“What evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows.” And with that came a fiendish cackle projecting shivers up my spine every Sunday when as a mesmerised youth I sat curled around our Stromberg Carlsen in the crepuscular winter light of my progenitors’ gloomy digs. The truth is, I never had the slightest idea what dark mischief gadded about even in my own pair of ventricles, until weeks back when I received a phone call from the better half at my office at Burke and Hare on Wall Street. The woman’s usual steady timbre jiggled like quantum particles, and I could tell she had gone back on smokes.
Like many American youths, I spent a number of years toiling pallidly in middle and high school French, the end result of which was being able to identify the opening strains of “La Marseillaise,” being aware of the mnemonic device “Dr. & Mrs. Vandertramp,” being able to inaccurately recite a poem by Jacques Prevert, and being able to conduct one halting conversation with a man in a bar, the highlight of which occurred when I boldly spoke of jus d’orange. I also remember vividly the mid-century expression for peeing the bed, courtesy of the oft-viewed classroom film Au Revoir les Enfants.
I could probably struggle through a French article about cats, written for children, but it would not occur to me to say that I am a French speaker. The decisive moment never came when I chose to say to myself and the world: “I speak French,” and by thus saying willed it so. You must make your linguistic statement of faith and mean it.
Through a series of happy accidents, I began learning Turkish when I was 21, first haphazardly, then in earnest, then not at all, then all the time, and now once a week for a prescribed number of hours.
Please don’t misunderstand me–I cannot speak Turkish the way that millions of people from around the world speak uncannily beautiful and idiomatic English. But I made my statement of faith and I’m sticking to it. I ride to school and whisper words like “threshold,” “doomsday,” and “willow tree.” I stop in the middle of sentences and turn red and start again.
Like many people who begin learning a language in the country where it is spoken, until lately I was in the position of knowing many breathtaking and largely unsayable obscenities, but could not read a book or newspaper.
Reading is not like speaking. You cannot look at a page and will yourself to understand, the way you can open your mouth and say nonsense and hope that someone kindly will do the work of comprehension. Illiteracy is terrifying; semi-literacy is agonizing. I knew Turkish words and grammar (which, viewed from English, is approximately backwards), but not how they went together on the page. I would start a paragraph and soon, my eyes would begin skipping across the paragraph at their accustomed speedy clip, apprehending nothing.
I bought Orhan Pamuk’s novel Kar (Snow) four years ago, when I had just left Turkey and felt myself, in the face of significant evidence to the contrary, a competent speaker. Confidence is important. A good way to feel optimistic is to acquire what Benjamin Franklin, the randy goat, called a sleeping dictionary. In Turkish there is an expression which communicates the same thing, an arch pun on dil, which means both “language” and “tongue.”
Unfortunately, most flings in foreign lands do not equip the besotted with the skills required for reading Nobel novels. As I have said before, I reached page 16 of Kar, which is actually page 8, by performing a very painful and ill-advised word-for-word transcription on the book’s actual pages, thereby ensuring that I would never be able to return to and read the opening chapter, or, for that matter, my own inaccurate translation. The pages, thus defaced, resemble something out of Paul Auster, or Pamuk at his most post-modern.
During my summer reunion with this elegant language, I took a class with a very patient professor who slowly coaxed us through excerpts of early republican stories, poems, and a Vikipedi article on jaguars (beneklerle kaplıdır–“they are covered with spots”).
Setting aside the dictionary I bought in my first week in Turkey, a tiny yellow Langenscheidt, the inside of which is coated with an archaeological film of loose tobacco, I obtained a big-league dictionary. A grown-up, non-smoking dictionary, which weighs 10 pounds and has words I don’t know in English, like “eryngo” (çakırdiken), and “schreinerize” (ipek efekti vermek), and “helve” (sap). It also includes a fair selection of unsayable things, which are important to know. I feel very secure with this dictionary, although I keep the yellow one in my purse, for the train.
When the summer class drew to a close, I returned to Kar, page 16, with my adult dictionary and a sense of purpose. For a moment, I saw the old chaos before me. But I forced myself to go one word at a time. Before long, rather than feeling as though I had been strapped blind to some infernal machine, I opened my eyes to find that I was actually riding a bicycle very slowly, peddling haltingly but definitively forward down an unfamiliar street. At first, the effort of keeping my momentum and balance prevented me apprehending the architectural features of this new territory:
The Kars Police Headquarters was a long three-story building that was an old building that was made from stone that was used for many government buildings that were arranged on Faikbey Street that stayed from the rich Russians and Armenians.
It took me a week of train commutes with the small dictionary to progress four pages, and to perceive what I was reading in a way that seemed distinctly literary. I am not a translator; I don’t begin to understand the alchemy of translation. But on page 26, for the first time ever, I felt moved by something I read in a language not my own:
In the empty lot next to the Yusuf Pasha District’s park, with its unhinged swings and broken slide, in the light of the streetlamps which illuminated the adjacent coal warehouse, he watched high school-aged youths playing football. Listening to their exchanged shouts and curses, which were swiftly muffled by the snow, he felt so strongly the distance and unbelievable loneliness of this corner of the world, under the faded yellow lamplight and the falling snow, that he felt the idea of God inside him.
In my head, this was beautiful.
At page 85, I continue to creep along.
I think I can, I think I can.
On Friday in a flurry of commerce, exchanging currency for goods, frenzied gift wrapping, and the filling out of shipping forms, I finished (almost) all of my Christmas shopping. I’m dying to tell you what I got everyone, but I don’t want to ruin the surprise for my family, members of which like to lurk here from time to time. So instead, I’ll tell you what I got myself for Christmas. Like most years, I couldn’t resist picking up a few things for myself. I don’t really shop very often, and I like to do it all at once. Plus, there are so many books out right now that I would really like to own, all but a couple of which I was unable to purchase due to lack of funds Still, I did get a few, and I can’t wait to read them. Here’s the rundown: I picked up a copy of the new Edith Grossman-translated edition of the Cervantes classic Don Quixote. I’ve been wanting to read this book for a long time, and I have enjoyed Grossman’s translations of some of my favorite Latin Americans. Also, (along with the new John Updike story collection) it is one of the most good-looking books out right now. Grossman’s been busy this year because the other book that I have been looking forward to reading all year was also translated by her. It’s the first volume of Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s memoir, Living to Tell the Tale. Expect to hear more about those two books sooner rather than later. I also got a copy of The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapusciski, which I’ve already begun to read. Kapuscinski, whose bio notes that he has witnessed 27 coups and revolutions worldwide and has been sentenced to death four times, is a wonderful curiosity of a writer. He has spent many decades as the foreign correspondent for a Polish news agency, and his travels have brought him to every corner of the earth. Peppered throughout each of his books are his accounts of the terrifying situations one can get themselves into while covering a revolution in the Congo, for example. There are quite a few writers out there who make a career out of this sort of sport, but Kapuscinski alone writes with a compassion for his subjects and a gift for illuminating both the similarities and the differences that define humanity. His observations always feel fresh, and I think this because Kapuscinski spent his career with one foot behind the iron curtain and the other firmly planted in the so-called Third World. This peculiar combination must account for his singular voice. Finally, in anticipation of a possible trip to Ecuador next summer that is still just a twinkle in the collective eye of myself and Ms. Millions, I picked up the Lonely Planet guide to help out with some preliminary factfindingDo you want to give someone a book as a gift, but you don’t know which book to get? Ask a Book Question and maybe me and my colleagues can lend a hand…
In today’s Public Editor column in the New York Times, Daniel Okrent takes the opportunity to mercilessly bash the Tony Awards as well as the Times’ lavish coverage of them. The only productions eligible for Tony’s are ones that take place “on” Broadway as opposed to “Off,” despite the fact that “the various Off or Off Off Broadway houses … launched all but one winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama in the last decade (the exception originated in a nonprofit theater in Florida).” Meanwhile back at the Times, Okrent claims that there will soon be better coverage of theatre: “the Times is on the brink of a long-planned, apparently expensive and unquestionably overdue renovation of its cultural report, scheduled to premiere in the fall.”
A week doesn’t go by that there’s not some new news related to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. The plagiarism court case, the book’s paperback release, and the book’s connection to the recently discovered “lost Book of Judas” have all made headlines recently. Not bad for a book that first came out over two years ago. People wonder how the book can continue to sell so well (the paperback sold as many as 500,000 copies in its first week of release), but being on the front page of the newspaper every week goes a long way when you’re trying to move product. Incredibly, with the The Da Vinci Code movie coming out in May we’re actually in for another round of news about the book. Undoubtedly the movie will get tons of press, but I was particularly surprised to see that Google is participating in a special promotion for the movie. If you go to google.com/davincicode and follow the prompts, Google will add “The Da Vinci Code Quest” to your personalized homepage (assuming you have a Google account.) The “Quest” is some sort of puzzle game that officially starts on Monday and there are various prizes being offered. Now, Google has certainly morphed into a pretty big company over the last couple of years, but you don’t really expect them to do promotional tie ins. Once again, The Da Vinci Code seems to be rewriting the rule book.Philipp’s got more details.
The long-awaited Iraq Study Group Report has been making headlines for months as Americans, weary of the war and our continuing struggles in Iraq, look for some fresh angles on this seemingly intractable mess. It should come as no surprise then that the book version of the report, which hit stores today, is shaping up to be a bestseller, as the Amazon ranking makes clear (and as has been discussed in a couple of wire stories today).In this respect, it follows in the footsteps another report by an independent bipartisan group that turned out to be a hit in stores, The 9/11 Commission Report, which was deemed sufficiently well-crafted to be named a National Book Award finalist. Not only that, a Graphic Adaptation of the book was created as well. The (salacious) granddaddy of this genre, of course, was the Starr Report, which sold approximately one million copies in book form but is now more or less out of print. (It will interesting to see if the two books mentioned above are still in print eight years from now. I suspect they will be.)Americans are often derided here and abroad for not being readers and for being disengaged with current events, but I think the success of these books goes a long way toward suggesting otherwise.Update: If you’d prefer to read the whole Iraq Study Group Report online (or print off a copy) you can get it at the United States Institute of Peace Web site, where, according to a Washington Post article (which has a lot of great tidbits about the report and how popular its been bookstores) “400,000 people downloaded the report within hours” of its release.
Mrs. Millions has decided that if I’m going to do all this blogging she should get something out of it, too. She reads a lot, and it seems that I’m always digging through our bookshelves looking for another book for her to read. Well, I’m running out of ideas, so she’s decided to bypass me and go straight to you guys. She has thoughtfully provided her recent reading preferences to help you select something to her liking. You’ll notice here, as well, the attention Mrs. Millions pays to the look and feel of the books she reads, so you may want to factor that in.Like Max, I look forward to vacation because it demands that vast amounts of time be spent reading. Unlike Max, I do not have a reading queue but instead rely upon recommendations (always Max’s) for what to read next, or I search for an appealing title and cover from the Millions library, letting chance encounters determine my next choice. But now, Max is kindly letting me use the blog to place a request for suggestions… I call it “What’s next for Mrs. Millions?”My most recent read is Small Island by Andrea Levy, which I am presently halfway through and am enjoying because it is fiction that weaves itself through history without being too tightly bound to it. Levy’s book also has an incredibly intentional feel to it and it is filled with vivid detail. The book is printed on paper that is like newsprint with rough edges – the tactility of a book impresses me as much as the content. Prior to this was Case Histories by Kate Atkinson. This was not among my favorites, primarily because the story was too neat with not enough depth, and it’s a hardcover with bookjacket (which I immediately removed, as I often do). But it had a tough act to follow: The World According to Garp by John Irving is messy and endearing, pressing all the wrong and right buttons. Ours is an older copy, used before we acquired it which seemed in step with the novel – I even kept this one’s jacket on. And before that was John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, my favorite among this group.With that brief history in mind, please send Max your suggestions sothat I will be kept from interrupting his reading time. ; ]So got any ideas? Help me out here folks. Leave your suggestions in the comments below.