Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

Ancient book of Persian poetry

I received a copy of this book via one of Beyond Q’s care packages they were offering during the height of the social distancing measures in Canberra. I had quite an exciting experience when I realised that this was one of the books in the pack, because it is of some significance to an unsolved mystery. I don’t read much poetry, to be honest, but this looked both interesting and succinct.

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“Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám” translated by Edward FitzGerald and illustrated by Edmund J. Sullivan is a collection of poems by Persian mathematician, astronomer, philosopher and poet Omar Khayyám. FitzGerald provides a brief introduction to the collection before the poetry begins. The style of poetry is ruba’i: Persian four line rhyming poetry. The poems are arranged in a sort of narrative sequence and are largely concerned with life, death, faith, philosophy and hedonism.

This is a well-edited and nicely illustrated book that transitions smoothly from poem to poem with a clear, over-arching narrative. Khayyám includes himself as an older man grappling with his own morality, mortality and the love of a younger woman. This book has quite a nihilistic perspective, with Khayyám concluding that we’re all going to die anyway, so we might as well enjoy ourselves and love and drink to our heart’s desire. The poems present an almost equal balance between existential dread and enjoyment. The illustrations are incredibly evocative and with one per poem, I think that the contribution they have to the overall impact of the book cannot be understated.

There is quite some debate on how authentic FitzGerald’s translations are and, in fact, to how much of the poetry can truly be attributed to Khayyám himself. Not being any kind of expert in Iranian poetry, I cannot comment on this with any kind of authority. However, with possibly hundreds of poems at least thought to have been written by Khayyám, and only 75 selected for inclusion in this collection, I think that it is sensible to consider this largely FitzGerald’s work inspired closely by Khayyám.

It’s unsurprising to me that this volume was so popular. Even for someone who is not much of a poetry aficionado, it is very readable, clear and complex with universal, timeless themes.

 

 

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Cedar Valley

Small town mystery set in 1990s Australia

Quite a few years ago now, I received an Advance Reading Copy of a book by a debut novelist, and absolutely loved it. I was very excited to go along to see the author talk about her second book about 18 months ago and get myself a signed copy. However, like several books, this one has sat on my shelf patiently waiting its turn until now.

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“Cedar Valley” by Holly Throsby is a small town mystery set in a fictional town of the same name. On the day that Benny Miller, a 21 year old university graduate, arrives in Cedar Valley trying to connect with her recently deceased mother, a man is found dead out the front of a shop on the main street after sitting there alone for hours. While the town tries to make sense of what happened, Benny begins to learn more about the people who live there, especially her mother’s best friend Odette, and more about the mysterious life of her own mother.

Throsby is a thoughtful author who gently explores a number of issues peripheral to the main mystery at the heart of the novel. There are three main point of view characters including Cora, the owner of the curios shop outside which the man was found dead, Tony, the police officer investigating the case, and Benny. Cora and Tony both have a fair bit on their plate, including coping with the sudden decline of Tony’s mother who is also Cora’s best friend. I really enjoyed how Throsby subtly but critically portrayed Tony’s home life, and how he was both unlikeable yet relatable. I also really liked Odette and her warmth towards Benny, despite them never having met before. It soon becomes clear that the book is less about the mystery of the man, which the characters soon realise is very similar to the Tamam Shud case, and more about Benny coming to terms all the questions she has about the truth of her mother’s life.

I’m just going to pause the review there, and mention an incredible coincidence that happened while I was reading this book. Throsby is very upfront about the influence of the Tamam Shud case on her book, and late one night while reading the book, I started reading up a bit about the case. I was familiar with it, but I couldn’t remember a lot of the details. One of the first things that comes up when you start researching the case is the origin of the phrase tamam shud. It is the last line in a book called “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám”. Now, this book sounded extra familiar to me because just that weekend, I had ordered a care package curated by Beyond Q Books, which completely coincidentally included a copy of “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám”.

There is a lot of speculation, but some people believe that the particular edition of the book the line tamam shud was torn from may hold the answer to a mysterious code that was found inscribed in the back of the same book, which has since been lost. One of the most well-known researchers of the case advised that he had been searching for a FitzGerald edition of the book with no success. My heart was pounding now, and I jumped out of bed to check inside the title page of my book. “Rendered into English Verse by Edward FitzGerald”. No. Way. I flipped to the last page and quickly googled a photograph of the original torn out phrase: not a match. It was a different font. Feeling both disappointed and relieved, I was finally able to go to sleep.

Anyway, back to the book. I think it’s fair to say that I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I enjoyed Throsby’s first novel. In “Goodwood”, I was very invested in Jean as a main character and despite all the leads and speculation throughout the novel, the ending was incredibly satisfying. In this book however, it was the peripheral characters I was more interested in. Benny felt like more of a lens than a leading character, and I didn’t really feel particularly invested in her. I found myself wanting to know much more about Odette, and how her own interesting life had unfolded. I think I was also hoping that with no resolution about the Tamam Shud case, that Throsby would allow the reader a bit of closure in this book, but alas it was not to be.

A meditative novel that carefully examines the relationships that form between residents of small towns, and leaves you perhaps with more questions than answers.

Image of Castor the Sloth, looking through a telescope. #StartOnYourShelfathon The Quiet Pond.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Mystery/Thriller, Signed Books

Black Beauty

Classic novel about horses and animal welfare

Content warning: animal cruelty

Recently, I was thrilled to be involved in reading an extract from a book for Read Tasmania’s Lockdown Reading Group. Enjoying the experience so much, I was inspired to do a reading on the Tinted Edges Facebook page. I chose this book because it is a very beloved favourite, but also because it is relatively short, out of copyright, and I really wanted to enjoy this edition which came as part of a collection of children’s classics. This one has powder blue tinted edges, and is just lovely. If you want to watch all the readings, you can check them out here.

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“Black Beauty” by Anna Sewell is a novel about a young black colt who grows up free and happy with his mother on a farm in rural England. A good-natured horse, he is very gently broken in and then sold to a Squire’s estate called Birtwick Park. There, Beauty befriends some other horses, and begins to learn a little about the wider world. As the book progresses, circumstances outside his control mean that Beauty is sold, and sold again. Although brought up with kindness, Beauty experiences all sides of humanity and through his eyes the reader learns the true impact of our actions on horses.

When I was young, I had three favourite books: “White Fang“, “Watership Down” and this one. Sometimes when you grow up, you find that your favourite books haven’t necessarily withstood the passage of time. However, this one is as relevant as ever and it was an absolute delight to revisit. In fact, considering this was Sewell’s only published novel, it is incredible how good it is and how well it has held up today. It was also the first English novel to be told from an animal’s perspective, and has been though to have inspired the genre of pony fiction.

Rereading it as an adult, I can see how this is really an extended fable, designed to teach the readers about the folly and cruelty of the many different ways in which horses were (and, to be honest, often still are) treated. Sewell expertly connects these moral lessons with Black Beauty’s own story, sometimes having him experience them first hand and sometimes having him witness them or hear about them from his friends. Seeing the way horses are treated with whips, spurs, violence and equipment such as bearing reins is absolutely heartrending, and it is little wonder that this book had such a strong social impact.

This is a very emotional story, and it was amazing how much the characters such as Merrylegs, Ginger and Jerry had stayed with me over the years and how much you connect with them while reading. I had forgotten how much action was in this book, and how Sewell keeps the reader on their toes with dramatic near misses as well as tragedies. Another thing I realised reading this as an adult was that I think Sewell perhaps wrote herself into the story as a benevolent lady who intervenes on Beauty’s behalf towards the end of the story, which I thoroughly support.

I enjoyed rereading this book immensely, and if you haven’t read it yet, you won’t be disappointed.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Children's Books, Classics, Pretty Books, Tinted Edges

A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Wide Window

Children’s book series about three hapless orphans

After a very long time between reading book 1 and book 2 of this series, I thought I might not wait so long for the third. Plus, I’m really enjoying the Netflix adaptation (especially Patrick Warburton and Neil Patrick Harris), and I have to read the books before I watch each episode. I picked this book up recently, and in the bookplate inside it adorably has the name of the owner written, in pink cursive, as “Everyone”. I also really love these hardback editions with the deckle edges.

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“The Wide Window” by Lemony Snicket is the third book of 13 in the “A Series of Unfortunate Events” collection. After the disaster that befell their previous guardian, the Baudelaire children Violet, Kraus and Sunny find themselves placed with a new guardian: Aunt Josephine. Nice enough, she lives in a precarious house atop a cliff looking over an ominous lake. However, the children soon discover that Aunt Josephine is wracked with fear and unable to do the most simple tasks such as answer a telephone for fear that she’ll be electrocuted. When Aunt Josephine befriends a suspicious looking boat captain, the children’s efforts to warn her go, unfortunately, unheeded.

The tone of this book is decidedly more grim than the previous one, and the children barely have the opportunity to get to know their new guardian before things go horribly wrong. I think I’m warming up to the series quite a lot, and I’m enjoying that the orphans are starting to waste a little less time reasoning with the litany of unreasonable adults they are faced with and are taking things into their own hands.

However, I feel that by book 3, there should probably be a slightly stronger overarching plot linking the books together. I feel that the TV adaptation has filled this gap and has provided a lot more hints and snippets of things that, as yet, remain undiscovered in the book.

Image of Castor the Sloth, looking through a telescope. #StartOnYourShelfathon The Quiet Pond.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Children's Books, Tinted Edges

Normal People

Irish novel about love, communication and trying to fit in

Content warning: mental health, domestic violence

Now that I have discovered that, for me, less is more when it comes to audiobooks, I was intrigued to see this one offered for free on Audible last month. I’d heard about it, and one of the cover designs is quite memorable with the people inside the anchovy tin, but I didn’t know much about it. It was a quite achievable 7.5 hours long, and, regrettably, was the last book I started before the gyms closed.

Normal People cover art

“Normal People” by Sally Rooney and narrated by Aoife McMahon is a novel about two teenagers, Marianne and Connell, who go to the same school in a small Irish town. Connell, though quiet, is popular at school while Marianne has no friends. Connell’s mother cleans Marianne’s mother, and although he and Marianne have never spoken at school, they begin to chat when he comes over to collect his mother after work. When they find themselves drawn together, they agree to keep things secret from everyone else at school. However, despite the magnetism between them, the secrecy makes their relationship uncertain. When they later cross paths at university, they click and become friends again, but changes in social standing and shortcomings in communication undermine the security they long to find in each other.

This was an absolutely stunning novel. I was absolutely hooked on every sentence. When the gyms had to close, I was desperate to find something active to do so I could keep listening and I ended up tackling the wilderness that had become our lawns. I found myself laughing aloud and my jaw actually dropping more times than I could count while listening to this book. Rooney has an absolute gift for exploring the tension, vulnerability and misunderstanding that can occur between two people. For a book that is ostensibly just about two people, there was not a dull moment. McMahon was a fantastic narrator and captured the tone of each character perfectly.

By getting to know each other more and more deeply over the years, Connell and Marianne slowly reveal their own secret struggles with mental illness and domestic violence to each other and become each other’s biggest support. However, Rooney is unmerciful in exploring how as humans we can fail one another, and how sometimes the only way to make amends is to grow as a person and succeed the next time. Rooney also provides some interesting commentary on class. She examines how class differences can complicate relationships, asking whether those complications are not insurmountable, and noting that wealth doesn’t guarantee happiness protect against abuse.

This book was just fantastic. I’ve already been recommending it to friends. Even more exciting, just weeks after I read it, I found out that a TV adaptation is coming out that started YESTERDAY. If you want to read something really good, this is really good.

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Filed under Audiobooks, Book Reviews, General Fiction

The Brave

Family drama about love, loss and courage

Content warning: domestic violence, bullying, war, mental health 

“The Horse Whisperer” was, I think, the first book I read as a kid that was specifically geared for adults. I quite innocently read it because I was extremely into horses and thought it had something to do with this guy Monty Roberts, an actual horse whisperer, who I had read about. Although the book starts out with a girl not too much older than I was and her problems following a horse-riding accident, it quickly turned into another kind of story. While it hadn’t been the kind of book I was expecting, I enjoyed it a lot and even went to go see the Robert Redford and young Scarlet Johansson film adaptation with my best friend (also horse-mad). His debut novel, the author wrote two more that I really enjoyed and then a fourth that I wasn’t so crash hot on. I actually hadn’t even realised he had written a fifth until I came across it at the Lifeline Book Fair. This is another book that has gathered dust on my shelf for a long time, and during these times of isolation, I’m trying to do something about my ridiculous to-read piles. Yes, that plural is correct.

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“The Brave” by Nicholas Evans is a novel about an eight year old boy called Tommy whose parents send him to boarding school. A sensitive kid who still struggles with wetting the bed, Tommy is passionate about playing cowboys and Indians and watching his heroes in Westerns on TV. However, at the boarding school, he soon finds himself the target of merciless bullying and the few allies he makes are tenuous at best. After writing to his sister Diane about the horrible experience, the truth is revealed to Tommy about his identity, and soon he finds himself moving to Hollywood and meeting the actors who are his idols. Nearly fifty years later, Tom is a writer living in the USA struggling not to compare himself to his more successful peers. When his son, estranged after deciding to enlist in the armed forces, is charged with murder during an overseas deployment, Tom must try to repair their broken relationship by facing what happened in Hollywood.

Evans is an incredibly readable writer and with smooth prose that is engaging without being too challenging. He tackles a lot of different issues in this book including bullying, domestic violence, identity, war, state-sanctioned violence, mental health and family. I thought that the scenes early in the book where young Tommy is experiencing the brutality of British boarding school were particularly effective and reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s autobiographical book “Boy“. Although Evans is an English writer, the way he writes about America is always very compelling. This is true of this book especially, which at heart is about a man who comes to the USA as a young boy and makes it his home.

Although a relatively easy read, this isn’t my favourite of Evans’ books. Evans usually constructs his novels around an interesting job: horse whisperer, firefighter, even wolf biologist. He also has a keen interest in the physical environment and natural beauty of the USA. While I get that this book is comparing the fantasy of Western film and TV with the reality of Hollywood, particularly the dark underbelly of the entertainment industry, I just didn’t find the book as effective as his previous efforts. The twists I felt you could sense a mile away. The parallels between Tom’s experiences and his son’s experiences didn’t feel as strong as they could have been. Finally, the ending felt just a little too tidy.

An easy read that addresses some important social issues, but ultimately not as hard-hitting as some of his other novels.

Image of Castor the Sloth, looking through a telescope. #StartOnYourShelfathon The Quiet Pond.

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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction, Historical Fiction

Always Another Country

Memoir about belonging and growing up in exile

Quite some time ago, I was running late to an author event. It was being held at the Australian National University, but in a theatre that was quite far away from the entry to the campus. I’d raced over after work and tried to sneak quietly into the back to find…an empty theatre. I was a day early. Anyway, I returned the following evening and saw the author give an incredibly articulate and compelling talk about her life growing up in exile. Afterwards, I bought a copy of the book and had it signed, but it wasn’t until now that I managed to pick it up to read it.

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I found this old Virgin Australia ticket and couldn’t help myself

“Always Another Country” by Sisonke Msimang is a memoir about growing up outside your own homeland. The daughter of South African freedom fighters, Sisonke is born in Zambia and spends years there with her two sisters before the family moves to first to Kenya, then Canada. After a brief visit to South Africa after Nelson Mandela is freed and the end of Apartheid begins, Sisonke moves to the USA to start university. There, she makes new connections, develops her political views and falls in love – three things that have a profound effect on her life. When she returns to South Africa emotionally fragile, she reconnects with her family and begins to develop her career. However, this is the first time Sisonke has really called South Africa her home and she is faced not only with the nation’s Apartheid hangover, but with the gulf between the idealised vision for South Africa and the reality playing out.

This is an important book that provides a unique perspective on South Africa’s political transition. The child of freedom fighters but growing up outside South Africa, Msimang has the perfect balance of lived experience and objectivity to provide what reads like a very unbiased social commentary. I felt that I learned a lot about South Africa from this book, in particular the hard work that went in to dismantling Apartheid – often work that was happening outside the country’s own borders. In between reflections on how South Africa’s political situation impacted her and her family, Msimang also provides insights into how living as a third culture kid provided her with particular strengths and vulnerabilities that she had to grapple with as an adult.

I’ve mentioned a few times on this blog that memoir is a genre that I have difficulty with with. While I continue to believe that this genre is critical to ensuring that more diverse voices and stories are heard, ultimately memoir is the curated highlights (and lowlights) of a person’s life, arranged to highlight a particular issue or point of view. In this book, I felt that Msimang went into great detail about some things such as her relationship with Jason, her experiences in Canada and her friendships in the USA, but skated over some of the parts that I was much more interested in: visiting South Africa for the first time, her ongoing relationship with her South African relatives that she only met in her late teens and the day to day of living in the country post-Apartheid. While Msimang provided glimmers of these parts, I felt that these were the strongest parts of the book and really exemplified Msimang’s struggle with reconciling her birthright as a South African with her own developing values.

A necessary memoir that explores South African identity, citizenship and nationhood that I wished had a little more South Africa in it.

Image of Castor the Sloth, looking through a telescope. #StartOnYourShelfathon The Quiet Pond.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Non Fiction, Uncategorized