First Day in Istanbul

Saturday, May 21, 2011

After leaving Dubai, I flew to Turkey for what I thought would be a week and a half long trip for work. I ended up spending almost three weeks there to work with my company's partners. By the end, I felt like I was a resident! I had a neighborhood grocery store and was familiar with all the shops and restaurants up and down Istiklal Street - one of the most famous spots in Turkey.

I packed a lot of sight-seeing into the first few days of my trip. I've always wanted to see the Hagia Sophia - even thought I've never felt a strong connection to the history of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires.
I was actually a bit underwhelmed by it all. The space was fantastic and gorgeously decorated but I didn't get a strong sense of the past - probably because of the hordes of bus group tours tromping by!

You do end up walking around with your head up and not looking where you're going! The Hagia Sophia is now officially a museum. The space has been occupied by a church since 360 A.D.   In 1453, Ottoman Turks seized Constantinople and turned the church into a mosque, painting over the Christian mosaics and adding minarets. The building entered the next phase of its existence in the early 1930s when Turkey was secularized and the mosque was turned into a museum.

Many of the mosaics have now been uncovered, including a great one of a Byzantine empress who had three husbands. The body of the "husband" in the mosaic remained the same but the Empress' faithful servants gave him a new head with each marriage!

Tradition holds that if stick your thumb inside this well-worn hole on a column in the Hagia Sophia and it comes out moist from condensation, you will enjoy wonderful health. Of course, there's a line of people waiting to try it out and all those thumbs soak up moisture. I also can't see how everyone sticking their thumbs in the same spot can be sanitary and healthy!

After a quick trip underground to the view the Roman cisterns, I moved on to Istiklal and some refreshments.
Of course, all sight-seeing requires eating. This is the frront window of what would become my favorite sweet shop in Istanbul - Saray's. If you are ever in Istanbul, you have to try their pistachio ice cream - made from goat's milk and bee pollen! Of course, the baklava isn't bad either!

Next: That elusive English-language bookstore and a trip to a Byzantine castle.

Featured Author: C.J. Sansom

Monday, May 16, 2011

A couple of months ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing C.W. Gortner about his new mystery set in Tudor England, called "The Tudor Secret." I asked him to recommend some of his favorite historical mystery authors and he mentioned C.J. Sansom.

I found a used copy of Dissolution - his first novel - in an Oxfam bookstore in London and started it on the plane ride back to the States.

I was immediately taken by Sansom's ability to recreate Tudor London with a keen eye for historical detail (particularly the language of the time) while imbuing the characters with a very real and fresh sense of life. Sansom's people - and especially his lead character, the hunchbacked lawyer Matthew Shardlake - wrestle with questions of conscience and duty in ways that turns well-worn historical events (the dissolution of the monasteries, Henry VIII's wives) back into the political decisions, mistakes and challenges rushing through the lives of ordinary people.

Dissolution has its faults - anyone who has read Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose will want to compare the two. Sansom also seems unafraid of a leisurely pace - the mystery unfolds in a natural but stately order. However, I never felt that the book dragged and I appreciated the unusual look at a chaotic moment in Henry VIII's reign.

I've happily moved on to the second book in the series, Dark Fire. Most of the online reviews are right, Sansom gets better with each book. Dark Fire has stronger supporting characters and is even more saturated with the stink and fear of the last years of Henry VIII's reign. I already have the third book in the series Sovereign on order, plan on starting in on his Spanish Civil War novel "Winter in Madrid" and hope to post full reviews of both soon!

In the meantime, I've found some illuminating interviews online:

A profile in The Guardian

A reading group guide and interview from his US publisher

A recent BBC radio interview

A Trip to Dubai

Sunday, May 15, 2011

I spent six work-packed days in Kabul before flying to Dubai for three days of meetings. I managed to fit in a visit with my best friend from college (she teaches English in Abu Dhabi) and some great shopping at the Mall of Dubai.

I particularly loved visiting Kinokuniya, a massive, English-language bookstore. I think British versions of books always look nicer for some reason and I loved the lower prices on paperbacks compared to the U.S. I bought quite a few books on Afghanistan but also picked up Emma Darwin's "A Secret Alchemy" a split narrative, one strand in the present following a historian and another strand following Elizabeth Woodville, the wife of Edward IV, and her brother, Anthony. I've been reading Emma's fantastic writing blog This Itch of Writing for some time now and was excited to actually find a copy of her novel - they're not easy to find in the U.S.!

I liked Dubai a lot more than I thought I would - I think I expected a souless expanse of malls but everyone seemed to be having quite a bit of fun (and making quite a bit of money along the way!).
On the balcony of my hotel in Dubai - fresh off the plane from Afghanistan!
The same view during the day.
I visited the old part of the city by Dubai creek and enjoyed getting a glimpse of life as it's lived on the rooftops.

The best part of the trip - a 20 cent water taxi ride to the bazaar in the old city - I didn't buy anything but I had fun looking.

Next up: the Haiga Sophia, the Blue Mosque and Roman cisterns in Istanbul. Plus, how to find a used bookstore when everyone speaks Turkish!

A Trip to Afghanistan

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Readers of this blog may have noticed how quiet I've been for the past two months! I had good reason, as my job sent me on a four-week trip to Kabul, Afghanistan; Dubai, United Arab Emirates and Istanbul, Turkey.At the end, I tacked on a five-day vacation in London only a week and half before the Royal Wedding - in all, it made for the trip of a lifetime but I'm just beginning to recover from it!

In the next few days, I'll be posting some photos, talking about my impressions of famous historical sites and sharing some of my book-buying adventures along the way!

In my professional life, I'm a journalist and work on issues in the relationship between the U.S. and the Muslim world. As an undergrad and grad student, I focused on the lives of Afghan refugees and the U.S.-Afghanistan relationship. I dreamed of visiting but thought it would never happen due to security concerns. Rest assured - I had great security, including some very kind Afghans who took good care of my colleague and I. While I wasn't able to leave my car and wander around the way I would've liked, I did take some pictures:

               An unforgettable first glimpse of Afghanistan as we made our approach into Kabul at dawn.
                         The view from the courtyard of my hotel. I loved seeing that mountain everyday!
                        A glimpse of the houses built up the sides of the mountains surrounding Kabul.
The old palace - occupied by the Kings of Afghanistan back in the 1920s and 30s and bombed by the Soviets and Mujaheddin in the 1980s and 90s.

Next up: Dubai!

Review: The Maid by Kimberly Cutter

The girl who led an army, the peasant who crowned a king, the maid who became a legend. It is the fifteenth century, and the tumultuous Hundred Years’ War rages on. France is under siege, English soldiers tear through the countryside destroying all who cross their path, and Charles VII, the uncrowned king, has neither the strength nor the will to rally his army. And in the quiet of her parents’ garden in Domr√©my, a peasant girl sees a spangle of light and hears a powerful voice speak her name. Jehanne.
The story of Jehanne d’Arc, the visionary and saint who believed she had been chosen by God, who led an army and saved her country, has captivated our imagination for centuries. But the story of Jehanne—the girl—whose sister was murdered by the English, who sought an escape from a violent father and a forced marriage, who taught herself to ride and fight, and who somehow found the courage and tenacity to persuade first one, then two, then thousands to follow her, is at once thrilling, unexpected, and heartbreaking. Rich with unspoken love and battlefield valor, The Maid is a novel about the power and uncertainty of faith, and the exhilarating and devastating consequences of fame.

There are certain stories historical fiction fans learn to live with and read again and again in multiple variations. We're all used to the Tudor novels and their familiar litany of Henry's wives and Bloody Mary and the eventual triumph of Elizabeth. King Arthur, the Wars of the Roses and the French Revolution.....I could go on. So when I saw this new take on the oft-told tale of Joan of Arc, I almost passed over it. I remember reading Pamela Marcantel's An Army of Angels as a teenager and admiring her richly detailed evocation of Medieval France and Joan's voices. I wondered, what more can you do with a story that has such a familiar ending?

Cutter answers that question by placing her Joan in a vividly violent dream world of  a French village where beatings and the limited lives of women just might drive a sensitive young girl to fantasize about another life, about the stained glass-colored stories of saints. From the beginning, Cutter breaks Joan's story off into short sections, keeping the action fast-paced so that the reader never quite feels comfortable and too familiar with what they will be coming next. In this version, the voices are real to Joan but it's fear of her father that feels more immediate and visceral for the reader. You feel desperate for Joan to find a way to escape her life and when that answer comes in the unlikely form of a prophecy and a peasant girl leading an army it seems like the sanest choice possible.

At times, Cutter's fast-pace veers too far into telling the reader what is happening rather than allowing us the time to see it and live it. She skims over the development of key relationships: Joan's work with the Dauphin and her growing feelings for Alencon read like necessary steps towards the end rather than real moments in life. Much of the dialogue reads as far too modern and Cutter has an unfortunate tendency to lapse into odd metaphors: a queen smiles like a dolphin and almost every sinister courtier displays "reptilian" tendencies at one point or another.

After a lagging Part II, the book picks up again once Joan leads the army and Part III opens with a brilliant retelling of the Battle of Agincourt. As Joan becomes increasingly aware of her own abilities, the reader is given a fascinating glimpse into the true sources of her power - she is a woman who has learned to trade on her own powerlessness in a world of men and - most surprisingly - she can be seductive and pious at the same time. I loved this unusual take on Joan's character and felt it finally gave me a reason to believe the battle-hardened French would follow an unknown woman into battle.

The end comes quickly for Joan. I consumed the book in two sittings and felt as I suspect Cutter wanted me to feel - the illusion of a brief, fevered moment of triumph followed by an awful end. This necessary brevity makes it almost impossible for Cutter to answer all of the fascinating questions she raises in the course of the story - Why would God take the side of the French and what do Joan's visions mean if he is not? What did it mean for the women of that time to see Joan take on a position of such importance? Why do famous people have to choose between personal happiness and fulfillment on a larger stage?

By its' very nature, "The Maid" is a limited book. You'll remember one voice but what a voice Cutter has created!

Disclosure: This was a copy sent to me by the publisher for review purposes.