One of the interesting things about being the author of an obscure blog is seeing how much I influence world culture. A day doesn’t go by without my opinions being parroted on music video channels and being reprinted on the backs of cereal boxes. Why just the other day I happened to be watching opening round action of this year’s NCAA Basketball Tournament, and I couldn’t help but hear CBS Sportscaster Dick Enberg describe as worthy of Don Quixote, a speech that Mike Gillespie, coach of the 16th seeded Florida A&M Rattlers, was giving to his team before sending them out on the floor to face basketball powerhouse Kentucky. I, of course, immediately assumed that Enberg made this comment because, as an avid reader of The Millions, he knew that I was reading the Edith Grossman translation of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and reading along at home, he felt comfortable throwing the literary reference into his broadcast. Or there is another explanation that, I will concede, is equally plausible. Don Quixote, like other literary first ballot hall of famers, Hamlet, Gatsby, and Holden Caulfield, is so ingrained in the public consciousness that such a reference will be understood by nearly all who hear it. Not bad for a 17th century Spanish epic. Enberg was using the name Don Quixote the way most folks do, to describe a foolhardy quest. And yet it would seem that Enberg was implying that there was something noble in all this, to use another often cited reference, something akin to David and Goliath. Before I ever cracked open the book, I had this impression as well, that there was something noble about this knight who wears a bowl on his head and tilts at windmills. I see it a bit differently now, even though, admittedly, I am only a quarter of the way through the book. Certainly in telling the story, Cervantes is turning the idea of chivalry on its head, and in doing so is nobly attempting to undo some of the harmful social mores of his time, but the character of Quixote isn’t particularly noble. In fact he is a rather sad specimen who is either totally mentally ill or utterly incapable of recognizing the consequences of his actions; probably he is a little of both. So far, he has inadvertently caused a servant boy to be beaten by his master, he has bludgeoned a number of innocent passersby, and he has allowed his faithful squire, the very likeable Sancho Panza, to be repeatedly thrown to the wolves. In fact, I am starting to see that it is perhaps a disservice to compare the coaches of underdog basketball teams and others who embark on impossible quests to Don Quixote, who, I should also mention, is turning out to be rather unhygenic. Better that these noble folks be compared to Cervantes, who, even 300 years later is still managing to take on the big shots. Like I said, though, I’m only a quarter of the way through. Once, I have finished, and once I have read the Harold Bloom essay that precedes the text, I may have different take on the whole thing, so stay tuned, America.
I did terribly at my GREs the first time around (thanks Harry Potter!) and decided to dwell into some more magic to remedy the self-imposed depression that my results caused me. I turned to Susanna Clark’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, which I had been meaning to read since it was published in September 2004 – and, of course, mentioned on Max’s August 29, 2004, entry. Ayse, a good friend of mine who lives in Istanbul, was hooked on Messrs. Norell and Strange’s interesting stories last time I visited home and urged me, as a fellow Harry Potter fan, to pick it up immediately. I heeded her advice shortly. For all the speculation out there, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell has nothing to do with the Potter series, except for the main characters being magicians. The novel is set in the early 1800s against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars that are raging on the Continent. Magic has, at that point, been long dead and more of a scholarly interest for gentlemen, who have nothing to do with their endless days on the English countryside. This goes on until Mr. Norell calls upon them and proposes a bet. The agreement is that Mr. Norell will perform a bit of magic for the self proclaimed magicians in the Northern English town of Yorkshire, and if he succeeds they will disband their community and give up all studies of magic. Mr. Norell wins the bet and, as we see throughout the book, gets a step closer to accomplishing his goal of ridding England of all magicians but himself. Since his fellow magicians are mostly scholars and historians Mr. Norell succeeds fairly easily. The London Society, which hears of this eccentric magician’s feats, promptly invites him over for some entertainment. A series of events unfold, leaving the Society in awe and raise the curiosity of the struggling government, which is running out of ideas and resources to stop Napoleon. Soon, Mr. Norell is performing magical feats that win the British Navy some time, trick the French Navy and result in the British victory in the Battle of Trafalgar, making Mr. Norell an irreplaceable commodity to the government. In the meanwhile, another Northern gentleman, Jonathan Strange, arrives in London and is accepted by Mr. Norell as a pupil. Norell and Strange have an interesting relationship that is half mentor-apprentice and half rivalry. In the end Strange becomes just as capable and also enlists his services to assist in the British war efforts against Napoleon in Spain and in the Battle of Waterloo. A falling out between Norell and Strange, as well as some other historical turns suddenly diverts the story line and merges it with the longstanding prophecy of the Raven King, a magician king that once ruled Northern England. Clarke’s first novel is very gripping and greatly organized. There are a lot of footnotes that make the stories more colorful and provide entertaining details and “historical” magic facts. Clarke’s observations and portrayal of English society in the 19th century is very much like Oscar Wilde: witty, snobbish, entertaining and gravely self-conscious. The magic part of the book seems a lot more traditional and scholarly, involving legends, kings, fairies and interactions of the ordinary and magical worlds. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell was definitely one of my favorite reads this year and I would recommend it everyone who likes Oscar Wilde, fantasy, magic and (well yes) Harry Potter.Next I turned to Ahmet Umid’s Beyoglu Rapsodisi for a dose of Turkish reading, per my friend Mehmet’s recommendation. Mehmet suggested that the plot was only decent but that I would get a kick out of reading the story because it was set in Beyoglu, a lively neighborhood in Istanbul. Reading Beyoglu Rapsodisi, in that sense, was similar to reading Arthur Nersesian’s Chinese Takeout, which vividly outlines the East Village, West Village and Lower East Side of Manhattan, arouses feelings of familiarity and belonging, hence drawing you into the story (that is if you live in NYC or know it well) as a better, more careful and personally acquainted observer. As I followed the three friends that are at the center of Beyoglu Rapsodisi (a poor book dealer, a successful textiles/fashion storeowner and a wealthy eccentric) I found myself walking through streets that I love and cherish, going into bars and cafes that I have not been since my last visit, and tasting the drinks and foods they eat on my palate. The friendship of Selim, Kenan and Nihat is also a familiar one that starts in boarding school, grows through college, and always revolves around Beyoglu. Umid constructed a good mystery novel that is as much a portrayal of Beyoglu and individuals within as it is a thrilling read. It is, unfortunately, only available in Turkish. I would recommend it for light beach reading or at home lying on the couch (that’s what I did as I cannot afford to go to beaches these days).Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5