Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Golden Mean

I have been in a novel phase over the past couple weeks, but that's usually what happens over summer. Perhaps it's an old habit from school. All year we read our textbooks, learning about biology, history, and mathematics, so when the long anticipated summer finally arrives, and we have a choice in what we read, we jump at the opportunity to indulge in compelling stories, wondrous hero's, and intriguing protagonists. Which brings me to this weeks book, The Golden Mean, by Canadian author Annabel Lyon. Again, I discovered this weeks book resting on the bestseller shelf, but it was not the the awards plastered to the front cover that caught my attention, it was the cover itself. The picture is of a young man draped across the back of a white horse, as they walk through the water. I have never felt a particular attachment to a picture, painting, or work of art, but I unabashedly fell in love with this picture, and I wanted to know the story behind it. Within the pages of The Golden Mean the dusty dead are resurrected. Annabel Lyon brings Aristotle, flawed and brilliant and, unexpectedly, human, back into the world. It is an exhilarating reminder that we are not very far from history.

On the orders of his boyhood friend, now King Philip of Macedon, Aristotle postpones his dreams of succeeding Plato as leader of the Academy in Athens, and reluctantly arrives in the Macedonian capital of Pella to tutor the king’s adolescent sons. An early illness has left one sons with the intellect of a child; the other, who will become Alexander the Great, is destined for glory, but struggles between a keen mind that craves instruction and the pressures of a society that demands his prowess as a soldier. Initially Aristotle hopes for a short stay in what he considers the brutal backwater of his childhood. But, as a man of relentless curiosity and reason, Aristotle warms to the challenge of instructing his young charges, particularly Alexander, in whom he recognizes a kindred spirit, an engaged, questioning mind coupled with a unique sense of position and destiny.

Over the next six years, the worlds of this man and boy collide, combine, oppose, and complement each other. Aristotle struggles to match his ideas against the warrior culture that is Alexander’s birthrigh
t, so elegantly highlighting the plight of a lonely thinker in a world that prizes soldiers. He feels that teaching this startling, charming, sometimes horrifying boy is a desperate necessity. And that what the boy, thrown before his time onto his father’s battlefields, needs most is to learn the golden mean, that elusive balance between extremes that Aristotle hopes will mitigate the boy’s will to conquer.

Aristotle wrote much about happiness, but if we are to believe Annabel Lyon, his own lessons were lost on himself. The Golden Mean shows us life through the great philosopher's eyes, and the view is largely cloudy. Cursed with both “a freakish brain” and a wit “as dry as mouse droppings,” this is a man for whom contentment exists only in the abstract.

Aristotle’s narrative expands to include brief, delightfully realized diversions into history, biology, science, literature, medicine, politics, and philosophy. The novel is full of vivid descriptions and impressive imagery, as in Aristotle’s description of the season’s first snow, which “comes whispering late one gray evening.... It seems to fall from nowhere, bits of pure colorlessness peeled off from the sky and drifting down, thicker now.”

I love the concept of this book, however the outcome for me personally, was somewhat disappointing. I was not expecting a grand and over exaggerated tale of love, war, and relationships, but I found the story to be quite bland. Perhaps it is because I do not have a lot of knowledge when it comes to this era, but I found the story hard to follow and lacking in personality. For me, the book read more as a footnote to a history and geography already known, rather than as a story that could stand on its own.

If you decide to read this book, I would suggest taking the time to do bits a of research as you come across things you are unfamiliar with. This book had great reviews, and I fear that because I did not take the time to learn more about the people, geography, and general history, I may not have understood, or recognized some of the story and relationships. Besides, even if research doesn't help you understand the novel, at least you will be a little bit more educated about ancient Greece than you are now, and a little more knowledge in any area never did anyone harm. 

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