I began Orhan Pamuk’s Snow a week or so ago and I’m enjoying it. I’ll probably wait to say anything substantive about it until I’ve finished it (I’m maybe 2/3 of the way through), but it’s an interesting follow-up to Rory Stewart’s The Places in Between, since both books deal with Islam, although in very different settings and in different ways. But Snow is very much about the conflict between secularists and fundamentalist Muslims and the changes Islam has undergone and the changes it’s brought about in the last few decades, just as Stewart’s book is. I like the way Pamuk deals with the political issues — largely through his hapless main character Ka who wanders rather aimlessly around the Turkish city of Kars, trying to woo the beautiful Ipek and getting himself into trouble. Political and religious conflict is all through the novel, and we see a lot of it directly, but we also get it filtered through Ka’s experience, which helps balance out the serious tone and subject matter. I will say I find it a tiny bit slow-going. It doesn’t have much narrative drive. But that’s okay, I think, as the ideas and the characters are so interesting and well-done.
Last night I began Richard Holmes’s book Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer, and I’m really excited about it. I’ve only read about 5 pages, but I can tell this is going to be just the kind of book I like — it’s a mix of personal narrative, travel book, and biography. It starts off telling the story of Holmes’s journey through part of France, following in Robert Louis Stevenson’s footsteps. Both of them traveled mostly on foot, sleeping outside many nights and getting fed by local villagers. It reminds me once again of Rory Stewart, although again it’s a very different experience. But Stewart was also following someone’s footsteps, in his case, Babur, a 16th century man who founded the Mughal dynasty of India. Both Holmes and Stewart are looking for traces of history as they travel through and write about the modern world.
Holmes will go on to write about Mary Wollstonecraft, Percy Shelley, and Gerard de Nerval — in this book, more exactly, he’ll be writing about the experience of traveling in their footsteps as well as writing about the people themselves. It promises to be a great mix of the historical, the critical, and the personal.