Monday, October 31, 2011

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Every scene in this book has the feel of an Edward Gorey illustration.


After King, Queen, Knave, I continued the theme of novels mocking the upper classes of pre-World War II Europe with Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, knowing nothing of the novel or the plot beyond the fact that a well-known Alfred Hitchcock film had been based on it.

As it turns out, Rebecca is the story of a naive young nameless heroine, who marries a much older English landed aristocrat and goes off to live at his immense estate. She is never able to escape the disapproving looks of the estate's staff, led by Mrs. Danvers, who can't help comparing her unfavorably to Rebecca, her husband's dead first wife and the novel's title character.

Unfortunately, the protagonist suffers from what TV Tropes, with its talent for description, calls Wrong Genre Savvy. She thinks she's the lead character in a fairly standard romantic story, and believes that her husband is still pining after his dead wife. She thinks her role is to convince her husband that he should let Rebecca go and he should live for the future, and to find a way to make peace with mean old Mrs. Danvers.

The, when the novel's half finished, some fundamentally game-changing bits of information come to light.

I was able to read Rebecca totally unspoiled, so I got to spend the first half of the novel raging at the heroine for being such a spineless wilting nonentity who let Mrs. Danvers bully her to her heart's content, and the second half fascinated to find out how the suddenly much more compelling plot would play itself out.

Never having seen the Hitchcock film, I imagined Mrs. Danvers as looking like a malevolent version of Professor McGonagall as played by Maggie Smith in the last Harry Potter movie -- basically, a strong, imperious old lady. Apparently in the film version her character's interpreted quite differently, by Dame Judith Anderson. She's quite younger (Anderson was in her 40s), and rather than coming across as a vengeful mother figure who has lost her child (as in the novel), her relationship with Rebecca has lesbian undertones instead. Either interpretation works, I suppose, but they're mutually exclusive (one would hope).

If I do see the movie version, I'm sure the alternative Mrs. Danvers will find an equal home in my imagination.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

King, Queen, Knave by Vladimir Nabokov

King, Queen, Knave was originally published in 1928, when Vladimir Nabokov was a Russian emigre living in Germany. It was not translated into English until the 1960s, when Nabokov and his son Dmitri translated it together as a father-son team.

Because the Nabokovs made it clear that they altered the novel to a significant degree, I'm not sure how much of what I read really dated to the 1920s. I assumed the English version was faithful in the small details to the original, and I enjoyed the little everyday details of life in what would retroactively be called Weimar Germany.

The plot, in broad strokes, is as follows. A country boy comes to Berlin, to work in his uncle's department store. The nephew and the uncle's wife really hit it off, to the point that they begin a steamy love affair, which the uncle remains cheerfully oblivious to.

Queen and Knave conspire to murder the King, despite both being quite inexperienced at planning and carrying out a crime of this magnitude. Psychological tension and fatal complications ensue.

The plot, as the author readily admits, is not terribly innovative. It's the prose (even if the reader is never quite sure if any given snippet of English prose came from the elder or younger Nabokov) and the macabre atmosphere that make the novel worth reading.

I never trained myself to intelligently discuss prose the way a literature professor might, so I feel somewhat hobbled when talking about modern literary writers like Nabokov.

To me, King Queen, Knave provides a look at life in 1920s Germany. It lets me play at deducing what was the same in the original 1928 Russian-language edition, and what was changed in the 1960s. But it's been two months since I actually read the thing (while traveling in southern Turkey in late August), so I can't quite recall the prose enough to discuss it at any length.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett

It took me a long time to get into Terry Pratchett's Discworld universe, a fact I attribute to my aversion to long series, particularly in the fantasy / SF genres. Generally I approach a series in one of two ways: either I read the first book and end it there, pretending the sequels never existed (and savoring any unanswered questions I've got as proof of the mysterious vastness of the universe). Or I read the entire series all at once as one long novel. That's what I did with Harry Potter the summer the last book came out. It only works when you've got a finished series, though.

So I was a bit apprehensive about the Discworld books, even as they approached massive popularity with more and more fans, including several of my friends. In the USA, Pratchett has fully caught up with Douglas Adams as the face of modern British fantastical drollery. Finally I gave in and started buying his books as they appeared at used bookstores.

My first Discworld book was Jingo, which probably was not the best choice for a beginner, as it focuses on a group of characters it assumes you're already familiar with (Sam Vimes and his cohort).

My second Discworld book was Monstrous Regiment, which was published later but is probably a better choice for a beginner. It's firmly set within the Discworld universe but it's more of a standalone, as it introduces a brand-new group of protagonists.

Both of these books were written after Pratchett had been writing Discworld books for a while. He'd settled into a comfortable groove, in which he parodies the tropes of several different genres within a single novel.

That said, I think it's a mistake to consider the mature Discworld novels to be parodies first and foremost. To me, a parody isn't just any humorous work that can be slotted comfortably into a particular genre. A parody is a humorous work that derives most of its humor from mocking the tropes of a particular genre. But most of the humor of the later Discworld books is character-based.

So, for example, while Monstrous Regiment does indeed parody (verb) many military fiction tropes (and thoroughly deconstructs the hoary 'brave young girl disguises herself as a man so she can enlist in the army' trope), you can't just label the novel as a whole a parody (noun). That's so limiting.

Anyway. My third Discworld book was the very first Discworld book: The Colour of Magic. As one can expect from the very first installment of a long-running series, The Colour of Magic features loads and loads of what TVTropes calls 'Early Installment Weirdness'. The novel is divided into chapters (each subsequent Discworld book would be one continuous undivided story), the story is much more episodic and disjointed than later books, stupid jokes and cheap humor are much more in evidence, and everything's a parody! Every segment of the episodic plot is a parody of a different sub-genre of fantasy.

That said, The Colour of Magic isn't a bad book. It's well-written, and Rincewind and Twoflower are both very nicely done comic characters. But it's not typical Discworld.

Which brings me to The Light Fantastic, #2 in the Discworld series. The Light Fantastic has much in common with its predecessor. Later Discworld novels would each be self-contained stories set in a well-established universe with recurring characters, but The Light Fantastic is a direct sequel to The Colour of Magic, beginning seconds after the first book ended with Rincewind and Twoflower launched off the edge of the world. The two books are one episodic novel split in half.

It's interesting to view the book as a snapshot of Discworld evolution. #2 continues the plot from #1, and like #1 it contains its share of painful jokes. (Upon hearing that the civil unrest has resulted in a mob ransacking the city's music stores, Rincewind shakes his head. 'Luters', he mutters.) It's also not all that great with its female characters; every woman in the book is a parody of a particular fantasy trope, and gets little character development beyond that. (Pratchett would get much, much better at writing women in his later books -- see Monstrous Regiment as proof of that.)

And while there's plenty of character-based humor, in The Light Fantastic it seems like Pratchett is more likely to, say, describe some aspect of Twoflower's personality in a humorous way, rather than have Twoflower actually do something humorous that fits his personality.

But there are also signs in #2 that Pratchett is settling into the groove he would ride so successfully (and profitably) in the years ahead. The Light Fantastic comes much closer to giving its readers a single cohesive story than its predecessor. It's not divided into chapters. And people who are far more serious Pratchett fans than I am claim that many of the long-running elements of the Discworld series get their start in The Light Fantastic.

I'll take their word for it -- after all, so far I've only read four novels out of -- let me check Wikipedia -- wow, 39 in total so far. Ever since I read Jingo in 2008, I've read the Discworld books at a rate of one a year. I find Pratchett to be a pleasant enough read, but I'm not sure if I'll increase my Discworld novel consumption speed.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Istanbul Musings

Istanbul is hilly. There's a story that Constantinople was founded where it was because Rome has seven hills, and the site of Constantinople also has seven hills. Well, I can say that there are hilly streets in Ortakoy, several kilometers outside of the city as it existed in Byzantine times, that are at a grade I didn't know existed outside of San Francisco. We got vertigo riding a taxi down one of those streets.

Istanbul is full of cats. And often they're the fattest, healthiest street cats that I've ever seen. We've speculated that maybe some Ottoman sultan really liked cats and declared that no cat in the empire was ever to come to harm. There does seem to be a continuum between cats who are a specific person's pet who happen to spend a lot of time outdoors, to cats who don't belong to anyone in particular but seem to be collectively cared for by a neighborhood, to cats who are genuine strays but at least they're lucky enough to be strays in Istanbul.

Istanbul has street food. It varies in quality. The corn on the cob you can buy from street stalls turned out to be astonishingly mediocre. But anything bread-based was generally quite good. I had simit (a ring-shaped bread covered with sesame seeds) for breakfast almost every day, always bought from the same guy in Taksim. Our personal favorites were the mussels, sold with a clump of flavored rice and a squirt of lemon. They were cheap and didn't make us sick even once.

Istanbul has its traffic problems, but things are getting better. We chose an apartment that was only a short subway ride to our school in Levent (thus giving us an easier experience than some of our classmates, who lived over on the Asian side and endured far more difficult commutes). Public transit is really not sufficient, but where it exists it does its job well, and the city is in the process of expanding and building more rail lines.

(All photos by Jenna.)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Hagia Sophia

On September 7, we arrived in Istanbul. The CELTA course ran from Sept. 12 to Oct. 7, so we had four days of sightseeing first before getting down to study.

Istanbul's divided into European and Asian sides by the Bosphorus. The European side is further divided by the Golden Horn, with the bulk of the old city to the south and the center of modern Istanbul to the north. Although we'd traveled widely in Asian Turkey, we never set foot in Asian Istanbul the whole time we were there. Our apartment and school were in Europe, as are most of the places tourists are encouraged to visit; we never felt the need (or had the time) to cross the Bosphorus.

The Hagia Sophia had been closed during our day in Istanbul in August, so of course it was our first priority on our return. It's one of those famed tourist attractions that fully live up to their hype. It's always full of tourists, but with its vast size it can easily hold them all without getting cramped (unlike, say, some of the old churches in Cappadocia).

The Hagia Sophia is no longer a mosque, so visitors can wander throughout it without worrying about propriety. However, that also means that unlike a mosque, you have to pay to get in.

It's worth it, for the chance to wander about, admire the architecture, and get in plenty of your fellow tourists' photographs.

The Hagia Sophia is old. It predates any of the European nation-states. When it was built there was no England; there were only a handful of squabbling Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. There were no French or Italians or Russians as we know them today, only assorted tribes. There were no Muslims anywhere; Islam would be introduced a century later. China hadn't been a unified country since the collapse of the Han centuries earlier; there was no particular reason to expect a Chinese empire would ever rise again.

The Hagia Sophia is old, and it still stands. Its Wikipedia article reveals that it has been severely damaged on several occasions, and its dome has collapsed more than once, but it was always promptly rebuilt. I can't think of another building, anywhere in the world outside Istanbul, that is as old as the Hagia Sophia and still so well-preserved. (The Pyramids don't count -- they're not buildings in the sense of something that must be continuously maintained.)

I know of one building in Istanbul that rivals the Hagia Sophia in age: the Little Hagia Sophia, the still-functioning mosque on the city's southern edge that was slightly pre-dates its larger, more famous architectural cousin.

I'm curious. Is there a building (in the sense of a structure that people could work and live in) anywhere in the world that pre-dates the Little Hagia Sophia, and hasn't collapsed into ruins?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Selçuk, Ephesus and the Temple of Artemis

Selçuk is a town in eastern Turkey whose proximity to lots of fascinating ancient ruins has enabled it to develop quite a thriving tourist industry.

The main attraction is Ephesus, a very well-preserved Roman city that is on everyone's tourist itinerary. No matter when you go, you can be assured you'll get to share Ephesus with hundreds of fellow ancient ruin buffs. Lonely Planet looks on the bright side, pointing out that having so many people around makes it easier to imagine as a living city.

I'm not convinced - at no point did I ever feel I was anywhere but Ruin Park - but at least there's ample space for all the tourists, and we never felt embarrassed to pull out and check our guidebook in front of everybody.

Ephesus is about 3km from downtown Selçuk. We didn't have much desire to walk there, opting for a taxicab instead, but we walked back to town, stopping on our way for a surprisingly acceptable meal at a buffet restaurant clearly meant to feed large tour groups.

And on the way back, the Temple of Artemis.

Reference books that list the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World usually tell us that the Pyramids are the only original Wonder that still survives mostly intact. This is true.

The second best-preserved Wonder is probably the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, which judging from its Wikipedia entry, is now a great big pile of rubble near Bodrum, Turkey. We did not go to Bodrum on our trip.

But the third best-preserved Wonder is the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, which you pass on the walk back to Selçuk. Bear in mind that when I say it's the third best-preserved Wonder, what I mean is that we know where it is and someone's taken the liberty of stacking up a bunch of fragments of various columns to make one new column.

The Temple of Artemis today. As I told Jenna, 'This must have been really cool back when it existed.' In the far background you can see the Kale (castle), still really old but of far more recent construction, currently closed for renovations.

Selçuk itself is a pleasant touristy town. The ruins of the Basilica of St John are fascinating to wander through and are right in the town proper.

And be sure to visit one of the many cafes and restaurants in town with outdoor seating, so that as you enjoy your meal you may be beset upon by pleasantly rotund street cats, who will come waddling up to you hoping that you will take pity on them and share your dinner. Turkey in general is known for its street cats who appear suspiciously well-fed, but one street kitty in Selçuk is about the same size as two strays in a town where cats are less fortunate.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Patara and Kalkan

Patara is a town on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey which has made itself completely into a backpacker haven. I mean that in the nicest possible way. It's a very pleasant place, although slightly inconveniently located -- it's not quite walking distance either from the main road or the deservedly popular Patara beach.

We stayed at Rose Pension, which I am mentioning by name because, after a good review in the 11th edition of Lonely Planet, it inexplicably disappeared from the 12th edition, causing much grumbling among our hosts. It's a shame -- Rose Pension had some of the best food of any pension we stayed at in Turkey.

Patara Beach fills to the brim with Turks and Europeans in the summer months. The good news is that it's big enough to contain all of them, and it's mostly clean and pleasant. There's a cafe serving passable food. Big beaches aren't everyone's thing (I tend to sit under an umbrella and read) but if they're what you like, Patara is an excellent choice.

The ruins start a short walk inland. Patara used to be a prosperous fishing community, probably best known as the birthplace of St. Nicholas. Yes, that's St. Nicholas as in Santa Claus -- imagine the potential tackiness if the local tourism promoters ever decide to build campaigns around the Santa connection.

The ruins are not as spectacular as some ruins in Turkey, but they're worth a look if you're already in Patara, and you can enjoy the novelty of exploring a ruined city with goats and cattle wandering around. (I suspect even Patara at its height had goats and cattle . The notion that a city center shouldn't have livestock wandering about is probably a very recent one in historical terms, which still hasn't spread to all parts of the globe.)

We took a day trip to the nearby town of Kalkan.

The difference between Patara and Kalkan:

Patara: Backpackers
Kalkan: Wealthy tourists

And that about sums it up. We weren't really the correct demographic to properly enjoy Kalkan, but we got a good meal of meze there, and we were amused by the number of well-fed cats and dogs lazing about town.

The beach, though, is somewhat lackluster compared with Patara's, and transportation is somewhat awkward - shuttles run to the town center infrequently, and to get back to the bus terminal, you either have to trudge uphill quite a ways, or you pay a cabdriver to take you.

Overall we quite enjoyed our time along the Turkish Riviera - relaxing and with enough to maintain our interest. We celebrated our first wedding anniversary in Patara, with white wine (from an unlabeled bottle!) and nargile. Very pleasant.


From Şanlıurfa, we headed southwest to Hatay. The city of Antakya is known to history buffs as Antioch.

Antakya continues the grand Turkish tradition of being home to very old and historically significant places. Here, it's the rock-cut church of St. Peter, the oldest place where Christians congregated in secret and arguably the oldest Christian church of them all.

Most of what you see there now isn't nearly that old; the facade was built by Crusaders, and there was restoration work done in the 19th century. But it's still a place of great historical significance, and there are very old details that survive, such as the escape tunnel that worshippers would take if approaching authorities were spotted.

The guidebook claims that the church is a fairly easy walk from central Antakya. The reality is that while the church is indeed walkable, much of that is past a strip of small-industrial and mechanical shops -- not a terribly inspiring walk, in other words, and downright unpleasant on a hot day.

The Antakya Archeology Museum on the main traffic circle doesn't look like much from the outside. Looks are deceiving, however -- on the inside it's a spacious and fascinating look at a collection of Roman mosaics and sculpture, well worth the eight lira.

Hatay is of special importance to my wife because her grandfather's family comes from here -- they're Armenians from Musa Dagh who fled persecution in the early part of the 20th Century. We made a special trip to the one Armenian village remaining in the area, which she wrote up on her own blog.

Armenian and Arab influences are strong in Hatay, which was part of Syria until the late 1930s. Before we went I worried that the unrest in Syria would adversely affect our trip, as I'd been reading reports of Syrian refugees crossing into Hatay. As it turned out, while in Hatay I saw or heard nothing of the nearby problems (which may be due more to our obliviousness than to anything else).

Hatay cuisine is much more Arab-influenced than in the rest of Turkey. For instance, hummus is for some reason not widely eaten elsewhere in the country, but it's common in Hatay. There was a small eatery near our hotel that served excellent hummus. We only learned on our last visit there that the guy who ran the place was ethnic Armenian, and what we'd been eating was Armenian hummus, cousin to what J. had been raised on.

Monday, October 10, 2011


I'm back in the United States, after a month of living in Istanbul and not blogging. Blame the CELTA: the Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults, which my wife and I earned in a four-week intensive course that left us little time to do anything else.

Now it's done, we're both significantly poorer but with much stronger resumes, and I have time to write much more. Excellent.

Everything blurs together and I get an odd bit of writer's block when I try to describe what the experience was like, so please see Jenna's account of how she took the course and earned a (provisional) Pass A. (Our classmate Pinar also published a good write-up of her experience.)

I myself did not earn a Pass A, but I am fairly satisfied to be included in the group which encompasses the bottom 70% of all accepted students.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Jan Wong's China

My first book on China by Canadian journalist Jan Wong was her Red China Blues, a look back on the author's complicated relationship with China. As a student during the Cultural Revolution, Wong swallowed the Communist Party line unquestioningly and traveled to Beijing to become one of the few capitalist bloc residents to study there.

Her faith in the Communist Party managed to continue for a couple of years, but it didn't last forever. Wong ended up quite disillusioned with the whole Communist experiment.

Years passed. In the second part of the book, Wong describes her return to China in the 1980s as a journalist, now cynical and no longer willing to accept the Chinese government's viewpoint uncritically. Red China Blues' climax comes when Wong describes the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, which she witnessed, in graphic detail.

Not quite so autobiographical is Wong's later book, Jan Wong's China, a collection of stories of Wong's experiences working as a journalist in China in the 1990s. The book was published at the end of that decade, so the impression I got of China was already a decade out of date. One should hope that impression is somewhat divorced from present-day reality, because the picture Wong paints is a grim one.

My total experience inside China (excluding Hong Kong and Macau) amounts to five days in Beijing in 2003, so I have little personal experience to draw on. My own thoughts on China are somewhat ambivalent; as I wrote earlier this year, China lurks on a great barely-known entity on the edge of my consciousness. (Living in Taiwan, I can hardly help it.)

I read books about China fairly often, and they tend to paint a rather alarming picture in terms of life within China's borders, particularly in the less wealthy areas. Jan Wong's stories of China in the 1990s, which I read two months ago (which is why I'm a bit hazy on details), do a good job humanizing the the individuals who live in China, while not shying away from the grittier details of life there.

After the generally grim view of China presented elsewhere in the book, the chapter on Tibet presented a remarkably - and unexpectedly - balanced picture. The Chinese authorities are not depicted as the benevolent liberators they would like foreigners to think they are. But neither are they depicted as evil overlords determined to stamp out Tibetan culture. I'm no expert on Tibet so I can't judge where the truth lies (it's probably really complicated) but Wong's treatment of Tibet, a land with half-Han, half-Tibetan citizens who voluntarily choose to remain officially Tibetan in the state records because they find it advantageous under Chinese law, hits a plausible note of fairness.