Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Persian Boy by Mary Renault

(Book Review)

Two books in, and I regret to say that I'm finding Mary Renault's Alexander the Great trilogy to be boring.

And I say this with regret because I had been looking forward to this trilogy for several months.  Way back in December, I first noted that I had been hearing good things about Mary Renault's trilogy, and was planning on tracking it down the next time I was in the States.

Each trip to the States, I can only take a few books with me back to Asia.  (There's a weight limit on the suitcases, and books are heavy.)  But I went through the trouble of tracking down Mary Renault's trilogy, and lugging it with me all the way back to Asia.

And now, two books in, and to be honest I'm finding it boring.

But given how much praise there has been for this trilogy, I have to assume that the fault is mine and not the book's.  I  must just not be in the target audience for a book like this.  So take my opinion with a grain of salt.

After a bit of self-reflection, I've come up with 3 reasons why I'm probably not in the target audience for this book, and why the average reader might enjoy it a lot more than I did.

1). This book uses a lot of poetical literary language, and I tend to like straightforward prose. 

2). This book is essentially a love story, and I have a limited tolerance for love stories.

3). This is now my third time through Alexander the Great's story (after having read Valerio Massimo Manfredi's version and Philip Freeman's version).  If this had been my first time encountering his story, doubtless the sense of excitement would have been a lot greater.  But this time through I already know everything that is going to happen, and so I'm just slogging through the same journeys and the same conspiracies again.

So there you have it.  Another reader, free of these three prejudices, would probably enjoy this book a lot more than I did.

But that's not to say that I found this book a complete waste of time.  There were some interesting aspects.

This second book in the trilogy is written in the first person from the perspective of Bagoas the eunuch.
The historical Bagoas (W), mentioned briefly in both Freeman and Manfredi, was a eunuch of supposedly great beauty, who first served the Persian King Darius and then, after Darius's defeat, came to be part of Alexander the Great's entourage.  Although Alexander the Great's sexuality is still being hotly debated, the ancient sources left strong hints that they were lovers.

Mary Renault takes the view that they were definitely lovers.

(In my review of the previous book in this trilogy, I complained that Mary Renault only hinted at Alexander the Great's bi-sexuality, but stopped short of explicitly committing herself to any unambiguous portrayal.  However it appears I had spoken too soon.  There is absolutely no timidity in this book.  In The Persian Boy, Bagoas and Alexander the Great are unambiguously, explicitly, homosexual lovers.  So I have to retract my criticism from earlier.)

In my opinion, the choice of Bagoas as narrator has positive and negative effects. I'll start with the positives first. 
The more interesting result of having Bagoas as narrator means that the whole story is told from the Persian perspective.  The way the story of Alexander the Great is usually told (at least in Western Countries) is of the civilized of Alexander and his men invading strange exotic Persia.  (I'd be interested to know how Alexander the Great is taught in Iranian schools!)
However, in Mary Renault's version, with the Persian Bagoas as the narrator, this time it's Alexander and his men who are the strange exotic foreigners, and Persia which is the center of civilization.

Bagoas as the narrator also allows Mary Renault to highlight a different part of the history.  In Manfredi's trilogy, King Darius III is primarily represented as simply the antagonist to Alexander the Great, and the intrigues of the Persian court are all reported to the Greeks second hand.  In Mary Renault's version, in the first several chapters, Alexander and his conquests are only distant news and rumors.  The story centers on Bagoas, and his rise to favor with the Persian emperor Darius III.  We see, through the eyes of the Persian narrator, the great cities of Susa and Babylon, and the customs of the Babylonian temples.
Through the eyes of Bagoas we get a first hand account (fictionalized) of the Persian court, and for the first several chapters it is the intrigues of King Darius and Bessus (W) and  Nabarzanes (W) which take center stage.  Mary Renault, with her talent for creating three dimensional characters, gives interesting and vivid descriptions of each of these Persians.

Once King Darius dies, Bagoas comes into Alexander's camp, and the story shifts emphasis to the story of the Greek camp.  But Bagoas remains our narrator, and his status as an outside observer allows Mary Renault to have several passages of him observing and commenting on Macedonian culture.

Having Bagoas as narrator also allows Mary Renault's to streamline her story a bit.  When Mary Renault last wrote about Alexander, at the end of Fire from Heaven, Alexander had just ascended to the throne of Macedonia, and none of Alexander's conquests had taken place yet.  Before he even took possession of the Persian Empire, Alexander had to conquer Greece, Turkey, Tyre, Palestine, and Egypt.  (In Manfredi's trilogy, these conquests alone took up about a whole book.)  I was wondering how Mary Renault was going to cram all of Alexander's conquests into one book, but she does this by having Alexander's early conquests simply recounted as bits of news reaching the Bagoas at the Persian court.

But now I come with my complaints.
Shortly after meeting Alexander, Bagoas falls completely in love with him.  And then the whole rest of the story is essentially just one love story, in which almost all of Bagoas's narration is just him viewing each event in Alexander's life through the prism of how much he loves Alexander.   When Alexander does something brave or magnanimous, Bagoas tells us how much he loves Alexander.  When Alexander got sick or wounded, then Bagoas spends pages telling the reader how much he worried about Alexander, and everything he did to nurse Alexander back to health.
I tired of it quickly. But then (as I wrote above), that's just me.  I'm just not in the target audience for this type of book.   (For a contrasting opinion, check out just about all of the overwhelmingly positive reviews for this book at (A).)

On Mary Renault's Portrayal of Alexander the Great
I've previously praised Mary Renault's ability to write full three dimensional characters, but unfortunately the character of Alexander the Great himself appears to be an exception to this.  Mary Renault portrays Alesander as being too perfect to be true.  To be fair, Alexander does appears to have been a truly remarkable person, and someone who really did have several good qualities, but a more rounded portrayal would have perhaps been more interesting.

To her credit, Mary Renault at least takes the trouble to defend her portrayal in her afterward. She has adjusted many of the negative events in Alexander's life to portray him in a more positive light, but she had her reasons.  Many of the ancient sources on Alexander, she claims, were hopelessly biased by various political prejudices of the day, for example the Athenians had a grudge against the Macedonian King who conquered them.
"The favors of Fortune being conducive to hubris and nemesis, Alexander's story is bent that way by recourse to Athenian anti-Macedonian agitprop, written by men who never set eyes on him, and bearing just as much relation to objective truth as one would expect to find in a History of the Jewish People commissioned by Adolf Hitler." (Mary Renault, Afterward, p. 415)
Although I understand it's only an analogy, that reference to Adolf Hitler is a bit tasteless.  Mary Renault further shows herself to be tone-deaf one page later.
"As regards the ancient world, the political motives of these unconvincing attempts to show Alexander corrupted by success are clear enough.  More puzzling is a present-day outbreak of what one may call blackwashing, since it goes far beyond a one-sided interpretation of facts to their actual misrepresentation." (p. 416)
It's probably a legitimate debate whether or not Alexander really was corrupted by his success, but I don't think it's at all "puzzling" to explain why present-day attitudes have turned against Alexander.  After the horrors of World War I and World War II, of course modern attitudes towards an overly aggressive conqueror would be negative.

 Other Notes:
* Despite all my complaints, I'm still planning on continuing on with the 3rd book in Mary Renault's trilogy: Funeral Games.  The story of what happened to Alexander the Great's empire after he died seems like it has to make for a fascinating book, even if I'm not particularly enamored with Mary Renault's writing style.

* I've already linked to the Amazon review page for this book above, but it's worth mentioning again.  (A)  Although the reviews are overwhelmingly positive, a number of the reviewers mention they were resistant to a Bagoas story because they're such big supporters of Hephaestion.  Apparently among fans of Alexander the Great stories, there exists a division between "team Bagoas" and "team Hephaestion." Who knew?

* This book was pretty far ahead of its time when it was first published in 1972, and apparently (according to some reviewers on the Internet) it was banned in many libraries because of its frank portrayal of homosexuality.  So it gets one extra cool point for being a banned book.

* Add this book to my list of historical fiction books.

Link of the Day
The Long, Shameful History of American Terrorism 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Writing: Describe a Journey

(TESOL Worksheets--Writing)
PowerPoint (drive, slides, pub), Worksheet (drive, docs, pub)
[At the link above, and embedded below, are a power point presentation and a worksheet designed to prompt students to write about a journey to imaginary fantasy places.
The target language and general ideas for this writing are all adapted from English World 6, but in an effort to make the writing more interesting I changed the assignment from writing about a journey to Iceland to writing about an imaginary journey to a fantasy landscape.  The images are not mine but are taken from searches of Google Images]

Monday, April 27, 2015

Adverb Quiz

(TESOL Worksheets--Adverbs)
PowerPoint (drive, slides, pub), Printable sheets here (drive, docs, pub)
[At the Google Docs link above, and embedded below, is a PowerPoint presentation containing a series of pictures meant to elicit the adverbs: slowly, quickly, loudly, quietly.  4 pictures are also on a Microsoft word document.  I print out the Microsoft word documents, and paste the 4 pictures on each of the 4 walls around the room.  Then, the students are shown the various pictures, and have to decide which of the 4 adverbs these pictures represent.  They then run to that picture.
With the pictures on the Microsoft word document, I've also used them for a "swat" game. The students are in two teams.  One person from each team is given a fly swatter.  I call out one of the adverbs, and the students have to swat the corresponding picture.  The first person to hit the picture gets one point for their team.
This is designed for very young students who are beginners.  None of the images are mine, but all are taken from a search of google images.]

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Present Continuous for Future Arrangements: What is my schedule?

(TESOL Worksheets--Present Continuous for Future Arrangements)
PowerPoint (drive, slides, pub), Worksheet (drive, docs, pub)
[This is another activity which uses an invented schedule to illustrate the use of present continuous for future arrangements.  It's similar to the previous activity I posted, but in this activity I first show the students my own schedule on the powerpoint, and then they write down their own versions.  (The examples on the powerpoint are intentionally ridiculous in order to encourage students to be creative in making their own schedules.)  Afterwards, I collect the students' schedules, and divide the class into two teams.  I select an entry at random from one of the students' schedules, and read it to the other team without saying whose schedule it is.  The other team has to try to guess whose schedule it is.  They get one point for each correct guess.]

Name: ___________________________________________________________________________
What is your schedule for this week?  Write your schedule using the present continuous for future use.


Saturday, April 25, 2015

Present Continuous Question or Statement Scrambled Sentences

(TESOL Worksheets--Present Continuous, Questions, Present Continuous Questions)
Google (drive, docs, pub)
[Cut up the sentences into different cards. Divide students into groups of 3 or 4 and give each group a set of cards and a grid with blanks They have to re-arrange the cards to form correct sentences. Tell the students that some of these sentences will be questions, and some will be statements. Students glue the cards onto the grid. Each group gets one point for each correct sentence. This is designed for very young students who are beginners. It is meant as a follow up to the question statement activity in the previous post.]


a pizza.

a pizza?

Put your cards on this grid to make sentences





a box.

a box?

a picture.

a picture?

















Friday, April 24, 2015

Present Continuous: Question or Statement powerpoint

(TESOL Worksheets--Present Continuous, Question, Present Continuous Questions)
Google (drive, slides, pub)
[At the link above, and embedded below, is a PowerPoint presentation for present continuous questions.  The PowerPoint shows various sentences using the present continuous.  The students have to decide if they are questions or statements.  If the students decide the sentence is a question, they run to the left side of the room.  If they decide the sentence is a statement, they run to the right side of the room.  This activity is designed for very young learners who are beginning students.]

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Life of Crime

(Movie Review)

Why I Watched This Movie
I was watching TV last night, and this was on.

My History With Elmore Leonard Movies
* I'm ashamed to say I've never read any books by Elmore Leonard, but I have seen (and thoroughly enjoyed) several of the Hollywood adaptations of his books: Get Shorty, Be Cool, Out of Sight, and Jackie Brown.
* In particular, Life of Crime is a prequel (of sorts) to Jackie Brown, which I consider my favorite - Tarantino movie.

The Review
Classic Elmore Leonard story of a perfect crime that gets increasingly complicated when people don't react like they're supposed to.  The thing I love about Elmore Leonard (or at least the movies based on his work) is you never know where the story is going to go once you start watching them, which makes them great fun to watch.  Also great humor.

I'm largely in agreement with the L.A. Times review:
it's a given in Elmoreland that things do more than go wrong, they do so in ways no one could have anticipated. Unlikely alliances and unforeseen collaborations result as self-interested folks look out for themselves in situations where even the scammers can't be sure who is scamming whom....
As "Crime's" plot gets more complex, it's hard to avoid trying to figure out how things will turn out, but the truth is it can't be done. An Elmore Leonard cocktail of crime, comedy and character has to be mixed to exact proportions, and only the master can get it right every time.

Also the Avclub review is good for highlighting the connections between this film and Jackie Brown.

8 out of 10 Stars  (It's no classic, but it's fun to watch, so it gets a high score on the watchability factor.)

Link of the Day
Democracy is a Threat to Any Power System

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Action Verbs Present Progressive--Fling the teacher

[In an effort to keep track of useful materials--so I can find it again when I need it--I'm going to start including links to stuff that I've had good luck with using in class. I'm going to index it, along with my own materials, over here and here. The above link is to materials that I've used in a Young Learner present continuous lesson.]

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Pronunciation: Words ending with /nk/, /nd/, and /nt/

(TESOL Worksheets--Pronunciationphonics)
Google drive, slides, pub
[At the link above, and embedded below, is a PowerPoint presentation for words ending in the consonant sounds /nk/, /nd/, and /nt/.
It can probably be adopted for various games, but with my very young learners, what I did was write nk, nd, and nt at various places in the room.  I would show them the word on the PowerPoint slide, and then pronounce it, and they would run to the letters they thought they heard.  I would then show them the answer.
All of the images are taken from searching Google Images, and none of them are mine.
This is adopted from a lesson in English World 2, but I have significantly expanded on the amount of examples.]

Monday, April 20, 2015

Action Verbs: Match the verb to the picture

(TESOL Worksheets)
Google Docs Version Here
[At Google Docs on the link above, and embedded below, is a Microsoft word document containing various action verbs and pictures representing the verbs.  It is meant to be used with the same class as the action verb power point presentation in the previous post.  As with the previous post, this was intended for very young children at a very low level of English, and reflects the vocabulary used in English World 1.  The pictures are taken from the web after doing a Google images search, and are not my own.
At first, I give each student their own set of cards (which I have cut up and shuffled prior to class) and the students have to match the cards to the pictures individually.  Then as a follow up activity we play "Find Your Partner" in which each student is given either a picture card or a word card, and the students have to find someone with a matching card.]

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Action Verbs Powerpoint

(TESOL Worksheets--Vocabulary, Present Continuous)
Google (drive, slides, pub)
[At Google Docs on the link above, and embedded below, is a powerpoint presentation for various action verbs.  This was intended for very young children at a very low level of English.
I used this first to introduce the verbs, then to practice them, and finally with a white board race game.  In the white board race, I show the picture, and the first team to correctly write the word on the board gets one point.  Then I show the answer.
This activity was meant as a supplement to the English World 1 textbook, and reflects the vocabulary used in that textbook.  The pictures are taken from the web after doing a Google images search, and are not my own.]

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Spelling Plurals: "s" or "es" plural spellings for nouns ending in "o"

(TESOL Worksheets--nouns, spelling, phonics)
Google: drive, slides, pub
[At the Google Docs link above, and embedded below, is a PowerPoint presentation which quizzes the students on how to form the plurals of various nouns ending with "o".  (This was adopted from a lesson in English Word 6, and all of the words are the same as that lesson).
This can probably be adopted to various games, but the one I used was to have all the students run to the left of the room if they thought the plural was formed by adding "s", and run to the right of the room if they thought the plural was formed by adding "es".]

Friday, April 17, 2015

Sentences starting with "what": Questions or exclamations

(TESOL Worksheets--nouns, questions)
Google: drive, slides, pub
[At the Google Docs link above, and embedded below, is a PowerPoint presentation containing several sentences starting with the word "what".  Some of these sentences are questions, and some are exclamations with the word "what" followed by a noun phrase.  The students must decide which sentences are questions, and which ones are exclamations.
This can probably be adopted to any number of games, but the game I did was to have the students run to the left side of the room if they thought it was a question, and the right side of the room if they thought it was an exclamation.]

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Present Continuous for Future Use Powerpoint Schedule

(TESOL Worksheets--Present Continuous for Future Arrangements)
Google: Drive, Docs, Pub
[On the Google Docs link above, and embedded below, is a PowerPoint slide which shows my schedule for the week (fictional, of course).  The students have to write sentences about my week using the present continuous for scheduled arrangements.
This can probably be adopted to any number of activities, but I did this as a whiteboard relay race in my class.  The students are divided into 3 teams.  The first person from each team runs up to the board and writes one sentence, then hands the marker of to the next person on their team.  The first team to get all the sentences on the board is the winner.]

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Present Continuous Scrambled Sentences Small Version

(TESOL Worksheets--Present Continouous)
Google: drive, docs, pub
[I've already done one scrambled sentence activity with present continuous, but that was a full sheet paper version made for students holding up one word each.  This version is the standard small version (although I did make a big version of this, used for demonstrating to the class (Google Here: drive, docs, pub).
 Cut up the sentences into different cards.  Divide students into groups of 3 or 4 and give each group a set of cards and a blank table.  They have to re-arrange the cards to form correct sentences.  Tell students each sentence must be 4 cards long.  In some cases many different possible correct sentences for some verbs.  Each group gets one point for each correct sentence.] 

a book.
a movie.
to school.
a picture.
an umbrella.
a coat.