Borrowed Books

“He knew that it was just that he was a man with bits of himself broken. That’s all it fucking was.”

-Sebastian Barry, A Long Long Way

My goal for my time at home is to get through as many of the unread books in my room as possible. I decided to start with three books I borrowed from a friend over the summer: The Violent Bear it Away by Flannery O’Connor, A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry, and My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk. All three are very different, and with the exception of the O’Connor (I’ve read her short stories and her other novel) I probably wouldn’t have picked them up unless they’d been lent to me.

Flannery O’Connor is a very unique woman. I’m not sure if it’s because FSG has created such gorgeous, distinct covers for all of her books, or if it’s the sentences themselves, but I always know I’m in an O’Connor story from the first page. This novel is about a teenage boy named Francis Tarwater. He was orphaned and raised by his great-uncle, an eccentric self-proclaimed prophet who lived on an isolated farm. After Francis’s great-uncle passes away, he goes to live with his cousin Rayber, a schoolteacher who was once briefly indoctrinated into the prophet uncle’s beliefs. Rayber is determined to convince Francis of a modern, atheist worldview, but Francis’s great-uncle declared him a prophet, and made him promise to baptize Rayber’s only son. This is a very strange book. It has gorgeous, creepy passages about Francis’s struggles to choose his faith. I also loved the view of the town where Rayber lives from Francis’s point of view–he’s a country person at heart, and he can’t reconcile himself to restaurants or busy streets. The ending is very violent and a little rushed, as a warning, but I think it fit with the rest of the novel. I would recommend this to anyone who’s a fan of the Southern Gothic tradition or of books about faith.

Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way is a gorgeous book. I loved it so much–I read it in two days, and I wished it had been longer. It’s about Willie Dunn, a young man from Dublin who enlists in the British Army at the beginning of World War One. He becomes increasingly disillusioned with the war, not only because of the violence in the trenches. As he receives letters from home and visits Dublin on his leaves, he learns of the Irish independence movement, and wonders if he should be fighting for Queen and Country. I loved the way that Barry wrote Willie’s voice–it has Irish phrases every few paragraph, often enough that I could hear him speaking in an Irish accent. Barry also handles time fantastically in this novel. It begins when Willie is 18, in 1914, and ends shortly after the Americans enter the war in 1917. I never felt like the book was moving too quickly, and Barry includes details about Willie’s birthdays and the time of year to ensure readers won’t be confused about the time setting. You grow up with Willie in this novel–I loved that even though he’s in the middle of the trenches, he’s still excited about turning 21. You also become invested in his regiment, and as men die and are replaced, you understand the scale of death during this war. I highly recommend this book to everyone!

Last and certainly not least, Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red. It’s very philosophical, so it’s not a right-before-bed kind of book. It’s about miniaturists, the artists who paint illustrations in manuscripts, in Istanbul in the sixteenth century. Certain patrons in the city, including the Sultan, are influenced by the more realistic art of the European Renaissance, but lifelike portraits are considered heresy according to the Koran. After one artist who worked the Sultan’s European-style book is murdered, the others must figure out who killed them, and the investigation exposes how dangerous the book is to their society. I know very little about Islamic society, so I loved all the descriptions of the manuscript illustrations and the religious texts which inspired them. The murder mystery aspect of the plot is definitely secondary to long-winded descriptions of painting technique, so it’s not a quick read. The pace picks up in the last hundred pages, which are dedicated to the action of the murder plot. My favorite part of this book was that every chapter is told from a different character’s point of view–the main characters recur, but others are standalone. For example, someone will paint a horse, and then the horse gets its own chapter. These sections are more whimsical than philosophical, and they have some of the novel’s most beautiful passages. Pamuk’s sentences were translated by Erdağ Göknar, and the book flows really well. Some translated books have strangely klunky language, but I thought Göknar did a great job of creating a specific style for this book. I could see all the characters vividly. I recommend this book to anyone who’s interested in sixteenth-century Islamic society, and to anyone who wants something sweeping to get stuck into.

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