William Shakespeare

If I profane with my unworthy hand
Your written shrine of celebrated wit
My praise, lowly as it is, ready stands
To release itself through most loving writ
For ‘To be or not to be’ you once said
Hamlet’s distress did kindred spirit find
A lonely girl of but thirteen years led
From depression with bottle left behind
When yet more years had passed and knowledge earned
The sorrow returned anew to claim
A lonely, angry heart that always burned
She would not gentle enter Peace’s domain
But for Antony’s piercing words and tears
She’d not’ve named her demons for yet more years

For thee in thanks, MADELEINE

 


nota bene: This sonnet has been poorly written in the style of a Shakespearean sonnet. Please forgive the author of this letter for her inability to write poetry and general absurdity.

Vyasa

“What is found in the poem [The Mahabharata] I have recited —
Concerning dharma [righteousness], riches and enjoyment,
As well as the path to final liberation —
May be found elsewhere. But anything
It does not contain will be found nowhere.”

The Mahabharata, 18.5.38, English adaptation by Carole Satyamurti

What can one really say to that? The Mahabharata, the world’s longest epic poem, composed in Sanskrit by Vyasa, is ten times the combined length of the Iliad and Odyssey and three times the length of the Bible. It is more than just a fixed text. It has been told and retold, in a million versions, oral, written, and on screen; as people say in India, one never really hears it for the first time. (See Jaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata by Devdutt Pattanaik).

The Mahabharata is the living link to my ancestors and their culture, the compendium of their wisdom, a sort of Wikipedia of ancient times, a work that contains many works within it: treatises on politics, philosophy, warfare, ancient history, and the Bhagavad Gita, the divine song which came directly from on high, culminating in the most beautiful of epiphanies (Chapter 11 of the Bhagavad Gita). How do we make peace with the world and the things we have to face in it? Is it by realizing we’re just actors in a drama, instruments in a divine play? As the Gita puts it, beautifully:

“I am almighty time, the world-destroying,
And to destroy worlds, I have arisen!
Those warriors arrayed in lines opposing
Your men, even without you, will have perished.”

The Bhagavad Gita, 11.32 (located in book 6 of The Mahabharata), Translation by Gavin Flood and Charles Martin

All that’s great. That gives The Mahabharata enormous historical, cultural, and religious value. But The Mahabharata is more than just that. Though set in the most distant of times and places for an individual living in 21st century America, it is relevant today. Like the works of Shakespeare, the stories it tells and the emotions and dilemmas experienced by its characters are timeless and speak to the core of what it means to be human, anywhere, anytime. When do we stop turning the other cheek and stand up for ourselves? What are the limits of loyalty to our friends, especially if they’re veering off the path of good? Is it ok to break the rules for the greater good? How do we keep going when the times get rough? These questions are addressed within this great and ancient book. Some questions stay with us humans forever. I am fortunate to have had this book as a companion throughout my life.

-Akhi

Baroness Orczy

There are books stacked left, books stacked right
Their covers gleaming in the light
I scan through their pages, trying to tell
Which book report will be less like Hell

I find a book with the French Revolution
A mysterious figure at its core
Who’d spoil every gruesome execution
Sold! Do tell me more…

To the Estimable Baronness Orczy,

I was going to try and just keep going with that bit of silliness, playing upon the delightful poem you gave to Sir Percy Blakeney in your classic adventure novel. But it does set the stage: I was in eighth grade and had been assigned my first ever book report project. My English teacher had said it would take up the entirety of our final quarter of the school year and that we would work in groups although, if we wanted, we could opt to work alone at her approval. The kicker of it all was that she had a selection of books already laid out upon a table, so we were not only limited to her selection, but she was going to limit how many people could work on each book. I suspect this is because the majority of my class wanted to read Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury.

I, on the other hand, made a point to pick up each book and flip through the first few pages. It’s like going on a first date with the book: you’re getting to know the writing style, pacing, and tonal gist of the whole thing. Near the end of the line I picked up a book with a cover I already knew I liked: A man, half-hidden in shadows, with a piece of paper bearing a seal that looked like some kind of red flower. He was clearly in France, given the decor of the soldiers who also graced the cover, and it was clearly sometime in the late 1700’s, one of my favourite eras of history. But then I quickly scan the back and it mentions something about a rogue character, known only as The Scarlet Pimpernel, snatching aristos from the fate of the guillotine.

Well colour me intrigued.

I opened your book and by the very first sentence I was completely hooked — I remember that sentence even now because the dark, mellifluous cadence of the words rings in my head like music:

“A surging, seething, mumuring crowd of beings that are human only in name, for to the eye and ear they seem naught but savage creatures, animated by vile passions and by the lust of vengeance and of hate.”

The effect those words had upon me was instantaneous: chills, inexplicable glee, and a physical need to know more. I took that book home and read it in one sitting which, while not wholly unusual for me, had never really happened a “school book” before. But your story transported me, and that was something I desperately needed in that moment. Thirteen wasn’t a great year for me: I had a bully, I was lonely and angry and had developed bad behaviours as coping mechanism (hello, Dad’s liquor cabinet)…and I was thirteen, full of all those hormonal changes, physical developments, and general state of confusion that comes with being thirteen. Yeah, it just wasn’t a great year.

But it was also the year I discovered your book; it was the year I first met Sir Percy and Lady Marguerite Blakeney. The first year that I got swept away on a swashbuckling, high-stakes adventure of cat-and-mouse, with people’s necks quite literally hanging in the balance. I laughed, I cried, I held my breath, I fell in love, I shook my fist at Chauvelin, and when all was said and done, I started it all over again. Your book gave me my own private adventure, and also made me first think the thought “I’d love to make a movie version of this,” which, in retrospect, is a pretty big deal.

To some people it may seem funny that I say a classic adventure novel is one of the best books I’ve ever read in my life, and that I make a point to re-read it every year without fail — especially when, if you really look at the novel, it’s not some milestone in literature. It’s considered a classic and it’s an adventure, but nobody hailed you as the successor to, oh I don’t know, Dickens or something. But I don’t think you get enough credit for the characters and story that you created. I don’t think enough people have had the chance to enjoy the ride you wrote down in The Scarlet Pimpernel.

But I did. And it’s one of those books that shines bright in my memory as a literary milestone: a place where I can mark my life as “before this book” and “after this book.”

So thank you, Baroness Orczy. Thank you.


Nota bene: The poem at this letter’s start was a pastiche of the musical number “They Seek Him Here” from the 1997 musical adaptation of Baroness Orczy’s novel, The Scarlet Pimpernel. The song itself is adapted from the poem included in the novel. Please forgive the author of this letter for her general silliness.

Homer

“There can be no covenants between men and lions, wolves and lambs can never be of one mind, but hate each other out and out and through. Therefore there can be no understanding between you and me, nor may there be any covenants between us, till one or other shall fall.”

The Venerable Homer

By the Muses and their arts, for whose favour I have so often prayed, I swear that, in making this avowal in writing, I have neither desire to praise myself nor to divide from your work.

What happiness could I benefit from eradicating you from my library? In what could I take more contentment than your work? Your words which even now resound deep within my soul as the drums of glory did for your Akhilleus. May it never be my misfortune to forget your opening line:

“Sing, O muse, of the rage of Akhilleus, son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans.”

For then, what memory would be left for me?

Your great words, for great they truly are, are seared within my heart with the word CHILDHOOD. By the twelve great gods, I could not even consider forgetting my youth, a time seeming now so far and remote from me; that rosy time of innocence during which my grandfather sang your war-song to my young, eager mind and heart. I could not even dream of any story more passionate, more glorious. I could not even dream of leaving your kingdom of wrath and pride to wander alone in the middle of Northeastern American suburbia, in a peaceful street…in a barren desert, for so it would seem compared to your world.

I swear it again and again by those Muses whose favour you and I so often courted: that without your Iliad, my childhood world would be all the greyer, all the less filled with ancient wonder.

-Madeleine


nota bene: This note has been written in the pastiche of an Ancient Greek love letter. The author apologizes for her own ridiculousness.

The Curse of Knowledge

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Madeleine Cassier
Producer
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A COMPANION TO TBT EPISODE 05

51sT1gF5PTL.jpgIn our most recent episode of The Book Table (TBT), we discussed Stormdancer, the first novel in the Lotus War trilogy by Australian writer, Jay Kristoff. Marketed as a Japanese-inspired steampunk series featuring what Patrick Rothfuss called “a strong female protagonist” in his blurb, it elicited some very different reactions amongst our discussion participants.

In our online book club, many people specifically picked upon Kristoff’s use of Japanese language and culture, calling it anything from “random” and “uneven” to “frustratingly wrong” and a little bit rage-inducing. The appropriation that formed the foundation of this book drove those familiar with Japanese culture and language to feelings of annoyance and irritation. A few members of our book club didn’t even finish Stormdancer, and a few more said they were unlikely to pick up the sequels.

For my part, I rated the book a solid 4 out of 5 stars and said that, despite acknowledging problems, I enjoyed it. I made a point in the podcast of saying that I had read the entire trilogy back in April 2015 over the course of about a week, so many of the details of all three books often blurred together in my remembering. Though, probably most importantly, I also mentioned that Japanese history and culture are not my forte. My knowledge-base on that topic comes predominantly from media, so I shall never claim myself an expert…ever.

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