Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Rumi Day by Day by Maryam Mafi

Rumi Day by Day by Maryam Mafi is a collection of excerpts from some of the numerous poems of the Sufi poet Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī known for his mysticism.  But this is not just another translation of a prolific writer who is already so ubiquitous even in Western literature that most people will recognize his name. 

Instead of being a collection of some of his poetry, Mafi has taken two or more lines of verse and created a collection that reads less like poetic verse than like a collection of pithy aphorisms.  There are many who avoid reading poetry because it’s too hard, or at least harder than prose.  Instead of work for understanding, they avoid poetry altogether and for those people, who might otherwise never read Rumi’s gorgeous poetry, this book is a worthy addition to the wealth of previous published English translations.

However, I love poetry.  I love the relationship that is created between me, the reader, and the poem and, through the poem on the page, the poet.  By reducing Rumi’s verse to couplets or quatrains of concise text is fine for an introduction but reduces the sublime majesty of his poetry to what someone might find in a meme on the internet.  Nice but no longer magical.  My hope is that Mafi has not merely watered down great literature but has, instead, created a doorway through which those who are afraid of poetry will dare enter with confidence and expectation.  If they like what Mafi offers, they will adore Rumi’s poetry, much the way a child may like baby food but an adult knows the joys of a delicately seasoned meal.   This is my hope, anyway. 

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Goddess Pose by Michelle Goldberg

The Goddess Pose:  The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West by Michelle Goldberg is an honest look at the life of an extraordinary woman.  If I had read a novel in which a woman experienced half of the things Indra Devi did, I would have found it hard to believe.  And yet, this is no mere fiction and Goldberg writes about Devi, not with devotion but with honesty. 

Born Eugenia Peterson into an aristocratic family, she eventually followed her beloved mother out of their Russian home because of the revolution.  The two travel through many countries, including Germany (and were there during the Beer Hall Putsch, no less). She continued to be in pivotal places during significant times and was determined throughout her life to remain independent even when she was married.

Eugenia was an actress and wife but never settled on anything in particular until she came to yoga and renamed herself Indra Devi.  Even then, she drifted from one teacher to the next, taking what she learned from Indian masters—such as Vivikenanda, Krishnamacharya, and Sai Baba—and fusing it with her western understanding of  health.  She adapted hatha yoga and introduced the practice to women even when yoga was still mostly taught by men to other men. 

The fact is, without Indra Devi, yoga’s presence in America might not have taken root so soon and her life is both a testament to the power of yoga and the human ego for the yogini presented in this book is deeply flawed, often driven by selfish needs that only seemed selfless.  But even someone who hasn’t quite released the ego can be a spiritual leader and there is no doubt that Devi is more influential than many people who do yoga daily are aware.  That she is flawed, makes her influence all the more fascinating.  Her life would make a great movie and even Hollywood would not have to do much to make it dramatically compelling.  Goldberg has done a brilliant job of celebrating a very human woman and bringing her to life on the page. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Dream Lover by Elizabeth Berg

The Dream Lover by Elizabeth Berg is a novel about George Sand’s life or about her life as Berg has imagined it, which she herself admits.  Because there are so many conflicting stories about Sand’s intimate life, Berg had the creative freedom to choose what would best fit her narrative intention.  Certainly, if even half of the rumors about Sand are true, she led a book worthy life.

I have always enjoyed Berg’s novels for their gentle slice-of-life focus on middle class America, putting ordinary people in not so extraordinary circumstances and just letting them live.  The domesticity of her books is a pleasant surprise and her characters are familiar even though they don’t always do the expected. So I was curious to see what Berg, a contemporary American writer, would do with a character born in another time and place.  Could she write a lovely novel about a very non-traditional woman and make her feel like someone you could meet any day of the week?

Yes, she can, I am thrilled to say.  Berg is not a challenging author but she doesn’t shy away from the more challenging aspects of Sand’s own life.  If you are unfamiliar with Sand’s life, a quick search will reveal that she liked to dress in men’s clothing. She also had numerous, sometimes notorious, lovers.  She was admired in her day, considered to be one of the great minds of her time.  And even if you’ve never read one of Sand’s numerous novels, you can enjoy this novel.  (Perhaps it will inspire you to read one or more for yourself.)

Berg does a good job of picking and choosing the events, and rumors, to use for her novel.  She also chooses to write the novel in the first person, making this larger-than-life character somehow intimate and less foreign. I enjoyed this novel more than I dared hope and am glad that Berg is stretching her creative wings beyond her oeuvre.  She took on a challenge and succeeded in meeting beautifully. 

Monday, March 23, 2015

Hidden by Davillier, Lizano, & Salsedo

Hidden:  A Child's Story of the Holocaust by Loïe Dauvillier with illustrations by Marc Lizano and coloring by Greg Salsedo is a graphic novel which takes place in World War II.  Told in a frame of a granddaughter being told by her grandmother about hiding from the Germans, the terrors faced are not too graphic and the illustrations are charming, making it a book I would easily recommend for middle school or older readers.  Like myself.

Dounia tells the story about how one day her father said that the family were now sheriffs, requiring them to wear stars.  The little girl doesn’t understand the implications but quickly realizes that things have changed for her when she goes to school the next day, proudly wearing her badge of honor.  Soon, she is forced to go into hiding, separated from her mother and father. 

While the frame is an effective tool, I was surprised it wasn’t used more throughout the book.  Mostly, it is at the beginning, with one brief interruption from the granddaughter and later, at the very end.  For this reason, the frame seems more an excuse to tell the story and not as effective as it could be if we occasionally experienced the granddaughter asking questions or reacting to her grandmother’s story.  Nonetheless, it is a good story and would be an interesting choice as an introduction to The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace is justifiably listed as one of the most difficult novels in English literature.  And yet, underneath it all, the story is not very complicated.  There are three narrative threads:  a tennis academy focusing on Incandenza family, a rehabilitation facility dealing with the recovery of various characters, and a secret society seeking a mysterious video tape.  So if the narrative arch is really so simple, why so many pages?

I know I’m not the first to sit in utter awe of Wallace’s writing prowess.  He introduces a large number of characters throughout the book and it takes the first 100 pages or so for the characters to begin intersecting with one another.  It takes a lot of faith to trust that Wallace has the ability to bring so many disparate threads together and to leave nothing dangling.  And I know that a lot of people who finish the book are probably left feeling that the whole damn book is left dangling but I was told, and I tell you who may not have tried to read this book, if you reread the first “chapter,” so much will make sense you’ll wonder how you could not have seen it sooner.  (Albeit, by the time you’ve reached the end of the novel, you’ll have probably forgotten the specific details of the first chapter.  It took me 27 days to read so how could I not have forgotten the details?)

This novel literally has everything from the grotesque to the humorous.  There were so many subtle jokes that I found myself chuckling while a page or two later I would find myself cringing in disgust.  I was fascinated by the characters, even when they disturbed me, enough to stick through all sorts of things.  With allusions to everything from etymology to Shakespeare to pop-culture, I couldn’t help thinking that I was reading a post-modern Moby Dick, a novel encyclopedic in its scope. 

It’s tempting to skip the endnotes and, admittedly, some of them are unbelievably long.  Longer than long.  But you must read them because they add layers of meaning that would otherwise be missed.  And a few of them are sardonic.  I would also recommend keeping a dictionary handy.  I can’t remember the last time I read a book that forced me to look up more words.  Don’t assume your ereader will be able to define all of the words for you.  More often than not, when I wanted to look up a word, my kindle was useless.

I regret not reading this novel sooner.  It is inspired and brilliant and subversive.  It’s also impossible for me to recommend. I cannot think of anyone who would or could easily read it and might enjoy it.  Many of the characters are racist, some of their actions loathsome, and some of the paragraphs seemingly endless.  (I jokingly sent a text to the friend who recommended I read the novel that I wanted to know what is the longest chapter, endnote, paragraph, and sentence (by word count) as well as which endnote has the most footnotes (yes, the endnotes have footnotes!), which chapter has the most endnotes, etc.)   When I told my step-sister that I had just finished it she said she had been thinking about rereading it.  Yes.  Some people are gluttons for punishment.  I'll probably reread it someday too.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Ruby by Cynthia Bond

Ruby by Cynthia Bond is a novel that takes place during the time of the Civil Rights movement but in a town where the changing times do not touch the rural community deep on Louisiana where the titular character was born and eventually destroyed.  The story is a sort of love triangle with Ephram Jennings at the core, caught between the sister who has loved and raised him most of his life and the young girl who has returned to their home town a deeply damaged woman.

Bond’s prose is luscious, gorgeous from page one, evoking mood and tone in metaphors and wish such poetry that I began this novel with enthusiasm.  There are turns of phrases so delicious, I reread them to savor the words.  Then Oprah Winfrey announced it was a book club choice and I cringed.  I gave up on reading her book club choices ages ago because I was tired of the themes which seemed to manifest each and every time.  Mind you, her taste in books is very good and many are well written but there was no real variety and, after a few times, I stopped bothering. 

Which is what I should have done with this novel because pretty prose does not and cannot make up for a story that lacks in substance.  The characters are all two-dimensional and do precisely what you expect them to do.  The only surprises I found on the page are the vulgarities of the abuse Ruby suffers. This is not to say that I don’t think things like this happen in real life but Bond has overlaid the events with a veneer of supernatural occurrences which takes all culpability out of the picture.  In other words, no matter how heinous the events of the novel may be, and they are indescribably so, the characters that commit the worst of the crimes are not entirely responsible.

The paranormal elements of the novel fall flat for me, as flat as most of the characters.  Even Ephram, who can arguably be said changes the most, doesn’t change much at all and the redemption and healing that is inevitably going to come by the novel’s end is unsatisfying.  It is not surprising that this novel is being compared with Toni Morrison no more so than it is for me to say that this novel simply does not and cannot measure up.  What is surprising is that I can honestly say I am interested to see what Bond writes next.  She has an elegance I rarely see in literature and adore.  I only hope that she can learn to create characters that will live up to her other talents. 

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