Review 1752: 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World

Elif Shafak is one of the most widely read Turkish women writers. I have only read one of her books so far, so when I saw 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World on my Booker prize list, I was interested to revisit her. However, I’m not entirely sure what I think of this unusual novel.

The convention of the first part of the novel is that Leila, a sex worker in Istanbul, has been murdered. Her brain is active for 10 minutes and 38 seconds while she revisits scenes from her life, each chapter representing a minute of brain activity. These chapters are separated by short sections about the lives of her five friends, who all in some way live on the fringes of society.

My first reaction was an impatience with this idea, that 10 minutes was to be represented by nearly 200 pages of text. I have a real problem with attempts like this in fiction to represent a short amount of time with several hours worth of reading. In this case, though, I got used to the idea but felt that the sections introducing the friends are an inelegant solution to our barely seeing them in the first part of the novel while the second part deals with how they handle the aftermath of Leila’s death.

And the change of tone in the second part is what bothered me most. For, we go abruptly from an elegiac tone in the first part while we learn about Leila’s difficult life to one of almost madcap comedy as a bunch of lovable misfits try to give Leila an ending she deserves. To me, this felt like a grinding change of gears.

It is brave of Shafak in her country to write about violence against women, especially since I understand she is being investigated by the Turkish authorities for it (or was when I read this months ago), but her supporting characters seem almost like caricatures to me, possibly because we don’t see that much of them in the first part. I felt like the second part of the novel almost undercuts the first part.

The Bastard of Istanbul

The Towers of Trebizond

Dance with Death

Review 1560: #1956 Club! The Towers of Trebizond

Best of Ten!
The Towers of Trebizond, which I read for the 1956 Club, is said to be Rose Macaulay’s masterpiece. When I first began reading it, I was surprised at this, for it seemed to be a light comedy about eccentric people traveling in Turkey. To be sure, the narrator, Laurie, is erudite but relates the story in gushes of information, whimsy, and wit. But oh, when Laurie describes the wonders of past civilizations or her love of the rituals of the Anglican (high) church (I’m picking “her,” to discuss later), you see that there is more to this novel than humor.

Laurie and her Aunt Dot are on a trip to Turkey, accompanied by Father Chantry-Pigg. Laurie and Aunt Dot are writing a book about Turkey, Aunt Dot hopes to enlighten Moslem women by converting them to the Anglican church, and Father Chantry-Pigg, whose inappropriate last name becomes a running joke, wants converts. On the way, they pick up Aunt Dot’s friend Dr. Halide, who is also interesting in the liberation of women. Oh, and Aunt Dot brings her camel.

This may not sound funny, but all of the characters except Laurie are so obsessed with their hobby horses that the conversations are delightful. Later, we meet David, who has taken advantage of his ex-lover Charles’s death to steal the material Charles has written about Turkey and publish it under his own name—only Laurie has found Charles’s notebook in his old hotel room.

The central conflict for Laurie is that she is a believer in her church, but she has left it because of a long-lasting affair with Vere, a married man. Her heart yearns for the church, but she feels unable to break with Vere, whom she loves deeply.

This novel is beautifully written, witty, and finally bittersweet. I was unable to follow some of the detail about the church, and being American, I don’t have the classical background to understand all the references Laurie throws in about ancient civilizations. However, I greatly enjoyed this novel, which goes much deeper than it initially seems it will.

I wasn’t aware of this at first, but apparently there is an issue about Laurie’s sex—is she male or female? Perhaps this didn’t occur to me because my illustrated Folio Society edition makes the decision that she’s female. But what does occur to me is this: doesn’t the question imply sexism? That is, I can only imagine this question was raised because Laurie thinks nothing of, say, riding a camel across Syria by herself. But then, neither does Aunt Dot have any problem with walking across the Iron Curtain just to see what it’s like on the other side. I got no sense at all of a masculine personality in Laurie. Finally, Laurie’s bar to returning to the church is adultery, not adultery and homosexuality, and although Macaulay teases us for a while by not revealing Vere’s sex until the end, she finally does so. I think this whole sex issue is just caused by some people’s assumptions that a woman couldn’t be this adventurous in 1956.

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Day 1292: The Silence of the Girls

Cover for The Silence of the GirlsFictionalizing ancient stories and myths seems to be popular now. I have read a few of these novels, including The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller’s novel about the Trojan War. That novel focused on the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. Although The Silence of the Girls is also partially about them, it is from a point of view heretofore unexamined, that of the Trojan women taken as slaves by the Greeks during the war. It is narrated mostly by Briseis.

Depending upon how well you know your Iliad, you may remember that Briseis is the woman awarded to Achilles who is later taken away by Agamemnon when he is forced to give up Chryseis. It is Achilles’s forced forfeiture of Briseis that leads him to sulk in his tent while the other Greeks are being slaughtered.

The novel begins with the fall of the Trojan city Lyrnessus, of which Briseis is the young queen. Achilles is called “the butcher” by the Trojans, and the women wait in fear when the citadel falls, knowing their boys will be murdered along with the pregnant women, and girls as young as nine will be raped and enslaved. Briseis is awarded to Achilles, whom she hates and fears.

link to NetgalleyAs the story of the war progresses, Barker builds a nuanced portrait of Achilles, his anger at Agamemnon, his Oedipal relationship with his goddess mother Thetis, his friendship with Patroclus. Although Achilles is not a sympathetic character, Briseis eventually becomes conflicted about him.

This is an interesting and affecting novel. It is completely unlike the only other novel I have read by Barker, but it makes me want to continue seeking out her books.

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Day 1278: The Forty Days of Musa Dagh

Cover for The Forty Days of Musa DaghBest Book of Five!
In 1915, the Ottoman Empire decided to make a scapegoat of its Armenian subjects. It declared all Armenians to be subversive and began “relocating” them to the deserts of Syria. Those who did not die on the way from starvation or mistreatment starved to death upon arrival. In this way, the Turks rid themselves of 1.5 million Armenians, a fact the Turkish government still denies.

In the shadow of the mountain named Musa Dagh, the inhabitants of seven villages decided not to go. After the villages received the news that they would soon be relocated, they sneaked supplies and livestock up into the mountain. Then, the day before the evacuation, they walked up onto Musa Dagh. There, for forty days, they managed to defeat the Turkish army’s attacks until they were rescued by the French navy. Although there were casualties, more than five thousand people were rescued.

The Forty Days of Musa Dagh is considered Franz Werfel’s masterpiece—his fictional account of the event. The main character is Gabriel Bagradian, a wealthy man raised in Europe who has recently returned to this family home after the death of his older brother. He is a reserve army officer, and when he reports to the regional capital to find out why he hasn’t been called up, he hears disquieting rumors.

Back home, he consults with village leaders until the arrival of Aram Tomasian, a Protestant pastor who was relocated with his family from another village. He and his family have been allowed to travel to his father’s village, the authorities thinking it will not affect his fate. But he is able to tell the villagers what is happening during the relocations.

Gabriel has been trying to save his French wife, Juliette, and his son, Stephan. But now he proposes that the villagers ascend Musa Dagh and defend themselves. Only the followers of one church decide to cooperate with the Turks.

At 800+ pages, this novel is very long, but completely absorbing. Werfel’s characters are not heroes but complex people. The novel is suspenseful because even though we know the result for the village as a whole, we don’t know what will happen to the individual characters. The villagers have deserters, loss of their livestock, a fire in their grainery, and other hazards to navigate. I don’t know any other way to explain it but to say this. This novel is fantastic. It is absolutely what I look for in a good novel, where I can immerse myself in another world for a short while.

P. S. If you are interested in reading more about the Armenian genocide, another touching novel is Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernières.

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Day 580: The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos

Cover for The Broken RoadIn December 1933, eighteen-year-old Patrick Leigh Fermor began a journey on foot from Holland to Istanbul. Last year I reviewed the two books that cover the first two legs of the journey, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, but had to wait until this third volume was published to finish the journey.

Unfortunately, Leigh Fermor never completed this book. He actually began writing it first, about ten years after his journey, but stalled. Many years later he wrote the other two books and finally returned to this one. The editors explain in the introduction that they had to piece bits of it together from the manuscript, one of his surviving diaries (others were lost), and other documents. They did a great job, for it only seems fragmentary for a few pages in the middle.

This travelogue picks up at the Iron Gates by the Danube in Rumania but almost immediately moves to Bulgaria. Leigh Fermor spends a great deal of the book traipsing around the Bulgarian countryside meeting colorful characters before abruptly deciding to go to Bucharest. As most of this section of the book is written from his memories of what happened because of his lost diaries, I can only say that his memory must have been remarkable. He writes in a vividly descriptive style, allowing you to imagine yourself along on his trip through a world that is long gone.

It is remarkable also that almost everywhere on this journey he meets with kindness and hospitality. Only one night as he miserably hobbled along in Bulgaria after his foot was rubbed all day by a boot nail were his requests for a ride on two different passing wagons met with demands for money. Since he was living on a pound a week, wired periodically by his parents, he chose to walk. That same night his appeal for shelter at one house met no response from inhabitants who were clearly home. But farther down the road some charcoal burners cheerfully took him in.

Only at all disappointing is his description, which is almost nonexistent, of Istanbul. (He persists in calling it Constantinople.) I can only suppose his visit was in some way spoiled, as it is clear from his comments on the way there that he had romantic notions of the East. A footnote repeats his remark that he never left Constantinople without a lightening of the heart.

Leigh Fermor’s book ends where his green diary picks up, with his travels all over Mount Athos, Greece’s Holy Mountain. There he visited one Eastern Orthodox monastery after another. This section is fascinating for its glimpses into this unusual mode of life. Fermor came to love Greece so much that he lived there much of his life, and this was his first experience of it.

I actually found this book easier to read than the other two more polished efforts, as enjoyable as they are. I think it is because it was written by his younger self. For although he was kicked out of prep school before this journey and never returned to a formal education, he plainly was frightfully well read and knowledgeable and constantly lost me in the earlier books with classical or poetic allusions that I was too lazy to look up.

Apparently Leigh Fermor, who was clearly adventurous, went on to live an exciting life. I have a biography of him waiting for me in my pile.

If you have read my reviews of Leigh Fermor’s other books, you may have noticed a discrepancy. In those I say he was nineteen at the beginning of his adventures. Well, that’s what he said, but since he celebrated his 20th birthday at a monastery in February 1935 and started his journey in December more than a year before, even I can do the math. I did notice him referring to himself as twenty before he actually turned it, so that’s probably what happened in the earlier books.

Day 506: The Bastard of Istanbul

Cover for The Bastard of IstanbulTwo 19-year-old girls are the focus of The Bastard of Istanbul, which is full of colorful characters. First, though, we meet Zeliha Kazancı, twenty years before most of the action of the novel. She is notable on the streets of Istanbul during the 80’s for her miniskirts and incredibly high heels, her colorful outfits and jangly jewelry. She is defiant of convention, and bitingly invents rules of prudence for Istanbulite women as she makes her way to have an abortion. But fate intervenes.

In Arizona, Zeliha’s brother Mustafa is a student when he meets an American woman and her baby in the supermarket. Rose is newly divorced from an Armenian American, and she thinks nothing would enrage her husband’s family more than her dating a Turk.

Nineteen years later, Armanoush Tchakhmakhchian loves her father’s Armenian family, but because her parents have been at loggerheads her entire life, she does not feel totally at home on the Armenian side. She decides to visit her stepfather Mustafa’s family in Istanbul so that she can see the house her Armenian grandmother used to live in before they had to flee and try to learn more about her heritage.

In Istanbul, Asya Kazancı is even more of a rebel than her mother Zeliha. She is an angry girl who hates being a bastard and thinks of herself as a nihilist. She hangs out with a group of rather effete intellectuals at the Café Kundera. She is not pleased to learn her four aunties expect her to act as a hostess to her uncle Mustafa’s American stepdaughter.

Eccentric women dominate the Kazancı household. Asya’s great-grandmother Petite-Ma is suffering from Alzheimer’s. Her grandmother Gűlsűm is a bitter woman who spoiled her son Mustafa rotten only to have him go to America and never return. Her oldest auntie Banu is the only observant Muslim in the house, but she also is a soothsayer, who learns the future from two djinnis that sit on her shoulders. Cevriya is a rather didactic schoolteacher, and Feride toys with different types of mental illness. Zeliha, whom Asya also calls auntie, is as colorful as ever and owns a tattoo parlor.

Shafak writes in a light-hearted style that mixes in folk tales, superstitions, and family legends and is often comic. Yet it deals with some serious subjects, one being modern Turkish identity and another the Armenian diaspora. Armanoush finds when she arrives that most of the people she meets have never heard of this latter subject that has her American-Armenian friends so angry. The subject matter is an odd contrast with the light tone, for Armanoush’s visit brings old family secrets out into the open, and they are dark ones.

This novel is well written and interesting, but I can’t decide how much I like it. I feel that the narrative style somehow keeps the reader aloof from the characters so that they remain unknowable. Still, the novel gives glimpses into life in a fascinating country and informs us on historical events of which many people still are unaware. And it includes a recipe.


Day 355: Deadly Web

Cover for Deadly WebA naked teenage girl is found dead in the grounds of Yoros Castle in Turkey. She has apparently stabbed herself through the heart, but there is evidence of some strange sexual practices. Someone is convincing young people in Istanbul to participate in what they believe are sex orgies, only to murder them. Inspector Mehmet Suleyman draws this conclusion while investigating another incident involving a teenage boy, although one death seems to be a suicide.

Inspector Çetin İkmen has made several visits to a friend, local magician Max Esterhazy, for information about a strange obscene symbol someone has been painting on the walls of religious sites. His investigation seems to indicate some connection with Suleyman’s case. Then Max disappears, and blood is found splattered around his study.

Suleyman is having his own problems. His wife has left him for a visit to Ireland, taking their infant son. His unfaithfulness has broken them up, and he has been exposed to the HIV virus through an affair with a prostitute.

Soon another girl is killed, and Suleyman and Ikmen find links to the city’s goth clubs and possibly to Satanism.

I find Nadel’s mysteries set in Istanbul interesting because they often provide fascinating insights into the city’s subcultures.

Day 319: Murder on the Orient Express

Cover for Murder on the Orient ExpressMurder on the Orient Express is Agatha Christie’s classic mystery featuring Hercule Poirot. Everyone has of course seen the lush 1974 movie featuring a flock of movie stars and Albert Finney as Poirot.

Hercule Poirot is visiting Istanbul when he unexpectedly receives a telegram prompting him to cancel his plans and book a seat on the Orient Express leaving that night. He is able to book a compartment in first class, but only after some difficulty.

Poirot’s fellow passengers include a Russian princess, a Hungarian count and countess, a Swedish missionary, a British colonel, an annoying American widow, and other unusual characters. As always with Christie, her characters are expertly and colorfully drawn.

On board the train, Poirot is approached by the repellent Mr. Ratchett, an American businessman who believes his life is being threatened, asking for protection. Poirot dislikes Ratchett and declines his offer.

After a disturbed night, during which Poirot is awakened by a cry and spies a woman in a lurid silk kimono walking down the hall, Ratchett’s body is found dead in his compartment. He has been stabbed 12 times. The railroad executive traveling on the train begs Poirot to attempt to solve the crime before the train reaches Yugoslavia.

It begins to look as if an intruder disguised in a railway uniform broke into Ratchett’s compartment and murdered him then escaped out into the snow. Poirot’s investigation turns up a suggestion that Ratchett was the leader of a gang who kidnapped and killed the child Daisy Armstrong (a crime based upon that of the Lindbergh kidnapping), resulting in much tragedy for the family. He also begins finding links between some of the passengers and the Armstrongs.

This particular mystery is famous not only for its exotic locales but also for the unusual solution to the murder. Despite my familiarity with the plot, it made enjoyable reading.

Day 271: The Abyssinian Proof

Cover for The Abyssinian ProofIn 19th century Istanbul, the magistrate Kamil Pasha  is assigned to find out who is stealing valuable relics throughout the city and selling them to London. He is instructed to find the relics and bring them back to where they belong. One of the relics is contained in a reliquary that has been guarded since the last days of the Byzantine Empire by a sect of Abyssinian descent called the Melisites. The relic is called the Proof of God.

Kamil is an upright and dedicated civil servant. While he is investigating, he learns about the history and beliefs of an odd group of people, the descendents of Abyssinian slaves who live in an abandoned cistern and are part of the city’s underworld.

In pursuit of the relic thieves and in investigation of some apparently related murders, we follow Kamil through the subterranean passages under Istanbul.

Kamil is also attracted to Elia, a refugee artist who lives in his sister’s house. Elia has suffered terribly, though, and is not really prepared to pursue more than friendship.

As with Barbara Nadel’s more modern Turkish mysteries, I find novels set in this exotic locale interesting, and the history presented in The Abyssinian Proof is fascinating. Sometimes, I wish that Kamil Pasha wasn’t quite such a serious man, however.

Day 46: The Winter Thief

Cover for The Winter ThiefThe Winter Thief is the latest of Jenny White’s mysteries set in late 19th Century Istanbul about the investigations of the honest and hard-working Special Prosecutor Kamil Pasha.

It is a freezing cold, wintery holiday in Istanbul when Vera Arti visits an Armenian publisher to try to convince him to publish The Communist Manifesto in Armenian. Disappointed in her attempts, she doesn’t notice when someone follows her home. When her husband Gabriel returns abruptly to their apartment and tells her they must leave immediately, she argues that she must pack her things. He leaves her to get a carriage for them, but while he is gone, she is taken by the Sultan’s new secret police.

In another part of the city there has been a bank robbery and next door a massive explosion at a café followed by a fire where many people are injured or killed. Kamil Pasha is helping out at the scene when he finds evidence that his brother-in-law Huseiyn might be one of the victims.

Gabriel Arti’s mission is to open a socialist commune in Armenia, and to do that he arranged to purchase a shipment of illegal guns and robbed the bank. His fears for his wife lead him to seek the help of an enigmatic but powerful acquaintance of Kamil Pasha’s who helped him arrange the gun shipment. At the man’s suggestion, Gabriel departs for Trabzon and the commune, leaving the other man to try to find his wife.

Although the Ottoman empire has traditionally been one that tolerates people of different religions and race, tensions are rising. Vahid, a vicious, sadistic, conniving commander of the Sultan’s new secret police has a plot to gain more power by making the Sultan believe that the Armenians are a threat to the empire and then providing himself an opportunity to end the threat. Vahid believes that Huseiyn might have been having an affair with the woman he intended to marry, who died in the fire. In his efforts to find Huseiyn and wreak his vengeance, he runs up against Kamil Pasha and his sister, who is frantically trying to find her husband. The next thing he knows, Kamil Pasha has been framed for the murder of a young Armenian girl.

As we follow the adventures of all those people, as well as Gabriel, the members of the commune, and others, the book begins to feel too disorganized and diffuse. My interest flagged a little. However, the threads of the story all come back together when the Sultan dispatches Kamil Pasha to the wilds of Armenia with a small troop of soldiers to find out whether the new settlement is a band of Armenian revolutionaries or a harmless socialist commune.