Books: 75 posts

Books and reading lists

Empress Nur Jahan by Ruby Lal : Power and Roses

One doesn’t often see empresses portrayed loading a gun, but among the many representations of Nur Jahan, the 17th century Mughal sovereign, the most famous shows her doing just that. She’s standing against a leafy landscape, dressed in a man’s turban, orange trousers and a transparent silk coat. The musket is long and unwieldy, but she handles it with ease. Her posture is confident, bold and self-assured. When the painting was presented to Nur Jahan’s husband, the emperor Jahangir, he proclaimed it perfect and named the court painter Abul-Hasan, Nadir uz-Zaman, the Wonder of the Age. But as the historian Ruby Lal notes in her book, Empress : The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan, the true wonder was the subject of the painting herself.

Nur Jahan (1577-1645) was born Mihr un-Nissa, a daughter of Persian nobles who left the repressive conditions of Safavid Iran for the greater freedom–and wealth–of Mughal India. She became Nur Jahan, the Light of the World, when she married Jahangir in 1611. She was an unconventional imperial spouse, because she was not only past the nubile age–she was 34 at the time of their betrothal, but also a widow and a mother. Records don’t tell us exactly how the meeting between Mihr and Jahangir happened. What we know for sure is how much the emperor esteemed his wife, describing her bravery, archery and shooting skills, her wisdom, and her generosity at length in his journal, Jahangirnama.

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Culinary and Aromatic Journey Across the Islamic World

“My most vivid scent from Beirut was that of gardenias. Our neighbor’s garden was full of gardenia trees and when they flowered, the smell was so heady and divine that I would stay outside just to enjoy it,” recalls Lebanese-born Anissa Helou. As a journalist, chef and prolific cookbook author, she has traveled the world collecting recipes and learning how different nationalities prepare their food. Yet when I ask her for a favorite scent memory, it’s the perfume of Lebanese gardenias that she describes.

I was inspired to reach out to Helou after I spent a few weeks in a haze of coriander, rosewater and saffron, thanks to her magnum opus, Feast: Food of the Islamic World. Published this spring after many years of extensive research, it’s a fascinating compendium of recipes from countries united by their Islamic heritage. As I describe in my article for FT Magazine, A Cultural And Aromatic Journey Across the Islamic World, another common link among the diverse cuisines Helou describes is their attention to aromatics.

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Mary Beard on How We Look at Art

If ancient Greeks were transported to the rural Ukraine of the 21st century, they would have been surprised to see elements of their designs used with a liberal hand. A faux Greek portico attached to a housing unit meant “a cultural institution” to Soviet planners. Many mini-Parthenons dot the bucolic landscapes, the so-called Houses of Culture that once disseminated the light of the Marxist credo and hosted weekly village dances and now shelter shops and offices, capitalist style. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 rejected much about the old order–the language, the traditions, the customs, the family allegiances, but such was the power of classical art that the Soviet style became defined by it. Culture had to come with Doric columns in tow.

Mary Beard’s book Civilisations: How Do We Look/The Eye of Faith (public library) is about the way we look at art and the notions we have about it. A renowned historian of the ancient world looks at the way people throughout history thought of art and expressed their ideas of themselves by both creating it and interacting with it. The Soviet example is a good illustration for Beard’s idea of art as used to inscribe certain values and principles into the landscape and into daily life.

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Spring Folding Into Summer : Haiku of the Day

Changing the dresses
Spring has vanished
Into a long coffer

—Ihara Saikaku

The image that this poem plays on is a wooden chest for storing clothes. The change of seasons in traditional Japan used to be associated with the heavier spring kimono being exchanged for the light summer one. As the cherry petals fall and vanish into the earth, so does spring itself. Summer is waiting in the wings.

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Days of Reading

Two weeks ago, talking about an essay by Marcel Proust, I wrote about the place that the word “reading” evokes for me. Finding myself in this very spot, I wanted to share it with you. It’s located near Poltava, one of the oldest towns in Ukraine, although our garden is far enough from the bustle of the town. The apricot tree I mentioned has long been gone, as have the people who planted the garden, my great-grandparents, but the cherry orchard, the hammock, the thicket of jasmine are still there. And so I am with my book.

I spread the blanket under the bush we call “the nightingale’s tree.” It grows tall fronds covered with fuzzy, honey-smelling white blossoms. The cherries are still green, but it’s still early, it’s still spring, and I don’t rush headlong into summer.

My book today is Vivre Dans Le Feu: Confessions (Living in the Fire: Confessions) by Marina Tsvetaeva. It’s a compilation of the poet’s letters and diaries made and commented by the late Tsvetan Todorov. In English, I recommend a similar compilation, but spanning only the years between 1917 and 1922, Earthly Signs, recently translated and edited by the New York Review of Books. On the other hand, if you’re new to Tsvetaeva’s poetry, I would suggest starting with her magnificent The Poem of the EndThe Poem of the Mountain, and The Ratcatcher.

Perhaps, I’ve asked you this already, but if not, where do you like reading?

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  • Melissa Rosen in Scents That Satisfy Wanderlust: So lovely. Thanks for sharing August 19, 2018 at 10:22pm

  • Raquel in Scents That Satisfy Wanderlust: Perfumes remind me of people like Estee from Estee Lauder to my mother. There are other kind of smells that remind me of places, like eucalyptus trees to a place… August 19, 2018 at 11:53am

  • gunmetal24 in Scents That Satisfy Wanderlust: I came across a few niche scents recently which are very picture realistic of buddhist temples and certain locations in my home country Malaysia. It brings back good memories but… August 18, 2018 at 4:17pm

  • AndreaR in Scents That Satisfy Wanderlust: Jean Nate’s Body Splash, hot summers in Los Angeles. Annick Goutal’s Eau du Sud, Provence L’Artisan, Premier Figure Extreme, Greece Houbigant, Orangers en Fleurs, Venice August 18, 2018 at 9:23am

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