Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Cloud Messenger

Meghadutam, or, The Cloud Messenger, by Kalidasa

I must say, the Classics Club has been good for me. When I first compiled the list, I added a bunch of titles that I didn't actually know what they were.  Surprise is good, right?  Several of the surprise titles were ancient or medieval texts from Asian sources.  So, I have Kojiki (Japanese) and Muqaddimah (Arabic) on my list, and I'm tracking those down.  And I had The Cloud Messenger, by Kalidasa, who lived about 1500 years ago and wrote in Sanskrit.  Kalidasa wrote plays and poetry, and the web page where I read the poem says that he "created a new genre in Sanskrit literature" with The Cloud Messenger.  Instead of an epic or a hymn, this is a poem about love and longing.  It's too long to be called a lyric, but the website describes it as elegiac, which is pretty good.

In the poem, a young Yaksha--an attendant on Kubera, the god of wealth--has committed some fault and has been exiled from the Himalayas for a year.  He lives far away, on a different mountain, and he is pining for his lovely young bride.  When he sees a cloud traveling by (the rainy season is about to start), he addresses it, wishing that the cloud would take a message to his beloved.  About half the poem is dedicated to enticing the cloud by describing the wonderful journey across India it will take on its way to the city of the Yakshas:
At thine approach, Dasharna land is blest
With hedgerows where gay buds are all aglow,
  With village trees alive with many a nest
Abuilding by the old familiar crow,
With lingering swans, with ripe rose-apples' darker show.


  There shalt thou see the royal city, known
Afar, and win the lover's fee complete,
  If thou subdue thy thunders to a tone
Of murmurous gentleness, and taste the sweet,
Love-rippling features of the river at thy feet.
It's like a magic carpet ride over a fairy-tale landscape, right across India.  The Yaksha then describes his bride's longing for him, his for her, and finally dictates the actual message to the cloud.

It never does say whether the cloud does the young man's bidding.  I rather think not, because near the beginning it points out that a cloud is not really an appropriate entity to be a messenger, and blames the Yaksha's lack of common sense on his love-addled state--an amusing moment of realism in what amounts to a fairy tale poem:
Nor did it pass the lovelorn Yaksha's mind
How all unfitly might his message mate
  With a cloud, mere fire and water, smoke and wind--
Ne’er yet was lover could discriminate
’Twixt life and lifeless things, in his love-blinded state. 
The Cloud Messenger is only about 100 stanzas long and a pleasant read.  I'm sure the modern English translation can't even hope to measure up to the original Sanskrit, but the online version is comprehensible and comes with very handy notes between the stanzas, so you don't get too lost.

There are plenty of adaptations to music and the stage, too.  I hope sometime I can see one.

Kalidasa also wrote a play and some other poetry, so I'll put those on my mental list for the future.  I guess I'm going to need the Classics Club, 2nd edition.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions

Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, and seuerall steps in my Sicknes, by John Donne

In 1623, John Donne nearly died from a severe illness (maybe typhus?).  During his long recovery, he wrote these "devotions," which are meditations using illness as a way to think about fallen humanity, sinfulness, and how to 'recover' or be saved by God.  Elizabethans often thought of illness as a reflection of human sinfulness.

There are 23 essays, each corresponding to a step in the progression of the illness, so the titles are things like "The patient takes his bed," "The physician desires to have others joined with him," and so on through fever, treatment, purging, and recovery (including the danger of relapsing).  By far my favorite title is XII, "They apply pigeons, to draw the vapours from the head."   And each devotion is divided into three sections: a meditation on the theme, an expostulation in which Donne debates with God, and a prayer asking for God's help with the issue at hand.

I tried to read one or two devotions per day.  This is not a book you can just read all the way through; it's by Donne after all and therefore it's filled with complicated metaphors and conceits that take time to grasp.  Moreover he is talking about his faith in a way that we no longer use.

XVII is the famous one that we all know from English class--"no man is an island" and "never send to know for whom the bells tolls..."  I enjoyed reading the whole thing instead of edited excerpts, and it is indeed the most memorable devotion.

Very interesting to read, and some good thoughts to ponder.  I've always wished to read more (and, more to the point, to be able to wrap my brain around more) of the metaphysical poets.  Maybe someday I'll do a Metaphysical Poets Reading Challenge to provide encouragement, and two people will join it.


Friday, June 26, 2015

How to be a Heroine

How to be a Heroine, or, What I've Learned From Reading Too Much, by Samantha Ellis

Reading memoirs are pretty hit or miss for me, but I was completely hooked by the first couple of pages of this one.  Ellis visits the Yorkshire moors with her best friend.  As they walk over land beloved by Emily Bronte, they argue about which heroine is better--Cathy Earnshaw or Jane Eyre?  Ellis thinks this is a no-brainer--obviously Cathy.  Who cares about plain, boring Jane?  Her best friend argues that Cathy just "makes everyone unhappy" with her bad decisions and her wailing, and points out that Jane is independent and principled and strong.  And revelation strikes Ellis:
My whole life, I'd been trying to be Cathy, when I should have been trying to be Jane.
I thought this story was fantastic and promptly needed to read the whole book.

Well, it turns out that the story about Cathy and Jane is my favorite part of the book and the rest of it didn't quite live up to that, but I did enjoy large swathes of the memoir.

Ellis starts off with her princess-obsessed childhood and uses it to meditate upon fairy tales and Hans Christian Andersen.*  She thinks about Little Women (and I disagree with some of her conclusions, as I often did). She visits Anne Shirley, Lizzy Bennet, and Scarlett O'Hara in her reminisces about how she tried to find patterns for living in her literary heroines.  Ellis talks a lot about her upbringing in an Iraqi Jewish family in London, which is pretty interesting; more to my taste than her later descriptions of love affairs.

In fact for a while there the literary heroines get pretty racy.  Ellis spends a chunk of time on Jilly Cooper, who sounds like a British Danielle Steele, and on the Valley of the Dolls books--stuff like that.  I liked the chapter on Flora Poste better.  (I love Flora Poste.)  Ellis meditates on Heathcliff and Cathy's melodrama, and finally, in a pretty excellent ending chapter, on Scheherazade.

I liked most of the book parts and was somewhat impatient with the memoir/personal introspection parts, which admittedly is my own problem since I did pick up a book that is a reading memoir.  On the list of reading memoirs I have read, this is a pretty good one.  I would like to argue with her about some of her thoughts, though.

So: Cathy or Jane?  My vote is Jane, every time.  I dislike just about everyone in Wuthering Heights. Whose idea was it that Heathcliff is a romantic hero?  He's horrible.  Jane is principled and independent, and sticks to her ideas no matter what. 





*This reminds me: am I just older than Ellis, or is it something else?  Am I the only one whose childhood Disney experiences were not dominated by princesses?  Nearly all the movies I remember seeing--back when Disney re-released a classic cartoon into theaters every summer--were animal stories like the Aristocats or else fairy tales like Pinocchio and Dumbo.  I think I saw Snow White, maybe, but until Ariel came along in my senior year of high school I don't remember seeing any other Disney films with princesses; I pretty much had a princess-less childhood.  I did see Song of the South one summer, though.  Give me some feedback here; if you're 40 or over, did you see princess movies as a kid?

Thursday, June 25, 2015

A Moment Comes

A Moment Comes, by Jennifer Bradbury

1947, Punjab: a British cartographer working to map out where the boundary between India and Pakistan will be established has three teens in his household:

Tariq, an ambitious young Muslim determined to get the best education so that he can be a leader;
Anupreet, a Sikh girl anxious about her relatives and traumatized herself;
Margaret, the daughter, a disgraced debutante liable to get herself and everyone else into trouble.

Tensions are already extremely high.  Tariq is under pressure to participate in mob violence, and he's desperate to stay out of it.  Anupreet is, somewhat unfortunately, very beautiful and has already been in danger.  And Margaret is bored, frustrated, and clueless enough to blunder into situations she doesn't understand at all.  As the violence gets worse, the lives of all three are changed along with the future of India.

Bradbury does a great job of evoking the dangers of border areas in 1947, and she brings in a lot of solid historical detail, even including the corpse trains.  Overall it's very good YA historical fiction.  Even though you want to bop Margaret one over the head much of the time.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

About Daddy

About Daddy, by Meena Arora Nayak

I picked this up from the stacks at work because I'm always attracted to works about India.  I'm kind of ambivalent on this one though.

Simran travels to India on a mission to scatter the ashes of her beloved father, whose last wish was that he rest on the border between Pakistan and India.  But then she's arrested for suspicious activity and spends three months in prison, where her perspective and priorities totally change.  Simran's boyfriend gets her out, but then she goes underground to join a peace movement led by the charismatic Kalida as she tries to heal the wounds left by Partition.

I liked that the novel portrayed a woman stuck in an Indian prison, where she makes connections with a bunch of different people.  But the setup felt contrived to me; Simran is horrifyingly naive (her parents never talked about India, because her father was so severely traumatized by what he had been through and done during Partition) and she keeps diving into trouble.  I think she's supposed to be impetuous and passionate, but it was mostly just exasperating.  I could see the final twist coming from a mile away, and the whole thing felt more like a message with a plot shoved into it than a good story that happened to have a message.  And the writing often felt overdone.

Not my favorite novel about India, for several reasons.  It's not terrible or anything, and I enjoyed parts of it, but I was often annoyed and was tempted to quit a few times.

It so happens that I read two novels focused on Partition right next to each other...so stay tuned.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

An African in Greenland

An African in Greenland, by Tete-Michel Kpomassie

Resist this fabulous memoir if you can (which you can't).  In the later 1950s, Michel is your average 16-year-old in Togoland, living your average life, until he sees a book about Greenland.  The idea of a place so completely opposite to his home--cold and frozen all the time, with no trees, and with a culture that listens to children--intrigued him so much that he decided he ought to go there.  And so he did.  (It helped that his father had just promised him to the python cult, to be trained as a priest.)  Michel left home and worked his way north.  It took six years to get out of Africa, and another two to work his way up to Denmark, where he could embark for Greenland.  All the while, he was studying through correspondence courses, and picked up several new languages.

Most of the book covers Michel's 16 months in Greenland itself, though.  He starts off in the south, and stays for a while, but always wants to move north.  His eventual goal is to get to Thule, the farthest north possible!  Michel lives with Inuit friends, learns the language, and becomes completely acculturated to life in Greenland.  His observations about Greenlander life and culture are always honest; he loves these people, but he's not going to cover up their flaws either.  The whole thing is just fascinating.

The Danish edition
Kpomassie doesn't directly make comments on colonialism/imperialsm and so on, but he does describe the side effects of Danish rule in Greenland (and, every once in a while, French rule in Togo).  This makes for a very interesting perspective.  It's kind of depressing to read about the Danish bureaucracy deciding that the Inuit should all go live in towns, to make it easier to keep track of them...where they tend to end up unemployed.

I really enjoyed this memoir a lot.  Wow.  It's not always happy fun time, don't think that, but this is for sure one of my best books of the year so far.  What an adventure!

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Song of the Volsungs

The Song of the Volsungs

After the Beowulf readalong, I went on quite the Anglo-Saxon/early medieval kick.  Beowulf mentioned Sigurd, so I wanted to read his story.  I read some little texts from the British Museum about the Lewis Chessmen and the Sutton Hoo helmet; those were great. Then I started the Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History, but I'm not finished with that yet; still about 100 pages to go there.  Anyway, for Sigurd's story I picked up this fancy new Penguin edition, featuring the 1990 translation by Jesse L. Byock.

The saga traces the history of the Volsung clan, starting with Sigi and going down through lots of murders and power struggles and incest (!) and people murdering their own children (!) until we get to Sigurd, who kills the dragon Fafnir.  Fafnir has not always been a dragon; he is the brother of Regin and was once human.  Regin gets Sigurd to agree to kill Fafnir by promising him the dragon's massive hoard of gold.

This was a detail I really liked; the poet had a nicely realistic idea of what constituted a massive hoard of gold:
There Sigurd found an enormous store of gold, as well as the sword Hrotti.  He took from there the helm of terror, the golden coat of chain mail, and many other precious things.  He found so much gold that he expected it to be more than two or even three horses could carry.  He took all the gold and put it into two large chests...
I think movies have really distorted our ideas about treasure caves, hm?

After this, Sigurd meets Brynhild, a warrior maiden who he promises to marry.  But things get complicated; Sigurd marries Gudrun after she gives him a potion that makes him forget Brynhild, and after that everything just goes tragically wrong.  Although, interestingly, Attila the Hun shows up as King Atli BuĂ°lason.

Great stuff.  I should find some more Icelandic sagas to read.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Muhammad

Muhammad: Prophet of God, by Daniel Peterson

This has been an unofficial TBR title for a while now.  It's a scholarly biography of Muhammad written for the layperson--the author is a professor of Islamic and Arabic studies, it's a fairly short book (less than 200 pages), it's very clearly written, and it has plenty of footnotes.

Everything that is known about the details of Muhammad's life is here, and a good bit about the early beginnings of Islam.  Peterson also includes some information about disagreements on various issues and his opinions on them, where relevant.  The best thing about it is how very readable it is; there's no jargon, it's all clearly set out in nice prose, and it's just a pleasure to read.

I enjoyed it, it was very informative and respectful without polemics either way, and it was a good solid treatment without becoming exhaustive. 

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Jungle Book

The Jungle Book, by Rudyard Kipling

For this month's literary movement challenge, I was pretty stumped.  It's Victorian month, and I've already read one Dickens and two Trollopes this year, so I was inclined to cry uncle.  My daughter suggested a children's story, which was a good idea...and then the light dawned.  Kipling!  I have read almost no Kipling!  It's doesn't get any more Victorian than that.  Said daughter was appalled to learn that I had never read The Jungle Book ("What??  I've read it three times!"), and so my choice was made.  (Don't tell, but I have also never read Just So Stories all the way through.)

The first half of the book is stories about Mowgli and will be sort of familiar to people who have seen the Disney movie, though these are a lot more serious.  Jungle inhabitants have strict laws and standards.  And this is not a novel; it's two or three short stories that do not happen in chronological order.

After that there are three other stories: one about a white seal who searches for a beach where seals won't be hunted by men, the well-known "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi," one about the secret life of elephants, and one last sort of comic story where a soldier overhears the various animals in camp discuss their duties in war.


They were pretty good stories.  I told my younger, pickier daughter that she might like them too.


Thursday, May 28, 2015

Beowulf Readalong: Week IV and Wrapup

I'm saying goodbye to Beowulf. 

This last section of the poem skims over 50 years of Beowulf's rule as a good and righteous king to tell the story of his last days.  An escaped slave wandered into a barrow and woke up the dragon sleeping there (I really like this bit actually, as it explains that the barrow is a very ancient one built by a people now long gone.  The dragon found the treasure inside and has been guarding it for 300 years.), and now the dragon is terrorizing the Geats and looking for his lost gold cup.  Only Beowulf can face the dragon!

So King Beowulf--who is at least 70--puts on his trusty armor and vows not to leave the barrow until he has killed the monster inside.  Only one of his thanes is brave enough to follow him in and assist--his young kinsman Wiglaf.  Beowulf battles the dragon, and Wiglaf gets in a thrust that weakens the monster enough that Beowulf can deliver a killing blow.  Dying from blood loss and dragon venom, he asks Wiglaf to go deeper into the cave and bring out some of the treasure that is the partial cause of his death.  After that we mourn a lot; Wiglaf berates the cowardly thanes and there is a magnificent funeral.  Beowulf gets a barrow of his own, but this is the end of good times for the Geats; now that their brave king is dead, there is no successor and they're going to be subject to invasion and conquest.


I do not understand why Wiglaf can't be the Geatish king; he certainly seems qualified.

I never noticed in prior readings that Beowulf, like most other heroic stories, assumes that the past was better.  Ancient swords are stronger than new ones (it's a bad shock when Beowulf's heirloom sword actually breaks in the dragon's head), ancient gold is better treasure, and ancient people were stronger somehow. 

I really like the description of the barrow where the dragon lives.  It's clearly one of those longish hills with a stone entrance, something like the image below, except with a little stream of water coming out.  The water is poisoned by the dragon's venom.


This last part of the poem is very melancholy in that Anglo-Saxon/Viking fashion.  Life is short; do your best to win glory while it lasts, but even heroes will die, and nobody is safe.  The Beowulf poet's Christianity does not change the tragic tone of the story, which celebrates the good things of life (mostly mead and heroism) while mourning their transience.

And so Beowulf is all done.  To follow up, I'm going to move on to the Song of the Volsungs to see about Sigurd and Fitela.  I don't know much about them.  I got this neat new Penguin edition that is part of a series labeled "Legends from the Ancient North (works that inspired Tolkien)" and has really cool cover art.  Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Elder Edda, and a couple others are included.

Thanks to Cleo for doing such a great job hosting the readalong!  I hope you all checked out her posts; she put a lot of effort into them.