Political theater, poetic farce

Orhan Pamuk’s Snow begins as a novel that had a good shot at feeding the intellect but instead contorted itself into a soap opera complete with convenient fixes for its weaknesses.Snow - Kar

Snow · Orhan Pamuk · 2002
Maureen Freely translation · Vintage, 2005 · 463 pages, paperback

A political coup that manipulates the theater to confuse and gain power? A string of suicides inspired by Turkey’s uncertain position on the East-West divide? An exiled poet who just might find enlightenment in the forsaken streets of his home town? Pamuk’s writing in Snow (originally published in Turkey as Kar) is too placid for the story he wanted to tell. We read the few moments of heightened drama in this novel in a detached way, as if we’re too tired to keep our eyes open and our brains can’t hold onto the words we’re reading: we just don’t care.  Continue reading

The Fellowship of the Ring

Doom-boom. Doom-boom. Doom, doom, doom. Doom-boom. It’s a quieter kind of evil, but it’s an evil that reaches throughout all Middle-earth. Tolkien proves in the first part to his Lord of the Rings trilogy (actually six books in three parts) that subtlety makes for powerful magic.

Fellowship of the Ring

The Fellowship of the Ring · J.R.R. Tolkien · 1954
Mariner, 2012 · 398 pages, paperback

Frodo inherits more than Bag End and an adventuring spirit from Bilbo Baggins when he moves into Bag End. The Ring he’s left holding is cursed with dark magic, and he’s set on the quest to destroy it – far South and East into Mordor, into the heart of the Sauron’s territory.

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Patricide and prejudice in Twelve Angry Men

“We don’t owe him a thing. He got a fair trial, didn’t he? What d’you think the trial cost? He’s lucky he got it. Know what I mean?”

Twelve Angry Men

Twelve Angry Men · Reginald Rose · 1954
Penguin, 2006 · 73 pages, paperback

Reginald Rose’s teleplay Twelve Angry Men opens onto an empty jury room, drab and bare of what isn’t necessary. “One man is dead. The life of another is at stake. I urge you to deliberate honestly and thoughtfully” – the judge, reminding the jury – and the audience – that New York required the death penalty for any convicted murderer.

Which is why the behavior of the men who then file into the jury room is so revolting.

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Nikolai Leskov and the brotherly charm of skaz

Dozens of travelers in various states of tiredness, en route to destinations far-flung and close by, take refuge at an inn while the whirling snow buffets the window panes and threatens to become a blizzard. Sleepy chatter among the travelers lazily rises against the warmth of a large Russian stove until one man’s comment stops them all.

The Enchanted Wanderer
The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories · 
Nikolai Leskov · 1865-‘87
Pevear and Volokhonsky translation · Knopf, 2013 · 575 pages, hardcover

The story Leskov’s narrator tells, that of “The Sealed Angel,” taking place on the cold banks of a river and requiring the theft of religion (in more ways than one), is so far removed from the inn of these travelers that it’s a secret pleasure when someone interrupts the narrator, bringing us once more into the warmth of the inn.

The stories in this new collection of Nikolai Leskov’s work, selected and translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, vary in scope, tone and depth, but each of them comes wrapped up in this same brotherly feeling.

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Mystery train

Murder on the Orient Express

Murder on the Orient Express · Agatha Christie · 1934
Harper Collins, 2017 · 267 pages, paperback

A wealthy man of dubious morals is found stabbed to death the night after he discloses to detective Hercule Poirot that he fears for his life. Snowdrifts have caught the Orient Express en route between stations. No footprints in the snow: the murderer must still be aboard, and it’s Poirot’s job to find out who it is. It’s classic whodunit style.

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A simultaneity of selves: Auster’s 4321

We humans are a messy business with our many different selves, often conflicting selves, all bundled into one body and not allowing us to sit easy because what if? 

Auster, 4321

4321 · Paul Auster
Henry Holt & Company, 2017 · 866 pages, hard cover

4321 answers that what if? Four Archie Fergusons, four variations on a theme, a concerto played in four keys – the raw materials are the same but…a tweak here, a crank there…different circumstances then, and the changes these circumstances wreak on Archie as he grows up yield young adulthoods so outwardly varied that it’s only through Paul Auster’s talent as a novelist that we can discern that each of the four Archie Fergusons is undoubtedly the same man.

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Miss Holly Golightly, traveling

Tiffany’s, that place of places where nothing bad can ever happen to you, is a place Holly dreams of but never ventures to step inside.

Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany's

Breakfast at Tiffany’s · Truman Capote · 1958
Vintage, 1993 · 87 pages, paperback

♠

Holly in sickbed: Lipstick, eye liner, perfume and pearls but this is no glamour. It was never about glamour but about disappearing.

Holly in hospital is Holly in actuality, and we see what we never noticed before, just as all the men at her dinner parties never saw the bare walls or the emptiness of her apartment and dutifully ignored that quiet little word – traveling – on her mailbox.

Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s is about trying to find a sense of belonging in a world that will accept anything, especially false perceptions, as matters of fact. It’s easier this way; things fit together so nicely this way. Continue reading

A fig for your loyalty

Iago. Meanness, villainy, devilry…spite. His villainy inflamed by changing motives, Iago plays his spitefulness for sport.

Othello · William Shakespeare · 1603
Norton, 2008 · 82 pages, hardcover

William Shakespeare based Othello on a work by the Italian writer Cinthio. In the original Iago seeks retribution for his wife’s disloyalty, and it becomes a drama driven by vengeance. In Shakespeare’s version this motive is diluted: the affair between Iago’s wife, Emilia, and Othello is only a supposition (Iago admits to as much and Emilia makes light of the rumor). It’s no more than barracks banter and is hardly alluded to in the play.

Iago’s evilness is more terrifying and Othello a more difficult work for this revision. Othello isn’t a drama about jealousy or vengeance anymore; it’s a drama about manipulation and the fortitude of  rumors and lies. Continue reading

It’s like Superman coming out of a phone booth

For all its hurt, Kavalier & Clay is an optimistic book – Chabon’s protagonists show us that a superhero is a very human thing.

Chabon, Kavalier & Clay

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay · Michael Chabon · 2000
Random House, 2012 · 704 pages, paperback

Michael Chabon’s Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is a novel about the creation of one’s own life, the constant molding, assessing and reassessing in pursuit of some very individual version of the American Dream.

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