In this breathtaking memoir, Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk braids together an account of his birth as a writer with a haunting tribute to Turkey’s great metropolis — ”a city of ruins and end-of-empire melancholy” — where he has spent his life. Born into an upper-class family, Pamuk grew up in a raucous household of squabbling relatives, unhappily married parents, and a bossy, bezique-playing grandmother who, like many matrons of her generation, rarely left her apartment. But Pamuk — author of last year’s acclaimed novel Snow — never plays up the cozy exoticism of his childhood. Instead, he produces a thoughtful and profoundly unsentimental portrait of a crossroads city where, ”for the past 150 years, no one has been able to feel completely at home.”

Pamuk intersperses chapters like ”The Joy and Monotony of School” (”The first thing I learned at school was that some people are idiots”) with fascinating essays about the writers and painters who have attempted to capture his hometown. Deeply serious yet often very funny, intellectually rigorous yet so personally revealing you may occasionally flinch, Pamuk’s is the rare volume that keeps you spellbound right up to the perfect, brutal hammer stroke of the last sentence.

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