Tuesday, June 26, 2012



I guess you could say I'm on an epic poem kick, although, given the frequency of how often I've actually read an epic poem, perhaps 'kick' is the wrong word. I've got a penchant; a leaning for epic poetry.

One of the things that attracts me to this old stuff is just how old it is! The Gilgamesh stories go back nearly 5000 years! The written copies we have of this story are about 4000 years old. Yes, actual original manuscripts (in the form of clay tablets) in the original language (cuneiform Akkadian).

What's the oldest extant bible we have?* Any bibles in the original Aramaic? Nothing is lost to time** and the more we study and discover the more we can learn about these stories and the people that wrote them. In a word: epicahistoreiffic!

This, The Epic of Gilgamesh, translated by Andrew George, bridges the gap between scholarly and pop culture reading. There is a great introduction of some fifty pages, that helps to set the stage for the epic; it's context in history, myth, religion, and politics. It also helps to trace some of the traditions represented in the epic forward into today's religions and traditions.

In addition, there are also translations of other, older but smaller Gilgamesh stories which were used by Sin-liqe-unninni, the poet of the standard  version of the epic, as source material. These older stories, many written in Sumerian, were used to infill gaps in this translation of the standard Babylonian version, written in Akkadian, where pieces are lost.

What is called 'the standard version' written by Sin-liqe-unninni between 1100 and 1300 BCE, also has its forebears in other, older versions seen in fragments dating the epic back another 500 years or so. The original Gilgamesh stories from which the epic is compiled, date to the Sumerian tablets which are as old as 2000 to 2100 BCE. that is wicked old, dude.

There is a more current translation out that wasn't available at my library and I'm curious to see if it includes new discoveries since this translation from 1999.

Get yourself some Gilgamesh; it's an amazing story. If you haven't got time to read it you should at least read some of the info in the links I've provided. The history is amazing.

Read this book.

* looks to me like 350 CE, or so.
** because the original stories were oral, for hundreds of years prior to cuneifrom writing records, of course information was lost, altered and modified from its original. The point I'm making is that nothing is lost from the time this work was put to clay tablets, due to re-writing, translating, and glossing through the centuries.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

da vinci's ghost

Toby Lester, you crazy mixed-up history geek, what were you thinking, taking on Leonardo in a 200 page* book?

Interesting, yes. Did I learn new things? Yes. Has my image of da Vinci changed a little after reading? Yes, yes, yes. But come on; 200 pages? I felt like the story was just getting started.

The story arc, too, was a little herky-jerky. The big idea is that Leonardo was not the first, but the last (and greatest) in a long line of folks, who put Vitruvius's concept of a perfectly proportioned man fitted into both a circle and a square, in picture form. This is a big deal because Vitruvius's work was essentially forgotten for something like 1500 years, and it was only when men started to think about proportion, in art and architecture, in a serious way again during the Renaissance, did men rediscover Vitrivius again.

Only, there weren't that many people--well, maybe that's unfair--there weren't a ton of people that preceded da Vinci's Vitruvian Man, and really only a couple cited in the book that were actually trying to create an illustration of what Vitruvius said in his Roman Era book on architecture. The others were expressing ideas of perfect proportion as a representation of God's design of both man and the universe in his own image. Basically, the two ideas have very similar results, approached from slightly different directions.

Lester's thesis is sound, no complaints there. I may have just been caught up in some hype after hearing him discuss his book on the radio. I was expecting more and I'm a little disappointed that I didn't get it.

Da Vinci's Ghost is carefully researched and amply illustrated but may have been improved with a more linear timeline. Lester's writing is easy, and his enthusiasm is palpable throughout. He also showed me da Vinci as a man who (at least in his early career) was so distracted, that he almost seems to suffer from a kind of ADHD.** It's not an image I enjoyed, and I couldn't help wondering, if Lester had given himself another hundred pages or so, if this might have resolved itself more.

* This book is more like 275 pages, but there is, like, 70 pages of backmatter. Oh, and 15 pages of preface, and a dozen pages of prologue. Aaand, like 40 pages of epilogue. Okay, I'm done.

** After writing this, I did a search for ADHD for a link, and thought: what the heck, maybe he did have it and put that in the search. Sure enough, a variety of internetty sources (albeit, wishy-washy sources) also ask this same question.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

as night follows day

As Night Follows Day, is by french writer Pierre Moinot. I read the English translation by Jody Gladding, with Elizabeth Deshays. The French title was Le matin vient et aussi la nuit.

According to the book jacket, Moinot was born in 1920 and has been busy in a variety of fields his whole life; from literature, to politics, to military service. His first collection of short stories were published with help from his friend Albert Camus. He has won a number of literary prizes, and was inducted into the Académie Française in 1982. Good on you, Pierre Moinot.

ANFD is 200+ pages of prose poetry; a love poem written to the past. An ode to simple rural life in France, its simple pleasures, its sense of community, and its ties to nature. Moinot uses stunningly beautiful language in the mouths and minds of his characters to describe their village, its people, animals, houses, gardens and flowers. To provide some contrast to this gush-fest, Moinot gives his pretty little village a problem to deal with: a cold-blooded double murder. yeah, chew on that!

Each of the chapters is written from the point of view of one of the characters, so we get to look inside the thoughts of these varied, but cut-from-the-same-cloth villagers. Many share that powerful sense of community and love of nature, and close, supportive ties to their neighbors, but their personalities overlay these similarities in surprisingly different ways, and through them we hear stories of love, life, regret, longing, wealth, poverty, marriage, stress, pain, strength, innocence, youth, and what it is to grow old.

In the end, the murder mystery is actually a surprising small--even tiny--part of the story.

Its a painting. A song. A diary entry from the not-so-distant past. But not, on the whole, especially compelling as a novel. Lovely, yes, without question.

Save this one for dreamy lazing on the beach, or on a quiet picnic in the country, and pining for Europe's pastoral past.