A Strangeness In My Mind by Orhan Pamuk

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A Few Generalised Thoughts

I have just finished reading Orhan Pamuk’s mesmerising tome of a translated novel (pub. 22nd Sept 2015 in the UK) called A Strangeness In My Mind. This work of literary fiction is translated from the Turkish by Ekin Oklap. It is 600 pages long, with the last few meticulously detailing yet again; an index of the book’s many sober yet colourful characters. That might hint somewhat of the Nobel Prize Literature winner’s painstaking fastidiousness; in his longtime career as a novelist.

I can grasp up to 250 pages on a good day complete with wines, teas and the amused silence, if a literary novel merits such devotion that I would dare part with ITV3’s Midsomer Murders or the comical Doc Martin countryside doctor series.

My zeal was justified.

I wanted badly to lose myself in Pamuk’s latest novel called The Red-Haired Woman with no sign of guilt as having neglected his earlier works, so that’s why, the scrambled girlish rush. ūü§≠

No matter the tiresome length, A Strangeness In My Mind worked for me because a) I am devoted to stories from the Middle-East b) I am a passionate disciple of literary fiction and c) l relish working class tales.

I own two editions. One is the hardback version which features the cover below and another a fat paperback with a different cover. The reader is treated to different illustrations of Istanbul, past and present comprising of Pamuk’s own affectionate sketches. Both these editions make superb collector’s items.

At first, I thought A Strangeness In My Mind to be nothing more than the complex tale of a boza-seller, plying his now forgotten trade on the streets of Istanbul, that still shaped ancient neighbourhoods made up of unruly children and noisy, boisterous grown-ups.

By the way, this is how the dictionary describes the drink, boza. (An acidulated fermented drink of the Arabs and Egyptians, made from millet seed and various astringent substances; also, an intoxicating beverage made from hemp seed, darnel meal, and water.) The malted beverage is served with roasted chickpeas, cinnamon powder and contains alcohol.

In this respect, the novel whips up riveting conversational dialogues – sometimes a little intense and heated – when strange customers demand of the boza-seller and this, in the dead of night; if his drink is designed to make them turn drunk. We are told in the dedicated novel that an experienced boza-seller will always maintain a careful, diplomatic stance.

Later, I realised that there was so much more to this deeply-illuminating tale than a hawker hoping for his share of windfall from old-fashioned families who might be thirsting after a glass or two.

To sum it all up in a few lines, A Strangeness In My Mind shapes a beautiful love story but I hadn’t realised how the gentle narration had pulled at my heartstrings, until the very end. This is a subdued love affair and compassionate marriage tie between the protagonist, Mevlut and his wife, Rahiya. It draws its complicated heart-line from love-letters sent to the wrong person. The narrative is based on nothing short of a sound realism with the wounded heart’s craving for optimism, a ray of gladness and hope at the very end.

I followed a village Turkish family and their relatives from the faraway rural countryside to the streets of Istanbul. I got caught up in their culturally different day-to-day existence. 3 sisters marry into the same family and these are the characters who steer the novel’s plot with the extraordinary effect their menfolk have on them.

There are the usual hordes of jealous brothers, quarrelsome friends, meddlesome relatives, nosy in-laws… all of these which I love. Still, the romance that quietly weaves through the novel’s plot and is content to rest in the shadows, is what stays most concrete until the end.

Pamuk’s story was so convincing that when a middle-aged character died before his time, early on in the book, I felt real sorrow. Pamuk is after all, anything but a sentimental writer. Yet he captures this fictional man’s habits, characteristics, aspirations, foibles and faults so acutely, that I mourned for the character’s death, having felt I had once brushed into him in person.

Many characters showcase their own distinct voices that tell a different story to an episode and so Pamuk treats the reader with a fuller-more rounded approach and perspective to something that takes place without the reliance on a protagonist’s version of things.

Also, Pamuk begins his story with its dramatic sequence in the middle-point of a plot. He then relies on childhood flashbacks and exposition scenes that feature the physically tough life of a melancholic boza-seller.

The narrator’s hand appears to slip in easily enough, back and forth to the present time and future, with deft mastery. Meanwhile, the painful and patronising divisions of class rule are also made obvious ie. the rich versus the poor through a condescending show of behavioral patterns. The women fictional characters in this novel especially wives and mother, accept their laborious homemaking skills – all of which derive from second-class status – rather respectfully and with resignation. The odd feminist will openly rebel and be frowned upon. Then there is the touchy subject of donning the headscarf.

With Orhan Pamuk’s elegant and graceful and smooth, velvety flow to a long, tight plot, I felt on reading this novel that I was treated to a masterclass in storytelling.

Without warning, I readily absorbed many different techniques to novel-writing.

Of how portraying a character’s surroundings that reflect sights, sounds, smells and intuitive feelings… In fact, little atmospheric things that the man-on-the street notices would eventually journey up a compelling sense-of-place watermark stamp over A Strangeness In My Mind and would also, genie up a reader on an invisible, magic carpet, to another startling, enthralling and hypnotic world. And so, it was with me.

Further Reading:

More on Turkish Boza

Podcast Interview by Slate with Nobel Prize Literature winner, Orhan Pamuk on his latest novel, The Red-Haired Woman

Picture Story

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A phone photo. I’m good with nature shots on my camera but not with phone filters etc. I prefer traditional outdoor pictures so please forgive the clumsiness in this one and especially so, the afternoon beam of light that had brazenly shot across my frame from the top right.

I was at Books Kinokuniya Bookshop at the KLCC in Kuala Lumpur, a few months ago when I happened upon this portable bookshop. Yes, it’s probably just about six inches high, all in all. It was being showcased for sale, from a DIY – do-it-yourself – box, at the stationery department. How enthralling!

It’s all very micro, fitting into a size that’s just about under 1 foot long. Do you spot the step-ladder, lamps & books on those dusty shelves? They also have DIY boxes for a tailor’s room, a kitchen, a greenhouse for flower pots & some others. I was spellbound!

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My Dublin Apartment is Scattered with Books

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Good morning from Dublin! The day started off with a wide skyline mask made of glum cloud but it has since brightened up somewhat. I feel elated to be blogging again. I haven’t yet picked a book out of my library to read or been to the bookshops since I flew in from Dubai.¬† I plan to do both this afternoon. Still, there are treasured pleasures to be held everywhere on the sly and quiet.

Here in Ireland, there’s always a congenial surprise to be held with reads. I’m not just reflecting on the city’s remarkable bookstores with their colourful accompanying cafes downtown, or the many quiet benches at a large nearby¬† pond, full of sleepy ducks, patient swans and quarrelsome gulls.¬† There’s no denying that besides the noisy tourists and excitable children every other weekend; St. Stephen’s Green a popular historical park, is still a breathtaking place for inhaling some quiet poetry and cherishing a classic Simon and Garfunkel moment.

In my apartment, lies my own sacred collection carefully amassed over a decade. I revere my vast library. It’s only now, frankly, that I have learned to appreciate it. I realise that I have enough novels alone, to devour for three lifetimes. I have bought so many books in the past – too many to count – that perhaps in older years, I’ve learned the gift of contentment where it matters… and how much better it is to live simply and surrender to the moment. In this respect, I’ve become a little smarter by not spending money on books I know I’ll never read; only those I really desire to.¬† Thankfully, I can still manage the willpower.

Yet, besides the neat and tidy shelves featuring some cool and enthralling world literature, some unusual and rare, some out-of-print and some so beautifully brand-new; there are more higgledy-piggledy piles to be held in my bedroom and living room. Pull open burgeoning cupboards and drawers and you’ll be confronted with a messy jumble of books of all shapes, colours and sizes. And like a scene from a really sad film, if I get unlucky sometimes, they topple all over me.

On the contrary, my father was a voracious reader and an admirable book-collector but he was also very neat. I say this with resignation and a deep sigh but will leave my exquisite childhood influences for another day.

Still, as an example, here is one of my most doted-on literature.¬† A few clumsy photographs shot on my phone, display quiet hints of a resplendent tome of a Jane Austen collection. It features her complete novels together with many, many illuminating sketches. I adore my Austen more as a coffee-table piece. I had picked it up from Chapters Bookstore on Parnell Street, a few Christmases ago. Then they were selling an array of gift books that soon vanished as books are often a favourable choice with the Irish for that decorative family Christmas-tree stack. Now, this prized gem waits delightfully in an open¬† drawer like an Aladdin’s Cave, full of hoarded jewels.

 

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Nights of the Dark Moon by Tutu Dutta

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Not any kind of review but just some thoughts on a young adult storybook, I read recently. I had placed this post on my Facebook Timeline and I thought that it would serve as a kind of incentive… a motivating factor to get me blogging about books again. This would be a one-off as my love of books lie in serious fiction that focus on relationships. I am not a fan of horror or supernatural elements. I do love talking about my favourite books. I just need to recall the discipline:

‘I ferried Malaysian writer, Tutu Dutta’s newest storybook called Nights of the Dark Moon, published by Marshall Cavendish Editions in Singapore, to Dublin, a few days ago. It will prove an enthralling addition to my library. It is a beautiful looking book comprising 13 gothic Asian folktales. These also include two from Africa. I feel like a child again.. ready to cherish the glossy cover, thick cream pages & illuminating b/w sketches that enfold the start of every tale. These are from Dutta’s own talented hand.

At just RM49.90 (Malaysian Ringgit), Nights of the Dark Moon is no less, a great gift for an older child. After having read it all, I would term the collection as grim fairy- tales; some even signifying high mystery and adventure. All stay riveting, captivating and gripping in their context. Each tale offers stimulating wisdom for a lifetime. Tutu Dutta narrates her stories with an engaging vocabulary, a great love for thoughtful storytelling and also, with painstaking affection.

Just think of the few ugly demons that pop up as more of witches & wizards bent on their missions of hell.

My favourite stays the first one, The Haunted Bridge of Agi. Possibly because, an older Malay friend with great knowledge of Malay culture, told me two years ago, about a true and eerie ghost tale… this very kind of bridge is said to exist somewhere in Perak state of the Malaysian Peninsula. There are said to be night ghosts on the bridge and the only ones that they will not harm – that are allowed to make a return crossing safely – are those holding a royal Perakian bloodline. Otherwise, you will be faced with a devil in front of you at some point, and your wily, frightening escape, will then depend on how bravely you handle the shock.

Although the tales in the book are ancient Asian folklore in retrospect but they appear to hold a distinct European flavour in parts, especially with the dramatic but tragic love story gone wrong in India’s The Weeping Lady. It was so romantic, I even forgot it was a ghost story and supposed to raise the hairs on my neck.

Then, I found another Indian tale, King Vikram and Betaal the Vampire to be truly ticklish. I mean, when you think about it, these days, we live in such an evil world that even the Vampire here, appears a real gem. It knows how to hold a civil dialogue with an irate King and unlike many today, practices its own serious moral code of ethics and integrity.

The stories although nicely arranged, proved a rather tame read but then, that is understandable as I am now an older adult and have already devoured hundreds and hundreds of similar tales like these, as a child. It would be a natural effect. Hang Nadim – the legend of old Singapore’s swordfish battles, was narrated to me in the classroom at nine; by our Primary School teacher, who loved oral storytelling. She was called Cikgu Norsiah. When I first heard it, I was held enraptured to my little, wooden chair in Standard 3.

I also know of the Yoruba tale, The Curse of the Iroko Tree, that originated possibly from Ibadan. I don’t know if I had read this from some African literature in my library or picked up the tale of a child found in a tree and had to be returned to it as an adult, from some Yoruba classic film which I would have watched. A lot of Yoruba films rely on proverbs and oral-storytelling of old but I can’t remember the source, now.

Still, another two elements I strongly feel, that might have removed any possibility of a chilling fear could also have been the following: One: With the exception of the illustration, heralding The Shapeshifter of Co Lao – a clearly ghostly drawing, all the rest of the sketches were pleasant and pleasing. Maybe in future, Tutu Dutta could challenge herself to create more frightening images. That would help the ‘ghostly flavour’ of the book by leaps and bounds.

Also, in real life, I’ve found with a few good supernatural encounters of my own – incidents that defy logic – that fear pops up suddenly from sideways or behind a person, without warning. It’s almost lawless, there’s never a perfect timing or order. In the Nights of the Dark Moon, where the moon becomes the motivating element for a ghost to appear, after a while, there this a strong chance that this may appear predictable and formulaic with its tidy and orderly protocol.

The child might know what to expect in advance, further down the pages and so, both excitement and anticipation, could be sadly curbed.

I think that Nights of the Dark Moon would be a wonderful meditation even as parents or grandparents choose to read to a child or to have chats with then, either a 10, 11 or 12 year old. Not as a bedtime read of course, but as something far more ruminative. Where the child could absorb good judgement ie. foresight and understanding, about people in the real world today – both good and bad. Some evil can be eliminated, some others like bullies or thugs – well… it’s best to keep a careful distance.

Perhaps, more importantly also, on how not to be naive or to trust just any stranger too easily and also, to recognise that time is probably the best teacher in the aspect of studying human characterisation. Also, many other lifelong and necessary ethics that may be drawn upon, to make the child rise as a fabulous thinker turning it eventually, into an adult reader, holding profound intuition.’

Further Reading:

Tutu Dutta’s Blog

How to Purchase Nights of the Dark Moon from Malaysia
Note: Speaking from my own experience, MPH Bookstores in Malaysia are excellent with international courier deliveries and I have received my book parcels here in Europe in the past, in record time.

 

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After a Long Hiatus – August 7th, 2017

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A big apology for those who read me faithfully, in the past. I haven’t been here for a long while as I was deathly ill for close to a year. Perhaps someday, I shall feel inclined to talk about it. However, I am now well enough to blog about books again. I find blogging regularly these days to be a difficult discipline but am glad I never gave up. Still, since I am presently, surfing¬† the road to recovery, I read whatever I crave at the moment, which could just be about anything although I stay inclined towards serious fiction. Literary fiction is what holds my heart.

For many months, I couldn’t read anything at all so it’s good to say hello to my own trusty library and also, bookshops again. I still own a mysterious love for Arabic, Persian and Turkish literature. I seem to really enjoy reading stories on Islamic regions probably because it is a point-of-focus that proves illuminating and intriguing for me. Or perhaps, because I was born in Malaysia although I now travel and spend quite a bit of time in Dublin, Ireland, where I am at the moment. I also love British fiction and stories of the Malay Archipelago. It feels really good to be back and being able once more, to reclaim the desire to write about my favourite reads, after such a long, long time away.

Through the Veil by Lisa Ohlen Harris

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by Zozan Abrams

‘In dreams I walk the winding labyrinth of the Old City. I push through crowds in the bazaar. Daylight filters through cracks and holes in the covered ceiling, like stars piercing the dome of the night sky. …. I walk deep into the Old City, …’ – Lisa Ohlen Harris (Through the Veil)

It was a delight to discover the poet in American writer, Lisa Ohlen Harris from Oregon, as she traced a palette of personal adventures through Damascus and Jordan in the Nineties, when life was still held as somewhat romantic and beautiful in Syria. Her storytelling compositions featuring both fascinating women friendships and the harsher attitude of conservative Islamic men towards the average Westerner, are all laced with cautious optimism and frank observation.

The fountains, winding cobbled pavements in the Old City of Damascus and its erratic, colourful bus-stops with quaint, exotic shops are some of these that make for a charming travel narrative.

Yet, there may be the odd taste of a bitter bite through the unlikely women friendships that did not always seem credible but yet lent themselves to love and goodness, for Harris’s presence and welcome. I found some of the women’s hospitality heartwarming and at times, breathtaking.

Yet, I received the impression, that Damascene women and their families, were often sober and subdued and Jordanian women distrustful. Among the latter, I really enjoyed the episode of an unfriendly mother-in-law who would hide her infant grandson as she thought Harris to broach the evil eye.¬† Harris often had to figure out each woman’s real thoughts and intentions as their rehearsed greetings never betrayed what they truly felt of Harris in the innermost recesses of their mind.

In Damascus, there was Huda who excelled in embroidery, yet preferred to never leave her home. There was Maisa who invited Harris to her village, to experience Ramadan and the strange culture shock that came with it. There was Miriam, a Shia, who was curt and distant as she thought Harris to be a spy.

I have to remember also in my role as reader, that I am Malaysian and so, was treated to the Muslim Call of Prayer from when I was a toddler. Whereas Harris heard it at dawn for the fist time when she arrived in the Middle-East. It was amusing to read of Harris’s astonishment… something that I confess, I had always taken for granted.

Still, they never failed with that pleasurable greeting, Welcome in Syria. Not even the astute shop-lady who served Harris, Bedouin coffee at its best.

I thought it was important to note the year of publication by Canon Press, US. It was a time when no tragic revolutions of any kind, had yet sprung up in President Bashar al-Assad’s Syria.¬† Through the Veil was published in 2010, a year before the tragic revolution that would change Syria’s sophisticated fortunes forever and reduce the ancient, historical nation to a horrifying dilapidation.

Thus, I found it rather refreshing to devour a series of original narratives compared to the current, more common mainstream stories of refugee drownings, war escapes and tear-jerking exile tales; that are being hurriedly published by established novelists and which have become all the rage in Syrian fiction today.

At the time, Harris already had two babies and lived with her husband in Jordan. Harris did manage to capture, the infant trails of the Iraq war, where Saddam Hussein was about to be deposed.  She was living in Jordan at the time and planning for an American family reunion. All of a sudden, there were uncertainties about flights at the airport and the magnitude of tensions to be had with social activity in the streets. This too, proved an eye-opener for me.  The tremors and abhorrence of a neighbouring war were easily felt.

I also enjoyed reading in a meditative manner, about the old-fashioned landlord who complained time and time again about Harris and her family’s electricity bill and the many women acquaintances Harris had met in Amman, Jordan with the colourful dramatics that each woman and her family, including surly in-laws, brought to Harris’s life for better or worse.

Harris’s book is a work of non-fiction that traces the years of her life in the Middle-East. Today, it would serve as essential reference and study, for anyone interested in the history, current affairs and day-to-day living on ordinary life in Syria. The country that once was before it was plagued by both civil war and illegal proxy ones, with no thanks from outsiders.

Through the Veil shells the chapters of her life that encased university study tours to the Middle-East, a region that she has always been fascinated by. It was in Damascus that she met a future husband, seminary student, Todd. Later, they would marry and go to live in Jordan. I could also easily identity with the flavours and geographical cityscape of Jordan as I been both to Amman and the Dead Sea. Naturally, these scenes were easy to picture in the mind.

What I found difficult to identify with in the book,¬† was Harris’s American life.¬† Now, this is more of a subjective personal taste¬† as Harris had married the different layers of her life very well into neat book chapters, in her role with authorship. I found that the two cultures offered me a slight disorientation and disconnection and also the later chapters on America might have reduced the powerful intensity, I had gathered earlier as a reader, soaking as much as I could of the Middle-Eastern experiences, where my senses had been held enraptured.

In this vein, I was somewhat gladdened that Harris had used her last chapters to compare the role of women in society by observing and remembering personalities and common everyday events; both in the West and the Middle-East. Until the very last page, Harris continued to recall and remember the women she had met in both Syria and Jordan with love and longing. This industrious technique worked beautifully for me as I was able to hang on to the magic and enchantment, that I had grasped in earlier parts of the book.

I hope that Lisa Ohlen Harris will continue to write and consider publishing a book of poetry or even travel-writing as her multi-faceted talents with words, are too good to lie low.

Through the Veil was penned in a vibrant tone and layered with skilled compassion, empathy and superb understanding. I got the impression that Harris looked for the best in every human soul. My mind and the condition of my human-spirit received far more enrichment in having read Through the Veil and for which, I stay grateful. – Zozan Abrams

Then and Now

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For a few good book posts in the past, please scroll down and for new book posts, it all begins again here from now. Hope you like my subterranean photograph which I shot of summery tree-leaves being reflected in the water, while I was at St. Stephen Green’s park in Dublin. For a touch of celebration, I used an animated feature to show the moving ripples.¬† – Susan Abraham

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