and drowned. Lucy also thinks that Max met with one of the island’s smugglers, who is later found dead. Smuggling is rife between Corfu and Albania, still at that time very isolated and located across a narrow body of water from the island.

Suddenly there is a lot going on in this island paradise, and Lucy finds herself thrown into danger when Miranda confides that she has found Prospero’s books, which of course he dumped in a lake at the end of The Tempest. Loaded with atmosphere and truly gripping, This Rough Magic is a great novel to read when you just want to relax.