reviews/analysis · writing

Book Review: ‘The Architect’s Apprentice,’ Elif Safak

image courtesy of https://lionkingstress.blog/2016/12/24/favourite-quotes-the-architects-apprentice-by-elif-shafak/

A rich and sumptuous historical novel that is both sweeping and intimate.

Authors who write historical fiction often have strike a balance between being accurate to their chosen period, and developing a distinctive style, between demonstrating proficient knowledge of history and crafting a compelling narrative. Fortunately for her readers, Elif Shafak has no such problems. In ‘The Architect’s Apprentice,’ she uses all of the best gifts a writer can utilize to present a celebration of knowledge and the human spirit, set against one of the most colorful periods in world history.

The story begins in 1540, at the height of the Ottoman Empire’s power.  Jahan, a young boy from Hindustan (India), travels to Istanbul to present a fabulous gift to the Sultan – a white elephant named Chota. Unbeknownst to everyone, Jahan has been coerced into thievery by a vicious pirate who desires a share of the Sultan’s wealth. Jahan finds himself in the royal menagerie, where he meets the beautiful Princess Mihramah, developing an infatuation with her which will prove transformative throughout his life. Jahan and Chota are soon thrust into war, where they meet Sinan, the royal architect, a man of endless brilliance and profound humility. Sinan takes Jahan under his tutelage, as the decades roll by Istanbul changes and Jahan along with it. As they construct one iconic building after another, Sinan imparts upon his pupil the secrets of worldly beauty and the keys to a living a meaningful existence.

There is no overarching plotline throughout the novel. Rather, Jahan’s journey is captured in several key episodes of his life, some spanning only a few pages, others take up multiple chapters. Following a single protagonist over the course of a lifetime can, in the wrong hands, result in a tedious, meandering narrative. Luckily for her readers, Safak is able to inject enough sensitivity and emotional flexibility into Jahan’s character to make his a compelling and uniquely human journey. Sinan takes Jahan in when he is at his most vulnerable, notices the cracks in his spirit and seeks to repair them. What makes Jahan a particularly relatable character is that he is neither a hero nor an anti hero; he does not quest for anything, nor does he seek to rebel against the world. Rather, his journey is about learning to accept his place in the universe. It has been said that when we reach our lowest point, we are open to the greatest change. ‘The Architect’s Apprentice’ understands this, and like many other stories which deal with spiritual growth features a protagonist who has seen the worst life has to offer. Over the course of the novel, Jahan is forced to watch his mother marry his torturous uncle, denied any opportunity to express his true feelings for the woman he loves, and thrown in jail for no crime but having ambition. Jahan’s passion for his work and studies acts as a salve against the lacerations on his spirit, healing him, and making him stronger as well. What is more, it is in the scenes where Jahan is working that Safak demonstrates herself to be a wise and well-educated person, expertly enlightening discussions of art, history, and philosophy into her dialogue.

The most fascinating way in which Safak explores Jahan’s spiritual development is through his relationship with Chota. In all the world’s mythologies, animals, being closer to nature, are viewed as bridges between the material and meta physical worlds. So intense is the love Jahan has for Chota, that the purity of the elephant’s soul enters his, awakening him to the beauty of life, and giving him the strength to persevere along the journey of life.

‘The Architect’s Apprentice’ is – and I don’t use this term liberally – a rare gem, a piece of contemporary fiction which is both entertaining and profound; as heartbreaking as it is enlightening. Reading this novel is like being in the presence of a worldly sage, sitting and listening to them impart wisdom of the greatest truth. It has a certain energy running through it, a spiritual presence in its pages that makes readers feel connected to the soul of humanity itself.

 

 

 

 

 

Life · writing

Movement for the Body, Mind, and Spirit

 

This is an essay I wrote after returning from trip to Lewes, England

“There is a pleasure in the pathless woods, there is a rapture on the lonely shore, there is society, where none intrudes, by the deep sea, and music in its roar: I love not man the less, but Nature more – Lord Byron. ”  

 

The history of many religious and philosophical movements are built around stories of their founders and prophets achieving spiritual transcendence while embarking upon grueling physical journeys: Jesus wandered through the desert for forty days and nights without food or water, during-which he found the strength to resist the temptations of the devil, the Buddha spent his whole life roaming across India, collecting all the wisdom he could from the country’s holy men, depriving himself of even the most basic physical pleasures, eventually realizing true enlightenment comes from equal engagement with both the internal, and the external realms. Even in Norse mythology, Odin, the Allfather, was known as a wanderer, protecting any brave souls who sought adventure wherever the seas would take them. Though these different systems of belief are constructed of differing values, one common feature among them is that their most spiritually powerful figures are those who detach themselves from stability and comfort, so as to experience the full breadth of life on Earth. Though nowhere near as arduous as the aforementioned journeys, my trip to Lewes had a profound effect on me that transcended the program’s academic nature, and imbued me with new perspectives on life.

England is a small country, but coming here gave me a sense of how small I am in relation to the rest of the world. Where I was born and raised, everything is developed, and paved over; everything is right next to everything else, and the only way to go anywhere is by enclosing yourself in a tiny metal box and driving there. I’ve spent my whole life stepping aside to make room for machines ten times my size or squeezing myself into spaces that weren’t designed to fit a human being. Walking through miles of open country has given me a new perspective of how profound an effect space can have on my state of mind, something I realized on our walk to Charleston, when we climbed the steep hills which surround Lewes, reaching the top, I gazed out upon a seemingly endless field of green: miles of grass, dotted with flowers of every color, fields of wheat waving in the gentle breeze, creating ripples of light as the sun shone on them, trees which had stood strong for hundreds of years, old before before my parents or grandparents had even been born.

The simple act of being present in such a large amount of unspoiled space, with no barrier between myself and the natural world felt cleansing, as though all the gunk had been removed from my spirit. Out in the fields, I felt no sadness, no frustration, no anxiety about the future or past; and I believe that the physicality of our outings contributed significantly to the introspective change I underwent, as I was forced to put all my energy into strenuous exercise, and not into chasing whichever thoughts happen to conjure themselves up in my head. During and after our hikes, I endured a hefty amount of pain, in all parts of my body: my muscles, my bones, my heart and lungs; I was sunburnt, dehydrated, and often so exhausted I could barely speak. And yet, none of it felt like suffering to me, instead, I took the discomfort as a sign that I was becoming stronger, that a weaker, less self-actualized version of myself was melting away to make room for a better one. Profuse sweating removed toxins from my system, heavy breathing and an increased heart rate sent enlivening blood and oxygen to all parts of my body; my body was growing in power, and as a result, so was my mind.

I found myself able to contemplate great ideas, chief among them, those concerning impermanence. While exploring the hills and valleys of southern England, I thought of all the history the land had seen, the countless souls who had walked these paths before, now all dead, just like I would be one day. I can achieve great things as a writer, and as a person in general: write great works of literature which sell millions of copies and touch countless lives, amass great sums of money, and become exquisitely educated, but none of those things will negate the reality that one day my body will slowly deteriorate and die.

It’s easy for us to get so wrapped up in ourselves that we become out of tune with the Earth’s natural rhythms, failing to recognize the forces at work in the universe which are larger than ourselves.  Given that we enjoy a relatively short period of time on Earth, I believe the most productive use of our energy is the augmentation of the spiritual aspects of life. This is best done through giving one’s self ample amounts of open space to explore, so as to become more tuned in with the universe’s natural rhythms. Americans don’t realize how lucky we are, to live in a large country, with such a splendid plethora of environments to experience, the Rocky Mountains, the Great Plains, the Redwood Forests, places which constitute a sizable portion of our national heritage, and which I, lamentably, have never seen in person. After my adventures in the Southdowns, I have a new found hunger to explore the world on foot and feel the transcendent power that comes from being present in the raw wilderness, removed from the trappings of civilization. This is something I realized on our excursion to London, when I was struck by the disparity between the two settings; the noise and activity of London proved somewhat jarring after I had gotten used to the calm and consistency of Lewes, and while the city still retains a glamorous allure to me, extended stays there are not conducive to achievement of ephemeral transcendence. As I move forward in life, I plan to make the most of my home country’s magnificent landscapes, to break the gaudy bonds of comfort and familiarity, and venture beyond the borders of what I have come to know as my home. I choose to embark upon further pilgrimages of the mind, for to allow one’s body to remain sedentary is to cause the stagnation of the spirit.  

reviews/analysis · writing

Book Review: ‘My Name is Lucy Barton,’ By Elizabeth Strout

A bite-sized novel whose exquisite prose can’t quite transcend its bland protagonist.

Elizabeth Strout strikes me as every stereotype of what the moderately well-read American thinks a ‘serious’ literary novelist to be.  Beginning life as a wispy-haired child on the New England coast, she knew from an early age what she wanted to do with her life. Later, as a wispy-haired adult, she spends her days teaching at an obscure liberal arts college, writing stories about the emotionally disaffected. My first foray into her work, ‘My Name is Lucy Barton, is precisely the kind of book one would expect such an author to write.

We begin with the eponymous narrator, recalling a few days she spent in a New York City hospital, recovering from what was supposed to be a routine appendectomy. At the request of Lucy’s husband her mother flies in from rural Illinois to be with her, prompting Lucy to recall her impoverished childhood, eating nothing but molasses on bread for dinner, being mocked for not bathing, having to live with her family in a garage until she was eleven. From there the story jumps back and forth between various episodes in her life: college,  attending workshops with a famous author, the AIDs crisis of the Eighties, etc. The stark language Strout uses to weave her way through this stream of consciousness narrative lulls the reader into a state where they are easily susceptible to the novel’s atmospheric charms. There is a certain calmness to the book, a regal elegance that makes it easily digestible, but also work against it in certain ways. The entire story is told to us in Lucy’s voice. Generally, this serves to build intimacy with the audience. However, the simplicity of the language used is insufficient to convey the emotional depth necessary to become properly invested in her character. What is more, it provides glaring inconsistency with her backstory: someone who is college educated and makes their living as a writer should be able to more richly vocalize the psychological nuances within her head.

Lucy’s imparts her journey with a resigned stoicism that makes her frustrating as a protagonist, we see the full breadth of her life from childhood into middle age, and yet never truly feel like we know her: the dramatic contrast between Lucy’s humble beginnings and her transformation into a cultured member of New York’s literary scene is harrowing, but only to a point, as the watery sketch she draws of herself robs transformative moments of much of their cerebral heft. This broad-strokes-approach is most problematic in how the novel deals with Lucy’s estranged relationship with her mother. Lucy experienced abuse at the hands of her parents, including frequent insults from her mother – when Lucy began to develop breasts, her mother told her ‘You look like a cow’ – and being forced to spend nights locked pickup truck as punishment. Being forced to stay in the same room as her abuser draws up a bevy of complex emotions in Lucy, while she is intrigued by the stories her mother has to tell about life back home, she feels a palpable need to address the bad blood between the two of them, but just can’t bring herself to; she tries to get her mother to say she loves her, but can’t muster enough assertiveness. Throughout the novel, Lucy remains detached, devoid of personality, a character type, not a character.

For all the faults in ‘My Name is Lucy Barton,’ one aspect which is undeniable while reading it is the skill of its author, Strout demonstrates a keen ear for style in her prose, as-well-as a superb gift for crafting realistic dialogue. As with any artist, to judge Strout’s entire body of work against the weight of one piece would be a diseased way of thinking – especially since I haven’t read anything else by her – in this novel I see an intelligent, sensitive writer, who had the ambition to craft a provocative character study, but instead wrote the literary equivalent of a spring roll, light, tasty, but not substantial enough to be thoroughly satisfying.

writing

I Am An Artist

I am an artist. A writer. It’s something that became my passion, the thing I pursued because I couldn’t picture a life for myself where it wasn’t.

I am not a lazy, pretentious snob who needs to get a real job. I have a real job, it doesn’t pay very much – in fact, it hasn’t paid me anything thus far – but I devote time and energy to being the best at it I possibly can, if that doesn’t make it a job, please tell me what would.

Artists don’t perform life-saving surgeries, cook meals, put criminals in jail, or build houses for people to live in, but they are just as much a part of your community as the people who do. We are your neighbors, friends, and relatives. We are human beings, and as such, are entitled to the basic human dignity of being able to pursue work that fulfills us, as-well-as to be fairly compensated for that work so as to provide for ourselves and our families without being degraded for our choice of career.

writing

Starting something new

Beginning  a new piece of work is one of the most intimidating tasks a writer can face. After devoting gallons of blood, sweat, and tears to one project, one can feel so drained that starting something new is beyond your abilities as a being of crude, organic matter to accomplish. Indeed, the creative process is so taxing on emotional, mental, and even physical energy, towards the end you wonder if you are even capable of repeating it. And even if you are able to muster the will to embark upon a new endevour, you’ll sometimes feel as though you are comitting infidelity by diverting your gaze from one idea to another.  These feelings are perfectly natural for an artist to feel, as creative people have stronger instincts for self-correction than most; it’s not uncommon to want to spend as much time as humanly possible with a piece of prose, picking it apart sentence-by-sentence and word-by-word, pruning and nurturing it until blooms perfectly; it’s also not uncommon to become so devoted to your work, that you consider installing a catheter into your body so that you won’t have to waste precious seconds walking to and from the bathroom.

But, if we want to accomplsh great things as writers, sometimes we must ignore our instincts and think rationally. And when we do look at writing rationally, we realize that spending too much time on one piece of work can cause us to become too accustomed to certain characters, settings, and ideas, and force ourselves into a creative rut. We need to be open and flexible, otherwise our creative sensibilities may be come dull.

writing

About me

I am a prince of eagles,

A lover of fun;

Silver in some things,

Gold in just one.

 

Amateur philosopher,

Student of life;

My prose is my child,

My pen is my wife.

 

Art, literature,

Beautiful girls;

I want everything and nothing,

just to live in the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Uncategorized · writing

Does my writing suck?

 

Self-doubt is something every writer or artist experiences; we spend hours every day devoted to our craft – most of the time when we don’t feel like it – cranking out words and phrases, hacking and bludgeoning at mental marble, trying to set free the angels of our imaginations. We pace back-and-forth in our rooms, muttering to ourselves, running our fingers through our hair, digging boogers out of our nostrils; anything to avoid sitting down and ruining the beautiful images stored up in our heads by transforming them into profane and imperfect language. No matter how productive we are on any given day, we will more than once during the creative process, have episodes in which we feel inadequate; our approach pedestrian; our prose labored; our ideas cliched and derivative. We go to the bathroom to rub a hot towel on our face, then look at our reflection in the mirror and say to ourselves: “You are pathetic; everything you’ve done today is a mockery to the craft of writing. I f you continue, you’ll be spitting in the faces of all the great artists you claim to admire. You should have listened to your guidance counselor, and majored in graphic design, because then, at least you’d be doing something useful for someone.’

“So, how does one deal with this?” You may ask. Well, the first thing you have to do is relax. Accept that, as an artist, you are naturally self-critical; it’s in your instincts to compare yourself to others in your discipline – how would you have discovered your craft without the ability to recognize good work when you saw it? The important thing to do is not fall victim to your good taste. Show your work to someone you trust to give you an honest opinion and ask them specific questions about the aspects of your work you’re unsure about: as someone viewing from the perspective of a reader, their opinion of it will be untainted by a creator’s bias. And if you are having doubts, it may help to listen to them if they sound reasonable; if you feel like your idea has been done before, try to think of a unique way to present it. Three years ago I was writing a story about a socially awkward boy in college trying to win the affection of a beautiful girl. I knew it wasn’t an original premise, so I decided to make the protagonist completely delusional about how in love he and the girl were; the story ended with the girl tearing the boy apart in front of everyone, and it became the funniest piece of work I had ever written.

But, the most important advice I can give for how to deal with self-doubt while writing, is to keep writing. Things that confused you may make sense once you have finished your work. If not don’t worry; the first or second draft is never perfect, just keep working on it; and if you’ve done everything can, and you still aren’t satisified … look at it this way: it’s better to have a whole bad story than half a good one.