My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

“The beauty and mystery of this world only emerges through affection, attention, interest and compassion . . . open your eyes wide and actually see this world by attending to its colors, details and irony.”

3/5 stars.
Paperback, 508 pages.
Read from January 10, 2021 to January 18, 2021.

This book has been on my TBR list for years and while it was supposed to be a selection for the book club I’m in it was changed due to it being a bit too long for a monthly selection. I decided that I would still take the opportunity to read it as it had been on my list for so long.

My Name is Red is a unique piece that manages to interweave a murder-mystery plot with a love story, that takes place in a historical setting, that also pays tribute to the creation and development of Ottoman art and culture in the shadow of the West and influence. The result? A finely crafted piece of literature. The story revolves around a group of miniaturists, one of whom is murdered. One of the three remaining artists is responsible but you won’t find out who until the end. Miniaturists were artists that would work together to paint manuscripts and within the Ottoman empire, these works were often a collaboration with a head artist coming up with the plan and outline and passing off the remaining work to apprentices. These manuscripts, despite their beauty, were rarely signed by their creators which, differs greatly from the Western traditions of art. This is one of the main points of conflict in the book as some of the artists are under coming under this new Western influence. As the murder mystery unfolds, a love story also takes hold that counterbalances some of the violence in the story as well as the more factual artistic and historical references. Pamuk’s writing style and unique narrative approach are elegant, poetic, and complete with wonderful and memorable quotes that leave a lasting mark.

“Colour is the touch of the eye, music to the deaf, a word out of the darkness.”

My Name is Red is an outstanding piece of literature that brings awareness to the culture and art of the Ottoman’s in the 15th century. However, if this is not an area you’re familiar with, it can make the book harder to appreciate or understand. Don’t let that stop you from reading this book though as it is a meticulously written novel that has a beautiful read with an immensely captivating story. Books like this one, help to turn attention to places that produced phenomenal art that was generally overlooked within the Western canon.

“In actuality, we don’t look for smiles in pictures of bliss, but rather, for the happiness in life itself. Painters know this, but this is preciously what they cannot depict. That’s why they substitute the joy of seeing for the joy of life.”

My three-star rating has to do more with my own reading experience as I wish I had done a little bit of prior research just before picking up this book. I would recommend these steps for maximum enjoyment before reading this novel. Knowing what a miniaturist is a good place to start as well as getting a visual for what types of works these artists produced and how they were used and read. Thankfully, Wikipedia has a decent summary that won’t eat too much of your time. A highly recommended read for historical fiction lovers and anyone with an art appreciation.

A Chorus of Mushrooms by Hiromi Goto

“I mutter and mutter and no one to listen. I speak my words in Japanese and my daughter will not hear them. The words that come from our ears, our mouths, they collide in the space between us.”

4/5 stars.
Paperback, 268 pages.
Read from December 9, 2019 to December 12, 2019.

A Chorus of Mushrooms is what I would describe as “my kind of book”. It’s the type of book that details lives and scenarios that I know nothing about, with poetic, imaginative, and dream-like writing, and with words that are in partial or full in translation. There must be something about this ‘poetical otherness’ that I’m completely obsessed with. Another draw for me in this book is that the town the majority of the book is set in, Nanton, is a town I visited as a kid over many summers. The book also spends time in Calgary, a city I lived in for many years.

A Chorus of Mushrooms details the lives of three different generations of Japanese-Canadians on the matriarchal side and was first published in 1993. The family lives on a mushroom farm in Nanton, Alberta, Canada. The grandmother, Naoe, is very old and requires the care of her daughter, Keiko, and granddaughter, Muriel or Murasaki, as Naoe calls her. The first person narrative switches between Naoe and Murasaki and drifts between different points of time. Naoe knows English but refuses to speak it as her Keiko has abandoned her heritage and culture in order to try and assimilate into their home in Canada. Naoe may no longer be close to Keiko but they still care for each other in their own way.  Naoe had a very different life in Japan and thing have not always been easy for her and she is frustrated because she feels she has no one to communicate with that deeply understands her. Despite her age, Naoe decides one day to leave her home in Nanton and in the middle of winter. From there, the story takes a different turn with Naoe making the reader wonder what’s real or the wishful imaginings of the author. Murasaki was always extremely fond of her grandmother and recounts her childhood and all the Japanese myths her grandmother used to tell her. After Naoe leaves, Murasaki attempts to fill the emptiness of her grandmother’s presence as well as a piece of her identity that has been kept from her by Keiko by attempting to reconnect with her heritage.

This beautiful book won numerous awards when it was first published and it’s easy to see why. The book will always continue to relevant as it speaks to anyone looking for their own identities or to anyone who has ever had to establish themselves in another country. Further, A Chorus of Mushrooms is partially autobiographical as Hiromi Goto moved to a mushroom farm in Nanton when she was a toddler and her grandmother used to tell her stories growing up too which I’m sure contributed to the intimate and personal feel of this story. The story itself is simple, elegant, and delicately told with sentences of untranslated Japanese, along with being fiercely feminine and sexually empowering.

I loved this book. Really loved it, as I read most of it in one sitting. It’s the kind of book that feels like a comfortable blanket that I’d want to crawl back into again. I would highly recommend this book to literary-fiction lovers, Murakami-lovers, or for those who are looking for something a little different but not too challenging that will still keep you engaged and captivated.