Books: 53 posts

Books and libraries

Reading Nikolai Gogol in 2017

I celebrated Nikolai Gogol’s birthday on March 31st by picking up a volume of Dead Souls. The last time I read it in its entirety was during my school days, and many scenes were so vivid in my memory that picking up the novel again felt less like re-discovering than wandering through a familiar landscape. Gogol, the Russian and Ukrainian dramatist, playwright and novelist, is unrivaled for his sharp satire and colorful language, but what struck me this time is how relevant his observations were to our present day affairs. Today everyone is re-reading Orwell’s 1984, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and I’d like to make a case for adding Dead Souls to the list.

Let’s start with one of my favorite quotes in the book. “Absolute nonsense happens in the world. Sometimes there is no plausibility at all.” Yes, a similar thought in different formulations has been coursing through my head a lot lately. Or, “You can’t imagine how stupid the whole world has grown nowadays. The things these scribblers write!” What would be Gogol’s take on our world of “post truth,” “alternative facts,” and “fake news”?

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“I’m Dying of Love for You” : The Letters of Isabella von Parma

I returned from my recent trip to Vienna bring back not only an obsession with Johann Georg Pinsel, but also with Isabella von Parma (1741-1763), who lived at the same time as the mysterious 18th century sculptor. Isabella was one of the most remarkable personalities of the 18th century, admired for her achievements in art, music, and philosophy. The reason I became fascinated with her, however, was an excerpt from a letter she wrote to her sister-in-law, Marie Christine of Austria. “I am told that the day begins with God. I, however, begin the day by thinking of the object of my love, for I think of her incessantly.”

I am once again struck by the narrow lenses through which we see women in history. In many books Isabella is repeatedly described as “mad,” “tragic,” or “odd.” People search for the roots of her melancholy moods in the family tree and discuss at length the mental problems of her father and her mother’s cold attitude. What about the fact that princesses in the 18th century were little more than breeding mares, and Isabella had half a dozen miscarriages during her short marriage to Joseph II of Austria? The couple was under enormous pressure to produce a male offspring to the Hapsburgs.

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Illuminate Our Night Into a Day

Come through the convent doors: illumine our night into a day,
Scent with perfume the assembly of the holy men.
If a preacher tells you to forsake loving, give him a cup of wine and tell him to refresh his mind.

Hafez

Whenever I feel depressed about the current state of affairs–quite often lately, uncertain about the right course of action, or if I simply need a brush with something beautiful and profound, I turn to Hafez. It may seem strange to seek advice in the writings of a 14th poet from Shiraz, but Hafez’s work is so rich and multifaceted that it invariably gives me a new perspective. He too lived through a period of political upheavals and anxiety, and as Goethe said, “In his poetry Hafez has inscribed undeniable truth indelibly.”

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Divine Pleasures

From 1750 to 1850 India experienced one of its most turbulent and violent periods. Fissures in the Mughal Empire that had controlled most of the subcontinent since the early sixteenth century allowed competing states to take control. Written down as history, it sounds like yet another shuffling of rulers and borders, but for the contemporaries it meant slaughter and starvation. When you keep in mind the scope of the calamities, the ethereal world of the art produced at the time comes as a surprise.

“Here lovers cling to each other in abandon, surrounded by a mosaic of cushions and bolsters; elephants run amok and dart under the arches scraping their sides; armies of monkeys and bears turn into a vast cloud as they advance upon Lanka; the universe comes into being before one’s eyes as matter begins to form from void; a tiger shot in a forest tumbles nineteen times over before it falls to the ground; a blind poet envisions baby Krishna waking up; princes stand on marble embankments feeding crocodiles;… boats ply on gentle waters while lovers escape to fragrant arbours. There is so much to see here, and savour, as painters play around with time and keep manipulating space at will.”

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Winter Lists : 5 Books and 2 Perfumes

There is nothing especially winter-like about my list of books (and perfumes). It’s mainly about enjoyment, with a dose of something high-spirited. Some may call it escapism, but I see it as a way to recharge and tune out the world long enough for me to find my balance and plunge back into the routine. Moreover, high-spirited, entertaining and fun, whether in literature, art or perfume, can assume many different forms. Here is my take.

winter-list

Jeffrey Steingarten The Man Who Ate Everything

“Whenever I have nothing better to do, I roast a chicken,” writes Jeffrey Steingarten. The food critic at Vogue magazine since 1989, Steingarten is also the author of two of my favorite books about cooking and eating, The Man Who Ate Everything and It Must’ve Been Something I Ate. Steingarten is witty, irreverent and passionate, an irresistible combination. His essays are full of interesting tidbits and recipes, but the main reason I enjoy them is because of Steingarten’s dry sense of humor. I don’t know how many times I’ve read “Kyoto Cuisine,” but the scene in which he tries to pry off the lid from a bowl of soup leaves me laughing out loud every single time. In the same essay, he also describes the exquisite flavors of Japanese cuisine, reminding his reader that as a bumbling tourist he may have missed many nuances. With Steingarten you can visit the Nishikidori market in Kyoto, run a scientific test of ketchups, grill sardines with Marcella Hazan in Venice, perfect fries, or try cooking from the back of the box.

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  • SilverMoon in Recommend Me a Perfume June 2017: Hello Marilyn, given what you wear, I think you 24 Faubourg would suit you best (from the Hermes range). However, something lovely but a little different would be their new… June 28, 2017 at 3:46pm

  • Jennifer in Recommend Me a Perfume June 2017: Hoping I could get some help finding some similar scents to two discontinued fragrances that I used to enjoy in summer. The first being Lush’s Ginger perfume and the second… June 28, 2017 at 3:21pm

  • SilverMoon in Recommend Me a Perfume June 2017: hi Ben, I second Nina’s SMN Nostalgia. I bought it for my husband last Christmas and he really enjoys wearing it. I should add he also likes Knise Ten very… June 28, 2017 at 3:15pm

  • Elisa in Top 10 Summer Picnic Scents: Can’t go wrong with any of those! June 28, 2017 at 3:08pm

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