Daunted by the task of writing separate and extended pieces on the six books I read during our three week excursion to Turkey (nothing like a plane trip to get you into a book), I’ve opted to do thumbnail sketches instead. Hope the regular visitors to this site, which number somewhere around one, will find the approach agreeable.
A Mercy got tepid reviews in some quarters. Not sure why. It is another women-in-slavery tale, of which Morrison has already produced a number. Notably Beloved. However, there is a difference here. The emphasis is on the lives of the slaves, not on the cruelty of the masters. True, the “mercy” that prompts the title is a sort of Sophie’s choice. However, not ignoring the fact that none of the events would have happened without the compulsion of bondage, the emphasis of the ensuing events is on the psychological effects of ignorance and abandonment rather than on the institution of slavery per se. And you’ve got Morrison’s incredible language which has not waned. Not a bad deal.
The Likeness is the second novel by an up and coming Irish mystery writer, Tana French. Her first, In the Woods, garnered praise, and though I haven’t read it, my impression from The Likeness is that she deserved the plaudits. Although the premise here is unsteady–they find a corpse that is the dead ringer for the detective/protagonist–French does a fine job of drawing you into the events, and you find yourself rooting for the heroine even when part of your mind finds the situations a bit contrived. That’s good writing. Give her try, Tana French. You’ll be amply rewarded.
Birds Without Wings is perhaps the find of year for me because it was such a great and meaningful treat to read it while we journeyed through Turkey. I’d read a bit about Turkish history and politics in preparation for the trip. (See Father Turk from August 4 and Turkey Bound May 26.) Both these works are non-fiction, both a bit stuffy. I learned every bit as much or more about the subject from this super historical novel which traces the lives of several characters in a Turkish village through the last gasps of the Ottoman empire in the late nineteenth century through the founding of the Turkish nation in 1923. It’s a unique history and an important one. But of course important history doesn’t make a novel. Characters and fine writing do that, and Louis De Bernieres has created just that in this absorbing and compelling story. Susanne said when she finished it, she wanted to start over. I can’t put it better, so we’ll leave things at that.
Even if you don’t already hate war and generals, In Flanders Fields should seal the deal for you. Leon Wolff takes his title, of course, from the famous John McCrae poem about poppies and corpses. He then gives an exhaustive account of the decisions and motives behind them that resulted the slaughter that WWI trench warfare perpetrated. Repeated senseless assaults in waist deep mud that gained no ground and cost tens of thousands of lives–that sums up what happened during 1916-17, the year that Wolff details. Narrow, unimaginative, ego-driven commanders and politicians to whom soldiers were no more than cannon fodder or media tools. A sycophantic press ready to publish any jingoistic crap the establishment feeds them.
The reading about the founding of Turkey has given me some new insight into WWI that has convinced me it was a stupid and horrid series of battles, followed by a stupid and horrid series of treaties that did a lot to help set up WWII as well as the conflicts we’re mired in right now. Would that literature could really change minds. We had Johnny Got His Gun and All Quiet on the Western Front to work with, but we seemingly can’t stop. Shit.
Portrait of a Turkish Family is another Turkey/WWI story, a memoir, which I allowed myself to be talked into buying by a bookseller in Istanbul despite its price–about $24 for a paperback? He swore it was fantastic, offered me a moneyback guarantee (Sure, I’m going to mail it back from CA for a refund.) But I bought it, and it passed some hours on the plane and added some insight into Turkey past and present. The Turkish family in question is a moneyed one, or was until WWI came along. I imagine it was a typical story for people of this upper middle class, accustomed to servants and plenty of leisure, when the war ripped the men from their families and from society, destroyed the economy, and left women an children to cope alone not only without the resources they were used to, but often with none at all. That’s one aspect of the tale.
The other, the central element really, is the alienation of the author, Irfan Orga, and his mother. The more poverty besets the family, the more distant his mother becomes and the more he resents it, and this continues into adulthood when Orga and his brother have both achieved professional careers and the poverty is over. How much of Mom’s difficulty is simply stress from trying to raise a family alone on nothing and how much is the author’s neediness, who knows? At any rate, she eventually succumbs to mental illness leaving the author with twin burdens of guilt and relief to carry around for life. Interestingly, in an afterword, Orga’s son gives a short account of his father’s career in England where he came for a stint with the BBC and to which he was essentially exiled because of complications with his marriage to an Englishwoman and Turkish divorce laws. It turned out, apparently, that he married a woman who was as emotionally unavailable to him as his mother. Glad I succumbed to the bookseller’s pitch, but I’ve had enough of WWI for a while.