Open Your Heart | The Forty Rules of Love, by Elif Shafak

The Forty Rules of Love,
by Elif Shafak,
Published by Viking (2010)
Rating: *****

Introduction

This is the first audiobook I ever consumed. It was recommended to me the minute I opened up my Audible app for the first time. I saw it, was intrigued, checked out the plot, and knew I had to read it immediately. Of course, I didn’t audiobook it completely. I ended up reading more than half of it because I felt a strong desire to push forth – the narrative had me so hooked. This is also what has sparked a renewed interest in reading Rumi’s poetry, or beginning to read Rumi’s poetry.

Plot

This is a book with a plot-within-a-plot, a book-within-a-book. The narrator/protagonist, Ella Rubenstein is a housewife, who takes a job as a reader for a literary agent. Her first assignment becomes reading a manuscript titled Sweet Blasphemy, a novel written by Aziz Zahara. The book tells the tale of Shams-i-Tabrizi and Rumi, their respective journeys and how they find each other, and Shams’ role in transforming Rumi’s life. Ella is smitten, and takes to communicating with Zahara, finding that Rumi’s story apparently mirrors her own life, and sorrows, with Zahara being the person tasked with helping her find love, and joy again.

Nested Stories

Shafak does a beautiful job of switching between the manuscript and the real-life of Ella Rubenstein. The transitions between the two feel timely, never abrupt, and the chapters are never too long, so you never lose track of where you are in each story line. They seem to weave into each other purposefully, especially since they are meant to mirror each other – the pacing is well done, and Shafak introduces elements of conflict, or of communication and resolution in away that never seems to take your attention away from either plot. I appreciated deeply how Rubenstein’s letters to Zahara mimicked communications and the building relationship between Shams and Rumi. The conversations Shafak writes are deep and meaningful, opening up the minds of each of the characters in the book.

The Little Things

Shafak embeds the Forty Rules of Love into the book, exposing them by imagining that Shams revealed them throughout his life when the time was right for the person being spoken to, to receive them. You can see this across his interaction with common-people, with Rumi, and through Zahara’s quoting of the rules of love in his conversations with Rubenstein. I loved that each chapter began with the second arabic sound “ba”, and that each section of the book referenced an element. The story, in its entirety, with Shafak’s lyrical writing, made me more mindful and aware and appreciative of the beauty I have surrounding me, and for a while, all I felt like doing was sitting down and taking all of it in.
It opened me up to a new kind of love, and I cannot wait to read more Rumi soon.

Conclusion

Easily one of the best finds I’ve made this year. Worth reading for how well she brings Rumi and Shams-i-Tabrizi to life.

Brothers & Sisters | The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett

The Dutch House,
by Ann Patchett,
Published by Harper (2019)
Rating:
 ***

Introduction

The title of this review stems from this Coldplay song. I discovered this book through the Goodreads algorithm, and later saw this lovely special edition that had been printed which looks stunning (here – look at those pages!), and was tempted to read it. I consumed this in-part through an audiobook, and in-part through the ebook. My overall rating stems from how I felt at the end of the book rather than being representative of individual components of the book itself.

Plot

The book navigates the life of the Conroy family, centering around siblings: Danny and Maeve, who struggle to confront the past and live in the present – returning to their childhood home as observers to figure out everything in their lives. The book begins at Danny’s childhood, with Maeve taking on a motherly role when their biological mother abandons them. It takes us through a tumultuous teenage time, where Danny and Maeve are booted out of the house by their stepmother once their father passes, and how they survive the world.

 The Home As A Character

Patchett does a tremendous job of making The Dutch House, the titular object a character within the book. She exposes the interiors, first allowing Danny to discover the house while growing up, and then allowing the younger stepsiblings to introduce us to more layers to the house when they are left in the care of Danny & Maeve. Maeve recounts everything about the past by using the house as a frame of reference. Not only does that set up context to the time in which events take place, but it takes you through the house’s own ageing process at the same time. The voice and tone of the book always make you remember the house’s presence – and in some sections in particular, it feels like it’s the walls of the house talking.

A Rushed Ending

This was honestly beautiful till I was about 70% in. I loved everything about it. I enjoyed the way the siblings grew up and grew older together, and the kind of challenges Danny was going through in processing his emotions. There was a complexity to both Danny and Maeve that made them feel like real people, and that these were real events happening in everyone’s lives. However, the last 30% really threw me off. The plot was rushed through and felt unbelievable. The changes to their lives felt like they were impossible in real-life, which took away from all of the set-up that Patchett had accomplished in the first half. That was disappointing. It felt, in a sense, that this book would have been more enjoyable had the ending not been as rosy as it ended up being. Especially because the book tries to hint at how we deal with the past as people. I would have genuinely preferred if Danny and Maeve struggled – in one final scene, with the idea that they would not get closure, and learned to live with that.

Conclusion

Read for characters who seem to have hearts of gold, and sibling relationships that seem to mirror what real siblings are actually like.

The White Castle | Orhan Pamuk

The White Castle
by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Victoria Holbrook
Published by Faber and Faber (2000)
Rating: **** 

This was my first Orhan Pamuk novel. Unsurprisingly, it’s his shortest novel, so it was a great place to begin reading all of his work. Pamuk is an author I have heard several literature geeks tell me about, but not someone I have been able to sit down and read. Pamuk, therefore, topped my list of authors for the year.

This is Pamuk’s first translated work. The translation here deserves credit, for it appears as if the novel is written in English itself – with details so vivid and flow so undisturbed. One wonders what the Turkish version of the book reads like.

The story begins as a straightforward first-person narrative about the misfortunes of a young Italian scholar who, en route from his native Venice to Naples sometime in the 17th century, is captured by Turkish pirates. Brought to Istanbul, he is imprisoned. Having convinced his captors that he was trained in Italy as a doctor, he finds himself called upon to heal everyone from fellow prisoners to a pasha. A man of high intelligence and common sense, he manages in most cases to effect a cure. Slowly, he wins the admiration of the pasha, who presents him as a slave to his friend, an eccentric scientist called only Hoja, a word, he tells us, meaning “master.”

The narrator appears wholly taken by the resemblance between himself and Hoja, a resemblance Hoja appears to ignore. Hoja, as master, commands the narrator to teach him everything he knows from the West – the science, the philosophy.

After a decade, Hoja and the narrator lay bare their past by writing the stories of their lives for each other to read. This exercise leads to both characters, who are entirely identical in appearance, who adopt the mannerisms of the other.

One day the bubonic plague overwhelms Istanbul. Eager to gain further power at court, Hoja conspires with his double to think of ways of reducing the risk of plague through the exercise of Western hygiene. Cats, for instance, are brought in to get rid of the rats that infest the city, although the sultan is told that these rats are really Satan in disguise. The scheme works, and the plague is banished – Hoja is elevated to Imperial Astrologer.

One of Hoja’s enduring obsessions has been the construction of an ultimate weapon — a “war engine” to rout the sultan’s enemies. The sultan now grants Hoja the necessary funds to pursue his hobbyhorse. Some years later, when a war between the Turks and the Poles erupts, Hoja’s expensive and ridiculous cannon is called into action to help in the assault on a glittering fortress in the Carpathian Mountains, the “white castle” of the book’s title. Alas, it can only fail. Hoja knows this, and he escapes from the battle into the fog rather than risk beheading by an irate sultan. In fact, Hoja leaves the sultan’s realm altogether and goes to Venice, to resume there the life of his Italian double, and his slave takes over Hoja’s life as a Turkish sage.

It is at this juncture, that Hoja introduces plot twists and brings into question the identity of the narrator. By the end of the book, you’re left uncertain about who the narrator actually was, and whether or not there were two characters at all.

In this act, lies Pamuk’s greatest triumph. The tale is really simple, the plot development rapid, and the prose, flowing. The twist at the end, however, is sufficient to keep you awake all night. It points at a fundamental question about human nature and human identities – the struggle of understanding oneself. By questioning who the narrator actually is, Pamuk makes you wonder: Why are you who you are? What shapes you? What is your motivation? What is your desire?

These existential questions may not be for all readers. They may also not arise to everyone who reads the book. For example, an alternate interpretation of the book would allow you to ask the question: Does slavery and captivity drive one insane?

Another alternate interpretation would make question the institution of religion and the concept of a value-system.

Whatever questions Pamuk leaves you with, it appears he does so without force. His words don’t point you to definitive answers, nor to mandatory questions. The ease of his narration, and the detail of the characters and dialogue make this an enjoyable, fast-paced read.

A star was docked for the ending. To me, it felt unfinished and incomplete. If this was a deliberate measure, it is one I am yet to fully appreciate. All I know is that I’m going to be reading a lot more of Pamuk, because I’m intrigued by the manner in which he weaves his tales.

Pachinko|Min Jin Lee

Pachinko,
by Min Jin Lee
Published by Grand Central Publishing (2017)

Min Jin Lee’s novel traces a single Korean family through multiple generations across the 1900’s. Without an individual protagonist or a singular plot, the novel is filled with characters, who navigate periods of immense sorrow and joy in annexed Korea, and subsequently, in Japan an adopted homeland that refuses to accept them. The book tests your understanding of several themes, including faith and family.

The thrust of the novel comes from a perplexing loss of identity – a natural consequence of being colonized. Being tagged as Korean under a Japanese Empire means very little, and being a woman under such an Empire brings with it, it’s own set of limitations and societal obligations.

The first chapter is perhaps the best insight into what the novel is going to become. Characters are introduced rapidly, with physical description and dialogue providing the most insight into their behaviour, and the plot moves incredibly smoothly. Sunja is introduced as Hoonie’s daughter – her own identity only beginning to develop once her father passes away, and thus begins a moving saga of a largely ignored historical arc.

Sunja’s unplanned pregnancy sees her combatting her understanding of love, and what relationships mean, at a very young age. At the verge of bringing shame upon her family, already within the lower echelons of society as a consequence of being Korean, she is rescued by a Minister, who offers to marry her. It is at this point that Sunja moves from being Hoonie’s daughter, to becoming a subsequently, a mother, and subsequently Baek Isak’s wife.

As religion is explored through Baek’s understanding of God and what Christianity means, death begins to appear as a recurring occurrence, with Korean families scrambling to stay alive, and getting drafted to serve the Emperor, only to lose their lives on the battlefield. Internally, societal conflict results in death as a result of expressing yourself. Under an Emperor, having an opinion is absurd and a social evil, and you realize, through Yoseb, that suppressed emotions lead to slow, decaying madness.

Shame and guilt underpin many of the finest scenes in the novel, with every character continually forced by their position as second-class citizens to make painful sacrifices, and, consequently, to consider the nature of those sacrifices, and whether they’re worth being made. This continues down to Noa, who leaves his family to start afresh, and Solomon, who is forced to break off a relationship on the same day he is fired.

At all points, however, Pachinko is what appears to tie each character’s narrative together. As a mechanical gambling game that originates in Japan, the Koreans find refuge in running parlours for the rich Japanese, earning their livelihoods from the same business. Noa’s character is the only Korean to reach University, but he gives up on his education, and finds himself running books in a Pachinko parlour, the same thing his uneducated half-brother does, and Pachinko seems to be the ceiling at which Koreans reach.

The novel exemplifies historical research. Lee’s language crafts 20th-century Korea and the sights and smells of the shabby Korean township of Ikaino in Osaka as if you walked down the streets yourself. As a multi-generational novel, age gaps and cultural shifts are extremely well presented, and the novel gets you to think about immigrants in East Asia by presenting Oriental History without a Western skew.

All in all, my 2018 Reading has started off well. This one’s a must-read.