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Archive for the tag “Orhan Pamuk”

What I Read in 2015

Reading is an activity subsequent to writing: more resigned, more civil, more intellectual.     J.L. Borges

Near the end of 2014 I made a spur of the moment decision to publish a list and commentary on all the books I had read the past year (which you can read here). This had a couple of unplanned benefits: it led me to posting more essays on my blog again after a two-year hiatus; and it helped me to better plan and maximize my reading time. For example, after making the 2014 list I noticed that there was only one female author, and that this was shamefully not out of the ordinary for me. I decided my first goal for 2015 would be to read many more books by women. I think you will see from the following list that I succeeded. This also led me to other unexpected avenues, such as many books by African authors, and also African-American authors. One of the many benefits of reading is that it can help you learn about, and empathize with, people from different backgrounds than yourself. For other benefits and a much longer reading list, take a look at this great article I came across by a librarian who read 164 books in 2015. I started 61 books this year, and finished all but six of them. That is nearly double the 33 or so books from the previous year, and still almost shocking how I even got this far considering my busy teaching schedule and my two-year-old twins that take up most of my time.

I have already reviewed some of the books on this list at length, and I would like to comment much more extensively on most of them, but that will have to be done individually in future posts. I tried to keep any comments here as short as possible for brevity’s sake. Unfinished books are marked with *, and sometimes reasons are given. My reading list for 2016 is already quite long and each book I encounter usually leads to several other books by the same or similar authors, all in the pursuit of what Nabokov termed the “Orphic thirst” of reading and rereading. I hope if you are reading this far you, too, will find some recommendations, and I would welcome any comments or other suggestions you have in the comments section. Without further ado, the list:

Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

Post-Apartheid South Africa, economical and unpredictable plot, typically precise writing from the 2003 Nobel Laureate

The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer

Important metaphorical novel about the relationship between Whites, Blacks, and land in Apartheid-era South Africa from the 1991 Nobel Laureate.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Out of AfricaSeven Gothic Tales* by Karen Blixen

Started my growing interest in reading more African-themed books this year.

The Sea, The SeaUnder the Net by Iris Murdoch

Very entertaining, philosophical, and memorable books in both cases by a prolific author and philosopher. The Sea, The Sea is one of my favorite books from this year; the setting itself was so evocative that it was almost a central character.

High Lonesome* by Joyce Carol Oates

Chosen nearly at random as my first entry into her endless works, read a good portion, technically well-written, but laid aside due to lack of interest in the characters and settings.

On Violence by Hannah Arendt

Very important perspective on political philosophy that I will write about more at a later date.

The Handmaid’s TaleThe PenelopiadThe Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

All three great, though the second is little more than a trifle. The Handmaid’s Tale is another of my favorites from this year and, as Harold Bloom comments in the preface, every bit as good and important a dystopian vision as 1984 and Brave New World.

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

Very long and ambitious, but perhaps too much so by the 2007 Nobel Laureate. Difficult to finish. I most enjoyed the sections set in pre- and post-war Rhodesia, but not so much the section about Communist Party struggles in 50’s Britain.

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Excellent all-around novel for its time and place, as it should be considering the near universal praise it always receives these days (Salman Rushdie being the sole exception). Great psychological depth to characters, and even the language was very stimulating for formal Victorian prose.

TypeeWhite-JacketMoby-DickThe Piazza Tales by Herman Melville

Looking back now it was a crime that I had never read Melville, and the recommendations by two separate people whose taste in literature I trust set me to remedying my omission. I quickly become a firmly convinced believer in Melville as the greatest American writer. Moby-Dick was the best book I read this year.

Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: Herman Melville by Harold Bloom (editor)

He holds that Moby-Dick is the darkest of America’s three national epics (the other of which are Huckleberry Finn and Leaves of Grass). He also notes how fully four out of the six short novellas of The Piazza Tales are veritable masterpieces.

The White CastleMy Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

Already written a review of these books here.

Balthazar by Lawrence Durrell

The second part of the Alexandria Quartet, filling in the gaps from where the first novel Justine, which I read last year, left off. I suspect I will read the third volume in the coming year and possibly the fourth.

Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

Julian by Gore Vidal

Count Belisarius by Robert Graves

I already reviewed the three above novels of Ancient Rome here.

The Lover by Marguerite Duras

After Memoirs of Hadrian, I chose this one randomly hoping that another French female writer named Marguerite would also be as good. I was disappointed, and if this one were not so short I would not have finished it.

Half of a Yellow SunAmericanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I already reviewed these novels here.

Things Fall ApartNo Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe

This and the following seven authors all connect with the running African theme I followed this year.

Death and the King’s Horseman by Wole Soyinka

Excellent play, especially appreciated the litany of Yoruba proverbs.

Weep Not, ChildWizard of the Crow* by Ngugi wa Thiong’o

The second of these, a funny and important satire on African dictators, is unfinished only due to its length, but I’ll come back to it next year.

The Sultan’s Dilemma by Tawfiq al-Hakim

Wonderful play, a sort of comedy of errors set in Mamluk-era Egypt.

The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

The Famished Road by Ben Okri

Incredibly dream-like story of a desperately impoverished family in the slums of Nigeria, won the 1991 Booker Prize.

Song of SolomonBeloved by Toni Morrison

This and the following three authors were all mentioned in my essay “Why Black Literature Matters

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama

Still incredible that the person who wrote this excellent and thoughtful memoirs became president; even a bit disappointing that he hasn’t been a better president considering this book.

Go Tell it on the MountainGiovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

The Roman Near East by Fergus Millar

A History of the Later Roman Empire: AD 284-641* by Stephen Mitchell

After finishing the three novels of Rome above, I wanted to catch up on a couple of pieces of academic historiography I had overlooked during my Master’s study in Ancient History.

Mongols and Mamluks: The Mamluk-Ilkhanid War, 1260-1281 by Reuven Amitai-Preiss

Research inspired by The Sultan’s Dilemma above.

Climbing: Philosophy for Everyone by Stephen Schmid (editor)

Light-weight philosophical essays discussing various ethical issues surrounding my favorite hobby–rock climbing.

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol

Very good and very funny social satire on 19th century Russian society; the first part is a masterpiece and much better than the second, which tends to repeat itself and lose narrative focus.

Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison

Three well-wrought and captivating novellas about tough everyman characters seeking revenge and getting the most out of their lives.

A Hard and Heavy Thing by Matthew Hefti

Debut novel to be published in January 2016 by my colleague at www.wrath-bearingtree.com; deeply-felt story about how two men’s lives changed after fighting in Iraq.

Learning to Die in the Anthropocene by Roy Scranton

Another Iraq veteran discusses the consequences of climate change on the human species and how we can possibly preserve some of our culture; my review of it will appear soon either here or on another website.

Daisy Miller; The Turn of the ScrewThe Aspern PapersThe Ambassadors*The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

All audiobooks during my commute; the first three are slow but rewarding novellas with precise subtlety of characterization and plot; The Ambassadors I could not finish due to lack of readily available plot; The Portrait of a Lady kept me interested just by its rich psychological character studies.

Pragmatism by William James

Not a particularly readable or convincing case from Henry’s older brother; I think Dewey and then Rorty is probably the better way to go with the “American” philosophy of Pragmatism.

Howard’s End by E.M. Forster

Great novel, a slightly better version of all of the Henry James above, but after all these (along with Middlemarch and Dead Souls), I will probably take a break in 2016 from 19th century or turn of the century dramas of the social and class divide, scheming matchmaking, and invisible servants.

Gilead* by Marilynne Robinson

Became interested after reading Obama’s interview with the author (and because of the shared name with the country in The Handmaid’s Tale); alas, it was too slow and uninteresting for me, which I’m sure is my fault more than the author’s.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Great example of how to use literature to mock dictators (the monstrous Trujillo, in this case) and learn about people from different backgrounds.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

More like a connected series of short stories than a novel; the first couple chapters were the best, but I began to lose interest by the second half due to generally unlikeable characters and more superficiality than I like in my books.

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Two Novels by Orhan Pamuk: The White Castle and My Name is Red

When I was living in Russia, I found a book left in my apartment by a previous tenant called Snow by Orhan Pamuk. I knew of the author because he had just won the Nobel Prize in Literature three years earlier in 2006. Unfortunately, after a few pages I put the book down, not because of any lack of quality on the book’s part, but because I could not really concentrate on reading a book entitled Snow while in the midst of a harsh Russian winter. This same thing had happened to me at least one time earlier, when I was in Afghanistan in 2007 for a 15-month deployment with the U.S. Army. I picked up the much-praised book The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini from a shelf and started to read a few pages. I could not continue because at that point I wanted my pleasure reading to take me far from Afghanistan, not delve further into it. Reading habits and moods change over time, and I would normally say that it is important to not give up on books too soon. By chance, this year I remembered Orhan Pamuk and, fortunately, I can say that it was well worth my reading time. I will review his early novel The White Castle and his masterpiece My Name is Red.

Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk

Pamuk is Turkish, hailing from the great city of Istanbul. His heritage is Circassian, one of those myriad peoples from the Caucasus that were nearly destroyed and then deported by the expanding Russian Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries. Pamuk, similarly to many intellectuals and free speech advocates before him, was charged and tried for remarks he made in 2005 that allegedly “insulted the honor of Turkey and Turkishness”. What he actually said, speaking about the WWI-era conflict between Turkey and its eastern neighbors, was that “Thirty thousand Kurds have been killed here [Turkey], and a million Armenians. And almost nobody dares to mention that. So I do.” The charges were eventually dropped, but this is indeed a sad state of affairs when in a country like Turkey a prominent writer (or anyone else, for that matter) cannot publicly state a proven historical fact without facing charges for denigration not of a living person but of an idea (Turkish national pride). Furthermore, in Turkey it is illegal to insult the name of Kemal Atatürk–I admire Atatürk and his great achievements, but such a counter-production restriction on free speech cannot be tolerated in a civil society. Pamuk was awarded the Nobel Prize a year later as the youngest winner (aged 54) since Joseph Brodsky in 1987 (aged 47), and only the second winner ever from a Muslim country (after the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz in 1988).

white-castle-2The White Castle, published in 1985, is set in 17th century Istanbul, a time when the Turks had long since stopped being invincible to the Europeans, and were actually in the midst of gradual long-term decline while the West was resurgent. The narrator is an Italian scholar who is captured by the Turkish fleet while sailing from Venice to Naples and becomes a slave in Istanbul. He claims to be a doctor and in fact his invented cures work so well that he is noticed by a powerful Pasha. He then comes under the control of a man known as Hoja (“master” in Turkish) who has an almost unbelievable physical resemblance to the narrator as well as being a scientist and scholar. The two men work closely together for decades on scientific and military projects and engage in philosophical discussions and competitions, always from their positions as slave and master. The titular fortress is one besieged by the Turkish forces in a doomed campaign against the Poles. Hoja spent years developing a great new tank-like weapon without help or advice from his Italian slave and convinced the Sultan to take it on campaign, which greatly slowed the progress of the Turkish advance. Things do not go according to plan and the master and slave depart ways permanently. The ending is somewhat predictable but still very intriguing and well done.

From the very beginning of the book I felt that it shared a great affinity of style and theme with fellow postmodern writers Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino, all of whom were heavily influenced by Jorge Luis Borges. In fact, something of the story, style, and setting of Pamuk’s novel reminded me of Eco’s Baudolino. The book relies on the strength of its intellectual questioning more than the force of the actual narrative. There are many literary tools that seem to come from the Borges “kit”: a frame story written by a fictional historian, an unreliable narrator, the theme of the double or alter ego, and the ambiguity of identity and self. There are also themes which are particular to Pamuk: the conflict between East and West, specifically between the world of Islam and Christianity, the different rates of scientific and cultural development and modernization of the Ottoman Empire and the Christian West, and fraternal jealousy and competition.

Famous moment when Khosrow discovers Shirin bathing in a pool, described by the poet Nizami and painted here by an anonymous miniaturist

Famous moment when Khosrow discovers Shirin bathing in a pool, described by the poet Nizami and painted here by an anonymous miniaturist

My Name is Red, published in 1998, is set in Ottoman Istanbul in the year 1591, a century earlier than The White Castle during the reign of the Sultan Murat III, a great patron of the arts. It takes place over the course of nine winter days and tells the story of a workshop of competing artists, one of whom was murdered, and the detective work by one of their former members to find the criminal. There is also a delicate love story between the main character, Black, and his beautiful widowed cousin, Shekure. The book runs many different simultaneous threads: the main one being the building suspense of the search for the murderer, the love story which also involves Shekure’s aggressive brother-in-law, and a richly ornamented commentary on Islamic art and poetry. The rival artists, whose names are Olive, Stork, Butterfly, and Elegant, are miniaturists of the style brought to Turkey by way of China and Persia, and which is opposed to the traditional Islamic art of calligraphy. One of the most well-known stories in Persian literature is “Khosrow and Shirin” by the poet Nizami, which was a popular subject for these miniaturist painters (in this book Pamuk uses the Turkish spelling Hüsrev and Shirin). This story is alluded to throughout the novel and mirrors that of Black and Shekure. Many other classics of Persian or Ottoman art and literature, such as Firdawsi’s epic Book of Kings, are discussed at length and influence a large part of the plot.

Each chapter in the novel is narrated in the first-person by a different character. It begins with the recently murdered man’s monologue, and includes almost all of the characters in the book and even a dog, a coin, and the color red. The book also uses metafiction and frequently plays on the idea that reader knows more than the characters. This is once again reminiscent of the postmodern Borgesian style. The story also strongly reminded me of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, in that they are both very intellectual and suspenseful murder mysteries set in medieval times and play on the jealousies and rivalries between men in a fraternal order. Overall, it was an extremely stimulating page-turner crafted with rare depth and skill. My reading list is long and I rarely have time or interest to reread books, but this will be an exception. In the meantime, now that my reading habits have changed again (and I live in sunny Italy rather than cold Russia), I can try again with Pamuk’s novel Snow.

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