Gaiman's recasting of a Japanese fairy tale into an episode from the life of Dream of the Endless is really well-crafted, but Yoshitaka Amano's accomp...moreGaiman's recasting of a Japanese fairy tale into an episode from the life of Dream of the Endless is really well-crafted, but Yoshitaka Amano's accompanying artwork, in so many different media, took my breath away. Gaiman's oeuvre is hit-or-miss for me; this volume is definitely a hit. (less)
Little people‒trolls and gnomes especially‒loom large in my childhood memories. The crazy-haired troll dolls made a comeback in the late 70s, and the...moreLittle people‒trolls and gnomes especially‒loom large in my childhood memories. The crazy-haired troll dolls made a comeback in the late 70s, and the little Smoky Mountain towns my parents liked to visit were haunted by Norwegian troll statues and "Arensbaktrolls" made from logs, nuts, and pine cones. There were also the Smurfs, who made their entrance into my life on a family vacation to Florida, as little blue vinyl figurines with stubby blue tails living in plastic mushrooms for sale at the Stuckey's. And Gnomes was the best-selling guide to these little people that I remember seeing on the bookshelves in nearly every home I visited (mine excepted, of course, the Bible being the only work of fantasy literature appreciated in the household).
Thirty-five years after its publication, I saw it out of the corner of my eye at the public library, was filled with warm fuzzy little people memories, and checked it out as summer reading. Glad I did. What a singular book! It's a wonderfully detailed, naturalistic look at a fictional subject: the biology, sociology, psychology, etc., of gnomes. (As my daughter just noted to me, in this regard, it is much like her contemporary favorite Dragonology and others like it.) It is akin to a naturalist's diary in terms of detail and masterfully rendered in watercolors, for the most part. The only flaw with it is the series of derivative works that almost inevitably followed from this book's much deserved success. (less)
I tend to approach sacred texts as something between "participant observer" and "disinterested revisionist," in the terms outlined by Farid Esack in h...moreI tend to approach sacred texts as something between "participant observer" and "disinterested revisionist," in the terms outlined by Farid Esack in his The Qur'an: A User's Guide, but regardless of the approach it is a real challenge to "review" a sacred text and give it a "rating." Sacred texts aren't read for entertainment or enjoyment, nor are they intended to be. Most sacred texts arose in different social and historical contexts than those of their contemporary readers, and in the absence of those contexts, meaningful reading can be a challenge. Separating what is intended to be allegory from what is meant to be taken literally is always a problem. They are complex enough to speak to different aspects of the human experience in different places and different times, and yet simple enough to remain compelling across the miles and millenniums. And dealing with tricky issues of authorship is an ever-present peril too. For example, how do you tactfully critique the author's writing style when a billion-plus people believe the author in question to be God Almighty? All that said, I am going to do my best to give an accurate account of my impressions when reading the entire Qur'an (in English translation, of course) for the first time.
The translation is really beautiful, drawing as it does on the full richness of the English language (e.g., I had never encountered the word guerdon before), and it also manages to capture something of the rhythm of the original Arabic (to which I have been listening, sporadically and without comprehension, as I read this translation).
The content is pretty straightforward, although the almost postmodern presentation of the content, jumping from channel to channel as it were, can be disorienting to the reader more comfortable with linear narratives. In addition, the text can come across as highly repetitive, driving home time and again the same basic message in often much the same language. And the message of the Qur'an is pretty simple:
There is one and only one God, variously referred to as God, Allah ("The God"), or Ar-Rahman (according to Wikipedia, "The Beneficent, The Most Merciful in Essence, The Compassionate, The Most Gracious"). This one God is said to be one and the same as the God of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.
The one God is merciful and forgiving to those who believe and who ask for mercy and forgiveness, but harsh to those who do not.
The one God wants those who believe in God to be just, merciful, and compassionate in their dealings with others.
There is a Day of Judgment coming, in which those who believed in the one God and acted accordingly get to reside forever in the gardens of Paradise, while those who disbelieved, who got caught up in earthly pleasures, and who mocked Muslims will get to spend time in the fires of Hell. (Translator Ali makes a point early on that this Hell isn't eternal, as in the Christian version, but I am at a loss to see how he came to this conclusion, based on my reading of his translation, where the fires and punishments are described time and again as everlasting.) The Day of Judgment and the threat of hell is so ever-present in the Qur'an that I suspect Christianity derived its own teachings on eternal hellfire, not from the Bible as they believe (where eternal damnation is referred to obliquely), but from the influence of a millennium-plus of Islamic theology on Christianity. The theme of the clear, absolute separation between the believer and the damned which runs through the Qur'an rankles my sensitivities and is one of the more challenging aspects of the text, although I don't see it as any worse than the same mentality expressed in Christian terms.
The one God's existence and the appropriate response to this fact, that of gratitude and submission, can be inferred from many examples of design and intelligence in the natural world. Again and again, the Qur'an repeats that "there is a message in this [particular phenomenon] for those with eyes to see it," indicating that there is an Islamic natural theology and providing the basis for Islam's important contributions to mathematics and natural science.
While Jesus was a powerful, important, and miraculous prophet, he is not, and did not claim to be, the Son of God. God did not beget any children, nor does he have any peers. According to the Qur'an, the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and of the divinity of Christ are errors, misinterpretations of Jesus' real message, which was, of course, the message of submission to the One True God. Interestingly, much of the material in the Qur'an about Jesus and Christianity reveals different Christian traditions than those to which we are accustomed, including apocryphal childhoodmiracles and the idea that the Gospel was a single book.
Likewise, according to the Qur'an, the Jews misunderstood the message of Moses and the other Hebrew prophets, giving it an ethnocentric character rather than recognizing its universality. Based on my meager knowledge of the context of the original recitation of the Qur'an, it appears that many if not most of the most stridently anti-Jewish passages are related to specific challenges posed to the first Muslims by the Jewish community of Yathrib/Medina, and so should not be seen as blanket statements of Islamic antisemitism, although many probably insist on interpreting them as such.
The one God has revealed this simple message before, beginning with the first prophet Adam and continuing through various prophets to various peoples, and the peoples have tended to reject their prophets. The Qur'an repeats again and again that most have rejected the prophets and their message, and asserts that Muhammad and his revelation is being rejected in a similar fashion.
A believer in this revelation should resist oppression, with violence if necessary, but may also practice forbearance as a moral example, being forgiving and merciful. A believer should practice modesty, cleanliness,
There are two different general types of revelations, those proclaimed in Mecca and those proclaimed after the first Muslims undertook their emigration (Al-Hijrah) to Yathrib/Medina in 622 CE. In the former, the revelations seem primarily concerned with convincing the listeners of the authenticity of the Qur'an and of Muhammad's status as prophet, exhorting them to worship Allah without partner, and warning of the Day of Judgment. The suras delivered in Medina are quite different, addressing the concerns of the newly established community and religion, and providing guidance for Muhammad in his new role as leader, as well as prophet.
On the whole, I enjoyed reading the Qur'an more than I imagined I would, in part because of the excellent translation, but the absoluteness and repetitiveness of the message definitely also made it a challenge. Much of the text spoke to me, even though I am not a Muslim (and oftentimes doubt that I am even a theist), and I can easily see how it provides so many with inspiration in a world seemingly given over to everything but God, the Sacred. (I can also see how it would inspire violent responses to perceived aggressions and injustices as well, although I don't think that the Qur'an advocates violence against nonbelievers—other than in via divine punishment in Hell—nearly as much as does the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. I think everyone, liberal or conservative, Christian or atheist, who is interested in and/or concerned about Islam should read this complex and compelling primary sacred text for themselves before they jump to any particular conclusions.(less)
A fascinating insight on Chinese religion and mythology from the authors, that "the main feature of the backdrop to Chinese mythologies [is] the fact...moreA fascinating insight on Chinese religion and mythology from the authors, that "the main feature of the backdrop to Chinese mythologies [is] the fact that all traditions overlap and are used by the people of China as and when it is convenient to do so" (p. 21), is paralleled in one of the many myths about Monkey:
"Now we have defeated these evils beasts you must see there is a Way in the Buddhist teachings also. From now on do not take one religion only, but honour both the Buddhist clergy and the Taoist Way, as well as educating intelligent men following the Confucian fashion. This will make the kingdom secure from evil forever." (p. 187)
Stories and illustrations were good enough, but for me the best part of this book is the insightful and illuminating interview about paganism and witc...moreStories and illustrations were good enough, but for me the best part of this book is the insightful and illuminating interview about paganism and witchcraft with Wiccan High Priestess (and attorney) Phyllis Curott.(less)
After reading two fairly profound, novel-length, "comic book" story arcs, I was expecting to that this collection of short stories would be filler, li...moreAfter reading two fairly profound, novel-length, "comic book" story arcs, I was expecting to that this collection of short stories would be filler, light stuff that Gaiman could crank out while catching his breath, preparing for the next run. Boy, was I wrong.
The first story in this collection, "Three Septembers and a January," brought me to tears as I read it on my lunch break. It tells the story of one Joshua Abraham Norton, the first and only Emperor of the United States, a man whose waking dream saved him from utter despair and whose holy madness inspires many of us to this day. Gaiman does him honor with this story.
"Thermidor" introduces the reader to Orpheus, son of Dream, in a tale about Robespierre's Reign of Terror, the ironic effort to effect the Age of Reason through terror. Heads will roll!
Werewolves. Subtle rendered, hinted at, glimpsed out of the corner of the eye until the very end, but werewolves nonetheless. These People and their history and customs are the focus of the third story, "The Hunt," a tale of the Old Country told by grandfather to granddaughter.
"August" explains much about the life and deeds of the First Citizen of Rome, Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus, by interweaving imperial conquest and childhood sexual abuse. I wonder how this one went down with classicists.
My least favorite story in the collection, "Soft Places," is more hallucinogenic than the others (hence the title). G.K. Chesterton (whom I can identify only thanks to Gene Wolfe's introduction), Marco Polo, Fiddler's Green, and Dream meet in the sands of the Desert of Lop. But of course, it's "really" a dream...
A retelling of the myth of "Orpheus" juxtaposes classical symbolism with contemporary style and imagery, and does a great job at it. Gaiman shows he can write a relatively straightforward story and yet suggest visual imagery which "problematizes" that same narrative.
"Parliament of Rooks" takes a little boy's dream, and uses it to discuss Adam and Eve via the classic DC Comics spooky comic narrators Cain and Abel. The reader learns about the three wives of Adam, from the Midrashic account of the Creation; about how the two brothers got neighboring houses, one of Mystery and the other of Secrets; and about the differences between a murder of crows and a parliament of rooks.
"Ramadan" concludes the volume with a haunting tale of Haroun al-Raschid, the sultan of Baghdad at the height of its prominence and power. Gaiman trenchantly connects the myth, legend, and dream of the Baghdad of Ali Baba and flying carpets with the then-contemporary (and, sadly, now-contemporary) bombed out modern metropolis.