Excerpt from Improvement by Joan Silber, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Improvement

A Novel

by Joan Silber

Improvement by Joan Silber X
Improvement by Joan Silber
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  • Published:
    Nov 2017, 256 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte

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Improvement

Everyone knows this can happen. People travel and they find places they like so much they think they've risen to their best selves just by being there. They feel distant from everyone at home who can't begin to understand. They take up with beautiful locals of the opposite sex, they settle in, they get used to how everything works, they make homes. But maybe not forever.

I had an aunt who was such a person. She went to Istanbul when she was in her twenties. She met a goodlooking carpet seller from Cappadocia. She'd been a classics major in college and had many questions to ask him, many observations to offer. He was a gentle and intelligent man who spent his days talking to travelers. He'd come to think he no longer knew what to say to Turkish girls, and he loved my aunt's airy conversation. When her girlfriends went back to Greece, she stayed behind and moved in with him. This was in 1970.

His shop was in Sultanahmet, where tourists went, and he lived in Fener, an old and jumbled neighborhood. Kiki, my aunt, liked having people over, and their apartment was always filled with men from her husband's region and expats of various ages. She was happy to cook big semiTurkish meals and make up the couch for anyone passing through. She helped out in the store, explained carpet motifs to anyone who walked in—those were stars for happiness, scorpion designs to keep real scorpions away. In her letters home, she sounded enormously pleased with herself—she dropped Turkish phrases into her sentences, reported days spent sipping çay and kahve. All this became lore in my family.

She wrote to her father, who suffered from considerable awkwardness in dealing with his children (her mother had died some six years before), and to her kid brother, who was busy hating high school. The family was Jewish, from a forward-thinking leftist strain; Kiki had gone to camps where they sang songs about children of all nations, so no one had any bigoted objections to her Turkish boyfriend. Kiki sent home to Brooklyn a carpet she said was from the Taurus Mountains. Her father said, "Very handsome colors. I see you are a connoisseur. No one is walking on it, I promise."

Then Kiki's boyfriend's business took a turn for the worse. There was a flood in the basement of his store and a bill someone never paid and a new shop nearby that was getting all the business. Or something. The store had to close. Her family thought this meant that Kiki was coming home at last. But, no. Osman, her guy, had decided to move back to the village he was from, to help his father, who raised pumpkins for their seed-oil. Also tomatoes, green squash, and eggplant. Kiki was up for the move; she wanted to see the real Turkey. Istanbul was really so Western now. Cappadocia was very ancient and she couldn't wait to see the volcanic rock. She was getting married! Her family in Brooklyn was surprised about that part. Were they invited to the wedding? Apparently not. In fact, it had already happened by the time they got the letter. "I get to wear a beaded hat and a glitzy headscarf, the whole shebang," Kiki wrote. "I still can't believe it."

Neither could any of her relatives. But they sent presents, once they had an address. A microwave oven, a Mister Coffee, an electric blanket for the cold mountains. They were a practical and liberal family, they wanted to be helpful. They didn't hear from Kiki for a while and her father worried that the gifts had been stolen in the mail. "I know it's hard for you to imagine," Kiki wrote, "but we do very well without electricity here. Every morning I make a wood fire in the stove. Very good-smelling smoke. I make a little fire at the bottom of the water heater too."

Kiki built fires? No one could imagine her as the pioneer wife. Her brother, Alan (who later became my father), asked what kind of music she listened to there and if she had a radio. She sent him cassette tapes of favorite Turkish singers—first a crappy male crooner and then a coolly plaintive woman singer who was really very good. Alan was always hoping to visit, but first he was in college and working as a house painter in the summers and then he had a real job in advertising that he couldn't leave. Kiki said not a word about making any visits home. Her father offered to pay for two tickets to New York so they could all meet her husband, but Kiki wrote, "Oh, Dad. Spend your money on better things." No one nagged her; she'd been a touchy teenager, given to sullen outbursts, and everyone was afraid of that Kiki appearing again.

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Excerpted from Improvement by Joan Silber. Copyright © 2017 by Joan Silber. Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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