Shepherdstown, West Virginia.
As Christmas approaches, my fellow villagers try to cope with the results of an unprecedented nineteen inch snowfall. In my house, we recently celebrated Hanukkah and we before we join our friends neighbours in a round of holiday jollity, we indulge in the Oblomovian pastimes a winter storm sanctions. We keep Morsolino, our splendid Scandinavian wood stove, working full time and we try to find good flics to watch–the latest ones on our list were a French production of La Belle Helene and the Russian House of Fools–and good books to read. Natasha’s Dance: a Cultural History if Russia and A People’s Tragedy, by Orlando Figes, are among the history books I enjoyed recently, along with Jason Goodwin’s Lords of the Horizon. Goodwin, whose Yashim novels take the reader on a delicious romp from Ottoman Turkey to Italy also writes approachable nonfiction with a good novelist’s elegant touch. He keeps the considerable weight of his scholarship from crushing the reader and he adds delectable anedoctes fit to to enhance chat at many a Christmas feast. I reccommend, particularly, his history of the Ottoman Empire, Lords of the Horizons.
Snowy Shepherdstown, West Virginia.
This is Goodwin’s Christmas message,
I’ve been thinking about this, and I don’t imagine that Yashim, the Ottoman investigator, has a Christmas list.
His more devout Greek friends in Istanbul will fast through Advent: even George the greengrocer keeps a three day fast. Christmas is not a time of gifts for them – that belongs to the New Year, St Basil’s Day, when Christ was circumcised. Then a child – usually a boy – first foots his friends and relatives, bringing a ‘dog onion’ to each house. He goes away with a few coins.
Ambassador Palewski celebrates Christmas in his own way, naturally. On Christmas day he eats only what has been prepared the day before, and he lays an extra place on a white tablecloth in case someone turns up unexpectedly. That person is often Yashim. Under the tablecloth he puts straw. Otherwise, he watches the weather, according to the Polish tradition that the weather at Christmas foretells the pattern for the coming year. Once he invited Marta, his housekeeper, to pick a straw from under the tablecloth. A green straw for marriage, a yellow straw for spinsterhood, and a withered straw for more waiting; the short straw indicates an early grave. Inevitably the experiment led to misunderstanding, and tears.
Yashim visits the local orthodox church on Christmas Eve and lights a candle in memory of his Greek mother.
There’s a little more about her in An Evil Eye, which comes out this Summer.
For more about Yashim, George, Palewski, Marta, and Istanbul in the 1840s, this astonishingly long link should take you to the UK Amazon website for The Janissary Tree, the first in the series.
And here’s the US version.
Why Us? by James le Fanu. Perfect for anyone exhausted by the strident materialism of Richard Dawkins, or suspicious of a theory postulated by a Victorian which puts Victorian men in beards at the top of the evolutionary tree.
The Tale of Samuel Whiskers by Beatrix Potter. Sublime terror, with a proper ending, and pictures.
and finally …
Tintoys.com delivers presents to anyone of any age who may have read Samuel Whiskers already.
Happy Christmas and a Merry New Year
Jason Goodwin is a man of parts. He is a historian trained at Cambridge University, a tea connoisseur, a prodigious hiker, a gardener, a cook, the author of well regarded nonfiction books, and a prize winning writer of literary crime fiction. He has wit, he has a deft touch with plot and a singular gift to create characters so vivid it ias impossible to forget them. His sleuth, the eunuch Yashim Togalu, whom critic Janet Maslin of The New York Times calls “a gumshoe in Turkish slippers” is engaging. So are his friends, Zubrowka tippling Polish ambassador Stanislaw Palewski and a supporting cast that includes a transvestite dancer, a Greek grocer, and a dour concierge.
Goodwin’s sleuth Yashim is a fascinating blend of investigator, philosopher and aesthete. He moves in the opulent setting of Ottoman Istanbul–a historic territory Goodwin knows well–with ease of an insider at the sultan’s royal court. Yet for all his intimate chats with the sultan’s French mother, who lends him books by Stendahl and Balzac, he sees court life with the keen eyed perception of those on the margin of a stratified society.
That his gender or lack thereof excludes him from a higher post at court does not keep Yashim from being the heartbeat of stories critics have compared with a an enchanting ride on a magic carpet. The majority of Amazon readers commenting on these stories say that they are “fascinating, breathtaking, transporting, full of life, well portrayed, absolutely amazing.”
Richtexts is honored to share some of Goodwin’s thoughts with its readers.
1.What is the greatest challenge you face as a writer?
Amusing myself. Unless you’re having some sort of fun while you write – with words, with scenes, with characters – the chances are it’s not going to come off.
2.How do you define failure and success?
I’m wary of that way of thinking: it’s not over until it’s over, is it?
3.What is the truest sentence you know?
Plato says that things are better taken care of than we can possibly imagine.
4. What would you be, if you were not a writer?
I’d like to be a leisurely sort of architect.
5. What is your purpose as a writer?
To inform and entertain, of course. I suppose, following on from that thought about architecture, that I try to create a space – imaginary or otherwise – that didn’t exist before. From there, I hope, readers will get a new view of familiar things.
That’s what attracts me to history and historical fiction: it’s taking the long view of human nature. If it wasn’t written down it would ultimately disappear as a source of understanding and the lessons of the past would be lost. At which point the future becomes a scary and unpredictable place.
6. What inspires you?
Cathedrals, wine and pre-war literature
7. What do you like the best and dislike the most about writing?
I like the adventure best, when you plunge off into unknown territory and gradually piece it together in your mind. I dislike the obligation to smoke.
8. Yashim, the main character in your crime fiction series, is a caring friend, a gifted linguist, an inventive lover, a capable cook, a modest man with an admirable moral code. Yet being a eunuch seems to define him. Why did you choose to create a character who can never become totally integrated into Ottoman society?
Because he comes at the society he patrols at an angle. That lets him see things that others can’t. Lots of the best detectives have that tangential relationship with their world – Sherlock Holmes, who’s all brain; Philip Marlow, who is achingly lonely; Hercules Poirot because – well, he’s Belgian for goodness’ sake. Funnily enough they’re all eunuchs, in a way.
9. Which writers do you admire the most?
Dickens, Graham Greene, Italo Calvino, PG Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler.
10. If you could choose, would you be Balzac or Camus?
I’d be Balzac, without a doubt.
Pink achillea and blue geranium.
Late at night I travel to Istanbul, courtesy of the magic carpet author Jason Goodwin provides with The Janissary Tree. There, gardens bloom on Iznick tiles of splendid blues, greens and pomegranate reds. I dream of asking Goodwin how he recreates this world of opulent color, singing fountains, bright jewels. Good writers are magicians and I am in awe of their power. Dare I ask this particular magician for an interview? Why not? The worst that will happen is that he will say no. I ask and hold my breath, metaphorically speaking.
I wake up to a sky as grey as a chunk of hematite. The temperature has zoomed into the upper eighties. The air is oppressive. The garden looks dry and exhausted. The round ruffled leaves of the Rond de Nice squash droops forlornly. When is these stony clouds going to resolve themselves into a cooling rain? We have had brief showers for the last three days, so brief they do no more than coax plant roots into coming closer to the surface to absorb a few drops before they evaporate. I go out with watering cans filled with grey water. This is not enough, I know. What my plants need is a series of long drizzles, gentle and sweetly thirst quenching.
The day ends without the promised downpour.
“Later,” says the weatherman. “Later.”
I labor over sentences. I murder paragraphs. My characters rebel, throw off the alphabet, become mute. I find a poem that is as fresh and cool as if it had just been written. It refershes the soul. And then, joy of joys, Goodwin says yes. What else can a provincial writing gardener want> Rain, perhaps. But has been promised. It will come.
Beloved, let us once more praise the rain.
Let us discover some new alphabet,
For this, the often praised; and be ourselves,
The rain, the chickweed, and the burdock leaf,
The green-white privet flower, the spotted stone,
And all that welcomes the rain; the sparrow too,-
Who watches with a hard eye from seclusion,
Beneath the elm-tree bough, till rain is done.
There is an oriole who, upside down,
Hangs at his nest, and flicks an orange wing,-
Under a tree as dead and still as lead;
There is a single leaf, in all this heaven
Of leaves, which rain has loosened from its twig:
The stem breaks, and it falls, but it is caught
Upon a sister leaf, and thus she hangs;
There is an acorn cup, beside a mushroom
Which catches three drops from the stooping cloud.
The timid bee goes back to the hive; the fly
Under the broad leaf of the hollyhock
Perpends stupid with cold; the raindark snail
Surveys the wet world from a watery stone…
And still the syllables of water whisper:
The wheel of cloud whirs slowly: while we wait
In the dark room; and in your heart I find
One silver raindrop,-on a hawthorn leaf,-
Orion in a cobweb, and the World.
Conrad Aiken (1889–1973)