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The Oracle of Stamboul: A Novel Hardcover – Bargain Price, February 8, 2011

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Editorial Reviews Review

Late in the summer of 1877, a flock of purple-and-white hoopoes suddenly appears over the town of Constanta on the Black Sea, and Eleonora Cohen is ushered into the world by a mysterious pair of Tartar midwives who arrive just minutes before her birth. "They had read the signs, they said: a sea of horses, a conference of birds, the North Star in alignment with the moon. It was a prophecy that their last king had given on his deathwatch." But joy is mixed with tragedy, for Eleonora's mother dies soon after the birth.

Raised by her doting father, Yakob, a carpet merchant, and her stern, resentful stepmother, Ruxandra, Eleonora spends her early years daydreaming and doing housework—until the moment she teaches herself to read, and her father recognizes that she is an extraordinarily gifted child, a prodigy.

When Yakob sets off by boat for Stamboul on business, eight-year-old Eleonora, unable to bear the separation, stows away in one of his trunks. On the shores of the Bosporus, in the house of her father's business partner, Moncef Bey, a new life awaits. Books, backgammon, beautiful dresses and shoes, markets swarming with color and life—the imperial capital overflows with elegance, and mystery. For in the narrow streets of Stamboul—a city at the crossroads of the world—intrigue and gossip are currency, and people are not always what they seem. Eleonora's tutor, an American minister and educator, may be a spy. The kindly though elusive Moncef Bey has a past history of secret societies and political maneuvering. And what is to be made of the eccentric, charming Sultan Abdulhamid II himself, beleaguered by friend and foe alike as his unwieldy, multiethnic empire crumbles?

The Oracle of Stamboul is a marvelously evocative, magical historical novel that will transport readers to another time and place—romantic, exotic, yet remarkably similar to our own.

Amazon Exclusive: A Q&A with Michael David Lukas

Q: Talk about your inspiration for the characters. Was Eleonora based on anyone?

Lukas: I started writing The Oracle of Stamboul in early 2004. At the time I was living in Tunisia, studying Arabic, applying to MFA programs, and generally trying to figure out what to do with my life. Eleonora came to me on a run through the undeveloped outskirts of Tunis. She was hazy in that first glimpse, a slight, precocious child playing backgammon with two older men. I didn’t know anything about her—where she lived or when, who these men were, why she was playing backgammon with them—but I knew as soon as she came to me that I had found the protagonist of my novel. At first, I thought of her as a mix between Alice from Alice in Wonderland and Roald Dahl’s Matilda. A few months later, rummaging through an antique store in Istanbul, I came across a picture of a young girl from the 1880s. When I saw this picture, everything clicked. Here was Eleonora, staring out across history with a laconic, penetrating gaze. Over the next six years, she took on a life and character of her own. Eleonora still has elements of Alice, Matilda, and the girl in the picture, but she has become her own person.

Q: Would you consider the novel to be a fairy tale?

Lukas:The Oracle of Stamboul is very much inspired by fairy tales. Before I began writing the third draft of the novel, I made a point of reading Maria Tartar’s annotated version of the Brothers’ Grimm. Reading these wonderful, dark, and intimately familiar stories again—as an adult and as a writer—helped me understand my novel in a new way. The Brothers’ Grimm taught me the power of a single magical object and the importance of simplicity, in both plot and character. Their stories also reminded me that I wanted The Oracle of Stamboul to be more than a fairy tale. I wanted the novel to have the wonder and familiarity of a story like “Hansel and Gretel” or “Rapunzel,” but I also wanted it to incorporate the magic of place and the sweep of history.

Q: How might readers of different ages experience the book?

Lukas: I hope The Oracle of Stamboul will appeal to a wide range of readers: people who love reading for its power to transport, to inform, and to inspire; adults who read literary novels; and those adults who read the occasional young adult novel; precocious teenagers; those who want to learn about the Ottoman Empire or Istanbul; and anyone who wants to connect with the preternaturally intelligent child inside them. One could read the novel for Eleonora’s story, for the sense of history, for the sense of place, or for the various historical questions I hope the book raises. And none of these readings is better than the others.

Q: Who are the writers and books that have influenced you the most? What books do you think are complementary in style or mien to The Oracle of Stamboul?

Lukas: Among many others, The Oracle of Stamboul is influenced by Charles Dickens, Roald Dahl, Italo Calvino, and Gabriel García Márquez. During the year I started writing the book I had a lot of free time. In the period of a few months I read most of Vladimir Nabokov, John Steinbeck, James Baldwin, and Flannery O’Connor, all writers I look to still for inspiration. I was most taken, however, by those whose work falls into the subgenre I like to call historical fabulism—José Saramago, Günter Grass, and Salman Rushdie—storytellers of the old school who add a pinch of magic to the stew of history. I was particularly moved by Saramago’s novel The History of the Siege of Lisbon, in which a bored proofreader literally rewrites the history of Lisbon, and by Grass’s The Tin Drum, in which a clairvoyant young German boy named Oskar Matzerath disrupts the traditional narrative of World War II by beating on a tin drum. How wonderful, this idea that a single act, a single person, might change the course of history.

Q: You teach creative writing to third and fourth graders. What have you learned from working with them?

Lukas: This past semester my students participated in National Novel Writing Month. It was kind of a crazy idea, but it worked wonderfully. One student wrote a novel about a panda who is adopted by mice. Another student wrote about a ghostly tooth fairy who is his own worst enemy. And then there was the pair who collaborated on a novel about a moldy pickle and a moldy cucumber who are best friends and want more than anything to escape the refrigerator. When I started teaching the creative writing to third and fourth graders—through an afterschool program called Take My Word For It!—I was going through a bit of a quarter life crisis. My students’ wide-eyed enthusiasm and seemingly-infinite imaginations helped me to regain my sense of wonder and possibility in the world. And they taught me that no idea is too crazy.

From Publishers Weekly

A girl changes the course of the Ottoman empire in Lukas's middling debut. Eleonora Cohen--born in 1877 Romania, prophesied to alter history, and gifted with great intelligence--stows away at age eight to follow her father to Stamboul. Her first weeks there are a whirlwind of beautiful new dresses and cultural experiences, but the idyllic adventure takes a terrible twist after her father is killed in an accident and Eleonora is taken in by her father's wealthy and politically slippery friend. She proves to be a quick study, and once her tutor alerts the palace of Eleonora's immense intelligence, she finds herself in attendance at the sultan's court, commenting on a political standoff between the Ottoman empire, Russia, and Germany. As the sultan's interest in her grows, so, too, does her reputation and importance, though Eleonora is unsure if her new role is what she wants from life. The backdrop is nicely done, but Lukas can't quite get his characters to pop or the plot to click; indeed, the buildup of Eleonora's oracle-like powers culminates in a disappointing fizzle. It's well intentioned, but flatly executed. (Feb.)
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Harper (February 8, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0062012096
  • ASIN: B005OHYQX6
  • Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 1 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (99 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,646,975 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Michael David Lukas has been a Fulbright Scholar in Turkey, a night-shift proofreader in Tel Aviv, and a waiter at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in Vermont. A graduate of Brown University and the University of Maryland, he is a recipient of scholarships from the National Endowment for the Arts, New York State Summer Writers' Institute, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and Elizabeth George Foundation. His writing has appeared in VQR, Slate, National Geographic Traveler, and Georgia Review. He lives in Oakland, California, less than a mile from where he was born. When he's not writing he teaches creative writing to third and fourth graders at Thornhill Elementary School.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

50 of 59 people found the following review helpful By Jeannie Mancini VINE VOICE on March 10, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
In the year 1877, Eleonora Cohen was ushered into the magnificent and opulent world of the Ottoman Empire to the smell of witch hazel, the sound of thunderous hoof-beats from Russian invaders, the flapping of wings from flocks of mysterious birds, and to the bright flashes of lightening striking. The Tartar midwives holding her up to the sky said she was the long awaited Oracle from a prophecy dictated long ago a by a king upon his deathbed. He foretold there would be a baby girl born when a certain alignment of moon and stars occurred amidst a sea of horses, and a when a conference of black and yellow birds darkened the sky.

Raised by her father, as her mother died in childbirth, it is soon learned that at the age of 6, something was special about Eleonora. She read voraciously, could perform complicated math sums, read Latin and 6 other languages, provide discourse on the ancient philosophers, decipher codes and puzzles, and memorize long passages of difficult books. With a child savant to raise, her father was protective and unsure of what the future could bring to one so innocent and yet a dangerous Pandora's box. When Eleonora's father plans a business trip to Istanbul, then called Stamboul, Eleonora stows on board as a runaway as to not be left behind with her unsavory stepmother. Shocked but not surprised, Eleonora's father vows to take advantage of the situation and allows his daughter to learn and enjoy the culture of Turkey where she can embrace the life of a young scholar rather than have her mind hindered by the stifling domestic atmosphere she was used to.

Soon after their arrival, tragedy strikes again and Eleonora's father dies in a tragic boating accident that suspiciously is thought to be an incident of political sabotage.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Diana Faillace Von Behren TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 31, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
While Michael David Lukas's novel "The Oracle of Stamboul" may have its moments, ultimately its tale of a young girl with a savant-like intelligence that finds herself discussing current events with one of the last sultans of the Ottoman Empire leaves the reader in a curious quandary, wondering why all the hoopla for not that much ado.

Portents and signs are much used in literature to endow the atmosphere with the prickling of something spectacular that is to come. In Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Calpurnia, the wife of Caesar awakens on the Ides of March with much foreboding. Oddball incidents of a lioness giving birth in the streets, the dead rising from their graves, ghosts shrieking and a blazing comet seen during the night could only prophesize the death of a prince. As members of a well-versed audience, we know where all the mumbo-jumbo leads: the forum, many knives, much blood and an "Et tu, Brute?" The reality of the outcome more than outweighs the bizarre uniqueness of the augury.

When Michael David Lukas births his heroine, Eleonora Cohen, he does so with more than enough soothsaying fanfare to herald a new Messiah. Supposedly, the last Tartar king prophesizes that "a young girl would come to push aside the tides of history and put the world right on its axis again." The auspicious signs are unmistakable: a sea of horses, the North Star in alignment with the moon, and a flock of purple and white hoopoes that gather mysteriously at the birthplace in Constanta, Romania during a siege by the infamously brutal Cossacks. Signs, indeed, of great expectations.

So what is it that Eleonora's presence is supposed to trigger?
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Cristyn on April 19, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Disclaimer: I received this book (ARC) through Goodreads First Reads Giveaway.

The Oracle of Stamboul is a novel set in the Ottoman Empire in the late nineteenth century. The birth of Eleanora Cohen is a joy and heartbreak all in one. Her prophesied birth happens has Constanta is terrorized by the Third Division of the Tsar's Royal Calvary in 1877, and her mother dies from complication of childbirth.

Eleanora's father is distraught at his wife death and accepts a proposal by his wife's sister, to marry her and have a mother for his daughter.

As Eleanora grows it is discovered that she has the gift of learning and memory. She loves books, but her gift is contained for fear of ridicule in the community. When Eleanora's father leaves on a trip to Stamboul, Eleanora hides away in a travel trunk rather than stay with her harsh stepmother/aunt.

As events unfold she finds herself at the mercy of other men....some who love her and have her best interests at heart and others who intend to use her and her gift to their own advantage.

I really liked this book. The writing is so descriptive I found myself lost in the streets of Stamboul, following Eleanora in her experiences. The only reason I can't give a 5 star is I was disappointed the way the story ends....I saw a different fate for Eleanora. In the end it was a great's one I will read again.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Rita Arlene Allen on February 12, 2011
Format: Hardcover
As readers most of us look forward with anticipation to opening a new book and being struck with, "WOW, this is amazing." This is one of those books. I loved it! It made me feel like a kid again, with that same sense of wonder that I had when I first discovered Jane Eyre, A Little Princess, The Secret Garden and Anne of Green Gables. I was sad to leave Eleonora behind. What a great first novel by a promising new author.
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