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Archive for October, 2018

I have a quiz question for you. There is a famous story which goes like this. A black man is accused of committing a crime against a white person. A white lawyer represents him. We see the story unfold through the eyes of a young person who is related to the white lawyer. What is the name of this novel? Can you guess? Of course, you know the answer. It is ‘To Kill a Mockingbird‘ by Harper Lee, everyone’s favourite novel. You are right. But this is a question which has more than one correct answer. The second answer to this question is ‘Intruder in the Dust‘ by William Faulkner. That is the reason I read this book.

Lucas is a black farmer. He is an odd person, because he owns land in the middle of a farm owned by white people, refuses to kowtow to his white neighbours and always walks with a proud demeanor, and treats everyone, especially white neighbours as his equal. People resent him. They are always trying to do something to teach him a lesson. One day Lucas is arrested for shooting and killing a white man. Lucas asks a teenage boy called Chick to get his uncle, who is a lawyer. The uncle arrives with Chick. He tells Lucas that nothing much can be done because it is an open-and-shut case, because Lucas has been caught literally with a smoking gun in his hand. There is no way he can talk himself out of this. Lucas wants to say something, but doesn’t. Later, Chick feels that Lucas wants to tell him something and so he comes back alone. Lucas tells Chick that the bullet that killed the victim didn’t come from his gun. Chick embarks on a project to help Lucas. There is a time constraint though, because the relatives of the victim want to break open into the prison, get Lucas out, and lynch him. What is Chick’s plan? Does someone help him? Does his uncle believe in Lucas’ innocence? What happens next? The answers to these questions form the rest of the story.

I will get this out of the way first. Beyond the high level plot sketch, there is no similarity between ‘Intruder in the Dust’ and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. They are two different things. Now more on Faulkner’s book. This is my first Faulkner book. So I was very excited. But halfway through, I was frustrated. Why? Because of this. I didn’t know how to read Faulkner’s book. Should I read it like a fast-paced narrative fiction because the story was interesting? Or should I read it slowly, focusing on the prose and the beauty of the sentences, because it was literary fiction? I tried the first way and it didn’t work. I tried the second way, and that didn’t work too. It was frustrating. One of the reasons for this is that the story has long sentences, which run for a page, and sometimes they stretch into multiple pages. I am not a stranger to long sentences. I love them. In my experience, there are two kinds of long sentences. The first one takes a thought or an idea and builds on it. I love this kind of long sentence. It has a lot of depth and it is beautiful. For example, in Marcel Proust’sIn Search of Lost Time‘, the narrator describes his experience of getting up in the morning and how his senses and his mind awaken. It is beautiful. Another example is from Bohumil Hrabal’sCutting it Short‘. In this book on the first page, there is a description of what happens in the evening when the sun sets and the candles and lamps are lit. It is very poetic and beautiful. There is a second kind of long sentence. It stretches on to a page or more, and has lots of thoughts, ideas and images embedded in it. It is distracting, disrupts our mind from being focussed, and has a hundred unrelated things strewn all over the place. This long sentence – I hate. Maybe hate is a strong word. I find this strong sentence hard to read. It doesn’t build on a thought or an idea, it has too many things in one page, it is distracting, it doesn’t serve any purpose. Reading this sentence is like looking into our mind and noticing hundreds of unrelated thoughts flitting by at any moment. This kind of sentence forms the core of any ‘stream-of-consciousness’ writing. It is one of the reasons I haven’t been able to read Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs.Dalloway‘. I tried years back, and gave up. I haven’t bothered trying to read James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses‘. Because I know I would have the same experience. William Faulkner’s ‘Intruder in the Dust‘ is written in that ‘stream-of-consciousness’ style, with long sentences flitting all over the place. I felt that these long sentences were getting in the way of the story and were not giving me any reading pleasure. But I persisted with them and looked forward to the places where there was dialogue which moved the story and where there were passages which focussed on a topic. This was after all a book about crime and race and the American South and I was hoping to find many insightful passages. Those passages did arrive and they made me happy. But at some point it became too hard for me. I started speed reading the book, trying to reach those parts with dialogue and beautiful passages, feeling guilty all the time, because I almost never speed read, because I feel a book deserves to be treated with respect and affection and given the time it deserves. But I didn’t have a choice here, because it was too much for me. Finally a combination of perseverance and speed reading got me through to the last page. After finishing the last page, I wondered whether I would read a Faulkner book again. I went and checked another Faulkner book I have called ‘As I Lay Dying‘ to find out whether he has deployed the same style there. Fortunately not. That book has short sentences and the story is narrated by multiple characters, and the book looks almost contemporary. So, there is hope yet. I hope to read ‘As I Lay Dying‘ sometime soon. As far as ‘stream-of-consciousness’ style is concerned, I hope, someday, to dip into ‘Ulysses‘ and ‘Mrs.Dalloway‘ again. Hopefully I will respond to it better. I hope Virginia Woolf has written books which don’t use the ‘stream-of-consciousness’ style. I admire her tremendously and it will be a shame if the only book of hers I can read is ‘A Room of One’s Own‘. Beyond dipping my toes though, I think I will stay away from ‘stream-of-consciousness’ works. It is not my thing.

So, what do I think about ‘Intruder in the Dust‘? I think it is an interesting book. I loved many of the characters, especially Lucas, Chick, Mrs.Habersham and Lucas’ uncle Gavin. There were also interesting, thought-provoking passages throughout the book. I think lovers of the ‘stream-of-consciousness’ style will appreciate the book more. I am happy that I checked two boxes with this one book – I read my first complete ‘stream-of-consciousness’ novel and I read my first William Faulkner book. I wish the reading experience had been better. I discovered that there is a film adaptation of the book. I think I will like that, because it will dispense with the style and focus on the plot. I would love to watch it sometime.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“…his uncle had said that all man had was time, all that stood between him and the death he feared and abhorred was time yet he spent half of it inventing ways of getting the other half past…”

“…outside the quiet lamplit room the vast millrace of time roared not toward midnight but dragging midnight with it, not to hurl midnight into wreckage but to hurl the wreckage of midnight down upon them in one poised skyblotting yawn…”

“Just remember that they can stand anything, accept any fact…provided they don’t have to face it…”

Gavin : “He ain’t asleep. He’s cooking breakfast.”
Miss Habersham : “Cooking breakfast?”
Gavin : “He’s a country man. Any food he eats after daylight in the morning is dinner.”

“If you got something outside the common run that’s got to be done and can’t wait, don’t waste your time in the menfolks; they works on what your uncle calls the rules and the cases. Get the womens and the children at it; they works on the circumstances.”

“…because you escape nothing, you flee nothing; the pursuer is what is doing the running and tomorrow night is nothing but one long sleepless wrestle with yesterday’s omissions and regrets.”

“…there is a simple numerical point at which a mob cancels and abolishes itself, maybe because it has finally got too big for darkness, the cave it was spawned in is no longer big enough to conceal it from light and so at last whether it will or no it has to look at itself, or maybe because the amount of blood in one human body is no longer enough, as one peanut might titillate one elephant but not two or ten. Or maybe it’s because man having passed into mob passes then into mass which abolishes mob by absorption, metabolism, then having got too large even for mass becomes man again conceptible of pity and justice and conscience even if only in the recollection of his long painful aspiration toward them, toward that something anyway of one serene universal light.”

Have you read ‘Intruder in the Dust‘? What do you think about it? Do you like the ‘stream-of-consciousness’ style of writing?

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Mary Oliver is one of my favourite poets. Everytime I read her poem, ‘The Summer Day‘, I get goosebumps. But I haven’t read any of her prose or essay collections. I thought I will start with this one. (Isn’t the book cover breathtakingly beautiful?)

Upstream‘ is a collection of essays, mostly selected from Mary Oliver’s other collections and assembled together here. The book is divided into five sections. In the first section, Mary Oliver writes about how she fell in love with nature and with reading and with poetry. She also writes about her favourite poet Walt Whitman. She also shares her thoughts on writing as an art – it is one of the most beautiful and inspiring essays I have read. The second section is about nature. The third section is about Oliver’s favourite writers. Here in four essays, she shares her thoughts on Emerson, Poe, Whitman and Wordsworth. The fourth section is also about nature. The final section has one essay called ‘Provincetown‘ which talks about the town in which Oliver lived with her partner for nearly five decades. It is a beautiful essay about how this beautiful coastal town changed from a sleepy town where everyone was happy to the tourist spot that it is today.

I mentioned earlier that the second and the fourth sections were about nature. Is there any difference between them? Which section did I like more? The second section mostly had essays which looked at nature from a slightly larger perspective. For example, there is an essay about ponds and another about fishing and different kinds of fishes. The fourth section takes a more closer look. Here, there is an essay on a spider which is building her web and trying to have babies. There is another essay about an injured seagull which Oliver saves from the beach and what happens to him. We almost feel that the spider and the seagull are human. I liked both these nature sections, but I loved the fourth section more. It was hard not to think of Charlotte while reading the essay on the spider.

My favourite essays in the book were ‘Upstream‘, which is a meditative essay about trees, the woods, the forest – it felt almost like reading a Mary Oliver poem here, ‘My Friend Walt Whitman‘, which is a beautiful ode to this great poet, ‘Staying Alive‘, which describes how Mary Oliver fell in love with books and nature, ‘Of Power and Time‘, which is a beautiful, inspiring essay about the life of an artist, ‘Swoon‘, which is about the spider mom, ‘Bird‘, which is about the injured seagull, ‘Building the House‘, in which Oliver describes how she tried building a house once, and ‘Provincetown‘, which is a beautiful nostalgic piece. I liked the rest of the essays too, but these were my absolute favourites.

I loved ‘Upstream‘. Mary Oliver is one of my favourite poets. Now after reading this book, I realize that she will give my favourite essayist Anne Fadiman a run for her money. A collection of Mary Oliver poems or essays, a collection of Anne Fadiman essays, a quiet time in the garden with the birds chirping, and the butterflies dazzling, the sun warm but not hot, the sky beautifully blue with fluffy white clouds, a cup of delicious, hot, spicy tea with some chocolate cake, and a beautiful time spent savouring poems and essays and nature – this is the ideal day, isn’t it? What more does one need?

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book. (Sorry I went overboard with the quotes).

“Writing is neither vibrant life nor docile artifact but a text that would put all its money on the hope of suggestion.”

On the Black Oak

“It lives in my imagination strongly that the black oak is pleased to be a black oak. I mean all of them, but in particular one tree that leads me into Blackwater, that is as shapely as a flower, that I have often hugged and put my lips to. Maybe it is a hundred years old. And who knows what it dreamed of in the first springs of its life, escaping the cottontail’s teeth and everything dangerous else. Who knows when supreme patience took hold, and the wind’s wandering among its leaves was enough of motion, of travel.”

“Attention is the beginning of devotion.”

On Walt Whitman

“I learned from Whitman that the poem is a temple—or a green field—a place to enter, and in which to feel. Only in a secondary way is it an intellectual thing—an artifact, a moment of seemly and robust wordiness—wonderful as that part of it is. I learned that the poem was made not just to exist, but to speak—to be company. It was everything that was needed, when everything was needed. I remember the delicate, rumpled way into the woods, and the weight of the books in my pack. I remember the rambling, and the loafing—the wonderful days when, with Whitman, I tucked my trowser-ends in my boots and went and had a good time.”

On the Beauty of Work

“And there is the thing that one does, the needle one plies, the work, and within that work a chance to take thoughts that are hot and formless and to place them slowly and with meticulous effort into some shapely heat-retaining form, even as the gods, or nature, or the soundless wheels of time have made forms all across the soft, curved universe—that is to say, having chosen to claim my life, I have made for myself, out of work and love, a handsome life.”

On Form

“Form is certainty. All nature knows this, and we have no greater adviser. Clouds have forms, porous and shape-shifting, bumptious, fleecy. They are what clouds need to be, to be clouds. See a flock of them come, on the sled of the wind, all kneeling above the blue sea. And in the blue water, see the dolphin built to leap, the sea mouse skittering; see the ropy kelp with its air-filled bladders tugging it upward; see the albatross floating day after day on its three-jointed wings. Each form sets a tone, enables a destiny, strikes a note in the universe unlike any other. How can we ever stop looking? How can we ever turn away?”

On Life

“And now my old dog is dead, and another I had after him, and my parents are dead, and that first world, that old house, is sold and lost, and the books I gathered there lost, or sold—but more books bought, and in another place, board by board and stone by stone, like a house, a true life built, and all because I was steadfast about one or two things: loving foxes, and poems, the blank piece of paper, and my own energy—and mostly the shimmering shoulders of the world that shrug carelessly over the fate of any individual that they may, the better, keep the Niles and the Amazons flowing.
And that I did not give to anyone the responsibility for my life. It is mine. I made it. And can do what I want to with it. Live it. Give it back, someday, without bitterness, to the wild and weedy dunes.”

On Creative Work and the Creative Life

“In creative work—creative work of all kinds—those who are the world’s working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward. Which is something altogether different from the ordinary. Such work does not refute the ordinary. It is, simply, something else. Its labor requires a different outlook—a different set of priorities. Certainly there is within each of us a self that is neither a child, nor a servant of the hours. It is a third self, occasional in some of us, tyrant in others. This self is out of love with the ordinary; it is out of love with time. It has a hunger for eternity.”

“Of this there can be no question—creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity. A person trudging through the wilderness of creation who does not know this—who does not swallow this—is lost. He who does not crave that roofless place eternity should stay at home. Such a person is perfectly worthy, and useful, and even beautiful, but is not an artist. Such a person had better live with timely ambitions and finished work formed for the sparkle of the moment only. Such a person had better go off and fly an airplane.”

“It is six A.M., and I am working. I am absentminded, reckless, heedless of social obligations, etc. It is as it must be. The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard. The poem gets written. I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame. Neither do I have guilt. My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely. It does not include mustard, or teeth. It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot. My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.
There is no other way work of artistic worth can be done. And the occasional success, to the striver, is worth everything. The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”

On Emerson

“The best use of literature bends not toward the narrow and the absolute but to the extravagant and the possible. Answers are no part of it; rather, it is the opinions, the rhapsodic persuasions, the engrafted logics, the clues that are to the mind of the reader the possible keys to his own self-quarrels, his own predicament. This is the crux of Emerson, who does not advance straight ahead but wanders to all sides of an issue; who delivers suggestions with a kindly gesture—who opens doors and tells us to look at things for ourselves. The one thing he is adamant about is that we should look—we must look—for that is the liquor of life, that brooding upon issues, that attention to thought even as we weed the garden or milk the cow.”

The Two Gifts

“In this universe we are given two gifts: the ability to love, and the ability to ask questions. Which are, at the same time, the fires that warm us and the fires that scorch us.”

The Love of Trees

“Through these woods I have walked thousands of times. For many years I felt more at home here than anywhere else, including our own house. Stepping out into the world, into the grass, onto the path, was always a kind of relief. I was not escaping anything. I was returning to the arena of delight. I was stepping across some border. I don’t mean just that the world changed on the other side of the border, but that I did too. Eventually I began to appreciate—I don’t say this lightly—that the great black oaks knew me. I don’t mean they knew me as myself and not another—that kind of individualism was not in the air—but that they recognized and responded to my presence, and to my mood. They began to offer, or I began to feel them offer, their serene greeting. It was like a quick change of temperature, a warm and comfortable flush, faint yet palpable, as I walked toward them and beneath their outflowing branches.”

The Young Carpenter Poet

“I know a young man who can build almost anything—a boat, a fence, kitchen cabinets, a table, a barn, a house. And so serenely, and in so assured and right a manner, that it is joy to watch him. All the same, what he seems to care for best—what he seems positively to desire—is the hour of interruption, of hammerless quiet, in which he will sit and write down poems or stories that have come into his mind with clambering and colorful force. Truly he is not very good at the puzzle of words—not nearly as good as he is with the mallet and the measuring tape—but this in no way lessens his pleasure. Moreover, he is in no hurry. Everything he learned, he learned at a careful pace—will not the use of words come easier at last, though he begin at the slowest trot? Also, in these intervals, he is happy. In building things, he is his familiar self, which he does not overvalue. But in the act of writing he is a grander man, a surprise to us, and even more to himself. He is beyond what he believed himself to be.”

Have you read ‘Upstream‘ by Mary Oliver? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Nawal El Saadawi’sWoman at Point Zero‘ when some of my feminist friends organized a feminist literature reading festival a few years back. Nawal El Saadawi was the only author featured in the list, who was new to me. I made a mental note to read one of her books. I finally got around to reading this today.

Nawal El Saadawi says in her introduction to the book that ‘Woman at Point Zero’ is based on a real story. The story told in the book goes like this. The narrator is a psychiatrist who visits a prison to talk to some of the women prisoners and try to understand them and study their personalities. There is one prisoner called Firdaus, who she is fascinated with. Firdaus has been convicted of murder and is going to be executed soon. The narrator wants to meet Firdaus, but Firdaus doesn’t talk to anyone and refuses to see her. The narrator is disappointed, but keeps trying. One day her persistence pays off and Firdaus agrees to see her. Firdaus tells the narrator her story – how she struggled when she was a child because her parents treated her badly because she was a girl, how when they passed her uncle took her in, sent her to school and got her an education, and though she passed out of school with distinction and loved learning she couldn’t pursue studies and was married off to an old man, how her husband harassed her and treated her like a maid and a slave and how she escaped from his house, how she met kind strangers who helped her and took her in but soon revealed their true colours, how she was betrayed by one man after another and sometimes by a woman too (when Firdaus says – “The street was an endless expanse stretched out before my eyes like a sea. I was just a pebble thrown into it, battered by the waves, tossed here and there, rolling over and over to be abandoned somewhere on the shore” – it breaks our heart), how her fight for survival as a single woman in a conservative, patriarchal society forced her to become a prostitute, how that, surprisingly, gave her freedom and power and independence and status, how her lifelong harrowing experiences revealed to her some bitter truths about society and the way it is structured and the way it exploits women, how she ended up in the prison she is now in.

When I finished reading the book, I felt that I was close to drowning and came out of water in the last moment for a breath of air. Firdaus’ story is hard to read – it is dark, bleak, powerful and sinks us further and further into the abyss. Throughout the sinking, we hear Firdaus’ calm, brave voice narrating the story in a matter-of-fact way, slamming society and its evils clinically. Through Firdaus’ voice, Nawal El Saadawi offers deep and insightful commentary on the human condition and on how society has treated women across the ages. It is powerful and stirring. It makes us angry, it makes us sad, it gives us goosebumps, it makes us bitter, it makes us ponder on how to change things. When the story ended and I read this passage in the final pages –

“I saw her walk out with them. I never saw her again. But her voice continued to echo in my ears, vibrating in my head, in the cell, in the prison, in the streets, in the whole world, shaking everything, spreading fear wherever it went, the fear of the truth which kills, the power of truth, as savage, and as simple, and as awesome as death, yet as simple and as gentle as the child that has not yet learnt to lie. And because the world was full of lies, she had to pay the price.”

– it was heartbreaking and made me cry.

I loved ‘Woman at Point Zero‘. It is a brilliant book. Firdaus is one of the great literary heroines and this book is one of the great feminist novels. Nawal El Saadawi is one of the great feminists of the twentieth century and it is a shame that she is not more well known internationally. I wish more readers read this book and give it the love it deserves. It is inspiring, stirring stuff. I can’t wait to read more of Nawal El Saadawi’s works.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

A Distant Feeling

“I held her eyes in mind, took her hand in mine. The feeling of our hands touching was strange, sudden. It was a feeling that made my body tremble with a deep distant pleasure, more distant than the age of my remembered life, deeper than the consciousness I had carried with me throughout. I could feel it somewhere, like a part of my being which had been born with me when I was born, but had not grown with me when I had grown, like a part of my being that I had once known, but left behind when I was born. A cloudy awareness of something that could have been, and yet was never lived.”

The Joy of Freedom

“It was midnight and the streets were quiet. A gentle breeze was beckoning softly from the Nile. I walked along, enjoying the peace of the night. I no longer felt any pain. Everything around seemed to fill me with tranquillity. The gentle breeze caressing my face, the empty streets, and the rows of closed windows and doors, the feeling of being rejected by people and at the same time being able to reject them, the estrangement from everything, even the earth, and the sky and the trees. I was like a woman walking through an enchanted world to which she does not belong. She is free to do what she wants, and free not to do it. She experiences the rare pleasure of having no ties with anyone, of having broken with everything, of having cut all relations with the world around her, of being completely independent and living her independence completely, of enjoying freedom from any subjection to a man, to marriage, or to love; of being divorced from all limitations whether rooted in rules and laws in time or in the universe…She no longer hopes for anything or desires anything. She no longer fears anything, for everything which can hurt her she has already undergone.”

Becoming Free

“I have triumphed over both life and death because I no longer desire to live, nor do I any longer fear to die. I want nothing. I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. Therefore I am free. For during life it is our wants, our hopes, our fears that enslave us. The freedom I enjoy fills them with anger. They would like to discover that there is after all something which I desire, or fear, or hope for. Then they know they can enslave me once more.”

The Nature of Truth

“I am speaking the truth now without any difficulty. For the truth is always easy and simple. And in its simplicity lies a savage power. I only arrived at the savage, primitive truths of life after years of struggle. For it is only very rarely that people can arrive at the simple, but awesome and powerful truths of life after only a few years. And to have arrived at the truth means that one no longer fears death. For death and truth are similar in that they both require a great courage if one wishes to face them. And truth is like death in that it kills. When I killed I did it with truth not with a knife. That is why they are afraid and in a hurry to execute me. They do not fear my knife. It is my truth which frightens them. This fearful truth gives me great strength. It protects me from fearing death, or life, or hunger, or nakedness, or destruction. It is this fearful truth which prevents me from fearing the brutality of rulers and policemen.”

On Men

“I became aware of the fact that I hated men, but for long years had hidden this secret carefully. The men I hated most of all were those who tried to give me advice, or told me that they wanted to rescue me from the life I was leading. I used to hate them more than the others because they thought they were better than I was and could help me change my life. They saw themselves in some kind of chivalrous role – a role they had failed to play under other circumstances. They wanted to feel noble and elevated by reminding me of the fact that I was low. They were saying to themselves:
‘See how wonderful I am. I’m trying to lift her out of the mud before it’s too late, that slut of a woman.’
I refused to give them a chance to play this role. None of them was there to rescue me when I was married to a man who beat me up and kicked me every day. And not one of them came to my help when my heart was broken because I had dared to fall in love. A woman’s life is always miserable. A prostitute, however, is a little better off. I was able to convince myself that I had chosen this life of my own free will. The fact that I rejected their noble attempts to save me, my insistence on remaining a prostitute, proved to me this was my choice and that I had some freedom, at least the freedom to live in a situation better than that of other women.”

Conversation between Firdaus and Sharifa

‘Who are you?’
And she replied, ‘Your mother.’
‘My mother died many years ago.’
‘Then your sister.’
‘I have neither sister, nor brother. They all died when they were small, like chicks.’
‘Everybody has to die, Firdaus. I will die, and you will die.The important thing is how to live until you die.’
‘How is it possible to live? Life is so hard.’
‘You must be harder than life, Firdaus. Life is very hard. The only people who really live are those who are harder than life itself.’
‘But you are not hard, Sharifa, so how do you manage to live?’
‘I am hard, terribly hard, Firdaus.’
‘No, you are gentle, and soft.’
‘My skin is soft, but my heart is cruel, and my bite deadly.’
‘Like a snake?’
‘Yes, exactly like a snake. Life is a snake. They are the same, Firdaus. If the snake realizes you are not a snake, it will bite you. And if life knows you have no sting, it will devour you.’

Have you read Nawal El Saadawi’sWoman at Point Zero‘? What do you think about it?

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I can’t remember how I discovered May Sarton’sJournal of a Solitude‘. Which is odd, because I always remember how I discover a book. Maybe I stumbled upon it, during one of my browsing sessions on Kindle books. Or maybe someone mentioned it and it was there in the back of my mind, when I stumbled upon it. Whatever be the nature of the truth, the title appealed to me, and I kept it aside for a quiet day. (Well, that is not the end of the story. When I was searching on May Sarton on the internet, I discovered that Caroline from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’ has reviewed Sarton’s novel ‘Mrs.Stevens Heard the Mermaids Singing’. And, of course, as I nearly predicted after I discovered that, I have posted a long comment there. Human memory is unpredictable and fickle, as they say.) A few days back I decided to start reading it and I finished reading it today.

Journal of a Solitude‘ is a journal written during the early ’70s by May Sarton. In the journal, Sarton describes one year of her life spent in a town called Nelson in New Hampshire. The journal describes Sarton’s everyday life, her quiet routines, how her creative energy bursts out gently and manifests itself as poems and books, the challenges and inner demons and depression she has to wrestle against when her creative energies don’t flow, her relationship with her cats and her parrot and a wild cat which sometimes visits her, her friendship with her neighbours who are kind and who help her, her relationship with her friends who visit her occasionally, the excitement and challenges of a new romantic relationship, the pleasures of gardening and the beauty of flowers, the changing of the seasons and the quiet and colourful changes they bring, the pleasures, joy and tranquility of solitude and the occasional challenges it brings – Sarton touches on this and other topics. It is a beautiful, tranquil book and Sarton’s prose is contemplative and meditative and gentle and flows like a serene river. Sarton is frank in her observations and doesn’t mince words when she disagrees with established wisdom or with popular opinion, but she does it gently, softly. She is also honest about her own imperfections and flaws and turns her gaze inward and bares her soul. Normally this would be hard to read because we don’t know what awaits us, but Sarton’s gentle tone makes it interesting and beautiful. Sarton is a poet and it shows in her prose.

I didn’t read about May Sarton, till I was halfway through the book. I did that on purpose because I wanted to see how the book would impact me, if I didn’t know anything about the author. When I knew that I was in love with the book, I went and read more about the author. What I discovered was fascinating. May Sarton seems to have been a famous writer during her times, she has published novels, poetry collections and journals, she started writing in the ’30s and continued writing till the ’90s, her books were shortlisted multiple times for the National Book Award, and her backlist is impressive and huge. I don’t know why I hadn’t heard of her before. I also don’t know why she is not more well known now. She deserves better.

I loved ‘Journal of a Solitude‘. Being a introverted, contemplative, reclusive person myself, I was delighted because the book spoke to me. I am glad I discovered it serendipitously. It is one of my favourite reads of the year. I will be coming back and reading my favourite passages from the book again and again.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

On Poetry and Prose

“Why is it that poetry always seems to me so much more a true work of the soul than prose? I never feel elated after writing a page of prose, though I have written good things on concentrated will, and at least in a novel the imagination is fully engaged. Perhaps it is that prose is earned and poetry given. Both can be revised almost indefinitely. I do not mean to say that I do not work at poetry. When I am really inspired I can put a poem through a hundred drafts and keep my excitement. But this sustained battle is possible only when I am in a state of grace, when the deep channels are open, and when they are, when I am both profoundly stirred and balanced, then poetry comes as a gift from powers beyond my will.
I have often imagined that if I were in solitary confinement for an indefinite time and knew that no one would ever read what I wrote, I would still write poetry, but I would not write novels. Why? Perhaps because the poem is primarily a dialogue with the self and the novel a dialogue with others. They come from entirely different modes of being. I suppose I have written novels to find out what I thought about something and poems to find out what I felt about something.”

On Virginia Woolf

“It is painful that such genius should evoke such mean-spirited response at present. Is genius so common that we can afford to brush it aside? What does it matter whether she is major or minor, whether she imitated Joyce (I believe she did not), whether her genius was a limited one, limited by class? What remains true is that one cannot pick up a single one of her books and read a page without feeling more alive. If art is not to be life-enhancing, what is it to be? Half the world is feminine—why is there resentment at a female-oriented art? Nobody asks The Tale of Genji to be masculine! Women certainly learn a lot from books oriented toward a masculine world. Why is not the reverse also true? Or are men really so afraid of women’s creativity (because they are not themselves at the center of creation, cannot bear children) that a woman writer of genius evokes murderous rage, must be brushed aside with a sneer as “irrelevant”?”

On Writers and Writing

“My own belief is that one regards oneself, if one is a serious writer, as an instrument for experiencing. Life—all of it-flows through this instrument and is distilled through it into works of art. How one lives as a private person is intimately bound into the work. And at some point I believe one has to stop holding back for fear of alienating some imaginary reader or real relative or friend, and come out with personal truth. If we are to understand the human condition, and if we are to accept ourselves in all the complexity, self-doubt, extravagance of feeling, guilt, joy, the slow freeing of the self to its full capacity for action and creation, both as human being and as artist, we have to know all we can about each other, and we have to be willing to go naked.”

On Painters and Writers

“I envy painters because they can set their work up and look at it whole in a way that a writer cannot, even with a single page of prose or a poem. But how hard it must be to give up a painting! When a book appears it goes out into the world, but the writer still keeps it and can go on giving it to friends over and over again. The painting is gone forever.
I suppose I envy painters because they can meditate on form and structure, on color and light, and not concern themselves with human torment and chaos. It is restful even to imagine expression without words.”

Have you read May Sarton’sJournal of a Solitude‘? What do you think about it?

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We sometimes discover new books in interesting, unexpected ways. I am always excited when that happens. I discovered Justin O. Schmidt’sThe Sting of the Wild‘ through an episode of Jimmy Kimmel’s show. Schmidt was the invited guest for that episode and he had brought with him his favourite stinging insects and introduced them to the audience and then spoke about this book. I was excited when I saw that episode, because it is nice to see scientists at talk shows talking about the work they do. I got this book after a while and finally got to read it this week.

The Sting of the Wild‘ is about stinging insects. In the first part of the book which runs into five chapters, Schmidt gives us an introduction to stinging insects and talks about how their stinging capability might have evolved from an evolutionary perspective. In the second part of the book, Schmidt focuses on individual insects, talks about their life histories and their lifestyles, their relationships with humans and other animals from the animal kingdom, how they use their sting and how sharp and painful their sting can be. He creates a four-level sting-pain scale and tries to rate each insect’s sting using this scale. Some of the insects which are featured in the second part of the book are sweat bees, ants of different types including fireants, harvester ants and bullet ants, wasps of different types including yellowjackets, tarantula hawks, mud daubers and velvet ants, and of course everyone’s favourite, the honey bee.

During the course of this exciting adventure into the stinging insect world, Schmidt reveals some surprising facts. For example :

The male of a stinging insect cannot sting, it is only the female which stings –

““Careful, don’t let him sting you” is an all-too-familiar phrase to warn against stinging insects. But male stinging insects do not sting. You read right. Males do not sting. Why not? The answer could not be simpler—they do not have a stinger! Even if a male bee (or ant or wasp, for that matter) attempted to sting, it lacks the equipment. The stinger is a highly derived, egg-laying tube, and males cannot lay eggs. They simply cannot evolve a stinger similar to a female’s stinger. Consequently, males are harmless, have no ability to hurt large predators, and do not even aid their sisters to defend against predators. Threaten a male bee or a wasp, and it flees or hides.”

In the case of some ants, the intense pain from the sting lasts for nearly eight hours –

“One might be tempted to generalize from experience with stings from honey bees, yellowjackets, baldfaced hornets, various wasps, bumble bees, sweat bees, and even fire ants that all insect stings are sort of like a bee sting, differing mainly in intensity. Anyone who has been stung by a harvester ant knows better. Harvester ants are docile giants of the temperate ant world, unobtrusively going about their business of harvesting seeds for food. They have no attitude like fire ants and cause no harm if left alone. If they are sat on or pinched, however, they deliver a sting that is nothing like a bee sting. The pain is intense, comes in waves, and is deeply visceral. The intense pain lasts 4 to 8 hours, not 4 to 8 minutes, as with a typical honey bee sting.”

In another place, he says this about the sting of Maricopa ants, a type of harvester ants –

“Don’t let the delicate, lithe body shape or unassuming demeanor of Maricopa harvester ants fool you. The stings of these ants really hurt. The throbbing pain can last 8 hours, decreases only slowly, and the ants readily autotomize their stings into humans or other unfortunate animals. These ants were the most painful stingers we encountered on the summer’s trip. To add veracity to their message, the venom of the ants at this particular location is the most toxic known ant, wasp, or bee venom, some 25 times more toxic than honey bee venom and 35 times greater than western diamondback rattlesnake venom.”

There are some wasps, called Tarantula Hawks, which eat tarantula spiders, which are many times their size.

Some queen ants live for nearly forty years and continue to produce offspring to populate their colony during that span –

“What are the longest-lived ants? Harvester ants currently appear to win the award, outlasting all other ants…The longevity of a harvester ant colony has been exasperatingly difficult to pin down. Answers are all over the place, from an average of 15 years or 17 years for a colony reared in the lab, to 22 to 43 years and even up to 29 to 58 years…The western harvester ant is the species suspected to live the longest of all harvester ants. For her 56 colonies, she calculated that the last colony would live to 44.9 years of age…To live up to 45 years, a queen harvester ant must remain amazingly safe and secure.”

Bullet ants deliver the most painful sting. Or as the author puts it –

“I am confident that bullet ants are the holy grail of stinging insects and deliver the most painful sting of any stinging insect on Earth.”

And, of course, the fascinating, but probably well known fact about honey bees.

“Unlike, most wasps that are carnivores, honey bees are strict vegetarians (vegans, if you wish) that feed on pollen and nectar from flowers, plus sugary liquids from other sources, including honeydew-producing insects.”

One of my favourite descriptions in the book was about solitary wasps. It goes like this.

“Solitary in the sense of wasp biology means lack of sociality, that is, not living in colonies with sisters, brothers, mothers, and growing young. Instead, solitary wasps live a life of the single female who must do everything herself so that her offspring survive and carry on her lineage. Solitary wasps are true single moms. Male wasps do no work whatsoever to assist in producing the next generation.”

That passage gave me goosebumps. I always liked solitary wasps – sometimes one of them, I think a Mud Dauber, has buzzed around in my home trying to build a nest, and I knew instinctively that it was a mother which was going to have babies. Now, after reading this passage, I love them more.

There is also an astonishing fact that Schmidt reveals about some solitary wasps.

“Momma wasp has the special ability to choose the sex of her babies. Hymenoptera are oddballs in the genetic world. Females are produced from fertilized eggs, and males are produced from unfertilized eggs…it…means mom can choose to produce a son or a daughter by selectively allowing stored sperm to fertilize the egg. In the tarantula hawk world, females are valuable. They do all the work, take all the risks of capturing the spiders, and have to drag a spider sometimes eight times their weight to their burrow. Thus, females need to be big and strong to do the job efficiently and to produce the most young.”

During the course of the book, the author also describes how he got interested in studying insects and became an entomologist (insect biologist). (It seems he took the scenic route to get there, having done his undergraduate and graduate degrees in chemistry.) It is fascinating to read. He also talks about some of the great entomologists. I was fascinated by one in particular – Howard Ensign Evans. He has written books about wasps – those great, inspiring, insect single moms – how can we not love him? I want to read books by him.

Justin Schmidt’s pace flows smoothly and the pages fly. He enlivens the facts and anecdotes with humorous lines, like this :

“Animal survival is simple in theory: fill one’s stomach with nutritious food, and don’t end up in anyone else’s stomach.”

Occasionally, Schmidt also offers an overall commentary on science, like he does here :

“Science is rarely sterile. Scientists are adventurers like ancient explorers sailing to undiscovered parts of the globe, who do not know what they will find or discover but seek the thrill of the unknown. Contrary to movie caricatures, scientists are not eccentric, crazy, brilliant people in strange laboratories concocting various magical brews or wild computer programs. Scientists are people, equally exciting or boring, like our usual acquaintances. Science is the process of discovery, distinguishable from other human endeavors. The discovery process is self-correcting; that is, if evidence disproves a scientific concept, that old idea is either discarded or modified consistent with the new factual information. In practice, this process is not usually as smooth or as rapid as described. Most scientists make their greatest discoveries early in their careers and, because they are human, become attached to their discoveries. Within the scientific community, new ideas stimulate new experiments to test the ideas, generating new facts and information. Good scientists will look at new facts and modify or outright discard their ideas if they are shown to be wrong. But this is difficult. Nobody wants to think that much of what he or she accomplished in life is wrong. Young scientists are typically spared emotional attachment to earlier ideas and form their ideas mainly based on current facts. Thus, science tends to progress through younger people, and old ideas tend to die with the originators of those ideas. Through this cynical view, science progresses one coffin at a time.”

The Sting of the Wild‘ is a fascinating book. Though the focus of the book is supposedly the stings of insects and how and why they evolved and how painful they can be, the life history of insects that the book describes is fascinating. After reading this, we start seeing stinging insects not as annoyances which disturb our peace when we are the middle of our work or enjoying a relaxing day, but as living beings like us, which have problems and challenges which are not very different from what we have – how to find a mate, how to build a home, how to raise one’s young ones and bring them up to be independent beings, how to get food, how to protect one’s home against enemies and predators – we can almost feel the pressures and the challenges that nature exerts on an insect mother’s or insect colony’s life everyday. It is brilliant. I loved it. It is definitely one of my favourite books of the year.

Have you read ‘The Sting of the Wild‘? What do you think about it?

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A couple of years back I did a course on the Talmud because I was curious about it and wanted to learn more about it. I loved the course and wanted to read more. The Talmud can be roughly divided into two parts – the legal and logical part called the Halacha, and the imaginative and story part called the Aggadah. Of course, it is not like the book is cleanly divided into parts, because the Halachic and Aggadic components are integrated in the same page. In the course I studied, we learnt more about the Halachic part – for example, one of the things we learnt was what the Talmud says about false witnesses and how we can devise a practical way to discover whether a witness is offering false testimony or not. In this context, we learnt the story of Susanna. I loved that story. I wanted to read more like it, stories which highlighted a legal principle or offered wisdom or were just inspiring in some way. I thought I will look for a book which had stories from the Talmud, a book which highlighted the Aggadic part – stories which can be read for enjoyment and also for the insights they offered. That is how I discovered Ruth Calderon’sA Bride for One Night : Talmud Tales’.

A Bride for One Night‘ has seventeen stories, all selected from the Talmud. They address different themes of Jewish life, including family, love, marriage, relationships, friendship, the relationship between student and teacher, the true nature of faith, the joy of learning, the conflict between dedicating oneself to intellectual pursuits and spending time with one’s family – these and other themes are explored and illustrated through these stories. Each story has three parts. The first part, which is the shortest, is a translation of the story from the Talmud. The second part is a longer literary and creative rendition of the story by the author. The third part offers reflections by the author on the story and analyses and highlights different aspects of it. Many of the original stories look deceptively simple and straightforward on first reading and the author’s rendition of the story makes it more dramatic and more interesting. But to me, the most important part was the reflections of the author in which she teases out the meaning from in-between words and from behind the words, offers explanations of simple words which are not obvious to readers who are not familiar with Jewish tradition (for example, what is the difference between ‘found‘ and ‘find‘? The answer is not as simple as we might think), and sometimes reads the story against the grain which illuminates a situation from a totally new perspective (for example, the traditional way of reading the story might make us think that the story is extolling the virtue of a particular social practice, but by reading the story against the grain, we realize that the story is actually criticizing a particular social practice and exposing its ills). Many times Calderon offers a feminist analysis and viewpoint on a story which is insightful and is fascinating to ponder on and contemplate about. Sometimes it is interesting to read the analysis and then get back to the original story and try to find out whether we could have teased out the insights ourselves and contemplate on how we missed it the first time. Ruth Calderon is a Talmud scholar and in the introduction to the book she explains how she chose the stories included in the book, and delves into how the stories are structured and how they can be read and interpreted today, through our twenty-first century eyes. That introduction is beautiful to read.

Some of my favourite stories from the book were these :

Sisters – This is the story of two sisters and how one of them is accused of adultery and how the other tries to help her to get out of it.

The Other Side – It is the story of a Rabbi who takes a robber as his student and what happens to them after that. It has a fascinating conversation between the two, which goes like this :

“One day, they were debating in the study house: The sword, the knife, the hunting spear, the hand sickle, the harvesting sickle—at what stage do they become impure? [That is, at what stage in their production do they shift from being raw materials, which are not susceptible to impurity, to vessels that may contract impurity?]
And they answered: From the time they are completed.
And when are they regarded as completed?
Rabbi Yohanan said: When they are refined in the furnace.
Reish Lakish said: When they are polished with water.”

It made me contemplate on when does one thing change into something else. For example, at which instant do two strangers become friends? Or partners or lovers? Is there a particular instant at which this happens or does it happen slowly and gradually? Or does it happen slowly and then suddenly – as Hazel Grace says in ‘The Fault in Our Stars‘ – “As he read, I fell in love, the way you fall asleep : slowly and then all at once“? At which exact instant does a collection of notes become music? At what point does a collection of random lines become art? At what exact point does a stone become sculpture? These are fascinating questions to ponder on. This is what this story did to me.

Libertina – A story in which a wife dresses herself attractively and seduces her husband and the husband responds without realizing that it is his wife and what happens after that.

Lamp – A story about what a young man and a young woman do on their wedding night – not the conventional consummating stuff but something unconventional.

He and His Son‘ and ‘Sorrow in the Cave‘ – Two versions of the same story in which a Rabbi who is chased by the authorities goes on exile, lives in a cave and spends the next twelve years pursuing learning and on contemplation. In the first version, he goes to the cave with his son. In the second version, he is alone.

Elisha – The story of Rabbi Elisha ben Abuya, who loses his faith.

The Beruria Incident – A story about a rabbi’s wife called Beruria, who is well learned herself. It is beautiful, inspiring and heartbreaking.

Yishmael, My Son, Bless Me – Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha enters the Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctum of the temple, to burn incense and offer prayers, and an amazing surprise awaits him. This story ended with these beautiful, inspiring lines – “What does this…teach us? It teaches us never to underestimate the blessing offered by an ordinary person.

I loved ‘A Bride for One Night : Talmud Tales‘. It offers beautiful insights into Jewish culture and tradition, in the form of stories. It is not a regular collection of short stories, which we can read at an easy pace, but it is more like a collection of Zen koans, which we read and contemplate on, try to tease the meaning between the words or behind them, and read the analysis and reflect on the insights they offer. It is thought-provoking and contemplative and makes us see some things in new light. I loved the commentary that Ruth Calderon offers in the ‘reflections’ part. I am glad I read it.

Have you read ‘A Bride for One Night : Talmud Tales’? What do you think about it?

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I haven’t read a lot of Australian literature and it is one of the gaps on my reading list that I hope to address sometime. While thinking of which book to read next, I remembered Lisa’s (ANZ Litlovers) wonderful review of Karenlee Thompson’sFlame Tip‘ (You can find the reviews here and here.) Thompson is Australian and the stories in the book are set in Australia and so I was excited to get started.

Flame Tip‘ is a collection of short stories. There are seventeen stories in the book. All of them have a common theme – the 7th of February 1967, also called Black Tuesday, the day on which bush fires broke out in Tasmania killing many people, injuring many and burning down many houses leaving many people homeless. The main characters in each story is impacted by the bushfire in some way – they lose a family member or a beloved partner and in some cases they find freedom and even love. In one story we are literally treated to a bird’s eye view of the fire. The book also has an interesting foreword by David Walsh in which he shares his own memories on what he was doing on the day of the fire.

I will share brief descriptions of some of my favourite stories from the book to give you a flavour of the themes covered in the book.

Like a Wall – A woman looks back on her life at the time of the fire. She was young at that time, newly married, and loved her husband dearly. She is white Australian and her husband is Chinese Australian and so their relationship with her parents is strained. What happens to this young couple on the days leading up to the fire and on the day of the fire form the rest of the story. This was my most favourite story in the book and it made me cry.

Jack Frost – This is the story of a young girl who is scared of a neighbour called Jack Frost because there are scary stories told about him and how she ends up (whether fortunately or unfortunately – that is revealed in the story) in his house when the fire rages and what happens after that. This was my second favourite story from the book.

Medusa One Snake and Her Band of Three – This is the story in which we are treated to a bird’s eye view of the fire and we see the whole conflagration unfold through the eyes of a Whistling Kite matriarch and how she and her family handle the challenge that nature throws at them.

The Keeper of the Satchel – This tells the story of a man who goes to buy a satchel. He then looks back on his life, and his present and his past and the day of the fire interweave to form the rest of the story.

Anabelle, Just Looking – This story is structured like a personals ad in which a woman who is looking for a partner describes what kind of person she is looking for. Very charming and humorous.

Let Me Tell You – It describes how a town and its people looked like – the sights, the sounds, the smells – before and after the fire, through the eyes of a young person. It is beautiful and heartbreaking.

Lost – This is a very short story and describes beautifully and poignantly, in the form of a ‘Lost and Found’ notice, what has been lost in the fire.

Flame Tip‘ is a fascinating look at the great Tasmanian fire which happened on Black Tuesday in 1967, seen through the eyes of different people from different walks of life, young and old. I enjoyed reading it, though it was scary, poignant and heartbreaking in parts.

Have you read ‘Flame Tip‘? What do you think about it?

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