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Somewhere in updating WordPress and several issues with massive amounts of spam, it looks like I accidentally deleted a bunch of comments. There aren’t that many lengthy discussions here, anyway, but if I deleted yours, know that I read it and I am sorry. I really need to figure out a more accessible way to manage them in general.

August Reading Recap

When there is time to do so, it is interesting to look at the cadence of life, particularly for those people whose lives are governed by regular and seemingly immutable deadlines that overlap with months of hectic regular activities, followed by periods of empty schedules. I had a dissertation chapter due the week before the semester began and then, nearly two weeks ago, class came back (punctuated by one of my least happily-timed holidays, Labor Day). I like what I do, but but the academic calendar is foolishly constructed for a society where children don’t need to go help on the farm anymore.

Anyway, I’ve been going through this week under the impression that it is somewhere between September 12 and October 15, depending on the day. So here is a somewhat belated account of last month’s reading.

The Towers of Trebizond, Rose MaCaulay

One of the books I picked up because I wanted to read more fiction written by women, the Towers of Trebizond is a novel written in the form of a travelogue. Laurie, the narrator, recounts an ill-fated expedition in the early 1950s led by Aunt Dot and an older Anglican minister, Father Chantry-Pigg. Oh, and Aunt Dot’s camel, who, most people are convinced, is probably deranged. As is the current fad, Aunt Dot is going to Turkey to write a book, but hers is going to focus on the plight of Turkish women (who she will liberate), Laurie is her artist, and Father Pigg has plans to convert the heathens. Along the way, they meet American evangelicals, a BBC television crew, and other authors. As one might expect, the expedition goes awry.

The story was funny and Macaulay erudite when it came to making references to religious and historical contexts and contemporary goings-on. For instance, two of the other adventurers who are supposed to have been in the area were Patrick and Freya, and it is an easy leap to identify those two given names with Patrick Leigh Fermor and Freya Stark. Laurie is a sympathetic character, although, like a lot of travel writing, seems to pass through the environments as a way of experiencing them without really seeming to develop. That you are inside her head for the duration of the story may also account for this impression.

The Towers of Trebizond is a funny and clever book and, as the Amazon blurb describes it, it does investigate “modern” spirituality, but when I read the introduction about MacCaulay, much of the sarcasm and wit became sardonic, overlaid with sadness from her own experiences.

A Sport and a Pastime- James Salter
The story of Phillip Dean, a Yale dropout, and Anne-Marie, his French lover in a town in the south of France, told through the lens of Phillip’s male American friend with whom he is staying. The affair burns while the narrator watches, the young couple seemingly untouched by the problems and responsibilities of adulthood, only preoccupied with themselves.

The book-blurb describes Salter as a master of writing and A Sport and a Pasttime is good (certainly in the Hemingway school of writing), but the most prescient thing mentioned in the introduction is that Salter tells a story that, within that self-contained universe, weaves between truth and fiction, with the line blurred. The narrator is self-described as unreliable, but whether that is because he wishes he were Phillip or with Phillip, or because he is writer spinning a yarn, or because Phillip is imaginary wish-fulfillment or he actually is Phillip, just telling the story in third person, is unclear. I favor wish-fulfillment or that he is Phillip Dean, but it is clear that the idyllic, almost prelapsarian, love-affair is impossible to maintain as the rest of the world tugs away at the couple. I was glad to have read the book, but, honestly, it did not stick with me in the same concrete way other tales of love and obsession have. It did not seem to be dated, which is a complaint I read before picking it up, but rather I didn’t particularly care for any of the main characters. Admittedly, I went in almost more interested in the “town in S. France” part than in the story itself.

The Naive and Sentimental Novelist -Orhan Pamuk

This book is the published version of Pamuk’s Norton Lecture series, where he takes the audience through his experience of reading and writing books (he really loves Anna Karenina). He argues that the thing that holds all novels together and sets them apart from other forms of literature is a “secret center,” that is, the core idea of a novel that makes it work as a complete story and the unspoken message (or moral without necessarily being “moralistic”) of the novel. In fact, one of his critiques of genre literature (sci-fi, fantasy, romance, and you could even add YA literature here) is that the bulk of them are so relentlessly reliant on common tropes that they share a secret center with all the others. There is no need to bristle at Pamuk calling genre literature out as dreck; he acknowledges that the great examples of those genres transcend the tropes and thereby have a unique center and (to me) satisfactorily explains why genre literature may be boring.

Pamuk also goes to great lengths to explore how and why people have such a personal relationship with literature, particularly in that novels require an active give-and-take between what the author put down and the reader–and, if there is no ongoing series, the author is the passive participant once the book is published. The essays are theoretical without being filled with jargon and while much of it would be familiar to people familiar, particularly, with a bit of post-modernism, Pamuk is worth reading. I believe this also works toward explaining my aversion to movies and tv shows based on books I like.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane- Neil Gaimon
Talked about here. Gaimon’s short novel was my favorite book of the month. I don’t know how to say more than I’ve said without giving spoilers, so go read it.

I picked up Don Quixote for the first time at the end of the month and then got busy, so I am slowly making my way through that behemoth (I have the complete an unabridged one). The story opens with the eponymous character drying up his brains and going crazy because he reads the “trash” novels of his day. Between video games and the proliferation of certain genres, cultural critics don’t change a whole lot. It would not surprise me if this is the only book I read this month, though I am looking forward to reading either Old Man and the Sea or The Lives of Tao after this doorstop.

What’s making me happy 8/15

In an homage to NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, I’ve wanted for some time to start at least a semi-regular feature here about what is making me happy. The reason for this is simple: my favorite thing about the podcast is that it is upbeat. They close every show with a roundtable discussion of what is making them happy, sometimes in the form of a recommendation, sometimes something more abstract. I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety and like the reminder not so much to take pleasure in things as remember that I do take pleasure in things. So this is borne of both a reminder to myself and a desire to share things I enjoy with others. (Future posts will likely include a shorter introduction.)

What is making me happy: Neil Gaimon’s Ocean at the End of the Lane.

In his middle years the narrator returns to his childhood home for a funeral and finds himself drawn to the Hempstock farm, where, in a flash, he remembers something that happened there when he was seven.

That’s the entire summary that I’m giving. Things happen, he had forgotten, but now remembers. I had heard good things about this novel, but really only picked it up on a whim and then read it over the course of the next twenty-four hours. Like the rest of Gaimon’s oeuvre that I’ve read, The Ocean at the End of the Lane bends truth and reality, as well as manipulating folk tales and traditions. This particular story tugs at the nostalgia strings about how one remembers childhood and about things that children know that adults don’t, begs the question of not whether, but how people change as they age, and how worth is adjudged. There is whimsy, there is sadness, and there is pettiness.

Gaimon’s prose is beautiful and sent me on a nostalgia trip of my own, complete with sweet sadness. I also enjoyed the brief interview with the author published at the end of the copy I had, as well as a set of reading group guide questions that pointed to particular features of the story that were fairly evident, but perhaps not articulated by the reader, and also prodded one to think just a little bit more deeply about what was just read.

I’ve been fortunate to have read some really, really good books this year so far and The Ocean at the End of the Lane is up there with the best of them.

James Bond

Elsewhere I wrote that one of my frustrations with Hollywood action films, above even escalating body counts, is the common scene of careless heroes wantonly causing collateral damage in the name of stopping “bad guys.” Yet, when I recently re-watched the latest James Bond film, Skyfall, I noticed the same type of collateral damage and was reminded of similar scenes in past installments, including Brosnan driving a tank through a Russian city, but the damage didn’t bother me nearly as much as in generic action films. Although the studio equation is not nearly so nuanced (boom = $), I wanted to tease out why the message in James Bond films bothers me less than the message in other films, even though the actual scenes are practically interchangeable.

James Bond to me: the perfect embodiment of British imperial hubris. Women, even if they really want to kill him, are compelled to sleep with him first, he has a tendency to tell everyone his name (useful for a spy), and, to the best of his ability, Bond operates as though no foreign government has the ability or authority to impede his mission. Bond is a sort of imperial terminator more than an actual hero meant to be emulated.

Because I see Bond as this sort of caricature, a personified tentacle of the Leviathan, collateral damage is par for the course. Perhaps this is a grim view of the state, and, certainly, government shouldn’t want to destroy cars and buildings, and should respect the territorial integrity of other states, but, well, as anyone checked the news recently? This minor difference makes it possible for my hackles to stay down when watching it on Netflix.

I don’t have anything more profound to say than that. Bond is imperial wish fulfillment. Flipping the narrative or turning the monomaniacal/communist/totalitarian/monstrous villain into a scrappy freedom-fighter would make Bond practically interchangeable with Mr. Smith from the Matrix.

Reflections on Guardians of the Galaxy

I read two reviews of Guardians of the Galaxy before seeing the film and heard two discussions of it since. The judgements, broadly speaking, fall into two camps: terrible soundtrack, shallow, cheesy, interchangeable with other action-comedies OR amazingly funny, clever, and beautifully composed. To these, I say “yes.”

Some bullet-points:

  • GoG was a ton of fun to watch. Chris Pratt was perfect for the goofy-yet-roguish hero (who really just wants people to take him seriously when he tells them his name is Star Lord). There were jokes, both verbal and visual and anytime it seemed that the film was going to fall back into serious mode, something would happen to remind everyone that this was a comedy first. Admittedly, some of the jokes were aimed at a younger audience and so erred toward the juvenile, but there were others, included dated material and topical inclusions, that had the adults laughing out loud and the kids silent.
  • Along similar lines (and as pointed out by the Grantland pop culture podcast), GoG maintained and even reveled in a sense of wonder in a way that is rare for action films.
  • I really enjoyed the jokes they got from tossing the whole story into space and then playing with what could happen when alien cultures bump into an American (well, human, but really American) culture.
  • The backgrounds were usually impressive, but, after the initial euphoria of the film wore off, it seemed to me that the world-building was minimalistic (in part because other off-world settings are usually backed up by extensive canons, such as Star Trek, in a way that this film was not). The approach worked here, but I would want more going forward.
  • GoG is incredibly referential, visually, cinematically, and in terms of plot. One of the reviews, though I forget which one, pointed this out in that GoG had little that was uniquely memorable. I agree with this critique, though I thought that this was by design. Nearly every shot, line, scene, etc referred the audience to something else. Likewise, the music drew the audience back to the 1970s, which I filed under “fun.” In this movie, it worked. I am skeptical that this model can work as a franchise. GoG made Scrooge Mc-Duck money (94 million opening weekend–largest ever in August), so it is guaranteed to be a franchise, of course, and I am sure that the subsequent movies will do well commercially, but I could see this being a reason to for the second film to be a letdown.
  • GoG was decidedly in the vein of good people do good things, bad people blow up things, and, in a refreshing change, they even made a point of having the good guys hold off the assault in almost its entirety until the line came over the channel announcing that the city was evacuated. I liked this. I just wish it had actually been true. First, the announcement came after an impossibly short time; second, in the scene that immediately followed the climactic crash, a crowd of (what looked like) civilians surrounded the heroes for the decisive event. Oops.
  • Saladin Ahmed speculated on twitter a correlation between shooter and adventure video games and the gratuitous on-screen body counts in action movies and, yes, GoG had one. For the most part, I think there is a reciprocal relationship between video games and movies and rising body counts, but I was glad that there was no one scene where I thought the sequencing was specifically designed for the video game tie-in.

In sum: GoG was fun enough that most of the cracks only showed through upon further reflection.

[Additional point: I agree with the critique that the film could have used more female characters, but I file this under a problem of Hollywood as a whole more so than this film in particular.]

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.

A Sunday Evening Thought: Humanity

Apropos of everything or nothing, depending on your inclination.

I admire Olaf Stapledon’s vision of humanity in Last and First Men (1930): relentlessly self-destructive but irrepressibly resilient, brimming with potential but fundamentally and permanently limited. In this vision, humanity maintains a precarious existence and is usually too individualistic and preoccupied to realize just how fragile it is.

He repeats the sentiment more succinctly in the opening chapter of Starmaker (1937):

From this high look-out the Earth would have appeared no different before the dawn of man. No visiting angel, or explorer from another planet, could have guessed that this bland orb teemed with vermin, with world-mastering, self-torturing, incipiently angelic beasts.

Unhelpfully trite though it might be, a particularly notable line about the better angels of our nature comes to mind.

Eleven Thoughts about “X-Men: Days of Future Past”

Needing a break and looking to tear myself away from my usual routine, I went to the movies last night and watched the latest installment of the X-Men franchise. It was okay. Here are eleven thoughts I had at or that were stimulated by the film.

  1. I’m not wild about the secret or alternate history genre in movies (more so than books) because it is often done in a ham-handed way by going to the largest or most notable events in the past and attributing them to the central conceit of the story. It might appeal to some people, but I find it simultaneously dull and pandering.
  2. The longer a franchise runs and the more any of the movies nod toward true ensemble casts, the more likely that later installments devolve into a string of cameo appearance.
  3. I really like Peter Dinklage’s voice.
  4. Eric Lehnsherr (Magneto) is a brilliant character, and I like how Michael Fassbender/Ian McKellen play him. He is a powerful character, but beyond his manipulation of magnetism, he is a Holocaust survivor with incredible charisma and will power, one who melds both the outcast ideology of Zionism with the Nazi ideology of racial supremacy, a revolutionary and a terrorist, but one with a (e)utopian vision, a man who has a God-complex, but who is also a good friend. These combine to make him really compelling to watch.
  5. One set of cameos was mutants serving in the army in Vietnam. They are about to be taken away experimented on when they are rescued. It was early enough in the film that I assumed that this would be some sort of Chekhov’s Gun. In a way, it was, but the men being rescued only served as bit-pieces for a cheap tug on the heart-strings. Again, a ham-handed effort to show depth to the world of the story, but comes across poorly because clumsy sleight of hand reveals exactly how deep the story is rather than creating the illusion that this is just the beginning.
  6. I cannot think of a dramatic portrayal of Nixon that I have ever found compelling.
  7. There were some pretty special-effects in X-Men and between some good acting, interesting characters, and the effects, there were the makings of a good story. It made sense in the past-present are brought together for the time-travel portion of the plot, but the transitions between the two timelines were often nearly symmetrical, a feature that I found oddly jarring.
  8. The “present” timeline really only served to heighten dramatic tension to the movie, which was a waste, given the actors whose role was to sit around and act concerned…or over-used since its main point was to remind everyone that they were on a deadline that would inevitably expire just as the “past” timeline reached its resolution.
  9. The frequent glossing between “mind,” “brain,” “psychic energy” and the like bothers me. I realize that this is super-hero/comic book neuroscience, but I’m waiting for the Marvel documentary that explains “the science” at work here. In the meantime, this strikes me as a verbal dodge of the sort found in bad science fiction. I can suspend disbelief to a point, but when you start pulling obvious word-game mumbo-jumbo it is a bridge too far.
  10. I am a sap when it comes to the obligatory motivational speech about humanity with the proper musical accompaniment, but while there was the occasional excellent line in this film, the writing was not transcendent or even consistently clever and interesting. Good writing punches up good characters, and it is unfortunate when characters cannot constantly present themselves as interesting/intelligent/charismatic as they are supposed to be because the writing doesn’t allow it. But this may be a topic for consideration on its own.
  11. The central plot of X-Men is that they go back in time to rescue a defense contractor in order to save the future. It is a nice message that you shouldn’t kill people and the contractor doesn’t entirely get away, though only through his own hubris, not his experiments on people or the central project he worked on. But saving the future by saving a large defense contract is a fairly depressing conceit to hang your plot on. At least in the animated series they had to rescue the President.

There are eleven thoughts. The movie, with its 8.4/10 ranking on IMDB was solidly okay 7 or 7.5/10, plus or minus a bit depending on what you care most about in a movie. I had hoped to go somewhere where I could not multitask and didn’t have a dozen other things to do as a means of hopefully recharging my spent fuel cells. Sometimes the movie theater experience can re-focus me. I did not achieve the ideal outcome, but, in X-Men’s defense, it is entirely possible that I was unable to get that immersive experience because I have several dozen other things on my mind.

Questionable humanity: A Review of Attack on Titan Season 1

I having been feeling the need to exercise my thinking muscles lately and just finished watching the anime series “Attack on Titan,” which is an adaptation of a manga series by the same name. I really enjoyed the show, hence, a review.

A century before the story there appeared in the world titans, which are tall (ranging from four to sixty meters) humanoid figures, usually masculine in shape but lacking in genitalia, that are attracted to areas with high population densities, breaking into towns and eating as many humans as they can get their hands on. Thus far, it appears that the titans are instinctive and unthinking, impossible to communicate with and difficult to bring down since the only way to kill them is to cut into a small spot at the base of the titan’s neck. Titans do not need humans as food and nothing is known about their energy sources or how they communication or where they came from. The titans appeared and multiplied, driving the remnants of humanity behind three concentric sets of walls, Maria, Rose, and Sina, which are commonly thought to have been sent by God to protect humanity.

Human society militarized to confront the threat of the Titans and recruits are divided between the Scout Regiment, which operates beyond the walls, the Garrison Regiment, which mans the cannons on the walls, and the Military Police, which is a position of luxury and privilege. The military provides both internal and external security, as well as enforcing the will of the Monarchy that rules over this new kingdom. In addition to rifles and cannon, all soldiers are trained in the use of 3-D Maneuvering devices that use gas-powered launchers to fire pegs attached to wires in every direction, quickly pulling the wielder in its wake. In enclosed spaces, this gives the soldiers an opening to get around behind the titan and strike at its neck. The device give the human soldiers a chance against titans, it does not give them an edge.

The story opens when Eren Yeager’s hometown in the Shiganshina on Wall Maria is attacked in an apocalyptic event when a sixty meter tall titan appears at the wall and breaks it open, allowing a horde of smaller titans in. Almost everyone in the city is slaughtered and the main characters, Eren, Mikasa Ackerman (Eren’s foster sister), and Armin Arlert (his friend), just children, are forced to flee with the survivors behind Wall Rose. The influx of population into the smaller wall circuit causes famine and social unrest, while our protagonists sign up to join the military with the goal of destroying all the titans.

Each character deals with the training and war against the titans in his or her own way. Eren is an implacable enemy, aggressive but lacking in sense. Mikasa is, for reasons learned in the show, completely dedicated to Eren, but is a much better fighter. Armin is a genius, but the weakest of the three. These characters are the fulcrum upon which the story rests, but they are joined by a larger cast of characters from their cadet corps and future comrades-in-arms as elements within the military buck the innate conservatism of the political apparatus in order to try to win the conflict with the titans rather than waiting, huddled within the walls.

Fair warning, the following portion of the review will include spoilers.
(Continued)

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.