Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Review of Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The obsession with Greek myths has been a common theme for writers since Homer's "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" (800 BC) which was his accounting of four hundred years of oral history. From Virgil's "Aenid", in 20BC, that tells the legendary story of Aeneas, a Trojan who travelled to Italy, where he became the ancestor of the Romans, to David Malouf's Ransom, in 2009, which retells the story of the Iliad from books 16 to 24. No writer has not gone through a phase or an attempt at modernizing or retelling the Greek myths. There are even Egyptian authors who have been infatuated with these myths. Ali Salem's "The Comedy of Oedipus", transports Oedipus to Thebes. Tawfik Al-Hakim's "King Oedipus" islamasizes the Greek myth, by uniting the deities, and changes Oedipus question not of a particular oracle but to general divine revelation.

Miller is even more so obsessed because of her specialized education, having gotten both a BA, and an MA in Classics. Her retelling of Achilles is a success by far, not only is it her debut novel, but she has also earned the 2012 Orange Prize of Fiction with it. She does not modernize the setting like Mark Merlis' "An Arrow's Flight" which tells the story of the Trojan War and Pyrrhus, Achilles' son, by making him work as a go-go boy and hustler in the big city. Miller simply tells the story from the perspective of Achilles friend and lover Patroclus. Since, there is not much written about Patroclus, she is really able to flesh out his personality and create a unique viewpoint without having to deviate from the myth, since in fact there is much to support that Patroclus was in fact Achilles' lover.
Patroclus hence sets the mood, the tone, and seeing the world through his eyes is an unparalleled experience. Patroclus is so in love that he cannot see but the beauty, the divinity in Achilles (son of the Goddess Thetis and King Peleus of Phthia). There is a changing point in the book when Patroclus becomes disillusioned with Achilles, and defies him, and goes to Agamemnon to save Briseis (the Anatolian slave girl who has become in love with Patroclus). The second time was when Achilles refused Agamemnon's apology, and declined rejoining the war, costing the Greeks many lives. Patroclus reacted by joining the war in Achilles' place.
New York Times Mendelsohn's review is very critical of Miller's angle and sees that the love story is a deviation of the classic myth and that her tone creates a "swoony soft-porn prose". This seems harsh but he does make a valid point that her interpretation of sexuality is very modern and that is not necessarily consistent with Ancient Greece. Mendelsohn goes on to analyze the book, by explaining that the romance takes a disproportionate amount, and hence give less importance to Homer's main theme of "who we are, why we act and what remains of us after we die". I agree with Homer that "Song of Achilles" is mostly a love story, but she does manage to make the readers ask the important questions like what are honor and glory? Why do we fight and live? What is pride? Achilles knows that he will go his death in Troy. He still goes to achieve immortality, to become a legend.
The idea of defying the limits - conquering death? is it for his own glory? Or is it to test the limits of humanity?
The futility of education when it leads to murder. Chiron, the centaur, that educates Achilles and Patroclus in Mount Pelion, shows the paradox of that education being left behind to go off to war. "Bitterness of habit of boy after boy trained for music and medicine, and unleashed for murder".
The dichotomy of killing and being honorable "no hands ever so gentle- or so deadly" "There is no answer. Whichever you choose you are wrong.

Miller manages to ask why do we fight? What is a hero? What is Pride? "He's going to Troy to kill men, not rescue them" Thetis reminds Patroclus.  "Only cowards did not fight".  "Pride became us -heroes we never modest".

Only honor remains "a thousand ships have sailed for her". This is for Helen of Troy/Helen of Sparta, wife of King Menelaus, King of Sparta. She was kidnapped by Paris of Troy, and so for Sparta's honor the Greeks have joined Agamemnon (Menelaus' brother) to go to war to Troy to bring back Helen and regain their honor.

The writing is what I enjoyed the most, although Mendelsohn sees it as Judy Blumish. I think it flows quite well, and her focusing on the senses, the colors, the smells and light create a unique surrounding. "Brown as richest earth"; "tears that bled"; "honor darkened by it"; "musk of body"; "crushing lips to wine"; "drank light from the moon"; "as if all the morning's sun had been poured out of it"; "we are like damp wood that won't light".

A map would have been a lovely addition to the novel showing where Patroclus was born (Opus), and then the different kingdoms they travelled to or mentioned in the story (Sparta, Phthia, Mount Pelion, Scyros, Troy, Ithaca, Argos...)
The end is particularly satisfying, where both Patroclus and Achilles are dead. Only Patroclus' voice remains after he dies "I am air and thought and can do nothing". "I did not plan to live after he was gone".    

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Review "Ribbons & Heels" by Tarek Hassan Refaat

Part of modern day Egypt is the emergence of Egyptian authors who choose to write in English. Most of our most successful authors write in Arabic, and after achieving fame, their work is picked up and professionally translated.
However, there have always been Egyptian authors who wrote in English about the politics, history, and heritage through AUC Press ( Then, there were a handful of authors who wrote in English at award winning/literature levels such as Ahdaf Soueif and Waguih Ghali.
With more Egyptians identifying with English as their language of creativity, we find a wave of new and exciting authors in many differing genres. This has been enabled by the parallel emergence of new publishing houses willing to put a voice to these authors like Saray Publishing ( and Shabab Books ( The third possibility of publishing in English is through Amazon, and self-publishing. This is what authors like Amira Aly and Tarek Refaat have done.
Tarek Refaat’s "Ribbons and Heels" fits well into the Chick-Lit genre, it’s another take on modern day Cairene relationships. It reminded me of Inji Amr’s “To Each Her Own”, although hers was non-fiction. Inji had explained to me that her drive behind writing this book was that she felt that none of the books out in English represented who she or her friends were. Tarek Refaat goes on with that message and continues by adding to that painting that Inji had started. He helps readers understand the challenges that face modern day Cairene relationships, giving a voice to both the male and female characters.
"Ribbons and Heels" is Refaat's second novel, it was published February 2013. His first novel "Ruptured" (May 2011) is about a woman who was raped and the social/societal implications. This second novel is a much lighter theme, while still shedding light on society and family values. It’s an easy read, and at times I wish Refaat would prolong some of the dialogue which seems to end abruptly, because as the reader you want to get to know the characters more. The Chick-Lit genre is really shaping in Egypt, and finding both readership through books like "Ribbons and Heels" and viewership with movies ever since "Sahar El-layali" (2003) and recently with tv shows like "Hekayat Banat"(2012). Refaat does this genre well and is more successful than others of the same genre at Shabab books.
The four female characters meet for coffee, talk on their mobiles, go to work, discuss their families, all the while trying to work out their love lives. Each character is different, and has her different quirks, and one is easily pulled into their world and roots for the happy ending which the author happily hands over. All the characters live and work in Cairo, they are mostly upper class women, who have the means to lead successful independent lives. The issue of whether independence/freedom must be sacrificed in order to enter in a relationship is another of the themes, and is also happily resolved.
Overall an easy quick read with only a hundred pages, with a feel good ending.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Smurfs

The day came the Smurfs were sick of living in fear of Gargamel and his cat Azrael. His attacks were becoming more frequent; Azrael seemed to be more brutal and far reaching. The air had become thin. The Smurfs decided that they would walk arm in arm and sing around Gargamel's house non-stop, if they all went Azrael wouldn't know who to attack. The Smurfs would paralyze them with their songs of peace, love and joy and convince them that life had to go on in Smurfland, the way they wanted.  There was the risk that Gargamel would have Azrael kill them or capture them all and put them in his cages yet this was a risk all Smurfs were willing to take.

The day came, their singing voices filled the air and reached the Sun, causing flowers to bloom, and winds to glide. Never had Smurfland seen such a march, they could be heard from every home. The Brotherhood Smurfs had borne the brunt and suffered tremendously under Gargamel and Azrael. Many of their Brothers were devoured, and many were still trapped in cages. They knew of the plan, but remained in their homes following obediently Papa Smurf's advice, fearing the consequences of open defiance of Gargamel and Azrael. Papa Smurf was the leader of the Brotherhood Smurfs and everyone obeyed his recommendations without question because he was the most knowledgeable and experienced. His counsel was to stay home that day and pray for those who had decided to risk their lives, explaining that survival is much more important than defying an impossible enemy.

The day chosen was Azrael's birthday, the Smurfs never thought that so many would show up, each Smurf had received his own invitation on Smurfbook, and meeting places were decided to start walking towards Gargamel's house. The numbers of Smurfs were so large that all the streets were blue. Singing at the top of their lungs from all corners of Smurfland, the land trembling from excitement, the birds astonished at having been outsung, the streets filled with all sorts of Smurfs. They believed in the strength of their song with all their hearts and souls, the world they live in would change with this song. They would make time move again.  It's not that they weren't scared, it's that they could no longer bear to live everyday with the same fear, same injustice, same inability to change one's fate. Somehow this day felt different. No one knew what would happen, Gargamel wouldn't fall or leave without a fight, his family had ruled over Smurfland for six decades. He wouldn't understand their song, or their message of peace. Instead of realizing that the clock had ticked and that his time had come, he unleashed Azrael to feast upon them. Smurfs stood strong, steady and sang with an unwillingness to retreat. Azrael's attacks were vicious scratching thousands of eyes, and feasting to an endless appetite. Faced with all this blood they became even more dedicated to their cause. They would find each other, regroup, hold hands, start singing louder and stronger, hoping this time their voice reached the Heavens, then maybe, their prayers would be answered. Gargamel was relentless. He tried all his magic spells, he even got eagles to fly down and scare them. Then, there was the stampede of squirrels that trampled over them; leaving them astonished at the capacity of brutality that Gargamel could achieve. Although many were now killed, trampled on, eaten, caged, their hopes and dreams remained larger than their fears and every lost life. Every hurt Smurf returned with bandages, and continued and their songs remained uninterrupted, and their purpose reinforced. Hope of a new better life was stronger than fear.

Papa Smurf was following what was happening, he could hear their songs, and their persistence had grown. He knew Gargamel was really old and maybe he was getting tired of this confrontation. He decided to tell all the Brotherhood Smurfs to go and join the songs at Gargamel's palace, it seemed like every home was there now. With all the Smurfs united creating a tidal wave from the bluest ocean, Azrael felt finally outnumbered and jumped from the window of the castle and ran into the forest. Gargamel feeling trapped without Azrael was forced to succumb to the Smurfs requests and escaped to his summer castle by the sea. Smurfland was to be headed by his family and his Godfather, Balthazar, until the Smurfs decided what to do next.  Balthazar promised that Gargamel and Azrael would never threaten them again. He promised that all Smurfs could rule themselves and hold elections. The Smurfs being of noble spirit accepted Balthazar's proposition and all the Smurfs went home to care for the injured, bury the dead, and recover from the trauma, trusting that Balthzar would take care of them and Smurfland.
Balthazar in reality despised the Smurfs and was actually more cold-hearted than Gargamel, in addition to being a more powerful sorcerer. The Smurfs soon realized their mistake and started marching and singing again, but this time the Brotherhood Smurfs decided not to join them. Papa Smurf continued to vow that Balthazar was a good  respectable family man, and advised all the Brotherhood to stay home. Balthazar used rats to attack, steal, and scare all the Smurfs in Smurfland, yet he convinced the Smurfs that these were attacks from enemies of Smurfland, and that he remained the grand protector of the land. Confusion hit Smurfland and the songs were now more dispersed, and less intense. But many Smurfs still believed and tried to reunite and sing together and force nature to acknowledge their song. However Balthazar was ruthless and would  stamp out each conglomeration with unhindered barbarism causing nothing but the smells of blood, doubt, fear, and despair to enter into the homes of Smurfland.
Papa Smurf met secretly with Balthzar, and after the first elections of the Smurfs Council, the hidden handshakes were soon revealed. The councils' members were all part of the Brotherhood Smurfs, and one Smurfette, because she was the only female who was a part of the Brotherhood Smurfs, and she was there only to guarantee that no other female Smurf would ever see the light of day.

It was time for presidential elections. Who would lead Smurfland after Gargamel? The top two contesters were Balthazar and Papa Smurf.  Papa Smurf and his family convinced everyone that they would protect Smurfland forever and that Gargamel's ways were gone. They won the elections only because it was against Balthazar. The first deception by Papa Smurf was that Balthazar was given a medal and allowed him to stay in Smurfland forever. And the Smurfs were tricked into believing that Papa Smurf would care for everyone not just his children. Yet the more time passed, the more the Smurfs realized that Papa Smurf was treating them worse than Gargamel. Although he looked like the Smurfs, in fact he only saw them as inferior and not capable of knowing their best interests. Papa Smurf preached, pointed and explained to them that he was wiser and must be trusted and left to do as he saw fit. But Smurfland didn't want a Papa, they wanted a President, who would share with them his power, and take their advice on how they wanted things to work in Smurfland. The more they disagreed with Papa, the angrier he got, he even decided to unleash Azrael's kittens on the most vocal Smurfs. More deaths, and more blood. Once again, confusion and despair filled every corner of Smurfland.

The despair that filled the air was heavy, how could this be the situation after such sacrifice? Hadn't they changed Smurfland forever with their song? Hadn't the sky brightened and the air lifted? Hadn't they inspired so many across the world to unite, sing and change their lives? Hadn't the wave of Smurfiness recharged the earth's blue?
Should they have united behind a leader of their own? Or wasn't it the Smurfiest that they had come together spontaneously, equally, driven to change their misery, and determined to accomplish their hopes and dreams without a leader?  Would they now despair? Would Smurfland ever be the place they all dreamed it to be?  Would it be the pillow where they lay their head? Would it be where their grandchildren always felt justice? Wasn't this their opportunity to change Smurfland forever? Hadn't they already changed it? Could things ever be as dark and suffocating as it was under Gargamel?

Suddenly the answers were clear. Smurfland had changed and all of the Smurfs had achieved that. No one could take that away. No one could reverse time. The Smurfs had learned that they were in charge of their destiny, this was immense power. This power would never be lost, would never be forgotten again. It was simple. Smurfland was theirs, they had claimed it, sacrificed for it, and the future was theirs. It was only a matter of time.