Friday, 21 September 2012

Something for the weekend - Song of Achilles

I started reading Song of Achilles in anticipation of the event we had with Madeline Miller at the beginning of the month. It's been a while since I read a book that stayed with me after I'd finished it; the kind of  book you want to finish, to find out what happens, but that you also want to go on forever.

I have not read the Iliad, but this book has made me want to. Miller has taken Achilles's story from the Iliad and his glory at the siege of Troy as her starting point for the novel and worked back to his childhood to see how he might have become the great hero of Troy he is destined to become. She has made Achilles's companion, Patroclus the main focus for the book; if Patroclus doesn't see something, we don't see it. Patroclus was born a prince but exiled from his kingdom after accidentally killing another boy and it is after his exile, when he is sent to live with Achilles's father, Peleus, that their relationship starts to bloom.

There have been many debates about the nature of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. In the Iliad, it appears to be the model of a deep and loyal friendship; in 5th Century BC Athens the relationship was seen as an example of the socially accepted relationship between an older man and a younger man; Plato's characters in The Symposium assume they were a couple. It is this last view that Miller has taken and in so doing, created a really touching love story about 2 people who are completely devoted to each other. They are together all through their teens (at first platonically and then sexually) and throughout the 10 years they are at Troy, fighting to get Helen back from Paris.

I enjoyed the tragic elements of the story - there's something very romantic about a doomed love story. It is prophesied quite early in the book that Achilles will die at Troy, despite being the best warrior in all of Greece (helped by being half-God). Therefore they know that the longer they are at Troy, the longer they have together. I liked seeing the changes in their relationship as Achilles starts to realise his destiny. Patroclus has seen him practice fighting before, but this is the first time they both realise how good Achilles is at killing. Patroclus, on the other hand, turns his hand to healing and it seems like they begin to drift apart because of their opposite roles. They do both try to do the right thing, though, in a difficult situation, like saving various girls who have been taken from the local villages from the other warriors who would rape them, instead allowing them the freedom to be independent to choose a lover should they wish to. I found the relationship between Patroclus and the first of these women, Briseis, especially lovely. She falls in love with him but he cannot reciprocate as he is so devoted to Achilles (it would have been totally normal for him to marry a woman but continue to have a male lover). In The Iliad Briesis says Patroclus was 'always gentle' and Miller said this was a big part of her reason for wanting to write about him.

As I'm writing this review, I realise I'm finding it hard to articulate why I loved the book so much. Maybe that's my failure as a reviewer, or maybe that's part of a great book - you can't quite put your finger in why it's so great; it just is. You'll just have to read it for yourself!

Friday, 14 September 2012

Something for the weekend.. Telegraph Avenue

This weeks Something for the weekend is..

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon.

Michael Chabon's new one (out this week) is a lovely thing and I don't just mean to look at - that is a handsome cover though! (eyes left).
Telegraph Avenue is a terrific novel encompassing a dozen or so characters in & around the Berkeley/Oakland area in 2004. We are primarily concerned with Archy Stallings & Nat Jaffe, they run 'Brokeland Records' a 2nd hand vinyl shop specialising in Jazz, Soul & Funk. The existence of their beloved shop (& their friendship) is endangered by the possibility of a 'Dogpile' megastore opening up just round the corner. Alongside this central theme Chabon weaves the tales of the people affected by these two central characters, their Wives, their children, local politicians & Archy's wayward Father. The Father 'Luther Stallings' is a particular treat, a faded but still proud 70's Blaxploitation star now hawking round his idea for one final film staring his character 'Strutter' (a loving tribute to 'Shaft').
Though centred on a small community the book is broad in scope & ambition. The many plot strands involve class, race, murder, sexuality, first love & mortality. Never dull, Chabon is a master of mixing the deadly serious with the frivolous. There's barely a wasted word - he really is a superb writer. I found myself re-reading paragraphs & pages just to enjoy them again immediately. He's the kind of writer (similar to Jonathan Lethem) whose creations are so lifelike you forget they are fictional; I'm thinking of Strutter from this book & Barrett Rude JR from Lethem's 'Fortress of Solitude'.
Finally if you love your music (& not necessarily Jazz, Soul & Funk) you're going to devour this, Chabon's own passion for music seeps through every page.

Now I must read Kavalier & Clay as I'm often informed that is Chabon's best; better than this? I can't wait.


Friday, 7 September 2012

Something for the Weekend: A Handful of Dust

Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust, though published in 1934, reminded me strangely of Robert Rodriguez's 1996 film From Dusk Till Dawn. Although there is significantly less violence in the former, the sudden change in the plot was as shocking as the moment in Rodriguez's masterpiece when Salma Hayek transforms into a vampire. In both cases there is little warning of the coming plot twist that is so dramatic it is closer to a leap across genres.

However, just as I love From Dusk Till Dawn, and not just because of George Clooney, I loved A Handful of Dust despite its bewildering narrative arch. The story of a marriage on the brink of dissolution is beautifully, though heart-breakingly, portrayed as each character gradually loses faith in their relationships. The sense of loss that runs through the book only deepens the affection you feel for the character of Tony, a man who seems completely unable to control his own destiny, just as he is unable to control his own wife. The coldness and cruelty of the high society in which Tony and his wife Brenda mingle is not unlike that of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, both presenting environments where everyone knows everyone elses business. Waugh's style presents this brilliantly as dialogue transports you between social circles effortlessly, as if you were travelling through the very dinner parties that Tony is forced to endure. From the very start, Waugh allows you to feel as if all the characters are old friends whom you know well and slightly disapprove of.

Though shocking and bewildering in places, Waugh is an author whom I would return to again and again.


Thursday, 6 September 2012

Madeline Miller event

We were extremely pleased when Bloomsbury approached us and said that Madeline Miller was going to be in the UK for a few days and wanted to do some events while she was here. Quite a few of us in the shop have read her Orange Prize-winning debut novel, Song of Achilles, so there was a real buzz amongst the staff.

We attracted a really engaged, passionate audience to the event on Tuesday 4th, which was perfect, because the part of events Madeline especially enjoys is the Q & A part. It was clear from the questions that people had read and really enjoyed the novel. There were a couple of people who had read the book as part of their book groups and it seems to have prompted some excellent debates.

It was really great to be able to listen to a new author talk about her process of writing. She is a teacher and gets so involved with her students during the working week/ term, that she only writes on weekends and in holidays. She is clearly really passionate about Classics and it is brilliant that she has made The Iliad accessible to a new audience. She was inspired to write the story from a minor character’s point of view after reading of Achilles’s reaction to Patroclus’s death in Homer – why was Achilles so distraught to lose a friend? The result is a moving, funny, easy to read novel about love as well as war.