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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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on August 15, 2013
This is a very different novel than what one might expect. If you are looking for a sweeping epic about a great philosopher and the achievements of his student, Alexander the Great, this is not the book for you.
The Golden Mean is an intimate look at Aristotle, a man whom most people know of, but know very little about.
The occasional anachronism and sometimes extraneous profanity are almost completely forgotten once Ms. Lyon’s writing wraps itself about you. Her voice is real, and lovely.
The version of the great philosopher that the author gives us is one of intense curiosity about the world mixed with a seemingly pained existence. You will not love this Aristotle, but you will pity him in trying to understand him. You will wonder whether he taught Alexander or if Alexander really taught him.
This is a very strained time in the history of Greece, and in this novel we get a behind-the-scenes look at the politics and motivations of people like Philip of Macedon whose court is not necessarily a place you would like to find yourself in.
Aristotle finds himself in the middle of this maelstrom of world events and this new perspective in historical fiction is something that readers will enjoy.
Recommended.
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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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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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VINE VOICEon November 8, 2010
If I think of antiquity's heroes, my mind's eye sees first heavy marble busts placed on shoulder-high white pedestals. The great success of Annabel Lyon's debut novel "The Golden Mean" is that the ancient statuary comes to life and mythic heroes Aristotle and Alexander the Great walk about and inhabit the real world as it must have been in Greece in the 4th Century B.C.

Heat and dust, bright Aegean beaches, terrible squalor but also great palaces, chambers draped in silk and lavish banquets with "cheeses, cakes, dried figs and dates, melons and almonds . . . tiny dishes of spiced salt all mounded into neat pyramids, even the salt." This is the world of the warrior prince and his instructor where on one extreme the love of battle and valor compete with the lust for learning and for experiencing a vast, unknown world. Somewhere between those opposing extremes lies an ideal middle, Aristotle's Golden Mean.

Leading a tired, thirsty caravan of travelers that includes his wife Pythias, their slaves, his nephew and apprentice Callisthenes, Aristotle arrives in Pella, Macedonia, expecting to rest a few days and visit his boyhood friend the Macedon king Philip before continuing on his journey to Athens. The king, however, wants a new tutor for his son Alexander, and his will prevails. The short visit stretches into the seven years Aristotle spends instructing the teenaged prince, the boy Aristotle describes as a monkey who one day is "going to open his mouth and swallow the whole world."

At first, Aristotle calls his pupil a "violent, snotty little boy. Later, the student has grown to become someone "who knew where to find the head, the heart, the breath, the brain. The boy who smelled so nice. The boy running in from the rain. Majesty."

Lyon's use of dialogue jolts life into her characters. They speak to each other in vernacular, the way you would expect people to talk to each other. Their talk is crisp, direct. As Hilary Mantel does so well in "Wolf Hall," Lyon uses conversation to great effect.

The people in "The Golden Mean" inhabit their world through their observations and thoughts. What they hear, see, think and do they talk about and the reader partakes. Aristotle walking through an orchard has this to say, "Plums. Plums. One of my oldest memories, the taste of those plums, I looked a them as we walked by just now and thought, too small, after all these years. Those damn trees are still too small to hold a noose. That's the furniture in my mind, here, still."

The pupil and his teacher - one a man of action, the other of the mind - have ventured into each other's world in "The Golden Mean" and have become more alike than different. As Alexander describes their relationship, "They look at me, they say great warrior, well-spoken, charming, worthy student of the greatest mind of the world. I'm holding on by my fingertips and so are you . . . Maybe you've made me into yourself after all. A fine, fierce surface on the mess underneath." Opposites initially, Aristotle and Alexander have by the novel's end arrived at a golden mean. Getting there is an engrossing journey, a good read.
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on May 11, 2014
This is Aristotle's description of his pupil, Alexander the Great. It provides a wonderful insight into Aristotle, who life isn't all that well known, and a very interesting take on Alexander, whose life is better known, but whose motivation isn't so well known. The writing is superb. I sat down to glance at the first few paragraphs and remained reading till late at night when I finished it. Now I am eagerly awaiting the arrival of the second novel in the series that I have already ordered.
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on December 15, 2010
The Golden Mean is a delightful book about Aristotle as tutor to Alexander the Great as a boy. It takes place in Macedonia, Alexander's birthplace, and brings these almost mythical characters to vivid life.
Aristotle and his wife are on their way to Athens, and stop by in Macedonia to visit King Philip, Alexander's father. While there, Aristotle is persuaded to
remain as a tutor to the young prince...The influence the tutor has on the future
world conqueror is subtle and important, and the reader is able to follow the
interaction of these two characters closly.
I enjoyed this book, and would recommend it.
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on July 27, 2013
Yes, the world does change. Just as Aristotle swims, eyes open, under the sea, so I swam, deep down in the imagined world of this legendary philosopher. Coming up only for air, and to drive (we are on a cross country road trip), I inhabited two worlds for a week or so, as long as the ebook lasted.
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on September 26, 2012
A great read for those who are open-minded about different times and old cultural views (otherwise, there are some things that might offend you). The author uses rich language to describe everything, taking you along with them on the journey through their story. Rich in cultural and philosophical references, I highly recommend this book for anyone who enjoys deeper literary classics.
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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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