The Magic Mountain [1924/27] by Thomas Mann – ★★★★★
This is the best book I read this month. It is an unforgettable literary journey through the psyche of a man trapped in a comfortable sanatorium high in the Swiss Alpes (see my full review).
Havoc [1930/68] by Tom Kristensen – ★★★★1/2
This Danish classic also exceeded my expectations – a dark existential novel about a man suffering from alcoholism and balancing on the edge of abyss (see my full review).
Black Narcissus  by Rumer Godden – ★★★★1/2
In this atmospheric novel, an Anglican order of nuns sets up a nunnery high in the Himalayan mountains, in a palace where once the local General led his dissipated lifestyle. Sister Superior Clodagh leads her charge of devoted Sisters and they soon establish a school and a dispensary on the premises. A “battle of the sexes” ensures when charismatic Mr. Dean, the General’s Agent and the local “bad boy”, starts helping the Sisters with their tasks, while also making them flushed and uncomfortable. The splendid vistas from the convent, the brazenness of the local people and all the colours and aromas of India soon prove too much for the Sisters, some of whom start having thoughts that are far from God and their religious duty. The claustrophobia heightens, sexual tensions abound, passions and dissatisfactions break out, and then one act of jealousy may just undermine the reputation of the whole order. This is a beautiful, tightly-woven tale about a duty/desire clash set in one exotic place.
Monsters of the Sea  by Ellis Richard – ★★★★
I enjoyed so much Richard Ellis’s Aquagenesis  that I have decided to read his book Monsters of the Sea. Here, Ellis explores fairy-tales, mythology, historical sightings and intricate biology of various kinds of both real and imaginary sea monsters, from the Loch Ness monster, sea serpents and mermaids to giant squids, octopuses, whales and sharks. The book tells many fascinating stories, for example, about the Newfoundland giant squid being first examined in 1873 and causing a sensation (coupled with the discussion of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and the myth of the kraken), carcasses of whales being washed up to the coast of Holland in the 1590s and bewildering the inhabitants who had never seen such creatures before (coupled with the talk about Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick), and about gentle and highly intelligent octopuses being unfairly regarded as dangerous monsters throughout history (together with a chat on Victor Hugo’s The Toilers of the Sea). The chapter on giant blobs being spotted throughout history was surprising and fun in equal measure. Monsters of the Sea may not be up-to-date (many scientific discoveries have been made in the sphere of marine mammals and cephalopods since 1994, for example, the first photograph and recording made of a giant squid in its natural habitat), but this illustrated book is still a wondrous, endlessly informative journey into the “unknowns” of the sea life, replete with much detail and fusing effortlessly fact (scientific discoveries, nature writings) and fiction (literature, film), while trying to uncover the truth.
Waiting for an Army to Die: The Tragedy of Agent Orange  by Fred Wilcox – ★★★★
“In the abominable history of war, with the sole exception of nuclear weapons, never has such an inhumane fate ever before been reserved for the survivors” Dr. Ton That Tung, Vietnamese scientist.
This book is on Agent Orange, a highly toxic herbicide chemical containing dioxin, that was used in the Vietnam War from 1961 to 1971. Through a series of interviews with Vietnam veterans, Fred Wilcox demonstrates the horrific situation that many people found themselves in after the war, being forced to live with the consequences of the Agent Orange exposure and trying to stir legal battles to ensure justice, and that amidst manufacturers’ lies, the indifference of the US administration and general governmental cover-ups. For the record, the US used some 11 million gallons of the chemical, killing some 400.000 Vietnamese and causing some 3 million people in general to suffer various diseases because of the exposure. American soldiers suffered, too, sleeping in Agent Orange (infected earth), bathing in Agent Orange (infected waters), eating Agent Orange (contaminated food), drinking Agent Orange (contaminated water). Soldiers had no idea what was being sprayed, many thinking it was some substance to battle mosquitoes or insects in the area and were even told “the stuff was harmless” and was bound “to save their lives”. In the years following the war, veterans’ symptoms and illnesses ranged from rashes, dizziness and headaches to serious neurological conditions, liver damage, weak hearts, bowel and testicular cancers, miscarriages in their families and their children born with deformities.
Since it was written in 1982, the book is now dated and was obviously penned when there was still no universal acknowledgement that Agent Orange is linked to cancers, birth defects and miscarriages. However, it certainly still provides an excellent insight into the situation of what was going on in the late 1970s and early 1980s America when Vietnam veterans began complaining about their horrifying symptoms and their complaints were being dismissed. It is a painful chapter in American history, but it is also a very important one and should never be forgotten.
The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking  by Brendan I. Koerner – ★★★★
In this book, Koerner discusses the “Golden Age of Aircraft Hijacking” while also shedding light on one of its most unbelievable and strangest cases – William Holder and Cathy Kerkow’s hijacking of the Western Airlines Flight 701 in 1972 (see my full review).
Strange Glow: The Story of Radiation  by Timothy J. Jorgensen – ★★★★
This book’s title is a bit misleading: this non-fiction is not so much about the history of radiation (Marie Curie hardly gets one page in this book) as it is about its effect on human health as documented throughout history, with a particular attention being paid to the medicine and science behind the phenomenon. For example, it tells of (i) the development of the first X-ray machine and radiotherapy’s track record of success and failure (the achievements of Emil Herman Grubbe); (ii) the twentieth century’s workers who painted the numbers on watch dials with a fluorescent paint that contained radium and then developed horrifying diseases leading to their deaths, and (iii) the “radiation sickness” aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, as well as talks about (iv) radioactivity in food and (v) the Fukushima nuclear disaster (though, surprisingly, hardly anything is offered about the Chernobyl plant disaster). We really get the sense through this book that people have been finding it extremely difficult to understand, measure and evaluate radioactivity. Though at times bogged down in statistics and scientific details, Strange Glow must still be the most accessible and clearest book about the science behind radiation and its effect on the human body.
100 Japanese You Should Know  by Gen Itasaka – ★★★★
This bilingual (English-Japanese) book is very similar to Christopher Harding’s The Japanese: A History in Twenty Lives  and I am now confident that Professor Harding must have been inspired by it. 100 Japanese introduces one hundred people (one page per individual) that made considerable contributions to the Japanese society, starting from prehistoric times and finishing in the 1990s. Those covered in a chronological order are warriors, military tacticians, priests, politicians, diplomats, businessmen, scientists, philosophers, writers, poets, playwrights and artists, among others. Nearly all of the individuals included in Harding’s non-fiction can be found in Gen Itasaka’s book, including such figures as Queen Himiko, noblewoman and writer Murasaki Shikibu (The Tale of Genji) and aesthetician Zeami, but the most fascinating bit was to discover more “obscure” individuals and their diverse achievements, including Sei Shōnagon, a female writer living in the late tenth century who is the author of The Pillow Book, a famous tea master Sen no Rikyū (1522 – 1591), a master swordsman Miyamoto Musashi (1584 – 1645), mathematician Seki Takakazu (1642 – 1708), founder of Kodokan School of Judo Kanō Jigorō (1860 – 1938), founders of the Nissan and Mitsubishi companies, Yoshisuke Aikawa (1880 – 1967) and Iwasaki Yatarō (1835 – 1885) respectively, motorcycle giant Soichiro Honda (1906 – 1991), leader of Japanese folk art who promoted the indigenous Ainu and Okinawa people’s cultures Yanagi Muneyoshi (1889 – 1961), and Ino Tadataka (1745 – 1818), a person who “surveyed the whole of Japan” and compiled its map, covering some 43700 km as a result. Those looking for an overview of the most important figures in the Japanese history will find it in succinctly-written 100 Japanese.
Black: The History of Colour  by Michel Pastoureau – ★★★1/2
Michel Pastoureau is Professor of Medieval History and author of the series of books on the history and meaning of colours. Translated from the French by Jody Gladding, Black: The History of Colour is a richly-illustrated book that traces the colour black through time, commenting on its changing social status, symbolic meaning and its different interpretations and uses as the European society evolved. From the fertile nature of “primordial black” in ancient times and Ancient Egyptians painting their gods of death and rebirth black to this colour’s loss of status as a colour in the 1660s when Newton discovered the spectrum and Christianity’s demotion of black as a colour of impurity, darkness, ignorance and enmity, the author discusses many instances when the colour underwent drastic changes and it seems that black has been the colour of opposites of all kinds. It was both the colour of Kings (“princely” black) and beggars, modesty and temperance (the dress of monks), and luxury and elegance (“the little black dress”), visible distinction and secrecy (Black Knights of the Middle Ages). Its authoritative, exclusionary connotation persists today. Though I did enjoy Pastoureau’s Blue: The History of Colour more, this book is still a well-researched and entertaining one.
The Only Living Witness: The True Story of Serial Sex Killer Ted Bundy  by Stephen G. Michaud & Hugh Aynesworth – ★★★1/2
Here, two journalists delve into the mind of America’s most notorious serial killer Ted Bundy, discussing his childhood, relationships, timeline of his rapes and murders, as well as his trial where he acted as his own lawyer (see my full review).
Little Black Book of Stories  by A. S. Byatt – ★★★
A. S. Byatt is a British author probably best known for her critically-acclaimed novel Possession: A Romance . In this short story collection, she presents five fairy-tale-like, uncanny stories that open up the world of the mysterious and the unknown slowly encroaching onto reality. The collection is definitely a “mixed bag” and I will briefly introduce two of the five stories. The Thing in the Forest opens with a war-torn country where two little girls (Penny and Primrose) are trying to survive the forced parental abandonment and evacuation. They venture into dark woods and there see “a thing” or some kind of a monster. This encounter will shape their future. There is certainly a Pan’s Labyrinth /The Spirit of the Beehive  vibe to this story which clearly contrasts human innocence and naivety with human brutality and the consequences of senseless violence. Children often cope with trauma or certain “distressing” knowledge by escaping into the world fantasy and make-believe, and the story may also be a parable of growing up and facing reality (Penny and Primrose end up leading “parallel” lives).
A Stone Woman is an evocative, beautifully-written story of the transformation of one woman into a stone and is definitely the highlight of the collection. Probably inspired by Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis , it details the frightening metamorphosis of a woman into the raw elements of nature and there is an allegory here of the futile abundance of time, grief and loneliness “restricting” movements and “confining” an individual for life. This “stone” woman then develops friendship with one man from Iceland, who is able to ease her mental suffering in the condition’s final stages, and the story also reminded me of the real medical condition of fibrodysplasia ossificans progressive (FOP), in which people become literary trapped inside their bodies because of the abnormal and random growth of bones around their tendons and ligaments, often necessitating amputation “to free” them.
Fallen Glory: The Lives and Deaths of Twenty Lost Buildings  by James Crawford – ★★1/2
Sometimes great ideas do not make great non-fiction books and Fallen Glory is a prime example of that. This book discussed the “birth”, “life” and “death” of such structures as the mythical Tower of Babel, the Great Library of Alexandria, the Hippodrome of Constantinople, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Bastille and the Berlin Wall, among many others. Reading about the Kowloon Walled City in British Hong Kong and about Joint Urban Housing Project Pruitt-Igoe was particularly interesting for me because I did not know much about these projects and enjoyed discovering their histories of crime, poverty or segregation. However, the title of the book is also rather misleading. There are as many “buildings” in this book as other structures and areas, and we have social housing projects, a wall, at least two “lost” cities, a designated area of land and even a web hosting service (and while the author put the Twin Towers in his book, I would not have done so, and it is rather disconcerting seeing them presented alongside mere failed housing projects, knowing how drastically different the circumstance of their fall was). Moreover, James Crawford speculates much, and provides too much detail and context that, more often than not, have little to do with the actual buildings discussed. The randomness of his information is amazing and, while discussing the Great Library of Alexandria, Crawford also somehow manages to provide two pages on the Wikipedia website, to give just one example. Fallen Glory is a misguided book and a largely disappointing read.