Birds Without Wings, by Louis de Bernieres

Continuing the Turkish theme—and indeed there is a cat named Pamuk and a minor character named Orhan—my book club selected this novel about Turkey during the early 20th century. We had enjoyed a good discussion of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin a few years ago, so hoped for good things from this new novel.

The first half makes a good beach book, with its short chapters, so vibrant and humorous. In a mosaic of self-contained anecdotes, de Bernieres builds up a portrait of a small town on the southern coast of what is now Turkey, many of whose colorful characters have nicknames that reflect their professions (e.g., Iskander the Potter, Mehmet the Tinsman) or perceived characteristics (e.g., Lydia the Barren, Ali the Broken-Nosed). Muslims and Christians all consider themselves Ottomans, and there is no religious strife. In fact, they sometimes give offerings in each other’s traditions, saying they wanted to back both horses. De Bernieres is an excellent writer, and each scene is deeply imagined and brought to life with sensual detail that delights.

If there is a serious thread in the beginning, it is of misogyny, women as property or pets that must be put down when they misbehave. As the story progresses, we see this attitude applied to those of particular ethnic backgrounds, such as Armenians, and other scapegoats, such as the unpopular local activist and teacher. We see people’s foolishness and cruelty when gathered together into a group. There was much written about mob psychology after WWII, trying to make sense of the Holocaust. This town is too small for the people to be anonymous in their mob, but, like eighth-graders in the hallway, they cannot resist egging on a fight or joining in the persecution of the day’s victim. And de Bernieres reminds us of the many other holocausts that led up to and followed the Great War.

Once the war starts, the story gets serious. We spend several chapters at Gallipoli, up to now well-documented from the Australian side, but here we see it from the Turkish side, through the eyes of one of the young men of the town. The vivid writing and sensual details that made the first half of the book so delightful here bring home the horror and occasional joy of war.

The brief chapters about Mustafa Kemal that were interpolated into the first half of the book now expand into longer narratives about the progress of the war, the various political factions in the country, and the War of Independence with Greece that followed the Great War. Although well-written and engaging, this part of the book is essentially a nonfiction summary of the political and military context. I found these sections unnecessary to the story, but perhaps my opinion is skewed because I had recently read several books about Ataturk and the end of the Ottoman empire.

In fact, by the time the story returns to the town in the final pages, I found I had lost interest in the characters and their dilemmas. Even the promised climax seemed rather flat to me, and the story trailed off. But perhaps that is the point. Even for those who survive, war destroys the quality of their lives. Nothing is the same afterwards. Poppies may grow over the mass graves in Gallipoli, but the longing to return home is never satisfied.

Home at Last, by Jean McGarry

Sometimes I wonder why we even need stories. Reading (or watching) stories can be a distraction, just another way of filling up time. I’ve stopped listening to books on tape while I walk my usual 3-5 miles a day, in order to pay better attention to what’s around me, though I still listen to them in the car.

Yet I’ll never give up my addiction to stories. For me, it is not so much the surrogate thrill of an adventure story or the satisfaction of solving a mystery story’s puzzle—though I enjoy both—as it is the sense of being taken out of my life. Occasionally it’s just a relief to escape for a while from the endless story of me, but more often I actively want to be someplace else—Turkey or Antarctica—or I want to know what it is like to be someone else—an immigrant from Jamaica or an English student gone walkabout (or boat-about). As if I were an actor able to play many roles on stage, reading gives me the chance to experience alternative lives and bring back the lessons I’ve learned.

These stories of Jean McGarry’s are not so much about home as they are about family. They bring to life childhood and the way siblings relate to each other. “The Calling” reminded me of the nicknames, teasing and insults; as well as the underlying connection. I also particularly liked the subtlety of “Mr. and Mrs. Bull” where a woman visits her aunt and uncle for the first time in ten years, and we only gradually realise the great gift she has been given.

The stories are deeply imagined and precise, using the right details to create their world. Most of them are set in or near Providence. I recently spent several weeks in New England, reconnecting with old friends, wandering through small towns and rural routes, avoiding the fancy Boston bars and pilgrim re-enactors. I was overwhelmed by the number of ponds opening beside the road, ponds that sparkled under the sun, their ruff of pine trees dark and mysterious.

New England always seemed reticent and withdrawn to me. However, on this trip, I was surprised by how friendly everyone was: the gas station attendant who regaled me with the saga of a thunderstorm earlier in the day; the shop clerk wanted to chat about the relative merits of Carver and Plymouth; another who (though half my age) wanted to know all about my plans for the night; the young waiter who stayed to chat after taking my order, convinced he had waited on me before, even as the table of laughing girls called for him to come back and hang out with them.

Many of McGarry’s stories capture that defiant New England sadness that fills towns from Pawtucket to Barre, a hopelessness that is offset—buoyed somehow—by a feisty harshness, a determination to get by. The routes I traveled revealed vegetable stands with hand-painted signs and backyard body shops where men with tattooed arms lifted fenders and swung mallets. McGarry’s stories of families and communities struggling not to dissolve made me sad, until I recognised the network of connections that underlay them, like veins under the skin, tough fibers that would not give up their hold.

The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins

I tried to read this classic mystery once before, when I was a teenager, and stopped after about fifty pages. It seemed that the story was going nowhere and—worse—seemed overly bogged down with descriptive passages. I was just coming off of The Sound and the Fury and Portrait of a Lady both of which I loved, so thought I was up to the challenge of heavy-duty prose. I just couldn't get interested in the story.

However, I'm glad I picked it up again. What a great read! Pieces of the brilliantly puzzling plot are doled out at just the right time to sustain the suspense. And the suspense is not the sickening car-chase kind that makes your adrenaline sing. It is the quiet, persistent, growing suspense that develops organically from the story.

One evening in July 1859, a drawing master, Walter Hartright, was walking home to London from visiting his mother. Just after he crossed Hampstead Heath, he encountered a woman dressed all in white who was in some distress and begged him to help her reach London. As they walked along, he mentioned that he was about to take up a post in Cumberland. She told him of a happy time in her life when Mrs. Fairlie of Limmeridge House was particularly kind to her, much to his astonishment, since Limmeridge House was precisely where he was headed.

This meeting and circumstances around it raise questions in Hartright's mind, questions which multiply and take on new significance as the plot unfolds. The story is told in first person, moving from Hartright's narrative to the journal of a woman, to various depositions given by characters at the appropriate moment. These shifts in point of view are handled very well. Each is justified and explained by the story. Moreover, they are clearly labeled and the voice of each varied appropriately for the character speaking. And having the character himself or herself actually provide the information gives it an immediacy and authenticity which would be missing in a second-hand recounting.

Mystery writers would do well to study Collins' technique, not just the way he handles voice and shifting points of view, but the way his characters are presented and allowed to shift and change over time in ways that seem perfectly natural. And, of course, the means he employs to create and sustain the reader's interest.

Istanbul: Memories and the City, by Orhan Pamuk

This memoir suffers from some of the same weaknesses as Snow (see my previous post). The chapters are disjointed and ramble from subject to subject, always circling around the Istanbul of Pamuk’s youth. He has good transitions between the chapters but the book as a whole never coheres, at least for me. However, some of the chapters are outstanding, so evocative that I feel I too am there, pretending the carpet in his grandmother’s museum of an apartment is the sea, watching the ships on the Bosphorus, walking the streets in search of the old wooden mansions that are falling to pieces. And scattered throughout the book are amazing photographs that capture the mystery and routine of daily life in the city.

What most delighted me were his extended meditations on a subject that has interested me for several years, ever since I first wandered through the Forum in Rome, surrounded by the bustling city, the whine of Vespas dodging among cars, the chattering voices of workers heading off for their mid-morning espresso. What does it do to you to grow up among the ruins? To be constantly reminded that your nation once ruled the world, but does so no longer? Would you feel inadequate, a failure because you could not equal the achievements of your ancestors? Would you be proud of the past? Or would you just walk by the ruins every day and not even notice them? The answer probably differs from one person to another.

In The Enigma of Arrival V.S. Naipaul writes about a man coming to stay ” . . . in the cottage of a half-neglected estate, an estate full of reminders of its Edwardian past, with few connections with the present.” He talks about living with the idea of decay and the way things seemed ” . . . like a vestige, a memory of another kind of house and garden and street, a token of something more complete, more ideal.” In this story, the people had not moved on, preferring to remain in the past.

Christopher Woodward’s In Ruins explores how our ideas about ruins have changed over time and from one civilization to another, analysing paintings, books and buildings. An architectural historian, I believe Woodward was at one time the curator of Leighton House, one of my favorite London museums. It is so crowded with THINGS—sculptures, paintings, furniture, bits and pieces of broken marble—a marvelous jumble to be sure but it made me want to go home and clean out the basement.

Sometimes I wonder if it wouldn’t be better just to clear out all these old bits and pieces. Pamuk says that “. . . in Istanbul the remains of a glorious past civilization are everywhere visible.” Unlike the proudly displayed ruins in Rome or Greece, these ruins ” . . . inflict heartache on all who live among them.” However, he treasures that heartache and describes the peculiar melancholy—huzun—that they inspire.

As I sort through the family papers, photos and mementos that have recently been handed down to me, I struggle with deciding how much of the past to hold on to and how much to jettison. As one of my sons said, what do I want with photos of people I never met? Of course, I won’t get rid of anything. I’ll hand it off to another sibling, but I wonder if anyone in the next generation will care.