I. Five Points: The Nineteenth-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum  by Tyler Anbinder – ★★★★
I love reading about the history of New York City, for example see my review of Mark Kurlansky’s The Big Oyster: A Molluscular History of New York. In Five Points, Tyler Anbinder focuses his attention on once the most notorious area in New York – the infamous Five Points, once a densely-populated, poverty, crime, riots and disease-ridden area. The area, which was once a green place with a lake called “The Collect Pond”, became by the end of the eighteenth century “a putrid nuisance” (due to local industries’ contamination) [Anbinder, 2002: 14] and, later, a place to be feared and ruled by criminal gangs. However, what became a place of danger for some, also turned into a place of fun and unthought-of opportunities for others. This non-fiction book is a very detailed account of the history of Five Points in the nineteenth century. Through documents, contemporaries’ accounts (each chapter starts with a “personal story” prologue), maps, graphs and old photographers, the author shows how Five Points gained such a vile reputation around the world and what made it so different from other New York neighbourhoods.
The Experimental Fire: Inventing English Alchemy, 1300-1700 by Jennifer M. Rampling
“Alchemy is the art of manipulating life, and consciousness in matter, to help it evolve, or to solve problems of inner disharmonies“. Jean Dubuis
“I had discovered, early in my researches, that [alchemists’] doctrine was no mere chemical fantasy, but a philosophy they applied to the world, to the elements, and to man himself”. William Butler Yeats, Rosa Alchemica
Alchemy, an ancient, mysterious practice of transmuting base metals and finding the Elixir of Life, is a fascinating subject to read about, and I previously talked about alchemy in art.This new book traces the history of alchemy in England from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century, illuminating “the role of alchemical reading and experimental practice in the broader context of national and scientific history“. The great thing abut this book is that Jennifer Rampling uses “new manuscript sources” to support her arguments, and emphasises “how English alchemy was continually [reinventing itself] over the space of four centuries, resulting in changes to the science...”
The Japanese: A History in Twenty Lives  – ★★★★★
In this new book, Dr Harding traces the history of Japan through the lives of twenty remarkable people that helped to shape the country, making a powerful impact on either its politics, business, religion, science, culture or just society at large, and – more often than not – against all odds and in very challenging times. From heroic personalities from mythology and ancient politics to people who changed business, music or literary scene, the author introduces each extraordinary individual in turn, focusing on their childhood, on Japan of their time and on their contribution to the country, with the result being that Japan finally became what it is now – a culturally rich country full of so many paradoxes, intricacies and hidden treasures that a lifetime will not be sufficient to know and understand them all. In this book, we get to know royalties, warlords, samurai, Buddhist monks, politicians, businessmen, scientists, poets, singers, revolutionists and Manga creators. Dr Harding’s book is a history of Japan in a bright new form that is a pure pleasure to read.
“An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” M. K. Gandhi (attributed)
“The Japanese collectively were to blame…Truman drew no distinction between civilian and soldier; mother and murderer; child and monster”; “America [sic] annihilated 100.000 persons, most of them civilians, at Hiroshima…and then…,in spite of the “universal horror”, repeated the performance at Nagasaki” [Paul Ham quoting, 2011: 420, 422].
Paul Ham is an Australian author and correspondent, and in his non-fiction book Hiroshima Nagasaki he presents a true account of what happened to the two Japanese cities in 1945, dispelling myths that still persist about the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, including that the bombs were somehow “necessary”, or that their usage led to Japan’s surrender. Starting in winter 1945, when “Roosevelt and Churchill arrived bound by a private agreement…not to share with the Soviet Union…the development of an extraordinary new weapon” [Ham, 2011: 15], continuing to the secret development of the world’s first atomic bomb, and ending with the aftermath of the tragedy, the author goes into incredible depth about what happened in the final year of the war, demonstrating the situation through statistics, broader situation invoking key actors and through personal accounts. The result is a well-researched book about one of the most unbelievable and traumatic events in the world history. Since the scope of the book and the topic is so broad, I have decided to structure my review in the following manner: (i) Events leading up to the atomic bombings; (ii) Four myths and four corresponding realities; (iii) Immediate aftermath; and (iv) Long-term consequences.
The Isle of Wight is England’s largest island with plenty of resorts dating to Victorian times. Possessing breath-taking views and a splendid nature’s abode, it had been the holiday destination of Queen Victoria, who had her summer residence at the Osborne House, East Cowes. It has a “Roman Settlements” heritage, a “Dinosaur” heritage, the famous 30 metre-high rocks called The Needles, llama and donkey sanctuaries, and a long list of famous people connected to the place, from writers/poets/naturalists Charles Dickens (who wrote his David Copperfield there), Lewis Carroll, J.B. Priestley, John Keats and Charles Darwin to director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient (1996)) and actor Jeremy Irons (The Lion King (1994)), who were born there (in Ryde and Cowes respectively). Much more than just “England in Miniature”, as it is often called, Isle of Wight has its own unique character and charm. A trip there is a trip to remember since it is bound to exceed expectations. Below are highlights from my recent trip to the Isle of Wight – I chose to focus on (i) Ventnor Botanic Garden; (ii) The Garlic Farm and on (iii) Newport.
“Lawn tennis was different. It was played “as much with the head as the hand” and it encouraged playfulness and enjoyment of performance” [David Berry, Pluto Press, 2020: 23].
This new non-fiction book is about the history of “lawn tennis”, as viewed through the prism of class and gender politics. Rather than being just a sport for the privileged and well-off, David Berry argues that tennis has also historically provided important battlegrounds for “freedom” movements, for the rights of women, immigrants, black people and people from the working class segment of the population. Referring to the sport’s “amateur” beginnings and explaining the business side of the game, Berry talks about tennis between the wars, about the history of tennis clubs, as well as details the rise of first tennis stars that helped to transform tennis from an amusing hobby played on the British Isles to a global phenomenon and industry worth millions of pounds. Often referring to Wimbledon, the oldest and most prestigious tennis tournament in the world, Berry demonstrates with a great narrative flair the constant battle to shed away the “exclusivity” of tennis, a sport which remains one of the few in the world that, from its very origin in the nineteenth century, was designed to be played by both men and women.
Enchanted forests have always had a special place in fairy-tales, folklore and mythology. In fantasy fiction, the forest is often perceived as a place of danger where anything can happen and where dark magicians or other dark forces dwell. In Slavic folklore, for example, the forest is a home to Baba Yaga, a kind of an evil witch who lives in a hut “on chicken legs”, and likes to cook and eat her victims. Similarly, in Hansel and Gretel, a brother and a sister find a gingerbread house deep in the forest, only to realise that its resident is a wicked witch. The Forbidden Forest in Harry Potter is equally a place of danger and morbid fascination, where centaurs, giant spiders and unicorns roam. Moreover, the forest can act as both a place to do evil deeds secretly and a place to hide and find the necessary refuge, as in the case of Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs, where the forest first acted as a place where the Queen’s huntsman had a task to kill Snow White, but then it became a welcoming abode for the Princess. In England, Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire is probably the most famous forest where the legend of Robin Hood is played out, and many cultures also have the tradition of a sacred grove (a holy place associated with secret rites and spiritual rituals). Below are three other examples of enchanted forests from mythology and folklore.
I. Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford – ★★★★
“They can do all because they think they can“. Virgil
“Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected. The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”. Sun Tzu
Based on the ancient account The Secret History of the Mongols (dating c. 1227), this book tells of the life of Genghis Khan, his first foreign campaigns and his later conquests of other countries. Although dramatised and sometimes not entirely objective, the book is a very engaging, endlessly fascinating and perceptive account of the world’s most successful invaders. It demonstrates all the reasons for Genghis Khan’s unprecedented success in conquest since, historically, the Mongol army was the one to whom fell numerous countries and millions of people kneeled, as the army started to dominate virtually two continents, including the majority of China, India, Russia, Persia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the South-East Asia.
Monarchs of the Sea: The Extraordinary 500-Million-Year History of Cephalopods[2017/2020] – ★★★★
This book is about the magnificent, enigmatic and elusive cephalopods (a class of molluscs to which octopuses and squid belong), their origin and 500-million-year history. Danna Staaf, a marine biologist, traces their evolution from the very origins of life on Earth in the sea, to the demise of some cephalopods in the Cretaceous period and our modern age. From the causes of the “Great Dying” that happened in the Permian period (when up to ninety-six percent of all marine species perished) to our present day threat of global warming and dangers that face nautiluses, Dr Staaf explains clearly the many issues that concern cephalopods, as well as introduces a whole variety of weird and fascinating sea creatures: from the first sponges and worms, to now extinct ammonoids and a variety of curious present-day octopuses and squid (for example, the pygmy squid and the mimic octopus). This well-illustrated book, which is written with surprising humour and succinctness, will completely delight all those who are interested in marine evolution and curious about the history of present-day cephalopods.
Since November is designated for the Non-Fiction Reading Challenge, I thought I would talk about my favourite non-fiction genres and my experience of reading non-fiction books. The only non-fiction genre which I love but will not cover below is medicine/cognitive science. It will be the topic of my next post and I also previously covered it in this list here.
Some of my favourite non-fiction books fall into the categories of history and travel (culture exploration). Be it dinosaurs (The Rise & Fall of the Dinosaurs), the Middle Ages (A Distant Mirror) or stories of survival in hostile terrains (Miracle in the Andes), I find all these topics completely fascinating. My previous favourite reads also included books on Mexico, New Orleans, New York and Rome. Though some I enjoyed more than others (for example, I did not get along with Peter Mayne’s Marrakesh book nor with Kurlansky’s Havana), I am always keeping my eyes open for interesting books in these categories. Thus, I am currently looking forward to reading A History of the Bible by John Barton, The Ghost: A Cultural History by Susan Owens, The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans by David Abulafia, and Medieval Civilisation 400-1500 by Jacques Le Goff, an author that was recommended to me by Ola G.
A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century  – ★★★★★
In this book, Barbara Tuchman explores the 14th century Europe focusing in particular on the situation in France and on the powerful clan of lords – the Coucy of Picardy, whose ambition at that time almost rivalled that of the King. The centre of the narrative here is the lifetime of Enguerrand VII de Coucy, whose double allegiances and adventures could be compared to some mythical storytelling. Providing vivid insight into various aspects of the medieval life, from childhood to tournaments, and from the state of medicine to the status of women, Tuchman’s book makes one truly step into the intriguing world of the Middle Ages and into the mentality of its people. This was a historical period that was deeply paradoxical and chaotic, in which famine, peasant revolts, foreign wars, the bubonic plague and religious struggles were all taking place in a non-stop succession amidst the existence and the proclamation of a high moral code of chivalry among the nobility, and where magic and superstition reigned inexplicably alongside one strict religious canon.
Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet  – ★★★★
This book is about once purely aristocratic and social dance that was elevated to an art of purest form and principles, which then required almost inhuman perseverance and training, and whose spectacle simply takes one’s breath away – classical ballet. From France and Russia, to Denmark and the US, and from Giselle  and Swan Lake , to Cinderella  and Spartacus , Jennifer Homans traces the history and tradition associated with classical ballet in this book, from its origins in the royal courts of France and Italy to its modern variations of the twenty-first century. The result is a well-researched book that pays as much attention to the dates and principles as it does to the aesthetics and social context.
“I never weary of great churches. It is my favourite kind of mountain scenery. Mankind was never so happily inspired as when it made a cathedral.” (Robert Louis Stevenson)
My previous trilogies of travel-related posts concerned “three quirky museums” in Brussels, Paris and London, and “my three favourite bookshops” in Brussels,Parisand London, so this time I am focusing on churches in these three cities, and my first post is about three most beautiful churches in Brussels. I love exploring churches and religious architecture, and, though my favourite place to do so is Italy, I can never resist delving into some great examples of religious architecture of such grand cities as Paris or London.
I. Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula
Gothic architecture and churches dating to the Middle Ages are my favourite, so it is no surprise that the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula starts my list. This cathedral dates to the 9th century when a St. Michael Chapel was established on the Treurenberg Hill, and the building was in construction from the 13th to 17th centuries. It is named as the patron saints of the City of Brussels – St. Michael and St. Gudula, and Victor Hugo once noted that the church represents “the purest flowering of the Gothic style”. Its imposing Gothic-style towers which are 64 metres long, its beautiful stained-glass windows and its famous Grenzing organ are just some of the reasons to visit this magnificent structure.
This comprehensive biography talks about the life of an American icon – Fred Rogers (1928 – 2003), the man behind the famous American television show for children Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1962 – 2001). Fred Rogers was more than just a presenter, his show was more than just one’s usual children’s programme, and, hence, this biography is so much more than a book about one celebrity. Always championing children’s rights and their needs, Rogers has always been known for valuing each viewer “just the way they are” and a child was truly someone who mattered on his television. Unassuming, humble and even shy, but with captivating presence, Rogers hence revolutionised children’s day-time television in the US, believing that television can be uplifting, fun and educational for everyone [2018: 172]. From Rogers’ childhood to his last TV appearance, the biography touches on many aspects of his life, including Rogers’ unparalleled-on-television authenticity, his commitment to child development, and his love for music and swimming. The Good Neighbour is a book to read because Fred Rogers was one of those people whose efforts and commitments should never be forgotten. Fred Rogers’ life is a life worth knowing.
Since I am currently learning Japanese, as well as participating in the Japanese Literature Challenge, I thought I would talk more about Japan, and its culture and tradition. Below, I will briefly and very generally highlight 3 aspects of the traditional culture of Japan which I find fascinating.
I. Inari Shrines
Inari is a deity (a Shinto God) associated with foxes, rice, prosperity and household-wellbeing. There are many Inari shrines in Japan (close to 3000!) since this deity is much respected in the country (rice, as well as its protection, is very important). The origin of this worshipping goes back to ancient times, and both Shinto and Buddhist traditions have this deity in their ranks. Inari’s messenger and guardian is a fox or kitsune (a fox in Japanese) – probably because foxes were traditionally seen as rodent-eating creatures who help to preserve rice. Thus, often, you can find small kitsune statues near the shrines, under which one can leave their offering to the spirit in the form of cooked rice soaked in rice liquor (inari-zushi). No statue of kitsune resembles any other, and there is a great variety of them. It is said that Inari shrines even have symbolic holes somewhere so that spirit foxes may have an ease of access to the shrine. There is also a special festival called Motomiya-sai (“Main Shrine Festival”) held during the summer at Fushimi Inari-taisha or the head shrine of Inari in Fushimi-ku, Kyoto to celebrate this kami (or a spirit in Japanese). Continue reading “3 Aspects of Japanese Culture and Tradition”→
The Big Oyster: A Molluscular History of New York  – ★★★★★
“The history of New York oysters is a history of New York itself – its wealth, its strength, its excitement, its greed, its thoughtlessness, its destructiveness, its blindness and – as any New Yorker will tell you – its filth. This is the history of the trashing of New York, the killing of its great estuary” [2006: xvi], so begins this marvellous non-fiction book by Mark Kurlansky, who is also the author of such popular books as Cod  and Salt . The Big Oyster tells the story of the city of New York through the prism of once one of its most famous and prized commodities – its unparalleled oysters. Currently, New York is known for its skyscrapers, its shopping and its business (among other things), but for a long time in history when you thought of New York, you first thought of its delicious and plentiful oysters [2006: xvii]. There was, indeed, a time when New York was known for its “sweet air”, enviable water and tidal systems, and its marine produce, especially its oysters. Through engaging historical accounts, literary anecdotes, culinary recipes and some of the most famous New Yorkers, Kurlansky tells a story of New York like you have never read or known it before and one we should never forget, especially in today’s ever-rising environmental and climate change concerns. Continue reading “Review: The Big Oyster by Mark Kurlansky”→
This November I visited Edinburgh, Scotland, enjoying the medieval city centre in particular and exploring the city’s history and literary tradition. Below are my highlights from this fantastic trip (all photos are mine).
I. Edinburgh Castle
Situated on the Castle Rock, Edinburgh Castle “has been the centre of Scottish life for more than 900 years, serving as a royal palace, arsenal, gun foundry, state prison and infantry barracks”. Now, it hosts a number of museums, showcasing Scotland’s rich, complicated and dramatic history. I thought the experience of Edinburgh Castle was just amazing, and it is worth its entry price. There is much to explore inside, from the Royal Palace (where Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to James VI), the magnificent Great Hall and the museum that preserves the crown jewels to the National War Museum, Museum of the Royal Scots and the new barracks. Continue reading “A Trip to Edinburgh, Scotland”→
“Alchemy is not merely an art or science to teach metallic transmutation, so much as a true and solid science that teaches how to know the centre of all things, which in the divine language is called the Spirit of Life” (Stanislas Klossowski de Rola). However, before alchemy became the modern practice of “consciousness” transmutation, it was an occult art through which people tried to know the secrets of nature and, in the process, discover the “philosopher’s stone” that would grant them immortality or turn ordinary metals into gold. It was a very complicated and obscure process that involved many uneasy steps and sometimes years of work. The six paintings below completed by six different artists can be divided into two camps – (i) those that portray alchemy as a practice of charlatans or the ignorant that leads to poverty, and (ii) those that portray alchemy as a serious and noble intellectual pursuit that laid the foundations of modern chemistry.
Celtic mythology is fascinating and includes tales from Wales, Scotland, Ireland, England’s south-west and Brittany. The legends of King Arthur (including of such figures as Lancelot and Merlin) are probably the most famous example, but the romance between Tristan and Iseult is also well-known. Below are three figures from the Celtic mythology whose stories perhaps influenced modern literature.
I. Caer (Ibormeith)
Caer is a pan-Celtic goddess/fairy maiden (worshipped in Ireland, Scotland and Wales), who is associated with dreams, sleeping and prophecy. She takes the form of a swan and lives on a lake called The Dragon’s Mouth. Caer was a love interest of Aonghus, the Irish love god, who first saw her in a dream. Aonghus wanted to marry Caer, but he first had to pass one challenge – to recognise Caer, who took the form of a swam, among other seemingly identical one hundred and fifty swans. Caer and her sisters take the form of swans every second Samhain (a pagan festival celebrated on 31 October), and remain like that for a year. Aonghus successfully completed this challenge, and he and Caer were married. Swans feature in many Continental fairy-tales too, most famously in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy-tale The Wild Swans , where a wicked witch turns the main character’s brothers into swans, and in Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake , where Prince Siegfried falls for the Swan Princess Odette. Interestingly, tasks to recognise someone and mistaken identities feature in many similar stories.
Awhile ago I wrote a poston Florence, Italy, one of the most culturally and historically rich cities in the world, and I thought I would follow it up now with a post on Siena, a medieval town in Tuscany that is situated some seventy kilometres away by car or one and a half hour ride by train from Florence. One of the reasons I love Siena is that it retained its medieval landscape; it is rich in history and its citizens still practice traditions dating to the twelve century. One legend says that Siena was founded by Remus’s sons Senius and Aschius, who hid there from their uncle Romulus (Remus and Romulus are infamous twin brothers that are characters in the legend on the founding of Rome). Even Siena’s symbol isa she-wolf, that is often pictured caring for Romulus and Remus. One other piece of information is that Siena was founded by Emperor Augustus in the 1st century BC as Sena Julia. In this post, I will briefly describe Siena’s main sights, and comment on the culture of the place. Apart from the header photo, all photos in this post are mine (again, excuse my phone camera). Continue reading “Siena, Tuscany”→
The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square  – ★★★★★
Since my previous post related to Mardi Gras celebrations, it is fitting now to talk about New Orleans, and I am presenting a curious non-fiction book by Ned Sublette, the author behind Cuba and Its Music . The World That Made New Orleans is a fascinating book that traces the history of New Orleans, Louisiana, from around 1492 to the nineteenth century: from the city’s humble beginnings on swamp soils to the French Spanish, British-American colonisations, and finally the city’s growth and ultimate urbanisation in the nineteenth century. This is not one’s ordinary history non-fiction book, however. Ned Sublette pays due attention to the music tradition of the area, its unique and changing slavery regimes, and spends time explaining why New Orleans became the diverse, jazz-pioneering and carnival-hosting city it is known today. Ambitious and well-researched, this insightful book provides an eye-opening journey into historical and cultural peculiarities of New Orleans. This is definitely the story of New Orleans like you have never read before. Continue reading “Review: The World That Made New Orleans by Ned Sublette”→