Tuesday, January 25, 2011

What gardeners do in the winter Part I: Read - Five Book Recommendations

Inspired by Diana at Elephant's Eye and by my gardener's frustration at forced idleness in the winter, I'm going to look at the bright side of having more time to read and report on five off-topic, i.e. non-gardening, books I've enjoyed reading this year and would recommend. In no particular order, these are my picks; reviews below:

Maximum City: Bombay Lost & Found by Suketu Mehta (2004)
Europe's Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age by Steven Hill (2010)
Wolf Hall: A Novel by Hilary Mantel (2009)
A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman (1978)
Maria Stuart by Stefan Zweig (1935)


Maximum City: Bombay Lost & Found by Suketu Mehta (2004)

Over five hundred pages of intricately detailed, excellently researched first-hand information on the fascination and horror that Bombay has become. It's hard to put it any other way. The author, an American journalist and writer originally from Bombay, makes a compelling case for why above all the Hindu-Muslim riots in the early 1990's (but also some very bad legislation such as the rent control laws) have transformed the city into an ungovernable place where underworld gangs and the corrupt, right-wing Shiv Sena party have replaced civil society. Mehta manages to befriend an array of players ranging from a chief of police to gangster bosses and hired killers, from Hindi film directors, actors and producers to fashion photographers and prostitutes, conducting long conversations with all of them and accompanying them on their daily business. Especially hard to stomach are the descriptions of everyday torture and murders by the city police. Especially poignant is his description of the sad life of a beer bar dancing girl - a strange form of prostitution in India (strange to Westerners), which is also very telling about this society's attitude towards women. And his account of how movies are made in Bollywood is astounding. The book is frightening, especially when it describes the globalization of crime, and doesn't leave much hope for change in this behemoth of a city. And it is absorbing reading, especially for anyone who has spent time in India and retains an empathy for this multifaceted country and its people.

Europe's Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age by Steven Hill (2010)

I was fortunate to be able to attend a lecture by Hill at the German-American Institute in Heidelberg a few months ago, and was so impressed that I bought his book and read it straight through. It speaks from the heart of any American who has lived and worked long enough in Europe to have benefited from this continent's (I'm speaking of Western Europe here) wonderful labor, health, welfare, leisure, cultural, urban, educational and political systems and laws. He makes a very good case encouraging Americans to look beyond their own borders and finally realize, for example, that health care for all is not "socialism", but instead an absolute imperative in any civilized society, and that labor protection laws will not lead to the downfall of capitalism. Chapter by chapter he describes why Europe's democracies will in the end be more sustainable and resilient than the U.S.'s if some badly needed reforms are not undertaken soon. He is by no means uncritical of Europe, and I found his slant on racism and discrimination in France and Germany very interesting. It's always enlightening when a knowledgeable person from outside the system (Hill is an American) takes a critical look at things. Well written and very readable.

Wolf Hall: A Novel by Hilary Mantel (2009)

photo from amazon.com - I already lent out my copy
This Booker Prize winner fictionalizes the historical figure of Thomas Cromwell to give us an intimate look at the court of Henry VIII during his wooing of and marriage to Ann Boleyn, the period that also saw the downfall of both Thomas Wolsey and Thomas More and the English monarchy's break with the Catholic Church. At first the book put me off, since Mantel has a gimmicky way of always referring to her protagonist, Cromwell, only as "he", making references within the context of a paragraph or event hard to understand, especially since in those days every second male seemed to be named "Thomas". But I got used to that and then became engrossed in the novel and the author's portrayals of Cromwell, the king, Catherine of Aragon, Ann Boleyn, Thomas More, Thomas Wolsey, and all the other figures from the amazing Tudor age in English history that still shapes life there today. Romantic and political intrigues, burnings at the stake in connection with the beginning of the Reformation, Cromwell's intellectual competition with More, Henry's battle with the Papacy and rivalry with the French court all come to life. Mantel is very critical of Thomas More, portraying the man famous for Utopia, later sainted by the Catholic Church, as a self-righteous, sadistic bigot. I can't wait for the promised sequel on Henry's marriage to Jane Seymour after he has Ann Boleyn executed. "Wolf Hall" is the Seymour family manor. So if you're as fascinated as I am by this period of history I highly recommend this novel.

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman (1978)

This book takes us back even further in European history to the times of the Hundred Year's War between and within England and France but affecting the rest of Europe as well; to the era of the plague, of crusades, fabulous castle and cathedral building, the incredible power of the church, the papacy in Avignon, the repeated ravaging of entire countrysides and slaughtering of whole towns, antisemitism, chivalry and knighthood. "A Distant Mirror" because even looking back to a time over 500 years ago some of the same elements present in the calamitous 20th century can be identified. I found this book fascinating in part because of its almost pedantically rich detail on everything including everyday life, i.e. Tuchman's attempt to portray things "the way they really were". The reader learns that there were fashion fads among the wealthy, that there was constant traffic and communication within Europe - back and forth across the Alps and across the Channel - and a network of diplomacy keeping people in England and France up to date on the latest gossip at the German, Austrian and Italian courts. After a while I bogged down a little in this book precisely because there is just such a wealth of facts and details that I found it hard to digest them. But you can pick it up and start reading just about anywhere and learn amazing things about the contrasts, contradictions and dichotomies in 14th century life. It's a work of non-fiction; interpreted history at its best for non-historians.

Maria Stuart by Stefan Zweig (1935)

I read this book in the original German and am having trouble determining whether or not it's even available in English translation. According to amazon.com there is a book variously titled "Mary Stuart" and "Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles" by Stefan Zweig, but they are apparently out of print. If you don't read German and you're really interested, you might be able to obtain it from a rare books dealer.

As you can see, I am fascinated by English history. We are now a generation further than Henry VIII, and his (and Ann Boleyn's) daughter Elizabeth is now queen of England. This book by Zweig is an interesting genre of its own. He has faithfully researched all historical sources, but also speculates about the feelings and motivations of the protagonists in a way that goes beyond scholarly biography, making it neither a scholarly biography alone nor historical fiction. What I liked about it was that I felt for the first time after reading it that I truly understood the events leading up to the execution of Mary by her cousin Elizabeth. Or to be correct, Zweig's interpretation gives a psychologically and historically plausible version. Interestingly, I started to lose interest in the book once Mary was imprisoned in England for the last 19 years before her execution, although this is the part often focused on most in fictional portrayals such as Schiller's famous play or Hollywood movies. Perhaps not surprising, though, because what a life she led up till then! Full of violence and betrayal, glory and downfall. Scotland comes across as pretty primitive, to put it mildly. What I did NOT like about the book is Zweig's sometimes patronizing and misogynous attitude towards his two main female protagonists. He believes Mary was, typical for her sex, ruled by emotions, infatuated with her first and sex slave (my words, he puts it much more discretely) of her second Scottish husband, putty in their hands, etc. He firmly believes that Mary was an accomplice in the murder of her first Scottish husband. Elizabeth is portrayed as yes, intelligent and politically savvy, much more so than Mary, but as unbearably vain and also partly ruled by her sexual inadequacies. Still, I mostly enjoyed the book and its portrayal not only of Mary, but also of life and power politics of the times.

Do any of you have some winter reading recommendations? If anyone can recommend another biography of Mary Stuart, I'd love to hear about it.

11 comments:

  1. Very interesting suggestions...Suketu Mehta's Maximum City is the only one I have read and I did find it very engaging, though I have to say that his portrayal does not at all square with Mumbai as I have experienced it - though I do not know if that reflects significant change since he did his research or a particularly sheltered time in the city on my part. Steven Hill's book sounds like reading my parents would love, I have to get it for them at some point. My mom actually wrote her Master's thesis on the detrimental effects of American labor law, so this should be right up her alley.

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  2. You got me very interested on the first book, have not heard of it nor seen it in our book stores. Hope I can find it though cuz I am very fascinated with India.

    cina

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  3. Dear Barbara, I have not read any of the books you write about here and so have been most interested to read your reviews. In particular I have a fascination of India as my mother was born there.
    I must confess that I read throughout the seasons whether there is gardening work to be done or not.....indeed, reading is somewhat guilt-free in winter but becomes gloriously decadent I feel on long lazy summer days!!

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  4. College Gardener: I, too, could not relate my own experiences in India to what Mehta writes, but of course I have never lived there and had to find an apartment, put kids into school, run a business, etc. Even Mehta writes that Mumbai is still safe as far as street crime is concerned. It's the extortion under the surface that I found so shocking.

    Cinafong: I think you'll have no trouble finding the book. It's definitely available at Amazon.

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  5. Edith, you're right, and some of my reading is also done on the swing in my garden on summer days.

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  6. You've been busy! Nothing better than a good book in winter-but I can't wait for spring!

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  7. These books look like something to keep one very busy! That is my favorite part of winter. Reading and catching up on inside decorating, etc.

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  8. What I would love to hear from you is something about an American living in Germany? Not for or against, just sharing whatever? I know my life has been changed and influenced by seeing how things are done in both Switzerland and South Africa. So much is the same, and so much is different.

    I remember squatters in the Baeckeranlage in Zurich. As a South African squatters are part of society - but living thru Zurich's winter in the bandstand, screened off by sheets of plastic, growing veg and keeping rabbits. I am still amazed!

    And thank you for responding to my - What's your five?!

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  9. I must admit that here in California Winter is the time to do a lot of the gardening, but there's a little extra time for gardening. I've enjoyed some of Michael Pollan's early books such as Botany of Desire and Second Nature. Or how about Diane Ackerman's Cultivating Delight?

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  10. Thanks for the recommendations Barbara. I have read 'Wolf Hall' which I enjoyed on the whole. It was beautifully written but as you have indicated I found I had to concentrate very hard sometimes to work out who was talking :) I am looking forward to the sequel too. Off to find out more about your other suggestions.

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  11. I'd like to read a book once in a while, but now my free time is spent on blogging and if I read, it is usually the gardening books.

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