St. Cecilia: The Saint Patron of Music

Saint Cecilia [1896] by John Melhuish Strudwick

Today (22 November) is the feast of St. Cecilia. Saint Cecilia (200 – 222 AD) was a Roman virgin martyr, who became the patroness of music and musicians. Legend has it that Cecilia was a gifted musician from childhood and composed hymns of such beauty that angels came down from heaven to listen to her. She vowed to preserve her virginity to an Angel of God. However, she was married against her will to a pagan nobleman named Valerian (Valerius), and then told her husband to respect her vow. Valerian told her that he would only do so if he saw the Angel himself. Cecilia promised to him that he could if the Church baptised him. He was baptised, and then saw the Angel talking to Cecilia. She, her husband and her husband’s brother were all subsequently martyred for their experiences. Saint Cecilia’s final resting place is in Santa Cecilia Church in Trastevere in Rome, and the first celebration of the Day of St. Cecilia took place in Évreux, Normandy in 1570.

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10 Non-Fiction Books I’ve Recently Added to My TBR

November is the “Non-Fiction Reading” month, and I have compiled this list of non-fiction titles I am looking forward to reading in a near future.

Going to Chruch in Medieval England [2021] by Nicholas Orme

I am interested in the history of religion and knowing how prominent the Church was in the lives of people in the Middle Ages, this book will undoubtedly be a very insightful read. It aims to show how churches in England “came into existence, who staffed them, and how their buildings were used, [explaining] who went to church, who did not attend, [and] how people behaved there.” The book explains how the calendar and Church activities existed in unison, and demystifies the English Reformation of the sixteenth century.

The Facemaker: One Surgeon’s Battle to Mend the Disfigured Soldiers of World War I [2022] by Lindsey Fitzharris

Fitzharris’s debut book The Butchering Art [2017] was an unputdownable history non-fiction that told of British surgeon Joseph Lister and the transformation of Victorian medicine. In this new non-fiction, the author presents the story of one visionary surgeon who rebuilt the faces of the First World War’s injured soldiers, making first contributions to the field plastic surgery. The focus of this account is otolaryngologist Harold Gillies from New Zealand, who is considered to be the father of modern plastic surgery.

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Review: Hogenberg & Braun’s Cities of the World by Stephan Füssel (ed.)

Cities of the World by Frans Hogenberg and Georg Braun

Cities of the World [1617/2015] – ★★★★1/2

Travelling – it gives you home in thousand strange places, then leaves you a stranger in your own land” (Ibn Battuta (1303 – 1377), a Berber Maghrebi scholar and explorer, who “travelled more than any other explorer in pre-modern history”, covering some 117.000 km over a 30 year-long journey).

This Taschen edition encyclopaedic book compiles engravings and original texts with commentaries from the Civitates orbis terrarum, a collection of town maps produced between 1572 and 1617 by Frans Hogenberg, a Flemish engraver, and Georg Braun, a German Catholic cleric, among other contributors. The book is often referred to as “the most important cartographic work of sixteenth-century Europe”, and includes town plans, bird’s-eye views of cities and stunning landscape illustrations of various cities’ domestic activities. Since these date from the sixteenth century and come from European authors, the book naturally talks predominantly about the cities of Europe (though it does include such cities as Constantinople (Istanbul), Cairo, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Cuzco and Mexico City, too), and retains its original title – Cities of the World. Below are just snippets from this fascinating illustrated book that spans some 750 pages and covers more than 450 cities.

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Review: Laura by Vera Caspary

Book Cover of Novel Laura by Vera Caspary

Laura [1943] ★★★★★

To solve the puzzle of [Laura’s death], [one] must first resolve the mystery of Laura’s life” [Vera Caspary, Houghton Mifflin/Vintage: 1942/2012: 16].

A beautiful and still aspiring socialite Laura Hunt is found murdered in her apartment in New York City. She allegedly opened the door to her murderer. A veteran detective Mark McPherson starts to investigate this tricky case, but soon finds out that few things make sense in Laura’s murder. Worse still, McPherson finds himself falling under the charms of Laura’s personality and her world as a number of possible murder suspects emerge, including Laura’s low-paid fiancé Shelby Carpenter and Laura’s friend, eccentric columnist Waldo Lydecker. It soon turns out that Shelby is a possible insurance beneficiary upon Laura’s death, and, then, someone also buys Laura’s portrait that hung on her apartment wall …could it have been the murderer? Clues are scattered throughout this clever mystery-noir, which also has a twist “to die for”.

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Review: Fryderyk Chopin: A Life and Times by Alan Walker

Fryderyk Chopin [2018] – ★★★1/2

This book on Polish composer Fryderyk Chopin is the culmination of a ten years’ research project. Fryderyk or Frédéric Chopin is considered to be the greatest composer of the Romantic period, and this biography details his life from his early education and success in native Poland to his move and conquest of Paris through salon appearances, concerts and published works. Much in this book is about Chopin’s long-term relationship with French female novelist George Sand, but Chopin’s musical masterpieces, technique and piano theories are also dissected. Walker employs an engaging story-format to tell us about Chopin, a composer who was also largely self-taught and perpetually ill, providing invaluable insights into Chopin’s relationships with others. And, this well-researched book would have been a “must-read” biography if not for the fact that it is also over-written, with the author making some insensitive faux pas as he proceeds with his over-zealous narration.

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“Impossible Tasks” in Folklore: Wondrous Tradition Spanning Continents

When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female; and when you fashion eyes in the place of an eye, and a hand in place of a hand, and a foot in place of a foot, and a likeness in place of a likeness; then will you enter the Kingdom” (Jesus Christ, Gospel of Thomas).

In many folklore traditions, mythologies and fairy-tales around the world, characters have to overcome or endure certain trials as a penance, to prove their worth (to marry a princess, for example), break a curse or claim their ultimate prize. These trials may be extremely hard (The Labours of Hercules) or even impossible to overcome or solve. At one end, there are riddles to be guessed, such as the famous riddle of the Sphinx from the Greek mythology (“What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, three legs in the evening, and no legs at night?”) or the puzzles in the stories of Persian poet Nizami, which also found their way to Puccini’s opera Turandot, but another extreme is a truly impossible task set to frighten and confuse characters or heroes. These paradoxical, “undoable” commands often have a wondrous effect.

King Heimer and Aslaug [1856] by Johan August Malmström
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Tetsuya Ishida: Art That Disturbs and Awakens to Reality

Tetsuya Ishida (1973 – 2005) was a Japanese artist known for his surreal paintings of the modern life in Japan. Tetsuya Ishida’s art speaks powerfully about the negative aspects of Japanese society, including over-work, social pressures and the erosion of individuality. His paintings are trying to show the human cost of capitalism and economic prosperity, society’s indifference, people’s isolation, alienation, uncertainty, anxiety and hopelessness, as well as the negative effects of consumerism in our industrialised societies overall.

Much of Tetsuya Ishida’s art should be understood in its context. In the 1990s, Japan experienced the economic crisis, recession and stagnation, with many people being laid off, and the “Lost Generation” was created. These were the people who missed their chance in the job market through no fault of their own. Normally, Japanese graduates have only one year’ opening to apply for jobs in companies, and many young people lost their opportunities when, in their graduation year, Japanese companies did not offer graduate positions (because of the need to cut costs). Of course, in the coming years, when Japan’s economy had improved, companies preferred most recent graduates to these “left-over” young people who then struggled to find employment, with some surviving by doing menial work. Some of these people also became what became known as hikikomori (“shut-in” adults living in their family home and not participating in any social life), facing much stigma. Tetsuya Ishida was, in fact, one of those “Lost Generation” people who experienced the 1990s’ hardship and discrimination first-hand.

Recalled
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Review: Talking Music by William Duckworth

Talking Music: Conversations with John Cage, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, & Five Generations of American Experimental Composers [1995]★★★★

Experimental music is defined as “any music that pushes existing boundaries and genre definitions“. Though the term originated in the 1950s, the US of the 1960s saw certain music artists emerging that can be said to be loosely associated with the “experimental music” movement. This book by American composer and educator William Duckworth compiles the author’s interviews with experimental composers and performers from the US, including John Cage, Philip Glass, Lou Harrison, Conlon Nancarrow, Meredith Monk and Laurie Anderson. The interviews shed light on the artists’ backgrounds, major works and inspirations, and many of the interviews are frank, interesting and inspirational.

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Review: Shell-Shock: A History of the Changing Attitudes to War Neurosis by Anthony Babington

Shell-Shock: A History of the Changing Attitudes to War Neurosis [1997] – ★★★★

“…They broke his body and his mind/And yet They made him live,/And They asked more of My Mother’s Son/Than any man could give...” (from Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Mother’s Son).

“…Men who went out to battle, grim and glad;/ Children, with eyes that hate you, broken and mad…” (Siegfried Sassoon, October 1917).

This is an insightful book about the history of “shell-shock”, a type of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by soldiers after a prolonged combat. Anthony Babington is neither a medical professional nor strictly a trained historian, but his book still provides a thought-provoking overview of a very misunderstood illness. From wars described by Herodotus (484-425 BC) to the Gulf War of 1990/91, the account touches on every major war conflict to explain how “shell-shock” and combat stress were perceived and treated through history.

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7 Unputdownable Books Written from Multiple “First-Person” Perspectives

Below are seven books written from a multiple “first-person” perspective. More often than not, this perspective is employed when a narrative concerns some unusual or psychologically complex situation whereby it would be interesting for the reader to find out the reactions of more than one person to some event unfolding. Such a perspective can offer a valuable insight, and the use of unreliable narrators may heighten the intrigue.

I. The Beguiled/A Painted Devil [1966] by Thomas P. Cullinan

This historical fiction has more psychological depth than first meets the eye. It tells the story of a teacher and pupils at a girls’ school during the Civil War, who take in one injured soldier they spotted lying near their school. The author handles his multiple “first-person” perspectives brilliantly, showing the different personalities of the girls, as their self-interests and private desires start to collide with the concern for the soldier’s well-being. Sofia Coppola’s 2017 adaptation of this book missed the subtle points of Cullinan’s novel.

II. The Last House on Needless Street [2021] by Catriona Ward

This horror book’s multiple narrators are designed to unsettle the reader. First, there is heavy-drinking Ted, who lives in the last house on Needless Street. Then, there is his daughter Lauren, who is not allowed outside, and, lastly, comes the family’s religion-minded cat Olivia. It is an exciting, disturbing book that focuses on one missing girl, and filled with secrets and unreliable narrators.

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Frank Churchill (20 October 1901 – 14 May 1942): Snow White: “Someday My Prince Will Come”

Frank Churchill was an American composer known for his years’ long partnership with Walt Disney. He provided scores for Disney’s animations Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs, Dumbo, Bambi, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (posthumously) and Peter Pan (posthumously and not included), not to mention scoring many uncredited short animations. Churchill’s song Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? for animation The Three Little Pigs achieved an unexpected commercial success.

Churchill’s Someday My Prince Will Come is a beautiful, catchy tune full of hope and longing for a better future. It has many melancholic, “heart-breaking” notes, but the overall impression is one of endless reverie, of a desire that tomorrow brings a better day. Churchill’s contribution, including his musical pieces Heigh Ho and Whistle While You Work, helped make The Snow White the world’s first great animation.

Frank Churchill was an immensely talented musician, but also a sensitive soul. He took his own life on 14 May 1942 at the age of just 40. Though at the time of his death he was involved in a dispute with Disney over his Bambi pieces, the cause was most probably depression after the deaths of Churchill’s two closest friends. However, his music lives on, uplifting and touching millions around the globe.

10 Novels That Explore Identity

“At what precise moment…does an individual cease to be the person he…believes himself to be?…If [both] arms are gone, I say: myself and my two arms…If they had to take out my stomach, my liver, my kidneys – I could still say: myself and my organs. But, if they cut off my head, what could I say then? Myself and my body, or myself and my head? [The Tenant, Topor/Price, Black Spring Press, 1966: 58].

There are so many great books that grapple with the issue of identity, from classic sci-fi – Wells’s The Invisible Man [1897] and Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? [1968] to fun foreign-language choices, including Japrisot’s Trap for Cinderella [1962]. Below are 10 books that discuss the issue of identity in a narrative context. For the purposes of this list, I define “identity” in terms of being a purely existential matter, rather than one based on any national, cultural, racial or gender identification. This list is also in no particular order, and I have taken care not to include books which I mentioned in my two previous, similar-themed lists “Double Trouble”: 7 Books That Focus on Identical Twins and “Mirror Image”: 7 Books That Focus on Doppelgängers/Doubles.

I. The Late Mattia Pascal

This 1904 novel by Novel Laureate Luigi Pirandello (Six Characters in Search of an Author) tells the story of a man who sees his chance to start life anew when he finds out that he was mistakenly pronounced dead. However, his prospects turn out to be not as promising as they appear on the first glance. The book is ironic and philosophical, and, for a similar theme, see also Balzac’s novella Colonel Chabert about a man searching for his past identity.

II. The Tenant

The Tenant is a 1964 French-language book (translation is available) by Roland Topor about a man renting an apartment in Paris. The man soon notices strange behaviour of his neighbours and starts to suspect the worst concerning the near-death of the previous occupant of the apartment. This is a very good psychological horror story that emphasises the loss of identity and apartment claustrophobia. It was also made into a 1976 film.

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Poems of Mourning

Poems of Mourning [1998] by Peter Washington (ed.) – ★★★★1/2

This is an impressive collection of poems that concern loss and mourning from the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets series. I found most of them absolutely beautiful, coming from such poets as Emily Dickinson, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Alfred Tennyson, Robert Frost, Thomas Hardy, and Christina Rossetti. Some of them are fairly well-known, such as Bishop’s One Art, Dickinson’s Because I Could Not Stop for Death, Hopkins’s Spring and Fall, and Auden’s Funeral Blues, while others are more obscure, including those that commemorate animals. The other great thing about this collection is that it makes an effort to present poets from around the world, so there are poems from François Villon, Abu Al-Ala Al-Ma’arri, Fyodor Tyutchev, Czeclaw Milosz, and Primo Levi. For similar books, see also my post The Poetry of Thomas Hardy, as well as my mini-review of Japanese Death Poems.

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Review: The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico by Miguel León-Portilla

The Broken Spears [1959/97] – ★★★★

The Aztecs…thought the strangers were Quetzalcoatl, and other gods returning from over the sea, while the Spaniards, despite their amazement at the splendours of Tenochtitlan, considered the Aztecs barbarians and thought only of seizing their riches and of forcing them to become Christians and Spanish subjects” (León-Portilla/Kemp, Beacon Press, 1959/97: xxxiii).

On 22 April 1519, Spaniard Don Hernán Cortés landed in Mexico, and on 13 August 1521, the Aztecs, one of the greatest civilisations of South America, fell. The Aztecs, a nation possessing an intricate culture and complex political organisation, were destroyed and plundered beyond all recognition. In this book, Mexican anthropologist Miguel León-Portilla aims to show the invasion of Mexico by the Spaniards in 1519 from the point of view of the native Aztecs. The non-fiction, translated from the Spanish by Lysander Kemp, compiles a number of first-hand account writings from indigenous people, giving the voice to the victims of this unprecedented encounter between two very distinct military powers and cultures.

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September 2022 Wrap-Up

How Green Was My Valley [1939] by Richard Llewellyn – ★★★★

Beautiful were the days that are gone, and O, for them to be back. The mountain was green, and proud with a good covering of oak and ash, and washing his feet in a streaming river clear as the eyes of God” [Richard Llewellyn, Penguin Books, 1939/2001: 153].

This absorbing story is told through the perspective of a small boy and then a young man living in a close-knit mining community in Wales during the reign of Queen Victoria. Huw Morgan grows up in changing times and in a family of many other children and plenty of role models. The Morgan family experiences both good and bad times, enduring their daily struggles with their coal employers and the rise of labour unions, but still finds happiness of living so united, peacefully abiding by the laws of the Church and being surrounded by the primordial beauty of nature. Huw makes enemies and friends, both in school and in a wider community, and finds out about friendship, duty, shame, guilt and justice, as well as, later, the value of honest work, and torments and confusion of first love. Permeated with much emotion and with that quiet, poetic and resolute conviction, How Green Was My Value is a heart-felt, bitter-sweet and nostalgic literary masterpiece, a one-of-kind homage to innocence lost and to Wales that is no more.

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10 Fascinating Books About Circuses/Carnivals

For me, autumn is associated with circuses and carnivals, maybe because Halloween is approaching and I think of country fairs, masks, costumes, etc. Thus, I am presenting ten books, in no particular order and both fiction and non-fiction, that revolve around circuses or carnivals.

I. Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham

Nightmare Alley is a fast-paced pulp noir that tells a journey of ambitious and street-smart Stanton Carlisle, working as a mentalist, through all the dark sides of one second-rate carnival show. The structure of this book is dictated by a Tarot deck, and the novel has now been adapted twice – as a 1947 film noir starring Tyrone Power and as a 2021 film directed by Guillermo del Toro.

II. The Circus Fire: A True Story of An American Tragedy by Stewart O’Nan

This book is about the 6 July 1944 circus fire disaster that occurred in Hartford, Connecticut, when a big top of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus caught fire in the middle of a performance with some 7000 people inside. At least 167 people died and another 700 were injured, and this book, filled with maps and photographs, painstakingly sets down all the circumstances leading up to the tragedy, including previous fires and circus arrangements, before talking about acts of heroism on the day and the aftermath, when the injured had to deal with PTSD.

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The “Multiple Perspectives” Art of David Wilkie

Sir David Wilkie (18 November 1785 – 1 June 1841) was a Scottish artist of genre paintings, who also painted historical events and portraits, and was sometimes known as the “people’s painter”, presumably for some of his paintings that depict the lower-class or the middle class fallen on hard times. He was the godfather of author Wilkie Collins (The Woman in White). Wilkie’s paintings are characterised by liveliness, detail, and different or multiple perspectives shown by a number of characters in one painting. Below are four of his paintings, though his best-known one is probably The Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Waterloo Dispatch [1816].

The Blind Fiddler [1806]

In this painting, where Wilkie pays close attention to details, a blind fiddler and his family (a wife, presumably, a lace-maker, an older boy and a baby) come to a country family home to provide entertainment. There is a lot going on in this painting, with each character having a different reaction to the music. The two small children of the family, presumably small trader’s family, seem to be interested in the music, while the baby is being entertained by the older man, probably his father. The small trader family’s son imitates the fiddler by playing on the bellows. Wilkie undoubtedly wanted to contrast the small trader with the poor fiddler, hence our attention is drawn to the colour red of the fiddler’s hat and the houseowner’s waistcoat.

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Review: The Ladies’ Paradise by Émile Zola

The Ladies’ Paradise [1883/1995]★★★★1/2

In this French classic translated by Brian Nelson, Denise Baudu, a young woman from the Valognes countryside, arrives to Paris with her two younger brothers, orphaned and destitute, looking to get employment at her uncle Mr Baudu’s small drapery shop. However, the moment Denise arrives, she becomes entranced by The Ladies’ Paradise, a magnificent shopping establishment that entices its customers with its extravagant window displays, personalised service, constant sales and affordable luxury. Since Mr Baudu’s small shop is on the brink of bankruptcy and Denise has to feed and clothe her two brothers, she feels she has no choice but to attempt working at this glittering shopping monstrosity that has already devoured many small businesses in the area, shutting them down. The proprietor of The Ladies’ Paradise is “brilliant” and ruthless Octave Mouret, an enigmatic figure, whose money-making schemes are already revolutionising the city’s shopping space. Can Denise, with her innocence and simplicity, navigate this complex, often immoral, commercial world so that she and her brothers survive? Zola masterfully and perceptively captures the changing Paris of the 1850-1860s that starts undergoing drastic urban transformations and changes in customer trends, seeing the rise of the “temples to Fashion’s madness for spending”, that are huge department stores.

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A Trip to Venice II: Literary Highlights

Following from my previous post where I talked about Venice’s cultural highlights, below is the overview of my literary exploration of Venice.

I. Studium Bookshop

This stylish bookshop, not far from St Mark’s Square, exceeded my expectations. It is packed with beautiful fiction and non-fiction books on many subjects, from travel guides and children’s fiction to Italian cook-books and illustrated marvels on Japanese art. There are also sections devoted to English, French and Spanish books, and the staff is very friendly. It is here that I bought my now-much-cherished Spanish-language edition of Italian classic The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni, and, as you can see from the photographs below, I was very impressed by this bookstore’s Corto Maltese section. Corto Maltese is a series of comic books by Hugo Pratt that talks about adventures of sailor Corto Maltese in the first and second decade of the twentieth century. One of those is titled Corto Maltese: Fable of Venice, and people also recommended to me the book The Secret Venice of Corto Maltese: Fantastic and Hidden Itineraries.

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A Trip to Venice I: Cultural Highlights

Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.” Truman Capote

This August I went to Venice and Venetian Riviera for my holidays, and below I am sharing some of the cultural highlights from my trip.

I. Piazza San Marco

I started my excursion with the Piazza San Marco, probably the world’s most famous town square, bordered by the Doge’s Palace and Basilica San Marco. The tall bell tower is the Campanile, constructed in 1912, since the original collapsed in 1902. The famous Café Florian (which some say is the most expensive café in the world) can also be found on this square, once being a host to a diverse literary clientele, including Stendhal, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Thomas Moore, Charles Dickens and Henry James.

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Review: The Sea and Poison by Shūsaku Endō

The Sea and Poison [1958/92] – ★★★★

The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything” (Albert Einstein).

Go where the pain is” (Anne Rice).

Japan, the last months of the World War II. The city of Fukuoka, nestling in the Hakata Bay, has been experiencing air raids for quite some time, and its hospital finds itself stretched to the limits as its never-ending line of mostly dying patients is always at the door, riddled with many diseases, worsened by hunger and despair. But one day is no ordinary day for this hospital. Unbeknown to many, the Second Surgery is preparing for a secret vivisection operation on American soldiers taken prisoners by the Japanese, and the goal is to test the limits of air and saline that can be injected into humans before they die. Those who are involved in the operation are not some evil monsters or serial killers on the loose, though. They are some of the most respected people in the institution, as well as their dedicated supporting medical personnel. Through the perspectives of two interns – sensitive Suguro and cynical Toda, as well as haunted-by-traumatic-past Nurse Ueda, Endō shows us how easily the unimaginable can unfold when conditions are led by war-time nihilism and actions are prompted by apathy, despair, helplessness and self-interest. Based on a true story (see this article), Shūsaku Endō’s book is as intense as it is disturbing, but at its core is still a touching message to always preserve the spirit of humanity and compassion even in the most highly-pressured and hopeless environments.

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Japanese ASMR: Garden & Onsen

I feel like sharing today some of my favourite Japanese ASMR videos. I am sure at least one of them I first saw on Content Catnip, an amazing website dedicated to quirky, curious aspects related to all things travel, history, music, art, spirituality, natural world and much more.

I love the sound of gentle rain, and this view to a Japanese garden is very cosy. Traditional Japanese stone lanterns, a Buddha statue and cutlery for brewing ocha are a magical combination (creator Cosmic Resort).

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Allegories in Art II: Hope, True Love & Charity

I. Hope [1886] by George Frederic Watts

This painting depicts Hope, sitting crouched and blind-folded on a globe, trying to obtain a melody through the only string left in her lyre. It is a very powerful, though melancholy, depiction of the never-dying feeling. Hope clings desperately to something, anything, refusing to give up even when odds are clearly stacked against a person. As long as Hope hears a melody through the lyre, there can never be complete hopelessness.

The muted dark colours surrounding Hope makes the depiction even sadder, and the blind-fold and the globe further emphasise Hope’s helplessness, loneliness and isolation. There is a lone star above her head, twinkling, but it is hardly perceived. However, it is there, and Hope manages to distil and hear a melody through her instrument, meaning that not all is lost.

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Allegories in Art I: The Passage of Time

I. A Dance to the Music of Time [c. 1638-40] by Nicolas Poussin

This colourful painting shows four differently-dressed figures who dance to “the Music of Time”, with Time represented by an old man with wings playing a lyre. The figures’ hands are inter-locked and they are supposed to be in a perpetual motion, symbolising the cycle of life. They dance near a pillar topped by a double-faced Janus, the god of beginnings, transitions and endings. One of his heads is facing the future, while the other is facing the past. On the right, a putto holds an hourglass, while on the left, a putto is carelessly blowing bubbles, further alluding to the transience of human life. The painting scene takes place in the morning since Aurora, the goddess of dawn, leads the way for Apollo’s chariot through the sky. In turn, Apollo holds in his hands the Zodiac ring, and the Horae, the goddess of the seasons, conclude the procession.

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Review: How Do You Live? by Genzaburo Yoshino

How Do You Live? [1937/82/2021] – ★★★★★

This classic Japanese YA book is now being adapted into an animation by Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away (2001)) since it was his favourite childhood book. This story focuses on a naturally inquisitive high-school student Junichi Honda (nicknamed “Copper”) and his three friends: quiet Mizutani, outspoken Kitami and kind Uragawa. With his uncle acting as a guide, Copper learns important life lessons and discovers things that would enable him to become a better human being in future. We are shown little episodes in Copper’s life as the boy starts to understand the importance of friendship, kindness, thankfulness and acceptance, and the wrongs of bullying, cowardice and discrimination. Often compared to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince [1943], How Do You Live? is an unforgettable book with a heart and a soul.

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Six Degrees of Separation – from Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness to Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly book meme first created by Annabel Smith & Emma Chapman, and now continued by Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest. The aim is create a chain of six books stemming from one designated book. That designated book is announced monthly, and the books can be linked in various ways.

This month’s chain starts with Ruth Ozeki’s most recent book The Book of Form and Emptiness, which I have not yet read, but the synopsis tells me that this is a book that features “a large public library” at some point, and this brings me to Edith Wharton’s classic novella Summer. This book is about Charity Royall, a seventeen-year old girl who was once adopted by a prominent lawyer in a small town of North Dormer. She lands a coveted role of a librarian at her local library and there meets a promising architect and potential suitor Lucius Harney. Edith Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1921, becoming the first woman to do so, and 100 years on, Louise Erdrich also did so for her novel The Night Watchman, which won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize. This rather personal-to-the-author novel is set in the 1950s and follows the lives of North Dakota’s Native American population – the Chippewa tribe. The story focuses on a US Senator’s attempt to undo the protection enjoyed by the native tribe through the so-called Termination Bill.

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Review: Am I Dreaming? by James Kingsland

Am I Dreaming? The New Science of Consciousness and How Altered States Reboot the Brain [2019] – ★★★

From lucid dreaming and hallucinations to hypnotism and various effects of LSD and DMT, science journalist James Kingsland takes the reader on a journey explaining the altered states of consciousness and the present state of knowledge in this field, making his case that inducing altered states of consciousness is beneficial, and much can be gained by experimenting with psychoactive substances. Am I Dreaming? is an unnecessarily chaotic book, but if you are prepared to sift through the author’s more obvious statements on consciousness and his not-always-so-clear scientific explanations, there is some insight gained as the author talks about more recent studies and people’s first-hand experiences.

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10 Books to Read to Understand Japan

I. In Praise of Shadows [1933] by Junichiro Tanizaki

This persuasive essay by Japanese author Jun’ichirō Tanizaki illuminates the darkest corners of cultural and aesthetic Japan, explaining the country’s traditional preference for imperfection. Tanizaki says that there is an eerie beauty to be distilled from things that at first seem “dark”, “small” or “imperfect” (such as special charm emanating from lacquerware illuminated by candles). Those who are open to experience the imperfect and not afraid to crouch in the dark, will find that special delight. It now appears to me that Tanizaki might have also been influenced by the writings of Yoshida Kenkō, a Buddhist monk.

II. Another Kyoto [2016] by Alex Kerr & Kathy Arlyn Sokol 

In this book, Alex Kerr and Kathy Sokol capture and explain the nuances of the Japanese culture by focusing on seemingly mundane objects of the Japanese society, such as walls, gates, tatami mats and screens, opening to us a whole new way of perceiving these attributes of the Japanese culture. In Kerr and Sokol’s book, Kyoto never felt as intimate nor its most distinguishing features better explained.

III. The Japanese: A History in Twenty Lives [2020] by Christopher Harding

I thought this was an exciting read, presenting Japanese history through the lives of twenty distinguished citizens, from mythical Princess Himiko (“Shaman Queen”), who lived in the year 200, to Empress Owada Masako (1963-), an intelligent, well-educated woman, but once a very unlikely contender to the title. It is possible that Harding based his book on Gen Itasaka’s 100 Japanese (People) You Should Know, and those who want to read a more linear history of Japan, can pick up Andrew Gordon’s A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present [2019].

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Recent Reading: Plays

I. The Visit [1956] by Friedrich Dürrenmatt – ★★★★★

A story is not finished, until it has taken the worst turn” (Friedrich Dürrenmatt).

“…feeling[s] for humanity…is cut for the purse of an ordinary millionaire; with financial resources like mine, [one] can afford a new world order” [Claire Zachanassian in Dürrenmatt’s The Visit, Grove Press, 1956/94: 67].

Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921 – 1990) was a Swiss author and dramatist, and his play The Visit is considered one of his best works. The play is set in a small, poverty-stricken town of no importance Guellen. Its forgotten-by-everyone people can barely make their ends meet, and it is to this scene comes Claire Zachanassian, an elderly multi-millionairess who owns Armenian Oil and Western Railways, among other things. Guellen is her home town, and she brought with her for this visit an unbelievably large amount of money, as well as her husband, her future husband, her sedan-bearers, who are actually convicted gangsters, a panther and…a coffin, because…”she may need it”. It seems that everyone in town reckons that Claire would want to become a much needed benefactor to the town and its desperate community. However, the millionairess makes one shocking proposition: she wants justice for money, and the matter has something to do with her past and with her childhood sweetheart, Alfred Ill, now the town’s most esteemed citizen.

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A Spot of South America on the Isle of Wight

I enjoyed so much my time on the Isle of Wight last year (see my post – A Trip to the Isle of Wight) that I decided to return this summer as well. Alongside penguins and pandas, llamas and alpacas are my favourite animals, so I visited the West Wight Alpacas and Llamas farm situated near the quiet village of Wellow on the Isle of Wight. This is a large farm that was started in 2010 by a husband and wife team, and now provides a great day out for all the family. They offer a variety of farm activities, from feeding various farm animals to short walks and long treks with llamas and alpacas.

Llamas and alpacas originate in South America, and at least the former has been domesticated for thousands of years, primarily in the central Andes. In their book Llamas of South America, Conklin and Bjorklund say that “the llamas were domesticated over two thousand years before the coming of the Incas”, and since the Incas of Peru had no writing system to speak of, or iron, it was probably due to the llama that they were able to build such a great empire since the llama provided them with food, wool and means to transport bulky items.

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The Art of Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka

Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka (1853 – 1919) was a Hungarian painter working in the expressionist style and being part of the twentieth century’s avant-garde movement. A pharmacist by profession, he had a vision that he would become a renowned painter when he was already close to thirty and after that vowed to stop at nothing “to fulfil his destiny”. However, Kosztka was not popular with his contemporaries and achieved most of his recognition only after his death, with his paintings now forming part of Hungary’s national treasure. Below are three of his distinctive paintings, with each having at least one curious aspect.

I. Old Fisherman [1902]

This seemingly straightforward at first glance painting shows an old fisherman with a cane with a coastline in the background. To the left of the man, one can see the serene sea and what looks like the signs of a village, while to the right, the sea is more volatile and a number of factories are seen, emitting pollution in the air. However, this is a painting with “a twist”. Art critics were quickly to spot that if you take a mirror and place it on the left-hand side of the painting (mirroring the fisherman’s face), it will show the benevolent man in a prayer, standing for goodness (God), but if you take a mirror and place it on the right-hand side (mirroring the fisherman’s face), it will show Devil himself (as the illustrations below demonstrate). Csontvary Kosztka seems to have wanted to underline the humanity’s dual nature – it harbours the seeds of both good and evil.

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Review: The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honour and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century by Joel F. Harrington

The Faithful Executioner [2013] – ★★★1/2

A technically proficient and reliable executioner was himself the very embodiment of the sword of justice in action – swift, unwavering, deadly, but never appearing susceptible to arbitrary or gratuitous cruelty” [Harrington, Farrar, Straus and Giroux Publications, 2013: 67].

This book is a biography of Franz Schmidt (1555-1634), a public executioner who lived in what is now Germany in the Renaissance period. He kept a diary for the majority of his professional life, which lasted some forty-five years and included the execution of at least three hundred and sixty one people. Harrington traces Schmidt’s life, from his apprenticeship to him becoming a master of his craft, a healer, a family man and, finally, “an honourable member of society”, grounding his research in Schmidt’s dairy. After gaining technical skills, Schmidt travelled several years across the country, performing executions for a fee (as was customary), and though associating with a dishonourable profession, always tried to challenge the social stigma and strived to be part of the honourable society, taking pains to avoid associating with the world of immorality, including gambling, drinking and fighting. Harrington’s non-fiction is not for the squeamish and the biography presented is a bit misguided, but those who are interested in the history of criminal punishment will find much here to consider at length.

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Review: Arturo’s Island by Elsa Morante

Arturo’s Island [1957/2019] – ★★★★

This coming-of-age story won the 1957 Strega Prize, Italy’s most prestigious literary award, but this review is of a newer translation by Ann Goldstein. The book tells of a fourteen-year-old boy Arturo Gerace living in Procida, Bay of Naples, Italy some time before the World War II. Growing up without his mother and with often absent father Wilhelm Gerace, Arturo is still happy to spend his days without rules or schedules running wild around the island, imagining being an adult and embarking on some sea adventure that would bring him eternal glory. That is until his father, whom Arturo idolises, brings home his new sixteen-year-old bride Nunziata. From that point on, Arturo’s world will never be the same and the shift in the household’s dynamics means that Arturo can finally confront his deepest subconscious traumas with a chance to experience both the joys and sorrows of secret love. Morante’s tale is deceptively simple, and is more psychological than first assumed. It evokes all the delights of childhood wonder and the longings of adolescence, the feelings of endless summers and the atmosphere of mysterious, isolated lands surrounded by aquamarine seas.

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June 2022 Wrap-Up

La Vita Nuova [1294/2021] by Dante Alighieri – ★★★★★

Here is a deity stronger than I; who, coming, shall rule over me”. Translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, La Vita Nuova is Dante’s early work dedicated to his beloved Beatrice, a noblewoman. Part autobiographical narrative and part poetry, the book is about this Italian poet’s joy and anguish as he worships Beatrice and her image, dedicating poem after poem to her, and his narrative is filled with tenderness, wonder, and visions and premonitions of all kinds. Being purely platonic and much idealised, this is no ordinary love, especially since Dante allegedly met Beatrice only twice in his life (the first time when both of them were children). So, some in his immediate entourage expressed their scepticism about this otherworldly love of his: “To what end lovest thou this lady, seeing that thou canst not support her presence?” However, Dante had an answer. “Love governs [his] Soul”. In this work at least, Dante’s love is obsessive and transformative, but also pure and unselfish, and does not depend on his beloved being near or reciprocating, though the torment of not seeing her and then seeing her pass to the “otherworld” of Angels is too much to bear (“The look she hath when she a little smiles/Cannot be said, nor hidden in the thought; ‘Tis such a new and gracious miracle” [Dante/Rossetti, Pan Macmillan, 1294/2021: 47]). This is Dante’s soul-crying, soul-searching work; a powerful, moving evocation.

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Review: The City and the Mountains by Eça de Queirós 

The City and the Mountains [1901/2008] – ★★★★★

“…and in life, only the soul matters” [Eça de Queiroz/Costa, Dedalus, 1901/2008: 174].

Eça de Queiroz’s novels The Maias [1888] and The Crime of Father Amaro [1875] are among my favourite books of all time. Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa, The City and the Mountains is de Queiroz’s much later novel about the life of Portuguese nobleman Jacinto de Tormes as told from the perspective of his best friend Zé Fernandes. The novel starts in Paris, France (the City) and ends in Tormes, Portugal (the Mountains), presenting a vivid contrast between the busy, money and technology-driven Parisian lifestyle, on the one hand, and the quiet, simple, filled with natural beauty, mode of life in the countryside, on the other. As important as this duality is the psychology of Jacinto de Tormes, a man of great means and even bigger opportunities. However, it turns out that it is not so easy to figure out the purpose of a thing called Life and the quest for ultimate knowledge may not lie in the most obvious of places. Thus, this charming book on duality and human transformation is many things: a delicate city satire, a study of fin de siècle societal eccentricities, a heart-warming presentation of lifelong friendship, and, finally, a lyrical tribute to the beauty of Portuguese countryside.

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Recent History Non-Fiction Reads: The Electric Chair, & Empireland

I. The Electric Chair: An Unnatural American History [1999/2009] by Craig Brandon – ★★★★

This book is on the history of one of “the elephants in the room” in the US – death penalty by electrocution. It talks in depth about the case of William Kemmler, a vegetable peddler from Buffalo, who became the first person to be executed by electric chair in America on 6 August 1890. Previously, Kemmler was convicted of murdering his common law wife Tillie Ziegler. It is this man, or rather his death, that became a pawn in the complex business and political game of inventors, investors, entrepreneurs and politicians, at the centre of which was the so-called “current war” waged by Edison (a proponent of the direct current (DC)) and Westinghouse (a proponent of the alternative current (AC)), both eager to prove that only their patented electricity was the way forward for American society, both for domestic and penal purposes.

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10 Novels I’ve Recently Added to My TBR

I. The Bell [1958] by Iris Murdoch

It is said that this “funny and sad novel is about religion, the fight between good and evil and the terrible accidents of human frailty.” The Bell should be right up my alley because I love stories that focus on small communities and morality. The synopsis reads: “A lay community of thoroughly mixed-up people is encamped outside Imber Abbey…A new bell, legendary symbol of religion and magic, is rediscovered“. At the same time, it appears that a number of characters also decide to either confront their partners or change their relationships status.

II. The Iliac Crest [2002/17] by Cristina Rivera Garza

Sometimes I am up for something subversive and unusual. The Iliac Crest is by Mexican author Cristina Rivera Garza who decided to explore the concepts of gender and identity, presenting in her story two women who come to an unnamed narrator’s house and start their questioning. “The increasingly frantic protagonist fails to defend his supposed masculinity and eventually finds himself in a sanatorium.” The novel has been called “haunting” and “otherworldly”, and I am sure there are many surprises along the way.

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Puccini’s Opera: Turandot

Turandot [1926]

Opera Turandot is set in Beijing, China and tells the story of proud Princess Turandot and unknown Prince Calaf. Turandot is a haughty Princess who wants to take revenge for a crime once committed against one woman in her ancestry line by condemning young princes from afar to their deaths. To achieve this aim, Turandot demands that every man that wants to marry her has to solve her three riddles. Whoever solves her three puzzles will become her husband, but if that person is unable to solve them – he will be executed. However, despite very probable deadly consequences of this trial-riddle imposed by the Princess, there is no shortage of young men willing to risk their lives since Turandot is very beautiful. Then, comes Calaf, a Prince travelling with his father Timur and a slave-girl Liu, and he will stop at nothing until he completes the challenge and wins the hand of Turandot. Turandot is an opera of extravagant displays, great passions and narrative contrasts and extremes. Puccini’s music diffuses Asian tones and makes use of powerful choirs, providing a kaleidoscopic musical experience, with the heart-wrenching final-act aria “Nessun dorma” rightly deserving its place among the finest operatic arias ever.

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Dreaming in Art: 5 Fantastical Paintings

The mystery of dreams and dreaming has been fascinating artists since ancient times. Many famous artists (from Hieronymus Bosch, Francisco de Goya and William Blake to Gustav Klimt, René Magritte and Salvador Dalí) had tried to give life and form on canvas to the wondrous and bewildering nature of dreams. Whether taking folklore, mythology or biblical scenes as their main themes, artists’ greatest challenge was to enable the easy differentiation in the painting between the waking and the dreaming lives of their subjects. Below is just a snippet of this fascinating art tradition.

I. The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of/Dreams [1858] by John Anster Fitzgerald 

John Anster Fitzgerald (1819 – 1906) was a British painter of the Victoria era known for producing detailed, colourful artwork depicting various mythological figures: fairies, ghouls, demons, and also effects of drug-consumption. Dreams is just one of his paintings that depicts a young girl sleeping and seeing dreams. Those dreams “materialise” around her in this piece, showing various mischievous spirits playing musical instruments at the foot of the girl’s bed, while the more benevolent ones dance in the painting’s background, encircling the girl’s most pleasant dream of forming a couple with a (real or imagined) man she loves. The girl’s chic dress is probably also a part of her dream, and the red drapery around the girl’s bed work almost as stage curtains further emphasising the effect of an ongoing performance.

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Recent Reading: Short Stories

I. Xingu [1900] by Edith Wharton – ★★★★★

In this story, one intellectual reading club is led by one Mrs. Ballinger and composed of a number of ladies of distinction, i.e. “huntresses of erudition”, “who pursue Culture in bands, as though it were dangerous to meet alone”. Mrs. Ballinger is the epitome of proper behaviour, but is also described as having a “mind [like an] hotel where facts came and went like transient lodgers, without leaving their address behind, and frequently without paying for their board”. Mrs. Roby is the newest addition to this elite club who gained her entry by way of one gentleman’s recommendation. However, she does not seem to fit and does and says the wrong things. That is, until Mrs. Ballinger and the other ladies invite a respected female author Osric Dane to talk about her latest book and that “inadequate” Mrs. Roby asks Ms. Dane to comment on one supposed book titled “Xingu”. The uttering of that word “Xingu” is that Alice in Wonderland’s Unbirthday Party moment in this story which precedes changing power dynamics and the quiet, or maybe not so quiet, disintegration of the club’s supposed erudition.

Edith Wharton (The House of Mirth [1905]) could always be counted on to produce a fine satire of the upper-class. The haughtiness and self-absorption of the club, that focuses too much on what is “right” and “proper”, means that the ladies lose sight of the very culture and intellectual endeavours they are supposed to be pursing. They are necessarily restricted by the very “fine” social parameters within which they operate, and the goal to pursue culture and serious literature, which does require a level of open-mindedness, sits at odds with the club’s inflexible and discriminatory practices. Xingu must be among Wharton’s best short stories, being both caustically amusing and delightfully sarcastic.

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Italian Children’s Literature

This week (on 1 June) is the International Children’s Day (also the Children’s Week in some countries) and I am dedicating this post to the Italian children’s literature.

🤥 The Adventures of Pinocchio (Le avventure di Pinocchio) [1883] by Carlo Collodi

Pinocchio, a wooden boy who wants to be a real boy, has endeared himself into millions of people’s hearts. Collodi’s famous tale follows the adventure of a marionette who finds out early in his life that the world is not always just and that oppression exists alongside goodness and benevolence. Like Lewis Carroll’s original story of Alice in Wonderland [1865], some aspects of the original story of Pinocchio is quite disturbing and violent, but, then, what mid-nineteenth century fairy-tale has aged well? The Adventures of Pinocchio is the third most translated book in the world (after the Bible and The Little Prince) and no wonder – its messages of rising above oppression, trying to do one’s best despite adversary, bad influence and even one’s own trouble-making nature, and becoming the best person one could be, are truly universal. I do not have much hope for the following adaptations of the story, but it is still interesting to note that not just one, but two Pinocchio adaptations are coming out in 2022: Guillermo del Toro’s stop-motion animation Pinocchio and Robert Zemeckis’s live-action film Pinocchio.

Pinocchio near the entrance to a souvenir shop, Florence, Italy © Thoughts on Papyrus

🤥 Carlo Collodi (1826 – 1890) was born Carlo Lorenzini in Florence, Tuscany, later changing his name to Collodi to honour his mother’s birthplace. That was not the only instance of name-changing in his career as The Adventures of Pinocchio was first published as a series under the title Storia di un burattino (Adventures of a Marionette), and in fact, I have always known the story under this same title – The Adventures of Burattino (Russian: Приключе́ния Бурати́но). There are now some interesting Pinocchio attractions to explore in Tuscany, such as the Casa di Collodi in Florence and the Pinocchio Park in Collodi, and, of course, the Tuscany region is full of shops selling various Pinocchio souvenirs.

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Delicate Symbolism & Transience: Paintings of Caspar David Friedrich

“The painter should paint not only what he has in front of him, but also what he sees inside himself”(Caspar David Friedrich).

Caspar David Friedrich (1774 – 1840) was a German Romantic painter, specialising mostly in landscape paintings. In time, his art had become hugely influential, making its mark on the art of others (Arnold Böcklin, Ivan Shishkin) and even on cinematography (Andrey Tarkovsky). Friedrich’s work has been described in many different terms: allegorical, melancholic, sublime, nature-focused, mystical and religious. What is clear, however, is the artist’s desire to convey to the viewer that unfathomable link between the external and the internal worlds that we all experience, and he would use landscape (“moodscape”), symbolism and other devices to convey his impenetrable “philosophy”. He was particularly interested in capturing the “stillness” of a moment/place and tying it to the deeper feelings of longing and wonder at nature, and life and its transience. Below I present five Friedrich’s paintings with some commentary.

I. Chalk Cliffs on Rügen [c. 1818]

In this painting, the artist probably depicted himself, his wife Christiane Caroline Bommer and his brother Christian as this painting was completed just after Friedrich’s honeymoon to the island of Rügen, Germany. The serenity of the Stubbenkammer sea and cliffs contrasts with the activity of the three people in the foreground who find themselves dangerously close to the cliff’s edge. As seen in other paintings by Friedrich, we can discern a fine symbolism and symmetry in this painting. The overhanging trees work as though a window-frame, presenting to us a lady wearing a red dress, which contrasts with the white cliffs and offsets the dark green and blue dresses of her companions. If the man to the right is completely immobile, standing arms crossed and reclining on what appears to be a dead tree, then the lady is leisurely pointing towards something in the abyss below and is in the sitting position, and the man in the middle (probably the artist himself) is on his hands and knees on the ground, looking in equal wonder at some scene unfolding below. Though the three people find themselves at a short distance from each other, the overall impression is still that of group unity and the three being comfortable around each other, perhaps feeling a little independent at that moment captured by the artist. Knowing that the painting was completed just after the artist’s honeymoon, it may be safe to assume that he wanted to symbolise the happy unity of two recently joined people: the red dress of the woman may stand for love and bright beginnings, Friedrich, her husband, stands for humility and hard-work as he put his hat on the ground, prepared to be humble and work hard to make his union work, and the motionless man on the right (maybe Friedrich’s brother or moody Friedrich in his youth) is the quiet, melancholic understanding itself. Another common interpretation is that the colours of the dresses of the three characters in the painting (blue, greed and red) stand for the Christian virtues of faith, hope and love respectively. Chalk Cliffs on Rügen is in the permanent collection of the Winterthur Museum of Art in Winterthur, Switzerland.

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Recent Non-Fiction Reads

I. Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind [1998] by V. S. Ramachandran★★★★★

This entertaining book presents the most mind-boggling medical cases from the field of neuroscience. In the vein of Professor Oliver Sacks (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat [1985]), Professor V. S. Ramachandran discusses and seeks explanations to such bewildering medical conditions as Capgras delusion, where a person thinks that their relatives are imposters because of the break between their emotional and visual brain inputs, various forms of anosognosia, such as the one where a person denies that their left side of the body is completely paralysed (one possible explanation is that their brains “adapt” reality to their internal world-view “to save” their sanity), phantom limb syndrome, where a person experiences sensations in a limb they no longer possess, as well as blindsight and savant syndrome, among others. Though this book was published in 1998, it remains as informative as at the time of its publication. There have been some developments in neuroscience since 1998, but the science is still very much in the dark regarding all the curiosities about the brain presented in this book. Answering the questions posed by Professor Ramachandran will be akin to finally finding the answers to the biggest mysteries of our existence and psychology.

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Review: The Luzhin Defense by Vladimir Nabokov

The Luzhin Defense [1929] – ★★★★★

Of all my Russian books, The Luzhin Defense contains and diffuses the greatest “warmth”, which may seem odd seeing how supremely abstract Chess is supposed to be” (Vladimir Nabokov).

This was an audio-book which I listened to in its original language, Russian. This is Vladimir Nabokov’s only third novel in Russian (he wrote his last series of books in English), but it impressed me hugely. In this book, the author imagines the life of a once chess prodigy and now a respected retired man Alexander Luzhin, and, while the first part of the book is a touching coming-of-age story of one talented but misunderstood and lonely boy, the second half of the story is a penetrating study of one eccentric, increasingly mentally-confused man who still tries to accustom himself to the society that, surprisingly to him, is far from chess rules and boards. Through this character study, which is both tender and ironic, tragic and farcical, Nabokov underscores the parasitic relationship of madness to genius, as he also unveils a deeply sympathetic situation of one man always in the midst of a battle to lead a life which seems natural to him.

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10 Books You Can Read in One Day

I have recently watched A Clockwork Reader’s YouTube video 10 Short Books You Can Read in a Day and have decided to share my own recommendations of short books you can finish in just one day (and by authors from eight different countries!). The books below are listed in no particular order and they are all under 160 pages‘ long (though the number of pages given is approximate since editions vary).

I. Colonel Chabert [1832] by Honoré de Balzac (101 pages)

What everyone knows is that Colonel Chabert died honourably in one of the battles of Napoleon. He is one of the heroes who gave his life for the glory of the Empire. The problem is that he has actually survived, while everyone believed him dead, and he returns to France. Finding his wife re-married, Chabert slowly senses that everyone thinks that he is really better off dead. This is a penetrating novel by Balzac about society’s hypocrisy and the fight for justice.

II. The Death of Ivan Ilyich [1886] by Leo Tolstoy (86 pages)

This novella by Tolstoy is about the examination of life, dying and how morality fits into all of this as it focuses on a judge who is finally forced to face his death and ponder his past actions. Japanese director Akira Kurosawa famously re-worked Tolstoy’s story to film Ikiru (To Live) (1952), a film which I highly recommend (Kazuo Ishiguro has also recently re-worked the script of Kurosawa for the film Living (2021)).

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Italian Literature Recommendations for Each Zodiac Sign

As many of you know, this year I am hosting the Italia Reading Challenge and got inspired to do the following list by my previous edition of it titled Japanese Literature Recommendations for Each Zodiac Sign.

ARIES (March 21 – April 19) – Corto Maltese [1967 – 2019] by Hugo Pratt

Aries is full of energy and does not mind a healthy amount of danger in his or her life. The enigmatic, contradictory hero of Hugo Pratt’s famous series may appeal to these people who love adventure. Feeling strange that you have been assigned a comic? No, it is just the opposite – this graphic novel is one deep material. Umberto Eco (Foucault’s Pendulum) famously said: “When I want to relax, I read an essay by Engels. When I want to read something serious, I read Corto Maltese.” 

TAURUS (April 20 – May 20) – The Betrothed [1827] by Alessandro Manzoni

Alessandro Manzoni’s classic novel, Italy’s “national institution”, is a tale of two lovers, Renzo and Lucia, who are trying to overcome oppression, jealousy and injustice on their path to happiness. Loyal and dependable Taurus will appreciate the values, romance and a sense of adventure this beautiful novel offers.

GEMINI (May 21 – June 20) – The Tartar Steppe [1940] by Dino Buzzati

Geminis are clever and curious and this is the novel that only looks like a simply story, but requires quite an analysis. This claustrophobic novel’s theme of loneliness, allegedly Gemini’s biggest fear, can strike home for this Zodiac sign. The Tartar Steppe and Gemini may be the case of the attraction of the opposites. Changeable Gemini, who likes variety in life, may find the story’s Kafkaesque theme of being stuck in a fortress in the middle of nowhere a frighteningly intriguing reading proposition.

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10 Authors I Haven’t Read, But Want To

#TopTenTuesday meme is run by That Artsy Reader Girl (the original creator is The Broke and The Bookish) and I also saw it at What Cathy Read Next and Stuck in a Book. This “10 Authors” topic was actually the theme of the last week’s blogging event and, hopefully, I will be forgiven for giving it a go this week (this week’s topic is “Bookish Merchandise I’d Love to Own”).

I. Molière

I would like to explore the worlds of French playwrights and I am going to start with Molière. The Misanthrope, The Hypochondriac and Le Médecin malgré lui (“the doctor in spite of himself”), a satire on the 17th century French medicine, all sound like great (tragi)comedies.

II. Hiroko Oyamada

I cannot believe I am still to read any Oyamada because I have wanted to read her books for so long. I am excited to read both The Factory [2013] and The Hole [2014]. Oyamada’s writings have been compared to Franz Kafka and so her books are likely to be right up my alley.

III. Julio Cortazar

I already ranted elsewhere how badly I want to read Julio Cortázar’s masterpiece Hopscotch [1963], but its size and complexity do put me off. I am also curious about this Argentine-French writer’s short stories and he had left plenty.

Continue reading “10 Authors I Haven’t Read, But Want To”

The Disappointments Book Tag (Re-Worked)

I think we all try not to spread negativity on our blogs, but a negative review is at times just irresistible. I am now recovering from a rather bad reading spell, having read a number of disappointing books recently, and have decided on this tag to both vent my feelings and maybe ward off others. This is a re-worked by me tag which I first spotted at The Bookish Mutant and the original creator is The Reader’s Game. If you decide to do this tag as well, I would love to read your answers.

A Disappointing Debut

The Moviegoer [1961] by Walker Percy. I know how popular and admired this book is, but I only found it exasperating and disappointing. I love films, books with existential themes and New Orleans-set novels, so I assumed this would be a perfect book for me. I was wrong, and I still do not understand how this book could have won the National Book Award in 1962 over such books as Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, Heller’s Catch-22 and Yates’s Revolutionary Road (one of my favourite books). Having said all that, I do have Percy’s Lancelot [1977] on my TBR and it looks like I may like it more.

An Author with a Novel You Love, and a Novel You Dislike

Kazuo Ishiguro. I love his book The Remains of the Day [1989] and dislike his most recent sci-fi novel Klara and the Sun [2021]. In fact, since I read the book my dislike for it only deepened. The film rights for this book have already been acquired, and for those who cannot wait that long, there is another similar film to check out – Kogonada’s After Yang [2021], a tale about one family’s coping strategies after their artificial intelligence “helper” has broken down. Amazingly, as I write this, I am also becoming aware that Kogonada was actually influenced to make this film by one of the quotes from Percy’s The Moviegoer! (talking about coincidences).

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Review: A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome by Alberto Angela

A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome [2007/09] ★★★★

This book about ancient Rome is written in a conversational style, and we walk through the ancient city with the author who acts as our guide, pointing to us various curiosities we encounter in our journey through the day. From 6:00 a.m., the time to explore one as yet silent domus of a wealthy Roman citizen, to 9:00 p.m., the time when, ordinarily, a Roman banquet nears its end, we spend the day exploring the lives of the wealthy, the poor and the slaves in the world’s most populous city in the year 115 CE, while the author also comments on such topics as Roman religion, professions, education, money, games and food. The book, translated from the Italian by Gregory Conti, is quite introductory, but still wondrous, and even those who are familiar with the lives of Romans are bound to pick up some interesting facts to explore further.

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“The Great Pianists” Non-Fiction: Lang Lang’s Memoir & Van Cliburn’s Biography

This month I have intensified my piano-learning (finally finishing all the piano method books I once started and jumping on Duvernoy, Schytte and Lemoine’s studies) and been listening to a lot of piano music (especially to Godowsky’s Java Suite this month), so I have also decided to share some piano-related books I have been reading recently.

I. Journey of a Thousand Miles: My Story [2008] by Lang Lang – ★★★★1/2

Chinese pianist Lang Lang is considered to be one of the leading figures of today’s classical music world and one of the most accomplished pianists of our modern time. This is his memoir in which he tells his story, from his birth in 1982 in China’s north-eastern city of Shenyang, his early musical education and upbringing, to his hard-work and his family sacrificing everything to see him become “the world’s no. 1”. It is a moving autobiography of a child once living in near-poverty, but always working very hard and dreaming “big”, and then of a young man, not always believing in himself, but always being clear in his mind what he wants to achieve next, overcoming his tricky family life and the Chinese competitive system. There are no “self-indulgent” paragraphs in this memoir. It is clear and to the point, with very short chapters, in which Lang Lang, first and foremost, pays tribute to his family and his teachers, who always believed in him and enabled him to become what he is now, an immensely popular classical pianist.  

Continue reading ““The Great Pianists” Non-Fiction: Lang Lang’s Memoir & Van Cliburn’s Biography”

The Comical Art of Carl Spitzweg

Carl Spitzweg (1808 – 1885) was a German painter of the Biedermeier period (1815 – 1848) who presented his subjects from curiously comical perspectives. Largely self-taught, Spitzweg captured the Biedermeier trend of a new middle-class enjoying their new artistic or intellectual leisurely pursuits at or close to their comfortable homes and in the background of the country’s growing urbanisation, industrialisation and relative political stability. His paintings of incredible detail, colour and humour are considered the most significant to appear in that period.

I. The Poor Poet [1839]

Carl Spitzweg loved to satirise men who pursue artistic professions. This painting, which can be viewed as both deeply sympathetic and humorous, presents the fact that “poetry does not pay, showing a “poor poet” who is so engrossed in his world of verse and imagination (probably calculating iambic or trochaic meters on his fingers) that he is seemingly both oblivious and indifferent to his pitiful surroundings. He has neither a proper bed nor table, his umbrella serves him as a cover from the rain water that is most certainly leaking through the roof, and his papers have just recently been burned to produce warmth. And yet, hefty tomes of literature are by his side, a quill is in his mouth and his mind is on the verse. I particularly love the contrast between the soft, abnormally large, white pillow that perhaps stands for the poet’s untouchable realm of dreams and lofty aspirations in which he is only too comfortable, and his dingy and dirty surroundings (in which he should be uncomfortable). Spitzweg painted three versions of this painting, two of which are almost identical. One of these “identical” works was irrevocably stolen in 1989, while another can still be seen at Neue Pinakothek in Munich, Germany.

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Review: Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello

Six Characters in Search of an Author [1921] – ★★★★

Luigi Pirandello’s plays are considered precursors to the Theatre of the Absurd and this play in three acts I read is one thought-provoking work that satirises the staging of a play, while muddling up such concepts as creation and performance, and an objective viewpoint and its subjective counterpart. In the play, a number of Characters come and gate-crash the rehearsal of a play “Mixing It Up”: the Father, the Mother, the Step-Daughter, the Son, the Boy and the Child. The Manager and the Actors are amazed to suddenly find on stage this group of Character-people, abandoned by their Author and eager to act out the drama of their lives. What then can the Manager do, but allow the Characters to try their hand at staging their performances? This play about a play is also an illusion within an illusion and a triple drama, of a book we read as play, of a stage to be set for a real drama, and, finally, of a play to come to “life” through an artistic vision gone haywire.

Continue reading “Review: Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello”

Kenkō: Medieval Japanese Buddhist Wisdom

Yoshida Kenkō (1283 – 1350) was a Japanese Buddhist monk and poet, best known for his posthumously published collection of short statements and essays known as Essays in Idleness or The Harvest of Leisure that demonstrate the essence of the Way in Buddhism, including the realisation of the Impermanence of All Things and the Transience of Life. Drawing from folklore and classics, Kenkō also provides short morality tales, pointing out the dangers of pride and greed, and advocating temperance in life and moderation in all things that are not necessities to life. He shares his thoughts on the beauty of nature, aesthetics, nostalgia, life at court, and on Japanese poetry, festivals and architecture. Most of his self-professed “ramblings” are either delightful or deeply profound and I am sharing some of them here:

It is most wonderful comfort to sit alone beneath a lamp, book spread before you, and commune with someone from the past whom you have never met”.

In all things, the beginning and end are the most engaging. Does the love of man and woman suggest only their embraces? No, the sorrow of lovers parted before they met, laments over promises betrayed, long lonely nights spent sleepless until dawn, pinning thoughts for one in some far place, a woman left sighing over past love in her tumbledown abode – it is these, surely, that embody the romance of love“.

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Review: Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

Little Dorrit [1857] ★★★★

In this classic story, Arthur Clennam returns home from China after many years of absence and finds the same dull and uninviting London house with the same resentful mother inside. While he meditates on what to do next with his life, his attention is drawn to a very timid seamstress of his mother– Amy Dorrit (nicknamed “Little Dorrit”). This young woman is hard-working, kind and is blindly devoted to her imprisoned family members. This makes Arthur wonder about her life, and his first step to make poor Amy his friend leads him to the discovery of another world – the world of London’s poor. Arthur is amazed to find that the absurd workings of the notorious Marshalsea prison for debtors, where Amy was born and her father is now imprisoned, should have a symbiotic relationship with the bureaucratic realm of the complacent and Kafkaesque Circumlocution Office, a governmental institution designed to keep the needy poor and the desperate for answers – even more confused. Set in England, Italy and France, Dickens’s episodic novel may not have the clarity and subtlety of the narrative expositions of Bleak House [1852] or Dombey and Son [1857], but it still contains all the entertaining Dickensian components. There is: a plot with long-buried family secrets and unforeseen reversals of fortune; perceptive and humoristic satire on the government (Dickens was once a Parliament Reporter) and the unfairness of the British class system; and a line of unforgettable characters, whose destinies inexplicably criss-cross and among whom are a couple of sinister personages lurking in the background and pulling the strings. Still, the “heart” of this novel is one shy young woman whose quiet resilience in the face of immense oppression moves all, as she champions the power of introversion and self-sacrificing love.

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Philip Glass: Mad Rush

 “The activity of the artist is about transcending the ordinary world. The world of appearances” (Philip Glass). 

My previous music post highlighted American composer Philip Glass, and I am now sharing his beautiful, minimalistic composition Mad Rush. This piece was first written by Glass in 1978 for an organ of the cathedral of St. John the Divine (New York) for the occasion of the Dalai Lama’s first public address in the US in 1979. It has since been re-recorded and titled Mad Rush (which can now be viewed as encapsulating our frantic modern lifestyles). I love the way this piece intertwines the themes of peace and chaos – meditative and sublime. Philip Glass said that that these two contrasting themes represent “the play of the wrathful and peaceful deities in Tibetan Buddhism“.

Around the World in 50 Books

I have finally completed my challenge of reading 50 books set in different parts of the world! I began this challenge almost with the start of my blog in 2018 and my last review of Maryse Condé’s book marked the end of this exciting challenge. Below are my book results categorised in the following sections: Europe, The Middle East, Africa, Asia, North America, The Caribbean, South America and Oceania. Please note that the books below correspond to plot locations and not to the authors’ countries of origin.

EUROPE:   vector map europe

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Review: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair/Kristina Gehrmann

The Jungle [1906/2018] ★★★★★

 “The opposite of poverty is not wealth, the opposite of poverty is enough” (Dr. Wess Stafford).

Sometimes even to live is an act of courage” (Seneca).

This graphic novel is based on a classic novel by Upton Sinclair The Jungle [1906] that tells of a Lithuanian family of immigrants who arrive to Chicago, Illinois in 1899 and find their hopes slowly turning to dust as they all take jobs exploiting them and their desperate need to survive in the foreign country. Jurgis Rudkus is a twenty-one year old man eager to work at any job in America and soon finds himself in a meat-processing factory, working in very unhygienic and even horrifying environment. His fiancée Ona starts working in packaging, while her cousin Marija begins painting cans, and even Jurgis’s elderly father tries to land some job in order not to be dependent on others, among other family members. This family comprising of three generations is soon hit very hard by the “hidden costs” of their American Dream, which becomes very hard to bear, especially when most factories close in winter and the mercilessness of the family’s employers and landlords leads to traumatic experiences. Though I have not yet read the original novel by Sinclair, I found this graphic adaptation deeply moving, offering an uncomfortable, yet valuable insight into Sinclair’s vision and the conditions of blue-collar workers in early twentieth-century Chicago.

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Review: Crossing the Mangrove by Maryse Condé

Crossing the Mangrove [1989/95] – ★★★★

Maryse Condé is an award-winning author from Guadeloupe, French overseas region, whose history, culture and tradition takes a centre stage in her book Crossing the Mangrove. In this simple narrative written from multiple perspectives, the usual life of people in one small village of Rivière au Sel is shuttered by the arrival of one handsome and enigmatic man from Cuba – Francis Sancher. Little is known about this talkative stranger, but he soon manages to bring out the very best and the very worst in villagers, being showered with love and hate alike. And, then, his unnatural death raises even more questions than his life ever did. Vividly and poetically, Condé presents to us a small community in one forgotten village torn by passions, jealousy and hopelessness, with its people being as ready to move forward with life as content to settle into permanent inaction. In the process, the author uncovers for us the very soul of Guadeloupe, beautiful, yes, but also as enigmatic, battered and toughened as the spirit of the central character.  

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Ranking Philip K. Dick Books (Ones I’ve Read So Far)

Today is 40 years since the death of science-fiction writer Philip. K. Dick (1928 – 1982), an American author who created addictive dystopian worlds where advanced technologies compete with humanity, where space-travel is not only available and optional, but at times essential to evade planetary catastrophes, and where drug-induced hallucinations become a new reality for all. The science-fiction books of Philip. K. Dick may not be the height of mastery in terms of their execution and in some ways do remain products of their time, but no one can deny their unparalleled creativity in setting out intriguing worlds of the future where there are layers and layers of unfathomable realities just beneath the one you see.

I. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? [1968]

Few people have not heard of this book, or if they have not, they have surely heard of Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner [1982], which (and I would say it very frankly) is only loosely based on this sci-fi novel. In this story, set in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco, possessing a real live animal have become a social status akin to being one of the richest persons on earth because so few of them are in existence and, androids and humans co-exist in a world torn by the devastating effects of the recent nuclear war. Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter, has a task of “retiring” a number of criminally-minded androids who have recently escaped from Mars. The success of this book, and the film, lies in a way it taps into the very essence of our humanity – what makes us – us? Our thoughts, our memories, our emotions? If all of these can be “replicated”, does our sense of humanity become redundant? Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a great sci-fi full of irony and suspense that was unfairly overshadowed by its cinematic counterpart.

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Victor Hugo

Today marks 220 years since the birth of French writer Victor Hugo on 26 February 1802. Hugo is best known for his great classic novels Les Misérables [1862] and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame [1831], and was also a passionate social and political activist who famously supported the abolition of the death penalty, the view that was taken in his short novel The Last Day of a Condemned Man [1829].

Our mind is enriched by what we receive, our heart – by what we give.”

The future has several names. For the weak it is impossible; for the fainthearted, it is unknown; but for the valiant, it is ideal” (Victor Hugo).

True Crime Non-Fiction: 10 Recommendations

To follow from my January post on two American true crime non-fiction books, here is my list of 10 further recommendations in the true crime genre. It is in no particular order and I purposely left out books that I already reviewed on my blog – Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah and Tom Wainwright’s Narconomics.

I. Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI [2017]

No other non-fiction has had as much effect on me in recent years as this book by David Grann. This is an outrageous story about a series of inexplicable murders of the Osage people in Oklahoma in the 1920s after big oil deposits were found on their land. High levels of local corruption meant that a completely independent force had to take charge of a covert investigation and subsequently uncovered some very shocking facts. I also enjoyed Grann’s book The Lost City of Z, and Killers of the Flower Moon is currently being adapted as a film by no other than Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio (no, not in a “good guy” role), Robert De Niro and Jesse Plemons (The Power of the Dog).

II. Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup [2018]

The story of Stanford drop-out Elizabeth Holmes must be one of the most shocking to come out in the 21st century. Holmes started her company Theranos in California in 2003, emulating Steve Jobs, and persuaded a number of influential people (alongside millions of onlookers!) to part with their cash and invest in her new medical technology that, from her words, could revolutionise blood testing and lead to accurate diagnoses years before any symptoms appeared. Only no such “miracle” technology was ever in existence, and this book by a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter not only tells of Holmes’s tale of ambition and deception, but also of the company’s later attempts to cover-up and intimidate as snippets of truth started to emerge around 2015. In January 2022, Elisabeth Holmes was convicted of four out of eleven charges laid down against her.

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Review: Music in the Castle of Heaven: A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach by John Eliot Gardiner 

Music in the Castle of Heaven [2013] – ★★★★

I was obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well“. Johann Sebastian Bach

The music of Bach is complex, inventive, awe-inspiring and brimming with mathematical precision and religious fervour. The man behind it appears equally stern and unreachable. But, who was Johann Sebastian Bach really and how it came about that a cantor operating in a rather small region of Germany managed to compose music of such brilliant contours, imaginative force and spiritual depth that it now forms much of the foundation of our classical music and is worshipped by many across the globe? In this non-fiction, British conductor John Eliot Gardiner aims to shed light on these precise, still puzzling questions. Music in the Castle of Heaven is an illuminating account of Bach’s life and music that starts from the premise that to understand Bach’s art we have to first immerse ourselves in the very essence of his time and place of birth. Numerous factors influenced Bach and made him into a musician we know today – familial, historic, socio-economic, cultural, educational – and without knowing these we cannot fathom Bach’s mind and how it worked. Gardiner strikes at the very heart of Bach’s genius, presenting us with a complex and sometimes contradictory musician who was also a very empathetic man.

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Sébastian Vrancx: The Allegory of the Seasons

Sébastian Vrancx (1573 – 1647) was a Flemish Baroque painter who is mainly known for his battle scene paintings. However, he was also an artist who painted a number of other curious paintings, and below is just one set from the series of his paintings on the theme of the allegory of the seasons. Early medieval manuscripts (such as books of hours) often referred to and depicted this theme, and it gained the most popularity around the early 17th century.

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Review: The Moon and The Bonfire by Cesare Pavese

The Moon and The Bonfire [1949/68/2002] – ★★★★

“You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy”, so a proverb states. The Moon and The Bonfire is a deeply personal final novel by Italian author Cesare Pavese in which he tells the story of Anguila, a successful businessman, who returns from California to his native country Italy after years and years of absence. Never knowing his real mother and father, Anguila grew up in a foster family in one Piedmontese village near river Belbo in the north of Italy. Abandoned from birth and poor, he had to endure a rough childhood that was only somewhat brightened by his friendship with an older boy Nuto and his fascination with the beautiful daughters of his later master. Now, after years of absence, Anguila decides to reconnect with the land he once called home because after all – “there is no place like home”, or is there? Poverty, war and moral degradation had all left their mark on the region that was once Anguila’s whole world and his detailed re-evaluation of the past, spent desires and dashed hopes leads to surprising conclusions.  

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Review: The Three-Cornered World by Natsume Sōseki

The Three-Cornered World [1906/65] – ★★★★1/2

Thank heaven for all those who, in devious ways by their art, bring tranquillity to the world, and enrich men’s hearts.

In this novel by famous Japanese author Natsume Sōseki (1867 – 1916), a young painter travels the country in search of a source of true artistic inspiration, tying to be completely dispassionate about everything he sees. In his journey “to rise above emotions” and conquer his earthy desires he has the aim to reach the state of total objectivity so that his brush will be able to paint only the “truth” and “bare life”. However, when he stops briefly at a guesthouse of one Shioda in a hot-spring village of Nakoi, he encounters there a woman who may put a stop to all of his pretences to be an unemotional observer and a mere spectator of life. O-Nami is a beautiful and enigmatic young woman who has recently escaped her impoverished husband and may have had an affair with a local Buddhist priest. Intrigued by this woman and engulfed in the sheer beauty of the nature around him, our narrator plunges deep into the very heart of the meaning of art, poetry and life itself. The Three-Cornered World is a gentle novel of deep insights with intimate meditations on life and art, its secrets and manifestations.

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Paintings of Remedios Varo II

I miss writing art-related posts and have decided to talk again about surrealist paintings of Spanish/Mexican artist Remedios Varo (1908 – 1963) (see my 2019 post where I already talked about her paintings Hacia la Torre, El Juglar and Papilla Estelar).

Revelation or The Clock-Maker [1955]

In this painting, the Clock-Maker is hard at work in his studio surrounded by grandfather-clocks all showing the same time when Revelation (a whirling disk) literally floats through his window, catching him unawares. Here, Remedios Varo wanted to capture the moment of inspiration/divine revelation or “illumination” literarily presenting itself to a man, changing his understanding of how time works. Janet Kaplan in her book Remedios Varo: Unexpected Journeys explains that this is the moment when the Clock-Maker, who represents our “ordinary”, Newtonian time, realises with a shock that time is, in fact, relative, as Albert Einstein stated. This means it is not absolute or universal as was previously thought, but depends entirely on each entity or person’s position in the universe and in relation to everything else. This Revelation causes Clock-Maker’s tools and mechanical parts of his clocks to fall on the floor. Time can no longer be “trapped” or “fixed” within a clock and the Clock-Maker’s art and work will never be the same.

Continue reading “Paintings of Remedios Varo II”

January 2022 Wrap-Up

The Magic Mountain [1924/27] by Thomas Mann – ★★★★★

This is the best book I read this month. It is an unforgettable literary journey through the psyche of a man trapped in a comfortable sanatorium high in the Swiss Alpes (see my full review).

Havoc [1930/68] by Tom Kristensen ★★★★1/2

This Danish classic also exceeded my expectations – a dark existential novel about a man suffering from alcoholism and balancing on the edge of abyss (see my full review).

Black Narcissus [1939] by Rumer Godden – ★★★★1/2

In this atmospheric novel, an Anglican order of nuns sets up a nunnery high in the Himalayan mountains, in a palace where once the local General led his dissipated lifestyle. Sister Superior Clodagh leads her charge of devoted Sisters and they soon establish a school and a dispensary on the premises. A “battle of the sexes” ensures when charismatic Mr. Dean, the General’s Agent and the local “bad boy”, starts helping the Sisters with their tasks, while also making them flushed and uncomfortable. The splendid vistas from the convent, the brazenness of the local people and all the colours and aromas of India soon prove too much for the Sisters, some of whom start having thoughts that are far from God and their religious duty. The claustrophobia heightens, sexual tensions abound, passions and dissatisfactions break out, and then one act of jealousy may just undermine the reputation of the whole order. This is a beautiful, tightly-woven tale about a duty/desire clash set in one exotic place.

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Recent American True Crime Non-Fiction Reads

I. The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking [2013] by Brendan I. Koerner – ★★★★

This book by journalist Brendan I. Koerner focuses on the “Golden Age of Aircraft Hijacking” and on a peculiar case of an airplane hijacking operation carried out by Vietnam veteran William Roger Holder and his girlfriend Cathy Kerkow in 1972. Before airport X-ray machines and the careful vetting of all passengers, Holder and Kerkow had accomplished a crime feat in the air of unbelievable proportions, later escaping to and from Algeria and much later even becoming “celebrities” in France, mingling with the elite. This book is not only a fascinating story of their case that often reads like an exciting thriller, but also a deep insight into the most unbelievable period in the American commercial aviation history when airplane hijacking was so common people thought of it as just “one of those annoying inconveniences of flying” similar to jet lag.

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Italia Reading Challenge 2022

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Italy is such a historically and culturally rich country and there are/were so many great Italian authors – Alighieri Dante, Giovanni Boccaccio, Niccolo Machiavelli, Alessandro Manzoni (The Betrothed), Cesare Pavese, Umberto Eco (Foucault’s Pendulum), Italo Calvino (The Baron in the Trees), to name just a few. Taking this into account and since I loved some Italian books I’ve read recently I’ve decided to make 2022 my year exploring Italian literature and set up the Italia (Italy) Reading Challenge (to run between January and December 2022). To make this challenge more manageable for myself, I have decided to limit my reading goal to just 10 books written by Italian authors. If we consider that these books all come from just one country, I don’t think it’s a bad start at all, and here is my selection for this year:

  • Alberto Moravia – Contempt/Boredom/The Time of Indifference
  • Antonio Tabucchi Pereira Maintains
  • Primo Levi If This is a Man/If Not Now, When?
  • Elena Ferrante The Days of Abandonment
  • Leonardo Sciascia To Each His Own
  • Giorgio Bassani The Garden of the Finzi-Continis
  • Italo Svevo Zeno’s Conscience
  • Dacia MarainiThe Silent Duchess
  • Elsa MoranteArturo’s Island
  • Luigi Pirandello The Late Mattia Pascal

Finally, if you want to join me on this journey this year (reading any number of books), you can grab the banner and leave links to your reviews throughout the year in the comments section on this permanent page – Italia Reading Challenge 2022 or below and I will add them to the general list, as well as do a summary post in December 2022 – #ReadItaliaChallenge.

Review: Havoc by Tom Kristensen

Havoc [1930/68] – ★★★★1/2

Franz Kafka wrote: “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” If we take this definition of a book then Kristensen’s Havoc comes out on top. Havoc is now considered a classic of Danish literature and, accordingly to one author, “one of the best novels to ever come out of Scandinavia”. The main character here is Ole Jastrau, a thirty-something literary critic living with his wife and small child in Copenhagen, Denmark, a city that is going through some kind of a political upheaval. Disillusioned with his work and desperately searching for meaning in his day-to-day existence, Jastrau starts to slowly succumb to the rhetoric of his eccentric friends (Catholics, communists and poets) and also to the only thing that starts to make sense in his life – alcohol. Jastrau sees his apartment being taken over by others, his addiction to the popular Bar des Artistes growing daily and his faithfulness to the core moral principles of life crumbling before his eyes. Will there be a limit to Jastrau’s “fall” and humiliation? Can there be hope amidst all the boundless despair? With his razor-sharp prose, Kristensen paints a vivid picture of an ordinary man on a swift ride to hell.

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My Life in Books: 2021

I recall I had so much fun participating in the meme My Life in Books in 2019 (see my post here) that I decided to have a go at it this year, too. The original creator of this meme is probably The Roof Beam Reader and the rule is that you must complete the sentences below using only the titles of the books you read in 2021. This year, I was largely inspired to participate by onemore.org (There’s Always Room For One More) and her post My Life in Books: 2021 Edition. I am not tagging specific bloggers and it is not too late to participate for everyone. So, here are my answers (obviously, not meant to be taken seriously):

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Charles Dickens’s “Dombey and Son” through 12 Astrological Signs

The earth was made for Dombey and Son to trade in, and the sun and the moon were made to give them light. Rivers and seas were formed to float their ships…stars and planets circled in their orbits, to preserve inviolate a system of which they were the centre” [Dickens, 1848/2002: 12, Penguin Classics]. Dombey and Son is one of Dickens’s greatest novels and I think its main characters illustrate well the twelve star signs of the zodiac and thus the story can be told through the workings of the heavenly belt. Below is my interpretation and one caveat is possible spoilers and another is that there are obviously many more characters in the story and not just those presented below.

Leo star sign

Mr. Paul Dombey Leo (July 23 – August 22)

Mr. Paul Dombey is the main character. He is a cold and calculating businessman who longs to have an heir to his business and when Master Paul Dombey is born, his father has very high expectations regarding his son. Mr. Dombey is undoubtedly a Leo, proud of himself and his family (or at least proud of himself, his business and his son). Leos are the Kings of the Zodiac and Mr. Dombey likes being the centre of attention, commanding effortlessly everyone in his sight. He also likes the idea of others being dependant on him and he dislikes criticism.

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Review: The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

The Magic Mountain [1924/27] – ★★★★★

But mind, the mountain’s magic-mad tonight,
And if you choose a will-o’-the-wisp to light
Your path, take care, ’twill lead you all astray

(Goethe, Faust (tran. H. T. Lowe-Porter)).

Hans Castorp is a young man on a threshold of a very successful career of an engineer at a prestigious shipping firm in Germany when he enters an international sanatorium Berghof in the picturesque Swiss Alps for three weeks and only to support Joachim Ziemssen, his sick cousin, and keep him company. Little does Castorp suspect that the sanatorium, with its orderly routine and confused sense of time, will start working insidiously on his mind the moment he steps onto its premises and he will end up living there for the next 7 years. During that time, Castorp will make friends with the most extraordinary individuals, engage almost daily in deep philosophical discussions on virtually every topic under the sun, fall hopelessly in love, and in that whole process entangle his body, mind and spirit so deeply in this “enchanted” place with its own particular passage of Time that any disentanglement will become out of the question. In this story, matters of science and spirituality converge, forces of time sweep people off their feet and then the re-consideration of what is Life and what is Death, and what is to be healthy and what is to be sick, may lead to some divine insights and instances of ultimate self-discovery. Translated from the German, The Magic Mountain is a masterpiece of the world literature, a splendid study of a man undergoing inner transformations in an environment of perpetual unchangeability.

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Recent Non-Fiction Reads

I. Making Movies [1995] by Sidney Lumet ★★★★

This book on movie-making is by American director Sidney Lumet (1924 – 2011) who was probably best known for directing a number of “legal” films including 12 Angry Men [1957], Murder on the Orient Express [1974] and The Verdict [1982]. It provides a deep insight into the “magical” process of making movies, from deciding whether to do a movie (Lumet almost always decided “instinctively”) to the final editing process and running previews. Lumet was a “trier” and a “doer”. He tells us in his book that he did not believe in waiting around for opportunities and liked to create his own luck. His eagerness to create chances reflected the sheer variety of films he directed. Cinematic success is hard to pin down, he states. That is also his first lesson to us: “nobody knows what that magic combination is that produces a first-rate piece of work” [Vintage, 1995: 9]. Even a great script or a great star-actor does not guarantee success.

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Fortune & Fate in Art

Allegorie de la Fortune [1615] by Francken Frans II, The Younger, depicting Fortuna as a lady balancing on a ball, with one hand holding a sail and with another bestowing to some the treasures of the sea.

People have always been obsessed with the question of fate: what does the future hold? Is it possible to reverse the course of one’s destiny? In ancient and medieval times, mortality was particularly high and people felt they had little control over their lives, coupled with the fact that they also usually had little opportunity to move up the societal ladder and were “stuck” in their roles from birth until death. Moreover, those born rich had all the chances to lose everything, and violent death, war, famine, incurable illness and infant death were all just around the corner for all. In this unpredictable environment, appeasing the gods and goddesses of destiny and chance must have been an important task, especially for farmers, soldiers and sailors. After all, these deities were capable of ensuring the survival against all odds and the enduring of the worst and, anyways, a miracle can happen at any moment. It is also partly for that reason that premonitions, dreams and fortune-telling rituals have all been part of various cultures around the world, and Fortuna or Lady Luck in Europe has often been portrayed as ever-changing and fickle, as capable of giving much suddenly as taking it all away in a split second. So, how was Fate presented in art?

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Six Degrees of Separation – from A Christmas Carol to Twelfth Night

It has been a long time since I posted a Six Degrees of Separation meme, so I am posting this Christmas edition which starts with Charles Dickens’s famous novella A Christmas Carol [1843] and finishes with Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night [1623]; see also my two other posts in this series: Six Degrees of Separation – From Pride & Prejudice to The Name of the Rose, and Six Degrees of Separation – From News of the World to The Woman in the Window.

A Christmas Carol is a Christmas fable about one rich miser who learns his lesson through a series of encounters with ghosts. Another famous tale about one rich miser is Honoré de Balzac’s novel Eugenie Grandet [1833] where a pretty daughter of one rich wine merchant is forced to experience the full consequence of her father’s lust for gold.

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Review: The History of Chess in Fifty Moves by Bill Price

The History of Chess in Fifty Moves [2015] ★★★1/2

I got inspired to read this book because of the World Chess Championship 2021 currently held in Dubai where now the defending champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway is playing Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia. This book by Bill Price traces the history of chess from its very likely origin in northern India circa 7th century to the game’s expansion in Muslim countries, and then to it making its way to the heart of the Christian community through Islamic ports. Chess was then a game played by the royalty and was seen as “an expression of social standing, rather than an intellectual pursuit” [Price, Apple Press 2015: 56]. Certain historical and other developments then led to it being played by a wide variety of people and the game spread rapidly across Europe, played in coffeehouses across the continent in the 17th century. Though this book is more on a superficial side, it is still an entertaining journey into chess, offering some curious insights into the game, for example, into the women’s chess and into the origin of certain chess terms, such as a gambit.

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Review: Silent Nights: Christmas Mysteries by Martin Edwards (ed.)

Silent Nights: Christmas Mysteries [2015] – ★★★★1/2

This is a collection of short crime mysteries set around Christmas time. The fifteen stories from the Golden Age writers are cosy, atmospheric literary forays into all things unknown and mystifying that may be taking place during the holiday season. There are stories here from such authors as Arthur Conan Doyle, G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ethel Lina White, Edmund Crispin, etc., and involve such scenarios as (i) Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson chasing a goose both literally and metaphorically to solve a theft of a precious stone; (ii) an investigation ongoing into a cold-blooded murder of a medical officer at a children’s party in an orphanage; and (iii) a necklace of pearls disappearing during a Christmas family gathering at a country house in Essex. Below, I am highlighting five short stories from the book that appealed to me the most.

Waxworks [1930] by Ethel Lina White – ★★★★★

This genuinely scary short story is by the author behind The Wheel Spins [1936] and Some Must Watch [1933], or their better known film equivalents The Lady Vanishes [1938] and The Spiral Staircase [1946]. The heroine of this story is Sonia Fraser, a new reporter for the popular Oldhampton Gazette who, come Christmas, decides to spend a night at the town’s wax museum. This particular wax collection has already gained a grim reputation because of a number of mysterious deaths that happened there at night and brave Sonia decides to test the unlikely hypothesis of some supernatural force operating. Well-written and suspenseful, Waxworks is definitely one of the highlights of this anthology.

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Review: Shamans, Healers & Medicine Men by by Holger Kalweit

Shamans, Healers, and Medicine Men [1987/1992]★★★★★

“Shamanism…is not a somehow obscure or incomprehensible or mysterious magical path, but a simple heightening of the emotional experience of the world; “the goal of the shamanic path of initiation is to broaden and deepen the normal emotionality that we all know” [Kalweit, Shambhala Publications, 1987/92: 219].

It is time for me to continue with my “Non-Fiction November” reading challenge. This book, translated from the German, is by Holger Kalweit, a German ethnologist and psychologist who studied shamanism in different corners of the world, including in Hawaii, the American Southwest, Mexico and Tibet. With concrete examples drawn from the Ainu, Siberian, Yahgan and other shamanic traditions, Kalweit delves into the very heart of shamanism and explains detailly the nature of being a shaman, “a possessor of profound knowledge that cannot be grasped in words”. From shamanic training, testing and rituals inducing trance to shamanic healing powers, and duels and competitions, Kalweit touches on many topics and hardly stops there, elucidating further on such concepts as consciousness, reality, dreaming and on a variety of parapsychological phenomena, including “magic”, visions and near-death experience. The result is a comprehensive, endlessly perceptive and inspiring book.

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Review: I Am Jonathan Scrivener by Claude Houghton

I Am Jonathan Scrivener [1930] ★★★★

London, the 1920s. James Wrexham is a lonely thirty-eight year old man just barely bearing his daily job and with no enviable prospects before him. A merely “spectator of life”, he has already resigned to just watch his life go by when he notices an advertisement in The Times. A certain wealthy gentleman, Jonathan Scrivener, seeks a personal secretary for himself and Wrexham applies on a whim. To his delight, he is accepted for an interview with one lawyer and soon given the position despite never having met the man. Scrivener is allegedly abroad and Wrexham starts his duties in his luxurious apartment on a very generous salary. If these circumstances were not odd enough already, a number of Scrivener’s supposed friends then come barging through the door and each has their own incredulous story to tell about Scrivener. Wrexham’s life turns upside down in a matter of weeks as he transforms from a lonely and desperate man to a social butterfly enjoying a life that only the very wealthy can afford. But, questions still remain – who is Jonathan Scrivener, a supposedly brilliant eccentric? Why is he hiding? What purpose may he have in hiring Wrexham? And why do Scrivener’s friends all give contradictory accounts about the man? I am Jonathan Scrivener is a deeply psychological mystery novel, “a hall of broken mirrors”-type of a book whose many elements need careful reassembling.

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Novellas in November: Daisy Miller by Henry James

This review is my contribution to the Novellas in November Reading Challenge hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Rebecca at BookishBeck.

Daisy Miller [1879] ★★★1/2

Daisy…continued to present herself as an inscrutable combination of audacity and innocence” [Henry James, 1879: 44]. In this story, young and wealthy American living abroad Frederick Winterbourne becomes infatuated with Daisy Miller, an unmarried American girl touring Europe with her mother and brother. Daisy Miller is a bold and flirtatious girl who continues to mystify Winterbourne daily since their fateful meeting in Switzerland. Now, in Rome, Italy, Winterbourne’s puzzlement turns into true incredulity and then horror as he watches Daisy’s interactions with one handsome Italian Giovanelli. But who is Daisy Miller, really, and how “common” she really is and how “innocent”, or not? Henry James (The Turn of the Screw [1898]) penned a novella which showcases the societal power of prejudice to the fullest, even if it also gives the feeling of being generic and predictable.

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Top 5 Anti-War/Protest Songs of the 1980s and 1990s (Part II)

I. “Zombie” (1994) by The Cranberries

This song was written as a response to the then ongoing violence knowing as the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland. In particular, the song commemorates the victims of the Warrington bombing that happened in 1993 when two children aged 3 and 12 (Johnathan Ball and Tim Parry) were tragically killed and 54 others were injured. The song, written by Dolores O’Riordan (1971 2018), talks about the personal devastation caused by the terrorist attacks, criticising how desensitised the public and media have become to them and calling for sympathy.

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Top 5 Anti-War/Protest Songs of the 1980s and 1990s (Part I)

This week is Remembrance Day in the UK when people will honour members of armed forces who participated in wars and died. Some will wear red poppies to honour the event, but I also read that some will wear white poppies, which stand for three things: (i) remembrance for all victims of war; (ii) a commitment to peace and; (iii) a challenge to attempts to glamorise or celebrate war. I like this interpretation much more so I have compiled a list of protest and anti-war songs released in the 1980s and 1990s. There were hundreds of good anti-war and protest songs released in these two decades and below are simply my personal selections in no particular order. Though some songs reflect certain historical events, all of them feel timeless (unfortunately history likes to repeat itself) and some that focus on racism and police violence, for example, sound more topical now than ever.

I. “Wind of Change” (1991) by Scorpions

“Wind of Change” is one of the world’s most famous songs, talking about the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, a significant event for many people that signalled the end of the Cold War. There is much hope in the lyrics that future will be brighter for all and people will live in friendship, freedom and openness: “Did you ever think/That we could be so close, like brothers…The future’s in the air/Can feel it everywhere/Blowing with the wind of change”. It was a personal song for the members of the band too since they come from West Germany. The band says that “the glory night” in the song actually refers to their performance at the Moscow Music Peace Festival in August 1989.

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Mini-Review: The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman 

The Genius of Birds [2016] – ★★★★

November is a “Non-Fiction” month, so I am trying to read more non-fiction books. Nature books are something I have been neglecting for some years now, so I have picked up Ackerman’s 2016 bestseller The Genius of Birds. Birds are some of the most remarkable animals on earth, but they have also been very misunderstood and it was only in the second half of the previous century that the scientific community had finally started realising their full complexity and intelligence. Now, in lists (for example, see list 1 and list 2) of the most intelligent animals in the world, birds (parrots, crows and pigeons) take their places alongside such animals as chimpanzees, gorillas, dolphins and octopuses. Some birds are capable of inventing new solutions to problems, making and using tools, leading active social lives, recognising themselves in a mirror, remembering people or places they have not seen in months or years, and reproducing up to sixty different songs which they have heard only a few times. Ackerman’s book explores the technical, inventive, musical, artistic, spatial and social abilities of birds, opening up a side of birds and their intelligence you never knew existed.

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Mini-Review: The Penguin Book of Oulipo by Philip Terry (ed.)

The Penguin Book of Oulipo [2019] – ★★★★

This book is a very good compilation of Oulipo writings from all major writers, including from Raymond Queneau, Jacques Roubaud, Georges Perec and Italo Calvino. Oulipo stands for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (Workshop of Potential Literature) and denotes a group, founded in 1960 in France, that adopts a style of writing using “constrained” writing techniques. The goal is to experiment with “new structures and patters” in writing to stretch the possibilities of literature. Thus, the book contains all kinds of linguistic conundrums, narrative riddles, experimental poetry and comics, as well as narratives which experiment with word-play, anagrams, palindromes, repetitive forms and homophonic translations. There are examples of “constrained” or “seemingly nonsensical” writing from such authors as Homer, Lewis Carroll, Jonathan Swift, Jorge Luis Borges and Francois Rabelais.

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Recommendations to Boost the Halloween Spirit!

Following from my previous post of top ten disturbing books for this Halloween season, here is my post of some recommendations to soak up and enjoy that spooky atmosphere surrounding Halloween, my favourite time in the whole year. I am presenting four sections (short stories, films, music and ambience videos) that include four recommendations each:

  • SHORT STORIES: (i) Don’t Look Now and Other Stories [1971] by Daphne du Maurier In this collection, Don’t Look Now is a particularly eerie story about a couple John and Laura on their trip to Venice. In my review, I said that du Maurier makes “Venice claustrophobic, day-to-day reality – enigmatic, the mind – paranoiac, and ordinary people – full of threatening agendas“; (ii) Murder in the Age of Enlightenment (and other Stories) [1918] by Ryunosuke Akutagawa This collection of short stories by Japanese author Akutagawa includes his unforgettable horror story Hell Screen; (iii) The Signal-Man [1866] by Charles Dickens is an incredible, frightening ghost story which has its own unique atmosphere (see also the short film adaptation (1976) of the story here); and (iv) Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery [1948] (my review).
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10 Most Disturbing Books I’ve Ever Read

It is that time of the year again when we indulge in spooky stories, so I have compiled this list of ten most disturbing books I have ever read (not necessarily horror, but rather unsettling/upsetting reads and they are in no particular order).

I. A Clockwork Orange [1962] by Anthony Burgess

I read this book a long time ago, but its disturbing aspects stayed with me. In this story, sociopathic Alex and his gang participate in random acts of extreme violence until Alex is caught, convicted and is forced into a special conditioning programme that is designed to make him averse to violent actions in future. The book may be on a short side, but it is full of thought-provoking, philosophical issues, for example, implicitly commenting on the nature vs. nurture, and free will vs. determinism debates. Stanley Kubrick based his 1971 film on this novella by Burgess.

II. Sleepers [1995] by Lorenzo Carcaterra

This book talks about a group of boys who are into pranks of all kinds until they are sent to one juvenile detention centre for their misbehaviour and there endure horrific abuse at the hands of people in authority. There is still a dispute whether Carcaterra based this book on his own story or that of his friend (and perhaps added some details), but the book is still compelling and harrowing. The film Sleepers by Barry Levinson and starring Kevin Bacon, Brad Pitt and Dustin Hoffman is also one of the most disturbing films I have ever watched (and thus I do not really recommend it to anyone).

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Review: Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco

Foucault’s Pendulum [1988/89] – ★★★★

“…the important thing is not the finding, it is the seeking, it is the devotion with which one spins the wheel of prayer and scripture, discovering the truth little by little” [Umberto Eco/William Weaver, Vintage Press: 1988/89: 33].

Trying to review Foucault’s Pendulum is like trying to write with your left-hand (if you are right-handed, that is) – an enormous task which will not probably be very successful. Through one dense, rich and enigmatic narrative, Umberto Eco tells the story of Casaubon (our narrator) and his friendship with two employees of a publishing house Garamond Press – Belbo and Diotallevi. This trio of intellectuals, who are simply in love with all kinds of knowledge, historic mysteries and brainy puzzles, start their own intellectual “game” of drawing connections with seemingly unrelated things using one clever word-processing machine and a suggestion from one Colonel Ardenti which concerns the order of the Knights Templar and perhaps mysterious resemblances. Little do they know that their amassed knowledge will be too diverse and their power of belief – too strong for a game which started on a whim and so childishly. When certain deaths and disappearances occur as they the trio’s search for their ultimate and absolute truth continues, it may be already too late to seek the way out. But is Eco’s story even about that? Perhaps it is about something else too, and about something else, and, equally, about something else. From the intellectual hub of Milan to esoteric, mysterious corners of Brazil, Umberto Eco takes the reader on one uncanny literary journey and presents a narrative which informs, surprises and exhilarates, as it also confounds, exhausts and overwhelms.

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National Day of Spain: Isaac Albéniz’s Cantos de España

Today, 12 October, is Spain’s National Day and I am sharing Isaac Albéniz’s Cantos de España (or Chants d’Espagne). Isaac Albéniz (1860 – 1909) was an influential Spanish virtuoso pianist and composer and some of his best-known compositions incorporate Spanish folk music.

Review: Aquagenesis: The Origin and Evolution of Life in the Sea by Richard Ellis

Aquagenesis: The Origin and Evolution of Life in the Sea [2001] – ★★★★

That we live on land is, in the grander scheme of things, best regarded as an anomaly, or even an eccentricity – albeit with sound evolutionary justification. The story of life is, if we retain a true sense of proportion, a story of life at sea(Philip Ball)

After I read Monarchs of the Sea by Danna Staaf last year, I wanted to read a deeper work on this topic and chose Aguagenesis by marine biologist Richard Ellis. The author aims to demonstrate how life originated in water some 3.9 billion years ago, what species evolved first in water and why, what species followed them and how evolution changed courses multiple times with various animals choosing to dwell on land next and then returning to waters. Richard Ellis starts his book by discussing the origin of water itself and a 2 inch-long shrimp-like creature without eyes capable of subsisting on hydrogen sulphide alone, which is poisonous to most living creatures, before talking about more complex and diverse marine life that roamed the oceans in the final stages of the Cretaceous period, some 65 million years ago. “More than 99% of all the species that have ever lived on Earth are [now] extinct” [Ellis, 2001: 22], says the author, and that makes that extinct life even more fascinating, especially in what it can tell us about the diversity of life and our own, human, origin. This book may be on an academic side and now a bit dated, but it is still a perceptive and engaging account of the mysteries that still surround the evolution of life in the sea.

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The Poetry of Thomas Hardy

I have been a huge admirer of Thomas Hardy and his books for a long time (my favourite books are Tess of the d’Urbervilles, The Woodlanders, Far from the Madding Crowd, Jude the Obscure and The Mayor of Casterbridge, and in that order), but I never previously had a chance to read his poetry and finally bought a collection of his Wessex Poems. Some find Hardy’s poems in this collection too grim, but I think they are simply hauntingly beautiful. Below I share my brief review, as well as two poems from the collection.

Wessex Poems and Other Verses [1898/2017] by Thomas Hardy★★★★1/2

I thought this was a wonderful collection of Thomas Hardy’s poems, touching on such themes as country life and romance, human character, doomed love, relative fleetness of youth and beauty, death and attempts to reconcile the depth of love with the passing of a loved one. There were a number of “supernatural” and “otherworldly” poems in this collection too, which makes it a perfect reading for a cosy autumn evening in or near Halloween. Melancholic, full of longing and simply beautiful, some of my favourites included Unknowing, the She, to Him series of poems and Her Immortality. Others are narratively interesting too, for example, The Dance at the Phoenix is about a woman of sixty who is swept by her memories when she hears the King’s-Own Cavalry is in town and goes dancing to unpredictable or maybe and sadly, predictable results, and in The Two Men, Hardy shows how two men are bound to meet the same destiny having the same schooling and similar inner beliefs.

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September 2021 Wrap-Up

White Nights [1848] by Fyodor Dostoyevsky★★★★★

…he is an artist of his own life and creates it himself every hour to suit his latest whim“. I loved Jayshree (Literary Gitane)’s review of this short novella by Dostoyevsky and have also decided to read it (but in the original Russian language). The story takes place over a period of four nights, and our narrator is one dreamy young man who wanders the streets of St Petersburg feeling lonely, alienated from everyone and experiencing a strange sense of dread, anxiety and abandonment. His chance encounter with a kind seventeen year old girl named Nastenka suddenly gives his life a new meaning and purpose, a new direction into which he can pour all his buried tender feelings. Just a night after their first meeting, the narrator and Nastenka open up their very souls to each other, sharing with each other their deepest and most secret thoughts and feelings, but to a what (disastrous) end?

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My Piano Progress

My previous post was about classical piano music, and I thought I would do a post sharing my thoughts on learning piano from scratch at the age of thirty one without any previous knowledge of music. I first started learning the instrument around January 2020, but I am sad to report that since that time I have practised the piano on and off and even spent whole months without practising (up to four consecutive months without playing once), so my progress has been very slow and protracted. Nevertheless, I did make small progress, finished a couple of beginner books and enjoyed my journey. So, my notes below apply to *absolute adult beginners* and I hope the post will be interesting/useful at least to some of you who are considering picking up this instrument in future.

I. 3 things I wish I knew at the start of my piano-learning journey:

(i) It is important to learn to appreciate simple piano pieces and not try to produce Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata or some complicated piece by Chopin in the first year. Just because a piece of music sounds simple, it does not mean it cannot be beautiful and some Grade 1/2 pieces are just lovely (check out these – Krieger’s Minuet in A Minor, Purcell’s Air in D Minor or Beethoven’s Sonatina in G Major (my personal favourite)). Learning simple songs not only helps to lay down important technique foundation for more complex pieces to come in future, but also boosts confidence. I think no musical piece should be seen as too insignificant or “childish” to play and learning to appreciate the sound of every note/key pressed will go a long way; (ii) linked to the first, is the advice to avoid learning pieces that are way beyond one’s musical level. It is great to challenge oneself once in a while, but most of the time learning a musical piece way beyond one’s ability will be a difficult and disheartening task. Patience is key, and what may take you three months to learn now may be accomplished in three weeks a year or two from now; (iii) learning scales and arpeggios early will be beneficial, not only for exercising hands, but also for recognising and learning key signatures.

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Dmitri Shostakovich – Piano Concerto No. 2: II. Andante

Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich was born on this day (25 September) 115 years ago, in 1906 (died in 1975), so I am sharing this part from his Piano Concerto No. 2, composed and performed for the first time in 1957. It is a very touching piece of understated beauty.

5 Fiction Books Set in San Francisco

If New York City’s literary themes are all about career ambition skyrocketing, the divide between the rich and the poor, crime, and claustrophobia sensed and caused by numerous tightly-built skyscrapers, San Francisco’s literary themes tend to focus on rights and liberties, the Gold Rush and immigrants’ stories. Below I am highlighting ten books set in San Francisco, US and see also my short review of this amazing non-fiction book about San Francisco: Spirits of San Francisco: Voyages Through the Unknown City [2020] by Gary Kamiya & Paul Madonna.

Martin Eden [1908] by Jack London

This semi-autobiographical book by Jack London is set in San Francisco and tells of one poor and uneducated sailor who gets charmed by the prospect of education, culture and literary career, especially when he gets acquainted with sophisticated daughter of a well-to-do man – Ruth Morse. This powerful book with one penetrating character study is now criminally under-read and must be one of the best, if not the best, work(s) of the American novelist. There is also a book now in print Jack London’s San Francisco Stories, published by Sydney Samizdat Press and released in 2010.

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Review: The Erasers by Alain Robbe-Grillet

The Erasers [1953/1964] ★★★★

French author Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922 –2008) was one of the main proponents of the experimental Nouveau Roman (French New Novel) style in literature. In this book of his, translated from the French by Richard Howard, the story concerns special agent Wallas who arrives to one obscure Flemish town to investigate the murder of one Professor Dupont. He is only yet another one dead in the series of gruesome murders that have already been committed in town: “in nine days, nine violent deaths have occurred one after another, of which at least six are definitely murders” [Robbe-Grillet/Howard, 1953/64: 57]. One possible witness is Professor Dupont’s housekeeper Madame Smite, but she cannot provide any help. On the scene was also Doctor Juard who took the victim, the wounded man, to the hospital where he allegedly died. Commissioner Laurent and Wallas have started a murder investigation, seeking an assassin, but was there even a murder? Was there even an assassin? Then, there emerges one horrifying and unbelievable possibility – did the guilty man himself [took] charge of the investigation? [1953/64: 200].What is the truth? The Erasers is a mystery novel that constantly questions reality, offering multiple perspectives on the same situation. It is a refreshingly different, kaleidoscopic murder mystery that puts the absurdity and the ambiguity front and centre.

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