Old Dog, New Tricks | Play It Again, by Alan Rusbridger

Introduction

First off, I must apologize for the title. I tried long and hard to find something more suitable, but nothing felt quite as right as this did. Apologies, Mr. Rusbridger, if you do read this.

Secondly, some context. This marvelous book was recommended to me by the genie that is Goodreads, thanks not in small part to my recent completion of another book on classical music (which I should hopefully review shortly), and the fact that Year of Wonder is now a book I am currently reading. My own history with classical music is long and storied. It forms a part of a poem, and a blogpost from early 2016. At present, I am falling in love with it all over again. I’ve begun piano classes, I listen to more classical pieces, I’m engaging with my own study of music theory – and I’m enjoying every bit of it. However, it has been 6 years since I properly attended lessons and focused on technique instead of playing things by the ear. As a consequence, my dexterity is something I am relearning. In that sense, finding this book felt like more than a coincidence. My review might therefore be coloured by this experience.

Plot Summary 

Pretty straightforward really. Rusbridger explains it in a video he recorded, which you can see here. In a series of diary-style entries, Rusbridger recounts taking up the challenge to learn and play Chopin’s Ballade No.1 in G minor Op. 23, which is one of the most daunting pieces of music ever written. There are added layers to the challenge, though. First, he gave up the piano when he was 16, and took it up as a serious hobby only past the age of 40. Second, he’s got a day-job (and not any day-job. At the time, he was Editor-in-Chief of The Guardian). Third, he wants to learn it in a year – committing to do so by giving himself 20 minutes a day of dedicated practice. To anybody, developing a habit over the course of a year by attempting it for just 20 minutes of a day sounds ludicrous enough. To commit to learning a fresh piece of music – and something that lasts 10 whole minutes isn’t just committing to a habit – it’s committing to teaching yourself something new that develops on past knowledge, which is incredible.

To give you a spoiler alert: yes, he manages to play it, and rather successfully, I might add. There are snippets of his playing in the video I’ve linked above.

The Writing 

I’ve often found that diary-style entries face the arduous challenge of establishing context in as few words as possible before developing plot, or rather, furthering plot in a manner that is engaging, yet succinct. Some preliminary comments on length and style before analyzing the writing itself.

Some books written as journal or diary entries end up writing these extracts at length. They feel well-edited, meticulously-crafted – that the thoughts come in a structured manner, or a structured flow at all points of time. While it is arguable that journal/diary writers do spend time thinking about what they wish to write about, I often feel that there is an erosion of the unfiltered thought that takes place when they are crafted to be literary. There’s a beauty to the natural flow of thought when somebody sits down with a pen and paper to write – the brain hops, skips, and jumps, and you can see that with the writing. It feels organic, and natural, with stops that are as abrupt as these thoughts themselves. There is no doubt to Rusbridger’s talent in the English language (he studied at Cambridge and was a journalist, for goodness sakes’), but what I loved here is that the diary entries never felt too long. While we do not know whether these were extracts culled out of longer pieces of writing from each day, there’s a flow to the book that feels like I could’ve sat and written it at home.

This does two things for me: one, it makes it incredibly easy to read, even when it’s discussing something like the art of choosing which piano to buy – something that is incredibly boring if you cannot hear the tone of the pianos being compared and the subtle differences in tone. Two, it makes the amateur portion of his piano playing feel more genuine. You can see that this is something he is incredibly passionate about – (at least this one project), but having the writing laid out in a very amateur-like way makes it feel more relatable.

Interweaving Subplots and Interviews 

The book would have been incredibly boring to the general public if it was exclusively about him learning new sections of the piece each day, with stylistic changes being described as if you understand everything about how the piano is to be played. It would make for excellent technical reading, and I wouldn’t mind reading that too, but that’s for another day. There’s a lot going on in Rusbridger’s life, as I pointed out. There is success not only in the fact that he does play the piece at the end of the book, but that he doggedly and determinedly ensures he gets in as much practice as possible whenever he finds the time.

It’s evident that he needs to make the time for this hobby. He explains, at different junctures, the WikiLeaks stories, the phone hacking scandals, and other stories – including the rescue of a Guardian reporter from Libya (where he conceives the title of the book). All of this means that pages turn not exclusively because you’re interested in finding out more about his journey with the piece, but also because you’re trying to figure out whether or not he’s succeeding in the other things that are the top of the priority list for the paper and for him.

While that is admirable, what I enjoyed even more was the fact that he presented the art of learning this piece in a very holistic manner. It isn’t him self-learning, or self-teaching the piece. In technicality, once you learn how to read music, you can pretty much learn how to play anything – for playing sakes’. It’s clear that he doesn’t want this. He enrols in regular lessons, which you can see changes his perspective on the piece by giving him an observer to play to every time he visits. There are nuggets of information from professional pianists whom he has the opportunity to spend time with (as a result of his day-job), and all their interpretations offers him with the chance to look at the music through his own eyes – and reflect in the music a story that he connects with, which I think is beautiful. He also speaks to neuroscientists to understand the art of memory and learning an instrument better in an attempt to figure out what the easiest way to commit the piece to his brain would be.

All of this portrays Western classical music and its performance as being so much more than the random notes and squiggles on a staff. Indeed, in various moments, Rusbridger taps into his historical knowledge to offer different views on the context and meaning of Chopin, which I absolutely adored.

The Personality 

This would’ve also been a little less interesting if the writing didn’t allow the personal side of the story to shine through. I’ve stated above how personal the challenge itself becomes, but Rusbridger takes that one step forward, involving the reader in several aspects and decisions he’s taking on the fly. This includes the fact that he ends up building a music room in his house, he buys a piano, and he attends a couple of amateur piano conferences. There is humour interspersed in his own reflections of the kind of mountain he’s trying to climb – all of which really allows you to see who Rusbridge is beyond this singular focus he has for a year.

Conclusion

Listen to a performance of Chopin’s Ballade. Then read the book. It’s a wonderful exposition of how immersive classical music, or any hobby can be really. For me, it’s deepened my own resolve to learn the piano to enjoy it as much as I possibly can, given the history I’ve got with the instrument. It’s also convinced me that I can learn new things at any age, and I’m never going to be dissuaded by my age as an excuse to learn a skill I’m interested in. Without much doubt, this book earns ***** (5 stars).

The Red-Haired Woman | Orhan Pamuk

The Red-Haired Woman,
by Orhan Pamuk,
Published by Knopf (2017)
Rating: ****

I had a hard time getting into this book. But when I did, I found that I enjoyed it more than I’ve enjoyed reading other novels Pamuk has written. The book’s appeal probably also lies in the fact that it is one of his shorter works.

The story falls into three parts, each of which is quite distinct.

The first part is both the simplest and the easiest to like. The narrator Cem tells of a job he took after his father, who was involved in a left wing group, had disappeared and before his university entrance exams. This involved working as an apprentice to a traditional well-digger. The story describes the process of well-digging and Cem’s relationship with his master, a father figure who tells him stories. Cem becomes obsessed with the red-haired woman of the title, and eventually discovers that she works in a travelling theatre with her husband. This part comes to a dramatic conclusion.

In the second part ,the older narrator continues the story and describes his progression, first in marrying, then by running a company that invests in developing new suburbs of Istanbul, one of which is the town in which the first part is set. The company becomes very successful, Cem discovers that his master survived and succeeded in finding water and completing the well, and that the red-haired woman was a former lover of his father, and the son of the red-haired woman claims that Cem is his father. This story also builds to a dramatic confrontation in which Cem is led by a man claiming to be his son’s friend to see the well, eventually revealing himself as the son, leading to a fight in which Cem’s gun is fired. So if the first part paralleled Oedipus, this is closer to Rostam and Sohrab.

The third part is related by the red-haired woman, which made for an interesting change of perspective. The son is in prison accused of Cem’s murder, and she visits him and tells him her story and Cem’s. She encourages him to write his father’s story, which explains how the first two parts came to be written.

This is a book meant for an introduction into the world of Orhan Pamuk. It is reflective of everything associated with his writing: a depth of plot, complex characters, intriguing perspectives, and so much more. It’s also reflective of my biggest criticism of Pamuk – that he tries to do too much. There are parts here which feel forced, and unnecessary, as with several other works of his. As a result, it’s a perfect introduction, and good material to assess whether or not you’ll enjoy reading Orhan Pamuk.

Silent House | Orhan Pamuk

Silent House,
by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Robert Finn
Published by Knopf (2012)
Rating: ****

Perhaps one of Pamuk’s most politically-charged works, Silent House is a really, really good read. The novel takes place against the backdrop of the military coup of 1980, and provides an opportunity to understand the relationship between Turkey’s political and military establishment through the experience of the common-man.

The plot is this. The Darvinoglu family gathers for its annual reunion at the crumbling ancestral mansion in the resort town of Cennethisar, near Istanbul. Into the mix of clashing personalities, gossip, plans and barely buried grudges that are usually part of such reunions, this book adds debates over religion, Turkey’s divided feelings about belonging to Europe or the Middle East, and hints of the looming coup. The national schism is dramatically personified in Hasan, the illegitimate teenage grandson of the family patriarch, Selahattin. Frustrated by his poverty and flunking out of school, Hasan tries to curry favour with an ultra-nationalist vigilante group, while at the same time stalking Nilgün, the beautiful, cheerful, communist-leaning granddaughter.

The book explores Turkey like none of Pamuk’s other works do – by providing insight into how families operate in such a confusing atmosphere. It provides explanations to thought patterns of the right-wing and the extremists, as well as to the understanding of Turkish culture that the centrists and the left-wing holds.

What is particularly enjoyable is the writing style, with each of the characters in the Darvinoglu family getting their own first-person perspective, which allows you to shift between the experiences of each of them individually, and the family as a collective.

This is a good book. There’s no more commentary I would like to offer. It is insightful, engaging, and fast – and worth reading.

The Museum of Innocence | Orhan Pamuk

The Museum of Innocence,
by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Maureen Freely
Published by Knopf (2009)
Rating: *** 

This is a love story about an engaged man who has an affair with a girl he meets. Over the course of the novel, he deals with detachment from the affair – since his lover flees, reconnecting with his lover, and then detachment once more, as they get separated forever. It’s a really simple plot, woven together with an intensity of prose that only Pamuk is capable of. As I set the book down, it felt like I had finished reading the diary of one of my closest friends. This is the overwhelming nature of Pamuk’s writing. He makes you feel like you’ve just understood everything about another person – his protagonist.

It’s setting is very different from his other books. Several of Pamuk’s previous attempts concentrate on understanding and depicting Turkey by providing the perspective of an outsider, or rather, an individual navigating through its various faces. Here, Pamuk sticks to representing the Turkish experience through upper-class Istanbul in the 1970s and 1980s – an image that he has previously not written much about. There is no religious element, no identity conflict that Turkey experiences in this book, making this the least Pamuk-esque book (if you want to pigeon-hole authors) that he has written.

As a result, it is a phenomenal opportunity to appreciate his craft and his ability to weave a story together. Much like The White Castle, there is a power to the narrator, which continues through to the end of the novel. Additionally, the unexpected twists – and the uncertainty of all relationships built in the book, makes this an enjoyable read.

However, I thought that the book was far too long for the plot it was explaining. While the length of texts usually never bothers me, it was really startling how stretched out the book ended up becoming. Conversation got very dry in the middle, as a result of Pamuk’s deliberate choice to spend time on each individual moment his narrator experiences. As a consequence, I lost interest in the characters at various moments of time.

Additionally, the romantic plot got creepy in various parts, with an obsessiveness that wasn’t enjoyable. It’s very possible that the translation leads to this heightened creepiness, but if the book is this creepy in the original Turkish, it is a cause for concern.

In conclusion, I’d recommend reading it if you are a literature enthusiast. This isn’t a light read, even though the plot summary makes it sound like it.

My Name Is Red | Orhan Pamuk

My Name is Red,
by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Erdağ M. Göknar
Published by Vintage (2002)
Rating: ***** 

I’m not sure I will be able to do justice to the plot of My Name Is Red. It’s difficult to put into words. In essence, it is a murder mystery. An individual, Elegant has been murdered, and his corpse lies undiscovered at the bottom of a well. Speaking from the afterlife, he hopes that his body is found soon and that the murderer is captured.

However, Elegant is not the sole narrator through the book. Each fresh chapter introduces a new character to the story, and ends up explaining their backstory, alongwith how much they know about the murder of Elegant. As we learn more about the motives for murder, so we learn about the motives behind art, and the possibilities of its interpretation.

Pamuk’s consistency with exploring the blurring of lines in the confluence between the East and the West continues here as well. Each narrator, though modernist, has an intriguing take on the value and role of art in a person’s life. So too, does each narrator have a perspective on whom the likely murderer is. Pamuk unravels the plot slowly, allowing for these philosophical discussions and beliefs to be exposed in as nuanced a manner as possible. Pamuk manages to portray the 16th century world, full of its own contradictions, and capture it in a manner that is wholesome and enjoyable.

However, if you are reading Pamuk purely for the murder mystery – this might not live up to your expectations. There’s barely any distinction drawn in the likelihood that one of the narrators may have murdered elegant, which leaves room for a lot of doubt, and a lot of tension, one that Pamuk diffuses in a manner that isn’t all that appreciable. The narratives is skewed and feels heavily-strung together.

As a result, Pamuk’s novel gets 5-stars on its value as a text and its contribution to my understanding of ideas that it presents – lucid, simplistic, and detailed. However, as a pure literary text, my jury will have to wait for a re-read. Or multiple re-reads.

Snow | Orhan Pamuk

Snow,
by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Maureen Freely
Published by Vintage International (2005)
Rating: **** 

Snow is essential reading.

In two distinct parts, the book follows the story of Ka (the shortened form of Kar, which is “Snow” in Turkish).

The first part follows Ka’s discovery of Islam. It begins as Ka reunites with Ipek (a woman he once loved), who has recently divorced Muhtar, owing to his interest in political Islam. Ka meets Muhtar, and is introduced to Muhtar’s experience with Islam. During that meeting, he is accused, alongwith Muhtar, for a recent public shooting for which an Islamic extremist group claimed responsibility.

Ka begins to write, composing a poem, “Snow”, and several other poems. Ipek urges Ka to visit a Sheikh, and they have an astounding conversation on the value of organized religion in an individual’s life. Ka, although hesitant to accept religion – claiming it to be “backward”, chooses to accept instead, that his poetry is a gift from God – an unnamed entity. Following this interaction, Ka continues to meet people with different experiences of Islam. He meets a self-identifying Muslim radical as well as Islamic feminists.

Reflective of a newly independent Turkey, there are growing tensions between secularists and Islamists, which ends up blowing out of proportion at a televised event. The police and military impose martial law, and Ka is taking in for questioning once more. Upon his release, he meets an actor who identifies as a Turkist Republican, who ends up orchestrating – in a spectacular sequence, both a coup d’état and a coup de théâtre.

The second part deals with a denouncing of the coup. True to Pamuk, there is a post-modernism in his introduction as the narrator of the book. We fast-forward four years, and explore Turkey post-Ka’s life, and reconstruct events leading to his demise.

You’ll notice that my plot summary elaborates one part of the book far more than it does the second. This is intentional. If you’re intrigued by what the first part holds, the second part is a deeper dive into all things so related, and I would recommend reading the book to find out more.

The characters are phenomenally crafted. My usual criticism of Pamuk involves a comment on how characters are just one-dimensional individuals. But here, every single character is developed well, with backstories that keep you hooked, and motives that you find yourself questioning at every turn. There is no black-and-white, only grey, and it’s very easy to fall in love with, and hate Ka and his crew.

A truth that has been fundamental to Turkey has been its struggle with who it wishes to be, who its leaders wish to represent, and how to unite a population that has such fundamentally different beliefs. Pamuk’s reflections on this struggle is a driving force behind Snow’s plot, and is an exposition both in Turkish society, and a commentary on the ability of speech – to propagate messages of peace and unity, as well as violence.

One star is docked again for Pamuk’s staunch refusal to allow us to fully immerse ourselves in the world of his characters. Similar to the New Life, he reveals nothing of Ka’s poems – making it difficult to fully relate to Ka’s perception of the world, and more crucially, fully appreciate certain scenes that Orhan the narrator weaves for us.

However, an understanding of Western Asia would mandate a reading of Snow. And I would force it upon people as well.

The New Life | Orhan Pamuk

The New Life,
by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Guneli Gun
Published by Faber and Faber (1997)
Rating: ***

Reading Orhan Pamuk is an exercise in learning and unlearning. This book was the third in my journey of understanding the author.

The New Life follows the journey of individuals who, captivated by a book they read, seek to implement its principles, and achieve its conclusion – the prospect of a new life. The protagonist, Osman, notices the book as his friend, Janan sets it down – buying his own copy shortly thereafter. Subsequently, Janan introduces Osman to her boyfriend, Mehmet – who is shortly gunned down at a bus stop. As Mehmet is untraceable, Janan and Osman end up taking bus journeys – which are violent, and surreal, in an attempt to find Mehmet. Ultimately, they find Mehmet’s father, Dr. Fine, who – as the antagonist in the story, has attempted to curb the readership of the book, by murdering individuals who follow its teachings using a network of spies. The book concludes with a revelation of the book’s actual author – who is related to Osman.

This is a summary of the plot. The nuance involved, along with Pamuk’s writing style, makes this an extremely heavy, complex read. As a result, unlike his other works, I don’t think this is his most accessible novel. It left me feeling several mixed feelings. Before we get to criticisms however, Pamuk deserves appreciation.

As always, his storytelling will leave you with a sense of wonder and bewilderment. There’s a lot of depth, and while sometimes difficult to follow, Pamuk’s imagination is a credit to mankind’s thinking. Technically, Pamuk achieves Inception-level writing in the 90’s – something that only took to the screens much later.  Again, quintessentially true to style, there are scathing observations on Turkey’s complex, confused character, and remarks on the West. Further, the existentialism Osman faces – which leaves him in quest for a New Life, and his eventual succumbing to that quest, is something that is relatable across generations.

While the ideas and layering is grand, the writing here lacks a lot of precision. The prose here is heavy. Descriptions, for example, are over-done. Sentences are lengthy, and complicated. As a result, Osman’s introspection is overly complicated, rather than simplistically presented. Additionally, Pamuk appears to have a thing for disappearing acts. Reading this after The Black Book made them seem far too similar, and expectations were heightened.

Further, Pamuk doesn’t develop his characters as much as he usually does. There’s too much similarity between Osman and Janan. Their chemistry is far too quickly created, and progresses only as a result of their commonalities. Their friendship, and unrequited romance, is not organic, insofar as their personalities do not show any progression – aside from their sole focus being to find Mehmet.

Finally, I think what the book could have done with, is some exposition of the book that Osman, Janan and Mehmet all read. I understand that the crowd is split on this, but Pamuk tries to leave it to the reader to figure out what the book was about, and what the “new life” the book propagated actually is. In a sense, this is fantastic – it’s so subjective, and open to interpretation, that it allows the reader to soak in all this information and formulate an opinion. On the other hand, the motivation of these characters is so grey, and difficult to  pinpoint. Some excerpts – perhaps two lines, even, at the start of chapters, would have been fantastic.

In short, this is a more of a case of “what could have been” rather than “what is”. If you’re intrigued by Pamuk, it’s worth the shot, but shouldn’t be your first pick.

The Black Book | Orhan Pamuk

The Black Book
by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Maureen Freely
Published by Vintage (2006)
Rating: ****

As an exposition of Turkish culture, only the Turkish or individuals with intricate knowledge of the Mediterranean nation’s history can comment on the accuracy of The Black Book. I do not claim to be an expert in this field. As a result, my comments on Turkishness are restricted to plot points which stood out to me. Nonetheless, it is impossible to read Pamuk, even the translated version, and miss his identity and the influence of his surroundings on the book.

The Black Book opens with rhe protagonist, Galip, finding that his wife/first cousin Rüya has left him. Over the course of the novel, he attempts to hunt her down in Istanbul  – suspecting that she has taken off with her half-brother, Celal, a columnist. The book weaves in reprints of Celal’s columns with Galip’s hunt for his wife. Eventually, Galip attempts living as Celal – trying to think like Celal, and understand where they could have possibly disappeared. Eventually, trying to fuse his identity with Celal’s has consequences he was unprepared for – including life-threatening circumstances, which arrive from Celal’s own past. The book ends with a death, and a revelation built-up too, but unpredictable, which is typical of Pamuk’s writing.

As with The White Castle, Pamuk’s craft of storytelling is a thoroughly enjoyable adventure. His prose is smooth, and fluid – with a sustained build-up to a conclusion that sparks the imagination. True to style, Pamuk is able to invoke post-modern elements including a reveal that introduces the narrator’s role in the entire story, startling, yet masterfully constructed.

Noticeably, The Black Book builds on a lot of Pamuk’s revelations about identity in the White Castle. There are multiple levels on which a deep level of confusion about identity dominates the narrative. First, we see Galip’s own confusion and dissatisfaction with who he is. He slowly comes to understand his own unhappiness and causative factors for the same. This plot intertwines with Istanbul’s own identity as a city – which is split between an attempt to be secular, and an attempt to proudly accept and celebrate it’s Muslim and Christian roots. Finally, the book asks several questions about Turkey’s identity as a nation – and how people choose to confront the westernization of the nation.

None of this feels forced upon the reader, which I think is Pamuk’s biggest achievement with this book. It is entirely possible to enjoy the mystery of Rüya’s disappearance without viewing the plot as a commentary on Turkey. I thought the book could do with greater depth of character for Rüya, who is painted exclusively through one lens. Additionally, Pamuk’s choice of focusing on Istanbul and Turkey separately is intriguing, and perhaps, overdone in parts.

Nonetheless, this is a book I would thoroughly recommend. Pamuk is an author I’ve been aching to read, and I’m glad 2019 is the year I read him.

The Astonishing Colour of After | Emily X.R. Pan

The Astonishing Colour of After,
by Emily X.R. Pan
Published by Little, Brown Books (2018)
Rating: ***** 

Don’t let the number of chapters or pages in this book fool you. It’s a fast-read. Page-turning, emotionally engaging, and gripping, you’ll find yourself wondering where the time went as you finish. If you’re looking to get out of a reading slump, and fall in love with good writing again, this is a great starting point.

The story follows Leigh Sanders, a half-Taiwanese, half-American girl, as she struggles to cope with loss. On the same day she kisses the boy she’s pined over for years, her mother, Dory, commits suicide. At first the grief is overwhelming. She feels trapped in her childhood home with her distant father and the bloodstain marking her mother’s demise haunting her thoughts. Then, the night before the funeral, Leigh is roused from her nightmares by a huge crimson bird calling her name. She knows immediately the bird is her mother, the whys and hows brushed aside in the face a daughter’s longing for her mom. The plot then takes us to Leigh’s discovery of family she never knew, and her journey of “moving on” from an event she struggles to talk about or understand. All the while, her desperation to make contact with her mother once more drives her between the fantastical and the real, making this a journey unlike any other.

There’s a lot of plot depth to the book, which deserves a bit of analysis.

The first is the theme of identity. Leigh’s identity is clearly complex – she’s half-Asian and half-white, and Pan brings this out by describing how society views her. The Americans call her “exotic”, while the Taiwanese call her “hunxie”/”mixed blood”. Through these individual instances, Pan is able to portray the otherization that mixed-race people usually feel, without a strong connection to either cultural group. This conflict is also given a new layer by the presence of Axel, who is half-Filipino, and half-Puerto Rican. Their friendship and understanding, and their journey of family discovery points to the fact that both characters find comfort in each other – because there’s no other place they fit in.

The second, is how Pan tackles mental health. Now, the conversation on mental health has improved drastically – people are now more comfortable to discuss it in society, but Asian countries are notorious for their inability to accept diagnosed mental health illnesses as being real. There’s an ignorance in Asian society, which Pan is able to describe very realistically. Leigh struggles to use the word “depression”, unable to admit to herself that her mother suffers from the same. The suicide that takes place is without a note, and is committed by OD-ing on antidepressants, and several episodes are described in great detail in the novel. Pan is able to explain depression as it really is – difficult to understand, tough to explain and articulate. The biggest thing Pan achieves is that she doesn’t display “continuous sadness” as equal to depression, something I admired after I finished the book. Another achievement lies in steering away from psychonalysis or patient-blaming/patient-shaming. There’s no sugarcoating of the condition, or of death. It’s difficult, but the truth of depression is just that, and Pan’s judicious use of words deserves credit.

The third is art. Now, I wasn’t sure whether to highlight this as a theme within the book, but there’s layers to this which deserves some amount of description. Leigh, Axel, Caro, and Dory, are all artists. Each, unique, and each, with a different connection to their art. Leigh’s father, is an American academic. Stereotypes lead us to believe that strict Asian parents undermine art, viewing it as being a gateway to University, or a skill that deserves mastering purely for the purpose of mastery. What Pan does is flip the stereotype, by showing a large majority of Leigh’s social circle being pleased with art as a career choice, while Leigh’s father attempts to track her to become more “serious” and asks her questions about her future. That narrative was one I found incredibly interesting to read. It creates a tension in the familial relationship that persists throughout the novel, right until the very end. Why I believe art is a theme is also because of how well Pan is able to use colour throughout the entire book. Just like shades on a palette, I learnt about emotions I didn’t know I could ever feel – and the correlation between colour and emotion will strike a chord with any reader. It’s use as a device for me was not distracting, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Finally, the fantastic imagery and fantasy elements deserve a lot of praise. The plot is very tight, and the fantasy weaves very smoothly with plot developments taking place in reality. Pan’s conclusion hits the heart hard, describing the truth of experience and memory unlike anyone else I’ve read. Reading the book reminded me a lot of the Disney movie Coco. It incited similar emotions in me, I guess.

My only qualm with the book was the romantic side of the story. Romance sells, but in parts, the romantic uneasiness felt out of place. The conclusion to the romantic arc within the book was predictable and well built-up. It’s pace at the end, however, was rushed, and artificial. No natural love story progresses like that. There’s a lot more conversation – one that I would have loved to see the protagonists engage in. The book leaves a few things unsaid, which might annoy some readers.

All in all, a must-read, quick-read. Will make you feel things. Would recommend.

Sadie | Courtney Summers

Sadie
by Courtney Summers
Published by Wednesday Books (2018)
Rating: **** 

This is an atypical read for me largely because it isn’t a book that I would buy off of shelves if I merely read the blurb. The reason I chose to read this book is that one of my friends absolutely loved it, and recommended that I give it a try, which is never something I’m averse to. This is a fast-read, but there’s a couple of warnings I’d like to put at the start of my review, so you can stop reading in case you get triggered. The book isn’t happy in any sense. It is not a book that builds up to a happy ending, and there is no moment where I caught myself smiling while reading it. It’s an incredibly serious read. It discusses several themes that are difficult to speak about in society. Rather, it highlights experiences that contain social stigma attached to them, and lead to victim-shaming culture. My trigger warnings include: murder, suicide, child prostitution, paedophilia, sexual abuse, and drug abuse.

With that being said, let’s examine the text.

Sadie follows the story of one dead girl, one missing girl, and a quest for revenge. Nineteen-year-old Sadie is determined to find who she believes to be her younger sister Maddie’s killer. With few clues to go on, she decides to embark on a journey to find him and make him pay for what he did. This is what the overarching plot is.

It seems pretty straightforward, and perhaps a story that could simply be described as a mystery – with Sadie acting as detective. But Summers manages to achieve a lot more with her writing. The novel is told in two distinct time-periods, and distinct points of view, which help with how the plot is built. The first is Sadie’s point of view, told in the past tense, with her tracking down her sister’s killer – a man who knows how to disappear better than most. The second is West McCray’s true crime radio show transcript called The Girls, where he attempts to find Sadie by following the little information the police offer him. These are very, very unique points of view, which help draw a very human connection to everything that transpires – something that stuck with me at the end of the book. Society reports events like these very narrative-like and with a victim-blaming angle to most of the reportage around it. By choosing to give the “victim” here a voice, and providing the voice of somebody trying to find her, desperately, Summers is able to portray nuances in emotion, and engage the reader in a way that makes you question every character’s motive and motivation. This sense of anticipation and suspense is really heightened in the last 20 pages, which I think could have been published separately – they’re the most logical (albeit dreadful) conclusion to a story of this kind.

The conclusion of the book is worth the read because of how realistic it is. It’s the only thing that makes sense in a world like ours. And you’ll hate yourself for knowing how Sadie’s story ends, but Summers’ manages to draw you in, page after page.

What I’m most impressed by is Summers’ ability to write a podcast transcript. I like true crime podcasts and shows as much as anybody – and most media houses seem to thrive on the market. Very few are any good. Writing a podcast transcript is an art that this author really nails down. The idea of a podcast like narrative really set the tone for West McCray’s voice. I often found myself reading the narrative the way I’d narrate a true crime podcast – which added a new layer of engagement to the reading experience. McCray is an underappreciated character on Goodreads – and I would’ve appreciated a bit more about him in the book. I also docked a star because in places, Summers’ writing style can lead to a frustratingly slow pace and a lot of artificially manufactured tension.

Overall, I think it’s worth reading because it forces you to think about society. It’s also a book that’ll make you pray that we become better as a world – because it seems ridiculous that we’ve got so much nonsense going down. The book is raw, which means that it forces you to accept the truth – no matter how uncomfortable that may make you feel.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo | Taylor Jenkins Reid

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo
by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Published by Atria Books (2017)
Rating: ***** 

This is a fast book. This does not mean it’s a short read – the page count is 388 (hardcopy) and 304 (softcopy). It’s just an incredibly fast-paced book. Before reading the book, I saw a friend get consumed in it, and she described the writing as “incredibly engaging”, amongst other adjectives. 300-odd pages later, I do not disagree one bit. This is, far and away, one of the best pieces of fiction writing I have read.

The plot, at first glance, doesn’t spark any emotional reaction. It’s about an ageing former starlet, Evelyn Hugo, who, after years of being reticent with the media, decides to grant Vivant magazine an interview – specifically in the context of some dresses she’s auctioning off for charity. Her only condition is that Monique Grant, a relative unknown, is the reporter who interviews her. A few pages later, and Hugo reveals her ulterior motive in inviting Grant to her home – to give Grant the exclusive tell-all and the rights to publish an authorized biography once Hugo dies. What transpires is this narration of Hugo’s life, leading up to the present day. That, however, is barely scratching the surface of it. Through the recount, we explore all the romantic relationships Hugo has had, the headlines she dominated during her heydey, and, in bursts, Monique’s present-day life. Throughout, there’s a sense of foreshadowing that the two women are connected somehow, a reveal which marks a fitting conclusion to the book.

I’m going to review this systematically since a lot of it is very, very fresh in my memory at the moment.

First, the characters. Since a large part of the narration happens in a setting that is the late 60’s/70’s, it’s pretty amazing that Reid weaves in such large amounts of representation into the book, in terms of the communities across the sexuality spectrum that she is able to describe. What’s also phenomenal is the way she introduces and describes her characters. Every character is relevant, and Hugo, the protagonist, manages to have meaningful interactions with each of them – which plays a huge role in plot development, but also in terms of your understanding of context. Moreover, the characters are not one-dimensional. It’s very difficult to use one adjective to describe them, for example. Each character is layered, and their contribution to Hugo’s life is well-explained, in terms of how they affect her thinking, and what her emotions are.

A special paragraph is needed to talk about the two protagonists, if you will. Evelyn and Monique, the two characters whose interactions shape the entire plot are really different from each other. There is a gap both in economic stature and in confidence – a distinction Reid draws within the first 50 pages itself. It is this distinction that enables both ladies to learn from each other. While Evelyn takes on more of a mentor role, it becomes clear that at latter parts of the book, especially towards its conclusion – there are things that she’s picked up from how Monique has responded to the tell-all. Monique’s growth through the story is phenomenal. If Evelyn is the one who is being reflective and assessing her life, Monique learns how to change her life – in terms of being able to put herself and her emotions before others. That emotional growth and maturity is well-traced, and not knee-jerk. Reid’s exposition of Monique’s life is measured and does not feel out of place – which deserves special praise.

Second, the treatment of sexuality, and representation.  I’ve already spoken about how diverse the characters are. What demands more attention, however, is how well she’s able to treat sexuality in the context she sets out. There are several things about an individual’s identity and sexuality that are incredibly confusing to people today – in terms of people exploring their sexualities, or identifying a particular way. It sparks off a lot of conversation – and this is despite our generation being lucky enough to have a lot of information and lesser prejudice than earlier. Reid is able to trace what it would have been like in the late 1900’s, and she’s able to do this in two parts.

The first, is pre-Stonewall, where the story charts the sexuality of several characters and their attempts to keep it secret and conform to the heteronormative expectation that society has for them. There’s also a specific discussion in this time period about bisexuality and it’s misunderstanding – something that stood out in this book. Without spoiling too much, it’s interesting to see that members of the homosexual community themselves didn’t fully understand what being bisexual meant. This is well documented today, but the fact that Reid chooses to give a voice to a bisexual character, engage with the social conflicts the character faces is worth a lot of praise. The second time period the book engages with sexuality in is post-Stonewall, which is a little more liberal, but involves conversations that lead to definitive decisions about coming out.

Finally, Reid deserves congratulations for her construction of family and friendship. If anything, there is a lot of pain in this book. There’s a lot of love, a lot of loss, a bunch of conflict around identity, and a lot of tabloid gossip. Through the recount, Hugo builds up what her friendships did to her, and then descends into a tale of her family. Her relationship with her daughter is so profound and the reactions so natural that you’re on edge to find out how the daughter will grow up. Her narration of “family” breaks away from a lot of traditional notions, and her detailing of the platonic/romantic divide in Hugo’s life leaves you wondering how much of romance today is a socially constructed expectation. Atleast, I was. It makes you ponder about how romantic relationships are treated in society as automatically being a step-up from a platonic one, and how untrue that premise is in reality. There’s one quote about intimacy that particularly stands out to me – in terms of how, more than anything, it’s the ability to be true with someone.

What is touching is her development of Monique’s arc and Monique’s family, and I think the relationship of mother and daughter there is another highlight. Monique’s mother is inserted into the book in just the right places, something I absolutely adored.

I would only dock points for the fact that the book is not slightly longer, for I think the ending (the last 30 pages) were extremely rushed. There is a certain power to the voices, the characters, and the description that Reid is able to weave, one that will linger in my memory for a while. All in all, a fantastic read, well worth the time and investment.

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.