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Archive for January, 2011

I discovered ‘The Greatest Romance Stories Ever Told’ quite sometime back at the bookstore, during one of my random browsing sessions. It was beautifully produced and it came at a heavy discount and so I couldn’t resist it. I have been reading the stories inside off and on for a while now but today I thought I will finish reading all the unread stories. I finished reading it today evening and here is the review.

Description of the book

I am giving below a description of the book as given in the inside flap.

From the dawn of time, love has been in the air – inspiring men and women since before the written word existed. Oral tradition is full of love ballads and sagas that tell of brave heroes rescuing fair damsels from unimaginable peril. And as soon as a writer took pen to paper, love became one of the most often explored themes of literature. Now, in these early days of the new millenium, literary romance is in the air again.

The Greatest Romance Stories Ever Told collects some of the most powerful works written on the subject. Including selections from Georgette Heyer, Anton Chekhov, O.Henry, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Pearl Buck, and Samuel Hopkins Adams, the voices of these great writers resonate with the truth of love – whether heartwarming or sidesplitting. That’s the beauty of love – it gives everyone a sure and individual insight, some serious, some sly, and some outright comical.

What I think

First on the title – I don’t know why it is called ‘The Greatest Romance Stories Ever Told’. I don’t know why it couldn’t be called ‘The Greatest Love Stories Ever Told’. That sounds so much better.

Now on the book itself. There are seventeen stories in the book. Some of them are by known authors (Anton Chekhov, Georgette Heyer, O.Henry, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Rafael Sabatini, Pearl Buck). Others are by not-so-famous authors – atleast they are new-to-me. All the stories are old – the most recent one was published in 1962. Classic short story writers (for example Raymond Carver) or writers who are active today (like Alice Munro or Mavis Gallant) aren’t featured in this book. Having said this, I have to say another thing too. Because of this precise reason – that so many not-so-famous authors are featured – this books throws so many delightful surprises. I actually liked some of the stories of the not-so-famous authors more than the established ones – for example, I didn’t like the story by Anton Chekhov much, but loved the story by Helen Eustis. That is the strength of this compilation – it unmasks so many unknown gems that when we read them our heart is filled with pleasure. Nancy Butler’s delightful introduction to each of the writers and stories provides the extra magic to the story. For example in her introduction to Georgette Heyer’s ‘The Duel’, Butler says “In this story, the reader immediately suspects a critical secret about the hero that the heroine does not know, creating a delicious sense of anticipation.” In her introduction to “Mister Death and the Red-headed woman’ by Helen Eustis, Butler says “In this rip-roaring tall tale, novelist Helen Eustis celebrates the American West. Here, a determined young lady refuses to let her own true love be taken away by the cold hand of Mister Death. She tracks him down on his pale stallion, but is unprepared for her reaction when she pays the forfeit her nemesis demands in return for her lover’s life…Mister Death, it turns out, has some unexpected depths, possibly enough to turn a girl’s red head.”

My favourite stories in the book were ‘The Duel’ by Georgette Heyer (it is about mysterious identities – I haven’t read Georgette Heyer before though some of my friends have recommended her books. Now I know why she is a wonderful storyteller! I can’t wait to read one of her novels now!), ‘The Scapulary’ by Rafael Sabatini (it is about a triangle of love and how true love reveals itself during a crisis – I have read Sabatini’s ‘Captain Blood’ and loved it. He seems to be a masterful short story writer too), ‘Mister Death and the Redheaded Woman’ by Helen Eustis (this was a delightful surprise for me. Eustis combines tragedy and love and mythology and western into one story which works so beautfully), ‘The Sudden Wings’ by Thomas Burnett Swann (it is a fairytale set in ancient Rome and is about love and trust) and ‘Springtime a la Carte’ by O.Henry (a delightful love story about a typist and a farmer – can O.Henry write otherwise). Honourary mention should go to ‘Night Bus’ by Samuel Hopkins Adams, which was like a golden age Hollywood movie (a young man and woman, who are from different social backgrounds meet in a night bus. The man is travelling on work while the woman is running away from home. We can imagine what will happen next :)). I was not surprised when I discovered that it was indeed made into a Hollywood movie – ‘It Happened One Night’ starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert (the first movie to win all the major Oscars – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay).

Excerpts

I am giving below some of my favourite passages from the book.

From ‘Springtime a la Carte by O.Henry

It was a day in March.

      Never, never begin a story this way when you write one. No opening could possibly be worse. It is unimaginative, flat, dry and likely to consist of mere wind. But in this instance it is allowable. For teh following paragraph, which should have inaugurated the narrative, is too wildly extravagant and preposterous to be flaunted in the face of the reader without preparation.

From “The Coming of Pan” by James Stephens

there were many things in which a child might be interested : the spacious heavens which never wore the same beauty on any day; the innumerable little creatures living among the grasses or in the heather; the steep swing of a bird down from the mountain to the infinite plains below; the little flowers which were so contented each in its peaceful place; the bees gathering food for their houses, and the stout beetles who are always losing their way in the dusk. These things, and many others, interested her. The three cows after they had grazed for a long time would come and lie by her side and look at her as they chewed their cud and the goats would prance from the bracken to push their heads against her breast because they loved her.

A thought is a real thing and words are only its raiment, but a thought is as shy as a virgin; unless it is fittingly appareled we may not look on its shadowy nakedness : it will fly from us and only return again in the darkness crying in a thin, childish voice which we may not comprehend until, with aching mind, listening and divining, we at last fashion for it those symbols which are its protection and its banner.

From “The Sudden Wings” by Thomas Burnett Swann

      ‘Will you come with me?’

      ‘Where?’

      ‘To my home in the mountain.’

      ‘Tomorrow, with Mark.’

      His eyes darkened. ‘You don’t love me then.’

      ‘It is too soon.’

      ‘Soon? Is love the sum of minutes or days? No, it is a pine torch kindled in a second. I saw you in my valley and I loved you instantly.’ His face was even younger than Mark’s, and his artless, literal speech was that of a child. But his eyes were old. To look into them was to tumble down stairways of malachite with fireflies whirling around her.

From “Night Bus” by Samuel Hopkins Adams

      “This is a hard-boiled time,” he explained patiently. “The man would lose his job if he held the bus, like as not.”

      She yawned. “He could get another, couldn’t he?”

      “Oh, of course! Just like that. You haven’t happened to hear of a thing called unemployment, have you?”

      “Oh, that’s just socialist talk. There are plenty of jobs for people who really want to work.”

      “Yes? Where did you get that line of wisdom?”

      She was bored and showed it in her intonation. “Why, everybody knows that. Bill was saying the other day that most of these people are idle because they’re just waiting for the dole or something.”

      “Who’s Bill?”

      “My oldest brother.”

      “Oh! And I suppose Bill works?”

      “We-ell; he plays polo. Almost every day.”

      Mr.Warne made a noise like a trained seal.

Final Thoughts

If you like reading love stories, you will love this book. It is beautifully produced and is an ideal Valentine’s day gift.

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I discovered ‘Mozart’s Journey to Prague’  by Eduard Mörike a few years back, when I was browsing in my favourite bookstore. At that time, Penguin had come out with the ‘Penguin Red Classics’ edition and I loved the covers of the books in that edition. I got a few Penguin Red Classics, but for some reason I didn’t get ‘Mozart’s Journey to Prague’. Since then I have been thinking about it and coveting it 🙂 But unfortunately, whenever I requested for it in my favourite bookstore here, the bookstore folks always told me that it was not available. A few weeks back I decided that I will search for this book online and I was happy to find that it is still in print and available. I ordered it, and it arrived last week. The slim novella took me only around a day to read. I finished it just now. Here is the review.

Summary of the story

I am giving below the summary of the story as given on the back cover of the book.

Mozart is creative, brilliant and charming. But is he also a thief?

Making his way to Prague for the opening of Don Giovanni, the great composer playfully tries to steal an orange from a Bohemian family’s garden. But no sooner has he taken the fruit than he is caught by a furious gardener. Desperate to escape, Mozart frantically scrawls an apologetic note to the owners of the tree.

Soon, he finds himself not only forgiven but welcomed by a family who have adored the beauty of his music and are stunned to find the celebrity wandering lost in their orangery. And when they reveal it is their daughter’s wedding, there can only be one guest of honour : the musical genius Amadeus.

What I think

I want to say one thing about the ‘Bohemian family’ mentioned in the above summary, before talking about the book. Here ‘Bohemian’ doesn’t mean people who “practise an unconventional lifestyle, often in the company of like-minded people, with few permanent ties, involving musical, artistic or literary pursuits. In this context, Bohemians can be wanderers, adventurers, or vagabonds”, as is commonly implied today. ‘Bohemian’ in the above passage implies the classical and straightforward meaning – “a resident of the former Kingdom of Bohemia, either in a narrow sense as the region of Bohemia proper or in a wider meaning as the whole country, now known as the Czech Republic.” Language has changed so much today, when compared to earlier, simpler times, that words that were once straightforward and implied their literal meanings have taken on a sinister life of their own and imply more complex things today. Some time back I was talking to one of my friends about a picture that he had sent me. My friend’s brother was there in the picture and I told my friend that his brother looked like him. My friend replied back saying that he didn’t know whether I was insulting him or his brother. I asked my friend to explain what he meant by that and my friend said that it was a joke and he also explained to me what the joke was. It made me think about the modern proclivity of using simple words and sentences to refer to complex things or imply complex meanings after multiple levels of abstraction. If a non-native speaker of any language learns the language using books and CDs or even goes to language school, he / she won’t be able to even suspect the heavy cultural weight behind every word that is spoken. It is pretty scary and could lead to disasters in everyday conversations. So, ‘Bohemian’ in the above passage doesn’t necessarily mean people who practise an unconventional lifestyle, but could mean people who live in a particular geographic location. They might be normal people who live a conventional life which is quite opposite to the other meaning of ‘Bohemian’. In that way, this word could be its opposite too – that is the geographical Bohemian could be the opposite of the cultural Bohemian.

Sorry for the long yarn, back to the book 🙂

‘Mozart’s Journey to Prague’ is a delightful little novella. It is around 90 pages and can be read in one sitting. It describes a day and a night that the Mozarts spend at a noble family’s home, on their way to Prague. How Mozart is caught stealing an orange, how the garden owners discover his identity and how Mozart and his wife are celebrated and welcomed into their household and how the evening pans out form the story. While reading this book, I felt like I was reading an episode in one of those massive Russian novels, like ‘War and Peace’. I wish Eduard Mörike had expanded this novella into a full-fledged novel.

Excerpts

I am giving below some of my favourite passages from the book.

The Forest

“I don’t believe I’ve ever been in a forest before, and it never entered my head till now what sort of a thing it is, this whole tribe of trees standing together! No human hand planted them, they all arrived here by themselves, and there they stand, just because they enjoy living and keeping house together. You know, when I was young I used to travel around all over Europe, I’ve seen the Alps and the sea and all the great and beautiful things of creation : and now by chance here I am, poor simpleton, standing in a pine-wood on the Bohemian border, amazed and enraptured to find that such a thing actually exists and is not merely una finzione di poeti, like nymphs and fauns and other things they invent, and not just a stage wood either, but one that has really grown out of the ground, growing tall on moisture and the warmth and light of the sun! This is where the stag lives, with his extraordinary antlers zig-zagging out of his head, and so does the funny little squirrel and the wood-grouse and the jay.”

Praise

“My dear child, what can I say? You are like the sun in the sky, which sings its own praises best by shining and warming us all! When one’s soul hears singing like that, it feels like a baby in its bath : it laughs, it is amazed, it has not another wish in the world. And believe me : hearing one’s own music rendered with such purity, such simplicity and warmth, indeed with such completeness – that’s not a thing that happens to one every day in Vienna!”

The Simple Life

He had found himself fully identifying with the man, feeling how seriously he had taken his small piece of business, how anxiously and conscientiously he had considered and reconsidered the prices, although they differed by only a few pence. He thought of the man coming home to his wife, telling her what a good bargain he has made, and the children all watching for his knapsack to be opened in case there was something for them in it too; and his wife hurrying to serve him the light meal and the cool glass of home-brewed apple cider he has saved up all his appetite for till now!

      If only one could be so happy, he reflected, so independent of other people, so entirely relying on Nature and her bounty, however hard one might have to work for it! And yet even if my art does impose a different task on me, one after all that I would not exchange for any other in the world; even so, why does this mean that I must live in circumstances that are the very opposite of such an innocent, simple existence? If only I had a small property, a little house at the edge of a village in lovely countryside, what a new lease of life that would be! Busy all morning with my scores, and the rest of the time with my family; planting trees, inspecting my fields, going out with the boys in autumn to shake down the apples and pears; sometimes a trip into town for a performance or whatever it might be, from time to time inviting a friend or two home – how wonderful! Ah well, who knows what may yet happen.

The Magic of Music

How we wish we could here convey to our readers at least a touch of that singular sensation which can strike us with such electrifying and spellbinding force even when one unrelated chord floats from an open window, when our hearing catches it as we pass, aware that it can only come from that unknown source; even a touch of that sweet perturbation which affects us as we sit in a theatre while the orchestra tunes, and wait for the curtain to rise! Is it not so? If, on the threshold of any sublime and tragic work of art, whether it be called Macbeth or Oedipus or anything else, we feel a hovering tremor of eternal beauty : where could this be more the case, or even as much the case, as in the present situation? Man simultaneously longs and fears to be driven out of his usual self, he feels that he will be touched by the infinite, by something that will seize his heart, contracting it even as it expands it, as it violently embraces his spirit. Add to this the awe inspired by consummate art, the thought that we are being permitted and enabled to enjoy a divine miracle, to assimilate it as something akin to ourselves – and such a thought brings with it a special emotion, indeed a kind of pride, which is perhaps the purest and most joyful feeling of which we are capable.

      The fact, however, that the present company were now to make the acquaintance for the first time of a work that has been fully familiar to us since our youth, gave them a standpoint and a relationship to it that were infinitely different from ours. And indeed, apart from the enviable good fortune of having it communicated to them by its author in person, they were far less favourably placed than we are; for a clear and perfect appreciation was not really possible to any of those who heard it, and in more than one respect would not even have been possible if the whole opera could have been given to them in unabbreviated form.

The Candle

And all the time he was playing, despite all the indescribable beauty of the music and through all its mysterious terror, this apprehension lived on in the depths of her consciousness, till in the end she was startled and shocked to hear him mention his own similar forebodings. The conviction, the utter conviction grew upon her that here was a man rapidly and inexorably burning himself out in his own flame; that he could be only a fleeting phenomenon on this earth, because the overwhelming beauty that poured from him would be more than the earth could really endure.

Final Thoughts

I enjoyed reading ‘Mozart’s Journey to Prague’. I am glad that I was able to track it down after so many years and finally read it. I read in Wikipedia that Eduard Mörike was a poet too and so I hope to explore some of his poems in the future. If you like novellas based on historical personalities and real events, you will enjoy ‘Mozart’s Journey to Prague’.

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I discovered Lee Child a few years back and loved his first book ‘Killing Floor’. It had an interesting hero, Jack Reacher, who is an ex-military cop. In the first book he wanders in the highway in the middle of nowhere trying to reach a small unknown town, in search of an obscure singer. He doesn’t have any bag with him and no ID. He reaches the town, gets into a diner and tries to have breakfast and coffee. Soon after, the police swoop into the diner and arrest him on some trumped up charges and put him in prison. Jack Reacher then decides to find out why he has been arrested and then the story starts moving fast at an electric pace. When I went to the library a few days back, a recent Jack Reacher book ’61 Hours’ popped out at me from the shelf, and I thought I will give it a try. I finished reading it yesterday and here is the review. 

Summary of the story

I am giving below the summary of the story as given in the back cover of the book.

Winter in South Dakota. Blowing snow, icy roads, a tired driver. A bus skids and crashes and is stranded in a gathering storm.

There’s a small town twenty miles away, where a vulnerable witness is guarded around the clock. There’s a strange stone building five miles further on, all alone on the prairie. There’s a ruthless man who controls everything from the warmth of Mexico.

Jack Reacher hitched a ride in the back of the bus. A life without baggage has many advantages. And crucial disadvantages too, when it means facing the arctic cold without a coat. But he’s equipped for the rest of his task. He doesn’t want to put the world to rights. He just doesn’t like people who put it to wrongs.

What I think

Jack Reacher is one of the coolest characters in thriller-fiction. He is six-feet-five-inches tall (one of the descriptions of him goes like this – “Men want to be him. Women want to be with him”), is typically wandering on a highway, has no family and friends and no ID and wanders into a town for some obscure reason. He somehow gets sucked into a tragic event in the town and ends up fighting for justice. He can almost read the minds of the villains three moves in advance and is a tough guy physically – “Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, Bruce Willis all rolled into one, a superman for our time”, as one description says. In some ways Jack Reacher reminded me of the tough heroes in Alistair Maclean novels, who Lee Child says he is a big fan of. But Jack Reacher also has a heart of gold and is kind towards good people and old women and fights for justice even when the odds are stacked up against him. He is also able to handle anything the villains throw at him and puts them in their place in the end. How can one resist this character and this kind of a storyline? 🙂

On ’61 Hours’, it has the same formulaic story – Jack Reacher instead of walking and wandering into a small town in the middle of nowhere, travels by bus as an odd passenger and wanders into a town in the middle of snowy winter. Then surprising things happen in the story and it moves at a rollicking pace. The identity of the villain is shocking. (But having read quite a few Agatha Christies by now (and specifically ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’), I can now predict the villain in most stories. I generally guess that it is the most unlikely character in the story. I guessed correctly in this story too, though I later realized that there were a few clues). But unfortunately the motivation of the villain is not strong enough and there is another main villain who looks like a cartoon character and is not very impressive when he actually appears on the field of action.

Inspite of the formulaic story, the redeeming qualities of the book were the interesting passages that Lee Child comes up with, the interesting characters in the story, Janet Salter, the librarian who is also the witness protected by the police, and Amanda, a character who only speaks on the phone. The conversations between Reacher and Janet Salter on one hand and Reacher and Amanda on the other are some of the most interesting parts of the book. The conversations between Reacher and Amanda reminded me of the conversations between Spenser and Susan Silverman in Robert Parker’s Spenser series.

The ending of the book is a bit sad in some ways and makes the reader want to find out what happens next.

Janet Maslin of the NYT has put ’61 Hours’ in her year-end top-10 list of 2010. She also calls it “the craftiest and most highly evolved thriller in Mr. Child’s smashing Jack Reacher series”. (You can find her raving review of the book here). I have to say that I am glad it is there in her top-10 list, but I have to also say that ‘Killing Floor’ is better than ’61 Hours’, though Jack Reacher fans will love ’61 hours’.

Excerpts

I am giving below some of my favourite passages from the book.

Here is a conversation where Jack Reacher describes his philosophy in life, to Janet Salter.

      ‘Your disavowal of possessions is a little extreme. History tells us that asceticism has powerful attractions, but even so most ascetics owned clothes, at least. Shirts, anyway, even if they were only made of hair.’

      ‘Are you making fun of me?’

      ‘You could afford to carry a small bag, I think. It wouldn’t change who you are.’

      ‘I’m afraid it would. Unless it was empty, which would be pointless. To fill a small bag means selecting, and choosing, and evaluating. There’s no logical end to that process. Pretty soon I would have a big bag, and then two or three. A month later I’d be like the rest of you.

      ‘And that horrifies you?’

      ‘No, I think to be like everyone else would be comfortable and reassuring. But some things can’t be done. I was born different.’

Here is another.

      ‘What’s your secret of success?’

      ‘I don’t like getting beaten. Better for all concerned that it just doesn’t happen.’

      ‘That’s a heavy burden to carry, psychologically. That kind of burning need for dominance, I mean.’

      ‘Are there people who enjoy getting beaten?’

      ‘It’s not black and white. You wouldn’t have to enjoy it. But you could be at peace with whatever comes your way. You know, win some,  lose some.’

      ‘Doesn’t work that way. Not in my line of work. You win some, and then you lose one. And then it’s game over.’

Here is a third one.

      ‘Did he tell you about the chinooks?’

      ‘No.’

      ‘Chinooks are hot winds out of the Black Hills. One day in January of 1943 it was minus four degrees, and then literally two  minutes later it was plus forty-five. A forty-nine-degree swing in a hundred and twenty seconds. The most dramatic ever recorded in America. Everyone had broken windows from the thermal shock.’

      ‘Wartime,’ Reacher said.

      ‘The hinge of fate,’ Janet Salter said. ‘That exact day the Germans lost control of the airfields at Stalingrad, many thousands of miles away. It was the beginning of the end for them. Maybe the wind knew.’ 

Here are two other passages I liked.

The sandwich was nicely fried, and Reacher was ready for the calories. Like throwing coal into a furnace. Being cold was like being on a diet. He understood why all the locals he met looked basically the same, all lean and fair and slender. Fair, because of their genetic inheritance. Lean and slender, because they were freezing their asses of for half the year.

      Caleb Carter was considered a low man on the totem pole. Which he thought was richly ironic. He knew a little about totem poles, and Native American culture in general. He knew a little about a lot of things, but in a random unstructured way that had paid no dividends in terms of high school grades or employment opportunities. So he had turned to the Department of Corrections. The default choice, for his graduating class. Probably the default choice for many graduating classes to come. He had been trained and equipped with a radio and a polyester uniform and assigned to the night watch at the county lock-up. He was the youngest and newest member of a four-man team. Hence, low man on the totem pole.

      Except that calling a new guy the low man on the totem pole was completely ass-backward. Totem poles were what? Twenty, thirty feet high? Native Americans weren’t dumb. They put the most important guy at the bottom. At eye level. What important guy wanted to be twenty or thirty feet off the ground, where no one could see him? Like supermarkets. The eye-level shelf was reserved for the best stuff. The high-margin items. The big corporations hired experts to figure out stuff like that. Eye level was what it was all about. Thus the low man was really the high man, and the high man was really the low man. In a manner of speaking. A common misconception. A kind of linguistic inversion.

Final Thoughts

I liked ’61 Hours’ though I felt that it was not as good as ‘Killing Floor’. I am hoping to read the second book in the series ‘Die Trying’ soon. If you would like to explore Lee Child’s books, you can try books in the Jack Reacher series. They are light reads and fun.

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As I love mythology, I thought I will participate in the Read-A-Myth Challenge  hosted by Jo from Bibliojunkie and Bina from If You Can Read This. (For more information on the challenge please check the challenge website). I am planning to go up to level 2 – Erlang Chen – in the challenge. I need to read four books on mythology for that.

I am reading ‘Ka’ by Roberto Calasso as my first book for this challenge. It is a book on Indian mythology and its subtitle reads “Stories of the Mind and Gods of India”.

The first chapter is about Garuda the eagle, who becomes Vishnu’s vehicle / mount. I am giving some excerpts from that chapter below (they don’t tell a continuous story – sorry for that).

Garuda flew and remembered. It was only a few days since he had hatched from his egg and already so much had happened. Flying was the best way of thinking, of thinking things over. Who was the first person he’d seen? His mother, Vinata. Beautiful in her tininess, she sat on a stone, watching his egg hatch, determinedly passive. Hers was the first eye Garuda held in his own.

Vinata went on : “My child, I have kept watch over your egg for five hundred years.”

“I’ll go and win this soma, Mother,” said Garuda wth his most solemn expression. “But first I must eat.”

Garuda, who was gazing ahead with his beak half open, just enough to swallow up swarms of Nisadas, suddenly felt something burning in his throat. “That’s a brahman,” he thought. So he said, “Brahman, I don’t know you, but I don’t mean you any harm. Come out of my throat.” And from Garuda’s throat came a shrill, steady voice : “I’ll never come out unless I can bring this Nisada woman with me, she’s my bride.” “I’ve no objections,” said Garuda. Soon he saw them climbing onto his beak, taking care, fearful of getting hurt. Garuda was intrigued and thought : “Finally I’ll know what a brahman looks like.” He saw them sliding down his feathers. The brahman was thin, bony, dusty, his hair woven in a plait, his eyes sunken and vibrant. His long, determined fingers never let go of the wrist of the Nisada woman, whose beauty immediately reminded Garuda of his mother and his treacherous aunt Kadru. This left him bewildered, while he reflected that quite probably he had already swallowed up thousands of women like her.

Garuda settled on a branch. Surrounded by the foliage that enfolded his feathers, he felt at home and couldn’t understand why. Of his birthplace he could remember only sand, stone, and snakes. Whereas this tree protected him on every side with swathes of emerald that softened the merciless light of the sky.

“So many things happening, so many stories one inside the other, with every link hiding yet more stories…And I’ve hardly hatched from my egg,” thought an exultant Garuda, heading north. “No one has taught me anything. Everything has been shown to me. It will take me all my life to begin to understand what I’ve been through.”

At that very moment one of the gods noticed something odd in the celestial stasis : the garlands had lost their fragrance, a think layer of dust had settled on the buds. “The heavens are wearing out like the earth…” was the silent fear of more than one god. It was a moment of pure terror. What came afer was no more than a superfluous demonstration. The rains of fire, the meteors, the whirlwinds, the thunder. Indra hurled his lightning bolt as Garuda invaded the sky. The lightning bounced off his feathers. “How can that be?” said Indra to Brhaspati, chief priest of the gods. “This is the lightning that split the heart of Vrtra. Garuda tosses it aside like a straw.” Sitting on a stool, Brhaspati had remained impassive throughout, from the moment the sky had began to shake. “Garuda is made not of feathers but of meters. You cannot hurt a meter. Garuda is gayatri and tristubh and jagati. Garda is the hymn. The hymn that cannot be scratched. And then : remember that puddle, those tiny beings you found so funny, with their blade of grass…Garuda is, in part, their child.”

Buried deep among the tree Rauhina’s branches, Garuda read the Vedas. It was years before he raised his beak. Those beings he had terrorized in the heavens, who had scattered like dust at his arrival, who had tried in vain to fight him, he knew who they were now: with reverence he scanned their names and those of their descendants.

Finally he reached the tenth book of the Rg Veda. And here he smelled a shift in the wind. Along wtih the names came a shadow now, a name never uttered. What had been affirmative tended to be interrogative. The voice that spoke was more remote. It no longer celebrated. It said what is.

Garuda stopped and shut his eyes. He had never felt so uncertain, and so close to understanding. Never felt so light, in that sudden absence of names. When he opened his eyes, he realized that the nine stanzas were followed by another, this one separated by a space that was slightly larger.

I have read about Garuda being the vehicle of Vishnu but I haven’t read about the feats of Garuda himself. He seems to be a cool Eagle 🙂 I loved the passages where he fights with the gods and brushes them aside and he doesn’t know his own strength – so much power and so much innocence. I also liked very much the quote “I’ll go and win this soma, Mother. But first I must eat.” I don’t know many cool eagles in literature or mythology – the one which comes readily to mind is the eagle which takes Gandalf on its back in ‘The Lord of the Rings’, but that eagle didn’t have a name (if I remember right). Garuda seems to be the coolest Eagle of them all 🙂

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I discovered ‘Taming the Beast’ by Emily Maguire during one of my bookstore browsing sessions last month. The summary of the story at the back looked interesting, the story of the author’s life looked interesting and the book was on sale and so I thought I will get it. Also, as Emily Maguire was Australian and as I haven’t read many books by Australian authors (unfortunately I know only a few like Peter Carey, Colleen McCullough, Steve Toltz and James Vance Marshall) I thought it will be interesting to explore some Australian literature. I finished reading it today (it looks like my reading is going strong this new year – this is the second book that I have finished in less than a week :)). Here is the review.

Summary of the story

I am giving below the summary of the story as given in the back cover of the book.

At the tender age of fourteen, Sarah Clark is seduced by her thirty-eight-year-old English teacher, Daniel Carr, and becomes entangled in an illegal, erotic, passionate, and dangerous affair – a vicious meeting of minds and bodies that ends badly. Devastated by grief and longing, Sarah embarks upon a series of meaningless self-abasing sexual encounters, hoping to reclaim the intensity of that first relationship. Then, seven years later, Carr unexpectedly returns and Sarah is drawn again into a destructive coupling. Now that she is no longer an innocent young girl, is she strong enough to finally tame the beast within her?

A modern Lolita, Taming the Beast is an emotionally unflinching and alluring tale that introduces a powerful new writer.


What I think

The first page of the book went like this :

Sarah Clark felt like a freak for two and a half years. It started when she received a leather-bound copy of Othello for her twelfth birthday and ended when her English teacher showed her exactly what was meant by the beast with two backs.

In between, she read every one of Shakespeare’s plays and then moved on to his sonnets, before discovering Marlowe, Donne, Pope and Marvell. With peers who read nothing but TV Week and parents who were inclined towards the Financial Review, Sarah was forced to conceal her literary leanings. She hid poetry anthologies under her bed and read Emma by torchlight, the way boys her age read Playboy. For the first two years of high school, she came top of her English class without opening a single school book. It wasn’t necessary since the curriculum consisted of a few familiar texts, plus comic strips and newspaper clippings.

Then on the first day of the third year of high school, Sarah met Mr Carr. He was unlike any teacher she had ever encountered. For the entire forty minutes of his first class he spoke about why Yeats was relevant to Australian teenagers in the year 1995. In the second class, Sarah put up her hand to make a comment on something he had said about Hamlet. When he called her to speak, she started and could not stop. She stayed in his classroom all through lunch, and when she re-emerged into the sunlight and the condescending stares of the schoolyard cliques, she was utterly changed.

Mr Carr began an active campaign to keep Sarah’s love of learning alive. To prevent boredom, he brought her books of his own from home and gave her a note that allowed her to access the senior section of the library. Every novel and play and poem was discussed in depth. She had never received a better compliment than when he told her that he knew she would love a particular piece because it was his favourite too.

How can you resist a book after a first page like that? If you are one of those readers, who, like the heroine in the movie ‘Alex and Emma’, reads the last page of a book after reading the first page, this is what you will find :

…life is a constant withering of possibilities. Some are stolen with the lives of people you love. Others are let go, with regret and reluctance and deep, deep sorrow. But there is compensation for lives unlived in the intoxicating joy of knowing that the life you have – right here, right now – is the one you have chosen. There is power in that, and hope.

Perfect, isn’t it? I felt that the book followed perfectly the advice given at creative writing schools and workshops – have an interesting first paragraph to grab the reader’s attention, have a wonderful first page and have an insightful, beautiful last paragraph. Emily Maguire seems to have mastered this art. Now we have to discover what she has done in between these two pages. (The back cover also had a quote about the author from the Sydney Morning Herald which went like this : “Emily Maguire embodies the great romantic myth of the writer who emerges from nowhere, fully formed.” This played its own part in sucking me into the book).

The pages between the first and the last tell the story of Sarah Clark in four parts – the first part which describes the initial seduction of Sarah Clark by her English teacher Daniel Carr and his abandoning of her, the second part where Sarah leaves her family, becomes a promiscuous young woman and goes with every man around and works as a waitress in a restaurant while studying in the university at the same time, the third part where Daniel Carr comes back into Sarah’s life and how that changes her life, and the fourth part, the ending, which has by now become predictable and clichéd for readers, in some books – where the author forces a tragic event to win the sympathy of the reader.

I found the first part of the story where Daniel Clark seduces Sarah Clark, told quite realistically and we can see why Sarah is attracted towards her teacher. It ends in heartburn for both of them and our heart suffers too, because of that. The second part meanders without any meaning and reason. When I first tried writing a novel, I showed one of the initial drafts to a publisher who called me for a meeting with one of the editors. When we discussed about the book, the editor shared some of his thoughts on it. I remember one particular comment of his. One of the chapters in the draft started with this line – “It was another New Year’s Eve. I hadn’t met Suzie in a long time.” The editor had written in blue pencil above that line – “Neither have we!” 🙂 I had tried doing a George Eliot by ignoring the heroine for a significant part of the book (George Eliot does the same to Dorothea in ‘Middlemarch’). When I read the second part of ‘Taming the Beast’ I felt something similar – that Emily Maguire ignored the story for the whole part and just described Sarah going around with different men and frittering away her life. Some of what Sarah does is not even reasonable and realistic and defies the imagination. I felt the whole part meandered along without any purpose. And when Daniel Carr makes an appearance in the third part, one feels that the second part was just a filler, to give context and to while away the time, till Carr makes his re-entry into the story.

After Daniel Carr makes an appearance in the third part, the story picks up some steam initially, and there are a few magical moments, but after a while it meanders along and unfortunately, takes Sarah Clark and Daniel Carr away, in its wake. Daniel Carr who starts out as a handsome, interesting, fascinating teacher gets transformed into a pale imitation of himself :

“She found Daniel on a sofa…Stubble covered his cheeks, coarse and almost white. There was a packet of salted peanuts wedged under his left thigh. His eyes were closed. One arm was twisted at the elbow, pointed over his head to the back wall. The other arm hung over the edge of the sofa, his fingertips skimming the floor.”

It is almost a description of a junkie. Sarah, from a beautiful, inquisitive, intelligent student and a rebellious girl who cares more about her dignity than money, becomes this :

“She was much thinner than in his dreams and she was wearing more clothing too. She looked different all together. Older, smaller, tireder. Defeated.”

The transformations of Sarah and Daniel reminded me of some lines that I read in the introduction (by Graham Coxon) to Herman Hesse’s ‘Narcissus and Goldmund’ that left a deep impression on me. They went like this :

“…even when we become lost in the crazed volatility of what we think of as freedom, reaching the very edge of our own flat world, gazing petrified over the edge at the black expanse of our own demise, we are but a change of hardened heart away from the innocence of our beginnings, from peace.

…how far down the dangerous roads of our early adult lives does the pull of a simpler life begin to tug at our sleeves…

…life and the material world are designed to seduce, and we ourselves are designed to be seduced by it. We career, uncompromisingly, through our early lives, proud of our strength and youth but never treasuring it. Maybe that’s how it should be, that we squander it if only to mourn it later when we don’t feel so invincible and have to savour each day of our late adulthood.”

Another interesting character in the story is Jamie who is Sarah’s long-suffering best friend and sometime lover, who is her Man Friday and who is always there for her when she is going through a crisis. After the misadventures that Sarah has, Jamie feels that has hasn’t done enough in his role as protector. Towards the end of the book, the conversation between Sarah and Jamie and what Jamie thinks of the situation is described like this :

She drew in her breath and the tears flowed. “My life wasn’t supposed to be this way. It wasn’t meant to be like this.”

Jamie couldn’t have agreed more. When the little dark haired girl had boldly met his eyes across the classroom in year seven Geography and smiled in a way that made his throat hurt, he had known instantly how it was supposed to be. He was supposed to take care of her and make sure she was never hurt or sad or scared. In return she would love him forever and never make him hurt or sad or scared. If Jamie had taken better care of her, neither of them would be in this position. It had all gone so wrong.

There is an interesting conversation between Sarah and Jamie where Sarah explains the unique position Jamie occupies in her heart. It goes like this :

“I wish you wouldn’t be so hostile,” she said.

“How am I supposed to be?”

“You could be supportive. You could be my friend.”

He snorted. “You want me to congratulate you?”

“Look, Jamie. This may not be what you want to hear, but I assure you it is the greatest compliment I’ve ever given. I value you as a friend a million times more than I value you as a lover. As a lover you are part of a very large and not particularly prestigious group, as a friend you’re it. You’re my one and only.”

Unfortunately, the role of a protector and best-friend is not always satisfying to Jamie, because he feels that he is always second best in Sarah’s heart. I have seen a few real-world Jamies and so my heart went out to him.

As the blurb says, ‘Taming the Beast’ looks like a modern-day ‘Lolita’, with some changes – the story is told from the perspective of the heroine, there are lots of steamy scenes, the backdrop is Australia and the author is a woman. I haven’t read ‘Lolita’ but in some ways the book reminded me of ‘Hotel Iris’ by Yoko Ogawa (where a similar kind of relationship between a young girl and an older man is explored), ‘The Alchemy of Desire’ by Tarun Tejpal (which explores the relationship between two lovers – I found the first part of the book quite beautiful) and the movie ‘Anatomy of Hell’ directed by Catherine Breillat (which talks about the relationship between men and women across the ages, told from a woman’s perspective). The book is good in patches, but unfortunately it meanders on for quite a bit. However, the book redeems itself by having many lovely passages throughout, including those in the first and last pages.

The book also has frequent references to literature – novels and poems – and Sarah and Daniel frequently quote poetry (including the beautiful (and what some might call clichéd) Shakespearean lines – “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate”) which form a lovely context and give a deeper meaning to the happenings of the story.

The book also had an interview of and an essay by Emily Maguire at the back. When asked about her education, Maguire says : “I eventually got my MA from the University of New England (New South Wales) after dropping out of school at sixteen and spending many years traveling and working nonskilled service jobs…I’ve had many service jobs, including McDonald’s manager, fashion sales assistant, pharmacy assistant, and steakhouse waitress.” It intrigued me and made me wonder how much of the book is inspired by Maguire’s own life, because her heroine Sarah Clark, seems to have had a similar life. In the essay where Maguire talks about the relationship between her, her heroine Sarah and Jane Eyre, she says this :

I want to quote Jane Eyre one final time. This is the passage that has become most meaningful to me as a woman and as a writer, but to which I never paid any attention until I read it with Sarah Clark in mind :

Women are supposed to be calm generally; but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer…

This not only describes Sarah perfectly, but puts into words something I had believed my whole life. Having grown up after the feminist revolution, I’d always been told that girls could do anything boys could do, that men and women were equal in every way. This wasn’t just dogma for me – I felt it. I knew I was not defined by my gender, that the things I thought and did were expressions of my “Emily-ness”, not my femaleness. Yet in recent years I had come to realize that other people would view me as a woman first and a person second regardless of how I saw myself, and that these same people would project onto me their ideas of what “woman” meant. Thus I was faced with the prospect of disappointing expectations not of my own making : to be a mother and homemaker, to be demure about sexuality, to value my appearance over my intellect. I never understood why I didn’t experience my femaleness in the way mainstream culture said I should, but there was nothing more frustrating than having to defend myself as a woman in order to be treated as a human being.

I loved that passage!

Excerpts

I am giving below some of my favourite passages from the book.

“Why do you live like this?”

“Why do you live like this?”

“Have you read Jane Eyre?” she asked.

“Have I…” He was audibly surprised, but recovered quickly. “Ah, yes, yes, I think so, at school. A long time ago.”

“Do you remember why Jane leaves the comfort of Thornfield Hall even though she will be homeless and poverty stricken? Why she voluntarily reduces her station in life from governess to beggar?”

“I don’t…” He chuckled into her hair. “I wasn’t expecting a test. I haven’t studied.”

“She left because her dignity was worth more to her than physical comfort.” Sarah turned around and looked up into his face. “And that’s why I live like this.”

Tiny shards

Jamie had long ago stopped reacting outwardly when Sarah did something like this. Inwardly, it was like a tiny shard of glass stabbing him in the heart. So small that it didn’t really hurt at all, except that there were now so many tiny shards that his heart kind of ached all the time, and every little new one made it that tiny bit worse.

Freedom

She wanted to feel the total freedom of being owned.

Loneliness

When Daniel was at work, Sarah experienced a loneliness of such intensity she almost wished he had never returned. Before he’d come back into her life she spent most of her time alone at her flat and never felt so bad about it. It was disconcerting that being in love felt lonelier than aloneness.

On Love

“The thing I never understood about love is that it can’t be quelled, like lust can. With love, if you follow its call, if you give in to it, it just gets worse. The more you have, the deeper you go, the more you need.”

The Ocean

“The Ocean,” he said, “is a whole world in itself : huge plains spread out across the ocean floor, long mountain ranges rise toward the surface, with deep valleys cutting through them. There are active volcanoes, erupting down so deep that we on the surface would never know. It’s a trap, the ocean. It’s cool and comforting and so you go in farther, you go in deeper. And then you’re dead. Water is tricky like that. If you’re burnt or hot or aching, it will heal and soothe and calm you. But also, it can freeze you to death or boil your flesh. Crush or suffocate you.”

Other Reviews and Further Reading

I read two other reviews of Maguire’s book, one of them which raved about it and another which didn’t have good things to say about it. You can find them here (for a different point of view)

Raving review (from Confessions of an idiosyncratic mind)

Not so raving review (from Serendipitous moments)

You can find a portrait of Emily Maguire in the Sydney Morning Herald article here.

Final Thoughts

I found ‘Taming the Beast’ good in parts – I loved, especially, the lovely passages that Emily Maguire frequently came up with. But overall, it was not a very satisfying read, because though the book had a strong start, the story didn’t pan out satisfactorily and it was difficult to understand the motivation of some of the characters and difficult to believe the kind of stuff that they did. I will be keeping an eye on Emily Maguire’s future books though I hope that she tones down on the steamy scenes and focuses more on the story and the literary references and continues writing those lovely, insightful passages.

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I discovered ‘Unhooking the Moon’ by Gregory Hughes, when I was doing some random browsing in the bookstore, a few months back. I read the story summary at the back and it appealed to me and so I thought I will get it. I read a few pages the previous month, but yesterday I read the whole book. It is not often that I read a book in a day (except for comics and graphic novels) – the last time I remember reading a book in a day was Raymond Chandler’s ‘The Big Sleep’ a few years back. I couldn’t wait to find out what happened in the end and so I kept awake late and finished the book yesterday. Here is the review – the first one of this year 🙂

Summary of the story

I am giving below the summary of the story as given in the back cover of the book.

‘Where are you going?’ asked border patrol.

‘We’re going to New York to see our grandma and the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty and everything. And our granny’s going to bake us her very own apple pie.’ She sounded so convincing. Some days I wondered who the Rat really was.

‘What’s your granny’s name?’ asked the officer. That’s it! The Rat’s Little Red Riding Hood performance had ruined us.

‘Grandma, of course.’

I was relieved when I heard laughter.

‘Would you like to see our birth certificates?’ said the Rat.

She always had to overdo it! She wouldn’t be satisfied until we were locked up.

Meet the Rat : A dancing, soccer-playing, gangster-wise prairie kid.

When the Rat’s father dies, she decides to head for New York. What can her older brother Bob do but follow?

Join Bob and the infuriating, fantastic Rat on their funny, poignant and gripping road-trip adventure.


What I think

‘Unhooking the Moon’ tells the story of two siblings – 12-year-old Bob and 10-year-old Marie Claire (also called as Rat) – who leave their home in Winnipeg after their father dies and go on a trip to New York to find their long lost uncle. They meet some interesting people on the way – a cigar smuggler, a hustler, street fighters, a rap star – and the adventures they have and the dangers they overcome are told in the story. The story is told in the voice of Bob but the real heroine of the story is Rat, who is a cool, fearless, adventurous spirit and who, when there are two options in life, one of them which is safe, practical and boring and another which is exciting, dangerous and adventurous, always chooses the second option. This leads to frequent tensions between the brother and the sister, on their road-trip, but Rat’s adventurous way of thinking wins most of the time. Rat also has frequent premonitions about the future and frequently her premonitions come true – sometimes they are good and sometimes they are not. A frequent question which came to my mind when I read this rollicking adventure was – how much of the story was inspired by Gregory Hughes’ own life? I had this question, because Gregory Hughes own life seems to have been one wonderful adventure till now – the potted biography at the beginning of the book says : “Gregory Hughes was born in Liverpool, the eighth child in a family of nine. He was expelled from school and then sent to a home for wayward boys where he spent some happy times. After a few madcap years, he went to university and since then he has travelled the world working as everything from a high-rise window cleaner to a deep-sea diver. He has lived in Canada and the US as well as several Nordic countries but his home is in Liverpool.”

There are beautiful descriptions of the Canadian landscape in this book. One of my favourite descriptions goes like this :

We had a good breakfast sitting in the doorway of the boxcar. It was nice to eat and watch the land go by at the same time. There were blue lakes and turquoise rivers with fishermen wading through them. There were hills and rocky outcrops above which long-fingered buzzards seemed to float. Then there were more lakes and rivers followed by a sea of sunflowers that bathed in the sunshine.

When the train curved for a bend we could see the front of the train and the engine that was pulling us. It slowed to a walking pace as the bend narrowed and we saw hundreds of prairie plants growing wild. Their buds exploded into a supernova of seeds that drifted on the breeze like tiny parachutes, a minute version of the Big Bang that had first put the stars in the sky.

There were interesting events from Canadian history which were described in the book. One of my favourites went like this :

Louis Riel is buried in the St.Boniface graveyard and he’s a real Winnipeg hero. You see, he stood up for the Métis, who were the French-speaking descendants of European men and Native women. When the government tried to install English-speaking settlers on their land, old Louis Riel wasn’t having any of it, and he led the Métis in rebellion.

It is interesting to know how in most countries, the ruling government has been uncomfortable with the minorities (and sometimes with the majority) and has tried to suppress them in different ways – by making laws which discriminated against them or by employing techniques like sending new settlers into the natives’ land. It is interesting that this is how things have been done across the millennia.

I don’t know much about Canadian history. It is odd and sad because as the second biggest country in the world, Canada deserves better.  One of the reasons for this might be that Canada is frequently clubbed with the United States with respect to literature, culture and history, which is unfortunate, because Canada is unique in its own way. I read an essay in the book ‘Lost Classics’, about a book on the history of Newfoundland and it got me intrigued too. I want to read the history of this exciting country one day.

Bob describes his love for his country which goes like this :

I love our Canadian flag. It’s just a maple leaf, nothing to get excited about. But it represents more than a tree common to our country. It represents being down to earth and true like the tree itself. And it stands for modesty and compassion, which is our Canadian way. At least that’s what it means to me. I’m sure most people care about their countries but Canada’s special. It’s like America without the armies and the arrogance.

There are some interesting contrasts between Canada and America and Winnipeg and New York, described in the story. Here are a few descriptions of Winnipeg :

It (my story) begins in the wonderful city of Winnipeg, or rather the prairies of that city. A land so flat you can watch your dog run way for three days.

Winnipeg mosquitoes are as vicious as they come. There’s no need for mosquitoes to exist as far as I’m concerned and I’m always getting bit.

The sun was golden when we reached the trees. Its rays were warm and mild for now but later it would dry the ground to a crisp. Believe me, Winnipeg’s as hot as the Sahara in the summertime.

And here are a few descriptions of New York :

We rode up to the top of the bridge and stopped to take in the view. Above us a beautiful American flag fluttered in the breeze. It looked magical. But everything looked magical. What’s more the city seemed to buzz. It wasn’t a sound you could hear, it was more of a vibration. Maybe it was the millions of conversations, or the cars on the streets, or the electricity that ran through the cables. Or maybe it was a force that came from the city itself.

I was soon to learn that you could act as crazy as you like in New York and nobody would care.

The New York subway was depressing. It was dirty and dismal and the floor was sticky with gum. You’d think a city as rich as New York could get the gum off the floor, or at least get the drunk off the bench so you could sit down.

We waited for the train to come while breathing in the stale air and watching out for muggers. There are always muggers in New York movies, especially on the subway. It’s a movie mugger’s paradise. And there were a few crooked-looking characters standing about. In fact the whole platform looked like a line-up for America’s most wanted. I couldn’t wait for the train to come.

Here is an interesting conversation between Rat and the rapper, Iceman.

‘Haven’t you ever been happy, Ice?’ asked the Rat.

‘I was when my mother was alive. She was a great woman, strong and intelligent. You know she’s never let me hang out on the street. Church on Sunday, football on Saturday, and boxing three times a week. She took care of my education too. Once a fortnight she gave me a book to read. When I’d finished I’d have to write an essay about it with no spelling mistakes. By the time I was fourteen I’d read every book that Maya Angelou had ever written.’

The book has a sad and poignant ending. I felt sad when I read it because I was hoping that the ending will be happy, but unfortunately, it didn’t turn out that way. As Bob says in the end :

…in the real world you don’t always get a happy ending no matter how much you want one.

What happens in the end? Do the children find their long-lost uncle? Are they able to come out safely out of the adventure – navigating through waters which has some interesting, good and dangerous characters? To know more about this, you have to read the book 🙂

I searched for this book in Google and in Amazon.com and imagine my surprise when I discovered that there was only a Kindle version of it. (Amazon.co.uk had the book version, though. I didn’t find it in Shelfari too – which was even more surprising!). I was surprised by it, because I thought that like all rivers end up in the ocean, all books end up in Amazon.com. It looks like this might not be true, and wonderful books like this, might be lost, if readers miss them during the short window during which they are published and reviewed.

Final Thoughts

I loved reading ‘Unhooking the Moon’. I loved the character of both the narrator Bob and his sister, the cool heroine Rat. I enjoyed reading their adventures across two different countries and two different cities. If you like Young Adult books, you will love this. I don’t know whether Gregory Hughes will write more books in the future. I hope he does. If he doesn’t, I hope this book gets a better readership which it richly deserves.

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I visited a bookstore on Sunday and did some random browsing and picked up some interesting books. The crown jewel among them was a collection of Jalaluddin Rumi’s poetry called ‘The Essential Rumi’ translated by Coleman Barks.

I browsed the book without any intention of buying it, but after reading a couple of random poems I couldn’t resist this treasure. I did some random reading while coming back home, and these are some of the gems I discovered.

Here are two poems which play with opposites and show us how paradoxes can be gentle and true and lovable.

Poem One

Come to the orchard in Spring.

There is light and wine, and sweethearts

In the pomegranate flowers.

If you do not come, these do not matter.

If you do come, these do not matter.

Poem Two

When I am with you, we stay up all night.

When you’re not here, I can’t go to sleep.

Praise God for these two insomnias!

And the difference between them.

I have read Urdu poems which are like this. Now after reading these two gems by Rumi, I feel that this 12th century genius was the fount of inspiration for later Urdu masters.

Here is another which is quite interesting.

Poem Three

Drunks fear the police,

but the police are drunk too.

People in this town love them both

like different chess pieces.

Here is a beautiful poem about existence as a burning candle. So beautiful!

Poem Four – A Just-Finishing Candle

A candle is made to become entirely flame.

In that annihilating moment

It has now shadow.

It is nothing but a tongue of light

describing a refuge.

Look at this

just-finishing candle stub

as someone who is finally safe

from virtue and vice,

the pride and the shame

we claim from those.

Here is a beautiful poem about how we touch each other and how we touch things and they touch back, without us really touching them and how this delicate thing brings happiness and joy.

Poem Five – Story Water

A story is like water

that you heat for your bath.

It takes messages between the fire

and your skin. It lets them meet,

and it cleans you!

Very few can sit down

in the middle of the fire itself

like a salamander or Abraham.

We need intermediaries.

A feeling of fullness comes,

but usually it takes some bread

to bring it.

Beauty surrounds us,

but usually we need to be walking

in a garden to know it.

The body itself is a screen

to shield and partially reveal

the light that’s blazing

inside your presence.

Water, stories, the body,

all the things we do, are mediums

that hide and show what’s hidden.

Study them,

and enjoy this being washed

with a secret we sometimes know,

and then not.

Here is a poem about acquired intelligence and the innate one.

Poem Six – Two Kinds of Intelligence

There are two kinds of intelligence : one acquired,

as a child in school memorizes facts and concepts

from books and from what the teacher says,

collecting information from the traditional sciences

as well as from the new sciences.

With such intelligence you rise in the world.

You get ranked ahead or behind others

in regard to your competence in retaining

information. You stroll with this intelligence

in and out of fields of knowledge, getting always more

marks on your preserving tablets.

There is another kind of tablet, one

Already completed and preserved inside you.

A spring overflowing its springbox. A freshness

in the center of the chest. This other intelligence

does not turn yellow or stagnate. It’s fluid,

and it doesn’t move from outside to inside

through the conduits of plumbing-learning.

This second knowing is a fountainhead

from within you, moving out.

The lines – “You stroll with this intelligence in and out of fields of knowledge, getting always more marks on your preserving tablets” – hit me. Sometimes we find ourselves (and others) doing things which add stamps to our resume or which help us get certificates which we think are more important than the learning itself. It is amazing that Rumi wrote about it nearly eight hundred years ago. Some things never change 🙂

I read more poems opening the book at a different page at random, and they were all wonderful! I can’t remember the last time when nearly every poem that I read from a collection was beautiful, insightful and touched a deep chord in my heart.

Oh Rumi, you beauty!

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