By Andrea BarrettNorton, 270 pages, $24.95
By Susan MinotKnopf, 128 pages, $18.00
By Helen DunmoreGrove Press, 294 pages, $24.00
By Jonathan DeeDoubleday, 388 pages, $24.95
By Ved MehtaThunder's Mouth Press/Nation Books, 355 pages, $24.95
By Evan S. ConnellCounterpoint, 470 pages, $28.00
By Elizabeth CookPicador USA, 128 pages, $16.00
by Elizabeth Cook
Picador USA, 128 pages, $16.00
Elizabeth Cook's reinterpretation of the Iliad demonstrates that epic verse has yet to exhaust its ability to assume new and surprising shapes. This poetic masterpiece, a psychologically acute portrait of the Homeric hero Achilles, begins by depicting him in Hell, jealously yearning for the physical satisfactions that the living take for granted.
This is what happens when you are dead:
You know the living are up there, driving your horses, ploughing your fields, handling your bowls. Eating. The living are always eating; their tongues fossicking among the bones.
A trendy and unimaginative approach to the Iliad would be to resurrect Achilles in a contemporary setting, perhaps as an inner-city cop seeking vengeance for his partner's death. Cook is more innovative; she preserves the otherworldly preoccupations of the Homeric world—mortals resent the tedium of Hades and make love to sea nymphs, while a goddess wrestles with her desire for solitude—but imbues this antiquated material with a post-Freudian emotional sensibility, focusing more on the nuances of individual motivation than on the grandeur of the action. Thus her warriors are remarkably sensitive souls, attuned to the exquisiteness of human feeling. Patroclus, she suggests, "loves Achilles but not so much as he is loved" and is humbled by the knowledge "that he is less than Achilles even in this." Stylistically, Achilles is also unfailingly modern: swift, cinematic, sexually explicit, and ravishingly beautiful. Cook, a former university lecturer and Renaissance scholar, intensifies the lyrical weirdness of Greek mythology by emphasizing the ironic. Apples on Mount Pelion are so delectable that "no human there would choose a gold one," and Achilles' "sumptuous" hatred for Hector spreads "slowly, luxuriously, like cream."
A daring author—and Cook borders on the swashbuckling—is bound to hit the occasional false note. When Achilles lets out a loud war whoop, she jarringly writes that "the Trojans shit themselves." And her postmodern final chapter reads like an extended non sequitur, a lengthy meditation on John Keats's indebtedness to Achilles that is supposed to illustrate the Iliad's inspirational reach. The academic window dressing is unnecessary; Cook's stunning tale is proof enough that Achilles' story resonates through the ages.
The Aztec Treasure House
by Evan S. Connell
Counterpoint, 470 pages, $28.00
Evan S. Connell's The Aztec Treasure House—comprising essays from his previous collections The White Lantern (1980) and A Long Desire (1979) along with two new pieces—is a book to lay up for gloomy afternoons or rainy evenings. In its pages an amateur scholar and accomplished writer—see his best-selling Custer biography, Son of the Morning Star (1984), and his celebrated novel Mrs. Bridge (1959)—lures us into eye-widening journeys down the rabbit holes and back alleys of history, legend, and humane learning. Like the Wedding Guest mesmerized by the Ancient Mariner, when Connell starts telling these tales of intellectual and geographical adventure, we cannot choose but hear.
What kind of tales, you ask? The oldest and the best. For instance, Connell explores the origins of sunken Atlantis and of mysterious Mu, tracks the Norse discovery of America (including the possibility of a Viking-Indian battle in Minnesota), and outlines the medieval belief in Prester John, an all-powerful Christian emperor of the East. Other pages describe the quest for El Dorado, chronicle the search for the Missing Link and the reckless determination of Antarctic explorers, summarize the career of the alchemist Paracelsus, and trace the astonishing wanderings around the known world of the fourteenth-century traveler Ibn Batuta, who covered at least 75,000 miles in all. Here, too, are mini-accounts of the Rosetta stone and the Children's Crusade and the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde.
In short, The Aztec Treasure House is a twenty-part testament to the joy of finding things out. Connell would appear to have read widely around some tantalizing topic, jotted down reams of notes, and then condensed everything he had learned about, say, Etruscan civilization into a genial 7,000 words. His prose is conversational, often addressing the reader directly; his path through a subject is rambling and easygoing. Yet he can evoke suspense with the flick of an adverb: "Present wisdom holds that the last unadulterated Neanderthal died 40,000 years ago. However, one April evening in 1907 some Russian explorers ..." He can be unexpectedly touching, too, as in this note on a civilization in the Indus Valley that flourished 4,000 years ago: "In the rubble of a little city called Chanhu-Daro an archaeologist noticed a brick with the print of a cat's paw slightly overlapped by the paw of a dog. These were not symbolic designs but actual prints left by the animals as they raced across a wet brick. And it was clear from the impress of the pads that both had been going full speed, the dog chasing the cat."
Of course, like any virtuoso, Connell sometimes lets out all the rhetorical stops, going for a baroque organ roll of prose poetry: "This was the time of a Dark Age in Greece, between the decay of Mycenaean civilization and the emergence of those wise marble Pericleans against whom we half-consciously measure ourselves. It was a time when that templed colossus, Egypt, was beginning to crumble. Assyrian armor glinted ominously. Phrygian trumpets bellowed. Phoenician traders drove westward, dipping their sails at Carthage and Tartessus. Fresh currents rippled the length of the Mediterranean." But don't worry: such grand flights are rare. Before long Connell is back poking fun at one of his obsessed antiquarians: "Soon he had become not only an expert on Akkadian cuneiform but had partly deciphered the Cypriot syllabary, which sounds just as exciting."
Actually, it does sound exciting. In the middle of some reflections on Kepler, Tycho Brahe, Galileo, and Newton, our storyteller writes, "Many remarkable things may be explained, but why we are so faintly instructed by the past does not seem to be among them." Yes—but if we had more books like The Aztec Treasure House, we would doubtless be more understanding of the human circus and more enthusiastic about studying its past. As the old maps used to promise, here be dragons.
All For Love
by Ved Mehta
Thunder's Mouth Press/Nation Books, 355 pages, $24.95
Despite that lush romance-novel title, Ved Mehta's account of his early love life proves to be an edgy, scrupulously frank tale of erotic misadventure. Commencing with the blind Indian-born author's arrival in 1960s New York after he lands a coveted job as a staff writer for The New Yorker, All for Love details Mehta's relationships with four women who seem to share a mission—tormenting him. The Jewish ballet dancer Gigi, the flighty Englishwoman Vanessa, his fellow Indian Lola, and the emotionally unstable Kilty all lure Mehta into periods of erotic intensity, only to dump him cruelly. Gigi, for instance, leaves him for an ex-lover after admitting that she could never commit to a non-Jew, and Vanessa chooses another man and devotion to the guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh over life with the author. Before long the reader might well wonder if Mehta isn't something of a glutton for punishment in his choice of lovers.
This would make for gloomy reading if it weren't for Mehta's wonderfully self-lacerating style and his gentlemanly refusal to blame these troubled women for his heartaches. Lola, who winds up running a chain of Denim Depot clothes stores in India, would have been an easy figure to ridicule, but Mehta instead depicts a confused, vibrant soul unwilling to lead the life of a writer's companion. Rather than taking revenge, the author turns his focus inward, admitting that what these women shared was not sadism but the illusory belief that Mehta's blindness would allow him to look beneath their skin and see some better selves within them. He is reluctantly helped toward this insight during a course of psychotherapy with the fractious, cigar-chomping Dr. Bak, who brutally reminds Mehta that "to love somebody the way you did, without regard for your own well-being, is a way of avoiding being loved." Although these therapy sessions, with their occasional lapses into Freudian banality, may lack the dramatic sparkle of the book's earlier sections, they do provide a fitting coda to Mehta's most unsentimental education.
by Jonathan Dee
Doubleday, 388 pages, $24.95