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Review of Irfan Orga’s Portrait of a Turkish Family

I purchased my copy at Daunt Books in Marylebone, London after the sales gal told me that it was one of the best works of “travel” literature she’s ever read and how the bookstore’s owner saw it as the “guidepost” of the store: representing the store’s intent on taking readers to another world. Take me to another world, it did. The world is Turkey, circa early 20th century, with the last remnants of the Ottoman Empire being obliterated by WWI, followed by the rise of Kemal Atatürk and the Turkish Republic. Orga places us firmly in his family as they experience the changes wrought by these circumstances and shows their empowering and embittering effects. This book was very interesting to me for many reasons.

I have read a lot about WWI, but the focus is often very Euro-centric, and we don’t see very many narratives of how it impacted other parts of the world, despite it being a global war. The only thing we know really about Turkey is the Dardenelles campaign and Gallipoli, but that seems separated from Turkish life. Orga allows us to experience the effects of war as it takes his family from the upper-echelon of society to the pit of poverty and starvation and rips his family apart. The biggest change is his mother. She married his father when she was 13 and was a 19-year-old pregnant mother-of-two when the war broke out. Until then she wore the veil, stayed cloistered, unseen, and mute inside, and played the role as doting mother. Quickly widowed and impoverished, she transforms herself into as modern as a woman could be for that time and place. She has to be seen and have a voice and make hard decisions that irrevocably impact her family. It is through her that we see the war’s greatest impact on Orga’s family. It is easy to forget that she is so young throughout the memoir. In many respects she was ahead of her time, which is remarkable since she started out as a very young and traditional woman, content to be to maintain her place. She quickly establishes a new set of values.

Orga also delves into what it means to be a family. He sees how the war changes his family members, especially his mother, and how it changes their relationships. What had been a simple love is now complex, full of hurts and disappointments. He often grapples with his feelings regarding his family, and I appreciate how honest he was about those feelings.

If you want to be taken back in time to another place, this book is for you!

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Not Near The Far Field

The Far Field

The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


This book has everything to recommend it: a flawed protagonist, a parent that puts the “fun” in dysfunctional, a foreign setting beset by war that I am unfamiliar with, a clash of cultures, a mystery, and it was a Book of the Month selection. You’re probably waiting for the BUT. Here it is: BUT, it just didn’t do it for me; it was like soup missing an ingredient that would pull it all together– salt? thyme? After a while I gave up trying to identify the missing flavor and stopped eating entirely– 100 pages short of a 432 page book. In the hands of a more seasoned author, this story could have been told in 332 pages.

The novels centers around a thirty year old woman named Shalini who reflects on her childhood with an eccentric, hard-nosed mother and an earnest, hard-working father in India. Her mother develops a relationship with a garment salesman from Kashmir, and their relationship propels Shalini, years later, to go to Kashmir to find out whatever happened to him. She travels from the cosmopolitan Bangalore to the war-torn Kashmir, and even though she is both completely uninteresting and out of her depth, she is befriended and taken in by families in the area where more trouble is brewing. The story is told through the narrative of her childhood and the narrative of her time in Kashmir, and I am going to guess that the mysteries of her mother and the mysteries of the man will come to a head in the last few pages and the reader will gasp and look up in shock at the revelations. That reader is not me.

I hate to give a two star rating and not good review of this book. It’s Madhuri Vijay’s debut novel and it feels like a labor of love. I wish she had written a shorter novel; once a book goes beyond the 350 page mark, an author needs to ask herself if the story really warrants such length. If an author is going to demand such time from a reader, it better be one hell of a story. This novel is easy to read, but it drags on. There is an attempt to build suspense, but because it is so long, the pacing is off and the plot felt episodic. None of the characters, beyond the mother, are very memorable, and at one point a character’s name was mentioned and I had to sit there for a bit trying to recall that person. Ultimately, I gave up trying to remember because I did not care. I wish the editor sat Vijay down and worked to make it shorter; there’s a good story here, but I just lack the patience, and finally the interest, to finish.



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Biding My Time with the Clockwork Universe

The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World

The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World by Edward Dolnick

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Even though I am an English teacher and deal more in parables than in parabolas, I found this to be a very interesting book despite there being SO. MUCH. MATH. Dolnick delves into how we managed to turn to the Renaissance into the modern world by demonstrating how Isaac Newton’s discoveries in math and science made our universe much more understandable. To do this he goes back to the “shoulders of giants” Newton stood on to be able to see what he saw. This takes us back to Kepler and Galileo, who lived during times when to explain the workings of the world was to doubt God and his perfection. Kepler kept his revelations secret until he was almost dead; Galileo died under house arrest. To explain each man’s discoveries, Dolnick feels it necessary to also explain the math– of angles, inverted squares, Pythagorean thereom, mass, velocity, this formula, that formula. He does a clever job at explaining complex equations by using analogies, but analogy or no analogy, I just don’t get it and was bored.

The math stuff made the human stuff way more exciting. Dolnick shows how we take the modern world for granted as we know that there is a solution or an answer for everything. Plague? Fleas. Massive fire that burns down whole city? Poor city planning. Children dying in infancy? Disease or unsanitary conditions. In the 17th century, there was one answer: God. In a world where not much was understood, everyone relied on God’s mercy, which he had in short supply. Galileo was imprisoned and Bruno burned at the stake because they questioned God and hence the whole socio-political order. By Isaac Newton’s time and in another country, thinkers were encouraged to help explain God’s plan and to show his perfection. So Newton and Hooke and Boyle and Halley and Leibniz over in Germany could pursue their whims without persecution. It was very interesting to learn how they used math to solve the mysteries of the world and put the world into perspective. Also how Newton and Leibniz’s feud muddied the philosophical and religious waters as each tried to prove how each other’s theories minimized God’s role in the world while their own elevated him. I think we forget or do not realize how far their world is from ours today, where science is science and God based on your belief. I appreciated Dolnick’s writing because he made many modern day comparisons and he is funny. Very interesting book if you can withstand the math.





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Review of The Plateau

The Plateau

The Plateau by Maggie Paxson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


“With all of our chances– and all of the moral tools we’ve derived from any number of spiritual, religious, and philosophical orientations– we haven’t learned. It’s like we still don’t even recognize the moral hazard of deciding we are anything– any nation, any race, any religion, any gender– before we are a human being. Even when we must know, in our deepest places, that the oneness of humanity is an absolute truth, we behave as though we don’t” (309).

Anthropologist Maggie Paxson has written a book unlike any I have read before: an exploration of peace that is part anthropology, part memoir, part history, part religious meditation. She begins by asking what made the people of the Plateau region of France, a place known for harboring refugees and Jews in great times of danger, do so? In the course of finding her answer, she lives on the Plateau, studies the history of Daniel Trocme who lived there briefly during WWII to harbor and teach refugee children, and befriends the newest refugees in the area. All of this sidetracks her from getting down to the nitty-gritty data of why this area is so special. Instead she veers into an exploration of humanity, religions, and nations to determine what makes one good and put their life on the line for another. I am personally okay not having charts and diagrams and boxes with numbers in them to map the bell curve of goodness. Goodness is subjective, caught in the mess of our psyches.

Paxson’s goal is ambitious. How DOES one chart peace? Especially during a time when there was no peace? Also, how does one study a population’s motives for helping others when not all members shared the same goal? There are so many stories of sacrifice made by people all over Europe who helped shelter and feed and welcome into their homes Jews and other displaced peoples that I don’t think the answer lies in one area. It lies in ourselves. Paxson gets drawn into the lives of those in the past and the families seeking shelter on the Plateau now. She learns who they are and what caused them to flee their homelands. She explores how religions and the ideas of nations (which replaced kingdoms which served religions) have failed humanity. Deeply religious herself, in a secular field, she questions how religions can lead one astray– especially when every religion intones that we must love one another. Not being religious myself, I found this interesting as she discusses how the “why” one is religious impacts how much they love their neighbor and how they can use that same religion to shun him. Those who strive for peace, place humanity front and center– just because somebody else made them an enemy because they are of a different race, religion, political persuasion– doesn’t make them your enemy, too. When the time comes to act, who will we be? Will answer the call as whatever we label ourselves– white? Christian? American? Or will we be humans responding to human needs?

There is a tremendous amount of pain in this book. I learned more about the Holocaust that I had not known before; I learned about the atrocities happening in other countries; I learned about how much pain and death and suffering arise from ultimately arbitrary means. I again learned that being good will not save you, and it instead makes you a bigger target. Their is a lot hope here, too. We can in our small and big ways help others and do what we can. This seems miniscule in light of the horrors of the world, but think of the amount of good and how many people are saved when we act selflessly. In the words of Jesus, “Ye shall know them by their fruits,” and Paxson reminds us that it is not who we say we are that defines us, but what we do.



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The Hours Under Birches

The Hours

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Oftentimes during this book I was reminded of Robert Frost’s poem “Birches”, where the speaker reflects on Truth of winter bending the birches rather than the fantasy of a solitary country boy swinging on them. Michael Cunningham follows a day in the life of three women: Virginia Woolf, Laura Brown, and Clarissa Vaughn, nicknamed Mrs. Dalloway, the character that connects all three lives. All three contemplate and resist the banality of their lives where even “crystal shells” are also “broken glass”; they are each trapped by the loveliness of their lives. Like the speaker in the poem, they wish to escape from Truth and a “pathless wood” to a life that is a bit more dangerous, authentic, and true, even if it’s just for a little while. The tension arises when, as in the poem, fate may “willfully misunderstand [them]/ And half grant what [they] wish and snatch [them] away/ Not to return”. Is “Earth the right place to love” for them?

This book is masterfully written, and Cunningham explores the limits that are put on women’s lives that render their lives boring and mundane, whether one be a genius or a housewife. Their lives are prescribed by men and the duties of womanhood. Virginia’s writing life chafes against that of lady of the household, where ordering afternoon tea is too binding, and Mrs. Brown need for solitude and reading chafes against her role as dutiful wife and mother. These roles are really roles as each women “performs” her duties. To contrast is Clarissa Vaughn, a feminist who lives with her female partner, and who should be liberated in almost every sense. Through her Cunningham shows how the role we have chosen for ourselves and the expectations that come with it are also limiting. Each’s life is like the birch under the ice, “once they are bowed/ So low for long, they never right themselves”.

But speaking of Truth, Cunningham portrays women honestly, and the feelings of disassociation each woman feels with their lives feels very true. I think women often find themselves wondering about how they ended up where they are in their lives, with a sense of “is this it?”. If maybe we punctured the veil of our womanhood, and reached through and past the expectations of us, there real life awaits. The puncture leaves a wound, and can we rightfully live with the knowledge of that, too?

Highly recommend.





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The Silent Patient Makes Some Noise

The Silent Patient

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I am not typically a fan of mystery/thrillers or popular fiction, but this one, with its short chapters, gets-down-to-business plot, fast pace and a twist worthy of being called a twist, I like. I read it because a friend wanted to read it for book club, and while I was engrossed in the story there were several inconsistencies that annoyed me. I shrugged them off because I was reading popular fiction and what can one expect. (Yes, I freely admit I am a snob.) Then I got to the end, and, “Oh!”. Had I not been so dismissive and eye-rolling, I might have caught on sooner. Hats off to Alex Michaelides for writing a great mystery and for proving me wrong.

Highly recommend for when you have a flight or a period of time when you need to be utterly absorbed and not too thinky; preferably a chilly fall afternoon.



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Peeling Back the Layers of Life: A Review of Body of Work

Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab

Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab by Christine Montross

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This is a very enlightening memoir, not only about anatomy, but about an obscure part of medicine: the history of dissection and the procural of cadavers. Montross takes us through her anatomy class where she must dissect a cadaver and reflects on how this disturbing and disorienting process impacts her relationship with the human body, medicine, and how she provides care to others. She explores the muddy moral waters of the end of life and what does it mean to be no longer alive or to be dead, and are those the same things? While this is at times a hard book to read, it is important to read. She details the process of cutting into a dead person, and while she is reverential towards her subject, the process is still a disturbing one. Through this she shows how dissection allows future doctors to not only learn the body, but confront the discomfort of handling bodies, both alive and dead, and how they develop “detached compassion” to best guide their patients to make tough decisions about their or a loved one’s health.

The discomfort not only comes from the process, but how cadavers have been (and in some places still are) procured. There have been many cultural taboos about disturbing the dead and most cultures are against using humans for dissection. Doctors and hospitals turned to unsavory methods to get their supply. Unsurprisingly, it was often the poor, criminals, and minorities who were preyed upon; mostly in the belief that their afterlife is not as important as rich white people’s. Montross also explores the paradox of belief surrounding dissections.

This is not a knee-slapper of a book, but it is very interesting to know how med students become doctors and what is asked of them. I appreciated Montross’s insights and connections to her own life and medicine’s history.



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Review of Ursula Le Guin’s Lavinia

Lavinia

Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


As one who does not enjoy science fiction, I didn’t think I would ever read Ursula Le Guin. However, she decided to apply her talents at world-building to bring to life Aeneas’ wife Lavinia and pre-Roman Italy, and gave me an opportunity to experience all that makes her Le Guin. Lavinia has a very minor part in The Aeneid, but as Le Guin cleverly plays upon the literary present, Lavinia still exists and can tell her story. Lavinia is a princess fated to marry the warrior Aeneas and she must follow the standards for such a woman, but since she also lives in pagan times, she must follow the will of her gods. These two goals are brought into conflict, and her life is guided by piety, meaning responsibility beyond oneself. Living piously does not guarantee an easy life; guided by the poet Vergil, Lavinia’s decision to reject all of her suitors in favor of a foreign warrior leads to war and bloodshed as her suitors feel betrayed by her. While this novel is about female strength, it also just as much about what it means to be a pious man. Le Guin’s Aeneas is an answer to toxic masculinity; he is the embodiment of how to be a strong warrior merciless in battle, but also be tender, loving, and circumspect with the ability to set aside his ego when things do not go his way.

I really enjoyed this novel, and I really liked Lavinia herself. She feels very human as she tries to live both in her society and beyond it.



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