July Reading Recap

Last month, despite a whirlwind trip, work on my dissertation, and preparations to move, I managed to read four books, which I am both pleased with and frustrated by.

My Name is Red – Orhan Pamuk
Reviewed here. This is the fourth book (third novel) of Pamuk’s I’ve read and I rank it alongside Snow in terms of quality, though it is a very different book. The three-headed tale–the completion of a magnificent illuminated manuscript that blends Western and Eastern style, Black’s courtship of Shekure, and a murder investigation–explores the nature of art and reality, love and lust, perfection and value, violence and sacrilege.

The Raw and the Cooked – Jim Harrison
A collection of essays by screenwriter, poet, and food/travel writer Jim Harrison. They essays themselves were hit and miss, some better, some worse and, particularly, the mixture of the high prose and low, gross words (e.g. weenie) were unsuccessful in this context (great writers do this well, here it struck me more as immature or added for shock value). What I enjoyed most was the consistent message of “a life well fed is a life well led,” as well as a joy in good food and good ingredients. Harrison laments the quality of food in American truck-stops and muses on how many Americans eat and enjoy crummy food because they do not know good food. Compare: Orwell in one of his pieces (Road to Wigan Pier, I think) shares an anecdote wherein lower classes preferred tinned milk to real milk because that is all they knew. Overall, I was glad to have read these essays, but came away with a achievable goal of drinking more wine and an impossible one of eating and drinking my way across Europe.

Last and First Men – Olaf Stapledon

Even more overwhelming was the discovery, borne in on them in the course of research, that the past had been not only brilliant but crazy.

Reviews of Stapledon’s works often complain that there are no characters. In a sense, this is true for Last and First Men since there are no named characters, rather an unnamed narrator from the distant future spinning a tale through an unnamed narrator in the contemporary period (perhaps Stapledon himself). I disagree, though. Humanity itself is a character. Stapledon weaves a tale about ten million years of human existence into the far future, through multiple collapses, eight distinctive types of “humans,” further subhuman species (one of which gets enslaved by monkeys), emigration to multiple planets in the solar system, and an invasion from Martians. He has a penchant for explaining and evaluating civilizations and natures, and has a clear vision of humanity: self-destructive and resilient, fragile and limited, but aspiring. The core of that humanity, in this vision, is the part that rises above base and bestial natures (expanded upon slightly here).

On a more academic level, a host of ideas in the atmosphere during the 1920s collide in this book. Stapledon is critical of capitalism, picks up on a long-view of history, accepts to a degree geographical determinism, concern (and uncertainty about) nuclear energy, racial characters, etc, etc. I preferred Starmaker, but loved Last and First Men, too.

Mort – Terry Pratchett

Mort is an ungainly fellow who doesn’t fit at the farm and isn’t selected for apprenticeship at the annual fair. That is, until Death arrives looking to bring him on. So Mort takes up the trade of making sure that people die when they are supposed to, which allows Death a chance to relax, take some time off, and try to learn why humans enjoy particular activities and have hobbies (his favorite is cooking, which he is quite good at). Hijinks ensue, and it becomes evident as to why anthropomorphic personifications do personification things and why humans do human things–and why mixing the two is a particularly bad idea.

It has been more than a decade since I was told I should read Terry Pratchett’s books. I picked one or two of the Discworld books up at points, but never made it more than a few pages in. Since then I read and adored Good Omens, but Mort is my first return to Discworld. I laughed and enjoyed the book overall, but very little about it made me think that I should go read more Terry Pratchett novels. The writing is clever–relentlessly so–but cleverness as its own end is something I prefer in conversation rather than in books. It would be fine, too, if the world itself drew me in, but it does not, perhaps because it also strikes me as a relentlessly clever mashup of earth ideas that distracts more than amuses me. Death as a character was the main attraction of this story.

In short: Amused, entertained, have plenty of books I’m looking forward to reading more than another Discworld book, but now it cannot be held over my head that I haven’t read any.

I had hoped to finish James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, but didn’t have a chance to read much the past week or so (for reasons noted above) and thus am only about halfway through it. I also just got a new batch of books in and am looking forward to reading either Orhan Pamuk’s The Naive and Sentimental Novelist or Rose MacCaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond next. Later this weekend or early next week I will also be posting a piece on why the relentless and random collateral damage in James Bond films bothers me less than in most random Hollywood hero films.

My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red.

I, Satan. I am fond of the smell of red peppers frying in olive oil, rain falling into a calm sea at dawn, the unexpected appearance of a woman at an open window, silences, thought and patience…Of course because I’m the one speaking, you’re already prepared to believe the exact opposite of what I say. But you’re smart enough to sense that the opposite of what I say is not always true.

We don’t look for smiles in pictures of bliss, but rather, for the happiness in life itself. Painters know this, but this is precisely what they cannot depict. That’s why they substitute the joy of seeing for hte joy of life.

For the sake of a delightful and convincing story, there isn’t a lie Orhan wouldn’t deign to tell.

In the closing years of the sixteenth century, the Sultan has instructed Enishte Effendi to create a fantastic book that will, in the European perspective style, demonstrate the power of the Ottoman realm. To create this book, the master miniaturists from the imperial workshops have retreated into the privacy of their own homes to work on the individual images, which fuels the rumors that some or all of the illustrations will be an affront to Islam. One of the illustrators working on the manuscript is brutally murdered and dumped into a well at the same time as Black, Enishte’s nephew, returns to Istanbul after an absence of twelve years.

Work continues on the manuscript even as the search for the murderer commences. Black is an outsider to the entire process and has an ulterior motive: to rekindle his childhood romance with Enishte’s daughter, Shekure, a widowed mother of two whose husband has never been confirmed dead, but who has moved back in with her father because her husband’s brother dangerously lusts after her. What ensues is a beguiling tale that explores the nature of art and reality, love, lust, violence and sacrilege and, as with all of Pamuk’s work (at least those books I’ve read) the Turkish anxiety about sitting at a crossroads between East and West. Black pursues Shekure, Shekure demurs out of her own reluctance, fear for her children, and respect for her father who she doesn’t want to leave. Black interviews the other master miniaturists, the murdered (“I Will be Called a Murderer”) hides his identity, and Hasan, the brother-in-law schemes to get Shekure back.

Questions loom large in My Name is Red. Is perspectivist style artwork an affront to Islam? Ought art reflect objects as seen by Allah or as seen by the artist? Is “style” a defect? What determines the greatness of an artist, aesthetic judgement or accumulation of wealth? Can truth, whether or textual, be captured on a page? What is real? And on and on.

The appropriate place to begin this part of the review (one of the fourth opening line) is a discussion of the narrator. Pamuk gives the impression that there is a storyteller who takes on the multitude of viewpoints while telling the story, as in mimicry of a storyteller in a coffee shop. That storyteller is Orhan, blurring the line between Pamuk himself and Shekure’s younger son. In neither case is there a narrative frame for the story. Instead, the book contains just the complete story, whirling from character to character, always in a first-person limited viewpoint and sometimes switching perspective within a single scene. But these viewpoints are not limited to people, as one character has two distinct personae and the story includes narration from a picture of a horse, a corpse, a gold coin, a picture of a tree, and Satan speaking through a picture of Satan.

The end product is a multifaceted tale that forms a uniform whole and a story where each narrator is cast from an unseen storyteller, confident in its own authority, but in such a way that it is clear that the reality humans have access to is subjective based on one’s own perspective, crafted as that is by whim, desire, and opportunity. Truth belongs to Allah; meaning is the essence of truth, but may have little bearing on reality.

I loved My Name is Red, and it is clearly written by the same author as Snow, which I count among my favorite novels, though one of the common complaints of the latter is that it is boring. This book is a bit more lively than Snow and the format of the novel gives the illusion that the story moves along quickly even as Pamuk draws the reader into his web of questions.

Next up is Jim Harrison’s The Raw and the Cooked, collected essays of a foodie and a writer.