Medea is an argument between high school students where almost everyone winds up dead in the aftermath. Hero Jason of the Argonauts and Golden Fleece fame, after marrying the woman who gave him that glory, abandons her and their children to marry a princess. Medea, understandably, is not pleased. Jason can’t quite wrap his mind around why she isn’t thrilled that he’s moving up in the world and really resents her refusal to see that he is dumping her for the good of their family. Beyond the shock value, I can’t see why this play has been so popular for so long. It’s violent, sexist, and depressing. The writing is mediocre. The ending is grasping. After having a plot set securely on the ground, Euripides has a flying, golden chariot rescue Medea, which maybe was a normal literary tool for the ancient Greeks, but seemed very desperate to me. Euripides wanted her to have her final, horrifying confrontation with Jason but couldn’t think of a way to do it that didn’t result in her death. This way they can trade verbal jabs, but Jason can’t throw spears at her. No one in this cast is likeable. No one wins. To even call Medea’s actions a Pyrrhic victory suggests too strongly that her battle of egos with Jason had a winner of any type. It did not. Content yourself with the Cliff’s notes for this bloody play, and spend your precious moments on something else.
Commit to Antigone. That’s what you will need to do if you read Oedipus at Colonus. It’s a cliffhanger. It’s also not as good as Oedipus Rex; I see even in ancient Greece sequels failed to live up to their precursors. OaC is longer than OR, but less violent. Sophocles has developed Oedipus’ character in the twenty year gap between the setting of the first play and the setting of the second play. He and his daughter Antigone have wandered and begged across Greece, arriving eventually at Athens, hoping Theseus will give them shelter. Meanwhile we discover Thebes is beset with governmental discord; Oedipus’ sons are battling for the throne and his brother-in-law intends to forcefully return him home. But Oedipus has been doing some thinking. His realizations about the nature of sin are comforting to read. Watching him stand up for himself was cathartic, after the craptacular hand he was dealt in OR. He’s still a proud and willful character, but he’s stopped self-flagellating. He really needs some advice on supporting the bereaved. Take this gem, spoken graveside to his heartbroken children immediately before his death: “You shall never have more [love]/From any man than you have had from me./ And now you must spend the rest of life without me.” If your goal was to completely crush someone’s heart right before dying, you could hardly have hoped to do better. Oh Oedipus. You tried. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to find the cliff’s notes for Antigone and end this cycle.
You know the story. The famous king who *spoiler alert* unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother. There are no surprises in this play. Except for the writing. Sophocles (and our hard-working translator) are amazing. The entire work is dialogue and choruses, but the writing is so evocative I was completely swept away. Such a gem! In a tragic, bloody setting, but still. There’s suicide on top of the murder and incest, and self-harm, too. Oedipus Rex is most definitely not in the ranks of feel-good literature. But it’s really short. You could whip through it in an afternoon, and have the rest of the day to think about it. Or read the rest of the trilogy; Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone continue the story of Oedipus and his children after he is exiled from Thebes. You can have a little more Oedipus to round out your day. It may help you appreciate the good things in your own life.
Young adult books make for a speedy finish! It didn’t hurt that I could not put this book down. Riordan made quite the page turner. It took me a couple of chapters to get through the whole “main character is a whiny pre-teen” but once Percy gets his quest that pretty much fades away. Thankfully. There are a couple of issues that prickled me at the beginning of the story, but by the end Riordan had presented them in a different light and they troubled me less. The overall plot is pretty straightforward. A somewhat troubled youth who has bounced from school to school throughout the states finds out that his dyslexia and ADHD are actually caused by the fact that he is the son of a Greek god and a human woman. He doesn’t know which one, although he finds out later. Lots of characters straight out of Greek mythology, and the main story is an Epic Quest™ complete with cross-country trip and descent into Hades. Mystery, prophecies, betrayals, everything you’d expect to see in a Greek myth. There is a fair bit of violence, obviously all directed against youths, so if you’re sensitive to that proceed with caution. There’s also a couple of deaths. One within the context of the story and one that predates it, and if memory serves me correctly only one of these shows up in the movies, so be aware if you’re reading the book after watching the movie you might still be in for a surprise. Aside from that, the movie stayed pretty true to the original story. And neither was too shabby.
One downside to ebooks: if you’ve never seen a physical copy of the book you’re starting, when you break out your ereader and flip that first page you have no idea what you’re getting in to. Did you know Metamorphoses is huge? I didn’t! It’s 15 books long! I guess Ovid sat down one day and banged out a chronological list of every transformation in Roman mythology, and then wrote a poem for each one. And then wove them together like some massive, wordy scarf. Everything rhymes. He even includes things you wouldn’t typically think of as transformations, like Caesar being deified. Metamorphoses includes such classics as Orpheus and Eurydice, and Narcissus. The Trojan war shows up in segments too, as does the Odyssey. And plenty of myths I’d never heard before, all wrapped in a rich cloth of descriptive imagery. Unfortunately, because in the earlier myths transformation was typically a way for a woman to escape an assaulting god, or a punishment for failing to, the first half of the book is loaded with sexual assaults and victim blaming. There’s also some passages of gory violence. Mainly pitched battles, but also a boar hunt. Surprisingly, there’s a sizable monologue towards the end by a guy espousing the virtues of vegetarianism, specifically to stop cruelty to animals. Not an attitude I was expecting to see displayed after so many pages of sword fights. One of my favourite poems came towards the end of the epic; in the Trojan war segment. The Greeks are discussing who should get Achilles’ armor now that he’s been killed. It’s down to Ulysses (Odysseus) and Ajax, neither of whom will budge. The solution winds up being a trash-talking contest; the one whose accomplishments are the most impressive and who can make his opponent seem the weakest wins the armor. Ajax accuses Ulysses of being a coward and Ulysses claims that since he persuaded Achilles to join them in the war the armor is rightfully his. Ovid really makes you see how invested each man is in winning the right to wear the armor of their greatest warrior, how they try to be nonchalant while brimming with emotion. In fact, this poem is suffused with men feeling every emotion: sadness, rage, embarrassment, pride, love, desire, you name it. I’m not sure where people got the idea that men don’t have emotions, but it couldn’t have been from this. Furthermore, it’s a giant poem. You can’t write poetry without having emotions. It just doesn’t work. And unless it turns out Metamorphoses was ghost-written by one of Ovid’s wives, this means not just that men write poetry, but that they have a full range of complex human emotions! So the next time someone tries to tell you men don’t cry, grab your copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and smack them with it. Ovid earned us all that right.
Robert Graves has created one of my all time favourite books with his masterful work of historical fiction I, Claudius. Characters who are as real as they are unbelievable. The scenery and meals are only hinted at, but because the story itself is so beyond the pale you barely notice the paucity of description. You don’t need to know anything about Roman history to understand the events because Graves, as Claudius, explains it all. Be prepared to keep track of an impressive array of names though. Lots of similar names. I picture the ancient Roman equivalent of a christening ceremony being one where the parents and the five most venerable relatives of the newborn draw a slip of parchment each from the city “naming hat” and all those names are bestowed upon this unsuspecting infant. Everyone in the city uses the same names, and adding is strictly forbidden. I’m sure one of the later emperors made it a treasonable offence.
Speaking of offences, if you have trouble with violence be aware I, Claudius is rife with it. Thankfully not the gleeful gore other authors revel in, but Graves does go through the play-by-play of many, many murders; victims of any and all ages. The frequency increases as the book goes on, for reasons that are pretty obvious. There are moments of wit and tenderness too, along with suspense and intrigue. And Claudius is eminently fair to everyone. He is as careful to note the virtues of the evil as he is the faults of the good. It’s nearly impossible not to view this account as his autobiography, brilliantly translated from Greek(9) into our own tongues for our edification. I keep picking it up to double check tidbits for this review and only surfacing a chapter or two later, even though I’ve already finished it. This is an utterly fascinating book.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Originally published on August 9th, 2015
This book is great! However, if you can relate to any of the main characters, you are probably either:
a. exceptionally good at suspending your dislike of someone and putting yourself in their shoes; or
b. a total jerk.
If you find yourself nodding along with their “foibles”, you might be a jerk. (Acceptance is the first step to recovery. Please get help.) If you are irritated by books where the main characters’ bad qualities outweigh the good, pass on this one. But if you can suspend the urge to reach into the text and throttle those selfish nitwits, it’s a great book. I want to read more by Donna Tartt. How wonderful to know she has more novels published!
Originally published July 27th, 2015
Initially I was concerned this book was going to be really dry. Greek mythology is something I’ve always enjoyed, but so often non-fiction books have anything remotely interesting surgically removed before they are put on the shelves. I’m happy to say that this is not the case! This book is absorbing, well organized, and not so academic it’s incomprehensible. Kershaw even includes family trees where it’s relevant, so you can attempt to trace how the various characters are related to each other. I say attempt because, possibly in part due to the…liberal… sexual attitudes ascribed to the gods, the family trees can be a little difficult to follow. It doesn’t help when you have individuals reproducing with their relatives, or being born without intercourse at all. Or (in the case of Zeus) screwing anything that moved. I wasn’t expecting to watch the morality morph through the centuries of myths, as we got to the (relatively) newer and more detailed stories. In the beginning, there seemed to be fewer consequences, though it’s possible this has more to do with the paucity of details available in the earliest myths. Somebody might still attack and kill you, but generally only if you’d been keeping everyone else locked up under the earth so they can’t overthrow you. Or if you’ve been eating your own children. As we move into more recent myths, the list of things that can get you fed to a sea monster or turned in to a spider gets longer. I suppose part of that is because the tales have morphed from interactions between gods, to interactions between gods and man, and the power imbalance means when a man oversteps what the gods have defined as boundaries, he can be punished with impunity because the chances of him being able to stand up for himself against the god are slim to none. And as women slid onto the lower strata of society in everyday life, their positions of power as represented in the myths slid also, until they could be punished (or attacked) by men and by gods with impunity, and were only rescued if another man or another god stepped in. (Which may or may not happen, so don’t hold your breath. Apparently these myths predate the classic princess story.)
The icing on cake, for me, was how Kershaw ended each chapter with examples of these myths in the arts. One of my favourites was Euripides’ Medea (Medeia in the ancient Grecian spelling), the discussion of which takes up several pages. Detailed, stunning pages. Euripides’ sensitivity to Medea’s point of view, especially considering the attitudes of the time, completely blew me away. Although his attitude is kind of an outlier, even compared to his other works. For the rest of the book Kershaw just gives brief outlines of whatever works he’s discussing. He even mentions the occasional heavy metal album. Greek mythology does not seem to have become less popular with the passage of time. Scholars still study it, archaeologists excavate searching for truth, artists stretch their skills with it. It’s still everywhere, even after thousands of years. A Brief Guide to the Greek Myths is a brief guide to the stories that have made us who we are, and that still continue to form us.