September 2015 Reading Recap

I finished three books in September, as the academic year picked up and things, as they do, got busy.

Grave Peril, Jim Butcher
Harry Dresden continues his wizarding, only, now in the third book, the decisions he made in the previous two are beginning to catch up with him. I did a little write up about the series after I finished reading this one. The general impression of it still stands, which is to say that they are fun, largely pulpy reads that can be addictive in the moment, but haven’t really compelled me to read on. The third book started to build to a larger plot that could make up for how thin the noir skin began to feel, and the cast of characters is starting to expand, but I am still taking a break from the series.

Dracula, Bram Stoker

Jonathan Harker goes to Transylvania to help a rich client, Dracula, who is moving to London. The he stumbles into a backward environment of unspeakable horror. The vampire escapes and descends on an unprepared England, while Harker, his wife Mina, Dr. John Seward, Arthur Holmwood (the beloved of the Vampire’s first english victim), the American Quincy Morris, and the Dutch doctor Abraham van Helsing combine Catholic doctrine, folk remedies, and the cleverness of modernity to hunt this relic from eastern Europe. One of my favorite things about reading classic novels for the first time is that some of them are so utterly familiar and yet completely bastardized by subsequent representations. That is the case here, where many of Dracula’s traits and various descriptions are familiar, yet this specific version is not one often portrayed. I loved just about every minute of reading this beautiful mess of a novel. It is easy to see how this book was (and sometimes still is) considered overwritten and lowbrow, with dozens of concepts and fads mashed together in sometimes bizarre ways, and how it became a classic of Western literature. I have also started posting to Twitter quotes from books I read, and have collected them into a blog post.

The New Life, Orhan Pamuk
Reviewed and quotations collected.

One of Pamuk’s early works, The New Life is the story of a book and a girl that inspired young men to seek a new life, while being ambiguous about what the new life is. Most of the story takes place in shadowy buses careening across Turkey, at a time when and place where identities are transient. The men, particularly, in the story all seek a way to achieve equilibrium after reading the book, but the only way to reach this balance is to suspend themselves from a world that is racing onward. The New Life is not an easy book to describe and while it fits thematically in Pamuk’s oeuvre, it is not part of the same semi-real Istanbul that forms the backdrop of, for instance, The Black Book and The Museum of Innocence. This is also a book that I have grown more fond of upon letting it sink in than I necessarily was in the middle of it, so I’ll tentatively say it was my favorite of the month.


October is probably going to be another tight month for reading, particularly because I am starting off with an ambitious read, at least in terms of time investment. Currently, I am reading Dostoevsky’s Demons.

Live-Tweet The New Life

The collected quotations from Orhan Pamuk’s The New Life, which I reviewed here.

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Previously in this series, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

The New Life, Orhan Pamuk

Two things happen to the narrator of The New Life, one after the other, which changed everything: he read a book and he fell in love with a girl. In his accounting of events, the reading of the book was both the first and the more important occurrence, but, really, he only read the book because he saw a pretty girl reading and was smitten. One might even say that our protagonist was entrapped by this distant and unapproachable beauty. This book changed everything and, he is told, those under its sway are wrapped up in a long-standing conspiracy and counter-conspiracy that could cost them their lives. Following Janan, he witnesses the assassination of her beloved and is immediately launched into a journey across Anatolia in pursuit of Janan, in search of answers to the riddles posed by the book, and hunting for a new life.

Most of The New Life takes place on dimly-lit bus-stops and on darkened buses that roar across the Anatolian landscape past–and sometimes into–similarly nondescript vehicles. Each bus seems to take people further back in time. Bloody crashes are a frequent occurrence, and sometimes provide an opportunity to adopt a new persona. The narrator’s obsession with Janan is Quixotic and while his pursuit of the woman sitting beside him spurs him on as a young man, the book proves a somewhat more intimate and more fruitful quest. The principle question is how one is able to reach equilibrium between the promises of the book and a changing world. There is no single right answer.

Pamuk eventually reveals that the name of the book is The New Life, and there is reason to suspect that it is the same as the novel, but for most of the story it is simply referred to as “the book” and its contents are left ambiguous. The closest comparison I could think of is the fanatical devotion inspired by religious texts, but it is emphatically a secular, subversive book. Similarly, there is an ambiguity as to what, exactly, The New Life is. Does it refer to swapping identity papers? Claiming a new name? Revolution? The process of aging? Or is the life in question not the life of the individual at all, but the life of a culture or country? Ought the new life really be an old life? Or is there another transcendence above these all? In the end, The New Life is being told from the point of view of an adult man, married and with a daughter. He has certainly found a new life, but, somehow, it hasn’t totally satisfied the hunger that the book awoke.

The New Life is an early example of Pamuk’s work and while I enjoyed the book, it is lower on the scale of his novels, ahead of only The White Castle. On the one hand, there were features that were engaging, including the two discussed in the previous paragraph, the tension between bus and rail, and the appearance of going back in time and the speedy onset of western modernity; on the other, there were aspects of the conspiracies that left me hollow because they fit in the novel but were not fleshed out. Some of this is a stylistic choice and some is the narrative style, but I wanted it to be spun out further as Pamuk does in later novels.

ΔΔΔ

I recently decided that I want to prune my book collection somewhat by donating books I don’t actively want to keep around to charitable book drops and/or libraries and have already chosen six or seven volumes to give away. I am militantly against getting rid of my entire physical collection despite the hassle of moving boxes of books, so this is more about culling for space. Along the same lines, I want to be able to talk about every book in my collection either because I have read it or because it is a new acquisition and soon to be read. As such, there is somewhat of a backlog that I need to read, some of which I started once upon a time and gave up on, others I bought and never read. Right now I am read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which falls into the former category, and which I am enjoying quite a lot and thus wondering why I stopped reading it before (other that I am finding myself a more patient and careful reader as I age).

The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk (August Reading Recap)

For reasons that included a trip to Utah and a whole lot of academic stuff that needed to happen before the start of the semester (even being on fellowship this year), I only read one book in August, Orhan Pamuk’s 2008 novel, The Museum of Innocence. Pamuk’s books also take a while to read because they defy being read quickly, at least for me. I need to be in a place and time that I can be sucked in.

Kemal Bey is the scion of upper crust of the Istanbul bourgeoisie and in a good place in 1975. He is thirty, manages his father’s business, and is about to be engaged to Sibel, his “steady” girlfriend. The way that Kemal tells it, the “steady” is important because it is the only way to be sexually active before marriage without frequenting prostitutes, despite that Sibel and her friends aspire to be liberated western women. The engagement party is going to be the event of the year where anybody who is anybody will be there and most of the black market western booze in the city will be served. But the reader knows that this happy, ho-hum existence cannot last, since, in the very first paragraph of The Museum of Innocence, Kemal declares that a sexual encounter with Füsun was the happiest moment of his life.

At first Kemal is what passes for normal. He has his important and beautiful girlfriend, his company, and his life. Then, while in a shop, he runs into Füsun, a distant relative who he hasn’t seen in years. She is eighteen and studying for her exams, so Kemal, inflamed by what he calls love, but that I would describe as lust, offers to tutor her. Naturally, their tutoring sessions mostly involve sex, and Kemal’s life continues with only minor interruption. When this routine is broken and Füsun disappears, Kemal’s life falls apart, becoming estranged from his fiancee, his friends, his business partners, and eventually his family. His only obsession is finding her. When he does finally find her, Füsun is married and still living with her family, and Kemal worms his way into their life. The process takes eight years and only at the end is there any prospect of payoff. Along this journey Kemal begins to collect items associated with Füsun and uses them as a surrogate for being near to her. These objects form the seeds of the collection of the eponymous museum, which opened in 2012.

This is the barest outline of the story and it feels inadequate. I excluded entire plot points, such as the profound changes wrought by deaths in the family, that Füsun was molested as a child, the founding of a movie studio, details of Füsun’s (probably happy) marriage, and Kemal’s teaching Füsun how to drive. The story may be divided into five phases, the initial lust, madness of loss, patience, love, and remembrance, each from the point of view of Kemal, though, as is often the case with Pamuk’s work, the narrator is not necessarily the narrator.

Early in the reading of The Museum of Innocence I hated Kemal, liked Füsun ( who is mature beyond her years), and loved the fiancee Sibel, and was bemused that Pamuk would offer this shallow man who seemed determined to throw away his happy life because he lusted after a beautiful eighteen year old woman as his protagonist. His love, he maintains, inflamed him and was inescapable, but it is petty, jealous, and more interested in possessing her physically than anything else. Over the course of years, though, that seems to change, still lusting, but also developing into something deeper and more sincere, at least in how he narrates the story. Ironically, Füsun doesn’t ever seem to appreciate the change, while her mother seems to have seen the love from the outset. This whirlwind of perspectives even while having a single narrator is something I associate with Pamuk’s writing and was particularly true in The Museum of Innocence as the reader gets selective entree into the other viewpoints and for large swathes of the story characters who were likely present simply disappear from the retelling as the narrator obsesses over his out-of-reach object. For instance, Kemal says that he thinks that Füsun’s marriage was happy sexually in its early years, but, while narrating those years, her husband is a non-entity, being written out by Kemal who would rather not think about that.

The facet of the story that I found most moving was the underlying premise that everybody wants something and, frequently, that desired object is out of reach. The most blatant is Kemal’s pursuit of Füsun, but Sibel wants a “normal” marriage, Füsun wants to be an actress, Kemal’s mother wants her son not to embarrass the family, his father wants him to be happy (and many more). Everybody wants something and each of these desires is at least deferred. Kemal manages to reach a point of acceptance, others are less fortunate.

I really liked Museum of Innocence and want to talk at greater length about Pamuk’s oeuvre, probably after I finish reading my current book, his novel The New Life (and possibly one other). Something that hit me about the novels is that, even though they are not a series, Pamuk has populated Istanbul with characters that continually crop up in different ways in different stories, which has a way of enriching the stories in small ways because the the streets, the shops, the stories, and the newspaper columns are familiar. These are not merely easter eggs for the astute reader, but compose the fabric of the story.