Thursday, August 14, 2008

A Long Break, in which There Were Books

It's been quite awhile dear readers, but I assure you much reading has gotten done in the meantime.

Since the last update, I've finished Modern Arabic Short Stories, which was a delight. There were certainly some stories in there that I think lost something in the translation: they felt stilted and used turns of phrase that seemed more English than anything. My brother got a bunch of Naguib Mahfouz books recently, who I realised was included in this collection with the story Zaabalawi. I was also delighted to find out that Bruce Robbins was interviewed on the Leonard Lopate show last month about Tayeb Salih (who contributed The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid to the collection), as part of a series on "Underappreciated Literature." It is a very enlightening interview, and portions of Salih's novel Season of Migration to the North are read. Listen up! It's only 18 minutes.

I've also finished The True Believer for one. Never was there a book that made me so depressed and nihilistic about life because of its unerring truth since Dostoevsky.

Some food for thought:
Whatever the type, there is a deep-seated craving common to almost all men of words which determines their attitude to the prevailing order. It is a craving for recognition; a craving for a clearly marked status above the common run of humanity. "Vanity," said Napoleon, "made the Revolution; liberty was only a pretext." There is apparently an irremediable insecurity at the core of ever intellectual, be he noncreative or creative. Even the most gifted and prolific seem to live a life of eternal self-doubting and have to prove their worth anew each day. What de Rémusat said of Thiers is perhaps true of most men of words: "He has much more vanity than ambition; and he prefers consideration to obedience, and the appearance of power to power itself. Consult him constantly, and then do just as you please. He will take more notice of your deference to him than of your actions." (p. 121)
Needless to say, this depressed me utterly and reminded me of Christopher Lasch's narcissism hypothesis (full text PDF) which also evoked the same feeling of utter uselessness and futility in myself. I was, however, mollified a bit by another passage a few pages later:
The genuine man of words himself can get along without faith in absolutes. He values the search for truth as much as truth itself. He delights in the clash of thought and in the give-and-take of controversy. If he formulates a philosophy and a doctrine, they are more an exhibition of brilliance and an exercise in dialectics than a program of action and the tenets of a faith. His vanity, it is true, often prompts him to defend his speculations with savagery and even venom; but his appeal is usually to reason and not to faith. The fanatics and the faith-hungry masses, however, are likely to invest such speculations with the certitude of holy writ, and make them the fountainhead of a new faith. Jesus was not a Christian, nor was Marx a Marxist. (p. 128)
Intellectualism as a spectator sport! I've been trying to push this angle for years.

So these excerpts should surely whet your appetite should you decide to read it. It is a short, whirling tour de force and I highly suggest knocking it down in an afternoon or two. It is well-worth it.

Currently Reading

As promised, I moved on then to Imagined Communities (my edition looks like the picture to the right--so much cooler than the new edition). I was worried at first that Anderson's apparently Marxist background would bleed throughout the book. Early on he quotes The New Left Review enough that you might question his intentions, and his style is clearly in the historical materialist tradition. But happily I've found that he takes a sober look at absolutely everyone, not excepting Marxists.

I was also worried that he was an intellectual of the sort who quotes passages in foreign languages and does not translate them to demonstrate his familiarity and skill. But even this seems to be erratic and at times he eagerly supplies the English rendering, though it too often just happens to be for languages he doesn't speak. I'm still running into whole sentences in German 120 pages in or so.

Finally, I was worried about the pacing and abstractness of his thesis. Anderson takes awhile to establish the foundations of his thesis, but in later chapters you begin to realise why it's necessary. I'm glad to say things begin to move a lot quicker as he uses case studies of specific histories and movements with an incredible breadth of knowledge and understanding. It seems that the only region of the world Anderson is not intimately familiar with--which he admits himself in a footnote--is Central/Eastern Europe, which he still treats with amazing skill. And as I'd hoped, I am thoroughly enjoying this middle bit of the book, both because of the sheer amount of historical chronology and the biting analyses of ideological preconceptions: of "nation," of "freedom," of "ancestry," of "language." Here's a light-hearted taste from a wonderful footnote:
Right into the twentieth century there was a spurious quality to this 'national oligarchy' [of Hungary]. Jászi reports the diverting story of one correspondent of a famous Hungarian daily who during World War I interviewed the wounded officer who would become the reactionary dictator of Hungary in the inter-war years. Horthy was enraged by the article's description of his thoughts 'winging back to the Hungarian fatherland, home of the ancestors.' 'Remember,' he said 'that, if my chief warlord is in Baden, then my fatherland is also there!' (p. 106)
I've gotten quite far along in Jewish Literacy, but now I'm at an impasse for two reasons. One, the new edition just came out and it's almost a hundred pages longer than the last edition. I'm reading an obsolete copy! Also, I've reached the section on Israel/Palestine, and I'm honestly afraid to read it, considering that it's written from the perspective of an Orthodox Rabbi. He has a very level head on his shoulders but he is almost assuredly going to present a one-sided view of things. I've decided that I will stop there until I've read through A History of the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict. Then I will be able to tell if Telushkin is colouring the facts or not.

Otherwise, I'm in stasis, between books. I have to decide. I kind of abandoned Dubliners and On the Road as one is wont to do when they are taking on too many things at once. Maybe I'll pick them up again. Regardless, I've already opened a few pages of Islam and the Secular State, so I'll probably start that. But I also have this growing urge to read The Brothers Karamazov (or The Karamazov Brothers in my trendy translation), which I promised myself I'd finish before the end of summer and which is a spiritual successor to The Idiot. So I might get on that. Then again, I should probably get on something in Spanish (more below).

Money Wasting/Bookbuying

First, books I received free of charge: my father bought me A Hundred Years of Solitude in the original Spanish as a sort of birthday present (the cover is not nearly as colorful as the English translation). I'm very bad at keeping these kinds of promises, but I'm hoping to always maintain one track of books in my native language to keep practicing. My abilities in Spanish have gone so downhill it's embarrassing. This along with some other books brought back from Spain a few years ago should occupy me awhile on a nascent "Spanish" semantic track.

Through BookMooch, I've received Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red. I've talked about Istanbul and The Black Book in a few entries if you're interested. I am rapidly realising that the historical novel/fiction is my favorite literary genre for many reasons. I am debating whether or not to try and re-tackle The Black Book first or go straight for My Name is Red. Either way, dear readers, you will know shortly.

Now, I've ordered 5 more books for the Islamic/Middle Eastern studies track I've been on. Part of the impetus was to help gain some perspective for a historical piece I'm working on that takes place in Islamic Spain (Al-Andalus)a--a professor of mine suggested al-Massir (Destiny), on Averroes (Ibn Rushd) for some help. Meanwhile, I ordered The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie, Muhammed: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources by Martin Lings, No god but God: the Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam by Reza Aslan, Understanding Islam: an Introduction to the Muslim World, Second Edition by Thomas W. Lippman, and the Oxford World Classics translation of the Qur'an (which I've heard is quite good). Some of these books, by the way, come from suggestions in response to a post I made on Ask Metafilter.

I will now try to figure out how to make posts short and with a preview button instead of these ghastly long things. Until next time!
Continue reading "A Long Break, in which There Were Books"...

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Thin Books Fat Books Red Books Blue Books

So I finished God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater on the way to Boston and I have to say that I generally rescind my previous statements.

I do still maintain that much of the book--especially the beginning--is overly didactic. There are some very ugly passages, which do contain some kernels of truth, but ultimately have an overgeneralising and constantly self-referential tendency that threatens the honesty of the text. They are channeling the thoughts of their creator, also the author of A Man Without a Country, of which one reviewer states:
"...The pessimistic wisecracks may be wearing thin...the schtick works fine most of the time...[but] some essays suffer from authorial self-indulgence...like taking a dull story about mailing a manuscript and stretching it to interminable lengths. Of course, [this is] exactly the sort of misanthropy hardcore Vonnegut fans will lap up."
But more and more I found myself grinning at some turn of phrase or another as the narrative advanced. Vonnegut seems to get more comfortable within his own prose--here's an example:
"The point I'm trying to make," he said, "is--we are somebody. I am sick and I am tired of pretending that we just aren't anybody."
"I never pretended we weren't anybody."
"You've pretended I wasn't anybody." This was daringly true, and said almost accidentally. The truth of it stunned them both. "You know what I mean," said Fred. He pressed on, did so gropingly, since he was in the unfamiliar condition of having poignant things to say, of being by no means at the end of them." (p. 144)
I am particularly in love with that last sentence.

And so as I found more moments like these peppered throughout and as the buffoonery of Vonnegut's bureaucrats and plebeians sunk in through conversations like these, I discovered that lo and behold--I enjoyed this book. It also closed nicely, even evoking Vonnegut's pet scene of the Dresden firestorms from his service in the army.

Ultimately it is short and sweet and contains so many little quips swimming in its depths that I know (like Tristessa) I'll return to it again in the future.

Currently Reading

As I said in the last post: I needed a new tiny paperback book for work, so I chose The True Believer, by Eric Hoffer. Unfortunately, I couldn't wait to get back to work to start reading it, so I knocked down about 2/3rds of it on the train on the way home. Some very good stuff. Though I wish Hoffer would ground his argument in real-world examples a little more, since the book is largely abstract theoretics. This "groundless" nature also means that in making new points, Hoffer will often repeat old ones so as not to lose the reader in the book's density.

Actually, one of the most amusing things about reading this book is its main real-world point of comparison. Hoffer, writing then in the 50s, constantly refers to the Soviet Union in the present tense, which causes a kind of cognitive dissonance in the modern reader. Nonetheless, Hoffer's cautious and suspicious attitude is revealing of the times.

Besides, I'm sure I will make up for what The True Believer lacks in tangible content with Imagined Communities, which is forthcoming. And of course this study of nationalism is closely related to my two other main syllabi--Middle Eastern history and Abrahamic religions. And soon all three of these parallel tracks will join in holy matrimony with The Battle for God and God's Terrorists! It makes my skin tingle, really.

I've also started Modern Arabic Short Stories, selected and translated by Denys Johnson-Davies. And by 'started" I mean picked it up in bed, read the preface, and fell fast asleep. But the pages have been opened and now I am personally obligated to continue.

This book was a little hard to find (I discovered it by chance through this article in the Guardian), because it's old and there are many new editions, but I managed to score it on Amazon used a little while back for relatively cheap. I'm excited to get started.

Money Wasting/Bookbuying:

While in Boston, I couldn't resist the impulse to buy some books. Almost as soon as I arrived I wondered into the The Coop, a store in Harvard Square. I was rarin' for an ambitious purchase but I ended up compromising on one expensive hardcover that I've been wanting for awhile: Islam and the Secular State. $33! What was I thinking? At least I have it within my grasp, finally.

I also happened by another bookstore later on when meeting a friend's parents for breakfast, which I cannot remember the name of. Regardless: they had an overstock section, so of course I bit and settled on Carl Sagan's The Varieties of Scientific Experience, for $6. This will be my first Sagan, so I'm excited (and of course I will be talking about it on here).

Continue reading "Thin Books Fat Books Red Books Blue Books"...

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Them V's

So ever since I got a job I've been wondering what book I should read at work. I decided that it had to be practical: a paperback that I could easily carry with me. I was already reading Dubliners (see previous post) and I thought it would be fitting: but it turns out it's too big, or rather, too normal-sized for quick-access on breaks or when I'm taking out dogs for walks (I work at a kennel).

I realised that it had to be a compact-paperback, designed for this sort of thing--unfortunately, we haven't figured out how to make them over here in the West, so they're not as common, but I had a few lying around. I chose God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, by Kurt Vonnegut.

Just to note, I've read Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions, Cat's Cradle, Player Piano, Sirens of Titan, and Galápagos. Normally, I'm a big fan of his work.


But page after page, Kurt Vonnegut decides not to tell a story, but to go on an extended, creative rant about the paradoxes and hypocrises of American life and government. This, in and of itself, does not sound like a bad premise for a rant, or even for a whole book (though it is short to be sure). In fact, it sounds like it could be delicious, but unfortunately, it is not: I sense almost none of Vonnegut's usual sharp wit in Mr. Rosewater and find his thinly-veiled attacks on capitalism (in which he refers knowingly to himself one too many times) uninteresting and pretentious--not at all like similar, subtler attacks made by his idol and perhaps a better writer, Mark Twain.

I am reminded, of all things, of George Carlin (may his godless soul rest in peace), whose "politics" were occasionally spot on but often far too broad and generalising to mean much of anything. And as I read I keep thinking about how much more War with the Newts did with this concept (at least the bumbling bureaucracy/government part). Karel Capek, I have repeatedly told friends, was Kurt Vonnegut 30 years before Kurt Vonnegut was Kurt Vonnegut.

But then I still have a lot to go (I'm only 40 or 50 pages in) and I have to caution that as always I tend to play devil's advocate and let the critic in me scrutinise flaws first and foremost; ultimately I have had a great time with a number of Vonnegut's work and even this one squirms its way into my heart (however difficultly) on occasion. Who knows, maybe I'll feel differently by the end. Ultimately Vonnegut is one of those authors who I know I will read every piece of their ouvre some day, so I think, in the end, he is forgiven this transgression.

Forthcoming: I will soon be reading The True Believer by Eric Hoffer, simply because it is the only other "small paperback" I have. I am looking forward to synergising it with Imagined Communities, which I got at a used bookstore a ways back and has since been sitting on my desk.

Otherwise, I'm almost done with The Christian World (see previous post again), and as predicted, I do have my pet peeves about it, so I will delineate said nitpicking in the next post.
Continue reading "Them V's"...

Monday, June 16, 2008

Books, Books, Books

So! What's happened since my last post? Quite a stretch of time, eh? Well, apart from getting demoralised about my audience (re: myself), reading!

I finished Tristessa essentially the night I began reading it. It was quite a ride, for my first Kerouac, and I'm certain that, as one Amazon review states, it will "become the book of Kerouac that I return to most often." It's short but full of little niceties. It was certainly nuanced enough that I couldn't possibly catch everything on the first go--especially for my first dose of his work. I'm not saying it's quite the same, but in many ways I would think it'd be like delving into Joyce by first reading Finnegan's Wake: it could be alienating.

To say the least, it rekindled my interest in writing, and I soon was tacking away on the typewriter in enthusiasm.

In other news: Dubliners! This is a good trip for a first timer but I think I should start reading it during the day. I don't know what it is about Oxford World Classics, but they refuse to put the annotations in the text (it might have to do with some lofty appeal to the purity of the text). You essentially have to always keep one finger in the back of the book to anticipate any coming annotations, and since almost every sentence contains a street name or some Dublin locale, I'm flipping back and forth constantly, to the point where I'm uncertain whether or not I'm actually comprehending the text as a whole or in little chunks.

But that might be more a problem with my unfamiliarity with Dublin than anything else. Surely not knowing the city detracts from the enjoyment of the book, or rather, knowing the city would enhance it. Still, the locales are integral to the story, so it's not exactly like I can avoid them...right?

I'll resolve it eventually. Now I know how my professor must have felt last semester when I wrote a historical fiction piece with 50+ annotations.

Moving on! I went to Strand in New York the other day with my father, for Father's Day, and Forbidden Planet. And I can never resist the temptation to buy books!

At Strand, I picked up To See Every Bird on Earth, The Christian World: A Global History, and God's Terrorists: the Wahhabi Cult and the Hidden Roots of Modern Jihad. All of them were marked down significantly, so it felt like a great buy. Now, one by one:

1) The author of To See Every Bird, Dan Koeppel, came to my school to speak a few months back about freelance journalism and the book business. He read excerpts from this book and his more recent effort, Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World. The excerpts were affable and engrossing, and so of course I mentally catalogued him for future reference (his lecture, by the way, was also another factor in helping me orient myself towards writing again). I'm looking forward to reading this one. $6.

2) I picked up The Christian World on an instinct. I wanted it to incorporate into my general Abrahamic religions syllabus that I mentioned a few posts back. Sitting among the other used books, I could tell this one was more high profile and more professional (re: attractive cover), and from my brief perusal definitely seemed interesting. I'm frustrated that I can't seem to find any information online about it.

I started reading it today and I think it's going to be a good ride. The author, Martin Marty (wonder if he was teased as a kid?), is a pastor of the Lutheran persuasion, so clearly he has some vested interests, but at least so far I'm placated by his sense of responsibility to be scholarly and therefore neutral. He uses C.E., which, as the above linked post explains, makes me happy, and he does go to great pains to not gloss over the "evils" (as he puts it) of Christian history. From my first impression--first chapter, 30 pages--he does definitely have some kind of apologist slant but I'm hoping it won't be a problem.

Otherwise, I find the prose to be kind of simplistic at times simply because it is so sweeping, but then, as he notes, this might simply be the problem of trying to write a history of the whole of Christian development all across the world in just 288 pages.

Regardless, I'm positive it will be informative, and any potential biases will (hopefully!) be normalised by the (hopefully!) cynical slant of The Battle for God later on in the syllabus.

3) Finally, I picked up the very attractive (again, aesthetically speaking--covers just speak to me) God's Terrorists, by Charles Allen. I'd read about Wahhabism a bit in Fromkin's A Peace to End All Peace (see here), and of course as such an important part of Islamic history I decided I needed to brush up on it.

I'm hoping the alarmist title doesn't hint at the tone of the book--one Amazon reviewer does note that he "was completely let down by the author's brief and poorly argued conclusion...[which] seemed thrown-in as an after thought," so I will be wary (then again, the title of his review was "A Warning to Western Civilization." Hmm...mixed messages.

Anyway, this'll segue well into the Forbidden Planet excursion.

I'd never been there before, and I was pleasantly surprised when I arrived. A very decent selection and humble atmosphere--though what do I know as only an onlooker of comics from the periphery? I was browsing wracking my brains for comics on my list that weren't things like Transmetropolitan or The Watchmen (no hard feelings--I will read them someday, but I was craving something different, something more palpable), and I remembered a graphic novel a friend at school recommended me, Palestine.

I was in luck. They had 3 copies. Joe Sacco's graphic novel--or I should say, comic, since the term 'graphic novel' is loathsome marketing junk according to Sacco--is a vivid (and sometimes harrowing) account of his trip to the Palestinian territories, drawn laboriously in the gangly R. Crumb tradition. The 'magnum opus,' as he sometimes refers to it himself in the comic, is a page-turner: I finished it in a day, though it is a "comic." I don't mean this pejoratively; I simply mean that I like the pretty pictures and it goes by quickly.

The narrative is just naive and self-deprecating enough to be affable, though at times it may try a bit too hard at this. The politics, of course, is the meet of it, and what's good is that Sacco tends to let characters talk for themselves. He interjects his own opinions often, but there are many monologues and interludes with the book's eclectic cast, each telling their stories. Having just finished Fromkin's excellent history, I did spot a few inaccuracies (or at least "glossings-over," but no harm no foul I guess), but otherwise the ground-level view of quotidian Palestinian life is heart-wrenching. It really helps that this

Visually, as I said, it is superb. I have always had an instinctive negative reaction against the unctuous, hairy, organic style (I could never watch Ren & Stimpy as a kid), but I think Sacco hits the sweet spot. It's not "gross," but there's just enough grit and grime to get you really feeling and seeing all the melancholy and humility (in the sense of their humanity--not always their personality) of the Palestine's inhabitants/landscapes. I was frustrated at how Sacco drew himself, however: this ultimate act of self-deprecation portrays the man as an ugly skin-and-bones nerd with huge lips. But in the portrait--he's so handsome! I can't forgive him for that one. See for yourself:

But I kid. Ultimately I have no weighty qualms about the book yet (I will certainly have to flip through it a few more times to let some of the images/prose sink in more), though I might have to sit on a few of the ideas presented.

I didn't buy anything else at Forbidden Planet, but my brother got the Sam and Max "Surfin' the Highway Anniversary Edition," and some other thing which I can't quite remember but will find out about shortly. I am looking forward to devouring them in the coming days!

Phew! What a post. I will be back, dear readers, with more bookish updates soon!
Continue reading "Books, Books, Books"...

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Memoir as a Blueprint; Memoir as Self-Serving

I just finished Pamuk's Istanbul (discussed in this post), and I can safely say it was worthwhile. I'm definitely chomping at the bit for more Pamuk, but I would like to address a few things (some good, some bad) about the book first.

On the good: the more I read Istanbul,the more it resembled The Black Book, and indeed, I've realised that it is something of a blueprint for the book. Though Istanbul was written nearly 10 years after the original release of The Black Book in Turkey, it obviously reveals what Pamuk's mindset and his line of thinking about the city he lives in, and at least for me demystifies the complex narrative of the latter.

I remember falling in love with Pamuk's prose in 2006 when I read the new translation by Maureen Freely (which I bought in Spain, incidentally--I bought an imported English copy and so the cover was not something terrible as my experience is in America but actually quite tasteful), but being overwhelmed by the superstructure: I couldn't get more than halfway through. Now after reading Istanbul I see to what extent The Black Book is merely a surrealist, fictionalised account of what is in fact Pamuk's actual life and city. So many of the names are quite the same, so many of the details ring a bell, and I think now this book has prepared me better for going back to The Black Book better than I ever could have imagined. I'm excited to delve into it soon.

On the bad: Towards the end, Istanbul began to taper off. Pamuk included more and more about his personal life and his personal demons, to the point where I--stunningly--found myself bored.

Throughout most of the book his thesis is watertight: he interpolates the idea of "hüzün," (melancholy) historical Istanbul, and his own existentialist crises very well. In this context the personal anecdotes are humble, endearing, and most importantly interesting.

But the last few chapters these personal anecdotes begin to wear thin, because they are no longer linked to the thesis as solidly as they were before. They seem more like entries in a diary, indignant and rambling more than intricate and elegant (as had been my impression until that point). Here is an excerpt:
"...My brother and I would give our all to vanquishing and crushing each other to fend off the fear we kept hidden in the darkest corner of our hearts: the melancholy and desolation of sharing Istanbul's shameful fate."
Pamuk's self-deprecating confession that he is "prone to exaggeration" might justify these passages but at this point it ceases to be believable or endearing, and instead merely absurd. The "First Love" chapter which soon follows, which could have been linked much more gracefully with the overall narrative, ends up sounding exactly like the type of narcissistic confessional I might make to a friend. I thought as I read it how much more tolerable and interesting it would be if Pamuk had told me this over lunch or coffee rather than in the pages of a book, where my patience was being tried. In these final sections it feels as if the intermittent references to hüzün and Istanbul's historical fate are merely tacked on, reminders to himself what his book was originally about.

Ultimately, it is still Pamuk and interesting enough that one is compelled to finish (not the least because of the exquisite photos adorning almost every page). But it feels like Pamuk dropped the ball at the end. He alludes early on to the "hidden symmetry" of the book, but as one reviewer noted, it seems the this symmetry is nothing more than the contrast between internal, personal conflict ("the man") and external, historical conflict ("the city"). This is all well and good, and as I said, works for the majority of the novel. But towards the end this symmetry seems to crumble and become self-indulgent. The aforementioned reviewer notes:
"At times — certainly over the last fifth of the book — Pamuk’s melodrama about huzun gets to be a bit much. He haunts the miserable streets of a lost empire, collar upturned against the snow, trying to shake off his own desperation at a lost love and make an art form that doesn’t just ape the West. On and on he goes, trying to beat us over the head with the idea that the city inhabits the man and the man the city: we cut back and forth between his furious wanderings in the streets and his fight with his mother over what he’ll do with his life. Pamuk thinks he is terribly clever. He wants us very much to know how clever it is; earlier in the book he drops hints about its “hidden symmetry.” This symmetry, so far as I can tell, is just the symmetry between the man and the city. So now you know. If you were paying attention during the first half of the book, you already knew. I’d rather not be bludgeoned with the Cleverness Stick."
And I couldn't agree more. He convinced me about hüzün by page 107; did he really have to repeat it like a mantra so much so that I would almost regret hearing it said (or written, rather)?

So: what do we say? Well, Pamuk is still a wonderful writer, but I've concluded that he might just write fiction better than non-fiction--everything I've read, and everything I've been told by those who've read his other works indicates this. His thought process seems to lend itself much more to the grandiose and beautiful, and so his description of quotidian realities can come off as lacking if not properly executed.

We'll conclude with some minor ruminations spurred by youtube:

Here is a clip of Pamuk receiving the Nobel Prize in literature. It struck me as terribly ironic: here is this writer whose modus operandi is struggling with the dichotomy between East and West, and now here he is being awarded the prize for this effort in an antiquated European ceremony with tinny trumpets blaring and stilted gesticulation. Kind of strange that his recognition for articulating the melancholy of Istanbul, that site of East-West tensions, is to take part in a highly Western ceremony, only to later be disparaged by his own people and ridiculed for "insulting Turkishness" (by acknowledging the Armenian Genocide of WWI). Kind of depressing, isn't it? He achieves that attention he so longed--"Under Western Eyes" as in the title of one of his chapters in Istanbul--and it serves instead as his downfall. Pamuk has some very cogent things to say in the Journeyman Pictures video.

Here Pamuk admits that he never had a job until he was 54, when he began teaching at Columbia University. Holy crap.

Miscellaneous Update: I've started reading Tristessa, by Jack Kerouac. It's my first of his books, and I think it's a good introduction to his works--I've heard good things, to say the least. It's just shy of 100 pages, less even, so it'll be a quick read. I'm enjoying the zany, stream of consciousness prose so far, to be sure: lots of quotables.

More posts to come on it for sure.
Continue reading "Memoir as a Blueprint; Memoir as Self-Serving"...

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Secular Calendar

So my copy of Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People and Its History arrived yesterday. I'm excited to start reading it--it's part of the syllabus I've been molding for myself this summer, to go along with my research into the history of the Middle East and Abrahamic Religions.

I haven't started reading it yet, though. I'm posting to note something that surprised and pleased me: I turned to the inside-cover of the back of the book, to read some preliminary information about the author and the contents of the book, and to my surprise, all the dates involved were listed not in AD or BC but...ACE and BCE!

It might seem like a minor orthographical change, but it is in effect a deliberate choice to use neutral, secular terminology instead of potentially loaded traditional terminology. Not that AD and BC have that much meaning attached to them anymore--they are, after all, colloquial and pragmatic more than anything. But using ACE and BCE is a simple sign of professionalism, and a signal to me that the book's author, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, has got a head on his shoulders (only confirming what I essentially already knew).

update: I have since found out that this tradition was started by Jewish scholars, to contest the Christian use of AD and BC. Luckily, Jews have a long tradition of respecting Secularism so it works out anyway, eh?

~parkbench (May 20, 2008, ACE) Continue reading "The Secular Calendar"...

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Tram Cars and Armenians

I've been reading David Fromkin's excellent history of the Middle East, A Peace to End All Peace. The book is riveting in its accounts, but depressing in its grim assessment of the obliviousness and short-sightedness of the politics of the time. This is, admittedly, a good thing, but it is, after pages and pages of reading, disheartening. It almost feels like some kind of voyeurism or schadenfreude is necessary to keep moving through the thing.

Meanwhile, as a kind of break from the heavy-handedness of Fromkin's history, I've also been reading Orhan Pamuk's autobiography, Istanbul (late at night I will literally switch between the two on and off). A passage at the end of the chapter I was reading struck me in particular last night. Pamuk writes,
"The trams had been going up and down our street since 1914, connecting Maçka and Nişantşı to Taksim Square, Tünel, and the Galata Bridge, and all the other old, poor, historic neighborhoods that then seemed to belong to another country. When I went to bed in the early evenings, I'd be lulled to sleep by the melancholy music of the trams. I loved their wooden interiors, the indigo-blue glass on the bolted door between the driver's 'station' and the passenger area; I loved the crank that the driver would let me play with if we got on the end of the line and had to wait to leave...until we could travel home again, the streets, the apartments, and even the trees in black and white." (p. 33)
I had literally just put down Fromkin's book, which had just been explaining the massacre of the Armenians, starting around 1915, perpetrated by the Young Turk government. I had just been reading about international negligence that led to the deaths of thousands of mostly innocent people--and then here I was reading this nostalgic, waxing account of a tram car.

And as I read it somehow warmed my heart to think that amidst all these sweeping historical changes, these massacres and these political upheavals, this turbulent time, that the quotidian reality of that tram car didn't change. It went up and down, up and down the street, with its "melancholy music," oblivious to the context of its time, simply moving back and forth as it should. The consistency of this tram car, I thought, at the very least might provide some kind of facade of normality--as the fall of the Ottoman Empie, and the destruction of the Pasha's mansions (the chapter's title) drew nearer.

So I found myself inexplicably mollified, but even more than that fascinated. I have decided that this is the best way to delve into historical moments: interpolating two vastly different accounts of a period. The interpolation of these two books is incidental at best but nonetheless amazing--on one hand is a cut-and-dry macroscopic history, and on the other is a microscopic, personalised ode to a city and a country.

The real joy of the book--aside from Pamuk's endearing and honest prose, obviously--is the photographs, slid easily and effortlessly throughout chapters. And so here, dear readers, I present to you the tram car: stoic and oblivious.

Continue reading "Tram Cars and Armenians"...