510cUjNQn-L._SL150_ First published in the New York Journal of Books, July 16 2014

  The Orpheus Descent by Tom Harper

Review by Janet Levine


“In The Orpheus Descent, Harper uses his novelist’s skills to plausibly recreate time and place—his settings in ancient Italy and Greece are strong—as are his characters, including some genuine historical figures . . .”


In The Orpheus Descent by Tom Harper two story lines bisect: historical fiction is feathered into a contemporary mystery/conspiracy in symmetrical alternating chapters. This can be disconcerting at first, but readers soon become accustomed to the pattern.


To make it easier for readers to follow, Harper employs two fictional voices: the historical storyline develops in the first person while the contemporary plot unfolds as a third-person narrative. Surprisingly this bifurcated approach works well because Harper is a skilled and competent writer.


In the tradition of Indiana Jones the contemporary conspiracy/thriller plot treads a more or less predictable path. An archaeologist, Lily, works on a dig in Italy where she discovers a gold micro-tablet with a message that supposedly holds secrets of the afterlife, the very pathway to hell itself.


She signs a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) along with two colleagues and the precious find is secured in a safe. But when Jonah, her musician husband, at the end of a music tour in Europe, hurries to join her at the site, although there are signs of her recent presence in their room, she disappears . . . and so does the tablet.


The remainder of this storyline is generic mystery/thriller plot: evil Greek billionaires with yachts, strange emails and phone message, red herrings interspersed with flashbacks to the pre-marriage romance of this 30-something couple.


Many of these romantic liaisons occur in caves, caves carved out by the ceaseless flow of millennia of ocean currents. The literary implication is obvious; Lily and Jonah frolic in the same water that Plato, and even perhaps Orpheus, knew. Knowledge defies time in continuous patterns; what we sought after then, we seek today. What better transitional device to establish the Platonic parallel story. Most 12th grade high school students and certainly university freshman, if they know only one “fact” about the philosopher Plato, it is that he wrote the allegory of the cave in his seminal Socratic dialogue The Republic.


But the strength of the novel is Harper’s recreation of the ancient Greek world that assimilates philosophy, more pertinently metaphysics, into the Orphic myth along with a retelling of Plato’s journey to Syracuse. Well-documented history substantiates that such a journey occurred and that something happened on that journey to change Plato’s worldview.


In The Orpheus Descent, Harper uses his novelist’s skills to plausibly recreate time and place—his settings in ancient Italy and Greece are strong—as are his characters, including some genuine historical figures: the tyrant Dionysus, ruler of Syracuse, and his relatives, Dion and Dionysus II.


The novel is well paced, and both male protagonists experience terrifying odysseys in caves although they live 2,000 years apart. Dreams, philosophical discourses, and strange synchronicities add to the complexities. Ultimately we are not made privy to secrets of the afterlife and hell, although Jonah in true Greek heroic fashion, literally snatches his wife from the jaws of hell, a gaping abyss that belches volcanic material from an erupting Mt. Etna.


A satisfying, thinking person’s read for a summer vacation.


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From: The New York Journal of Books, June 4, 2013

Reviewed by Janet Levine | Released: June 4, 2013
Publisher: Knopf (256 pages)

0307962555.01._PC_SCLZZZZZZZ_“But this narrative, a story of family domesticity and femininity—desires, wiles, superstitions—is light fare for a historical novel that delves into the philosophical ferment of Socrates,’ Plato’s and Aristotle’s world. After all, their studies, thoughts, interactions and writing, even after two millennia, remain the bedrock of all western philosophy.”

The sweet girl of the title refers to Pythias, daughter of the famous philosopher, Aristotle, and his dead wife also named Pythias. Daughter Pythias is reared by Aristotle’s former slave and current concubine, Herpyllis alongside her half-brother, Nicomachus (Nico) for whom, as a tribute, Aristotle named his famous philosophical treatise, the Nicomachean Ethics.

As Annabel Lyon’s narrative unfolds it stays true to the known events of Aristotle’s life and these create both the circumstances of the family dynamic as well as the framework of the novel.

An “outsider” born in Macedonia and tutor to Alexander the Great, after his star pupil defeats the Athenians, Aristotle moves to Athens where he studies and collaborates with Socrates.

But Plato, an Athenian by birth, inherits Socrates’ famous Academy and Aristotle founds his own Lyceum. After Alexander’s death in far away Persia, Aristotle deems it not safe for himself or his family in Athens and moves the household to Chalcis in Macedonia. Here they are treated kindly and shortly thereafter Aristotle succumbs to disease.

But this narrative, a story of family domesticity and femininity—desires, wiles, superstitions—is light fare for a historical novel that delves into the philosophical ferment of Socrates’, Plato’s and Aristotle’s world. Their studies, thoughts, interactions and writing, even after two millennia, remain the bedrock of all western philosophy.

Obviously with this focus on the feminine Lyon’s intent places the tale firmly in and on the sphere of the kitchen, the weaving room, and many household religious rites (including arcane midwifery practices). She uses stripped down, modern (often colloquial) prose to carry the narrative. For Pythias, the first person “coming of age” narrator, the center of her universe is not her esteemed father and his great mind but the trysts and twists that shape her emerging sexuality and womanhood. Lyon focuses on Pythias’ attraction for her adopted “cousin” Myrmex and interactions with the household slaves and servants, as well as Nicanor, a cousin to whom her father promises her in marriage.

While this book deliberately sidesteps the province of philosophy and the philosophers, it does bring to mind in a nostalgic way the world of the famous novelist of the 1950s, Mary Renault.

For instance, in her book The Last of the Wine, through the relationship of two youths, Renault expertly evokes Greek culture and highlights the impact of the uber philosophers. Clearly Lyon (like Renault) has immersed herself in details of everyday life in ancient Athens and happily shares her research, both specifics of daily life and Pythias’ interactions with goddesses and priests.

The prepubescent Pythias charms in her relationship with her father, who all but abandons her once she reaches the menarche. Thereafter we travel with her and the family on the journey to Chalcis, as well as on her journey to womanhood.

Virginia Woolf once famously asked in her essay A Room of One’s Own: What if Shakespeare had a sister named Judith? We will never know the answer.

But if Judith presented herself as a modern North American teenager without acknowledging the impact and influence of her famous brother than it is perhaps as well we do not know. And so it is with Pythias, a (sometimes not so) sweet girl and her famous father.


Janet Levine is a journalist and author of four books including the novel Leela’s Gift.


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My new book, a novel, “Leela’s Gift” has been released. In fact it can be viewed at http://lulu.com/spotlight/JLevine1. It will soon be (early August) available at amazon.com and many online venues where book are sold as well as in book stores (remember www.indiebound.org and independent book stores). “Leela’s Gift” is the story of a luminous inner spiritual  journey. It is set in New York and high in the Himalayas near Darjeeling in northern India. The novel uncovers archetypal and highly relevant spiritual teachings. East meet west in Leela. The book offers teachings on meditation and yoga,  practical paths to freedom from the often dispiriting and desperate quality of our contemporary lives. The novel intertwines Leela’s journey with modern philosophy  and primal wisdom and is infused with some of the inner teachings of Buddhism and the Enneagram. “Leela’s Gift” tells a story as old as the human heart.


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© Janet Levine 2010

Coming soon to online and brick book stores.

Seven years ago, one July, on a clear but cold winter’s day on a beach in Nature’s Valley, South Africa, one of my sons asked me. “What is your next book?” (“Know Your Parenting Personality” had recently been published.)  I replied that  I would like to write a novel somehow using the personality types of the Enneagram. He thought it was a good idea and we spoke about it a bit. Through many twists and turns “Leela’s Gift” took on a life of its own and became much more than the sum of its parts. I am pleased it will shortly be available (by August) for readers who love fiction and who love to delve into the depths of spiritual and philosophical matters.

In the beginning after two years of working on several drafts , my ex-agent did not like the structure of the material. Two more years, and two more drafts, she still did not like the material. So we agreed to part. Over another year and because certain characters refused to leave my mind and insisted on being in the book,  I rewrote it to incorporate them. I shared drafts with a group of readers, had it professionally edited and hit the slush pile over another year in scores of agents’ offices. So hard to be flushed out of the slush pile, I share great empathy with every writer who tries. But the manuscript idea did grab many agents and I do have a publishing record so “partials” and “fulls” went flying across the virtual world of the wide web.

The problem is I like to be on the cutting edge, I like to write hybrids, I like to break new ground. This is true of everything I have done in my life, from my anti-apartheid activism to how I live my life to my writing. So my manuscript did not fit a “niche”, a “genre”, it is an original. The New York publishing cartel does not take chances on “originals”. I am not a product of the American grad school MFA pipeline.

Agents “loved the writing” “appreciated the material” “enjoyed the well-developed characters” but (and the following are by far the two most common responses) “…I do not have time for a special project like this” “…I can’t give a project like this the attention it deserves to see it published.” What is it agents do, if they don’t have time to be an agent? “No publisher in New York will even ask to read it” one honest agent told me, and when I inquired why, he said “Traditional publishing is in paroxysms of decline and panic and does not know how to save itself…”

Okay…so now what? An agent-friend for over twenty years, semi-retired now, agreed about the decline, “We are in a revolution in publishing, self-publishing is not defeat, it is an exciting avenue to amazing new ebook and other markets. You don’t know how many other authors, well-known, well-published authors can’t find a traditional publisher and I have suggested to them: self-publish. So, yes, do the research, self-publish, you believe in this work, don’t you?”

I believe in this work.


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Below you will find a photo of peonies that bloomed in my garden this morning. For some reason this is a once in three years occurrence so I greet each bloom with excitement. They are among the most beautiful peonies I have seen, and the scent is intoxicating. I have been a gardener for as long as I can remember. Growing up in a suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa, I remember my mother at work with her roses, about 50 bushes of various varieties, secateurs in hand as she deadheaded, debudded (to leave only one rose on a stem) and carefully removed aphids and other undesirable pests. My grandfather who spent a third of every year with us always wore a fresh rosebud in the lapel of his suit jacket. When I was an adolescent I was given the rock garden as my provenance and loved to plan and plant and move rocks. My nemesis was the snails who shared my rock garden. Johannesburg, situated on a plateau at 6,00 feet, and with a temperate climate, dry heat and usually reliable summer rain, is an Eden for gardeners. There is one drawback, cyclical drought and with it watering restrictions, so every seven years gardeners watch their hard work, manicured lawns and the beauty they created wither and die. In the suburbs drilling for artesian water sources was a flourishing business.

As a young wife and mother I had first a pocket garden with an almost sub-tropical micro-climate due to a sunny vantage and thick white washed walls. Around giant strelitzes,  avocado and mulberry trees the carefullly designed borders flourished. Later I had almost an acre in which to garden and loved every inch of the rich loam in which whatever I planted grew with vigor and beauty.

When we moved to the Boston area many years ago I had to re-examine everything I had learned about gardening. Our first home was a three hundred year old carriage house set on an acre of land. We had hundred year old giant beeches on the property. The land itself had been neglected for years, but with care and attention a garden will emerge with alacrity from underneath the undergrowth and weeds. As I uncovered flower beds, dug and sowed, the garden returned to some of its previous glory. From spring to autumn we ate fresh produce from the rescued and resuscitated cold frame beds. I planted strawberries around the swimming pool, hosta in the shady areas and a riot of day lilies wherever I could. I learned to accept the cycle of the year, and reluctantly return my gardening tools to their permanent place in the garage each November. Come February the catalogs arrived and soon I would have spindly seedlings growing under lights.

I planted myself in American soil in bringing that garden back to life.

Now I have a much smaller garden again. It is all I want to manage. For me little else in life compares to the satisfaction of caring for a flower bed of rich dark soil where every plunge of the weeding fork or hand spade reveals not only the roots of the weed but wriggling earth worms too. Then you know you have an arable patch and the result is glorious peonies like these.


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Please read the previous blogs as this is a continuing series. Now that you have taken the Student Inventory (TPI) on www.janetlevine.com and discovered that you are an Attacher,  Detacher or Defender your curiosity is piqued and you want to know more about the model.  This blog answers some of the most common questions I am asked by young people when they first encounter the E-model.

In Greek ennea means nine and gram graph or model. The Enneagram is a dynamic flow model of consciousness. Each of us defaults into one of nine positions arranged equidistantly on a circle. At each of these positions (called a Point) clusters of characteristics cling like pins on a magnet and contain the motivations for our behavior. (You can see a diagram of the model on many web sites. Do a simple search on the Internet.)  However, no two people who are the same Point are in any way identical, so the E-model describes the  nine behavioral clusters to the nth degree thus accounting for each and every individual difference. The E-model does not place people in boxes.

On the circle each Point is joined to four others, the two on either side of your own, called wings that flavor your E-type,  and two others on the lines that flow toward and away from you; these lines are depicted as arrows and they are arranged  in a triangle and a hexagon. The direction of these lines describe shifts in consciousness such as when you are under stress or when you feel secure. Furthermore (this is a complex model) there are two hidden arrows that join four of the Points, so everyone has one part of their personality in each of the head, heart and body-based triads. (Hence my name for the TPI or Triads Personality Inventory). The TPI explanation on my web sites describes the Triads.

The origins of the E-model are still somewhat sketchy. For many years it was thought to have Sufi (esoteric Islamic) origins, then, research even further back revealed that it may have originated in the work of the post-Alexandrian Desert Fathers in Egypt, and more recently some claim Vedic origins for the model (myself included), and that is as far back as we can find any record of our ancestor’s thoughts.

Many philosophers and philosophical traditions have developed systems of nine forms and a tenth called unity (in the example of the E-model–a circle). Plato devised his model of the Divided Line and placed his  nine Universal Forms at the top level of cognition. The mystical Jewish Kabbalah with its nine sefirot encompassed within the form of a human body is another dynamic system that explains consciousness. (It has alignments with the E-model.) In the 12th to 16th centuries, neo-Platonists and Christian Kabbalists added important understandings to these models.

The current iteration of the E-model has been sculpted since the 1960s by psychologists  and others in the United States and elsewhere in professions and disciplines that explore the human mind and consciousness. As a baseline they used the Diagnostic Survey Manual (DSM) knowing as they did so that the DSM describes pathologies while the E-model descriptors draw a bell-curve of normal to high-functioning people.

Shorter answers to your questions–the nine E-types are evenly distributed among females and males worldwide. No E-type is better than another they are equally valid. There is no E-Type that is “better” for you as a partner. We all have to work hard at all our relationships

We are born with our E-type. We cannot change it, but the characteristics do ameliorate with age. For most people age 15-25 is when the E-type  is most flagrant. Knowing your E-type brings you immediate compassion and understanding for yourself and others.

How will knowing your E-type help you? Stay tuned.


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