Book review: ‘Anatolian Days & Nights,’ by Joy E. Stocke and Angie Brenner

Posted: May 13, 2012

Anatolian Days & Nights

A Love Affair with Turkey

By Joy E. Stocke and Angie Brenner

Wild River Books. 264 pp. $16.95

Toward the end of Anatolian Days & Nights, a 12-year-old boy, tour guide for a day to the two authors, encourages them to take shards of pottery that lie amid the rubble of the ancient Turkish city of Harran. “There are so many pots to choose from and all of them so very old, ladies. So old it makes my head hurt,” he says. The honest, childlike remark seems to encapsulate the modern-day view of this intensely complex, richly fabled country. It is so old, and there are so many pieces that don’t fit together yet retain a sharp-edged color and beauty. Who wouldn’t get a headache trying to make sense of it all?

Co-authors Joy E. Stocke and Angie Brenner don’t attempt to fit the fractured pieces back together. Rather, they tell small stories of their travels together through Turkey over the years, vignettes that illuminate bits and pieces of the culture and history they’ve encountered. The two take turns narrating, and Brenner provides the lovely watercolor illustrations that head each chapter. The book is in sections, each a different Turkish trip they took together after having met in the Mediterranean city of Kalkan and becoming friends in Spring of 2001. It ends with their last trip in 2009.

In the best moments of this book — part travelogue, part spiritual journey, part personal memoir — the authors simply tell the stories that unfold around them. There are lovely moments, such as when Stocke recounts a performance of whirling dervishes, and explains a little of the history of this spectacular ceremony and the significance surrounding the movements. In another chapter, the authors are invited to dinner at the home of a friend, and end up in the kitchen happily cooking with their hosts. The warmth and generosity of the people they meet consistently comes across with simple and true clarity.

Where the authors get into difficult terrain is when they attempt to recreate conversations, which hit the page stiffly and unnaturally. It feels as though, in the belief that dialogue makes for more intimate storytelling, they simply bracketed prose with quotation marks. This becomes particularly distracting for the reader during the intimate girl-talk moments between the two, usually regarding Brenner’s love interests (I’ve had plenty of girl-talk moments in my life, and none of them sounded so flat and rehearsed). It would have been nice to hear in the dialogue more of the authors’ bright energy and spunky, adventurous natures, hinted at throughout the book.

That aside, this is a worthwhile book for women planning a man-free trip to Turkey. It is by no means a guidebook — too many of the essentials of day-to-day life are omitted (one misses the nitty-gritty: how much did they spend per day? How does tipping/haggling work there? Where on earth does a woman relieve herself in the desert? What kind of shoes did they wear?). What it does have are tales torn from the pages of their journals — albeit slightly scattershot in the telling — that share their adventures and introduce many of the people they have met along the way. There is a lot to be said for two women, one married with children, the other single, who choose to travel through a country where such a thing provokes shock, distrust, and assumptions about the flexibility of their moral character. The two handle awkward or frightening situations with grace and intelligence. There is surprisingly little humor, however, and in one instance their attempt at it seems slightly cruel: An old woman bares her soul and they later crack wise about the old, dry cake she served them. At other times, they don’t take full advantage of some dicey situations that might have been hilarious in the retelling.

One difficulty in having two authors trading narration is that it’s hard to get to know either in depth. When, for example, Brenner reveals issues involving her love life, we don’t know her well enough to receive this information with any real sympathy. It becomes rather squirmy to read of her besotted feelings for various Turkish men. I found myself just wanting her to woman up and snap out of it.

The latter part of the book is the most illuminating, in particular the tale in which a schoolteacher, acting as their translator, connects with and is educated by a group of dour women activists for an organization that works to end the practice of recem — the sanctioned murder of married women accused of extramarital sex. It is a warm but sobering moment.

A stricter editor might have urged the authors to tell less and show more. But the magnificent diversity of the land, and the colors, scents and taste of it, are ably described by both. There is a helpful Turkish pronunciation guide, too, in the front of the book. But the watercolor map, printed in black and white, ends up being somewhat confusing. “Turkey” is written inside the Black Sea, which is precisely the same shade of gray as the surrounding shapes of Georgia, Bulgaria and the Mediterranean. This could bring about another headache.

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