La Vita Nuova [1294/2021] by Dante Alighieri – ★★★★★
“Here is a deity stronger than I; who, coming, shall rule over me”. Translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, La Vita Nuova is Dante’s early work dedicated to his beloved Beatrice, a noblewoman. Part autobiographical narrative and part poetry, the book is about this Italian poet’s joy and anguish as he worships Beatrice and her image, dedicating poem after poem to her, and his narrative is filled with tenderness, wonder, and visions and premonitions of all kinds. Being purely platonic and much idealised, this is no ordinary love, especially since Dante allegedly met Beatrice only twice in his life (the first time when both of them were children). So, some in his immediate entourage expressed their scepticism about this otherworldly love of his: “To what end lovest thou this lady, seeing that thou canst not support her presence?” However, Dante had an answer. “Love governs [his] Soul”. In this work at least, Dante’s love is obsessive and transformative, but also pure and unselfish, and does not depend on his beloved being near or reciprocating, though the torment of not seeing her and then seeing her pass to the “otherworld” of Angels is too much to bear (“The look she hath when she a little smiles/Cannot be said, nor hidden in the thought; ‘Tis such a new and gracious miracle” [Dante/Rossetti, Pan Macmillan, 1294/2021: 47]). This is Dante’s soul-crying, soul-searching work; a powerful, moving evocation.
The City and the Mountains [1901/2008] by Eça de Queiroz – ★★★★★
This is one of the best fiction books I have read so far this year – a gentle classic from one of the best Portuguese authors – full review.
The Anomaly [2020/21] by Hervé Le Tellier – ★★★★
Hervé Le Tellier is a member of the Oulipo literary group, and his latest book The Anomaly is the winner of the prestigious French literary prize Prix Goncourt (see my reviews of books that also won this prize – Texaco  and The Roots of Heaven ). In this story, flight Air France 006 experiences extreme storm half way through its journey from Paris to New York. After the aircraft successfully navigates its way through the terrible weather conditions, there emerges two Boeings 787 – the plane and more than two hundred souls on board have been duplicated! The two aircrafts are indistinguishable from one another and the people on board of both aircrafts are the same people, sharing the same memories, experiences, skills, etc. The first airplane lands in March 2021, but the second does not land until June of that year. How then the “duplicated” people can get on with their lives, and how the world is to make sense of this incredible situation in the first place?
The Anomaly is an entrancing book in more than one way. Le Tellier makes his unbelievable story surprisingly real and palpable, easily navigating through the overlapping life accounts of many people who were on board of that fateful flight, from a hitman hiding in plain sight and a Nigerian celebrity, to a famous author who died between the landings of the two flights and now two mothers who have to fight for the attention of their only son. The book is definitely a fast-paced sci-fi thriller with one incredible set-up that is followed by a “series” of endings, rather a novel with a narrative in between this set-up and the conclusions that asks/explores deeper philosophical questions about identity. However, what the book lacks in philosophical depth, it definitely makes up for in mind-boggling entertainment.
The Book of the Cosmos: Imagining the Universe from Heraclitus to Hawking  by Dennis Richard Danielson (ed.) – ★★★★
This book is a collection of essays, book extracts and summaries of various physicists, philosophers, writers and clergymen’s perceptions of the universe through the ages. From ancient thinkers (such as Aristotle and Plato) to present-day authors (such as Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking), Dennis Richard Danielson compiles thoughts and opinions on the discovery of the universe and its nature from eighty-five notable people, and most essays try to bridge science, religion and mysticism in explaining the universe. So in these writings, Greek polymath Eratosthenes (278 – 194 BC) provides a solution to measuring Earth, Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides (1138 – 1204) challenges the anthropocentric vision of the universe and its creation, German physician Heinrich Olbers (1758 – 1840) grapples with the question of why the sky is dark at night if the universe is infinite and the sheer number of stars mean that we should see light in every direction we look, first professional female astronomer in America, Maria Mitchell (1818 – 1889), talks about her discovered telescopic comet, Italian astronomer Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli (1835 – 1910) speculates about the canals of Mars, American scientist Vera Rubin (1928 – 2016) explains dark matter and British physicist Paul Davis (1946 -) maintains in his work that “our understanding of the universe’s existence and properties lies outside the usual categories of rational thought”, among other astronomical writings from such people as Copernicus, Kepler, Newton and Herschel. Even though it is a bit hard at times to differentiate between the editor’s own thoughts and conclusions, and various authors’ opinions presented, and it does not help that Danielson often cherry-picks through the authors’ ideas in their works, this book is still a recommended one, particularly for those interested in the evolution of cosmological knowledge and in the history of science in general.
The Burglar Caught by a Skeleton and Other Singular Tales from the Victorian Press  by Jeremy Clay – ★★★★
This book is a compilation of bizarre news articles from the Victorian era divided into various categories: Love and Marriage, Animals, Food and Drink, Health and Medicine, Arts and Entertainment, Coincidence and Luck, Crime and Punishment, etc. Appealing to those who are morbidly curious, most stories are unbelievable, some have an amusing aspect to them, while others are also quite traumatising and no laughing matter, especially since they happened as a result of poisons being freely bought and sold, adulterated food and drink consumed, serious respiratory illnesses and other diseases being treated with powerful narcotics, and new scientific discoveries and inventions misused. There are stories of somnambulists, deadly bets, and women disguising themselves as men. There are also such extraordinary, but sad cases as, a child found drunk after going to a pub to make a collection; a citizen of Eastbourne driving four nails into his brain and miraculously surviving without any adverse effects; a presumably dead woman discovered alive only after her photographer started to compare his photos of her “corpse”; a man killed by a coffin at another man’s funeral; and a duel being fought in hot-air balloons.
The Siren: A Selection of Short Stories  by Dino Buzzati – ★★★1/2
Translated by Lawrence Venuti, The Siren compiles Buzzati’s lesser known short stories, presenting a novella and twelve enigmatic stories that revolve around the concept of the unusual, mixing science-fiction, fairy-tale and mysticism. In some, hidden menace and psychological “traps” give way to moments of sheer incredulity as the narrator or the characters find themes in mind-boggling situations. Barnabo of the Mountain is a novella and a definite highlight of this collection, but then, even if similar, it also does pale in comparison to Buzzati’s better known work The Tartar Steppe, which, in turn, can be described as something that Kafka would have written as a short story taking its main idea from Mann’s The Magic Mountain. Returning to Buzzati’s collection, in The Gnawing Worm, a supposed childhood friend appears in the narrator’s life seemingly out of nowhere and shyly, so very delicately, asks the narrator whether he could possibly explore his library in his house filled with antiques. One thing leads to another and soon that supposed ex-friend overstays his welcome considerably. In The Five Brothers, a fable with a twist, Prince Caramasan hears a prophecy of one wise hermit and now has to decide between a possible danger to life and his sons’ unity and friendship. In The Time Machine, a special machine was invented that slows down the aging of anyone who lives in its vicinity. The only problem is that there also emerges a possibility that this process can reverse itself spontaneously. In truth, a number of other stories are rather underwhelming, in want of better execution or development, while a couple appear to be nothing more than six or eight paragraphs of ideas-in-progress. Having said that, if you absolutely love shorter works of Kafka or Calvino, then you will find yourself in a very familiar territory and possibly enjoying these literary exercises into all things unusual and mythical.
This month I also explored the concept of dreaming as it is depicted in art, talked about Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandot, as well as read a number of short stories and other non-fiction books – see my separate posts Recent Reading: Short Stories and Recent History Non-Fiction Reads.