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The only reason why I didn’t give this book a 5 out of 5 was because the book-snob in me kicked in and thought it would be too much to place it up there with Austen and Garcia Marquez. That being said, it was an utterly rewarding read: an entrancing, fast-paced view of the art world, with a good dose of investigative history and terrific storytelling.

You might recognize Philip Mould is part of the team of experts in Antiques Roadshow, where he evaluates paintings. He also started his own antiques business and soon realized that the best way to get profit and satisfy his own taste for adventure was to go after hidden masterpieces. Some risks paid off, others were disastrous, but this book focuses of six success stories – six fabulous paintings and how their true identity was uncovered.

My favorite story was about a Rembrandt self-portrait, so over-painted to reflect the fashion of different owners and centuries, that it became labelled as “by a follower of the artist”. Mould tells us of the painting’s adventures until it’s finally recognized as an original. In between he describes the birth of the Rembrandt Research Project, a unique initiative created by the Dutch Government, to ensure the protection of one of the country’s biggest assets from forgery and misattributions. The RRP is currently Chaired by Ernst van de Wetering, a fascinating man who Mould unapologetically admires:

In an old house if Amsterdam lives a professor who wields daunting power in the highest echelons of the art world. His name is Ernst van de Wetering, and he has come to be an arbiter of life and death for the works of Rembrandt.

Some of Mould’s stories are set outside the UK. He went to the United States to gather information about a Norman Rockwell painting that for four years lay hidden behind a false wall, while a forgery held a place of honor in the Norman Rockwell Museum. I also found myself hanging at the edge of my seat during his trip to the Bahamas to uncover the past of a Homer watercolor found in a dumpster in Ireland.

Each story becomes addictive and compelling because Mould tells is from a human perspective, adding interesting historic and personal insights. It also helps that the book has images of the paintings he’s describing. I lost count of the times I went back to them as I read.

If you’re interested in art or history, apart from this book I’d also recommend the BBC Series Fake or Fortune, presented by Philip Mould, the man himself. One of the episodes is about the Homer watercolor.

 

Other thoughts: S. Krishna’s Books, The Cineaste’s Bookshelf (yours?)

Book read for One, Two, Theme Challenge
Theme 3: Art business/Restoration

This was my first Orhan Pamuk and I’m sure it’s very clever, but not the kind of clever I can appreciate. I had the same feeling with If on A Winter’s Night a Traveler: I knew something quite intellectual was happening, but my brain wasn’t interested enough to make the effort.

The White Castle starts off with an entrancing premise – a 17th-century Venetian student doctor is captured by Ottoman pirates and taken to Constantinople as a slave. He is sold to Hoja, a scholar, with whom our main character (we never know his name) bears a close physical resemblance. Almost from the start the master demands that his slave tells him everything about his life and teaches him all he knows.

After a while the Sultan starts noticing Hoja’s astrological predictions, and makes him the Imperial Astrologer. He also asks him to build a giant weapon, which they plan to use to take the White Castle. But that’s not the most important part of the story. Over the years, and as they work closely together, master and slave begin having conversations about what makes a person who they are. They look so alike that, if they were to exchange knowledge of each others’ history and secrets, could they actually exchange identities? So the slave starts to fear that his master will kill him and take over his former life in Venice.

The whole book is told in the first person, but almost always using indirect speech (grammar people, is that the right way to describe it?). A direct transcription of something being said is very rare and short, although their conversations are at the core of the story. The narrator is always describing what’s happening without letting people talk for themselves:

Towards morning, in order to calm his nerves, he recited to me once more this piece of rhetoric about the logic of the turning of the planets but this time he recited it backwards, like an incantation. Loading our instruments on a wagon he borrowed, he left for the pasha’s mansion.

This made it grindingly monotonous and dry. Like I was listening to a dubbed movie where all the characters are played by one person with the same tone of voice. I found myself alienated from the story.

It’s pretty unusual that a historical novel set in Constantinople/Istanbul doesn’t make a strong impression of time and place. Unfortunately, The White Castle left me with no lasting images, no recollection of the narrator’s day-to-day life, no memory of the city’s sights, sounds or smells, clever descriptions, one-liners or clever figure of speech. Thinking back, I only recall an endless chain of sentences with little emotional value.

Ultimately, the book felt like an excuse to discuss existentialism, identity and the master-slave dialectic. I don’t mind philosophy in my novels, but if the story and setting are so secondary, I’d rather be reading non-fiction.

I’m not ready to give Pamuk a pass yet, I love Istanbul too much and heard too many good things about My Name is Red.

***

Other thoughts: another cookie crumbles, Culture Vulture, A Life in Fiction (yours?)

Book read for One, Two, Theme Challenge
Theme 4: Byzantium/Constantinople/Ottoman Empire/Istanbul


I already have a soft spot for books and movies about the power of art, but even without it I’m sure I’d still loved this one.

Although it’s a children’s book I would recommend it to everyone, including people who get entranced by a Chagall or Klimt, people who can’t help thinking “I could do that” when looking at a Miró or Mondrian, and those like me, who do both.

Dylan is a young boy living in the small Welsh town of Manod (population: very few and rapidly decreasing). So small that Dylan becomes the only boy in his school. He’s fervently proud of Manod, but his family might be forced to move to greener pastures. They own the only gas station/copy shop/coffee house around, but as people leave town, business is dangerously slow.

But Manod’s lethargy is about to be challenged: because of floods in London, the entire art collection of the British Museum is moved to the inside of Manod Mountain’s abandoned mines. As townspeople start to interact with the paintings, the whole village slowly comes to life once again.

There are few things that I love more in literature than a British village full of eccentric characters, and Manod has its fair share. It’s fascinating to see their reaction to art’s strange new world: Nice Tom, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ #1 fan, is inspired by Meléndez’s “Still Life with Oranges and Walnuts” to create unique window displays, while the bitter Mr. Davis, the butcher with a phobia of liver, after seeing Monet’s “The Bathers at La Grenouillère” takes a decision that will astonish the whole town.

After reading the amazing The Monuments Men last year I needed to know more about art preservation during WWII and Framed caught my eye because it’s based on a true story. During the blitz the paintings of the British Museum were hidden in a vast mine, a mile underground, in the remote town of Blaenau Ffestiniog in North Wales. The whole thing was supposed to be top-secret, but we’re talking about a small town after all… Once a month one of the paintings was sent back to London’s National Gallery and people would queue up just to look at that one painting.

Stuff like this makes me all fuzzy inside.

In an interview, Cottrell Boyce mentions another story that inspired him: during the war the Hermitage in St. Petersburg still offered tours to visitors, even though the pictures were all stored away. The guides would point to empty spaces on the wall and describe the wonders that used to hang there.

This book is worth a try, promise: it’s funny, slightly ironic, touching AND the BBC produced an adaptation, which is always a good sign.

***

Other thoughts: The Tired Reader (yours?)

Book read for One, Two, Theme Challenge
Theme 5: Art business/restoration

(By Tom Gauld)

It might have been a matter of timing, or the way I experience the Sherlock Holmes canon, it might even be all Jeremy Brett’s fault. Or even Hugh Laurie’s. The fact is: I didn’t really like The Beekeeper’s Apprentice.

My three major reasons:

Mary

It’s been a long time since I come across such a Mary Sue. Her gifts just keep piling up at an incredible speed from the first moment we (and Holmes) meet her. I got the feeling that King simply chose a favorite literary crush and then projected her wish-fulfillment fantasy.

Just for fun, I’ve made a list of the things Mary excels at: beauty, wealth yet knowing the value of money, being loved by everyone almost instantly, slenderness, chess-playing, intelligence (lots of stuff included here: chemistry, maths, theology, etc), good memory, attention to detail, intuition, courage, appeasing ravenous dogs, disguises, running, climbing, aiming and throwing, tarot reading, juggling, card and magic tricks, accents and languages, following a trail, child psychology, post-traumatic stress disorder, nice hair, healing (changing gauze, applying poultices, knowing what to do in general), driving, puzzles and encryptions.

She’s also meant to be a feminist fighting adversity, but she’s never faced with the barriers you’d expect a woman detective at the beginning of the 20th century would experience. She’s an orphan with an evil step-mother aunt, but she has amazing freedom. She goes to college, where she’s taught by a great woman mathematician and quickly becomes surrounded by supportive friends. Watson, Mrs. Hudson and Mycroft accept her immediately and even when Lestrade dismisses her as a silly little joke, he’s awed by her mental skills five seconds later. The captain of the boat she and Holmes take (un-chaperoned) to Jerusalem doesn’t even blink when Holmes introduces her as his “partner”.

A perfect Mary-Sue already has a lot of annoyance-potential, but one who flounces said perfection around and treats others in a patronizing way becomes downright unlikable. Her condescension of Watson in particular made me cringe.

Watson

Right from the start Mary refers to Watson as “Uncle John”, putting him is his right place as the affectionate, goofy companion which Holmes tolerated for want of someone better. Holmes at times also slashes at their friendship. Six examples:

Mary: Yet another example of the man’s [Watson’s] obtuseness, this inability to know a gem unless it be set in gaudy gold.

Holmes: I work alone. I always have. Even when Watson was with me, he functioned purely as another pair of hands, not in anything resembling partnership.

Mary on the phone with Watson: And Uncle, you must not mention this call to anyone, do you understand? (…) You are not terribly good at dissimulation, I know, but is terribly important.

Mary: [Watson was] not gifted with the ability to lie, and thus could not be trusted to act a part. For the first time I became aware of how that knowledge must have pained him, how saddened he must have been over the years at his failure, as he would have seen it, his inability to serve his friend save by unwittingly being manipulated by Holmes’ clever mind.

Mary: Holmes, you told me nothing, you’ve consulted with me not at all, just pushed me here and there and run roughshod over any plans I might have had and kept me in the dark, as if I were Watson(…).

And the worst one, by Holmes himself, while talking to Mary:
I do occasionally take the thoughts of others into account, you know. Particularly yours. I have to admit that you were completely justified in your protest. You are an adult, and by your very nature I was quite wrong to treat you as if you were Watson. I apologise.

This disregard for Dr. Watson is especially hurtful because, more than your typical sidekick, he’s also a great audience surrogate. He is us, the readers. He’s as awed and humbled as we are by Holmes’ intelligence. He asks the questions we want to ask and if he wasn’t there we’d have no idea what Holmes was doing.

In this book Watson is portrayed as mentally-feeble, but according to Conan Doyle he’s a capable and brave doctor and soldier, whom Holmes trusts above all and does not hesitate to call upon for both moral and physical support. Holmes often praises him for his intelligence and resourcefulness.

Throughout the original books both men become very close, but in The Beekeeper’s Apprentice Holmes even forgets (!!) to warn Watson when a killer is out to get anyone he’s close with. On another occasion, Mary lies to Watson “to protect him” and mentions how this is also a common practice for Holmes. Now, Holmes often doesn’t tell Watson about his plans but I cannot remember one instance in which he willfully lied to him (maybe you can?).

Sherlock

Although readers love Sherlock, he’s not supposed to be a “friendly” character. He’s a manipulative, arrogant, gynophobic, cocaine-addict, manic-depressive sociopath. We the “normal people” are as attracted to his brilliant mind as bunnies to head-lights. This also makes him one of the most difficult literary characters to write fan-fic about.

I did not see the original Holmes in King’s version. Here he becomes just another cozy-mystery detective, toned-down and similar to so many others.

A final side note to say that although I’m perfectly fine with romances with an age gap, I had problems with the 38 years difference here. Just couldn’t accept it as naturally as everyone else seems to. Why such a big gap? Was it really necessary for the plot?

There, I’ve finished my rant. I’m now ready to dodge the rotten tomatoes.

***

Other thoughts: The Written WordMy Reading BooksBook Bath, Steph and Tony Investigate, things mean a lot (yours?)

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

If nothing else, Generation A introduced me to the wonderful world of Earth Sandwiches. Unfortunately, for me to make one I’d have to find someone in a boat south-east of New Zealand… does it count if it’s an Earth-Sea Sandwich? You have to admit that any author who knows what an Earth Sandwich is must have his finger on the pulse of the internet generation.

Generation A is a seriously smart book. A smart idea, smartly executed and you can’t help but feel smart for getting the ending. It’s also a love song to the written word, to story-telling and the people who enjoy them, so it was rewarding on that level as well. Actually, because of it I’ve decided to add that “I pledge to read the written word” button to this blog. According to Coupland that commitment might also make my flesh tastier to any human-eating ETs.

In a near future bees are extinct and with them many of the flowers and fruit they help reproduce. Eating an apple, for instance, is a luxury because they have to be hand-pollinated. (Some parts of the world today already have to resort to these methods, the book A World Without Bees mentions the case of pears in China that are manually pollinated because of excessive use of pesticides in the 80s). Some years after the last bees were spotted, five people in different parts of the world are stung within a few days of each other. The hyper-connected world makes them instant celebrities, even before scientists whisk them off and study them in isolated sensory-deprivation rooms for weeks.

Coupland tells this story using the POV of these five people, one chapter each, always with the same order. It was great fun to see him handle distinctive voices so well, when they’re the Achilles Heels of so many other novels. It kept things interesting and fluid.

Once the five are released, they instinctively look for the only other people in the world that know what they’re feeling, so, prompted by one of the scientists, they eventually meet in an isolated island. There they begin telling stories to each other, and eventually uncover the mystery behind the bees’ disappearance and why they were stung.

Among all the funny bits and cultural references (Kmail!), there’s a lot of depth to this book. It would probably make a good bookclub choice, although I think I’d have a hard time convincing mine to choose it. In that sense Douglas Coupland is very much like Chuck Palahniuk: they both use irreverent characters, bad language and seemingly psychotic plots (gimmick fiction?) to make serious social commentary. And sometimes it’s really just fun, as illustrated by a hilarious conversation about Tweety Bird’s sexual preferences.

Both Generation X and Generation A follow the same type of narrative and debate about technology, the internet and the creation of a “hive” feeling that threatens our individuality – I know what I Google, I do what I Facebook (I read what I blog? :)). Among this information overload, reading a book is still very much a silent action, between you and the voice in your head, which can help keep your creativity and personality. Or at least that’s the theory in Generation A.

***

Other thoughts: Steph & Tony Investigate, Farm Lane BooksLeeswammes’s Blog (yours?)

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

The other day I learnt a new word: polymath, meaning, a person of great learning in several fields of study. I first heard it applied to Stephen Fry, but after An Object of Beauty I think it could also describe Steve Martin.

Shame on me, I didn’t even know he was also a writer until Steph’s review. This book was the perfect choice for my Art Restoration & Business theme (One, Two, Theme Challenge).

The story follows Lacey Yeager’s career in the New York art world, from her bottom-of-the-food-chain job at Sotheby’s in the early 90s to owning her own gallery. She’s ambitious, cunning, has good art instincts and she not afraid to use sex to get ahead (“When she was alone, she was potential; with others she was realized.”).

Usually authors get us to dislike such a woman character, but Lacey never becomes a predator who does anything to go ahead and I respected her for having no regrets when a gamble failed. I think this might be what Martin had in mind, because he decided to tell the story from the POV of a man who’s half in love with her. I was rooting for Lacey, even if in a somewhat dispassionate way, like when I’m watching a game when my team isn’t playing and decide to support one just to make the watching more interesting.

Most of the reviews I’ve read can be divided between the readers who focused on Lacey and the ones who focused on Martin’s take on the art world. I’m more inclined to the last group.

Lacey was an interesting woman to get to know but what really fascinated me was Martin’s clear love affair with art. At certain moments in the book he goes off on a speech on art history and hilarious conversations between intellectuals and nouveau riche collectors.

What for another writer might have been a sleep-inducing exercise, Martin uses his skills as a comedian to make everything seen vivid and slightly insane, which is how I always saw the art world in the first place.

(Mr. Martin, if you’re reading this, please write a non-fiction book just with your thoughts on art!)

By 1997, the art market, becalmed over the previous seven years, was beginning to catch wind. A day spent trekking from Sotheby’s to Christie’s with a lunch stop at Sant Ambroeus on Madison Avenue was a collector’s version of the Grand Tour. Increased foot traffic at galleries and auction houses indicated a widening public interest. Prices were what acclimated to the art world while writing fledgling reviews for ARTnews or Artforum, I was still surprised that no belligerent letters appeared in the paper condemning huge sums spent on art that could be better spent on children’s hospitals.

The public seemed to accept these sudden escalations with either resignation or glee. I couldn’t tell which. I can’t imagine that art prices reported around the water cooler were ever responded to with a “That’s fantastic” – except the water cooler at the auction houses – and than likely they were met with a dismissive sniff or complaint.

Some of the dialogues were very similar to the ones I had with my friends at art school. I wasn’t part of the cool, “real” artists group, but fell in with the designers, illustrators and graphic novel artists (some of them are doing amazing work, including for Marvel, check out Ricardo and João’s blogs) so we felt we were entitled to a bit of fun at their expense.

Let’s say you’re going to buy a puppy. You’re going to buy a yellow lab. A cuddly yellow lab. So you read that you should go to a breeder because you don’t want to get one that’s going to go sick on you. Now you get to the breeder and you find out there’s English labs and American labs. American labs are good for hunting because they’re kind of lithe. But you don’t want to hunt him, so you go for an English lab, more stocky. Then you’re told that the real prize of the Labrador breed is one with a big head.

So you wait and wait, and finally you get one with a big head. Now you take it home and proudly show your big-headed puppy to friend. You’re thinking, I’ve got this great show dog, and English lab with a big head, and your friend is thinking, What an ugly puppy.

So in the end I was left with one question: what did the art world think of An Object of Beauty? Did they see themselves reflected in it or simply dismissed it?

***

Other thoughts: Steph & Tony Investigate, Unputdownables (yours?)

Book read for One, Two, Theme Challenge
Theme 5: Art business/restoration

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


Arrived Sunday night from a mini-vacation in Istanbul, which was confirmed as one of my favorite European (and Asian) cities (if not really the favorite).

Of course there was some book shopping involved, this time at the Robinson Crusoe bookshop in Beyoglu’s main street. It’s reputedly “Istanbul’s best foreign book shop” and it has a great vibe, with its tall shelves in dark wood. I especially appreciated their section on Turkey and came out with three souvenirs, all ideal for my Istanbul/Constantinople/Byzantium theme of the One, Two, Theme Challenge:

(View from our hotel)

  • The Flea Palace by Elif Shafak
  • The White Castle by Orhan Pamuk
  • Strolling Through Istanbul: The Classic Guide to the City by Hillary Sumner-Boyd and John Freely

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

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