Category Archives: Nonfiction

“Spain: The Centre of the World 1519-1682”

Robert Goodwin

The story of Spain from the reign of Charles V to that of Phillip IV is a big subject. Goodwin does a good job of telling that story by using the lives of several famous figures to frame his tale.

I enjoyed reading this book on my recent trip to Spain. Thanks to Goodwin I knew more about Velázquez and El Greco than I otherwise would have while enjoying their paintings. And I appreciated my visit to the University of Salamanca more because of what I read in the book about Francisco de Vitoria and his defense of the sovreignity of native peoples.

“The Life of Hinduism”

John Stratton Hawley and Vasudha Narayanan

My recent trip to India left me with a curiosity about Hinduism as it’s lived, probably because religion is lived very publicly in India. This book — a collection of mostly academic pieces by various authors — helped me satisfy that curiosity a little. It is less personal than I had hoped it would be (I was hoping for something more journalistic, like ““Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India”“). Also, some of the pieces are surprisingly old, given the book’s 2006 publication date.

“Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India”

William Dalrymple

Dalrymple profiles nine Indians who participate in the several religions — Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, etc. — of India in different ways. It’s an interesting peek into the colorful but opaque-to-oustsiders worlds of Indian faith and practices.

I read this before my recent trip to India, and I may reread parts now that I’ve experienced the country.

“Kaleidoscope City: A Year in Varanasi”

Piers Moore Ede

Varanasi (formerly Benares) is a city on the Ganges in northern India. It’s an ancient city, continuously inhabited for thousands of years, and is considered a holy city by Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists. The previous sentence is a pretty dry description; this book — which I read before visiting Varanasi — reveals a lot about the life of the city. But nothing can compare to being there: it’s chaotic, colorful, dirty, loud, and beautiful. From a boat on the Ganges you see people doing laundry, people engaged in ritual bathing, and cremation fires, all over a fairly short distance. I’d recommend “Kaleidoscope City” to anyone with the least interest in India or its religions. Now that I’ve been to the city, I may read the book again.

“Fishing Bamboo”

John Gierach

I don’t think I’ve cast a fly since I was 14 (a half century ago!), but I remember how I used to pour over the Orvis catalog — before Orvis was a fashion brand — yearning for a bamboo fly rod, all of which were far beyond my limited budget. “Fishing Bamboo” is a pleasant book about bamboo rods, their use, and the people who build them, enhanced by Gierach’s anecdotes and slightly curmudgeonly personality.

“Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World”

Roger Crowley

This is a good, not-too-detailed book about the struggle between the Ottoman Empire and the Christian West between the Siege of Rhodes in 1522 and the Battle of Lepanto in 1572 as it played out in the Mediterranean. To me the story of the Siege of Malta of 1565 was the most interesting part of the book, not just because it’s a dramatic tale of victory despite overwhelming odds, but because I read it just before visiting Malta.

Ft. St. Angelo (center across the water), which played an important role in the Great Siege, as it looks today.

“Fear: Trump in the White House”

Bob Woodward

This should have been titled “Fear: Trump’s White House Is Everything You Were Afraid It Would Be.” It’s an interesting, depressing read, and I’m sure Woodward’s reporting is accurate. However, it’s apparent that Woodward didn’t have enough sources to provide a very complete picture, so it’s more like looking at Trump’s White House through a keyhole than from above. It’s not nearly as good as his books on the Bush administration.