September 2017 books read

Gilgamesh: A New English Version – Stephen Mitchell, 2004

Another wonderful title we read in Great Books that I’ve procrastinated about writing up and it’s now overdue at the library. I set my timer for 15 minutes. GO! — That was October and now it’s Jan 1 2018… and I’m tackling old draft posts. Note that I am now publishing the post the month I read the book, not when I actually wrote it, for my own purposes when I go back and see what I wrote when, which will make this at least 3 months off even if I finish now!

I’d heard of Gilgamesh but never read it and didn’t know much about it. I had no idea how recently it was re-discovered and translated (19th century), despite how old it is (almost 4000 years). All of us were blown away by how fresh and novel it feels—and Mitchell quotes enough of the literal translation in his notes so you know it’s not him adding that, although his adaptation makes it much easier to read by smoothing out the missing parts. What’s really remarkable to me is the voice of the 1200 BCE poet Sîn-lēqi-unninni, who wrote the prologue that describes Uruk and tells the reader:

Find the cornerstone and under it the copper box
that is marked with his name. Unlock it. Open the lid.
Take out the table of lapis lazuli. Read
how Gilgamesh suffered all and accomplished all.

It’s full of surprises, from the contemporary echoes in Gilgamesh’s desire to kill Humbaba and “drive out evil from the world,” to the low comedy of losing Utnapishtim’s immortality-giving plant by putting it down, to vivid and weird images like the frightened Enkidu: “his face turned pale like a severed head.” “For six days and seven nights I mourned him, until a maggot fell out of his nose.” The dead “squat in the darkness/dirt is their food, their drink is clay, they are dressed in feathered garments like birds,/they never see light, and on door and bolt the dust lies thick.”

Also striking, as well as over-the-top funny, are bravura strings of curses and insults reeled out by Gilgamesh—to Shamhat:

may wild dogs camp in your bedroom, may owls
nest in your attic, may drunkards vomit
all over you…

and to Ishtar:

Why would I want to be the lover
of a broken oven that fails in the cold,
a flimsy door that the wind blows through,
a palace that falls on its staunchest defenders,
a mouse that gnaws through its thin reed shelter,
tar that blackens the workman’s hands,
a waterskin that is full of holes
and leaks all over its bearer, a piece
of limestone that crumbles and undermines
a solid stone wall, a battering ram
that knocks down the rampart of an allied city,
a shoe that mangles its owner’s foot?

Profound too, like this description of how sex with Shamhat lured Enkidu from the animal world into the human:

He knew that his mind had somehow grown larger,
he knew things now that an animal can’t know.

Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness – Edward Abbey, 1968

Like Walden gone right. I loved it, but I’m going to have to re-read it later to grab all the quotes I want… how do I manage to read without post-its at hand (sorry, sticky notes!) when I know I’ll never remember what I want to? Too quick to read, too slow to think and write, as usual. But I very much look forward to re-reading and re-savoring this, especially because I wasn’t able to attend the Nature and Environment book group discussion. But then I might just end up quoting big chunks, like this:

[In Delicate Arch] you may see a symbol, a sign, a fact, a thing without meaning or a meaning which includes all things.
Much the same could be said of the tamarisk down in the canyon, of the blue-black raven croaking on the cliff, of your own body. The beauty of Delicate Arch explains nothing, for each thing in its way, when true to its own character, is equally beautiful. (There is no beauty in nature, said Baudelaire. A place to throw empty beer cans on Sunday, said Menken.) If Delicate Arch has any significance it lies, I will venture, in the power of the odd and unexpected to startle the senses and surprise the mind out of their ruts of habit, to compel us into a reawakened awareness of the wonderful—that which is full of wonder.
A weird, lovely, fantastic object out of nature like Delicate Arch has the curious ability to remind us—like rock and sunlight and wind and wildflowers—that out there is a different world, older and greater and deeper by far than ours, a world which sustains the little world of men as sea and sky surround and sustain a ship. The shock of the real. For a little while we are again able to see, as the child sees, a world of marvels. For a few moments we discover that nothing can be taken for granted, for if this ring of stone is marvelous, then all which shaped it is marvelous, and our journey here on Earth, able to see and touch and hear in the midst of tangible and mysterious things-in-themselves, is the most strange and daring of all adventures.

The one of the many, many quotes I would have marked, had I had the sticky notes, that stuck its sticky self in my brain so I had to go back and find it: “the delicious magical green of a young cottonwood with its ten thousand exquisite leaves vibrating like spangles in the vivid air.” The older I get, the more I love trees. Thank you, Edward Abbey.

Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult – Bruce Handy, 2017

I love books-about-books, and this one is about my favorite genre, so I would have enjoyed it anyway. But it’s also extremely funny, brilliantly-written, and has one of the coolest designs I’ve ever seen—credited to Thomas Colligan. The jacket, front endsheet, and back endsheet are each the most stylized possible element of a famous picture book (Where the Wild Things Are, The Cat in the Hat, and Goodnight Moon) rendered as “flat” paper, with an iconic partial element visible under a lifted corner: Max’s yellow crown with his clawed costume hand and foot, the Cat in the Hat stripes with the fish tail emerging from its bowl, rabbit ears against the green wall under the corner of an expanse of evening sky blue. I couldn’t put the book down and totally agree with Gretchen Rubin‘s jacket blurb: “I only wish the book were ten times longer.” I have a fantasy of writing essays like this about some of my personal favorites that he doesn’t cover, like The Mouse and His Child (he does mention Frances, at least) and Mistress Masham’s Repose. Inspiring.

Light in August – William Faulkner, 1932

Yikes, my perfectionist streak is causing me trouble again… this was the August book for the Forbes Great Books discussion group, and a) the September meeting is tomorrow so it’s been a full month since I finished it; b) I ran out of renewals and so am paying 10 cents a day for the privilege of holding on to this copy while I procrastinate about writing this post. No more!

Aside from “A Rose for Emily,” I never could read Faulkner until we started reading him in Great Books. So far we’ve done The Sound and the Fury, Absalom, Absalom, and As I Lay Dying, and I loved them all, even though Southern Gothic is not my favorite. But this one has the Gothic turned up to 11 and it felt like too much. We had a fascinating discussion and I appreciated it somewhat more through the eyes of the others, who mostly really enjoyed it. Lena’s character is interesting and fresh, but to my mind Joe Christian is too much of a symbol and not enough of a real, believable person. And the two-words-glued-together neologisms (“branchshadowed,” “flabbyjowled,” “womansign,” ), which many people found effective,  started to get on my nerves.

I’m just going to dump a bunch of quotes (punctuation is [sic]) in here and call it a night… for this writing to be a pleasure and not a chore, I need to get it done more promptly, or give up on it!

  • “The town believed that good women dont forget things easily, good or bad, lest the taste and savor of forgiveness die from the palate of conscience.”
  • “‘I said, there is your home.’ Still, the child didn’t answer. He had never seen a home, so there was nothing for him to say about it. And he was not old enough to talk and say nothing at the same time.”
  • “Mrs Hines was already turning back, as though to open the door. …She halted in the act of turning, as if someone had hit her lightly with a thrown pebble. ‘Caught who?’ she said.”
  • “The Grand Jury was preparing behind locked doors to take the life of a man whom few of them had ever seen to know, for having taken the life of a woman whom even fewer of them had known to see.”