The McGill News Summer Reading List

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The McGill News Summer Reading List

The McGill News Summer Reading List

READING FOR PURE PLEASURE Travel to the Greek isle of Crete and prepare for mouth-watering food writing. Peek into bedrooms throughout history to learn the secrets of mistresses. Or read interviews with some of the greatest minds of our time in literature, art, politics and social science.

With A History of Mistresses, Elizabeth Abbott, MA'66, PhD'71, may have written the ideal book for summer reading. At more than 450 pages it should last through a week of trips to the beach. And it contains highly satisfying bits of gossip that can be nudge-nudged over cocktails at the neighbours' barbecue.

But to achieve perfection, there must be balance, and Abbott provides enough reminders of man's inhumanity to man -- and woman -- to ensure that any wallowing in tabloid sleaze will be temporary.

Abbott's thorough research covers sources from the Bible to the New Yorker as she traces tales of extramarital arrangements back to the ancient world. We learn that the golden age of Greek democracy had a distinctly Taliban-like tinge. Girls were kept cloistered at home and taught only household skills. Houses were small since men spent a lot of time elsewhere with male friends. Rooms for entertaining were the biggest, but women of the household were not included in the socializing: that was the realm of courtesans or prostitutes.

A common thread through much of Abbott's book is the fact that for centuries and in many societies, women had few options socially or economically. Becoming a mistress or a concubine sometimes provided security, although in many instances it was more like a form of slavery. Women in a harem, for example, lived more or less under a state of house arrest, and the eunuchs who watched over them were kidnapped as young boys and forced to undergo castration. Fewer than 10% survived the butchery.

Abbott introduces us to mistresses as muses, as trophy dolls, and as part of what was accepted behaviour in aristocratic and royal circles. We learn that the great-grandmother of Camilla Parker-Bowles was mistress to Prince Charles's great-great-grandfather. Well aware of family history, Camilla apparently saw the role of a royal mistress as entirely commendable. Press coverage of a naïve Diana's hysterical reactions and tapes of lewd phone conversations eventually ended centuries of discreet adultery. "Now the whole bloody country knows who you're bonking!" an outraged Prince Philip once shouted at his son.

But Charles wasn't the first fool for love. When the 30-something monk Abélard met the buxom, teenaged Héloise in 1115, Abbott describes him as falling "tonsured head over sandaled heels in love." Her stories are delightfully written and gloriously rich in detail. The characters are stupid, greedy, ambitious and cruel. So throw those romance novels on the campfire, this book has it all.

A History of Mistresses, HarperCollins, by Elizabeth Abbott.

Photo of three books on the beach

If you're looking for charmingly written, guilt-free escapist fare then Byron Ayanoglu's memoir, Crete on the Half Shell, may be for you. Ayanoglu, BA'67, leaves Montreal for the land of the ancients and hooks up with a cast slightly loonier than that of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. The excuse for Ayanoglu's trip to the beautiful island of Crete is a sort of late mid-life crisis, an urge to retire and to reclaim his Greek heritage. The native Cretans, island guests and a manic master chef named Theo soon provide him with more heritage than he bargained for, including macho local drinking games, paranoid religious rituals, and of course plate after plate of Greek food.

The corpulent Ayanoglu is on his own little odyssey in Crete on the Half Shell, lured into adventures that usually involve food and encountering a host of memorable players: a flatulent, bumptious local businessman named Pete; a photographer and sous-chef with a philosophical and mystical bent named Algis; and the aforementioned Theo, who bounces from restaurant scheme to scheme in an effort to transform what he sees as the monotonous Mediterranean diet of the islanders. Ayanoglu himself ends up being convinced by other friends to help them open an ill-fated curry house in the land of lemon, feta and oregano.

The long ordeal provides much hilarity -- most at the expense of the author, who maintains a charming level of self-mockery throughout the book. The clash of old world sensibilities with Ayanoglu's new world assumptions is also part of the entertainment, which plays so well and on such a spectacular island setting that it's not hard to see a movie script lurking in its pages.

Ayanoglu is a former professional cook (he was once Mick Jagger's personal chef), was a restaurant critic for Toronto's NOW and the Montreal Gazette, is a playwright, and is the author of several successful cookbooks. Reading him on food in Crete on the Half Shell -- the olive oil, the garlic, the goat cheese, the fresh organic vegetables, the fish just hours from the sea, the leafy greens said to promote long life on Crete -- is to become voraciously hungry.

The language is as vibrant and swaggering as the cuisine and culture it describes. Food lovers, would-be travellers, expatriate Greeks and those with a fancy for things Hellenic will find much to love about this amusing and well-told memoir.

Crete on the Half Shell, HarperCollins, by Byron Ayanoglu.

Canadian author Carol Shields writes in the foreword to Original Minds that "there's nothing quite like Eleanor Wachtel's 'Writers and Company.' It's like belonging to a private club..." Those familiar with the CBC Radio host and interviewer extraordinaire and her show know exactly what Shields is talking about. Wachtel is to the interview subject what the sushi chef is to the fish. She is so well-prepared a researcher that the people she questions are inevitably coaxed into conversations that may surprise them. Or they're relieved to finally be interviewed by someone who has actually read -- and spent time thinking about -- their books. Harold Bloom (interviewed in this volume) is literally moved to tears, and this is not the Barbara Walters show.

While Wachtel, BA'69, is known for her savvy approach to literature, this volume collects interviews she began at the turn of the millennium with people -- not just writers -- who have made extraordinary contributions to the world in art, science, economics, anthropology and more. The results are just as compelling and delightful as her initial series, and the subjects are some of the grandest intellects of our time: Umberto Eco, Jane Goodall, Desmond Tutu, Bernardo Bertolucci, Susan Sontag, Oliver Sacks, Jane Jacobs and more. Wachtel talks to them about their childhoods, their histories, and of course their ideas.

To read the interview with Harold Bloom -- the controversial literary critic and scholar -- is a great intellectual pleasure that drives the reader to Bloom's books, which in turn compel one to return to -- or perhaps discover for the first time -- the great works of Western literature. Urban planning theorist and activist Jane Jacobs speaks matter-of-factly about how as a child she would have imaginary conversations with Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson, and one is immediately charmed. And to read essayist and critic George Steiner is to witness one of the best minds of our time at work, his answers to Wachtel's questions going on for paragraph after fascinating paragraph about Coleridge, Stalinism, linguistics, Proust, Stephen Hawking, religious fundamentalism -- you name it.

Don't let the notion that these are mere radio transcripts turn you away. Wachtel's book offers rewarding conversations with original minds indeed.

Original Minds: Conversations with CBC Radio's Eleanor Wachtel, HarperCollins, by Eleanor Wachtel.

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