Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Architect's Apprentice: a book club review

Oh, what a tome. Set in early Renaissance Istanbul, The Architect's Apprentice by Elif Safak reflects the dichotomy I imagine sits at the heart of that ancient and robust city's position at the edge of both Europe and Asia. The story has the deep, dense exoticism of South-­Asian writers such as Arundhati Roy and Vikram Seth and the European refinement of a minuet. Oh sure, I sound like I've never attended a post­-Colonial lit class in creating that dichotomy, but ... it's my blog and I'll be essentialist if I want to. Onward. 

The titular apprentice is Jahan, an anti­hero and unreliable narrator of great intelligence and some heart. Although a roguish and unreliable anti­hero has become a trope, it is one with some charms. Regardless of the accuracy of Jahan's story, the presentation of it is engaging. In many ways Jahan is made more sympathetic through his attachment, as mahout, to a darling baby elephant who is sent as a gift from the Sultan of Hindustan to the Sultan of Istanbul. The elephant and the boy grow alongside each other, and during times when we might otherwise think poorly of Jahan, his love of the elephant redeems him. 

I will admit that perhaps this story plays to a particular audience like me ­- one fascinated by architecture, history, folk lore, cultural developments, personal and corporate identity, and the ways in which societies create and enforce similarities and differences. Istanbul of the 1500s and 1600s is a mosaic as rich as those Jahan and his colleagues create in the endless mosques they built. Christians, Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims, and Jews live alongside each other in relative peace (as long as each remembers their place). Only the Roma truly seem to be outside this culture, and yet they play an important role in Jahan's journey. Then as now Istanbul is a global cross­roads with merchants and visitors coming from Asia and Europe, bringing with them the knowledge and technological developments of those lands, and that's fully represented in the people with whom Jahan interacts.

If there's something I'd complain about in The Architect's Apprentice it's that I expected more description of the beauty of the buildings and the developments of the city itself through the work of Jahan et al. While much time is spent describing the working relationships and intrigue of such, I wanted to know how coloured glass, bright tiles, and sweeping domes were envisioned, created, and placed. That said, it's already a lengthy book, and the plot often drags, so I'm not sure what would have to be cut to make room for these descriptions. 

Once again my lack of focus on plot saved the book for me. If you like full-­immersion reading; if you have an interest in history, culture and architecture; and if you don't mind a story that covers many decades in many more pages, I recommend The Architect's Apprentice

Oh our darling Little E is SO bold. Not only did she host book club and create an amazing Turkish dinner with a three-­year old and a six-­month old afoot, she did it on the night before they left for their first European family vacation. I dearly hope that as I write this she is recovering on a beach in the Algarve. 

Our Book Club seems to have gotten over the mini-­exodus of the spring (our first after 3 years of being together), been refreshed with some great new members, and to be moving strongly forward into fall. We're a busy bunch -­ besides Little E heading to Europe, we had 2 pregnant women at this meeting, and one member who was concerned about leaving in time to finish sewing her wedding dress (she's getting married in 2 weeks ... just as soon as she's done hiking the west coast trail. It's enough to make one feel like they need a big project just to keep up! 

But oh, that Turkish dinner. It started with humus (of course), and grape leaf wrapped things, and eggplant wrapped things, and vino verdi. And then the incredibly delicious onion bhajis (chick­pea flour fritters with the perfect amount of turmeric), and a tomato­-rich chick­-pea stew. The characters in the novel are always drinking sherbets of various flavours (pomegranate sounds delicious; musk not so much). It sounds much more like a refreshing drink than our frozen treat, but frozen treat we did with an almost shockingly flavourful raspberry sorbetto. Man I love a theme dinner - especially one so brilliantly executed! 

Last month I said I was ambivalent about Our Book Club. With the rash of departures and the decided swing towards being a baby club I've not really felt it was the right club for me any more, and yet after three years I have so much history with these women ­- without whom I would never have "dared greatly." I didn't want to leave, but I didn't feel I belong any more. Trust Little E to be the one to change all of that. I really REALLY wish we actually spent more time discussing the books we read - we're sadly lacking in that department, but ... I can find that somewhere else. This is my lady tribe, though this was the first time since I returned from my foray to Jamaica that I've really felt it. 
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