Five 30-Second Summer Book Reviews

Seeing as the summer is drawing to a close (and I haven’t posted any book reviews in a while), I thought I’d summarize my thoughts on a few of the books I read this summer — and hopefully give some of my recommendations to add to your August reading lists. These were all great reads for me (I don’t say that lightly, by the way), and I highly recommend all of them, although the subject matter and writing styles differ a lot between the books. Anyway, let me know what you think, especially if you’ve read any of these yourself!

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1. The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

Admittedly, the fact that I read this on the beach in Italy probably makes it seem a lot better than it is. However, Tom Rachman’s debut novel is pretty wonderful, and I would read it again in a heartbeat (that is, if I didn’t already have a hundred books in my “read this now” queue). Tracking the lives of individuals involved with an English-language newspaper in Rome (from readers to publishers to copy editors), Rachman weaves a stunning narrative that doesn’t quite come together until the very end…which, of course, is what makes it so perfect. Each chapter reads like a little insight into the life of each individual, and explores their personal struggles as well as their relationship to the newspaper. Rachman is gifted at painting vivid, realistic, and raw characters, and even though each chapter is relatively short, his writing (which is very clear, by the way) packs a punch, as he pulls out distinct details from each character’s life. Bit by bit, the reader is also fed the story of how all these lives intertwine — both intentionally and unintentionally — which kept me hooked until the very end. Perfect beach reading, very fresh and original, and overall just fantastic writing.

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2. The Table Comes First by Adam Gopnik

Adam Gopnik, a novelist and writer for The New Yorker, is one of my hands-down favorite authors, and he particularly excels with his memoirs. I read one of his other memoirs, Paris to the Moon, a year or so ago, and fell in love with his writing style — it’s sharp, witty, intelligent, and yet decidedly unpretentious. The Table Comes First is less of a memoir than Paris to the Moon, but very enjoyable nonetheless. Although it’s a 300-page volume on one seemingly simple topic, food, there is never a dull moment in Gopnik’s writing. Incredibly cultured, his wealth of knowledge shines through as he weaves together food’s history, philosophy, and its criticisms alongside personal experiences on the topic. It’s really a brilliant read, and I highly recommend this for all a) foodies, and b) francophiles.

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3. Destiny Disrupted by Tamim Ansary

If you’re looking for a good briefer on the history of Islam and the Middle East, look no further. (Okay, I know most of you probably weren’t looking for this. That being said, it’s totally relevant to the world today, and will seriously enhance your understanding of current events. So go read it!) Ansary’s book is widely regarded as one of the best histories of Islam out there, and his writing style is simple and understandable — this is not some stuffy book intended only for academics. What I love about Ansary’s writing is his humor, ability to synthesize, and that he doesn’t assume his readers have any prior knowledge of the topic. It reads like an engaging historical narrative, so if you’re into non-fiction/history, this is a good pick!

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4. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

This is the first novel I’ve read by Rushdie. It’s still banned in many parts of the world and can be controversial in many respects (the book is partly a re-telling of the life of Mohammed, and Rushdie includes narrative elements which run contrary to the Muslim faith), but that’s part of what makes it an interesting read — it’s equal parts entertaining and relevant to our understanding of society today. I’ll admit, though, this is a tough book to understand without a lot of background knowledge of religion (and not just Islam), as well as historical events. I would recommend reading some sort of analysis to better grasp the major themes. This reading guide is a good start (and doesn’t give away the plot — just use it as you go from chapter to chapter). However, it is still an entertaining narrative, and Rushdie is a phenomenal writer — so I’d recommend this for anyone that really appreciates more complex literary styles and long, intense novels (think Beloved).

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5. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

This is a classic. I’ve been reading The Alchemist every summer for the past six years — I’m currently on my seventh reading. Regardless of whether you’ve read it before, it’s always a great addition to your reading list, and I find that I learn something new every time I pick it up. It’s not so much that the book has changed as it is that my life and perspective shift from reading to reading — so that something new stands out to me each time. That being said, the novel (very short, by the way — you could read it in a few hours) is packed with wisdom, reading more like a fable than anything else. It tracks the life of a former shepherd, Santiago, who abandons his flock in search of his “Personal Legend” — looking for buried treasure at the Pyramids of Egypt. It’s a timeless book about following your dreams (yes, I know this sounds cheesy), but all of us could use a reminder like this once in a while. A great book for self-reflection, and perfect for pretty much any time, ever.

{Images: The Imperfectionists; The Table Comes First; Destiny Disrupted; The Satanic Verses; The Alchemist}

Venice at 7 a.m.

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St. Mark’s Square — by far the most popular tourist attraction in all of Venice (and a very easily accessible one, at that) is usually swarming with tourists, street artists, guided tours (the WORST to walk through), and the like. In a word, it’s packed. And it’s difficult to get any shots of the square without holding your camera high above your head — in which case, you’re already cutting out half the shot.

venice18Above: at the far end of the square, an array of chairs for the Ca’ Foscari graduation ceremony.

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Above: gondolas ready for tourists.

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Above: the entrance to Venice’s impressive belltower stands in the middle of the square.

One morning near the end of my stay, I forced myself out of bed around 6 a.m. to try and catch the square when it was (relatively) empty. Of course, to get perfectly tourist-free shots you would have to be there at sunrise, but I found that 7 a.m. sufficed — I was able to get some gorgeous photos before the onslaught of tourists, vendors, and over-bright sunlight set in. There were a few others in the square — mainly shopkeepers opening up, Venetians bringing in beverages and produce by boat, and other photographers like myself. It was a Sunday, and the far end of the square was filled with rows of chairs for the Ca’ Foscari (University of Venice) graduation — a tradition meant to emulate the American graduation ceremony style.

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Above: an arched walkway beneath the Doge’s palace.

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It’s not such a popular tourist spot for no reason, of course. St. Mark’s — the quintessential image of Venice throughout travel guides and in the minds of wanderlusting individuals everywhere — is an expansive plaza and the historic “entrance” to Venice. It is home to the former Doge’s palace (the ducal palace of Venice) and its adjoining prison (now both a museum), the bell tower of Venice, a massive library, and the Byzantine-era St. Mark’s basilica. The square is trapezoidal and lined with cafes and small shops, where tourists happily shell out 10 euros for espresso. Two stone pillars mark the lagoon-side entrance to the square, one with the winged lion — the symbol for St. Mark (the patron saint of Venice) atop it.

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Above: one of the stunning views from the edge of the square.

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In ducal Venice, executions of political dissidents and enemies would take place between the two pillars — a fact which many tourists are oblivious to. The pillars are a beautiful marking of the city, inviting the viewer into the square, but their violent history provides an interesting perspective. Some say not to walk through the pillars — it’s considered bad luck! (Other political prisoners who didn’t have the luck of being executed were sent to the ducal prison, nearly always a life imprisonment and one with barbaric prison conditions.)

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Above: a view from one of the many arches that surround the main square.

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Above: arch detail, looking up.

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Above: nearby shop stands are shuttered, waiting for the day to begin.

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Above: details in the archway ceilings.

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You can also easily catch a gondola from the stop at the square — although I wouldn’t recommend it. Gondolas, contrary to popular belief, are not a mode of transportation (at least nowadays), and are only offered as “rides.” It can be a fun experience, but it will set you back a good 90 euros (!!!) and most gondoliers are less than pleasant (at least they are when you’re kayaking in “their” canals, which was my first encounter).

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Above: a boat delivers supplies to a local hotel.

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Above: more supplies stacked under a Venetian archway.

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Anyway, despite the effort of getting up early on a Sunday, it was worth it if not just to absorb the atmosphere of the square without its usual mob of tourists. Even if you’re not after a great photography shot, if you’re ever in Venice, take the time to do this one morning! It’s hard to see it during the day with so many loud/annoying people around, but experiencing a placid St. Mark’s without the crowds really allows you to soak in all its Venetian glory — weathered architectural, stunning views, and all. And, of course, you’re reminded why Venice is such a magical city in the first place, and why it has captured the imaginations of millions.

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venice4Above: roses abound — vendors sell them throughout the day for a euro.

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Above: pigeons are everywhere!

{Credit: the images in this post were taken by me. Please ask permission before use — thank you!}

Climbing Florence’s Dome

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Florence’s Cathedral (and dome) at night — from Wikipedia; I don’t have any photos this good!

Although I have now (unfortunately) returned from my forays in beautiful Italia, I still have plenty to post! We took a phenomenal weekend trip to Florence and enjoyed delicious food (far better than Venice, I must say), art at the Uffizi, and gorgeous views from the top of Florence’s famous duomo (“dome”). The climb was a little rough — 463 steps in the most claustrophobic staircase I’ve ever experienced — but the views were well worth it. Some proof:

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Florence is a small city — at least compared to Rome — and is nestled in the heart of Tuscany. As a result, the food lives up to its reputation and the city is full of Italian charm. Today, it is a hotspot for high-end shopping as well as art buffs. Historically, Florence was a  vital center of art, and many of the city’s talent painters, sculptors, and architects were pivotal players in the Italian renaissance. (Florence was also constantly in rivalry with Venice, but more on that later.) This history is critical in understanding Florence’s duomo.

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The Duomo as seen from the Uffizi Gallery.

So a little history, courtesy of my art history class (and because it’s actually an interesting story): Florence’s dome — a massive structure perched on top of the gorgeous church of Santa Maria del Fiore — was engineered by Filippo Brunelleschi, the winner of a design competition in 1418 (he’s also buried in the church’s crypts). Although the (octagonal) nave of the church was completed in 1380, a dome was never put in place until after the 1418 competition. Why? Because the architects had built a church so large that no engineer knew how to construct a dome so massive.

ingressoSide entrance to the church.

facadeFacade of Santa Maria del Fiore (“Saint Mary of the Flower”).

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The bell tower of the church — dwarfed by Brunelleschi’s dome, to put things in perspective.

Traditionally, engineers would use a beam from a large tree which spanned the width of the dome’s base. This beam was essential to construct because it gave workers a platform from which to suspend tools. Santa Maria del Fiore’s dome, however, was so wide that no tree could span its width. So construction was halted until 1418, when Brunelleschi surpassed all other architects (including his rival, Lorenzo Ghiberti, who had beat out Brunelleschi for a coveted contract to sculpt the doors of the church’s baptistry) with a genius structural plan: create a double dome. (*Okay, this is a simplification — there were many other architectural features that made Brunelleschi’s plan brilliant. But this is the core of it.) See a diagram below:

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Brunelleschi’s dome was finally built, and today a smaller dome is seen from inside the church, while a larger dome faces the outside. This shelled structure allowed workers to climb between the shells of the dome to finish construction — which is how we can climb to the top of the dome today. He also developed a new scaffolding system for workers to build inside the dome, which solved the problem of tool suspension.

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One of the flying buttresses which support the top of the dome.

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The duomo was completed in 1436. At the time, it was the largest dome ever constructed and remains the largest brick dome in the world. It is both an architectural marvel and a testament to the ingenuity of Brunelleschi — and it’s also one of Florence’s greatest (literally) tourist attractions. Although not nearly as popular as the Uffizi gallery or the statue of David, the dome was the highlight of my weekend in Florence and well worth the historic climb.

view2Have you visited Florence or climbed Brunelleschi’s dome? I’d love to hear about your experience!

White Chocolate-Dipped Biscotti

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This post is a little overdue, given that I’ve been hoarding these photos since Christmas….but I figured they’re just as appropriate now, given my current location in Italy (which, actually, has been rather lacking in biscotti…)

Honestly, these biscotti are delicious any time of year, and the white chocolate gives them that extra kick of sweetness. I’m not even a huge fan of biscotti (seeing as I have a major sweet tooth), but these are killer. And so easy to make!

This recipe is from Giada and is a version of her traditional biscotti with a Christmas spin. If you don’t have white chocolate on hand or prefer your biscotti plain, you can easily skip the dipping part of the recipe. See below!

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Ingredients

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 large eggs
  • 3/4 cup pistachios, coarsely chopped
  • 2/3 cup dried cranberries
  • 12 ounces good-quality white chocolate, chopped
  • Sugar crystals, for garnish

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Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. Line a heavy large baking sheet with parchment paper. Whisk the flour and baking powder in a medium bowl to blend. Using an electric mixer, beat the sugar, butter, lemon zest, and salt in a large bowl to blend. Beat in the eggs 1 at a time. Add the flour mixture and beat just until blended. Stir in the pistachios and cranberries.
  3. Form the dough into a 13-inch long, 3-inch wide log on the prepared baking sheet. Bake until light golden, about 40 minutes. Cool for 30 minutes.
  4. Place the log on the cutting board. Using a sharp serrated knife, cut the log on a diagonal into 1/2 to 3/4-inch-thick slices. Arrange the biscotti, cut side down, on the baking sheet. Bake the biscotti until they are pale golden, about 15 minutes. Transfer the biscotti to a rack and cool completely.
  5. Stir the chocolate in a bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water until the chocolate melts. Dip half of the biscotti into the melted chocolate. Gently shake off the excess chocolate. Place the biscotti on the baking sheet for the chocolate to set. Sprinkle with the sugar crystals. Refrigerate until the chocolate is firm, about 35 minutes.

Enjoy!

Rome in Black & White

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A couple weekends ago, I visited Rome with a few friends. (I also have yet to find quasi acceptable internet anywhere in Italy, hence why this post is a bit late in coming.) The city is very much one of both the past and present, effortlessly interweaving the energy of megacities like New York and Cairo with the quaintness of Paris. It can be both vibrant — during the heat of the tourism season — and calm — 4am at the Trevi fountain — and every street has its own magic. Rome is bursting with young professionals, and it is easy to make new friends in hip, up and coming areas such as Trastevere. The food scene is also to die for — perhaps it has been the excessive amount of Venetian tourist meals I’ve eaten in the past three weeks, but almost every restaurant we visited served mouthwatering fresh caprese salads and otherwise delicious fare. (If you’re interested in some recommendations, let me know!) Although an expensive trip, Rome is a city I’m glad I didn’t miss. I will be back here someday, exploring every beautiful little thing this city — a crossroads of ancient and modern — has to offer.

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The Colosseum

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View from Castel Sant’Angelo — Dan Brown, anyone?

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The Trevi Fountain

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St. Peter’s Square
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Interior of St. Peter’s Basilica
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Interior of St. Peter’s
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St. Peter’s Basilica
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The Vatican Museum
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The Vatican Museum
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The Vatican Museum
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Vatican Museum staircase
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Vatican Museum staircase
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The Vatican Museum
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Overlooking Piazza del Popolo
If you’re ever in Italy Europe, you should block off a few days to see Rome. There’s a reason it’s still one of the most famous cities in the world, and the atmosphere here is like no other. Don’t miss it!
Hope you enjoyed these photos! Soon I’ll be blogging about visiting Florence, food in Italy, and lots of other delicious/beautiful/awesome things — stay tuned!
{Images by me. Please do not use without permission.}