Review: Property by Valerie Martin

Property [2003] – ★★★★

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

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Review: Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

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

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

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John Everett Millais: 3 Paintings

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

I. Apple Blossoms/Spring [1859]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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January 2021 Wrap-Up

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

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

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Ivan Aivazovsky: Sea Chapels, Shipwrecks & the Moonlit Night

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

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

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

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The New Year Book Tag

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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12 Favourite Books From My Childhood

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

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

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

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Science Fiction Day

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

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

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

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

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December 2020 Wrap-Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

The House of Mirth [1905] – ★★★★1/2

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

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

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Ludwig van Beethoven: 250 Years – Sonata “Pathetique”

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

My 5 Most Anticipated Books of 2021

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

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

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

Klara & The Sun is released on 2 March 2021.

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Recommendations to Boost Christmas Spirit!

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

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

The Woodlanders [1887] – ★★★★★

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

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

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

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November 2020 Wrap-Up

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

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

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7 Great Novels Revolving Around Visual Art

I. The Goldfinch [2013]the goldfinch book cover

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

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

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

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Arnold Böcklin: 3 Symbolic Paintings

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

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

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

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Review: Monarchs of the Sea by Danna Staaf

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

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

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

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

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

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7 Fascinating History of Medicine Non-Fiction Books

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

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

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

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Thoughts on Non-Fiction

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

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

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

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Review: The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier

The Scapegoat [1957] – ★★★★1/2

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

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

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

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

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Review: The Roots of Heaven by Romain Gary

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

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

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September 2020 Wrap-Up

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

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

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

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

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

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Japanese Literature Recommendations for Each Zodiac Sign

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

ARIES (March 21 – April 19)

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

TAURUS (April 20 – May 20)

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

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Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Magpie on the Gallows

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

Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi [2020] – ★★★★

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

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Imagining Menus from Books

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

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

Atmosphere:

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

What to bring:

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

MENU

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

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

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

Dessert: Quince dessert (ayva tatlısı).

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

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

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

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Hieronymus Bosch: 3 Lesser-Known Artworks

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

Extracting the Stone of Folly

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

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

The 15th Readers Imbibing Peril Reading Challenge

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

Review: 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

1Q84 [2009/2010] – ★★

This is going to be a very honest review of Haruki Murakami’s twelfth novel. 1Q84 is presented as a whimsical romance epic with elements of magical realism, and, in its proportion, has been linked to such extremely ambitious works as Roberto Bolano’s 2666 and Don DeLillo’s Underworld. In 1Q84, the year is 1984 and the location is Tokyo, Japan. Aomame, a thirty year old woman, becomes entangled in one strange affair involving a manuscript titled Air Chrysalis, a charity that seeks to help battered women seek revenge, and a menacing and unrelenting religious cult called Sakigake. In parallel to her story, we read the story of Tengo, a thirty year old man and Aomame’s alleged lost “love” whom she has not seen in twenty years. Tengo inexplicably gets implicated in the same affair of “another world” when he agrees to re-write Air Chrysalis. His fateful encounter with beautiful Fuka-Eri, original author of Air Chrysalis, soon makes him question his reality, as well as makes him reconsider his relationship with his estranged father. Soon, we read about the world where the so-called Little People have the upper hand and where there are two moons in the sky. Pursued by dangerous forces, will Tengo and Aomame ever meet again? The only problem with all that is that my summary sounds like it could be something far more exciting than what this book eventually delivers. In reality, the 1318-page mammoth that is 1Q84 delivers neither on its “wondrous, parallel-world” concept nor on its “star-crossed lovers” front. In all frankness, it is a tedious book which drags its feet for chapters and chapters and chapters, wasting its reader’s time. It is filled with complete meaninglessness from almost the very first chapter until the last, and from its dialogues to its character’s (almost completely sexual) activities. More than that, unfortunately, 1Q84 is also quite gaudy, ill-judged, melodramatic and pretentious. I will set out my issues with this book under the” story”, “characters”, and “author’s writing” headings, before talking about the good aspects.

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Review: Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet by Jennifer Homans

Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet [2010] – ★★★★

This book is about once purely aristocratic and social dance that was elevated to an art of purest form and principles, which then required almost inhuman perseverance and training, and whose spectacle simply takes one’s breath away – classical ballet. From France and Russia, to Denmark and the US, and from Giselle [1841] and Swan Lake [1877], to Cinderella [1945] and Spartacus [1956], Jennifer Homans traces the history and tradition associated with classical ballet in this book, from its origins in the royal courts of France and Italy to its modern variations of the twenty-first century. The result is a well-researched book that pays as much attention to the dates and principles as it does to the aesthetics and social context.

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Yann Tiersen – Comptine d’un autre été

After Yann Tiersen’s Rue des Cascades, I feel like sharing this quieter but no less beautiful composition by the composer. Comptine d’un autre été forms part of the score for the film Amelie [2001]. This piano arrangement/performance is by Rousseau.

Review: Dr Bloodmoney by Philip K. Dick

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Dr Bloodmoney [1965] – ★1/2

Dr Bloodmoney is a wildly imaginative sci-fi book which is set in distant future after a nuclear disaster left the society with new adaptive technologies, shocking mutations, inverted priorities and the hatred for one person who is deemed responsible for bringing it all about: Dr Bluthgeld (Dr Bloodmoney), a deranged physicist who went into hiding. One person who knows his real identity and location is Bonny Keller, the beautiful wife of a successful school principal, and Stuart McConchie, an unfortunate salesman, may also be starting to guess correctly. Meanwhile, orbiting around Earth is the “voice of wisdom” – Walter Dangerfield, and previously marginalised and ridiculed disabled person Hoppy Harrington seems to see his fortunes turn with prospects to gain enviable influence in the community. Although this increasingly disturbing tale from Philip K. Dick is an unfocused one with a questionable ending, it is also an enjoyable literary ride into one of a kind “end-of-the-world” chaos filled with colourful characters and a through-provoking satire on the survival of a community in times of a crisis.

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Review: Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

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Fruit of the Drunken Tree [2018] – ★★★

Ingrid Rojas Contreras is a Colombian writer and Fruit of the Drunken Tree is her debut book in which she tells the story of seven-year old Chula and her family living in the 1990s in Bogotá, Colombia in the shadows of the unpredictable world of Pablo Escobar and his incessant spree of violence. In Contreras’s book, two sides of Colombia come face-to-face when the relatively well-to-do family of Chula hires a live-in maid Petrona, a young girl who lives in extreme poverty on the very fringes of Colombian society. Chula tries to penetrate the mystery that is Petrona, and when she tries to guess Petrona’s secrets, the cruel world that once seemed so far away to Chula’s family comes knocking right on their door. Fruit of the Drunken Tree is an emotional story that is also very personal to the author as she tries her best to capture the world of a child living in frightening conditions. However, it is also an imperfect book whose two points of view prevent the story from reaching its full potential. Overwritten, with its weak symbolism of el Borrachero and an even weaker main characters’ connection, Fruit of the Drunken Tree may generally be said to be a book of lost opportunity.

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The Folklore Book Tag

I spotted this tag on Clemi’s Bookish World, and though I am not a Taylor Swift fan (or maybe I am and just don’t know it yet), I decided to post the tag because the questions are interesting. My answers somehow ended up to be more French than intended, and I omitted the category: “Peace: A book character you’d die for because you love them so much” because I could not decide on just one. I am tagging everyone who is interested in doing this fun tag.

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The Tenant (Le Locataire chimérique) by Roland Topor – After finishing this psychological, existential book, I really did not know what to make of the ending – but it is definitely thought-provoking. The book astutely explores alienation and the search for identity in a big city as the main character begins to realise that his neighbours may have nefarious designs upon him. The film of 1976 is equally good.

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July 2020 Wrap-Up

Le Père Goriot [1835/1991] by Honoré de Balzac – ★★★★★   

This French classic lived up to my high expectations and even went beyond them. This is a tale of Eugène de Rastignac, a young man from countryside, who gets entangled in some tricky situations while chasing his coveted place at the very top of Parisian high society. Impoverished Father Goriot may just force the young man to rethink his quick and morally-dubious leap to success.

The Betrothed [1827/1942] by Alessandro Manzoni – ★★★★★    

This tale of two lovers separated by circumstances may remind of Romeo & Juliet, but there is more here than first meets the eye: colourful characters include the Unnamed, the Nun of Monza and Cardinal Federigo Borromeo, and it so happens that Renzo and Lucia must face a plague, a city in revolt and a war before even thinking about any reunion. This is a true Italian classic.

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3 Beautiful Churches in Brussels

I never weary of great churches. It is my favourite kind of mountain scenery. Mankind was never so happily inspired as when it made a cathedral.” (Robert Louis Stevenson)

My previous trilogies of travel-related posts concerned “three quirky museums” in Brussels, Paris and London, and “my three favourite bookshops” in Brussels, Paris and London, so this time I am focusing on churches in these three cities, and my first post is about three most beautiful churches in Brussels. I love exploring churches and religious architecture, and, though my favourite place to do so is Italy, I can never resist delving into some great examples of religious architecture of such grand cities as Paris or London.

I. Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula

Gothic architecture and churches dating to the Middle Ages are my favourite, so it is no surprise that the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula starts my list. This cathedral dates to the 9th century when a St. Michael Chapel was established on the Treurenberg Hill, and the building was in construction from the 13th to 17th centuries. It is named as the patron saints of the City of Brussels – St. Michael and St. Gudula, and Victor Hugo once noted that the church represents “the purest flowering of the Gothic style”. Its imposing Gothic-style towers which are 64 metres long, its beautiful stained-glass windows and its famous Grenzing organ are just some of the reasons to visit this magnificent structure.

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Review: Le Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac

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Le Père Goriot [1835/1991] – ★★★★★

This is my fourth Balzac (after Lost Illusions, The Black Sheep & Cousin Bette) and it is probably the best of the other novels I have read so far. Le Père Goriot (Father Goriot or Old Goriot) centres on one young man from France’s provinces, Eugène de Rastignac, who has just settled in Paris and set his sights on becoming a lawyer. He desires to climb the social ladder fast and his impatience for money, status and power soon makes him cross paths with one impoverished father of two daughters (old Goriot) who selflessly devotes his remaining time to them (or, more accurately, to the memory of them). From richly-decorated Parisian drawing-rooms to the bedlam that reigns in a poverty-stricken lodging house, the result of this crossing of the paths is a thrilling head-to-head collision of reality and illusion, youth and old age, ruthless selfishness and selfless devotion, all happening at the very heart of turbulent and exploitative Paris of 1819.

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Review: The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni

The Betrothed [1827/1972] – ★★★★★

The Betrothed is an Italian classic by Alessandro Manzoni, the man who happened to be the grandson of Cesare Beccaria, the world-famous criminologist and philosopher. The novel is set in medieval Italy where two lovers (Renzo and Lucia) are prevented from marrying by a cowardly priest. From this flows all sorts of misunderstandings and advances from corrupt regimes as the two lovers are trying to overcome numerous obstacles and go through life trials (including a war, a plague and famine) on their path to a reunion. Beautifully translated from the Italian by Bruce Penman and boasting colourful and memorable characters, this classic tale from Italy is about undying love, faith, hope and perseverance in the face of oppression, betrayal and despair.

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Review: The Good Neighbour: The Life & Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King

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The Good Neighbour [2018] – ★★★★

This comprehensive biography talks about the life of an American icon – Fred Rogers (1928 – 2003), the man behind the famous American television show for children Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1962 – 2001). Fred Rogers was more than just a presenter, his show was more than just one’s usual children’s programme, and, hence, this biography is so much more than a book about one celebrity. Always championing children’s rights and their needs, Rogers has always been known for valuing each viewer “just the way they are” and a child was truly someone who mattered on his television. Unassuming, humble and even shy, but with captivating presence, Rogers hence revolutionised children’s day-time television in the US, believing that television can be uplifting, fun and educational for everyone [2018: 172]. From Rogers’ childhood to his last TV appearance, the biography touches on many aspects of his life, including Rogers’ unparalleled-on-television authenticity, his commitment to child development, and his love for music and swimming. The Good Neighbour is a book to read because Fred Rogers was one of those people whose efforts and commitments should never be forgotten. Fred Rogers’ life is a life worth knowing. 

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Mini-Review: The Woman with a Worm in Her Head by Pamela Nagami 

The Woman with the Worm in her Head The Woman with a Worm in Her Head [2002] – ★★★★

The Woman with a Worm in Her Head is a topical non-fiction book since it talks about those infectious diseases which present a real puzzle for medical staff. Referring to her experience of working as an infectious disease doctor, Nagami talks about real patients with such seemingly surreal diseases as cocci or valley fever, leishmaniasis, chickenpox and falciparum malaria, and, of course, with live worms loose in their bodies which cause havoc and distress. Nagami’s book is definitely not for the faint of heart or the squeamish, but those who are interested in mysterious diagnoses or in unusual and rare medical illnesses will find much to appreciate in this book. Continue reading “Mini-Review: The Woman with a Worm in Her Head by Pamela Nagami “

5 Fantasy Books On My TBR

I don’t review fantasy books often, but I do read and enjoy them (see my reviews of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell [2004] and The Night Circus [2011]). I love fantasy novels that are well-written, characterised and that take me to magical places. Below I am sharing five fantasy books that are currently on my TBR list and that I am excited to read in the near future.

I. The Gray House [2009] by Mariam Petrosyan

Rowling meets Rushdie via Tartt…Nothing short of life-changing.” The Guardian

The Gray House is an Armenian author’s debut which she published in Russia in 2009 to a critical and popular acclaim. Translated from the Russian by Yuri Machkasov, this book has been described as a magical realist saga about disabled students who live in the House under the direction of the Outsiders. With references to Russian folklore (a house that is alive) and popular Soviet literature, the tale takes a sinister turn when students deaths pile up and the leaders of the House struggle to maintain their control and power.

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Thomas Cole: The Architect’s Dream, The Titan’s Goblet & The Course of Empire

Thomas Cole [1801-1848] was an English-born American painter who painted Romantic landscapes and history art. Largely self-taught, he is also known as the founder of the Hudson River School. Below are five of his paintings that have historic significance and symbolic meaning.

I. The Architect’s Dream [1840]

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Mini-Review: A Year in Marrakesh by Peter Mayne

A Year in Marrakesh [1953] – ★★★

This non-fiction book is Peter Mayne’s account of his life in Marrakesh, Morocco in the 1950s. Mayne recounts his bewilderment and mishaps as he tries to live the life of a local in a country that is very different from his own. He tries to learn Arabic and make friends with local people only to find that his attempts lead him to the myriad of unsaid etiquette rules and cultural intricacies still to be learnt. Though Mayne tries his best to capture the mentality of people living in Morocco and their culture, his account turns out to be predictable and exasperating, though with welcoming doses of humour.

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Review: Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids by Kenzaburō Ōe

Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids [1958] – ★★★★1/2

Kenzaburo Oe’s debut should remind of Lord of the Flies [1954] by William Golding, but, undoubtedly, the author had other inspirations too. In his first book, the Japanese Nobel Laureate tells of a group of boys from a reform school that get stranded high up in forested mountains and forced to confront hostile villagers, the possibility of a plague, starvation and inhumane conditions. As the boys take matters into their own hands, their boyish desire to play and youthful confidence/hopefulness clash violently with the necessities posed by the war and traumas experienced by the most desperate. The boys finally realise that they have to choose between truth, principle, loyalty and compassion, on the one hand, and their own lives, on the other.

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The Mid-Year Book Freak-Out Tag

I haven’t previously posted this tag, and I thought it would be fun – I have seen it on both the Literary Elephant and There’s Something About KM blogs. I have also skipped the questions on “best sequel” and “newest fiction crush” because, so far this year, I haven’t read a good sequel nor had a fiction crush.

Best Book You’ve Read So Far in 2020

That’s a tough question – it will probably be Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red – I enjoyed the murder mystery there, the intellectual and historic atmosphere, and the ending. The Silent Cry by Kenzaburo Oe was my other memorable read.

New Release You Haven’t Read But Really Want To

Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh (the author of Eileen [2015] and My Year of Rest and Relaxation [2018]).

The synopsis to Death in Her Hands reads that this is a novel “of haunting metaphysical suspense about an elderly widow whose life is upturned when she finds a cryptic note on a walk in the woods that ultimately makes her question everything about her new home” (Goodreads). I also need to pick up The Truants by Kate Weinberg.

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The Quiet American

Death was the only absolute value in my world. Lose life and one would lose nothing again forever… Death was far more certain than God, and with death there would be no longer the daily possibility of love dying. The nightmare of a future of boredom and indifference would lift. I could never have been a pacifist. To kill a man was surely to grant him an immeasurable benefit. Oh yes, people always, everywhere, loved their enemies. It was their friends they preserved for pain and vacuity

Graham Greene, The Quiet American [1955].

Review: Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb

fear-and-tremblingFear and Trembling [1999/2001] – ★★

Belgian author Amélie Nothomb (Sulphuric Acid) is known for her short, thought-provoking books that often shock, but Fear and Trembling misses the mark. In this story, translated from the French by Adriana Hunter, a young Belgian woman starts working for a prestigious Japanese company Yumimoto and soon finds herself overwhelmed: she is delegated meaningless, absurd and increasingly demeaning tasks, while her relationship with her immediate supervisor Fubuki Mori undergoes drastic changes – from deep admiration to extreme hate. While Nothomb’s deadpan satire on corporate culture works at the start of the book, her attempt to shockingly satirise the Japanese culture and the difficulty of the westerner to integrate into it is completely misguided. Thus, with Fear and Trembling, what starts as an intriguing and delicate satire soon turns into something bewildering, unfocused and ignorant, a strange, barely-hidden polemic on traditional female roles and Japan with some very needless and overly-shocking episodes.   Continue reading “Review: Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb”

May 2020 Wrap-Up

Stoner [1965] – ★★★★1/2 

This American classic by John Williams is a great, even if heart-breaking read. It tells the story of Stoner, a university professor, as he finds his way through life. He means to lead a simple life, but certain tragedies and disappointments in it get the better of him. The book is beautifully-written and is a quiet meditation on life and its meaning. The book can be compared to Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure [1895] and to Jack London’s Martin Eden [1909].  Continue reading “May 2020 Wrap-Up”

Review: Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy by Mircea Eliade

shamanism eliadeShamanism [1951/1964] – ★★★★

Shamanism is by a Romanian historian and author Mircea Eliade [1907 – 1986], and is considered to be one of the first attempts to approach shamanism so systematically and scholarly. From costumes and drums to spirit animals and dreams, Eliade elucidates one of the most misunderstood practices/traditions in the world. The great thing about the book is that it talks about shamanism as it is applicable in different regions of the world, from Siberia and India, to South America and Oceania, attempting to draw parallels between them and talking about their general concepts, including similarities in initiation processes. The result is a quite fascinating account of shamanism, even if somewhat dated. Continue reading “Review: Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy by Mircea Eliade”

Erik Satie: Je te veux

Erik Satie [1866 – 1925] was a French composer known for his Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes compositions, among other late 19th century experimental music (he was “a precursor of minimalism, repetitive music and the Theatre of the Absurd”). This week it will be 154 years since the composer’s birth, and I would like to share his uplifting Je te veux composition to brighten everyone’s Wednesday. 

Review: The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage

the power of the dog coverThe Power of the Dog [1967] – ★★★★

“…there was no doubt in Phil’s mind of the end of [the] pursuit. The dog would have its prey. Phil had only to raise his eyes to the hill to smell the dog’s breath [Thomas Savage, 1967: 76].

This book is by an underappreciated American author Thomas Savage, and Jane Campion (The Piano (1993)), one of my favourite film directors, is currently shooting an adaptation of it. The story takes place in a small town in Montana in the 1920s where two brothers’ interests clash when one of them unexpectedly decides to marry a widow with a son. Raw, uncanny and psychological, The Power of the Dog is probably known for its intense character study of Phil Burbank, whose brooding and quietly menacing presence haunts the pages of this book, making it virtually unforgettable. Thomas Savage undoubtedly drew from his own previous experience of working as a ranch hand to produce a different kind of a western, whose deep sensitivity to the characters and their dynamics is nicely offset by the “harsh” authenticity of the language.  Continue reading “Review: The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage”

Victory Day: 9th May

It is Victory Day in Russia (my homeland), and I thought I would post a tribute especially since today marks 75 years since the defeat of Nazi Germany and the end of the World War II in Europe. My grandparents lived through the WWII (for example, my grandfather on my mother’s side was a paratrooper (a military parachutist) and was involved in many WWII operations and my grandmother on my mother’s side worked in trenches). Some heroic actions are less evident than others and some heroes remain either unknown or forgotten. I have always found it touching when children or young teenagers distinguished themselves as heroes of war. Although there were many such examples, below, I would like to briefly talk about Zinaida Portnova.  Continue reading “Victory Day: 9th May”

Review: The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker

the Detour Book CoverThe Detour [2010/2012] – ★★★★

This is a book by a Dutch writer Gerbrand Bakker, whose previous book The Twin [2006] won the International Dublin Literary Award. The Detour (also known as Ten White Geese), translated from the Dutch by David Colmer, is about a Dutch woman who moves from her country and starts to live alone on a farm in rural Wales. Some of her nearby neighbours are badgers, cows and ten white geese whose number declines rapidly and mysteriously the longer she lives on her rented farm. Equipped with a poetry book by Emily Dickinson, the woman seems to be on the run from her past, trying to either delay or solve her immediate problems by seeking refuge in an unknown and isolated location. Her peace is soon disturbed by those with curiosity and inquisitiveness. With elegance and delicacy, Bakker draws on the nature in his book to shed light on the mystery that is this woman and her past, with his book becoming a quiet and poignant exploration of loneliness, pain and human connection. Continue reading “Review: The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker”

Did A. J. Finn (“The Woman in the Window” (2018)) plagiarise Sarah A. Denzil’s thriller “Saving April” (2016)?

A. J. Finn’s voice and story were like nothing I’d ever heard before,” Editor, William Morrow Publishing; Even in fiction, there are precedents in copyright law where the borrowing of plot elements is so extensive and blatant that plagiarism crosses into copyright infringement”, Rebecca Tushnet, Intellectual Property Expert, Harvard Law School

The Woman in the Window Book CoverThe Woman in the Window is a 2018 debut thriller and international bestseller by A. J. Finn (Dan Mallory), which sold millions of copies, with the film based on the book to be released in 2020 starring Julianne Moore. Daily Express called the book “masterpiece of storytelling” and Stephen King said that it was “unputdownable”. Saving April is a 2016 lesser-known book by Sarah A. Denzil, released two years before The Woman in the Window and first being available in an e-book format. As I will show below, the similarities between the two books are overwhelming, both in their scope and in their nature, and, clearly, Finn took everything that he possibly could from Denzil’s thriller to write his bestseller. Jane Harper noted that Finn is “a tremendous new talent”. By the end of my comparison, it may become clear that the only talent Finn possibly has (apart from insolence) is taking nearly all of other writers’ ideas, elaborating on them slightly and then passing others’ stories as his own.

Saving April Book CoverBoth books undoubtedly drew inspiration from classic film noir, especially from Hitchcock’s Rear Window [1954] and Amiel’s Copycat [1995] as well as from such books as Gone Girl [2012] and The Girl on the Train [2015]. However, even though The Woman in the Window feels like a more accomplished and elaborate book that Saving April, it is still the same exact story as Saving April and the similarities between the two are too numerous in their number and too close in their nature for there to be any talk of “inspiration” or “simple source”. In fact, the two stories are so similar that Saving April can be the first/second/third draft of The Woman in the Window. Reading the two thrillers side-by-side, one may become immediately confused which part they read in which book – so similar they are in virtually every way.

The similarities between the two books are as follows (this is far from being an exhaustive list) Continue reading “Did A. J. Finn (“The Woman in the Window” (2018)) plagiarise Sarah A. Denzil’s thriller “Saving April” (2016)?”

Edward Hopper: Social Isolation

Edward Hopper (1882 – 1967) was an American realist painter, depicting both landscapes and social situations. Some of his most well-known paintings are Nighthawks [1943] and Automat [1927]. His paintings are often said to portray people’s social isolation and loneliness, and even his landscape paintings feel desolate. Hopper’s paintings also inspired numerous filmmakers, for example, Alfred Hitchcock drew inspiration from Hopper’s House by the Railroad [1925] to make his film Psycho [1960] and Ridley Scott purposively wanted his film Blade Runner [1982] to have the atmosphere of Hopper’s Nighthawks. Below I discuss four other works by this interesting painter.

I. New York Movie [1939]

new york movie hopper

Continue reading “Edward Hopper: Social Isolation”

Recent Biography/Memoir Reads: The Railway Man and Mozart: The Man Revealed

the railway manI. The Railway Man [1995] by Eric Lomax – ★★★★

Those who experienced evil may forget it, but those who committed it – never” (A. Mare).

This is a true story of Eric Lomax, a British Army Officer and ex-Prisoner-of-War (POW) during the World War II, who was tortured and held in confinement while he and his fellow comrades were forced to work on the Siam-Burma railway line. Years after the WWII, he came face-to-face with one of his captors – Japanese interpreter Takashi Nagase, a meeting that finally led to a reconciliation. This is Lomax’s incredible true story, which is an inspirational and moving read. 

Continue reading “Recent Biography/Memoir Reads: The Railway Man and Mozart: The Man Revealed”

Patricia Highsmith: Edith’s Diary and The Tremor of Forgery

American novelist Patricia Highsmith (1921 – 1995) is probably known for her Tom Ripley thrillers (among which is The Talented Mr Ripley [1955]), as well as for psychological suspense/thriller books that later also became films – Strangers on a Train, The Price of Salt or The Two Faces of January. Below are the reviews of her two books, novels that showcase the depth of this author’s psychological character studies and her admirable, low-key stream of suspense. 

edith's diaryI. Edith’s Diary [1977] – ★★★★1/2

The difference between dream and reality is the true hell” [Highsmith, 1977: 291].

I first spotted this great book on Radhika’s Reading Retreat (check out her amazing blog and book recommendations!) and I knew I had to read it. In this story, Edith Howland moves with her husband Brett and her young son Cliffie from New York City to Pennsylvania. The family is not rich and hopes for the best in their new community. Edith starts to run a political newspaper in the new place, while keeping in touch with her old neighbours in New York and her wealthy aunt Melanie. Pressure on Edith intensifies as her son Cliffie becomes first troublesome then passive and aimless in life and Brett’s uncle George arrives to demand attention to himself. Soon, it is evident that the life that Edith imagined for herself and her family does not quite accord with reality and Edith finds herself increasingly prone to fantasising as she writes in her dairy. What will be the cost of this fantasy? – Simple paranoia and mental health concerns, or maybe the complicity in the death of another person? Edith’s Diary is a nuanced, psychological novel full of hidden, but real fears, and a quietly disturbing account of a woman whose repressed despair caused by social and personal expectations may just surface to lead to tragic results.  Continue reading “Patricia Highsmith: Edith’s Diary and The Tremor of Forgery”

Review: My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

my name is red My Name is Red [1998/2001] – ★★★★★

Why does man not see things? He is himself standing in the way: he conceals things.” “What are man’s truths ultimately? Merely his irrefutable errors“. (Friedrich Nietzsche) 

In My Name is Red by Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk, murder of one miniaturist – Elegant Effendi – was committed within the circle of miniaturists working for the Sultan in medieval Istanbul. At the same time, thirty-six year old Black returns to his hometown of Istanbul after his twelve years’ absence to seek once again the hand of his beloved Shekure, an opportunity that was denied to him twelve years previously. Unwittingly, Black becomes entangled in the intrigues of miniaturists working under Enishte Effendi, Black’s uncle and Shekure’s father. Masterfully, Pamuk takes us deep within the art circle of medieval craftsmen who labour to produce a mysterious new book, a circle repleted with professional jealousy, narcissism, hidden love and, above all, differences as so the proper way of painting and representing pictures under one strict religious canon. In this historical novel, Persian art-forms clash violently with rising Venetian art influences as Black starts to realise that, in order to find the murderer of Elegant Effendi, it is necessary to go deep into the worldviews and art opinions of each of the three suspected miniaturists – “Stork”, “Olive” and “Butterfly”, testing their loyalties and beliefs. It is impossible not to get swept away by this novel of great insight and intelligence. My Name is Red is like a rich, tightly-woven exotic tapestry whose secrets lie in elaborate details, red herrings and in the depth of the soul of its maker, celebrating the beauty, imagination and intelligence of ancient artworks and methods of painting.  Continue reading “Review: My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk”

March 2020 Wrap-Up

The Way of Zen [1957] by Alan Watts – ★★★★★

I thought The Way of Zen was a great introduction to the concept of Zen and its origins. The book does not just talk of hard-to-grasp notions within Zen, but also explains the application of Zen to such arts as poetry, painting and gardening. 

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West [1970] by Dee Brown – ★★★★1/2

“They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one: they promised to take our land, and they took it“. Brown wrote a detailed and engaging book showing the history of the American West from the point of view of the Native American population. From Columbus who described native people as “so tractable, so peaceful” [1970: 1] to the battle of Black Rock, Brown’s account is an important read even though emotional as the story is filled with all kinds of injustice that have been committed against the native population. The book shows the bravery of individual American Indian leaders who simply tried to defend their people and land against the onslaught of white settlers and numerous unfair treaties. Native people were caught in the senselessness, savagery and greed of white settlers who were after more productive land and precious metals and who wanted either to convert Native Americans to their own ways, leave them to die in hostile conditions or simply eliminate them leading to hundreds of thousands of lives destroyed through hunger, combat, murder or plagues only in one broad region of the Americas.  Continue reading “March 2020 Wrap-Up”

Alan Silvestri: Forrest Gump

My readers probably know by now that I love film music. In October 2019, I “celebrated” the 70th birthday of film composer Gabriel Yared (The English Patient [1996], Betty Blue [1986]), so now I want to highlight that today Alan Silvestri, an American film composer known for his collaborations with director Robert Zemeckis, is 70 years old too. Given this, I think it is perfect time to share one of this composer’s greatest scores for the film Forrest Gump [1994] that starred Tom Hanks. 

Review: The Way of Zen by Alan Watts

The Way of Zen [1957] – ★★★★★the way of zen book cover

“…the true practice of Zen is no practice, that is, the seeming paradox of being a Buddha without intending to be a Buddha” [1957: 95, 96]. “The basic position of Zen is that it has nothing to say, nothing to teach. The truth of Buddhism is so self-evident, so obvious that it is, if anything, concealed by explaining it” [1957: 163].

This non-fiction book by a British philosopher and writer illuminates one of the least understood concepts in the world – Zen. Patiently, Watts traces the origins of Zen Buddhism– its Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism foundations, and then explains very clearly some of its basic principles and practices (such as the nature of direct experience, “no-mind”, the present “Now” and sitting meditation). The last chapter in this book is devoted to the application of Zen to a number of arts: from haiku (a form of Japanese poetry) to archery, with the author explaining how Zen started to permeate virtually every aspect of life. The Way of Zen is a short and remarkably lucid account of Zen which is very informative, on top of being a pure pleasure to read. Continue reading “Review: The Way of Zen by Alan Watts”

“Mirror Image”: 7 Books That Focus on Doppelgängers/Doubles

To complement my previous post that was about books featuring identical twins, I am presenting this list of 7 books that feature doppelgängers and look-alike people. Doppelgängers or doubles sometimes appeared in folklore and paranormal stories and, famously, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a German writer, saw his identical self on horseback. The way literature deals with this phenomenon is also curious, giving rise to very thought-provoking and interesting psychological situations, with characters or narrators sometimes questioning their own identity. In that vein, short stories by Edgar Alan Poe (William Wilson [1839]), Henry James (The Jolly Corner [1908]) and by Guy de Maupassant (La Horla [1887]) all focused on this theme, and this situation involving the meeting of two look-alike people also appeared in such novels as Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities [1859] and in Du Maurier’s The Scapegoat [1957].

white castle pamukI. The White Castle [1984] by Orhan Pamuk

In this book, Turkish author and Nobel Prize Laureate Orhan Pamuk introduces a young Italian scholar who becomes a prisoner in the Ottoman Empire. He meets Hoja (the master) and it soon becomes apparent that both men are virtually identical to each other in appearance. Fiercely intelligent, uncanny and mythical, The White Castle may a short novel, but it astutely portrays a curious situation whereby the two men grapple with each other, each other’s identities, each other’s knowledge and with their respective countries’ histories and cultures. Continue reading ““Mirror Image”: 7 Books That Focus on Doppelgängers/Doubles”

Annunciation to the Shepherds: 3 Artworks

And the angel said to them “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord” [Luke 2: 8 – 14].

I thought I would return to religious art (see also my previous post 5 “The Last Supper” Paintings). I am choosing to focus on three artworks that depict the annunciation to the shepherds because this is a somewhat overlooked episode from the Bible and most prefer to focus on the nativity scene itself or on the adoration of the Magi when depicting Biblical episodes. The episode concerns the appearance of the angel who tells the shepherds the location of the Christ Child.

annunciation to the shepherds 1I. Annunciation to the Shepherds by Taddeo Gaddi 

Maybe this artwork is my favourite because I remember I visited many times the Basilica of Santa Croce when I lived in Florence and this fresco is from there – located in the Baroncelli Chapel. It dates to around 1328 and is said to be one of the first night-time depictions of this kind. Taddeo Gaddi approached differently the presentation of the angel here, especially by the standards of that time, and the spiritual light surrounding the angel and the casting of this light on the rocky surface and on the shepherds are striking. In this fresco, the shepherds are slowly arousing themselves from their deep sleep, their cattle is still asleep and one of their dogs is already awake, looking distrustfully, but also obediently at the source of the light. There are both quietness to this depiction (especially in comparison to the paintings below) and a sense of conviction: the messanger has come and what he has to say is true. Continue reading “Annunciation to the Shepherds: 3 Artworks”

“Double Trouble”: 7 Books That Focus on Identical Twins

Maybe because I have a twin brother myself I have always been fascinated by twins and especially how they are presented in literature. Some narratives focus on the differences between identical twins (one “evil” and another “good”) or on the infernal competition between them, while others are more realistic and emphasise brotherly love or the pain of separation. A pair of twins has always represented something mysterious, poorly understood, and even eerie and unsettling. The level of this close emotional bond between identical twins can hardly be comprehended for someone born without a twin. What is it really like growing up with another human being beside you who looks exactly like you? Below, in no particular order, are 7 fiction books that focus on identical twins or on the consequences of having an identical twin in one’ s life: 

the separation book coverI. The Separation [2002] by Christopher Priest 

This book is the book about identical twins since every imaginable and unimaginable scenario involving them is explored, including mistaken identity and a battle for one girl. At the centre here are two brothers who find themselves on the eve of the WWII – one becomes a RAF pilot and another is a conscientious objector. Their destinies play out in a curious manner, and Priest employs sci-fi elements and the alternative history trope to make the story more intriguing.  Continue reading ““Double Trouble”: 7 Books That Focus on Identical Twins”

Review: Melmoth by Sarah Perry

A15Zne-lCL Melmoth [2018] – ★★1/2 

First, I would like to say that I loved Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent [2016], its historical context, its beautiful prose, its main character, its plot – it read (almost, perhaps) like a modern classic, and it was a very enjoyable experience. Melmoth is Perry’s third book in which she focuses on the legend of Melmoth the Wanderer as it is seen through the eyes of modern-day characters living in Prague. In this story, Helen Franklin is a forty-something-year-old woman living in the Czech Republic in 2016 and working as a translator. She strikes up a friendship with one “posh” couple Karel and Thea, and it is through them that she reads a mysterious manuscript that details the confessions of certain people who allegedly had an encounter with Melmoth or Melmotka (a lonely woman who once denied the resurrection of Christ and is doomed to wander the Earth forever bearing witness to the humanity’s cruelty). The obsession with the manuscript soon makes Helen confront her own past. Even though there is an attempt made by the author to make this book deep and philosophical by touching upon such issues as sin, guilt, regret and atonement, these messages never get across in a compelling manner, and, overall, the book feels dull and very contrived. As in The Essex Serpent, Perry uses one intriguing and spooky legend here as a bait to entice her readers into picking up this “Gothic and unsettling” book only for those readers to then discover that they, instead, have been served with merely a collection of sad personal historical accounts that the author never even managed to bring convincingly together to make her final important point on history, witnessing and responsibility. Continue reading “Review: Melmoth by Sarah Perry”

Review: The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo

the honjin murders The Honjin Murders [1973/2019] – ★★★★1/2

I am continuing my contribution to the 13th Japanese Literature Reading Challenge with this book by Seishi Yokomizo. The Honjin Murders is considered to be the classic Japanese murder mystery, first serialised in 1946 and published in 1973. It is a debut work of the author and the winner of the first Mystery Writers of Japan Award. This story centres on the well-to-do Ichiyanagi family living in the village of Okamura who prepare for the wedding of their eldest son– Kenzo to a young woman of humbler origins – Katsuko. The whole village is shaken when both Kenzo and Katsuko are found slashed to death in their room in the early morning hours after their wedding. One strange clue follows another and soon it becomes clear that the murderer could not have possibly escaped the premises after the commission of the murder. The local police feels stuck with this case, and it is at this point that one young and unassuming amateur detective Kosuke Kindaichi takes his turn to try to solve this highly unusual “locked-room” mystery. Offering a curious insight into traditional Japan, The Honjin Murders is a compact, tightly-woven crime mystery, which, while paying a direct tribute to other crime masterworks, provides its own similar brain-teaser. Continue reading “Review: The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo”

Girl Power: 20 Great Book-to-Film Adaptations

In celebration of female authors and directors on this International Women’s Day

dbmoviesblog

This list features book-to-film adaptations where either the film director or book author (or both) was female. This list excludes Jane Austen & Bronte sistersadaptations [1] to draw attention to other novels/stories. In no particular order:

1)  To Kill a Mockingbird (1962): Harper Lee, author

2) The Virgin Suicides (1999): Sofia Coppola, director

3) The Talented Mr Ripley (1999): Patricia Highsmith,author

4) Chocolat (2000): Joanne Harris, author

5) American Psycho (2000): Mary Harron, director

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3 Aspects of Japanese Culture and Tradition

Since I am currently learning Japanese, as well as participating in the Japanese Literature Challenge, I thought I would talk more about Japan, and its culture and tradition. Below, I will briefly and very generally highlight 3 aspects of the traditional culture of Japan which I find fascinating.

kitsune statuteI. Inari Shrines

Inari is a deity (a Shinto God) associated with foxes, rice, prosperity and household-wellbeing. There are many Inari shrines in Japan (close to 3000!) since this deity is much respected in the country (rice, as well as its protection, is very important). The origin of this worshipping goes back to ancient times, and both Shinto and Buddhist traditions have this deity in their ranks. Inari’s messenger and guardian is a fox or kitsune (a fox in Japanese) – probably because foxes were traditionally seen as rodent-eating creatures who help to preserve rice. Thus, often, you can find small kitsune statues near the shrines, under which one can leave their offering to the spirit in the form of cooked rice soaked in rice liquor (inari-zushi). No statue of kitsune resembles any other, and there is a great variety of them. It is said that Inari shrines even have symbolic holes somewhere so that spirit foxes may have an ease of access to the shrine. There is also a special festival called Motomiya-sai (“Main Shrine Festival”) held during the summer at Fushimi Inari-taisha or the head shrine of Inari in Fushimi-ku, Kyoto to celebrate this kami (or a spirit in Japanese).  Continue reading “3 Aspects of Japanese Culture and Tradition”

Review: The Silent Cry by Kenzaburō Ōe

the silent cry The Silent Cry [1967/1988] – ★★★★★

Since I am participating in the 13th Japanese Literature Challenge hosted by Dolce Bellezza, I am now reviewing this book by Japanese Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Ōe. In The Silent Cry, we are presented with the early 1960s and Mitsu, a disillusioned husband to an alcoholic wife and a father to a child who is now in an institution. Mitsu sees his life changing when his estranged brother Takashi arrives from America and together they travel to their native village in Shikoku, one of the main islands in Japan. There, they find that there is a shift in local power and one rich Korean magnate is proposing to buy what remains of Mitsu and Takashi’s land inheritance – their storehouse. Reluctantly, Mitsu finds himself drawn into a complicated political situation of the village, while also realising that Takashi starts to wield the unprecedented power over the village inhabitants. The Silent Cry is a slow-paced descent into one kind of a nightmare where the violent history of the village is about to be re-enacted and other grim discoveries made as the relationship between the two brothers takes an unexpected turn. Full of uneasiness and foreboding, The Silent Cy is a subtly powerful work that masterfully evokes the unsaid, the forbidden and the terrifying, getting us close to the real Truth and to the final Hope. It really becomes one of those books you do not have to enjoy, but to simply experience and live through. Continue reading “Review: The Silent Cry by Kenzaburō Ōe”

Review: The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma

the fishermen book review The Fishermen [2015] – ★★★★

The things my brother read shaped him; they became his visions. He believed in them. I have now come to know that what one believes often becomes permanent, and what becomes permanent can be indestructible.”

This debut book, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2015, is set in a quiet neighbourhood of Akure in Nigeria in the 1990s and centres on four young brothers (Ikenna, Boja, Obembe and Benjamin) whose lives change when their father gets a job transfer to another city and they hear a prophecy made about the death of one of them. Though the parents plan a big future for each and every one of their sons, they soon have to confront unimaginable horrors as the brothers take their fishing nets and hooks and head down to a local river. Steeped in local superstition and African folklore, The Fishermen explores the relationship between brothers from an interesting perspective, and, although it may be dragging its narrative for its first half, by the end, the book strangely redeems itself to become a story with a purpose and a conviction. Continue reading “Review: The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma”

The Wanderlust Book Tag

I have not posted a book tag this year, so I thought I would participate in one. The Wanderlust Book Tag was created by Alexandra from Reading by Starlight, and everyone is free to participate. 

still life louise pennyI. Secrets and lies: a book set in a sleepy small town 

Still Life by Louise Penny is a detective story and a debut set in a small town called Three Pines in Canada. Another detective thriller-debut which is set in sleepy small town is The Dry by Jane Harper. That one is set in a small fictional town called Kiewarra, Australia. 

Shipwrecks Book CoverII. Salt and sand: a book with a beach-side community

Jaws [1974] by Peter Benchley is a book that popped into my head first, but I think I will settle for a coastal community in Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura. This is a story about a poor fishing village in Japan that desperately wants and tries to attract shipwrecks to its coast so that villagers can survive.  Continue reading “The Wanderlust Book Tag”

500 Followers Reached + Thank you! + Latin Quotes on Friendship & Reading

followed-blog-500-2xWordPress informed me that I reached 500 followers on my blog, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank all my followers and readers for following me, and reading and commenting on my posts! I am also pleased that people are “liking” my travel, art and general culture posts, and not only my book-related content. To “celebrate” this milestone, I am sharing a couple of quotes by Seneca, who was a Roman Stoic philosopher, on friendship and reading. 

Lectio certa prodest, varia delectat” –  “A limited list of reading benefits; a varied assortment serves only for delight/pleasure” or “Desultory reading is delightful, but to be beneficial, our reading must be carefully directed.” (It is quality rather than quantity in our reading that matters).

Non refert quam multos sed quam bonos libros habeas ac legas” – “It matters not how many, but how good books you have, and that you read them“.

Cum his versare, qui te meliorem facturi sunt” – “Spend time with people who will make you a better person”. Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Review: The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker

The Denial of DeathThe Denial of Death [1973] – ★★★★

It is fateful and ironic how the lie we need in order to live dooms us to a life that is never really ours[Becker, 1973: 56].

Ernest Becker (1924 – 1974) was a cultural anthropologist whose book The Denial of Death won the 1974 Pulitzer Prize. It deals with the topic that few people want to consider or talk about – their own mortality and death. The paradox is that, although this topic is considered to be a societal taboo, everyone on this earth will have to confront it sooner or later. In fact, Becker argues, everyone is confronting and dealing with it from the moment that they are born – they just do it subconsciously or unconsciously. The Denial of Death delves into the works of Sigmund Freud, Otto Rank and Søren Kierkegaard, as Becker puts his thesis forward that all humans have a natural fear (or terror) of death and their own mortality, and, thus, throughout their lives, employ certain mechanisms (including repression) and create illusions to deal with this fear and live. Though the book relies heavily on the works by other authors, it is also a very deep and insightful read – a cry of the soul on the human condition, as well as a penetrating essay that demystifies the man and his actions. Continue reading “Review: The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker”

10 Fiction Books Featuring Food

If there is one sure thing about food, it is that it is never just food [in books]. Like the post-structuralist text, food is endlessly interpretable, as gift, threat, poison, recompense, barter, seduction, solidarity, suffocation” (Terry Eagleton). Below is the list of 10 fiction books that include food as part of their narrative/descriptions or revolve around food/its preparation. Food can play different roles in a book, such as emphasise the character’s belonging to a particular culture or simply be there to stress the coming of people together, such as at a dinner table, where they can form or cement their relationships.

Sweet-Bean-Paste-coverI. Sweet Bean Paste [2013] by Durian Sukegawa

Food/its preparation is everywhere in this heart-warming novel by Japanese author Durian Sukegawa. In this case, it is delicious home-made dorayaki (Japanese red-bean pancakes), which the main character decides to cook at his street stall and employs an elderly woman with a secret to help him. Both subtle and powerful, this short novel stresses the love for good food, as well as the importance of friendship and the fight against societal discrimination. 

chocolat novelII. Chocolat [1999] by Joanne Harris 

This book is about Vianne Rocher, a single mother who arrives to one provincial French town and opens there a chocolaterie. The novel explores such themes as the mother-daughter relationship, discrimination and  hypocrisy, and all in the background of sumptuous chocolate and chocolate-making descriptions. The film of 2000 with Juliette Binoche, Johnny Depp and Judi Dench is a perfect companion to this book.  Continue reading “10 Fiction Books Featuring Food”

Review: Bird in a Cage by Frédéric Dard

bird in a cage book cover Bird in a Cage [1961/2016] – ★★★★

This short existential noir thriller tells of Albert, a thirty-year-old man, who arrives to his Paris apartment where he grew up. His mother died some years before, and, feeling nostalgic, Albert wonders around his Parisian quartier, trying to recall happy memories from his childhood. His day-dreaming is cut abruptly short when he meets a beautiful and enigmatic young woman with her daughter at the restaurant he never dared to go into before. Like some nightmare that he is unable to shake off, Albert soon finds himself trapped in a mystery so confusing and layered it is beyond his wildest imaginings – a dead body and a seemingly impossible crime emerge, and accounts of what happened are all as numerous as they are all improbable. Recalling the work of Georges Simenon, Bird in a Cage is a disturbingly delightful read, which is also suspenseful. Perhaps Dard is not as clever as he thinks he is with his big reveal, and much is left both unaccounted for and unbelievable in the story, but his concise and stylish approach to telling the story, that includes both existential and erotic themes, is rather fitting and appealing. Continue reading “Review: Bird in a Cage by Frédéric Dard”

3 Quirky Museums of Brussels

As with my series of “bookshops” posts (Paris, Brussels, London), I thought it was also the time to conclude my series of “quirky museums” posts (see my previous posts “3 Quirky Museums of Paris” and “3 Quirky Museums of London“). I think Brussels is the city to go if you love museums, and there are some 80 museums in the city to choose from. The city frequently hosts Museum Night Fevers and Brussels Museums Nocturnes (when museums are open until 10 p.m.), and it is also good to know that, while there are both paid and free museums, the majority of the prominent ones are free the first Wednesday (or Sunday) afternoon of every month. Whether you are a fan of Belgian surrealism (Magritte Museum) or the comic strip (Belgian Comic Strip Center), want to know more about dinosaurs (Museum of Natural Sciences), or interested in Brussels’ history (Brussels City Musuem) or its beer (Beer Museum), there is a museum for every taste and interest.  

museum mimI. Museum of Musical Instruments 

This very central museum is in a stunning Art Nouveau-style building and boasts some magnificent views as seen from its top floor. This unique three-floor museum is a host to some 7000 musical instruments that come from different historical periods and continents. From familiar musical instruments to some very exotic musical objects, the museum is bound to surprise, and the great thing about it is that the visitor experience will be interactive: through an audio-guide/headphones provided, one can actually listen how some of the instruments on display sound like or sounded like. Overall, this museum is a great place to go for those interested in music (who isn’t?) and would like to find more about the diversity of musical instruments, and the history of music. There is also a shop on the premises that sells music-related gifts and souvenirs.   Continue reading “3 Quirky Museums of Brussels”

Frida Kahlo: “Heartbreak” Art

Frida Kahlo [1907 – 1954] was a Mexican surrealist painter whose artworks, mainly self-portraits, often emphasised the Mexican national heritage and dealt with the issues of gender, race and class. She was also known for producing intense self-portraits which showed her inner state of being and responses to various events in her life. The following three self-portraits of Frida are meant to demonstrate the heartbreak she experienced.

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Continue reading “Frida Kahlo: “Heartbreak” Art”

January 2020 Wrap-Up

Amulet [1999/2006] by Roberto Bolaño – ★★★★★

Amulet impressed me the most in January, and this is only my second novel by Roberto Bolaño. This story is told by Auxilio Lacouture, a woman who proclaims herself to be “the mother of Mexican poetry” and who is friends with up-and-coming poets, writers and artists in Mexico City. When she is left stranded in an empty and already raided by the army university, she starts to reminisce, opening to us the world which is both imaginative and realistic, artful and honest, uplifting and dark.

The Belly of Paris [1873/2007] by Emile Zola ★★★★1/2

I cannot believe that the following two prominent classics on my list ended up below Roberto Bolaño’s Amulet, but here we go. The Belly of Paris, translated by Brian Nelson, tells of Florent, an escaped political prisoner, who arrives to Paris and tries to settle down with his half-brother’s family. He seems to be a newcomer who unwittingly disrupts the usual flow of life in the area. Zola shows the plight of the working-class in the city, and his descriptions of Les Halles, once a famed food market, are sumptuous and exquisitely-rendered. The characters are also interesting and the atmosphere is conveyed, even if the plot itself requires some patience.  Continue reading “January 2020 Wrap-Up”

Review: Before We Were Free by Julia Alvarez

First, I would like to say to my followers that the reason I have not been so active on my blog recently is because I have taken a number of projects simultaneously over the past month, including taken more work assignments, started learning Japanese officially, started writing two fiction books (one of which will be a historical fiction/murder mystery set in France), and also started learning the piano. January has been a month of (intense) new beginnings for me (including yoga), and I finally have more time to move forward with my blog posts. Here is my first review of February, and I am continuing with a book by Julia Alvarez for my Latin America Reading Challenge.before we were free

Before We Were Free [2002] – ★★★★

Julia Alvarez’s Before We Were Free is a moving coming-of-age account of a young girl who grows up in the Dominican Republic under the dictatorship in the late 1950s. Anita de la Torre may be only twelve but she already knows what it is like to have her family members suddenly disappear and a secret police raiding her home. Alvarez’s book strikes a delicate balance between the joys and sorrows of late childhood, including first love and early teenage insecurities, and the external tragedy and the experience of the world falling apart because of random acts of violence. The book is short and easy to read, even though it does lose some of its compelling force in the middle and no longer provides any fresh insights by the end. Continue reading “Review: Before We Were Free by Julia Alvarez”

Review: Amulet by Roberto Bolaño

Amulet Book CoverAmulet [1999/2006] – ★★★★★

“…those who can see into the past never pay. But I could also see into the future and vision of that kind comes at a high price: life, sometimes, or sanity” [Roberto Bolaño, 1999/2006: 64]. 

Last year I had a goal to read a certain number of books by Asian authors (see my YARC), and so, this year, I set myself a similar goal, but, this time, I will travel to another part of the world and try to read as many books as possible by Latin American authors. I will begin my Latin America Reading Challenge with a short book by Chilean author Roberto Bolaño (1952 – 2003) titled Amulet. In this vivid “stream of consciousness” account, our narrator is Auxilio Lacouture, a woman from Uruguay and the “mother of Mexican poetry”. She works part-time at one university in Mexico City and at one point realises that her university (National Autonomous University of Mexico) is being surrounded by an army (event that happened two months before the infamous Tlatelolco massacre of 1968). Auxilio finds herself alone and hiding in the lavatory of the university as the army rounds up the staff and students. At that point she starts to recall her own past, talking to us about her dedication to nurturing the artistic talent of others. As time passes and her hunger and exhaustion increase, her account becomes increasingly hectic and imaginative. Amulet is an unusual novella with one unusual narrator at its heart, which is also strangely compelling as it tries to tell us the truth of the situation in the country and the state of Latin America’s literary talent and tradition through an unconventional and slightly dreamlike voice. Continue reading “Review: Amulet by Roberto Bolaño”

Review: The Big Oyster by Mark Kurlansky

the big oysterThe Big Oyster: A Molluscular History of New York [2006] – ★★★★★

The history of New York oysters is a history of New York itself – its wealth, its strength, its excitement, its greed, its thoughtlessness, its destructiveness, its blindness and – as any New Yorker will tell you – its filth. This is the history of the trashing of New York, the killing of its great estuary” [2006: xvi], so begins this marvellous non-fiction book by Mark Kurlansky, who is also the author of such popular books as Cod [1997] and Salt [2002]. The Big Oyster tells the story of the city of New York through the prism of once one of its most famous and prized commodities – its unparalleled oysters. Currently, New York is known for its skyscrapers, its shopping and its business (among other things), but for a long time in history when you thought of New York, you first thought of its delicious and plentiful oysters [2006: xvii]. There was, indeed, a time when New York was known for its “sweet air”, enviable water and tidal systems, and its marine produce, especially its oysters. Through engaging historical accounts, literary anecdotes, culinary recipes and some of the most famous New Yorkers, Kurlansky tells a story of New York like you have never read or known it before and one we should never forget, especially in today’s ever-rising environmental and climate change concerns.  Continue reading “Review: The Big Oyster by Mark Kurlansky”

My 5 Most Anticipated Books of 2020

First, I would like to wish a Merry Christmas to all my followers and may the New Year bring happiness and only the best to you and your families! Here is the list of my 5 most anticipated books of 2020. I wanted to draw attention to a diverse range of books, so I am presenting a literary thriller, a fantasy, a family saga, a contemporary novel and a non-fiction book.  

I. The Truants by Kate Weinberg (Release Date: 28 January 2020)the truants books

This book is supposed to have similarities with both Agatha Christie and Donna Tartt’s works, so it immediately shot to my list of anticipated books. I first spotted The Truants on Rachel’s site Pace, Amore, Libri, and this debut thriller is “set in an English [sic] university, [following] a group of friends as they become entangled under the influence of a mesmerizing professor” (Goodreads). The description hints at Tartt’s The Secret History, and I hope there will be more instances of originality in the book and maybe something unexpected even. I do not really want to see a second If We Were Villains [2017], which, in my opinion, strayed too closely to Tartt’s novel. Maybe that is what I will get, but the mention of Agatha Christie keeps me hopeful. 

piranesi clarkeII. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (Release Date: 15 September 2020)

Words cannot describe my excitement for this book. I am a huge fan of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell [2004], which I recommend to everyone, and Piranesi is a novel coming after the 15 years’ wait. I think it is unrelated to Jonathan Strange’s story and the summary is as following: “Piranesi has always lived in the House. It has hundreds if not thousands of rooms and corridors, imprisoning an ocean. A watery labyrinth. Once in a while he sees his friend, The Other, who needs Piranesi for his scientific research into A Great and Secret Knowledge. Piranesi records his findings in his journal. Then messages begin to appear; all is not what it seems. A terrible truth unravels as evidence emerges of another person and perhaps even another world outside the House’s walls” (Bloomsbury).  Continue reading “My 5 Most Anticipated Books of 2020”

Review: Quantum Enigma by Bruce Rosenblum & Fred Kuttner

Quantum Enigma Book Cover Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness [2011] – ★★★★ 

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Matthew 7: 7- 8, The King James Version of the Bible).

The universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine” (Sir James Jeans).

Did you know that it has been experimentally proven in physics that the way you decide to look at something (your observation) changes that something or dictates/creates its locality/position? This happens on the atomic level and no one disputes that finding in the scientific community because this has been proved through the so-called “double-slit” experiment. However, virtually no one in the scientific community wants to consider what this finding means beyond its practical application. Quantum Enigma is a book that explores the divide that has emerged in science between Einstein’s theory of relativity, governing big objects in the universe and, the quantum theory that governs objects on the atomic level. The book provides a good historical overview of the knowledge so far on quantum mechanics, delving into the famous “double-slit” experiment and the Schrödinger’s Cat Paradox. In this sense, it is a great book for those completely unacquainted with the topic because it explains concepts in a very clear and unhurried way. The downside of this, of course, is that the book is needlessly repetitive and provides very few, if any, fresh ideas beyond the already established knowledge.  Continue reading “Review: Quantum Enigma by Bruce Rosenblum & Fred Kuttner”

25 Music Hits from the 1980s

tapes-everywhereThis will be an unusual post for me, but since I heard of the death of Marie Fredriksson (1958 – 2019), a once lead singer in a Swedish band Roxette, I thought I would also pay tribute on my blog to the music (and love ballads) of the 1980s by compiling a list of memorable songs from that decade. In the 1980s, Roxette had a hit song – “The Look[1989] and it is also the band behind a song “It Must Have Been Love” [1987], featured in a film Pretty Woman [1990]. Even though I do not listen to the 1980s music anymore, I recognise that that decade produced some of the greatest hits ever, especially in pop music, and no music could compare to the instantly recognisable beat of the 1980s. This was also the decade that produced the best love songs, whose quality (and cheesiness!) is unmatched to this day. In no particular order (trying to feature different genres without repeating artists):  

I. Pet Shop Boys – “West End Girls” [1984]

II. A-Ha – “Take On Me” [1985]  Continue reading “25 Music Hits from the 1980s”

My Life in Books: 2019

I saw this bookish meme on Laura, Rachel & Callum’s blogs and have decided to post my answers to it, too (the creator of this tag is Roof Beam Reader). The rule is that you must use only books you have read this year to answer the questions below without repeating any of the book titles. It looks like my version of this tag came off much darker than I initially intended it to be (so my answers contain dark humour). As usual, I am not tagging anyone, and anyone is free to participate. 

In high school I was Quantum Enigma (Bruce Rosenblum & Fred Kuttner)

People might be surprised by The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt (Toby Wilkinson)

I will never be The Architect’s Apprentice (Elif Shafak)

My fantasy job is The Editor (Steven Rowley) – not really, but it fits! Continue reading “My Life in Books: 2019”

My 10 Favourite Graphic Novels/Comic Books

I do not read many graphic novels/comic books, but, once in awhile, I love reading thought-provoking or emotional graphic novels that introduce me to another culture, way of seeing the world, an interesting central character or to a mystery to consider and possibly solve. Below are ten comic books that I enjoyed reading in recent years (they are in no particular order).

Daytripper Comics CoverI. Daytripper [2010/2011] by Gabriel Bá & Fábio Moon

The creators of this graphic novel are twin brothers from Brazil who were ambitious enough to make their graphic novel about life and what it means to live, hope, love and have no regrets in life. The opposite of this is to despair and not be brave enough to follow one’s dreams. The creators’ slightly transcendental journey centres on one obituary writer in Sao Paulo who learns his life lessons by experiencing his life in reverse or sometimes jumping through his life events. Emotional, with deep and important messages, Daytripper is a very memorable book that stays with you.

V for VendettaII. V for Vendetta [1982 – 1989] by Alan Moore & David Lloyd

I am not indifferent to the vision of Alan Moore, a British comic writer. His graphic novels are often very insightful and thought-provoking, grappling with interesting issues (such as personal revenge and redemption), and introducing intricate, often misunderstood and complex characters. They also provide for great film adaptations. V for Vendetta may now be better known as the 2005 film, but, in my opinion, the graphic novel has a subtler and more realistic vision, as well as more coherent picture in place, as it introduces a dystopian setting that can rival Orwell’s 1984 and – V, a mysterious character whose extreme methods at doing away with the unfair regime would push our sympathies for him and his cause to the very limit.  Continue reading “My 10 Favourite Graphic Novels/Comic Books”

Martin Eden

Martin Eden Jack LondonThe vistas he saw were vistas of green foliage and forest glades, all softly luminous or shot through with flashing lights. In the distance, detail was veiled and blurred by a purple haze, but behind this purple haze, he knew, was the glamour of the unknown, the lure of romance. It was like wine to him. Here was adventure, something to do with head and hand, a world to conquer-and straightaway from the back of consciousness rushed the thought: conquering, to win to her, that lily-pale spirit sitting beside him”

Jack London, Martin Eden [1909: 52].

The Year of the Asian Reading Challenge – Completed!

year of the asian reading challenge

I am happy to inform my followers that I have completed my Year of the Asian Reading Challenge for 2019. My initial, very modest, goal was to read 12 books by Asian authors in 2019, and I managed to read 15 (coupled with time pressure and my other reading challenges). I know that there is still one month left before this challenge officially expires, but since I do not plan on reading Asian authors in December, I thought I would make an official concluding announcement. My mascot for this challenge was an Indian cobra (corresponding to the level of between 11 and 20 books), and, in 2019, I read authors from the following six countries: South Korea, Pakistan, Japan, China, India and Afghanistan. The books that impressed be the most during this challenge came from the Japanese writers Kobo Abe (The Woman in the Dunes/The Face of Another), Durian Sukegawa (Sweet Bean Paste), Akira Yoshimura (Shipwrecks) and Yoko Ogawa (The Memory Police), as well as from the Chinese-born author Eileen Chang (Half a Lifelong Romance). Below are all the books with the corresponding links to reviews.  Continue reading “The Year of the Asian Reading Challenge – Completed!”

Review: The Black Sheep by Honoré de Balzac

The Black Sheep BalzacThe Black Sheep (La Rabouilleuse) [1842/1970] – ★★★★★

The Black Sheep is an outstanding novel by Balzac (Lost Illusions [1837]) that tells of a remarkable battle for inheritance. At the centre of this story are two brothers, Joseph and Philippe, who could not be more different from each other, the modest and studious Joseph is the complete opposite of the bold and physically-imposing Philippe. They become the protagonists in the fight against their uncle’s supposed will to leave his fortune to mere strangers that coveted his attention for years. As in other novels, Balzac masterfully concocts a tale that is based on contrasts – the provincial life in Issoudun vs. the town life in Paris, the consequences of immense wealth vs. the results of poverty, the life of the upper classes vs. the destitution of the working class, while his moral spins around the fleeting nature of success, the extent of the individual ruthlessness and cunningness, and the consequences of a mother’s blind love for her child. More than any other Balzac novel, The Black Sheep is all about appearances often deceiving us and the fact that “a leopard never changes its spots”.  Continue reading “Review: The Black Sheep by Honoré de Balzac”

A Trip to Edinburgh, Scotland

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This November I visited Edinburgh, Scotland, enjoying the medieval city centre in particular and exploring the city’s history and literary tradition. Below are my highlights from this fantastic trip (all photos are mine).

IMG_0738[9128]I. Edinburgh Castle

Situated on the Castle Rock, Edinburgh Castle “has been the centre of Scottish life for more than 900 years, serving as a royal palace, arsenal, gun foundry, state prison and infantry barracks”. Now, it hosts a number of museums, showcasing Scotland’s rich, complicated and dramatic history. I thought the experience of Edinburgh Castle was just amazing, and it is worth its entry price. There is much to explore inside, from the Royal Palace (where Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to James VI), the magnificent Great Hall and the museum that preserves the crown jewels to the National War Museum, Museum of the Royal Scots and the new barracks. Continue reading “A Trip to Edinburgh, Scotland”