Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault

The Last of the WineThe Last of the Wine by Mary Renault
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was a lot of work, the most challenging book I've read, but it ended up being worth it.
I read this for a book club and if I had of been reading it on my own I probably wouldn't have finished it. I'm glad I did.
Before reading, I was advised to brush up on my Greek history. I have no idea where one would do this. I've never studied Greek history and knew nothing, nothing, going in.
I've never before read a book where you have to take notes, I've always kind of believed reading to be for pleasure, not work, and that the author has a responsibility to perhaps provide more clarity. But with the historical framework in place for this book and the constraints around accuracy, I think Renault did a fantastic job and if I had it to do over again, I would take notes.
I read the first 70 pages or so understanding very little and was expecting to hate the book, but suddenly the clouds cleared and I started to understand. There were periods where the lack of understanding came back, I still don't understand why people were exiled at the end fully, but there was a lot there. The fantastic precursor to the Olympic games, the starvation of the town, the implicit relationship between the hero and Lysis, all fantastic points in the book and overall the book really I feel gave me a foundation for Greek history that I'd like to now build on. It was great spending time in this far away, long ago world.
The book is very lyrical, the following passages stood out for me:
"Time and death and change are unforgiving, and love lost in the time of youth never returns again."
"Nor do I fear death as an evil, more than one fears sleep after a full day."
"Old sock, meaning that he would fit on either foot"

This book is not for everyone, it required work and took me about 3 weeks to read it.
The book is not perfect, it was published in 1956 and a few of the elements are dated to the period it was written. For example, the war is very black and white, Athens is good, Sparta is bad. Although the homosexual aspects of the book are everywhere, they are couched in discreet phrasing. When one of the characters swears, he doesn't say the words but rather refers to "I said something I shall not repeat here". Sex is all implied. I think these things all speak to the period the book was written and the British upbringing of the author.
These are not really flaws though. There's quite a lot going on, a lot to take in, and a lot to take away.
I still feel the book could have been a little more clear, and the pacing was a little uneven, so four stars.

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