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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Non-Fiction Reviews: Shamans, Healers & Medicine Men, and Short History Encyclopaedias

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

“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.

Continue reading “Non-Fiction Reviews: Shamans, Healers & Medicine Men, and Short History Encyclopaedias”

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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Translated Literature Recommendations

I got inspired to write this post by Feminist Texican Reads. Translated literature remains somewhat under-read and under-appreciated so I have decided to highlight some of my favourite translated-from-a-foreign-language books. I am presenting five categories of five recommendations each and limiting my descriptions to three lines maximum.

Books about:

I. ...touching romance

The Phantom of the Opera [1910] by Gaston Leroux

In 1880s Paris, the Opera House is haunted by the Phantom of the Opera who then seems to form an unlikely friendship with an aspiring lead singer. The 1986 musical is based on this book, and Gaston Leroux is also famous for writing an “impossible crime” story The Mystery of the Yellow Room [1907].

The Maias [1888] by Eça de Queirós

This classic novel from Portugal is a tale about the power of love and friendship focusing on my well-to-do family The Maia. Eça de Queirós (The Crime of Father Amaro [1875]) was the early master of subverting expectations.

The Betrothed [1827/1972] by Alessandro Manzoni

This multi-themed Italian classic tells of a pair of lovers separated by unforeseen circumstances and fighting to preserve their love and faith in the face of oppression, betrayal and despair; see my review here.

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Theatre: Anton Chekhov’s Play Uncle Vanya

Uncle Vanya [1898/2020]

I watched Conor McPherson’s adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s celebrated play Uncle Vanya [1898], filmed at Harold Pinter Theatre in London in 2020. Directed by Ian Rickson and starring such names as Toby Jones (The Painted Veil (2006)), Roger Allam (V for Vendetta (2005)) and Richard Armitage (Hobbit (2012)), the story concerns an aging Professor Serebryakov, his young wife Yelena, his brother-in-law Uncle Vanya (by Serebryakov’s first wife), Serebryakov’s daughter Sonya, his mother-in-law Mariya (also by Serebryakov’s first wife) and a local doctor Astrov, who all try to come to terms with their different stations and situations in life. Uncle Vanya is living comfortably on Serebryakov’s estate, which belongs legally to Sonya, and “does nothing”, but the situation takes a turn for the worse when Professor suddenly announces that he would like to sell the house and the land. The situation is even more complicating because almost all men in the story are infatuated with Serebryakov’s beautiful wife Yelena and tensions soon reach a boiling point. This is a play which hinges on great performances and the cast delivers. This is a stylish and considerate adaptation of the play which has a very human drama at its centre. 

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Remembering 9/11: Terence Blanchard’s Score

#NeverForget

Today (11th September 2021) marks 20 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks which took the lives of 2.977 people (see also this article on people who died from cancer which was directly related to the tragedy). Given this important date, I thought I would pay tribute to all those who suffered and/or died in this tragedy, as well as to all those who fought bravely to save people in the aftermath, by sharing this powerful soundtrack composed by Terence Blanchard for Spike Lee’s film 25th Hour (2002). I consider this film, based on a book by David Benioff, to be the most significant 9/11 feature film. While it does not speak of the tragedy directly, it conveys movingly the 9/11 atmosphere just after the attacks and somehow manages to show collective and individual trauma caused by the tragedy, albeit indirectly and somewhat symbolically. The film contains resonating messages on loss, grief, isolation, confusion, anxiety, missed opportunities and responsibility.

A Purely Japanese Outing in London

I have recently visited a number of Japan-related sights and places in London, UK, and I thought I would share on this blog my itinerary and highlights. I apologise in advance for my sparse and inadequate photos, but I hope the post is still informative and interesting. 🎌

My first stop was the Japan Centre at 35 Panton Street, close to Leicester Square. I just love this place for all things Japanese. The shop offers not only a variety of Japanese food for sale, but also some gifts and souvenirs, including Japanese books, magazines and postcards. There is also a café inside where one can indulge in all kinds of Japanese food, from rice and ramen to matcha ice-cream. Another much bigger Japan Centre is located at the Westfield shopping centre in London and that shop is called Ichiba (市場), meaning “market” in Japanese. It also has a restaurant-café inside and plenty of Japanese merchandise. 🥢

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Mini-Review: The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati

The Tartar Steppe [1940/2018] – ★★★★1/2

First published in 1940 and translated from the Italian by Stuart Hood, this novel is about young and idealistic Giovanni Drogo, a newly appointed Officer to Fort Bastiani, an obscure mountainous place near the country’s frontier. Drogo is excited about his first posting and hurries to his destination eagerly wanting to put to the test his soldiery skills, valour and discipline, as well as begin his new life. However, what awaits him is the unexpected: “the desolate steppe…which had mystery, but no meaning”, where “people [have] no knowledge of time” and where “everything [speaks] of renunciation” [Buzzati/Hood, 1945/1973: 22, 72, 82]. Fort Bastiani is a place in the middle of nowhere where no enemy has been seen since time immemorial. Drogo soon feels rebellious, then depressed and lonely, and is finally completely enchanted by nothingness. The Tartar Steppe is a masterful and subtle work which echoes the best work of Franz Kafka. It is a story about the traps that time lays to a man, about dashed hopes and missed life opportunities, and is a profound meditation on prisons that reside in the recesses of our own minds, in our beloved habits and dear ideals which we can never seem to cast aside no matter how nonsensical they may start to appear.

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My 5 Most Anticipated Book Releases for Late 2021 & 2022

I. To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara

I loved Hanya Yanagihara’s previous books – her heart-wrenching A Little Life [2015] and fantastical The People in the Trees [2013]. So, naturally, I am looking forward to her next book titled To Paradise. The story here is said to span three centuries and here is what Goodreads/publisher has to say about it (my emphasis in bold): “In an alternate version of 1893 America, New York is part of the Free States, where people may live and love whomever they please (or so it seems). The fragile young scion of a distinguished family resists betrothal to a worthy suitor, drawn to a charming music teacher of no means. In a 1993 Manhattan besieged by the AIDS epidemic, a young Hawaiian man lives with his much older, wealthier partner, hiding his troubled childhood and the fate of his father. And in 2093, in a world riven by plagues and governed by totalitarian rule, a powerful scientist’s damaged granddaughter tries to navigate life without him—and solve the mystery of her husband’s disappearances. These three sections are joined in an enthralling and ingenious symphony…To Paradise is a fin de siècle novel of marvellous literary effect, but above all it is a work of emotional genius.” This definitely sounds great and very ambitious, too, if I may add…but then again, Hanya Yanagihara is exactly one of only a few writers working today who is more than capable of pulling it off.

Publication date: 11 January 2022.

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Recent History, Science & Music Non-Fiction Reads: Five Points, When Brains Dream & Year of Wonder

I. Five Points: The Nineteenth-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum [2002] by Tyler Anbinder ★★★★

I love reading about the history of New York City, for example see my review of Mark Kurlanskys The Big Oyster: A Molluscular History of New York [2006]. In Five Points, Tyler Anbinder focuses his attention on once the most notorious area in New York – the infamous Five Points, once a densely-populated, poverty, crime, riots and disease-ridden area. The area, which was once a green place with a lake called “The Collect Pond”, became by the end of the eighteenth century “a putrid nuisance” (due to local industries’ contamination) [Anbinder, 2002: 14] and, later, a place to be feared and ruled by criminal gangs. However, what became a place of danger for some, also turned into a place of fun and unthought-of opportunities for others. This non-fiction book is a very detailed account of the history of Five Points in the nineteenth century. Through documents, contemporaries’ accounts (each chapter starts with a “personal story” prologue), maps, graphs and old photographers, the author shows how Five Points gained such a vile reputation around the world and what made it so different from other New York neighbourhoods.

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

The Experimental Fire: Inventing English Alchemy, 1300-1700 [2020] by Jennifer M. Rampling

Alchemy is the art of manipulating life, and consciousness in matter, to help it
evolve, or to solve problems of inner disharmonies
“. Jean Dubuis

I had discovered, early in my researches, that [alchemists’] doctrine was no mere chemical fantasy, but a philosophy they applied to the world, to the elements, and to man himself”. William Butler Yeats, Rosa Alchemica

Alchemy, an ancient, mysterious practice of transmuting base metals and finding the Elixir of Life, is a fascinating subject to read about, and I previously talked about alchemy in art. This new book traces the history of alchemy in England from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century, illuminating “the role of alchemical reading and experimental practice in the broader context of national and scientific history“. The great thing abut this book is that Jennifer Rampling uses “new manuscript sources” to support her arguments, and emphasises “how English alchemy was continually [reinventing itself] over the space of four centuries, resulting in changes to the science...”

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5 Books On My TBR I’m Avoiding Reading

Year of Wonders [2001] by Geraldine Brooks

I have been putting off reading this popular book for ages and this maybe because I have such high expectations of it. Unfortunately, it is now a “topical” book too since it deals with a plague spreading in the year 1666. We follow housemaid Anna Frith as she tries to come to grips with her town’s horrific situation and all the scapegoating and witch-hunts that are ongoing. The novel was inspired by a true case of the English village Eyam and boasts some 400 pages.

The Midnight Library [2020] by Matt Haig 

Perhaps I have not read this book yet because it is so popular and I am afraid to be disappointed. The premise appeals to me: “Somewhere out beyond the edge of the universe there is a library that contains an infinite number of books, each one the story of another reality. One tells the story of your life as it is, along with another book for the other life you could have lived if you had made a different choice at any point in your life. While we all wonder how our lives might have been, what if you had the chance to go to the library and see for yourself?…Nora Seed finds herself faced with this decision(Goodreads). In the past, such “magical” books as The Night Circus and The Book of Flying also fell well below my expectations.

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Review: The Japanese: A History in Twenty Lives by Christopher Harding

The Japanese: A History in Twenty Lives [2020] – ★★★★★

In this new book, Dr Harding traces the history of Japan through the lives of twenty remarkable people that helped to shape the country, making a powerful impact on either its politics, business, religion, science, culture or just society at large, and – more often than not – against all odds and in very challenging times. From heroic personalities from mythology and ancient politics to people who changed business, music or literary scene, the author introduces each extraordinary individual in turn, focusing on their childhood, on Japan of their time and on their contribution to the country, with the result being that Japan finally became what it is now – a culturally rich country full of so many paradoxes, intricacies and hidden treasures that a lifetime will not be sufficient to know and understand them all. In this book, we get to know royalties, warlords, samurai, Buddhist monks, politicians, businessmen, scientists, poets, singers, revolutionists and Manga creators. Dr Harding’s book is a history of Japan in a bright new form that is a pure pleasure to read.

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Review: Hiroshima Nagasaki by Paul Ham

Hiroshima Nagasaki [2011] – ★★★★★

An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” M. K. Gandhi (attributed)

The Japanese collectively were to blame…Truman drew no distinction between civilian and soldier; mother and murderer; child and monster”; “America [sic] annihilated 100.000 persons, most of them civilians, at Hiroshima…and then…,in spite of the “universal horror”, repeated the performance at Nagasaki” [Paul Ham quoting, 2011: 420, 422].

Paul Ham is an Australian author and correspondent, and in his non-fiction book Hiroshima Nagasaki he presents a true account of what happened to the two Japanese cities in 1945, dispelling myths that still persist about the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, including that the bombs were somehow “necessary”, or that their usage led to Japan’s surrender. Starting in winter 1945, when “Roosevelt and Churchill arrived bound by a private agreement…not to share with the Soviet Union…the development of an extraordinary new weapon” [Ham, 2011: 15], continuing to the secret development of the world’s first atomic bomb, and ending with the aftermath of the tragedy, the author goes into incredible depth about what happened in the final year of the war, demonstrating the situation through statistics, broader situation invoking key actors and through personal accounts. The result is a well-researched book about one of the most unbelievable and traumatic events in the world history. Since the scope of the book and the topic is so broad, I have decided to structure my review in the following manner: (i) Events leading up to the atomic bombings; (ii) Four myths and four corresponding realities; (iii) Immediate aftermath; and (iv) Long-term consequences.

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The “Six in Six” Challenge

The Six in Six meme or, as I call it, challenge, was first proposed and designed by The Book Jotter and now is in its tenth year. This is a challenge to list six bookish categories (the range of categories on offer is immense and can be found here), and, within each, to list six books that answer the question. The idea is that the books selected should reflect the blogger’s reading material of the past six months. As you can see below in my answers, I do not read many new releases and have included non-fiction books alongside fiction. The books listed are in no particular order and, apart from the “movie” categories below, were read by me in the past six months.

I. Six books I have read but not reviewed:

On Parole (1988) by Akira Yoshimura – Though not as good as the author’s Shipwrecks (1982), On Parole is still a thought-provoking book and a penetrating look at one man recently released from prison and trying to adjust to a society he longer recognises. The book was also loosely adapted into a film of 1997 (The Eel), which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

The House on Mango Street (1984) by Sandra Cisneros – This tale is from a little girl, Esperanza, originally from Latin America, who feels uncomfortable living where she does, in a poverty-stricken neighbourhood of Chicago. The merit of the book is the true voice of a child trying to make sense of the world around her.

Butcher’s Crossing (1960) by John Williams – John Williams may be known for his novel Stoner (1965), but he also has other good books beside it. Butcher’s Crossing follows one inexperienced young man circa the 1870s who leaves his comfortable surroundings and education to travel to one forgotten spot on earth – Butcher’s Crossing, Kansas. He soon befriends a local buffalo hunter and walks out to seek adventure in the open, but will he find what he is looking for? This novel has beautiful descriptions of nature and reminded me of Mayne Reid books featuring buffalos which I used to read as a child, but it is also said to be influenced by the philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

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Review: Clyde Fans by Seth

Clyde Fans [2019] – ★★★★1/2

Seth (real name Gregory Gallant) is a Canadian cartoonist whose artistic style is said to remind of The New Yorker cartoons of the 1930s-40s. Inspired by a real business that was once in operation in Toronto, his graphic novel Clyde Fans follows a non-linear plot and two very different brothers (extraverted Abe and introverted Simon), whose father left them his business selling electric fans. The pair responds differently to the changing business environment, social demands and times and, in this story, we trace their lives through the life of a company that came to define them and their family, following them through their hopes and dreams, initial successes, bankruptcies, family tragedies and growing desperation fuelled by years of buried pride and reluctance to welcome the future. This reflective picture novel takes a very close look at nostalgia and asks whether there is something precious being lost every time we decide to walk with the changing times, or ahead of them. From the wisdom of the old age to “commercial” loneliness and misunderstandings faced in one’s youth, the novel asks – what is “success”, and what is “failure” in life? What is the nature of time and what it means to finally come to grips with its passage? How time changes us, or does not? Clyde Fans is a deeply-felt work about human memories, making sense of the past and the anguish of passing years and lost hopes, a tribute to one once-commercially successful and ambitious little world that is no more.

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The Philosopher Book Tag

I spotted this interesting book tag at Anne with A Book (original creator – Betweenlinesandlife) and decided to post my answers to it, too. I am not tagging anyone specifically, and everyone is free to participate! Philosophy is such a rich and diverse field of study – everyone’s answers will be different (and interesting)!

1. Thales is considered the first known philosopher. Which text introduced you to philosophy or which text would you like to read to get you into philosophy?

I cannot remember my first philosophy book or author, but in high school I read both Immanuel Kant‘s theory of ethics and deontology, and Jeremy Bentham‘s work on utilitarianism, as well as books by Friedrich Nietzsche (Beyond Good and Evil [1886] and Thus Spoke Zarathustra [1883]). The Myth of Sisyphus [1942] by Albert Camus started my passion for the philosophy of existentialism.

2. Karl Marx is a political philosopher, turning the world upside down with the Communist Manifesto. Which political event or event in history would you like to read more about in fiction?

I would like to read more about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and have already put on my TBR list Paul Ham’s book Hiroshima Nagasaki [2011]. I also want to read more about the fall of Nazi Berlin and the siege of Leningrad in 1944.

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A Trip to the Isle of Wight

The Isle of Wight is England’s largest island with plenty of resorts dating to Victorian times. Possessing breath-taking views and a splendid nature’s abode, it had been the holiday destination of Queen Victoria, who had her summer residence at the Osborne House, East Cowes. It has a “Roman Settlements” heritage, a “Dinosaur” heritage, the famous 30 metre-high rocks called The Needles, llama and donkey sanctuaries, and a long list of famous people connected to the place, from writers/poets/naturalists Charles Dickens (who wrote his David Copperfield there), Lewis Carroll, J.B. Priestley, John Keats and Charles Darwin to director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient (1996)) and actor Jeremy Irons (The Lion King (1994)), who were born there (in Ryde and Cowes respectively). Much more than just “England in Miniature”, as it is often called, Isle of Wight has its own unique character and charm. A trip there is a trip to remember since it is bound to exceed expectations. Below are highlights from my recent trip to the Isle of Wight – I chose to focus on (i) Ventnor Botanic Garden; (ii) The Garlic Farm and on (iii) Newport.

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Review: A People’s History of Tennis by David Berry

A People’s History of Tennis [2020] – ★★★★1/2

Lawn tennis was different. It was played “as much with the head as the hand” and it encouraged playfulness and enjoyment of performance” [David Berry, Pluto Press, 2020: 23].

This new non-fiction book is about the history of “lawn tennis”, as viewed through the prism of class and gender politics. Rather than being just a sport for the privileged and well-off, David Berry argues that tennis has also historically provided important battlegrounds for “freedom” movements, for the rights of women, immigrants, black people and people from the working class segment of the population. Referring to the sport’s “amateur” beginnings and explaining the business side of the game, Berry talks about tennis between the wars, about the history of tennis clubs, as well as details the rise of first tennis stars that helped to transform tennis from an amusing hobby played on the British Isles to a global phenomenon and industry worth millions of pounds. Often referring to Wimbledon, the oldest and most prestigious tennis tournament in the world, Berry demonstrates with a great narrative flair the constant battle to shed away the “exclusivity” of tennis, a sport which remains one of the few in the world that, from its very origin in the nineteenth century, was designed to be played by both men and women.

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The Whimsical Art of Giovanni Boldini (31 December 1842 – 11 July 1931)

Giovanni Boldini was a well-known Italian artist born in Ferrara, Italy in 1842. He lived most of his life in Paris, France, where he mostly painted commissioned portraits of “celebrities” and socialites. Once friend of Edgar Degas and John Singer Sargent, he began his career as one of the artists in a group Macchiaioli, that challenged traditional styles in painting, but soon developed his own style that could be very loosely described as being somewhere between the Impressionists and Realists. Boldini was known for using rapid, loose, flowing, sweeping or swirling brushstrokes, as well as rich colours, that gave his paintings a peculiar quality. For this technique, he was named the “Master of Swish”. Below are six of his paintings that exemplify his style.

I. Les Parisiennes [1873]; II. La Pianista [1912]

La Pianista
Les Parisiennes
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Review: A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

A Lost Lady [1923] – ★★★★1/2

Her eyes, when they laughed for a moment into one’s own, seemed to promise a wild delight that he had not found in life. “I know where it is”, they seemed to say, “I could show you!“….She had always the power of suggesting things lovelier than herself, as the perfume of a single flower may call up the whole sweetness of spring” [Willa Cather, 1923: 136, 137].

I was impressed with Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop [1927], which I read in spring, and have now decided to try out another book by her. I ended up liking A Lost Lady even more than Death Comes for the Archbishop. The novel’s location is Sweet Water, a town in the “American West”, which is one of the hubs of the transcontinental railroad business activity. Marian Forrester, the young wife of successful Captain Daniel Forrester, holds a fascination for the entire community of Sweet Water, from the most hardened, aging businessmen to the children of local grocery men. Mrs. Forrester only comes to town to stay for her summer holidays, but her name is well-known and her coming is eagerly anticipated, especially by young Neil Herbert, the nephew of Judge Pommeroy. Mrs. Forrester is, indeed, “bewitching”, the very definition of charm, grace and sophistication, “belonging to a different world”, “with a glance that made one’s blood tingle” [Cather, 1923: 38]. Amidst challenging times for the community, with financial hardship in sight for everyone, can Marian Forrester and her “elegant” world of principles survive? And then, who Mrs. Forrester really is? A Lost Lady may not be a classic book with a fully fledged plot that spans hundreds of pages and unforgettable twists, but probably that is where its charm lies – in its deceptively simple, beautifully-written story that reveals slowly its quiet character study that, in turn, has the ability to provoke and move.

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Review: The Employees: A Workplace Novel of the 22nd Century by Olga Ravn

The Employees [2018/2020] – ★★★★

You know the name you were given, you do not know the name that you have.Jose Saramago

This book, which was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2021, focuses on our distant dystopian future and on the Six-Thousand Ship, a space vessel on an exploration mission into space. When the crew stops to explore a previously unknown planet named New Discovery, they take certain live “objects” on board with them. Little the crew suspects that these objects will have a powerful, unforeseen effect on each member of the personnel onboard, and that means on both humans and humanoid robots. Composed entirely of (increasingly disturbing) statements given by the employees on the Six-Thousand Ship, The Employees by Danish author Olga Ravn may have a rather “boring” title, but this book is anything but that. Probably influenced in some way by both Lem’s sci-fi Solaris [1961] and the fiction of Philip K. Dick, The Employees offers a visceral, uncanny reading experience.

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June 2021 Wrap-Up

The Minds of Billy Milligan [1981] by Daniel Keyes ★★★★1/2

This was my best read of June. The Minds of Billy Milligan is a true story of Billy Milligan, a man who once had twenty-four personalities living inside him. The author of Flowers for Algernon takes the reader on an entrancing journey into a fractured mind.

Who Was Rosa Parks? [2010] by Yona Zeldis McDonough, Nancy Harrison & Stephen Marchesi – ★★★★1/2

…a bus seat may seem like a little thing. But it wasn’t. It represented something big[McDonough, 2010: 47].

This series of books illustrates the lives of notable people for children. Rosa Parks was an American activist known for her involvement in the civil rights movement, in particular, in the Montgomery bus boycott. She is famous for saying “no” to a demand to give her seat to a white passenger on a bus in 1955. Her quiet courage which led to big changes won the world’s admiration. This children’s book with illustrations starts by talking about Rosa as a small child living in segregated Alabama and then moves on to talk about Rosa changing various schools and finally becoming a secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), as well as “one of few women in the civil rights movement” [2010: 36] at that time. I liked the fact that the book talked about Claudette Colvin too, a fifteen year old girl, who refused to give her seat to one white passenger months before Parks’s refusal, but she never made any headlines. The book explains such concepts as Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow Laws to older children/young teenagers, and emphasises the extent of the control exercised over black people’s lives at that time, as well as the inherent injustice implicit in the rules governing bus conduct and seating arrangements in the 1950s Alabama.

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Carlos Gardel (11 December 1890 – 24 June 1935)

Carlos Gardel was a French-Argentine singer, songwriter and composer. Born in Toulouse, France, he was celebrated throughout Latin America and became known for his melancholy ballads and classic tango songs. Often referred to as “The King of Tango”, he created hundreds of recordings and one of his songs titled Por una Cabeza was featured in such films as Scent of a Woman [1992] and Schindler’s List [1993]. The lyrics were written by Alfredo Le Pera, and Gardel himself sang to his own piece in a film Tango Bar [1935]. “Por una Cabeza” is a gambling jargon signifying a horse winning a race narrowly and, in this case, probably also refers to the possibility of losing a beloved woman. The mood of the song is said to be “passionate and vivid”, and the composition is often praised for its contrasting use of minor and major chords.

The video below shows the piano performance by Stanislav Stanchev who plays his own arrangement. Carlos Gardel tragically died in an airplane crash in 1935. He was 44.

Review: The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino

The Baron in the Trees (Il barone rampante) [1957] – ★★★1/2

The Baron in the Trees is the fourth book of Italian author Italo Calvino (Invisible Cities [1972]), telling of a young man, Cosimo, of the eighteenth century who decides to live on trees, never going down, sticking to his own principle that he would never touch the ground again. His family soon realises that what might have started as a childish tantrum has transformed into something big and life-changing. In time, Cosimo manages not only to live on the trees, but also to hunt, cook food, sleep and wash his clothes up there. He makes himself useful to others and develops friendship with a local girl Viola. The exploration of the new world of Cosimo up in the trees is fascinating and Calvino’s existentialist concept of one man eschewing society and its norms is appealing. It is then even more surprising to learn that, unfortunately, The Baron in the Trees is also quite plot-less and, in the end, delivers little by way of substance.

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Review: The Minds of Billy Milligan by Daniel Keyes

The Minds of Billy Milligan [1981/2018] – ★★★★1/2

This non-fiction book comes from Daniel Keyes, the writer of classic sci-fi Flowers for Algernon [1959]. The Minds of Billy Milligan tells the amazing story of Billy Milligan, the first man in the US history to successfully plead the insanity defence in court based on his proven multiple personality disorder and, therefore, be held not responsible for his major crimes (three counts of robbery and rape). Billy Milligan had twenty-four personalities (or “people”) living inside him, competing for spotlight (or consciousness) at any one time, and some of them developed when he was a toddler and suffering from trauma. This is no fiction as numerous eminent psychiatrists who observed Milligan for years testified repeatedly to his condition and the chances that Milligan could have somehow faked all twenty-four personalities over so many years are close to zero. This is because his personalities were truly different people, observed to have different body temperatures, hand-writing, accents, vocabulary, speech patterns, mannerism, IQ, skills, knowledge, experience and even brain waves. Daniel Keyes traces Milligan’s case, beginning from his arrest and childhood and culminating with Milligan being dragged from one hospital to another, battling public prejudice. This is a mind-blowing account of the most remarkable case of a disorder that lies at the very heart of uncovering the mystery of the human mind and consciousness.

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Jacek Yerka: Surrealist Paintings

Jacek Yerka (1952-) is a Polish artist whose surrealist art combines fantastical vision with a “meticulous Flemish technique”. Salvador Dali, Remedios Varo and Giuseppe Arcimboldo are undoubtedly influences, and below I present eight works that explore (i) imaginary worlds, (ii) dream-worlds and (iii) interiors.

I. Imaginary Worlds (4): (1) Don’t Slam the Door [1993]; (2) The Winter Wave [2005]; (3) Brontosaurus Civitas [2004] & (4) Wegener’s Theory [2001].

These four absurdist, fantastical, gravity-defying landscape paintings fire imagination. The second painting’s starting point might have been Hokusai‘s The Great Wave [1831] and the fourth painting takes Alfred Wegener’s the then original theory further that continental landmasses are “drifting”, “interacting” with each other in the process.

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Review: The Bilingual Brain by Albert Costa

The Bilingual Brain: And What It Tells Us About the Science of Language [2017/2021] – ★★★1/2

Albert Costa was a Research Professor at Pompeu Fabra University (UPF) in Barcelona, and in this short book, which was translated from the Spanish by John W. Schwieter, he explores bilingualism, the mysteries surrounding a human brain that is used “to juggle” two languages daily. “How do two languages coexist in the same brain?…What are the implications of this coexistence? and “is there anything special about being bilingual?” [2017/2021: ix], asks Professor Costa. Referring to many studies and evidence from neuro-imaging techniques, the author meditates on such topics as (i) how bilingual babies acquire languages, (ii) why some people with brain injuries lose their language abilities, (iii) what effect a second language may have on a dominant one, and (iv) how the choice of a language affects human judgement. Instead of providing convincing or concrete arguments, the book rather emphasises the awesomeness of bilinguals and the fact that many questions are still open to debate in this field. However, where Professor Costa’s essay lacks in rigour and depth, it certainly makes up in piquing curiosity and stimulating conversation.

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Review: Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces by Laura Tunbridge

Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces [2020] – ★★★★★

Did you know that a music piece (a Septet) that made Beethoven’s name in the nineteenth century is hardly ever played today? Or that later pieces by Beethoven that are now known to everyone were considered in the composer’s time too complex and brazen to merit any attention? Beethoven’s elusive “Immortal Beloved” is still without identity, and his attempts at self-promotion were not always successful. Through just nine musical pieces, Laura Tunbridge places Beethoven in a particular time and place in her well-researched book, presenting an intimate and detailed image of the great composer. Rather than Beethoven being an isolated genius making music masterpieces on his own, the author talks of Beethoven as a gifted person that was depended on others (such as on his friends and patrons), as well as on the particular time, norms and politics, as well as on the musical tradition in which he lived. Tunbridge demonstrates how Vienna and Beethoven’s own personal life affected his music, and how changing perceptions, as well as tastes of nobility, ultimately dictated and shaped the man and his music that is now admired by millions.

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Review: Miraculous Mysteries by Martin Edwards (ed.)

Miraculous Mysteries: Locked-Room Murders and Impossible Crimes [2017] – ★★★★1/2

This is a fabulous collection of short murder mysteries (sixteen in total) that concern the so-called “impossible crime” scenario, where, seemingly, a murder could not have taken place or a murderer could not have possibly escaped after the commission of their crime (“locked-room” mysteries). I first saw the book reviewed at FictionFan’s Book Reviews and was immediately intrigued. Most of the stories concern the situation of “appearances deceiving” and come from various authors, from Arthur Conan Doyle and G. K. Chesterton to Margery Allingham and Sax Rohmer. In this book, there are such situations as (i) a confused policeman is not believed when he tells his tale of one gruesome murder scene he witnessed at one mysterious house no 13 – only, as it happens, there is no such house in existence; (ii) a night guard gets murdered in a museum room to which there is absolutely no access at night for anyone; and (iii) one invisible force striking people with an ornamented dagger. In this short review, I will highlight only three of these sixteen stories (these three are not necessarily the best or the most memorable ones, but simply the ones I chose for review).

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Ballet: Roland Petit’s Notre Dame de Paris

Notre Dame de Paris [1967/2013] 

I watched this 2013 Bolshoi Theatre-Teatro alla Scala production of Roland Petit’s 1967 ballet Notre Dame de Paris, based on the novel of the same name by Victor Hugo. This is a magnificent ballet based on my all-time favourite classic book. Esmeralda is played by Russian ballerina Natalia Osipova, who is currently a principal ballerina at the Royal Ballet in London, and Roberto Bolle, a well-known Italian danseur, is Quasimodo. This avant-garde ballet fuses traditional ballet elements with modern dance techniques, and tells the story of a poor gypsy girl Esmeralda who becomes the object of ardent desire on part of three distinct men: strict priest Claude Frollo, hideous, but kind-hearted bell-ringer Quasimodo and handsome Captain Phoebus. Flamboyant, colourful costumes, designed by no other than Yves Saint Laurent, as well as music by film composer Maurice Jarre (Lawrence of Arabia [1962]) help turn this production into a real feast for the eyes (and ears!), as the ballet also deals in such themes as religious devotion, duty, romantic love and erotic longing.

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Puccini’s Opera: Madama Butterfly

Madama (Madame) Butterfly [1904

This is an opera by Giacomo Puccini, with a libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, based on a short story Madame Butterfly by John Luther Long, which, in turn, was inspired by Pierre Loti’s novel Madame Chrysanthème [1887]. In this story, Lieutenant Pinkerton of the US Navy stationed in Nagasaki marries a fifteen-year old Japanese girl from a once rich, but now impoverished family. Pinkerton is restless, fickle and is simply looking forward to romancing a pretty girl, while Cio-Cio-San (his new wife (Madame Butterfly)) seems to have taken her vows with the same zeal and devotion one takes holy orders. Pinkerton disappears shortly after the wedding, promising to return. But, will he? When the Lieutenant finally decides to return, the situation is far more complicating that either he or Madame Butterfly could imagine. First premiered in Milan in 1905, Madama Butterfly is an opera of great emotional depth and psychological insight. The beautiful music with lots of drama and touches of light charm often accentuates hope born, dashed and then re-born as Madame Butterfly tries to come to terms with her situation throughout the story, clinging desperately to her unreachable western ideal.

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Review: Mad in America by Robert Whitaker

Mad in America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill [2002] ★★★★1/2

Robert Whitaker opens his book with this quote by David Cohen: “We are still mad about the mad. We still don’t understand them and that lack of understanding makes us mean and arrogant, and makes us mislead ourselves, and so we hurt them”. His book is an engaging overview of the methods to treat mentally ill patients through centuries (starting in the pre-1750s period and continuing to the present day), and how changes in societal attitudes and perceptions, as well as in psychiatry politics and business considerations impacted the treatment. “Scientific” and “therapeutic” approaches to treating mentally ill had competed with each other for centuries, and Whitaker shows how politics of this or that time period ultimately dictated what mentally ill patients were supposed “to need”, with mentally ill people often caught in a trap of doctors and businesses’ ambitions to make a mark in science or earn money respectively.

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Victory Day: 9th May

Today (9th May) is Victory Day in my native Russia and, as is now “customary” on my blog, I am highlighting notable people and their distinguished actions during the World War II. I would like to to talk about Lyubov Shevtsova and Ulyana Gromova, who were both Soviet partisans and members of Krasnodon’s undercover anti-Nazi organisation The Young Guard. They both received the titles of the Hero of the Soviet Union posthumously. The young (nearly all of them younger than eighteen) members of this organisation became known for their actions that displayed unimaginable bravery, unbelievable stoicism and selfless hard-work fighting Fascism and defending their motherland. This year I would also like to pay tribute to my grandfather, Gennadiy Kovalskiy, by talking about his experience being a paratrooper (military parachutist) during the war.

Lyubov Shevtsova [8 September 1924 – 9 February 1943]

After the start of the war in 1941, Lyubov Shevtsova attended briefly nursing courses and wanted to become a nurse for the Red Army, but was rejected because she was too young. Before the war, she also wanted to be a theatre actress, and even applied to the Rostov university, but the war intervened. So, in 1942, at the age 18, Shevtsova received a qualification of radio-operator (signaller) at the Voroshilovgrad school for the preparation of partisans and undercover agents. She started working undercover for the Young Guard of Voroshilovgrad (Luhansk) and her job involved passing to the Red Army Intelligence Centre the information gathered by the partisans. As a member of The Young Guard, Shevtsova was also conducting spy-work on the enemy, helped Soviet prisoners-of-war to hide from the Nazis, distributed anti-Nazi flyers and sourced medication. She was also involved in the arson of the German Labour Exchange in Krasnodon on 6 December 1942. During this event, a list of about 2000 Krasnodon citizens who were intended for the deportation into Germany was burnt, meaning these people were saved. In 1943, Shevtsova was arrested by the Krasnodon police. The Fascists were actively seeking Shevtsova in particular because she was a Soviet radio-operator and they wanted to know all the transmission codes. Therefore, Shevtsova was subjected to an even longer and more savage than usual torture by the Nazis (source). However, after a month of torture, her interrogators realised that they were wasting their time with Shevtskova because she never said a word. Shevtsova was eventually executed in a forest on 9 February 1943. She met death with dignity and those were allegedly her last words: “…Soviet youth will still see many beautiful springs and gold-leafed autumns. There are peaceful, clear blue skies ahead, as well as lovely full moon nights; there will be good times in our beloved and dear motherland”.

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April 2021 Wrap-Up

An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth [1929/48] by Mohandas K. Gandhi – ★★★★★

In this frank, unputdownable autobiography, Mahatma Gandhi talks about his life, from his upbringing in India (including child marriage) and travel to the UK (to study law) to actions in India, and thoughts on everything, from his relationship with his wife, to the WWI, religion and racism. I particularly appreciated book passages on his vegetarianism and Gandhi’s comments on introversion. Rather than it being a weakness or some “fault”, it helped him to establish that “quiet power” to conquer hearts and minds, and try to lead people to a better life; a very philosophical and deeply honest book with important life lessons.

Letter from an Unknown Woman [1922] by Stefan Zweig – ★★★★★

This short novella was a heart-breaking read and probably goes well with the film of the same name by Max Ophüls. It is as much a story of hidden and forbidden passion as it is a tale about coming to terms with life disappointments and acknowledging people affected by one’s spur-of-the-moment whims and short-lived desires.

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Detective Fiction Day

Today, 20th April, is the unofficial Detective Fiction Day since on this day in 1841 Edgar Allan Poe’s story The Murders in the Rue Morgue was published by a magazine and many cite it as the world’s first detective story. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, even wrote: “Each [of Poe’s detective stories] is a root from which a whole literature has developed… Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?” So, to celebrate this occasion, I am presenting 15 books (in no particular order) which I reviewed on this blog and which all focus on solving of some murders.

Bird in a Cage (Dard)       The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau (Burnet)

The Axeman’s Jazz (Celestin)       Faceless Killers (Mankell)

The Seven and a Half Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (Turton)

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (Tocarczuk)      The Name of the Rose (Eco) 

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The Beauty & Mystery of Medieval Tapestries

Woven tapestries date as far back as the times of ancient Egypt, and the most famous series of medieval tapestries is probably The Lady and the Unicorn [c. 1460]. This mysterious series of tapestries has each piece representing one of the five senses (taste, hearing, sight, smell and touch), as well as the elusive sixth sense or concept titled only as À mon seul désir. These tapestries’ precise meaning remains unclear, and the same theme can also be seen in the series of paintings by Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens‘ titled The Five Senses [1617-18]. While some medieval tapestries focus on scenes from the lives of nobility, including royal hunting and tournaments, others centre on everyday life, religious themes and landscapes. Below are four tapestries from the Middle Ages which are as beautiful as they are enigmatic.

The Unicorn Rests in a Garden/The Unicorn in Captivity (the Unicorn Tapestries) [1495 – 1505]

Woven from a French design in either Belgium or the Netherlands, the so-called “Unicorn Tapestries” are a series of tapestries that are often considered to be the most beautiful and enigmatic of all arts that survived to us from the Middle Ages. The tapestry on the right shows a unicorn in captivity, and is probably a part of this series of six other woven artworks that all show the entrapment of a mythical animal – the magical unicorn.

As part of other “Unicorn” tapestries, The Unicorn in Captivity represents the culmination of an arduous work – the sighting, the taming and the capture of the animal that ancient sources say could only be tamed by a virgin. Thus, the tapestries show the hunting for and the trapping of this magnificent animal by various huntsmen. However, the precise symbolic meaning of the tapestries still eludes historians and critics who point out this or that mysterious detail in the tapestries, discuss the various sequences in which the tapestries could be presented and their mysterious origin, and, generally, debate their multiple interpretations. Interpretations that rely on pagan and Christian symbolism, as well as on alchemy (“unseen forces finally seen and conquered”) were all proposed. Moreover, those who believe that The Unicorn in Captivity is a standalone tapestry say that the artwork may simply symbolise “the desire finally tamed”, one’s beloved finally “captured in the nets of his or her lover’s charm”, an allegory of “love being triumphant” and “a subject of affection conquered”. Those who favour the latter interpretation point out that the unicorn seems to be at peace and even content in its confinement (the fence is not high and the animal may escape since it is not securely chained to the tree). Also, the presence of “ripe pomegranates” on the tree pictured may symbolise both marriage and fertility. The tapestry can be found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, NY, US.

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10 Books That Changed Their Original Titles

I previously wrote in one of my posts that F. Scott Fitzgerald wanted to title his novel The Great Gatsby as Trimalchio in West Egg and that Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen was originally titled First Impressions. In this post I look at ten other books that changed their original titles.

I. 1984 by George Orwell

Original Title: The Last Man in Europe

George Orwell titled his most famous book The Last Man in Europe before his publisher intervened and suggested 1984. Allegedly, the author also tweaked with the title for Animal Farm [1945].

II. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Original Title: Catch-11 or Catch-18

Heller seriously considered calling his satirical book either Catch-11 or Catch-18. However, because, in 1961, at the moment of the publication, there was already something titled Ocean’s 11 (the original heist film with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin), as well Leon Uris’ novel Mila 18 [1961], Heller and his publisher finally settled for Catch-22. The reasoning was that, after all, 22 is simply 11 doubled.

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Review: Letter from an Unknown Woman by Stefan Zweig

Letter from an Unknown Woman [1922]★★★★★

The opposite of love is not hatred, it’s indifference. This novella by an Austrian author, which was adapted into a major film of 1948 directed by Max Ophüls and starring Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan, tells the story of a man who receives a strange letter one morning penned by one unknown-to-him woman. What this woman tells him is something much more than a mere confession. It is a soul-searching, gut-wrenching effort at personal liberation, a last cry to be finally understood in life and one fearful culmination of a life lived with one endless hope, a fruitless succession of attempts at happiness and one final tragic resignation. R. is a handsome man and a celebrated novelist who always had a lot of affection from women. The unknown woman is a dreamy and impressionable person from a much more modest family. What ties them together? From his point of view: three, very brief life episodes which can be counted by mere hours and which he forgot the moment they happened. From her point of view: absolutely everything, including three most important moments in her life, her whole world-view and the very point of her existence. Stefan Zweig wrote a powerful, sincere and moving account of one unrequited love and close examination of a person on the very fringes of another person’s life always looking in, hoping in vain to become a full-time participant.

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Mini-Review: Tuesday Nights in 1980 by Molly Prentiss

Tuesday Nights in 1980 [2016] – ★★★★

I would like to thank Cathy at 746books for recommending this book to me after I compiled list 7 Great Novels Revolving Around Visual Art. Tuesday Nights in 1980 presents New York City’s art scene of 1980. At the centre are three people whose destinies collide in the background of creative bohemia filled with liberties of all kinds, boundless artistic inspiration and ambition, and spurs of unusual creativity: James Bennett is a misunderstood person and a renowned art critic who has synaesthesia, a condition which means that he experiences ideas, people and objects as colours or a combination of colours; Raul Engales is a “free spirit” and up-and-coming Argentinean artist who left behind in his country one past better not recalled; and Lucy Olliason is a girl from Idaho who has just recently arrived to NYC and is open to everything and anything. Evocatively, even if exaggeratedly, Molly Prentiss captures in her story the thrill of being young and artistic in NYC, which itself starts to undergo many changes. Amidst obsessive art-making and pleasures of falling in love, there are also a transitory nature of success, creative doubts and personal tragedies.

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Review: Fires on the Plain by Shōhei Ōoka

Fires on the Plain [1951] –  ★★★★1/2

This book review is my second contribution to the Japanese Literature Challenge 14 hosted by Meredith at Dolce Bellezza. Winner of the prestigious Yomiuri Prize, Fires on the Plain details the experience of a Japanese soldier in the Philippines during the last months of the World War II (the Leyte island landing). This sometimes gruesome and traumatic, but vividly introspective and unputdowanable novel full of conviction is filled with psychological and philosophical insights. Drawing from his own experience of the WWII, Shōhei Ōoka wrote about the degradation, futility and meaninglessness of war through the experience of one injured and stranded soldier who gets suspended between complete despair, increasing apathy and little choice, but to commit war crimes, on the one hand, and glimpses of hope and religious visions, on the other. Plagued by contradictions and irrational thoughts, Private Tamura finds himself psychologically distancing from war horrors around him, as Ōoka makes a powerful statement on one situation where such concepts as morality or rationality no longer seem to have any meaning. Fires on the Plain is probably one of the most important anti-war novels ever written.

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Recent Reading: Short Stories & Novellas

The Duel [1891] by Anton Chekhov – ★★★★★

This is a story that I read in Russian. This novella by Chekhov is set in the Caucasus, near the Black Sea, and tells of Laevsky, a lazy, egoistic, good-for-nothing government official who spends his days playing cards, swimming, drinking, arguing with his mistress and getting deeper into debt. Laevsky is increasingly tired of and frustrated by his mistress, Nadezhda Fedorovna, the wife of another man, and decides “to get rid” of her by going away. However, he starts to understand that he is both out of money and out of friends. On his path then appears Von Koren, a scientist and a man of principles, who does not think twice about challenging Laevsky to a duel.

Chekhov had this incredible talent of conjuring up deep and unforgettable character studies/insights in a very few words and paragraphs, and The Duel is a classic tale of disillusionment, crushed ideals, deceiving appearances and humanity caught in an endless cycle of other people’s opinions and judgement. Everyone “has their own truth” in the story, especially Laevsky, who finds himself at the biggest crossroad in his life, facing the possibility of the weight of harsh reality crushing him. The largest sorrow in life may consist in the actual realisation of the truth of one’s existence and past actions, as well as in the process of brutal self-confrontation. With humour and wit, Chekhov takes a penetrating look at the human nature in The Duel, trying to answer the question whether even self-acknowledged scoundrels like Laevsky could hope for forgiveness and redemption; whether even these people are deserving of hope; and whether even they could also find their place among the virtuous and the good, mending their ways.

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3 Enchanted Forests from Mythology & Folklore

Enchanted forests have always had a special place in fairy-tales, folklore and mythology. In fantasy fiction, the forest is often perceived as a place of danger where anything can happen and where dark magicians or other dark forces dwell. In Slavic folklore, for example, the forest is a home to Baba Yaga, a kind of an evil witch who lives in a hut “on chicken legs”, and likes to cook and eat her victims. Similarly, in Hansel and Gretel, a brother and a sister find a gingerbread house deep in the forest, only to realise that its resident is a wicked witch. The Forbidden Forest in Harry Potter is equally a place of danger and morbid fascination, where centaurs, giant spiders and unicorns roam. Moreover, the forest can act as both a place to do evil deeds secretly and a place to hide and find the necessary refuge, as in the case of Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs, where the forest first acted as a place where the Queen’s huntsman had a task to kill Snow White, but then it became a welcoming abode for the Princess. In England, Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire is probably the most famous forest where the legend of Robin Hood is played out, and many cultures also have the tradition of a sacred grove (a holy place associated with secret rites and spiritual rituals). Below are three other examples of enchanted forests from mythology and folklore.

The Sacred Grove [1886] by
Arnold Böcklin
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The Book Character Types Tag

There are many character types in fiction and I have decided to create this tag to showcase some of them, taking inspiration from this website on writing. The first five character types presented below simply reflect the characters’ roles in a story (there are seven such roles overall), while the last five are typical archetypes (there are twelve overall, as categorised by Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, among others).

I. Protagonist: “The main character of the story is the protagonist” – Klara from Kazuo Ishiguro’s sci-fi novel Klara and the Sun [2021]

Klara is a very curious choice for a protagonist and I don’t think I’ve ever read a book before with such an unusual narrator. Klara and her vision of the world are presented convincingly and the readers are constantly wondering how much of a “human” Klara really is or is becoming. It is precisely when we follow Klara’s “mental-processes” that Ishiguro’s new novel really “shines”, which also means the beginning is one of this novel’s strengths.

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Review: Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Klara and the Sun [2021] – ★★★

In Kazuo Ishiguro’s new book, Klara is an AF (Artificial Friend) or a highly advanced girl-robot created to be a companion for a child. Together with another AF Rosa, Klara spends her time shifting positions inside the store in a hope that some child will eventually choose her and she will fulfil her destiny. Relying on and worshipping the Sun, Klara never misses an opportunity to catch its rays: “…the big thing, silently understood by us all, was the Sun and his nourishment” [Ishiguro, 2021: 5]. She is both puzzled by and interested in humans. Then comes Josie, a kind, but sick child. As Klara enters Josie’s world, she gets to know more about humans and life, including its sorrows and unpredictability.

Klara and the Sun is Toy Story (together with the toy’s existential crisis) meets Never Let Me Go by way of one robot’s obsession with the Sun. It is a bitter-sweet and curious book with one fascinating narrator and a theme of hope. However, it also has a very “thin” story with vague world-building, severely under-explored themes, and characters and topics “recycled” from the author’s Never Let Me Go. A torrent of never-ending and sometimes pointless dialogue in the story does little service to Ishiguro, an author who is capable of far greater depth, nuance, subtlety, emotion, evocativeness and intelligence, than he delivered in this latest trendy, crowd-pleasing, YA-like book.

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Review: Property by Valerie Martin

Property [2003] – ★★★★

Louisiana, 1828. Manon Gaudet, the wife of a domineering owner of a sugar plantation, tells us about her life, at times recalling her past. Her husband rules the house and the plantation with an iron fist, signalling slave girl Sarah as his lover. However, their stable life is soon repeatedly threatened by slaves’ rebellions in their region, making both re-evaluate their life positions. Although the novel is uneven and the narrator is made intentionally unlikeable, Valerie Martin still wrote a chilling, eye-opening and interesting account of slavery and the meaning of ownership in the mid-nineteenth century US, not least because of her particular focus on the perspective of a slave-owner.

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Review: Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

Death Comes for the Archbishop [1927] – ★★★★

This novel, which spans from 1848 to 1888, focuses on Jean Marie Latour, a young Frenchman recently appointed as a Vicar Apostolic in the state of New Mexico, a part of land which has only recently been annexed to the US. The Father becomes a new Bishop in the region and he came there with his loyal friend and compatriot Father Joseph Vaillant. The two priests face a whole array of problems in establishing a religious jurisdiction in the new area, from the region’s isolation and merciless climate to authority challenges on the part of Mexican priests. This historical novel can be called a “descriptive tour de force”, rather than a straightforward narrative story. It is more of an anthropological/historical travelogue, focusing on the nature of land and on the people living on it, rather than a linear story. However, this does not make this book a “lesser” novel. On the contrary, Cather leaves plenty of space in the book for colourful descriptions of exotic environs, paying attention to the particular themes, including the ardour of religious duty and the dilemmas of missionary work.

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John Everett Millais: 3 Paintings

John Everett Millais [1829–1896] was a British painter and a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. He fused realism and romanticism in his paintings, and is known for his striking portraits and dramatic scenes in paintings. Some of his well-known paintings include Ophelia [1851] and The Princes in the Tower [1878], and he also painted such historic and fictional personages as Joan of Arc, Cinderella and Isabella (from John Keats’s poem).

I. Apple Blossoms/Spring [1859]

This painting seems to celebrate the coming of spring, youth and merriment, showing eight girls relaxing on the green lawn under the apple blossoms. The girls are all dressed in different-coloured dresses taking their refreshments. However, the painting also has one disturbing connotation. In the right-hand corner, there is a scythe, a tool which has notoriously been associated with death. The girl in the yellow dress lying on the grass also makes the painting a little eerie as her gaze is directed straight on to the viewer, challenging them to return the stare as she carelessly plays with a a grass stem in her mouth. The scythe, which is probably intentionally situated near the girl dressed in black, seems to hint at the idea that even the most joyful and healthy beings must come to an end and every representation of beauty must, by nature, hide a more sinister meaning.

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Recent History Non-Fiction Reads: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, & Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic

I. Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World [2004] by Jack Weatherford – ★★★★

They can do all because they think they can“. Virgil

“Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected. The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”. Sun Tzu 

Based on the ancient account The Secret History of the Mongols (dating c. 1227), this book tells of the life of Genghis Khan, his first foreign campaigns and his later conquests of other countries. Although dramatised and sometimes not entirely objective, the book is a very engaging, endlessly fascinating and perceptive account of the world’s most successful invaders. It demonstrates all the reasons for Genghis Khan’s unprecedented success in conquest since, historically, the Mongol army was the one to whom fell numerous countries and millions of people kneeled, as the army started to dominate virtually two continents, including the majority of China, India, Russia, Persia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the South-East Asia.

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Japanese Short Stories from Akutagawa, Enchi, Endō, Inoue & Kawabata

Meredith at Dolce Bellezza is hosting The Japanese Literature Challenge 14, which takes place from January to March 2021, and this post on five Japanese short stories is my contribution to the challenge (see all the other exciting entries here and for my entries to the previous Japanese Literature Challenge 13 see my reviews here and here).

I. Murder in the Age of Enlightenment [1918] by Ryunosuke Akutagawa ★★★★

This memorable story with confident prose by the “father” of Japanese short stories Akutagawa (Hell Screen [1918]) is told through a letter and diary entries written by one young man to Viscount and Viscountess Honda. The story’s unreliable narration that deludes the truth and makes motives questionable introduces us to one hidden obsession as we plunge deep into the psyche of one disturbed man. If Akutagawa’s short story The Spider’s Thread [1918] relied on Dostoyevsky’s story of a woman and an onion from The Brothers Karamazov [1879], here we also see certain close similarities with other works. The story starts close to The Sorrows of Young Werther [1774] by Goethe (unrequited, forbidden and passionate love/drastic action), but finishes very similarly to Doctor Glas [1905] by Hjalmar Söderberg (doctor/mental torment/similar action taken to secure the future of a beloved woman). I read this story in Murder in The Age of Enlightenment (Essential Stories) by Ryunosuke Akutagawa [translated by Bryan Karetnyk, Pushkin Press 2020].

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January 2021 Wrap-Up

The Glass Menagerie [1944] by Tennessee Williams – ★★★★★

Tennessee Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire [1947]) published his partly-autobiographical play The Glass Menagerie in 1944 and this debut became an instant theatrical success. The play has only a handful of main characters, and centres on Amanda, a domineering mother to her two grown-up children – quietly rebellious Tom and completely submissive and “hopeless” Laura who “lives in a world of her own”. When Tom arranges for “a young gentleman caller” to come over for dinner so that he can meet Laura, the family’s hidden neuroses and insecurities come to the surface. Still reliving her years as a southern belle (probably as a way to cope with the Depression era realities), Amanda “overpowers” each individual around her, and her children devised special strategies to deal with their mother’s encroachment, and general isolation and loneliness. If Tom “goes to the movies” and drinks, Amanda’s unmarried and disabled daughter Laura retreats in her own imaginary world of glass figurines (which stand for the fragile world of dreams that is about to be shattered by brutal reality).

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Ivan Aivazovsky: Sea Chapels, Shipwrecks & the Moonlit Night

Ivan Aivazovsky [1817 – 1900] was a Russian painter and one of the greatest masters of marine art who is predominately known for his masterpieces that depict seascapes: coastlines and seas. As a child growing up in Feodosia (Crimea), Aivazovsky fell in love with the sea (the Black Sea) and this passion for water and all things marine never left him. Below is just a tiny fraction of his paintings, where I focus on the themes of “sea chapels” and shipwrecks, and Aivazovsky is also known for depicting Armenian themes and battles. Some of my other favourite Aivazovsky’s paintings include his depictions of the Bay of Naples and Constantinople.

I. Clock-wise from the upper left-hand corner: Sea View with Chapel [1845], Misty Morning in Italy [1864] and Chapel by the Coast on a Moonlit Night [1851]

These paintings of chapels by the sea create an impression of an idyllic scenery, a harmonic fusion of the man’s spirituality/religion and nature’s wonder. It is no wonder Aivazovsky’s paintings are often compared to beautiful poetry. Chapels by the sea were not uncommon. Sailors have always been a religious and superstitious class of people, and for a good reason. Sea is one of the most unpredictable environments one may find themselves in, and, in past times, sea-travel was fraught with various difficulties, culminating in disasters and death with frequency which is staggering by today’s standards. Thus, the protection of sailors and safe journeying on sea were issues of paramount importance. Chapels near the sea must have served a welcoming sight, symbolising the man’s “illusionary” control over the uncontrollable, and they often contain statues of saints, which only leave chapels on special days and festivals. Both Charles Dickens (in American Notes [1842]) and Herman Melville (in Moby-Dick [1851]) were fascinated by “sea chapels”, and patron saints of sailors and marine travel include St Brendan, a celebrated traveller, whose worship promises safe passage, St. Christopher, the legendary patron saint of travel, and St Erasmus, an ex-Bishop, who suffered much for his faith. In past times, such chapels also worked similar to lighthouses, signalling the way to the bay.

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The New Year Book Tag

I spotted this book tag at Anniek’s Library and thought it would be fun to do. The original creator is the YouTube Channel Bookables.

I. How many books are you planning to read this year?

I never set myself goals to read a specific number of books (if anything, I need to set myself goals to read less, because my free time is all about reading, as opposed to doing other beneficial activities!). I think I read around 80 books last year, so I think I may do about the same this year.

II. Name five books you didn’t get to read in 2020, but want to make a priority in 2021?

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Review: A History of the Universe in 21 Stars (and 3 Imposters) by Giles Sparrow

A History of the Universe in 21 Stars [2020] – ★★★1/2

In this new non-fiction book, the author explains key scientific discoveries through stars: from Polaris and the calculation of sky angles/directions and the discovery of Mizar’s double nature and what it ultimately said about star systems, to the mysteries of sunspots and the discovery of the existence of black holes through the exploration of Cygnus X-1. Although A History of the Universe does engage in a lot of confused “cherry-picking” of scientific facts and discoveries, and the language does get quite annoying, the book can still be described as a pure “starry” wonder and a good read for all those interested in stars and key scientific discoveries related to them.

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12 Favourite Books From My Childhood

I saw this meme at Golden Books Girl and the original author is The Broke and and the Bookish. It challenges one to name 10 favourite books from one’s childhood (I listed 12 because why not). Although my childhood was spent in Russia, I read a lot of books from foreign-language authors (translated to Russian, of course). I did not read Harry Potter as a child since when I finally got my hands on a translated-to-Russian edition of the first book (probably in the very early 2000s) I was already in the “middle adolescence” age group. My childhood and YA books were generally fairy-tales and adapted-to-a-young-reader stories of Charles Dickens (Oliver Twist), Jack London (The Sea-Wolf), Robert Louis Stevenson (The Black Arrow), Jules Verne (Journey to the Centre of the Earth) and Mayne Reid (Osceola the Seminole). I also read a lot of Agatha Christie when I was in middle school. So, in no particular order:

I. The Wind in the Willows [1908] by Kenneth Graham

I had a very colourfully-illustrated version of this book, and though I don’t remember much of the plot now, I do recall its vivid characters: Mole, Rat, Mr. Toad & Mr. Badger, as well as a sense of adventure. The book has some moral messages (such as on the importance of friendship), and fosters a sense of wonder at nature (the setting is a riverbank).

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Science Fiction Day

Today (2 January) is the National Science Fiction Day (US), which also corresponds to the birthday of famous sci-fi author Isaac Asimov (1920 – 1992). This is a day to celebrate all things sci-fi, from films and books to art and shows. Therefore, I have taken this opportunity to highlight below 10 sci-fi books (in no particular order) that I reviewed over the course of a last couple of years (these also include “dystopia”). Also, see my list of favourite sci-fi books.

Solaris (Stanislaw Lem)       The Memory Police (Yoko Ogawa)

A Scanner Darkly (Philip. K. Dick)       A Maze of Death (Philip. K. Dick)

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (Philip. K. Dick)        Dr Bloodmoney (Philip. K. Dick)

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December 2020 Wrap-Up

The Woodlanders [1887] by Thomas Hardy ★★★★★

In this novel by Thomas Hardy, Grace Melbury is torn between her feelings for simple farmer Giles Winterborne and her emotions towards sophisticated doctor Edred Fitzpiers. Evoking the beauty of rural life and nature, Hardy paints in his story a powerful image of imperfect characters who find themselves in circumstances beyond their immediate control. Themes of unbridgeable class divide, marriage confines and the negative effects of growing industrialisation all feature in this great novel by Hardy.

Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death [1985/1998] by Yoel Hoffmann ★★★★★

I cleansed the mirror/of my heart – now it reflects/the moon [Renseki, 1789];

“A tune of non-being/filling the void:/spring sun/snow whiteness/bright clouds/clear wind” [Daido Ichi’i, 1370].

Japan has always stood unique in the world in its attitudes towards death, including death taboos and rituals, and there was a centuries’ old tradition in Japan to write “death/final farewell poems” (jisei). This well-researched book compiles these poems written by both traditional haiku writers and zen monks, and some of the poems in the book have been translated to English for the first time. If poems by zen monks are full of (hidden) meaning and profound philosophy, poems by traditional haiku poets are more evocative. The book is a “must-read” for anyone interested in Japanese haiku (a type of short form poetry) or Zen Buddhism (because the introduction by the author also elucidates on many complex Zen Buddhism concepts, quoting direct sources and providing numerous examples).

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Review: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

The House of Mirth [1905] – ★★★★1/2

The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth” [Ecclesiastes 7:4].

In this book, Lily Bart, a young woman from once aristocratic but now impoverished family, has reached her twenty-ninth year without finding a husband. Her beauty and financial resources declining, she notices changes in the society’s perception of her. Miss Bart, free-spirited, fun-loving, popular and, in her own words, “horribly poor – [but] very expensive] [1905: 12], soon faces an unenviable position worsened by the fact that she still loves shopping, jewellery and luxury. To what extent can she still count on the kindness of others to survive in the world that is increasingly becoming unforgiving and even hostile, full of social traps and intrigues? Considered scandalous upon its release, but converted Wharton into a successful author virtually overnight, this satire on New York City’s high society through the in-depth portrayal of a modern and increasingly fragile woman conveys the sheer pathos of a situation whereby individual willpower and the independence of spirit find themselves at odds with societal demands and expectations.

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Ludwig van Beethoven: 250 Years – Sonata “Pathetique”

17 December 2020 marks 250 years since the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven (he was baptised on 17 December 1770, but his real date of birth was probably 16 December 1770). Considered by many to be the greatest composer who has ever lived, Beethoven composed some of the world-famous classical music compositions, from Piano Sonata No. 14 (“Moonlight Sonata”) to “Emperor Concerto”. I would like take this opportunity to share one of his masterpieces – the beginning of “Sonata Pathetique”, No. 8. My favourite performance of this piece is by Vladimir Ashkenazy at the University of Essex in Colchester in 1972.

My 5 Most Anticipated Books of 2021

This is a list of five books which I am eager to read in 2021. As usual, I am drawing attention to books from different genres: (i) literary fiction; (ii) non-fiction; (iii) thriller; (iv) dark mystery/horror; and (v) historical fiction.

I. Klara & The Sun [2021] by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is the first novel by Kazuo Ishiguro since he won his Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017. The Penguin Random House says on its website that this new novel “tells the story of Klara, an Artificial Friend with outstanding observational qualities, who, from her place in the store, watches carefully the behaviour of those who come in to browse, and of those who pass on the street outside. She remains hopeful that a customer will soon choose her. Klara and the Sun is a thrilling book that offers a look at our changing world through the eyes of an unforgettable narrator, and one that explores the fundamental question: what does it mean to love?“. Obviously, my expectations are sky high regarding this book and I think Ishiguro can pull this one off beautifully since he previously distinguished himself as the author of a literary “dystopia” Never Let Me Go [2005] and his books often emphasise the pains of love and missed opportunities. My only hope is that he would not follow the path of Ian McEwan and his Machines Like Me [2019] and keep his narrative “grounded” and “subtle”.

Klara & The Sun is released on 2 March 2021.

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Recommendations to Boost the Christmas Spirit!

I haven’t done a post of this nature before, but this year I have been very much in the mood for Christmas-related things, activities, videos and posts (especially given how stressful this year has been given the still-ongoing global…health situation). In this post, I would like to suggest a number of (i) books, (ii) films, (iii) animations, (iv) music and (v) ambience videos to boost everyone’s Christmas spirit and hopefully make the holidays even cosier/happier! I am limiting myself to three recommendations for each of the categories.

  • Books: (i) Hercule Poirot’s Christmas [1938] by Agatha Christie – I love reading mysteries come Christmas time because of the atmosphere of cosiness. This book by the Queen of Crime is a wonderful one to get anyone into the festive spirit since the events in the book take place over a Christmas Eve; (ii) A Surprise for Christmas: And Other Seasonal Mysteries (British Library Crime Classics) [2020] – I have not read this one yet, but am planning to do so very soon and have heard very good things about it. The book contains stories by Julian Symons, G. K. Chesterton, Carter Dickson, Martin Edwards and others, and they all revolve around Christmas time: “A Postman murdered while delivering cards on Christmas morning“, “A Christmas pine growing over a forgotten homicide”, etc.; (iii) The Night Before Christmas [1831] by Nikolai Gogol. This classic tale is about the adventures of Vakula, the blacksmith, as he battles the devil. The devil stole the moon above the village of Dikanka, and the blacksmith and the devil compete for the heart of the same beautiful young girl.
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Review: The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy

The Woodlanders [1887] – ★★★★★

In this novel, Grace, an impressionable, recently-educated girl, “who has been around cultivated folks” arrives home to a small village of Little Hintock after a long absence and to the delight of her father Mr Melbury, a timber merchant. She soon rekindles her friendship with her childhood sweet-heart Giles Winterborne, an apple and cider farmer. However, as soon as she does so, she also notices a much more promising suitor who starts to intrigue her more than anyone else in this world: an educated, ambitious and “irresistible” doctor Edred Fitzpiers. Thomas Hardy’s narrative is like an exquisite painting created in a style of Old Masters, where money, ambition, sophistication, self-interest and the excess of knowledge clash violently with rural simplicity, kindness, loyalty and naïve mentality. The beauty/mastery of the prose is matched by the gripping plot full of vivid characters and psychological nuances. Emphasising the unbridgeable gap between the social classes and drawing attention to the iron confines of a marriage, while evoking the atmosphere of the old rural England, Hardy created with The Woodlanders the work that is on a par with some of his greatest literary creations – Tess of the d’Urbervilles [1891] and Far from the Madding Crowd [1874].

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Joe Hisaishi: Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) & Spirited Away (2001)

Joe Hisaishi (6 December 1950) is Japanese composer, probably best known for his music collaborations with director Hayao Miyazaki on various Studio Ghibli films. Yesterday he turned 70 years old and I think it is a perfect time to share a couple of his best-known compositions for animations: Merry-Go-Round of Life from Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) and The Name of Life from Spirited Away (2001).

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November 2020 Wrap-Up

Hell Screen [1918/1948] by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa – ★★★★★

This is a short story by “the father of the Japanese short story” who is probably best known for such short stories as Rashomon [1915] and In a Grove [1922]. Said to be the reworking of the Uji Shūi Monogatari, Japanese tales written in the thirteenth century, Hell Screen tells the story of Yoshihide, an eccentric painter and allegedly a despicable human being, who resides at the court of one powerful Lord Horikawa. When the Lord requests Yoshihide to paint the picture of Hell, the artist takes this request too close to heart. Moreover, slowly, Yoshihide’s beautiful daughter becomes the centre of the newest rumour and intrigue. Akutagawa’s story may be short, but it also evokes the most powerful imagery. The author was a master of story-telling, and in this story we are presented with vivid descriptions that he also coupled with the peculiarly Japanese literary minimalism. The outcome is one disturbing, unforgettable story of obsession and damnation. I read Hell Screen thanks to the amazing post by Juan Gómez-Pintado titled “10 Extraordinary Tales of Terror“.

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7 Great Novels Revolving Around Visual Art

I. The Goldfinch [2013]the goldfinch book cover

In The Goldfinch, one boy comes to terms with his tragic past while clinging to one work of art that still reminds me of his late mother, an exquisite painting of a goldfinch created in 1654 by Carel Fabritius. This is a great book about growing up, friendship, love, loss and hope. Even though The Goldfinch is an international bestseller, I hold Tartt’s two previous books – The Secret History [1992] and The Little Friend [2002] – in an even higher esteem.

II. My Name is Red [1998] my name is red

Turkish Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk has crafted something magnificent, unputdownable and exquisite with this book. Pamuk’s novel is part murder mystery, part meditation on history and the nature of art. When one of the miniaturists working in the Ottoman Empire is murdered, the suspicion falls on the three remaining, but who is the murderer and will Black, a recently returned miniaturist, help solve the murder? This is a beautifully- written novel with unreliable narrators, red herrings, and unexpected and delightful forays into the very nature of art-making in the Ottoman Empire.

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Arnold Böcklin: 3 Symbolic Paintings

Arnold Böcklin (1827 – 1901) was a Swiss painter working in the genre of symbolism. He was known for painting motifs from mythology, and his works often depicted otherworldly beings, mysterious places and dark allegories. In this post, I will talk about three of Böcklin’s works of art.

I. Isle of the Dead (Third Version) [1883]

This is Böcklin’s best-known painting in which he depicted “the Isle of the Dead”, a mysterious island with dense vegetation inside (cypress trees) surrounded by the white “fortress” of white rock. A lone boat approaches the island head on with the mysterious veiled white figure standing in it. In the boat, one can also see another white object, probably a coffin. The dark waters and gloomy skies build a sombre atmosphere, and the funeral motifs are also emphasised by the cypress trees since these too have been traditionally associated with cemeteries and mourning.

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Review: Monarchs of the Sea by Danna Staaf

Monarchs of the Sea: The Extraordinary 500-Million-Year History of Cephalopods [2017/2020] – ★★★★

This book is about the magnificent, enigmatic and elusive cephalopods (a class of molluscs to which octopuses and squid belong), their origin and 500-million-year history. Danna Staaf, a marine biologist, traces their evolution from the very origins of life on Earth in the sea, to the demise of some cephalopods in the Cretaceous period and our modern age. From the causes of the “Great Dying” that happened in the Permian period (when up to ninety-six percent of all marine species perished) to our present day threat of global warming and dangers that face nautiluses, Dr Staaf explains clearly the many issues that concern cephalopods, as well as introduces a whole variety of weird and fascinating sea creatures: from the first sponges and worms, to now extinct ammonoids and a variety of curious present-day octopuses and squid (for example, the pygmy squid and the mimic octopus). This well-illustrated book, which is written with surprising humour and succinctness, will completely delight all those who are interested in marine evolution and curious about the history of present-day cephalopods.

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Mini-Review: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet [2010] – ★★1/2

In this tale by David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas (2004)) the year is 1799, and Jacob de Zoet, a Dutch clerk, arrives with the Dutch East India Company to the trading post of Dejima, an artificial island in Nagasaki, Japan at the time of the sakoku, when Japan permitted only very limited contact with foreigners. Engaged to be married, de Zoet seeks a fortune and a high position to impress the family of his fiancée in Europe. However, “inadvertently”, he falls under the spell of one disfigured midwife Miss Aibagawa, who, in turn, aspires to knowledge and then freedom. In times of all kinds of persecutions and discriminatory policies, de Zoet has to navigate a very uneasy road in the foreign country through cultural differences and alleged conspiracies.

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7 Fascinating History of Medicine Non-Fiction Books

I am continuing my contribution to the Non-Fiction November Initiative with the list below of seven most fascinating “history of medicine” non-fiction books. 

The Butchering Art CoverI. The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine by Lindsey Fitzharris

Lindsey Fitzharris’s book on British surgeon Joseph Lister and the transformation of the Victorian medicine is an unputdownable book that introduces the reader to the astonishing medical practices that people expected in the 19th century. In times when the “germ” theory was deemed “implausible” and when hospitals were places with unsanitary conditions, one man challenged the traditional way of looking at operations and diseases that follow open wounds. I cannot praise this book highly enough. 

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Thoughts on Non-Fiction

Since November is designated for the Non-Fiction Reading Challenge, I thought I would talk about my favourite non-fiction genres and my experience of reading non-fiction books. The only non-fiction genre which I love but will not cover below is medicine/cognitive science. It will be the topic of my next post and I also previously covered it in this list here.

This new book on my TBR list traces the history of human movement on water

Some of my favourite non-fiction books fall into the categories of history and travel (culture exploration). Be it dinosaurs (The Rise & Fall of the Dinosaurs), the Middle Ages (A Distant Mirror) or stories of survival in hostile terrains (Miracle in the Andes), I find all these topics completely fascinating. My previous favourite reads also included books on Mexico, New Orleans, New York and Rome. Though some I enjoyed more than others (for example, I did not get along with Peter Mayne’s Marrakesh book nor with Kurlansky’s Havana), I am always keeping my eyes open for interesting books in these categories. Thus, I am currently looking forward to reading A History of the Bible by John Barton, The Ghost: A Cultural History by Susan Owens, The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans by David Abulafia, and Medieval Civilisation 400-1500 by Jacques Le Goff, an author that was recommended to me by Ola G.

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Review: The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier

The Scapegoat [1957] – ★★★★1/2

In The Scapegoat, two complete look-alikes switch places and we follow the Englishman John as he reluctantly takes the place of seemingly wealthy but troubled Frenchman Jean de Gué. Previously somewhat shy and leading an uneventful life, John is unexpectedly thrust into the very limelight of life, acquiring a big family overnight, but also overbearing responsibilities and a failing business. As this is a Daphne du Maurier book, this is no ordinary tale of switched identities. In this tale, we step into an atmosphere that is haunting and unsettling, into a strange château peopled by still stranger people whose complex relationships and buried secrets first puzzle and then “liberate” our protagonist. Blending wonderfully the surreal and the realist, Daphne du Maurier created a fascinating psychological situation, a deep and intricate central character study and vivid minor characters, while touching on such themes as the nature of identity, the unpredictability of the human nature, the meaning of a family and the importance of forgiveness. With du Maurier, readers know that they are in the safe and confident hands of a master who will deliver something subtle, unsettling and over and above their expectations.

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Review: A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century [1978] ★★★★★

In this book, Barbara Tuchman explores the 14th century Europe focusing in particular on the situation in France and on the powerful clan of lords – the Coucy of Picardy, whose ambition at that time almost rivalled that of the King. The centre of the narrative here is the lifetime of Enguerrand VII de Coucy, whose double allegiances and adventures could be compared to some mythical storytelling. Providing vivid insight into various aspects of the medieval life, from childhood to tournaments, and from the state of medicine to the status of women, Tuchman’s book makes one truly step into the intriguing world of the Middle Ages and into the mentality of its people. This was a historical period that was deeply paradoxical and chaotic, in which famine, peasant revolts, foreign wars, the bubonic plague and religious struggles were all taking place in a non-stop succession amidst the existence and the proclamation of a high moral code of chivalry among the nobility, and where magic and superstition reigned inexplicably alongside one strict religious canon.  

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Review: The Roots of Heaven by Romain Gary

The Roots of Heaven (Les Racines du ciel) [1956/57] – ★★★★1/2

The Roots of Heaven, the winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt, is set deep in the wilderness of Africa just after the WWII when the complex geopolitical situation meant a world on the brink of an explosion from the collusion of different interests, values and opinions. In this world, amidst all the criticisms levelled at colonialism, cries for African independence and still fresh horrors of the Nazi regime, there emerges a candle of “hope” in the form of one idealistic Frenchman – Morel, whose passion for the protection of elephants soon reaches mythical proportions in the region around Chad. He soon gathers around the most unlikely champions to ban the slaughter of elephants, for example Minna, a woman who suffered much during the Fall of Berlin, and Forsythe, an American who was dishonourably discharged from the army. Morel, equipped only with the belief that his cause will attract public sympathy, faces a lot of adversaries, such as the reality itself, as well as numerous people who hunt for business, pleasure and trophies. Because of his eccentricities and naïve outlooks, Morel is soon converted into a symbol of dignity and liberation, even though his enemies are already closing in on his noble campaign and it is far from certain what will be the real consequences of his increasingly drastic actions. Through Gary’s dense narrative and second-hand accounts, we can piece together a powerful story about the resilience of the human spirit and the power of one unshakeable belief, all coming from the author whose own life was probably more illustrious than any fiction he wrote.

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September 2020 Wrap-Up

A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie [2015] by Kathryn Harkup ★★★★★

When it comes to morbidly-curious books, it does not get better that this book. The author takes a deep look into all the poisons that Agatha Christie used in her books to “kill off” her “victims”, and the result is a read that both fascinates and informs – Full Review.

Doctor Glas [1905/1963] by Hjalmar Söderberg★★★★1/2

Truth is like the sun, its value depends wholly upon our being at a correct distance away from it” [Söderberg/Austen, 1905/1963: 138].

This little novel is a Swedish classic written in a diary form from the perspective of one dutiful doctor Tyko Gabriel Glas. He is a rather lonely and introverted individual who is used to handle expertly delicate matters of city inhabitants. That is, until he meets the charming wife of one “repulsive” priest Rev. Gregorius. As he gets entangled in the affairs of this couple, the doctor also starts rethinking his stance on life and his thoughts turn darker. Soon, torn between his medical ethics and objective morality on the one hand, and his rising sense of injustice and romantic emotions on the other, Doctor Glas is quite ready to commit the unthinkable. Deemed highly controversial upon its release in 1905, this tale of obsession, suppressed emotions, sexual frustration and jealousy is now rightly considered to be a national classic. Existential angst and hidden psychological torments mingle ominously within the pages, with the author making a sober, but surprisingly potent statement on the power of the unconscious in human actions and condition.

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Japanese Literature Recommendations for Each Zodiac Sign

I got my idea for this post from youtuber A Little Bit of Monika who made a post recommending different Studio Ghibli films to her followers based on their zodiac (star) signs. Given the twelve star signs that exist (and their characteristics), I will also try to recommend 12 Japanese fiction books to each of the twelve star signs.

ARIES (March 21 – April 19)

Aries will always be up for an adventure and an exciting action. Therefore, Eiji Yoshikawa’s Musashi [1939] may be a perfect read for them because the book is all about an adventure revolving around an unlikely warrior Musashi. Being confident, courageous, energetic, as well as a natural leader, Aries could identify with the book and its characters.

TAURUS (April 20 – May 20)

Taurus is stable, reliable and devoted. They can be very family-oriented, as well as appreciative of beauty and tradition. Therefore, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters [1936] could be a good read for them since they will enjoy all the practical, day-to-day intricacies and familial values/duties than the book tries to present. The Makioka Sisters takes place in Japan from the years 1936 to 1941 and focuses on one’s family’s attempts to marry off Yukiko, already a thirty year old woman who remains woefully unmarried. Given Taurus’s patience and determination, I trust them to finish the 576-page book, finding it significant.

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Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Magpie on the Gallows

This is a painting that Dutch-Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted in 1568 and left to his wife before his death. This is not merely a countryside scenery. There is something unsettling in this painting and some have suggested that it hides a secret meaning. In this painting, two men are seemingly enjoying the view to the river valley, but there is something disturbing that comes into their view – a group of dancers on the left happily passing their time in front of the gallows, which stand as an ominous reminder that one day human life comes to an end. Our attention is immediately drawn to the gallows because Bruegel depicted what seems to be an “impossible object” in art. The gallows’ posts are positioned in such a way that cannot occur in real life, with the right side receding into the distance. This alone gives the gallows in the painting a special significance. At the same time, the merry people to the side of the gallows, as well as the person who is squatting on the foreground, seem to be mocking the very symbol of death and “justice”. The contrast between their merriness, and the solitary and sombre gallows could not have been more pronounced, giving a peculiar unnaturalness to the scene. Over the years, there have been a number of interpretations put out forward regarding the magpie that sits on the gallows (as well as the one near the base of the gallows), and one of the most popular ones is that the magpie represents baseless and spiteful gossip that often leads to the gallows. This painting is currently held by the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt, Germany.

Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi [2020] – ★★★★

Piranesi is a new fantasy novel by the author of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell [2004]. This time, we have a diary-like narrative and our narrator observes, records and catalogues a curious World around him – the House. In the House, architectural splendours meet natural wonders – sea Tides, bringing marine life and vegetation, often flood the seemingly infinite number of opulent Halls, where numerous enigmatic statues of all sizes daze and confuse. Our narrator’s only human contact is the man only known as the Other, who also often frequents the Halls and who sees the World very differently from our narrator. Then, cryptic messages start to appear in some Halls, and our narrator witnesses strange visions. What other mysteries does the House hold, and is there really a Sixteenth Person who may be residing in the Far-Distant Halls? These are the questions that start to bother our narrator as he is slowly forced to question the very nature of his existence in this bewildering World of Tides and Architectural Beauty. In Piranesi, Susanna Clarke invented one mysterious, otherworldly place whose pull is irresistible, powerful and inescapable, and whose charm works like magic, saturating the reading experience with endless wonder, delight and fascination. Amidst all the watery and architectural beauty, though, there is a want for slightly more meaning and depth, and it is unfortunate that the second part of the book falls into some very familiar and overused literary “thriller” tropes.

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Imagining Menus from Books

I have been thinking (again) about the place of food in books recently, and I thought it would be fun to make a post where I would try to imagine and devise culinary menus from books, and also come up with objects and particular atmosphere based on a number of books that I’ve read, trying to evoke the particular aesthetics of the books chosen. My selected books are Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book, Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Yasunari Kawabata’s The Old Capital.

I. The Black Book [1990/2005] by Orhan Pamuk

Atmosphere:

Snow-covered Istanbul of the 1990s and 1960s: lonely streets and cold apartments.

What to bring:

Childhood memories, unresolved issues, newspaper clippings, old photographs, a mirror & green boll-point pen.

MENU

Drink: Turkish coffee or cold ayran (a yogurt drink mixed with salt);

Starter: Tomato soup (domates çorbası) or a plate of grilled meatballs (koftas);

Main: Lamb with basmati rice flavoured with cinnamon, mint and apricot, and a carrot salad;

Dessert: Quince dessert (ayva tatlısı).

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Review: A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup

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A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie [2015] – ★★★★★

15 September 2020 marks 130 years since the birth of Agatha Christie in 1890, and this review is meant to pay tribute to the ultimate Queen of Crime. The author of A is for Arsenic is Kathryn Harkup, a chemist by profession, who decided to plunge into all the poisons that Christie used in her books to come up with her perfect crimes. In A is for Arsenic, we first read about the scientific properties of each of the poisons used by Christie in her fiction, from arsenic and belladonna to opium and phosphorus (including their histories and the ways they kill), before the author illuminates the real cases involving these poisons, and finally talks about the fictitious cases in Agatha Christie’s books. It is clear that reading about different poisons has never been as morbidly fun or interesting as with this book since Harkup is an intelligent and succinct writer with a great sense of humour. A is for Arsenic is sure to fascinate and delight this Halloween season.

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Hieronymus Bosch: 3 Lesser-Known Artworks

Hieronymus Bosch [c. 1450 –  1516] was a Dutch painter known for his unique artistic style and enigmatic, intellectually complex paintings on religious subjects. He is also known as the innovative painter of the fantastic who, paradoxically, never went beyond the religious canon. Below, I would like to present three of his lesser-known works, one of which – Extracting the Stone of Folly – is considered to be the only one the painter produced which centred on a purely secular matter. 

Extracting the Stone of Folly

I. Extracting the Stone of Folly [c. 1505] 

In this curious painting, a man tied to a chair in open countryside is ready to undergo a risky procedure – the removal of a stone of folly or madness from his brain. In medieval times, people believed that a stone lodged in someone’s brain was responsible for either their lack of intellectual prowess, their “madness” or their erratic behaviour. Professor Jos Koldeweij interprets this painting as a quack doctor (on the left) making an incision in the man’s scalp to extract the stone, while the man’s wife (on the far right) and her lover, the priest (in the middle) supervise the procedure. The interesting aspect of the painting is not only the macabre procedure, but also the division of power between the four people in the painting. Despite appearances, it is the wife of the man to be “dissected” who is in control. The book on her head may signal her possessing knowledge or power beyond that of those around her. The doctor is a quack or a fraudster because he has a funnel on his head and a jug hanging from his belt – he is after the money and is not interested in curing his patient. The priest in black, in turn, is supposed to calm the patient and provide a divine assent to the procedure. However, he also seems to possess ulterior motives for being there (having the jug in the hand may also signal deception). Moreover, being a lover of the man’s wife, he is unlikely to interfere to save the man from his fate. Meanwhile, the husband seated represents the party tricked into complete submission, as also evidenced by his overall helplessness to control the situation. The fact that the “surgeon”  manages to extract not a stone, but a waterlily from the patient’s head only emphasises the ludicrousness of the procedure. The painting is currently in the Prado Museum in Madrid. Continue reading “Hieronymus Bosch: 3 Lesser-Known Artworks”

The 15th Readers Imbibing Peril Reading Challenge

My favourite time of the year has started, and this year I have decided to start the Readers Imbibing Peril Reading Challenge earlier than usual. This is because, firstly, yes, I am impatient to delve into all those exciting scary books, and, secondly, I want to have plenty of time to decide what I want read for this challenge, and then read and review those books. This year I spotted this challenge at Robin’s A Fondness for Reading (it was first started by Carl V), and the goal is to read a certain number of books associated with the Halloween season. This year I am planning to read at least four books in one or more of the following categories: horror, thriller, mystery, dark fantasy and the supernatural. I have not yet decided on specific books, but I will definitely be reading something from both Daphne du Maurier and Shirley Jackson. Are you participating in this challenge this year? What authors or books are you planning to read?