Genre fiction is sometimes regarded as beneath other forms of literary enterprise, but I think that’s unfortunate. To dismiss certain authors because they write stories that are not firmly planted in the “real” world is to miss out on staggering feats of imagination and mind-expanding ideas. And isn’t that one of the roles of fiction? There are superb writers creating fantastic stories who should not be ignored simply because they veer off the path of the ordinary into the extraordinary. However, I must admit that until recently I had gone off fantastic stories unless they were somehow anchored in the world we recognize. I needed the sense of place, the grounding in places with which I had a passing familiarity—and thought the realm of high fantasy, the realm of authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and Frank Herbert had become a little lackluster. Then I discovered China Míeville’s The City & The City on a bookshelf in Beirut. Though set in our present day it created a fictional Balkan city that overlapped with another city in space-time. Its description of two overlapping cities, the residents of each deliberately trying to ignore the other, immediately made me think of Istanbul. The book was compelling enough that I decided I would venture into Perdido Street Station next, the author’s second novel, set in a wholly fictional steam punk universe. I don’t know if this book is a masterpiece or not—I’m not fond of such back page pronouncements—but I can tell you I will read the book again. It unfurls a little languidly at the beginning, making a worthwhile investment in setup, and then becomes one of the most exciting, vivid novels I’ve read in years. I haven’t yet read all of Mr. Míeville’s works, but I can tell you that he’s an extremely gifted author. His descriptions of cities, real or imagined, are beautifully rendered, full of the grit, grime, scents and smells that bring a place to life on the page. This is an author who understands what cities mean. I recently finished King Rat, his debut novel, which weaves the musical genre of drum n’ bass with the legend of the Pied Piper set in contemporary London. I was completely hooked. There’s nothing tender or sweet about Míeville’s books. If you’re looking for “likable” characters or soft focus whimsy don’t venture into his worlds. However, if you like staggering feats of imagination, interesting scenarios and writing that’s so vivid you get a taste—sometimes the metallic one of blood—in your mouth, drop by a bookstore and pick up one of Mr. Míeville’s works. 3
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  • Books & Lit

    Reading List: China Míeville

    Genre fiction is sometimes regarded as beneath other forms of literary enterprise, but I think that’s unfortunate. To dismiss certain authors because they write stories that are not firmly planted in the “real” world is to miss out on staggering feats of imagination and mind-expanding ideas. And isn’t that one of the roles of fiction? There are superb writers creating fantastic stories who should not be ignored simply because they veer off the path of the ordinary into the extraordinary.

    However, I must admit that until recently I had gone off fantastic stories unless they were somehow anchored in the world we recognize. I needed the sense of place, the grounding in places with which I had a passing familiarity—and thought the realm of high fantasy, the realm of authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and Frank Herbert had become a little lackluster. Then I discovered China Míeville’s The City & The City on a bookshelf in Beirut. Though set in our present day it created a fictional Balkan city that overlapped with another city in space-time. Its description of two overlapping cities, the residents of each deliberately trying to ignore the other, immediately made me think of Istanbul. The book was compelling enough that I decided I would venture into Perdido Street Station next, the author’s second novel, set in a wholly fictional steam punk universe. I don’t know if this book is a masterpiece or not—I’m not fond of such back page pronouncements—but I can tell you I will read the book again. It unfurls a little languidly at the beginning, making a worthwhile investment in setup, and then becomes one of the most exciting, vivid novels I’ve read in years.

    I haven’t yet read all of Mr. Míeville’s works, but I can tell you that he’s an extremely gifted author. His descriptions of cities, real or imagined, are beautifully rendered, full of the grit, grime, scents and smells that bring a place to life on the page. This is an author who understands what cities mean. I recently finished King Rat, his debut novel, which weaves the musical genre of drum n’ bass with the legend of the Pied Piper set in contemporary London. I was completely hooked.

    There’s nothing tender or sweet about Míeville’s books. If you’re looking for “likable” characters or soft focus whimsy don’t venture into his worlds. However, if you like staggering feats of imagination, interesting scenarios and writing that’s so vivid you get a taste—sometimes the metallic one of blood—in your mouth, drop by a bookstore and pick up one of Mr. Míeville’s works.

  • Books & Lit

    Where to escape?

    It’s been an exciting couple of weeks, what with shooting the Easter rites of Turkey’s Greek community and jumping on and off Ciner Shipping’s freighter, the Trabzon, so lately my batteries have needed some recharging.

    Fortunately my sister Maia provided me with two truly great reads. The first was Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table which recounts the experiences of an 11-year old boy on The Oronsay, a ship bound for England from Ceylon (Sri Lanka). As usual Mr. Ondaatje does a tremendous job of linking the past to the present, slowly unfurling the story of a how the three-week journey and the strange events aboard resounded throughout the lives of the passengers, jumping forward and backward through time. I savored this one.

    The second is The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt. I haven’t had the self-control to savor this one. I’ve been reading it in gulps. This book tells the wayward journey of two titular brothers and assassins on their way from Oregon City to gold rush Sacramento to complete their latest assignment. Every sentence crackles with black humor. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Joel and Ethan Coen have optioned this book. It’s so good, so well crafted that I can’t really concentrate on anything else right now, except finding the next cup of coffee, or glass of black tea. I’ll be back soon … I think. It’s nice to be reminded that despite the fun of the internet, the lure of a good film, that there’s nothing quite like the world of fiction to lose yourself in for an hour or two.

    What are your favorite ways to recharge? How do you escape? Let me know. I’m listening.

  • Books & Lit

    Reading list: THAT MAGAZINE.

    Crack the champagne! Another of my favorite quarterly magazines has just celebrated its first year with its fifth issue. Though its distribution is limited to Istanbul (for the moment, as my sources tell me a special issue is headed to Art Dubai) THAT MAGAZINE  is well worth looking for and holding onto. I have to hand it to Editor-In-Chief, Mr Johnson, each issue gets better and better.

    Highlights from the latest include a photo essay in one of Istanbul’s recycling plants, as well as an excerpt from Brendan and John Freely’s upcoming book. The article is entitled Your Guide to the Best Pubs & Clubs of Galata circa 1900-1930. I loved the excerpt and I’m now really looking forward to the release of the book. I’ve often imagined all the wild characters and intrigue circulating through that era of Istanbul, and from the details in this piece, I have to say reality seems no less enthralling than I’d thought.

    THAT MAGAZINE is free and available throughout Istanbul’s finer drinking holes and swankier cafés. Simdi on Asmalimescit has some, and I’m told a fresh shipment has just dropped in Kadiköy. Drop me a line and let me know what you think of the latest issue. I’d love to know.

  • Books & Lit

    Churches: glimpses into different times.

    VIEW OF THE GREEK ORTHODOX CHURCH. TAKSIM.

    You’ll seldom get much more than a glimpse of a church in Istanbul. Perhaps it’s the landscape we’re in. Space is definitely at a premium and many old things are not respected, let alone valued the way they once were.

    I’m not religious, but I refuse to leap aboard the anti-religion bandwagon. Religion has played such an inextricable role in the thought and development of just about every culture you can name that to try and excise it completely, or refuse to look at its place in our social development seems to me a little strange, perhaps even unwise.

    GREEK CHURCH SUNKEN BENEATH A SIDEWALK. YENIKÖY.

    This doesn’t mean we should discount or ignore the bloody atrocities that religious institutions and their “faithful” flocks have committed throughout history, it just seems to me that as in all of us, there is both good and bad, and we should explore this history without either credulity or outright hostility.

    That’s why I’m so drawn to religious sites, especially the minority ones. They are living fragments it seems, sunken beneath sidewalks, hidden behind high walls, obscured by bakkal (grocery stores) or büfe selling döner.

    A GLIMPSE THROUGH A HALF OPENED GATE. YENIKÖY.

    Personally I’m fascinated by the role that faithful men such as Avicenna and Roger Bacon played in the development of science and philosophy. Greek science was largely preserved thanks to the work of medieval Muslim clerics — if you’re interested in this subject as I am, check out John Freely’s excellent book, Aladdin’s Lamp. Imagine what would have been lost to the world if these scholars hadn’t chosen to transcribe and preserve many of the works of Plato, Aristotle and other fascinating players in the history of ideas.

    Perhaps if we’re going to understand where we’ve gone wrong, both recently and in the past, we need to take another look at history. Let’s make it a look at the whole, though, and not obscure the parts that don’t serve us.

    FRAGMENTED STONE. ORTHDOX CHURCHYARD, TAKSIM.

    What do you think? Is an honest dialogue on religion’s role worthwhile? Is it even possible, or are we too biased to look at the subject any longer? Have you read Alain De Botton’s Religion for Atheists

    I’d love to know your thoughts.

  • Art / Design / Craft,  Books & Lit

    Reading List: Port Magazine

    In the contest of print versus pixel for my reading time, this is a victory for the old school. Port Magazine is a magazine for lovers of print. However, this doesn’t make it fussy or stuffy, or the slightest bit behind the times. This is merely a testament that print is still a very relevant, far from dead medium.

    A lot of magazines, rather like newspapers, these days feel like vanity, or seem to be struggling with their transition from print to pixel. Quite frankly a lot of them should abandon the paper they’re printed on.

    This doesn’t seem the case to me with Port. This is an assured magazine. And it has to do not just with the crisp paper it’s printed on, or the elegant design, but the content. Yes, this magazine has content, and it’s so good, I’m almost relieved it’s published on a quarterly basis. This is a magazine to flip through once identifying your subjects of interest and then return to later when you can properly, consider the articles, essays and opinions, the wonderful photography at a more leisurely pace. This is not a hasty, waiting room sort of mag.

    If you’re truly reluctant to part with your tablet, both the premiere and third issue are available in iPad format. Just type in Port Magazine at the iTunes store.

    But really, I think it’s worth putting your hands on the latest copy and losing yourself in the tactile pleasures of print once again.

  • Books & Lit,  Uncategorized

    Reading list: James Salter

    Due to technical difficulties, I seem to have lost— in fact, deleted by my own blundering—my original post. Somebody recently suggested I start a reading list on my site, so with that in mind this is the first entry under that title.

    A Sport And A Pastime, for the simple reason that it was the first book of his I read, and also the one that has stayed with me ever since. Literally. I picked it up back in 2006, before a brief escape into the paradise of Turkey’s of Turkey’s Lycian and Aegean coasts, and have yet to relinquish this copy. I have bought other copies, and loaned them out, but it’s the one book I never put down. I’ve read it from start to finish many times, but I have often carried it with me to pop open at random and read, if only to remind myself what good writing is whenever I feel lost.

    The book tells the story of a love affair between a Yale dropout and French shopgirl as they tour France. The nameless narrator recounts their tale in fragments. What he tells has been told to him, observed by him and imagined by him. Salter’s France is as vivid as the real thing.

    I’ve accorded Mr Salter’s book my first reading list post for a simple reason. No other writer has taught me so much about good writing in the last ten years as Mr Salter. His prose is, in a word, luminous. Five words of Salter’s can render an image as vivid as even the best photographs.

    If you’ve read this book, I’d love to know what you think. If you haven’t, I can’t recommend it, or his other writings for that matter, enough.

  • Books & Lit,  Photography,  Places

    Gothic beauty … in the eye of the beholder.

    YENIKÖY CHURCH.

    Perhaps it’s the constant threat of snow the last couple weeks, but I’ve started to notice the cracks in this city, through which both the icy wind and my imagination can howl. To be honest, I’m not a big fan of snow. Where I grew up the snow and dark could last for months. As a child it sometimes seemed my only refuge was the world of books and the fiery corners of my imagination.

    ABANDONED KONAK, YENIKÖY.

    More often than not the tales I disappeared into were of a dark, gothic nature. So, thanks to the snow, my imagination has started to shade the city a touch gothic lately. I mean this in the literary sense — and not the medieval architectural sense. I mean in the details, in the strange slanted light, the clacking shutters of empty casements, and the creaking of floorboards.

    Istanbul is full of abandoned shambling old konaklar. Once upon a time these were splendid, sometimes stately homes, but now because of land disputes, dispossession or bad debts have been left to moulder and rot until they collapse into wreckage. It always strikes me that they must have been difficult to live in even when brand new, as they seem proportioned with improbably high-ceilings and comparatively narrow floor spaces, such that you could almost imagine they were dreamed up and then fled from by some noble race of incredibly tall, slender beings. 

    Perhaps even the wood these konaklar are built from possesses a certain haunted aspect. Trees are marked by such longevity and resilience that there’s something ironic/tragic about their impermanence when used as a building material. Still, wood, growing or dead, more than any other static material seems to have a voice. It contracts like creaking bones in the cold, and pops, crackles and reveals its fiery spirit when exposed to dry heat.

    THE BARK OF A SYCAMORE.

    Which brings me to they city’s trees. Of all the city’s abundant species, it’s the sycamore/plane trees that speak the loudest to me with their incredible variegated, chipped bark. It’s easy to see patterns, and imagine a story or three buried in the cores of these majestic sentinels which line Istanbul’s grand boulevards. They are fantastic looking trees with big broad leaves which look like those of a maple. Wet, their bark produces incredible deep saturated hues from green to reddish brown and reveal all sorts of interesting patterns. Can you see the skull in the image immediately above?

    I love to glimpse things that may or not be there, that may or not exist. Whether it’s in the bark of a tree, through the broken casement of an old konak, or the distortion in a piece of colored glass. It’s entertaining to ask yourself whether what you see is real, or simply a trick of the light. In any case, a single glimpse can haunt you for days.

    A MYSTERIOUS WOMAN? OR A TRICK OF ISTANBUL LIGHT? WHAT DO YOU SEE?

  • Books & Lit

    Secret Societies: Oh no! or … Oh really?

    THE MASONS WERE HERE! THE MASONS WERE HERE! BUT WAIT … WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?

    For as long as human civilization has existed, it appears that secret societies have existed. Sometimes they were mainstream society’s priesthoods and knowledge keepers and the secrets they kept from the mainstream were the basis of their power, as they told themselves that they were keeping “the meat for the men and the milk for babes.” Other times they were completely underground organizations unknown or only rumored because of the threat of persecution for what may or may not have been their radical thinking.

    Until recently I had absolutely no idea what most of these societies were supposed to have believed. Many a blockbuster movie would have us think that they were sacrificing virgins and offering them up as a tribute to Satan. The problem with finding out what secret societies like the masons believe is that there are/were blood oaths and all sorts of menacing reasons for them to keep their secrets secret. How else do you keep a secret, well, secret? Still, in an era where we (or some of us, at least) praise democracy and transparency is it necessary, or wise to keep such secrets? It’s certainly elitist.

  • Books & Lit,  Food & Drink

    Steering the stomach straight.

    THE ENGLISH EDITION OF ISTANBUL EATS.

    There are three things in life that really burn my butt. Number one is when somebody comes up with a great idea that I wish I’d had. Number two is when I couldn’t have done a better job myself. Number three is a fire about 1 meter high. Anyway, I guess I’m about to put an evil eye on Ansel Mullins and Yigal Schleifer because their guide book Istanbul Eats — Exploring The Culinary Backstreets has achieved number one and two and managed to light a fire under my behind.

  • Art / Design / Craft,  Books & Lit

    The Hermetic Museum Alchemy & Mysticism

    © 2011 TASCHEN GmbH

    Santa Claus has many powers, but he’s not a mind reader. That’s why I had to give myself a little Christmas present today after discovering The Hermetic Museum: Alchemy & Mysticism by Alexander Roob at my local bookstore. As you’d expect from a Taschen book it’s lavishly illustrated, and by far the most appealing visual guide to alchemy I’ve had in my hands. Its author, who studied painting at the University of Fine Arts, Berlin has been teaching at the Academy of Fine Arts, Stuttgart since 2002.

    In my opinion, no self-respecting student of alchemy should be without it.

    www.taschen.com

     © 2011 TASCHEN GmbH

    © 2011 TASCHEN GmbH

     © 2011 TASCHEN GmbH