Monday, June 27, 2011

Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness (2010)

In the last of 20 CDs it dawned on me that this was only the first of most likely a trilogy, and I mentally groaned. I am hooked on this story, even if it is about vampires. It helped that the first third of the story was mostly in the Bodleian Library at Oxford and that the main character is a historian, researching alchemy in old manuscripts, and that a major focus is on an old manuscript - Ashmole 762, which had seemed to disappear from sight and now was rediscovered by Diana Bishop, a reluctant witch. The structure of the world in this book is that there are humans and three other types of beings - vampires (which are nearly immortal), witches with extra powers, and demons, which seem to be unpredictable, but not necessarily evil. Seems like a lot of important powerful figures were one of these, most often witches or demons, as vampires tended to lie low with their long lives. Now there is a council, which governs their interactions, and one rule is that they cannot have relations across types of beings. So of course, our witchy heroine falls in love with a vampire. He seems to be drawn to protect her, and others are intent on doing her harm. He's been around for centuries, which intrigues Diana - to hear about history from someone that was there. Then there are the two great aunts that raised Diana when her parents were killed. Lots of intriguing ideas and a fun read.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

The Oracle of Stamboul by Michael David Lukas (2011)

What a delightful book! Was recommended to me through Get Glue. Had to get it through interlibrary loan, and thought I would be reading it on vacation, but found time to read it in just a few days. I later read on the back cover that this book was "like biting into a perfect piece of pistachio-flaked baklava." (Rief Larsen) Strangely enough, this describes the book perfectly.

Time - late 19th century, places - Constanta (Romania, on the Black Sea) and Stamboul. (From Wikipedia: "Stamboul was used in Western languages as an equivalent of ─░stanbul, until the time it was replaced by the official new usage of the Turkish form in the 20th century. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, English-speaking sources often used Constantinople to refer to the metropolis as a whole, but Stamboul to refer to the central parts located on the historic peninsula between the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara."- from H. G. Dwight) Historic period - Ottoman empire, with the Russian and German empires vying for more territory - I know very little about this time and area. When I was in the Lithuanian Museum in Chicago last week, I realized how little I know of Lithuanian history and their time as part of the Polish-Lithuanian empire.

Our main character is Eleonora Cohen, born in 1877 to Yakob Cohen, a Jewish rug merchant in Constanta. Her mother dies in childbirth, so she is raised by an aunt/stepmother and her father, who teaches her to read and write in various languages, when he realizes the girl is bright. (I love bright girls.) Turns out she is more than bright, she is a savant, and at age eight follows her father secretly on a trip to Stamboul, where they live with a Turk - Moncef Bey, she gets tutoring from an American rector of a college - Reverend James Muehler. One of my favorite moments in the book is when Cohen and Muehler first meet, they try speaking English, French, Russian and some other languages and settle on Turkish as the best language to use for communication. The whole book is a rich blend of cultures and languages - in a way I think Europe and various other metropolitan areas of the world operate today, but I don't see in the U.S. How many of us are fluent in more than two (or even one) languages and can jump freely between them, depending on the person we encounter?

The whole story is rich, and colorful, and touching. The Sultan's growling stomach at Ramadan, or his love for birds. Eleonora is followed by a flock of purple and white hoopoes from birth. (I am attaching an image from a hoopoe, though I found no references to purple and white ones - must be literary license.)  Eleonora gets to meet the Sultan and it seems to me, if circumstances were different, they would have gotten along quite well.