Category Archives: Destinations

Delivering the Sultan’s Babies–Constantinople Intrigue

book cover
Destination: Constantinople/Istanbul

Book: The Harem Midwife by Roberta Rich (new 2014)

If you’re a fan of Call the Midwife on TV,  you should love the novel, The Harem Midwife.

Besides, the book is appropriate reading for Passover.  This Jewish couple whom you first met in Venice, was forced out of the ghetto there and have settled in the far more tolerant Istanbul. Still they must walk carefully in their new life and their Venetian past haunts them.

To recap the events of the first book, Roberta Rich introduced us to Hannah, who served as a midwife in the Jewish ghetto of Venice and was frequently called by high-born Christians, even though they were full of superstitions about Jews.  Her husband Isaac  is kidnapped and sold into slavery on the island of Malta.  Meanwhile, back in Venice, Hannah rescues a child of a Venetian nobleman when his father and mother are killed in a fire. She flees to Malta to join Isaac, who has been helped out of slavery by a nun.

In the sequel, they have settled in Constantinople, where Isaac makes and sells silk fabric, which he learned to make during his time in Malta.  Hannah has won the friendship of the court as she frequently is called to the harem in the Topkapi Palace to deliver babies–a busy job since the sultan fathered 132 children.

Danger lurks when an uncle of Hannah and Isaac’s adopted son (the rescued noble child) comes to Istanbul scheming to get the child back and own the family fortune.  A woman he is in league with comes along with him, pretending to be Isaac’s sister-in-law and asking for money Isaac had borrowed from his now dead brother. Not only that, but as part of her duties of verifying the virginity of slave girls, Hannah lies to the Sultan about a young girl from a Jewish hill tribe, and that lie threatens to unravel her relationship with the court.

This novel gives the reader a beautiful picture of life in the court of Constantinople, although there is less variety of social classes than there was in the first novel.  While I was totally caught up in the plot of the first novel, eagerly cheering on Hannah and Isaac through their misadventures, I found credulity strained by some of the happenings in this book.

It is fortunate indeed that Hannah has the ear of the powerful Salide–wife of the Sultan, because that woman becomes the deus ex machina that prevents the loss of Hannah’s child and Isaac’s business. The conclusion seemed to me rather sudden and all too pat.

I would not want to discourage you from reading this book, particularly if you were a fan of the first, The Midwife of Venice, because it has many good points, and particularly for the traveler who reads.  Whether you have been to Istanbul (the former Constantinople) or not, there is no question that it is one of the most intriguing cities on earth.  And Roberta Rich has added to that intrigue by painting a vivid picture of what it took to survive within the palace of the Sultan, or as a Jew in this supposedly tolerant atmosphere.

Here’s Roberta Rich, talking about the sequel to the Midwife of Venice.

Take Your Gambling Addiction to Macau

Book Cover: Macau book
Destination: Macau

Book: The Ballad of a Small Player by Lawrence Osborne

Macau is a different place than it was on that rainy day when Ken and I visited thirteen years ago.  Then it had just been reacquisitioned by the Chinese from the Portuguese who had held it as a remnant of their once far–flung empire for many years.  Thanks to the Portuguese, Macau had a colorful and charming old town and restaurants with wonderfully different food. Those feature are glimpsed in the book The Ballad of a Small Player, which is about the best literary guide you’re going to find to the sometimes seamy island as it looks today.

A ferry ride away from China, Macau always promised the thrill of something slightly illicit with its old casinos and the free-flowing Portugese attitude  in contrast to the buttoned up Englishness of Hong Kong.  When my brother was stationed in Vietnam during that war, servicemen were warned not to go to Macau, so of course he went. By the time we got there, the island had tamed, and drew crowds of fanny-pack wearing middle American tourists as well as Chinese gamblers.

Macau casinos

Macau Casino LIghts. Photo by Brian Brain, from Wikipedia, Creative Commons License.

I have mixed feelings about the new Macau.  Las Vegas casino owners and other developers have moved in and crowded the island with a mass of glitzy gambling houses. The narrator of The Ballad of the Small Player,  calls himself Lord Doyle, although he is merely  a British lawyer on the run from his shady dealings back home. Through him, author Lawrence Osborne introduces us to casino after casino, explains the rules of the high roller games like punto blanco baccarat, and sheds light on what it is like to be a compulsive gambler–in love with losing.

Lord Doyle tells the story of how he started gambling to a prostitute with whom he has a relationship.. “It became a secret hobby, as it often does.” He goes from a French casino to gambling on line, then going to Birmingham every weekend

I became good at everything I played, though that did not mean I won consistently.  What I discovered was a taste for losing.  I understood in some way that playing something well and losing at it had something to do with playing it over the long haul.  But I didn’t care and I dare say no player does.

The author delivers the descriptions of the casinos  with a sharp eye and the disdainful humor they deserve.  He visits the Grand Emperor, “with a gilded replica of the British royal state carriage outside it and Beefeaters in fur hats filling a vestibule of cretinous gilt.”

I stopped and swung myself around and through the doors that were opened for me, and into a cool imitation of some Hans Christian Andersen fairy palace imagined by a small child with a high fever who has seen many a picture of Cindrella. 

Emperor Casino Macau

“cretinous gilt” at Emperor Casino, walking on gold bars. Photo from Wikipedia, Creative Commons License.

With his gift for this kind of incisive establishment of place, it is not terribly surprising to learn that Osborne is also an award-winning travel writer.

Osborne takes up where Graham Greene left off (minus the Catholicism) in exploring the morals of wanderers between societies, and the disdain of one culture for another–particularly the British and the Oriental. This looks like a small book–257 pages–but it is densely packed with ideas that make you slow down and pay attention. Osborne does not just describe what you learn with your senses, but also what you learn through contemplation.

Lord Doyle spends quite a bit of time in the Wynn casino, the Venetian Macau, touted as the largest casino in the world. There he thinks about the difference between the original Chinese establishments and the American transplants.

These Vegas establishments  are the very opposite of their Chinese counterparts , which at least have retained the louche tolerance of ages past.  The Vegas casinos are clean and overblown, with palatial dimensions and vacuumed carpets.  They are as family-clean and bright as their originals in the Nevada desert, and in them the insalubrious aspects of gambling are out to the back of one’s mind.

The novel kept me wondering, and therefore turning pages to find out–would he win or would he lose? And what did those words mean anyhow?  The questions stay in the mind once you have closed the book.

TFOB: Where the Authors Are, Part III

Sunday, March 16th

Tucson Festival of Books

Dedicated reader

On Sunday, Ken and I arrived early and planned to leave early, because he really does not like the crowds at the Tucson Festival of Books. Once again the sun was shining and people arrived toting water bottles and backpacks and books to be signed, streaming out of the University parking garages.

We peeked at the enormous science area, which seems to take up about 1/3 of the land mass of the Festival, but we didn’t go there.  We walked by the beautiful displays in the Southwest Parks tents, including an alluring Native American tent and the Hubbell Trading Post tent festooned with Navajo rugs.

We were not particularly drawn to any of the earliest programs, and wandered among the booths, where I met two women who had written in separate books about the artists of Taos at the same period that I wrote about with Charnell Havens in our book on Quincy Tahoma’s life.

While wandering, I also met representatives from the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Arizona State University and learned that their publications have recently expanded to include historic novels. They offer a series of lectures entitled Fearless Females: Audacious and Feisty Women of the Middle Ages and Renaissance for people in the Phoenix, Tucson and Flagstaff areas of Arizona. Now that sounds like fun.

Mystery in the Southwest

Susan Cummins Miller

Anne Hillerman

J.J. Jance

Ken and I decided to check out the lines forming for events we would attend in the underground Integrated Learning Center.  We took the elevator down and parked on a bench in the open-to-the-sky underground patio.  Ken snagged a ticket to his chosen program–the line would later snake across the patio and up the stairs leading out of the Center. He was going to see a panel that included Susan Cummins Miller, Anne Hillerman and J. J. Jance.

I wrote about those first two writers in Part I of this report. J. J. Jance, who writes mysteries set in Arizona is a perennial favorite at the TFOB. She is very entertaining as a speaker, and Ken was definitely pleased with his choice of program.

The Devil’s in the Details

Robert Dugoni

Robert Dugoni at TFOB

Robert Dugoni

Book Cover: Dugoni
Robert Dugoni 
is one of those lawyers who puts his legal knowledge to work writing. His bookThe Cyanide Canary (2004) is a non-fiction legal thriller.  When the fictional The Jury Master won tons of readers in 2006, his publishers asked if he had another David Sloane novel ready. Of course he said “yes,” although he had not previously thought of the book as the start of a series.  The Conviction is his fifth successful thriller featuring the lawyer David Sloane.

In discussing facts he says, “Never assume. Check and recheck.” Use ‘double sourcing’ as though you were a journalist. He also mentioned one of my pet peeves when reading detail-stuffed books.  Sometimes the author puts in facts just to show off instead of because they are needed for the story.

He told a very funny story about getting a fact wrong about a gun in one of his books.  A devoted reader and gun owner called him on it in an e-mail. Dugoni, a gun-owner himself, apologized profusely and since the guy was from Tucson, invited him to come by (much to the consternation of a fellow panelist who was convinced they’d be shot), and he’d give him a free copy of another book.  The guy came by, was a very friendly older man who seemed content with the apology. But when Dugoni returned to his hotel room, there was an e-mail to the web page’s response page demanding the publisher destroy all copies of the book.

Fellow panelist, Jeff Parker, agreed–no matter how well you know guns, and how careful you are, you’re always going to get something wrong. Nobody is quite as obsessive as “gun nuts.”

T. Jefferson “Jeff” Parker

TFOB Jeff Parker

TFOB Jeff Parker

Book Cover: The Famous and the Dead
Jeff Parker  writes police procedurals, so he has plenty of opportunity to get details wrong, since his mysteries depend on details. He works hard to avoid the mistakes. His series about  sheriff Charlie Hood in Los Angeles concludes with the sixth and latest edition, The Famous and the Dead.

Parker, a former reporter, has won two Edgar awards for novels and one for a short story. He has spent his life in L. A.and Southern California, so he knows the settings for his novels very well. He also writes about the borderlands and Mexico, and makes trips to ensure he is getting it right.

He says that he insists on getting it right. ” An ounce of good research can produce a pound of good fiction.”

Masha Hamilton

Masha Hamilton ta TFOB

Masha Hamilton at TFOB

Masha Hamilton has been a journalist in some pretty exciting places. Her experience as a journalist has convinced her that confirming detail is extremely important.  Her latest book,  What Changes Everything (one of my ‘best  books’ of 2013) takes place partly in Brooklyn and partly in Afghanistan.  Since she has both reported from Afghanistan and worked at the U.S. Embassy there, she was well prepared to accurately portray that troubled country.  And she lives in Brooklyn. But she still had research to do.

Book Cover: What Changes EverythingOne of the main characters in What Changes Everything is a street artist and she spent some long nights following street artists as they carried out their illegal art.  One of them, she said, was her son, who said, “This kind of takes the thrill out of it, Mom.”

Masha is so dedicated to accuracy, that she says, “If the facts don’t fit the story, make the story better–to fit the facts.”

Her biggest challenge in writing fiction after being a journalist was to get in touch with feelings. Covering wars and dangerous situations, she had to develop detachment. Literature demanded the opposite. She addresses that issue with a fictional character in The Distance Between Us, about a woman who is a journalist in the Mid East.

When she wrote a book about Africa, she wanted to include information about mosquitos and did voluminous research.  Although all the facts were correct, she totally fabricated the quotes about mosquitoes at the beginning of each chapter, even though they looked real with attribution.  Her mother, one of her first readers loved the book and particularly admired how much time she had put into finding those quotations.  When Masha confessed they were not real, her mother said, “Can you do that?”

Other books and accomplishments by Masha Hamilton:

  • Staircase of a Thousand Steps, set in TransJordan. Her first published novel, it debuted to rave reviews.
  • Camel Bookmobile tells the story of delivering books to remote African villages.  As a result of the research, Masha started a charity to donate books to the Camel Book Drive.
  • 31 Hours, about a mother whose son is threatening to blow up a train in New York with a suicide bomb.
  • Masha Hamilton also makes a difference in the lives of countless Afghan women through the organization she founded, Afghan Women’s Writing Project.

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And, like a good book that you hate to have end, thus ends the 2014 Tucson Festival of Books.  But….there’s always next year.  I encourage you to mark your calendar and plan a trip to Tucson (if you’re not already here) on March 14 and 15, 2015.