A Pale View of the Hills

download (2)Kazuo Ishiguro, 1982

“Memory, I realize, can be an unrealizable thing; often it is heavily colored by the circumstances in which one remembers, and no doubt this applies to certain of the recollections I have gathered here.” (156)

The passage above offers a clue to the enchanting, silent mystery of Kazuo Ishiguro’s slim, first novel A Pale View of the Hills. This book captivated me with its simplicity and quiet voice. Within its pages there lives an erie oddness because much remains unsaid and isn’t written on the pages. This is a story of memory and loss told by a potentially unreliable narrator and the truth of the story’s circumstances is revealed only in the reader’s imaginings.

Within its first few pages we find ourselves in the mind of the first person narrator, Etsuko, a Japanese expatriate living in England. We learn that her first daughter, Keiko, fully Japanese and born from Etsuko’s first husband, Jiro, has recently killed herself. Etsuko’s second daughter, Nikki, mixed and born of her second husband in England is visiting to comfort her mother. Little is said of what may have prompted Keiko’s suicide, nor is anything said of what caused Etsuko to leave her first husband, nor is her second husband ever mentioned once. These pieces of the puzzle of Etsuko’s life are realities that exist but unexplored in the pages of  A Pale View of the Hills and their omission heightens the mood of mystery within the text.

The story in these is focused not on Etsuko’s present loss, but on her recollections of the years she lived in Nagasaki shortly after the war. When she was pregnant with Keiko Etsuko had befriended a woman named Sachiko who recently moved to Nagasaki from Tokyo. Sachiko’s life is full of mystery, but she is grateful for Etsuko’s friendship. Sachiko’s daughter Mariko exhibits signs of post traumatic stress, often wandering in the night and speaking of a woman who is never truly there. Sachiko was once a wealthy woman in Tokyo, but the war destroyed much of her influence and now her and Mariko live in a modest hut and pleads for Etsuko’s help in finding a job in a noodle shop.

Many of the themes explored weigh upon loss and discomfort with cultural change. There are many reflections on the city rising from the rubble that was destroyed by the bomb and several of the characters work in professions below their pre-war social stature. The developing roles of women in a largely male dominated culture causes much discomfort for the male characters and the new generation’s perspective on the totalitarian war-time regime causes distress in the older generation. From these many conversational reflections expressed through Etsuko’s memories of her life during the post-war Nagasaki the reader is presented with a cultural landscape that provides a rich perspective on a challenging and unique historical period.

The setting and backstory to A Pale View of the Hills are only a sliver of the novel’s worth. As I discussed above, there is an odd mystery to the book that is only revealed through the muddy recollections of our narrator. The story of Sachiko and Etsuko’s friendship is clearly more than it seems. The two have two many similarities and it is possible that Etsuko may be confusing some of her memories, displacing herself in Sachiko’s place or vice versa. Sachiko, like Etsuko has a troubled daughte. Sachiko desires to escape Japan and move to America whereas we know that Etsuko has moved to England at some later point in her life. Sachiko often tells the pregnant Etsuko that she will make a fine mother and both woman claim to be motivated to do what is best for their daughters, but it is clear that the elder Etsuko has regrets and the reader can see that both women’s choices are primarily motivated by self-preservation in ways that may cause greater harm to their daughters than they could imagine. The novel’s ending is quietly vague in a lovely way that seems to suggest that Etsuko and Sachiko may have been the same woman or at least the qualities of one were misplaced in the other.

This book made it’s way into my hands only by chance. I had read Ishiguro’s famously popular Never Let Me Go several years ago and on that reading I wasn’t very impressed by the quasi sci-fi mysterious plot twist hidden within the pages of that book and I didn’t imagine myself reading Ishiguro again. I found A Pale View of the Hills a better book. Ishiguro uses many of the same stylistic tricks in both books by creating an oddly mysterious setting with questionably reliable narrators that don’t reveal all the truth of their circumstances. However, I enjoyed A Pale View of the Hills more than my first exposure to Ishiguro because this book managed to say much about historical themes, the identity of womanhood and culture, and personal relationships with memory all within a slim and enchanting concise 185 pages. This book succeeds with its brevity in creating an aura hinting at so much more than is written on the page prompting the imagination of the reader to fill in the blank spaces – and that is truly respectable art.

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Nobody Is Every Missing

download (1)Catherine Lacey, 2014

“I wanted this moment to stay because I wanted to just walk and walk … and I wanted to just be on the way somewhere, I wanted to be on the way forever without ever getting there because that was what I really wanted, maybe to go and  go and keep leaving and leave and go and be going and never arrive.” (225)

Sigh.

The passage above pretty much sums up the themes this book expressed to me: lack of direction and aimless wandering that never arrives at any realizable destination.

I gave Nobody Is Ever Missing a chance. I actually finished it, so I guess that is some semblance of a chance, but in finishing it I have no more appreciation for this book than what I had expected of it from the impression I gathered from the first fifty pages of reading. In an attempt to highlight the positives, I can say that Catherine Lacey writes nicely structured sentences that carry the narrative along at a comfortable pace. As a collection of nouns, verbs, pronouns, and adverbs Nobody Is Ever Missing is a decent book. However, as an engaging story, it totally missed the mark.

The basic story is this. The first person narrator, Elyria, decides to leaver her husband of seven years. She decides to leave him without telling him. Elyria buys a one-way ticket to New Zealand with the goal of staying on a farm owned by an author she met once at a dinner party in Manhattan. She hitchhikes from Aukland to the the South Island with an extended stopover in Wellington before arriving on  the farm. After surprising the author with her unannounced visit she overstays her welcome and is asked to leave. She wanders some more stays with a random couple doing chores for them but keeps to herself.  When they politely ask her to participate in their community she bounces at dawn the next day because she is unable to socialize and participate in any community. She eventually gets deported when she lands herself in the hospital after being bit by a stingray and arrives back in Manhattan to find her husband has changed the locks and boxed up all her stuff.

Don’t worry, if I spoiled it for you, the plot isn’t that important. This is really the story of a woman’s psychological unraveling. There is some backstory to Elryia’s relationship to her husband that involves the suicide of her sister and Elyria’s troubled bond with her critical and verbally abusive mother. The first person narrative often loses itself in long tangential reflections on her past, the wildebeast that is crowding her mind, and her inability to connect with the people around her.

In many ways I feel for Elyria as a person who is potentially handicapped by a psychotic break. The choices she makes are clearly directed by a fractured mind that is only partially invested in the reality of the world that surrounds her. The trouble with this is that as a novel, her first person narrative is difficult to sympathize with from the perspective of a reader who sees through the terrible decisions and challenging situations she creates for herself. In other words, Elyria is an annoying narrator. She doesn’t grow; she does the opposite of grow as she loses grip on reality and perspective. Her greatest social difficulties are simple requests by people who desire for her to participate with them in some sense of community or relationship, for example:

You know, we’re trying to create a full community here – this is important to us. And we can respect your privacy, you know I get that, but we really need you to participate in our ecosystem. Elyria. Can you do that? [This is followed by a page of Eylria’s inner monologue digressing about how this man reminds her of her husband and the way he looks at her is a mix of pity and long division, which causes her to go on a tangent about soap operas and a boy from her high school who was teased because he didn’t have fully functioning nerves and how she identifies with that boy, and after this long digression she finally responds] I believe I could do that, I said to Amos and he smiled, so I smiled a little and I was glad I had pretended to be better than I was because it would make it easier to lave because I knew I couldn’t live up to this pretend person I had made up.” (178-9)

After reading that that passage I could do nothing other than lift my palm to my face and shake my head in disappointment. I wanted to try to find a reason to like Elryia but she was to frustrating to like. The simple social requests of the people around her cause her to just up and leave in fear. She is constantly running from something she can’t even identify and she has no goal in her running. Time and again I found myself just simply rolling my eyes at Elyria, wanting her to gain some insight, achieve some goal, or at least get help for her psychological troubles, but she does none of these things.

Granted, although her marriage was free of violence or abuse, her husband does reveal himself to be a jerk towards her after she leaves and he doesn’t do much to defend himself. However, his actions are told from Elyria’s narrative perspective and the reliability of her perspective on their marriage is questionable. For example, she only refers to him as husband and never uses his name – this choice reveals how her mind has stripped him of his humanity and personhood, he has become a symbol to her and his symbolic nature makes it easy for her as she leaves him without a word or hint of her plans to travel around the world on a one way ticket.

Other than my lack of sympathy for Elyria’s story, I found  Nobody is Ever Missing a frustrating disappointment in narrative setting. I’m currently planning a vacation to New Zealand and as I began this book I was serendipitously excited to learn that the narrative was set in the country of my soon to be vacation locale. However, Elyria’s perspective is that New Zealand is a boring place where birds are just birds, mountains are just mountains, and trees are just trees and no more. Her fractured mind fails to find beauty in what is considered one of the most beautiful and captivating locations of scenery on Earth. This only further inhibited my potential sympathy for her story.

Not worth reading unless you enjoy mental frustrations and deflated hopes.

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Far From the Tree

downloadParents, Children, and the Search for Identity
Andrew Solomon, 2012

“The affection my family have found in one another is not a better love, but it is another love, and just as species diversity is crucial to sustain the planet, this diversity strengthens the ecosphere of kindness.” (700)

Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree is a masterpiece.

I had opened this book expecting an informative academic exploration of the challenges faced by families that raise children with unexpected disabilities, anomalous behaviors, and qualities that fail to mimic the father-like-son cliché. I had not expected to open a book that would totally challenge my perspective on identity, the relationship of self with society, and universal rights. Far From the Tree does all of the above and much, much more through an engaging presentation of true-to-life stories that are both inspiring and heartbreaking. These stories grip the imagination with an enlightened consideration that extends beyond simple illumination of fact and detail. Solomon has provided us with a book that explores literally hundreds of human stories he has gathered from first-person interviews in an effort explore the universal truths inherent in human relationship and identity developed by parenthood. This book is a phenomenal reference as well as an easily digestible narrative that is well worth any reader’s investment and attention.

It goes beyond saying that I like this book.

So, getting down to it, why did this book impress me so? Well, lets start with the opening line, “there is no such thing as reproduction,” a line that grabs the reader’s attention and challenges the paradigm of parenthood as a procreative “reproduction” of self. Solomon lets us know from the outset that the casual and idealized expectation that children reflect the behaviors, appearances, and qualities of their parents is falsely based on mythical and often unachievable ideals. This paradigm is far from reality as generational differences are apparent across humankind – and this is what is observed and expected in normal healthy offspring. The differences from parent to child are more apparent and surprising when the next generation exhibit anomalous devaitions from the standard expectation of normalcy.

Solomon spent ten years interviewing parents and children that were born with unexpected anomalies and he invests ten quality chapters of this 700 page epic exploring deafness, dwarfism, down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, disability (both physical and mental), prodigies, children of rape, child-criminals, and transgender children. With admirable quality, Solomon avoids stereotyping or demonizing what many would consider “freaks” of nature by demonstrating that all these children exhibit human qualities despite their uniqueness. He does so by first introducing himself as a homosexual man, framing his own troubled identify as a man who struggled with depression and familial acceptance in his youth, and in so doing he establishes a voice that rightfully speaks for those who are under-appreciated, misunderstood, and disenfranchised by societal and familial expectation.

From the outset, I was challenged, intrigued, and inspired by some of his discussion of homosexual rights framed within perspective of the rights of religious parties, as demonstrated by this passage:

“Members of minority religions are protected not because they are born that way and can’t do anything about it, but because we affirm their right to discover, declare and inhabit the faith with which they identify. Activists got homosexuality removed from the official list of mental illnesses in 1973, yet gay rights remain contingent on claims that the condition is involuntary and fixed. This cripple-like model of sexuality is depressing, but as soon as anyone posits that homosexuality is chosen or mutable, lawmakers and religious leaders try to cure and disenfranchise the gay people in their purview.” (17)

This is the perspective of a man confident in his personal identity who paradoxically expresses discomfort with societal definition, boundaries, and perceptions of the identity class he ascribes to. This is a refreshing and mature perspective that reaches beyond community expectations of pride in identity by aiming toward a universal appreciation for the uniqueness of individual identity as part of the greater fabric of the human community. For these reasons Solomon establishes himself as a worthy witness and a worthy voice for the children and families that live with identities that identities commonly misunderstood and under-appreciated.

Far From the Tree is the story of parenthood that defies the common expectation of parenthood. The parents of the children discussed in this book (with exception of the product of rape) chose parenthood as part of the basic human desire for procreation, but in their offspring they received less than what they expected in children that appear, behave, feel, sense, and react very differently than they do.

Despite these differences, the phenomenal story presented within the pages of Far From the Tree is that the parents of these unexpected children overwhelmingly love their children just as much as, and if not more than parents who are “blessed” with healthy normal children that are procreative fruits that fall a little close to the tree than the anomalies discussed in this book. Their stories are totally honest and heartwarming and it is hard to comprehend ourselves in their shoes, reacting and living as they do with total acceptance and commitment to their loved ones:

“Do I love my kids? Yes. Will I do everything for them? Yes. I have them and I love them. I wouldn’t do it again. I think that anybody who tells you they would is lying.” (241) autism

Through the discussion of deaf and dwarf children, Solomon presents intriguing stories of children who struggle to find their identity in a society and families that appear and communicate differently then themselves. There are unsettling stories of painful limb extension and use of cochlear implants forced upon the children before the age of consent that redefine the identity of deafness and dwarfism as medical conditions that should be corrected, mirroring the misinformed societal perception that homosexuality is a disease that can be cured through therapy. Such stories are unsettling and reflect the paradigm that normalcy is the ideal, but not all parents suffer their children through such corrective natures. There are several heroic parents that learn sign and attend little people conferences to provide a peer based identity for their children. Some parents who would have never thought themselves activists find that their children’s differences cause the parent to rediscover their own relationship to society and speak out for the rights not just of their specific child, but the right of their child’s identity:

“If racial minorities and the poor deserved support and respect, then so did people with Down Syndrome and related conditions. If help to these other groups was best given early, then so too, was aid to people with intellectual disabilities.” (183)

However, not all the stories in this book are heartwarming. Several of the stories are chillingly sobering. The stories of poop smeared on the walls by autistic children and the mournful loss as once-promising adolescent minds are transformed by schizophrenia were hard to read. I found myself nearly in tears throughout the chapter dedicated to children of disability. The story of Imogen, a disabled young girl born with hydrocephalus and a brain that was not much more than a brain stem, was haunting. The mother of this child was honest with herself in her inability to care for her daughter of whom would never return the parental affection given her. Despite her own love and concern for the well being of her disabled daughter, this mother opted to surrender Imogen to the state in order to allow herself to reclaim her identity as an adult woman:

“On the day that Imogen was supposed to come home, Julia did not go to the hospital…Julia and Jay [came] in for a meeting the next day. At the hospital, Julia used the line the lawyer had given her. She said, “I’m not the right mother for this child.” The consultant did not question her decision…The doctor asked if they had ever thought of harming her, his tone suggesting the necessary answer. Jay said, “I can’t say I haven’t.” And the doctor said, “Then let us take this burden away from you.” (399)

The challenging situation with cases such as Imogen’s is the simple fact that her existence is supported by medical advancement. Unlike children of Down Syndrome that can live healthy but limited lives, or schizophrenics that can find a vague semblance of balance with medication, physiological  disabilities would not live at all without machinery and medications to ensure their survival. Their existence presents a new philosophical dilemma in the identity of parenthood and this dilemma has not existed for more than a generation – this is a dramatically small time-frame compared to the entirety of human history and it is questionable whether our philosophical ideals of ethics have kept in pace with our medical and technological advancement. Is Imogen’s mother a terrible person for giving up her child or is humanity unnecessarily creating new ethical challenges simply for the sake of utilizing technology to support life that would otherwise not continue? It is difficult to say and even harder to imagine myself making such a decision.

These ethical dilemmas are further highlighted in the discussion of children of rape. No chapter gave me more discomfort than Solomon’s exploration of rape. The appalling stories of fathers, uncles, boy-friends, and so-on fathering children from their children, nieces, and friends completely disgusted and saddened me. It is appalling that such violence is part of the human story, but even the more surprising that life can come of violence. Most of the children discussed in this book find acceptance in their family and communities but children of rape often face a stigma of shame, are unaccepted by their extended family, or may live in secret, not knowing the truth of their paternal origin. What is even the more saddening is that many of the children of rape suffer the same fate as their mothers, extending the cycle from one generation to the next. One victim, chose to serve victims such as herself and her words were touching:

“As a social worker, Marina frequently has to grapple with stories of sexual violence. “My personal pain is just a ripple in this huge ocean of pain that women feel every day.” (483)

In addition to the shocking stories of rape, the stories of children that turn to crime and violence was unsettling and sobering. Most parents expect the best for their children, providing them opportunities to make the best of their lives, but often social limitations or psychological aberrances prompt the child towards antisocial and destructive behavior. Solomon spoke with many parents but the most sobering were the parents of Dylan Klebold, one of the two boys involved in the Columbine shootings. They had offered their son a good life and his violent actions were a total shock to them. Due to the national attention of the event, the Klebolds live in the constant shadow of their son’s terrible legacy, yet they somehow find positivity and an ability to maintain a place within the Columbine community:

“We are able to be open and honest about those things because our son is dead. His story is complete. We can’t hope for him to do something else, something better.” (597)

Many of the parents interviewed voiced both regret and acceptance of what their children could have become if it were not for their atypical identities and physiologic deficits. The parents of transgender children have the a unique challenge unlike all other children explored in this book in that their child’s identity challenges social norms of gender identity in ways that is often unexplainable. Many transgender children face a lifetime bullying and live with depression due to their isolation and inability to fully express themselves for who they are. Despite this, there are several remarkable parents that accept and celebrate their child’s identity for who they are, and such parenting is truly admirable and inspiring.

“Undermining anyone’s personal tautology by suggesting that he should not, in fact, be himself sabotages whatever he might become.” (611)

This may be a lengthy review, but Far from the Tree is a lengthy book that deserves attention. Though I am not a parent myself, Far from the Tree provided me with healthy perspective and respect for those who sacrifice so much of themselves to create a better world for their children and in so doing, they create a better world for us all. Solomon presents a balanced exploration of each of the anomalous children, interviewing parents that are full of regret and shame as well as parents full of acceptance and love. Solomon also provides fair evaluations of the dichotomous ethics of social identity and community while maintaining an unbiased appreciation for the difficult choices that many parents must make as they care for their unexpected children. Far from the Tree can be difficult to read at times due to many of the sorrowful stories explored here, but there is also much to celebrate and appreciate. Life is more complex than we would hope it to be, but in its complexity beauty and love are all the more valuable.

“By what logic does making a better world have to do with hewing to the norm?” (681)

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The Blue Fox

download (1)Sjón, 2004
Translated from the Icelandic
by, Victoria Cribb, 2008

“All day long the vixen ran up the hill and down dale, the man following hard on her heels. She was his letter of commission, setting him a task to perform in the material world.” (26)

Ever since my trip to Iceland last January I have been wanting to read some Icelandic literature. By its mere size, at a slim 115 pages, Sjón’s The Blue Fox appeared as good a place as any to dip my feet in the Icelandic chill. Though this is a short novella, it offers much to consider and stands alone as a literary accomplishment worth reading – and for those with short attention spans, this can easily be digested in a single day’s reading.

This seemingly straightforward story takes place in three parts spanning the dates January 18-17, 1883 with a short prologue occurring as a written letter dates March 23, 1883, with the second part actually occurring two days prior to the introductory part. The storytelling weaves back through time with a mysterious and enchanting poetic lyricism that is both compelling and engaging with a dark and melancholic quality that captivates the reader.

12491455713_a1d8cfbc9c_zIn the first part an unnamed, lone hunter is tracking down a fox for her pelt in the deepest and darkest part of winter. The writing here transitions from the hunter and the fox’s perspective as though it were an ode to nature’s claim over the both of them. For example, consider this brief passage that describes the passing of daylight:

“In the halls of heaven it was now dark enough for the Aurora Borealis sisters to begin their lively dance of the veils. With an enchanting play of colors they flitted light and quick about the great stage of the heavens, in fluttering gold dresses, their tumbling pearl necklaces scattering here and their in their wild caperings. This spectacle is at its brightest shortly after sunset. Then the curtain fall; night takes over.” (28)

Only at the end of the first part part does the narrator reveal the identity of the hunter and his name is ignited upon the page with the burst of his rifle’s fire. In the second part of the book, the narrative takes a chronological step backwards and moves away from the poetic voice into a descriptive and conversational tone. It is here that the reader learns of the rural lifestyle of the hearty Icelandic people. There is the discovery of a marooned ship and its life-giving cargo of fish oil as well as the surprising castaway of a battered woman, likely used as a slave-whore by the lost sailors. The woman is an island unto herself due to her neglect and apparent mental deficiency, but her simplicity gives joy to a naturalist who later marries her:

“The figure in the corner became aware of him. She looked up and met his eyes; she smiled and her smile doubled the happiness of the world.” (58)

Although the chronology of the second part claims to have taken part immediately prior to the hunter chasing fox, with the appearance of the girl who is a later revealed to be a dead woman, as well as a changeover from one town priest to another, it isn’t quite clear where in time the story exists. The lyric form apparently hides itself within the conversational narrative in order to transcend time and reveal the motivations of rural Icelandic peoples. It is here that the reader learns of harsh choices that prompt infanticide of those who are unfit to survive in the Icelandic climate and the text describes the assumed culture practices with harsh and shocking exactitude:

“No witnesses were needed; before the child could utter its first wail, the midwife would close its nose and mouth, thereby returning its breath to the great cauldron of souls from which all mankind is served.” (64)

12492211873_6602c50d91_zYet, the chronological narrative is an aside meant to add to the melancholic mystery of what is essentially a moral fable about man’s relationship to nature. The third part of the story returns the reader to the poetic dance between the hunter and the fox as the reader becomes witness to the hunter’s tragic subjection of nature’s vengeance against his actions. Within this lyric dance there are strange moments of magical hallucinatory events, as well as a gruesome description of the skinning of the fox pelt that may shock an unforgiving reader, but the narrative drives the necessity of these moments that verge on the edge of sanity and reality.

Without revealing the surprises buried within the book, I’ll acknowledge that it was jarring and captivating read. Having visited Iceland myself, the natural and poetic language reignited my admiration for that distant, beautiful, and harsh land.

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Bowie: Album by Album

17214311Paulo Hewitt, 2013

Ok, ok. I admit it. I have a Bowie obsession and this blog has been intermittently taken over by my reading interests in the the alien performance artist that is Bowie. It started with Peter Dogget’s The Man Who Sold the Worldan examination of every song written by Bowie in the 1970’s, progressed to Simon Critchley’s, Bowiea personal memoir of the author’s relationship with Bowie, and even an entry that was not book related about my visit to the Bowie Is exhibit.

So why another Bowie book entry? Paulo Hewitt’s Bowie: Album by Album is a beautiful coffee table sized book that provides a portraiture of Bowie’s entire career up until the the 2013 release of his latest album, The Next Day. I’ve been slowly reading, or rather, browsing through this book for the past year and a half, savoring the fantastic collection of photos from his concerts, recording sessions, and album shoot sessions. The text within the book is just enough for a coffee table book, providing a brief synopsis of the unique styles, experimentation, and personal backstory surrounding the production of each of Bowie’s 26 studio albums as well as the the 3 soundtrack albums he has put together throughout his extensive career. The collection is deeply satisfying to take off my shelf and simply browse while listening to any one of his fantastic albums. For a Bowie fan, this book simply is worth the purchase.

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Just A Geek

images (2)Wil Wheaton, 2004

Growing up in the 80’s and 90’s I was one of many huge Star Wars fans. Unfortunately George Lucas’s overly computer generated and terribly directed prequels destroyed my fandom and interest. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings came around at just the right time to reignite my love for sci-fi and fantasy – but sadly the George Lucas affect has infected Jackson’s terrible Hobbit prequel movies too.  I mention my roots in Star Wars fandom here in a review of Will Wheaton’s Just A Geek as an acknowledgment of my oscillating fandom for quality sci-fi and fantasy and to reflect on my tenuous relationship with Star Trek. 

My parents loved the original Star Trek and I recall seeing The Wrath of Khan in the theatre as a young kid and being terribly grossed out and frightened by the ear-worm thing that Khan used to control Chekov. I recall the Star Trek movies being just kind of ok, but never measuring up to Star Wars.  The Star Trek TV show was just too hard to watch with all of its campy sets and terrible acting, however, once The Next Generation (TNG) came along it caught my attention. The acting, special affects, and story writing all seemed much improved and I was drawn into the nobility of a future that functioned without money and was managed by a prime directive that encouraged exploration for the sake of learning.

TNG was a great show to watch during my childhood and early teens and I enjoyed it immensely, however as the years went on I kind of forgot about it. TNG never had the impact on me as did Star Wars up until I started dating this girl who was a self-professed Trekkie able to name off episode titles of TNG and inform me about all the complex politics of Star Trek universe. I later married that girl and we’ve slowly been watching all the episodes of TNG through the years to catch me up on the great storytelling that I only sort of gave attention to when I was younger.

It is through this rekindled interest in Star Trek that I decided to read my wife’s copy of Wil Wheaton’s Just A Geek, which has been sitting on our book shelf for several years.  Wil Wheaton, the teenage actor that portrayed the boy-genius, Wesley Crusher hadn’t done much acting since he left TNG to pursue a failed career in movies. Just A Geek is Wheaton’s reflection on his relationship with TNG, Trekkies, Hollywood, and the pressures of acting. After his failed acting career Wheaton has since become a blogger and writer of several books. Just A Geek is a collection of his early blog entries and essays written specifically for this book about his coming to terms with adulthood, career choices, and accepting his forever connection to TNG and the Star Trek universe.

I read Just A Geek slowly over several months in between other books (just as we are slowly rewatching the TNG episodes) and it served its purpose as brief distraction from my other reading. Wheaton’s writing isn’t groundbreaking, but it is engaging enough (this is a personal memoir after all) but he has a humor and ability to poke fun at himself that is admirable.

The book is mostly about Wheaton’s struggles as he goes to audition after audition to be turned down for several parts. As a married man raising two children, the lack of income weighed hard on him over the years and he compromised by doing infomercials in an attempt to make ends meet. Things seemed to get really bad as he  got cut from his cameo in the final TNG movie because his scene didn’t fit the story, but the most life changing event was when he backed out of a week long family vacation to sit through a few auditions that didn’t go anywhere. The time alone away from his family was really heart-wrenching for him and allowed him to reevaluate his acting career. Eventually he decides to write and for all I know, he is doing just fine as a writer.

Through all of his struggles he is faced with his past as a child actor and he later comes to terms with it and embraces his role as a small part of the Trekkie conventions. Through all of this narrative he interjects some stories about the TNG cast and I enjoyed some of the behind the scenes tidbits. For example, the sliding doors were operated by people just sliding them and often the timing would be off and actors would walk right into the doors because they weren’t opened in time. Also, the doors were really loud so each time a pair of characters would approach a door they would pause their conversation to account for the noise of the human-operated “high-tech automatic” doors.

Overall, this was a fun distraction book. I wouldn’t really wave it from the hilltops as a pinnacle of literary achievement or as an all revealing memoir of scandalous propensity, but it was a fun and amusing read to occupy time that needed occupation.

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Istanbul: Memories and the City

images (1)Orhan Pamuk, 2003
Translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely, 2004

“In Istanbul the remains of a glorious past civilization are everywhere visible. No matter how ill-kept, no matter how neglected or hemmed in they are by concrete monstrosities, the great mosques and other monuments of the city, as well as the lesser detritus of empire in every side street and corner – the little arches, fountains, and neighborhood mosques – inflict heartache on all who live among them … these ruins are reminders that the present city is so poor and confused that it can never again dream of rising to its former heights of wealth, power, and culture.” (101)

This book – part memoir and part ode to the city of Istanbul – written by Nobel Laureate, Orhan Pamuk, has been on my to-read list for several years. I was first exposed to Pamuk in 2005 when I was enchanted by his melancholic and brooding love-story/mystery, The Black Book, and I’ve been wanting to read more of him through the years. Istanbul is a non-fictional account of the author’s relationship with the city he has lived in his entire life and reveals the motivations and inspirations for his many-layered fictional works.

This work blends stories of Pamuk’s childhood and young adulthood with reflections on the city’s past glory and modern struggles, its blend of grandiose and dreary architecture, its culture divided by a conflicted eastern and western identity, and the nuances impacted by its historical Islamic religion and republican-enforced secularism. The picture painted with the words penned by Pamuk depicts a deeply divided and intriguing city both loved and despised by its inhabitants.

imagesAlongside Pamuk’s personal and researched narratives about the city of Istanbul are nearly a hundred erie and breath-taking black and white photos and several paintings and etchings depicting both the famous sites, backroad alleys, and the strait of the Bosphorus that make up and divide the city’s geographical architecture. The photos are presented sans footnote and their presence add to Pamuk’s melancholic, affectionate reflections on the city.

Pamuk invests a lot of time reflecting upon several European artists that have made their name while painting and writing about their experiences in the city during the 18th and 19th centuries. Since these artists can only present a foreign perception of the city, Pamuk bemoans a lack of quality Turkish artists capable of presenting a truthful depiction of Istanbul. His love for this city explored in his youthful walks through back street alleyways assuredly inspired his youthful period as a painter and his later career as a novelist. However, his choice to pursue art was viewed by his family as a fool’s adventure since so few Turks succeed in what is viewed as a European pursuit of artistic expression. Thankfully Pamuk did not relent to his family’s disapproval, as his recognition by the Nobel committee helped expose the Turkish author to this reader.

Aside from Pamuk’s meditations on Turkish and European art, he invests considerable devotion to the influence of wealth, the decline of wealth, and poverty upon the city’s peoples. Pamuk does not hide the fact that he was raised by a once-wealthy family that slowly lost its influence as the lack of economic prosperity derailed their entrepreneurial pursuits. As the economy is tied to the secular policies of the government, Pamuk further evaluates the influence of religion, or lack of religion upon the different classes of Turkish peoples:

“Except for those moments when we were made to remember Her mysterious bond with the poor, God did not trouble us unduly. You could almost say it was a relief to they depended on someone else to save them, that there was another power that could help bear their burdens. But the comfort of this thought was sometimes dissolved by the fear that one day the poor might use their special relationship with God against us.” (177)

As Pamuk further explores the impact of the secular movement towards western comforts and lifestyles, he acknowledges the ironic negative impacts of such comforts. It becomes clear that the forced secularism has created a cultural vacancy of identity:

“In our household doubts more troubling than these were suffered in silence. The spiritual void I have seen in so many of Istanbul’s rich, westernized, secularist families is evident in these silences. Everyone talks openly about mathematics, success at school, soccer, and having fun, but they grapple with the most basic questions of existence – love, compassion, religion, the meaning of life, jealousy, hatred – in trembling confusion and painful solitude.” (185)

downloadThese moments of meditation depict a conflicted people at a loss for identity. What is striking is the awareness that this city, the once great capital of the Ottoman Empire, is now at a loss for relevance. The fallen empire was once an alternate force that thrived on the edge of both the western and eastern powers. I found the passages that described such sad realizations as telling signposts for the potential irrelevance of a fallen American power and caused me to wonder what the future holds as the world continues to grow and change despite the historical significance of regions once celebrated.

Pamuk’s melancholic love for his city shines with an admirable inspiration. Not having ever visited the city (I would like to someday) I feel that I now have an informed perspective of the city that these foreign eyes will never truly experience by visiting the sites and walking its streets:

“I will remember how troubled I was the first time I looked at this view from the same angle and notice how different the view looks now. It’s not my memory that’s false; the view looked troubled then because I myself was troubled. I poured my soul into the city’s streets and there it still resides. If we’ve lived in a city long enough to have given our truest and deepest feelings to its prospects, there comes a time when – just as a song recalls a lost love – particular streets, images, and images will do the same. It may be because I first saw so many neighborhoods and back streets, so many hilltop views, during these walks I took after I lost my almond-scented love, that Istanbul seems such a melancholy place to me.” (346)

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