The Garden of the Finzi-Continis [1962/2005] – ★★★★
“Nothing I know matters more / than what never happened.” John Burnside
This Italian classic tells the story of the prominent and aristocratic Finzi-Contini family in the Italian city of Ferrara in the 1920-30s through the eyes of a boy and then a man hopelessly in love with this family’s beautiful daughter Micòl. Our narrator’s family and that of Micòl could not be more apart on a societal standing, but they are both Jewish, and our narrator is soon admitted to Micòl’s entourage, making friends not only with Micòl, but also with her brother Alberto. A well-kept tennis court in the garden of the Finzi-Contini becomes the central point of the young people’s existence, and also, as it turns out, a sort of a safe haven, as anti-Semitic forces are tightening their grip on Italy on the eve of the World War II. Unbeknown to all, the ground is already set for the ultimate tragedy. This sensitive novel does not have the clearest of narratives, but it is still a touching coming-of-age story of lost love and opportunities, where emotions of first-love and tender friendship learn to co-exist with such feelings as pride and shame.
Continue reading “Review: The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani”
I. The Book of Circles  by Manuel Lima – ★★★★
This illustrated non-fiction is all about the human presentation of knowledge through circles. The author states how natural it is for humans to try to classify and systematise all sorts of knowledge, and the circle serves as a perfect vehicle for doing so because it is a perfect geometrical figure standing for the Sun, among other things, and representing a multitude of other concepts, including movement, unity, wholeness, perfection and infinity. Being a shape that is omnipresent in nature, the circle may also be attracting our attention because of our innate evolutionary tendency to seek out human faces/eyes.
A large chunk of this book is devoted to showing various circles being used to illustrate and explain all sorts of concepts and progressions, from the presentations of the solar system, scientific theorems and alchemical tables to city maps, world economics and online engagements. There are things in this book which I never thought have been or could have been analysed using a circle, including the “Lineage of Sin in the Bible” (2009) by Anna Filipova and the changing colour of Lego sets (2015) by David Eaton.
Continue reading “Visualizing Spheres & Branches of Knowledge: The Book of Circles, & The Book of Trees”
Cities of the World [1617/2015] – ★★★★1/2
“Travelling – it gives you home in thousand strange places, then leaves you a stranger in your own land” (Ibn Battuta (1303 – 1377), a Berber Maghrebi scholar and explorer, who “travelled more than any other explorer in pre-modern history”, covering some 117.000 km over a 30 year-long journey).
This Taschen edition encyclopaedic book compiles engravings and original texts with commentaries from the Civitates orbis terrarum, a collection of town maps produced between 1572 and 1617 by Frans Hogenberg, a Flemish engraver, and Georg Braun, a German Catholic cleric, among other contributors. The book is often referred to as “the most important cartographic work of sixteenth-century Europe”, and includes town plans, bird’s-eye views of cities and stunning landscape illustrations of various cities’ domestic activities. Since these date from the sixteenth century and come from European authors, the book naturally talks predominantly about the cities of Europe (though it does include such cities as Constantinople (Istanbul), Cairo, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Cuzco and Mexico City, too), and retains its original title – Cities of the World. Below are just snippets from this fascinating illustrated book that spans some 750 pages and covers more than 450 cities.
Continue reading “Review: Hogenberg & Braun’s Cities of the World by Stephan Füssel (ed.)”
Laura  – ★★★★★
“To solve the puzzle of [Laura’s death], [one] must first resolve the mystery of Laura’s life” [Vera Caspary, Houghton Mifflin/Vintage: 1942/2012: 16].
A beautiful and still aspiring socialite Laura Hunt is found murdered in her apartment in New York City. She allegedly opened the door to her murderer. A veteran detective Mark McPherson starts to investigate this tricky case, but soon finds out that few things make sense in Laura’s murder. Worse still, McPherson finds himself falling under the charms of Laura’s personality and her world as a number of possible murder suspects emerge, including Laura’s low-paid fiancé Shelby Carpenter and Laura’s friend, eccentric columnist Waldo Lydecker. It soon turns out that Shelby is a possible insurance beneficiary upon Laura’s death, and, then, someone also buys Laura’s portrait that hung on her apartment wall …could it have been the murderer? Clues are scattered throughout this clever mystery-noir, which also has a twist “to die for”.
Continue reading “Review: Laura by Vera Caspary”
Fryderyk Chopin  – ★★★1/2
This book on Polish composer Fryderyk Chopin is the culmination of a ten years’ research project. Fryderyk or Frédéric Chopin is considered to be the greatest composer of the Romantic period, and this biography details his life from his early education and success in native Poland to his move and conquest of Paris through salon appearances, concerts and published works. Much in this book is about Chopin’s long-term relationship with French female novelist George Sand, but Chopin’s musical masterpieces, technique and piano theories are also dissected. Walker employs an engaging story-format to tell us about Chopin, a composer who was also largely self-taught and perpetually ill, providing invaluable insights into Chopin’s relationships with others. And, this well-researched book would have been a “must-read” biography if not for the fact that it is also over-written, with the author making some insensitive faux pas as he proceeds with his over-zealous narration.
Continue reading “Review: Fryderyk Chopin: A Life and Times by Alan Walker”
Talking Music: Conversations with John Cage, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, & Five Generations of American Experimental Composers  – ★★★★
Experimental music is defined as “any music that pushes existing boundaries and genre definitions“. Though the term originated in the 1950s, the US of the 1960s saw certain music artists emerging that can be said to be loosely associated with the “experimental music” movement. This book by American composer and educator William Duckworth compiles the author’s interviews with experimental composers and performers from the US, including John Cage, Philip Glass, Lou Harrison, Conlon Nancarrow, Meredith Monk and Laurie Anderson. The interviews shed light on the artists’ backgrounds, major works and inspirations, and many of the interviews are frank, interesting and inspirational.
Continue reading “Review: Talking Music by William Duckworth”
Shell-Shock: A History of the Changing Attitudes to War Neurosis  – ★★★★
“…They broke his body and his mind/And yet They made him live,/And They asked more of My Mother’s Son/Than any man could give...” (from Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Mother’s Son).
“…Men who went out to battle, grim and glad;/ Children, with eyes that hate you, broken and mad…” (Siegfried Sassoon, October 1917).
This is an insightful book about the history of “shell-shock”, a type of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by soldiers after a prolonged combat. Anthony Babington is neither a medical professional nor strictly a trained historian, but his book still provides a thought-provoking overview of a very misunderstood illness. From wars described by Herodotus (484-425 BC) to the Gulf War of 1990/91, the account touches on every major war conflict to explain how “shell-shock” and combat stress were perceived and treated through history.
Continue reading “Review: Shell-Shock: A History of the Changing Attitudes to War Neurosis by Anthony Babington”
The Broken Spears [1959/97] – ★★★★
“The Aztecs…thought the strangers were Quetzalcoatl, and other gods returning from over the sea, while the Spaniards, despite their amazement at the splendours of Tenochtitlan, considered the Aztecs barbarians and thought only of seizing their riches and of forcing them to become Christians and Spanish subjects” (León-Portilla/Kemp, Beacon Press, 1959/97: xxxiii).
On 22 April 1519, Spaniard Don Hernán Cortés landed in Mexico, and on 13 August 1521, the Aztecs, one of the greatest civilisations of South America, fell. The Aztecs, a nation possessing an intricate culture and complex political organisation, were destroyed and plundered beyond all recognition. In this book, Mexican anthropologist Miguel León-Portilla aims to show the invasion of Mexico by the Spaniards in 1519 from the point of view of the native Aztecs. The non-fiction, translated from the Spanish by Lysander Kemp, compiles a number of first-hand account writings from indigenous people, giving the voice to the victims of this unprecedented encounter between two very distinct military powers and cultures.
Continue reading “Review: The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico by Miguel León-Portilla”
The Ladies’ Paradise [1883/1995] – ★★★★1/2
In this French classic translated by Brian Nelson, Denise Baudu, a young woman from the Valognes countryside, arrives to Paris with her two younger brothers, orphaned and destitute, looking to get employment at her uncle Mr Baudu’s small drapery shop. However, the moment Denise arrives, she becomes entranced by The Ladies’ Paradise, a magnificent shopping establishment that entices its customers with its extravagant window displays, personalised service, constant sales and affordable luxury. Since Mr Baudu’s small shop is on the brink of bankruptcy and Denise has to feed and clothe her two brothers, she feels she has no choice but to attempt working at this glittering shopping monstrosity that has already devoured many small businesses in the area, shutting them down. The proprietor of The Ladies’ Paradise is “brilliant” and ruthless Octave Mouret, an enigmatic figure, whose money-making schemes are already revolutionising the city’s shopping space. Can Denise, with her innocence and simplicity, navigate this complex, often immoral, commercial world so that she and her brothers survive? Zola masterfully and perceptively captures the changing Paris of the 1850-1860s that starts undergoing drastic urban transformations and changes in customer trends, seeing the rise of the “temples to Fashion’s madness for spending”, that are huge department stores.
Continue reading “Review: The Ladies’ Paradise by Émile Zola”
The Sea and Poison [1958/92] – ★★★★
“The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything” (Albert Einstein).
“Go where the pain is” (Anne Rice).
Japan, the last months of the World War II. The city of Fukuoka, nestling in the Hakata Bay, has been experiencing air raids for quite some time, and its hospital finds itself stretched to the limits as its never-ending line of mostly dying patients is always at the door, riddled with many diseases, worsened by hunger and despair. But one day is no ordinary day for this hospital. Unbeknown to many, the Second Surgery is preparing for a secret vivisection operation on American soldiers taken prisoners by the Japanese, and the goal is to test the limits of air and saline that can be injected into humans before they die. Those who are involved in the operation are not some evil monsters or serial killers on the loose, though. They are some of the most respected people in the institution, as well as their dedicated supporting medical personnel. Through the perspectives of two interns – sensitive Suguro and cynical Toda, as well as haunted-by-traumatic-past Nurse Ueda, Endō shows us how easily the unimaginable can unfold when conditions are led by war-time nihilism and actions are prompted by apathy, despair, helplessness and self-interest. Based on a true story (see this article), Shūsaku Endō’s book is as intense as it is disturbing, but at its core is still a touching message to always preserve the spirit of humanity and compassion even in the most highly-pressured and hopeless environments.
Continue reading “Review: The Sea and Poison by Shūsaku Endō”
How Do You Live? [1937/82/2021] – ★★★★★
This classic Japanese YA book is now being adapted into an animation by Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away (2001)) since it was his favourite childhood book. This story focuses on a naturally inquisitive high-school student Junichi Honda (nicknamed “Copper”) and his three friends: quiet Mizutani, outspoken Kitami and kind Uragawa. With his uncle acting as a guide, Copper learns important life lessons and discovers things that would enable him to become a better human being in future. We are shown little episodes in Copper’s life as the boy starts to understand the importance of friendship, kindness, thankfulness and acceptance, and the wrongs of bullying, cowardice and discrimination. Often compared to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince , How Do You Live? is an unforgettable book with a heart and a soul.
Continue reading “Review: How Do You Live? by Genzaburo Yoshino”
Am I Dreaming? The New Science of Consciousness and How Altered States Reboot the Brain  – ★★★
From lucid dreaming and hallucinations to hypnotism and various effects of LSD and DMT, science journalist James Kingsland takes the reader on a journey explaining the altered states of consciousness and the present state of knowledge in this field, making his case that inducing altered states of consciousness is beneficial, and much can be gained by experimenting with psychoactive substances. Am I Dreaming? is an unnecessarily chaotic book, but if you are prepared to sift through the author’s more obvious statements on consciousness and his not-always-so-clear scientific explanations, there is some insight gained as the author talks about more recent studies and people’s first-hand experiences.
Continue reading “Review: Am I Dreaming? by James Kingsland”
The Faithful Executioner  – ★★★1/2
“A technically proficient and reliable executioner was himself the very embodiment of the sword of justice in action – swift, unwavering, deadly, but never appearing susceptible to arbitrary or gratuitous cruelty” [Harrington, Farrar, Straus and Giroux Publications, 2013: 67].
This book is a biography of Franz Schmidt (1555-1634), a public executioner who lived in what is now Germany in the Renaissance period. He kept a diary for the majority of his professional life, which lasted some forty-five years and included the execution of at least three hundred and sixty one people. Harrington traces Schmidt’s life, from his apprenticeship to him becoming a master of his craft, a healer, a family man and, finally, “an honourable member of society”, grounding his research in Schmidt’s dairy. After gaining technical skills, Schmidt travelled several years across the country, performing executions for a fee (as was customary), and though associating with a dishonourable profession, always tried to challenge the social stigma and strived to be part of the honourable society, taking pains to avoid associating with the world of immorality, including gambling, drinking and fighting. Harrington’s non-fiction is not for the squeamish and the biography presented is a bit misguided, but those who are interested in the history of criminal punishment will find much here to consider at length.
Continue reading “Review: The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honour and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century by Joel F. Harrington”
Arturo’s Island [1957/2019] – ★★★★
This coming-of-age story won the 1957 Strega Prize, Italy’s most prestigious literary award, but this review is of a newer translation by Ann Goldstein. The book tells of a fourteen-year-old boy Arturo Gerace living in Procida, Bay of Naples, Italy some time before the World War II. Growing up without his mother and with often absent father Wilhelm Gerace, Arturo is still happy to spend his days without rules or schedules running wild around the island, imagining being an adult and embarking on some sea adventure that would bring him eternal glory. That is until his father, whom Arturo idolises, brings home his new sixteen-year-old bride Nunziata. From that point on, Arturo’s world will never be the same and the shift in the household’s dynamics means that Arturo can finally confront his deepest subconscious traumas with a chance to experience both the joys and sorrows of secret love. Morante’s tale is deceptively simple, and is more psychological than first assumed. It evokes all the delights of childhood wonder and the longings of adolescence, the feelings of endless summers and the atmosphere of mysterious, isolated lands surrounded by aquamarine seas.
Continue reading “Review: Arturo’s Island by Elsa Morante”
The City and the Mountains [1901/2008] – ★★★★★
“…and in life, only the soul matters” [Eça de Queiroz/Costa, Dedalus, 1901/2008: 174].
Eça de Queiroz’s novels The Maias  and The Crime of Father Amaro  are among my favourite books of all time. Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa, The City and the Mountains is de Queiroz’s much later novel about the life of Portuguese nobleman Jacinto de Tormes as told from the perspective of his best friend Zé Fernandes. The novel starts in Paris, France (the City) and ends in Tormes, Portugal (the Mountains), presenting a vivid contrast between the busy, money and technology-driven Parisian lifestyle, on the one hand, and the quiet, simple, filled with natural beauty, mode of life in the countryside, on the other. As important as this duality is the psychology of Jacinto de Tormes, a man of great means and even bigger opportunities. However, it turns out that it is not so easy to figure out the purpose of a thing called Life and the quest for ultimate knowledge may not lie in the most obvious of places. Thus, this charming book on duality and human transformation is many things: a delicate city satire, a study of fin de siècle societal eccentricities, a heart-warming presentation of lifelong friendship, and, finally, a lyrical tribute to the beauty of Portuguese countryside.
Continue reading “Review: The City and the Mountains by Eça de Queirós “
I. The Electric Chair: An Unnatural American History [1999/2009] by Craig Brandon – ★★★★
This book is on the history of one of “the elephants in the room” in the US – death penalty by electrocution. It talks in depth about the case of William Kemmler, a vegetable peddler from Buffalo, who became the first person to be executed by electric chair in America on 6 August 1890. Previously, Kemmler was convicted of murdering his common law wife Tillie Ziegler. It is this man, or rather his death, that became a pawn in the complex business and political game of inventors, investors, entrepreneurs and politicians, at the centre of which was the so-called “current war” waged by Edison (a proponent of the direct current (DC)) and Westinghouse (a proponent of the alternative current (AC)), both eager to prove that only their patented electricity was the way forward for American society, both for domestic and penal purposes.
Continue reading “Recent History Non-Fiction Reads: The Electric Chair, & Empireland”
I. Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind  by V. S. Ramachandran – ★★★★★
This entertaining book presents the most mind-boggling medical cases from the field of neuroscience. In the vein of Professor Oliver Sacks (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat ), Professor V. S. Ramachandran discusses and seeks explanations to such bewildering medical conditions as Capgras delusion, where a person thinks that their relatives are imposters because of the break between their emotional and visual brain inputs, various forms of anosognosia, such as the one where a person denies that their left side of the body is completely paralysed (one possible explanation is that their brains “adapt” reality to their internal world-view “to save” their sanity), phantom limb syndrome, where a person experiences sensations in a limb they no longer possess, as well as blindsight and savant syndrome, among others. Though this book was published in 1998, it remains as informative as at the time of its publication. There have been some developments in neuroscience since 1998, but the science is still very much in the dark regarding all the curiosities about the brain presented in this book. Answering the questions posed by Professor Ramachandran will be akin to finally finding the answers to the biggest mysteries of our existence and psychology.
Continue reading “Recent Non-Fiction Reads”
The Luzhin Defense  – ★★★★★
“Of all my Russian books, The Luzhin Defense contains and diffuses the greatest “warmth”, which may seem odd seeing how supremely abstract Chess is supposed to be” (Vladimir Nabokov).
This was an audio-book which I listened to in its original language, Russian. This is Vladimir Nabokov’s only third novel in Russian (he wrote his last series of books in English), but it impressed me hugely. In this book, the author imagines the life of a once chess prodigy and now a respected retired man Alexander Luzhin, and, while the first part of the book is a touching coming-of-age story of one talented but misunderstood and lonely boy, the second half of the story is a penetrating study of one eccentric, increasingly mentally-confused man who still tries to accustom himself to the society that, surprisingly to him, is far from chess rules and boards. Through this character study, which is both tender and ironic, tragic and farcical, Nabokov underscores the parasitic relationship of madness to genius, as he also unveils a deeply sympathetic situation of one man always in the midst of a battle to lead a life which seems natural to him.
Continue reading “Review: The Luzhin Defense by Vladimir Nabokov”
A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome [2007/09] – ★★★★
This book about ancient Rome is written in a conversational style, and we walk through the ancient city with the author who acts as our guide, pointing to us various curiosities we encounter in our journey through the day. From 6:00 a.m., the time to explore one as yet silent domus of a wealthy Roman citizen, to 9:00 p.m., the time when, ordinarily, a Roman banquet nears its end, we spend the day exploring the lives of the wealthy, the poor and the slaves in the world’s most populous city in the year 115 CE, while the author also comments on such topics as Roman religion, professions, education, money, games and food. The book, translated from the Italian by Gregory Conti, is quite introductory, but still wondrous, and even those who are familiar with the lives of Romans are bound to pick up some interesting facts to explore further.
Continue reading “Review: A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome by Alberto Angela”
This month I have intensified my piano-learning (finally finishing all the piano method books I once started and jumping on Duvernoy, Schytte and Lemoine’s studies) and been listening to a lot of piano music (especially to Godowsky’s Java Suite this month), so I have also decided to share some piano-related books I have been reading recently.
I. Journey of a Thousand Miles: My Story  by Lang Lang – ★★★★1/2
Chinese pianist Lang Lang is considered to be one of the leading figures of today’s classical music world and one of the most accomplished pianists of our modern time. This is his memoir in which he tells his story, from his birth in 1982 in China’s north-eastern city of Shenyang, his early musical education and upbringing, to his hard-work and his family sacrificing everything to see him become “the world’s no. 1”. It is a moving autobiography of a child once living in near-poverty, but always working very hard and dreaming “big”, and then of a young man, not always believing in himself, but always being clear in his mind what he wants to achieve next, overcoming his tricky family life and the Chinese competitive system. There are no “self-indulgent” paragraphs in this memoir. It is clear and to the point, with very short chapters, in which Lang Lang, first and foremost, pays tribute to his family and his teachers, who always believed in him and enabled him to become what he is now, an immensely popular classical pianist.
Continue reading ““The Great Pianists” Non-Fiction: Lang Lang’s Memoir & Van Cliburn’s Biography”
Little Dorrit  – ★★★★
In this classic story, Arthur Clennam returns home from China after many years of absence and finds the same dull and uninviting London house with the same resentful mother inside. While he meditates on what to do next with his life, his attention is drawn to a very timid seamstress of his mother– Amy Dorrit (nicknamed “Little Dorrit”). This young woman is hard-working, kind and is blindly devoted to her imprisoned family members. This makes Arthur wonder about her life, and his first step to make poor Amy his friend leads him to the discovery of another world – the world of London’s poor. Arthur is amazed to find that the absurd workings of the notorious Marshalsea prison for debtors, where Amy was born and her father is now imprisoned, should have a symbiotic relationship with the bureaucratic realm of the complacent and Kafkaesque Circumlocution Office, a governmental institution designed to keep the needy poor and the desperate for answers – even more confused. Set in England, Italy and France, Dickens’s episodic novel may not have the clarity and subtlety of the narrative expositions of Bleak House  or Dombey and Son , but it still contains all the entertaining Dickensian components. There is: a plot with long-buried family secrets and unforeseen reversals of fortune; perceptive and humoristic satire on the government (Dickens was once a Parliament Reporter) and the unfairness of the British class system; and a line of unforgettable characters, whose destinies inexplicably criss-cross and among whom are a couple of sinister personages lurking in the background and pulling the strings. Still, the “heart” of this novel is one shy young woman whose quiet resilience in the face of immense oppression moves all, as she champions the power of introversion and self-sacrificing love.
Continue reading “Review: Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens”
The Jungle [1906/2018] – ★★★★★
“The opposite of poverty is not wealth, the opposite of poverty is enough” (Dr. Wess Stafford).
“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage” (Seneca).
This graphic novel is based on a classic novel by Upton Sinclair The Jungle  that tells of a Lithuanian family of immigrants who arrive to Chicago, Illinois in 1899 and find their hopes slowly turning to dust as they all take jobs exploiting them and their desperate need to survive in the foreign country. Jurgis Rudkus is a twenty-one year old man eager to work at any job in America and soon finds himself in a meat-processing factory, working in very unhygienic and even horrifying environment. His fiancée Ona starts working in packaging, while her cousin Marija begins painting cans, and even Jurgis’s elderly father tries to land some job in order not to be dependent on others, among other family members. This family comprising of three generations is soon hit very hard by the “hidden costs” of their American Dream, which becomes very hard to bear, especially when most factories close in winter and the mercilessness of the family’s employers and landlords leads to traumatic experiences. Though I have not yet read the original novel by Sinclair, I found this graphic adaptation deeply moving, offering an uncomfortable, yet valuable insight into Sinclair’s vision and the conditions of blue-collar workers in early twentieth-century Chicago.
Continue reading “Review: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair/Kristina Gehrmann”
Crossing the Mangrove [1989/95] – ★★★★
Maryse Condé is an award-winning author from Guadeloupe, French overseas region, whose history, culture and tradition takes a centre stage in her book Crossing the Mangrove. In this simple narrative written from multiple perspectives, the usual life of people in one small village of Rivière au Sel is shuttered by the arrival of one handsome and enigmatic man from Cuba – Francis Sancher. Little is known about this talkative stranger, but he soon manages to bring out the very best and the very worst in villagers, being showered with love and hate alike. And, then, his unnatural death raises even more questions than his life ever did. Vividly and poetically, Condé presents to us a small community in one forgotten village torn by passions, jealousy and hopelessness, with its people being as ready to move forward with life as content to settle into permanent inaction. In the process, the author uncovers for us the very soul of Guadeloupe, beautiful, yes, but also as enigmatic, battered and toughened as the spirit of the central character.
Continue reading “Review: Crossing the Mangrove by Maryse Condé”
Music in the Castle of Heaven  – ★★★★
“I was obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well“. Johann Sebastian Bach
The music of Bach is complex, inventive, awe-inspiring and brimming with mathematical precision and religious fervour. The man behind it appears equally stern and unreachable. But, who was Johann Sebastian Bach really and how it came about that a cantor operating in a rather small region of Germany managed to compose music of such brilliant contours, imaginative force and spiritual depth that it now forms much of the foundation of our classical music and is worshipped by many across the globe? In this non-fiction, British conductor John Eliot Gardiner aims to shed light on these precise, still puzzling questions. Music in the Castle of Heaven is an illuminating account of Bach’s life and music that starts from the premise that to understand Bach’s art we have to first immerse ourselves in the very essence of his time and place of birth. Numerous factors influenced Bach and made him into a musician we know today – familial, historic, socio-economic, cultural, educational – and without knowing these we cannot fathom Bach’s mind and how it worked. Gardiner strikes at the very heart of Bach’s genius, presenting us with a complex and sometimes contradictory musician who was also a very empathetic man.
Continue reading “Review: Music in the Castle of Heaven: A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach by John Eliot Gardiner “
The Moon and The Bonfire [1949/68/2002] – ★★★★
“You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy”, so a proverb states. The Moon and The Bonfire is a deeply personal final novel by Italian author Cesare Pavese in which he tells the story of Anguila, a successful businessman, who returns from California to his native country Italy after years and years of absence. Never knowing his real mother and father, Anguila grew up in a foster family in one Piedmontese village near river Belbo in the north of Italy. Abandoned from birth and poor, he had to endure a rough childhood that was only somewhat brightened by his friendship with an older boy Nuto and his fascination with the beautiful daughters of his later master. Now, after years of absence, Anguila decides to reconnect with the land he once called home because after all – “there is no place like home”, or is there? Poverty, war and moral degradation had all left their mark on the region that was once Anguila’s whole world and his detailed re-evaluation of the past, spent desires and dashed hopes leads to surprising conclusions.
Continue reading “Review: The Moon and The Bonfire by Cesare Pavese”
The Three-Cornered World [1906/65] – ★★★★1/2
“Thank heaven for all those who, in devious ways by their art, bring tranquillity to the world, and enrich men’s hearts.”
In this novel by famous Japanese author Natsume Sōseki (1867 – 1916), a young painter travels the country in search of a source of true artistic inspiration, tying to be completely dispassionate about everything he sees. In his journey “to rise above emotions” and conquer his earthy desires he has the aim to reach the state of total objectivity so that his brush will be able to paint only the “truth” and “bare life”. However, when he stops briefly at a guesthouse of one Shioda in a hot-spring village of Nakoi, he encounters there a woman who may put a stop to all of his pretences to be an unemotional observer and a mere spectator of life. O-Nami is a beautiful and enigmatic young woman who has recently escaped her impoverished husband and may have had an affair with a local Buddhist priest. Intrigued by this woman and engulfed in the sheer beauty of the nature around him, our narrator plunges deep into the very heart of the meaning of art, poetry and life itself. The Three-Cornered World is a gentle novel of deep insights with intimate meditations on life and art, its secrets and manifestations.
Continue reading “Review: The Three-Cornered World by Natsume Sōseki”
I. The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking  by Brendan I. Koerner – ★★★★
This book by journalist Brendan I. Koerner focuses on the “Golden Age of Aircraft Hijacking” and on a peculiar case of an airplane hijacking operation carried out by Vietnam veteran William Roger Holder and his girlfriend Cathy Kerkow in 1972. Before airport X-ray machines and the careful vetting of all passengers, Holder and Kerkow had accomplished a crime feat in the air of unbelievable proportions, later escaping to and from Algeria and much later even becoming “celebrities” in France, mingling with the elite. This book is not only a fascinating story of their case that often reads like an exciting thriller, but also a deep insight into the most unbelievable period in the American commercial aviation history when airplane hijacking was so common people thought of it as just “one of those annoying inconveniences of flying” similar to jet lag.
Continue reading “Recent American True Crime Non-Fiction Reads”
Havoc [1930/68] – ★★★★1/2
Franz Kafka wrote: “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” If we take this definition of a book then Kristensen’s Havoc comes out on top. Havoc is now considered a classic of Danish literature and, accordingly to one author, “one of the best novels to ever come out of Scandinavia”. The main character here is Ole Jastrau, a thirty-something literary critic living with his wife and small child in Copenhagen, Denmark, a city that is going through some kind of a political upheaval. Disillusioned with his work and desperately searching for meaning in his day-to-day existence, Jastrau starts to slowly succumb to the rhetoric of his eccentric friends (Catholics, communists and poets) and also to the only thing that starts to make sense in his life – alcohol. Jastrau sees his apartment being taken over by others, his addiction to the popular Bar des Artistes growing daily and his faithfulness to the core moral principles of life crumbling before his eyes. Will there be a limit to Jastrau’s “fall” and humiliation? Can there be hope amidst all the boundless despair? With his razor-sharp prose, Kristensen paints a vivid picture of an ordinary man on a swift ride to hell.
Continue reading “Review: Havoc by Tom Kristensen”
The Magic Mountain [1924/27] – ★★★★★
“But mind, the mountain’s magic-mad tonight,
And if you choose a will-o’-the-wisp to light
Your path, take care, ’twill lead you all astray”
(Goethe, Faust (tran. H. T. Lowe-Porter)).
Hans Castorp is a young man on a threshold of a very successful career of an engineer at a prestigious shipping firm in Germany when he enters an international sanatorium Berghof in the picturesque Swiss Alps for three weeks and only to support Joachim Ziemssen, his sick cousin, and keep him company. Little does Castorp suspect that the sanatorium, with its orderly routine and confused sense of time, will start working insidiously on his mind the moment he steps onto its premises and he will end up living there for the next 7 years. During that time, Castorp will make friends with the most extraordinary individuals, engage almost daily in deep philosophical discussions on virtually every topic under the sun, fall hopelessly in love, and in that whole process entangle his body, mind and spirit so deeply in this “enchanted” place with its own particular passage of Time that any disentanglement will become out of the question. In this story, matters of science and spirituality converge, forces of time sweep people off their feet and then the re-consideration of what is Life and what is Death, and what is to be healthy and what is to be sick, may lead to some divine insights and instances of ultimate self-discovery. Translated from the German, The Magic Mountain is a masterpiece of the world literature, a splendid study of a man undergoing inner transformations in an environment of perpetual unchangeability.
Continue reading “Review: The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann”
I. Making Movies  by Sidney Lumet – ★★★★
This book on movie-making is by American director Sidney Lumet (1924 – 2011) who was probably best known for directing a number of “legal” films including 12 Angry Men , Murder on the Orient Express  and The Verdict . It provides a deep insight into the “magical” process of making movies, from deciding whether to do a movie (Lumet almost always decided “instinctively”) to the final editing process and running previews. Lumet was a “trier” and a “doer”. He tells us in his book that he did not believe in waiting around for opportunities and liked to create his own luck. His eagerness to create chances reflected the sheer variety of films he directed. Cinematic success is hard to pin down, he states. That is also his first lesson to us: “nobody knows what that magic combination is that produces a first-rate piece of work” [Vintage, 1995: 9]. Even a great script or a great star-actor does not guarantee success.
Continue reading “Recent Non-Fiction Reads”
The History of Chess in Fifty Moves  – ★★★1/2
I got inspired to read this book because of the World Chess Championship 2021 currently held in Dubai where now the defending champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway is playing Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia. This book by Bill Price traces the history of chess from its very likely origin in northern India circa 7th century to the game’s expansion in Muslim countries, and then to it making its way to the heart of the Christian community through Islamic ports. Chess was then a game played by the royalty and was seen as “an expression of social standing, rather than an intellectual pursuit” [Price, Apple Press 2015: 56]. Certain historical and other developments then led to it being played by a wide variety of people and the game spread rapidly across Europe, played in coffeehouses across the continent in the 17th century. Though this book is more on a superficial side, it is still an entertaining journey into chess, offering some curious insights into the game, for example, into the women’s chess and into the origin of certain chess terms, such as a gambit.
Continue reading “Review: The History of Chess in Fifty Moves by Bill Price”
Shamans, Healers, and Medicine Men [1987/1992] – ★★★★★
“Shamanism…is not a somehow obscure or incomprehensible or mysterious magical path, but a simple heightening of the emotional experience of the world; “the goal of the shamanic path of initiation is to broaden and deepen the normal emotionality that we all know” [Kalweit, Shambhala Publications, 1987/92: 219].
It is time for me to continue with my “Non-Fiction November” reading challenge. This book, translated from the German, is by Holger Kalweit, a German ethnologist and psychologist who studied shamanism in different corners of the world, including in Hawaii, the American Southwest, Mexico and Tibet. With concrete examples drawn from the Ainu, Siberian, Yahgan and other shamanic traditions, Kalweit delves into the very heart of shamanism and explains detailly the nature of being a shaman, “a possessor of profound knowledge that cannot be grasped in words”. From shamanic training, testing and rituals inducing trance to shamanic healing powers, and duels and competitions, Kalweit touches on many topics and hardly stops there, elucidating further on such concepts as consciousness, reality, dreaming and on a variety of parapsychological phenomena, including “magic”, visions and near-death experience. The result is a comprehensive, endlessly perceptive and inspiring book.
Continue reading “Review: Shamans, Healers & Medicine Men by Holger Kalweit”
I Am Jonathan Scrivener  – ★★★★
London, the 1920s. James Wrexham is a lonely thirty-eight year old man just barely bearing his daily job and with no enviable prospects before him. A merely “spectator of life”, he has already resigned to just watch his life go by when he notices an advertisement in The Times. A certain wealthy gentleman, Jonathan Scrivener, seeks a personal secretary for himself and Wrexham applies on a whim. To his delight, he is accepted for an interview with one lawyer and soon given the position despite never having met the man. Scrivener is allegedly abroad and Wrexham starts his duties in his luxurious apartment on a very generous salary. If these circumstances were not odd enough already, a number of Scrivener’s supposed friends then come barging through the door and each has their own incredulous story to tell about Scrivener. Wrexham’s life turns upside down in a matter of weeks as he transforms from a lonely and desperate man to a social butterfly enjoying a life that only the very wealthy can afford. But, questions still remain – who is Jonathan Scrivener, a supposedly brilliant eccentric? Why is he hiding? What purpose may he have in hiring Wrexham? And why do Scrivener’s friends all give contradictory accounts about the man? I am Jonathan Scrivener is a deeply psychological mystery novel, “a hall of broken mirrors”-type of a book whose many elements need careful reassembling.
Continue reading “Review: I Am Jonathan Scrivener by Claude Houghton”
This review is my contribution to the Novellas in November Reading Challenge hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Rebecca at BookishBeck.
Daisy Miller  – ★★★1/2
“Daisy…continued to present herself as an inscrutable combination of audacity and innocence” [Henry James, 1879: 44]. In this story, young and wealthy American living abroad Frederick Winterbourne becomes infatuated with Daisy Miller, an unmarried American girl touring Europe with her mother and brother. Daisy Miller is a bold and flirtatious girl who continues to mystify Winterbourne daily since their fateful meeting in Switzerland. Now, in Rome, Italy, Winterbourne’s puzzlement turns into true incredulity and then horror as he watches Daisy’s interactions with one handsome Italian Giovanelli. But who is Daisy Miller, really, and how “common” she really is and how “innocent”, or not? Henry James (The Turn of the Screw ) penned a novella which showcases the societal power of prejudice to the fullest, even if it also gives the feeling of being generic and predictable.
Continue reading “Novellas in November: Daisy Miller by Henry James”
The Genius of Birds  – ★★★★
November is a “Non-Fiction” month, so I am trying to read more non-fiction books. Nature books are something I have been neglecting for some years now, so I have picked up Ackerman’s 2016 bestseller The Genius of Birds. Birds are some of the most remarkable animals on earth, but they have also been very misunderstood and it was only in the second half of the previous century that the scientific community had finally started realising their full complexity and intelligence. Now, in lists (for example, see list 1 and list 2) of the most intelligent animals in the world, birds (parrots, crows and pigeons) take their places alongside such animals as chimpanzees, gorillas, dolphins and octopuses. Some birds are capable of inventing new solutions to problems, making and using tools, leading active social lives, recognising themselves in a mirror, remembering people or places they have not seen in months or years, and reproducing up to sixty different songs which they have heard only a few times. Ackerman’s book explores the technical, inventive, musical, artistic, spatial and social abilities of birds, opening up a side of birds and their intelligence you never knew existed.
Continue reading “Mini-Review: The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman “
Foucault’s Pendulum [1988/89] – ★★★★
“…the important thing is not the finding, it is the seeking, it is the devotion with which one spins the wheel of prayer and scripture, discovering the truth little by little” [Umberto Eco/William Weaver, Vintage Press: 1988/89: 33].
Trying to review Foucault’s Pendulum is like trying to write with your left-hand (if you are right-handed, that is) – an enormous task which will not probably be very successful. Through one dense, rich and enigmatic narrative, Umberto Eco tells the story of Casaubon (our narrator) and his friendship with two employees of a publishing house Garamond Press – Belbo and Diotallevi. This trio of intellectuals, who are simply in love with all kinds of knowledge, historic mysteries and brainy puzzles, start their own intellectual “game” of drawing connections with seemingly unrelated things using one clever word-processing machine and a suggestion from one Colonel Ardenti which concerns the order of the Knights Templar and perhaps mysterious resemblances. Little do they know that their amassed knowledge will be too diverse and their power of belief – too strong for a game which started on a whim and so childishly. When certain deaths and disappearances occur as they the trio’s search for their ultimate and absolute truth continues, it may be already too late to seek the way out. But is Eco’s story even about that? Perhaps it is about something else too, and about something else, and, equally, about something else. From the intellectual hub of Milan to esoteric, mysterious corners of Brazil, Umberto Eco takes the reader on one uncanny literary journey and presents a narrative which informs, surprises and exhilarates, as it also confounds, exhausts and overwhelms.
Continue reading “Review: Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco”
Aquagenesis: The Origin and Evolution of Life in the Sea  – ★★★★
“That we live on land is, in the grander scheme of things, best regarded as an anomaly, or even an eccentricity – albeit with sound evolutionary justification. The story of life is, if we retain a true sense of proportion, a story of life at sea“(Philip Ball)
After I read Monarchs of the Sea by Danna Staaf last year, I wanted to read a deeper work on this topic and chose Aguagenesis by marine biologist Richard Ellis. The author aims to demonstrate how life originated in water some 3.9 billion years ago, what species evolved first in water and why, what species followed them and how evolution changed courses multiple times with various animals choosing to dwell on land next and then returning to waters. Richard Ellis starts his book by discussing the origin of water itself and a 2 inch-long shrimp-like creature without eyes capable of subsisting on hydrogen sulphide alone, which is poisonous to most living creatures, before talking about more complex and diverse marine life that roamed the oceans in the final stages of the Cretaceous period, some 65 million years ago. “More than 99% of all the species that have ever lived on Earth are [now] extinct” [Ellis, 2001: 22], says the author, and that makes that extinct life even more fascinating, especially in what it can tell us about the diversity of life and our own, human, origin. This book may be on an academic side and now a bit dated, but it is still a perceptive and engaging account of the mysteries that still surround the evolution of life in the sea.
Continue reading “Review: Aquagenesis: The Origin and Evolution of Life in the Sea by Richard Ellis”
The Erasers [1953/1964] – ★★★★
French author Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922 –2008) was one of the main proponents of the experimental Nouveau Roman (French New Novel) style in literature. In this book of his, translated from the French by Richard Howard, the story concerns special agent Wallas who arrives to one obscure Flemish town to investigate the murder of one Professor Dupont. He is only yet another one dead in the series of gruesome murders that have already been committed in town: “in nine days, nine violent deaths have occurred one after another, of which at least six are definitely murders” [Robbe-Grillet/Howard, 1953/64: 57]. One possible witness is Professor Dupont’s housekeeper Madame Smite, but she cannot provide any help. On the scene was also Doctor Juard who took the victim, the wounded man, to the hospital where he allegedly died. Commissioner Laurent and Wallas have started a murder investigation, seeking an assassin, but was there even a murder? Was there even an assassin? Then, there emerges one horrifying and unbelievable possibility – did the guilty man himself [took] charge of the investigation? [1953/64: 200].What is the truth? The Erasers is a mystery novel that constantly questions reality, offering multiple perspectives on the same situation. It is a refreshingly different, kaleidoscopic murder mystery that puts the absurdity and the ambiguity front and centre.
Continue reading “Review: The Erasers by Alain Robbe-Grillet”
The Tartar Steppe [1940/2018] – ★★★★1/2
First published in 1940 and translated from the Italian by Stuart Hood, this novel is about young and idealistic Giovanni Drogo, a newly appointed Officer to Fort Bastiani, an obscure mountainous place near the country’s frontier. Drogo is excited about his first posting and hurries to his destination eagerly wanting to put to the test his soldiery skills, valour and discipline, as well as begin his new life. However, what awaits him is the unexpected: “the desolate steppe…which had mystery, but no meaning”, where “people [have] no knowledge of time” and where “everything [speaks] of renunciation” [Buzzati/Hood, 1945/1973: 22, 72, 82]. Fort Bastiani is a place in the middle of nowhere where no enemy has been seen since time immemorial. Drogo soon feels rebellious, then depressed and lonely, and is finally completely enchanted by nothingness. The Tartar Steppe is a masterful and subtle work which echoes the best work of Franz Kafka. It is a story about the traps that time lays to a man, about dashed hopes and missed life opportunities, and is a profound meditation on prisons that reside in the recesses of our own minds, in our beloved habits and dear ideals which we can never seem to cast aside no matter how nonsensical they may start to appear.
Continue reading “Mini-Review: The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati”
I. Five Points: The Nineteenth-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum  by Tyler Anbinder – ★★★★
I love reading about the history of New York City, for example see my review of Mark Kurlansky’s The Big Oyster: A Molluscular History of New York . In Five Points, Tyler Anbinder focuses his attention on once the most notorious area in New York – the infamous Five Points, once a densely-populated, poverty, crime, riots and disease-ridden area. The area, which was once a green place with a lake called “The Collect Pond”, became by the end of the eighteenth century “a putrid nuisance” (due to local industries’ contamination) [Anbinder, 2002: 14] and, later, a place to be feared and ruled by criminal gangs. However, what became a place of danger for some, also turned into a place of fun and unthought-of opportunities for others. This non-fiction book is a very detailed account of the history of Five Points in the nineteenth century. Through documents, contemporaries’ accounts (each chapter starts with a “personal story” prologue), maps, graphs and old photographers, the author shows how Five Points gained such a vile reputation around the world and what made it so different from other New York neighbourhoods.
Continue reading “Recent History, Science & Music Non-Fiction Reads: Five Points, When Brains Dream & Year of Wonder”
The Japanese: A History in Twenty Lives  – ★★★★★
In this new book, Dr Harding traces the history of Japan through the lives of twenty remarkable people that helped to shape the country, making a powerful impact on either its politics, business, religion, science, culture or just society at large, and – more often than not – against all odds and in very challenging times. From heroic personalities from mythology and ancient politics to people who changed business, music or literary scene, the author introduces each extraordinary individual in turn, focusing on their childhood, on Japan of their time and on their contribution to the country, with the result being that Japan finally became what it is now – a culturally rich country full of so many paradoxes, intricacies and hidden treasures that a lifetime will not be sufficient to know and understand them all. In this book, we get to know royalties, warlords, samurai, Buddhist monks, politicians, businessmen, scientists, poets, singers, revolutionists and Manga creators. Dr Harding’s book is a history of Japan in a bright new form that is a pure pleasure to read.
Continue reading “Review: The Japanese: A History in Twenty Lives by Christopher Harding”
Hiroshima Nagasaki  – ★★★★★
“An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” M. K. Gandhi (attributed)
“The Japanese collectively were to blame…Truman drew no distinction between civilian and soldier; mother and murderer; child and monster”; “America [sic] annihilated 100.000 persons, most of them civilians, at Hiroshima…and then…,in spite of the “universal horror”, repeated the performance at Nagasaki” [Paul Ham quoting, 2011: 420, 422].
Paul Ham is an Australian author and correspondent, and in his non-fiction book Hiroshima Nagasaki he presents a true account of what happened to the two Japanese cities in 1945, dispelling myths that still persist about the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, including that the bombs were somehow “necessary”, or that their usage led to Japan’s surrender. Starting in winter 1945, when “Roosevelt and Churchill arrived bound by a private agreement…not to share with the Soviet Union…the development of an extraordinary new weapon” [Ham, 2011: 15], continuing to the secret development of the world’s first atomic bomb, and ending with the aftermath of the tragedy, the author goes into incredible depth about what happened in the final year of the war, demonstrating the situation through statistics, broader situation invoking key actors and through personal accounts. The result is a well-researched book about one of the most unbelievable and traumatic events in the world history. Since the scope of the book and the topic is so broad, I have decided to structure my review in the following manner: (i) Events leading up to the atomic bombings; (ii) Four myths and four corresponding realities; (iii) Immediate aftermath; and (iv) Long-term consequences.
Continue reading “Review: Hiroshima Nagasaki by Paul Ham”
Clyde Fans  – ★★★★1/2
Seth (real name Gregory Gallant) is a Canadian cartoonist whose artistic style is said to remind of The New Yorker cartoons of the 1930s-40s. Inspired by a real business that was once in operation in Toronto, his graphic novel Clyde Fans follows a non-linear plot and two very different brothers (extraverted Abe and introverted Simon), whose father left them his business selling electric fans. The pair responds differently to the changing business environment, social demands and times and, in this story, we trace their lives through the life of a company that came to define them and their family, following them through their hopes and dreams, initial successes, bankruptcies, family tragedies and growing desperation fuelled by years of buried pride and reluctance to welcome the future. This reflective picture novel takes a very close look at nostalgia and asks whether there is something precious being lost every time we decide to walk with the changing times, or ahead of them. From the wisdom of the old age to “commercial” loneliness and misunderstandings faced in one’s youth, the novel asks – what is “success”, and what is “failure” in life? What is the nature of time and what it means to finally come to grips with its passage? How time changes us, or does not? Clyde Fans is a deeply-felt work about human memories, making sense of the past and the anguish of passing years and lost hopes, a tribute to one once-commercially successful and ambitious little world that is no more.
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A People’s History of Tennis  – ★★★★1/2
“Lawn tennis was different. It was played “as much with the head as the hand” and it encouraged playfulness and enjoyment of performance” [David Berry, Pluto Press, 2020: 23].
This new non-fiction book is about the history of “lawn tennis”, as viewed through the prism of class and gender politics. Rather than being just a sport for the privileged and well-off, David Berry argues that tennis has also historically provided important battlegrounds for “freedom” movements, for the rights of women, immigrants, black people and people from the working class segment of the population. Referring to the sport’s “amateur” beginnings and explaining the business side of the game, Berry talks about tennis between the wars, about the history of tennis clubs, as well as details the rise of first tennis stars that helped to transform tennis from an amusing hobby played on the British Isles to a global phenomenon and industry worth millions of pounds. Often referring to Wimbledon, the oldest and most prestigious tennis tournament in the world, Berry demonstrates with a great narrative flair the constant battle to shed away the “exclusivity” of tennis, a sport which remains one of the few in the world that, from its very origin in the nineteenth century, was designed to be played by both men and women.
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A Lost Lady  – ★★★★1/2
“Her eyes, when they laughed for a moment into one’s own, seemed to promise a wild delight that he had not found in life. “I know where it is”, they seemed to say, “I could show you!“….She had always the power of suggesting things lovelier than herself, as the perfume of a single flower may call up the whole sweetness of spring” [Willa Cather, 1923: 136, 137].
I was impressed with Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop , which I read in spring, and have now decided to try out another book by her. I ended up liking A Lost Lady even more than Death Comes for the Archbishop. The novel’s location is Sweet Water, a town in the “American West”, which is one of the hubs of the transcontinental railroad business activity. Marian Forrester, the young wife of successful Captain Daniel Forrester, holds a fascination for the entire community of Sweet Water, from the most hardened, aging businessmen to the children of local grocery men. Mrs. Forrester only comes to town to stay for her summer holidays, but her name is well-known and her coming is eagerly anticipated, especially by young Neil Herbert, the nephew of Judge Pommeroy. Mrs. Forrester is, indeed, “bewitching”, the very definition of charm, grace and sophistication, “belonging to a different world”, “with a glance that made one’s blood tingle” [Cather, 1923: 38]. Amidst challenging times for the community, with financial hardship in sight for everyone, can Marian Forrester and her “elegant” world of principles survive? And then, who Mrs. Forrester really is? A Lost Lady may not be a classic book with a fully fledged plot that spans hundreds of pages and unforgettable twists, but probably that is where its charm lies – in its deceptively simple, beautifully-written story that reveals slowly its quiet character study that, in turn, has the ability to provoke and move.
Continue reading “Review: A Lost Lady by Willa Cather”
The Employees [2018/2020] – ★★★★
“You know the name you were given, you do not know the name that you have.” Jose Saramago
This book, which was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2021, focuses on our distant dystopian future and on the Six-Thousand Ship, a space vessel on an exploration mission into space. When the crew stops to explore a previously unknown planet named New Discovery, they take certain live “objects” on board with them. Little the crew suspects that these objects will have a powerful, unforeseen effect on each member of the personnel onboard, and that means on both humans and humanoid robots. Composed entirely of (increasingly disturbing) statements given by the employees on the Six-Thousand Ship, The Employees by Danish author Olga Ravn may have a rather “boring” title, but this book is anything but that. Probably influenced in some way by both Lem’s sci-fi Solaris  and the fiction of Philip K. Dick, The Employees offers a visceral, uncanny reading experience.
Continue reading “Review: The Employees: A Workplace Novel of the 22nd Century by Olga Ravn”
The Baron in the Trees (Il barone rampante)  – ★★★1/2
The Baron in the Trees is the fourth book of Italian author Italo Calvino (Invisible Cities ), telling of a young man, Cosimo, of the eighteenth century who decides to live on trees, never going down, sticking to his own principle that he would never touch the ground again. His family soon realises that what might have started as a childish tantrum has transformed into something big and life-changing. In time, Cosimo manages not only to live on the trees, but also to hunt, cook food, sleep and wash his clothes up there. He makes himself useful to others and develops friendship with a local girl Viola. The exploration of the new world of Cosimo up in the trees is fascinating and Calvino’s existentialist concept of one man eschewing society and its norms is appealing. It is then even more surprising to learn that, unfortunately, The Baron in the Trees is also quite plot-less and, in the end, delivers little by way of substance.
Continue reading “Review: The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino”
The Minds of Billy Milligan [1981/2018] – ★★★★1/2
This non-fiction book comes from Daniel Keyes, the writer of classic sci-fi Flowers for Algernon . The Minds of Billy Milligan tells the amazing story of Billy Milligan, the first man in the US history to successfully plead the insanity defence in court based on his proven multiple personality disorder and, therefore, be held not responsible for his major crimes (three counts of robbery and rape). Billy Milligan had twenty-four personalities (or “people”) living inside him, competing for spotlight (or consciousness) at any one time, and some of them developed when he was a toddler and suffering from trauma. This is no fiction as numerous eminent psychiatrists who observed Milligan for years testified repeatedly to his condition and the chances that Milligan could have somehow faked all twenty-four personalities over so many years are close to zero. This is because his personalities were truly different people, observed to have different body temperatures, hand-writing, accents, vocabulary, speech patterns, mannerism, IQ, skills, knowledge, experience and even brain waves. Daniel Keyes traces Milligan’s case, beginning from his arrest and childhood and culminating with Milligan being dragged from one hospital to another, battling public prejudice. This is a mind-blowing account of the most remarkable case of a disorder that lies at the very heart of uncovering the mystery of the human mind and consciousness.
Continue reading “Review: The Minds of Billy Milligan by Daniel Keyes”
The Bilingual Brain: And What It Tells Us About the Science of Language [2017/21] – ★★★1/2
Albert Costa was a Research Professor at Pompeu Fabra University (UPF) in Barcelona, and in this short book, which was translated from the Spanish by John W. Schwieter, he explores bilingualism, the mysteries surrounding a human brain that is used “to juggle” two languages daily. “How do two languages coexist in the same brain?…What are the implications of this coexistence? and “is there anything special about being bilingual?” [2017/2021: ix], asks Professor Costa. Referring to many studies and evidence from neuro-imaging techniques, the author meditates on such topics as (i) how bilingual babies acquire languages, (ii) why some people with brain injuries lose their language abilities, (iii) what effect a second language may have on a dominant one, and (iv) how the choice of a language affects human judgement. Instead of providing convincing or concrete arguments, the book rather emphasises the awesomeness of bilinguals and the fact that many questions are still open to debate in this field. However, where Professor Costa’s essay lacks in rigour and depth, it certainly makes up in piquing curiosity and stimulating conversation.
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Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces  – ★★★★★
Did you know that a music piece (a Septet) that made Beethoven’s name in the nineteenth century is hardly ever played today? Or that later pieces by Beethoven that are now known to everyone were considered in the composer’s time too complex and brazen to merit any attention? Beethoven’s elusive “Immortal Beloved” is still without identity, and his attempts at self-promotion were not always successful. Through just nine musical pieces, Laura Tunbridge places Beethoven in a particular time and place in her well-researched book, presenting an intimate and detailed image of the great composer. Rather than Beethoven being an isolated genius making music masterpieces on his own, the author talks of Beethoven as a gifted person that was depended on others (such as on his friends and patrons), as well as on the particular time, norms and politics, as well as on the musical tradition in which he lived. Tunbridge demonstrates how Vienna and Beethoven’s own personal life affected his music, and how changing perceptions, as well as tastes of nobility, ultimately dictated and shaped the man and his music that is now admired by millions.
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Mad in America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill  – ★★★★1/2
Robert Whitaker opens his book with this quote by David Cohen: “We are still mad about the mad. We still don’t understand them and that lack of understanding makes us mean and arrogant, and makes us mislead ourselves, and so we hurt them”. His book is an engaging overview of the methods to treat mentally ill patients through centuries (starting in the pre-1750s period and continuing to the present day), and how changes in societal attitudes and perceptions, as well as in psychiatry politics and business considerations impacted the treatment. “Scientific” and “therapeutic” approaches to treating mentally ill had competed with each other for centuries, and Whitaker shows how politics of this or that time period ultimately dictated what mentally ill patients were supposed “to need”, with mentally ill people often caught in a trap of doctors and businesses’ ambitions to make a mark in science or earn money respectively.
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Letter from an Unknown Woman  – ★★★★★
The opposite of love is not hatred, it’s indifference. This novella by an Austrian author, which was adapted into a major film of 1948 directed by Max Ophüls and starring Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan, tells the story of a man who receives a strange letter one morning penned by one unknown-to-him woman. What this woman tells him is something much more than a mere confession. It is a soul-searching, gut-wrenching effort at personal liberation, a last cry to be finally understood in life and one fearful culmination of a life lived with one endless hope, a fruitless succession of attempts at happiness and one final tragic resignation. R. is a handsome man and a celebrated novelist who always had a lot of affection from women. The unknown woman is a dreamy and impressionable person from a much more modest family. What ties them together? From his point of view: three, very brief life episodes which can be counted by mere hours and which he forgot the moment they happened. From her point of view: absolutely everything, including three most important moments in her life, her whole world-view and the very point of her existence. Stefan Zweig wrote a powerful, sincere and moving account of one unrequited love and close examination of a person on the very fringes of another person’s life always looking in, hoping in vain to become a full-time participant.
Continue reading “Review: Letter from an Unknown Woman by Stefan Zweig”
Tuesday Nights in 1980  – ★★★★
I would like to thank Cathy at 746books for recommending this book to me after I compiled list 7 Great Novels Revolving Around Visual Art. Tuesday Nights in 1980 presents New York City’s art scene of 1980. At the centre are three people whose destinies collide in the background of creative bohemia filled with liberties of all kinds, boundless artistic inspiration and ambition, and spurs of unusual creativity: James Bennett is a misunderstood person and a renowned art critic who has synaesthesia, a condition which means that he experiences ideas, people and objects as colours or a combination of colours; Raul Engales is a “free spirit” and up-and-coming Argentinean artist who left behind in his country one past better not recalled; and Lucy Olliason is a girl from Idaho who has just recently arrived to NYC and is open to everything and anything. Evocatively, even if exaggeratedly, Molly Prentiss captures in her story the thrill of being young and artistic in NYC, which itself starts to undergo many changes. Amidst obsessive art-making and pleasures of falling in love, there are also a transitory nature of success, creative doubts and personal tragedies.
Continue reading “Mini-Review: Tuesday Nights in 1980 by Molly Prentiss”
Fires on the Plain  – ★★★★1/2
This book review is my second contribution to the Japanese Literature Challenge 14 hosted by Meredith at Dolce Bellezza. Winner of the prestigious Yomiuri Prize, Fires on the Plain details the experience of a Japanese soldier in the Philippines during the last months of the World War II (the Leyte island landing). This sometimes gruesome and traumatic, but vividly introspective and unputdowanable novel full of conviction is filled with psychological and philosophical insights. Drawing from his own experience of the WWII, Shōhei Ōoka wrote about the degradation, futility and meaninglessness of war through the experience of one injured and stranded soldier who gets suspended between complete despair, increasing apathy and little choice, but to commit war crimes, on the one hand, and glimpses of hope and religious visions, on the other. Plagued by contradictions and irrational thoughts, Private Tamura finds himself psychologically distancing from war horrors around him, as Ōoka makes a powerful statement on one situation where such concepts as morality or rationality no longer seem to have any meaning. Fires on the Plain is probably one of the most important anti-war novels ever written.
Continue reading “Review: Fires on the Plain by Shōhei Ōoka”
Klara and the Sun  – ★★★
In Kazuo Ishiguro’s new book, Klara is an AF (Artificial Friend) or a highly advanced girl-robot created to be a companion for a child. Together with another AF Rosa, Klara spends her time shifting positions inside the store in a hope that some child will eventually choose her and she will fulfil her destiny. Relying on and worshipping the Sun, Klara never misses an opportunity to catch its rays: “…the big thing, silently understood by us all, was the Sun and his nourishment” [Ishiguro, 2021: 5]. She is both puzzled by and interested in humans. Then comes Josie, a kind, but sick child. As Klara enters Josie’s world, she gets to know more about humans and life, including its sorrows and unpredictability.
Klara and the Sun is Toy Story (together with the toy’s existential crisis) meets Never Let Me Go by way of one robot’s obsession with the Sun. It is a bitter-sweet and curious book with one fascinating narrator and a theme of hope. However, it also has a very “thin” story with vague world-building, severely under-explored themes, and characters and topics “recycled” from the author’s Never Let Me Go. A torrent of never-ending and sometimes pointless dialogue in the story does little service to Ishiguro, an author who is capable of far greater depth, nuance, subtlety, emotion, evocativeness and intelligence, than he delivered in this latest trendy, crowd-pleasing, YA-like book.
Continue reading “Review: Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro”
Property  – ★★★★
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.
Continue reading “Review: Property by Valerie Martin”
Death Comes for the Archbishop  – ★★★★
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.
Continue reading “Review: Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather”
I. Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World  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.
Continue reading “Recent History Non-Fiction Reads: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, & Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic”
A History of the Universe in 21 Stars  – ★★★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.
Continue reading “Review: A History of the Universe in 21 Stars (and 3 Imposters) by Giles Sparrow”
The House of Mirth  – ★★★★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.
Continue reading “Review: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton”
The Woodlanders  – ★★★★★
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  and Far from the Madding Crowd .
Continue reading “Review: The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy”
Monarchs of the Sea: The Extraordinary 500-Million-Year History of Cephalopods [2017/20] – ★★★★
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.
Continue reading “Review: Monarchs of the Sea by Danna Staaf”
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet  – ★★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.
Continue reading “Mini-Review: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell”
The Scapegoat  – ★★★★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.
Continue reading “Review: The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier”
A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century  – ★★★★★
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.
Continue reading “Review: A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman”
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.
Continue reading “Review: The Roots of Heaven by Romain Gary”
Piranesi  – ★★★★
Piranesi is a new fantasy novel by the author of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell . 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.
Continue reading “Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke”
A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie  – ★★★★★
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.
Continue reading “Review: A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup”
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.
Continue reading “Review: 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami”
Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet  – ★★★★
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  and Swan Lake , to Cinderella  and Spartacus , 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.
Continue reading “Review: Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet by Jennifer Homans”
Dr Bloodmoney  – ★★★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.
Continue reading “Review: Dr Bloodmoney by Philip K. Dick”
Fruit of the Drunken Tree  – ★★★
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.
Continue reading “Review: Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras”
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.
Continue reading “Review: Le Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac”
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.
Continue reading “Review: The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni”
The Good Neighbour  – ★★★★★
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.
Continue reading “Review: The Good Neighbour: The Life & Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King”
The Woman with a Worm in Her Head  – ★★★★
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 “
A Year in Marrakesh  – ★★★
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.
Continue reading “Mini-Review: A Year in Marrakesh by Peter Mayne”
Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids  – ★★★★1/2
Kenzaburo Oe’s debut should remind of Lord of the Flies  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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Fear 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”
Shamanism [1951/64] – ★★★★
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”
The Power of the Dog  – ★★★★
“…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”
The Detour [2010/2012] – ★★★★
This is a book by a Dutch writer Gerbrand Bakker, whose previous book The Twin  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”
I. The Railway Man  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”
American novelist Patricia Highsmith (1921 – 1995) is probably known for her Tom Ripley thrillers (among which is The Talented Mr Ripley ), 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.
I. Edith’s Diary  – ★★★★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”
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”
The Way of Zen  – ★★★★★
“…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”
Melmoth  – ★★1/2
First, I would like to say that I loved Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent , 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”
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”
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”
The Fishermen  – ★★★★
“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 Denial of Death  – ★★★★
“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”
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”
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  – ★★★★
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”
Amulet [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”
The Big Oyster: A Molluscular History of New York  – ★★★★★
“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  and Salt . 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”
Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness  – ★★★★
“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”
The Black Sheep (La Rabouilleuse) [1842/1970] – ★★★★★
The Black Sheep is an outstanding novel by Balzac (Lost Illusions ) 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”
The Blazing World  – ★★★★1/2
This longlisted for a Man Booker Prize book traces the story of Harriet Burden, a small artist and once the wife of an eminent art dealer Felix Lord. Through the statements from Burden’s family, close friends and acquaintances, we get to know the story behind Burden’s decades-long experiment to hide behind three male identities in the production of her art. Burden chose to create art and pass it as works by someone else, thereby, exposing the anti-female bias in the art world, but also the subconscious perception that male artists are much more brilliant than their female counterparts. The Blazing World is bursting with creativity, intelligence and originality. It touches on many philosophical and psychological issues, while also debating the nature of art, the process of its creation and human perception. At the heart of the story is one misunderstood individual whose depth and intellectuality may just signal her doom. This unusual book invites us, readers, to be archivists, observers, art critics, judges and psychologists, but above all, it invites us to look at the situation as human beings, trying to understand the feelings and thoughts of another. Continue reading “Review: The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt”
If the Universe is Teeming with Aliens…Where is Everybody?: Seventy-Five Solutions to the Fermi Paradox and the Problem of Extraterrestrial Life  – ★★★★1/2
I am continuing with my Non-Fiction November Reading Challenge with this curious book on the Fermi paradox. This paradox states that, if there are billions of stars out there in galaxies, and they are similar to and much older than our Sun, there is a high probability that those distant systems have planets that resemble our planet Earth. In turn, the typical nature of our planet means life must have developed and accelerated on other planets too, and, if beings there developed interstellar travel, they should have visited Earth already (or at least sent their probes). The paradox is that we do not see/perceive any extraterrestrial activity. Dr Stephen Webb is a theoretical physicist who proposes and discusses seventy-five solutions to the Fermi paradox in this book, solutions which he divides into three sections: (i) Alien Are (or Were) Here; (ii) Aliens Exist, but We Have Yet to See or Hear from Them; and (iii) Aliens Do Not Exist. This is an enjoyable, mentally-stimulating book that impresses with the number and diversity of different solutions and theories that may explain the Fermi Paradox. Continue reading “Review: If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens…Where is Everybody? by Stephen Webb”
A House Without Windows  – ★★★★
I am progressing with my YARC 2019 with this novel by an American author whose Afghan parents immigrated to the US from Afghanistan in the 1970s. In this tale, a terrible crime shook a small community in Afghanistan – Kamal, a husband and a father of four, has been found murdered with a hatchet plunged into his skull. At the scene of the crime is his wife Zeba who is covered in blood and numb with shock. But, was she really the one who committed the crime? Yusuf, a lawyer from the US, arrives to his native land Afghanistan and is immediately tasked with defending his reticent client Zeba, trying to seek justice in this seemingly open-and-shut case. This is a tale of two families – one traditional Afghan, rooted in its community, and another immigrant, with Nadia Hashimi making observations on the Afghan culture, Afghanistan’s criminal justice system and on the plight of women living in that country, paying a special tribute to their strength and resilience. Continue reading “Review: A House Without Windows by Nadia Hashimi”