"Alcestis" explores unknown story of character in Greek mythology

Cover of "Alcestis"Katharine Beutner, a doctoral candidate in the Department of English and a former graduate intern at the Harry Ransom Center, has just published her first novel, “Alcestis” (SoHo, 2010).

In Greek myth, Alcestis is known as the ideal good wife; she loved her husband so much that she died to save his life and was sent to the underworld in his place. In this poetic and vividly-imagined debut, Beutner gives voice to the woman behind the ideal, bringing to life the world of Mycenaean Greece, a world peopled by capricious gods, where royal women are confined to the palace grounds and passed as possessions from father to husband.

Alcestis tells of a childhood spent with her sisters in the bedchamber where her mother died giving birth to her and of her marriage at the age of fifteen to Admetus, the young king of Pherae, a man she barely knows, who is kind but whose heart belongs to a god. She also tells the part of the story that’s never been told: What happened to Alcestis in the three days she spent in the underworld before being rescued by Heracles? In the realm of the dead, Alcestis falls in love with the goddess Persephone and discovers the true horror and beauty of death.

Photo of Katharine Beutner by Wylie Maercklein

Photo of Katharine Beutner by Wylie Maercklein

Beutner grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in classical studies from Smith College,  and a master’s degree  in creative writing from The University of Texas at Austin, where she is currently working on her doctorate in eighteenth-century British literature. Her work has appeared in “Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet.”

A book release event and signing will be held at BookPeople at 3 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 7.

Beutner answers a few questions about her book:

What inspired you to write a novel about this character? What was it about Alcestis that made you want to flesh out her story?
My first inspiration for the book came from Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem about Alcestis, which I read in Stephen Mitchell’s lovely translation.

I found the end of the poem really striking. The basic plot of Alcestis’s story is that she chooses to go to the underworld in her husband’s place, in order to save his life. Rilke writes that her husband Admetus hides his face when Alcestis disappears “in order to see nothing but that smile” as she goes. That stuck in my mind. Then, in 2004, I read Euripides’ “Alcestis,” which ends very differently.

Admetus’ friend Heracles shows up, figures out what’s going on, and goes to the underworld to rescue Alcestis. He brings her back, and she’s alive, but silent. It’s supposed to be a happy ending, but I was so irritated — I love Euripides because he’s the most psychologically astute of the Greek tragedians, but he gives Alcestis no inner life at all. I wanted to write a version of her story that would allow readers to follow her into the underworld and see how she experiences it.

Have you always had an interest in mythology?
Yes, Greek mythology in particular. My parents gave me the D’Aulaires’ books of Greek mythology and Norse mythology when I was little and I read the Greek myths book to pieces while the Norse book got maybe two or three reads. I remember writing at least one story about Greek gods when I was in middle school, though I’m pretty sure the evidence has been destroyed. When I went to college, I worked as a research assistant for a classics professor, and ended up majoring in classical studies, which included studying ancient Greek. (I continued Greek while I was studying abroad in Ireland, where I got teased for my accent when reading Greek out loud). I now study eighteenth-century British literature — the neoclassical period, of course.

Did you start this project with the intention of writing a novel?
I did. I started writing this novel the summer before I came to UT to attend the MA program in creative writing and finished it as my thesis in that program. I’d written a different novel the year before, one that had totally snuck up on me — I thought it was a long short story, until I hit thirty thousand words and had to reassess. Alcestis was mapped out in advance. I’m kind of a structure geek, so I have to admit that I find outlining to be one of the most enjoyable parts of writing. When I was a kid, my favorite board game was, not surprisingly, The Amaze-ing Labyrinth (no connection to David Bowie in Spandex). Refining a novel in outline is a bit like that. You shift one piece and the whole layout changes.

What's on your Nightstand, Fred Heath?

Fred Heath became Vice Provost and Director of the University of Texas Libraries in 2003.

Six years later, the Libraries have become a proving ground for numerous technology initiatives, from a digitization project with Google Books, the recent launch of its Institutional Repository and the steady transformation of spaces to meet the needs of modern connectivity to almost constant Web 2.0 interactivity trials.

Yet despite these moves away from a traditional library archetype, Heath still finds joy in the centrality of the book in teaching, learning, and research.

Read on as Heath provides a peek onto his nightstand.

Nine books crowd my nightstand, each competing for reading time, some attempting to persuade me they are light enough in argument or heft to warrant a niche in my briefcase for the next airplane round trip and overnight hotel stay. Others are content to wait in queue at bedside. More books camp out on my desk at work, or adjacent conference table. Each has commanded their own fair share of reading time, but may lack the breadth of appeal to earn the attention of readers outside the library profession. To those books a silent salute. You know who you are.

In aggregate, these nine volumes atop my nightstand permit some interesting observations about the book trade, trends in publishing and the libraries at the University of Texas. From bookshelf to the world wide web, things are changing. All of the books, save one, are available in the main campus library, Perry Castañeda; the missing volume can be found at Austin Public Library. All but one of the volumes can be purchased, used, for far less than the initial purchase price. The book that eludes purchase can be read on the world wide web for free, and most are now downloadable on the Amazon e-reader, Kindle.

Calling All Heroes: A Manual for Taking Power” (Plover Press, 1990) By Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Ruth M. de Aguilar, Translated by Ruth M. de Aguilar

The global fascination with the American presidential election and the tumultuous economic times confronting a youthful president with a message of hope and change led me to a re-read of this hard-to-find small novel by Paco Taibo. “Calling All Heroes” is a tale of crushed idealism following the bloody suppression of student demonstrations in La Plaza de las Tres Culturas at Tlatelolco, Mexico City, October, 1968. The story is told through the eyes of a young reporter, Nestor, himself wounded and the object of police investigation as the government tightens its noose around the students. Near death and in delirium, the reporter summons the literary heroes of his youth to the struggle. Against the odds, Sherlock Holmes, the Light Brigade, Doc Holliday and others struggle to reverse the currents of contemporary Mexican history. First published in 1982.

Descartes’ Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason” (Random House, Inc., 2008) By Russell Shorto

Descartes’ Bones” is an entertaining jaunt through 350 years of European intellectual history, told through the audacious assertion cogito ergo sum and the disgraced philosopher who uttered those iconic words. Shorto’s blithe treatment of the little known facts of the indignities suffered by the physical remains of the French philosopher Rene Descartes is a fascinating journey through history. Deprived of patronage and public support by the reactions to the publication in 1637 of “Discourse on Method” which in fewer than one hundred pages declared the ascendency of reason over faith, Descartes died embittered and estranged in Stockholm in 1650. A few years later, his remains were returned to his homeland. Or were they? A forensic investigation and compelling review of European history through the eyes of Descartes, the Catholic Church, rivals such as Blaise Pascal, and voices within revolutionary and Napoleonic France are compellingly recounted. A beautifully written book suitable for airplane or nightstand.

Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda
(Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2005) By Roméo Dallaire, Brent Beardsley

Documentation of human rights violations is a core focus of the University of Texas Library. This visceral, heart-rending testimony of a Canadian military man caught up in the vortex of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 explains perhaps better than any single volume why vigilance in documentation is essential. Dallaire’s book is imperfect, ghost-ridden in part. And, as many of us are, he is an imperfect man: mediocre in school, brave in battle, suicidal in war’s aftermath. Why do I admire him so? Perhaps it is because of the cowardice of an American administration still stinging from the disgrace of Blackhawk Down, whose President does not allow his U.N. envoy to acknowledge the term “genocide,” a permission that would compel the U.S. to act. Perhaps it is because he and a handful of African stalwart troops struggle in the face of an inept United Nations whose inaction condemned a people to slaughter. And perhaps it is because this brave French Canadian fought on while France unabashedly sought to shore up a Hutu government responsible for slaughter. A must read.

Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda” (International Federation of Human Rights, 1999) By Alison Des Forges and others. Human Rights Watch.

I never met Alison Des Forges. I never will; she was among the passengers who died tragically in the Buffalo commuter crash at the beginning of the year. Yet, I raise a glass to this woman, who stands at the intersection of advocacy and academics in the field of human rights.

Her book, “Leave None to Tell the Story,” assigns to the waste can the Western apologia for inaction in a time of genocide – the assertion that the massacre was “just” a tribal fratricide which did not warrant American or European investment. Read this book. Alison des Forges documents clearly the reality of genocide, the complicity of the West, including the U.S., France, and the United Nations, and the collateral damage that results when a victorious insurgency exacts its own revenge.

This is a big book, not to be taken on the airplane. But you can find it in our libraries and you can read it online courtesy of Human Rights Watch.

The Rebels’ Hour” (Grove Press, 2008) By Lieve Joris, Liz Waters
Translated by Liz Waters

I have not read this book. Yet. The UT Libraries copy is in circulation, and my vendor book order has not yet arrived. But I will read it next. For this novel is about the unrest that now prevails in the Congo, home to a vast migration of Hutus following the Rwanda genocide, the failure of the Hutu government, and the successful Tutsi insurgency. “The Rebels’ Hour,” is written by Lieve Joris, another of the renowned journalists drawn to this dark chapter in man’s inhumanity. The complex character at the center of the story may well be Laurent Nkunda, the rebel Tutsi leader now under house arrest in Rwanda.

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier” (HarperCollins Publishers Limited, 2007) By Ishmael Beah

Ishmael Beah’s memoir is not about the Grands Lacs area of Africa, but it could just as well be. Rather Beah paints a grisly and unforgettable story of a child soldier for whom the life of an insurgent in a ragtag uniform is the only means of survival in a chaotic Sierra Leone where war destroys his village and his family. There is a history to this conflict involving Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, including the diamond mines in the latter. But Beah paints a literary picture of carnage that just as easily involve coltan in the Congo or oil sands in Darfur. The rescue of Beah at Western hands provides compelling contrast to the Rambo moves that choreograph his and other child soldiers as they wantonly reduce village after village to flames.

To the Linksland: A Golfing Adventure” (Viking, 1992) By Michael Bamberger

This is my sports favorite book, an annual holiday read as spring beckons around the corner. Golf is perhaps the only spectator sport in which the mere mortal can participate alongside his hero, merely by hooking a bag and caddying 18 holes. Michael Bamberger took this fantasy much further, quitting his job in 1991 as a sportswriter, and journeying across the Atlantic to carry the bag of Peter Teravainen from France’s St. Raphael to the Scottish Open in Auchtertarder. Peter himself is a remarkable character whose Massachusetts origins belie his Finnish name, and whose Singaporean residence and embrace of Buddhism only add to the mystique. Teravainen succeeded in making a living on the European golf tour, earning almost 120,000 pounds for the season. Bamberger was on his bag, sometimes riding the caddy bus between tour stops to save on expenses.

Bamberger breaks with Tervavainen after the Scottish Open to achieve his own golfing nirvana with an outing on a little known six-hole course maintained by shepherds at Machrihanish. Golf writing and winter escapism at its best.

The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game” (W.W. Norton, 2007) By Michael M. Lewis

My wife, Jean, stumbled across this sports book on a list, perhaps here – someone’s favorite about American sport. And I am glad she did. “The Blind Side” is another fine contribution to sports journalism, recording the journey of a phenomenal African-American athlete from the poverty of the Memphis tenements to starting left tackle at the University of Mississippi and the prospect of a secure future in the National Football League.

In keeping with the best of sports journalism, this book is partly about the sport itself, and the evolution of the NFL passing game that placed a premium on gigantic, nimble, left tackles who could protect slow-footed quarterbacks from the ravages of an all-out pass rush. It is also about a larger than life sports personality, a 330-pound athlete who could stuff a basketball as easily as an opposing lineman. Enter Michael Oher, now eligible for the NFL draft as a likely first-rounder, whose foster African-American family improbably engineered his acceptance at Memphis’ conservative Briarcrest Christian School, to his equally improbable adoption by Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy, wealthy franchisers and graduates of the University of Mississippi. Their daughter and a beloved tutor accompanied Michael to Ole Miss, as did his high school coach. All become part of a well-written tale, sympathetically told.

The Punch: One Night, Two Lives, and the Fight that Changed Basketball Forever” (Little Brown & Company, 2003) By John Feinstein

John Feinstein is another accomplished sport journalist whose best works typically take the reader back to the golf course. “Good Walk Spoiled” and “Tales from Tour School” are outstanding examples of the genre. But this book, which spent a few weeks on the New York Times bestseller list is about a winter sport—basketball. “The Punch” addresses a single split second in the annals of NBA basketball that changed the lives and fortunes of two professional athletes forever. One night in 1977, Kermit Washington of the L.A. Lakers dropped all-star forward Rudy Tomjanovich of the Houston Rockets to the court floor with a devastating blow that left him on the brink of death from brain injury.

Around this singular act of violence, Feinstein chronicles the lives of two individuals as they repair the damage to their personal and professional lives as well as a sports league as it examines the negligence that contributed to the act.

What's On Your Nightstand, Andrea DeLong-Amaya?

Andrea DeLong-Amaya has spent more than a decade at The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, one of a handful of botanical gardens in the United States focused on native plants. As the director of horticulture since 2004, she oversees the care and management of thousands of native wildflowers, plants and trees in the gardens, and of the 100,000 plants that nursery staff and volunteers grow annually.

She has designed and redesigned many of the center’s gardens, focusing on plants from Central Texas and expanding into the far reaches of the state. She currently directs the design of a new Children’s Garden with a sustainable footprint that will open at the center in a few years. DeLong-Amaya, a native Texan, has been a guest on KLRU-TV’s “Central Texas Gardener,” and contributes regular columns about native plant topics to e-gardens, an electronic newsletter for readers of Neal Sperry’s Gardens magazine

DeLong-Amaya’s been known to chase down word definitions in dictionaries for the fun of it and has a penchant for self-help and health books, whether they’re about the environment or green personal care products. Here are some favorites from the gardening corner of her collection:

“Design Your Garden” by Diarmuid Gavin (Dorling Kindersley, 2004)

Any good gardening book has great photos, and Gavin’s comprehensive design book has many from stunning gardens in Great Britain and elsewhere. It also provides a 10-step plan for garden design, with scores of helpful diagrams explaining things like how to draw out a garden plan, create garden features and address gardens with challenging shapes. The plant suggestions won’t likely help since most aren’t from North America.

Best of all, he inspires readers to think outside the “flower” box, with everything from images of a garden made just of topiary, to coverage of color in gardens and plants as visual walls or screens. Must-have topics are also included, such as selecting garden styles to fit your personality and site, water features and plants’ need for moisture and sunlight.

“Designing with Plants” by Piet Oudolf with Noël Kingsbury (Timber Press Inc., 2009)

As in Gavin’s book, Oudolf and Kingsbury focus on the artistic side of designing a garden, but with more emphasis on the plants themselves and on gardens with a natural style. They spell out what it takes to compose a garden with strong visual appeal, highlighting the impact of color and other elements in a less conventional, more visceral way. Beautiful images fill the book. It also covers unusual topics, such as how to consider the dominant shape of a plant and how that blends with other plants, creating a mood in a garden and breaking unnecessarily rigid design rules.

“It’s Easy Being Green” by Crissy Trask (Gibbs Smith, 2006)

This guidebook for creating an eco-minded lifestyle suggests useful small changes in many areas of your life that help make the world a better place. It’s an easy read, chock-full of tips done as bullet lists, and includes a handy debunking of myths that hold people back from making lifestyle changes. Trask organizes information into helpful categories for considering the foods you eat, how you clean, what you do at work and other topics. The beginning of each chapter includes cute sketches of the new “you” with your environmentally friendly lifestyle on display.

“A Child’s Garden: 60 Ideas to Make Any Garden Come Alive for Children” by Molly Dannenmaier (Timber Press, 2008)

Gardening can be a great way to sneak in learning experiences for children while helping them connect with nature. Dannenmaier’s book isn’t a How To, but provides a good way to consider fun garden features you might not have thought about otherwise. It’s geared toward pre-teens, but some garden features would work with older children or kid-at-heart adults. The book covers make-believe elements, nurturing features, refuges and six other elements to inspire or stimulate children. Photos illustrate the ideas, including novel suggestions such as providing unstructured play areas for digging or picking flowers, putting peepholes in fencing, creating a sundial, and providing places where children can hide, such as a giant nest of willow.