CULTURE

More Christmas reading to suit every taste

This second installment of our in-house recommendations for holiday reading caters to a range of tastes. From great 20th-century Greek classics to biography, and books about art, music and travel, we hope you will enjoy some more of the books that we loved reading this year. Doing nothing by halves Nothing suits Christmas better than Dickens. You can wallow in excess – and how more excessive can a novelist get, in terms of language, plot, characterization and length? – and feel vicariously virtuous in seeing one’s own sins paraded and getting their suitable comeuppance. And surely nothing can be more seasonable than pondering over the sin of selfishness (and hypocrisy – Dickens did nothing by halves), as castigated in Martin Chuzzlewit, Charles Dickens’s sixth novel. It tells the story of the self-regarding and condescending hero of the same name, possessed of this singular vice and few virtues, who is disinherited by his grandfather for daring to fall for the latter’s ward. Hence the interest of the novel: It’s a toss-up whether Martin will end up redeemed or ruined, for his fate lies (mostly) in his own hands. Nor is any satire by Dickens so uncomfortably contemporary in its depiction of the yellow press and America in the early 19th century, not to mention the eighth deadly sin of egotism. And this being Dickens, Martin’s personal odyssey across the Atlantic and back is spiced up with fraud, blackmail, murder and suicide – all the makings of a very good (as well as morally improving) read. Diana Seale Changing vision Techniques of the Observer, On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century was a book that I enjoyed reading during this past year. Written by Jonathan Crary, professor of art history at Columbia University, the book, which was first printed by the MIT press in 1990, examines how vision – the way we look at things, in other words – changed radically in the early 19th century. Interestingly, Crary does not trace such a change to the later part of the century, when photography and modernism emerged. Crary talks about the camera obscura, 19th-century physiology and emerging techniques to ultimately show how vision is historically constructed. In view of all the current changes in the arts – mainly the increasing use of technology by artists – I found that although this book deals with a time in the past, it also is very useful in untangling contemporary issues in art. Alexandra Koroxenidis An alluring balance Penned by an Australian ethnomusicologist long before interest in the subject had begun developing beyond Greece’s frontiers, Gail Holst’s Road to Rebetika offers a crisp yet thorough presentation of the rebetika song form and its sociopolitical context from the objective vantage point of an outsider able to sense and understand a complex foreign scene before accurately piecing together the findings. Holst entered her labyrinth soon after her first visit to Greece in 1966, possessing just a vague idea of the local music scene and no knowledge whatsoever of the Greek language, before emerging from the other end with the title’s first edition in 1975, in English. Nowadays a standard reference for rebetika – an early 20th-century song form written and performed by an outlawed, impoverished subculture but rejected by authorities and the mainstream during its time on moral and social grounds – Holst’s account has been reissued several times and translated into Greek, Turkish and German. Despite the passing of time, Road to Rebetika remains a laudable work that maintains an alluring balance of people, music, and the period that produced it. George Kolyvas Women in Iran Not Without My Daughter, by Betty Mahmoody with William Hoffer, which concerns the Middle East and all humanity, is worth reading at a time when both are being tested. The title gives little indication of just how enthralling this story is. Each page gives off a sense of fear, loneliness and despair, taking the reader into a new world. Based on a true story, it describes the strong bond between a mother and a daughter who go to Iran – the daughter’s birthplace – on vacation, and are not allowed to return home. What struck me most was the vivid portrayal of the Iranian lifestyle and the role of women in that society. It took me by surprise to see how strong a person can be in times of danger and, after very serious thought, I began to feel guilty for not appreciating things I have always taken for granted and also for not deeply believing in the strength of will power. Evangelia Arvaniti Determining man’s purpose For jaded readers, Kafka’s almost surreally factual style will be a literal eye-opener. The story centers on Josef K., who approaches The Castle – a symbol of inaccessible authority – for work and is given assistants but no job. An effective critique on an absurd bureaucracy, the story can be read on many other levels but it is the literal interpretation which is most revealing – and amusing. Through K.’s eyes, we quickly realize nothing is as it seems: People have hidden agendas, chance meetings have actually been carefully staged, goals striven for are ultimately insignificant. Kafka mesmerizes us by skillfully maintaining such an absurd world with a paradoxical logic. Typically, the story has no conclusive ending, let alone a happy one! Why read it then? For the bitingly lucid style, the dark, pervasive humor and Kafka’s humane aim (perhaps unattainable, as the novel was never finished) of determining man’s purpose. Niki Kitsantonis Happiness and calamity Michalis Karagatsis’s modern classic, The Great Chimera, is a book I heartily recommend. In this complex portrayal of a young woman, the writer explores the psychology and character of his heroine in depth. Marina, the most tragic figure in the novel, is a source of both happiness and calamity for a whole family. She seeks love and happiness but finds them only for a while in Yiannis, the man she marries and follows to his family home on Syros. There Marina starts living under the disapproving shadow of her mother-in-law, who foresees the catastrophe that will follow Marina’s arrival on the island. When economic disaster comes, which is closely linked with the hero’s psychological collapse, everything is drawn into a vicious cycle of love and death. The Great Chimera is a masterpiece that skillfully depicts the full extent of human passions and failings. The tragic heroes and the decisive role of fate in determining their lives and downfall recall ancient tragedy. Reading this novel, one can see how the pursuit of happiness may prove to be a great chimera. Theokli Kotsifaki A private and public life As intensely private as it is public, Katharine Graham’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography, Personal History (Alfred A. Knopf), tells a riveting story. Intelligent yet painfully shy, the daughter of Eugene I. Meyer – owner and publisher of The Washington Post – was raised in a world of privilege, and after graduating from the University of Chicago married Phil Graham, a brilliant Supreme Court clerk. For the young couple it all seemed perfect: Phil took over The Washington Post Company and Kay (as she was known) took care of the kids. Phil, however, began fighting a series of battles against depression, which ended in his suicide. Following her spouse’s death, Graham reluctantly took over The Washington Post Company, and succeeded in further consolidating the paper’s reputation and power. She did it in a variety of ways, such as her unwillingness to succumb to government pressure in publishing the Pentagon Papers or her fierce backing of The Post reporters, who, under the editorial leadership of Ben Bradlee, uncovered Watergate. Even when the storm seemed over, Graham faced a long-term pressmen’s strike, threatening publication of the paper. Witty, warm, honest and accurate, Personal History, reflects its author, who died on July 17, 2001. Elis Kiss A credible observer Aged just 19, Jason Elliott had himself smuggled from Peshawar into Afghanistan to visit the mujahedin, who were then resisting the Soviet forces. During that and later trips, recounted in An Unexpected Light – Travels in Afghanistan (Picador, 1999), he gained intimate knowledge of a mountain-ringed history book and its proud, hospitable people. His open mind and knowledge of Afghan history, language and culture make him an credible observer. And his skill at conveying what it feels like to be there – whether under rocket fire, seeing the unexpected light peel back from rugged mountain peaks, or witnessing the first restrictions imposed by the newly powerful Taleban – make his account memorable. Elliot has the honesty to admit his own failings and the modesty to learn from a different world, and it is this willingness to bare his own motives, fears and weaknesses, his account of the inner journey as well as the external adventure, that lift his book into the realm of the finest travel writing.