Tuesday, May 17, 2016

61 Books: #27

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–26 are below this post.

27. Elif Shafak, The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi (2010) (5/17/16)
This book is in fact two books in one: the framing story is set in 2008 Massachusetts and involves an almost-40 unhappily married housewife and mother. She takes a job as a reader for a literary agent—and yes, that's where the embedded book comes in. It's a novel, written by a Scots Sufi, about a couple of the most famous Sufis of all time: the thirteenth-century poet Rumi and his muse, Shams of Tabriz.

The framing story is fine, if a bit hokey: unhappy housewife and Scots Sufi fall in love thanks to the miracle of email—though of course there's a twist at the end. But what I found especially fascinating was the embedded story, titled Sweet Blasphemy. It is told through various first-person viewpoints, including Rumi and Shams, but also Rumi's sons and wife, a drunkard, a beggar, a harlot, and a killer. Woven throughout are the "forty rules," conveying Sufi teachings. For example (chosen randomly):

"Intellect ties people in knots and risks nothing, but love dissolves all tangles and risks everything. Intellect is always cautious and advises, 'Beware too much ecstasy,' whereas love says, 'Oh, never mind! Take the plunge!' Intellect does not easily break down, whereas love can effortlessly reduce itself to rubble. But treasures are hidden among ruins. A broken heart hides treasures."


"In this world, it is not similarities or regularities that take us a step forward, but blunt opposites. And all the opposites in the universe are present within each and every one of us. Therefore the believer needs to meet the unbeliever residing within. and the nonbeliever should get to know the silent faithful in him. Until the day one reaches the stage of Insan-i Kamil, the perfect human being, faith is a gradual process and one that necessitates its seeming opposite: disbelief."

As I read, I kept looking things up, to learn more about Rumi, about wandering (and whirling) dervishes, and about Sufism generally, which experienced a flowering in the thirteenth century. The book provides an illuminating glimpse into that time and those beliefs.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

61 Books: #26

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–25 are just below this post.

26. Jo Ellen Bogart, with illustrations by Sydney Smith, The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem "Pangur Bán" (2016) (5/11/16)
I ordered this book because I appreciate beautiful children's picture books, and the reviews on Amazon suggested that this qualified. And yes: it definitely does.

I also got it because of our newest kitty, Luna—whom I will henceforth call Luna Bán (bán meaning white).

The book itself is, indeed, beautiful: gorgeous illustrations, of a gray-stone monastery, a lively white kitty, a monk poring over his illuminated manuscripts. Pangur catches mice and hunts butterflies; the monk studies his book, "hunting for meaning."

Perhaps more meaningful than the sweetly illustrated book, though, is the true story behind it: in the ninth century, an Irish Benedictine monk, while visiting the Reichenau Abbey in southern Germany, wrote a little rhymed poem about his white cat, Pangur Bán, who shared his small room. "He found similarities in their pastimes. Each was seeking something."

As are we all. No?

Plus, we all get a little homesick when we're far from home. I like to think that played into his poem as well. He missed his little white kitty.

61 Books: #25

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–24 are just below this post.

25. Geoff Dyer, White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World (2016) (5/11/16)
I've had Geoff Dyer on my radar screen for quite a while (I own two other of his 18+ books, Out of Sheer Rage and Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It, though they are packed away somewhere at the moment). I'm not even sure how this one came into my hands, but it proved a thoroughly enjoyable— thoughtful, funny, sympathetic —dinnertime companion for me this last week as I slaved away at a book arts/metalwork workshop in the Gold Country of California. The dinner break was my down time, and it was so nice to sink into this book, spend time with a new (undemanding) friend, after a long day of focused concentration and interaction with strangers.

The fact that I was elsewhere fits, because White Sands is about being elsewhere—adventuring, conducting pilgrimages, making associations between at-home and out-there. It comprises nine chapters: "Where? What? Where?" (about Gauguin and the South Pacific); "Forbidden City" (Beijing); "Space in Time" (Walter De Maria's Lightning Field, New Mexico); "Time in Space" (Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, Utah); "Northern Dark" (Svalbard, Norway); "White Sands" (picking up a hitchhiker in southern New Mexico); "Pilgrimage" (the house that Theodor Adorno lived in in Los Angeles); "The Ballad of Jimmy Garrison" (Watts Towers, LA); "Beginning" (an ischemic stroke). Each chapter begins with a prelude, though the book ends with a prelude that lacks a following chapter; the final words of the prelude, and of the book: "Time is alive, permanently."

So the book is about place, definitely. (The back-cover keywords are "travel:essays.") But it is also very much about time. The preludes often take us far back into Dyer's youth—setting the scene, you might say; but the chapters bring us fully into his fifty-ish sensibility, erudition, curiosity, wondering.

And when I say the chapters are "about" those things: well, yes and no. Chapter 8, for example, "The Ballad of Jimmy Garrison," is about Watts Towers, yes; but it's also about jazz (very much about jazz), heritage, cathedrals, art, scale, ambition, disillusion—and more. Jazz is evoked in "Where? What? Where?" as well, which, yes, is "about" Gauguin and the South Pacific, but even more it is about how we, today, experience place (and our time), given the mythologies from the past (both cultural and our own), which so often bring disappointment in our real-time experience, our dreams, our idealizations.

Here's a representative passage, with its leaps: "After the museum we went to Mataiea and Punaauia (now a featureless suburb of Papeete), where Gauguin lived and where some of his most famous works were painted. I suddenly had the idea that yellow might be a symbol for banana, but apart from that my mind was completely blank and I couldn't think myself into Gauguin's shoes, couldn't see the world through his eyes. As I stood there, however, seeing what he had seen without even coming close to seeing as he had seen, I did get an inkling of the attraction of Islam. Impossible—not even conceivable—that a Muslim, on making the mandatory, once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca, could be disappointed. That is the essential difference between religious and secular pilgrimage: the latter always has the potential to disappoint. In the wake of this realization there swiftly followed another: that my enormous capacity for disappointment was actually an achievement, a victory. The devastating scale and frequency of my disappointment ('I am down, but not yet defeated,' Gauguin snivel-boasted) was proof of how much I still expected and wanted from the world, of what high hopes I still had of it. When I am no longer capable of disappointment the romance will be gone: I may as well be dead."
I thoroughly enjoyed Dyer: his wit and humor, his British moroseness, his exuberance, his intelligence—but especially his perceptiveness and thoughtfulness, the way he can snap disparate ideas together and make a new something to wonder about. I flagged many passages in this book, and right now I'm thinking it's not impossible that I will go back and read the whole thing again. Maybe next time I'm off at a workshop, looking for a diverting dinner companion. (Or maybe I'll have dug through my boxes and found the two aforementioned titles. I bet they'd do the job just as well.)

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

61 Books: #24

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–23 are just below this post.

24. Philip C. Stead, Ideas Are All Around (2016) (5/3/16)
A gorgeous picture book about a man and his dog, Wednesday, and a walk they take around the neighborhood. "I have to write a story today," he explains. "That is my job. I write stories. But today I don't have any ideas." On their walk they encounter a turtle named Frank ("someday I hope he looks forward to these smidgeons of time we share. Me and Frank we're in this together after all"); a woman named Barbara who lives in a blue house at the top of a hill; a train; a line of ducks and a heron (it is she who points out that "ideas are all around"); people waiting for the soup kitchen; even woolly mammoths, at least in the imagination.

The book is illustrated with monotype prints and collage as well as Polaroid 300 photos. One entire spread is given over to photos of the sky, which (the sky, that is) the author looks at while the people waiting for the soup kitchen lavish affection on Wednesday. The text was composed on a Smith-Corona Secretarial typewriter (also featured in the story). The overall look of the book is airy and spacious, with simple, elegant graphics.

The story itself feels rather "adult" in its subtlety. But I like that. This is a book I will surely pick up again and again as a treat for the eyes and a bit of encouragement, when I'm feeling short on ideas. Now, if only I had my own Barbara in my life . . .