As I have said in past posts, I am an unabashed Orientalist – though, not, perhaps, as Edward Said meant it. I am truly fascinated by those ancient civilizations and I look upon them with respect and admiration. These two books, nonfiction both, only make my curiosity stronger. And make me feel sorry I missed the chance to explore the world as these subjects did.
THE YOUNG T.E. LAWRENCE
I adore Lawrence of Arabia — the film and the man (or at least what we know of him). I’ve read the Seven Pillars and other biographies. With this one, there was a greater sense of understanding the enigma that would become Lawrence.
The book focuses on Lawrence the student. He is angsty, unsatisfied and searching. This is perhaps unsurprised to the reader who knows what he will become. He is also stubborn and extremely smart. Maddeningly so.
He read history at Oxford and it wasn’t long before the professors weren’t sure to do with him. Lawrence wrote a research paper on the history of the pointed arch in sacred buildings in medieval times. It sounds innocuous, perhaps even boring, but it opened a new world to Lawrence. With the encouragement of his faculty, he undertook to prove that what was considered “western” architecture, particularly churches and castles, weren’t influenced by the older “eastern” buildings that were “discovered” during the Crusades.
Lawrence set off on foot across what is now Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. His 1909 trek would cover more than 1000 miles and nearly four months and this book is packed with anecdotes from that journey. There, he took copious notes, made sketches. He studied buildings that had been left to ruins and all but ignored by their neighbors. And most importantly, got to know the people of these villages along the way. His affinity for the East would never leave him.
…A sort of silver shiver passed over the grey: then I understood, and instinctively burst out with a cry of thalassa thalassa that echoed down the valley. … Lawrence had just caught his first glimpse of the Mediterranean. In his excitement, he had shouted so loudly that two French tourists came running to see whether someone was being murdered. They were not. This was a beginning, not an end. ~ Loc. 457
Whatever else Lawrence was, reading a biography like this reminds the reader to seek out adventures in life.
Read via Edelweiss. Thank you to WW Norton for the review copy access.
The 1920s marked the transition from classicism to modernity in the East as well as the West. For Istanbul, known as the gateway between the two for centuries, the developments were no less dramatic. The city was on the edge of two worlds, trying to decide which way to turn. Tradition or modernity, Islam or Christianity, empire or parliament, isolationist or world player? And in many ways, being the pivot so many other entities meant Istanbul itself had little to say about any of it.
King analyzes the intricacies of the time from multiple perspectives, using the Pera Palace, a fine hotel itself on the edge of a changing neighborhood, as a touchstone. Not only was it the chosen place for foreign tourists, it was a hotbed of domestic intrigue.
The number of informants was so great that a sign in Pera Palace reportedly requested government agents to yield seats in the lounge to paying guests. ~ Loc. 425
Although the Turkish politics to a lay person are a bit complicated, King makes them approachable for the reader. Some of the nuance might be glossed over for clarity but this book is not meant to be a treatise. It succeeds in being an interesting, accessible history about another brief, gilded era. Like a curl of smoke from the hookah, it was all-encompassing and inescapable. Then it was gone.
Kudos to King for putting this impressive work together.
Read via Edelweiss. Thank you to WW Norton for review copy access.
Hardcover: 480 pages
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (September 15, 2014)
Paperback available in November 2015
Product Dimensions: 0.7 x 0.2 x 1 inches