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Summer Reading

You’re probably not looking forward to a summer that is sure to contain a series of outrages from Donald Trump. I’ve got relief for you. Concentrate on Amitov Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy instead.

This series takes awhile to get through. You may want to keep a list of characters. You might need a bigger map than those in the books. Unfamiliar terms and challenging dialect are part of the experience. The first sentence is 63 words long, so the author has warned you this will not be easy. I’m usually a fast reader. Not so with these books. I had to slow down.

The effort is worth it and will likely distract you from the craziness of this summer’s presidential campaign. Start with Sea of Poppies, follow up with River of Smoke and finally tackle Flood of Fire. Ghosh writes about the India-Chinese opium trade and the events leading up the opium wars.

         Sea of Poppies is the story of a dingy, Baltimore-based former slave ship, retrofitted to transport coolies (indentured servants) from Calcutta, India to the sugar plantations on the island of Mauritius.

Ghosh introduces us to a woman who grows poppies, a smart, young, free, partially black man who passes for white, a lascar who is the serang or top-level ethnic seaman on the ship, a penniless raja, a young orphaned French woman who is a botanist’s daughter and the Indian man who is like a brother to her because they grew up together, as well as several insufferable English men and women.

Some of the lesser characters in the first novel rise to higher levels in the second and third books. The cause of actions in the first book look different while reading the second and third. Some of the characters aren’t what you thought they were. Look for references to eyes.

While much is made of the new “global economy,” this trilogy shows there is nothing new about a global economy. This is the story of the global economy of the 1830s. It is heinous, but rich for storytelling.

Although New England doesn’t figure greatly in the story, there are enough New Englanders to make you realize that if slavery is America’s original sin, opium may be its second.

John Forbes Kerry’s ancestors, as well as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s, engaged in the opium trade. So did the founders of Boston’s most revered institutions—such people as the Cabots, the slave-trader Thomas Handasyd Perkins and John Cushing, whom the Chinese called Ku-Shing. Cushing, Perkins’s nephew, spent thirty years in Canton, married the daughter of the minister at Trinity Church upon his return and then built a country estate he called Bellmont, after which the town of Belmont is named.

It wasn’t New Englanders who were mainly addicted. It was the Chinese who got the drug from the ship captains and traders who bought the opium in Turkey and India and dumped it in Canton, now Guangzhou.

The British forbade the American colonies from participating in the opium trade. But after the War of 1812, the Americans happily dove right in. They prospered from it because New Englanders wanted Chinese porcelain, antiques and art. The Chinese typically wanted only timber and furs from New England. Opium helped balance the trade.

The Chinese authorities were not happy with the situation and tried for many years to shut down the trade, resulting in opium wars in the 1850s.

Among the 19th-century users of laudanum, or opium, were John Keats, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Samuel Coleridge, Charles Dickens and Thomas DeQuincey, who published “Confessions of an English Opium Eater.” And who can forget Dr. Watson being distressed by Sherlock Holmes’s three-times-a-day-habit?

What goes around comes around. Americans are now addicted to the modern version of opium, which was at first believed to be the answer to pain. Gov. Baker declared his own war on opium addiction, just like the Chinese authorities did. It is unclear whether Baker will succeed where the Chinese did not.

Ghosh relied on images from the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem for his books, according to curator Karina H. Corrigan, who has read the first two books of the trilogy. Although many items from this period are in storage while the museum expands, one small installation displays luxuries that can give a reader an idea of the goods New Englanders brought back from China.

Opium still exists in New England. If you go on a garden tour in late June or July in some rural areas, you’ll find pink and red opium poppies happily being grown for their beauty. The seeds can’t be bought, but they are passed around from gardener to gardener.

If you visit Lincolnshire, England in late summer, you’ll find wide fields of lavender opium poppies grown legally for the British pharmaceutical industry.

Such a beautiful plant. Such a sordid history. You’ll be entranced by the Ibis trilogy.

Summer feasts

Have you ever been to a feast on the streets of the North End? I decided this is the summer I’m going. I knew little about them for many years. Recently, they seem to have proliferated.

It’s true, said life-long North End resident Nick Dello Russo. The reason I knew so little about them is that for awhile they were on life support. But now they’ve returned, with celebrations on at least half the weekends all summer.

The North End feasts were brought to America from Italy where each town had a patron saint, Nick said. Many were harvest feasts that provided an opportunity to get together with friends and neighbors and catch up on gossip. Most importantly, they were an opportunity to introduce single young people to one another.

Nick said wakes were also such an opportunity.

“How many times was I dragged to a wake of someone I didn’t know just to show me off?” Nick complained. But we digress.

The weekend feasts were (and still are) sponsored by local saints’ clubs. They recreate the festivals held in the fishing villages of Sicily and hill villages in the province of Avellino, from where many North Enders’ ancestors came.

They usually start on a Friday, but the big day is Sunday with a Mass and a band. Revelers march around the streets with the image of the saint and visit the other saints’ clubs. They invite the crowds to pin money on the saint’s garments.

“When I was a kid, the ladies would have a big sheet and you’d throw money into the sheet from your window,” Nick remembered. “Many old Italian ladies would make promises—if Saint Anthony would give them a certain favor they would march in St Anthony’s feast and you’d see scores of these old ladies carrying a large candle and marching barefoot. They’d have their sons or grandsons dressed up in a St. Anthony outfit with a rope around the waist. They were doing it to say thank you to the saint.”

All that stopped when the ladies died out and the North End changed after World War II. The overhead Central Artery cut off the neighborhood from the city. At the same time North Enders, along with other Bostonians, heard the call to the suburbs and were not interested in maintaining the old traditions. It was difficult to get the young people who stayed to join the religious clubs that sponsored the feasts, Nick said.

But recently, even more changes have come. The Central Artery was buried, opening up the neighborhood once more to the city. People remembered how good city life was and moved back. While less than one-third of North End residents now identify as Italian, everyone relishes the North End’s Italian flavor, and the neighborhood, with its many restaurants, has grown as a tourist destination.

This has its pluses and minuses, according to Nick. On the one hand, the weekend feasts are good for business. “The restaurants like them,” said Nick. “And it’s trying to keep a veneer of southern Italian culture.”

The feasts are money makers for the saints’ clubs. Money is pinned to the figure of the saint who is being celebrated. Big and little stands selling or promoting something pay a fee to set up along the parade route. Nick is skeptical of how much good the feasts do. “They generate a lot of money and [the clubs] do some charitable works,” Nick explained. “But no one has seen the accounting.”

The feasts draw more tourists than locals, which is one complaint. Another is that the feasts have been commercialized. While families used to set up tables in front of their houses and welcome visitors with home-made wine, now the tables are typically set up by commercial entities, so the celebrations haves lost some of their homey flavor. And the parades take over the narrow streets, making it even more difficult for cars to negotiate the North End’s challenging traffic patterns.

On the other hand, the feasts are great entertainment. In at least one feast, little girls, dressed up in finery, sail over the crowds on pulleys and drop garlands of flowers on the saint. It doesn’t get much better than that. Such entertainment is exactly what city life is all about—action and vitality. “I tell people if they want peace and quiet, move to Wellesley,” said Nick.

Street life such as this introduces non-Italians to traditional celebrations. It still enables people to meet one another and exchange gossip, and everyone patronizes the small, local businesses of which the North End still has plenty.

The biggest feasts are in August. The Fisherman’s Feast of the Madonna Del Soccorso di Sciacca is held from August 18 through August 21. Saint Anthony’s Feast takes place from August 26 through August 28. You can find the complete feast schedule on

Nick is a fan of the feasts despite their drawbacks. He’s also a fan of the North End. He mentioned that a food emporium from New York called Eataly is moving into the Pru shopping mall this fall, recreating an Italian experience. “Why would they want Eataly when they can go to the North End?” he asked. The North End, even though its residents are no longer all Italian, has tenements with granite countertops and is a neighborhood in Boston, is still the real Italian experience.

Make no little plans

Hey, Bostonians. Can we stop complaining about the Big Dig? Yes, it cost almost $15 billion. Yes, it took 15 years to complete. (It was a big job, moving all those utility lines and keeping the cars running overhead.)

It was also worth every penny we spent on it. It has caused the area around it to explode with new housing, offices and restaurants. It has given us Paul Revere Park, City Square Park and the Greenway and their pleasures. It has allowed Bostonians to get to the sea. It’s hard to imagine that Boston would be as prosperous as it is now without that road having been buried.

The Big Dig, however, made Bostonians timid—afraid to spend money, afraid to tackle big projects, afraid to take anything but puny steps. In fact, Jim Stergios, the executive director of the Pioneer Institute, plunged into this pessimistic attitude in an op-ed in the Boston Globe last September 6. He effectively urged Bostonians to leap into bed, cover themselves up and never venture out for fear of overdreaming and overspending. Home of the brave?

Now we learn from Barry Bluestone and his team at the Dukakis Center at Northeastern University that in the next 15 years the Greater Boston Region faces major problems—everyone actually calls them “challenges,” a weak word when you realize how desperate the situation is. Bluestone’s report estimates that if things stay the way they are we’ll have 80,000 additional cars on the road, and Bluestone already estimates the average speed in morning rush hour on the Southeast Expressway is only about nine miles an hour.

Approximately 14,000 more people will be riding the subways. Sixty-three percent more passengers will be flying out of Logan. We’ll be throwing away an additional 130,000 tons of garbage each year. We’ll need 13.5 percent more water, and the only good news is that generally Massachusetts has plenty of water, said Fred Laskey, executive director of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.

Laskey was the only one to bring good news to last week’s sold-out gathering of Bostonians at A Better City’s conference on the State of the Built Environment at the Seaport Hotel, where Bluestone’s report was center stage. And the conference didn’t even deal with housing, another big hole to fill.

The most shocking news came from Joseph Aiello, chair of the MBTA’s Fiscal Management and Control Board, who revealed that the T can’t spend the money it already has been allotted because its management’s skills are not up to the task. Oh, dear.

Maybe that “challenge” will be met by the extra salaries it will be allowed to pay new, skilled managers who won’t be enticed into the private sector by higher pay. We do have a governor who never wants to spend any money, but might actually be able to fix a few problems. We’ll see.

But we need to expand rapid transit way beyond the Green Line Extension that has caused so much sturm und drang. We need to connect North and South Stations with a tunnel. We need to connect points around the region instead of bringing everything into the hub. We need high speed rail to New York City and Springfield and beyond. We need to fix bridges—it’s boring to repair infrastructure but we must do it. We need to get trash and recycling under control. We need to get vehicles off the roads by taxing miles driven and charging them for coming into the city. (Building a new parking lot at Logan is a good example of early 20th-century thinking. We should be taking that money and running the Blue Line directly to each terminal.)

All of this doesn’t even address the problem of sea level rise.

Every time Boston has thought big and built big, the payoff has been enormous, especially over time. The arrival of the Massachusetts Bay Colony? Paul Revere, the Adamses, John Hancock and the American Revolution? Filling in the Back Bay? Tunneling the first subway in America? Building an airport close to downtown? (I’ll hear from East Boston on that one, but it has made Boston desirable for business.) Cleaning up Boston Harbor? Building the new convention center? The Big Dig? These activities were big, bold, expensive and fabulously successful. (I’ll acknowledge that the big ideas based on Le Corbusier’s principals—demolition of the old West End and building vast roadways—were terrible big ideas.)

These projects (other than Le Corbusier’s) unleashed untold amounts of economic activity and investment. They immeasurably improved people’s lives—well, maybe not in East Boston with the airport.

As usual, at this conference, there was lots of praise for Boston’s dynamic industries and well-educated talent. The phrase “world-class city” was dropped at least 11 times. But anything world class is bright, bold, the opposite of timid.

The 19th-century Chicago architect Daniel Burnham is supposed to have said, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized.” There is some dispute that it was Burnham who said those words.

It doesn’t matter. We need big plans to solve big problems. Big plans stoke the economy and make our lives better. Let’s get our mojo back.

The question of mattresses

What is this growing obsession with mattresses?

Mattresses—possibly one of the most boring items you’ll ever need or buy—have exploded in heft, risen in price, peppered malls and downtown Boston streets though the growing number of mattress-specialty stores, become a topic of concern in newspaper and magazine articles, been featured in the most expensive ad space, page three, of the New York Times, and remarkably, for a product that no one else but you sees, are now a status symbol.

At least if you have a Louis Vuitton bag, people will know you paid a lot for it even if it still looks like cheap vinyl. With a mattress, however, you can shell out $12,000 for a Duxiana, and no one will notice unless you tell them—or invite them into your bed, but that’s not the topic of this column.

Mattresses are sort of like water—in both the makers have persuaded the public that a low-cost, familiar item now needs to be juiced up and priced at a premium.

Maybe the mattress obsession reveals something about Americans right now. It probably has nothing to do with Donald Trump—although the Trump phenomenon is so weird that we may find Donald Trump behind the mattress thing too. But right now, with no evidence of the brand, Trump Mattresses, I’m going with the idea that we’re susceptible to mattresses because something is going on in our health or culture.

For example, sleep may be a bigger problem for Americans than it used to be. Since I’m the world’s best sleeper—go to bed at a reasonable time, fall asleep immediately, wake up in time to hear Morning Edition—you can’t prove it by me.

So I contacted my niece, Melisa Moore, a Philadelphia-based PhD in clinical psychology and board-certified in behavioral sleep medicine.

She said people appear to be getting less sleep because they are spending more time on devices. She also said that with increasing obesity, some people fall victim to sleep apnea, which interferes with sleep.

Ads for mattresses claim their product will help alleviate neck and back pain, snoring, night sweats and jiggles from your partner if you sleep two to a bed.

Melisa wasn’t so sure about whether a mattress would do all the things the makers claim. “Scientific evidence is scant and not consistent,” she said. “Most studies have not been conducted in the US.”

She said old mattresses that have accumulated dust mites might be problematic for sleepers with asthma or eczema.

Like houses and other things, mattresses have grown bigger. It used to be that couples slept in double beds. Then mattresses became queen and king-size. For the past decade they’ve become McMattresses, as thick as 18 inches. You’ll have to invite Arnold Schwarzenegger over to lift that mattress so you can make the bed.

Melisa said one small study in India found that sleeping on a thin foam mattress less than ten centimeters did lead to increased back pain, but that’s really thin. Otherwise, if a mattress feels comfortable, it probably is, and thickness doesn’t matter.

Consumer Reports has rated 58 mattresses and recommended 24 of them ranging from $470 to $3,000, so it must not be that hard to get a good mattress. But they caution that a mattress labeled firm often isn’t and that price is no indication of quality. They recommended a $500 mattress and did not recommend one costing $7,595. So there you are.

I tried to get an opinion from the mattress industry of why there were so many mattress stores these days and why so much advertising and choice. I was unsuccessful. I called a Houston-based company that owns several different national chains. Their marketing company returned my call but told me that all the people who could answer my questions were busy for the rest of the week.

Then I tried the three Sleepy’s stores that are listed as operating in downtown Boston. No one picked up the phone at any of the them. Maybe they were too busy explaining the finer points to hoards of customers.

It began to look as if there are no secrets to mattresses no matter what the ads say or the sales people recommend. Check Consumer Reports. Then go lie down on a mattress in a store. If it feels good and you can lift it to change the bed, get it. Keep it for as long as it feels comfortable.

Since mattresses have only a little to do with getting a good night’s sleep, Melisa’s recommendations make sense. Keep a consistent sleep/wake schedule. Avoid caffeine, alcohol and nicotine before bed. Don’t nap during the day. And stay off the devices.

What could go wrong?

You have a taxicab company, or maybe you drive a cab. You paid a lot of money for the medallion that allows you to operate that cab. People trying to hail your cab have no idea whether you are free or have a passenger because, unlike in New York City, the light on the top of the cab signifies nothing.

Your car is a Toyota Camry into which you’ve installed a divider between the front and back seat. Passengers have little room for their feet in the back, but that’s the way it is. The air conditioning in the summer works for you, but your passengers swelter because the small window in the divider lets little cool air into the back.

Your cab is fairly clean, but it’s not exactly inviting. You talk on the phone while you are driving, so your passengers can’t figure out if you are talking to them or someone else. The little screen in your passengers’ face annoys them with ads and strange television re-runs that tell stories that won’t be finished by the time the passenger leaves the cab. Those screens make noise, and the shut-off button often doesn’t work.

If a passenger calls for a cab to pick her up at her house, you don’t necessarily arrive.

You complain about having to take credit cards. If you’re the iconic, comfortable London taxi, you decide not to take them at all or you charge passengers extra for using them.

Half the time—if you’re not a London taxi driver—you don’t know how to get to where the passenger is going, which is fine if the passenger knows how to get there or if you have GPS.

Passengers are used to taxis. The situation has been this way for years. What could go wrong?


You’re a mayor, or maybe a BRA director, or maybe a planner in a large city on the East Coast. Remarkably, lying beside your downtown financial district is a huge hunk of empty land that used to be filled with railroad tracks and now holds acres of parking. Why not expand your city into this barren wasteland?

So you do. While it is empty you dig a tunnel to hold an uncomfortable bus that is slow because it has to change the power source (manually) from electricity to diesel. You design the seats so that people stumble in. The bus goes to the a convention center (sort of—it’s a 15-minute walk) and the airport through the wasteland, but takes four times as long as a taxi to get from the airport to downtown. You figure that’s good enough.

You don’t dig a tunnel in the empty land with true rapid transit that connects outlying places through the empty area to the airport and to South Boston, a sprawling neighborhood that could use more stations. You figure we’re not world class, and only world-class cities do that.

You lay out wide streets. Although you call the empty land the “Innovation District” you don’t employ any of the new technology that can put electrified trolleys powered by safe “third rails” buried in the track in the middle of the street that other cities are now using. In fact, you provide no innovation of any kind.

You have only two bridges to get cars over a waterway. Then you welcome developers who build dozens of new buildings with offices and houses and restaurants and retail to which everyone has to drive.

How could anything go wrong?


You run an airline. You decide you’re not making enough money. So you change out all the seats in your airplanes, placing them so close together that when the seats are upright there is no leg room for anyone older than eight years old and no space for passengers to open their computers. Then you design seats that can recline, a bit.

You charge passengers for luggage. For snacks. For a better seat, maybe on the aisle or in the exit row or a space at the front of the line.

Passengers are mad at you from the time they enter the airport. They begin fighting in the aisles. You blame them for bad behavior.

It’s not your fault. Nothing’s wrong.