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The History of Akbar, Volume 1 (Murty Classical Library of India)
The History of Akbar, Volume 1 (Murty Classical Library of India)
by Abu'l-Fazl
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $30.28
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34 of 36 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A book to cherish, December 29, 2014
Abu'l-Fazl can lay it on thick. The man is a master sycophant, a professional kowtower, a veritable Homer of the homage. In this work, he exalts his patron, the third emperor of the Mughal dynasty, Akbar, telling us of Akbar's extra-ordinariness in every way, from the portents of his birth to the extraordinary accomplishments of his childhood to the glory of his reign (though, this being volume 1, most of that glory will have to wait).

But this encomium is not just floriferous and entertaining; it is also fascinating. For many, the Indian subcontinent in the Elizabethan age is an exotic thought, a distant and unfamiliar world to try to imagine. Yet the empire of Akbar, told to us by Abu'l-Fazl, is in many ways a not unfamiliar world. The characters are lively, interesting, and understandable; they live in a sophisticated, urban and literary culture. The empire building zeal and craft of the Emperor may well exceed the skill and enthusiasm of the British imperialists who would dismantle the empire over two hundred years later. And Abu'l-Fazl is as comfortable talking about Socrates and Plato as he is talking about Muhammad; his world is really not so exotic. While he may lay the flattery on a bit heavily to justify his courtly sinecure, Abu'l-Fazl can also be very revealing about the world he and Akbar inhabit, and very disarming in his accessibility.

The Murty Classical Library is a new venture, and this is among their first volumes. It is an extraordinary offering in many ways. The book is beautiful, with an elegant design and a pleasing heft to it. The presence of the printing in the original is not just scholarly, it is lovely and helps to set the feeling that we are reading something from that classical Persianate world. The introductory material is helpful and well-written. I'm not in a position to judge the quality of the translation, but the English version is readable but still literary, reminiscent in many ways of the always engaging Dick Davis. This is a book to cherish.
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How to Read Chinese Poetry: A Guided Anthology
How to Read Chinese Poetry: A Guided Anthology
by Zong-qi Cai
Edition: Paperback
Price: $33.15
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Found in Translation, March 3, 2014
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Robert Frost called poetry that which is "lost in translation", but this marvelous volume does its best to remedy that situation. Zong-qi Cai assembles an intense band of absolutely passionate scholars to delve deeply into over 140 examples of classic Chinese poetry. Each poem is part of a chapter devoted to a particular style and period of Chinese poetry, and most are given in both traditional Chinese, pinyin, and English translation, together with a paragraph placing the poem in context and providing some exegesis, AND a series of on-line sound files that let you hear the poem in Chinese.

The translations on their own range from serviceable to brilliant, with most falling in the massive chasm in between. The great translators of Chinese poetry, Rexroth, Pound, Hinton, almost universally turn out better poems inspired by the Chinese original. However, the poems presented do a wonderful job of helping even those with little or no Chinese (I am in the "little" category myself) bridge over into the Chinese version, because they struggle to be faithful to both the vocabulary and structure of the original. Combined with the pinyin and sound file, even someone with no Chinese at all can "find" much of what the translation might have otherwise "lost", belying Mr. Frost's pithiness. Taken together with the material presented on the poem, the translations become almost universally brilliant. I have found no better access into the untranslatable than this volume.

Perhaps the most masterful chapter is on the Tung era Shi poetry, a pentasyllablic "regulated" verse, by Zong-qi Cai himself, where he not only provides us with a clear and straightforward explanation of the poetic structures that define the genre but also gives us a cosmological explanation of how those structures reflect a "yin-yang" balance, and then shows us how the structures and cosmology play out in several well-known Tang-era poems. In these few packed pages, we come to understand what Du Fu was doing better than we can by reading whole volumes about him and his work. This changed the way I read Tang poetry (whether in translation or not).

Even if this chapter stands out, however, the quality of the book is consistently excellent, and each chapter deserves to be savored slowly; each is packed with wisdom and beauty. I have called this both one of the best books ON poetry and OF poetry I have come across, and the authors have also graced us as well with a workbook that is geared toward the Chinese learner, and gives us an opportunity to work closely with another 100 poems building vocabulary and translation ability. The authors also set up a facebook page devoted to following through with the work of the book.

A quick word on the sound files: they cater to learners of Chinese, and are somewhat stilted and over-enunciated. This makes them easier to follow for English-speakers, but perhaps not as beautiful as some other readings you might hear. The editorial decision is very much in line with helping us access the untranslatable, even without much language training, but after getting that access, it is worth seeking out more expressive readings.

Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible
Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible
by Robert Alter
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $15.74
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A provocative and unusual book, March 3, 2012
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Five chapters and a prelude bring forth American voices in a new way; a way that draws out from the diction and rhythm and word choice of that Good Book, the King James Bible, and, in particular, its rendition of the Old Testament, the unusual mixture of the literary and colloquial that defines American literature over the last two centuries. This book is a history of linguistic dynamics, from Moby Dick and Lincoln's speach through to The Road and Gilead, and I can think of nothing like it out there in the reading world. Do not believe those who would limit it to a scholarly audience. If you read Faulkner and Melville and Hemingway, you should read Alter. You must read Alter. Really.

Alter's chapter on Moby Dick is truly and particularly brilliant, and one of the best things written on The Whale in the last half-century. Alter gets Melville's voice, he truly digs it, and he lets his light shine in a way that will deepen every reader's experience. His chapter on Faulkner is merely wonderful, but the chapter on Bellow and the discussion of Lincoln in the preface each challenge those Melvillian peaks.

If you are going to read contemporary literary criticism, put Alter on top of your list. I can think of only one other living American critic I would put on his level, and her focus is not the American corpus.

Moby-Dick: Or, The Whale (The Northwestern-Newberry Edition of the Writings of Herman Melville, Vol. 6)
Moby-Dick: Or, The Whale (The Northwestern-Newberry Edition of the Writings of Herman Melville, Vol. 6)
by Herman Melville
Edition: Paperback
Price: $45.00
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mythology and Science, February 22, 2012
I have read so many, many books, articles and reviews try to boil Moby-Dick down to the purest most refined elements. But, like Russian television and Nietzschean abysses, when you deconstruct Moby-Dick, Moby-Dick deconstructs you. Ultimately, every reviewer finds, somewhere in this oceanic work, their own gods and demons. This particular read I blogged more fully at my blog.

Boil, boil, trouble and toil. Tell me of ships, whales and oil. Melville's words are a mashup of all that comes before. There is Shakespeare. There are sailor's ditties. There is Biblical poetry. There are songs from the kids in the street. There are myths. There are encyclopedia entries. It is a hip-hop book wrought of minnesang and hula and kathakali, ending in a glorious danse macabre. Most of all, there is humor, there is seriousness, and there is drama. Come, more wine! There is a roaring furnace before us and we've tales to tell!

Melville does not so much challenge the novel's form as disregard it, crafting a tale that makes sense to him, pulling together his whaling canon from all the literary and philosophical flotsam gathered in a life of global wandering. He sprinkles acts of a drama among tableaus and stories and treatises, he throws in footnotes, he steps out of the book and comments upon it, and steps back in and takes on a new voice. Throughout, ever writerly, the story plods on, in those wonderful words and phrases and rhythms, slowly building, building, building into a drama like no other (however much it borrows from others - is this the fish that sank a thousand ships!). There is a typhonic crescendo at the end, and then the music tails off.

Since this review must ultimately devolve into a deconstruction of myself reading, since the book is beyond knowing, I might as well tell of this particular reading of Moby-Dick, which has been quite different from prior readings. In this reading, I see a book of uncommon dramatic energy and careful construction that seems to pull all the diverse threads of our deepest myths and creation tales together, building out of them a misty, mystifying fabric, diaphanous as Cleo's gown, a sort of alternative mythology for a world in which science and technology are emerging and removing us more and more from nature itself, and putting us more in opposition to it. He offers us this mythology because he knows that this new, scientific world, this world of observations and answers, will ultimately provide no more answers than the ridiculously pious (piously ridiculous?) world that came before.

But, whatever my reading, you must tell me yours, for the book lends itself to many.

Why Read Moby-Dick?
Why Read Moby-Dick?
by Nathaniel Philbrick
Edition: Hardcover
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33 of 35 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Reading Nathaniel Philbrick, January 1, 2012
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This review is from: Why Read Moby-Dick? (Hardcover)
If you have a couple of hours and are looking for a pleasant read that can help you to appreciate one of the greatest books around, this is a more than worthy read. While I am only giving this one three stars, since it is really an "homage" of limited ambition, not a creative work in itself, each of those stars is well earned and this will be among my most glowing three star reviews.

Philbrick gives us an entry into Moby Dick that is personal and easily accessible, and so does Melville's book a great service. All too often, Moby Dick is read at too young an age*, an age where the wry, often sardonic and subtle humor is ill-appreciated and the references are difficult and obscure, and this has given the book a bad rap - a rap as a difficult, daunting work, one a reader must steel themselves for and endure. In reality, for those who enjoy the humor, and who have enough reading behind them so that a not-too-subtle dig at the philosopher Locke, mentioning him by name, or a joke about Jonah or Job, can bring a chuckle, this is a most readable and enjoyable book, and Philbrick gets that across. He demystifies the book.

Philbrick also gives you some tools to make the read easier. By pointing out some elements of Melville's humor, which is sometimes so dry you only spot it if you're looking for it, and some of Melville's approaches to writing and characterization, he sets up an easier reading of the book. He gives you tools to climb that mountain (and, again, the mountain really isn't as tall as it looks).

Philbrick's reading of the book will not be everyone's reading. Philbrick, like DH Lawrence before him, reads Moby Dick as deeply intertwined with the pre-Civil War American experience and particularly with slavery; I've never quite bought that reading, but am happy to acknowledge it is both an interesting reading and a supportable one, one worthy of more discussion. Philbrick is so open and easy going and approachable about his reading that this book almost feels like a start of that discussion. Reading Philbrick, I almost feel that he's pulled up a chair and some grog by me in a Nantucket Inn and we are off reading the great Moby together, and that is comforting. He's a good soul, a sailor himself, and a boon companion like Ishmael.

Thank you, Mr. Philbrick. On first hearing of your book, I was ready to dismiss it. Luckily, I picked it up, read it, and am now deep into my next read of Moby Dick and appreciating the companionship. You have done your job quite well.

* Harold Bloom says he first read it at age 9 and still sees Ahab as a hero - a reading I can only attribute to a too-early reading with limited comprehension having too lasting an influence.
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Mahabharata Book Six (Volume 1): Bhishma (Clay Sanskrit Library)
Mahabharata Book Six (Volume 1): Bhishma (Clay Sanskrit Library)
by Vyasa
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $22.80
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A timeless tale, read it to your kids!, November 15, 2011
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Has a better story ever been told?

Book Six of the Mahabharata, the Book of Bhishma, is split into two manageable volumes by the Clay Sankskrit Library; this review covers both volumes. In this book, Bhishma, the grandfatherly great general of the Kurus, the uncle of their king (to whom the story is narrated) and the mentor of and advisor to the spoiled brats on whose behalf the great war will be fought, leads a massive and talented army in a war where he has been told, and firmly believes, that his troops are doomed from the beginning; the fundamental story of Bhishma is the story of the King and the assembled armies coming to understand the doom Bhishma already knows. Clay, the sponsor of the publishing project, hoped to encourage the study of Sanskrit through this project, and the Clay Sanskrit series offers, at a reasonable price, hardcover versions with enough commentary in the introduction and enough annotation along the way to thoroughly whet the appetite, but not so much to weigh the whole thing down and turn it into an academic exercise. Phonetic Sanskrit (akin to Chinese pinyin) faces the English translation. The language is modern, clear, and even breezy in places; it is thoroughly engaging.

The book begins by setting up the context of the two assembled armies and rapidly moves through the chapters often read separately as the Bhagavad Gita. The greatest warrior of the Pandavas, Arjuna, surveys two oceanic armies laid before him and searches his soul. His cousins, the Kurus, lined up to one side with their allies and retainers and each of their armies, have wrongly disinherited the Pandavas. The Pandavas, his brothers, have endured great trials already, repeatedly "turning the other cheek" in stories that have played out in the earlier books. The wrongs visited on the Pandavas now must inevitably must lead to war; other options have been exhausted. Family is on all sides, and Arjuna knows that many will not leave the battle field alive, and many will need to be slayed by his own hand. As Arjuna thinks about whether the greater wrong is to set this battle and the death of beloveds on both sides in motion or to concede to the Kurus the kingdom and permit the wrong done to the Pandavas to remain, he enters into a dialogue with his charioteer, a humble incarnation of the great and singular god Krishna.

There is no real need to read the prior books first; this can be picked up fresh. But reading the Gita in the context of the full book is more fun, more rewarding, and more provocative than when read alone. Indeed, it is not the last of the soul-searching conversations between Arjuna and Krishna, and the drama will unfold, slowly and overwhelmingly, as the book continues. In the heart of the book, after the Gita ends, the armies and battles rage on, killing becomes monotonous, horrors become commonplace, and the central characters, Bhishma, Arjuna, Bhima-sena, Dritarashtra, and their families, face extraordinary personal choices on which all others depend for their lives. Demons, elephants, gods, heros, chariots and weapons of all kinds fill the pages; day after day, the war progresses, with the advantage to first one side, then the other, with the only certainty for the troops that each day the realm of Yama (the god of death) will expand. Ultimately, in the second volume, Bhishma's own terrible choice will frame the conclusion of this phase of the war, and we will see the progression of the generalship of the Kurus to Drona, for whom the next book is named.

This is a sneaky book: emerging from the Gita into the war, you are rapidly sucked into the fast paced story, the endless battle scenes worthy and even in excess of a Vin Diesel film. Then, when you least expect it, Arjuna and Krishna emerge again, and the true depths of the work come up on you. Just when you think you're ready for the grand finale, where all the fast and the furious gather together in an overblown orgy of wild, romping action, and just when you've got the popcorn at the ready and your drink refreshed, you're suddenly transported from the fast and furious world of Vin Diesel to an intense and contemplative Pier Pasolini film - and you like it! This wild and wooly war is by turns tragedy and farce, but always a fascinating paradox, a simultaneous evil and a good, sublime ugliness and horrifying beauty; it both celebrates and questions the religion that spawned it, and puts all that action into a broader ethical context.

The Clay Sanskrit Library has done well and these books perfectly meet their goals. I read this to my 10 year old son, who was as fascinated as I through every page, and whose curiousity has been kindled as few books can.

And, to answer my question, yes, a better story has been told, but it is the same story, told another time. Let's read it again!

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman
by Robert K. Massie
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $21.82
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210 of 250 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A merely good book on a great subject, November 8, 2011
Tackling Catherine the Great is not, and never has been, for the faint of heart. There is a heavy shelf filled with works by the eminent and the colorful, by Oldenberg, Troyat, and others, and there is fascinating original material available as well. But it is no good to praise someone for their Alpine skill when they climb the Himalayas - they have chosen the tougher climb, and it will measure them.

Massie brings capable writerly craftsmenship, a deep knowledge of Russian history, and a reader-friendly commercial sheen to bear, applying each tool with care, and writes a highly readable and engaging biography. But, in the end, I'm left unsatisfied. It was a fun read and the hours were well-spent. The work is worthy of, and will get, some attention; the subject is worthy, however, of more and better. Massie's opening chapters draw so heavily from Catherine's own memoirs that I wish I would have read them instead. The book adds a bit of harmless gloss to the memoirs, but gives us a redacted and bloodless summary in place of the real thing. Massie's later chapters promise a deeper analytical framework yet skate through with less detail or analysis than, say, the great Riasanovsky surveys. Massie offers little here that is terribly new and interesting. There was no Eureka moment, no insightful rebellion, just a recital from the Orthodox liturgy.

If you have a bias toward reading contemporary works instead of dusty classics, you may prefer Massie's Catherine over those other books on the shelf. But, in the end, I wish Massie had applied his tools to some interesting but inadequately explored character he could have brought to life rather than writing what is really just another capable book on an already heavy shelf, adding a pound or two but not much more to what is already there. He gets a solid three stars, but no more.
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The Recognition of Sakuntala: A Play In Seven Acts (Oxford World's Classics)
The Recognition of Sakuntala: A Play In Seven Acts (Oxford World's Classics)
by Kālidāsa
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.53
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Classic tale, great story, August 9, 2011
Let us muse on perfect beauty, an image cast before us by the poet, an image that can only make the heart sing. This beauty is not skin-deep, but informed by a spiritual upbringing and a strong sense of righteousness, compassion, and propriety. Yes, the king, musing with us, is taken by this beauty, this perfect body and soul, so much so that his jester and his general enjoy some great laughs and good times at the expense of the poor regal sap. Yet somehow, despite the ernest ridiculousness of his passion, a deeper bond is forged between the king and the beauty.

Unfortunately, duty calls the king, and Sakuntala, the beauty, while lost in her love, fails in her duties to a visiting sage and is cursed by that sage; the irony (for curses are always ironic) being that as she failed to properly recognize the sage, her beloved shall fail to recognize her. Her failure shall lead to more; the beautiful tapestry shall unravel, and we must call on the commoners and the gods to weave it back together.

From these twisted together circumstances, rival duties and deeply felt emotions, the story of the birth of Bharata is crafted. Bharata is the ultimate ancestor of the warring factions in the Mahabharata and, in a deeply symbolic sense, the father of India. Bharata is a bastard born of the mixing of castes, the violations of duties, and the trickery of people and gods - what other culture has such a proudly sullied heritage?

Kalidasa writes with great humor, some bawdy, some sublime, as he runs his characters through a series of conflicting duties and hapless missteps that are more fundamental to the identities of the characters than even Romeo and Juliet. It is a work that reaches across the Millennia to speak to me in a way otherwise done, in drama, only by four Greeks. For the first Europeans to discover Sakuntala, the play raised fundamental aesthetic questions, rending the old Aristotelian based classifications by drawing out dramatic tension in a way neither comedy nor tragedy attempted. We will not see such sophisticated humor on the European stages, certainly, for almost 1000 years after Sakuntala, and, then, we see it only sparingly and occassionally.

Reading Sakuntala today is a uniquely engaging experience, since the interpretation of the recognition of Sakuntala so entwines both our European and the Indian traditions. There is a morass of difficult but fascinating questions about how we relate to and understand literature bound up in the simplicity and beauty of this story. For me, a western reader, the story may not naturally be in my literary dna; references to particular dieties, old stories, and occassionally concepts require explication, and the structure of the work itself, with it's tendancy to pause to let us take in a scene full of symbolism, full of references, and laden with emotion challenges a tendancy in Western drama to just keep getting on with it. Thus, there are ways in which this play challenges the way I look at and think of drama just as much as many modern works (isn't Godot nothing but a pause?), or many works that hide in the forgotten branches of the Western cannon. There is an almost operatic element that has been purged from Western drama, and that we studiously ignore in staging the Greeks. There are also ways in which this play speaks quite directly to "our" cannon: we see the chorus, the theatrical asides, the jester so beloved by the Elizabethans. The pondering of this play thus involves all the questions of similiarty and difference among cultures, questions of cultural identity and fusion, of universality and locality, of this, of that, of whatever and all else - no end to the pesky yet necessary and inevitable questions.

Still, don't we have to set some of those questions aside, still the cacophony in our heads, and just read, and enjoy what is a marvelous tale? And it is, indeed, a marvelous tale. We must find a staging.
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The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History: A Forgotten Heritage (The Middle Ages Series)
The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History: A Forgotten Heritage (The Middle Ages Series)
by Maria Rosa Menocal
Edition: Paperback
Price: $24.83
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Courtly Love, the Genetics of Poetry, and the Meaning of Silence, March 10, 2011
Meaningful silences punctuate our lives. How silent is a first kiss, yet how potentially significant?

In this history of literary histories, Menocal delves deeply into a hush that fell on certain theses -- certain most undesireable theses -- as the 19th century dawned. She deftly traces an intellectual theory of the birth of the poetry of courtly love from Dante's level Latin language defense of the vernacular through Schlegal's mind-numbing dismissal through those enormous silences of the 19th and 20th centuries and on to the more riotous days of her student youth.

The theory -- that most undesirable, unimaginable theory -- would potentially root the emergence of European vernacular poetry of the troubadours not in a moment of proto-French genius summoning rhymes of courtly love from the mists but in a moment of Andalusian (and distinctly Mozarabic) brilliance that recreates and recasts the worlds and sounds before it.

Wisely, in this magical tale of literary and linguistic adventures, Menocal does not begin with the theory itself, which has been researched, argued, buttressed, and reinforced from Medieval times to the present, in many languages and many times. Instead, she launches into the poetry of the many cultures of the time, both Romance and Arabic, and then moves on to the history of the silence. We hear Dante struggling in Latin with thoughts on the vernacular and the sources of his inspiration; we hear Arabic and Mozarabic speaking women finding new masters among the Christians as the Reconquista commences, we hear forms emerge from the classical Arabic and in the Mozarabic and Provencal and Sicilian vernaculars, and then, we hear silence. First, Schlegel's dismissal: "they" don't love or treat women as "we" do; "our" love and our poetry are ours alone, not theirs; we listen to the ignorance and intense pride of emergent Europe, and we watch as the theory is isolated and sequestered among the Arabists. The silence falls.

Understanding the history of the theory reveals the theory itself, playing out in the world in which the poetry and conceptions of courtly love emerged. Menocal raises question after question, all good questions, but denies us the answers. We can look and listen for ourselves. She gives us ears.

This is a personal work, autobiographical in places, exploring a personal intellectual history written on a grand scale. Much of Menocal's thesis is unsurprising to today's historians - indeed, her discussion of the interaction of Islamic, Judaic and Christian cultures on the fringes of Medieval Catholic Christendom, whether in Al-Andalus, the islands of the Mediterranean, the Byzantine empire and its successors, or the ever-changing Slavic lands, would be self-evident among the historians with whom I studied. But in the world of Romance literature and literary history, the interaction and cross-pollination, the notion of Arabic genes in European poetry undermines fundamental mythologies that are deeply resilent and shape the very basis of the "western canon". The clash of history and mythology can be among the most challenging and deeply personal of dialectics; the recognition of the unity of the mythological and historically can be fundamentally shocking. Menocal leads us through her and now our journey.

So, in this deeply poetical work, Menocal breaks through the silence to listen to voices that have spoken to us for centuries. It was never truly silent anyways: that first kiss always fills the silence, laying open new possibilities. So with Menocal: read carefully and inherit a broader world, one whose words and emotions are freed from a narrow pennisula. The possibilities....

The Hour of the Star (New Directions Paperbook)
The Hour of the Star (New Directions Paperbook)
by Clarice Lispector
Edition: Paperback
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Ontological WOW!, November 8, 2009
This is really a very serious Nietzschean essay on Ontology, sans the uber-machismo but with a deft and well-meant humour, masquerading as a simple little story. Clarice Lispector, our author, is facing her death, and, working through a narrator who may or may not exist, looks into the eyes of a trod upon and anonymous young woman who may exist as an individual or a type and who may or may not be in the narrator's literal or figurative employ, and sees in those eyes her best answer to the questions of being and nothingness that so trouble the philosophical.

Set aside the Sartre, the Heidegger, the Wittgenstein, with all their big words (her narrator emphasizes repeatedly that he has banned big words). Forget about all the twisted logic used to figure out how we know about our own existence and what its purpose may be. If there is a reason, something more than pure brute instinct, for an ugly little waif from the poorest part of Brazil to exist, perhaps even to live, there is a reason for all of us to live. And so, in the midst of life in the mud, and, quite literally, death in the mud, Clarice gives us reason to live. And while she does this, she struggles to release us from the trap of a language that defines us. Each reader can figure out whether she succeeds. Success may or may not be important.

All of this is done through a style dominated by simple aphorisms (thus the Nietzschean - it's the only comparison I can think of) and a straightforward story line. No big words. Individually, her aphorisms are banal. Combined, they are profound.

Clarice Lispector weaves together metaphorical rags.

All I can say about the result: Wow.

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