July 2020 Wrap-Up: From Old Goriot to A Year in Marrakesh

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.

The Name of the Rose [1980/1983] by Umberto Eco ★★★★★    

This book was a re-read (I first read it more than ten years ago). In this story, in the year 1327, Sherlock Holmes-inspired character William of Baskerville sets his foot in one mysterious Italian monastery populated by around sixty monks (and their one hundred and fifty servants). There, a series of unexplained deaths occurred, and William, together with his friend and novice Adso of Melk, starts to investigate. As dead bodies pile up, William realises that it is the monastery’s magnificent library that may hold the key to solving the murders. He starts deciphering the many secrets that the building holds, and its inhabitants also open his eyes on many mysteries in the history of science, religion and the human nature. Rich in every way, The Name of the Rose is rightly considered Umberto Eco’s masterpiece as the author explores the nature of knowledge, power, medieval culture and symbolism. Detailed and otherworldly, the story is like a Benedictine monastery itself – layered, secretive, intriguing. It now reminds me of Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red (because of a hunt for one secret manuscript), and for those who enjoy detective work and monastic atmosphere, there is a much simpler novel The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny.

Growth of the Soil [1917/1920] by Knut Hamsun – ★★★★★    

A man of the wilds was not put out by the thought of great things he could not get: art, newspapers, luxuries, politics, and such-like were worth just what folk were willing to pay for them, no more. Growth of the soil was something different, a thing to be procured at any cost; the only spruce, the origin of all. A dull and desolate existence? Nay, least of all. A man had everything; his powers above, his dreams, his loves, his wealth of superstition” [Hamsun/Worster, 1917: 353].

This book is considered to be Knut Hamsun’s masterpiece for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize (see his other novels Mysteries and Hunger). Translated from the Norwegian by W. W. Worster, Growth of the Soil explores the intricate connection between the man and the nature, as well as community alienation and farm land development. It centres on Isak as he establishes his first home in the wilderness and starts a family when he meets Inger. The small family’s ambitions grow in time, but they also face obstacles on their way as the outside society starts to encroach on their lives, imposing its own laws on the natural order of the family and the farm, including “the name, the price, the boundaries” [Hamsun/Worster, 1917: 45]. Isak and Inger’s family soon experiences a series of tragedies, and a number of modern developments, including copper-mining and telegraphing, threaten to undo their peace, not to mention both their neighbours’ goodness and envy. This book presents one unforgettable story. This is an account of a first-settler experience at its most simplest and truest.   

The Good Neighbour: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers [2018] by Maxwell King – ★★★★★   

Fred Rogers used to say: “there are three ways to ultimate success: The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.” His legacy continues, and this book explores Fred Rogers as a man who dedicated his life to the needs of children through his television work. From Fred’s childhood in Latrobe, Pennsylvania to his final hospital visit, Maxwell King leaves no stone unturned in his biography of one amazing man.

Hiroshima Diary: The Journal of a Japanese Physician August 6 -September 30, 1945 [1955] by Michihiko Hachiya – ★★★★1/2

Hiroshima was no longer a city, but a burnt-over prairie. To the east and to the west everything was flattered” [Hachiya/Wells, 1955: 8].

This book is a diary of a Japanese physician as he recounts his and others’ daily movements, thoughts and feelings from the moment the nuclear bomb fell on his city Hiroshima, Japan on 6 August 1945. Often, this is a distressing and heart-breaking account of human suffering and pain as the physician Hachiya tries to make sense of the bewildering symptoms of others: “people were dying so fast that I had began to accept death as a matter of course and ceased to respect its awfulness. I considered a family lucky if it had not lost more than two of its members” [Hachiya/Wells, 1955: 29], writes the doctor. When seemingly uninjured people started to develop strange symptoms, such as haemorrhages, and die one by one, Hachiya was one of the first to raise the alarm and point to the radiation sickness. This is an important anti-war book about the savagery, meaningless and devastation caused by the war, and especially about the horrific impact of a nuclear bomb, which can persist generations and affect the most innocent (such as the still-to-be-born).

Bitten: True Medical Stories of Bites and Stings [2004] by Pamela Nagami – ★★★★1/2

I found this book even more fascinating than Nagami’s The Woman with a Worm in Her Head, and that maybe because the author does not include so much her own story, but focuses on bites and victims. This is a collection of stories on true cases of bites and stings from around the world. Nagami starts with fire-ants, whose stings can be dangerous to humans, especially if they are allergic to them, and finishes with human bites, which are more common than one can assume. In between the two, there are chilling tales of people being bitten by spiders, jellyfish (one should stay away from Chironex fleckeri!), cone snails, snakes, crocodiles, and tsetse flies that carry dangerous parasites responsible for sleeping sickness. There is also a fascinating chapter on rabies. The other great thing about the book is that Nagami talks about the evolutionary history of many species and even touches on mythology.

Hygiene and the Assassin [1992] by Amélie Nothomb ★★★★1/2

This is the best work of Nothomb I have read so far (after Sulphuric Acid [2005] and Fear and Trembling [1999]). In Hygiene and the Assassin, an aging famous novelist and Nobel Prize Laureate for Literature Prétextat Tach has agreed to give interviews after years of shielding and refusing to speak. A number of eager male journalists then line up to finally crack the mystery which is Prétextat Tach and his work. However, none of them expects a one of a kind psychological trial by fire and water they are about to undergo. Tach is not an easy-going person and his misanthropy, misogyny and racism soon become glaringly obvious. When one young woman also decides to try her luck at interviewing, Tach realises that he may have finally met his match. Although the short novel consists almost entirely of dialogues, Nothomb’s writing feels like bullets being fired in its effectiveness, and one would need a bullet-proof jacket to get to the end. Darkly hilarious, controversially-themed and strangely original, this was a very strong literary debut coming from the then budding Belgian writer.

Sea People [2019] by Christina Thompson ★★★★

It is extraordinary…that the same Nation should have spread themselves over all the isles in this Vast Ocean…which is almost a fourth part of the circumference of the Globe” [Captain James Cook quoted by Thompson, 2019: 103].

This interesting book traces the origin of first Polynesian settlers and discusses many theories as who these people were and how they could have colonised some of the most inaccessible islands on the planet without using metal tools or compasses. The area in question is the Polynesian Triangle that stretches from Hawai’i to New Zealand, and then to Easter Island. It has long been inhabited by people with a single language and customs who have always presented an enigma to Europeans. From Magellan to Thor Heyerdahl, and from first impressions of Captain Cook to modern anthropologists’ attempts to recreate the voyage of ancient people, Thompson tries to explore the many theories by discussing linguistic intricacies and oral traditions of these curious people who have always had “a different relationship to the ocean”. Their original techniques of navigation have always puzzled many, and the author concludes by showing how advances in radiocarbon dating and modern excavation techniques shed light on the first Polynesian settlers and their origin. The final impression is that although the topic is absolutely fascinating, and Thompson summaries well/is a good, she also hardly says anything new on the topic and neither does she presents/analyses it from a fresh stance.

Ice [1967] by Anna Kavan – ★★★★

As her fate, she accepted the world of ice shinning, shimmering, dead; she resigned herself to the triumphs of glaciers and the death of her world” [Kavan, 1967: 21].

This books is haunting and mesmerising as it tells of a man obsessed with one elusive girl who goes missing. He ventures out into the cold and ice to try to track her down – initially going to her house where she (used to) live(s) with her husband. However, nothing is as it seems. The cold weather and snowfall continue, the girl seemed to be victimised prior to her disappearance and our narrator grows more and more apprehensive. In this novella, one strange and dystopian world opens up full of foreign invasions, threats of a nuclear attack and desperate measures. The sense of the unreal and claustrophobia is reminiscent of Kafka (“the unreality of the outer world appeared to be an extension of my own disturbed state of mind” [Kavan, 1967: 61]), and, even though the book is unnecessarily repetitive, the account is still deliciously surreal and terrifying.

The Woman with a Worm in Her Head [2002] by Pamela Nagami – ★★★★

This is an interesting book that explores a whole range of infectious diseases, but especially those that are caused by worms getting inside a human body. From leishmaniasis to falciparum malaria, the focus is on the most dangerous-to-health conditions. The book is definitely worth a read if you can forgive the author’s constant and often tedious autobiographical references and do not mind reading descriptions of horrifying illnesses.

Japanese Fairy Tales [1903/92] by Yei Theodora Ozaki ★★★★

Edited by Philip Smith, this is a collection of five short fairy tales, which, although simple, are fun to read and contain important moral messages. (i) Momotaro, The Peach Boy – this is a tale of one childless, elderly couple who discover a child in one unexpected place. The story reminds of another 10th century story – The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter – and teaches to respect the elderly. Grown-up, the child that was found by the couple, named Momotaro, goes on to fight devils on one island (with the help from his other companions), and the story culminates in lauding courage and harmony. (ii) The Tongue-Cut Sparrow – this tale also has an elderly couple that has a sparrow that brings joy to the husband until the wife gets angry with it and cuts out its tongue. This tale reminds of one Russian fairy tale about one clever goldfish, and teaches forgiveness and kindness. There are evils flowing from excessive greed, and those who want more and more of something often end up with nothing. (iii) Princess Hase – this tale will remind of many other tales from around the world as well. Here, one cruel stepmother dislikes her beautiful and talented stepdaughter who is good and kind. Set in Nara, the tale teaches that wickedness never pays. (iv) Urashima Taro, Fisher Lad – this story is about one kind-hearted fisher lad who makes friends with one unusual tortoise. There are otherworldly elements to this fable that teaches the importance of obedience – being overly curious about something may lead to tragic consequences. (v) The Ogre of Rashomonset in Kyoto, this fable has one vicious ogre and teaches that evil has many faces.

Asleep in the Sun [1973/78] by Adolfo Bioy Casares – ★★★1/2

“In Bioy’s work, shadows and phantoms may become more “real” than what they represent.” James Sallis, Introduction to Asleep in the Sun.

This short book is by the Argentinian author known for The Invention of Morel [1940], a fantastical novel where nothing is as it seems. Asleep in the Sun is as surreal, and filled with doubles and reality/identity-questioning. Our narrator is Lucio Bordenave, a watch-repairman, who is having trouble with his wife Diana, or is he? Diana finds herself in a psychiatric facility shortly afterwards, as Lucio gets a dog named Diana and his sister-in-law, that looks just like his wife, moves into their matrimonial home. When Diana is finally released, Lucio does not know whether to be happy or sad because Diana has changed and the changes are just too good to be true. This unusual story of marriage and nervous break-downs is enigmatic and refreshingly different, but never as subtle as one would have hoped and much more repetitive than needed.

A Year in Marrakesh [1953] by Peter Mayne – ★★★

My first book of July was the one I liked the least. This is a travel account of the author’s time in Marrakesh, Morocco in the 1950s. Although the narrative held together, there was no real insight provided into Marrakesh, apart from some usual broad “touristy” descriptions of the place. Mayne’s descriptions of the life of some local people were even less exciting.

This month I also wrote a post on Thomas Cole‘s artworks, and talked about my three favourite churches in Brussels. How was your (reading) month of July 2020? What books (or other curious things) have you discovered/enjoyed?


21 thoughts on “July 2020 Wrap-Up: From Old Goriot to A Year in Marrakesh

  1. I loved The Name of the Rose, it led me to Borges, which is always a good thing! Glad to see Balzac is worth it, I had a copy of the book before but never got around to it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sea People might be my cup of tea but not sure, it comes from an ethnographer/coloniser point of view talking about the Māori people (my people) this tends to irritate me. As you say they just rehash the same things that are already known. I would rather learn of it from an indigenous point of view. The one about bodily parasites and worms sounds fascinating, if a little queasy to read, but I guess that’s part of the fun of reading it. 😊

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    1. I believe there is only one chapter in “Sea People” that talks about the issue from the indigenous perspective and mentions oral tradition, but, otherwise, yes, there is much from the perspective of later settlers, and Thompson does not really say anything new. “Bitten” and “The Woman with a Worm in Her Head” are “scary” reads in some respect, but so fascinating! I hope you are doing good, too! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The Knut Hamsen one and the Japanese Fairytales sound like they were great and I am going to have a look for them both. I hope you are going well Diana, thank you for your extensive and interesting book reviews, take care 😊

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