What we are reading: September

This month here at Hale we have been reading a really interesting mix; from the squalor of the opium dens of Bombay, through the plush citrus groves of Sicily, to the beautifully intricate masonry of Gloucester Cathedral. One thing that is irrevocably and quintessentially British, is our fervent love of discussing of weather; with this in mind, September heralds not only discussion of foreign climates, but dreams of foreign scenery. London is grey, the rain ever-present, and so with this tempering our moods, we picked up a few books that promised to transport us to the truly exotic.

We firstly picked up Jeet Thayil‘s mysteriously etherial lament on opium culture, Narcopolis, from the chaps over at Faber & Faber. Next we moved West to beautifully fragrant Italy. This is Helena Attlee‘s paean to the Oranges and Lemons of The Land Where Lemons Grow, a Penguin release. And finally, we thought we’d better move closer to home, concluding our reading at the doors of some of Britain’s most ornate and impressive buildings; Andrew Sanders‘ venture away from the academic writing that has defined his career, leads him on a more personal venture to explore English Cathedrals, publishing in October here at Robert Hale.

Jeet Thayil – Narcopolis (Faber & Faber)

Narcopolis is the debut novel of Indian author Jeet Thayil, a man known for his poetry rather than prose. It is a novel about opium and its effects on the peoples of India, set in 1970s Old Bombay. We arrive in Bombay, where the narrator gets sucked into the underground world of the opium eaters. The story expands, gradually, to encompass all the people he encounters along the way. We meet Dimple, the eunuch, Rashid, the opium house’s owner, and Mr Lee, a former Chinese officer. A terrifically etherial account of the mystical lustre of opium, and a glimmer into the introduction of other – equally dangerous – vices. Thayal is a wonderful hazy witchdoctor, weaving his story through the loom of Bombay with the fluidity of a poet.

Jeet Thayil – Narcopolis (Faber & Faber)

Helena Attlee – The Land Where Lemons Grow (Penguin)

From the streets of Bombay, next came Europe’s cultural cradle. Helena Attlee sets out to explore its citrus fruit’s curious past and its enduring resonance in Italian culture. Building on a life of travel and work in Italy, she undertakes a journey encompassing the sticky streets of Ivrea during the Battle of Oranges, the comfortable gardens of Tuscany’s villas and a magic triangle of land in Sicily, where the best blood oranges in the world grow in the shadow of a volcano. She maps the citron’s long migration from the foothills of the Himalayas to the shores of southern Italy, traces the bitter juice of Seville oranges through ancient Roman and Renaissance cookery books, exposes early manifestations of the Mafia during the nineteenth-century citrus boom, and laments the loss of landscapes shaped by citrus cultivation. the cirtus fruit, Attlee rightly notes, has taken on a significance in both Italy’s renaissance past and her more recent times, that has contributed towards the shaping of arguably the world’s most enduringly adored and endlessly fascinating culture. If you hadn’t guess already, we loved this book.

Helena Attlee – The Land Where Lemons Grow (Penguin)

Andrew Sanders – English Cathedrals (Robert Hale)

Drunk on the oils and perfumes of Italy’s citrus fare, and recovering from the haze of Bombay’s mysticism, we headed back to drizzly England with our tails thoroughly between our legs. We had to find out what England could offer to this feast of cultural artefact and ornament that we had embarked upon, and so Andrew Sanders‘ book English Cathedrals arrived on the desk at just the right time. Durham, with its geometrically carved pillars, Wells, with its astonishingly graceful scissor arch, and the gloriously uplifting Ely and its octagonal tower. For a millennia and more, these and similar buildings have welcomed and inspired generations of believers with their beauty and grandeur. English Catherals, beautiful cover aside, is written in the exquisite style that you would expect of a world-reknowned English scholar like Sanders, and provides the perfect insight into our homeland’s cultural and religious offerings that we so desperately craved after experiencing and basking in the glow of Italy and India. Compact, academic and engrossing, perfect for your lazy sunday reading, when the rain lashes down and Songs of Praise wont quite cut the mustard.

Andrew Sanders – English Cathedrals (Robert Hale)
Click HERE to get your copy of English Cathedrals from our website.

See you in October…

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