Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Bidpai/Ramsay Wood

Hello. I hope you’re all healthy and safe and hopeful and reading. Today, I’m reviewing a long-lost classic. It’s a bit like “Aesop’s Fables” but it’s better.

Kalila and Dimna, by Bidpai, Retold by Ramsay Wood

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“I was alone; myself at last, as I really am—just an ordinary rat, competent at some things, hopeless at others. Super Rat was dead. I had a type of pity for him, as one does for anything that wastes potential. I saw his pride, his arrogant falsity which gave him grandiose desires—his greed, in short, for that was his supreme disease—greed for more and more of what he did not need. Such ignorance was the price of pain, and he had spent and spent and spent. Now the burden of hankering care soared free; I lay defeated yet content, a winner of my own war on want.”

Kalila and Dimna was a very good read. It’s from ancient Arabic literature (from a genre called adab), and was supposed to act as a manual for rulers about how to rule well. It’s much more entertaining than a manual like Machiavelli’s The Prince, though. This manual teaches its lessons in the form of animal stories (with stories within stories), kind of like “Aesop’s Fables” but better.

The main story is about two jackal brothers named Kalila and Dimna. Dimna wants to gain as much influence as he can over the lion king of their animal kingdom. Kalila wants him not to. Along the way, they tell each other stories, and Dimna comes up with dastardly plots against their king’s most trusted advisor, a bull named Schanzabeh. There’s also another story called “Zirac and Friends” about a mouse named Zirac who befriends a bird, a turtle, and a gazelle. The plot of that story can best be summed up as a lot of fun adventures.

Both stories are very entertaining, especially thanks to the work of the “reteller,” Ramsay Wood. There are also morals in these stories that are applicable to life, but because they’re told so entertainingly, they don’t feel like morals. In fact, it’s hard to even remember that there are morals (unlike Aesop’s “The moral of the story is…”). Apparently the original goal of Kalila and Dimna was to be entertaining enough that anyone could enjoy it for its story alone. Then, if readers wanted to search for more meaning, they could re-read it and find new lessons upon each re-read. So while you may have read “Aesop’s Fables” once in elementary school and then forgot about it, you can read Kalila and Dimna at any age, and then re-read it years later and gain completely new insights from it. In my view, that makes it better than Aesop.

There’s one drawback to Ramsay Wood’s version of this story. There are many more stories that were part of the original K&D that didn’t make it into this book. That’s disappointing. It’s like a cliffhanger. The good news is that the other stories are available in other English-language translations of Kalila and Dimna.

So if there are more complete translations out there, why should you read this one? In my extremely limited experience of reading only two versions of Kalila and Dimna, this version’s funnier. It’s also the only version that my entire library system had available. For those of you who have no experience with Kalila and Dimna, you can think of this version as a “free trial” that may be more readily available to you at your library than other versions you’d have to pay for.

Basically, no matter who you are, you’ll probably get something out of reading (or rereading) Kalila and Dimna, and if you’re looking for a version that’s more likely to be available than not, I’d definitely recommend this version.

If any of you have read other versions of K&D before, I’d love to hear your thoughts about how this version seems to measure up. Is it really the funniest and most-accessible version out there?

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Aitmatov

Hi everyone. If you’re in the US, I hope you are voting or have already voted (safely, of course).

Now, if you’re looking for something to entertain you that’s marvelous and life-affirming and not election-related, you’ve come to the right place.

Jamila, by Chingiz Aitmatov

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“We were crossing the steppe along the soft, beaten road. Daniyar’s voice soared, ever new melodies followed one another with astounding grace. Was he so gifted? What had happened to him? It was as if he had been waiting for this day, for this hour to come! And suddenly I understood his strangeness which made people shrug and smile–his dreaminess, his love of solitude, his silences. I understood why he spent his evenings on the look-out hill and his nights alone on the river bank, why he was constantly listening to sounds inaudible to others, and why his eyes would suddenly sparkle and his usually drawn eyebrows twitch. This was a person who was deeply in love. And I felt that this was not merely love for another person; this was different, it was a tremendous love–of life, of the earth. Yes, he kept this love within himself, in his music–it was his guiding light. An indifferent person could never have sung as he did, no matter how great his voice.”

Here’s another Chingiz Aitmatov story, which some have called the greatest love story ever.

It’s set in Kyrgyzstan and is about a woman (her name’s Jamila) whose husband is away fighting in World War II. She falls in love with a crippled soldier who was sent back from the front to help out in the large USSR-owned farm called the collective.

All of this is told from the perspective of a guy who’s reminiscing about his childhood and what got him interested in painting, so it’s technically two stories in one. That means it’s not really a love story in the traditional sense. It has traditional love, too, but it also has other forms, too (like love of life, family, etc.)

That was refreshing, especially as someone whose main experience with “love stories” was mostly-cheesy YA novels (with some important exceptions) filled with mushy and contrived love-triangles. To me it seems there has to be something aside from two peoples’ attraction to each other for a love story to not seem cheesy. Fortunately, Aitmatov’s story doesn’t seem cheesy. Actually, I was surprised by how real the characters felt. They felt like people I knew, unlike the people in those cheesy YA novels.

Well, I don’t think any of this is really giving you any real sense of what makes this story good. Let me take another crack at it…

I once heard someone say that certain events in real life are less profound than people imagine them to be. Given that reasoning, an understated love story would be more realistic and powerful than an over-stated one with love-hexagons thrown in for good measure. Such a love story would also exist in a world where it’s clear that the love story is just a part of the world, and not the entire world. Such a love story would thus benefit from the fact that realistic and engaging characters don’t have to be flattened out for the sake of contrived and steamy plots. Also, the ultimate meaning of this type of story wouldn’t be limited to just two peoples’ love for each other (like some YA novels where whatever plot that’s introduced gets thrown away for the sake of incessant obsessing about the love-interest). Finally, the ultimate meaning to such a story would resonate with any type of person, regardless of his or her hormonal state. That’s exactly what happens with Aitmatov’s story.

So there you have it. And the best part? You can read the story for free via one of the links on this Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jamila_(novel)

Happy Tuesday! See you next week.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Weir

Hello! I hope you’re all healthy and safe. Today I’m reviewing a book about the Wars of The Roses, a civil war that took place in England during the 1400s.

The Wars of the Roses, by Alison Weir

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“Pembroke, meanwhile, was hastening to join the King with his Welsh reinforcements, having joined up with Devon and his force. But on the evening of the 24th, when they came to Banbury, the two earls quarrelled over who should have the best lodgings at the inn. Pembroke, as the senior commander, insisted that he should occupy them, but Devon, who had arrived first, protested that they had earlier agreed to take lodgings on a first come, first served basis. Pembroke peremptorily ordered Devon out of the rooms, and Devon, put out because he had just seduced the innkeeper’s daughter, marched off in a rage with all his men.” (This quarrel takes place when they’re supposed to be making haste to march to fight against the army of the currently most influential man in England, the earl of Warwick).


This book by Alison Weir isn’t very interesting to read at first because you’re inundated with a bunch of names and dates and explanations of governmental systems. Then you realize that very few of those names are actually super-important for understanding what happened, and then you’re finally able to start making sense of it all. Even so, compared to other books I’ve read about this subject, Weir’s book is much less convoluted.

Another thing that’s worth mentioning: Weir starts her account super early on, with peoples’ parents and so forth, who don’t seem that relevant to the actual conflict’s outbreak. Sure, it can be relevant that Henry VI’s father was such a great king and that Henry VI wasn’t, but it doesn’t feel super-relevant to the point where it deserves multiple chapters of explanation.

Basically, I would say that the overabundance of irrelevant-seeming details is my biggest quibble with this otherwise well-written book. One of my greatest pieces of praise about this book is actually that the overabundance of details winds up adding a lot of flavor once the book gets into talking about the war itself.

So in the end, you have to be okay with what seems to be too much detail in the beginning before you can get to the point where the war starts and the details make the book entertaining.

(A final note: this book only discusses the first War of the Roses, so it has nothing about the Plantagenets.)

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Nix

Hello! Happy first day of fall. It’s very sad that summer’s gone, but now there will be piles of leaves to jump in. That’s not much consolation, I know. Maybe reading a book will help!

Sabriel, by Garth Nix

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 “‘Go and give the regimental Sergeant Major my compliments and ask him to personally organize a section of the scouts. We’ll go out and take a closer look at that aircraft.’ ‘Oh, thank you sir!’ gushed Leftenant Jorbert, obviously taking the ‘we’ to include himself. His enthusiasm surprised Horyse, at least for a moment. ‘Tell me, Mr. Jorbert,’ he asked, ‘have you by any chance sought a transfer to the Flying Corps?’ ‘Well… yes, sire,’ replied Jorbert. ‘Eight times.’”

Sabriel is about a girl whose father gets trapped in the world of the dead and she has to go to rescue him. She’s a necromancer, which helps a bit. She has a bunch of magical bells that she can use to make living people and dead spirits do all sorts of things. Being a necromancer also has its drawbacks—it means she has all sorts of enemies who chase her as she tries to reach her goal. So she makes some friends to compensate, including one of the funniest talking cats I saw since Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.

Sabriel had a good beginning and a good middle, with interesting ideas, fresh similes, and funny talking cats. So I thought it would be a decent book overall. However, the end was much better than anything that came before it, so it turned out to be a better book than I’d thought.

Why was the ending better? Maybe because it happened in multiple stages. It wasn’t just “boom boom pow!” At the point when I thought things would be resolved, another setback happened instead. When the characters overcame that setback, they then realized they had to go somewhere else to succeed in their mission. Along the way, the characters kept getting into worse and worse trouble. So the longer ending helped by gradually building tension.

It also helped by giving the author time to build up the characters more, and to reveal some surprises about them before the actual finale. This made them feel more real than they had felt throughout the beginning and middle of the book. The characters weren’t artificially made stupid for the sake of suspense, either. They even seemed smarter than they’d been in previous parts of the book. For instance, in the past, a character had a marked propensity towards procrastinating before setting out somewhere. In a similar situation in the finale, this procrastination was nowhere in sight. I was very excited to see this growth.

Then there were plot twists in the finale that weren’t contrived because they were set up ages in advance (No spoilers, don’t worry).

So the gradual buildup and the character development and the twists all likely helped make the ending better than the beginning and middle. All of these aspects helped make the ending feel earned, and raised the book to a new level of entertainingness in my eyes.

One last note: I would recommend listening to the audiobook version if you can. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

Until next week!