/Reading Lists/Reviews


Finished! Stacked back on the shelf.


My Name is Red

Orhan Pamuk, Vintage International

Just outside the gates to the Topkapi Palace, and behind the great Byzantine Church/Mosque/Museum of Hagia Sophia, stands the Church of Hagia Eirene (The Church of Holy Peace). It is a remarkable building, because in its simple interior, devoid of the usual decorations. . . More


 Istanbul - Memories and the City

Orahan Pamuk, Knopf

This was the first work by Pamuk that I've read, and it was delightful. Biographical, it moves you out of the intimacy of his own life into the longings and dreamings of Istanbul, and of Turkey itself. It gives an edge to anyone thinking about the role and aspirations of Islam, and gives even more food for thought to the entrance of Turkey into the European Economic Union. If you've ever visited Istanbul, this is a must read.



Orhan Pamuk, Vintage Books/Random House

I chanced on this in the Stanford Bookstore, having just finished Istanbul. I was not disappointed with this book either. It is a fictional account of an expatriate Turkish poet who comes back from Frankfurt, Germany, to do a story on young women committing suicide in the Turkish city of Kars. Again Pamuk plays with the notion of "what does it mean to be a Turk?". All the elements are there scarves, sex, fundamentalism, secularists, revolution, poetry, art, love, hatred, and snow - the metaphor for all of it. This is an engaging novel that, like Istanbul, gives the read a "heads up" on Turkish affairs and culture.


A Woman in Berlin - Eight Weeks in the Conquered City - A Diary

Anonymous, Metropolitan Books

This little volume has been in the news lately, with some critics claiming that the book is a fraud. The diary was written by an anonymous woman, who wished to remain so. It has been published several times, and with the death of the author it was decided to republish the volume but still maintain her anonymity. A name has surfaced in Germany - one only needs to google the title to follow all the arguments.
It is an amazing book about what it means to be human, to be a woman, to be defeated, to be German, to be a thinking person. I entered the book prepared for the heavy discussion of rape and atrocity, only to find that she has written with a light hand and with a sense of wit. As with the film Downfall, one discovers that to apply the "black and white" of judgment to this time and to these people, is not so easy to do.


The Cardinal's Hat - Money, Ambition, and Everyday Life in the Court of a Borgia Prince

Mary Hollingsworth, The Overlook Press

Having just returned from Florence and Rome, this book immediately caught my eye. It is essentially a recounting of the life of Ippolito d'Este, the second son of Lucretia Borgia, filled in by the details of accounting records amassed by his clerks and major domi. It is indeed about ambition (he was archbishop of Milan at age 9), but it is also about politics and they way they affected the lives of everyone in his retinue. For us who have lived with the relatively stable boundaries of France and Italy in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, this will be an invitation to travel and live in a strange world, where the Holy Roman Emperor, the king of France, and the numerous princes and dukes of Italy play a wonderful game of chess. The sheer materiality of it all left me in a stupor.


 Around the Roman Table - Food and Feasting in Ancient Rome

Patrick Faas, The University of Chicago Press

I almost wrote a letter to the University of Chicago Press after finishing this book. I've never seen so many typos, and errors of fact. The author can't distinguish St. Peter from St. Paul, and entertains some strange theological notions as well. Perhaps if I could have read the original Dutch I might have felt differently.
This is not just a book of recipes, although these are included as well. It recounts the whole culture that surrounded Roman dining. The place, the equipment, the ingredients, the etiquette, the furniture of the Roman dining room and the meals eaten there are all discussed in detail. To me it all seemed like a great deal of garum (or liquamin - a pungent fish sauce) or honey, rather than the hummingbird tongues that I was led to believe. For any "foody" it's a lot of fun.


The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

Umberto Eco, Harcourt Brace

Let me be quite honest here. I don't have much luck with Umberto Eco's books. The Name of the Rose was the first. However, once I made it through Foucault's Pendulum, I was hooked. The Island of Lost Dreams, and Baudolino languish somewhere on my shelves. Essays and monographs are another matter, and I can devour them at will. The novels are more difficult. It was with trepidation, then, that I purchased The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. I love a good biography, and I think this is indeed a stealth autobiography. Or, at least, that is the fiction that I maintained while reading this book.
The premise is that a man, a rare book-seller, awakens with amnesia, and seeks through a scavenger hunt through his grandfather's villa, to resurrect his memory. It is part memoir of the war years and youth - but mostly it is a cultural romp and rant. It is there that my enjoyment of Eco's work is most realized - his commentary on culture. As a semiologist, he sees, finds, and communicates the signs and symbols of our present and immediate past culture in ways that are quite wonderful.
As a child, I loved the early television broadcasts of Flash Gordon with Buster Crabbe, and to my delight these films are recalled, retold, and demythologized before my very eyes and memory. These comic-book heroes and heroines become the archetypes of what is in the world of fascist Italy. I envied his ability to look at a confusing and trying time and then to connect suitable music, art, film, literature, and what not to the problem. If history, for you, is a grand almost solemn thing - you might want to attack this book tenderly - giving it a chance to reveal its riches. If you love history, if you are intrigued with your own time - then this is the book for you.

 The Year of Magical Thinking

Joan Didion, Knopf

This book is utterly fascinating, and I find my self responding to it much as I did to Andrew Solomon's Noonday Demon - an Atlas of Depression. In a way it underscores what Kübler-Ross had written some time ago, but other insights and authors are brought to bear - at least so far. I can't get my mother out of my mind as I read this book. A friend described her as "wearing her grief on her shoulder - as an ornament". I wonder if I'll get her to read it, and if she'll recognize herself.
24 August 2004 - I've finished the book, and knowing that her daughter died as well, following her completion of the book, I too wish that she had added additional material about the other half of her tragedy. But Ms. Didion has declared it complete.
This book has caused me to think a great deal about the possibility of my own death. Films and painting have tempted us to see it as a "great event" fraught with putti and knowing. Ms. Didion teaches us that it ain't necessarily so. That is what has captured my imagination. I, like the majority of others, won't know what hit me. I suspect that if death has meaning, it is only a meaning imparted to the survivors - the one who died could care less. That is only part of the "magical thinking" that Ms. Didion explores.
If the smallness of death is a realization that comes suddenly to the dead, it comes ever so slowly to those who survive and grieve. The bargaining goes on for some time. "If only I had..." and "What if"s become the stuff of grieving and bargaining. Little things that could have mattered are discovered to be of no matter at all.
Again, I'm wishing that I had a pulpit. The grist in this book is ripe unto the mill.


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MTH - 12/06/2005