Hephzibah Anderson: Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk's jottings on life and work make for a fat - and frustrating - paperback of the week.
A spattering of colour
Hephzibah Anderson finds Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk's jottings on life and work make for a fat - and frustrating - paperback of the week.
Other Colours: Writings on Life, Art, Books and Cities Orhan Pamuk Faber Dh68
When Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature back in 2006, many critics muttered about the relative slenderness of his oeuvre. His eighth novel, The Museum of Innocence, which has just been published in Turkish and German, will surely be read widely, closely and critically. While the rest of us await our translations, we may console ourselves a bit with Other Colours, a fat and frustrating assortment of jottings on everything from earthquakes to literary rancour. Pamuk himself dubs it "a book made of ideas, images and fragments of life", and it's a fair description of a collection that at times feels rushed out to cash in on Nobel glory and hush those dissenting voices.
His life is in many ways the archetypal writer's life - that is to say, pretty dull away from his desk. He describes getting a haircut and trying to quit smoking, and fritters away time gazing out of his window at seagulls. Even as international success beckons, he is haunted by adolescent dreams of becoming a great author. That ambition was fuelled by the Albert Camus novels that his father brought back from trips to Paris in the 1950s. Along with those volumes, Pamuk Senior passed on some of his own literary cravings - he was an engineer who longed to write poetry.
Of course, Pamuk is unlike most other authors in that his life has been dangerously politicised. In 2005, he found himself hauled into court on charges of insulting Turkishness, and earlier this year, it emerged that an ultranationalist gang was planning to assassinate him in a prelude to a military coup. Pamuk's front line position is largely unsought. In the opening essay, he describes the process of tapping into a "childlike innocence without which no novel is possible". In 2005, with his court appearance looming, that retreat became temporarily unavailable, banishing him into "long and tedious days of politicking".
Many of the snippets that fill this book are just a page or two long, some even strung together as a series of bullet points or written in the shorthand of thought. Also included are newspaper columns, critical essays, his Swedish Academy acceptance speech, an interview and a short story. Other Colours is a confused tangle unfettered by the constraints of plot or character, but it permits the emergence of themes and preoccupations that might go unnoticed in a more coherent work. Innocence is one of them, and it makes for moments funny as well as tender. As Pamuk explains in a piece about book jackets, "If a novelist can finish a book without dreaming of its cover, he is wise, well-rounded and a fully formed adult, but he's also lost the innocence that made him a novelist in the first place."
Despite his political travails, Pamuk himself still has an abundance of that innocence. It keeps him candid, even when he risks seeming petty. Describing how he once culled 250 volumes from his personal library of 12,000, he confesses that whenever another writer gives him a bad review, out goes their book. "This is how my Turkish literature shelves are quickly losing works by half-witted, mediocre, moderately successful, bald, male, degenerate writers between the ages of 50 and 70."
If you're someone who likes to think of authors as exalted souls, this particular book may not be for you. If you are ready to be charmed by a glimpse of a man returning home in a sour mood, glimpsing the moon and eating a sweet orange, you will find plenty here to make it worth your while.
Point of No Return Scott Frost Headline Dh47
A mysterious phone call in the middle of the night kick-starts this snappy thriller. When Lieutenant Alex Delillo picks up, the connection is crackly, but a faintly familiar voice keeps her from hanging up. "I saw a boy on a bicycle vanish in a flash of light", the caller says cryptically, sending her off on a trail that leads all the way from California's Death Valley to Iraq. As a heroine, Delillo is gutsy as they come, but she also has a soulful quality, permitting some light philosophising on fate and the nature of violence. A 49-year-old veteran of two previous novels, she begins this latest in a depressive rut. The mysterious telephone call hauls her out of it but sends her rebounding into deep trouble. The caller turns out to be Jack Salem, a former LAPD cop who signed up to go to Iraq with a group of former mercenaries, now restyled as a private security firm training Iraqi policemen. Just before he is due to return to the US, Salem goes missing. Investigating, Delillo ends up dealing with men traumatised by their time in Iraq. Fusing gritty action with a critique of the American government's role in Iraq, the novel conjures up a conspiracy theory in which Delillo can trust no one, least of all her colleagues.
Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister Gregory Maguire Headline Review Dh54
There are two sides to every story - even a fairy tale. So insists bestselling author Gregory Maguire in the latest of his ingenious retellings. Having previously freed Snow White to explore Renaissance Italy and created a Wizard of Oz for grown-ups, he is back to tackle the tale of Cinderella, the beautiful child squeezed out of the nest by her two cuckoo-like stepsisters and condemned to a life of drudgery - until her fairy godmother intervenes. But what became of that homely duo once their sibling was whisked off to enjoy fame and fortune? And were Cinderella's looks quite such a blessing, or did they come with their own curses? Maguire sets his version of the classic yarn against a backdrop of 17th-century Holland, where two stodgy sisters, simple Ruth and smart Iris, arrive from England. Their steely mama inveigles her way into the home of a wealthy merchant with an ethereally beautiful daughter named Clara. Needless to say, when the merchant's wife dies, everything changes. Oftentimes, the old stories really are the best, especially with a few deft contemporary nips and tucks. Maguire manages to insert plenty of nimble asides, going around as well as beyond the original to draw out themes of betrayal and deception.
Beechcombings: The Narratives of Trees Richard Mabey Vintage Dh60
We expect a certain lush lyricism from our nature writers, but Richard Mabey also infuses his prose with droll, incisive musings on cultural and natural history. Beechcombings begins with a reminder of the chaos and arboreal carnage caused by the Great Storm that battered north-west Europe in October 1987, toppling 15 million trees in Britain alone and uprooting many of our long-held ideas about them. This narrative shapes his meditation on the history of trees as everything from investments to political icons, from artist's ideal to climatologist's warning. Mabey's favorite tree, and the focus of his book, is the beech. Beeches, he writes, "are sinuous and shape-shifting creatures", they are "unpredictable, possessive and prone to catastrophe". They have also become something of a personal emblem for him. It was in the beechwoods of England's Chiltern Hills that he was born and raised, and today, transplanted to the wilds of East Anglia, a beech tree is the first he sees on waking each morning. Strung together from a series of intricately connected essays, the book progresses in a roughly chronological direction, without any of the rigidity that implies. This deeply personal study manages to be thrillingly informative while preserving some of the beech's ancient and compelling mystery.