The Epic of Gilgamesh

A bit of background: The Epic of Gilgamesh is old. It’s very, very old. So old, it’s more than a little amazing that any of it has survived, let alone enough to put together a cohesive narrative.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is also bizarre. A bizarre, old story. It’s got elements common to familiar creation myths—a flood, a descent from a state of nature precipitated by a wily female—and a really close friendship that seems to be based on the fact that both guys are the biggest and strongest guys around and on their shared interest in gratuitous deforestation.

Perhaps my favorite part is Gilgamesh’s journey after Enkidu’s death. After all of the wanton violence, I appreciate the self-doubt Gilgamesh shows and the wisdom of Uta-Napishti, which the sage delivers with just a little smugness.

I’ve not read any other translations of The Epic of Gilgamesh, but this one by Andrew George worked for me.

I read this as part of round two of my Cavalcade of Classics. You can see all of the titles on the list here.

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

This book was incredible. I listened to it on audio, and there were so many points at which I exclaimed audibly about an insight Baldwin had shared.

I’m not sure why The Fire Next Time struck me more deeply than Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (which I also “read” on audiobook), but I do see a couple of big differences between the two.

One difference is the quality of the writing. Coates’s writing is fine and powerful at times, but Baldwin’s writing is something else entirely. It feels smooth and adept. Baldwin knows language, and he crafts it and wields it with a skill that I savor (and covet just a little). I haven’t read any of Baldwin’s fiction, but after my experience with The Fire Next Time, I’m inclined to move some of his other writing towards the top of my to-read list.

Another difference between The Fire Next Time and Coates’s memoir which it inspired is the focus. Like Coates, Baldwin writes about his personal experiences, but he doesn’t place them at the center of the work as they are in the chronological recounting in Coates’s book. I have a fairly high bar for memoir; I like it to do something more than just tell about one person’s life. In his book (or perhaps it’s more accurate to call it a long-form essay), Baldwin uses his personal experiences to illustrate a larger point about American culture and its racial history. This was more powerful to me than reading the story of one life.

This should in no way give the impression that it was only the quality of the writing and the structure of the book that I enjoyed. The content was extremely powerful. Baldwin comes across as conflicted, angry, vulnerable, skeptical, wary, and, in some ways, weary. I was especially struck by what seems like Baldwin’s near-despair about how to proceed as a culture, racially segregated or not, without leaving behind the good with the bad. His reflections after his visit with Elijah Muhammad—juxtaposing the supportive community, the young women and their babies, with the rhetoric of violent segregation—present his internal conflict powerfully.

One thing I’m still seeking—and which I realized at the end of the book that I was unconsciously and unfairly hoping Baldwin would provide—is a picture of how a post-racial world might look. What does an integrated society, one in which there is a universally accepted assumption of the inherent worth of all individuals, look like? What is the right path forward knowing that we can’t make right the past? Can we make a reality something we can’t envision?

This isn’t something Baldwin or anyone can answer, but I still hoped for it. 

I read this book as part of round two of my Cavalcade of Classics. You can see all of the titles on the list here.

Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

13784569I listened to this on audio, and I have to admit, the first few hours were pretty brutal. I listened to the first three hours while taking a long walk and nearly cried from the boredom (it wasn’t all the audiobook’s fault, though; I’d picked a particularly blah section of suburban sidewalk along which to amble while listening). But as I stuck with the novel (at 1.5x) it grew on me. Dreiser brought things together in a satisfying way towards the end, allowing Carrie to grow and change throughout the novel and dealing with his characters with compassion even when it was clear that he didn’t approve of their actions.

I kept forgetting that this novel was written before the stock market crash of 1929, before both world wars, even before the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. I need to look back at this time in U.S. history for more context.

I’m definitely getting this one in print so I can read more deeply—and underline. There are some parallels between themes in this book and other books I’m reading/have read recently, and I need the book in front of me to catch them.

This is another title from the second round of my Cavalcade of Classics. Here’s a view from my otherwise boring walk during the first hours of the audiobook. Not so bad when I look back on it now.

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The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

22890386A letter from an old friend and the opportunity for a road trip leads Mr. Stevens, a career butler of the Downton Abbey era, to reflect about his life and his actions both past and present, and Ishiguro brings us along on both this literal and figurative journey with skill and precision. Mr. Stevens may be one of the most authentic, realistically written characters I’ve read in a very long time.

I’ve never been a butler for one of the distinguished old houses of pre-war Great Britain, but I can very much relate to Mr. Stevens’s habit of revising and reframing memories of his actions that don’t fit with his image of himself. It’s the kind of story crafting that we all do, I think, whether consciously or not, as we try to assemble a narrative for our life that is consistent with how we want to view ourselves.

One thing that seems to elude many authors is the art of showing character development over time, but this is something else that Ishiguro does with quiet finesse in this novel. Mr. Stevens’s evolution is subtle but significant. At the beginning of the novel, he holds firmly to his accustomed way of remembering his actions in the best possible light, brushing aside the reactions of others that might provide evidence that his way of looking at the situation isn’t consistent with how it actually happened. As the novel—and the road trip—progresses, we see Mr. Stevens begin to question himself and to confront the inconsistencies and hypocrisy of some of his actions.

This is the first book in a long time that had an ending that felt satisfying to me. By the end of the novel, Mr. Stevens hasn’t sloughed off all of his old habits, but he’s much better able to look at himself more realistically and more holistically, admitting his shortcomings with fewer rationalizations and excuses. His transformation isn’t dramatic—there’s no Extreme Makeover for this butler—but it’s rather the kind of slow opening of the eyes that one hopes life has in store for us before night falls.

This novel I hope to revisit as a masterclass in character development and in the crafting of language that is subtle, economical, and powerful.

This is the first title from the second round of my Cavalcade of Classics that I’ve completed. I listened to this novel on audiobook during one of my weekly Epic Walks around San Diego. As a result, below is one of the sights I now associate with this novel. That and mountain bikers playing “American Woman” as they nearly mowed me down.

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Classics Spin #9 Lucky Spin Number

Today is the day!

The Classics Club announced the lucky Spin number and it’s…

2!

On my Spin list, that’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

I think I’d actually have been more excited for #1 (Moby-Dick) or #3 (The House of Mirth), but it will be nice to cross this one off my list. And based on the reviews I’ve read, it might be better than I expect. One of the many benefits of low expectations is that I’m frequently pleasantly surprised.

Classics Spin #9

I’m probably crazy for participating this time around with all of the other books I’ve got on deck, but I just can’t resist a Classics Spin.

My Spin List, gleaned from my Cavalcade of Classics:

1. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

2. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

3. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

4. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

5. Villette by Charlotte Brontë

6. The Quiet American by Graham Green

7. The Confessions by Augustine of Hippo

8. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs

9. Walden by Henry David Thoreau

10. Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northrup

11. The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides

12. The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn

13. The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton

14. Lives by Plutarch

15. Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

16. The New England Mind by Perry Miller

17. The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell

18. The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

19. The Great Crash by John Kenneth Galbraith

20. The Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan

I’m pretty much excited to read all of these, although Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s book gives me pause because of the title (I’m afraid it will turn out to be one of those books I ought to read but that doesn’t really speak to me) and I’m a little nervous about the Solzhenitsyn now that I’ve read some comments from others about how challenging it is. Well, and the Thoreau, whose Walden has alternately irritated me and put me to sleep both of the other times I’ve tried to read it. (I’ve got a companion book to read with it, though, so perhaps this time I can get through it.) Maybe I should be worried about Moby-Dick, but I’m not. Yet.

Hopefully I’m up to the challenge if the Spin number is 9, 12, or 15.

The Lucky Spin Number will be revealed on Monday, April 6. Drop by then to see what (else) I’ll be reading before May 15!

The Rules (from The Classics Club, The Classics Spin #9):

  • Go to your blog.
  • Pick twenty books that you’ve got left to read from your Classics Club List.
  • Try to challenge yourself: list five you are dreading/hesitant to read, five you can’t WAIT to read, five you are neutral about, and five free choice (favorite author, rereads, ancients — whatever you choose.)
  • Post that list, numbered 1-20, on your blog by next Monday.
  • Monday morning, we’ll announce a number from 1-20. Go to the list of twenty books you posted, and select the book that corresponds to the number we announce.
  • The challenge is to read that book by May 15, even if it’s an icky one you dread reading! (No fair not listing any scary ones!)

Classics Spin #8 Lucky Spin Number

Today is the day!

The Classics Club announced the lucky Spin number and it’s…

13

On my Spin list, that’s The Republic by Plato.

I’m excited to have a Classical classic, but I was actually hoping for Plutarch’s Lives or Herodotus’ The Histories, but The Republic is a fine place to start. Now to clear a space on my active to-read list to make room for it.

Classics Spin #8

After skipping Classic Spin #7, I’m ready to try again and give Classic Spin #8 a try!

The Rules (from The Classics Club, The Classics Spin #8):

    • Go to your blog.
    • Pick twenty books that you’ve got left to read from your Classics Club List.
    • Try to challenge yourself: list five you are dreading/hesitant to read, five you can’t WAIT to read, five you are neutral about, and five free choice (favorite author, rereads, ancients — whatever you choose.)
    • Post that list, numbered 1-20, on your blog by next Monday.
    • Monday morning, we’ll announce a number from 1-20. Go to the list of twenty books you posted, and select the book that corresponds to the number we announce.
    • The challenge is to read that book by January 5, even if it’s an icky one you dread reading! (No fair not listing any scary ones!)

My Spin List, gleaned from my Cavalcade of Classics:

  1. The Book of Margery Kempe by Margery Kempe
  2. The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli
  3. Villette by Charlotte Brontë
  4. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
  5. Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northrup
  6. The Confessions by Augustine of Hippo
  7. Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
  8. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs
  9. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass
  10. Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington
  11. The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton
  12. The Histories by Herodotus
  13. The Republic by Plato
  14. Lives by Plutarch
  15. Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
  16. The New England Mind by Perry Miller
  17. The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell
  18. The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
  19. The Great Crash by John Kenneth Galbraith
  20. The Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan

The Lucky Spin Number will be revealed on Monday, November 10. Drop by then to see what I’ll be reading before January 5!

Classics Spin #6 Results (and a song I like)

Well, the Classics Club posted the Lucky Spin Number this morning, and it’s…#1!

Which means I’ll be reading Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist by July 7th.

And here’s my entire Spin List for this round, in case you’ve not committed it to memory yet.

It has been so long since I read Dickens. This should be interesting.

In Asheville, North Carolina, there are quite a few punny businesses. One these was a restaurant called Olive or Twist. I didn’t eat there while we were visiting because punny establishments are generally too hip for my kids, but the kids and I did stop outside their window when we lost track of my spouse and I had to call and locate him.

In other news, today is my daughter’s ninth birthday. Yesterday at church we sang “Everything Possible” by Fred Small. It was rather challenging for congregational sight-singing, but the words were lovely and just the sentiment I want to convey to my children. In honor of my first child embarking upon her tenth year, here’s a bit of the song:

You can be anybody you want to be
You can love whomever you will
You can travel any country where your heart leads
And know I will love you still

You can live by yourself, you can gather friends around
You can choose one special one
And the only measure of your words and your deeds
Will be the love you leave behind when you’re done

You can read all of the lyrics here.

Classics Spin #6

It’s time for Classics Spin #6, and I’m getting my list in under the wire! I went the lazy way this time…I’m just recycling my list from Classics Spin #5 and replacing the title I read for that one with a new one. In this case, I replaced one conversion story (C.S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy) with another (Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain). Seemed like it made sense.

The Rules (from The Classics Club, The Classics Spin #6):

    • Go to your blog.
    • Pick twenty books that you’ve got left to read from your Classics Club List.
    • Try to challenge yourself: list five you are dreading/hesitant to read, five you can’t WAIT to read, five you are neutral about, and five free choice (favorite author, rereads, ancients — whatever you choose.)
    • Post that list, numbered 1-20, on your blog by next Monday.
    • Monday morning, we’ll announce a number from 1-20. Go to the list of twenty books you posted, and select the book that corresponds to the number we announce.
    • The challenge is to read that book by July 7, even if it’s an icky one you dread reading! (No fair not listing any scary ones!)

My Spin List, gleaned from my Cavalcade of Classics:

  1. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
  2. Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë
  3. Villette by Charlotte Brontë
  4. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
  5. Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northrup
  6. The Confessions by Augustine of Hippo
  7. Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
  8. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs
  9. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass
  10. Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington
  11. The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton
  12. The Histories by Herodotus
  13. The Republic by Plato
  14. Lives by Plutarch
  15. Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
  16. The New England Mind by Perry Miller
  17. The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell
  18. The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
  19. The Great Crash by John Kenneth Galbraith
  20. The Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan

The Lucky Spin Number will be revealed on Monday, May 12. Drop by then to see what I’ll be reading before July 7!