Category Archives: Books

“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.

“To Serve Them All My Days”

R.F. Delderfield

This is the story of David Powlett-Jones, a shell-shocked veteran, discharged from the army while World War I is still raging, who becomes a teacher at an English boy’s boarding school. The headmaster, the setting, and the students help him to recover, and the novel is about his career through World War II. It’s full of interesting characters, joy, and a portion of tragedy. It’s pleasant, even charming, without being sentimental.

“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.

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin”

Harriet Beecher Stowe

This, along with “Frankenstein, was my “book I should have read long ago” pick for a recent trip to Italy. To appreciate it you have to get around all the baggage attached to the story and to the phrase “Uncle Tom”, but I’m glad I finally read it.

I wouldn’t call Stowe a great writer. The book sentimental and full of melodrama, stereotypes, and speechifying, and she was no Twain when it comes to rendering dialect. But the characters — both good and bad — are memorable and interesting and the strong religious element is moving. It’s a powerful document about slavery, which is a part of our history that we seem afraid to explore in depth.

While there’s no room to doubt that it’s an anti-slavery novel, Stowe allows her pro-slavery characters their arguments and she shines a light on Northern hypocrisy about slavery. She shows the immorality of both “good” slave owners and harsh ones and, within the bounds of 18th century propriety, doesn’t ignore the sexual aspect of slavery.