The best books to understand the heart & soul of Turkey and its people

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a Sydney, Australia born sociologist and writer and back in 1990 I hitchhiked through the UK, travelled in Europe and arrived in Turkey just as the Gulf War was starting. After three months in the country I was hooked. I now live in Istanbul and write about the people, culture, and history. Using my less than perfect Turkish language skills I uncover the everyday extraordinary of life in modern Istanbul and throughout the country, even though it means I’ve accidentally asked a random stranger to give me a hug and left a butcher convinced I think Turkish sheep are born with their heads on upside down.


I wrote...

Exploring Turkish Landscapes: Crossing Inner Boundaries

By Lisa Morrow,

Book cover of Exploring Turkish Landscapes: Crossing Inner Boundaries

What is my book about?

At first, I only travelled across the vast expanses of Turkey as a visitor, but then I began to stay for longer and longer periods of time. The initial glimpses of a culture less western than eastern were replaced by an awareness that Turkey is at times both and yet something more. These experiences became a metaphor for an inner journey from the known to the unknown and back. The uncompromising nature of Turkish culture and society meant I had to accept what I saw without changing it. In so doing I started to question who I was and look for an alternative way of being.

Exploring Turkish Landscapes builds on my first collection of stories, Inside Out In Istanbul. This latest collection offers a much more personal insight into Turkish traditions and beliefs, and also takes readers on an emotional journey as I rediscover myself.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Dinner of Herbs: Village Life in 1960s Turkey

Lisa Morrow Why did I love this book?

Reading Carla Grissman’s memoir of the year she lived in a small farming village 249 kilometres east of Ankara took me back to my first long stay in Turkey in 1990. I was in Göreme, Cappadocia for almost three months. It was still a small village then so Grissman’s account of her experiences thirty years earlier in a similar place, resonated with me. She found a generous people, strong communal spirit, and much happiness, and aptly named the book for Proverbs 15:17 which reads, “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than feasting on a fattened ox where hatred also dwells”. Village life was basic but Grissman expressed no judgements or desire to change things. Instead, she engaged and observed, resulting in a revealing look at a way of life that still continues in parts of Anatolia today.

By Carla Grissman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Dinner of Herbs as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Carla Grissman spent the better part of a year in the '60s living in a farming hamlet in remote Anatolia, some 250 km east of Ankara. The hospitality, the friendship and the way in which the inhabitants of Uzak Koy accepted her into their community left a deep impression, and were remembered and treasured in a private memoir. Not for some forty years was it published, and yet it is one of the most honest, clear-sighted and affectionate portraits of rural Turkey, testimony to Proverbs 15:17, 'Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than feasting on a fattened…


Book cover of Turkish Awakening: A Personal Discovery of Modern Turkey

Lisa Morrow Why did I love this book?

Turkish Awakening is the result of Alev Scott’s desire to discover the land of her mother’s birth and explore contemporary Turkish life and politics. Scott combines personal insights with an objective gaze to focus on a confusing and often contradictory culture, to try to unravel the complex relationships between modernity and religion unfolding in Turkey today. She chats with taxi drivers, examines how sex work and transgender inhabitants coexist, sometimes uneasily, next door to conservative Muslims recently relocated from the country, and explores the impact of popular soap operas featuring the newly rich on the aspirations of ordinary Turks and international tourism. The rise of the ruling Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (AKP – Party for Justice and Progress) is covered as well as Turkey’s changing relationship with the EU. The book ends with Scott’s observations about the protests that sprang to life in Gezi Park in Istanbul and then spread throughout the country in 2013.

Turkish Awakening
is essential reading to better understand what makes the country and its people tick. 

By Alev Scott,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Turkish Awakening as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Born in London to a Turkish mother and British father, Alev Scott moved to Istanbul to discover what it means to be Turkish in a country going through rapid political and social change, with an extraordinary past still linked to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and an ever more surprising present under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

From the European buzz of modern-day Constantinople to the Arabic-speaking towns of the south-east, Turkish Awakening investigates mass migration, urbanisation and economics in a country moving swiftly towards a new position on the world stage.

This is the story of discovering a complex country…


Book cover of Dervish: Travels in Modern Turkey

Lisa Morrow Why did I love this book?

Dervish was published more than twenty years ago, but the Turks about whom Kelsey writes, archaeologists (and others) in search of the Ark, human rights activists, famous pop stars both straight and transsexual, Kurdish insurgents, desperately poor villagers and aspiring politicians, are still in existence today. Kelsey captures the contradictions inherent to life in modern Turkey, revealing a people as diverse as its varied geographical regions.

By Tim Kelsey,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Dervish as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Unlike most writers, who give a European eye-view of a Turkey that mourns all that is lost, and consider it in the light of a holiday resort, this book explores a Turkey which is seeking out its own identity and which is beginning to realise it s not simply a bridge between East and West. The lowlife of tranvestite nightclubs, the problems of heritage, the theatre, the clash between Eastern and Western Turkey, tribes and the current civil war between Turkish military and Kurdish separatists, the booming heroin trade and cultural intolerance all form part of the book, bringing to…


Book cover of Portrait of a Turkish Family

Lisa Morrow Why did I love this book?

Orga’s memoir begins with scenes from his idyllic childhood as the son of a great beauty, adored by his autocratic grandmother and indulged by all. His was a prosperous family, their future secure under the Ottoman sultans until the First World War broke out and everything changed. They went from enjoying elaborate dinner parties, going to the hamam and sleeping on soft sheets, to living in poverty, waking in dank rooms, and never knowing if there’d be enough to eat. Orga writes without sentiment of the impact of the war on his upper-class family, and the complete reconstruction of society under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the modern Turkish republic. Orga lived and observed the tensions and struggles around sacred and secular life, the divide between rich and poor, and the importance of family to all. Despite the passing of the years, many of the events and consequences he recounts still play out in Turkey today.

By Irfan Orga,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Portrait of a Turkish Family as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Irfan Orga was born into a prosperous family in the twilight of the Ottoman Empire. His mother was a beauty, married at thirteen, who lived in the seclusion of a harem, as befitted a Turkish woman of her class. His grandmother was an eccentric autocrat, determined at all costs to maintain her traditional habits. But the First World War changed everything. Death and financial disaster reigned, the Sultan was overthrown and Turkey became a republic. The family was forced to adapt to an unimaginably impoverished life. In 1941 Irfan Orga arrived in London, and seven years later he wrote this…


Book cover of The Forbidden Modern: Civilization and Veiling

Lisa Morrow Why did I love this book?

One of the first things people still ask me about living in Turkey is, do you have to wear a headscarf? Whether a woman covers or not and the manner in which she wears her scarf reflects much more than differing levels of religious conviction. Göle explores the extremely nuanced and conflicting relationships around the subject, combining sociological research with historical analysis and in-depth interviews. She examines the ways young women form their identities in relation to the issue of covering, how they adapt fundamental religious tenets in response to the pressures of modernity, what covering contributes to debates about politics, nationalism, and other issues. Anyone wanting to know more about the practice of veiling beyond the standard modern/backward, secular/religious divides should read The Forbidden Modern. By the way, if you’re still wondering, the answer is no.

By Nilüfer Göle,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Forbidden Modern as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book by prominent Turkish scholar Nilufer Goele examines the complex relationships among modernity, religion, and gender relations in the Middle East. Her focus is on the factors that influence young women pursuing university educations in Turkey to adopt seemingly fundamentalist Islamist traditions, such as veiling, and the complex web of meanings attributed to these gender-separating practices. Veiling, a politicized practice that conceptually forces people to choose between the "modern" and the "backward," provides an insightful way of looking at the contemporary Islam-West conflict, shedding light on the recent rise of Islamist fundamentalism in many countries and providing insight into…


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The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

By Kathryn Betts Adams,

Book cover of The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

Kathryn Betts Adams

New book alert!

What is my book about?

The Pianist's Only Daughter is a frank, humorous, and heartbreaking exploration of aging in an aging expert's own family.

Social worker and gerontologist Kathryn Betts Adams spent decades negotiating evolving family dynamics with her colorful and talented parents: her mother, an English scholar and poet, and her father, a pianist and music professor. Their vivid emotional lives, marital instability, and eventual divorce provided the backdrop for her 1960s and ‘70s Midwestern youth.

Nearly thirty years after they divorce, Adams' newly single father flies in to woo his ex-wife, now retired and diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Their daughter watches in disbelief as they reconcile and decide to live together again. She steps in to become her parents' eldercare manager when her mother’s condition worsens, facing old family dynamics and disappointing limitations to available services. Throughout, she attempts to help her parents maintain their humanity in their final years.

The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

By Kathryn Betts Adams,

What is this book about?

Grounded in insights about mental health, health and aging, The Pianist’s Only Daughter: A Memoir presents a frank and loving exploration of aging in an aging expert's own family.

Social worker and gerontologist Kathryn Betts Adams spent decades negotiating evolving family dynamics with her colorful and talented parents: her English scholar and poet mother and her pianist father. Their vivid emotional lives, marital instability, and eventual divorce provided the backdrop for her 1960s and ‘70s Midwestern youth.

Nearly thirty years after they divorce, Adams' father finds himself single and flies in to woo his ex-wife, now retired and diagnosed with…


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