by Pamela Sargent
Caroline Alexander’s The War That Killed Achilles, published in 2009 by Viking, is a close, detailed study of Homer’s Iliad that views it as an antiwar epic; Achilles’ wrath is seen as the result of questioning how much he actually owes his commander. Alexander explicitly compares Achilles’ challenge to Agamemnon, “I for my part did not come here for the sake of the Trojan spearmen to fight against them, since to me they have done nothing,” with Muhammad Ali’s refusal to fight in Vietnam: “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong…I am not going 10,000 miles to help murder, kill and burn other people to simply help continue the domination of white slavemasters over dark people.” Her enthralling study almost inspires me, for the first time in ages, to pull out my old Oxford University Press edition of the Iliad in Greek, the same one I wrestled with while taking Greek in college, and read it again with fresh eyes.
My most valued online reading this year was probably legendary numbers man Nate Silver’s blog, FiveThirtyEight, and Charlie Pierce’s fiercely eloquent posts at the Esquire Politics blog. Silver convinces me that a knowledge of statistics (a deep knowledge, not the superficial and all-too-common “I’ll look for some numbers that’ll shore up what I already think” attitude) is an essential survival skill; Pierce displays the power of righteous rage harnessed to words. While at the Science Fiction Research Association conference earlier this year, I went to a reading by Sarah Zettel during which she contended that the Great Depression was probably the most neglected and forgotten recent period of American history. (Her novel Dust Girl, published by Random House earlier this year, is set in the 1930s.) I thought of her comments while watching Ken Burns’s recent PBS documentary of that period, Dust Bowl. An environmental catastrophe caused by ignorance, carelessness, and greed; people losing their homes and livelihoods, the need to rethink our relationship with this planet – we’d better start recalling that period now, which seems more relevant than ever. We ignore the lessons of Dust Bowl at our, and the planet’s, peril.