Books: 76 posts

Books and reading lists

Fall Reading : Odyssey, Celestial Bodies and Obsessions

Autumn can be described as “golden,” “melancholy” or “rainy,” but I like the Japanese epithet of autumn as “the season for reading,” dokusho no aki. There is something particularly inviting about the image of sitting down with a book and a steaming cup of tea on a rainy day. Or I like to take a favorite book of poetry to a park and read a few stanzas as I wade through the fallen leaves. This fall, however, I’ll more likely be reading at train stations and airports as I have several trips lined up. Whatever the circumstances, I made a list of books to read. For the Bois de Jasmin fall reading list, on the other hand, I want to share the books I’ve read and enjoyed. As always, I look forward to your lists and recommendations.

Homer, The Odyssey

I’ve decided to re-read The Odyssey after I finished Mary Beard’s Civilisations: How Do We Look/The Eye of Faith. Beard observes that certain works of literature influenced our culture to such a great extent that we take it for granted. Two of the most important books in the history of Western literature, as well as the oldest, are Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey. I’ve selected The Odyssey, because it was my favorite when I was a student, and the copy we had at home was a French translation by Leconte Lisle circa 1860’s. It’s a translation in prose, but I found it beautiful and suspenseful.

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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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