Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “greece”

ElCicco #CBR Review #39-40: Spies of the Balkans by Alan Furst and The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer

This week I kill two birds with one stone and review two novels set in WWII Europe: Spies of the Balkans by Alan Furst and The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer. My advice for both is “read at your own risk,” but not for the same reasons.

First — Spies of the Balkans. It promised to be an edge of your seat thriller. The setting is Salonika on the eve of the Nazi invasion. Our hero, Costa Zannis, is the handsome, 40-ish, single policeman who is very good at his job. He is devoted to his family (mother, grandmother, special needs brother) and knows his city like the back of his hand. He also has contacts amongst the seemier elements, the movers and shakers, and police types in neighboring countries, all of which will come in handy as Zannis becomes involved in helping smuggle Jews out of Europe via Greece and Constantinople.

How could I resist a story like that? How could someone make it dull and predictable?? I don’t know but Furst pulled it off. There were plenty of times that I thought to myself, “This is it! This is when the plans go awry and someone gets hurt or betrayed or disappears.” Nope. Everything turns out just fine. When the novel ends, the Nazis are just starting to bomb Salonika and there is a massive exodus from the city. And Furst could have ended his story with “And they all lived happily ever after.” It was just too easy. There wasn’t the sense of conflict and danger and loss that is necessarily a part of war, especially WWII. Moreover, there is almost nothing in this novel to set up the huge conflict that followed WWII in Greece — the Civil War. I think Alan Furst wrote this just so that he could check off “Balkans” from his list of places that he has covered in his writing. He wants it to be Casablanca, and there is a love story for Zannis, but even that is a pretty dull affair despite the fact that it’s with a married woman! Married to one of the most powerful men in Greece! Hey, no big deal though.

Bottom line — I wouldn’t waste my time with this novel. 1 star

Next up — a WWII story that has everything lacking in Furst’s — Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge. This novel you read at your own risk because it is so heartbreaking and tragic, although there is some happiness at the end.

The Invisible Bridge is the story of Hungarian Jews on the eve of and during WWII. It is a love story between an older woman and a younger man, and it is a story about art, dreams and hope, a story about family bonds broken and reforged. The story starts with Andras, a young architecture student, heading for Paris to study. I loved the parts about his friendships with other students at the school, and his involvement with the theater community in Paris. Paris is also where Andras becomes involved with an older woman, a ballet instructor who is also a Hungarian Jew with a mysterious past. I won’t go into detail too much because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who wants to read it, but I will say that Orringer spent many years investigating the fate of Hungarian Jews, and it shows in her work. I learned quite a bit about how Hungary was unique in its treatment of its Jewish population, although, as you might guess, that does not mean that the Jews fared much better for it in the end. Orringer also has a personal connection to her story, since some of it is based on the story of her own grandparents.

Maybe that is the crucial difference in these two novels — personal investment. Orringer is writing about her family, her people, and when you are writing about the Holocaust, you damn sure better get it right. Furst has no personal connection to his subject that I know of, and it feels like he went through a check list of what to put in his book without really sensing a true human connection between his characters, their environment and their history.

I recommend The Invisible Bridge, even though it is terribly sad in parts. Hang on for the end. It is worth it! 5 stars

ElCicco#CBR4Review#28: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles is the poignant, tragic love story of Achilles and Patroclus, and you need to read it this summer. Classics scholar Madeline Miller imagines the backstory of two characters made famous in Homer’s Iliad — Achilles, Greece’s greatest warrior and Aristos Achaion (“best of the Greeks”), and Patroclus, his closest friend and, as some scholars speculate, his lover. The Iliad doesn’t provide much of Achilles’ personal history and virtually nothing of Patroclus’, but Miller’s vibrant imagination and her knowledge and devotion to the classics allows her to create a beautiful story of two young men coming together as friends and then lovers against a backdrop of war.

Patroclus serves as narrator, giving his background and how he came to meet Achilles. Patroclus was a prince of limited skill and ability (based on warrior skills, which were vitally important to Greeks). His father, king of one of the many Greek city states, found him to be a disappointment and when Patroclus accidentally killed another boy, he was exiled from the kingdom to keep peace with powerful noble families. Patroclus ends up bound over to Peleus, father of Achilles, known for his excellence in battle and fairness with his people. Peleus takes in many boys as foster children to train to serve as his soldiers. Initially aloof, Patroclus attracts the attention of Achilles — a truly “golden boy” whom all the others try to impress. Achilles’ mother Thetis is a sea nymph, and prophecy says her child is destined to become the greatest warrior the Greeks have ever known. Achilles possesses god-like skills even as a child, and while aware of his own amazing talents, he can be kind and down to earth, especially with Patroclus. Everyone is surprised (including Patroclus) when Achilles names this quiet and undistinguished boy his therapon, a “brother-in-arms sworn to a prince by blood oaths and love.” The therapon has great prestige as one of the prince’s closest advisers and a member of his honor guard.

Patroclus was initially jealous of Achilles but soon became enthralled by his beauty, his ability to sing and play the lyre, his physical prowess.  Achilles treats Patroclus as an equal and with respect. The two boys’ love for each other grows with time and becomes a mature adult relationship that they must hide from their peers. The Greeks accepted homosexuality only between a man and a slave or boy, and it was expected that the man would still have a wife and have heirs. It was not acceptable for two men of similar class to have such a relationship. Thetis is especially repulsed by it (although she finds all mortals repulsive, including her own husband Peleus who raped her at the gods’ urging) and tries unsuccessfully to keep the two apart. Thetis’ focus is on making sure that Achilles fulfills his destiny and wins greatness and honor, and she will let nothing get in the way. Achilles, however, does not back down before his mother or popular convention. His love and devotion to Patroclus are strong and true.

The tragedy, as we know from the Iliad, is that fate has decreed that Achilles will die after achieving glory and renown for defeating the Trojan hero Hector. Achilles, Patroclus and Thetis all know of this prophecy, and the knowledge of impending death brings a special poignancy to Achilles’ and Patroclus’ relationship. Achilles desires fame and glory but he does not want to be parted from his love. It is Achilles’ hubris, however, his arrogance about his own reputation and worth, that ultimately leads to tragedy for the Greeks, Patroclus and himself.

Knowing how this will end does not diminish the power of the story, and Miller’s imagining of Patroclus’ activities during the Trojan War is brilliant. Despite the fact that he avoids battle, he becomes “best of the Myrmidons” (Achilles’ men) by saving lives as a healer and by saving women of the conquered tribes, in particular Briseis, who becomes his devoted friend. Patroclus also saves Achilles’ reputation at great personal risk at a critical point in the war.

It’s pretty risky to take a classic of world literature and try to build upon it, but Miller succeeds and creates a beautiful story of friendship and love that never dies.

The enhanced edition for iPad, Kindle Fire, etc. includes audio recordings of chapters; links to descriptions of the characters (plus gods, goddesses) with cartoon pictures of them and biographical information; information on ships and armor/weapons; and video clips of Gregory Maguire (author of Wicked) interviewing Miller on a variety of topics.

Kemp Ridley’s #CBR4 Review #10: Persian Fire by Tom Holland

I’ve been reading about the Roman Empire a lot lately (as well as listening to Mike Duncan’s superb podcast, The History of Rome) and the Persians pop up over and over again.  In the Roman context they are, of course, antagonists, serving either as a punching bag for an ascendant emperor or as yet another group of assholes piling on the already beleaguered legions.  I didn’t know much about the Persians, and wanted to get a parallax view.  This book popped up on the “recommended” list on my Nook, so I figured what the hell.

Persian Fire focuses on Persia’s two attempted invasions of Greece.  With that being said, the actual invasions don’t occur until pretty late in the book.  Holland first chronicles the rise of the Persian empire, taking the Persians from a subject people of the Medes to a dominant, seemingly unstoppable superpower under the emperors Darius and Xerxes.  He delves not just into the convoluted political machinations of the early Persian empire, but also into the Persians’ culture and religion, portraying them as a real, vibrant society rather than just a collection of dates and dusty-ass artifacts.

The Greeks, especially Sparta and Athens, get a similar treatment.  Sparta rises from a wannabe whose attempts at expansion are snuffed by humiliating beatdowns to being, well, Sparta.  The Athenians indulge in a head-spinning number of betrayals, double-crosses, triple-crosses and purges, not to mention their own series of catastrophic military defeats, before finally deciding that the best way to become bad ass is to ignore (and, eventually, exile) the oligarchs and put power in the hands of the people.

Holland, who was, I believe, a novelist before he turned to nonfiction, is excellent at being factually dense while still keeping things moving.  In spite of the dizzying number of names, political factions, and especially the ever-shifting web of alliances within Athens, I never got bogged down.  The descriptions of the battles of Marathon, Thermopylae and Salamis are brisk and evocative.

He also does a nice job of showing how little cultural differences can have big effects.  The Spartans, unlike other Greeks, wore their hair long, and they liked to dress in snappy red cloaks; the Persians thought long hair was for sissies, and associated the color red with senseless hedonism.  When Spartan envoys warned the Persians to stay out of Greece, the Persians were, to put it mildly, less than intimidated.

On the other hand, the Persians had a love of false beards, cosmetics and platform shoes, and wore pants, which the Greeks considered unmanly attire.  It took the crushing of the Greeks’ Ionian colonies before they woke up to the scale of the Persian threat and began to think that maybe fighting amongst themselves wasn’t such a good idea.

While this book wasn’t what I was originally looking for – it’s just as much about the Greeks and the crystallization of the Peloponnesian League and the Delian League as it is about the Persians – I enjoyed the hell out of it.  It’s fascinating, it moves quickly enough to obscure how many facts it contains, and Holland is smart enough to realize that the subject matter speaks for itself.  He doesn’t need to build up a lot of melodrama around the sacrifice of the three hundred Spartans or the Athenian victory at Marathon.  Great history speaks for itself, and Holland deserves major praise for getting the hell out of the way and letting it do so.


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