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Expendable Mudge Muses Aloud

The Conference of the Birds - Peter Sís, Farid al-Din Attar Rating: 4* of five The Book Report: The book description 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♪ DeathNow 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.