East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

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The Karavansara summer reading list for students (and everybody else)

I don’t know how it is there where you are sitting, but hereabouts schools are about to close for summers, and teachers are busy assigning homework and projects and stuff.
One of the things that hit the kids every year is the dread read at least five books from this list list.
I always hated that when I was in high-school – I usually approached summer with a stack of a dozen big books I wanted to read, and here I was forced to slip more dull novels in the mix. And now I’m told that with the lowering standards of our school they are reducing the required reads to three, but you get the idea.


And I thought, why not put together my own suggested reading list?
For kids out there, high-school level, to broaden their horizons, and provide some much-needed food for thought.
I’ll also do a list in Italian for my blog, as a form of service – but putting together a list of English-language titles is easier, and I’m told list posts are quite popular.
But with a twist: I’ll focus on a list of books in theme with the usual topics of this blog. Books that talk about science, nature, philosophy, literature, history and imagination.
With an eye for adventure, exploration, and a modicum of swashbuckling – because this is, after all, Karavansara!
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Planning a Silk Road adventure with (and without) Google Maps

I chanced on one of those things that happen on Facebook, a guy asking his followers

If you cold go on a big adventure, what would it be?

Or something to that effect.
Now I don’t have to think a lot about it – granted, it’s a big world and there’s adventures everywhere, but my first, instinctive response is the usual

From Paris to Shanghai by car, following the Silk Road

If you’re here, you know I love the Silk Road, its history, its stories – going along the old road, driving leisurely in my car, would be a dream come true. Stop to look at the landscape, take a few photos, eat a bite…

Fiat_panda_1_v_sstAnd when I say car, I’d mean my old reliable Panda – a tin can on wheels if ever there was one, so basic and stripped down it did not even come with a radio tuner, but in my experience the best, most reliable, more easily maintained ride I ever had.

But alas, Google Maps at this point lets me down

Sorry, we could not calculate driving directions from “Paris, France” to “Shanghai, China”

But please!
Google can provide me with a flight from Charles Degaulle Airport to Shanghai, for as cheap as 80 euro, but its Maps/Earth tools won’t calculate my route by land.
OK, let’s do it the old way. Continue reading


A story of two books

I mentioned this story in the past, but never wrote about it in detail – here goes.

I’ve been reading about the Silk Road for ages.
I started as a kid, with a much-edited and simplified version of Marco Polo’s Il Milione, and then with the Arabian Nights and then all the rest.
Journey to the West was another instigating read.
Then, one day, during a raid in a Turin bookstore, I chanced upon Luce Boulnois’ La Via della Seta, the Italian translation of a book called Silk Road: Monks, Warriors & Merchants. The book had actually been written in French, and published in 2001, as a summation of the research the author had carried out since 1963, and has been translated in a number of languages (nine, according to Wikipedia).
Boulnois was probably one of the top researchers on the subject of the history and culture of Silk Road, and the book is a classic. She was fluent in both Russian and Chinese, and she had traveled extensively, when she worked as a translator, in places often forbidden to Western scholars, collecting a wealth of information that she used as the basis for her studies.
But let me tell you about that Italian edition. Continue reading

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Pulp History: Savitri Devi

Writing historical fiction and historical fantasy can sometimes lead to the discovery of less-than-pleasant characters.
Yesterday I made the acquaintance of someone I only knew passingly: Savitri Devi – the woman who, among other things,  was convinced that Hitler was an avatar (or incarnation) of Vishnu. Which I’d file under crackpot were it not for the fact that the lady in question is a character worth of pulp fiction, and shows us an aspect of history some of us might have missed.


Born of a Greek/Italian French father and an English mother, Savitri Devi started out as Maximiani Julia Portas in 1905. Graduated in chemistry and philosophy inLyon, she went on an archaeological expedition to Grece and developed an early interest in Aryan culture because of Schlieman’s discovery of a swastika in Anatolia.
Having renounced her French nationality to become a Greek national, she moved close to National Socialist political positions and travelled to India in search of the roots of the Aryan civilisation. She converted to Hinduism (if, most likely, her own version of Hinduism), and she was a spy for the Axis in India, keeping an eye on the British. Continue reading


A story for which the world is not yet prepared

Matilda Briggs was not the name of a young woman, Watson, … It was a ship which is associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared.

holmes_wildcardThe reference to adventures that the good doctor never wrote down is one of the fun elements of the Sherlock Holmes canon.

As a Holmes reader I went through various phases – at first enthusiasm then irritation, and finally acceptance.
I will never be a Sherlockian1, meaning, I can’t quote you chapter and verse of Holmes adventures, but I like the Sherlock Holmes stories – and I saw the Basil Rathbone movies before I read the books, so there.
When it comes to the written word, I detest doctor Watson with a vengeance, but I’ve come to appreciate and respect Sherlock Holmes: anyone that can stand Watson as a housemate for any length of time is quite obviously a better man than I am.

And then there is the Gian Rat of Sumatra, which has that nice pulpy feel to it that it’s really a pity the facts concerning the Matilda Briggs were never published. It is obviously Holmes moonlighting in the territories in which his counterpart Sexton Blake was more at ease. Continue reading

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The Desert Island Whatever, part two: music

desert-island-adsSecond part of the Desert Island Whatever game… after the books, the records – music, that is, sounds to have on a desert island.

And if I cheated with my kindle adding a few thousand titles to my one crate of essential reading, well, when it comes to music cheating is even easier.
Just give me an internet connection, and on my desert island we’ll never be short of music.
But ok, it’s a game, we play it anyway.

My desert island records… there’s a lot of them. Continue reading