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If you want to know about Mehmet the conqueror, the warrior, the military genius, this is the book for you, however, if like me you’d like some insight into Mehmet the man, father, son, husband and scholar, then it’s likely you’ll also be a bit disappointed.

At 21 years old, Mehmet II put a definite end to the Byzantine Empire by conquering Constantinople. He also took over part of Asia and in Europe went as far as Belgrade. He started the Ottoman “tradition” of fratricide, built the Topkapi Palace and had three Popes organizing Crusades against him. He must have been an interesting and charismatic man (after all, he had a reputation for ruthlessness, but chose to pose for one of his few portraits holding a flower to his nose) but Freely never gives us any insight into his thoughts.

There are endless descriptions of battles, conquests and treaties. A whole chapter describes the Topkapi Palace almost room by room, another lists the buildings built during Mehmet’s reign which are still standing in Istanbul today. The last third of the book is actually the story of Mehmet’s descendants up to modern Turkey (which might have been more interesting, had my main interest not been Mehmet himself).

What drove him? What were his motivations and influences? We get little in that respect, except for isolated pieces of information, like the books in his library, his personal take on religion and his bland poetry.

Mehmet the father is only lightly touched and Mehmet the husband is all but absent. He had several wives but was buried next to only one – an interesting detail which I’d have loved Freely to touch. His death was described in a matter-of-fact way, which also took me a bit aback:

Mehmet had called a halt here because he had been stricken by sever abdominal pains. His Persian physician had administrated medicine that only made matters worst and so Mehmet’s old Jewish doctor, master Ya’qub, was called in. Ya’qub concluded that the pain was caused by blockage of the intestines, but despite his frantic efforts he was unable to do anything more than aliviate the Sultan’s agony with powerful doses of opium.

Mehmet lingered on until late in the evening of 3 May 1481, when he passed away at the 22nd hour, according to Giovanni Maria Angiolello. The Sultan was 49 when he died having reign for more than 30 years, most of which he had spent in war. [he then goes on about how the Viziers tried to keep the death a secret and what his sons did next.]

You can feel Freely’s love for Istanbul (which actually made me buy his other book “Strolling Through Istanbul: A Guide to the City”), and it’s clear this is a well-researched, solid book about Ottoman history, but it’s too much a list of events to become an engaging biography of Sultan Mehmet. Maybe Freely was weary of making assumptions or going into speculation? That must be the eternal struggle of the biographer, especially when dealing with a subject which died so long ago.

Also, this must hold the record for most paragraphs starting with “Meanwhile”…

Book read for One, Two, Theme Challenge
Theme 6: Byzantium/Constantinople/Ottoman Empire/Istanbul


Some books that have good timing. “Extra Virgin” is a memoir of two English women who decide to buy a derelict house (olive grove included) in the mountains of Liguria, Italy. It was a decision that raised not a few eyebrows and put into perspective one I’ve made recently.

In the middle of an economic recession I’ve decided to quit my senior job in one of the city’s larger consultancies to accept an opportunity in a tinny NGO dealing with renewable energy in developing countries. It involved some serious self-questioning (and some discussions with Andre about the impact on our household budget) but it’s decided and I feel damn good about it! From where I’m standing, even if I am romanticizing the NGO world, it’s still a risk I need to take. I’ve been toying with the idea for years and it’s now or never. I’m done with Big Business and can already feel my karma improving. Wish me luck!

Now back to the book. I’m not a big fan of these memoirs about moving to a Mediterranean Eden and probably wouldn’t have read “Extra Virgin” if it wasn’t for my Olive theme in the One, Two, Theme Challenge. I was bored out of my wits with “Under the Tuscan Sun” and found Richard Hewitt’s “A Cottage in Portugal” vaguely offensive. I felt he didn’t try to understand the reasons behind the surreal things that happen to him. Maybe it was just a patriotic tantrum, but either way, it didn’t work for me. In “Extra Virgin”, and just like Richard Hewitt, Lucy and Annie also met a “singular logic”, but they face it with a different philosophy: understand, accept and integrate (just like I did when first faced with the Belgian waste collection system…).

For instance, at a certain point they noticed their neighbor Nico wasn’t exactly the friendliest guy in the world and assumed it was a dislike for the foreigners (and single women at that!) who were invading honest-to-God Ligurian land. But no, many moons later they’ve come to realize that his antipathy was because they didn’t “clean” their land, making it a fire-hazard to the olive trees and houses around them. Nico assumed they knew this (how could they not? It’s common sense!), and were just being negligent.

These and other misunderstandings are described in a funny, easy-going way, with not a small dose of humility and self-mirth. You can clearly feel their love for Italy, Liguria, their small village and own piece of land.

Her descriptions of meals were especially true to the love affair between Italians and their gastronomy:

We go on eating all afternoon, the digestive system expanding, as usual, to fill the entire universe and more.

It was interesting to notice the similarities with Portuguese culture, not only in our own relationship with food, but also in other idiosyncrasies (dogmas really) that foreigners don’t really understand. For example, you cannot swim after a meal, not for the next 3 hours after you finish eating (at least!). Why is that? I never really understood myself, but someone always knows someone who knew someone who broke the rule and suffered a horrible death.

Annie and her sister go through a slow learning process, but in “Extra Virgin” she never patronizes us with an unrealistic romanticization of Italy or the proverbial “quaint” peasants. There’s HIV and dark WWII stories, but there’s also plenty of laughing-out-loud episodes. In between I gained a new respect for olives:

And thanks to all those insistently ripening eat-me-now-or-I’ll-rot vegetable we have at last understood what it is about the olive that has made it such a symbol of peace and plenty for the last couple of thousand years. The olive is magic: if you have olive oil, which we do – even though ours is for the moment bought at Ugo’s and may very well be full of only the Lord knows what – you can transform visually calorie-free greenery into nutritious-packed substance.

The only reason why I don’t give it a 5/5 is because I missed the personal factor. Annie is funny and a keen observer, but we know almost nothing about her, her background, her family or her life in England. It’s only on rare occasions that she lets us glimpse her thoughts, including the doubts she must have occasionally felt about her endeavor. In many way the book feels too… anthropological.

Book read for One, Two, Theme Challenge
Theme 3: Olives/Olive oil


If you’re looking for a book with all the answers, “A World without Bees” will not be it, especially because, well, no one actually has them. Nor will you find apocalyptic, “The end in nigh!” type of scaremongering. What you will find is an overview of the history, importance and possible causes of what became known as Colony Collapse Disorder or CCD.

Bees affected with CCD just suddenly disappear: one day a beekeeper has a healthy beehive, the next all he’s left with is the queen and a few helpers. The phenomenon seems completely random, as it can affect only one hive in a group or all, there are reports of the same symptoms across the globe and in all sorts of environment, from farms where chemicals are used, to cities and places off the beaten track. It’s a veritable, old-fashioned, scientific mystery.

It’s not an easy topic to transform into a book that’s accessible to everyone (lots of chemistry and genetics) but Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum managed to pull it off. They picked up a myriad of theories, studies and contradictory opinions and put them together in simple and (in my non-expect opinion) trustworthy chapters. They start with how bees work, move on to why they’re important, how CCD was first “discovered”, its dimension, possible theories and end with what would happen in a world without bees. (By the way, no, the human race would not become extinct – give us a little credit! – but it would make everything more expensive and much less fun. For instance, no strawberries or chocolate!)

It’s obvious the authors put a lot of work into the book and crossed the world to talk to the right people. They did such a great job that their book comes together as a very strong argument for a holistic view of the world. Call it an ecosystem, call it the butterfly effect, call it cause-consequence, but the bottom-line is: everything is connected. Globalization, with its widespread exchange of animals, insects and viruses has not been kind to honeybees.

It was also interesting to read how the research community, especially the one funded by the industry, seems to focus on creating a stronger honeybee through genetics instead of dealing with the problems which seem to be at the heart of CCD: the industrialization of beekeeping, widespread monocultures, declining bee-friendly areas, pollution, chemicals, GMOs, and the lack of biodiversity in bees and in general. As the authors very well put it:

The danger of creating a superbee, is that a superbug would more than likely follow in its wake, and the western honeybee already has enough ordinary foes to contend with.

Now I must confess something. Although I really enjoyed the book, my favorite part was not the focus on CCD but the first chapters, where Benjamin and McCallum describe life inside a beehive and how honeybees actually work. I was ab-so-lu-te-ly fascinated and really glad I chose this theme for the One, Two, Theme Challenge. What remarkable creatures they are! I’m looking forward to reading the other books in the theme, which will focus more on the bees and less on what threatens them.

Did you know that once a bee discovers a good source of food it passes on the information to the rest of the hive through a “waggle dance”? They can transmit things like time to target and direction according to the sun. They even make adjustments to the dance considering the sun’s changing trajectory since they started the ritual.

 

This book made me want plant more flowers in my terrace – bee-friendly flowers. If you have a urban garden, take a look at this Guide to a Bee-Friendly Garden.

Book read for One, Two, Theme Challenge
Theme 4: Bees/Honey

(Aachen’s Cathedral after bombings – photo from here)

One of the biggest intersections in my life was at the end of high school when I had to decide what to study in college. We don’t have a minor and major system, so whatever you choose you’ll have to stick to it for at least 4 years, unless you start again. My choice was between art restoration and communications. I loved the idea of both, but was aware that it was a choice between risk and safety, since the restoration market in Portugal is tinny, prestigious connections mean a lot and I was as middle class as they come. So I went with the safer option.

I don’t regret the decision, but still think a lot about it. My dream job would be doing comms for an organisation like UNESCO. I still continue to have a great interest in art and the efforts to preserve it, so this book’s theme was right up my alley.

The Monuments Men (non-fiction) is about the untold story of a group of soldiers whose main mission was to help save the artistic and architectural treasures at risk during and after WWII. It’s a fascinating, almost unknown account, and one that (like Henrietta Lacks’) this book is helping bring to light. The story is divided into two parts. The first is about the Monuments Men who were in the battle front, trying to preserve as much art as possible in the villages and cities gradually taken over by the Allied forces. The second details the treasure hunt for the art pieces systematically looted by the Nazis from their occupied territories, mainly France and Belgium.

Although the author is from the start focusing on the build up towards the second part, it was the first that touched me the most. The Monuments Men’s descriptions of entering for the first time since their severe bombings in cities like Aachen and Cologne were incredibly real. Captain Hancock’s exploration of Aachen’s Cathedral (which I visited for the first time only a couple of months ago), his account of what was lost forever and miraculously salvaged, got me all choked up. Other favorite bits were Edsel’s passionate telling of the theft and hunt for the Ghent Panel and the Bruges Madonna (both here in Belgium), which I’ve also seen several times without knowing this part of their history – note to self: go back and look again.

Through the personal experiences of these men and women, including letters they wrote home, Edsel draws the bigger picture: art as a the visible part of what’s best in Man and its frailty when faced with war. He also briefly touches on more modern examples, suggesting that a Monuments Men-type of team could have prevented the looting of 15.000 priceless works of art from Baghdad’s National Museum. I wish he had gone more into the situation in current conflicts. Do you remember the Taliban’s bombing of the Buddha statues in Afghanistan back in 2001? What about the bombing of Dubrovnik in 1991 during the Yugoslavian War? Did we learn anything from the Monuments Men’s experiences during WWI?

Here’s one of my favorite passages:

Outside, the colonel was cheering, delighted by his first encounter with warfare. Inside, two Monuments Men bent over a four-hundred-year-old painting in the faint light of a newly arrived lamp. The first was kneeling on the ground, studying its surface like an archeologist in an Egyptian tomb or a medic with a wounded man. The second hunched behind him, concentrating on his notes. The soldiers, tired and dirty, huddled around them like the shepherds in the manger, staring silently at a painting of expressive faces and peasant villagers and at the two adult men in soldier’s grab fussing over every square centimeter of its surface.

I’m aware that the reason I loved this book so much has more to do with the theme than the writing. I enjoyed Edsle’s style, but some parts felt a bit slow and I don’t think he was quite there when describing the inner musings of some of the characters. But overall, it was an exciting, touching and uplifting story. I’m sure I’ll never enter the Louvre or look up at Cologne’s dark Cathedral (I call it Saruman’s Tower) in the same way.

(Cologne after Allied bombing – it’s Cathedral almost intact – photo from here)

Other books I liked about artists, art works and its restoration:

  • The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier, about the making of the six famous tapestries with the same name.
  • The Flanders Panel by Arturo Perez-Reverte, about a mystery hidden in a painting from the 15th century, uncovered by the restorer working on it.
  • The Sarantine Mosaic duology by Guy Gavriel Kay, a fantasy novel inspired in 6th centure Byzantium, about a mosaicist’s travels and adventures.
  • The Forest Lover by Susan Vreeland, a novel based on the life of Canadian painter Emily Carr.
  • My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok, a moving story about a Hasidic Jewish boy in New York City who from its infancy shows sign of an amazing talent in painting.

The first time I heard about this book was in Time magazine’s book review and I immediately added it to my wishlist.  It was also the first time I’ve ever heard of HeLa, that turned out to be one of the most famous words in research history. It’s the name of a cell line scientists have been reproducing since the 50s in order to develop and test treatments. It was used to discover the polio vaccine, it went up in the first space flight and even today it’s still one of the most used tools in labs around the world.

HeLa wasn’t spontaneously produced, it came from Henrietta Lacks, an un-sung heroine of science. She was a black tobacco farmer from whom in 1951 a doctor removed, without her knowledge or consent, a piece of her cervical cancer, which late became know as HeLa. She died shortly after leaving behind 5 children and over time her name was almost forgotten by the scientific community. In the early 90s, author Barbara Skoots became curious about the origin of the HeLa cells she was using regularly during her biological science studies and decided to write a book about them.

The Immortal Life… intertwines two stories. One follows the 10 years research Skoots did on Henrietta and her descendents and the other is about HeLa, the history of cell research and the ethical questions it raised.

Despite the emotional power of the fist storyline (and I’m always a sucker for the “human interest”, one of the reasons why I was curious about this book in the first place), it was the scientific bit that unexpectedly hooked me. Skoots’ outline of the history of cell research is written in a compelling way, even (or especially?) for laymen. Her insights on the past and present of informed consent, patients’ rights and donation of human matter for scientific and commercial purposes, were the highlight of the book for me.

Doctors in the States (have to look into the situation in Europe) don’t need patients consent to store and use human tissue discarded is surgeries. Once it’s out of your body, be it your placenta or appendix, you no longer have rights over it, even if researchers use it for profit. Many scientist fear the need for consent would only fuel endless legal battles and they are probably right, but shouldn’t donors also have their say? At least, and as many organisations demand, shouldn’t we be able to ethically object to certain types of research being done on our cells, such as bio-weapons? Interesting questions, interesting book. It seems Oprah also thought so, because she’s producing an adaptation for HBO.

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