Monday, October 11, 2004
With a little help from the discredited Columbus, I am getting this up over the weekend as promised. I haven't wrestled The Crossing to the ground, but here are the promised two at least. And reading in one of the lit weblogs, I enjoyed the practice of collecting first lines, so, by way of introduction to these two books, I'll start with first lines.

First, Orhan Pamuk's Snow: "The silence of snow, thought the man sitting just behind the bus driver. If this were the beginning of the poem, he would have called the thing he felt inside him the silence of snow."

Pamuk is everywhere right now (reading in Boston tomorrow night, as a matter of fact--and unfortunately the same night as the talented David Gilbert, whose reading I'm afraid I will also likely miss, but you should not because his book is very funny). There is much to admire in Snow, and some problems as well. Rather than starting with the good and then damning it with faint praise, I'll go the other way. The biggest problem I had with the book was with the tone, which never fully resolved for me into something that felt real. There were parts that ought to have been menacing, or brutal, but the whole narrative seemed to carry with it a wash of the absurd--like Robert Coover. So the conflicts seemed, to my mind, faintly ridiculous, rather than powerful, and the power struggles pathetic rather than significant. ("But that's the point", the arch voices whisper, "he is both portraying and commenting on the human condition at the same time.")

Thus the animating politics of the novel, for which I had summoned an appropriately responsible enthusiasm, never rose to a level that engaged me, but always held me off.

There is much in it that I thought excellent--the premise of the poet returning to his home town, unable to write poems for many years--the newspaper that publishes events that come to be true--the love and desire of Ka for Ipek--the structure of the book of poems and, perhaps best in the book--the allusive coming together (absurd and sweet and moving) of the poems themselves--and the radical students writing their science fiction novel. A lot here to like, certainly, and yet I kept trying to like the book as a whole and did not.

One review I read explained that the book seemed to run out of gas about halfway through and never really regained its momentum, and I agree. The tropes of the snow, of the back and forth of Ipek, seem to repeat until they had lost meaning. And when they finally resovled, I had lost some measure of interest. This is a book that was better than the recounting here, but not as good as the international gush that is welling up around Pamuk--though he is certainly interesting and worthy, and My Name is Red has joined the queue. (3.5 menhirs)

The second book is Meatless Daysby Sara Suleri--a book that came so highly recommended from a surpassingly literate friend that I feared a little I wouldn't be able to read it fairly. The opening: "Leaving Pakistan was, of course, tantamount to giving up the company of women." Suleri's book is a loose memoir about her family, relationships, and food; its chapters are more like essays that loop back rather than parts of a larger structure. She writes beautifully and sharply, though with some whiffs of the academic sneaking in here and there. She presents her family, and her life, with such a grace and spirit that it is hard not to find yourself at least a little in love with her as you read. That, I suppose is recommendation enough. Some of the essay-chapters are stronger than others, and I did not find that the whole built an edifice up beyond the sum of its delightful parts, but that is a substantial sum. (3 menhirs)


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