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Istanbul: Memories and the City

Istanbul: Memories and the CityIstanbul: Memories and the City by Orhan Pamuk
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I have this sense that Istanbul ought to be the great city of the world, based upon its long history and grand location. Pamuk, the great Turkish novelist and Nobel prize winner, instead writes about the melancholy of the city almost two centuries into its decline from being one of the great cosmopolitan capitals of the world.

His tale of the city is highly personal, this book functioning both as a memoir of childhood and adolescence and something of his Ulysses--doing for Istanbul what Joyce's novel did for Dublin. One does feel as is if one has walked along and boated along many of the streets and shorelines after reading this book.

There is also an interesting engagement with the European gaze upon Istanbul, with much attention to 19th century writers and painters who visited the city. Unlike Edward Said's critique of orientalism, Pamuk has a more nuanced and complex interaction with the European gaze, particularly discussing the ways it has shaped him and shaped the city itself, but not fully rejecting it. These chapters form a rather lengthy section at the center of the book.

I delighted in the book at first, but grew weary of it as it continued. I do think it is rather too long, deserving of some substantial editing and condensing. Again toward the end there are some marvelous chapters, such as "First Love."

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Time of the Magicians

Time of the Magicians: Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Cassirer, Heidegger, and the Decade That Reinvented PhilosophyTime of the Magicians: Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Cassirer, Heidegger, and the Decade That Reinvented Philosophy by Wolfram Eilenberger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A look at German philosophy in the decade of the 1920's, focusing on Ludwig Wittgenstein, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Cassirer, and Martin Heidegger. A well told tale. Eilenberger combines story with acute analysis of these complex philosophers and their ideas. These are some of the most easy comprehended introductions to their thought I've encountered.

Opening in the aftermath of the First World War with its traumatizing scars upon these thinkers, their families, and cultures, and concluding as the horizon begins to darken with the clouds of National Socialism, Germany in the 1920's is fertile ground for new philosophical visions. One wonders what impact our current global pandemic might have in seeding new thoughtforms in the 2020's?

While the stories are enjoyable and the discussions of their philosophies are lucid, I completed the volume unsure of the actual point. What larger lessons was I supposed to draw from the book? Why these four particular thinkers? It didn't seem that the focus on these four and their limited interactions (though much is made of a public debate between Cassirer and Heidegger) generated any overarching takeaways.

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Averno

AvernoAverno by Louise Glück
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"Time passed, and some of it became this.
And some of it simply evaporated;
you could see it float above the white trees
forming particles of ice."

This is now the third book of hers I've read since she won the Nobel. I regret not having read her before, but also feel that arriving at her work precisely now is right. She is an essential voice for expressing the thoughts and feelings of our pandemic moment. The ways in which her poems express beauty deeply acquainted with darkness and suffering that leave you pondering whether they are completely despairing or if there is a glimmer of vital hope?

And this volume is a meditation on death and our how our mortality connects to the earth and our earthiness. For instance, in the title poem. A cultivated field has burned and yet new plants appear in the spring. She concludes with this searing stanza:

"The terrible moment was the spring after his work was erased,
when he understood that the earth
didn't know how to mourn, that it would change instead.
And then go on existing without him."

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Of Plymouth Plantation

Of Plymouth PlantationOf Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read my first excerpt of Bradford's book in tenth grade American Literature class. It was sitting in Mrs. Douthitt's classroom that I first heard the story of my ancestor John Howland falling off the boat and catching a halyard by which he was pulled back in. I experienced an existential moment, realizing that this story from "literature" affected whether or not I even existed.

So it is odd that I had never ventured to read Bradford's book until now. I've read a handful of other historian's books on the Mayflower and the Plymouth colony. But with this being the 400th anniversary year, I thought I should correct my lack.

But little of Bradford's account contains the vivid story like Howland falling off of the Mayflower. Huge sections of the book go into details about controversies over the later business dealings of the colony. Clearly Bradford was trying to defend the colony to the wider English reading audience, but doesn't make for riveting reading four centuries later. Other than to remind you of how much this was also a business enterprise.

There are vivid moments. like the description of how smallpox ravished Native tribes. And the book is a strong reminder of how harrowing and traumatizing the whole experience was on those original pilgrims.

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Intimations

IntimationsIntimations by Zadie Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Smith's sketches of life during the early weeks of the pandemic are more phenomenological than analytical. There are moments of brilliance. The essay on suffering is the best in the book. Other parts were less engaging. The final sentence is powerful (I won't copy it here). So a good record for the future to give some sense of how bewildering the moment was.

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Listen, Different Is Good

Listen, Different Is Good: One Dog's Journey to Find His SuperpowerListen, Different Is Good: One Dog's Journey to Find His Superpower by Kerrie Kleppin-Winn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Our dear friend Kerrie Kleppin-Winn has written a beautiful book about her dog Brady as he discovered his superpower as a therapy dog.

When I read the book this evening to our five-year-old son he applauded and squealed when Brady realized his superpower and applauded again at the end. So, the book most definitely passed the kid test with flying colors.

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The Depths of My Soul: Into the Feels

The Depths of My Soul: Into the FeelsThe Depths of My Soul: Into the Feels by Steve Jackson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Please don't stop the rain, for it is the pain of an empty soul."

My dear friend Steve Jackson has published his first collection of poetry. As promised by the title and description, this book is deeply emotional. Poems such as "Rockabye" and "Spite and Desire" are intense. I really enjoyed the rhythm of poems like "Gone" and "My Sisters." From "Gone:"

Time
loneliness
9:25 and . . .
tick-tock
43 seconds emptiness

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Faithful and Virtuous Night

Faithful and Virtuous NightFaithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Glück
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Outside, the snow was falling.
I had been, I felt, accepted into its stillness."

A melancholy work. With a complicated sense of voice, as many of the poems are uttered by a male narrator whose relationship to the author is unclear.

I did not find this book as resonant and powerful as Wild Iris, but still a worthy work.

"I think here I will leave you. It has come to seem
there is no perfect ending.
Indeed, there are infinite endings.
Or perhaps, once one begins,
there are only endings."

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