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.
“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 non-fiction book is Peter Mayne’s account of his life in Marrakesh, Morocco in the 1950s. Mayne recounts his bewilderment and mishaps as he tries to live the life of a local in a country that is very different from his own. He tries to learn Arabic and make friends with local people only to find that his attempts lead him to the myriad of unsaid etiquette rules and cultural intricacies still to be learnt. Though Mayne tries his best to capture the mentality of people living in Morocco and their culture, his account turns out to be predictable and exasperating, though with welcoming doses of humour.
As with my series of “bookshops” posts (Paris, Brussels, London), I thought it was also the time to conclude my series of “quirky museums” posts (see my previous posts “3 Quirky Museums of Paris” and “3 Quirky Museums of London“). I think Brussels is the city to go if you love museums, and there are some 80 museums in the city to choose from. The city frequently hosts Museum Night Fevers and Brussels Museums Nocturnes (when museums are open until 10 p.m.), and it is also good to know that, while there are both paid and free museums, the majority of the prominent ones are free the first Wednesday (or Sunday) afternoon of every month. Whether you are a fan of Belgian surrealism (MagritteMuseum) or the comic strip (Belgian Comic Strip Center), want to know more about dinosaurs (Museum of Natural Sciences), or interested in Brussels’ history (Brussels City Musuem) or its beer (Beer Museum), there is a museum for every taste and interest.
I. Museum of Musical Instruments
This very central museum is in a stunning Art Nouveau-style building and boasts some magnificent views as seen from its top floor. This unique three-floor museum is a host to some 7000 musical instruments that come from different historical periods and continents. From familiar musical instruments to some very exotic musical objects, the museum is bound to surprise, and the great thing about it is that the visitor experience will be interactive: through an audio-guide/headphones provided, one can actually listen how some of the instruments on display sound like or sounded like. Overall, this museum is a great place to go for those interested in music (who isn’t?) and would like to find more about the diversity of musical instruments, and the history of music. There is also a shop on the premises that sells music-related gifts and souvenirs. Continue reading “3 Quirky Museums of Brussels”→
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”→
I think it is now time to conclude my “European Bookshops” trilogy. Previously, I posted a list of My 3 Favourite Bookshops in Brussels and a list of My 3 Favourite Bookshops in London, and I am concluding with this list of My 3 Favourite Bookshops in Paris. Unlike Brussels and London, I have not lived in Paris for an extensive period of time, but have had a number of interesting visits to the city to compile this list of my favourite (maybe obvious, but still) bookstores that I like to go to if I want to read or browse books in English.
This may be a very obvious first choice and a very touristy place, but I still love this charming store whose windows look out on the Notre-Dame Cathedral that is situated opposite. The shop has a great selection of English-language books, and is labyrinthic and cosy. It also has a nice café next door that sells delicious coffee, pastries and store souvenirs. Shakespeare and Co. itself is considered a literary landmark of Paris, founded by George Whitman in 1951. Its twin store, opened in 1919, once hosted such literary giants as Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The great thing about Whitman’s store is that it is open until late hours; hosts many literary events that showcase Anglophone writers; and, if you purchase a book there, it will be stamped with a unique Shakespeare and Company Kilometre Zero stamp. The Kilometre Zero of France, or the location from which historically all distances are measured, is located on the square that faces the Notre-Dame Cathedral.Continue reading “My 3 Favourite Bookshops in Paris”→
Since Halloween is the time to celebrate the unknown and mysterious, I thought I would talk about one of the greatest mysteries in South America. The Nazca Lines are a series of geoglyphs or large land designs made by pre-Inca settlers (the Nazca people) in the Peruvian desert. The designs, made between 400 BC and 10th century AD, stretch around 200 square miles, and include straight lines and geometrical figures. The most astounding of the designs are around 70 giant (up to 370 meters in size) designs of animals and plants (as well as some unrecognisable figures). Some of the well-known depictions are that of a hummingbird (hermit), a monkey, a spider, a heron, a dog, a tree and a flower, but there are also designs of human hands and a “giant”.
This August I went to Palma, Mallorca for holiday – one of the reasons – nice beaches in the vicinity of the city, another reason – to practice my Spanish and tour the largest city. I was pleased to discover that Palma is a vibrant city with interesting history and culture. Mallorca is the largest island in the Balearic archipelago and has a history dating to 2800 BC – it was once Roman and the Moorish settlement, and then an independent kingdom before being incorporated into Spain in the fourteen century. Below are some of my cultural highlights from the trip (apart from the vintage travel posters below, all photos in this post are mine). Continue reading “A Trip to Palma, Mallorca”→
Waterstones (Piccadilly) and Foyles (Charing Cross Road) may be the largest bookshops in London, but, when it comes to bookstores, I prefer smaller, cosier places, where the customer approach is more personable and one feels almost at home. Here is the list of my 3 favourite bookshops in London, UK:
Hatchards is supposed to be the oldest bookshop in London, established in 1797. It has a rich history and royalty connections (it currently has “three royal warrants”). It may appear relatively small on the outside, but inside it has five floors full of books, with special sections and bookcases dedicated to classics, history, science fiction, rare editions and foreign literature. Despite its grand reputation, it is very cosy and welcoming inside, and feels almost like one’s friendly shop-around-the-corner with armchairs for reading on some floors and readers’ privacy guaranteed for simple browsing at one’s leisure. The staff is always very knowledgeable, friendly and helpful, and those Hatchards shopping bags look absolutely amazing.
A Visit to Don Otavio: A Mexican Odyssey  – ★★★★1/2
“The first impact of Mexico City is physical, immensely physical. Sun, Altitude, Movement, Smells, Noise. And it is inescapable. There is no taking refuge in one more insulating shell, no use sitting in the hotel bedroom fumbling with guide books: it is here, one is in it” [Bedford, 1953: 39].
Sybille Bedford wrote about her year-long adventure in Mexico in 1953, and her book, initially titled The Sudden View: A Mexican Journey, became a classic in travel writing. In it, Bedford portrays colourfully her stay with her friend E. all over Mexico, taking journeys from Mexico City to Morelia and Guadalajara, and then to Oaxaca. At one point, Bedford visits a hacienda of one Don Otavio, situated near Lake Chapala, a place of both natural beauty and local intrigue. This is no ordinary travel writing, however – the book is written with humour and certain pathos, and Bedford ensures that there are many insightful observations on the history, geography and social conditions of the area. Even though now dated, A Visit to Don Otavio is still a very pleasurable read, not least because it often reads like an exciting adventure novel set in Mexico, rather than one’s usual travel log. Continue reading “Review: A Visit to Don Otavio: A Mexican Odyssey by Sybille Bedford”→
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”→
I was lucky enough to live for three months in Florence (or Firenze), Italy a couple of years previously and every time it is middle of April I keep thinking about this beautiful, wonderful city, my favourite in the whole world. The city is really the cradle of the Renaissance, and it has practically remained unchanged from the Middle Ages, ensuring that each visit is one of a kind cultural and historical experience. Dante Alighieri (poet), Leonardo da Vinci (painter), Niccolò Machiavelli (philosopher), Galileo Galilei (physicist), Giovanni Boccaccio (writer), Filippo Brunelleschi (architect) and Donatello (sculptor) were all born in Florence or in its environs, among many other famous people. It is also a city of beautiful Catholic churches: Santa Maria Novella, Santa Croce and San Lorenzo, to name just a few, and the sites of natural beauty around the city (such as Fiesole hills) are also worth visiting and appreciating. Everybody knows about the landmark sites of the city – The Duomo, Piazza della Signoria, Palazzo Vecchio, The Uffizi, Ponte Vecchio and Palazzo Pitti, and, in this post, I would like to share some of my favourite, slightly off-the-beaten-path locations in Florence. All photos on this post are mine (though, at that time, I had a very terrible camera). Continue reading “Florence, Tuscany”→
Brussels may not have the immediate “cool” appeal of Paris or London, but it has its own, irresistible quirky and charming side. From the beautiful architecture of the centre (be it Gothic or Art Nouveau) to comic strip murals (from Tintin to Corto Maltese), Brussels will please many, especially fans of all kinds of art and history (there are close to 100 museums in Brussels alone). Those who are into gourmet food, will also enjoy speciality waffles, Belgian chocolate and the best selection of beer. For literature lovers, there are also things to discover, and below are three of my favourite bookstores in the city.
I. Cook & Book
This place is situated some metro rides away from the city centre, but the travel is worth it. Despite “cook” in the title of this shop, there are all kinds of books available in this store, and not only those on culinary delights. There are plenty of bande dessinees, books on art and travel, as well as fiction books. More importantly, there is a nice section of English-language books. The store is very beautiful (sometimes considered one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world!), with inventive art design (books hanging from the ceiling, Union Jack decorations) and lit lamps, providing this cosy, literary and unusual atmosphere. The great thing about this atmospheric place (which is also divided into nine thematic zones) is that there is an onsite restaurant too, and one can enjoy the books while eating and drinking; address: Place du Temps Libre 1, 1200 Woluwe-Saint-Lambert, Brussels. Continue reading “My 3 Favourite Bookshops in Brussels”→
I. The Innocent Anthropologist: Notes from a Mud Hut  by Nigel Barley – ★★★★
In the late 1970s, Nigel Barley went to North Cameroon to study the Dowayos, and choosing those that represent the most “ferocious” mountain tribe existing at that time. This is his debut non-fiction account of his travels and exploration in Africa as he embarks on his fieldwork. In this book, Barley is really an “innocent” anthropologist, an idealistic young man who is a bit ignorant about what to expect in the real world outside the academia. Barley tells us how he encountered the mind-boggling bureaucracy, got lost in “the vast range of loose kingship” in the country, overcame malaria, as well as survived a horror-trip to a local dentist, among his other stories. Barley’s style of writing is appealingly laid-back, and this concise book turns out to be funny and engaging as a result. It may not be the book on the Dowayos, but part of the charm is that the account is surprisingly honest and humorous. Continue reading “Recent Travel Non-Fiction Reads: The Innocent Anthropologist, and Magic & Mystery in Tibet”→
This museum was a home to the eccentric architect and collector Sir John Soane, who asked to preserve his house after his death, which happened in 1837. This house museum is a real marvel and full of wonders and curiosities. On display are various artefacts from ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, as well as objects from ancient Egypt, including Pharaoh Seti’s sarcophagus. It also has art works by Canaletto, paintings by Hogarth, interesting architectural drawings and various fascinating sculptures. The cosiness and the mysterious nature of museum make it even more appealing. The owner definitely had a taste for the macabre, and the newly restored catacombs area is also on display. What is great is that this museum is free to the public, and it hosts various exciting candlelit nights throughout the year where you can see and admire the wondrous objects by candlelight; address: 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. Continue reading “3 Quirky Museums of London”→
These three museums are small, but they have their own peculiar attraction, and, therefore, are worth visiting.
I. Cinema Museum (Musée du Cinéma)
This tiny museum is part of the Cinémathèque Française, and is a host to a variety of objects on the history of cinema, from cinema projectors and props used in old films, to film costumes, original sketches and old photographs. The general impression on the web is that this museum is exclusively for cinephiles. However, given the nature of the artefacts on display, more people may be interested in visiting it. For example, there is a Mrs. Bates’s skull from Alfred Hitchcock’s famous movie Psycho  on display, and who has not yet seen this psychological thriller masterpiece? It will be interesting for anyone who is into unusual and macabre artefacts, as well as Hitchcockian films. There is also a robot on display from the iconic science-fiction movie by Fritz Lang – Metropolis , and that fact alone can draw many people in, for example, those who are interested in history and science-fiction props. Address: 51 Rue de Bercy, Paris. Continue reading “3 Quirky Museums of Paris”→
This November I went to New York, NY to celebrate my birthday, and am presenting some of the slightly off-the-beaten-track highlights of my journey below. New York is magical in autumn when it is covered in all those bright red and yellow leaves and it is not yet too cold.
Starting with Central Park or “the Green Lung” of New York, there are a number of interesting statues and sights there, including Strawberry Fields, dedicated to John Lennon, Hans Christian Andersen statue and the Loeb Central Park Boathouse. My favourite has got to be the statue to Balto, a heroic sled dog that led his team on the final journey to transport serum to Nome, a town that was battling an outbreak of diphtheria in 1925. Those who have seen the animation Balto  will be particularly impressed. Some people criticise the monument, saying that Balto was simply the last in the relay race to deliver the medicine with his man, but it is also fair to say that the statue symbolises the tribute to all sled dogs that were involved in this race to save lives, including to Togo and Jack.
Nearby, there is also the infamous and majestic-looking, in all its Gothic glory, Dakota Building, which was built in 1884 across from Central Park and was the city’s first luxury apartment block. It notoriously housed a number of celebrities, including Leonard Bernstein, Rosemary Clooney, Boris Karloff, Judy Garland and Rudolf Nureyev. The interesting trivia here is that the building has its own in-house power plant to provide heating for its notable residents, and the applicants who were rejected by the board to be residents include Cher, Madonna and Antonio Banderas. The site can now be considered strangely eerie and tragic since in the building’s entrance corridor occurred the murder of John Lennon and the building also features in the psychological horror by Roman Polanski Rosemary’s Baby . Continue reading “A Trip to NYC”→