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.

The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse [1904-1918/1995] by Hermann Hesse ★★★★1/2

Translated by Jack Zipes, this is a curious collection of fairy tales by Hermann Hesse on many themes, from doomed love, artistic dilemmas and power struggles, to mistaken identities, oppressive social conditions and the futility of war. These are definitely not one’s ordinary tales for children. While some tales follow a traditional route to telling a folklore tale (“The Dwarf”), others are completely sublime, metaphysical and full of otherworldly beauty and insight, mixing magical realism, romantic idealism and sci-fi concepts (there are even inter-planetary journeys); the examples of the latter are “The Beautiful Dream”, “The City” and “Faldum”, where the protagonists often undergo journeys of liberation and self-discovery, gaining forbidden knowledge.

Hesse takes his readers to distant lands, including to Venice and to China, and to completely imaginary cities. As the book progresses, the stories gain in seriousness, depth and imagination. While “If the War Continues” is Kafkaesque and deliciously absurd, “Faldum” (that has a special wish-granting procedure) and “Flute Dream” are both eerie and thought-provoking. Hesse’s curiosity about the human heart and soul is on full display in the stories, and even his anthropological insights (“The Forest Dweller”) are included. Although it is true that not every ending “works” in Hesse’s stories and the author has the tendency to end his stories rather abruptly, he still remains a wonderful story-teller who can easily imbue his stories with a sense of mystery, symbolism and allegories, providing interesting insights into the human nature, collective memory and spirituality, while also demonstrating the incessant longing of all human beings for meaning. As this book is in the dark fantasy genre (and has stories focusing on burials and the spiritual world), I am counting it towards my Readers Imbibing Peril Reading Challenge for this year.

Piranesi [2020] by Susanna Clarke★★★★

Although this book is not really the literary masterpiece that I expected from Susanna Clarke, Piranesi is still a wonderful literary foray into another world whose pull is simply spell-binding and irresistibleFull Review.

Pedro Páramo [1955/83] by Juan Rulfo ★★★★

A simplicity and profundity worthy of Greek tragedy...Wuthering Heights located in Mexico and written by Kafka“, The Guardian.

This book influenced Gabriel García Márquez in the writing of One Hundred Years of Solitude, as well as opened a path for so many other “magical realism” books to come. In Pedro Páramo, our protagonist Juan Preciado arrives to Comala, Mexico, to meet his father, Pedro Páramo, whom he has never met before. What the narrator finds is one almost completely abandoned village with strange-behaving inhabitants who tell him contradictory things. From these first pages, we are in the realm of mystery and eeriness as the worlds of ghosts and the living merge, and the collective memory and objective history start to take different paths. Time becomes indeterminate, the story jumps periods, but at the heart of it all is still one man – Pedro Páramo, whose thirst for power and the dream to realise one of his deepest and most private desires soon signals the downfall for the entire village. The book is not long, but it has the feel of a far-reaching and deep family saga that mixes wonderfully myth and reality, past, present and future, and spirituality and realism – a true Mexican classic.

The Hearing Trumpet [1974] by Leonora Carrington★★★★

In this surreal book, Marian Leatherby is a 92-year old woman who is sent by her insensitive family to an “institution” for the elderly after she received the gift of one curious hearing trumpet. In this institution, Marian finds the most curious arrangements: Mr and Mrs Gambit run the premises on one strange “religion”, and other residents engage in odd activities and exercises, while also living in eccentric-looking buildings. Marian soon senses that something is amiss, and a murderer soon strikes their first blow. Written with peculiar irony and understatement, the book explores old age, loneliness, social confinement and mental deterioration, while the author remains true to her own philosophy underpinning surrealism, and the spirit of humour and absurdity. Though the narrative becomes very strange, at the core of it is one unique and unforgettable voice, and the character of Carmella, Marian’s best friend, could be said to steal the show completely. The fact that the book is almost semi-autobiographical contributes to its possessing special insight and conviction. The Hearing Trumpet is like one of Carrington’s own surrealist paintings or one of her friend’s Remedios Varo‘s masterpieces – full of hidden meaning and symbolism to be discerned; a good read all around, especially if you do not mind too much some whimsical and fantastical tropes or bottom-up trips down Alice in Wonderland-type rabbit holes.

Characters [1688] by Jean de La Bruyère ★★★★

I read this XVII century book translated to Russian and was rather impressed by it. This is an influential book by French philosopher Jean de La Bruyère where he talks very frankly about the character, traditions, behaviour and habits of people in the French society. Once compared to Molière, de La Fontaine and to Pascal, de La Bruyère makes rather insightful (and often very short) observations on such varied topics as literature, novel-writing, the place of church in society, high fashion, the royal court and the behaviour of people in certain situations, from judges to the very poorest. The best quotes are those that are short, and the author makes convincing arguments against dogmatism, pedantry and arrogance, sometimes making fun of members of his own class. Although some of de La Bruyère‘s quotes now present only historic interest (they are no longer relevant to our modern society), others remain insightful and quite timeless.

Uzumaki (“Spiral”) [1998] by Junji Ito★★★1/2

This is a horror manga about one seaside community in Japan that becomes the focus of one strange activity involving the spiral, a mysterious force that starts to terrorise the inhabitants. The city is Kurouzu-cho and our protagonists are Kirie Goshima and her boyfriend Shuichi Saito. When Shuichi’s father becomes obsessed with spirals, the feeling is that this is simply a case of some mental breakdown – until the spiral curse lays hands on its first victim and we see the first of many horrific transformations (yes, there is plenty here of very grotesque body horror). The story is probably too long and “over-the-top”, but the concept is interesting, highly imaginative, and the images are striking. After this manga, you will not probably be able to look at any spiral-shaped object in the same way ever again. I read this manga for this year’s Readers Imbibing Peril Reading Challenge.

Oishinbo (“The Gourmet”) [1983 – 2014] by Tetsu Kariya & Akira Hanasaki ★★★1/2

This is a long-running, immensely popular, critically-acclaimed Japanese manga that focuses on the art of cooking. In this manga, food preparation is elevated to one of the highest forms of art (as Japanese food and its presentation/preparation are considered to be). In this story, a culinary prodigy Shirō Yamaoka is paired with girl Yūko Kurita to come up with the “Ultimate Menu”, and, later, the series focuses on such dishes as rice, udon (thick, wheat-flour noodles) and fish-based delicacies. In the task of coming up with “the Ultimate Menu”, though, Shirō faces his “adversaries”, for example, in the form of his dictatorial father who is also considered to be a culinary expert. Shirō’s feud with his father is one of the dramatic elements of the story, with the authors trying to make points about the generational misunderstandings within families in Japan. From a couple of Oishinbo instalments that I read, I can say that, although the characters do appear a bit stereotypical and the plot is sometimes frustrating, it is an enjoyable manga overall. The focus on Japanese food and all its relevant aesthetics more than make up for all the plot and character weaknesses.

1Q84 [2009] by Haruki Murakami ★★

Haruki Murakami may be a very big name in the literary world, but for me 1Q84 is both – one of the most ambitious and one of the most problematic books I have ever read – Full Review.

This month I also talked about some lesser known works by Hieronymus Bosch, as well as presented one curious painting by Pieter Bruegel. Have you read any of the books above or interested in reading them? How was your (reading) month of September?


20 thoughts on “September 2020 Wrap-Up

  1. Nice mix! I read La Bruyère decades ago, as a French student, loved it.
    Funny, 1Q84 is still my favorite by H Murakami, and I have read quite a few by him.
    I’m currently listening to Agatha Christie a lot, planning to listen to all of Hercule Poirot. Now in #6, The Mystery of the Blue Train. Loving it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. How do you know how to isolate books like Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie [2015] by Catherine Harkap, which simultaneously refer to the works of famous authors and provide interesting overviews of some entities. I am always pleasantly surprised.

    Also interested in Pedro Paramo [1955/83], Juan Rulfo and her influence on the writing of Gabriel García Márquez “One Hundred Years of Solitude”. It’s always very curious!

    I nominated you, Diana, for the Liebster Prize in my publication. I am always happy to discover new things in your articles.
    I would be grateful if you could answer my questions about childhood.

    Liked by 1 person

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