Friday, May 5, 2017

April Reads

For the Most Beautiful: A Novel of the Trojan War by Emily Hauser

Synopsis:  The hidden tale of the Trojan War: a novel full of passion and revenge, bravery and sacrifice, now is the time for the women of Troy to tell their story.

Three thousand years ago a war took place where legends were born: Achilles, the greatest of the Greeks, and Hector, prince of Troy. Both men were made and destroyed by the war that shook the foundations of the ancient world.

But what if there was more to the tale of these heroes than we know? How would the Trojan War have looked as seen through the eyes of its women? Krisayis, the ambitious, determined daughter of the High Priest of Troy, and Briseis, loyal and passionate princess of Pedasus, interweave their tales alongside Homer’s classic story of the rage of Achilles and the gods of Olympus. What follows is a breathtaking tale of love and revenge, destiny and the determination, as these two brave women, the heroes of the Trojan War, and the gods themselves come face to face in an epic battle that will decide the fate of Troy.

A glorious debut full of passion and revenge, loyalty and betrayal, Emily Hauser breathes exhilarating new life into one of history's greatest legends.

My take: While I'm not sure this novel breathed new life into the legend as it claims, it was a fun read after I got over the anachronisms in writing style and a less than faithful interpretation of The Iliad.

I understand and admire the whole idea of giving voice to the Trojan women, particularly these two women upon whom many of the events of The Iliad turn, but about whom we have little insight in the original work. Hauser didn't need to do it, however, at the expense of changing things that didn't need to be changed to make the novel work. Like making Aeneas one of Priam's sons instead of the son of Aphrodite and Anchises, which sort of throws off the whole founding of Rome by escaping from Troy with his elderly father on his back. Nor were Patroclus and Paris the simpering fools she made them out to be, and Achilles was certainly not the sensitive new, age guy with a major character flaw. If you're not familiar with The Iliad, it might not bother you; if you are, it takes you out of the story as you scratch your head and wonder why. Taking the reader out of the story is never a good thing.

I thought Hauser did best when she stayed in Krisayis and Briseis's points of view. They lived and breathed .their world, and then they grew and moved beyond it. I also enjoyed how she slyly slipped Homer into the novel with the implication he might have changed the ending of the story to cover up his lover's escape from the doomed city.

I also liked the chapters told from the gods' point of view, because the Greek gods often were silly, vain, and petty. However as much as I liked those chapters, they didn't feel well-integrated into the book and I often interrupted the flow of the Krisayis/Briseis narrative.

Overall, it was a fun, fast read. It  prompted me to reread Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Firebrand, about Cassandra of Troy, which was not a bad thing.

Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life  by Sally Bedell Smith

Synopsis:  Prince Charles brings to life the real man, with all of his ambitions, insecurities, and convictions. It begins with his lonely childhood, in which he struggled to live up to his father’s expectations and sought companionship from the Queen Mother and his great-uncle Lord Mountbatten. It follows him through difficult years at school, his early love affairs, his intellectual quests, his entrepreneurial pursuits, and his intense search for spiritual meaning. It tells of the tragedy of his marriage to Diana; his eventual reunion with his true love, Camilla; and his relationships with William, Kate, Harry, and his grandchildren.

My take: Indulging myself with biographies of royals is a guilty pleasure. Moreover, I've always liked Prince Charles; probably because when I was a teenager, he was close enough to my age to be a poster boy. Later, I rather liked his devotion to Camilla, famously called the Rottweiler, even though he was married to a woman considered uber beautiful by the rest of the world. Yeah, he was a cheat, but you knew he couldn't be turned by a pretty face. So, I was pretty excited when this biography became available; because, admiration aside, most of my knowledge of PC came from reading biographies of other members of the royal family.

It says something that I ripped through the book in two days. Like it was interesting, maybe? I knew lots of bits and pieces, and this biography put them in a chronological order that provided a comprehensive and sympathetic portrayal of Prince Charles without trying to paper over his very obvious flaws.

Yes, Charles was the whinger everyone accused him of being.  Sometimes.  But by the end of the book, I found him to be an admirable person, someone I might want to know. He's pretty damn interesting, and he's accomplished a lot.  For example, 825,000 underprivileged students got their start in life via the Prince's Trust, including Idris Elba. Charles brought poetry and Shakespeare back into the English school system. He sounded the alarm on climate change before most people knew the word (and was considered a bit loony for doing so.) His organic gardens and farms are ahead of their time. Yes, he has had a fair number of losing projects as well. But you know, he could have just stayed in the palace eating bon-bons, so let's give the man a little credit. If that isn't enough, he looks down on Trump, and Trump doesn't want to meet with him when he goes to England to meet the Queen. So, two thumbs up for Prince Charles.

I recommend this book if you're looking for a biography of a complex man in a complex time.

The Firebrand by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Synopsis:  Blending archaeological fact and legend, the myths of the gods and the feats of heroes, Marion Zimmer Bradley breathes new life into the classic tale of the Trojan War-reinventing larger-than-life figures as living people engaged in a desperate struggle that dooms both the victors and the vanquished, their fate seen through the eyes of Kassandra-priestess, princess, and passionate woman with the spirit of a warrior.

My take:  An Iliad for women! This novel does what For the Most Beautiful does, but with gravitas.

I read this book when it first appeared in the 1980s, and it was a pleasure to read it again. So often books that engaged my younger self no longer satisfy my older incarnations. (Lookin' at almost every D.H. Lawrence novel.) This one remained interesting and engaging. I liked and still like the idea of re-interpreting the story through the eyes of the priestess Kassandra (Cassandra),

The story was inspired by and deviated substantially from the Kassandra mythos of The Illiad.  Unlike  For the Most Beautiful, the deviations moved the story forward in a way that could not have happened by close adherence to the original. It  maintained a ring of "truth" that  brought a Greek fable to life  and dispelled some of misogyny that is characteristic of Greek epics. Moreover, Bradley's take on the Amazons, Centaurs, and Achilles go a long way toward making myth seem more like history. With Firebrand and Mists of Avalon, MZB created some of the first kick-ass heroines who now dominate fantasy and dystopian literature today.

Be forewarned, however, both books celebrate the worship of the Divine Mother and are not overly tolerant of male gods, whether they be pagan (Firebrand) or Christian (Mists).

Diana in Search of Herself: Portrait of a Troubled Princess Sally Bedell Smith

Synopsis:  For all that has been written about Diana--the books, the commemorative magazines, the thousands of newspaper articles--we have lacked a sophisticated understanding of the woman, her motivations, and her extreme needs. Most books have been exercises in hagiography or character assassination, sometimes both in the same volume. Sally Bedell Smith, the acclaimed biographer, former New York Times reporter, and Vanity Fair contributing editor, has written the first truly balanced and nuanced portrait of the Princess of Wales, in all her emotional complexity.

My take:  The hard-core Diana fans will not like this book as it opens some rather ugly doors about their beloved Princess. I felt compelled to read this book after reading the Prince Charles biography. Unlike many reviewers, I don't think Smith hated Diana; I think she felt sorry for her.

Having read a number of biographies about the late princess, I've come away with the idea of a woman who DID do many admirable things, but was seriously troubled. The interesting thing about this book for me was that it put together, in a very orderly fashion, both sides of Diana.

Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton's Doomed Campaign by Jonathan Allen

Synopsis:  It was never supposed to be this close. And of course she was supposed to win. How Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election to Donald Trump is the tragic story of a sure thing gone off the rails. For every Comey revelation or hindsight acknowledgment about the electorate, no explanation of defeat can begin with anything other than the core problem of Hillary's campaign--the candidate herself. . .

Moving blow-by-blow from the campaign's difficult birth through the bewildering terror of election night, Shattered tells an unforgettable story with urgent lessons both political and personal, filled with revelations that will change the way readers understand just what happened to America on November 8, 2016.

My take:  I, for one, sure wanted to know what happened. Although not a huge Hillary fan, she was more acceptable to me than the alternatives (as in Trump, most of the Republican candidates, and Bernie). Acceptable, but not a great generator of enthusiasm in moi or, it appears, a great many other people.

First of all, it's a fascinating read, although it lacks the insight and drama of Game Change, the book about the 2008 campaign. Nonetheless, I read the entire book on two flights between St. Louis and New York City (and while hanging around the airports lounges in both places.) The reviews, much like Hillary herself, are almost entirely on either end of the spectrum. You either loved it (33%) or hated it (34%). All the other reviews were kind of MEH!

At some point, after repeated statements that her speech writers never knew Hillary well enough to put inspiring words in her mouth, I started looking at her as a character in a novel. A protagonist, if you will. And what do we expect of a protagonist?
A memorable protagonist must touch on something a reader can identify with or be transfixed by.  A reader doesn't have to necessarily want to meet your main character or even like them, but they must want to read about them.
So,  I hearkened back to a dialog between me and my writing coach that occurred after the first draft of almost every scene. If Hillary was my protagonist, the conversation might go like this.

Coach: What does your character want?
Me: Easy. To be President.
Coach: That's her external goal. What's the deeper goal? Why does she want/need to be president?
Me: She never says. In fact, she goes to great lengths to hide that from everybody, except maybe Huma Abedin and Bill.
Coach: Does her short term goals conflict with her long term goals?
Me. Definitely. Can you say email scandal, Clinton foundation, and Wall Street speeches?
Coach: So is there conflict between what your character needs and what your character wants?
Me: Oh, yes, see the above.
Coach: So what is the deeper goal that she can't reach because of that conflict? And what is she going to do to change that?
Me: I got nothin', man!

And there you have it, Hillary Clinton is a protagonist that we don't know anything about except that she wants to be president and has some conflicts. That appears to be the way the campaign went as well. And to paraphrase agents rejecting manuscripts with ciphers as main characters, "the country couldn't summon sufficient enthusiasm . . ."

We might have the makings of a tragedy here.