Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Monday, October 19, 2009

"The Janissary Tree" by Jason Goodwin

This book was loaned to me by a friend who probably owns even more books than I do (which may partly be because she has a couple of years on me... but only partly) and who usually has similar taste in selections. In fact, she's the one who loaned After You'd Gone to me as mentioned in a previous blog entry. AND I have currently loaned The Time Traveler's Wife and The Amnesiac to her and can't wait to hear her opinion on those! But, once again, I digress... though if you've read any of my other posts that shouldn't surprise you.

This is a murder mystery set in 19th century Istanbul, and it was a good solid read, but for me it never reached "critical mass." I'm sure it's a massacre of physics to use this term the way I do, but that's the phrase I use in my mind to refer to the point I reach in a story where I can't stand to put the book down, every time I'm away from it I'm thinking about it anyway, and I'll stay up until 3 in the morning because, "I only have 100 more pages to go!"

The choice of a eunuch as a main character is a surprising one. I have wondered why the author made this decision, and I have come up with several possible explanations. Perhaps it is just because it is surprising and unique. I'm fairly certain I've never read a book narrated by a eunuch. There is also the fact expressed in the book that, as a eunuch, Yashim is allowed to move in circles that would be forbidden to him otherwise (such as the sultan's harem), an important advantage as a private investigator. I had also wondered if this was a way to simplify the story by avoiding romantic entanglements . . . until Yashim met Eugenia, the Russian ambassador's wife, and that theory flew out the window.

Beyond Yashim's own situation, though, it is almost more surprising that so many other eunuchs are mentioned. The harem guards, Ibou the Library Angel, and Preen the köçek dancer (or was she just a transvestite?), to name the ones that come to mind right away. Maybe Yashim identifies more with these characters because of what he has (or doesn't have, actually) in common with them; maybe eunuchs were much more common in the Ottoman Empire than I realized (although the book itself says eunuchs were "rare even in 19th century Istanbul); or maybe it's even that Goodwin has some sort of unnatural fascination with castration. (I'll give him the benefit of the doubt, though, and say it's not that last option).

It bears mentioning that my friend who owns this book first heard about it on NPR (which I have found in the past to be a wonderful source for interesting suggestions on what to read, watch and listen to). She said that reading it made her very interested in traveling to Istanbul, though I must admit it didn't do that to me. On the other hand, I would love to have sampled some of those meals that Yashim cooked!

My friend has also loaned to me the sequel, The Snake Stone, so expect an entry on that one next!


aph08 said...

My goodness you are such a fast reader. It takes me three weeks to read a book, unless I hit that "critical mass" but even then it takes me about a week!

Kathy said...

I don't always have time to read so much. But ever since my trip in May I seem to have had a constant stack of books I'm so eager to read! And every book I read seems to turn into five more that I want to read (people recommend books based on what I've read, or recommends books to me, or I read about the author's other books in the back of a book, etc). Also--consider the fact that you work full-time and I am only at work 16 hours a week!!