Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Category: Books

Yvonne Korshak reviews books.

Pericles and Aspasia by Yvonne Korshak

Pericles and Aspasia: A Story of Ancient Greece, from Book Life — an Editor’s Pick

The fiction debut of Korshak, a professor at Adelphi University, brings vital life to the golden age of Athens, in a story rich with character, romance, striking historical detail, and spirited public debate on topics foundational to our civilization. The novel centers, as the title suggests, on Pericles, the Athenian statesman and orator known for his democratic values and championing of learning, and his Aspasia, the courtesan whom Pericles will risk his position and reputation to love. “Look at the company he keeps, they’ll say of you,” the great sculptor Phidias says to Pericles, “whores, philosophers and sculptors.”

But Korshak makes clear, in memorable scenes, that this supportive partnership didn’t just bring them comfort, happiness, and a child: it shaped history.Epic-length as well as the kick-off to a longer series, Pericles and Aspasia offers rousing speeches, naval battles, passionate embraces, rebellion, and political intrigue as Pericles strives to hold together the allied cities of the Athenian League. But Korshak sets her novel apart through its lively evocation of the civic life, art, culture, and gossip that make cities great. The pages pulse with talk that’s alternately philosophical, lofty, witty, and dishy. Early on, flirting with Aspasia, Pericles ruminates on how a recent comic play called him “our cucumber-headed Zeus.” Much later, he’ll ask “So, Aspasia, since you’ve read Antigone, do you think Sophocles means the autocratic Creon to be me?”

This immersion in Athenian life will thrill readers fascinated with the grain of lives far removed from our own—but still concerned with similar pressing issues of justice and governance. Historic notables (Euripides, Herodotus, Thucydides, Hippodamus) never make mere cameos: they inveigh, debate, even—especially in the case of that ol’ gadfly Socrates—joke. “I could prove you’re more expert, but by winning the argument, I’d lose it,” he says, drawing a clear line from 5th century B.C. to Shakespeare’s clowns to Groucho Marx.

A stellar, epic-length evocation of the golden age of Athens, rich with historical insight.

Great for fans of: Christian Meier’s Athens: A Portrait of the City in its Golden Age, Mary Renault.

“Breathtaking in execution, exquisite in detail, realistic in interpretation . . . a vibrant novel that bears the hallmarks of similar writers such as Madeline Miller (author of Circe and The Song of Achilles): deep world building, consideration to the gods, characters driven by destiny and bowed by hubris . . . I can’t recommend this novel enough.”
                                                                       THE BOOKISH HISTORIAN

“An insightful depiction of a passionate relationship.”

                                                                      Kirkus Reviews

Available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, BookShop, Booktopia, and on local online booksellers worldwide.

Cape Sounion Athens as Aspasia Might Have Seen It

Cape Sounion Athens as Aspasia Might Have Seen It




What’s “American” about Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here?

In a discussion of Sinclair Lewis’s novel, It Can’t Happen Here, written in 1935, one person said, “This could be about any dictatorship, couldn’t it? Is there anything particularly American about this dictatorship? I felt I had an answer but it took time to think it out. Here it is:

I believe that what makes the book specifically American is Lewis’s use of the landscape. The vast American landscape, as we know, has been an embodiment of the promise of America, a symbolism which, as has been widely recognized, is an aspect of 19th century American landscape painting.   From minus-Day 1, leaving the Old World you could move to the New World for a better life (however you defined it).  New settlements.  Homesteading.  What a contrast with the Old World!  In America, those who were born free were animated by the idea that if you didn’t like where you were, you could go where you thought things would be better.  Good heavens,what a boon came with that birthright!  There was always a “new frontier”.  Then, Manifest Destiny bumped up to an end in the 1870’s, but the cultural imagination takes eons to catch up. The belief in new frontiers open to Americans was vibrant up to and during the 1930’s and way beyond.  In John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1938), in which the westward migration is a central theme, the “Okies”actually reach the edge of the continent–like Lewis, Steinbeck already had a nuanced view that left room for hope.

Lewis was born in the Midwest, Minnesota, in 1886 (at the tail end of “Manifest Destiny”). In shaping the story so that his main character, Doremus Jessup, travels from his home in New England to the West, Lewis mirrors the American migration westward. In going west, Doremus’s hopes are for both himself and America.  And Lewis makes sure that Doremus appreciates the vast western skies.  In giving us a glimpse of those unbounded skies through the eyes of his character, Lewis, at the end of his novel, intensifies our hopes  …sends us to maybe... thereby making all the more powerful the uncertainty, and the ironic potential, with which he leaves us.

Albert Bierstadt, Rocky Mountains, Flander’s Peak, 1863, 6’2″ x 10′ 1″, oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Public Domain

Book Note | The Help | A Novel by Kathryn Stockett

A White woman in the deep South when Jim Crow is rampant interviews Black maids in order to compile a book that will bring the maids’ stories to the attention of the larger world.  This sounds like a noble goal.

BUT, in this novel, in spite of its purported high minded purpose, the White woman is self-centered, dishonest, and risks nothing she cares about while the Black women she pulls into her project risk everything.

The proof is in the pudding:  when the book about the maids’ lives is finally published, making life dangerous for everyone in Jackson who had a hand in it, the White woman who organized the project skips off for the new publishing job the book has won for her in New York!  While the maids are left in Jackson with their safety compromised and — reality’s sharp edge — living within blocks of Medgar Evers’ recent assassination.  A few $100’s may or may not be coming their way.

Stockett sets the novel in Jackson, Mississippi in the early ’60’s when the Civil Rights movement is in its early years, and racial tensions are high.  Skeeter, the narrator, is an upper class White woman who just graduated from college and wants to be a writer, though her conventional mother just wants her to get married.  Encouraged by a note of interest she’s gotten from an editor in New York City whom she asked for a job, Skeeter interviews the local Black maids for a book that will tell their stories to the world at large.

The Help, consists of the maids’ accounts of their lives, seen through Skeeter’s eyes, with the quest to publish the book against all obstacles the overall narrative arc. Black maids raise the White women’s children, cook their food and clean their houses while Whites, to avoid the maids’ germs, build them separate bathrooms outside the house.  There are horrific accounts of Blacks losing their jobs and being beaten and maimed by arbitrary actions of Whites driven by hate and fear.  The setting of the story a few blocks from Evers’ murder underlines the true risk the maids take on for agreeing to speak into Skeeter’s recorder, or even for allowing themselves to be seen talking with her in other than a mistress/servant relationship.

Stockett gives lots of details about her characters’ lives but oversimplifies their personalities.  The Black maids are noble, generous of spirit and well read, for example, while the White mistresses are all venial, sadistic and pathetic.

But the major flaw in the novel is that Skeeter’s actions are at odds with the halo the author provides for her.  Skeeter, as we see her dragging these stories out of these fearful and understandably reluctant women, is self-centered and duplicitous.  Her dishonesty is presented as a necessary evil, to get the maids’ stories written and out into the world in the embattled, repressive context of Jackson.  But I wouldn’t trust her, nor should the maids.  She sounds high-minded but she exploits them as much as the other White women do.

There’s interesting material in the book, like about those bathrooms, and parts of it read like good gossip.  But the scraps of inside stuff don’t make up for the fact that the book is as duplicitous and exploitive as its narrator.  A White woman gets Black women to talk about themselves under the guise of “doing good” and publishes a book about it that advances her career and leaves them in the lurch.  How distasteful.  (Yes, I know it’s a bestseller).

Book Note | Indignation: Philip Roth’s conceit

A new book | Philip Roth’s Indignation

This is a tired book. It casts only a dim and distorted light on the 50’s, a corny view, really, and isn’t worth reading for that. This isn’t “history” as some are saying — it’s Roth setting history up as a straw man, easy to knock over. Old age and death have been his recent preoccupations and it’s as if he said to himself his readers might tire of decaying old men so he wrote about a young one, but that’s just a mask and — speaking of decay — the college boy protagonist is dead, too. Literally. A weak conceit.

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