Now reading: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

I have a little break in my “required reading,” so I picked something that’s been on my TBR for quite awhile, The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. I’d heard good things about this book from many sources, and as of this morning, I’m a little past 1/3 of the way through. The subject of the novel is humanity’s first contact with an alien civilization, and the story begins with the reader learning that Father Emilio Sardoz, a Jesuit Priest, is the only surviving member of the expedition and has returned to Earth. We also know “something is horribly wrong with his hands,” although I still don’t know exactly what happened to them as – of chapter 17 anyway.

The book is somewhat difficult to follow as it hops back and forth between the years 2060 (when Sardoz has returned home) and 2019, when the discovery is first made and the decision to organize a mission to the newly discovered ETs is made (a transmission is detected from the neighborhood of Alpha Centauri – the closest star system to Earth! – and the content of it is a kind of “singing,” I immediately thought of it as may e a siren song…). In the chapters of the book that take place in 2019, we meet and learn about the other members of the mission crew. Somehow, in this future, the Jesuits are “allowed” to undertake this mission. Maybe it’s because it’s privately funded they can do this, but it seems to me a bit unrealistic to think that “the government” in 2019 wouldn’t totally take over any such project…

Oh well, the subject matter is interesting and the characters are intriguing and I’m enjoying it so far. I would hope to be done in a few days and report back to you then.

(below: Mary Doria Russell)


“This is Probably Worthless…”

The title of this post is an exact transcription of what a college professor of mine wrote next to one of the books on the “bibliography” page of a term paper I wrote. The maligned book in question was “Ridpath’s History of the World” by John Clarke Ridpath. Doubtlessly, my professor – who had a very well-formed and well-considered view of what the scholarly sources for classical history were – had never heard of this title. So, how did I, a humble student, come to find a copy of it? Well, that’s a long story, but maybe not too long for a quick blog post…

I’ve written before that I was fortunate to have grown up in a house and family where reading was encouraged and highly valued. We lived in a small, two bedroom house where, when my younger brother arrived, a smaller “den” was also converted into a bedroom. In spite of the small space there, would you believe this house also had a library? Well, it didn’t always have a library. Until the summer after my fourth grade school year, my older brother and I were roommates in the house’s second bedroom. That summer, my dad converted the north end of our basement into two small furnished rooms for my older brother and me. Did this mean that my little brother was promoted to the second bedroom upstairs? Of course not; that room became “The Library, with bookshelves along all four walls and two reclining chairs. (one of these chairs is still in use at my house today, though it’s probably on its last legs now – not quite as bad as Martin Frazier’s chair on tv – no duct tape is involved yet! – but getting close) Where all these books were stored in that small house before this? I couldn’t begin to remember or even guess…

Anyway, on the bottom shelf on the north wall sat the slowly disintegrating nine-volume set of “Ridpath’s History of the World.” And I’m not kidding when I say disintegrating. they were close to sixty years old already, with pages yellowed and the binding somewhat crispy and fragile, and tiny pieces flaking off at the merest touch. One could even say they were well on their way to the condition that the books languishing under the custodianship of the Eloi in the movie, The Time Machine, were in…

How did my family come to possess these volumes? Well, another momentous event of my very young life was when our neighbors down the street had a garage sale before they moved. The loot acquired by us from this event was considerable and varied, including a croquet set with a missing ball and mallet, golf clubs for dad – who I don’t remember ever playing golf – and various other knick knacks. The prize for me – and maybe it was purchased at least partly with me in mind, given my predilection for ancient history – was this set of books.

They must have really been something to look at when they were new. They were illustrated, with meticulous indices of “plates” (which was a new word to me at the time) and intricate drawings, one of which that I particularly remember was that of “the races of the world” or some such impossibly specific (as modern scholars would acknowledge today) categorization. I remember taking volume two (dealing primarily with Greece and Rome) to college with me since I was a history major/classics minor. I can’t specifically remember my reaction to my professor’s summary dismissal of this volume in my bibliography, but I’m sure my feelings must’ve been hurt by this.

I was reminded of these books recently since, in the aftermath of our ice storm this week here in Central Indiana, the library (still enduring at my mom’s house) suffered some minor water damage when an ice dam had formed on the roof/eaves allowing melting snow and ice to accumulate and pool, seeping into the roof and leaking into the house. I am going to have to see if I can locate these books and revisit them once more. Do I still have one at my place? I might. The others may have already been stored away with some older books in mom’s garage that were intended to be given away. I’m also curious what paper it was that elicited this “slander” upon Mr. Ridpath’s work. I shall go on a quest and let you know…

Oh well, just some random thought this Sunday morning. “Thanks for listening.” 🙂


Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami

The author Haruki Murakami was recommended to me by fellow blogger, Bellezza. I’d heard of Murakami before but not read anything by him until today. This morning, for my 2011 “deal me in” short story reading project, I drew the King of Diamonds (what’s with all these diamonds? I will have a flush soon!), and that card is marked for the story Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (see my page titled “deal me in selections” for a complete list of potential reads this year). Of course, I didn’t already own this one, and it is too recent to be had for free anywhere on the Internet (at least anywhere I could find), so I downloaded a collection of his stories from my Barnes & Noble account.

The collection also includes an author’s introduction, which I found very interesting. It seems he likes to alternate between working on novels and short stories, but cannot work on both at the same time, hypothesizing that a different part of the brain must be in use for each. He also includes the wonderful paragraph:

“My short stories are like soft shadows I’ve set out in the world, faint footprints I’ve left behind. I remember exactly when I set down each and everyone of them, and how I felt when I did.”

This particular story takes its name from a dream/ story that the girlfriend of the narrator’s friend told them about when they had come to visit her in a hospital after a minor operation. It’s hard to say what this story is actually about (maybe it’s about “nothing” – like that famous sitcom). What it may be about, though, is that fragile escape into memories that we all are sometimes able to effect. In this story, the narrator’s task at hand is accompanying his young cousin to an appointment at a hospital to have his hearing in one ear checked yet again. As he waits for the appointment to be over, the narrator lapses back into memory of the other hospital visit years ago.

Though reading in translation, it seems pretty clear to me at Murakami writes beautifully. Speaking of his reminiscences as “returning to the realm of memory,” and – late in the story – when his cousin grabs him by the arm, asking “Are you alright?” when it appears the narrator is “lost in thought” he (the narrator) muses immediately after being ‘brought back to reality’ that “for a few seconds I stood there in a strange, dim place. Where the things I could see didn’t exist. Where the invisible did.” I found that to be one of my favorite passages I’ve read in ANYTHING lately.

This story left me with more of a “feeling” than a “literary take” or impression, and I can’t remember anything else I’ve read recently that I can say that about.

Haruki Murakami

What about you? Have you read any Murakami? What were your impressions?


Xenophon’s Anabasis (aka The Persian Expedition)

(This post is part of The Classics Circuit’s “Classic Greek” tour)

(Xenophon of Athens)

The Greeks and the Persians… They go waaaay back. Early in the fifth century B.C., after a revolt of the Greeks of Ionia (roughly the west coast of present day Turkey) against the Persian Achaemenid empire, the Persian king Darius (the Great) decided to punish the Greeks to prevent future rebellions, and embarked on a scheme of invasion – until he was soundly defeated at the famous battle of Marathon. Later, the equally bellicose son of Darius, named Xerxes, gave it another try, but he in turn was defeated in another famous battle – Thermopylae. Now, “everyone” knows of these two Persian encounters, but lesser known is the tale of Xenophon in “Anabasis.”

One of Merriam Webster’s definitions of the word, Anabasis, is “a difficult and dangerous military retreat,” and that is exactly what faced the author Xenophon and the army of 10,000 Greek mercenaries of which he was a part. Around 400 B.C., after the death of the then Persian ruler, Darius, a struggle for the Persian throne took place. Darius had two sons, Artaxerxes and Cyrus, the latter of which ruled over Asia Minor and had supported Sparta towards the end of the Peloponnesian War. This connection allowed him to assemble an army of Greek mercenaries, ostensibly hired to put down a rebellion, but in reality Cyrus decided to use them to try to wrest control of the empire from Artaxerxes. The mercenaries, led by the general Clearchus (a Spartan – and for a good reference list of the characters in this book, see the following website were somewhat dismayed to find themselves marching against the Persian King instead of some rebellious rabble, eventually decide to continue on in service of the charismatic leader, Cyrus (of course, I’m sure promises of increased pay did not hurt their making this decision).

They meet the forces of Artaxerxes, under command of his treacherous general, Tissaphernes, in the battle of Cuxana. Though greatly outnumbered, the Greek hoplites are much superior to their Persian counterparts and are effectively carrying the day in the battle, but a javelin ends the life of Cyrus himself, thus rendering the “victory” to the King’s army. Now the Greeks were in a pickle. Deep in the heart of Persia, they were surrounded” by a hostile army of the now undisputed king, who was telling them to lay down their arms. What follows deliberations amongst Clearchus and the other generals, trying to decide if they should put their fate in the hands of Tissaphernes by laying down their arms or try to march home. They decide on the latter and, after further negotiations with Tissarphenes, seem to have reached a nervous truce and agreement to march north to the sea, not making war along the way but taking only whatever provisions they might need, etc.

Treachery ensues, however, when Tissarphenes, after inviting the Greek generals to a banquet, seizes and murders them. (I should mention that Xenophon often digresses into a biographical sketch of characters who die in this narrative, the longest of which being that following Cyrus’s death at Cuxana, but also paying the same tribute to the slain Greek generals) Faced with this new crisis, the Greek army holds council amounts itself and elects new generals, of which Xenophon is one of “the lucky ones.” Now knowing they cannot trust the Persians, they resolutely and inexorably begin marching north. The cities and settlements they pass through (and sometimes plunder for provisions) give a tantalizing glimpse of what must have been the wealth of the Persian Empire. Harried and attacked during much of their retreat, they finally arrive at the Black Sea, amid shouts of “Thalatta! Thalatta!” (the sea! the sea!). They rejoice because they are once again in the realm of “Greek” cities. The journey does not end there, however, as they engage in additional mercenary duties along the way “home.”

As mentioned earlier, fewer people know or have read Xenophon when compared with the titans of Greek Historians, Herodotus and Thucydides, but I’d recommend Xenophon as a competent companion to these other greats. It has been inspirational to many across the centuries and must have also intoxicated Alexander the Great whose conquest of Persia roughly 75 years later is also the stuff of legend…

(Below: One of my favorite “classic” works of art – Alexander (he’s on the far left) vs. Darius at the battle of Issus.)

Master and Man – a short story by Leo Tolstoy

For my fifth week of “Project: Deal Me In!” I drew the three of diamonds, which led me to the famous Leo Tolstoy short story, “Master and Man.” And how appropriate that I happened to read it this week, as winter has just dealt much of the country a staggering blow. Here in Central Indiana, our portion of this storm was mostly ice and sleet, making travel hazardous and even convincing me to work from home yesterday. What does this have to do with Master and Man? Well, this story by Tolstoy takes place during a blizzard in Russia (where I’m sure they would laugh at our reactions to this latest storm here in America).

*****Warning: some spoilers follow*****
The “master” and the “man” are – quite naturally – the main characters in the story. The master (Vasili Andreevich Brekhunov) and his servant (Nikita, a local peasant) strike out into the teeth of a strengthening blizzard (with the aid of perhaps the third main character, the I’ll-fated horse Mukhorty) so that Vasili can be the early bird and purchase a tract of land before his competitors know it’s on the market and react themselves. We learn a little of how poorly Vasili treats Nikita (perhaps an alcoholic, but currently “on the wagon”), and we also see, in contrast, how well Nikita tends to and cares for the horse.

Vasili’s single-mindedness in pursuit of monetary gains leaves him not very well-stocked with common sense. His eagerness to arrive at their destination leads him to try an imprudent short cut, and they get lost more than once (whenever anything goes wrong, in his mind it always somehow happens to be anybody’s fault BUT Vasili’s, where the true blame lies). After stopping at a small village not far from their destination, they decline offers to stay the night (well, Vasili declines on their behalf) and they strike out again, this time to get completely lost and stuck in a kind of ditch. Nikita advises there is nothing for them to do but spend the night where they are. Their sledge (carriage) is not big enough for them both to stay “inside” so of course Vasili takes shelter inside while poor Nikita and the Horse do the best they can vs. the elements.

The last few chapters detail what must be a very long night for everyone, and how they each deal with the situation tells a lot about them. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but in the end a familiar Tolstoy theme reigns, and we have kind of a not happy, but not completely sad either, ending on our hands. This story can be read for free online in many places, one of which is the link below.

What do you think of Tolstoy? Have you stuck to his shorter works (as I have us far), or have you read the imposing volumes, War and Peace and Anna Karenina? I did make a small step this year and actually purchased War and Peace, but I haven’t started it yet, even with the temptation of a couple bloggers hosting War and Peace read-alongside at present.


February Reading – The Month Ahead

January was a good reading & blogging month. I discovered a new book that will likely remain among my all time favorites (A Prayer for Owen Meany), I wrote a personal record number of blog posts, I met some new and interesting fellow readers, the number of visitors to Bibliophilopolis increased by roughly fifty percent for the third month in a row, I discovered the Classics Circuit and have thoroughly enjoyed following it. A great month! Now… how can I “top it” in February? I probably can’t…

First of all, what will I be reading/finishing this month? Well, I have two reading obligations, one for my book club – Alex Flinn’s “Beastly”, which I’ve already read, but may read again since it’s short and I’d like to have it fresher in my mind for our meeting at the end of the month. For the KVML book club, we’re reading The Sirens of Titan. I can’t wait for that, as I’ve had it in my hands for awhile now, but the club kept picking other Vonnegut books to read. Then, I have to wrap up my Xenophon reading and write MY classics circuit post for this Friday. I have a couple hours of reading to go on that one. What else? Oh, yeah, the Bobby Fischer book I mentioned the other day in a post will be gobbled up quickly, I’m sure – as a “former(?) nerd chess player” I could probably read that thing in one sitting almost. Then there’s my short story project. I’m already a post behind (Raymond Carver’s, “Are These Actual Miles?”) and am currently reading Tolstoy’s “Master and Man”

That seems like a lot, BUT with the NFL season being over, suddenly I will have these huge, three to six hour chunks of time that I’ll no longer be “wasting” with my eyes glued to a television, so opportunities abound…

Soooo… what are you reading this month? Anything “good?” 🙂


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