Letter: On Reading ‘The Sandcastle Girls’

Dear Editor,

I have just finished reading Chris Bohjalian’s masterpiece, The Sandcastle Girls. I do not use the word masterpiece lightly. Whether or not it is a masterpiece in the general pantheon of literature, I cannot say. I am too close to the subject matter. For Armenians, it is nothing less than a masterpiece. Upon finishing it, I could not help but sit down and immediately write this brief review and reflection.

The novel is brilliant, engaging, well crafted, mesmerizing, and full of hope, and, as in all books about the Armenian Genocide, full of examples of the horrors mankind can inflict on mankind. (Photo by Naira Ayvazyan)

I started it yesterday; it lured me in slowly. I have not read any of Bohjalian’s other books, thinking, rightly or wrongly, that they were written for a female audience. I was immediately impressed with his style and skill. I realized why he was such a popular and revered author. Flat out, the man can spin a yarn. He can weave a story. He can describe things delicately or intensely as called for in the plot. This morning, I could do nothing but finish reading the book. I wanted to write that I could not put the book down. The truth is that I put it down several times to think, ponder, wonder, shudder, and wipe a tear from my eye.

It made me think of my family members, including my maternal grandmother’s sister Khatoun, who shares a name with a character in the book. Just a handful of us even know she existed. I thought of my family members who survived, and who I knew however briefly. I thought of all those who did not, and of whom I have the vaguest knowledge. I remembered that most of my family, as well as my wife’s, are from Kharpert. I kept thinking about my relatives still in Aleppo and prayed they are doing well. We have lost touch with them over the years and that saddens me.

The novel is brilliant, engaging, well crafted, mesmerizing, and full of hope, and, as in all books about the Armenian Genocide, full of examples of the horrors mankind can inflict on mankind. Every Armenian should read it. Every Turk ought to read it. Some will; most won’t. It is a novel that certainly appeals to the descendants of those who lived through the times described, namely Turks and Armenians. It is also a novel that stands on its own. It would not have risen to 7th on the New York Times Hardcover Fiction List if it were only Armenians reading it.

I cannot and will not write a synopsis of the book. Simply, get a copy of the book and read it. Suffice it to say it takes place then and now. It is autobiographical, and it is not. It is fact and fiction. It is full of serendipity that somehow is not a surprise. It is horribly sad and somehow wonderfully hopeful. It portrays Turks that were evil and Turks that would be considered saintly in either religion. It is in the grand tradition of Armenian storytelling of “Once there was and was not” (Gar oo chigar).

Thank you, Chris Bohjalian, for this most special gift.

Mark Gavoor
Chicago, Ill.


Mark Gavoor

Mark Gavoor is a Supply Chain Management consultant and professor of Mathematics and Statistics. He is an avid blogger and plays the oud in two Armenian Ensembles in Chicago. His blog: http://thissideoffifty. blogspot.com/

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  1. Announcement: Turkish book receives award

    The Award:

    The Textile Society of America has announced their selection of a book published by Çitlembik Publications of Istanbul to be the recipient of the annual R. L. Shep Ethnic Textiles Book Award, an award that recognizes the “the best book of the year in the field of ethnic textiles.” Published by Çitlembik in both Turkish and English editions, the beautifully designed and photographed book Splendor and Pageantry: Textile Treasures from the Armenian Orthodox Churches of Istanbul was selected best among fifteen different entries.

    The award will be formally announced and presented at the upcoming Textile Society of America conference to be held in Washington DC in September.

    The Book:
    Authored by American Professors Ronald Marchese and Marlene Breu and the Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul, photographed by Murat Oğurlu, the book represents ten years of meticulous research, photographing and design work prior to its publication in 2011.

    Over 170 beautiful photographs illustrate the selection of artifacts that make up the textile treasury of the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul, exquisite pieces dating from the past three hundred years that have been executed in embroidery, appliqué, techniques of textile printing, and painting. Women artisans not only used their incredible needlework techniques to create these breathtakingly beautiful pieces of textile art, they also infused their needlework with their own visions and artistic sense, creating a synthesis of symbolic forms reflecting Anatolia and a rich artistic past that must certainly blend Anatolian, Byzantine, Caucasian, Turkic, Mongolian and Ottoman styles.

    The 397 page book also discusses the iconographies of the objects, and describes their techniques of production. The reference catalog is highly useful as a reference for scholars, while the translations of the inscriptions on the pieces open a window to all readers onto the personal lives of the people who contracted and gifted these items to the Church.

    The Authors:

    Ronald T. Marchese, PhD, is Professor of Ancient History and Archeology in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

    Marlene Breu, PhD, is Professor Emerita in the Textile & Apparel Studies of the Family & Consumer Sciences Department of Western Michigan University.

    The Publishers:

    Çitlembik is a small American/Turkish publishing company led by Nancy Öztürk and Zarife Öztürk that focuses on producing books in both Turkish and in English that shed light on some aspect of Turkey, be it literature, culture, history, or biographies of individuals and places. Unable to locate funding for this difficult and expensive project, it had to force its own limited resources to print the book and did so in recognition of the fact that this newly understood treasure belongs to all of the people of Turkey and is one that must be recognized and sustained.

    Technical Information:
    The Book: Splendor and Pageantry: Textile Treasures from the Armenian Orthodox Churches of Istanbul (ISBN: 9789944424783); İhtişam ve Törenselik: İstanbul Ermeni Ortodoks Kiliselerinin Tekstil Hazineleri (ISBN: 9789944424790).
    Authors: Ronald Marchese, Marlene Breu, and the Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul
    Photography: Murat Oğurlu
    Translator: Adnan Tonguç
    Publishers: Çitlembik Publishers, Şehbender 18/4, Istanbul, Turkey
    Print: Mart Prınting, İstanbul

    Contact: info@citlembik.com.tr
    Telephone: + 90 212 292 3032

    “… a feast for the eyes with spectacular images of hand-embroidered textiles… a work of beauty that will inform and dazzle the reader.”
    –Miranda Howard, Professor, Western Michigan University

    “…Ron Marchese and Marlene Breu have brought to life an entire community, especially perhaps the women responsible for crafting with such devotional care, the adornments for the clergy and the objects necessary for the cult of that single most important institution of the Armenian community, the Church.” –Dickran Kouymjian, PhD

    Some reader comments:

    “Splendor and Pageantry” … is a wonderful book, highlighting the contributions of generations of Armenian artists to the Armenian Church. In their meticulous work, the authors have shed light on the cultural history of Istanbul and the contribution of Armenian artists. The textile treasures document the “Constantinople Style” of Armenian art and the beautiful works produced….” –Barlow Der Mugrdechian
    “This is a beautiful book! My interest is in historical needlework, and the photos in the book show both the entire item and details clearly. These are not your typical glass-box-in-museum articles: The photographs showing the vestments in use by the Armenian Patriarch are a tribute to the religious faith and needlework of the artisans who placed the stitches. The heavy, satin-finish paper used allows the stitching to be seen clearly, and the color reproduction is amazing. This is possibly the best-quality art book in my [fairly large] collection.”

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