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The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon
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The Golden Mean (2009)

by Annabel Lyon

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Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: 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 son with the intellect of a child; the other is destined for greatness 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.

Aristotle struggles to match his ideas against the warrior culture that is Alexander’s birthright. 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 struggles to inspire balance in Alexander, and he finds he must also play a cat-and-mouse game of power and influence with Philip in order to manage his own ambitions.

As Alexander’s position as Philip’s heir strengthens and his victories on the battlefield mount, Aristotle’s attempts to instruct him are honored, but increasingly unheeded. And despite several troubling incidents on the field of battle, Alexander remains steadfast in his desire to further the reach of his empire to all known and unknown corners of the world, rendering the intellectual pursuits Aristotle offers increasingly irrelevant.

Exploring this fabled time and place, Annabel Lyon tells her story in the earthy, frank, and perceptive voice of Aristotle himself. With sensual and muscular prose, she explores how Aristotle’s genius touched the boy who would conquer the known world. And she reveals how we still live with the ghosts of both men.

My Review: I think this is up there in ambition of storytelling with The Song of Achilles, the five-star imaginative tour de force by Madeline Miller. Aristotle as narrator of his time spent in Pella? A good idea! Tutoring Alexander means getting to the heart of the legend that surrounds Alexander and vivifying him, dusting off the fustian and falderol accreted to his tale.

Here's Alexander speaking to Aristotle:
You who understand what a human mind can be, how can you bear it? I don't have the hundredth part of your mind and there are days when I think I'll go mad. I can feel it. Or hear it. It's more like hearing something creeping along the walls, just behind my head, getting closer and closer. A big insect, maybe a scorpion. A dry skittering, that's what madness sounds like to me.
Nice. Not a teenaged person speaking, and no I'm not retroactively applying 21st-century standards to Alexander, I'm fully aware that he was a powerful king's heir and a man before he was 17. But that's not my inner ear's problem with the passage.

It sounds like speechifying. It's not faux archaic, it's not arch or overwrought. It's just...speechy. Like a modern presidential speech to the jus' folks at a Town Hall. Aristotle, a man of immense intellect and unbounded curiosity, attempts to instill those qualities in Alexander's still-forming mind:
You must look for the mean between extremes, the point of balance. The point will differ from man to man. There is not a universal standard of virtue to cover all situations at all times. Context must be taken into account, specificity, what is best at a particular place and time.
Aristotle uses some pretty vulgar (in all senses of the word) subjects to pique the youth's questing intelligence's appetite for information. (If Alexander was alive now, he'd be a Google employee assigned to counter-hacking.)
My father explained to me once that human male sperm was a potent distillation of all the fluids in the body, and that when those fluids became warm and agitated they produced foam, just as in cooking or sea water. The fluid or foam passes from the brain into the spine, and from there through the veins along the kidneys, then via the testicles into the penis. In the womb, the secretion of the man and the secretion of the woman are mixed together, though the man experiences the pleasure in the process and the woman does not. Even so, it is healthy for a woman to have regular intercourse, to keep the womb moist, and to warm the blood.
In the end, the historical Alexander and the historical Aristotle are brighter figures for Lyon's spit-polish of their statues. It's a good book, and I won't read it again. I feel it's delivered its payload of meaning and philosophical pondering to me. Alexander sums up the experience of The Golden Mean quite well:
You and I can appreciate the glory of things. We walk to the very edge of things as everyone else knows and understands and experiences them, and then we walk the next step. We go places no one has ever been. That's who we are. That's who you've taught me to be.
I can't begin to tell you how tough it was for me to finish this five-star idea and rate it under four stars. I can't honestly push it higher, for the reasons I've given. It might seem to others a perfect five, which rating I can't give but can see how a reader with a more accepting nature would.

Watch this writer. This is a debut novel, following a story collection and a novella collection as well as some YA work. There is nothing in this book, either structural or aesthetic, that suggests to me a career of mediocre ~meh~ness. Fine, imaginitive writing will come forth from her pen. I haven't read the follow-on to this book, The Sweet Girl, about Aristotle's daughter. Happen that I will, with a deal of hope for excellence.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. ( )
1 vote richardderus | Sep 21, 2014 |
A book which really grew on me while reading, this tells the story of Aristotle's time at the court of his childhood friend Philip of Macedon at Pella. Initially employed to treat the king's elder, brain-damaged son, Aristotle is increasingly fascinated by Philip's younger boy: the smart, inscrutable and fragile Alexander. When Philip extends his job description to include tutoring Alexander, Aristotle finds himself set against a mind as thirsty for knowledge as his own, and as ruthless - but shaped of very different clay. By turns inspiring, poetic and strikingly vulgar, this is an odd book but one that really makes its mark.

Please see the full review on my blog here:
http://theidlewoman.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/the-golden-mean-annabel-lyon.html ( )
  Leander2010 | May 20, 2014 |
Needless to say, I didn't like this book much at all. The writing didn't add anything to the book, it didn't keep me interested. The amount of profanity in the book ruined the natural flow of the story. It wasn't that necessary to begin with, but this book seemed to use it in excess.

I didn't like the characterization, I found them to be flat, and didn't develop much during the book, particularly, Aristotle. Overall it was a very frustrating read for me. So much, that I've found it hard to write a full review for the book.

To sum it up, this was not my book, and I doubt I'll read the next book, Sweet Girl, which I had planned to read as part of my reading of the Giller long list for 2012.

Also on my book review blog Jules' Book Reviews - The Golden Mean ( )
  bookwormjules | Nov 3, 2012 |
A novel about Aristotle arriving to Pella and being asked to stay to tutor feral Alexander. ( )
  mari_reads | Sep 9, 2012 |
Showing 1-5 of 24 (next | show all)
The novel is deep and rich in thought and accomplishment, yet it reads with the calming ease and influence of a cool summer breeze.
added by Shortride | editQuill & Quire
 

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Epigraph
It must be borne in mind that my design is not to write histories, but lives. And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men; sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their characters and inclinations, than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles whatsoever.

Plutarch, Alexander
translated by John Dryden
Dedication
For my parents,
my children,
and Bryant.
First words
The rain falls in black cords, lashing my animals, my men, and my Wife, Pythias, who last night lay with her legs spread while I took notes on the mouth of her sex, who weeps silent tears of exhaustion now, on this tenth day of our journey.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0307356205, Hardcover)

Amazon Best of the Month, September 2010: In mathematics, the principle of the Golden Mean refers to a series of numbers in which each new number is the sum of the previous two, poetically illustrated by the chambers of a nautilus shell. And so Annabel Lyon’s debut novel The Golden Mean portrays lives that grow bigger as they unfold--in this case, two of the most notable lives ever lived, those of Alexander the Great and his tutor, Aristotle. In sharply executed, revealing dialogue, Lyon draws contrasts between the rational, sensitive Aristotle and the charming, dangerous Alexander, and we're reminded of another sense of the Golden Mean, the classical ideal of a balance between extremes. In this subtle, earthy story, we watch as the events of Aristotle’s life mold the ideas that made him famous, and watch those ideas in turn mold the prince of Macedon who would one day "open his mouth and swallow the whole world." Lyon draws the curtain back on the smoke-filled huts and palace chambers that shaped the lives of these two great men, whose mutual admiration and intellect transformed civilization. It’s historical fiction at its finest. --Juliet Disparte

Hilary Mantel Reviews The Golden Mean

Hilary Mantel is the author of ten novels, including A Change of Climate, A Place of Greater Safety, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, and the Man Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall. She has also written a memoir, Giving Up the Ghost. Winner of the Hawthornden Prize, she reviews for The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, and the London Review of Books. She lives in England. Read her review of The Golden Mean:

I think this quietly ambitious and beautifully achieved novel is one of the most convincing historical novels I have ever read. Lyon makes her reader avid for every detail of this strange world, whether domestic or medical or military, and she has steeped herself in the thinking of the time. She makes her characters entirely solid and real, while respecting their otherness, the distance between us. That is what characterized Mary Renault's novels, and I think that she would have deeply admired this book. There is a particular difficulty for the novelist in putting on the page characters, like Aristotle and Alexander, who are so famous that they have a mythic quality--there is the danger that anything you say will be bathetic. Lyon avoids this by clear-eyed directness, by freshness of vision, and prose that is clean and careful. And I thought that she chose to end the story at precisely the right point. Part of me said "please let there be more," but at the same time I recognize the job is done. Throughout, I think her judgment is sound and true, and the reader trusts her voice from the first paragraph.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:43:51 -0400)

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Aristotle must postpone his dream of succeeding Plato at the Academy in Athens when he is forced to tutor Alexander, a prince of Macedon. Aristotle's resentment at his situation is soon overcome by the boy's intellectual potential and his capacity for surprise.… (more)

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