“Of all my Russian books, The Luzhin Defense contains and diffuses the greatest “warmth”, which may seem odd seeing how supremely abstract Chess is supposed to be” (Vladimir Nabokov).
This was an audio-book which I listened to in its original language, Russian. This is Vladimir Nabokov’s only third novel in Russian (he wrote his last series of books in English), but it impressed me hugely. In this book, the author imagines the life of a once chess prodigy and now a respected retired man Alexander Luzhin, and, while the first part of the book is a touching coming-of-age story of one talented but misunderstood and lonely boy, the second half of the story is a penetrating study of one eccentric, increasingly mentally-confused man who still tries to accustom himself to the society that, surprisingly to him, is far from chess rules and boards. Through this character study, which is both tender and ironic, tragic and farcical, Nabokov underscores the parasitic relationship of madness to genius, as he also unveils a deeply sympathetic situation of one man always in the midst of a battle to lead a life which seems natural to him.
I have recently watched A Clockwork Reader’s YouTube video 10 Short Books You Can Read in a Day and have decided to share my own recommendations of short books you can finish in just one day (and by authors from eight different countries!). The books below are listed in no particular order and they are all under 160 pages‘ long (though the number of pages given is approximate since editions vary).
I. Colonel Chabert  by Honoré de Balzac (101 pages)
What everyone knows is that Colonel Chabert died honourably in one of the battles of Napoleon. He is one of the heroes who gave his life for the glory of the Empire. The problem is that he has actually survived, while everyone believed him dead, and he returns to France. Finding his wife re-married, Chabert slowly senses that everyone thinks that he is really better off dead. This is a penetrating novel by Balzac about society’s hypocrisy and the fight for justice.
II. The Death of Ivan Ilyich  by Leo Tolstoy (86 pages)
This novella by Tolstoy is about the examination of life, dying and how morality fits into all of this as it focuses on a judge who is finally forced to face his death and ponder his past actions. Japanese director Akira Kurosawa famously re-worked Tolstoy’s story to film Ikiru (To Live) (1952), a film which I highly recommend (Kazuo Ishiguro has also recently re-worked the script of Kurosawa for the film Living (2021)).
ARIES(March 21 – April 19) – Corto Maltese [1967 – 2019] by Hugo Pratt
Aries is full of energy and does not mind a healthy amount of danger in his or her life. The enigmatic, contradictory hero of Hugo Pratt’s famous series may appeal to these people who love adventure. Feeling strange that you have been assigned a comic? No, it is just the opposite – this graphic novel is one deep material. Umberto Eco (Foucault’s Pendulum) famously said: “When I want to relax, I read an essay by Engels. When I want to read something serious, I read Corto Maltese.”
TAURUS (April 20 – May 20) – The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni
Alessandro Manzoni’s classic novel, Italy’s “national institution”, is a tale of two lovers, Renzo and Lucia, who are trying to overcome oppression, jealousy and injustice on their path to happiness. Loyal and dependable Taurus will appreciate the values, romance and a sense of adventure this beautiful novel offers.
Geminis are clever and curious and this is the novel that only looks like a simply story, but requires quite an analysis. This claustrophobic novel’s theme of loneliness, allegedly Gemini’s biggest fear, can strike home for this Zodiac sign. The Tartar Steppe and Gemini may be the case of the attraction of the opposites. Changeable Gemini, who likes variety in life, may find the story’s Kafkaesque theme of being stuck in a fortress in the middle of nowhere a frighteningly intriguing reading proposition.
I would like to explore the worlds of French playwrights and I am going to start with Molière. The Misanthrope, The Hypochondriac and Le Médecin malgré lui (“the doctor in spite of himself”), a satire on the 17th century French medicine, all sound like great (tragi)comedies.
II. Hiroko Oyamada
I cannot believe I am still to read any Oyamada because I have wanted to read her books for so long. I am excited to read both The Factory  and The Hole . Oyamada’s writings have been compared to Franz Kafka and so her books are likely to be right up my alley.
III. Julio Cortazar
I already ranted elsewhere how badly I want to read Julio Cortázar’s masterpiece Hopscotch , but its size and complexity do put me off. I am also curious about this Argentine-French writer’s short stories and he had left plenty.
I think we all try not to spread negativity on our blogs, but a negative review is at times just irresistible. I am now recovering from a rather bad reading spell, having read a number of disappointing books recently, and have decided on this tag to both vent my feelings and maybe ward off others. This is a re-worked by me tag which I first spotted at The Bookish Mutant and the original creator is The Reader’s Game. If you decide to do this tag as well, I would love to read your answers.
A Disappointing Debut
The Moviegoer  by Walker Percy. I know how popular and admired this book is, but I only found it exasperating and disappointing. I love films, books with existential themes and New Orleans-set novels, so I assumed this would be a perfect book for me. I was wrong, and I still do not understand how this book could have won the National Book Award in 1962 over such books as Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, Heller’s Catch-22 and Yates’s Revolutionary Road (one of my favourite books). Having said all that, I do have Percy’s Lancelot  on my TBR and it looks like I may like it more.
An Author with a Novel You Love, and a Novel You Dislike
Kazuo Ishiguro. I love his book The Remains of the Day  and dislike his most recent sci-fi novel Klara and the Sun . In fact, since I read the book my dislike for it only deepened. The film rights for this book have already been acquired, and for those who cannot wait that long, there is another similar film to check out – Kogonada’s After Yang , a tale about one family’s coping strategies after their artificial intelligence “helper” has broken down. Amazingly, as I write this, I am also becoming aware that Kogonada was actually influenced to make this film by one of the quotes from Percy’s The Moviegoer! (talking about coincidences).
A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome [2007/09] – ★★★★
This book about ancient Rome is written in a conversational style, and we walk through the ancient city with the author who acts as our guide, pointing to us various curiosities we encounter in our journey through the day. From 6:00 a.m., the time to explore one as yet silent domus of a wealthy Roman citizen, to 9:00 p.m., the time when, ordinarily, a Roman banquet nears its end, we spend the day exploring the lives of the wealthy, the poor and the slaves in the world’s most populous city in the year 115 CE, while the author also comments on such topics as Roman religion, professions, education, money, games and food. The book, translated from the Italian by Gregory Conti, is quite introductory, but still wondrous, and even those who are familiar with the lives of Romans are bound to pick up some interesting facts to explore further.
This month I have intensified my piano-learning (finally finishing all the piano method books I once started and jumping on Duvernoy, Schytte and Lemoine’s studies) and been listening to a lot of piano music (especially to Godowsky’s Java Suite this month), so I have also decided to share some piano-related books I have been reading recently.
I. Journey of a Thousand Miles: My Story  by Lang Lang – ★★★★1/2
Chinese pianist Lang Lang is considered to be one of the leading figures of today’s classical music world and one of the most accomplished pianists of our modern time. This is his memoir in which he tells his story, from his birth in 1982 in China’s north-eastern city of Shenyang, his early musical education and upbringing, to his hard-work and his family sacrificing everything to see him become “the world’s no. 1”. It is a moving autobiography of a child once living in near-poverty, but always working very hard and dreaming “big”, and then of a young man, not always believing in himself, but always being clear in his mind what he wants to achieve next, overcoming his tricky family life and the Chinese competitive system. There are no “self-indulgent” paragraphs in this memoir. It is clear and to the point, with very short chapters, in which Lang Lang, first and foremost, pays tribute to his family and his teachers, who always believed in him and enabled him to become what he is now, an immensely popular classical pianist.
Carl Spitzweg (1808 – 1885) was a German painter of the Biedermeier period (1815 – 1848) who presented his subjects from curiously comical perspectives. Largely self-taught, Spitzweg captured the Biedermeier trend of a new middle-class enjoying their new artistic or intellectual leisurely pursuits at or close to their comfortable homes and in the background of the country’s growing urbanisation, industrialisation and relative political stability. His paintings of incredible detail, colour and humour are considered the most significant to appear in that period.
I. The Poor Poet
Carl Spitzweg loved to satirise men who pursue artistic professions. This painting, which can be viewed as both deeply sympathetic and humorous, presents the fact that “poetry does not pay“, showing a “poor poet” who is so engrossed in his world of verse and imagination (probably calculating iambic or trochaic meters on his fingers) that he is seemingly both oblivious and indifferent to his pitiful surroundings. He has neither a proper bed nor table, his umbrella serves him as a cover from the rain water that is most certainly leaking through the roof, and his papers have just recently been burned to produce warmth. And yet, hefty tomes of literature are by his side, a quill is in his mouth and his mind is on the verse. I particularly love the contrast between the soft, abnormally large, white pillow that perhaps stands for the poet’s untouchable realm of dreams and lofty aspirations in which he is only too comfortable, and his dingy and dirty surroundings (in which he should be uncomfortable). Spitzweg painted three versions of this painting, two of which are almost identical. One of these “identical” works was irrevocably stolen in 1989, while another can still be seen at Neue Pinakothek in Munich, Germany.
Six Characters in Search of an Author  – ★★★★
Luigi Pirandello’s plays are considered precursors to the Theatre of the Absurd and this play in three acts I read is one thought-provoking work that satirises the staging of a play, while muddling up such concepts as creation and performance, and an objective viewpoint and its subjective counterpart. In the play, a number of Characters come and gate-crash the rehearsal of a play “Mixing It Up”: the Father, the Mother, the Step-Daughter, the Son, the Boy and the Child. The Manager and the Actors are amazed to suddenly find on stage this group of Character-people, abandoned by their Author and eager to act out the drama of their lives. What then can the Manager do, but allow the Characters to try their hand at staging their performances? This play about a play is also an illusion within an illusion and a triple drama, of a book we read as play, of a stage to be set for a real drama, and, finally, of a play to come to “life” through an artistic vision gone haywire.
Yoshida Kenkō (1283 – 1350) was a Japanese Buddhist monk and poet, best known for his posthumously published collection of short statements and essays known as Essays in Idleness or The Harvest of Leisure that demonstrate the essence of the Way in Buddhism, including the realisation of the Impermanence of All Things and the Transience of Life. Drawing from folklore and classics, Kenkō also provides short morality tales, pointing out the dangers of pride and greed, and advocating temperance in life and moderation in all things that are not necessities to life. He shares his thoughts on the beauty of nature, aesthetics, nostalgia, life at court, and on Japanese poetry, festivals and architecture. Most of his self-professed “ramblings” are either delightful or deeply profound and I am sharing some of them here:
“It is most wonderful comfort to sit alone beneath a lamp, book spread before you, and commune with someone from the past whom you have never met”.
“In all things, the beginning and end are the most engaging. Does the love of man and woman suggest only their embraces? No, the sorrow of lovers parted before they met, laments over promises betrayed, long lonely nights spent sleepless until dawn, pinning thoughts for one in some far place, a woman left sighing over past love in her tumbledown abode – it is these, surely, that embody the romance of love“.
In this classic story, Arthur Clennam returns home from China after many years of absence and finds the same dull and uninviting London house with the same resentful mother inside. While he meditates on what to do next with his life, his attention is drawn to a very timid seamstress of his mother– Amy Dorrit (nicknamed “Little Dorrit”). This young woman is hard-working, kind and is blindly devoted to her imprisoned family members. This makes Arthur wonder about her life, and his first step to make poor Amy his friend leads him to the discovery of another world – the world of London’s poor. Arthur is amazed to find that the absurd workings of the notorious Marshalsea prison for debtors, where Amy was born and her father is now imprisoned, should have a symbiotic relationship with the bureaucratic realm of the complacent and Kafkaesque Circumlocution Office, a governmental institution designed to keep the needy poor and the desperate for answers – even more confused. Set in England, Italy and France, Dickens’s episodic novel may not have the clarity and subtlety of the narrative expositions of Bleak House  or Dombey and Son , but it still contains all the entertaining Dickensian components. There is: a plot with long-buried family secrets and unforeseen reversals of fortune; perceptive and humoristic satire on the government (Dickens was once a Parliament Reporter) and the unfairness of the British class system; and a line of unforgettable characters, whose destinies inexplicably criss-cross and among whom are a couple of sinister personages lurking in the background and pulling the strings. Still, the “heart” of this novel is one shy young woman whose quiet resilience in the face of immense oppression moves all, as she champions the power of introversion and self-sacrificing love.
“The activity of the artist is about transcending the ordinary world. The world of appearances” (Philip Glass).
My previous music post highlighted American composer Philp Glass, and I am now sharing his beautiful, minimalistic composition Mad Rush. This piece was first written by Glass in 1978 for an organ of the cathedral of St. John the Divine (New York) for the occasion of the Dalai Lama’s first public address in the US in 1979. It has since been re-recorded and titled Mad Rush (which can now be viewed as encapsulating our franticmodern lifestyles). I love the way this piece intertwines the themes of peace and chaos – meditative and sublime. Philip Glass said that that these two contrasting themes represent “the play of the wrathful and peaceful deities in Tibetan Buddhism“.
I have finally completed my challenge of reading 50 booksset in different parts of the world! I began this challenge almost with the start of my blog in 2018 and my last review of Maryse Condé’s book marked the end of this exciting challenge. Below are my book results categorised in the following sections: Europe, The Middle East, Africa, Asia, North America,The Caribbean, South America and Oceania. Please note that the books below correspond to plot locations and not to the authors’ countries of origin.
“The opposite of poverty is not wealth, the opposite of poverty is enough” (Dr. Wess Stafford).
“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage” (Seneca).
This graphic novel is based on a classic novel by Upton Sinclair The Jungle  that tells of a Lithuanian family of immigrants who arrive to Chicago, Illinois in 1899 and find their hopes slowly turning to dust as they all take jobs exploiting them and their desperate need to survive in the foreign country. Jurgis Rudkus is a twenty-one year old man eager to work at any job in America and soon finds himself in a meat-processing factory, working in very unhygienic and even horrifying environment. His fiancée Ona starts working in packaging, while her cousin Marija begins painting cans, and even Jurgis’s elderly father tries to land some job in order not to be dependent on others, among other family members. This family comprising of three generations is soon hit very hard by the “hidden costs” of their American Dream, which becomes very hard to bear, especially when most factories close in winter and the mercilessness of the family’s employers and landlords leads to traumatic experiences. Though I have not yet read the original novel by Sinclair, I found this graphic adaptation deeply moving, offering an uncomfortable, yet valuable insight into Sinclair’s vision and the conditions of blue-collar workers in early twentieth-century Chicago.
Maryse Condé is an award-winning author from Guadeloupe, French overseas region, whose history, culture and tradition takes a centre stage in her book Crossing the Mangrove. In this simple narrative written from multiple perspectives, the usual life of people in one small village of Rivière au Sel is shuttered by the arrival of one handsome and enigmatic man from Cuba – Francis Sancher. Little is known about this talkative stranger, but he soon manages to bring out the very best and the very worst in villagers, being showered with love and hate alike. And, then, his unnatural death raises even more questions than his life ever did. Vividly and poetically, Condé presents to us a small community in one forgotten village torn by passions, jealousy and hopelessness, with its people being as ready to move forward with life as content to settle into permanent inaction. In the process, the author uncovers for us the very soul of Guadeloupe, beautiful, yes, but also as enigmatic, battered and toughened as the spirit of the central character.
Today is 40 years since the death of science-fiction writer Philip. K. Dick (1928 – 1982), an American author who created addictive dystopian worlds where advanced technologies compete with humanity, where space-travel is not only available and optional, but at times essential to evade planetary catastrophes, and where drug-induced hallucinations become a new reality for all. The science-fiction books of Philip. K. Dick may not be the height of mastery in terms of their execution and in some ways do remain products of their time, but no one can deny their unparalleled creativity in setting out intriguing worlds of the future where there are layers and layers of unfathomable realities just beneath the one you see.
I. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? 
Few people have not heard of this book, or if they have not, they have surely heard of Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner , which (and I would say it very frankly) is only loosely based on this sci-fi novel. In this story, set in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco, possessing a real live animal have become a social status akin to being one of the richest persons on earth because so few of them are in existence and, androids and humans co-exist in a world torn by the devastating effects of the recent nuclear war. Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter, has a task of “retiring” a number of criminally-minded androids who have recently escaped from Mars. The success of this book, and the film, lies in a way it taps into the very essence of our humanity – what makes us – us? Our thoughts, our memories, our emotions? If all of these can be “replicated”, does our sense of humanity become redundant? Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a great sci-fi full of irony and suspense that was unfairly overshadowed by its cinematic counterpart.
Today marks 220 years since the birth of French writer Victor Hugo on 26 February 1802. Hugo is best known for his great classic novels Les Misérables  and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame , and was also a passionate social and political activist who famously supported the abolition of the death penalty, the view that was taken in his short novel The Last Day of a Condemned Man .
“Our mind is enriched by what we receive, our heart – by what we give.”
“The future has several names. For the weak it is impossible; for the fainthearted, it is unknown; but for the valiant, it is ideal” (Victor Hugo).
To follow from my January post on two American true crime non-fiction books, here is my list of 10 further recommendations in the true crime genre. It is in no particular order and I purposely left out books that I already reviewed on my blog – Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah and Tom Wainwright’s Narconomics.
I. Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI 
No other non-fiction has had as much effect on me in recent years as this book by David Grann. This is an outrageous story about a series of inexplicable murders of the Osage people in Oklahoma in the 1920s after big oil deposits were found on their land. High levels of local corruption meant that a completely independent force had to take charge of a covert investigation and subsequently uncovered some very shocking facts. I also enjoyed Grann’s book The Lost City of Z, and Killers of the Flower Moon is currently being adapted as a film by no other than Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio (no, not in a “good guy” role), Robert De Niro andJesse Plemons (The Power of the Dog).
II. Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup
The story of Stanford drop-out Elizabeth Holmes must be one of the most shocking to come out in the 21st century. Holmes started her company Theranos in California in 2003, emulating Steve Jobs, and persuaded a number of influential people (alongside millions of onlookers!) to part with their cash and invest in her new medical technology that, from her words, could revolutionise blood testing and lead to accurate diagnoses years before any symptoms appeared. Only no such “miracle” technology was ever in existence, and this book by a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter not only tells of Holmes’s tale of ambition and deception, but also of the company’s later attempts to cover-up and intimidate as snippets of truth started to emerge around 2015. In January 2022, Elisabeth Holmes was convicted of four out of eleven charges laid down against her.
“I was obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well“. Johann Sebastian Bach
The music of Bach is complex, inventive, awe-inspiring and brimming with mathematical precision and religious fervour. The man behind it appears equally stern and unreachable. But, who was Johann Sebastian Bach really and how it came about that a cantor operating in a rather small region of Germany managed to compose music of such brilliant contours, imaginative force and spiritual depth that it now forms much of the foundation of our classical music and is worshipped by many across the globe? In this non-fiction, British conductor John Eliot Gardiner aims to shed light on these precise, still puzzling questions. Music in the Castle of Heaven is an illuminating account of Bach’s life and music that starts from the premise that to understand Bach’s art we have to first immerse ourselves in the very essence of his time and place of birth. Numerous factors influenced Bach and made him into a musician we know today – familial, historic, socio-economic, cultural, educational – and without knowing these we cannot fathom Bach’s mind and how it worked. Gardiner strikes at the very heart of Bach’s genius, presenting us with a complex and sometimes contradictory musician who was also a very empathetic man.
Sébastian Vrancx (1573 – 1647) was a Flemish Baroque painter who is mainly known for his battle scene paintings. However, he was also an artist who painted a number of other curious paintings, and below is just one set from the series of his paintings on the theme of the allegory of the seasons. Early medieval manuscripts (such as books of hours) often referred to and depicted this theme, and it gained the most popularity around the early 17th century.
“You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy”, so a proverb states. The Moon and The Bonfire is a deeply personal final novel by Italian author Cesare Pavese in which he tells the story of Anguila, a successful businessman, who returns from California to his native country Italy after years and years of absence. Never knowing his real mother and father, Anguila grew up in a foster family in one Piedmontese village near river Belbo in the north of Italy. Abandoned from birth and poor, he had to endure a rough childhood that was only somewhat brightened by his friendship with an older boy Nuto and his fascination with the beautiful daughters of his later master. Now, after years of absence, Anguila decides to reconnect with the land he once called home because after all – “there is no place like home”, or is there? Poverty, war and moral degradation had all left their mark on the region that was once Anguila’s whole world and his detailed re-evaluation of the past, spent desires and dashed hopes leads to surprising conclusions.
“Thank heaven for all those who, in devious ways by their art, bring tranquillity to the world, and enrich men’s hearts.”
In this novel by famous Japanese author Natsume Sōseki (1867 – 1916), a young painter travels the country in search of a source of true artistic inspiration, tying to be completely dispassionate about everything he sees. In his journey “to rise above emotions” and conquer his earthy desires he has the aim to reach the state of total objectivity so that his brush will be able to paint only the “truth” and “bare life”. However, when he stops briefly at a guesthouse of one Shioda in a hot-spring village of Nakoi, he encounters there a woman who may put a stop to all of his pretences to be an unemotional observer and a mere spectator of life. O-Nami is a beautiful and enigmatic young woman who has recently escaped her impoverished husband and may have had an affair with a local Buddhist priest. Intrigued by this woman and engulfed in the sheer beauty of the nature around him, our narrator plunges deep into the very heart of the meaning of art, poetry and life itself. The Three-Cornered World is a gentle novel of deep insights with intimate meditations on life and art, its secrets and manifestations.
I miss writing art-related posts and have decided to talk again about surrealist paintings of Spanish/Mexican artist Remedios Varo (1908 – 1963) (see my 2019 post where I already talked about her paintings Hacia la Torre, El Juglar andPapilla Estelar).
Revelation or The Clock-Maker 
In this painting, the Clock-Maker is hard at work in his studio surrounded by grandfather-clocks all showing the same time when Revelation (a whirling disk) literally floats through his window, catching him unawares. Here, Remedios Varo wanted to capture the moment of inspiration/divine revelation or “illumination” literarily presenting itself to a man, changing his understanding of how time works. Janet Kaplan in her book Remedios Varo: Unexpected Journeys explains that this is the moment when the Clock-Maker, who represents our “ordinary”, Newtonian time, realises with a shock that time is, in fact, relative, as Albert Einstein stated. This means it is not absolute or universal as was previously thought, but depends entirely on each entity or person’s position in the universe and in relation to everything else. This Revelation causes Clock-Maker’s tools and mechanical parts of his clocks to fall on the floor. Time can no longer be “trapped” or “fixed” within a clock and the Clock-Maker’s art and work will never be the same.
The Magic Mountain [1924/27] by Thomas Mann – ★★★★★
This is the best book I read this month. It is an unforgettable literary journey through the psyche of a man trapped in a comfortable sanatorium high in the Swiss Alpes (see my full review).
Havoc [1930/68] by Tom Kristensen– ★★★★1/2
This Danish classic also exceeded my expectations – a dark existential novel about a man suffering from alcoholism and balancing on the edge of abyss (see my full review).
Black Narcissus  by Rumer Godden – ★★★★1/2
In this atmospheric novel, an Anglican order of nuns sets up a nunnery high in the Himalayan mountains, in a palace where once the local General led his dissipated lifestyle. Sister Superior Clodagh leads her charge of devoted Sisters and they soon establish a school and a dispensary on the premises. A “battle of the sexes” ensures when charismatic Mr. Dean, the General’s Agent and the local “bad boy”, starts helping the Sisters with their tasks, while also making them flushed and uncomfortable. The splendid vistas from the convent, the brazenness of the local people and all the colours and aromas of India soon prove too much for the Sisters, some of whom start having thoughts that are far from God and their religious duty. The claustrophobia heightens, sexual tensions abound, passions and dissatisfactions break out, and then one act of jealousy may just undermine the reputation of the whole order. This is a beautiful, tightly-woven tale about a duty/desire clash set in one exotic place.
American composer Philip Glass (31 January 1937-), known for his minimalism and “repetitive structures” in music, is 85 years old today and I am taking this opportunity to share one of his greatest work – a film score to Stephen Daldry’s film The Hours .
I. The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking  by Brendan I. Koerner – ★★★★
This book by journalist Brendan I. Koerner focuses on the “Golden Age of Aircraft Hijacking” and on a peculiar case of an airplane hijacking operation carried out by Vietnam veteran William Roger Holder and his girlfriend Cathy Kerkow in 1972. Before airport X-ray machines and the careful vetting of all passengers, Holder and Kerkow had accomplished a crime feat in the air of unbelievable proportions, later escaping to and from Algeria and much later even becoming “celebrities” in France, mingling with the elite. This book is not only a fascinating story of their case that often reads like an exciting thriller, but also a deep insight into the most unbelievable period in the American commercial aviation history when airplane hijacking was so common people thought of it as just “one of those annoying inconveniences of flying” similar to jet lag.
Italy is such a historically and culturally rich country and there are/were so many great Italian authors – Alighieri Dante, Giovanni Boccaccio, Niccolo Machiavelli, Alessandro Manzoni (The Betrothed), Cesare Pavese, Umberto Eco (Foucault’s Pendulum), Italo Calvino (The Baron in the Trees), to name just a few. Taking this into account and since I loved some Italian books I’ve read recently I’ve decided to make 2022 my year exploring Italian literature and set up theItalia (Italy) Reading Challenge (to run between January and December 2022). To make this challenge more manageable for myself, I have decided to limit my reading goal to just 10 books written by Italian authors. If we consider that these books all come from just one country, I don’t think it’s a bad start at all, and here is my selection for this year:
Alberto Moravia – Contempt/Boredom/The Time of Indifference
Antonio Tabucchi – Pereira Maintains
Primo Levi – If This is a Man/If Not Now, When?
Elena Ferrante – The Days of Abandonment
Leonardo Sciascia – To Each His Own
Giorgio Bassani – The Garden of the Finzi-Continis
Italo Svevo – Zeno’s Conscience
Dacia Maraini – The Silent Duchess
Elsa Morante – Arturo’s Island
Luigi Pirandello – The Late Mattia Pascal
Finally, if you want to join me on this journey this year (reading any number of books), you can grab the banner and leave links to your reviews throughout the year in the comments section on this permanent page – Italia Reading Challenge 2022 or below and I will add them to the general list, as well as do a summary post in December 2022 – #ReadItaliaChallenge.
Franz Kafka wrote: “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” If we take this definition of a book then Kristensen’s Havoc comes out on top. Havoc is now considered a classic of Danish literature and, accordingly to one author, “one of the best novels to ever come out of Scandinavia”. The main character here is Ole Jastrau, a thirty-something literary critic living with his wife and small child in Copenhagen, Denmark, a city that is going through some kind of a political upheaval. Disillusioned with his work and desperately searching for meaning in his day-to-day existence, Jastrau starts to slowly succumb to the rhetoric of his eccentric friends (Catholics, communists and poets) and also to the only thing that starts to make sense in his life – alcohol. Jastrau sees his apartment being taken over by others, his addiction to the popular Bar des Artistes growing daily and his faithfulness to the core moral principles of life crumbling before his eyes. Will there be a limit to Jastrau’s “fall” and humiliation? Can there be hope amidst all the boundless despair? With his razor-sharp prose, Kristensen paints a vivid picture of an ordinary man on a swift ride to hell.
I recall I had so much fun participating in the meme My Life in Books in 2019 (see my post here) that I decided to have a go at it this year, too. The original creator of this meme is probably The Roof Beam Reader and the rule is that you must complete the sentences below using only the titles of the books you read in 2021. This year, I was largely inspired to participate by onemore.org (There’s Always Room For One More) and her post My Life in Books: 2021 Edition. I am not tagging specific bloggers and it is not too late to participate for everyone. So, here are my answers (obviously, not meant to be taken seriously):
“The earth was made for Dombey and Son to trade in, and the sun and the moon were made to give them light. Rivers and seas were formed to float their ships…stars and planets circled in their orbits, to preserve inviolate a system of which they were the centre” [Dickens, 1848/2002: 12, Penguin Classics]. Dombey and Son is one of Dickens’s greatest novels and I think its main characters illustrate well the twelve star signs of the zodiac and thus the story can be told through the workings of the heavenly belt. Below is my interpretation and one caveat is possible spoilers and another is that there are obviously many more characters in the story and not just those presented below.
Mr. Paul Dombey – Leo (July 23 – August 22)
Mr. Paul Dombey is the main character. He is a cold and calculating businessman who longs to have an heir to his business and when Master Paul Dombey is born, his father has very high expectations regarding his son. Mr. Dombey is undoubtedly a Leo, proud of himself and his family (or at least proud of himself, his business and his son). Leos are the Kings of the Zodiac and Mr. Dombey likes being the centre of attention, commanding effortlessly everyone in his sight. He also likes the idea of others being dependant on him and he dislikes criticism.
“But mind, the mountain’s magic-mad tonight, And if you choose a will-o’-the-wisp to light Your path, take care, ’twill lead you all astray”
(Goethe, Faust (tran. H. T. Lowe-Porter)).
Hans Castorp is a young man on a threshold of a very successful career of an engineer at a prestigious shipping firm in Germany when he enters an international sanatorium Berghof in the picturesque Swiss Alps for three weeks and only to support Joachim Ziemssen, his sick cousin, and keep him company. Little does Castorp suspect that the sanatorium, with its orderly routine and confused sense of time, will start working insidiously on his mind the moment he steps onto its premises and he will end up living there for the next 7 years. During that time, Castorp will make friends with the most extraordinary individuals, engage almost daily in deep philosophical discussions on virtually every topic under the sun, fall hopelessly in love, and in that whole process entangle his body, mind and spirit so deeply in this “enchanted” place with its own particular passage of Time that any disentanglement will become out of the question. In this story, matters of science and spirituality converge, forces of time sweep people off their feet and then the re-consideration of what is Life and what is Death, and what is to be healthy and what is to be sick, may lead to some divine insights and instances of ultimate self-discovery. Translated from the German, The Magic Mountain is a masterpiece of the world literature, a splendid study of a man undergoing inner transformations in an environment of perpetual unchangeability.
I am wishing all my readers a very Happy New Year! Let 2022 bring only happiness to all of us. To say goodbye to 2021 I have chosen this piece of elegant simplicity by Frédéric Chopin. Though quite melancholy, it is not without tender touches of hope.
This book on movie-making is by American director Sidney Lumet (1924 – 2011) who was probably best known for directing a number of “legal” films including 12 Angry Men , Murder on the Orient Express  and The Verdict . It provides a deep insight into the “magical” process of making movies, from deciding whether to do a movie (Lumet almost always decided “instinctively”) to the final editing process and running previews. Lumet was a “trier” and a “doer”. He tells us in his book that he did not believe in waiting around for opportunities and liked to create his own luck. His eagerness to create chances reflected the sheer variety of films he directed. Cinematic success is hard to pin down, he states. That is also his first lesson to us: “nobody knows what that magic combination is that produces a first-rate piece of work” [Vintage, 1995: 9]. Even a great script or a great star-actor does not guarantee success.
People have always been obsessed with the question of fate: what does the future hold? Is it possible to reverse the course of one’s destiny? In ancient and medieval times, mortality was particularly high and people felt they had little control over their lives, coupled with the fact that they also usually had little opportunity to move up the societal ladder and were “stuck” in their roles from birth until death. Moreover, those born rich had all the chances to lose everything, and violent death, war, famine, incurable illness and infant death were all just around the corner for all. In this unpredictable environment, appeasing the gods and goddesses of destiny and chance must have been an important task, especially for farmers, soldiers and sailors. After all, these deities were capable of ensuring the survival against all odds and the enduring of the worst and, anyways, a miracle can happen at any moment. It is also partly for that reason that premonitions, dreams and fortune-telling rituals have all been part of various cultures around the world, and Fortuna or Lady Luck in Europe has often been portrayed as ever-changing and fickle, as capable of giving much suddenly as taking it all away in a split second. So, how was Fate presented in art?
AChristmas Carol is a Christmas fable about one rich miser who learns his lesson through a series of encounters with ghosts. Another famous tale about one rich miser is Honoré de Balzac’s novel Eugenie Grandet  where a pretty daughter of one rich wine merchant is forced to experience the full consequence of her father’s lust for gold.
The History of Chess in Fifty Moves – ★★★1/2
I got inspired to read this book because of the World Chess Championship 2021 currently held in Dubai where now the defending champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway is playing Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia. This book by Bill Price traces the history of chess from its very likely origin in northern India circa 7th century to the game’s expansion in Muslim countries, and then to it making its way to the heart of the Christian community through Islamic ports. Chess was then a game played by the royalty and was seen as “an expression of social standing, rather than an intellectual pursuit” [Price, Apple Press 2015: 56]. Certain historical and other developments then led to it being played by a wide variety of people and the game spread rapidly across Europe, played in coffeehouses across the continent in the 17th century. Though this book is more on a superficial side, it is still an entertaining journey into chess, offering some curious insights into the game, for example, into the women’s chess and into the origin of certain chess terms, such as a gambit.
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  by Ethel Lina White – ★★★★★
This genuinely scary short story is by the author behind The Wheel Spins  and Some Must Watch , or their better known film equivalents The Lady Vanishes  and The Spiral Staircase . 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.
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.
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.
“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 ) 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Borgesand Francois Rabelais.
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  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)  by Ryunosuke Akutagawa – This collection of short stories by Japanese author Akutagawa includes his unforgettable horror storyHell Screen; (iii)The Signal-Man  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 (my review).
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  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  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).
“…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.
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.
Aquagenesis: The Origin and Evolution of Life in the Sea  – ★★★★
“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.
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 nearHalloween. 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.
“…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?
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.
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.
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 by Gary Kamiya & Paul Madonna.
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.
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.
I got inspired to write this post byFeminist 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.
The Phantom of the Opera  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.
The Maias  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 ) 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 reviewhere.
I watched Conor McPherson’s adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s celebrated play Uncle Vanya , 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.
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.
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. 🥢
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.
I loved Hanya Yanagihara’s previous books – her heart-wrenching A Little Life  and fantastical The People in the Trees. 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.
I. Five Points: The Nineteenth-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum  by Tyler Anbinder – ★★★★
I love reading about the history of New York City, for example see my review of Mark Kurlansky’s The Big Oyster: A Molluscular History of New York. 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.
The Experimental Fire: Inventing English Alchemy, 1300-1700 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...”
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 Eyamand boasts some 400 pages.
The Midnight Library 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.
The Japanese: A History in Twenty Lives  – ★★★★★
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.
“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.
I thought I would share today this lovely tune Le Piccadilly by one of my favourite French composers – Erik Satie [1866–1925] (Gnossienne No.1, Je te veux). It is a ragtime march written by Satie before his fame and at the height of the ragtime popularity. Happy Friday!
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.
Seth (real name Gregory Gallant) is a Canadian cartoonist whose artistic style is said to remind of The New Yorkercartoons 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.
I spotted this interesting book tag atAnne 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  and Thus Spoke Zarathustra ). The Myth of Sisyphus  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 . I also want to read more about the fall of Nazi Berlin and the siege of Leningrad in 1944.
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.
“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.
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.
“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, 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 JudgePommeroy. 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.
“You know the name you were given, you do not know thename 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  and the fiction of Philip K. Dick, The Employees offers a visceral, uncanny reading experience.
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?  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.
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  and Schindler’s List . The lyrics were written by Alfredo Le Pera, and Gardel himself sang to his own piece in a film Tango Bar . “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.
The Baron in the Trees (Il barone rampante)  – ★★★1/2
The Baron in the Trees is the fourth book of Italian author Italo Calvino (Invisible Cities ), 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.
This non-fiction book comes from Daniel Keyes, the writer of classic sci-fi Flowers for Algernon. 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.
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 ; (2) The Winter Wave ; (3) Brontosaurus Civitas  & (4) Wegener’s Theory .
These four absurdist, fantastical, gravity-defying landscape paintings fire imagination. The second painting’s starting point might have been Hokusai‘s The Great Wave 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.
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.
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.
Miraculous Mysteries: Locked-Room Murders and Impossible Crimes –★★★★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).
I watchedthis2013 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 ) 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.
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 . 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.
Mad in America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill  – ★★★★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.
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 TheYoung 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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I previously wrote inone 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 .
II. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Original Title: Catch-11orCatch-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 , Heller and his publisher finally settled for Catch-22. The reasoning was that, after all, 22 is simply 11 doubled.
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.
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.
I don’t think I shared a jazz piece before, so I thought I would share this composition sung by Ella Fitzgerald to brighten everyone’s Monday. “Skylark”  was composed by Hoagy Carmichael (“Georgia on My Mind“ ) with lyrics by Johnny Mercer (“Moon River” ).
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.
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.
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.
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 
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.
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.