Istanbul: Memories and the City by Orhan Pamuk – Winner of Nobel Price 2007
Turkish novelist Pamuk (Snow) presents a breathtaking portrait of a city, an elegy for a dead civilization and a meditation on life’s complicated intimacies. The author, born in 1952 into a rapidly fading bourgeois family in Istanbul, spins a masterful tale, moving from his fractured extended family, all living in a communal apartment building, out into the city and encompassing the entire Ottoman Empire. Throughout, Pamuk details the breakdown of his family: elders die, his parents fight and grow apart, and he must find his way in the world. This is a powerful, sometimes disturbing literary journey through the soul of a great city told by one of its great writers.
Harem by Barbara Nadel
For those who would like to have their summer reads as light crime fiction novels, Barbara Nadel’s Harem (2003), the fifth in a series of ten crime novels starring Inspector Çetin Okmen, is the real deal. It is a lurid tale of murder, blackmail, and high-class prostitution, set in the modern-day backstreets of Beyazit and the city’s ancient halls of power. Nadel’s fallen film idols, stolid generals and Azeri mobsters are all three-dimensional as Karagoz shadow puppets, but in her good guys she presents a kind of touchingly simplistic dream of Istanbul ecumenism: Turks and Armenians work side-by-side to rid the streets of crime, and love blossoms between Turks and Americans, Irish and Jews.
Lord of the Horizons by Jason Goodwin
Perhaps the most readable history ever written on anything, Jason Goodwin’s Lord of the Horizons (1998) brilliantly recounts the rise of the house of Osman from a “dusty beylik in the foothills of Anatolia” at the “crumbling ledge of Byzantine power”, to a vast Ottoman Empire spanning three continents and many seas. Goodwin’s book reads like a whirlwind tour through the Grand Bazaar of Ottoman history, with revelations at every stop and treasure glittering from behind every corner.
Crescent and Star: Turkey between Two Worlds by Stephen Kinzer
Crescent and Star (2001), by Stephen Kinzer, is the best primer on modern Turkey available in English. The culmination of four years spent as Istanbul bureau chief for The New York Times, it is an often-frustrated but always-hopeful analysis of Turkey’s past, present and future by someone who came to know, and love, the Turkish people to whom he dedicated his work
Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire by Philip Mansel
For more on the city itself Philip Mansel’s Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire (1995) charts the glorious history of Istanbul under Ottoman rule. It is also the story of the royal dynasty’s “love affair” with the city, which began well before the 1453 conquest and continued until the empire’s collapse.
Mehmet, My Hawk by Yasar Kemal
My Hawk (1961), is a tale of high adventure set in the hard-bitten lands of Turkey’s rural southeast in the early days of the Republic. The power of Kemal’s writing is such that the story – a young boy’s just rebellion in the name of love, and the acts of courage that mold him into man – is at once both universal and place-specific. Mehmet springs from his creator’s head fully-grown as myth and legend, and the Promised Land that all the characters dream of, the fertile Çukurova plain, resounds like Steinbeck’s California for the Joad Family. It is a beautiful book, rich in description of Turkey and a must-read from a Turkish literary giant.