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73 of 76 people found the following review helpful
on January 16, 2010
No holds barred, Annabel Lyon's triumphant "The Golden Mean" is an intelligent, savvy -- yet unflinching and parsimonious -- glimpse into the life and times of Aristotle (384 BC -322 BC). This book has to be the historical fiction coup of 2009. (Please read the media and other reviews above.) As a reader of Lyon's little masterpiece, you will be, as I was, struck by the grace and humor of her prose. The dialogue is stupendous. Aristotle becomes real, flawed and brilliant - an awesome human being.

Yes, Alexander (The Great), Aristotle's stellar, somewhat fawning, somewhat arrogant pupil, plays a prominent (though secondary) role in this well-researched story, which brings Aristotle, the father of Western science and philosophy to vivid characterization. Lyon's account of Alexander comports with other fictionalized portrayals of the greatest general of all times - here as a boy and youth. The resulting view of Alexander is indeed a "golden mean" achievement by Lyon.

The prose enfolds you into the book as you read. It is not a simple matter of being unable to put the book down; you actually feel a desire for the story. The characters live in your world.

The book, as one reviewer said, is "full of intellect, profound," and, as another states, "fully convincing." Well, no novel has to be "convincingly" accurate to the facts, and this one takes literary license frequently, through its lovely dialogue.

Page 188, (Aristotle speaking to Alexander) "...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...."

Page 264, "...Go still at sundown, and you can hear the earth itself humming. The ground stays warm long into the night....."

Page 276, "...while my student (Alexander), charging off the end of every map, falls deeper and deeper into the well of himself..."

I see only one flaw. Lyon falls into the same trap that most writers of historical fiction do. The story paints a somewhat unreal picture of life in 300's BC. The characters for the most part (as they truly were) are wealthy, educated, and healthy - living a life of some ease and luxury with slaves, servants and a general absence of misery. There is little pain (except the natural and the self-inflicted), whereas ordinary life back then was pretty much awful and miserable. Of course, Aristotle, his cohorts, family and friends for the most part were privileged, often at the expense of others less fortunate. However, his (and others') arrogance and vast ignorance and prejudices (attitudes toward women, for instance) are obvious and present on many pages. His second wife, Herpyllis, has to teach him virtually everything about satisfying sex.

The cover photograph is puzzling. Why this photo? Who is it? What is it supposed to evoke? It's a strange and bad choice.

In her correct drive to the goal of brevity, at times the story line dangles unfinished or sketchy, as we jump too quickly to another scenario. The most vivid example was a lack of details about the swimming party at the beach with Alexander, Aristotle and Alexander's older brother Arrhidaeus. I usually criticize a book for its being too long. This one is too short !!

One really, really great thing in the front of the book is the Cast (in order of appearance). Thank you, Annabel Lyon and your publisher. I so wish that other novelists and publishers would follow your splendid example!!

All in all, it's a 5++ on Amazon's rating scale.
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39 of 40 people found the following review helpful
In 343 BCE, King Philip II of Macedon engaged the philosopher Aristotle as tutor for his 13-year-old son Alexander. Philip, who was well on his way to taking control of the entire Greek peninsula, and had his eyes on the Persian Empire, had already taken care to have Alexander schooled in the arts of war. But wishing to temper the warrior passions with the influence of philosophy and the arts, he turned to the celebrated philosopher, a former playmate from his own boyhood. The three or four years that Aristotle spent with the young man is thus both a treatise on education and the story of the formation of Alexander the Great.

Mary Renault told this story from Alexander's point of view in her 1969 novel FIRE FROM HEAVEN. By looking at the relationship through Aristotle's eyes, Annabel Lyon downplays romantic and swashbuckling elements in favor of philosophy and psychology. Aristotle himself comes over as a fascinating character, interested not only in ideas but in every aspect of the world around him, studying the organs of his wife Pythias to better understand the physiology of desire, or dissecting the body of a warrior on the battlefield of Chaeronea to discover how the various parts connect. His appetite for knowledge is so modern in its empiricism that his occasional reversions to received opinion come as a shock. He greatly loves Pythias, for example, but it is only after her death that he has cause to question the old teaching that sexual pleasure is not accessible to women.

Alexander, by contrast, is drawn less in the accumulation of detail than in the gaps between his flashes of brilliance or bursts of petulance. Aristotle refuses to pander, but instead challenges the boy and earns his respect, building a relationship that also becomes one of mutual love. [Not a physical relationship, although Lyon is ambivalent about Alexander's sexuality and makes no bones about the frequency of male homosexuality in a society that made a point of sequestering its women.] Like a painter doing as much with shadow as with light, Lyon reveals Aristotle's character almost as well in his tutoring of Alexander's mentally handicapped half-brother Arrhidaeus as in his work with the Prince himself, and draws fascinating parallels between the philosopher's recurrent bipolar disorder and the post-traumatic stress syndrome that afflicts Alexander after battle.

Lyon writes clearly, sometimes beautifully, and the book is easy to read. All the same, it seemed to wash over me without significant focus. While I can certainly appreciate the concept of the Golden Mean between extremes as an educational philosophy, I cannot easily point to key moments in the book when that concept is put to the test. I also felt that the book read more as a footnote to a history and geography already known than as a story that could stand on its own. Although I once had a classical education, I had to read with a good historical atlas open on my lap, and even then could not follow all the geographical references; the offstage events also required a greater knowledge of history than I could bring to it, even with online resources. The novel provided a fascinating insight into the Greek mind, for sure -- but I am not convinced that it approached the philosophical or moral depth that David Malouf achieved at half the length with his recent masterpiece, RANSOM.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on September 14, 2010
The Golden Mean is an account of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle and his student Alexander of Macedon. The best part of the book is Aristotle's back story including his marriage and his possibly being mildly bipolar. His relationships pulled him out of his depression. When he tapped into the love he had for and from others he was able to get the energy to start working again. Lyon does a great job of portraying day to day life and concerns of the period. She touches on politics, contemporary philosophy, food, clothes, religion, gardening, relationships between the classes and sexes, etc. As interesting I found the book it never quite took off for me which is why I gave it four rather than five stars.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on November 21, 2010
The philosopher Aristotle was engaged by King Philip II of Macedon in 343 BCE as tutor for his 13 year old son Alexander. This novel, written from Aristotle's first person perspective, tells the imagined story of the relationship between him and his most famous student: the boy who went on to transform the world as Alexander the Great.

Ms Lyon has crafted an interesting and enjoyable novel around the lives of some key historical figures (Aristotle, Plato, Philip and Alexander) and done so in a way that integrates the broad sweep of history with the very human foibles that each possesses. As depicted, Aristotle is a fascinating character: a blend of contradictions who is both curious about the world around him and caught within the conventions of the times in which he lived. On the pages of this novel, Aristotle comes to life.

Alexander is still being shaped: his training for leadership and war is tempered (in part) by Aristotle's training in philosophy and the arts. The aim is to find a balance, or the Golden Mean, between the two extremes of deficiency and excess. The objective is to prepare Alexander to succeed Philip, and while Aristotle views Alexander as `a violent, snotty boy' at the beginning, he comes to love and respect him by the end of the novel.

I enjoyed this novel because of its perspective of Alexander. I found the depiction of Aristotle fascinating. While he doesn't seem terribly pleasant person, he is believable and I could imagine him teaching, challenging and shaping Alexander. For me, one of the most interesting characters was Philip of Macedon, and I would like to read more about him.

'Never be afraid to enter an agreement you can't immediately see your way out of.'

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on July 18, 2011
Aristotle. Philip of Macedonia. Alexander the Great. You've heard of these men, but what do you know about them? Not much? Well, that's okay; you don't need a prerequisite in ancient history to thoroughly enjoy Annabel Lyon's solid novel "The Golden Mean."

This is the tale of the philosopher Aristotle who is asked by his old friend King Philip to tutor his son Alexander and develop his mind as an intellectual in the same way that military training has developed him as a soldier. After all, every future king needs to be as wise as he is fearless.

How does one teach a young, head-strong heir to the throne in the ways of contemplative thought? This is one interesting aspect of Lyon's imagined tale, but it turns out not to be the most interesting one. No, of more interest is Aristotle himself: his relationships with his family, his wife, his friends and the ancient world around him. Aristotle has his own problems, not the least of which is what we in the modern world would most likely describe as a bi-polar disorder. His moodiness colors his thoughts, his speech and the tone of the entire novel. Fortunately for the reader, this works.

Through Aristotle, we modern readers are able to see the world through primitive eyes. One in which house slaves are the norm, death is swift and common, and life is altogether more dramatic and challenging. And this is perhaps where the novel succeeds best. Lyon's word paintings of ancient Greece, like her dialogue, are sparse, economical and effective. I was amused by Aristotle's explanations for natural phenomena that are completely wrong but were the starting point for rational inquiry that would eventually lead to modern science.

Thankfully, Aristotle's relationship to Alexander is a complex one. They have great affection for one another, but are often at great odds. It's a classic tale of youthful exuberance chafing against the wisdom (and depleted energy) of age. Their honest and direct conversations surrounding their differences of view are some of the best bits of dialogue in the book.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on September 16, 2011
I was excited to read this book. But after reading about half way through, I am glad that it was from the library. Not much happens in this book. Very ordinary story. Never got the sense of wonder that I feel when Aristotle is mentioned. May be that is just me. Aristotle, Socrates, Plato.. these are my heros. Thanks for cutting Aristotle down to size. He was just another ordinary joe, albeit an arrogant one. Anyway, this is one of the few books that I could not finish.

On the positive side, the author writes beautiful prose. I wish more authors wrote like her. Instead of describing every minute detail, she is very economical with words. I really liked that. But the plot is very dull and the characters seem cartoonish. You don't get much sense of the period either. The book has a modern feel, almost like a hollywood B movie.
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19 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on November 26, 2010
I so wanted to like this book. I was looking forward to reading it. It got some really good reviews! I have always been fascinated by this time period. And I am very curious about Alexander the Great.

But I just hated this book. A lot. It lacks characters that I care about. They are flat, kind of like the shadows that the prisoners in the cave could see in Plato's metaphor that I had to learn about in school. The real characters, or what we could imagine what they could be, are just beyond our sight. So we are stuck with these flat, boring representations.

Worse, the characters seem modern. It's like they're residents of modern Toronto that have been misplaced into ancient times and places. I love a good cuss word, but profanity is sprinkled throughout the book seemingly just because. It doesn't add to the story. It's just another aberration that drove me nuts.

Also, as a lover of historical fiction, I enjoy learning about the daily lives of those in the past. I didn't really get that here. There were very few fun historical details to savor.

I just kept reading the book, thinking that it was just getting a slow start, as many good books do. But I had to concede defeat when I realized that I was two-thirds of the way through, and it still wasn't good.

The plot was just a crushing bore. There was little to no suspense. People go off to battle, but you never really know any exciting details. Women give birth, but it is meaningless. Alexander is troubled about something, but it takes forever to get an inkling of what it is. Aristotle is apparently bi-polar, but his struggle with mental illess is not stirring. The most interesting character to me is a minor one: a female slave who gets sold off by Aristotle. Maybe she comes back later in the book since she was interesting, but I wouldn't know because I gave up on the book.

That being said, the author is a genius at the turn of a phrase. Somehow, she has managed to master the mechanics of writing, but missed out on the story-telling aspect of things.

I just wish that I could have liked this book as much as the critics, but I guess I'm just too much of a regular person. Books should be fun to read.
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on October 5, 2011
I read a lot of historical novels and was looking forward to this book, but I was greatly disappointed. The characters are very shallow and it seems to be mostly centered around sex. There is very, very little philosophy or insight in this book. I will not read another book by this author again.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on January 10, 2011
The Golden Mean is a fascinating book set in ancient Macedon and Greece and told in the first person, present tense by Aristotle about, among other things, his relationship with his young student the future Alexander the Great.
Annabel Lyon offers no sentimentality or overview. You get the world as she imagines Aristotle might have seen it. It you fear it might be a dry philosophical text, put your fears aside. Readers experience medicine as Aristotle's father practiced it, the buying and selling of a slave, the training and burdens of a future king, the revulsion people experience when Aristotle, ever the empiricist, attempts to dissect a corpse. We see what people ate and how they slept and coupled. We learn in a condescending sentence why it is impossible that a woman could ever be a citizen. The language is always vital and taut. This is a marvelous reading experience.
The Henderson Memories
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon January 23, 2011
I'm a big history buff, but not so much up on this time period, so I can't comment on the historical accuracy. What I loved about it: wonderful storytelling and details. While it chronicles the relationship between Aristotle and his pupil, Alexander the Great, other relationships were explored as well including Aristotle and his wives, Aristotle and the aristocracy of Pella, and Alexander and his peers.

I really loved the little details. For example, when Aristotle's maid pulled a strand of her hair to use to slice a boiled egg. The story was interesting enough to hold my attention, but it was in the descriptions and details that the novel really shined.

It also succeeded in the task that all good historical fiction should - it has inspired me to want to learn more about the time period.
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