The Comet Seekers – by Helen Sedgwick

The Comet SeekersThe Comet Seekers is a first novel about trying to live in the present while struggling to understand the past. The book starts and ends in the year 2017 in Antartica where Roisin, age 58, is studying Antarctica and comets. She chose to go to Antarctica with the British Antarctic Survey to get  far away from her life in Ireland and difficult memories. Francois, age 31, is a cook, for the Antartica expedition. A relationship develops between the two of them and the book moves back and forth among years from as far back as the year 1066 through 2017. The back and forth focuses on the history of Roisin’s and Francois’ families and interconnections between the two. The constant theme is comets.

When we meet Francois’ mother, Severine in 1976 she is 14 years old, living in Bayeaux, France and watching the Comet West. She spends a great deal of time with her grandmother, who talks to the ghosts of her ancestors. Of course everyone except Severine thinks she is crazy. We learn that the ghosts appear with the comets and only speak to family members who have lost someone and committed to staying put in Bayeaux. When Severine’s grandmother dies, Severine commits to the ghosts and the past rather than living a life in the present and looking to the future. Through the ghosts, Severine learns a great deal of her past and we see the lives of Severine’s ancestors and Roisin’s ancestors intersect. “So many ways to be saved against what might hurt you, but no way to be saved from what has already happened.”

We meet a young Roisin in 1976 when she is 9 years old and charting the path of the Comet West in her village in Ireland. She and her cousin Liam are lying on the cold ground mapping the stars. Roisin moves from studying comets to studying planets and galaxies and works in a variety of countries including France, Scotland and Canada. In 2007 she is accepted to work in a program at New York University, which was her ultimate goal.

When Roisin experiences a difficult loss, she gives up her life in New York and goes on the Antartica expedition. Contemplating her loss, she muses that “there is perhaps a part of her that knows we are too small to matter.”

The novel ends with ghosts intermingling with comets and with us questioning whether Severine was truly communicating with ghosts or whether something else was at play.

I liked the way the book started but about midway it fizzled. The story is dark and the angst of the main characters, their perspectives on life and obsessions with the past and regret is very hard to take. Although the novel is less than 300 pages, it is repetitive and too long and parts of the story are inconsistent and flawed. The idea of the novel, the intermingling of science and the supernatural, and the creativity with which it is executed are excellent and tell me that Ms. Sedwick’s second novel will be vastly better and that we should keep an eye out for her. The novel will be released in October and you can reserve a copy at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11216866__Sthe%20comet%20seekers__P0%2C1__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold

A Gentleman in Moscow – by Amor Towles

A Gentleman in MoscowAmor Towles’ “A Gentlemen in Moscow” describes a big life in a seemingly small world and paints a vibrant picture of Soviet history from 1922 through 1954. In this beautifully written and captivating story, Amor Towles tells a tale of the triumph of goodness over cruelty and hopefulness over despair. This second novel is as enjoyable and engaging as his first, “Rules of Civility.”

In 1922, the Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat For Internal Affairs sentences Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov to spend the rest of his life inside the Hotel Metropol for writing the poem “Where Is It Now?”, which brashly asked the question, “where is our purpose now?” In imposing the sentence, the prosecutor pronounced that the Count “has succumbed irrevocably to the corruptions of his class – and now poses a threat to the very ideals he once espoused. On that basis, our inclination would be to have you taken from this chamber and put against the wall.” Instead, the Count is sentenced to a lifetime in the Hotel Metropol, where he has previously resided in luxurious accommodations. Of course, when he is returned to the Hotel, he is removed from his luxurious accommodations and moved to a single attic room.

In trying to adjust to his new circumstances, the Count tells himself that “if a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them” and that “imagining what might happen if one’s circumstances were different was the only sure route to madness.” And so the Count adjusts to the 30 or more years that he ultimately spends in the Hotel. Of course there are some challenges along the way.

The Hotel Metropol is a grand hotel. It has a cocktail bar, the Shalyapin, one of the finest restaurants in Moscow, the Boyarsky (its chef is described as 5 foot five and 200 pounds), a more casual restaurant, the Piazza, a barbershop, a flower shop, a full time seamstress and a variety of meeting rooms and ballrooms. There is a lot of life in all of these places.

The Count befriends a nine-year-old girl, Nina Kulikova, who is temporarily living in the hotel with her father and who introduces the Count to all of the secrets the Hotel has to offer. In return, the Count shares with Nina his wisdom and a lifetime friendship begins. This friendship enriches the Count’s life in ways that I will leave for you to discover when you read this delightful novel.

In the meantime, the Count’s college friend Mischka shows up at the Hotel while he is visiting Moscow to help plan the inaugural Congress of the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers. The arrival of Mischka causes the Count to look back at his life in simpler days and gives us some history and context for the changes in the country described throughout the course of the novel. Mischka shows up periodically throughout the story, always reflecting the changing political environment.

While living at the Metropol, the Count meets people from all over the world, begins a love affair with a famous actress, spends many years tutoring a former red Army Colonel about the west, works as the head waiter at the Boyarsky and makes friends and enemies with the various people who lead their lives either in or through the Metropol.

Throughout the book we learn a lot about the changes in Russian politics, sometimes through historical detail and sometimes through plot. My favorite example involves wine and the Boyarsky. The Count, a wine and food connoisseur, dines at the Boyarsky most evenings and is very selective about his wine. One evening in 1924, at the Boyarsky, the Count orders a bottle of Barolo and is told his choices are a red or a white. Asking for the restaurant manager, the Count is taken to the Hotel’s wine cellar, housing more than 100,000 bottles. “And every one of them without a label.” The explanation? “A complaint was filed with Comrade Teodorov, the Commissioner of Food, claiming that the existence of our wine list runs counter to the ideals of the Revolution. That it is a monument to the privilege of the nobility, the effeteness of the intelligentsia, and the predatory pricing of speculators.”  In 1930,    “[T]hanks to a member of the Central Committee, who had tried unsuccessfully to order a bottle of Bordeaux for the new French ambassador, wines with labels could once again be found in the Metropol’s cellar.”

A lot of life and a lot of history takes place in this story, all told with humor, compassion and thoughtfulness. I leave it to you to discover. I finished the book wishing I knew more about Russian history and culture. The book comes out in September but I recommend you reserve it now at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11213160__Sa%20gentleman%20in%20moscow__P0%2C4__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold

The Noise of Time – by Julian Barnes

The Noise of TimeDmitri Dmitriyevich (Shostakovich) was a Soviet composer and pianist and a prominent figure of 20th century music. Julian Barne’s “Noise of Time” is a chilling fictionalized history of Shostakovich’s life, focusing on the impact of Soviet politics on Shostakovich’s life and music from the time of his birth (1906) to the time of his death (1975).

When we first meet Shostakovich he is 31 year old and spending the evening by the elevator outside his fifth floor apartment, accompanied by a bag packed with three packs of Kazbeki cigarettes, waiting to be arrested for the dissonance of his opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. “They always came for you at night.” His crime at that time was creating an opera that appealed to the “perverted taste of the bourgeois”, because it was not purely melodic. For this, he could be arrested and murdered.

Shostakovich describes Russia’s approach to the arts at this time. “…since all composers were employed by the state, that it was the state’s duty, if they offended, to intervene and draw them back into greater harmony with their audience.”

The book is split into three parts. The first part takes place in the 1930s and that is where we meet Shostakovich waiting for the elevator. In 1937 he finally has his first meeting with “Power”, where he is interviewed about his relationship with other “radical” musicians and his knowledge about the plot to kill Stalin. After the interview he knew that “He was a dead man…He burnt anything that might be incriminating–except that once you had been labelled an enemy of the people and an associate of a known assassin, everything around you became incriminating. He might as well burn the whole apartment.” Somehow he survived the interrogation and instead, his interrogator disappeared.

The second part of the book begins with Shostakovich flying to America to present at the New York Peace Conference in 1949. Shostakovich’s speech was heavily tempered by the politics of his home country and the fear that instilled. Nicolas Nabikov, who was present in the audience, publicly asked him whether he supported the Soviet Union’s denunciation of Stravinsky’s music. Shostakovich, a great fan of Stravinsky, was forced to express support for Soviet positions that he actually found abhorrent. The whole trip to America had been humiliating and frustrating for him.

In the third and final portion of the book, Shostakovich is wealthy, successful and has a chauffeured car. And he is as miserable as ever. After spending his entire life refusing to join the Party, he is finally forced to do so.

The book goes into Shostakovich’s neurotic personality, his unhealthy relationship with his mother, and his constant fears and cravings. It is a difficult although worthwhile read and likely will only appeal to readers with an interest in Soviet politics and its impact on the arts. You can reserve the book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11195795__Snoise%20of%20time__P0%2C1__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold

Commonwealth – by Ann Patchett

CommonwealthAnn Patchett hits the trifecta with “Commonwealth”–great writing, great story telling and great insight–all told in a matter of fact style with a touch of humor.

“Commonwealth” is about family–which means it’s about love and hate, betrayal and forgiveness, expectations and disappointment, life and death. The story begins when deputy District Attorney Albert (Bert) Cousins crashes Franny Keating’s christening party, meets and immediately falls in love with Franny’s extraordinarily beautiful mother Beverly and two separate families suddenly become intwined. Bert leaves his pregnant wife Teresa and their three children and Beverly leaves her police officer husband Fix. Beverly and Bert marry and along with Beverly’s two daughters, Caroline and Franny, they move from Los Angeles to Virginia. Teresa is left with four children to raise on her own in Los Angeles, although Bert does suggest that she move with them to Virginia. “That was all it took for Teresa Cousins to spend the rest of her life in Los Angeles.”

The Cousins children (Cal, Holly, Jennette and Albie) come to Virginia every year and the six children together wreak the kind of havoc that only six children very close in age with very little parental oversight can create. “The six children held in common one overarching principle that cast their potential dislike for one another down to the bottom of the minor leagues: they disliked the parents. They hated them.” When a tragedy strikes, the summers together come to an end, although a few years later, after setting fire to the art room at his school, Albie is sent to live in Virginia.

The story is told in alternating chronology. We learn about the family pasts and their presents, and their changing relationships, mostly, although not exclusively, through Franny’s life story. Fix encourages his daughters to go to law school and Caroline becomes a successful lawyer while Franny drops out of law school and, struggling to find her place, works as a cocktail waitress at the Palmer House in Chicago. “For someone who had no skills and no idea what she wanted to do with her life other than read, cocktail waitressing was the most money she could make while keeping her clothes on. Those were her only two criteria at this point: not to be a lawyer and to keep her clothes on.” While working as a cocktail waitress, she meets legendary author Leon Posen and they begin a life together (despite the fact that he is more than 30 years older than Franny and married to someone else).

Franny shares her life story with Posen, who turns it into a National Book Award winning novel and ultimately a movie. Of course the story is modified and interpreted from Posen’s perspective, causing the family to react with horror, shock and offense, mixed with what appears to be indifference . “A film of life would definitely be better than this, even if there had been a camera behind them every minute recording the entire disaster of childhood, all the worst memories preserved, it would still have been better than having to watch these strangers making some half-assed attempt to replicate their lives.” The story makes you stop and wonder what your life might look like from a detached observer’s perspective.

Beverly ultimately divorces Bert and remarries, adding another family to the mix. People age, get married, have children, suffer regret, become ill and die.  The characters look back on their lives with a mixture of regret, detachment and resignation. “All the stories go with you, Franny thought, closing her eyes. All the things I didn’t listen to, won’t remember, never got right, wasn’t around for.”  And Teresa, many years after her divorce from Bert muses that “The things you really need are never there when you need them.” The book addresses the thought provoking questions of how the randomness of events influence a life and how to ensure that the experiences of the past become part of the future without losing your own story in the process.

I laughed through the first half of the book and cried through the second. Ann Patchett tells a great story but reminds you that life is as it is and not as you would wish it would be. The book is due to be published in September and I will be buying my own copy. You can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/mobile/record/C__Rb11213351__SCommonwealth__P0%2C3__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=mobile

The Vegetarian – by Han Kang

The Vegetarian“Her life was no more than a ghostly pageant of exhausted endurance, no more than a television drama. Death, who now stood by her side, was as familiar to her as a family member, missing for a long time but now returned.” This quote sums up the misery that is Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian”, inexplicable winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize.

The story begins with Yeong-hye becoming a vegetarian and her husband’s growing concern over her refusal to eat meat, particularly after a disastrous business dinner with the husband’s boss and others.  “[H]er husband had decided that her vegetarianism was proof that she would never be ‘normal’ again.” Her family tries to convince her to eat meat and after numerous brutal encounters, physical, emotional and sexual, she rapidly devolves into insanity. Her sister, In-hye tries to bring her back from the brink.

In-hye spends a great deal of time pondering how she could have changed the direction of her sister’s life. She also analyzes how easily she could have been the one to break down instead of her sister, but for certain family obligations that forced her to focus outside herself. The book addresses certain issue of medical care for the mentally ill and how easy it is to go from lucidity to insanity. The book’s main theme is that life is an endurance test–an experience to be tolerated while struggling to avoid crossing the very thin line into insanity.

While well written, the story is so bizarre and so depressing that the best thing I can say about it is that it is short–just like this review. If you want to punish yourself for some reason, you can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11177384__Sthe%20vegetarian__P0%2C2__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold

Heat & Light – by Jennifer Haigh

Heat and Light“Heat and Light” is a story about small town life in Pennsylvania, the impact of fracking and other energy extraction activities and the hypocrisy and opportunism on both sides of the energy debate.

Rich Devlin has spent his entire life in Bakerton, Pennsylvania and works as a prison guard and sometime bartender at his father’s bar. Rich’s goal is to farm the land once farmed by his grandfather and he buys out the interests of his brother and sister, but does not have the financial means to get the farm up and running. Rich is married to Shelby and they have two children, the chronically ill Olivia and her younger brother, Braden.

Kip Oliphant is the founder and CEO of Dark Elephant Energy, which, among other things, is a giant in hydraulic fracturing. Dark Elephant sends its best salesman to Bakerton, Pennsylvania to start signing up leases so that it can accumulate enough land to begin mining shale. Rich immediately signs, accepting Dark Elephant’s first offer, thinking only about the money he will receive to enable him to realize his dream of farming.

Unfortunately, Dark Elephant is unable to start drilling because some of Rich’s neighbors have not agreed to terms. The properties need to be bundled and the owners of the acreage in the middle of the bundle refuse to agree. One of those properties is Mackey Farms, run by a lesbian couple (Rena and Mack) who have rejected Dark Elephant, the result of which has been threats and vandalism to their property. Mackey Farms supplies some of Pennsylvania’s finest restaurants and markets with organic products from their farm. When the owner of one of the properties who has refused to sign a lease conveniently dies of a heart attack, his property is leased to Dark Elephant and the drilling begins.

The book describes the varying impact of the drilling. First is the presence of many workers from out of state, creating additional traffic, higher rents and crowded amenities, although notably, none of the local residents are hired to work on the rigs. Relationships develop between the workers and the residents, which of course are only temporary. The well water becomes contaminated with methane and vendors do not want to purchase animal products raised on farms either directly or indirectly impacted by the drilling. The noise levels are unbearable and the land is effectively ruined. Ultimately, the energy company’s sole interest is making money and when it becomes clear that the drilling is a losing venture, they simply clear out leaving their mess behind. Throughout it all, the book describes the varying impact of the activities on Rich and his family, Rena and Mack and Kip and his family .

During the height of the drilling in Bakerton, a community activist, Lorne Trexler, comes to town in an effort to encourage the community to reject the drilling and pursue legal action. Lorne develops a relationship with Rena, who finds herself attracted to Lorne and works directly with him. One of the children in the community is ill and they believe it is due to the water contamination. When a highly regarded physician determines that the illness is likely not the result of the water and may be the result of something more nefarious unrelated to the drilling, Trexler’s reaction is indifference for the child and disappointment for the potential the loss of an emotion laden opportunity to make his point. When he later realizes that the cause of the child’s illness is still unclear, “He exhales audibly. ‘All right, then. It’s still possible the water is to blame. For our purposes, that possibility is enough.'” Lorne’s activism is simply a different type of opportunism, also taking advantage of the impacted community.

In addition to the focus on fracking, the book goes back to the impact of coal mining and then to the melt down at Three Mile Island. There is a focus on the small town experiences of domestic violence and drug addiction, in particular Methamphetamine, of which nobody who lives in the community seems to be too aware. “It’s the fundamental problem of a life lived in one place: sooner or later, everything becomes invisible.”

The book is good, not great, but it is an enjoyable read and gives you some insight into the business and impact of fracking. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11195716__Sheat%20and%20light__P0%2C2__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold

The Little Red Chairs – by Edna O’Brien

The Little Red ChairsEdna O’Brien’s “The Little Red Chairs” is a disturbing yet compelling account of the direct and peripheral impact of a charismatic genocidist. Beautifully written, the book takes its title from the 11,541 red chairs laid out in rows in Sarajevo on April 6, 2012, to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces. “One chair for each Sarajevan killed during the 1425 days of siege.”

The story starts in Cloonoila, Ireland, when a bearded man in a long dark coat from Montenegro shows up at a local bar, seeking lodgings. Vladamir Dragon was, according to his business card, a “Healer and Sex Therapist.” He makes himself welcome in the little town and sets up a clinic announcing Holistic Healing in Eastern and Western Discipline.  At the request of the town priest, he removes the reference to being a sex therapist from his card. His first patient is a nun who, after the treatment marvels that “her energy was prodigal, a wildness such as she had not known since her youth.” Vlad becomes a part of the town’s community, taking students on nature walks and participating in the local book club and poetry readings.  “His name is on everybody’s lips, Dr. Vlad this and Dr. Vlad that. He has done wonders for people, women claiming to be rejuvenated.”

Vlad’s clinic is located in what had been a boutique owned by beautiful Fidelma. Fidelma and her significantly older husband Jack agree to lease the space to Vlad “because the new doctor’s praises were increasingly hailed.” Fidelma’s marriage to Jack is not a happy one and they have been unable to have children. Fidelma eventually takes up with Vlad and becomes pregnant with his child.

The town has a five star hotel known as The Castle, where most of the workers are from somewhere else and share their stories of escape and trouble. All except Mujo, who is described as mute. When the castle has two major functions, Mujo refuses to do his job because the man at Table 17 is a bad man “who has done evil”.

Vlad’s identity becomes known when a bus hired to take the book club to Ben Bulben for a poetry reading brakes suddenly and two uniformed guards board and approach Vlad asking for identification. He is arrested and removed from the bus, ultimately identified and sent to The Hague, to be indicted for crimes that included genocide, ethnic cleansing, massacres, tortures and more.

Fidelma leaves Jack and moves to London, where she learns about the trials and tribulations of a variety of immigrants who have fled their countries due to poverty, intolerance, violence and/or fear, seeking safety and better opportunities. Many of the people she meets through The Centre, a place where refugees gather to talk and tell their stories. She goes to The Hague to observe Vlad’s trial, and to confront him about their romantic past. Through that extremely difficult experience, she learns of the historical conflict in Bosnia and all the horrors he inflicted, and that he truly has no conscience.  Her life in London and her experience at the trial teach her about ethnic and racial intolerance and hatred.

A lot happens in this relatively short book, which ends with a Christmas performance at The Centre of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” where the word “Home” is symbolically sung and chanted in the thirty five different languages of the performers. “You would not believe how many words there are for home and what savage music can be wrung from it.”

This dark, yet hopeful and thought provoking book is worth reading, if not for its beauty and story, then as a reminder of the dangers of hatred based on ethnic, racial or religious intolerance. Edna O’Brien, along with Colum McCann (Let the Great World Spin), will be at The William N Skirball Writers Center Stage, hosted by the Cuyahoga County Public Library Foundation, on Tuesday March 21, 2017. You can order tickets by clicking on http://www.cuyahogalibrary.org/Donate/Writers-Center-Stage.aspx

You can reserve The Little Red Chairs at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11180299__Sthe%20red%20chairs__P0%2C3__Orightresult__X2?lang=eng&suite=gold

Nobody’s Fool – by Richard Russo

Nobody's FoolRichard Russo’s most recent novel, “Everybody’s Fool,” was just released. It is a sequel to a book he published in 1993 called “Nobody’s Fool”. I thought I should read Nobody’s Fool before I read Everybody’s Fool and so this is my review of Nobody’s Fool.

In Nobody’s Fool, the main character, Donald Sullivan (Sully) is a 60-year-old juvenile, haunted by his father’s memory and limited by his own self-destructive behavior. Sully lives in the upstairs flat of the home owned by his retired 80 year old 8th grade teacher, Beryl Peoples. Beryl spends much of her time talking to a picture of her deceased husband and to an African spirit mask she picked up on her travels. She spends her remaining time pondering her lack of maternal love for her banker son Clive Jr, whom she describes as a cynical optimist, and her indifference toward her best friend Mrs. Gruber. Clive Jr spends most of his time focused on the development and promotion of an amusement park, trying to convince his mother of the virtues of his unlikeable fiancée and the removal of Sully from his mother’s life.

Throughout the book Sully is working with his lawyer, Wirf, who is also Beryl’s lawyer, trying to obtain disability benefits for a knee injury. Wirf is an interesting character who seems to spend most of his time drinking excessively and whom Beryl describes as “not so much incompetent as unambitious, a character trait almost impossible to find in a lawyer.”

Sully’s life story is best described as a series of character flaws. His romantic entanglement of almost 20 years involves a married woman who likes to pretend that her daughter with her husband is actually Sully’s daughter. He works for the community’s relatively well to do but sleazy contractor while obsessing over the contractor’s beautiful wife, stealing his snow blower and automobile and shortchanging his projects. In exchange, the contractor refuses to pay him for certain projects, constantly insults him and yet they spend a lot of time together and have an inexplicably codependent relationship. Sully spends a great deal of his time drinking and brawling.

Sully has a best friend who can only be described as smelly and pathetic and whom Sully treats as poorly as a person could treat someone he or she calls a friend. Sully’s long estranged PhD educated, professor son, Peter returns into his life. Peter has failed to get tenure, has no job and as a result of an extramarital affair and pending divorce, finds himself estranged from two of his three children, turning out to be more like Sully than anyone, particularly his mother (Sully’s ex-wife) could have believed possible. This commonality with Sully causes his ex-wife such great distress that she literally has a nervous breakdown. Even Sully is concerned about his son, musing that “his momentary pride in Peter’s accomplishments had leaked away into serious misgivings about his character.”

Overshadowing all of the story is Sully’s obsession with his long deceased violent father and his difficult childhood. As people grow old, die and evolve throughout the story, Sully’s reaction is befuddlement. “As always, to Sully, the deepest of life’s mysteries were the mysteries of his own behavior.”

I am a Richard Russo fan but I have to say that I was disappointed with Nobody’s Fool. It is well written and it is a well thought out story with very little depth, absolutely no subtlety and left me feeling empty. I suspect that the best part of Nobody’s Fool was the 1994 movie starring Paul Newman (the movie had to be great- it starred Paul Newman!!) I am hoping for more out of “Everybody’s Fool” and you will be the first to know what I think! If you want to read “Nobody’s Fool” you can reserve it from the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/mobile/record/C__Rb10280791__SNobody%27s%20fool__P0%2C2__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=mobile

A Strangeness In My Mind – by Orhan Pamuk

A Strangeness In My MindTo say that Orhan Pamuk’s “A Strangeness In My Mind” is one of the best written and enjoyable books I have read all year is overshadowed by my embarrassment that it is the first of the Nobel Prize winner’s novels that I have read. Believe me I will be going back and devouring all of them.

A Strangeness In My Mind is the story of Istanbul, its traditions, politics, history and evolution over more than a 45 year period as told through the eyes and lives of Mevlut Karatas and his family. Mevlut’s life began in 1957, in a small Turkish village where he lived with his mother and sisters. Mevlut’s father had gone to Istanbul with his brother, Mevlut’s uncle, to make his fortune. In 1969, at the age of 12, Mevlut joined his father in Istanbul, went to school and learned the trade of selling yogurt in the streets by day and boza (popular fermented beverage) in the streets by night. Mevlut’s school experience in Istanbul was a difficult one. Poor students like Mevlut were not well treated by educators and ultimately Mevlut dropped out.

Mevlut’s uncle had experienced enough financial success to bring his wife and three sons to Istanbul and to build a house while Mevlut’s father lived in a one room dwelling and was only able to bring Mevlut to Istanbul, but not his wife and daughters. Mevlut’s father was very envious of his brother and did not want Mevlut to develop a close relationship with his cousins or aunt and uncle. Ownership of land in those days was very loose and Mevlut’s father’s relationship with his brother deteriorated over land disputes and envy.

Despite his father’s admonishments, Mevlut became fairly dependent on his cousins throughout his life. At his cousin Korkut’s wedding, Mevlut falls in love with the younger sister of Korkut’s bride. With the help of his cousin Suleyman, Mevlut courts the younger sister through numerous love letters and ultimately, contrary to custom and acceptable religious behavior, elopes with her. From there begin many surprises.

Throughout the book Mevlut has many jobs, including street vendor, cafe worker, parking attendant, cafe owner, and tea seller. Through his various jobs and his constant struggle with poverty we learn about Istanbul’s cruelty, class distinctions and corruption. The corruption he encountered took many forms, including residential theft of electricity, cafe workers theft from owners, bribes to government officials from street vendors, and gang activity in all aspects of Istanbul life and trade.

Despite his many jobs, Mevlut always goes back to selling boza on the streets of Istanbul at night. Through his travels on the street we learn about the history of Istanbul and its politics, its ultimate development into a large city and movement away from tradition and we meet interesting characters along the way. Selling boza was almost a religious experience for Mevlut. “…every time he shouted ‘Boo-zaa’ into half-lit streets, he wasn’t just calling out to a pair of closed curtains that concealed families going about their lives…he was also reaching into the world inside his mind…he would discover the world within his soul reflected in the shadows of the city.”

“A Strangeness Inside My Head” is a grand combination of family saga and intrigue combined with Turkish history and tradition, that draws you in to a different time, place and world and makes you wonder whether the world you thought you understood before you started the novel is real. Its almost 600 pages seem too short and certainly left this reader wanting more. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on  http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11163985__Sa%20strangeness%20in%20my%20mind__P0%2C2__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold.

My Vacation

Guess what readers? I am going on vacation! “What” you might say? “Why are you telling us this and why do we care? We’re not going on vacation and we don’t really want to hear about you having fun in the sun”–or something like that.

I am telling you because I will be gone for one week and I am taking seven books with me. I intend to do nothing but read, run and sun (although there might be a rum punch or two in there somewhere)! I hope to flood you with reviews from my trip and I wanted to warn you in advance.

I will be back soon. Get ready for the onslaught!

LexBlog