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Book reviews - Archives

Lindsay Clarke - The War at Troy
Interesting novel that stitches together the Greek myths leading up to and including the Trojan War. Mostly taken from the classic Robert Graves three book series and Homer's Iliad. This novel is a good read and provides some continuity to the story that is difficult to perceive when reading the individual tales. However when the war actually starts (or nine years into the war to be precise) you would be far better advised to turn to a good translation of the Iliad. One thing worth a comment is that this book continues with a disturbing trend of contemporary retellings to secularize Greek mythology. For example the recent movie version of Troy completely dismisses any materialization of the Gods (except for a token visit by Achilles' mother Thetis). The legend of Achilles is that he was dipped in the river Styx which made him invulnerable, except for the ankle where he was held, thus resulting in the infamous Achilles heel which was the eventual cause of his downfall. In Clarke's novel there is no mention of the Styx incident. Instead when Achilles is born he is about to be sacrificed at some primitive alter by Thetis and her priestess (a fate shared by his six previous siblings) before being rescued by his father Peleus.

Obviously it would not make sense to totally dispense with the manifestation of the Gods. Stories such as the Judgment of Paris would not make sense without some sort of deity corporality. In that incident in the novel the Gods are treated as fundamentally human, instead of as the personification of human characteristics. Of course these underlying themes are not  easy to convey in a novel format, but the lack of focus on these critical aspects do detract from the reader's experience.     
What else is missing are some of the really interesting aspects of the stories that make the original legends so complex. Here's one example. Although Zeus greatly desired to forcibly take Thetis legends had foretold that the son of Thetis would become greater than the father, and that was something that Zeus could not risk. Therefore Zeus was determined that Thetis would wed a man who could produce an heir that could not challenge him. These sort of details are missing from this book.
In spite of these shortcomings the War at Troy is as a good primer to Greek mythology. It is well written, consistent, flows well and in general is an excellent read.

For a copy of the Iliad in MSReader format try this one. This version is the most readable of the public domain versions as translated by Samuel Butler. Whatever you do make sure you avoid the unreadable Alexander Pope version, which convolutes Homer's original prose into awful English rhyming couplets.            

Margaret Mitchell - Gone with the Wind
A recent trip to Atlanta and a visit to Margaret Mitchell's house inspired me to read this classic novel for the first time. Of course everyone is familiar with the movie starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh and the book does such a faithful job of emulating the movie that reading the book may seem somewhat redundant. However the experience is well worth the effort. If anything Scarlett is even more vain and shallow in her original incarnation. The trouble with the movie version is that Vivien Leigh is so beautiful that you cannot ever think the worst of Scarlett. In the novel we have no such illusions about Scarlett. Gone with the Wind stands as one of the most perceptive studies of human nature that the literary world has produced, ranking right up there with Jane Austen and Dostoyevsky at their best. Definitely one of the last of the classic novels of a golden age in literature.

I have converted this novel to MSReader format. It was not available in this format anywhere else on the net as far as I could find. If you want a copy you can download it here

Alain De Botton - Status Anxiety
Well written pop philosophy. Botton does a fairly good job of identifying the ills that plague the consciousness of our contemporary western society, devoid of spirituality and dependant on materialism to provide a sense of self worth. However most readers will probably feel somewhat dissatisfied with Botton's feeble efforts to provide a solution by proposing his favorite intellectual pursuits as a panacea for the worlds misery. One thing in its favor is that it is a very quick read.

Dan Brown - The Da Vinci Code
I do not indulge in that much current fiction any more but occasionally I make an impulse buy. This novel is really just a rehash of some fairly old ideas, mostly from one book, "The Templar Revelation". Score a big fat zero for originality. If you take away the "borrowed" heretical ideas then you are left with a fairly ordinary chase and puzzle book. Still, anything that contributes to the great unwashed masses questioning religious dogma is a good thing, IMHO.

Kurt Vonnegut - Sirens of Titan
Vonnegut's second novel. One of America's great masters of irony, Vonnegut's novels generally masquerade as pulp science fiction, although it is important to remember that they are drawn from an era that championed SF as the next great literary form. Vonnegut is by necessity compelled to revert to this genre as his lifelong fascination with the concept of time as a philosophical question is starting to emerge as a major theme in this early novel. Brilliant, funny, clever and thought provoking as it is, this is not Vonnegut's best. If you are new to Vonnegut you should read Cat's Cradle or the seminal Slaughterhouse 5.

Gore Vidal - The Last Empire / Dreaming War
Two separate books, but really this is one collection of essays. I find it utterly fascinating to read Americans commenting on America from the relative safety of my insignificant antipodean colony. Vidal has the distinction of being a strange combination of America's most vehement critic and it's most sentimental nostalgist. The Last Empire encompasses diverse topics such as the execution of the Oklahoma city bomber, Timothy McVeigh, to an even greater mass murderer, Harry S. Truman who dropped two atomic bombs on Japan at the end of the second world war long after Japan had capitulated. Dreaming War is focused on essays detailing the the Bush/Cheney oil interests and how the current invasion of Iraq is fundamentally driven by corporate power. Vidal is always compelling, a truly gifted writer who uses his clarity of observation to cloud the reader's ability to discern the frequent flaws in his argument (a skill that I aspire to achieve!).

Noam Chomsky - Understanding Power / Hegemony or survival
Once again two separate books, but really the same themes throughout. I find it very hard to comment on Chomsky. There is no question of his perceptiveness and his incredibly vast knowledge of supporting facts, that he seems to be able to recall at will. Like a skilled lawyer he paints a vision of events through an overwhelming deluge of evidence, carefully construed so as to lend credence to his political agenda. Chomsky demands that we consume him in entirety. There is such a interdependency of his ideas on power, media, politics and history that to reject any of his theories is to destabilize the others. To make a very incongruous comparison imagine that Chomsky is the polar opposite to the late historian Stephen Ambrose. Both distort history by selectively stringing a trail of 'pivotal moments' as defining the soul of the American experience. Naturally the window through which we view history can present vastly differing conclusions, in Ambrose's case this is the enduring glory of America, in Chomsky's case this is global devastation (now evolved from nuclear to ecological). Although I tend to think that Chomsky is probably overwhelmingly correct in his assessment of how power operates, the only solution he offers is violent protest and anarchy, which Chomsky himself admits tends to give the powerful an even greater excuse to erode our freedoms. At no point in time can Chomsky bring himself to suggest that change is possible through working within the systems he despises. It was Chomsky's generation that created the shadow of doom that our generation has had to endure our entire existence. Forgive us if we have learned to be complacent.       

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