One of the greatest joys of traveling for me is, ironically, that period before I leave, when the possibilities seem endless and I’m gathering as much information as I can. Soon I’ll be embarking on my next big adventure, a trip to Istanbul (yes, I know there have been terrorist bombings there…), a cruise of the Eastern Mediterranean, and a few days after in Rome. Naturally my reading has been focused on these locations. I won’t review here the twelve or so travel guides I’ve consulted (I do love Rick Steves, though…), and instead will focus on the books that might appeal to any armchair traveler.
For my birthday, my husband gave me Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul, by Georgetown University professor, Charles King (W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014). This is exceptionally well-written history, covering a vast range of topics from politics to art and music clearly and succinctly. And since I know a fair bit about Istanbul when it was Constantinople, this volume filled in my knowledge gaps about more recent (comparatively) developments nicely. For example, while I had a vague idea of the importance of Ataturk, King very clearly traces this charismatic leader’s rise to power and profound impact on the creation of modern Turkey. Reading this book gave me a great deal of context for understanding news reports about the current tense situation in the city I’m on the verge of visiting.
It’s one thing to read about historical developments through the study of a top American scholar, and quite another to experience life in a country through the eyes of its own writers. I had read a memoir about Istanbul by Nobel Prize winning novelist, Orhan Pamuk (May 10 post), so for Mother’s Day my book-buying genius of a husband gave me one of Pamuk’s many novels, Snow (Random House, Inc., 2004). While it would seem dated, I found the storyline to very closely parallel what I know about tensions in today’s Turkey. Set in the Anatolian city of Kars, Snow tells how an exiled poet, Ka, returns to Turkey and travels to this remote city, ostensibly in order to interview the family and friends of religious girls who have committed suicide because of a ban on wearing headscarves in their school. But his hidden agenda is to reconnect with a past love, Ipek, who has recently been divorced. While there, a nationalist group stages a coup that propels Ka into a maze of politics and intrigue that he had not bargained for when he set out. I found the narrative style to be both compelling and unusual, and finished feeling like I had a better understanding of the forces pulling at this country that, literally, straddles the divide between East and West, religious and secular, traditional and modern. If you enjoy unusual writing set in unusual places, I would strongly suggest giving this author a try.
Finally, I headed to Rome, where one of my all-time favorite writers, Anthony Doerr (see my review of his fabulous novel, All the Light We Cannot See) lived for a year courtesy of the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His narrative about that experience, Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World (Scribner, 2007) captures the magic and mystery of this city, but also the challenges of attempting to write while simultaneously struggling through cultural differences and adjusting to life with twin baby boys. I loved literally every page of this volume, and it left me eager to create my own memories in “The Eternal City”. I have been there before, but that was thirty-five years ago, and I quite frankly had no true understanding of what I was looking at as a tired, on-the-verge-of-contracting-pneumonia, backpacking college student. I have a much better idea now, and can’t wait for my travel adventures to begin!