A disappointing read. Turkey, and Istanbul in particular, has such a rich history that I felt it was a cop-out to base the story (esp. given that it's...moreA disappointing read. Turkey, and Istanbul in particular, has such a rich history that I felt it was a cop-out to base the story (esp. given that it's the first book in the series) on "foreign" characters - that is, not the usual Istanbullu residents. Instead of Turks, or other ethnic peoples "native" to the former Ottoman empire, the plot features Russian émigrés, British language instructors, former Bolsheviks and Nazis. Even the supposedly "local" Jewish characters' names in the novel are not quite historically accurate (although the author does make note of this discrepancy in the text). Another irritating aspect is that the characters tended to use British idioms, or converse in a way different from the way I assume Turks speak amongst themselves. Something just didn't sound right during the intimate conversation between Ikmen and his pregnant wife, or the way the Russian family argued amongst themselves. And what's this about Ikmen carrying a bottle of booze wherever he goes, even to the police station? No, I don't buy that at all. Plotwise, the story is very weak, and even though the average murder mystery enthusiast can easily figure it all out early on, there is an extended scene towards the end where everything has to be explained and recapitulated, just in case there are readers who didn't "get it." But since the suspense has to continue, those privy to the full truth meet an untimely end, just before the authorities can get their hands on the truth and the proof... All this transpires in the most unrealistic way right at the plot's conclusion, and it's one authorial cop-out more than I am willing to forgive. (less)
At just 100 pages, and with rather large print, this is one (very slim) volume in the publisher's series of Quick Reads, "bite-sized books... designed...moreAt just 100 pages, and with rather large print, this is one (very slim) volume in the publisher's series of Quick Reads, "bite-sized books... designed to be read and enjoyed by avid readers and by people who never had or who have lost the reading habit." I understand the marketing logic behind this - offer an affordable sample (cheaper than a pack of ciggies) of Ian Rankin so consumers can develop an appetite for the three-course meal of a proper novel. The problem with fast food, though, is that you can never be satisfied with only one bite/crisp/cookie/scoop. It may have been more effective if this short story was published in a volume containing a couple more stories, or better yet, if it was part of an anthology. On its own there's not much point in evaluating or commenting on it. When I finished reading, my first and only response was "this would be ideal for an ESL class, or as a sample for analysis in a Creative Writing 101."(less)
Compared to the first two books in the series, this third volume is shorter in length, and a somewhat sparer narrative, containing less imagery and de...moreCompared to the first two books in the series, this third volume is shorter in length, and a somewhat sparer narrative, containing less imagery and details of the landscape, flora and fauna that characterized the uniqueness of the former. Despite that, the descriptions are precise and vivid. One can clearly picture the remote village and the villagers that Hermes Diaktoros interacts with. He is once again possessed with an uncanny intuition, willing to forgive the faults and foibles of the goodhearted, yet unflinching in his meting out of justice to the wilfully meanspirited. You cannot but be won over by his stoicism at putting up with less-than-tolerable lodgings and barely palatable meals, only because his host is one of the more outgoing and hardworking personages in the village. The way in which he outsmarts the conniving plotters out to undo the new mayor is once again an opportunity for Hermes to exercise his talent for trickery and to provide moments of comic relief in a tale marked by melancholy and nostalgia. The satirical scene in which the town prepares to welcome the visiting dignitary is classic, just like watching a b/w Greek movie of the 60's. Actually, the romantic subplot, opening with the jilted bride on the beach, and closing with her forgotten but loyal suitor is the stuff of vintage Greek popular cinema, complete with the standard conflicts of the time - the drama of the younger sister, who traditionally must wait till the elder one is married first, the drama of the hapless shepherd who dreams of his unattainable love. (less)
As a book based on email exchanges it is readable. There is a natural evolution in the narrative. It opens with formal messages between two strangers...moreAs a book based on email exchanges it is readable. There is a natural evolution in the narrative. It opens with formal messages between two strangers and gradually leads to an intimate friendship.
Within that developing relationship, the communication becomes more complex, as each side slowly reveals more about their lives, the roles they perform, their frustrations, their fears. And soon, it is what they discover that they have in common that determines their continuing communication. What keeps the friendship going is a shared need for female bonding. There may be at times too much talk about food, children, relatives, man trouble, concerns over feminine issues such as fertility, weight and physical appearance, housekeeping, etc. but that's what they have in common and best understand about the other. The minutiae of juggling a career with the demands of domestic life is what keeps the conversation going.
In the email exchanges it's May who is the most naturally expressive, generous with endearments from early on (Bumbo Bee, lovely Bee...). I got the impression that Bee was somewhat hesitant at first, and distrustful of this display of affection. Over time though Bee lets her guard down, and soon they are calling each other 'big'/'little' sister. These expressions of filialtiy are what shapes and cements their friendship, more than anything else.
The theme of the two women's bonding is best understood in relation to the unusual nature of May's marriage to second husband Ali. Both May and Ali are ostracized by their respective families (the reasons being several - May is a widow, Ali is much younger, and from a different religious group). The families' unequivocal and harsh reaction may seem overblown and harsh to non-Iraqis. Nevertheless, the concept of filiality in Arab society is very strong. The couple were cast out not for what they did per se, but for what & how their "scandalous" marriage reflected upon the extended family's image and values (unity, reputation and honor). From the point of view of the families, the couple disregarded the families' priorities for their own individual needs, and this was a betrayal, a selfish choice of the individual over the family. With that in mind, for May to address Bee as her sister was no small matter. Both women -each for their own reasons- had a need for the unequivocal trust and accepatance one assumes in kinship. Their frequent appeal to sisterhood displays a need they shared, but for May, given her alienation from her family and her in-laws, it was much stronger and fundamental. Bee understood that on an emotional level, but maybe failed (as with several other issues) to comprehend intellectually - at least in the beginning. May's desire to escape Baghdad are based on immediate danger and financial concerns, but the driving force behind the decision to leave everything behind is the promise of what she has developed and built through the extensive email correspondence - frienship and filiality. Towards the end of the book Bee openly admits to May that she (Bee) experienced moments of doubt and confusion earlier in their correspondence, but eventually overcame her misgivings and was ready to do all for her "sister."
Of the two, it is May who is the most complex individual - she is rich with stories about her life, her unique experiences, and she also provides the backgroun information about Iraq to educated the Western reader. But it's Bee who is the core of the narrative, the one who learns along the way, is transformed by the email exchanges and the developing friendship. There are basically two processes of involvment for the reader: one, the reading of the email correspondence between two women, and two, the reading of how Bee is comprehending/interpreting May's stories recounted in the email messages. Bee's evolving point of view, as she gradually comes to a better understanding of May (and the Iraqi crisis) is the driving force of the narrative, even though May's stories are what makes this book worth reading.
There are moments of tension when the two can't seem to communicate on the same intellectual level, despite their earnest efforts. There were times when I wanted to tell Bee, you just don't get it! May herself was patient. Maybe her teaching experience helped; at times Bee seemed to be as clueless to what actually goes on in the "world out there" as the university students in Baghdad that May was responsible for.
Even before I started reading, I knew my response to the book would be filtered through the prism of my personal experience. Although for disparate reasons, I was predisposed to feel a strong connection with both May and Bee. During my formative years I was exposed to varied living conditions, from the creature comforts of a military base in the Far East to the dangers of a Middle Eastern city"> that - as with Baghdad - was once a flourishing cosmopolitan city where many faiths co-existed but became divided and deprived by civil war. Like May, I learnt to live without electricity and other amenities, slept in stairwells and hid under school desks while rocket shells exploded nearby, survived risky border crossings during last-minute evacuations, experienced being a 'refugee in transit' on board rescue ships or hotels while waiting with dread as the Red Cross processed our travel papers so that we could reach safety. During those years, the BBC World Service was an indispensible companion, primarily for the breaking news but also for the diversion it provided in difficult but boring times - the audio books, music and even quiz shows helped to keep us sane.
However, from the very first pages of this book I became impatient with Bee's perspective. It was troubling to me that despite her best intentions and her heartfelt compassion and generosity, and in spite of the (one would assume) basic requisites of her news media job, Bee's lack of familiarity with the particular region and the historically documented complicity of her own nation in the crisis that May was trapped in, made itself evident time and time again. (Especially the entry 16.04.08 Thoughts on government.) All credit goes to May for the patience and the effort she demonstrated to 'educate' Bee in this regard! It made me simultaneoulsy smile and cringe as I read May's extensive explanations and clarifications. Sometimes I wondered if Bee actually ever "got it" (especially on matters of May's personal dignity and national pride). Granted, Bee is open-minded and eager to learn (in fact she is indeed knowledgeable about other places/cultures), but by the book's end I still felt a sense of dismay that Iraq and the Middle East in general will continue to be perceived through the lens of the white man's burden - misrepresented, misunderstood, misjudged, and viewed with fear.
Towards the end of May's visa ordeal, Bee writes "The best way is to simply present the facts as you see them. World Service does this better than anyone as there are strict codes on the use of adjectives, value judgments and subjective language (famously, the word 'terrorist' is not used unless it is quoting someone else)." (15.09.08 More thoughtful but still got butterflies). In practice though, the reality though is far from this ideal, with regards both to the BBC, and to Bee herself. Ironically, on the very same page/email as the above statement, Bee betrays her own linguistic bias when she recounts, "On Thursday when I was at work...in walked Alan Johnston, the guy who had been kidnapped by the Palestinians..."
Earlier statements indicated her tendency for distancing herself intellectually and emotionally from critically challenging events: