If You’re Going to Spout Poetry, Make It Epic

Kitty Audience for Gilgamesh

The biggest surprise, and most difficult for me to wrap head around, in this year’s Explorer Challenge was the poetry. I am not big on poetry and an earlier post on the mothership Darkcargo went into that when I found Goblin Market by Christina Rosetti.

So I spent three months pondering what I like, if anything, about poetry.  Haikus? Too easy to interpret any way I want to. Ballads? Maybe…. but there’s usually too much silly prose going on fulfilling someone’s ego. Limericks? Are they naughty? If so, I might be interested.

Then I recalled my Beowulf phase. I became fascinated with the tale a few years ago. My library had a beautifully illustrated version that I absorbed. That was poetry. Epic poetry. Poetry in all it’s glory.

With that in mind, I decided to meet this year’s Explorer Challenge with Gilgamesh. My library rarely lets me down and had this lovely version by Stephen Mitchell. It had his take on this 4000+-year-old tale plus a snazzy introduction that talks about what we know historically and what we don’t.

I read the tale first. I didn’t want to be demystified by the intro. I set my virgin eyes upon this ancient Akkadian tale and it was incredible. You aren’t suppose to like Gilgamesh at first. He is a bully, a tyrant. He suppresses the men of Ur and mates with all the women. In fact, the Ancients weren’t shy about sexual behavior and were explicit in Gilgamesh’s ‘rights’ to the marriage bed as ruler. The people of Ur cry to the gods and they make a perfect friend for Gilgamesh; Enkidu. Enkidu was born to the wild, living with gazelles and grazing on grass. Gilgamesh sends an Ishtar priestess Shamhat to tame him.

In this tale, the feminine arts of love are revered and seen as a civilizing force. Through his extensive coupling with Shamhat, Enkidu’s awareness expands and he gains the power of human speech and manly ways. He is then introduced to Ur and Gilgamesh, where he challenges the king right off, like some young pup trying to prove his strength. What follows truly surprised me. In this wrestling match fit to entertain the gods, there is quite the homoerotic flavor. In the end, Gilgamesh overcomes Enkidu, who acknowledges his superiority, and they become the best of buds.

They have a few adventures together, defeat a few monsters. SPOILER ALERT Enkidu’s actions anger the gods and they take his life END SPOILER. Gilgamesh then goes on a search for everlasting life. Utnapishtim and his wife are the only mortals granted immortality by the gods, and it was due to their efforts during the great flood. Utnapishtim goes on at length about the flood and his floating warehouse of land-dwelling creatures. This is a pre-cursor to the Noah-flood tale. Utnapishtim’s secret to eternal life is simply the will of the gods. Gilgamesh can’t hunt, force, trap, trick, or bully that kind of gift from the gods.

The next paragraph is the end of Gilgamesh. Skip if you don’t want to know at this time.

While Utnapishtim can’t help Gilgamesh with his quest for eternal life, he does know of a plant that grants youth. You eat a bit of it, and your youth is restored. We don’t know any specifics, other than it dwells in the depths of the waters that separate Utnapishtim and his wife from the rest of humanity. Gilgamesh dives and comes back triumphant. Instead of nibbling some right away, he decides to take it all the way back to Ur and have an old man try it first. On his trek back home, he decides to bathe at a pool, setting aside the precious plant. It is eaten by a snake. Gilgamesh lives to be an old man and then dies and they write this crazy poem about him.

I really enjoyed this tale because 1) it is ancient and we will never understand everything about it; 2) the cultural norms then are quite different from now; 3) women and sex are seen as civilizing forces; 4) there’s day-to-day interactions with the gods, including throwing a bull’s leg at one of them; and 5) our hero is not a hero to begin with, but has to grow into one.

So, with all this crazy coolness going on in this poem, why hasn’t it been made into a movie?

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Friendship and Regret

Gosh there’s some powerful stuff in Gilgamesh!

What instances and expressions of friendship were striking to you?

Here’s one that made me stop:
“Gilgamesh knew his friend was close to death. He tried to recollect aloud their life together that had been so brief, so empty of gestures they never felt they had to make.”

Gosh! How much of our lives we lose to not telling our friends that we appreciate their presence in our lives, no?

It’s fascinating to me to read this, on one page is something so foreign: the weird Ishtar and their weirder treatment of her; and then something so shatteringly human like this scene of Gilgamesh anxious over his friend’s injury and sickness.

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Goddess of Love and War

So what do you think of Ishtar?

“Your love only brings war!”

“We outgrow our naïveté in thinking goddesses return our love.”

“The goddess stood on Uruk’s walls, and cried aloud: Grief to those who have insulted me and killed the bull of heaven!”

And then Ekidu threw a bull leg at her. Boo! Get outta here!

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So I had this dream last night…

The Babylonians were way superstitious peoples. They were solving quadratic equations and had 800 years’ of astronomical observations but they still went daily to the dream-interpreter. Most of the tablets that have been translated are dream interpretations.

I’m reading Gilgamesh now.

So far, Gilgamesh can’t turn around without needing to get his dreams interpreted by someone. I’m only about 1/3 of the way through, and we’ve already had four dream interpretations.

I think Enkidu lies to him about the dream Gilgamesh has the night before the do battle with Humbaba. “Oh, everything will be just hunky-dory, go get ‘im, Tiger!” he tells Gilgamesh, trembling in fear.

I like the translation I have. It’s Mariner Books, translation by Herbert Mason. In my Beth Retelling above, how do I know that Enkidu is startled and frightened by Gilgamesh’s dream?

“That you will be victorious against Humbaba, Enkidu said, or someone said through him because he could not hear his voice or move his limbs although he thought he spoke, and soon saw his friend asleep beside him.”

Enkidu isn’t frightened by this dream, he’s terrified!

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What is this Explorer Thing?

More than any other genre, I read Science Fiction. I’ve read so much science fiction and fantasy that it irritates me to go backwards in my reading timeline and populate my profile in sites like Goodreads because it takes so long.

Last year I read two Not Science Fiction books that utterly changed my concept of the world. One was Babylon by I. Finkel, and the other was Beloved by Toni Morrison. Sci-Fi and Fantasy still rock my world, but in ever more seemingly familiar ways. I’m really comfortable with the ideas of time travel, or living space ships and so forth. Not so comfortable with real ideas of really real history and cultures. *wince* I realized that maybe I’ve read too much SF/F and started wondering if perhaps I should expand my reading horizons a bit.

So I came up with the goofy system of  The DarkCargo Explorer Challenge last year. We found ourselves reading –and enjoying! *gasp*!– other books that it never would have occurred to us to read. We had a lot of fun.

In the meantime, Darkcargo acquired two new authors. Amongst four authors and the Ye Olde Book Club, Darkcargo had so much to say on a daily basis that I moved this self-challenge to its own site, here.

I tried to come up with strange ways to make myself seek out books in other genres and even (OMYGOD!) Non-Fiction! Here are the Explorer parameters I’ve set for myself. I’ve managed to sneak in The Lies of Locke Lamora as part of the Explorer Challenge. Heh!

In clicking through and reading other book blogs via the Lies of Locke Lamora Read-A-Long, I’ve found lots of other reading challenges. Some of them pique my interest and I’ve linked to them, below. Reading through these inspired me to re-introduce the Explorer Challenge.

Each page, above, is dedicated to one of the ten doofy categories I invented. If you are so inclined, I’d appreciate any participation or book suggestions/recommendations in the comments.

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Lies of Locke Lamora Read-A-Long Part 1

Hi All-

I’m listening to The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch via audio for the LoLL RAL coordinated by Little Red Reviewer and MyAwful Reviews. I’ve got audio, so forgive any missed-spellings.

LittleRedReviewer has posed the first batch of questions:

1. If this is your first time reading The Lies of Locke Lamora, what do you think of it so far?  If this is a re-read for you, how does the book stand up to rereading?

It’s interesting and engaging. I’d be reading this without the encouragement of the RAL. I like Lynch’s sense of irony and humor, such as (something like) Only the things that Jean eats are poisonous, or Dona Salvarra’s comment upon seeing the wolf-shark spectacle:  “Taken in so fast by such a simple trick”; or the fact that Adult Locke is wearing the same outfit in the Don Salvarra Game posing as Lucas Whitewhatever as the Valdani man from whom he stole the white iron coin that got him in so much trouble referred to in Question 4 below.

2. At last count, I found three time lines:  Locke as as a 20-something adult, Locke meeting Father Chains for the first time, and Locke as a younger child in Shades Hill. How are you doing with the Flashback within a flashback style of introducing characters and the world?

It’s fun, but more than that, it’s well-executed. I’m able to follow what’s going on with no problem. I’m listening to the audio, and the reader is FAB, FAB, FAB! All the voices are distinct from one another, and that goes for “very young Locke”, “young Locke” and “early adult Locke”. As far as story-building goes, this flashback within a flashback method keeps me interested and curious how all these story-lines meld into eachother later in the book.

3. Speaking of the world, what do you think of Camorr and Lynch’s world building?

I love the emberglass, the river-city, and the barges. I love the Salvarra’s barge, with the orchard. I appreciate the economic disparity of the city, and the unique “Italic-mimic” words, like “garrista”

4. Father Chains and the death offering. . .  quite the code of honor for thieves, isn’t it? What kind of person do you think Chains is going to mold Locke into?

Boy talk about physical manifestation of Karma. pt2– dunno, something unique and very very special, single-purpose, obviously. Why is he called Chains?

5. It’s been a while since I read this, and I’d forgotten how much of the beginning of the book is pure set up, for the characters, the plot, and the world. Generally speaking, do you prefer  set up and world building done this way, or do you prefer to be thrown into the deep end with what’s happening?

Usually I prefer more world-building at the beginning. I get frustrated if the “jump off the deep end” goes on for too long.

6. If you’ve already started attempting to pick the pockets of your family members (or even thought about it!) raise your hand.

Here’s what I have to say about that:


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Locke Slow-A-Long Update

hi Guys!

The Lies of Locke Lamora is well underway, and the fast readers are tearing it up. We’ll see some of the first of the formal discussions start to surface this weekend.

I am listening to it on audio, and let me tell you, it’s TOTALLY FAB-TABULOUS on audio. Here’s the audible link.

The first review there at the audible site reflects my thoughts thus far on the reader. “Spot-on”!

Audible-ized chapters are always a little off because of the way they break up the book, but I’m at “Chapter 8” of part 1, 3 hrs and 9 min remaining. I’m probably going to rewind (*!* that’s such an archaic word) and re-listen to chapters 4 to 8.

The story has just acquired a depth to characterization when young Locke is made to realize that his actions can result in fatal consequences.

A surprise for us! Scott Lynch has offered a Saturday postings of Why He Wrote The Book. You can see this on his livejournal thingbob, here.

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Lies of Locke Lamora Slow-A-Long


Are you ready to read The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch this March?

nrlymrtl is going to handle the read-a-long for Darkcargo (our Mothership Blog).

I’m offering at Darkcargo Explorer a “Slow-A-Long” for those of us who don’t read quite as quickly as it seems everyone else does.

Got kids? A full-time-plus job? Don’t have interest in blogging? Just a plain and simple slow reader? Still want to read The Lies of Locke Lamora with the other book nerds this spring and be part of the Nerd Herd?

The idea of the Read-A-Long is that several book bloggers and reviewers will be reading The Lies of Locke Lamora in March book-club-style, adhering to a schedule that finishes the book in late March. They will be trading discussion questions via email, which they will then answer and discuss by posting on their own blogs.

The blogs doing this are Little Red Reviewer, MyAwfulReviews, @ohthatashley with SFSignal, nrlymrtl at Darkcargo, and us!

I know there are lots of readers out there who would like to read this but not feel obligated to keep up with the reading speed or answer questions.

If you comment below that you’d like to participate with the Slow-A-Long, I’ll be sending out emails to DCE’s read-a-long group that contain hyperlinks to the discussion pages on the other blogs who are also participating. You can read these when you have time.

Also, I’ll open a page on DCE for your chatty comments as we read this book together. Sound good?

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KonTiki via Indiana Jones

When we left Heyerdahl, he was gathering funds and resources for his sea voyage, and I was impressed that there were still parts of the world that were not covered by GPS or a reality TV show or Facebook.

He’s making his way now through Peru and Ecuador to acquire some balsa wood logs for the raft. This chapter is really interesting to read, as it documents a time and a place that have disappeared within living memory, swallowed up by globalization.

He’s arrived at the wrong time of the year to collect balsa wood. It’s the rainy season, and between the floods and the bandits, the balsa wood collecting trip just ain’t happening.

He decides to approach the problem from above, going to the Andes and from there down into the jungle, rather than up into the jungle from the sea.

Well, again, it’s still a small world in which somebody knows somebody else. He’s advised to go to Quevedo, Ecuador and find a man named Don Federico.

This little leg of his journey is the stuff of Indiana Jones and Lara Croft legend.

A plane to Quito, no prob.

They are proffered “shrunken heads” the same day that they are warned off the jungle with stories of head hunters.

They find a US Army consul with a spare dude and a jeep.

Trucking along across the mountains, they pass two-hut villages, people coming and going with their worldly possessions lashed to a donkey.

Here we turned off along a mule track which undulated and twisted westward over hill and valley into the Andes. We came into a world we had never dreamed of. It was the mountain Indians’ own world–east of the sun and west of the moon–outside time and space. On the whole drive we saw not a carriage or a wheel. The traffic consisted of barelegged goatherds in gaily colored ponchos, driving forward disorderly herds of stiff-legged, dignified llama, and now and then whole families of Indians coming along the road. The husband usually rode ahead on a mule, while his little wife trotted behind with her entire collection of hats on her head and the youngest child in a bag on her back. All the time she ambled along, she spun wool with her fingers. Donkeys and mules jogged behind at leisure, loaded with boughs and rushes and pottery.

Precarious mule tracks take them down the Andes, with sheer 12,000 ft drops into the fog.

And finally, there is Quevedo ahead, just past the broad, muddy river…with no bridge. Fortunately, there are some folks who live on this side of the river, and having nothing to do except stretch jaguar skins out to dry, happily raft Heyerdahl, his companions, and the jeep across the river.

Quevedo is: “Two rows of tarred wooden houses with motionless vultures on the palm roofs formed a kind of street, and this was the whole place.”

They meet up with Don Frederico further down the river, and on his plantation find the wood they need, along with poisonous snakes, scorpions, and stinging ants so big Heyerdahl is unable to crush them with his foot.


I like looking up “where” I am reading on Google Earth. Thus far, I have been charmed with the quaint idea of Heyerdahl’s paper maps and the task to update via pencil and hand surveying the nautical charts for the Navy.

Quevedo is now a huge town of over 100,000 people, and yet, this is its satellite imagery (click on it if you want to see it bigger):

(what you’re seeing is pretty much nothing: an empty spot in sattelite imaging.)

I guess there are still places in the world where the maps need updating.

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KonTiki, Son of the Sun

KonTiki, by Thor Heyerdahl has always been in my family’s library.

This is the story of the guy who sailed on a raft from Peru to the Pacific Islands in order to prove that it can be done–on a raft, I mean.

I’ve never read it, but have intended to; talk about being on the TBR for a long time, no? The photos are familiar to me, having, as a child, looked at these images of bearded dudes in their underpants on a raft, catching fish.

Now, thirty years (or so) later, I’m reading it. (This one is for the Travel category, as the Ibn Battuta book turned out to be more of a history treatise than a travel journal.)


Not only is the book a record of a sea voyage, of an anthropological experiment, but serves as a snapshot of a time and cultures lost to the recent past.

Heyerdahl was (I’m guessing) about 30 when he undertook this voyage. He was a zoologist studying in the Polynesian Islands when WWII took him back home to Norway, there to serve as a radio operator. While studying critters, it occurred to him that the cultures of the islands he visited were awfully similar, and, to his eye, the stone art, likewise, was awfully similar to that of the Incas.

How did these peoples get out to these remote islands without, you know, dying before they got there?  A sunken continent? A washed away land bridge? Aliens? Heyerdahl took Occam’s Razor without really stating that’s what he was doing; these people must have very simply floated there from South America. The Islands are all zoologically and geologically distinct from one another, and the tribesmen (at that time) could recite their ancestry to the equivalent of 500 C.E. He has made friends with these wrinkled old tribesmen, has been inspired and fired up by their legends and tales of KonTiki, the son of the sun, who brought people to these islands and then left again on his journey further east.

We gazed at the driving clouds and the heaving moonlit sea, and we listened to an old man who squatted half-naked before us and stared down into the dying glow from a little smoldering fire.

“Tiki,” the old man said quietly, “he was both god and chief. It was Tiki who brought my ancestors to these islands where we live now. Before that we lived in a big country beyond the sea.”

So, that sets us up for why he was doing this.

Next, we read about how he went about collecting the chutzpah and money and resources to take this voyage. This is immediately after WWII, ok?

He is in NYC, a very different NYC than I visited last year. His NYC is quaint and familiar. He knows people who know people. He can walk safely from one part of the city to another. He bunks up in a sailors’ hostel because it’s cheap and clean and they make good Norwegian food, and he notes being able to see the stars from his rented window. The Army and the Navy both want to give him survival gear to test in the field. He is given brand-new equipment from the British Embassy in exchange for updating their (paper) maps of the areas he will travel.

He telegrams his war buds in Norway and invite them to come along. They telegram back: “COMING.”

Heyerdahl is a member of a club of a type that I thought was only the fruit of so much daydreaming by accountants stuck in  stuffy offices. His description of The Explorer’s Club is as fantastical and far-off as his descriptions of a past and gone NYC.

On West Seventy-Second Street, near Central Park, is one of the most exclusive clubs in New York. There is nothing more than a brightly polished little brass plate with “Explorer’s Club” on it to tell passers-by that there is anything out of the ordinary inside the doors. But, once inside, one might have made a parachute jump into a strange world, thousands of miles from New York’s lines of motorcars flanked by skyscrapers. When the door to New York is shut behind one, one is swallowed up in an atmosphere of lion-hunting, mountaineering, and polar life. Trophies of hippopotamus and deer, big-game rifles, tusks, war drums and spears, Indian carpets, idols and model ships, flags, photographs and maps, surround the members of the club when they assemble for a dinner or to hear lectures from distant countries.

Interesting to read about this now, not so many years later, in a world which is so populated and documented and interconnected that there is not much left, really, to explore.

Next: he goes to Peru to build his raft.

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