Top 10 Books of 2010: #2

The Museum of Innocence

#2: THE MUSEUM OF INNOCENCE, by Orhan Pamuk

The Turkish Proust! This is how I keep describing Pamuk to myself and to other people when they ask who he is. Proust and Pamuk don’t really have that much in common, really. One is a long-dead Frenchman, the other, a very alive Turk; one writes monolithic odes to childhood, the other, properly modern novels on a variety of themes. So, why do I keep calling him the Turkish Proust? I don’t know. It’s just this… pervasive sense that I get from reading Pamuk’s novels; I believe that he and Proust share deep sensibilities.

I mean, how can they not? Read this paragraph from Pamuk on the pain of true love, from the perspective of his melancholy narrator, Kemal, and just try to tell me it doesn’t sound like Proust:

The pains of true love reside at the heart of our existence; they catch hold of our most vulnerable point, rooting themselves deeper than the root of any other pain, and branching to every part of our bodies and our lives. For the hopelessly in love, the pain can be triggered by anything, whether as profound as the death of a father or as mundane as a piece of bad luck, like losing a key; such elemental pain can be flamed by any sort of spark. People whose lives have, like mine, been turned upside down by love can become convinced that all other problems will be resolved once the pain of love is gone, but in ignoring these problems they only allow them to fester.

I mean, don’t you see it, too? So Marcel.

The English translation of The Museum of Innocence came out in 2009 and people started talking about it. I had heard Pamuk’s name before (he won the Nobel Prize in 2006 for Istanbul) but didn’t know much about him. I picked this 600-page tome up from the library when it was still relatively new and had no idea what to expect.

I like coming to novels with this perspective of blankness, of utter ignorance. I refuse to read dust jackets and forewords and simply jump right in. The Museum of Innocence lends itself well to this type of approach. I think if I had known what it was going to be about, I might not have attempted it. But to prevent you from that same reaction, this is what I will say about it: It is a massive book, but a very beautiful one. (I did, after all, think it was the second-best book I read in 2010.)

The story follows one unlucky lover, Kemal, for many years as he more or less unsuccessfully woos his distant cousin, Füsun. Nothing is accomplished. Kemal begins to obsessively collect trinkets and love paraphernalia from his few, precious moments with his beloved and starts to file them away in an empty apartment, which, naturally, becomes the Museum of Innocence. Years pass. Füsun gets engaged, but not to Kemal. Kemal starts hanging around her family, hoping for some chance to win her back. Upon closing the final page, you may get the sense the novel is just 600 pages of emotional turmoil with a few mild climaxes and little resolution.

So, why read it? Here are two reasons:

1.) Pamuk writes with more skill than you or I could ever hope to have. Therefore, when you read The Museum of Innocence, you may simply enjoy the pleasures of a masterful novel. I don’t know a word of Turkish, but if Pamuk is even half as good in Turkish as he is in English, we have a brilliant author on our hands.

2.) But even more than that, it is always beneficial to read about Real Life. Woolf said that good fiction must be attached to reality at the corners, like the edges of a spider web. Not many novels accomplish this today. Most are difficult to believe, with characters–like Oskar Schell–who seem like nothing more than pure fantasy. We cannot recognize anything of the world we actually know in them.

This is why I stand behind The Museum of Innocence. Pamuk refuses to give us a fairytale. Because that’s how life is. The prince doesn’t always win the princess. And maybe the princess isn’t trying to be won after all. We don’t live in some rosy-edged bubble that obeys the predictable laws of the romantic comedy universe. Thankfully, Pamuk realizes this, too, and refuses to stoop to Nicholas Sparks’s level.

And beneath the simple futility of it all, the story holds together with the thin beat of hope. Because even though life rarely pans out the way we want it to, we still believe in our coming triumph. This is the motivating force for our downtrodden, love-weary narrator. After he remarks that an afternoon spent with Füsun was the “happiest moment of [his] life,” he qualifies that statement with this observation, which captures the spirit of this novel so well:

In fact no one recognizes the happiest moment of their lives as they are living it. It may well be that, in a moment of joy, one might sincerely believe that they are living that golden instant “now,” even having lived such a moment before, but whatever they say, in one part of their hearts they still believe in the certainty of a happier moment to come. Because how could anyone, and particularly anyone who is still young, carry on with the belief that everything could only get worse: If a person is happy enough to think he has reached the happiest moment of his life, he will be hopeful enough to believe his future will be just as beautiful, more so.

Pamuk will tease you–and Kemal–with hope throughout The Museum of Innocence. He immerses you in Kemal’s universe as you begin to realize that it is all very real and very beautiful.

Monday Snax

A view of the street from our study window. Not sure how our windowsill is that dirty. Don't look at it.

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr., Day to all! I have the day off from work, but thought I’d bring you a bag of Snax anyway. I’m grateful for the long weekend and the opportunity to hibernate, read, and drink copious amounts of tea. I feel like I’m getting a cold again, which is absolutely unacceptable. I am never this sick this frequently, and so even the slightest bit of illness turns me into an absolute diva. Good thing I have an endlessly sweet and forgiving husband.

Snax in your tea with lemon:

The Charlotte. A handful of my creative, classy friends/acquaintances in Charlottesville just launched this beautiful design and lifestyle blog. I’m loving it and I can’t wait to see what’s next! Do stop in for a visit. (The Charlotte)

UFO Sighting Map. Angela is a genius; I can’t believe she actually MADE this: an interactive map of 15 years’ worth of UFO sightings in the United States. Apparently the aliens really like coasts? Check it out; I could play with it all day. (Slate)

First Few from Wellington. Grace is alive and well in New Zealand! Enjoy these fabulous shots of her first week there. I think she’s now en route to her first farm assignment on the coast. So excited for her; still having trouble believing that she’s actually living down there now. (Como Say What?)

The Hazards of the Couch. New study claims that sitting in front of screens will kill us all. Not even the gym can save you now. I need to get my cousin’s job: Searching forests for black locust trees and then cutting them down with a team of draft horses. No time for blogs if you’re doing that, and ergo, no time for DYING prematurely. (New York Times)

It Doesn’t Matter Why He Did It. A short and insightful piece from the New Yorker about the Tucson assassinations: Perhaps Palin’s crosshairs map isn’t responsible, but rather the body of violent political discourse, which has become acceptable. (The New Yorker)

Women of Istanbul. A beautiful portrait series from this amazing, world-traveling couple. (Mr. and Mrs. Globe Trot)

The Year of Journaling Fearlessly. A great article on the challenges of keeping a journal, from a Charlottesville-based online magazine that my friend Natalie runs. I aspire to this type of “fearless” diary-keeping and appreciate the writer’s shared insights. (The Curator)

We Took Him Home. OK, so you know I’m not a huge cat fan, but whoa. Reading this post made me seriously consider getting one. That first picture with her hand full of kitten? Killing me. (Fat Orange Cat Studio)

New Year Wishes. Reason #1,506 why I’d like to be a Japanese woman: They carry rabbits around on their shoulders when walking in the park! (Tokyo Times)

Gold as a Mindset. A simple iteration of the Japanese aesthetic worldview of wabi sabi: Filling the cracks of broken things with gold dust. (Wide Open Spaces)

And the Snow Fell Quietly. This is the kind of snow I can enjoy: From a window or a photographer’s lens. (The title also makes me giggle a bit, though. Who ever heard of snow falling loudly?) (La Porte Rouge)

A Love Story. A beautiful tribute to one of our family friends, who recently passed away. You can’t read what her husband wrote about her without crying. Thanks for sharing this selection from the blog, Megan. (Thoughts from the Nest)

Monday Snax

We had a very festive weekend here. It was super. Two parties, two houseguests, lots of fun. New photos on Flickr. A small sampling below:

Angela came for a visit! The prettiest.
Annual Christmas party at the Blue House. Cutest Tiny Tim I've ever seen.
Also spent some quality time with the North Pole and Chestnuts.

Um. Can you believe that next Saturday is CHRISTMAS?? I can’t. Snaxy snax. Lots, to make up for sparse weeks:

Two challenging TED talks I watched this week:

Women, Wartime, and the Dream of Peace. This talk is from Zainab Salbi, an Iraqi woman who established the non-profit Women for Women International. Salbi speaks about the terrible burden of war on women–80 percent of war refugees are women and children–and the utter lack of women at the wartime negotiating table. Women are the ones left behind to rebuild, she says, and yet they are ignored and sit on the “back line” of war, despite being on war’s front line at home. It’s only 17 minutes long; do watch. (TED)

A Call to Men. Kelsey, I’m thinking about you and your class with this talk. Tony Porter is internationally recognized for his work to end violence against women. In this 11-minute presentation, he challenges our notions of “acting like a man” and how men have to move out of culturally mandated roles to end the epidemic of violence against women. Important–and so refreshing to hear from a man. (TED)

And now back to your regularly scheduled program:

Christmas gift tags. A present from my favorite Swedish artist, Camilla Engman! Enjoy this PDF of printable Christmas tags. Totally cute. I already printed off some for my own use this season. (Camilla Engman)

Miss Modish Muses: Snow Bunnies. These cute/sophisticated/funny vintage photographs of women in winter certainly get me in the mood for the holidays, a la “White Christmas.” (Miss Modish)

Iseeyou: Michael Wolf’s Voyeuristic Views. Hong Kong-based artist Michael Wolf has a new show of his photos of 21st-century voyeurism: see-through skyscrapers and intimate moments captured on Google Street View. Really interesting. (Flavorwire)

Photoshoot by Sarah Doyle. A dreamy and yet strong model; I can’t find the right words to describe my impression of these photos. Aggressive and yet delicate, maybe? (Silent Storyteller)

Fragile Wings. Loving the red lips and the braids! (Snail and Cyclops)

People of Turkey. After becoming a fan of Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, I’ve developed a growing interest in this interesting and complex country sandwiched between Europe and Asia. I enjoyed this collection of photographs from this super-adorable (and super-privileged!) couple who is traveling the world right now. (Mr. & Mrs. Globe Trot)

Stenelux. A glimpse into a beautiful–yes!–taxidermy/natural history shop in Amsterdam. I’m not sure why it’s so charming to me; I think it’s because it makes me think of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” or something. (An Apple a Day)

Sisters. Another charming post from my Danish girl crush that I linked to last week. Ida Nielsen shares some photographs of herself and her sister. Makes me miss my own! (Ida Nielsen)

Mr. Tomkins, Wait! Because you can’t have too many pictures of a fawn licking a cat. (Cute Overload)

Steve Wozniak Wonders Whose Altar We’re Worshiping At. Interesting thoughts from the co-founder of Apple. Are we indeed prisoners to our personal machines? (Daily Intel)

Dear Brussels Sprouts. I generally don’t read food blogs that much because 1.) why read about and look at food that you can’t eat? This mirrors my perspective on the Food Network too. I’d rather watch football than Ina Garten. And 2.) they’re usually not interesting. But Diary of a Locavore is an exception. This woman writes like a novelist, but about vegetables instead of people. Here is her heartfelt epistle to the much-maligned Brussels sprouts. I’m thinking about trying them again myself. (*Professor Cloud, I will always remember how to spell “Brussels sprouts” for the rest of my life, because I once spelled it “Brussel sprouts” and lost 50 points on that paper for you because of it.) (Diary of a Locavore)