Novel Thoughts: The Oracle of Stamboul

Michael David Lukas weaves a mystical tale inThe Oracle of Stamboul, chronicling the life of young Eleonora as she contemplates the world and the people in it. Accused of being both a prodigy and a spy, Eleonora copes with tragedy and happiness and ultimately takes her destiny in her own hands.

Lukas does a good job of lending his novel a sense of the mysticism often associated with folk literature of the Middle East. The Oracle of Stamboul employs the curious and fascinating qualities of the geographical region without being heavy-handed to the point of distraction.

Repetition is used throughout the book in the form of ideas (“There was only one rule, and Eleonora broke it.”) and gestures (putting one’s thumb and forefinger on the bridge of one’s nose). While commonly used in folk tales, the device seems rather tedious at times when utilized in this way in a novel-length text.

Lukas does a good job of providing readers with conflict and rising action in the beginning of his novel; however, the falling action and resolution are somewhat anticlimactic. Details go unexplained, and character functions are glibly dealt with often leaving us with more questions than answers. While some readers may find this negligence prohibits full engagement with the text, others may find the reading experience enhanced by the abundance of mystery both in the rising action and in the resolution.

Ultimately, The Oracle of Stamboul provides readers with a fantastic fictional experience filled with magical realism that will encourage them to question which events are real and which are the product of the author’s imagination.

Hello, Hello

Goodbyes are never easy, even when we think they are. Even when we think they should be. Some of us can move on from them, transitioning to whatever is next with little turbulence. For the rest of us, however, goodbyes have a way of exposing how much of ourselves is contingent on other people, places, circumstances. They have a way of revealing to us how flawed we have actually been.

Saying goodbye immediately opens the door to reflection. We are able to see ourselves and our lives (and how we’ve lived them) as if the drunk goggles have been freshly removed. We understand what people really mean to us, how much they’ve influenced us for better or for worse, consciously or not. We see situations for how they really were, not how we perceived them to be. And we are forced to grapple with how the part of our lives to which we are saying goodbye helped to make us who we are. Sometimes the leap from start to finish poses more questions than answers, and sometimes the effects of particular parts of life are left to simmer beneath the surface. But a goodbye always helps to illuminate both things well done and room for improvement.

If, as Newton declares, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, then the cure for the malaise induced by goodbye can be located in hello. Hellos are beginnings. Hellos haven’t been tainted with undesirable circumstances and human foibles. Hellos are a second chance, a consolation prize for the discomfort of goodbye.

The end of this chapter in my life begets the beginning of a new chapter. I’ve said (most of) my goodbyes, and I’ve regretted opportunities taken for granted. I’ve beaten myself up over what I should have done, over taking things for granted, over not seeing potential when it was blatantly obvious. And it’s been uncomfortable, lamenting lost opportunities and wasted time. But now…

Bring on the hellos.

Novel Thoughts: Late For Tea at the Deer Palace

Tamara Chalabi’s Late for Tea at the Deer Palace tells the complex story of a woman’s search for her identity amid the turmoil surrounding her Iraqi family. Chalabi’s family was one of prominence in Iraq several decades ago and has struggled immensely during the many regime changes that occurred during the twentieth century.

Writing a memoir and maintaining objectivity are among some of the most difficult tasks of writing in general, but Chalabi is adept at handling the reality of her family’s situation. While her voice and emotions are evident in the text, she does a fine job of portraying her family members in a way that is not clouded by emotion. Her story, the story of how conflict in Iraq has shaped her life, doesn’t actually begin until the later part of the book, allowing readers to familiarize themselves with the context in which the story is set to the point (almost) of forgetting the book is a memoir.

Chalabi seems to struggle most of all with the connection to her grandmother, Bibi. She finds herself attracted to many of the same social figures Bibi was drawn to, despite the fact that many of these figures are long dead. Bibi seems to represent true roots in the story. Although she lived in exile for many years, Bibi always remained faithfully and authentically Iraqi. Chalabi’s own story is written across the borders of many countries, and her ultimate search for how these different identities culminate within her is the crux of the book.

In Late for Tea at the Deer Palace, readers are forced to confront the pitfalls of memoir, fraught as it is with inaccuracies and inconsistencies. While Chalabi successfully conveys the nature of her family members without excessive emotion, the conversations, actions, and reactions are keenly specific, calling their accuracy into question. Because of this, readers should take into account the capacity for misinterpretation and incongruous versions of the same story while they are reading.

Late for Tea at the Deer Palace provides readers with remarkable insight into a culture with which many of us are unfamiliar. Sure, we have the media portrayal of life in the Middle East; we know what the television tells us. But in reading Chalabi’s book, readers will be able to put a face on the conflict we’ve heard about and read about for so long. Chalabi’s account is personal and leaves readers with a sense of the way humanity is affected both by conflict and by the search to figure out who we are.

Novel Thoughts: The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman

Hoffman’s novel is composed of short stories that relate the history of a town, Blackwell, in Massachusetts. In the book, the town binds the characters together across history; it is the only consistent element, even though Hoffman doesn’t specifically divulge the way the town itself changes, only the people in it.

Employment of magical realism helps in this book to detract from the sometimes selfish nature of the characters that inhabit its pages. The author uses colors (specifically red, green, and blue) to suggest the proper emotion for the reader without being too forceful. Readers will also notice the Garden of Eden imagery or rather the fall of the Garden of Eden. The characters in the book are related in such a way that their humanity is inescapable, raw, in need of some sort of direction which the townspeople seem to derive from nature.

Throughout the novel, a bear operates as a constant source of guidance, survival, fear, omnipotence. He transcends the generations and can always be felt lurking underneath the surface of the story and, it turns out, the surface of the garden. The insinuation, we eventually come to realize, is that we are not as far removed from nature as we like to think we are. Over the course of the novel, the people of Blackwell, the women in particular, are prone to abandon the lives they know in favor of the unknown, in favor of the mountain, of the bear. They abandon that which they have always known because it doesn’t seem to fit them. The mountain offers them a truer existence.

In its entirety, the novel is a tightly woven family narrative that spans generations and branches of the family tree. While a visual diagram of the family tree itself would have helped the reader to avoid confusion, overall the novel leaves us with an unexplainable sense of belonging and a gnawing sense of our own humanity.

There’s More Than One Way to Peel a Banana

Necessity has always been the mother of invention (please pardon the cliche). And humans have always possessed the unique fortitude required to meet their current needs. Some of our solutions seem obvious today, practical even, the only way to remedy the problem at hand. It is indeed strange to think that there was once a time when no solution existed.

Then there are the solutions for which no problems are immediately apparent. Sure, we can assume that at some time far distant from us now a problem existed, a need crucial for survival. But we can only wonder what desperate circumstances would drive a person to this aforementioned solution.

We’ve all heard the unanswerable question, “Who was the first person to think of milking a cow?” Even if we could know such a thing, the poor schmuck whose idea it was would likely choose to remain anonymous. Who are we to judge?

In that vein (although slightly less akin to barnyard desperation), I can’t help wondering: who was the first person to think of eating a banana, and how long did it take said person to figure out that it tasted better if it was peeled? Did someone with an empty stomach and an eye for ingenuity spot an animal eating this fruit? Did the animal, in fact, teach this human that peeling the fruit would make it more delectable? What does this do to the relationship between humans and animals? And how did this person who stumbled upon this method of consumption explain his (or her) findings to his (or her) friends?

Perhaps I’m being obtuse here; it is highly possible, although perhaps not probable, that all of this is explained on wikipedia, in which case my lack of research will be painfully evident. To be honest, though, this was just a fleeting thought to which I managed to lay claim before it completely escaped. Maybe it’s been carefully documented. Or maybe it’s one of life’s unexplainable idiosyncrasies, whose sole purpose is to entertain our minds in the early mornings while we’re still jumpstarting ourselves with coffee. What do you think?

Get Lost

Life very seldom affords us the opportunity to lose ourselves. There are too many people depending on each one of us. But sometimes it seems that getting lost is necessary. If we lose ourselves, it follows that we will seek to find ourselves again, who we are, who we were, who we want to be. And it is during this quest that we recover parts of our personalities that inadvertently fell by the wayside. These are attributes of ourselves that at some point we decided were ill-suited to the person we were trying to be. Rediscovery makes them new again, and we remember why they were so important to begin with. We refashion them, turning them into useful parts of ourselves. We return to them because they belong to us, because they are us.

It’s time to get lost.

If I’m Me, Then Who Are You?

In general, we like to sing the praises of individuality. Let each be his own, or something similar. We applaud the efforts of those who seek to distinguish themselves from the masses, and we designate whole months of the year to celebrate diversity and revel in the distinct attributes every person brings to the cultural table.

But to what extent do we actually believe in the positivity of the differences we like to praise? Do we celebrate individuality only so long as someone else is performing it? Is our championing of individual self-expression conditional, limited to those who couldn’t conform if their lives depended on it? And if we are subconsciously reinforcing this double-standard, what does this do to an adolescent’s capacity for self-expression?

Shopping malls are full of innumerable incarnations of the same teenager. This teenager wears skinny jeans and retro sneakers. He has borrowed a hairstyle from a cleverly marketed pop culture pawn, and he bears the look of befuddled indifference popularized by teenagers long ago. This teenager bumps into himself at every corner and refuses to say “excuse me” for fear of damaging his borrowed ego.

When two embodiments of this teen converse, those of us cognizant of what’s happening expect some sort of metaphysical breakdown of the archetype. We expect, perhaps naively, that the mask will dissolve, and what will be left behind is the true individual. And that would be ok. It is, in fact, what we want. Right?

What happens in reality is that the clones embrace their identically constructed selves and march on together, still believing they are doing something unique, still presenting themselves as the individuals they think they are. And still believing this is how it’s supposed to be.

I wonder where they got that idea.

Novel Thoughts: The Steps Across the Water

The Steps Across the Water by Adam Gopnik is an illustrated children’s chapter book that chronicles the adventurers of a young girl, Rose, as she tries to battle evil in two parallel worlds. Rose is an adopted member of her family, and throughout the story she confronts and overcomes the limitations of the term family. Gopnik uses the city of New York as an anchor to reality while constructing for his readers the fictional realm of U Nork, a city modeled on New York but much larger in scope and vision. In the beginning.

Readers familiar with fairy tales and other fantasy literature will immediately see the influence of other popular works in The Steps Across the Water. For example, the Ice Queen is able to control people when they get a piece of ice lodged in their eye, a detail the story shares with the fairy tale “The Snow Queen.” We also see the influence of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Rose, much like Lucy, is a very sensitive girl. It is she to whom the steps are revealed at the beginning. After crossing them and learning of U Nork’s dire existential circumstances, she decides to proceed by offering whatever assistance she can. We also see the element of the Ice Queen, a woman who desires only winter and leads a very cold, hard life, a woman whose mission has become the destruction of U Nork.

Gopnik’s use of sarcasm throughout the book is successful at keeping adult readers entertained, albeit until the next page. For example, when Rose arrives in U Nork, she sees people paying for various goods and services by pulling coins out of their nose. Later after she and Louis have finished having lunch, he bites down on the check and tells her that they have his teeth marks on file. He explains, “That’s the way you charge a bill here…You either gotta pay through the nose of pay through your teeth.” Rose later learns that U Nork’s problems are its foundation and who controls it. Louis tells her, “I told ya U Nork was built on money.” Gopnik uses U Nork as a vessel of critique for New York in such a way that the cynicism is recognizable but not overwhelming.

The intended audience of the story has been obscured by both the language and the actions of the characters involved. Rose is a ten-year-old girl, but she is presented in a way that causes the reader to forget her age and focus on her maturity. For example, when she first visits U Nork, Louis takes her to a nice lunch (nice in the U Norkian sense). This lunch involves being seated in a vertical human pyramid. Rose climbs up and up and tries to comfortably situate herself on someone else’s shoulders, and Gopnik writes, “She looked down, then quickly looked back up. It was so precarious!” In this case, the narrative voice seems to have slipped from that of our protagonist to the author himself. Gopnik doesn’t shy away from incorporating minor four-letter words throughout the text, and although they are not overwhelming, they do cause confusion when trying to determine an appropriate audience.

The author’s own familiarity with New York serves to create a more realistic experience; however, for readers unfamiliar with the size and scope of that city, the over-exaggerated features of U Nork will seem less tangible, less significant.

The Steps Across the Water is a mildly entertaining story, and younger readers are sure to appreciate the illustrations, which have a nostalgic quality. However, older readers are likely to be bored by the author’s insistence on the vast difference between New York and U Nork. While the issue of family and its parameters is commendably dealt with and while Rose is somewhat a sympathetic character, The Steps Across the Water is likely to be a more poignant story to a local audience, one familiar with the setting and its possibilities.

Limitation vs. Reservation

Life, for most of us, is a triumph of individual self-expression. In general, we don’t like other people designing who we are or who we’re going to be. Although we may agree that there is indeed a time and a place for everything, we frown upon arbitrary limitations.

At least this is what we tell ourselves.

We pride ourselves on being able to outwardly express who we are through a variety of channels, but at what point is it no longer self-expression? At what point does it become more about the spectacle of the thing, the flouting of the sense of decorum we’re all supposed to have?

Malls and shopping centers are now teeming with walking examples of attempts to control. The social constructs that dictate what’s appropriate and what’s not are being directly challenged, and what is replacing them is the gauzy sense of entitlement to self.

There is nothing inherently wrong in desiring this self-expression. The problem doesn’t come until we forget what it is we’re trying to express, when we become more the idea of the person than the person itself.

Humans have always felt the need to create; it’s where our sense of and drive for progress come from. But I can’t help wondering: at what point have we created another set of social constructs? At what point have we ceased to self-express and served to formulate the new sense of decorum? And how long has this been happening?

No Vacancy

Have you ever noticed that the lodgings you see abandoned on the side of the interstate are always motels, not hotels? And they are infallibly present at the exits we don’t want to take, the ones that seem to lead to nowhere. I see these places, and I can’t help wondering what happened to them. Where did all the people go? What did it look like in its heyday (if it ever had one)? Why did it close down? Who were the first people to stay in it? Who were the last?

They sit recessed from the road only enough for nonexistent cars to park in front of the rooms, which, more often than not, are now doorless. There is a notable lack of glass in the windows, but sometimes the mini blinds that once hung there have been left hanging askew, bent and twisted. The brick is, of course, its original color, indelibly marking the decade from whence the structure sprung, but the paint is certain to be peeling away from the trim and gutters. The furniture is long since gone, probably with the last drifters to occupy the place, but the signs out front still advertise vacancies and color TVs in every room. They are the original signs with hundreds of multi-colored lightbulbs that were so popular in decades past, and it’s not hard to imagine that their blinking in the dark might have once signaled a welcome stop for those on their way to somewhere else. The signs stopped blinking a long time ago.

No road trip would be complete without spotting one of these relics. In fact, it may seem to some that the trip is not complete without them. And we never like to actually get out and examine these places. There have been far too many scary movies based on them for that. But still they sit, reminding us that we have always had the impulse to wander, to stay in unfamiliar places and sleep in beds that aren’t our own. There have always been those to cater to the need of the traveler for temporary lodging, but look at what they’ve become. Today we have Hampton Inns and Embassy Suites at nearly every exit. They are shiny and clean, and many of them are new. But what will happen to them in years to come? Will we continue to see them as bastions of repose for the weary traveler, or will we eventually relegate them to use in horror movies as we have their predecessors? Will they continue to house those of us on our way to bigger better things, or will they eventually sit vacant, functioning only in the memories of those who stayed in them?