Review of A Poet of the Invisible World

What was it about?

Nouri Ahmad Mohammad ibn Mahsoud al-Morad is a boy in 13th century Persia studying to be a Sufi mystic. But he has four ears, is attracted to men, and writes breath-takingly beautiful poetry, so naturally he is admired and loved by some and seen as a threat and exploited by others. Nouri never finds permanence, traveling from one community to another in search of peace and acceptance. A Poet of the Invisible World by Michael Golding is a spiritual novel in the tradition of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha

What did I think of it?

I usually don’t read books with romance. I can’t even read Jane Austen’s works. But A Poet of the Invisible World promised to offer something more. While Nouri is trying to understand his sexuality, he is also studying to be a Sufi mystic. The book is compared by critics to Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse (my review here) which I loved, so I had high expectations when I went into the book.

Overall, I thought that it was a beautifully written work, but I expected more depth. I expected more of an engagement with the major metaphysical questions in Sufism especially since the story took place in the thirteenth century. It was a work that strained for profundity but never quite made it. There was a bit of a discussion concerning the meaning of life and the problem of evil but the dervishs’ comments were quite trite. I admit to having very high standards when it comes to spiritual fiction because I have read more works of this genre than the average reader, but even a generous critic can’t excuse a platitudinous line such as this one:

The truth is that our souls hang in the balance until our final moment. We fluctuate between grace and sin and only Allah can say what will happen when the bowl finally shatters.

This is, frankly, as profound as this book gets. Still, A Poet of the Invisible World avoids sounding New Age-y. Golding has clearly done his research (he presents Islam much better than Hesse presents Buddhism).

In truth, A Poet of the Invisible World is less a work about the spiritual awakening of a boy and more an LGBT identity novel with an Islamic backdrop. The writing is beautiful and Nouri is a sympathetic character, but Golding is heavy-handed with the moral, and the moral is extremely predictable. Apart from Nouri’s romantic affairs not much else is memorable. I didn’t dislike A Poet of the Invisible World. The story grabbed my attention, and the sex scenes weren’t gratuitous or poorly written, but it didn’t live up to my expectations. It wasn’t Siddhartha.

Literary Miscellanea: The Secret Garden Book-to-Movie

Note: Literary Flashback has been renamed to Literary Miscellanea because the older name no longer makes sense. Literary Miscellanea is the section of my blog dedicated to “non-book-review stuff” (reflection posts, essays by famous authors, passages from favorite works, etc.). 

For the next few weeks I will briefly discuss some book-to-movie adaptations that I enjoy. Spoilers will be included. You have been warned.

The Secret Garden

Today I will focus on The Secret Garden by  Frances Hodgson Burnett and the 1993 film adaptation directed by Agnieszka Holland (Maggie Smith plays Mrs. Medlock).

You can read my review of Burnett’s The Secret Garden here. As I wrote in my review, I mostly enjoyed the book, but I found the philosophy a bit off-putting. I am quite open-minded when it comes to other peoples’ religious or philosophical views, but Christian Science’s belief in praying away sickness just doesn’t sit well with me. Colin is a hypochondriac, so his sickness was imaginary anyway, but Burnett implies in a few places in the book that good thoughts can help legitimately sick people be cured. Still, the book is a celebration of childhood. Friendship helps overcome personal and family challenges.

The 1993 film adaptation is the first Maggie Smith movie I ever saw. The film itself is (in my opinion) far superior to the book. The philosophy that I found so problematic in the book is mostly absent from the movie. Magical realism replaces positive thinking. The focus is entirely on the power of friendship.

The garden is stunning. I think we can all agree that English moors and gardens look better on the screen than on paper. Roses and Empress of India lilies grow everywhere, and Dickens’ robin is a charming character. We never meet Martha’s family, but Martha’s character makes up for the lack.

But the most compelling character in the movie is Lord Archibald Craven. When his wife dies he locks up the garden and runs from the world. Mrs. Medlock never questions Lord Craven’s belief that Colin is dying. He has cast a spell on the whole manor, and only Mary knows the truth. She has to convince Colin and his father that their fears are imaginary, but this is a tall order. As expected, innocence is restored when Lord Craven returns to his garden.

The 1993 Secret Garden film may not be a masterpiece of cinematography, but it is still very good. Some critics fault it for not being optimistic enough, but the darkness underscores Lord Craven’s neurosis. His fears and sorrows have crippled (in more than one way) not only himself but his 10 year old son who has never even experienced sunlight. If you have read and enjoyed Burnett’s book, I highly recommend the 1993 film adaptation.

Review of Out of the Dust

What was it about?

Billie Joe is growing up during the Depression and Dust Bowl period of the 30s in Oklahoma. Her mother has died, she suffers from horrible burns on her hands, and she can no longer relate to her father. In a series of poems written in blank verse Billie Joe describes her hobbies, family, and schooling from 1934 through 1935. Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse won the Newbery Medal in 1998.

What did I think of it?

It seems to me that the Association for Library Service to Children likes to award Newbery Medals to really depressing books written for middle grade students. Out of the Dust is one of those books. If it had not been written in blank verse the book would have been unsuitable for children. The subject matter is just too tragic. However, this work is a good introduction for children to an important period in American history. Because it is written in verse, middle grade students should not be too disturbed by the content. My only major criticism is that the narrative style did not really add much to the story. While a few poems left an impression on me, most of them weren’t very memorable. What Billie Joe was trying to communicate could have been communicated just as effectively if not more effectively in prose. All in all, it was a pretty underwhelming read. I don’t know what other children’s books were published in 1997, but I didn’t think Out of the Dust was as good as some of the other award winners.

Favorite Poem

Breaking Drought

After seventy days
of wind and sun,
of wind and clouds,
of wind and sand,
after seventy days,
of wind and dust,
a little
rain
came.

This book counts toward the Newbery Medal Challenge

Literary Miscellanea: The West’s Debt to the Middle Ages

Johannes Fried, professor emeritus of Frankfurt University, authored a massive introduction to the Middle Ages called (unsurprisingly) The Middle Ages. It was translated into English by Peter Lewis in 2015 and published by Harvard University Press. If you are interested in medieval European history this is the book for you. His thesis is that the Middle Ages has been unjustly characterized as “The Dark Ages”. In truth, technological developments, new political theories, and religious and philosophical movements paved the way for the Renaissance.

The passage I am sharing with you today is about the West’s debt to the court of Charlemagne (Charles I), the son of Pepin the Short and the most celebrated leader of the Carolingian Empire. In the book blogging world we often overlook scribes and translators despite the enormous contributions they have made to preserving culture and nourishing reform movements.

In the late 8th century, there was a crisis in literary knowledge. Fried explains why and describes how Charlemagne addressed this crisis:

Officially, the comprehensive educational program of antiquity was never abandoned; nevertheless, the efficiency of the “private” education system, which was not in “public” hands – not least because of Christian misgivings about its pagan orientation – had declined sharply in the dark centuries of the Early Middle Ages, when sources were few and far between. Certainly, the Merovingian kings must have had a comparatively good literary education; the entire system had not collapsed by any means. And yet, there was no denying that knowledge and skills had dwindled and atrophied. Only under the Carolingian king Pepin and above all his illustrious son did a decisive move in the opposite direction begin. Here and there, ancient manuscripts with pertinent texts were still to be found, but it was a laborious task tracking them down, and then they required patient copying work to save them and once more disseminate the learning they contained. Despite the claims of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, Roman antiquity is only visible to us nowadays through the lens of this early medieval interest, and the efforts of these Carolingian conservators.

As a rule, the material from which these old volumes were made was the comparatively cheap but less durable papyrus. Following the slump of scribal activity and papyrus production, the consequences were catastrophic. Even by the Early Middle Ages, the stocks of papyrus were in decline; in the late eleventh century, only the papal chancellery still had quantities of this writing material. The rest of the Western world had to make a virtue of necessity and switch over to the more expensive but more durable vellum. Apart from a very few exceptions, virtually no papyrus roll with a scholarly text has survived down the ages. Fire, water, rot, and mice took a heavy toll on the vital transfer of knowledge. The results can be quantified in terms of sheer numbers: of the sometimes enormous ancient libraries containing as many as an estimated one million books, absolutely nothing survives. If the contemporaries of the Carolingians had not undertaken a systematic search for ancient texts and manuscripts with an eye to copying them, and if they hadn’t used durable vellum in the process, most of the works of ancient, especially Latin, scholarship and literature would have been lost forever. No Cicero, no Quintilian, no Virgil, no Horace, no Ars amatoria, no Gallic Wars would have survived, let alone any of the ancient Christian authors. Charlemagne’s thirst for knowledge effectively saved these texts, indeed the whole of the Latin educational program of the Liberal Arts and their handbooks of the Mechanical Arts, as well as the unique splendor of Roman literature. In the absence of this, the late medieval Renaissance is unthinkable (52-53).

If there has ever been a reason to support humanistic studies, this is it!

Review of Their Eyes Were Watching God

What was it about?

In Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie Crawford sets out in search of love and freedom. A black girl growing up in a plantation shack on Logan Killick’s farm, Janie spends her childhood in the shadow of her grandmother’s dreams. Her grandmother wants her granddaughter to have the life she never had, so she makes Janie marry Logan even though Janie doesn’t love him. Logan has land. But Janie expects more of life. Over the course of three marriages, Janie learns about herself and her desires. She comes face-to-face with the joys and sorrows of life, developing into one of the most compelling protagonists in all of literature.

What did I think of it?

I admit that it is hard to put into words my reaction to this book. I know that Janie is not a character that I will soon forget. She is a strong Black woman, overcoming hardships foisted on her race through slavery and sustained by the Jim Crow laws of pre-Civil Rights America. Hurston’s prose is lyrical, and all the characters (even the most minor ones) have their own distinct personalities. The story about a man’s mule is at once a humorous episode and a commentary on the systematic oppression of Black people. I look forward to reading more of Hurston’s works. Much has already been written about the value of reading diversely. I know that I have neglected works written by and about people of color for far too long on this blog. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is certainly a great place to begin as it is part of the “Black Canon”.

Favorite Quote

“To start off wid, people like dem wastes up too much time puttin’ they mouf on things they don’t know nothin’ about. Now they got to look into me loving Tea Cake and see whether it was done right or not! They don’t know if life is a mess of corn-meal dumplings, and if love is a bed-quilt!”

Review of Open Heart

What was it about?

While recovering from an emergency heart surgery, the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel meditates on hope, death, family, and God. He asks yet again whether there is hope for a just and peaceful world. Wiesel has done much in his life to promote peace and reconciliation. Still, he wonders where God was at Auschwitz. At the end of a long life Wiesel wants to know that his fight has not been in vain.

What did I think of it?

On July 2, 2016 Elie Wiesel passed away. He did so much to make the world a better place for future generations. His harrowing memoir Night recounts his experience in German death camps during the Holocaust (1944-1945). His mother and youngest sister perished in the gas chambers. He and his father were preserved from the chambers, but his father eventually perished as well. At the age of 82 Wiesel continues to ask himself where God was during the Holocaust and during every other atrocity in history. Open Heart is short and probably not as profound as his other works, but it is still worth reading. He doesn’t say anything original, but the book is all the more powerful for being written by a Holocaust survivor. It is incredible how he can still have faith after all that he experienced. America has witnessed so much suffering in recent years. Wiesel gives me encouragement to work for a more just society. He gives me hope that ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ (to quote Robert Burns) can finally and permanently be overcome by love.

Review of Parnassus on Wheels

What was it about?

Helen McGill’s brother Andrew is at once a farmer and a famous author. Unfortunately, he doesn’t spend enough time caring for the farm, leaving most of the farm responsibilities as well as all of the housework to his sister. One day, while Andrew is out of town, Helen sees a wagon parked outside of the farmhouse. The wagon is filled with books, and the owner wants to sell it to Andrew for 400 dollars. Helen thinks Andrew owns enough books, and a wagon of books would only encourage him to neglect the farm more. After some negotiation, Helen offers to buy the wagon from the owner, Roger Mifflin. Mifflin has spent the last few years covering the region with his traveling bookshop Parnassus on Wheels. He intends to sell his business to someone who loves literature and who wants to share the love of reading with children and adults in the countryside. Helen accepts the challenge. Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley is a short but delightful adventure about books, friendship, and life.

What did I think of it?

There is no better place to buy a book like Parnassus on Wheels than from a book sale. And that is where I bought my copy. Parnassus on Wheels is a fun book to read on a sunny day. Books and authors are referenced throughout, and Helen is a compelling protagonist. There could have been more of a discussion about the merits of literacy, and the literary references could have been more elegantly and subtly woven into the tale, but I was still satisfied by the story. Sometimes you have to read something light and fun. Parnassus on Wheels was that book.

Favorite Quote

“What absurd victims of contrary desires we are! If a man is settled in one place he yearns to wander; when he wanders he yearns to have a home. And yet how bestial is content—all the great things in life are done by discontented people.”