Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for January, 2015

An Evil Eye: Investigator Yashim in the Sultan’s Seraglio

Posted by nliakos on January 29, 2015

by Jason Goodwin (Sarah Crichton Books / Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011)

I got the books mixed up, and read this, the fourth in the series, before reading the third, The Bellini Card. I’ve put a hold on that one and should have it shortly. In the meantime, An Evil Eye narrates some of the changes that take place when the new sultan, Abdulmecid, takes the reins of power after his father’s death. The son has his own harem, which means that the women and children of the former sultan must be turned out. There’s plenty of intrigue along with the shift in power as the women try to hang on to their life of relative luxury and security.

Yashim is also involved in the hunt for Fevzi Ahmet, admiral of the Ottoman navy. He has apparently just turned over the Ottoman fleet to the rebellious Egyptians. Yashim has dark memories of this man, who was his teacher and mentor, but never a friend. We see the old sultan’s mother, the valide, becoming more and more frail, but she still has her indomitable spirit. Ambassador-without-country Palewski plays a role, and there’s a newcomer, too: Kadri, a clever runaway from the Palace School whom Yashim tracks down and places with Palewski. He will play a crucial role before the novel is done.

I found this story the easiest of all to follow, or maybe I am just getting used to Goodwin’s style, or his cast of characters.

While waiting for The Bellini Card, I have started reading Goodwin’s history of the Ottoman Empire, Lords of the Horizons.

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The Snake Stone: Investigator Yashim Returns

Posted by nliakos on January 24, 2015

by Jason Goodwin (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2007; ISBN 978-0-374-29935-4)

I think this one might be my favorite Yashim mystery so far (I began with the latest in the series and followed that with the first). An unlikable French archaeologist is found murdered, his body mutilated by feral dogs, and Yashim needs to find out who is responsible, since he was the last to see the man alive and could be blamed for the murder unless he solves it. Several other people meet various sticky ends or not-quite ends. We learn about the watermen’s guild, the association of Albanians who maintain and run the water which supplies Istanbul, a great city without an obvious source of fresh water. The archaeologist’s beautiful young wife appears and seduces the eunuch, who twice nearly perishes in the underground waterways below the city. The sultan dies, survived by his mother, the valide, Yashim’s friend and protector. Yashim cooks, every mince and chop deliciously described. It makes the reader’s mouth water–this reader’s, anyway. The cooking scenes are many and do not appear to contribute to the plot, or plots, but they are among my favorite parts of the book. I prefer them to the graphic descriptions of corpses.

There is a lot of trashing of Greeks, especially those in the brand-new Kingdom of Greece, which has broken away from the weakening Ottoman Empire. I’m not sure if this reflects a prejudice on the part of the Ottomans-become-Turks or on the part of the author.

I really liked this passage, in which Yashim compares “Frankish” (Western European) culture to Ottoman culture:

Yashim knew how the Europeans lived, with their mania for divisions. They parceled up their homes the way they segregated their actions. The Franks had special rooms for sleeping in, with fussy contraptions created for performing the act itself, and all day long these bedrooms sat vacant and desolate, consoled by the dust rising in the sunlight–unless they belonged to an invalid. In which case the invalid herself shared the loneliness and desolation, far away from the household activity.  The Franks had dining rooms for dining in, and sitting rooms for sitting in, and drawing rooms for withdrawing into–as if their whole lives were not a series of withdrawals anyway, tiptoeing from one room and one function to the next, changing and dressing all over again, forever on the run from engagement with real life. Whereas in an Ottoman house–even here, in the harem–everyone was allowed to float on the currents of life as they sped by. People divided their lives between what was public and what was reserved for the family, between selamlik, the men’s quarters, and haremlik: in the poorest homes, they were divided only by a curtain. If you were hungry, food was brought in. If you wished to sleep, you folded your legs, reclined, and twitched a shawl over yourself. If you were moody, someone was sure to drop in to cheer you up; ill, and someone noticed; tired, and nobody minded if you dozed. (p. 97)

It takes a comparison like this to be able to see that our way of compartmentalizing our lives is a choice; there are other, possibly better, ways to live.

Like the others, this book could do with a list of characters and a glossary.

Next up: An Evil Eye: Investigator Yashim in the Sultan’s Seraglio.

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The Janissary Tree (Introducing Investigator Yashim)

Posted by nliakos on January 17, 2015

by Jason Goodwin (Sarah Crichton Books/ Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2006; ISBN 987-0-374-17860-4)

I had already begin The Snake Stone (Number 2 in the series) when my local library branch notified me to go and pick up The Janissary Tree. First things first! I put The Snake Stone aside and went to get it.

I was hoping to get some background about Yashim himself: what exactly his job is (guardian? of whom?), or why he was castrated (Goodwin mentions that eunuchs were pretty rare by the 19th century in Istanbul), but no luck. Even in this first novel, Goodwin doesn’t really set the stage clearly. We are just dumped into the action: Yashim is awakened from a dream by a summons to the serasakier (city commander of the New Guard, or Royal Ottoman Army), who informs him that four of his young officers vanished, and one has just turned up murdered. He gives Yashim ten days to solve the murder and find the missing men before the sultan reviews the troops on the tenth anniversary of the destruction of the Janissary Corps, the New Guard’s predecessor, which had become too powerful and corrupt. In addition, the sultan’s mother charges Yashim with finding out who stole some of  her jewels from the harem. Yashim manages to solve both cases (just in time!), risking his own life and that of a friend while on the trail of an assassin who commits extremely grisly murders (personally, I could have done with less graphic violence).

It’s all pretty confusing; I often found myself searching through the earlier chapters in an attempt to figure out who this or that character was. (It took three passes before I finally found Murad Eslek in Chapter 43, and even then, I wasn’t actually sure who he was.) A list of characters, such as Anne Zouroudi always provides in her Greek Detective novels, would be very helpful, as would a glossary (seraskier? kislar agha? valide sultan? tekke? kadi? Even if these terms were defined the first time they appeared, I couldn’t remember what they were later and found myself searching through earlier chapters again.) and a map of Istanbul. I must confess that when I came to the end, I couldn’t understand exactly what had transpired! (I seem to remember saying something similar about The Baklava Club.) But I am not put off; I intend to go back to The Snake Stone next.


Posted in Fiction, Mystery | 2 Comments »

The Girl Who Fell to Earth: A Memoir

Posted by nliakos on January 6, 2015

by Sophia Al-Maria (Harper Perennial 2012; ISBN 987-0-06-199975-8)

Sophia’s father is a Bedouin born in Saudi Arabia’s Empty Quarter into a nomadic family and tribe, a citizen of Qatar who traveled to Seattle for a university education and ended up with a wife and two daughters. Her mother is a Washington State farm girl who converted to Islam and relocated with her daughters to Qatar but was unable to tolerate her husband’s second wife and children. Sophia, the girl who fell to earth, is, according to the blurb in the back cover, an artist, a fil-maker, and a writer who now lives in Qatar, where she researches “Gulf futurism”, whatever that is.

Her memoir begins with her father’s childhood and ends when she is a student at the American University in Cairo, working for an anthropologist who is studying a group of Bedouin living in the Sinai Peninsula. In between, she narrates the story of her childhood, which was spent partly in Washington State with her mother and grandmother (and father, until he returned to the Gulf) and partly in Qatar and Saudi Arabia with her father’s family, where her mother sent the pre-teen Sophia when she couldn’t control her behavior and where Sophia went as a teenager, hoping to find freedom from her mother’s demands. Each time she passes from one culture to the other, she must adapt to the changing circumstances and language. She describes these adaptations in detail. She is sometimes brutally honest, recalling her most awkward moments and rebellious, even foolhardy, actions.

For someone who enjoys reading about cross-cultural issues (that would be me), this little book is really great.

Posted in Autobiography, Memoir, Non-fiction | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Baklava Club

Posted by nliakos on January 1, 2015

by Jason Goodwin (Sarah Crichton Books, Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2014)

This was a serendipitous find–I picked it off a display in the library. It’s the most recent of a series of mysteries featuring Yashim, an investigator working for the Ottoman Sultan (and his mother, the valide) in 19th century Istanbul. Although I prefer to begin a series at the beginning, in this case I just went ahead and read the last one; now I have to go back and read The Janissary Tree, The Snake Stone, The Bellini Card, and An Evil Eye.  Goodwin has also written several nonfiction books which sound very tempting–one about the history and geography of tea, one about the history of the Ottoman Empire, one about the dollar, and one about walking to Istanbul. I love his writing style and think I will enjoy just about all of these.

In this novel set in 1842, Yashim and his friend Count Palewski, the Polish ambassador (representing a country which at that time no longer existed) become entangled in an intrigue involving three idealistic Italians, a sultry Danish woman, a Siberian hoping to secure a pardon for her father, a Polish prince, and a drunken Irish priest. Before it’s all over (and frankly I am still not exactly sure who did what), several of them are dead. I won’t say who! But not everyone is what s/he says s/he is.

Goodwin evokes the time and place with brief but telling descriptions, like this one about the public baths of Istanbul: At the public baths men and women could be washed, steamed, scrubbed, rinsed, lathered, soaked, bathed, and exfoliated; their hair could be cut, their body hair removed with wax and unguents, their nails pared, their nostrils and ears washed, their skin softened with creams and oils, their muscles manipulated, their hands and feet rubbed, their temples massaged; they could be roasted on hot platforms, and chilled in cold baths; then pummeled and stroked, kneaded and splashed down, before they emerged shining for a glass of tea and a sweet cake.  This sentence (yes! It’s only one sentence!) makes me long to visit such a bath.

Posted in Fiction, History, Mystery | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »