Snow, by Orhan Pamuk

I wasn’t sure how to read this book. At first I thought it was going to be one of those books where the power of the language enchants me and carries me through the story. Then I thought that it was going to be a surreal book, like one of Kafka’s. Then I thought perhaps it was a political novel, like one of Graham Greene’s ‘entertainments’.

I never did figure it out. A little of each, perhaps. The story lurched from one incident to another, with me joining the main character in not understanding exactly what was going on. At least there was a main character! The premise is that Ka, a famous poet, gets trapped by a blizzard in a remote town in Turkey, where he’s gone to research an article about suicides among young women and to see an old flame who is now divorced.

And that’s about it. He watches the snow from his hotel room, talks with the women, and wanders around town. He meets—by appointment and by accident—and talks with a number of people, supposedly to learn about the head-scarf girls, young women who are said to have killed themselves rather than remove their head scarves, the wearing of which has been banned in the schools. However, their talks range much further, into history and dreams and religion.

The first part of the book fascinated me but the middle bogged down in confusion. I only kept reading because it was for my book club, but I’m glad I did as the end picked up and the various threads began to make a little more sense. I came to realize that the fragmented story reflected the fragmentation of these people’s lives, rudderless since the breakup of the Ottoman empire, their identity erratic and uncertain. It also reflected the fragmentation of the political body of Turkey, torn between continuing Ataturk’s westernizing reforms, Kurdish separatism and Islamic fundamentalism.

One person in my book club asked if we thought Pamuk deliberately made the book so hard to read. Did he think about the reader or write this book simply for himself? I myself believe that one must always write for oneself, but then the writer has to step back and consider his or her responsibility to the reader.

We talked a lot about the suicides and the political situation. Writing about politics in a novel is dangerous stuff, but Pamuk carries it off with elan. We agreed that the deceptively simple story held a great deal of complexity, with so many different threads that untangling them would be a worthy subject for a doctoral thesis.

We also talked about the progress of Ka’s pursuit of Ipek. I found it curious that he loved her even before he arrived in town, saying that he is the type of man who “‘. . . can fall in love with a woman only if he knows next to nothing about her.'” However, another person pointed out that this ability to reach across the gulf that separates one person from another and simply fall in love is what redeems us. This disjointed book finally cohered around the image of a snowflake, isolated and unique. Pamuk asks: “How much can we ever know about love and pain in another's heart?” In the end, we cannot understand other people; we don’t know how to read them. We can only love them.

A Brief History of the Dead, by Kevin Brockmeier

Watching awards shows where people stumble to the podium clutching their lists of people to thank, I’ve sometimes thought that if I were ever to win an award, the first people I would want to thank would be people like the guys at Brentwood who keep my old car running, Paul at Eddie’s who without fail points me to just the right bottle of wine, Jeff Schneider who always has that obscure hardware item that I need for a project, Bernie Severe and his wonderful sons who rescue and refinish my hardwood floors, the folks at Al Pacino’s who make a consistently perfect Queens pizza for my Sunday night treat, the maintenance team (Mike, Jonathan and Grover) who come to my aid when water starts pouring through the ceiling in the middle of the night—all the people, in other words, who make my life possible. Sure, they are getting paid for doing their jobs, but I want them to know that I notice and appreciate how well they are doing them.

In Brockmeier’s richly imagined novel, he alternates the story of a woman—Laura Byrd—who has been left alone in an Antarctic research station with the story of the inhabitants of the City—people who have died but are still remembered. He bases the latter on an African tradition where people are not wholly dead until the last person to know them dies.

This concept of the “living-dead” enables him to pay tribute to the overlapping networks of friends, associates and acquaintances in which even the quietest life is embedded. One of the characters tries to come up with a number, deciding on fifty thousand “or maybe even seventy”. The story brings out the impact we have on each other, however fleeting our contact, and how dependent on each other we are. Characters like Laura who find themselves alone panic and go searching for someone—anyone—to be with.

I don’t mean to make the story sound heavy and philosophical. It’s not. It moves quickly, nimbly weaving together the multiple stories. Most people I’ve talked with read it in one sitting, thinking they’ll read just one more chapter, just one more. Same with me. Aside from quibbles about the realism of some Antarctic details, I found it one of the best and most provocative books I’ve read all year.

Standard practice in making fantasy work is to keep all the other elements as realistic as possible, so the inhabitants of the City live in apartments or houses like ours. They work at mundane jobs such as repairing clocks, running a fitness club, or selling jewelry. At first I thought this unlikely. People mostly complain about their jobs, celebrating hump day on Wednesday and looking forward to TGIF parties, so why after death’s release would they choose to take their jobs up again? I considered habit and boredom. Someone in my book club pointed out that a few people worked in fields that they had always wanted to try.

But the main thing I realised—what we so often forget—is that our work is partly what ties us into the community. However boring or difficult, every job confers that benefit. And, herd animals that we are, we want to be part of a community. So, to all of you whose courtesy and commitment enrich my days and give you a place in my life: thank you.

Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome

Since this is an expression I often find myself using, I figured I’d better read the classic where it originated. I’m very glad I did. What a delight! I felt as though I were sitting out on a pub’s patio or garden being entertained by the stories of a most charming man, such as the man in Robin Hood’s Bay who told us how the smugglers used to outwit the law by passing the goods from house to house by way of their secretly interconnected attics, or the man in Cornwall who told us about hermits and mazes and waterfalls before warning us about working farms.

This book, first published in 1889, tells of the antics that ensue when Jerome sets out with two friends and a dog to spend a fortnight traveling the Thames from Kingston to Oxford. Alternately rowing and towing their boat upstream, the three friends exchange tales of past adventures and find themselves tumbling into new ones. They’ve chosen to camp out rather than sleep at inns, and the resulting battles with canvas and cookpots left me shaking with laughter.

In addition to recounting their escapades, Jerome offers descriptions of the towns they pass and his surprising and hilarious musings on various subjects. Whether you consider it a novel or a travelogue, every page is packed with that quiet, self-deprecating, utterly ridiculous English humor. For example, Jerome reflects on an innkeeper who has, at great trouble and expense, papered over a room full of antique carved oak, and wonders if today’s junk will become tomorrow’s treasures, such as the loathsome china dogs that clutter furnished lodgings. “In 2288 people will gush over it. The making of such dogs will have become a lost art. Our descendents will wonder how we did it, and say how clever we were. We shall be referred to lovingly as ‘those grand old artists that flourished in the nineteenth century, and produced those china dogs.'”

I couldn’t keep from snickering throughout his description of his friend Harris trying to guide people out of the maze at Hampton Court. Confident that he knew the way, Harris kept picking up lost souls along the way, getting more and more lost, until they finally called out for help from the keeper. However, it was just their luck that he happened to be new to the job and also got lost. They would catch sight of him now and then but they couldn’t manage to meet up. Ah well, as Jerome says, “Such is life; and we are but as grass that is cut down, and put into the oven and baked.”

One reason this was such a perfect book was that their adventure took place during the same season I was reading it, which made it easy to imagine being on the boat with them, watching the fields and towns slip by. And of course, it was this time of year, three years ago, that I was actually on a boat on the Thames near Windsor with my niece and a bunch of rowdy but charming morris dancers.

There are certain seasonal books that I go back to again and again. For example, when the leaves are all gone in November and the rain takes over, then it is time to read Jane Eyre once more. March, when the ground starts to get mushy, makes me want to read The Secret Garden and think about Dickon and Mary digging in the dirt. Deep summer makes me pick up Colette to enjoy her sensual descriptions of flowers and fruit and sun-tanned men. I usually choose Break of Day but really any of her books works fine. Now my shelf of seasonal books has increased by one: Jerome’s book is one I will come back to in early summer or whenever I need a good laugh.

Spoon River Anthology, by Edgar Lee Masters

I hadn’t read this classic since my schooldays but bits of it have stayed with me over the years, particularly Lucinda Matlock: “It takes life to love Life.” Rereading it now was a mixed experience. The pieces hardly seemed like poems to me, but rather pieces of conversation, almost completely devoid of imagery, and few with any subtlety of meaning.

What they do have is emotion and plenty of it. Each poem is meant to be a single person speaking to us from beyond the grave, as though we were walking through a cemetery and the tombstones began to talk to us. They do not speak to us of Heaven or Hell but instead are preoccupied with their earthly concerns: married couples continue their hostilities; the soldier killed in the Philippines debates just and unjust wars; the unrepentant capitalist applauds his own actions while those ruined by him vent their bitterness.

What I found most interesting were the intertwining fates of the individuals, how they affected one another, and how unaware of each other they were. So many secrets and dreams and disappointments. In fact, the book seemed to me more like a novel, and I was gratified to find when I picked up his autobiography Across Spoon River that he originally envisioned the book as a novel. The autobiography gave the sources for many of Spoon River’s denizens and had the same rather peevish tone of many of the poems, as though it were written to get back at everyone who had harmed Masters, or not appreciated him sufficiently.

For the most part, the poems are depressing reading. Yet the book—with its tales of crooked politicians and hypocritical preachers, judges and newspaper editors who have been bought and paid for—is curiously contemporary. One friend of mine says that she finds it horribly depressing to think that people have not changed over the centuries. I, on the other hand, am comforted to think that today’s appalling scandals, reckless destruction, and blatant power-grabbing are nothing new. Greed, dishonesty and selfishness have always been a part of human nature, just as generosity, self-sacrifice, and integrity have been. And no society has been completely successful at taming the one while nurturing the other.