blogs · books · culture

Poetry to save your life

In my previous post on the Pleasures of Reading I ruminated on why we read and why as humans we find art so essential. I reflected that perhaps it was because we are essentially social animals needing to communicate and something about seeing life reflected that helps us give meaning to our experiences.

This got me thinking why I read or why I turn to a particular piece of work when I am in a certain mood. Sometimes it is literally reading to save myself, reading to see my melancholy and despair understood and experienced, reading for words of inspiration, reading as a balm for hurt, to be cheered, to laugh and to know that as Kahlil Gibran said we see only the ’surface of things and not their secrets’.  

Poetry is made for this kind of drama of the heart which is why it is so delightful to share. I remember (sometimes still now but more in my uni days) swapping poems indulging in wild despair with friends (other poets of course, my own excesses were locked safely in drawer of course).  

 Poems are like magnified, concentrated bursts of of bang.  Prose on crack. Which is why there is a poem for every feeling, from the follies of ambition and fame (Emily Dickenson’s  ’admiring bog’ , existential despair (Larkin), heartbreak (Yevgeny  Yevtushenko),  rage (Erica Jong), idealism (Elizabeth Barrret Browning) and of course soul-food (Rumi).

At the risk of crowding this post I am going to share some of my personal favourites.  Two of these are translated from the Russian and Farsi so let us respectfully acknowledge they are magnified by a thousand in awesomeness in their original language.  This one is one is “The Guest House” from 13th century Sufi mystic Jalaladin Rumi.

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond. 

If that doesn’t get you through your worst day with that annoying telemarketer,   those hideous in-laws or jarring colleague I don’t know what will.

The best ones are the one sent by friends on the commiserations of failed love. This one ’Unrequited Love’ by Yevgeny Yevtushenko is on well, the obvious, and also the courage needed to transcend yourself.

We yawn and play at shabby little passions,
discarding hearts as though they’re last year’s fashions,
afraid of tragedy, afraid to pay.
And you and I, no doubt, are being weaklings
whenever we so often force our feelings
to take the easier,  less binding way.

Then there is the mysterious one left in your inbox that makes you laugh out loud and of course want some of what she’s having please.  This one is ‘I don’t want you for your beauty alone’

I don’t love you
For your beauty alone,
but also for your large vocabulary
When you say emporium and brouhaha instead of
shops and a fistfight it really turns me on.
tell me all the synonyms for smitten
and I’ll tell you what I am.

We can’t figure out who the poet is but apparently she is English (and a pretty cool chick). If anyone knows please enlighten us here. And of course let us know what are your favourite reads to save your soul.

From ABC bookshow blog

blogs · books · culture

Pleasures of reading

I’ve recently made the transition to nine to five life of the worker and I find myself trying to fit my reading around the rhythms of my new life. A few chapters on the train in the morning through bleary eyed half sleep, a few on the way back squashed in peak hour traffic. Some more snatches of reading in between skimming the papers and keeping up to date with work reading.

 The kind of reading I do has changed too. I find myself attracted to stories of utopias and dystopias. There’s something about being settled in a pattern that makes one attracted to the alternate visions of reality (if anyone knows where I can find a second hand copy of Brave New World let me know!)

 There’s no time anymore to scour second hand bookshops and stay up enthralled in new book when you come home exhausted (even from a job I love) and fall asleep at depressingly early hours.  There’s no more languor of endless escapism enraptured in a new world.

A lot of  friends tell of similar experiences. When they start working or have kids its easy to become overwhelmed with the responsibilities of their new life and time to read for pleasure becomes scarce.  Or conversely pregnancy or illness provide an unexpected opportunity to indulge in what has become a forgotten pleasure.

 It made me think,  is reading an essentially bourgeois activity for students and those with endless leisure time, kind of like golf? Or is there something more essential about it? I always thought there was something egalitarian about reading, more so than any other art form being so varied and relatively accessible.

I often wonder why humans find art so essential. Is it because we are essentially social animals needing to communicate, express ourselves and understand others? Or is there something about seeing life reflected that helps us give meaning to our experiences?  

I always find myself out of sorts when I haven’t read something purely pleasurable for a while. It’s like something is missing and I need to come out of myself and see the world through another person’s eyes. Then there is the aesthetic pleasure of simply enjoying the contours of a perfectly formed piece of prose that invokes exotic scents and colours from the ordinary and extraordinary aspects of life.

Why do you read? How has your reading changed through different phases of your life?

From ABC bookshow blog

books · culture

Literary heroes and villains

We all know them. They are those characters in books who feel like real people, who live on with you well after you finish the book. Their thoughts mirror your own; their struggles resonate with you and leave you ruminating. Or conversely they infuriate you and challenge you to think differently. Here are my top five:

1. Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’)

It probably helps if you are brainy, angsty teenager suffering from an identity crisis to really ‘feel’ Jane, but anyone who feels they were not blessed with life’s advantages can empathise with Bronte’s heroine.  Lonely and poor, orphan Jane forges her way from a cruel boarding school to love and independence.  Even when she falls for Mr Rochester, she has the confidence to negotiate the terms of their equal partnership.  She is not beautiful, wealthy or connected but she has self-respect damn it, and that’s why she is No.1.

2. Raskolnikov (Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’)

The tortured soul of Dostoevsky’s classic, Raskolnikov’s journey from his philosophical experiment to eventual redemption, is the ultimate in existential literature (the only other exception being Dostoevsky’s other foray into The Meaning of Life ‘The Brothers Karamazov’.)  If you have been a starving student in Sydney’s overblown rental markets, you will feel Raskolnikov’s pain (and the Russian winter too, viscerally.)

3. Atticus Finch (Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’)

Some may like their bad boys, your Dorian Gray’s and Heathcliff’s (two who were hotly contested for this list), but I’ve always loved the noble man. Atticus is the ultimate straight shooter, a widower who uses his skills as a lawyer to controversially stand up for justice by defending a black man accused of rape in America’s segregationist south. It is Atticus’ love for his children, his integrity and quiet humility that make him a winner on my list

3. Elizabeth Bennett (Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’)

Bright and beautiful, Elizabeth Bennett, the heroine of Austen’s classic, is beloved precisely because she has the confidence to be haughty despite the manifest disadvantages of being a woman in Victorian England and coming from a somewhat dysfunctional family.  Ms Bennett wins because she is another strong woman who has the courage to navigate her own destiny within and even transcending the limitations of her circumstances and unlike the earnest Jane, she does it with wit and style.  When she is not trading barbs with her love interest Darcy, she’s laughing up a social custom or absurdity.

4. Channu (Monica Ali’s Brick Lane)

The Bengali husband in Monica Ali’s Man Booker prize short-listed novel Brick Lane, Channu is a favourite, because he is complex and nuanced. One of those characters one cannot help loving and hating, sometimes at the same time. It would have been easy to relegate him to the 2-D cliché of the overbearing patriarch, but Ali’ genius lay in her ability to give even her make even her  ‘villainous’ character sympathetic,  flawed and human.

5. Mrs Dalloway (Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs Dalloway’).

The wife of a Tory MP who ‘had parties to cover the silence’, Clarissa Dalloway is chosen, because despite being conventional and insipid, she loves life and gives an insight into the sometimes uncomfortable mind of comfortable privilege. We meet Mr and Mrs Dalloway fleetingly in Woolf’s first novel ‘The Voyager’ and are immediately intrigued.  She is one of those superficial, yet mysterious people you’ve always wanted to be able to decode and somehow get inside their head.  We know Mrs Dalloway is more than meets the eye because she attracts interesting people like the marauding Peter Walsh and the once outrageous Sally Seton. She’s also an archetype, the natural socialite and gravitational centre from which everyone is brought together.

Who are your favourite characters?

From ABC bookshow blog

books · culture

Guilty pleasures

When I was first invited to do this blog I admit being slightly apprehensive about my (lack of) literary pedigree.  I was a bit like a fast food junkie when it came to books, my lack of discrimination seeing me everywhere from the literary equivalent of high end cuisine to slumming it in the book version of McDonalds when it came to getting my next fix. I never felt any qualms about this state of affairs, always feeling that books were supposed to enjoyable and delicious, even scandalous and never laborious.

A BBC article recently interrogated critic and academic John Sutherland on the ‘guilty pleasures’ phenomenon. In the article Sutherland admits there is a kind of  ‘naughty’  pleasure in enjoying what feels like illicit reading material. He admitted to having a stash of bad airport novels on his bedside table and a secret love of mega-selling UK  novelist  Jilly Cooper. “It’s strange how embarrassed you get about what you’re reading or enjoying. There’s always this feeling that there’s this school mistress over your shoulder grading you,” he said.

The most amusing is the article’s suggestion  that reading ’smart’ books increases a person’s  level of attractiveness. Breaking up over a love of Pushkin may seem extreme, but is this reaction perhaps another reason why our less admirable book addictions are best kept in the closet?

In fact some of the greatest novels were condemned by critics as ’gutter’ literature. Novels  like Nabakov’s Lolita and D.H Lawrence’s  Lady Chatterley’s lover popular underground appeal lay precisely in the fact that they were initally banned and disapproved of.

So I am here to make my confessions.  I make this declaration to the professors and book boffins, to the writing students and reviewers. To anyone who expects me to be anything except a book lover not expert. The difference being that a lover is full of moods and qualms, whims and compulsions, where nothing is mandatory and everything is shared. On the other hand an expert makes pronouncements, declarations on language and technique boasting a profound encyclopedic range and knowledge of which I must confess some inadequacy.

I confess to never reading Homer’s Iliad or the Odyssey.  I confess to trying to crack James Joyce’s Ulysses several times but failing (atlhough this is not so uncommon). I confess to coming of age to Sweet Valley High, the Babysitter’s Club, Virginia Andrews and Anne Rice.  “Chic-lit’ has also graced my bookshelves, my favourite being Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic series.

I confess to devouring anything in a doctor’s waiting room or bargain basement table.  I confess to having read Barbara Taylor Bradford and Jackie Collins and even those horribly racist “Behind/beneath/exposing/forbidding the veil” melodramas (only to denounce them of course!)

And yes I even confess to reading Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and here is the depressing bit… actually kind of enjoying it.

Ah I feel so much better now.

If that hasn’t seen you fleeing in horror, feel free to join me on what should be lively and entertaining musings on what we hate and love and why.

So now it is your turn. What are your guilty pleasures?

From ABC bookshow blog

culture · human rights · islamic law · law · Pakistan · politics · religion

Pakistan’s traditional spirituality hijacked?

Every week sees a fresh wave of violence strike Pakistan. Just two days ago, a suicide car bomb in a crowded shopping street in the north-west town of Charsadda killed almost 20 people and injured dozens. It was the third such incident in three days. These follow blasts in Rawalpindi and Peshawar, which killed dozens in crowded marketplaces, the latter of which coincided with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit.

The violence has put many Pakistanis on edge, many blaming the country’s relationship with the US. They point to the loss of civilian lives in badly aimed drone attacks and a historical relationship that suggests the US looks after its own interests and should not be trusted.

The Obama Administration finds itself dealing with partners in both Pakistan and Afghanistan who do not have the strong mandate of their people, with Hamid Karzai’s recent win in a one-man election in Afghanistan, and Asif Ali Zardari in Pakistan, who as widow of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto has benefited from a Bhutto stranglehold on the ruling Pakistani People’s Party despite being mired in corruption. The shadowy standing of the two leaders threatens the legitimacy of the partnership.

The current Administration has done well in bypassing the leadership and attempting to reach out to the people through cultural dialogue with frank meetings with media professionals and students. Clinton’s visit wearing a billowing blue dupatta to a Sufi shrine in Islamabad moved many and represents in many ways the true spirit of Pakistani spirituality, which has been hijacked in recent years with the rise of extremism.

In the past 10 years, I have seen a steady shift to the right. The folk spirituality of Pakistan, traditionally involving a mixture of Islamic Sufism and saint worship, has given way to a more puritanical form of Islam, which shuns Shiite Muslims and other minorities. Weddings are increasingly segregated and without the traditional Pakistani music and dance that make them so lively. The dupatta, a deliciously sheer piece of cloth worn with colourful shalwar kameez as part of the traditional dress, have given way to burqas and niqabs in certain areas.

The contradictions that lie at Pakistan’s fractured soul are emblematic of its very origin. Pakistan’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, a secularist and English-trained lawyer, initially used religion as nationalistic rallying cry and political tool for the creation of Pakistan. This backfired badly with Pakistan fighting for its national identity ever since. The question being if Pakistan was created in 1947 as a homeland for the subcontinent’s Muslims than why should it not also be an Islamic State? The historical Jinnah in Pakistan has been transmogrified into a pious, sherwani wearing “Quad-e Azam” or “Great leader”. This image is a far cry from the man found in the Jinnah museum in Karachi who was fond of his suits and cigars.

This is symptomatic of unease with which Pakistan has dealt with the religious question. It seems it does not have the ideological courage to be either an Iran or Turkey but will settle for being both and something in between.

The majority of Pakistanis are moderate, this can be seen in elections where Islamist parties have consistently received a small minority of the vote. If ideologically speaking, Pakistanis are scattered, the building of institutions will be a bulwark against excesses. The lack of education, health, literacy and poor state of women’s rights have put Pakistan at the risk of a kind of national myopia.

Democracy depends as much on the healthy state of an informed public as a free election. The rise of the lawyer’s movement, which protested against former military dictator Pervez Musharraf ‘s move to force out Supreme Court justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry in 2007, to the creation of community run police-citizen patrols to deal with law and order issues show that the Pakistani people have developed ingenuity to deal with its social problems despite an ineffectual state apparatus. A government whose only occupation seems to be to repeatedly fund and create militant groups it quickly loses control over and an obsessive rivalry with neighbour India.

Pakistanis can only dream of the possibilities of not struggling under the weight of this monstrous disability.