I Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan

It is a book that both is and is not to be read in terms of its literary value and impossible to disentangle this book from modern history. While I enjoyed it, it was also difficult for me to fully appreciate because I never fully reconciled the conflicted nature of the collection.

To summarize, these are landays, which are traditional Pashtun couplets, written by women in Afghanistan. They were collected from contemporary women, though some of the landays, apparently, are of centuries old provenance (and others riff on well known landays from earlier days). Though the editor/collector did encounter some unofficial and secretive literary circles, the poets are not, in any American sense, professional (leaving aside thorny questions of what makes one a professional poet, let me just say, you know what I mean, in this case).

Some are funny, some are tragic; many are about love. They have mixed feelings about the Taliban, with some tacitly praising Taliban (or Talib) fighters and many based in criticism, hatred, and fear of America and its soldiers and particularly of its careless drones.

The Tale Of Genji: The Sacred Tree

Towards the end, there is some sign that the titular Genji feels some real remorse for the emotional carnage he has left in his wake. But not much. Or, at least, not enough to my mind. But the author clearly seems to be showing some disapproval.

I haven’t read much about The Tale of Genji and I wonder if there is some feeling among scholars that Lady Murasaki is actually engaged in a proto-feminist critique of medieval Japanese culture and its idea of the perfect gentleman (personified by Genji – handsome, aesthetic, poetic, etc).

But I also try to remember that, for example, strict sexual mores are almost always a more recent phenomenon than we think and, in general, to be careful about viewing things from a modern and western eye.

That said, does anyone else find it creepy that the young girl he took in to be his ward – you know, the one who inspired him to become offended and self-righteous when her earlier guardian didn’t trust his good intentions – is now his common law wife?

At the same as I read this, I read some of Basho’s travelogues and both the famed poet and the fictional prince spend time near the beaches of Suma (Genji self-exiles himself there after becoming persona non grata in the capital; I couldn’t quite figure out whether he had been formally banished or not). Basho loved them and Genji found them boring, but upon his return, he waxed rhapsodic about their picturesqueness and poetic qualities. Note to reader: in terms of timeline, Basho went to Suma long after The Tale of Genji was written, so if there was influence, it went in that direction.

Matthew Arnold & Silver Spring Books

Matthew Arnold is a poet and essayist who I never quite took to, darkling plain or no; and Silver Spring is a small suburban city north of DC which once again has a bookstore, the clarifyingly and concisely named, Silver Spring Books.

Silver Spring Books seems like a great old place. A cluttered bookstore. Not so poorly organized that you can figure out, roughly, where stuff should be; but sufficiently poorly organized as to facilitate serendipity. I was tempted by some old Daw paperbacks (Daw being a publisher of inexpensive paperback sci fi and fantasy), but there were two, smallish hardcover volumes of Matthew Arnold. One was twelve dollars and the other four.

I bought the four dollar one.

Why? It’s hard to say. I think that I thought I should give him another chance. I’ve been into essays lately and Arnold is, of course, a famed essayist and critic. But here we are.

Tintin In Tibet

We actually bought this for a child, but she hasn’t been able to pick it up yet.

I read it years ago (though I was never a Tintin devotee, I was a fan) and when we were shopping at a children’s bookstore in Baltimore, it was one of the books I picked up (knowing that I would get a chance to read it before giving it away).

Tintin in Tibet is considered a bit of a turning point in the series, marking when they started becoming something worthy of classic status. And it is fun, exciting and a wonderful read for children.

Tintin in Tibet is less problematic than many of the Tintin books, but it is not not problematic. He manages to avoid too much racism, but it’s all, definitely, pre-postcolonial. Which is to say there is not so much overt racism, as implicit Eurocentrism, Euro-superiority. But the adventure is inspired by rescue Tintin’s friend Chang (Chinese, as you can imagine), who is treated almost as an equal. The Tibetan monks are depicted respectfully. The main issue are the guides, the sherpas and other forms of help. Their depiction can be a bit of a caricature of primitive exoticism; which is to say, they are too servile, too childlike, and never really equal in agency and intelligence to the white characters.

Also, as an adult, it’s hard not to read this and be very concerned that the Captain has a serious drinking problem. Very serious. It’s disturbing, rather than funny.

Tangentially related, the Belgian government sponsors a Tintin store in Singapore (in a touristy section of Chinatown). We visited it. I wish that I could find the picture of it for you, but that’s life. It’s full of disappointments.

This is me outside the Children’s Bookstore in Baltimore (great place! [both Baltimore and the Children’s Bookstore {though I wouldn’t trade DC for B’more}])

‘June Fourth Elegies’ By Liu Xiaobo

I already owned this book, but re-read it because of the tragic death of Liu Xiaobo, which, felt both inevitable and like a punch to the gut.

Of course, I ‘know’ him primarily as a poet, rather than as an activist. But now that he’s gone, I can’t separate the two enough to judge this series of poetic remembrances of Tiananmen Square, bookended with poems to his wife (also a poet: Liu Xia).

It does make our (still righteous) national grievances against Trump seem small.

‘Naturalism’ By Wendy Xu

If the book looks like it was rode hard and put up wet… well, it was. And not so much metaphorically, as literally. It mail man placed it under our welcome mat, but it was in a relatively flat package and it was towards the edge, where people don’t normally step, so it remained unnoticed for I don’t know how long. By the time I discovered it, it had gone through more than one thunderstorm, so I couldn’t even begin to start it for several days after bringing to poor volume into the house.

It’s more of a long, super fancy chapbook than a full collection and it does feel like a work in progress. In fact, I swear that at least one of these poems also appears in her new collection, Phrasis.

Naturalism, in many cases, doesn’t feel quite mature. The best poems are very, very good. Some though, feel like filler; and in a such short book, it doesn’t take too many underdone poems to overwhelm the final sensation (nor does the fact that the very best poem appears at the very beginning).

I am happy to say, though, that Phrasis (which I am reading) is falling on the very, very good side so far.

‘Marius The Epicurean’ By Walter Pater

This is an old fashioned kind of book. Very much a certain kind of nineteenth and early twentieth century kind of book (this book was written in the early 1880s). A wordy philosophical novel.

It’s not a novel that illustrates or explicates a certain philosophy. You won’t learn much about Epicureanism (and really, Marius is never actually, so far as I can tell, a followed of Epicurus). But you will, if you’re willing, be able to drift back into a Rome of late antiquity (the Stoic philosopher-king Marcos Aurelius is emperor), but really, you’re in a European, upper class milieu of intellectuals.

The plot, insofar as there is one, is Marius, a devout young man, goes to school nearby (which schooling consists of learning history and philosophy) and then to Rome, where he is first deeply impressed by Stoicism, but slowly is impressed by a Christian family and possibly becomes a Christian at the end.

Marius the Epicurean is also an exercise in envy for the reader. What must it be like to have financial independence without much responsibility and to spend one’s time thinking about the meaning of life and what is good in life (which is not intended to be a Conan joke, but an acknowledgement of the primary question of Roman philosophy) and to read the best that minds have to offer and study at the foot of great thinkers. Again, all while not really having to worry about housing, food, healthcare, etc.

Finally, it is a slow read. Or should be. In truth, I finished the final third too quickly. My better half had noted how long I had been reading this book and I think that I felt a little sheepish about my slow pace and rushed a bit so that I could complete it while she was out of town.