With a bit of delay caused by the beautiful spring weather and a wonderful trip to Vienna, here are my reads for the month of March. It's so hard to pick a favorite, so maybe you can help: have you read any of them? Which one you liked most?
1. Elif Shafak - The Bastard of Istanbul. Falling into the category of ultimate wanderlust books - set on the shores of the Bosphorus Strait, oozing of local flavors, this story captivated me from the first chapter. Speaking of which, it is interesting how all the chapter titles are the ingredients of a traditional dessert, ashure. Throughout the book, each chapter is named after a food or drink, except for the last one, to emphasize and develop the motif of this dessert.
The novel provides a glimpse into Turkey's violent past, transgressing the borders, all the way to the United States, where Mustafa Kazanci, the estranged son of a Turkish family lives with his wife, Rose, and his step-daughter, Armanoush, of Armenian origin. When Armanoush secretly flies to Istanbul to learn more about her origins, she is hosted by her step father's family, becoming close friends with Asya, the bastard of Istanbul, and is warmly welcomed by her extended family: rebellious aunt Zeliha, with her short skirts and nose ring, and Asya's mother; Banu, the clarvoyant, older aunt; Feride, the hypochondriac, borderline bipolar aunt; Cevrye, the widowed high school teacher; her grandmother and great-grandmother, who all live together in a huge house where the only male presence is the cat.
Armanoush's arrival leads to the discovery of a great secret, that links her Armenian and her Turkish families, with deep roots in the 1915 Armenian deportations and massacres. The book proved to be very controversial, as Elif Shafak was put on trial for allegedly "insulting Turkishness", facing a charge of three years in prison. Fortunately, she was acquitted due to lack of legal grounds and insufficient evidence.
The Verdict: I liked everything about this book: the strong, beautifully written characters, the intrigue, the mystery, the set and even the way it was chaptered. I almost felt hungry all the time and all I wished for was to have read it before my Istanbul trip in 2011. It's a must read if you are headed for this part of the world in the near future!
2. Anthony Doerr - All The Light We Cannot See. This historical novel is set World War II, telling the story of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl and Werner, a German orphan, whose paths collide in the attempt to survive the destruction brought on by the war in occupied France.
Marie-Laure lives in Paris, where her father works at the Museum of Natural History, as the master of locks. As she goes blind at the age of 6, her father tries to help her become more independent, by building her a model of their neighborhood, so she can memorize it with her fingers and navigate the real streets by foot and cane. Upon the German occupation of Paris, they flee to Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure's great uncle takes them in.
Meanwhile, in Germany, Werner, an orphan of the coal mines, lives in an orphanage together with his sister, Jutta. Werner is a talented self taught mechanic, who can fix everything and event build radios. His unusual talent gets him into an elite Nazi military academy, where, as a member of the Hitler Youth, he trains to be a highly specialized tracker of the Resistance. His skills take him from Germany, to the outskirts of Russia, Poland and finally into France, in Saint-Malo, where he encounters Marie-Laure.
The Verdict: There is so much more to this story, but I cannot tell you even the half of it, because it would be a spoiler. I can tell you that it is a great read, at times a little slow as there are a lot of descriptions, but there is so much emotion and so much mystery, that it is hard not to like it. I would definitely recommend it to historical fiction lovers.
3. Khaled Hosseini - And The Mountains Echoed. Another story about family ramifications and the amazing places where life can take you. This is a novel about separated siblings, whose bond is so strong that it resonates through generations, revolving not only around parents and children, but also around brothers and sisters, cousins and caretakers, exploring the complexity of human nature, from honor to betrayal and sacrifice in the name of a better life.
Pari and Abdul are Saboor's children, left orphans after their mother's early passing. Their stepmother, Parwana, is bearing her own share of sibling guilt, and her brother, Nabi, is the only one who got out of the village and works for a rich family in Kabul. When he proposes to take them to the city, the children are excited, but their father is pained.
Kabul is the place where the children's paths diverge and the road to finding each other is long, revolving around the globe, from here to Paris, then all the way to San Francisco. By the time we get to the reunion, via a Greek aid official living in the house in Kabul where Pari was adopted, we witnessed a tangled web of life stories, unified by a single red thread: yearning.
The Verdict: And the Mountains Echoed is the first of Hosseini's books I've read, so it definitely got me hooked for more. I liked it a lot, from the way he constructed his story, and from the pictures he painted of Afghanistan, both before and after the war - it makes you think twice about the lives of people who lived in complex and conflicted country.