The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Description:

The legend begins…

Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia to be raised in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles. “The best of all the Greeks”—strong, beautiful, and the child of a goddess—Achilles is everything the shamed Patroclus is not. Yet despite their differences, the boys become steadfast companions. Their bond deepens as they grow into young men and become skilled in the arts of war and medicine—much to the displeasure and the fury of Achilles’ mother, Thetis, a cruel sea goddess with a hatred of mortals.

When word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, the men of Greece, bound by blood and oath, must lay siege to Troy in her name. Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause, and torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows. Little do they know that the Fates will test them both as never before and demand a terrible sacrifice.

Built on the groundwork of the Iliad, Madeline Miller’s page-turning, profoundly moving, and blisteringly paced retelling of the epic Trojan War marks the launch of a dazzling career.

(flap copy)

First Sentence:

My father was a king and the son of kings.

While the Iliad covers just a short period of time in the last year of the Trojan War, this novel begins with the childhood of Patroclus, Achilles’ companion who appears a few times in the epic before becoming the reason Achilles finally re-enters the fighting. (I’d say sorry for the spoilers, but can you spoil the ending of something that’s been out for a couple millenia?)

Patroclus narrates the story, from his exile through his growing relationship with young Achilles, right on up to and beyond his death on the Trojan battlefield. About halfway through the book, I began wondering how the ending was going to be handled. The answer is: beautifully. Patroclus remains our window to the action, underscoring just how horrific all of it really is.

Since the story draws on Homer’s Iliad, there is quite a lot of violence, but it is not glorified. Patroclus is a sensitive boy in a world that only celebrates the most masculine of men. His slow realization of who Achilles is (to the rest of the world) is heartbreaking. After reading the Iliad, with its description of battle after battle, reading this novel brought it all back down to the human level.


Source: My actual, physical TBR shelf. I think I picked it up for free somewhere.

Challenges: Official TBR Pile Challenge; Mount TBR; and Read Harder 2022: Either #3 (Read any book from the Women’s Prize shortlist/longlist/winner list) or #21 (Read a queer retelling of a classic of the canon, fairytale, folklore, or myth), depending on whether I get to a couple of other books before the end of the year.

The Iliad: A New Translation by Caroline Alexander

The Iliad: A New Translation by Caroline Alexander by Homer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Description (from back cover copy):

Composed around 730 B.C., Homer’s Iliad recounts the events of a few momentous weeks in the protracted ten-year war between the invading Achaeans, or Greeks, and the Trojans in their besieged city of Ilion. And, as told by Homer, this ancient tale of a particular Bronze Age conflict becomes a sublime and sweeping evocation of the destruction of war throughout the ages.

Carved close to the original Greek, acclaimed classicist Caroline Alexander’s new translation is swift and lean, with the driving cadence of its source—a translation epic in scale and yet devastating in its precision and power.

First Sentence:

Wrath – sing, goddess, of the ruinous wrath of Peleus’ son Achilles
that inflicted woes without number upon the Achaeans,
hurled forth to Hades many strong souls of warriors
and rendered their bodies prey for the dogs,
for all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished;
sing from when they two first stood in conflict —
Atreus’ son, lord of men, and godlike Achilles.

Homer’s Illiad is a Classic-with-a-Capital-C. I think I must have read some of it as part of a comparative literature course in college, but I don’t remember it at all, so aside from vague recollections of Greek mythology and a middle school play about the Trojan War (mostly memorable for a joke that none of us understood at the time), I came to it without any background.

I really appreciated Arnold’s introduction, which went over what is known about Homer and the Epic Cycle, as well as the historical setting and the major players in the drama. The map and family trees provided were a helpful reference – for some reason, I had particular difficulty remembering that Alexandros is Paris, and who was related to whom on which side of the war.

War is the center of this poem, and it is not pretty. There is chapter after chapter of This-Guy-Son-of-That-Guy-Brother-of-This-Other-Guy-King-of-That-Land slew That-Guy-Son-of-This-Guy-Nephew-of-That-Other-Guy-Ruler-of-Such-and-Such-People in graphic ways that emphasize the absolute brutality of battle (even if the grasp of anatomy is questionable). And there are lots of animal sacrifices described in detail.

The sacrifices are meant to keep the favor of the gods, who are busy squabbling amongst themselves on Olympus. That both sides are performing sacrifices and praying to the same fickle gods is also a factor, it seems.

The last few chapters, in which Achilles is finally prodded out of his truly epic sulk and joins in the fighting, take the stakes up a notch, but in the end, the war still hasn’t reached its conclusion. So much horrific bloodshed, and this is only a tiny portion of the Trojan War.

The Iliad is one of the books on my Classics Club list, which I have been neglecting. It’s one of the earliest works on my list, and an important text in Western Literature and History, but I suspect it’s never going to rank among my personal favorites.

Source: Purchased at The Last Bookshop, Los Angeles, February 2020

Challenges: Back to the Classics: Classic Set in a Place You’d Like to Visit (we’re going to assume visiting the modern-day site counts, since I don’t particularly wish to visit the last year of an epic war, thanks); Official TBR Pile Challenge; Mount TBR; and Classics Club.

An Empire of Ice: Scott, Shackleton, and the Heroic Age of Antarctic Science by Edward J. Larson

An Empire of Ice: Scott, Shackleton, and the Heroic Age of Antarctic Science
by Edward J. Larson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Book Description (via GoodReads):

Published to coincide with the centenary of the first expeditions to reach the South Pole, An Empire of Ice presents a fascinating new take on Antarctic exploration. Retold with added information, it’s the first book to place the famed voyages of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, his British rivals Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton, and others in a larger scientific, social, and geopolitical context.

Efficient, well prepared, and focused solely on the goal of getting to his destination and back, Amundsen has earned his place in history as the first to reach the South Pole. Scott, meanwhile, has been reduced in the public mind to a dashing incompetent who stands for little more than relentless perseverance in the face of inevitable defeat. An Empire of Ice offers a new perspective on the Antarctic expeditions of the early twentieth century by looking at the British efforts for what they actually were: massive scientific enterprises in which reaching the South Pole was but a spectacular sideshow. By focusing on the larger purpose, Edward Larson deepens our appreciation of the explorers’ achievements, shares little-known stories, and shows what the Heroic Age of Antarctic discovery was really about. 

First Line:

When I tell friends that I’m writing a book about the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration, they typically respond in one of two ways.

(Preface)

Larson won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in History for Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion, which is (of course) now part of my never-ending virtual TBR. I added this book to that list in April of 2011, making it – as of the first of this year – the oldest entry. Since the book published in May 2011, I suspect I ran across it while doing collection development for the library.

I picked up a physical copy at The Strand in NYC in January 2018 (for a Sherlockian gathering – I do spend a lot of time thinking about the Victorian era), along with a copy of Apsley Cherry-Garard’s The Worst Journey in the World. The latter is on my Classics Club list.

Larson is a historian, and this book came out of Yale University Press, so it’s no surprise that it is not a light read. It delves into details about the major British Antarctic expeditions – the Discovery (British National Antarctic Expedition 1901-04, under Commander R.F. Scott), the Nimrod (British Antarctic Expedition 1907-09, under E. Shackleton), and the Terra Nova (British Antarctic Expedition 1910-13, under Captain R.F. Scott) – and connects them to the broader history of Arctic and Antarctic exploration.

As Larson points out, there have been many works published about these voyages, but few focus on the scientific research that was a main focus of the expeditions at the time. Power struggles between the Royal Society and the Royal Geographical Society were a constant behind the scenes, affecting the structure, the crew selection, and the objective(s) of each mission. Larson looks at the lasting social, cultural, and scientific impacts of the Heroic Age, using each chapter to focus on the developments in a specific field (including biology, glaciology, and paleontology) over the broad time period, highlighting the ways earlier expeditions affected later ones on multiple fronts.

There is a lot of information packed into this book. I expect I’ll be revisiting it in future. I’m very happy that there is a nice index. I do wish there had been a full bibliography included, since I’m now combing through the notes to compile my own.

In 2018, Larson published To the Edges of the Earth: 1909, the Race for the Three Poles, and the Climax of the Age of Exploration. It’s also on my to-read list, naturally.

Source: Purchased at The Strand, NYC, in 2018

Challenges: Read Harder 2022: Read the book that’s been on your TBR the longest; Mount TBR 2022

Reading Challenges 2022

Oh, look. It’s January again.

I actually started this post in December, which might say something about how this is going already.

I’m signing up for four reading challenges this year, along with my ongoing Classics Club list, which is going to play a large part in three of the challenges.

My 2022 Reading Challenges:

  • Read Harder 2022: From the folks at Book Riot, this challenge (now in its 8th year) is “designed to help you break out of your reading bubble and expand your worldview through books.” I managed 22/24 tasks in 2021, largely thanks to a big push in December. Goal for 2022: spread the effort out a bit more.
  • Back to the Classics Challenge 2022: I’m so glad Karen at Books and Chocolate is hosting this again. After my showing of 0 tasks last year, there’s nowhere to go but up, right? I’ll be pulling from my Classics Club 2019-2023 list, which I’m still a teensy bit behind on.
  • Mount TBR Challenge 2022: Another one I completely dropped in 2021. One thing I did do last year, though, was purchase several of the books I want to read from my Classics Club list, which means they all count toward this goal. I also have at least half a shelf of books received when I was part of a mystery-of-the-month club that I would like to read and then probably donate to the library.
  • Official TBR Pile Challenge 2022: Adam at Roof Beam Reader has brought back the Official TBR Pile Challenge. Unlike Mount TBR, this one requires a list at the beginning of the year. My list has its own Official TBR Pile Challenge 2022 page.

I will once again be tracking the challenges using the post tags and using the pages linked under “Reading Challenges“.

How about you? Any goals for 2022?