(Semi)Book Review (GLORY AND THE LIGHTNING by Taylor Caldwell)

I had to stop reading the somewhat trashy GLORY AND THE LIGHTNING, by Taylor Caldwell. Since I have been on a roll with reading tales that take place in ancient Greek times, a good friend recently recommended this 1974 published book to me.

Set in 5th century BC Persia and Greece, this historical novel follows the lives of Aspasia and Pericles.  The former is a brilliant and beautiful hetaira (courtesan) who eventually meets and pairs up with the latter, the renowned general and elected leader of Athens for over thirty years, a time which saw the peak of that great city state’s flourishing.

I found both the characters and overall outlook and tone of the third person narrator to be deeply cynical, elitist, and often contemptuous. There was only one supporting character I could consistently sympathize with and like, that of a female physician friend and lover of Pericles’, who does the key transitional act of introducing him to Aspasia at a dinner party.  Unfortunately, this supporting character’s name eludes me now.  (I put the book down a few weeks ago.)  This left me feeling like a distanced observer most of the time rather than an emotionally engrossed reader. Granted, some passages of sexual intrigue were entertaining, along with the many descriptions of pretty women and men in their ornate clothing, jewelry, perfumes, buildings, and gardens, including when they ate exotic, delectable foods. I can appreciate abundant detail, though it was excessive in places even for me in this often indulgent yarn.

The first several pages of the book were devoted to laying out how Aspasia is a brilliant, challenging student to her teachers. I think one brief classroom scene would have sufficed, instead of three or so extended scenarios, to relay the author’s point of how exceptional, gifted, and strong-willed this woman was. Parallel to Aspasia’s teachers’ anger with her know-it-all argumentativeness, I honestly felt exasperated with the writer’s diarrhea of the pen.

Then there is all the blatant sexism, classism, and racism. How one chooses to write about two inherently classist, sexist, misogynist cultures (Greek and Persian) in an ancient time period takes great thought and skill. I myself prefer the inclusion of a more informed, modern perspective that integrates understandings gleaned from discourses of feminism and anti-racism/egalitarianism, among others. Unfortunately, Ms. Caldwell’s avowed conservatism shows through in this tale. Bound by reductionist conventional thought along the lines of “men are from Mars, women are from Venus,” the author has all of her characters existing and operating from this tired old paradigm, with the partial exception of both Aspasia and Pericles’ physician and socialite friend.  Aspasia’s courageous attempts to live and succeed in a man’s world, surely parallel to what the author was doing during her lifetime through most of the 20th century, come through as often admirable (while other times not) in the narrative, and for that I am appreciative. I admire and respect anyone who can succeed against great odds, so long as minimal harm is done to others along the way.

So much reliance on racist stereotyping of the “dark” and “mysterious” Persians and “Easterners” lends a very dated, often irritating feel to the writing. If this book is out of print, I won’t be at all surprised.

I looked forward to Ms. Caldwell’s descriptions of Athens and rendering of Pericles, a historical figure I’ve read about elsewhere with a mix of admiration and sadness. Well, Pericles is portrayed as an often quiet (i.e., “strong silent type”), arrogant ass, surrounded by elitist and petty people even worse than he.  Clearly, the author did not like the actual concept of democracy and found every moment of digression in the story to criticize it as “feminine” and unreliable, preferring a more fixed laws republic.  Hmmm, since human needs evolve somewhat over time as technology progresses, how can all laws remain completely unchanged?  She never answers that question.  Caldwell has her characters even pragmatically think and suggest that “benign” tyrants or dictators heading up governments are perhaps the best solution, albeit not a realistic one.  Her contemptuous attitude about the “rabble,” i.e., the peasant/working class was distasteful to me.  Caldwell did not believe in the possibility that a critical mass of people in a civilization could govern themselves and others fairly and effectively.  And while that is a topic open to debate, I do think the author used this position as an excuse to portray most of humanity in her book as petty and unsympathetic.  Sadly, Pericles comes across as cold, calculating, elitist, and cynical with– sure enough- contempt for the “plebeians” and “peasants,” who are all “less” than “superior” men.  And while Pericles undoubtedly was likely largely this way in actuality within such a misogynist, classist culture and time in history, I found his actual humanity in this novel present but often lacking, certainly not enough to connect me, the reader, with him.  The writer’s repeated description of Pericles as being like a statue did not help warm me to him in the least.  He often seemed two dimensional and overly extreme.

Caldwell’s blatant touting of Christian monotheism in the book annoyed me to no end.  She had Pericles agreeing with a few of his friends’ endorsement of the “Unknown God,” and largely reduced the Greek pantheon to being symbols of and for a corrupt, petty bureaucrat priesthood that was going out of style.  Lovely.  Granted, the author did allow for some beauty of the ancient and sacred to come through via some descriptions of picturesque scenery and the artful practices of courtesans.  This was a nice reprieve here and there from her otherwise constant return to polemicizing against democracy, polytheism (via touting monotheism instead), and the working class “rabble.”  She just could not help herself.  This diverted away from the flow of the narrative of people and place.  Personally, I do not read novels to be lectured at again and again about the writer’s political, spiritual, and philosophical views, even if I happen to agree with them.  It’s like watching a movie on television interrupted with too many commercials, only perhaps even more bothersome.

By the time I got to the third and final section of the book, in which Pericles and Aspasia are together as a couple, I lost patience and interest.  It starts out with an overview of Pericles’ narcissistic former stepson’s cruel and criminal acts, including his killing of two slaves, a child and an elderly woman.  I briefly thought of Donald Trump as that character and started to shut down a bit, an indication that I really could not be aggravated further.  Besides, now that the two main characters were together, after an admittedly intriguing and sexual-tension-filled scene (minus the author’s usual inserted- in polemics via conversations between the guests, including Socrates) towards the end of the novel’s second part, I no longer cared much about the story.  Also, Pericles mother had long-since died, another somewhat sympathetic side character, albeit a very sad and often helpless one.

I hope this will be my only “semi” book review, as I do prefer to write about texts that I’ve actually finished from cover to cover.  GLORY AND THE LIGHTNING had some beautiful, thought-provoking moments of description and human feeling here and there. But, I found the tale generally frustrating, unsatisfying, and alienating due to what felt like constant, long-winded interruptions of the author’s obnoxious personal views.  These coarse interweaves into the narrative I could have done without.  With them all removed, the novel would have been far shorter, faster moving, and more relatable.

Book Review (THE SONG OF ACHILLES by Madeline Miller)

After finishing Madeline Miller’s riveting new novel CIRCE, I promptly read her other, debut one THE SONG OF ACHILLES, first published in 2012.  This story was a page-turner ’til the very end.  I can’t ever remember growing so frequently verklempt while reading a tale of romance and intrigue as much as I did with this book.  Two young men in love, the demigod warrior Achilles and the very human, tender-loving Patroclus, are the heart of the narrative in every sense of that word.  These protagonists must negotiate a hostile world dominated by men thirsty for power, fortune, and glory no matter what the cost. This is effectively summed up in the Greeks brutishly going to war against Troy and its surrounding lands, realm of the Trojans, all instigated over the kidnapping of Helen, a Greek king’s wife, considered to be the most beautiful woman in the world.

Though initially a hard decision for him, it is the ultimate destiny of Achilles to choose immortality through the glory of conquest against Troy.  Hence, it is his life mate Patroclus’ destiny to follow and support him into this violent way of life.  Along the way, Patroclus becomes a healer to the Greek soldiers and an ever-grounding presence for the part-god Achilles.  In short, Patroclus is the conscience of the story.  The one who directly recognizes this in him, filling the equivalent of the crucial role of the chorus in every ancient Greek tragedy, is the rescued slave girl Briseis.  Like us readers, Briseis loves Patroclus truly and deeply for the brave, unwavering caring person that he is.  And through this understanding, we are reminded why the glamorous, larger-than-life Achilles keeps him by his side, with Briseis so nearby.  Together, the two men and woman represent a full psyche: both divine and human.

Apparently, the renowned epic THE ILIAD, from which this book is based and carefully adhered to, intentionally portrayed the hero Achilles and his companion Patroclus as gay lovers, something which I had long read and heard about elsewhere.  (And, yes, now I intend to read THE ILIAD forthwith.)  I was heartened to see this Classics scholar go with this interpretation while filling in her often behind-the-scenes, first person (Patroclus’) narrative with beautiful, cleanly-written prose about two tragic male figures in ancient literature.  Men as both young lovers and warriors make for a heady mixture.  It is rare, I find, to come across compelling, believable romance on the written page, and a gay romance at that.  Sexual tension and a range of emotion steadily unfolded via crisp, often poetic, and vivid descriptions.  The author’s use of describing the feelings of her protagonists through referring to the natural surroundings in which they find themselves in creates an atmosphere of immediacy and relatability for the reader throughout.  Such is the craft of a gifted storyteller.

My one critique of the book was how long Ms. Miller had Prince Achilles and the exiled (ex)Prince Patroclus– who meet each other at ten years of age and strike up a friendship in fairly short order– go before consummating their love.  The author sets them up in close quarters and constant companionship a few years before puberty, yet they hold back until sixteen years of age, including with each one not clearly bothering to privately explore his own maturing, virile body.  (Perhaps I missed some subtle hint or two in the writing that went right over my head?)  Uh, yeah, right.  This was one area in which I could not suspend my disbelief.  However, the author is a woman and was not a parent, nor, undoubtedly even a close associate, of a male teenager when she wrote this story in her early and mid 30’s.  I readily forgive her for not being fully inside the head and body of a pubescent male.

Ms. Miller’s inclusion of the foreboding sea nymph Thetis (Achilles’ mother) and Chiron, the wise centaur and teacher of many things, such as medicine, the arts, and hunting, renders just enough portrayal of the mythical and magical to keep the story moving along.  Also, their presence enhances and validates the rare intensity and specialness of the bond between the two leading men, who remain very human throughout.  Hence, the narrative is both colorful and relatable.

Madeline Miller’s ability to breathe fresh, contemporary-feeling life into such ancient, mythical characters leaves me eagerly wondering what she will write next.

Book Review (CIRCE by Madeline Miller)

Madeline Miller, a native of Boston, MA, is an author whose work I really dig.  At the age of forty and deeply educated in the Classics, Ms. Miller has already written and published two fabulous, well-thought-out novels, which I highly recommend, particularly if you like Greek myths: THE SONG OF ACHILLES and CIRCE, published in 2012 and 2018 respectively.

For my birthday last month, a friend and colleague gave me a new copy of CIRCE, which I then read voraciously.  The lone femme fatale witch and goddess figure has always been an archetype I’ve deeply resonated with since childhood. CIRCE delivered such a character portrayal and her story beautifully and hauntingly.  At long last, a compelling reason behind why Circe turned Odysseus’ men into pigs is put forth.

I appreciated Miller’s crisp prose and very human portrayal of deities from the ancient Greek pantheon.  The deep loneliness of Circe and her courageous acts to learn from and better tolerate this often existential state made for a touching narrative, told in first person.  Additionally, Circe’s evolution into her own power and acceptance of the human condition becomes a perfect metaphor for a successful, complete development of not only a woman’s personality, but, ultimately, a human’s.

A daughter of the sun god Helios and nymph Perse, Circe grows up feeling different, even alien, from her family and peers.  Her eventual exile by a scornful Helios onto the island of Aiaia comes with both relief and initial sadness for the heroine and “lesser” goddess.  It is there that she gradually embraces her fate, tying up her skirt, walking about barefoot, and getting her hands dirty as she works the land.  In so doing, she learns her craft of sorcery from out of herbs, other plants, and communing with animals, particularly lions, wolves, and pigs.  Her shape-shifting abilities upon other beings become a means of protection, first for just herself but then for some others as well who enter her life on Aiaia.

Madeline Miller’s gift of drawing the intimate and immediate out of such ancient material of myths and legends is impressive and moving.  For example, Circe’s relationship with Odysseus comes alive with emotion through dialogue and poetic, yet succinct, descriptions.  It’s as if Ms. Miller fills in details only hinted at within sweeping passages from THE ODYSSEY and other Classic works, such as the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur.  This retelling is informed by modern discourses, such as feminism, yet keeps to the overall integrity of the old source stories.  Every once in a while in literature and art, an ancient story or set of deific images is brought forth into a newer age so that the original beauty of it feels once again vibrant, alive, fully accessible for the reader or viewer.  CIRCE fits such an occurrence, and that’s what makes this novel truly great.

 

Book Review (MY BEARD by Sharon Doubiago)

Author and poet Sharon Doubiago’s new book My Beard (published April 18, 2018 by Spuyten Duvyil, New York City) consists of twelve short stories about her life.  The prose are often visceral and unabashedly sexual, always body-focused and poetic.  My response to the stories was complex.  On one hand, a part of me cringed inside at what often felt like raw, graphic openness, while my larger, observing perspective absorbed her narratives as simply beautiful, whole, uncensored, and refreshingly honest tellings from the heart.  She frequently illustrated parallels and interrelationships to her own body and the earth.  Hence, Ms. Doubiago’s direct mentionings of the Goddess were a crystal clear frame of reference.  I enjoyed reading something so current in which the author is unashamedly attuned to and grounded in her flesh and Mother Earth.  The Goddess lives!

The reader is immediately introduced to the author’s hippie, unconventional lifestyle.  For extended periods of time, she lives out of her vehicle, first a large old car named “Roses” and then a van called “Psyche,” a gift from her parents.  She alludes to some odd jobs for employment, including bartending, but largely makes a living through teaching writing classes, including in a men’s prison.

Sharon’s political progressivism comes through everywhere, such as in the piece “Our War,” in which she both interviews and dialogues with a woman from Sarajevo during the last year of the Bosnian War (1995).  She conveys a balance of openness, humbleness, and erudition while conversing with someone who has witnessed the horrors of war first-hand.  Like Ms. Doubiago, her interviewee/discussion partner is also a writer and someone with a history of involvement with independent, small press publishing.  This story felt comparatively less imaginative and poetic than the other ones because much of it is from directly recorded dialogue and focused on a large-scale piece of history in the making.  However, I appreciated the author’s journalistic skills and partial history lesson she provided me, the reader, about a war and area of Europe I hardly knew anything about.

Many of the stories are about Ms. Doubiago’s intimate relationships with men that are doomed to end, are ending, or come to an end within the narrative.  Each lover clearly has intimacy issues, is emotionally unstable, and ends up leaving the author or, in one case, forcing Sharon to ultimately leave because of the man’s brittle mental health and extreme ambivalence over staying with her.  She shares how all of her relationships were erotically rewarding to at least some degree, except for with her second (or third– admittedly unclear to me) husband due to his lack of sexual interest much of the time over their seven months of marriage.  The dissolution of this union is powerfully described over three stories: “Stripper,” “Tsagalalah, She Who Watches,” and the last entry “My Beard.”  He, a sculptor by trade, was having an affair with another woman since the day of their wedding.  He coolly collected experiences with lovers like he acquired sculpting commissions, which mostly were bronze castings of naked women who posed for him in his studio while he plastered over their bodies.  One day, while plastering an art subject, he flatly announced to Sharon that she was “no longer erotic” to him.  “High art” objectification was happening here, but objectification nonetheless.  I felt relief for Ms. Doubiago each time one of her fraught relationships came to an end.  This is what it seems she wants us readers to understandably feel with and for her.  She writes clearly with deep emotion yet keen observation honed both from hindsight and identifying as a lone outsider early on in her life.

I found myself particularly caught up in deep intrigue while reading “Psyche and the Vidyahara.”  Here again was a bit of history lesson for me while learning about the behind-the-scenes corruption of the Tibetan Buddhist Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado.  As a child of well-educated hippie parents in 1970s Northern California, I often heard my folks and friends of theirs mention this place of higher learning, namely for creative writing and Buddhist practice.  It took on a mystique for me, though never strong enough to travel and directly find out about it for myself.  In her ninth story of this book, Ms. Doubiago comes across as a voice of reason and compassion as she describes the sexual and emotional abuses committed by Naropa’s leader Chogyam Trungpa and then by his anointed successor to the lineage Ozel Tendzin, a bisexual American man with AIDS who had unprotected sex with many of his uninformed followers.

Fast-forward from this sordid backstory to the author being invited to the Institute as a visiting professor for the summer session at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics.  (The pretentiousness of that name evoked a chuckle from me.)  Courageously and caringly, Ms. Doubiago shares her concern aloud after an aggressive-toned reading about raping “white girls” by another visiting writer and professor Anne Waldman (who I met once when I was about seven and later enjoyed hearing her read a poem like a chant).  She is soon roundly misunderstood and shamed, including by fellow poet and attendee Allen Ginsberg.  Sharon is further scapegoated afterwards at a meeting set up for the purpose of doing this to her.  The “wrong” committed?  In her own nuanced way, Ms. Doubiago did not conform to the politically correct “format” of discourse everyone else was holding to in the name of combatting censorship, even though Sharon clearly had no use for censorship either.  She was able to leave there with a sense of appreciating the bit of support she managed to glean from a situation of adversity where she’d reasonably hoped to find camaraderie with peers.  My own remaining curiosity about the Naropa Institute felt quite fulfilled after finishing this tale.

At least two other stories touch upon the author’s nonconformist outsider status within the poetry and writing community, such as in the third installment “Fornography.”  This largely takes place at a two week annual writer’s conference attended by the likes of Margaret Atwood and William Stafford.  Sharon Doubiago effectively conveys here a sense of “group think” that whole factions of writers hold to, including on how to view and discuss (vs. how not to view and discuss) pornography.  Elsewhere, towards the end of the final story “My Beard,” Ms. Doubiago is sitting on a panel of writers when she gets verbally threatened by none other than “superstar” (Sharon’s descriptor) author and poet James Dickey.  The audience cheers him on.  And while the reader is never told or shown exactly what she said that evoked such a hostile response, the content of the whole narrative of “My Beard” lays out her thought processes over many matters, including about “gender and the family,” the topic she and the other panelists had been assigned to give a presentation about.

In some places, the emotional depth and urgency of Sharon’s experiences are effectively elucidated through the visual power of her dreams.  For example, the author dreams of a flopping fish following her down a mountain, nipping at her heels, this fish’s dogged determination a way of showing it loves her.  It is very much like her then-dying father, a man who loved to fish and who constantly abused her.  In a sense, he acted like this fish out of water, pursuing Sharon and committing actions not at all healthy or natural to do.

There are many recurring themes in this deeply thoughtful book, an overarching one that stands out being the ongoing healing the author engages in from surviving prolonged sexual abuse by her father, including an incident of raping her when she was seven years of age.  He clearly sexualized Sharon, his oldest child of three, throughout her childhood.  The mother’s jealousy and avoidance of protecting her only enabled the abuse to keep happening.  Ms. Doubiago’s sense of self, including an often wavering confidence, and all of her intimate relationships were hugely affected by this tragic aspect of her upbringing.  The final story “My Beard” brings it all home as the author gracefully weaves back and forth between childhood and the last months and days of her father’s life, coupled with the final memories of being with an unfaithful, self-absorbed, misogynistic husband, the parallels between he and Sharon’s father coming forth in waves.  (As a visual reference/focal point, Sharon refers to the ocean and its waves in this story and a few others.)  Admirably, Ms. Doubiago lovingly cares for her father on his deathbed, helping her elderly mother out as best she can, all while having to drive a long distance between her home and her parents’.  And yet, she remains misunderstood and invalidated within even her own family of origin; her jealous sister, who never was sexually abused by the father, repeatedly denies that Sharon herself was ever abused.  Sharon clearly became an outsider early on, mother and sister each jealous of her and the father using her for his own painfully unresolved needs.

What is additionally wonderful is that I knew Sharon Doubiago when I was a child.  She was a family friend, slightly older than my father.  This is why I sometimes referred to her by first name only in this review.  I remember her as being soft-spoken and very striking with her large blue eyes, high cheekbones, and thick blonde hair.  Now, I’m getting to know this amazing, talented woman better through her writing.

It’s affirming to read a series of stories that, taken together, comprise a memoir.  Maybe that’s the form my own memoir will take if and when I end up writing it.