Turkish books and food

First off, I changed the header image on the blog! (Finally!) I also added the Goodreads widget to the sidebar so everyone can stalk what I am currently reading.

Secondly, I am sad to announce for the first time in years, I couldn’t finish a book. That book was The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk.

It won the Nobel Prize in Literature. And I couldn’t finish it.

urlI was reading this book for my book club, and while I still will go to the meeting on Monday night (maybe others’ praises for it will change my opinion), I guess just wasn’t in the right mood for it.

The Museum of Innocence is the story of a 30-year-old Turkish man’s obsessive love for the young shopgirl Fusun. The two begin a love affair when she is only 18, but she disappears in envy when the man becomes officially engaged to his long-term socialite girlfriend. Eventually, our protagonist, Kemal, finds her again — and surprise! She’s married. Then there are 500 drawn-out pages in which Kemal dines regularly with Fusun, her new husband, and her parents, eager to resume their romance but hopelessly separated from her. All the while, he collects small trinkets that remind him of her and their relationship in some way, for his museum about their romance.

I read three-fourths of this book thoroughly, but then I was just painfully bored, so I started skimming until there was some semblance of a plot again. It was just. So. Melancholy. It was like being trapped in a room for hours and hours with a very lonely person who could not stop talking, in painful detail, about every minuscule detail of their sad, sad life.

I will say the first third of the novel — which chronicles how Kemal crosses path with Fusun, a long-lost distant cousin of his, and falls madly in love with her while concealing this secret from the rest of the world — was wonderful. Pamuk writes lovely prose. What he does not write, in my opinion, is an engaging story.

The Museum of Innocence is set against the backdrop of Istanbul, beginning in the 1970s. It’s embarrassing, but when I think of Istanbul, the only things that come mind are the Hagia Sophia and that song, “So if you’ve got a date in Istanbul, she’ll be waiting in Constantinople.”

So yeah. Basically nothing.

And this is so silly of me, but I have SO much trouble reading novels when I can’t pronounce even the main characters’ names. This is my main gripe about Anna Karenina, as it is. And when the book isn’t already engaging, I become frustrated with trivial things like name pronunciations.

And the thing is I’ve already read and loved two other acclaimed novels with similar themes about obsessive love. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is one of my favorite books of all time. (Interestingly enough, the NY Times’ book review of The Museum of Innocence is titled “Lolita on the Bosphorus”.) When I took a whole senior seminar on Nabokov and found out we’d be studying Lolita for weeks, I thought my heart would explode with happiness. Lolita is the seductively told tale of the aging European Humbert Humbert and his doomed love for the 12-year-old American “nymphet” Dolores Haze. I cannot even tell you how beautifully written this novel is. And what a haunting confessional tale of a man pleading, hopelessly, for redemption. Yes, it is disturbing, as it in essence a tale of pedophilia, told by the pedophile himself. But no, it is not graphic. And yes, it is much more than a book about pedophilia. It also asks big questions about What is love, and what is obsession? Can you be in love with a fantasy? Can art be a form of redemption? And on broader, more metaphorical levels, it speaks of a sophisticated, aging Europe colliding with brash, young America.

Here is a depiction of the first chapter’s text. If that doesn’t make you both extremely creeped out and want to keep reading, I don’t know what will.

tumblr_lpqafpp9fM1qze3z3o1_400The other novel The Museum of Innocence reminded me of is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Love in Time of Cholera. This is the story of Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza, who fall passionately in love in their innocent youth. Fermina eventually marries a doctor, and Florentino is tragically devastated. While he passes his years with 622 love affairs, as a hopeless romantic, he “reserves his heart” for only Fermina. As the book jackets says, “Fifty-nine years, nine months and four days after he first declared his love for Fermina, he will do so again.”

I love love LOVE Marquez’ magical realism style. I’ve read his other major novel (A Hundred Years of Solitude) as well and a couple of his novellas. When you read his writing, you feel like you are sitting on the front porch of a couple of village elders, somewhere in the depths of Colombia. His stories comes across as part factual, part personal tall tale, part oral folklore, and part the “weirder” beliefs of Catholicism (like the Assumption of the Virgin Mary). It’s absolutely glorious and breathtaking to read. I’ve heard from some Spanish-speaking friends back in Texas that his prose is even more enchanting in the original language. I can only imagine.

One praiseful thing I will say about The Museum of Innocence is that the author opened an actual museum based on the book in Istanbul. This sort of blurs the line between reality and fiction, and I love quirky, imaginative things like that. I found a few photos of the exhibits online, and they eerily imitate the exhibits listed in the book. For example, Kemal spends years collecting thousands of Fusun’s used cigarettes for his museum. And there is an exhibit of used cigarettes in the actual museum in Istanbul.

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Anyway, after seeing reference after reference to the Istanbul neighborhood of Beyoglu in the book, I couldn’t help but want to go to the Turkish restaurant in our neighborhood of the same name.

This was our second visit. We got the large meze platter and another plate of the Mediterranean crab cakes, to share.

lThe meze platter includes hummus, Greek yogurt & cucumber salad, smashed eggplant salad, some sort of spinach concoction, something that looks like couscous or quinoa, and what I call “Greek salsa.” Everything has authentic names that I can’t pronounce or spell. Most importantly, it is all delicious and must be eaten with bits of bread. Anything that I 1) can eat with bread, and 2) fulfills my Meatless Lenten Fridays requirements is good in my book.

And you know what? I know it’s quite a generalization, but based on first impressions, I think I’m more partial to Turkish food than to Turkish books.

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One response to “Turkish books and food

  1. I also do not know that much about Istanbul (mostly that it is full of history I know little of and that scenes from books I enjoy are sometimes set there.) I did once have a bizarre conversation with my brother about the unique geography of the city. Anyway I am writing to offer solidarity for not finishing books you don’t like even if they’re critically acclaimed. I’ve never been able to read Catcher in the Rye and I stopped The Grapes of Wrath when they reached CA (I just can’t handle Steinbeck) and I do not lose sleep over either. Good luck at the book club meeting!

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