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review 2019-11-29 11:15
Fantastic. Unforgettable.
A Long Petal of the Sea - Isabel Allende

Thanks to NetGalley and to Bloomsbury Publishing for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I have long been a fan of Isabel Allende’s novels, although I haven’t read any of her recent books, despite my best intentions. I read many of her early novels, in Spanish, and I enjoyed her take on Magic Realism, which I found inspiring. When I saw this novel, which combined Allende’s writing with a historical subject close to my heart (I’m from Barcelona, like the protagonist of the novel, and some of my relatives lived experiences quite similar to those Victor goes through), I had to read it. And although it is a very different reading experience from that of The House of the Spirits, I enjoyed it enormously.

This novel is the story of Victor Dalmau, whom we meet at a very difficult moment, during the Spanish Civil War. He was studying Medicine and helps look after the wounded in battle, while his younger brother, Guillem, fights for the Republic. Told in the third person, mostly from Victor’s point of view (there is a fragment where the novel deviates from that, but there is a good reason for it), the book follows his life pretty closely and in chronological order, although not all periods of his life are shared in the same detail. We learn about his family, his parents, Roser (his brother’s girlfriend and one of the students of Victor’s father, a musician), and hear first-hand of his experiences during the war, the retreat (“la retirada”), and the problems a huge number of Spaniards who escaped to France had to face once there.

Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet, is fundamental to the story, not only because he chartered the SS Winnipeg that took many Spaniards (around two thousand) to Chile, escaping from Franco’s regime and the French camps, but also because he personally appears in the novel and each chapter is introduced by one of his poems. In fact, the title of the book also comes from one of his poems, and it is a descriptive metaphor of the country, Chile, that welcomed the refugees with open arms. The story also follows Victor’s later adventures, his studies and work as a cardiologist, Roser’s works as a musician and her creation of an orchestra, and the historical and political upheavals they have to confront, with further displacements and persecution. What is to be an emigrant, how different people adapt to different realities and countries (Victor and Roser are pretty different in this respect), and also the invaluable contribution those very same immigrants make to the very fabric of the country that takes them in, are threads that run through the whole novel.

This is my first experience of reading Allende’s work in English, and I thought the translation was excellent. The language is both functional and beautiful, capturing the emotions of the characters, and vividly portraying their experiences, at times harrowing and at others uplifting. I was very touched by the narrative, and although that might be in part due to my personal connection to the material (not only the historical aspect, but also the experience of life in a different country) , the effect was not limited to the parts of the story I was familiar with. The adventures of Victor and Roser in Chile, Allende’s government (of course, Salvador Allende was Isabel’s uncle), and the military coup, further tested their endurance and made them start again in Venezuela. Added to the larger historical events, we have a story of love, family, and displacement, which will resonate with many readers, even if they are not familiar with the particular historical and geographical setting. Circumstances might change, but the problems are universal.

The author talks about the genesis of the book in a note at the beginning of the book and explains it in more detail in the acknowledgements at the end. Although this is a novel, it is based on real accounts, and its main character was inspired by another Victor, Victor Pey, who lived to be 103, and who experienced many of the trials and tribulations we read about. Allende creates a catalogue of varied characters, complex and credible, and mixes historical figures with fictional ones seamlessly. Victor is a quiet man, hard-working, who prefers action to idle talk, and whose mission in life seems to be to help others. He is a survivor who can be naïve about the consequences of his actions and about the motivations of others, but he always expects the best of others and hopes against hope. Roser, his wife, is a fabulous character, a strong woman who keeps going no matter what, and their relationship evolves through the book, never getting old and with plenty of surprises. There are plenty of memorable characters in the book, some that play a larger part than others, and some that keep popping up at regular intervals as time passes. I was intrigued by the Solan family, fascinated by Juana, their lifelong servant, and also appreciated the small details that add a human touch to the historical figures, Pablo Neruda in particular.

I loved the writing style, poetic and lyrical at times, despite dealing in some very harsh topics. The flow varies, and some historical periods are described in more detail than others, as happens in memoirs. I’ve read comments of readers who say there is too much telling in this novel. There is a fair amount of telling, that is true, by the very nature of the story, but it suits the personality of the protagonist, and to be honest, I cried with the story as it is. I’m not sure I would have managed to read it if it were even more emotional. (I smiled as well, and it is a hopeful story overall, but it did touch me deeply).

I have highlighted many passages, and it’s difficult to choose one or two, but I decided to give it a try.

Here Victor Dalmau observes the work of the female volunteers looking after injured soldiers in the Spanish Civil War:

Volunteer women would moisten their lips, whisper to them, and comfort them as if they were their own children, in the knowledge that somewhere else, another woman might be cradling their own son or brother.

If you are very sensitive, you might want to look away now:

This was to be his most stubborn, persistent memory of the war: that fifteen- or sixteen-year-old boy, still smooth-cheeked, filthy with the dirt of battle and dried blood, laid out on a stretcher with his heart exposed to the air.

And I had to include one from Pablo Neruda, quoted here in chapter 2.

Nothing, not even victory,

Can wipe away the terrible hole of blood.

I love this novel, which I recommend to readers of historical fiction, particularly those interested in the Spanish Civil War and/or the history of Chile, to fans of Isabel Allende, and also to those who’ve never read her before, but are looking for a compelling story, masterfully written, with a memorable cast of characters and a story with many parallels to recent events. I attended a conference about la Retirada (the retreat of around 500000 Spaniards, both military and civilians, escaping to France from Spain at the end of the Civil War, in February 1939) on its 8oth anniversary earlier this year, and looking at the pictures, it gave us all pause, because if we just changed the background of the photographs and the clothes, we could have been watching the news. Like those images, this is a novel that will stay with me. I might be biased but that’s my prerogative and I can’t recommend it enough.

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review 2017-09-29 23:14
Gilgamesh: A New English Version
Gilgamesh: A New English Version - Stephen Mitchell,Anonymous

Almost 4800 years after his reign in the city of Uruk, Gilgamesh is still remembered not only in his native land but now around the world even though his native language is long forgotten.  In Stephen Mitchell’s English verse translation of Gilgamesh, the story of the demigod’s calming friendship with Enkidu and his quest to avoid his mortality.


The tale of Gilgamesh is not just about the king of Uruk, it is the tale of Enkidu and his civilizing by Shamhat, the friendship between Enkidu and Gilgamesh as well as their adventures, and finally the death of Enkidu that sends Gilgamesh in his vain search to stop death by asking the one man whom the gods made immortal.  Yet while several aspects of Gilgamesh are similar to later tales of Greek and Germanic origin, there are clear differences as well especially when it comes to Gilgamesh expressing his fear in the face of very dangers and ends with accepting his own mortality in the end.


Unfortunately, the story of Gilgamesh that we have is not as complete as it was 4000 years ago.  Several sections are fragmentary which Mitchell had to work around to make the book read well and keeping true to the narrative; in this he did a wonderful job.  Yet, in a book that has around 300 pages only 123 covers the epic itself which while not dishonest is surprising about how short the tale is and how much analysis Mitchell provides the reader before and notes after.


Gilgamesh: A New English Version is a fantastic book both in the tale of the heroic demigod king and the translation done by Stephen Mitchell.

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review 2013-10-11 15:31
Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (Perennial Classics)
Tao Te Ching: A New English Version - Laozi,Stephen Mitchell The Tao Te Ching or Daodejing is a classic Chinese text that traditionally is said to go back to the 6th Century BCE, and written by Lao Tzu, a figure whose historicity is in dispute. According to the Wikipedia, texts of it have been excavated that go back to the 4th Century BCE. Some introductions to editions claim Lao Tzu was a teacher of Confucius, but other authorities I've checked think Taoism was a reaction to Confucianism, and that the text dates later than Confucius, to the time of the "five warring states." If you have a fat book on your hands, it must be filled with commentary, notes or illustrations, because the entire work is extremely short, consisting of 81 brief verses. In the edition I own translated by D.C. Lau, the Introduction is half as long than the text. This is the entirely of Chapter 6, in the Derek Lin translation, which can be found online: The valley spirit, undying Is called the Mystic Female The gate of the Mystic Female Is called the root of Heaven and Earth It flows continuously, barely perceptible Utilize it; it is never exhausted As that demonstrates, the meaning isn't always clear, at least to this Westerner, even if you have some familiarity with Taoism from other sources. There's a lot of paradox, opposites juxtaposed, and as the introduction to my owned edition states, the text is often "succinct to the point of obscurity." And as a philosophy, well, these aren't connected arguments. They're more the collected wisdom sayings of a common philosophical movement and not meant to be breezed through cover to cover. Yet even from my first read I found this enjoyable to read, and filled with pithy little words of wisdom: "A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step." (Chapter 64) And especially on a repeat read I can see why some in the libertarian movement embrace it. Note Chapter 57 (Derek Lin) Govern a country with upright integrity Deploy the military with surprise tactics Take the world with non-interference How do I know this is so? With the following: When there are many restrictions in the world The people become more impoverished When people have many sharp weapons The country becomes more chaotic When people have many clever tricks More strange things occur The more laws are posted The more robbers and thieves there are Therefore the sage says: I take unattached action, and the people transform themselves I prefer quiet, and the people right themselves I do not interfere, and the people enrich themselves I have no desires, and the people simplify themselves This is reflected in several other verses and I've seen this described as the "Wu=Wei" principle, which has influenced both libertarians such as Murray Rothbard and the Cato Institute's David Boaz and Left-anarchists such as Ursula LeGuin, who wrote a translation I recently saw in the neighborhood bookstore. There's a whole shelf full of different translations of this book, a marker of the worldwide and deep historical influence of the book--which has links to both Confucianism and Buddhism--that makes this worth reading and trying to understand. I'd compare different translations to find one that's congenial, since different translators render very different readings. Wayist Org and TaoTeChingMe.com have pages online comparing various translations.
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review 2012-11-16 00:00
Gilgamesh: A New English Version
Gilgamesh: A New English Version - Stephen Mitchell,Anonymous I did not read all 290 pages. Just the story of Gilgamesh.
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review 2012-10-26 00:00
Gilgamesh: A New English Version - Stephen Mitchell,Anonymous This book is the story of insights gained by King Gilgamesh through lessons learned from two quest journeys and the death of his friend. Wisdom gained from his experiences metamorphoses him from an arrogant and self-promoting tyrant into a humble and charitable king.

Reading this book is a glimpse further back into the history of recorded human thought than any other book in existence. This book has the distinction of being a thousand years older than the Iliad or the Hebrew Pentateuch. Its hero was the historical King Gilgamesh who reigned in the Mesopotamian city of Uruk in about 2750 BCE.

Could people who lived that long ago be as human as we are? The answer is of course yes which leads to the next question. Is it possible to learn something about being human from noting the story themes that we continue to have in common with people who lived that long ago?

So what themes do we appear to have in common with people who lived that long ago? For one thing, this story gives voice to grief and fear of death. For another, the story of Gilgamesh portrays love and vulnerability and the quest for wisdom. The wisdom obtained by the hero Gilgamesh leads to his acceptance of his mortality and determination to live this life well.

Another observation from this story is that people that long ago knew what lustful sex was. In other words, they knew how to do it. Early in the story a temple prostitute is given credit for taming and civilizing the wild man Enkidu who then becomes a close friend of Gilgamesh’s. Therefore, the power of women in human affairs is recognized as being that of sexual attraction. I’ll let the reader decide if this is still true today.

I highly recommend Stephen Mitchell’s “A New English Version.” I tried some of the free on-line “word for word” translations, and I found them to be virtually unreadable. Mitchell’s version read much as an adventure thriller in verse form (loose, non-iambic, non-alliterative tetrameter, except for the Prologue and the end which have five beats to the line). Recorded Books’ audio recording of the Mitchell version read by George Guidall is very well done.
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