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Snow
by Orhan Pamuk

Snow, written by Turkey’s most acclaimed author, is not a book to pick up lightly. I have included it because if you make your way through this book you will not be sorry. Pamuk captures, through the character of the poet Ka, the turmoil and deep questioning of a country caught between Islamic beliefs and modernity.  In order to read Pamuk it is important to remember you are reading from another tradition. Do not expect the usual narrative flow.  Once you give yourself over to his wry, funny and profound writing, you find yourself in the hands of a master.  I came away from this novel understanding much better the forces that pull at the modern Muslim. Because it is important for us to understand this in today’s political climate, it is worth the effort. 

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"A great and almost irresistibly beguilingnovelist(Snow) is enriched by … mesmerizing mixes:  cruelty and farce, poetry and violence, and a voice whose timbres range from a storyteller’s playfulness to the dark torment of an explorer, lost.”  – The New York Times

“A major workconscience-ridden and carefully wrought, tonic in its scope, candor, and humorwith suspense at every dimpled vortex. … Pamuk (is Turkey’s) most likely candidate for the Nobel Prize.”  – John Updike, The New Yorker

"The silence of snow, thought the man sitting just behind the bus driver.  If this were the beginning of a poem, he would have called the thing he felt inside him the silence of snow. … As soon as the bus set off, our traveler glued his eyes to the window next to him, perhaps hoping to see something new, he peered into the wretched little shops and bakeries and broken-down coffee-houses that lined the streets of Erzurum’s outlying suburbs, and as he did it began to snow.  It was heavier and thicker than the snow he’d seen between Istanbul and Erzurum.  If he hadn’t been so tired, if he’d paid a bit more attention to the snowflakes swirling out of the sky like feathers, he might have realized that he was traveling straight into a blizzard; he might have seen at the start that he was setting out on a journey that would change his life forever and chosen to turn back.”  – Snow, Vintage, 2006 edition.

To the Spring, by Night
by Seyhmus Dagtekin

The story takes place in a small Kurdish village in Turkey.  High in the mountains, the village is isolated from most of the modern world.  This poetic book describes a young protagonist as he experiences life in his village. Superstitions and myths circle through the landscape.  By the end things change and the children begin to learn to read.  The change this brings about is immense. Lyrical and evocative.

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“This is a poetic voyage to the wellspring of childhood emotions. … In magnificent language, Dagtekin achieves universality.”  – Calou, l’ivre de lecture

“I was small.  And my village was small, I came to know that in time.  But when I was small it was big for me, so big that when I had to cross it from one end to the other, I was afraid. … It was as if I had to pass through seven countries and three continents, as many seas and as many mountains.  As if I were navigating the highest heavens and the earth’s depths.  Every hundred metres the landscape was different, and so was I.”  – To the Spring, by Night, McGill Queens University Press, 2013 edition. 

Istanbul:  Memories and the City
by Orhan Pamuk

Having visited Istanbul once many years ago I was, as a westerner, seduced by the colorful exoticness of the foreign east.  The men smoking hookahs outside the cafes, the young boys with cups of coffee on trays rushing here and there.  The chaotic traffic.  And the taxi drivers that would keep dropping me off at the Bazaar no matter where I asked to go.  Pamuk evokes a different city.  One that is caught between its past importance in the Ottoman Empire, and the Turkish modern republic it has become.  Pamuk weaves the history and sense of the times into his own story of growing up in Istanbul.  It is a story of melancholy and loss, yet also one of beauty and love.  This is a perfect book to give as a gift to yourself or to someone planning a trip to Turkey. 

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"Remarkable. … Even those of us who have never set foot in Istanbul will be transformed by reading Pamuk’s extraordinary and moving book.”  – The Financial Times

Pamuk may have written the most haunting, heartbreaking, gorgeous book ever about a city.”  – The San Diego Union-Tribune

"I feel compelled to add or so I’ve been told.  In Turkish we have a special tense that allows us to distinguish hearsay from what we’ve seen with our own eyes; when we are relating dreams, fairy tales, or past events we could not have witnessed, we use this tense.  It is a useful distinction to make as we ‘remember’ our earliest life experiences, our cradles, our baby carriages, our first steps, all as reported by our parents, stories to which we listen with the same rapt attention we might pay some brilliant tale of some other person.  It’s a sensation as sweet as seeing ourselves in our dreams, but we pay a heavy price for it.  Once imprinted in our minds, other people’s reports of what we’ve done end up mattering more than what we ourselves remember.  And just as we learn about our lives from others, so too do we let others shape our understanding of the city in which we live.” – Istanbul:  Memories and the City, Vintage International, 2006 edition. 

The Abyssinian Proof:  A Kamil Pasha Novel
by Jenny White

On a lighter note, here is a mystery set in Istanbul in the late 19th century.  Jenny White has written a series of detective mysteries set in Turkey and this one takes the reader in and out of the exotic backstreets and tunnels of Istanbul.  This book is worth a read for atmosphere alone. The colors, smells and noises of the city will draw you in.  I found myself quite caught up in the mystery with city magistrate Kamil Pasha at the center, as well as the discussion of the various sects and religions and accurate historical detail. 

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"Kamil – smart, brave, and compassionate – proves an appealing sleuth. … White clearly knows her period and place.” – Publishers Weekly

"Kamil mounted his horse and let it wander at will through the sleeping lanes of the Old City.  After a while, the sky began to bleed light.  In the distance, Kamil could make out the dome and minarets of the Mosque of Sultan Ahmet, and those of its Byzantine sister, the Aya Sofya.  The dawn call to prayer hovered in the air, snaking like mist from every corner of the city.  Long shadows prostrated themselves before the orange light of the rising sun.  This early in the morning, Karakoy Square was nearly empty.” – The Abyssinian Proof, W.W. Norton & Company, 2008 edition. 

Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire
by Jason Goodwin

Jason Goodwin has done us a great favor.  He has written a fascinating and very readable history of the Ottoman Empire, six hundred years from its beginnings until the final breakup.  Part travel chronicle as well as history, the author delves with intelligence into the Ottoman culture.  Although it is not a conventional narrative, the impressionistic quality of the work adds to its enjoyment.  A brilliant book that helps the reader understand the difficulties and problems of this part of the world today. 

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"A work of dazzling beauty … the rare coming together of historical scholarship and curiosity about distant places with luminous writing.”  – The New York Times Book Review

 

“A delightfully picaresque history, brimming with memorable anecdotes and outrageous personalities.”  – Kirkus Reviews

"Between age-old fortresses with wells and markets, domes and minarets, and lemon groves where learned men rehearse theological points worn smooth like pebbles in the handling, the Turkmen come riding upon embroidered saddles, with stirrups like metal galoshes.  Their wiry ponies, short-legged and high-backed, are so intelligent and beloved that sometimes it is hard to say whether the migration is of men riding horses, or of horses carrying men.” – Lords of the Horizons, Picador Press, 1998 edition.

Meander: East to West Along a Turkish River
by Jeremy Seal

 Jeremy Seal has been writing books about Turkey for years, and as usual, he is great company on a journey in this complicated country. He loves the history of Anatolia, but he also relishes the details of daily life that he sees as he drifts down the river. There are many funny moments that occur during his trip, and he often finds himself walking when the river is blocked up. A fun adventure, filled with very good information. Meander was winner of the British Guild of Travel Writers’ Best Narrative Travel Book for 2012.

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“Success and enjoyment in this book spring from the fact that Seal is equally at home in the past as the presentxxhis great ability here is to convey something of the lives, the concerns and the nature of the people of the region.” – Anthony Sattin, The Spectator

“Seal loves Turkey with puppylike enthusiasm, and like the truest loves, he sees it clearly, with all its failings. Meander is funny.” – Sarah Wheeler, The Guardian

 

“I would have gone down the Meander years ago if I’d know it existed. All through my travels in the country I described for a living however, I had never dared to imagine that this alluring proposition might lie within conventional reach; the original winding river appeared so entwined in the remote past of Anatolia, or Asiatic Turkey, as to have forfeited any geographical place in the present. The Meander was no more accessible than the mythical Styx or the mislaid Rubicon, or so I supposed until the day I came across it.” – Meander: East to West Along a Turkish River, Bloomsbury USA, 2012 edition.