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BOOK REVIEW: A YEAR WITH RILKE: Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke: Translated & Edited by Joanna Macy & Anita Barrows

Wednesday, February 03, 2016


One of the most beloved poets of the twentieth century, Rainer Maria Rilke is widely celebrated for his depth of insight and timeless relevance. 

He has influenced generations of writers with his classic Letters to a Young Poet, and his reflections on the divine and our place in the world are disarmingly profound. 

A Year with Rilke provides the first ever reading from Rilke for every day of the year, including selections from his luminous poetry, his piercing prose, and his intimate letters and journals.

Rilke is a trusted guide amid the bustle of our daily experience, reflecting on such themes as impermanence, the beauty of creation, the voice of God, and the importance of solitude. 

With new translations from the editors, whose acclaimed translation of Rilke's The Book of Hours won an ardent readership, this collection reveals the depth and breadth of Rilke's acclaimed work.


I first encountered Rainer Maria Rilke when a friend gave me a copy of LETTERS TO A YOUNG POET when I was in my early twenties.

It spoke to me very powerfully, and I went on to read many of Rilke’s poems and letters. 

I re-discovered Rilke again when I was writing my latest novel THE BEAST’S GARDEN, which is a retelling of Beauty & the Beast set in Nazi Germany.

I was drawn to read his work again because I remembered that Rilke was obsessed with roses, (a potent motif in the fairy tale) and wrote many poems about them. 

As part of my journey of rediscovery, I bought A YEAR WITH RILKE. It brings together a collection of his writings – excerpts from poetry (both published and unpublished), letters, and diaries – each chosen to match a certain day of the year. 

The idea is to read one page a day, every day, for the full year.  I have kept the book next to my bed to read, and did so most evenings. Occasionally I had to read two or three – or even ten - pages to catch up. It didn’t matter. 

The excerpts are each so small and so easily read, and sometimes I would read the same poem over and over again, trying to let it soak into my soul. Occasionally the reading for the day was so uncannily prescient, so necessary to what I needed to read just then, it seemed fore-ordained. 

It’s a beautiful way to read his work – and a perfect way to be introduced to him. 

The only complaint I have to make is that it is designed for an audience in the northern hemisphere and so some of the seasonal pieces (like the poem for March 21, which was ‘Spring!’) are out-of-whack for an Australian reader. But it's a minor complaint – and I simply went back and read them again at the tight time. 


INTERVIEW: Damon Young, author of Philosophy in the Garden

Friday, December 20, 2013

I was really fascinated and enthralled by Damon Young's latest book Philosophy in the Garden and so I'm very glad to welcome him to the blog today to answer a few quick but tricky questions. 


For thousands of years, gardens have inspired poets, philosophers, novelists -- why?

Looking into the lives of great artists and writers, this book reveals the intellectual value of parks, yards and pots. They can provide quiet, exercise, food and beauty, but they can also prompt us to meditate and reflect. Jane Austen turned to her cottage garden for quiet consolation, while philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wandered amongst lemon trees for an existential kick in the pants. Novelist Marcel Proust discovered miniature immensity in a bonsai, and scandalous author Colette found peace in roses. Gardens are not just ornaments or status symbols: they are also intellectual companions, which enhance and enliven our minds. 

What do you love most in the world?
Life. Not any old life, but this one: fraught, baffling, and coloured with gratitude for my family, friends and vocation.

What do you fear most in the world?
Being cruel -- particularly to my wife and children. The end of civilisation. And robot assassins.

What are your 5 favourite childhood books?
The Magic Faraway Tree, by Enid Blyton (aged 3-5).

Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf (aged 3-5).

The Asterix series, by Goscinny and Uderzo (aged 4-10).

The Celebrated Cases of Sherlock Holmes, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (11-15).

Ghostrider, The Punisher and Batman comics (aged 12-17). 

What are your 5 favourite books read as an adult?

Being and Time, by Martin Heidegger.

A Treatise of Human Nature, by David Hume.

Beyond Good and Evil,  by Friedrich Nietzsche.

After Virtue, by Alasdair MacIntyre.

The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, by Roberto Calasso.

The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, by Nikos Kazantzakis

Persuasion, by Jane Austen.

The Golden Bowl, by Henry James.

Mrs Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf.

Swimming Home, by Deborah Levy.

What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?

A shelf of superhero graphic novels, including Captain America, Wolverine, the Batman and Wonder Woman.

How would you describe perfect happiness?

'Happiness' the noun is dodgy. (See the next issue of New Philosopher magazine for my essay on this.) But what makes me happy is doing good work, artfully. It feels like this sounds:

You have a new book out. Tell me about it.
How to Think About Exercise is about wholeness. It can often seem like we're split in two: mental and physical, thinking and doing, office and gym. But exercise can enhance and enrich our minds, while the right states-of-mind can improve our exercise. Swimming, for example, can give a glimpse of the sublime, while jogging can make us more consistent. Rock climbing involves humility, but also provides the pleasure of being 'in the zone'. Sprinting rewards us with pride in ourselves, while yoga can do away with our selves altogether. In each case, fitness involves a to-and-fro between psyche and flesh, which can be edifying -- and bloody good fun. By keeping wholeness in mind, we can also avoid the lapsed or wasted gym membership: the insights, impressions and reveries of exercise last a lifetime, not just for a few fat-burning weeks.

BOOK REVIEW: Philosophy in the Garden by Damon Young

Monday, December 16, 2013

Title: Philosophy In The Garden
Author: Damon Young
Publisher: Melbourne University Press 
Age Group & Genre: Non-Fiction for Adults/Philosophy
Reviewer: Kate Forsyth 

The Blurb:
Why did Marcel Proust have bonsai beside his bed? What was Jane Austen doing, coveting an apricot? How was Friedrich Nietzsche inspired by his ‘thought tree'?

In Philosophy in the Garden, Damon Young explores one of literature's most intimate relationships: authors and their gardens. For some, the garden provided a retreat from workaday labour; for others, solitude's quiet counsel. For all, it played a philosophical role: giving their ideas a new life. 

Philosophy in the Garden reveals the profound thoughts discovered in parks, backyards and pot-plants. It does not provide tips for mowing overgrown cooch grass, or mulching a dry Japanese maple. It is a philosophical companion to the garden's labours and joys. 

What I Thought: 
I have always been interested in philosophy and have tried my hand at reading books on the subject over the years, usually to find myself baffled and even, if I’m to be truthful, a little humiliated. Why can’t anyone ever express themselves a little more clearly?  I’d think. Is it them or is it me?

Nonetheless, I continue to be interested in ideas. I am also utterly fascinated by the lives – both inner and outer – of writers and creative artists.

Plus, of course, I love gardens. I spend a little bit of time in my own garden nearly every day. I love to see things I have grown and cared for flourish, I love the sense of creating order out of chaos, and I have a transcendental longing for beauty. 

So the title of Damon Young’s new book ‘Philosophy in the Garden’ caught my eye as soon as it was released. I read it slowly – one chapter every few days or so, whilst reading other novels in between. I found it utterly engaging and most illuminating. 

Damon is Honorary Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Melbourne, and has written a number of books that bring together philosophical ideas with popular culture. His style is very readable and full of wit and personality. For example, he describes Aristotle has being known for his ‘schmick wardrobe and bling.’ Reading his work is like hanging out in a bar late at night, drinking cosmopolitans, and arguing about whether God really exists or whether He (She? It?) is just a fictive construct created to fulfil an existential human longing (whilst trying not to slur the word ‘existential’ too much). 

The premise of the book is very simple. Damon has examined, in a series of short and lively essays, the lives of half-a-dozen authors in relation to their garden (or lack of garden) with a particular focus on their philosophies. I was very familiar with some of the writers’ work (Jane Austen, George Orwell, Emily Dickinson), had tried and failed to read some of the others (Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre) and had never heard of one (Nikos Kazantzakis). 

Each chapter was full of illuminations and insights. I knew Jane Austen loved her garden but did not realise that her writing suffered when she was away from it. I was particularly enamoured of one of Damon’s points in this essay, regarding the scene in ‘Pride & Prejudice’ in which Elizabeth sees Pemberley for the first time (as Damon says, this scene is ‘known across the civilised world as the home of Colin Firth’s wet shirt’). This is the one scene in P&P that I have never liked, because I thought it made Elizabeth seem to start liking Darcy more because of the wealth of his possessions. However, Damon interprets the scene a little differently. The garden reflects Darcy’s soul – beautiful, ordered, tasteful, and serene. ‘She had never seen,’ Austen wrote, ‘a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by awkward taste.’ Damon goes on to show how this ordered and serene approach to gardening reflected Jane Austen’s own life and philosophy, and so not only made me see one of my favourite authors more clearly, but has deepened my love for one of my all-time favourite books. This is a true gift … and Damon repeated this revelation for me in the chapter on Emily Dickinson, quite possibly the poet I love the most. 

I also learnt a great deal.

I did not know Proust kept bonsai by his bed, or that Friedrich Nietzsche lived in a ménage a trois (this was one chapter when I’d have liked to have had a whole lot more details!) I also had never understood Nietzschean philosophy before and now I feel as if I could, with a little more reading and thinking. In fact, I went and googled Nietzsche, and spent a few hours reading up on him. 

I also discovered a new author, one of the greatest gifts anyone can give me.

I had never heard of Nikos Kazantzakis, one of the authors Damon examines, but just listen to this:

‘Words! Words! There is no other salvation! I have nothing in my power but twenty-four little lead soldiers. I will mobilise. I will raise an army.’

It’s something I could have written myself, so exactly does it express my own evangelist love of words and books. I am now searching out the work of Kazantzakis, so look forward to some more raving on him in the future.

Thank you, Damon!

Damon’s blog 


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