I’ve been reading a lot of books about Italy and the Middle East lately, and this week I have some really wonderful ones for you.
Figs, Dates, Laurel, and Myrrh: Plants of the Bible and the Quran by Lytton John Musselman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
What did Eve really eat in the Garden of Eden? Which plant produced Christ’s crown of thorns? Are the “lilies of the field” actually poppies? Not your ordinary Biblical commentary, Musselman’s book concentrates exclusively on the flora of the Bible and the Qur’an. The author is a respected botanist who has lived in and conducted research throughout the Middle East for many years. His exhaustive but manageable book presents every single plant mentioned in the holy books of the three major faiths of the Holy Land. I love that he presented the plants of the Qur’an side by side with those of the Bible. It was interesting to see which plants overlapped. Having lived in the region, Musselman can present not only botanical and historical facts about the plants, but also explain how they are eaten, worn, and used by people today. The many lovely photographs in the book are mostly his own, and portray both the plants themselves and their appearances in everyday modern life in Bible lands, whether at the apothecary’s store, the vegetable market, or just in the landscape.
Cooking with Italian Grandmothers: Recipes and Stories from Tuscany to Sicily by Jessica Theroux
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book is a treasure. As a young chef, Jessica spent a year in Italy, learning from Italian grandmothers about food and about life. She spent several weeks with each of the twelve women, and dedicated a chapter to each one and her recipes. The women’s life stories and wisdom are interwoven with a wonderful collection of truly mouth-watering recipes.
Here is one of my favorite quotes:
“Carluccia taught me to pay attention to each little thing in my cooking. Where is this fruit or vegetable in its life cycle? Is the meat from a young animal or an older one? And what part of the animal is it from? Where are we in the season? Has the weather been damp or dry, sunny or cold lately? How fresh is the flour? Is the water hard or soft? What can I infer about my ingredient’s flavor and texture? And who am I feeding? Are they happy, or in need of comfort? Are they cold to the bone from being out in the rain, or hot and sweaty? Ultimately, what is the most appropriate way for me to cook this food, to bring out the best it has to offer for my friends and family?”
I found Italian Grandmothers at the library, but I’m now dying to have my own copy. Learning how to cook a time-honored Italian dish from an Italian nonna is one of the most delightful experiences in the world. This book is the next best thing.
Prisoner of the Vatican: The Popes, the Kings, and Garibaldi’s Rebels in the Struggle to Rule Modern Italy by David I. Kertzer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
When Garibaldi, Victor Emmanuele, and the rest fashioned the state of Italy out of an assortment of kingdoms and duchies on the peninsula, the Papal States (ruled by the Catholic Church) were among the annexed territories. For the next several decades, the Pope schemed and intrigued against the newly united Kingdom of Italy to regain his lost “temporal” power. His most potent weapon was his oft-repeated threat to exile himself from Rome, with the intent of soon returning at the head of a victorious foreign army. This book tells the story of the Pope’s efforts, in often excruciating detail. Kertzer sticks to his copious historical documents, rarely intruding on the story with much analysis or context, both of which I would have appreciated a bit more of. His final thesis is presented only in a few short pages of Epilogue. Perhaps if the Pope had actually managed to carry off one of these dastardly plots (rather than just endlessly vacillating about them), Kertzer’s story would have been improved. This book seemed a lot longer than 300 pages, but if you have an absolute fascination with the Papacy, Italian unification, or Rome, you might find it worth the slog.
Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World by Robin Wright
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
If you read only one book about Arabs or Muslims this year, make it this one. A journalist with decades of experience in the Middle East, Robin Wright has given us an intimate look into the Islamic world today, and how ordinary Muslims are vocally rejecting the extremism that led to 9/11, and working to build themselves a peaceful and democratic future. Through dozens of interviews ranging from an Iranian stand-up comedian to an Egyptian human rights activist, Wright illustrates what she describes as the “counter-jihad” — how Muslims today are redefining themselves and their faith, and reaching out to both their fellow believers and to the world at large with the message that Islam is a faith of peace, tolerance, and love. Especially poignant is her account of how Muslim youth are embracing freedom and democracy without leaving behind the moral values of their faith. The revolutions of last year happened as she was finishing the book, so Wright has also included a few chapters of excellent summary on the events in Tunisia, Egypt, and other countries affected by the Arab Spring, at least up until July of 2011, when the book was published.
And in case you’re wondering about the title, here is the truly awesome 80’s music video whence it comes:
photo credit: Vatican Museum