Richard Derus's Reviews > The Conference of the Birds

The Conference of the Birds by Peter Sís
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Jun 28, 2012

really liked it
Read in June, 2012

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: In The Conference of the Birds Caldecott Honor-winning children's book author and illustrator Peter Sís breathes new life into this foundational Sufi poem, revealing its profound lessons.
Sís's deeply felt adaptation tells the story of an epic flight of birds in search of the true king, Simorgh. Drawn from all species, the band of birds is led by the hoopoe. He promises that the voyage to the mountain of Kaf, where Simorgh lives, will be perilous and many birds resist, afraid of what they might encounter. Others perish during the passage through the seven valleys: quest, love, understanding, friendship, unity, amazement, and death.

Those that continue reach the mountain to learn that Simorgh the king is, in fact, each of them and all of them. In this lyrical and richly illustrated story of love, faith, and the meaning of it all, Peter Sís shows the pain, and beauty, of the human journey.

My Review: Oh heavy, heavy sigh. I have read a picture book and I have liked it. The floodgates are now open, I fear. I hasten to point out to the picture-book crowd that this is in no way a graphic novel! It is a poem adapted to picture-based storytelling.

The first question most Americans have is, “Whatinahell's a hoopoe?!”

This is a hoopoe.

It was a symbol of virtue in Persia, and its crown of feathers and coloration make it a natural choice for the role of leader-bird. In fact, the hoopoe is also the king of the birds in Aristophanes' play The Birds, to which antique model this poem bears a glancing resemblance. I don't know of any scholarly opinion or research on this observation, but the survival of so much Greek literature in the Islamic east makes me wonder if perhaps Attar, the Sufi poet who created The Parliament of the Birds as a didactic tool for the introduction of his readers to the central tenets of Sufism (the seven valleys the birds fly through are the seven ways man has of knowing god), had encountered and was influenced by Aristophanes' work.

So what are the valleys? What is Sufism? I'll give you the logline on Sufism: Mystical Islam. The valleys, in Sis's work, are:
♪ Quest
♪ Love
♪ Understanding
♪ Detachment
♪ Unity
♪ Amazement
♪ Death


Now I'll level with you here: I totally don't get the Sis versions of the valleys, and what they're supposed to represent in the quest for the True King of the Birds, Simorgh. Not even a little bit. But I've read enough quest-based literature (pretty much all sci fi and definitely all fantasy, and all mystery, fiction is rooted in the quest branch of literature) to get where I'm supposed to go. The Birds meet and decide to seek out a King whose wisdom is guaranted to answer all their questions and thus provide for all their needs. This leads all the numberless birds off to the mountain Kaf, in China (sort of), where Simorgh lives. Through the many many miles of travel, most of the birds die and, in the end, the hoopoe their leader-bird gets them to Kaf, only to discover that the mountain has only a lake, which the thirty birds remaining fly over, and see themselves in its perfect and still waters...

And there it is. “Thirty Birds” in Attar's native language is “si morgh”...SIMORGH! The king of the birds is...the birds themselves!

Why on earth would I, an agnostic and an old curmudgeon, like such a simplistic “the answer was in you all along” tale? Because it's true, and it's always been true, that looking within for guidance and sustenance and a moral compass is the surest way to make the journey to wisdom short and sweet. It's also been taught to us that we must rely on an external god for revelations and meaningful guidance, and Sufism says that god put all that inside us for us to find, so I find this story a useful corrective to the error and misdirection foisted on people by their religions.

Plus the artwork. Are you a person who, on seeing a maze, MUST solve it before moving on with your day? If you are, this book will please you. There are mazes and mazes and mazes. It's a blast. The meditative beauty of some of the images gave me lovely moments of contemplative trance, and at other times made me feel as though I too was flying, and always left me with the softly stroked sensation of having one's hands and face washed by a gentle, loving hand using soothing scented water.

The paper that The Penguin Press' production people chose for the book is weird, in that it's very strongly textured. This flies in the face of established custom, which dictates the use of very smoothly coated heavy paper for illustrated books. That, the received opinion has it, allows the artwork being printed to speak for itself. Sis's artwork in this book, being watercolory and soft-edged in its execution, would look weak and bland on conventional wisdom's paper, whereas on this strongly textured paper, where the whole sheet has visible large and small geometric structure, the contrast of the artwork's lovely swirls and soft curves and unplanned-looking dissolves from one color to another is made a part of the message.

It is a beautiful object, this book. It is a beautiful and simple message, and one I am already in sympathy with, too: Look. Look inside. Let the wind blow through the empty places...they are there for a reason. And, no matter how many say they will come with you, only a few will ever finish the journey. Treasure them, and the path that led you all to the calm, still lake where your reflection is sharp and clear and starkly beautifully you.

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Comments (showing 1-50 of 67) (67 new)


message 1: by Whitaker (last edited Jun 28, 2012 02:21AM) (new)

Whitaker Wow, beautiful, review.

I am, nevertheless, reminded of that Russian fairy tale, the Bird Bird of Happiness, where the two kids go in search of the Blue Bird and after much journeying find it, where else? but home. I also remember Liz Taylor as Light in the movie version, although I recall she was more heavy than Light.


message 3: by Mike (new)

Mike Puma Very nice, Richard.


message 4: by s.penkevich (new)

s.penkevich Grand golden review Richard.


message 5: by [deleted user] (new)

yeah, what s. pen said! I can't top it.


Richard Derus Whitaker wrote: "Wow, beautiful, review.

I am, nevertheless, reminded of that Russian fairy tale, the Bird Bird of Happiness, where the two kids go in search of the Blue Bird and after much journeying find it, wh..."


Thank you, Whitaker! I don't imagine this particular quest story is unknown in any corner of the world. Questing seems to be a universal human thang.


Richard Derus Melki wrote: "http://boingboing.net/2012/06/13/go-t..."

Evil. Evil. EVIL.


Richard Derus Mike wrote: "Very nice, Richard."

Thank you, Mike!


Richard Derus s.penkevich wrote: "Grand golden review Richard."

Oh, thanks Sven! Lovely compliment.


Richard Derus Sam wrote: "There are Hoopoes living in a tree outside my bedroom. Noisy buggers."

Are they? To the best of my knowledge, I've never interacted with one. Purty, though.


Richard Derus Steve wrote: "yeah, what s. pen said! I can't top it."

Yes, SVEN is a silver tongued devil. HE goes to great lengths to say nice things to me.


message 12: by s.penkevich (last edited Jun 28, 2012 06:56AM) (new)

s.penkevich I simply give credit where credit is due. Thank you for your compliments in turn as well!


Richard Derus s.penkevich wrote: "I simply give credit where credit is due. Thank you for your compliments in turn as well!"

Praise for work well done.


message 14: by s.penkevich (last edited Jun 28, 2012 07:14AM) (new)

s.penkevich is work well done well praised work
or
is well praised work work well done
or
is well work well praised still well work
I have no idea what any of that means, but it was fun to type


message 15: by s.penkevich (new)

s.penkevich In your case well done work is work well deserving of well done praise... or something..
okay, I need to stop immitating David Markson. The mans got a grip on me brain


Richard Derus And he appears to be stroking faster and faster. Ease up these, sparky!

;->


message 17: by s.penkevich (last edited Jun 28, 2012 07:48AM) (new)

s.penkevich Hah! My head is going to burst.
Dammit Pynchon, now I can't help but make everything a double entendre sex joke


Richard Derus It will pass. Like a kidney stone.


Richard Derus OIC

Another pretty bird, but not as dramatic as the Eurasian one. I am probably the only person you will ever meet who likes crows, cawing and all, and admits it out loud.


message 20: by Traveller (new)

Traveller Nice, refreshing review, Richard! I love the variety in your reading menu!


Richard Derus Traveller wrote: "Nice, refreshing review, Richard! I love the variety in your reading menu!"

Thank you, T! I'm a big fan of grazing widely, in food and books and booze anyway.


message 22: by Traveller (new)

Traveller Hey, wait, i thought as far as drinks go, coffee is your big favorite? ;)


Richard Derus Coffee isn't a drink, you silly! It's a food group!


Richard Derus Kat wrote: "Absolutely adored this review! Thank you for bringing this book to my attention."

Wow, thanks Kat! I really enjoyed the book, so I hope you'll get it soon and enjoy it too.


message 25: by Jeffrey (new)

Jeffrey Keeten I googled the Hoopoe bird and what an amazingly beautiful, majestic bird. Makes my short list for reincarnation, somewhere below a Sultan. I'm sure you are tired of all the praises that have been sung to you about how polished and crafted this review is so I will desist.


Richard Derus Jeffrey wrote: "I googled the Hoopoe bird and what an amazingly beautiful, majestic bird. Makes my short list for reincarnation, somewhere below a Sultan. I'm sure you are tired of all the praises that have been..."

Oh yes, bone weary, uh huh, after all I don't write the reviews hoping people will read them and enjoy them and, oh I don't know, maybe say something pleasant. Nay nay nay! I merely write because I *must*!

MAKE WITH THE NICE-NICE ALREADY!


Richard Derus Sam wrote: "Richard wrote: "Jeffrey wrote: "I googled the Hoopoe bird and what an amazingly beautiful, majestic bird. Makes my short list for reincarnation, somewhere below a Sultan. I'm sure you are tired o..."

There! See? Was that so hard? Thank you, Sam, it's *lovely* to hear my little scribblings have given you some pleasure today.


message 28: by Jeffrey (new)

Jeffrey Keeten Richard wrote: "Sam wrote: "Richard wrote: "Jeffrey wrote: "I googled the Hoopoe bird and what an amazingly beautiful, majestic bird. Makes my short list for reincarnation, somewhere below a Sultan. I'm sure you..."

I was under the mistaken impression that you moved about the world serenaded by a Greek chorus.

But I will say that I became light headed reading your fine prose. My secretary, bless her heart, came in and fanned me back to life so that I could read just a bit more before I was overcome again. I had trouble breathing the rarefied air in which this review must have been written.

Doctor Who in the far, far future will read this review and promptly take the Tardis to a time when he too can gaze upon the magnificent Koopoe and shake the hand of Lord Richard Derus (yes the Queen does give you a knighthood or so the lore goes).


Richard Derus LOL

Gold star for the Doctor Who reference, and points for female subjugation.

A fine, fine effort!


message 30: by Hend (new)

Hend loved your review Richard...
very touching....Beautiful and inspiring ....
Isn't sufism amazing..?


Richard Derus Sufism never fails to astonish me. I'm very glad you liked the review!


message 32: by Hend (new)

Hend i will go finish the book,i haven't completed it ....
yeah i liked the review,and this part about flying,if only ,this state lasts more longer!


Richard Derus I agree. Even in fantasy, the dream of flying without machine assistance is lovely.


message 34: by Ian (new)

Ian "Marvin" Graye You do some amazing grazing, Richard.


Richard Derus Ian wrote: "You do some amazing grazing, Richard."

Thanks (?) Ian! I hate to be fenced in. I'll try anything once, and twice if I like it, but to be bounded by expectations of what's good or what's interesting instead of going out and seeing for myself is not on.


message 36: by Traveller (last edited Jun 29, 2012 06:56AM) (new)

Traveller Jeffrey wrote: "But I will say that I became light headed reading your fine prose. My secretary, bless her heart, came in and fanned me back to life so that I could read just a bit more before I was overcome again. I had trouble breathing the rarefied air in which this review must have been written.

Doctor Who in the far, far future will read this review and promptly take the Tardis to a time when he too can gaze upon the magnificent Koopoe and shake the hand of Lord Richard Derus (yes the Queen does give you a knighthood or so the lore goes). "


My heavens.. GR commentors are taking commenting to a new, heady level these days...!!! @o@


Richard Derus Indeed they are, T, but I'm elozable.


message 38: by Shovelmonkey1 (new)

Shovelmonkey1 I like the sound of this. I used to live not very far from one of the principal centres of Sufism (Konya in Turkey). The mevlana

http://www.konyahavaalanitaksi.com/?p...

is a beautiful building and I like the literature which has been generated about sufi beliefs. It's all very beautiful.


Richard Derus This book will not fail to meet your expectations, then!


message 40: by Ian (new)

Ian "Marvin" Graye Richard wrote: "Indeed they are, T, but I'm elozable."

Thanks for drawing this word to my attention, Richard. Why is it so rare, when the characteristic it describes is so commonplace?


Richard Derus Truly dunno 'bout that, Ian.


message 42: by Arah-Lynda (new)

Arah-Lynda Your lovely little scribblings brought sunshine to my Sunday morning. Fabulous!


Richard Derus Arah-Lynda wrote: "Your lovely little scribblings brought sunshine to my Sunday morning. Fabulous!"

How wonderful, Arah-Lynda! I'm so pleased.


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