A Traveller’s History of Turkey

by Richard Stoneman, Fifth Edition, 2009, Interlink Books, Northampton, MA

We bought this book before we took our trip to Greece and Turkey last year, thinking that I would read the book prior to going to Turkey.  I never had the time to read it before, but I thought I would catch up and read it afterwards.

The book did provide what I was looking for, primarily a connection between the ancient sites we visited and present-day Turkey.  What I didn’t anticipate was the high level and number of civilizations that have come and gone in this region.  I was also overwhelmed by the amount and level of atrocities and violence that have occurred over time.  I came away from reading this wondering if Turkey can ever be considered “civilized” given its very checkered and criminal past.  The book was written in 2009 so the last five years of Turkish politics and events are not included, but it gave a sense of where the country might be headed.  It would appear to me that the political situation in Turkey remains a powder keg that can explode at any time either in the near or distant future.

The book itself isn’t very well written.  It was basically a chore to wade through it.  The author seemed to have a very good grasp of the history of the region, but he failed to provide interesting embellishments to his very dry narrative.  There were numerous references to historical names and places with very little context or reference points.  I am happy that I got through it, but it wasn’t an enjoyable read at all.

Finally, my spell check caught an error in the spelling of the book’s title, seeming to prefer “Traveler’s over “Traveller’s.”  2 stars

One Summer: America, 1927

by Bill Bryson, 2014, Anchor Paperbacks

This book is a collection of things that happened in 1927.  It starts with a murder trial in the early part of the year, then describes some of the incidents leading up to Lindberg’s flight over the Atlantic, and includes a great deal of information on Babe Ruth’s and Lou Gehrig’s home run quest.

While the book’s content was somewhat interesting, it wasn’t a page turner for me.  I found that I could easily put the book down and then pick it up again later without any urgency to read on.  The book lacked the edgy humor that Bryson applied to some of his former books (A Walk in the Woods, for example), but it may also be less objectionable to some readers than his other books.  It seems that, by toning his biting humor down somewhat, he has produced a book that is much more bland but less controversial.

As I read the book I was looking for some insight into American history and culture that would give me some clues as to how the present came to be.  Unfortunately, I didn’t find much.

I guess I would best sum up this book as “The whole is less than the sum of its parts.”

The Castaways: A Novel

by Elin Hilderbrand, Audiobook 2009, Read by Katie Hale, Hatchett Audio

We got this book from the Narragansett Library and listened to it on the way down from Rhode Island to Florida this year.  We ordinarily drive two cars but this year we drove only the one so both of us listened to it.

I picked this selection as it looked interesting with the plot surrounding a death on a boat near Nantucket Island.  I was expecting a good murder mystery.  Instead we got a bunch of stuff about three couples and their relationships over the years.  There were multiple flashback passages that revisited the past history of the relationships such as how they came to be friends, etc.

All of the three couples were somewhat dysfunctional and, at times, not very likable.

The book is probably best summed up as something that should have been avoided as it was not only boring, but, at times, very annoying.  All in all, very painful. 1 1/2 stars

Sweet Tooth

by Ian McEwen, Audiobook version released 2012, Narrated by Juliet Stevenson, Random House Audiobooks

This was an okay book to listen to, about a young lady whose boyfriend gets her a job with MI-6, the British Secret Service.  It is well-written and easy to follow, but I was disappointed in that it wasn’t a lot more exciting.  The book has more to do with the main character’s relationship with her boyfriend, her successor boyfriend, and her boss than with the mission she is on.  As a result, it’s a lot less exciting that it could have been. 2 1/2 stars

Fall of Giants

by Ken Follett, 2010, Dutton, published by the Penguin Group, New York

This book was a disappointment.  Follett has attempted to create a great historical trilogy and this is the first book in this effort.  The book is written in a similar fashion as his previous novels, Pillars of the Earth and World Without End, in that he picks out individuals in various walks of life and traces their lives through various historical events.  But, unlike the previous novels which were set in much earlier times, Fall of Giants takes place at the beginning of the twentieth century and extends through World War I.  Perhaps it’s because the timeframe is much more recent that Follett’s historical novel becomes so much more trite.

Follett’s characters are extremely one-dimensional.  It seems that once they get identified with a particular cause or philosophy, they remain totally rigid and unable to be at all flexible in their perspectives.  They seem to be stick figures in a gigantic soap opera and they very quickly become tiresome.  One of the main characters is an English earl, Lord Fitzherbert, who is mired in his conservative view of the world.  His German counterpart is Otto von Ulrich who is even more of a conservative dinosaur in his views.  Lord Fitzherbert reminded me very much of the Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey, except for the fact that the Earl of Grantham, while clinging to his old ways, really cares about other individuals and can sometimes be persuaded to alter his views.  In so doing, he becomes someone that is at least interesting.  Lord Fitzherbert in Fall of Giants has no such endearing qualities, however.  As I progressed through the book, I found that I was losing interest in the other characters as well because of the same reason.

Follett uses very short sentences in his books in order to make it fairly easy to read.  This helps to keep it going, but after a while it becomes a bit tedious as there is no variety.

The historical backdrop of the novel, the start of World War I and it’s subsequent impact on the characters, had a lot of potential but it somehow wasn’t connected as well as it could have been.  An example is the depiction of the war’s ending.  The scene was a battle at a bridge in France and the Germans’ defeat in that battle.  In the next few pages the Germans were suing for peace.  The reasons for the war ending were left very vague.

Also, Winston Churchill was depicted throughout the novel as a warmongering Conservative who was fighting the franchisement of women and all labor reforms.  No mention was given of Churchill sponsoring the bills to provide national health insurance and a minimum wage for the workers when he was a member of the Liberal Party.

Finally, Follett, in an attempt, I suppose, to pander to the reading public these days, includes many awkward sex scenes throughout the novel.  These scenes altogether seem to detract from the novel versus adding any real value.

The book was okay to read, but long, long, long.  I would suggest that Herman Wouk’s Winds of War and War and Remembrance are some excellent examples of this type of novel where ordinary individuals are swept up by the events associated with war.  The unsurpassed novel in this genre, however, has to be Boris Pasternak’s masterpiece, Doctor Zhivago.

Ken Follett has apparently stepped beyond his capabilities when he bit off this novel.  I would suggest that he return to writing suspense novels where his talents can readily be applied.

2 1/2 stars

Dreams of Joy: A Novel

by Lisa See, Audiobook, 2011, Read by Janet Song, Random House Audiobooks

This novel was fairly pleasant to listen to, but the plot and characters were pretty light weight.  The book is about a young girl of Chinese descent who, through being enthralled by the promise of Chinese communism and her own idealism, decides that she will run away from home and go back to China.  She ends up in a commune and reality is much harsher than her dreams.

The story slogs along and towards the end the part which should be the most exciting is given very little attention.  It’s over.

The reading was okay but not inspiring.  Other than that, I don’t have much to say about this run of the mill effort.

2 stars

Defending Jacob: a novel

by William Landay, 2012, Delacorte Press, a division of Random House, New York

This is a story about an Assistant DA who is caught up in a bad situation when his son is accused of a murder of a classmate.  Complicating the issue is a secret that he has kept from his family, that his father and grandfather were criminals who had a disposition for violent acts.

The book is pretty well written and depicts the stress that the situation places on the father and mother.  The author also creates a believable character in the son, who may be a typical teenager caught up in unfortunate circumstances; or, he might be something else altogether.

I had a bit of trouble with the father’s character, however.  He had investigated many murder cases prior to this one and he locked on to another suspect in this case without a lot of evidence.  He also totally discounted the possibility of his son’s involvement, even though there were some odd circumstances that would have at least caused him to have some questions.  I found his unwavering belief in his son to be a bit of a stretch.

I would have enjoyed the book a lot more without some of the repetitive passages, particularly when it came to descriptions of his wife and how she was coping with the ordeal.  This caused the book to get a bit bogged down.

Overall, it is a pretty good book, but it seemed that it could have been much better.

3 1/2 stars

 

The Shadow of the Wind

by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, Translated by Lucia Graves, 2004, The Penguin Press, New York

This is a well-crafted mystery about a boy who comes across a mysterious book in a “book cemetery.'”  The plot thickens from that point on as the boy progresses into manhood and the circumstances surrounding the writing of the book and the subsequent events that occur as the result of its writing take control of his life.  The book is set in Barcelona, Spain, around the time of Spanish Civil War.

The plot is well constructed and the characters are interesting and believable.  The only thing I feel that keeps this book from becoming a masterpiece is that it tends to get bogged down a bit in its later parts.  I felt that I was experiencing some of the scenes multiple times and there were times that the story didn’t seem to move forward.

I also thought the author’s writing style was very good. Despite a few shortcomings I felt the book was interesting and enjoyable to read.3 1/2 stars

 

Birds Without Wings

by Louis de Bernières, 2004, Vintage Books, A Division of Random House Inc., New York

This book was recommended by Johanna Hanink, a classics professor at Brown. who accompanied us on our cruise, Pearls of Antiquity, to Greece and Turkey.  I have to admit that I didn’t know much about Greek and Roman settlements in the Greek Isles and Asia Minor prior to going on this trip.  Virtually all of our lectures focused on Greek mythology and art and most of our excursions were to ancient Greek and Roman ruins.  At the same time I could see that I was in two vastly different countries and I had very little understanding about either of them, particularly given the current turmoil that each of them is experiencing. This book helped me to gain a great deal of knowledge about them and insight into their more recent histories.

The book is primarily about the lives of some of the common people living near what is currently called Fethiye on the west cost of Turkey starting prior to World War I.  During that time ethnic Greeks and Turks (Christians and Muslims) lived pretty much side by side in the Ottoman Empire without a great deal of discord.  The book highlights the events that took place and how they affected both the Christians and the Muslims living in the small town.

The author’s prose is extremely readable and the story is compelling, although a bit brutal at times.  Despite this, I found the reading to be somewhat of a chore at times.  Perhaps this was due to the very small print which made the book seem to be much longer than its 554 pages.  The characters in the book, although fictional, seemed to capture the essence of the place.

The combined effect of our trip to Greece and Turkey and the reading of this book causes me to wonder about the impacts of civilization.  With so much philosophy, art, architecture, etc., generated in this region of the earth, why is it that the only way that a people can live in harmony is by getting rid of everyone who is different from them?  It seems that no amount of culture can deter the human race’s ability to inflict mayhem on other human beings.

Although I have arrived at a somewhat depressing conclusion, this is a very good novel and I recommend it to anyone who has the perseverance to read it through. 4.5 stars

The Towers of Trebizond

by Rose Macaulay,1957, Paperback edition, 2012, Ferrar Strauss and Cudahay, New York

I read this book because it was on the reading list for our educational vacation to Greece and Turkey.

This book is about a trip to Turkey by a young English girl along with her aunt and an Anglican minister.  While in Turkey her aunt and the Anglican minister take off to Russia leaving the young girl on her own.  She travels around Turkey on a camel and undergoes a variety of experiences.

The young girl evidences an unusually innocent demeanor while possibly being a lot more street smart than she lets on.  She asks herself many questions about various matters which tend to take a lot of potshots at things that don’t seem to add up.  One of her targets in this process is the Anglican Church which seems to be embarking on a folly which is to establish itself as an alternative to Islam in Turkey.  He aunt, on the other hand, is upset about the treatment of women in Turkey, but doesn’t seem to be able to have any impact on correcting the situation.

Our heroine also manages to con an unscrupulous young author who has purloined another individual’s work as her own,.  She uses this as a means of getting him to provide her with free food and drink as well as money.

All of this suggests she isn’t quite as innocent as she puts on.

The book is humorous at times although the ending is somewhat dark.  Although the book becomes a bit tedious, it is mostly fun to read.3 1/2 stars