During my time in Istanbul I read several books all related to Turkey in some way. Some books I managed to finish reading. Others not. This list reflects my own wandering idiosyncratic interests.
Orhan Pamuk – The Big Guy. Numero Uno. World-Renowned. Nobel-Prize Winner. Many years ago I read The Black Book. I found it difficult to like. It seemed to wander endlessly with little payoff. It concerns a man in love with his cousin but this cousin is in a relationship with another cousin, who is a columnist for a newspaper. After the columnist and his love disappear, the narrator assumes his cousin’s role at the newspaper. Stories about Istanbul are spun out that I think you have to have lived here and be Turkish to appreciate. And some weirdness. Maybe I’ll try again, now that I’ve lived here. Probably not.
I read The Museum of Innocence after I had visited the actual namesake museum. I would have titled the book, Museum of Misery. A shlub from a wealthy, secular, proud Istanbul family is engaged to smart, beautiful, wealthy woman. But then he meets a cousin and develops an obsession with her that leads to an affair which has all kinds of tragic consequences. He ends up destroying this woman’s life, and by extension, her. And then he creates a museum dedicated to his love for her consisting of 4000 cigarette butts and hundreds of other objects she touched that he stole from her family’s apartment. His obsession is aided and abetted by her parents. Hundreds of pages go back and forth ad nauseum about how “When I was with Fusun I was so happy even though I couldn’t touch her. When I was not with Fusun I was so depressed.” Over and over and over and over and over. “Oh and there was a coup and a curfew imposed but that just made it harder to see Fusun.” I can’t remember hating a book so much. I wouldn’t hate it so much except I’m completely baffled at people believing it to be not just a good book but a great book, one that deserves the bizarre museum that shares its name. Fusun herself is not much of a character, a woman whose few words and being are nearly suffocated under the weight of the overbearingly whiny narrator. But then, she’s merely a beautiful object for a man to obsess over and unthinkingly destroy. Maybe there are several layers of Turkish culture I as yet need to learn in order to understand this novel and all the fuss.
My Name is Red is a murder mystery set amid the miniaturists who worked for the Sultan in the 16th century. It’s about art, love, integrity, tradition, religious faith, and so much more. Told from multiple points of view, including the killer’s, it’s funny, sad, ridiculous, and grim. Of course, Black, the man whose task it is to solve the murder, is in love with his cousin Shekure. If you haven’t yet read anything by Pamuk this is the book I would recommend.
Pamuk would be a better storyteller if wasn’t such a windbag. A friend reminded me that Pamuk was trained as an architect, which he says explains Pamuk’s inability to be concise about anything. And what’s with all the first cousins gettin’ busy in his books?
The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak. This novel was the subject of a well-known trial in Turkey. The author was accused of insulting Turkishness. Yes, insulting Turkishness is against the law. Freedom of speech isn’t much of an ideal in Turkey, what with all the journalists in jail, people being fined or threatened with imprisonment for being an atheist. A humorous but ultimately tragic book that jumps right into the taboo topic here of the Armenian Genocide by looking at the story of two families, one Turkish, one Armenian, over several generations, on two different continents, and how they’re lives are intertwined.
Tales from the Expat Harem. This collection of essays from expat women living in (or having lived in) Turkey was published in 2006. Like any collection, some of the essays are excellent and some just ho-hum. For me, in 2014, some of these essays display a Turkey that is hard to fathom still exists (women melting lead and pouring it to dispel perceived bad luck), others show how funny and uncomfortable things can be when an independent Western woman inadvertently collides with deeply held beliefs. My favorites are by a hotel owner, a reporter who covered the war agains the Kurds in the early 1990’s, and a young woman who bemoans the confusion she and her girlfriends experience in dating Turkish men. All offer an interesting look at Turkey during different decades, from the 60’s to the early aughts.
Perking the Pansies by Jack Scott. Jack and his partner decide to leave England (cold and damp with spots of sun) for Bodrum (sun, warmth, and great food). Hilarity, frustration, and confusion ensue. What began as a blog, became a book. You can still read his adventures (he’s back in England now) over at Perking the Pansies.
Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montague. Montague was the wife of a British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Her letters cover their travels across the European continent to Constantinople and her time spent in the Ottoman capital. Interesting read from the perspective of a sympathetic Western woman, and her account of the lives of the Ottoman women she befriended.
A Memento for Istanbul by Ahmet Umit. This book was a gift from our tour guide in Kusadasi. It starts with a murder and then travels through this seductive city’s history as the bodies pile up. It’s a good, entertaining read, even if I find the narrator to be wholly unbelievable as an Istanbul police officer given what I’ve seen of Turkish riot police and their attitudes toward protestors and murdered transgender sex workers.
Leila and Majnun by Nizami. The Persian poet Nizami wrote this tale of love and madness centuries ago. Majnun is literally Arabic for “madman” or “the possessed.” It’s a story well-known throughout the Middle East and is often alluded to by writers.
Procopius. In his Histories, he documented first-hand the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian and how General Belisaurius reconquered Rome and re-expanded the Roman empire. In his Secret History, published posthumously, he documented how Belisaurius’ wife screwed every man not named Belisaurius including her own slaves and then had one put to death, and how Justinian was a corrupt idiot and his wife a scandalous nymph. The Secret History is the more interesting read due to its salacious content. I never did finish the Histories. My bad. Shows you what interests me more.
Ataturk: The Biography of the founder of Modern Turkey by Andrew Mango. I tried reading this biography four years ago. It’s considered the best in English but I put it down after 200 pages or so. At the time I found it dull Or maybe I should have pushed through. I pushed through with The Museum of Innocence and look what that did for me.
Bliss by O.Z. Livaneli. The story follows Meryem, a teenage girl from a village in Eastern Turkey. She is raped by her uncle and is then condemned to death. Since she won’t hang herself, her cousin is ordered to take her to Istanbul and kill her there. Their path eventually crosses with Irfan, a middle-age professor who’s having a major mid-life crisis. One day Irfan leaves his wife and job as a professor, rents a boat and sales along the Aegean Coast. What happens when the three meet is a clash of cultures within Turkey. A tense, illuminating read.
Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Technically not a Turkish book. But I happened to be reading it during our move last year and was pleasantly surprised at the major plot twist that transforms Orlando in Constantinople. So I include it here. It was made into a well-known movie starring Tilda Swinton, which I have yet to watch.