Puccini’s Opera: Turandot

Turandot [1926]

Opera Turandot is set in Beijing, China and tells the story of proud Princess Turandot and unknown Prince Calaf. Turandot is a haughty Princess who wants to take revenge for a crime once committed against one woman in her ancestry line by condemning young princes from afar to their deaths. To achieve this aim, Turandot demands that every man that wants to marry her has to solve her three riddles. Whoever solves her three puzzles will become her husband, but if that person is unable to solve them – he will be executed. However, despite very probable deadly consequences of this trial-riddle imposed by the Princess, there is no shortage of young men willing to risk their lives since Turandot is very beautiful. Then, comes Calaf, a Prince travelling with his father Timur and a slave-girl Liu, and he will stop at nothing until he completes the challenge and wins the hand of Turandot. Turandot is an opera of extravagant displays, great passions and narrative contrasts and extremes. Puccini’s music diffuses Asian tones and makes use of powerful choirs, providing a kaleidoscopic musical experience, with the heart-wrenching final-act aria “Nessun dorma” rightly deserving its place among the finest operatic arias ever.

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Recent Reading: Short Stories

I. Xingu [1900] by Edith Wharton – ★★★★★

In this story, one intellectual reading club is led by one Mrs. Ballinger and composed of a number of ladies of distinction, i.e. “huntresses of erudition”, “who pursue Culture in bands, as though it were dangerous to meet alone”. Mrs. Ballinger is the epitome of proper behaviour, but is also described as having a “mind [like an] hotel where facts came and went like transient lodgers, without leaving their address behind, and frequently without paying for their board”. Mrs. Roby is the newest addition to this elite club who gained her entry by way of one gentleman’s recommendation. However, she does not seem to fit and does and says the wrong things. That is, until Mrs. Ballinger and the other ladies invite a respected female author Osric Dane to talk about her latest book and that “inadequate” Mrs. Roby asks Ms. Dane to comment on one supposed book titled “Xingu”. The uttering of that word “Xingu” is that Alice in Wonderland’s Unbirthday Party moment in this story which precedes changing power dynamics and the quiet, or maybe not so quiet, disintegration of the club’s supposed erudition.

Edith Wharton (The House of Mirth [1905]) could always be counted on to produce a fine satire of the upper-class. The haughtiness and self-absorption of the club, that focuses too much on what is “right” and “proper”, means that the ladies lose sight of the very culture and intellectual endeavours they are supposed to be pursing. They are necessarily restricted by the very “fine” social parameters within which they operate, and the goal to pursue culture and serious literature, which does require a level of open-mindedness, sits at odds with the club’s inflexible and discriminatory practices. Xingu must be among Wharton’s best short stories, being both caustically amusing and delightfully sarcastic.

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Italian Children’s Literature

This week (on 1 June) is the International Children’s Day (also the Children’s Week in some countries) and I am dedicating this post to the Italian children’s literature.

🤥 The Adventures of Pinocchio (Le avventure di Pinocchio) [1883] by Carlo Collodi

Pinocchio, a wooden boy who wants to be a real boy, has endeared himself into millions of people’s hearts. Collodi’s famous tale follows the adventure of a marionette who finds out early in his life that the world is not always just and that oppression exists alongside goodness and benevolence. Like Lewis Carroll’s original story of Alice in Wonderland [1865], some aspects of the original story of Pinocchio is quite disturbing and violent, but, then, what mid-nineteenth century fairy-tale has aged well? The Adventures of Pinocchio is the third most translated book in the world (after the Bible and The Little Prince) and no wonder – its messages of rising above oppression, trying to do one’s best despite adversary, bad influence and even one’s own trouble-making nature, and becoming the best person one could be, are truly universal. I do not have much hope for the following adaptations of the story, but it is still interesting to note that not just one, but two Pinocchio adaptations are coming out in 2022: Guillermo del Toro’s stop-motion animation Pinocchio and Robert Zemeckis’s live-action film Pinocchio.

Pinocchio near the entrance to a souvenir shop, Florence, Italy © Thoughts on Papyrus

🤥 Carlo Collodi (1826 – 1890) was born Carlo Lorenzini in Florence, Tuscany, later changing his name to Collodi to honour his mother’s birthplace. That was not the only instance of name-changing in his career as The Adventures of Pinocchio was first published as a series under the title Storia di un burattino (Adventures of a Marionette), and in fact, I have always known the story under this same title – The Adventures of Burattino (Russian: Приключе́ния Бурати́но). There are now some interesting Pinocchio attractions to explore in Tuscany, such as the Casa di Collodi in Florence and the Pinocchio Park in Collodi, and, of course, the Tuscany region is full of shops selling various Pinocchio souvenirs.

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Italian Literature Recommendations for Each Zodiac Sign

As many of you know, this year I am hosting the Italia Reading Challenge and got inspired to do the following list by my previous edition of it titled Japanese Literature Recommendations for Each Zodiac Sign.

ARIES (March 21 – April 19) – Corto Maltese [1967 – 2019] by Hugo Pratt

Aries is full of energy and does not mind a healthy amount of danger in his or her life. The enigmatic, contradictory hero of Hugo Pratt’s famous series may appeal to these people who love adventure. Feeling strange that you have been assigned a comic? No, it is just the opposite – this graphic novel is one deep material. Umberto Eco (Foucault’s Pendulum) famously said: “When I want to relax, I read an essay by Engels. When I want to read something serious, I read Corto Maltese.” 

TAURUS (April 20 – May 20) – The Betrothed [1827] by Alessandro Manzoni

Alessandro Manzoni’s classic novel, Italy’s “national institution”, is a tale of two lovers, Renzo and Lucia, who are trying to overcome oppression, jealousy and injustice on their path to happiness. Loyal and dependable Taurus will appreciate the values, romance and a sense of adventure this beautiful novel offers.

GEMINI (May 21 – June 20) – The Tartar Steppe [1940] by Dino Buzzati

Geminis are clever and curious and this is the novel that only looks like a simply story, but requires quite an analysis. This claustrophobic novel’s theme of loneliness, allegedly Gemini’s biggest fear, can strike home for this Zodiac sign. The Tartar Steppe and Gemini may be the case of the attraction of the opposites. Changeable Gemini, who likes variety in life, may find the story’s Kafkaesque theme of being stuck in a fortress in the middle of nowhere a frighteningly intriguing reading proposition.

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Around the World in 50 Books

I have finally completed my challenge of reading 50 books set in different parts of the world! I began this challenge almost with the start of my blog in 2018 and my last review of Maryse Condé’s book marked the end of this exciting challenge. Below are my book results categorised in the following sections: Europe, The Middle East, Africa, Asia, North America, The Caribbean, South America and Oceania. Please note that the books below correspond to plot locations and not to the authors’ countries of origin.

EUROPE:   vector map europe

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Victor Hugo

Today marks 220 years since the birth of French writer Victor Hugo on 26 February 1802. Hugo is best known for his great classic novels Les Misérables [1862] and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame [1831], and was also a passionate social and political activist who famously supported the abolition of the death penalty, the view that was taken in his short novel The Last Day of a Condemned Man [1829].

Our mind is enriched by what we receive, our heart – by what we give.”

The future has several names. For the weak it is impossible; for the fainthearted, it is unknown; but for the valiant, it is ideal” (Victor Hugo).

Italia Reading Challenge 2022

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Italy is such a historically and culturally rich country and there are/were so many great Italian authors – Alighieri Dante, Giovanni Boccaccio, Niccolo Machiavelli, Alessandro Manzoni (The Betrothed), Cesare Pavese, Umberto Eco (Foucault’s Pendulum), Italo Calvino (The Baron in the Trees), to name just a few. Taking this into account and since I loved some Italian books I’ve read recently I’ve decided to make 2022 my year exploring Italian literature and set up the Italia (Italy) Reading Challenge (to run between January and December 2022). To make this challenge more manageable for myself, I have decided to limit my reading goal to just 10 books written by Italian authors. If we consider that these books all come from just one country, I don’t think it’s a bad start at all, and here is my selection for this year:

  • Alberto Moravia – Contempt/Boredom/The Time of Indifference
  • Antonio Tabucchi Pereira Maintains
  • Primo Levi If This is a Man/If Not Now, When?
  • Elena Ferrante The Days of Abandonment
  • Leonardo Sciascia To Each His Own
  • Giorgio Bassani The Garden of the Finzi-Continis
  • Italo Svevo Zeno’s Conscience
  • Dacia MarainiThe Silent Duchess
  • Elsa MoranteArturo’s Island
  • Luigi Pirandello The Late Mattia Pascal

Finally, if you want to join me on this journey this year (reading any number of books), you can grab the banner and leave links to your reviews throughout the year in the comments section on this permanent page – Italia Reading Challenge 2022 or below and I will add them to the general list, as well as do a summary post in December 2022 – #ReadItaliaChallenge.

My Life in Books: 2021

I recall I had so much fun participating in the meme My Life in Books in 2019 (see my post here) that I decided to have a go at it this year, too. The original creator of this meme is probably The Roof Beam Reader and the rule is that you must complete the sentences below using only the titles of the books you read in 2021. This year, I was largely inspired to participate by onemore.org (There’s Always Room For One More) and her post My Life in Books: 2021 Edition. I am not tagging specific bloggers and it is not too late to participate for everyone. So, here are my answers (obviously, not meant to be taken seriously):

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Charles Dickens’s “Dombey and Son” through 12 Astrological Signs

The earth was made for Dombey and Son to trade in, and the sun and the moon were made to give them light. Rivers and seas were formed to float their ships…stars and planets circled in their orbits, to preserve inviolate a system of which they were the centre” [Dickens, 1848/2002: 12, Penguin Classics]. Dombey and Son is one of Dickens’s greatest novels and I think its main characters illustrate well the twelve star signs of the zodiac and thus the story can be told through the workings of the heavenly belt. Below is my interpretation and one caveat is possible spoilers and another is that there are obviously many more characters in the story and not just those presented below.

Leo star sign

Mr. Paul Dombey Leo (July 23 – August 22)

Mr. Paul Dombey is the main character. He is a cold and calculating businessman who longs to have an heir to his business and when Master Paul Dombey is born, his father has very high expectations regarding his son. Mr. Dombey is undoubtedly a Leo, proud of himself and his family (or at least proud of himself, his business and his son). Leos are the Kings of the Zodiac and Mr. Dombey likes being the centre of attention, commanding effortlessly everyone in his sight. He also likes the idea of others being dependant on him and he dislikes criticism.

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Six Degrees of Separation – from A Christmas Carol to Twelfth Night

It has been a long time since I posted a Six Degrees of Separation meme, so I am posting this Christmas edition which starts with Charles Dickens’s famous novella A Christmas Carol [1843] and finishes with Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night [1623]; see also my two other posts in this series: Six Degrees of Separation – From Pride & Prejudice to The Name of the Rose, and Six Degrees of Separation – From News of the World to The Woman in the Window.

A Christmas Carol is a Christmas fable about one rich miser who learns his lesson through a series of encounters with ghosts. Another famous tale about one rich miser is Honoré de Balzac’s novel Eugenie Grandet [1833] where a pretty daughter of one rich wine merchant is forced to experience the full consequence of her father’s lust for gold.

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Recommendations to Boost the Halloween Spirit!

Following from my previous post of top ten disturbing books for this Halloween season, here is my post of some recommendations to soak up and enjoy that spooky atmosphere surrounding Halloween, my favourite time in the whole year. I am presenting four sections (short stories, films, music and ambience videos) that include four recommendations each:

  • SHORT STORIES: (i) Don’t Look Now and Other Stories [1971] by Daphne du Maurier In this collection, Don’t Look Now is a particularly eerie story about a couple John and Laura on their trip to Venice. In my review, I said that du Maurier makes “Venice claustrophobic, day-to-day reality – enigmatic, the mind – paranoiac, and ordinary people – full of threatening agendas“; (ii) Murder in the Age of Enlightenment (and other Stories) [1918] by Ryunosuke Akutagawa This collection of short stories by Japanese author Akutagawa includes his unforgettable horror story Hell Screen; (iii) The Signal-Man [1866] by Charles Dickens is an incredible, frightening ghost story which has its own unique atmosphere (see also the short film adaptation (1976) of the story here); and (iv) Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery [1948] (my review).
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The Poetry of Thomas Hardy

I have been a huge admirer of Thomas Hardy and his books for a long time (my favourite books are Tess of the d’Urbervilles, The Woodlanders, Far from the Madding Crowd, Jude the Obscure and The Mayor of Casterbridge, and in that order), but I never previously had a chance to read his poetry and finally bought a collection of his Wessex Poems. Some find Hardy’s poems in this collection too grim, but I think they are simply hauntingly beautiful. Below I share my brief review, as well as two poems from the collection.

Wessex Poems and Other Verses [1898/2017] by Thomas Hardy★★★★1/2

I thought this was a wonderful collection of Thomas Hardy’s poems, touching on such themes as country life and romance, human character, doomed love, relative fleetness of youth and beauty, death and attempts to reconcile the depth of love with the passing of a loved one. There were a number of “supernatural” and “otherworldly” poems in this collection too, which makes it a perfect reading for a cosy autumn evening in or near Halloween. Melancholic, full of longing and simply beautiful, some of my favourites included Unknowing, the She, to Him series of poems and Her Immortality. Others are narratively interesting too, for example, The Dance at the Phoenix is about a woman of sixty who is swept by her memories when she hears the King’s-Own Cavalry is in town and goes dancing to unpredictable or maybe and sadly, predictable results, and in The Two Men, Hardy shows how two men are bound to meet the same destiny having the same schooling and similar inner beliefs.

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My Piano Progress

My previous post was about classical piano music, and I thought I would do a post sharing my thoughts on learning piano from scratch at the age of thirty one without any previous knowledge of music. I first started learning the instrument around January 2020, but I am sad to report that since that time I have practised the piano on and off and even spent whole months without practising (up to four consecutive months without playing once), so my progress has been very slow and protracted. Nevertheless, I did make small progress, finished a couple of beginner books and enjoyed my journey. So, my notes below apply to *absolute adult beginners* and I hope the post will be interesting/useful at least to some of you who are considering picking up this instrument in future.

I. 3 things I wish I knew at the start of my piano-learning journey:

(i) It is important to learn to appreciate simple piano pieces and not try to produce Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata or some complicated piece by Chopin in the first year. Just because a piece of music sounds simple, it does not mean it cannot be beautiful and some Grade 1/2 pieces are just lovely (check out these – Krieger’s Minuet in A Minor, Purcell’s Air in D Minor or Beethoven’s Sonatina in G Major (my personal favourite)). Learning simple songs not only helps to lay down important technique foundation for more complex pieces to come in future, but also boosts confidence. I think no musical piece should be seen as too insignificant or “childish” to play and learning to appreciate the sound of every note/key pressed will go a long way; (ii) linked to the first, is the advice to avoid learning pieces that are way beyond one’s musical level. It is great to challenge oneself once in a while, but most of the time learning a musical piece way beyond one’s ability will be a difficult and disheartening task. Patience is key, and what may take you three months to learn now may be accomplished in three weeks a year or two from now; (iii) learning scales and arpeggios early will be beneficial, not only for exercising hands, but also for recognising and learning key signatures.

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Translated Literature Recommendations

I got inspired to write this post by Feminist Texican Reads. Translated literature remains somewhat under-read and under-appreciated so I have decided to highlight some of my favourite translated-from-a-foreign-language books. I am presenting five categories of five recommendations each and limiting my descriptions to three lines maximum.

Books about:

I. ...touching romance

The Phantom of the Opera [1910] by Gaston Leroux

In 1880s Paris, the Opera House is haunted by the Phantom of the Opera who then seems to form an unlikely friendship with an aspiring lead singer. The 1986 musical is based on this book, and Gaston Leroux is also famous for writing an “impossible crime” story The Mystery of the Yellow Room [1907].

The Maias [1888] by Eça de Queirós

This classic novel from Portugal is a tale about the power of love and friendship focusing on my well-to-do family The Maia. Eça de Queirós (The Crime of Father Amaro [1875]) was the early master of subverting expectations.

The Betrothed [1827/1972] by Alessandro Manzoni

This multi-themed Italian classic tells of a pair of lovers separated by unforeseen circumstances and fighting to preserve their love and faith in the face of oppression, betrayal and despair; see my review here.

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Theatre: Anton Chekhov’s Play Uncle Vanya

Uncle Vanya [1898/2020]

I watched Conor McPherson’s adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s celebrated play Uncle Vanya [1898], filmed at Harold Pinter Theatre in London in 2020. Directed by Ian Rickson and starring such names as Toby Jones (The Painted Veil (2006)), Roger Allam (V for Vendetta (2005)) and Richard Armitage (Hobbit (2012)), the story concerns an aging Professor Serebryakov, his young wife Yelena, his brother-in-law Uncle Vanya (by Serebryakov’s first wife), Serebryakov’s daughter Sonya, his mother-in-law Mariya (also by Serebryakov’s first wife) and a local doctor Astrov, who all try to come to terms with their different stations and situations in life. Uncle Vanya is living comfortably on Serebryakov’s estate, which belongs legally to Sonya, and “does nothing”, but the situation takes a turn for the worse when Professor suddenly announces that he would like to sell the house and the land. The situation is even more complicating because almost all men in the story are infatuated with Serebryakov’s beautiful wife Yelena and tensions soon reach a boiling point. This is a play which hinges on great performances and the cast delivers. This is a stylish and considerate adaptation of the play which has a very human drama at its centre. 

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The “Six in Six” Challenge

The Six in Six meme or, as I call it, challenge, was first proposed and designed by The Book Jotter and now is in its tenth year. This is a challenge to list six bookish categories (the range of categories on offer is immense and can be found here), and, within each, to list six books that answer the question. The idea is that the books selected should reflect the blogger’s reading material of the past six months. As you can see below in my answers, I do not read many new releases and have included non-fiction books alongside fiction. The books listed are in no particular order and, apart from the “movie” categories below, were read by me in the past six months.

I. Six books I have read but not reviewed:

On Parole (1988) by Akira Yoshimura – Though not as good as the author’s Shipwrecks (1982), On Parole is still a thought-provoking book and a penetrating look at one man recently released from prison and trying to adjust to a society he longer recognises. The book was also loosely adapted into a film of 1997 (The Eel), which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

The House on Mango Street (1984) by Sandra Cisneros – This tale is from a little girl, Esperanza, originally from Latin America, who feels uncomfortable living where she does, in a poverty-stricken neighbourhood of Chicago. The merit of the book is the true voice of a child trying to make sense of the world around her.

Butcher’s Crossing (1960) by John Williams – John Williams may be known for his novel Stoner (1965), but he also has other good books beside it. Butcher’s Crossing follows one inexperienced young man circa the 1870s who leaves his comfortable surroundings and education to travel to one forgotten spot on earth – Butcher’s Crossing, Kansas. He soon befriends a local buffalo hunter and walks out to seek adventure in the open, but will he find what he is looking for? This novel has beautiful descriptions of nature and reminded me of Mayne Reid books featuring buffalos which I used to read as a child, but it is also said to be influenced by the philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

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Ballet: Roland Petit’s Notre Dame de Paris

Notre Dame de Paris [1967/2013] 

I watched this 2013 Bolshoi Theatre-Teatro alla Scala production of Roland Petit’s 1967 ballet Notre Dame de Paris, based on the novel of the same name by Victor Hugo. This is a magnificent ballet based on my all-time favourite classic book. Esmeralda is played by Russian ballerina Natalia Osipova, who is currently a principal ballerina at the Royal Ballet in London, and Roberto Bolle, a well-known Italian danseur, is Quasimodo. This avant-garde ballet fuses traditional ballet elements with modern dance techniques, and tells the story of a poor gypsy girl Esmeralda who becomes the object of ardent desire on part of three distinct men: strict priest Claude Frollo, hideous, but kind-hearted bell-ringer Quasimodo and handsome Captain Phoebus. Flamboyant, colourful costumes, designed by no other than Yves Saint Laurent, as well as music by film composer Maurice Jarre (Lawrence of Arabia [1962]) help turn this production into a real feast for the eyes (and ears!), as the ballet also deals in such themes as religious devotion, duty, romantic love and erotic longing.

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Puccini’s Opera: Madama Butterfly

Madama (Madame) Butterfly [1904

This is an opera by Giacomo Puccini, with a libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, based on a short story Madame Butterfly by John Luther Long, which, in turn, was inspired by Pierre Loti’s novel Madame Chrysanthème [1887]. In this story, Lieutenant Pinkerton of the US Navy stationed in Nagasaki marries a fifteen-year old Japanese girl from a once rich, but now impoverished family. Pinkerton is restless, fickle and is simply looking forward to romancing a pretty girl, while Cio-Cio-San (his new wife (Madame Butterfly)) seems to have taken her vows with the same zeal and devotion one takes holy orders. Pinkerton disappears shortly after the wedding, promising to return. But, will he? When the Lieutenant finally decides to return, the situation is far more complicating that either he or Madame Butterfly could imagine. First premiered in Milan in 1905, Madama Butterfly is an opera of great emotional depth and psychological insight. The beautiful music with lots of drama and touches of light charm often accentuates hope born, dashed and then re-born as Madame Butterfly tries to come to terms with her situation throughout the story, clinging desperately to her unreachable western ideal.

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Victory Day: 9th May

Today (9th May) is Victory Day in my native Russia and, as is now “customary” on my blog, I am highlighting notable people and their distinguished actions during the World War II. I would like to to talk about Lyubov Shevtsova and Ulyana Gromova, who were both Soviet partisans and members of Krasnodon’s undercover anti-Nazi organisation The Young Guard. They both received the titles of the Hero of the Soviet Union posthumously. The young (nearly all of them younger than eighteen) members of this organisation became known for their actions that displayed unimaginable bravery, unbelievable stoicism and selfless hard-work fighting Fascism and defending their motherland. This year I would also like to pay tribute to my grandfather, Gennadiy Kovalskiy, by talking about his experience being a paratrooper (military parachutist) during the war.

Lyubov Shevtsova [8 September 1924 – 9 February 1943]

After the start of the war in 1941, Lyubov Shevtsova attended briefly nursing courses and wanted to become a nurse for the Red Army, but was rejected because she was too young. Before the war, she also wanted to be a theatre actress, and even applied to the Rostov university, but the war intervened. So, in 1942, at the age 18, Shevtsova received a qualification of radio-operator (signaller) at the Voroshilovgrad school for the preparation of partisans and undercover agents. She started working undercover for the Young Guard of Voroshilovgrad (Luhansk) and her job involved passing to the Red Army Intelligence Centre the information gathered by the partisans. As a member of The Young Guard, Shevtsova was also conducting spy-work on the enemy, helped Soviet prisoners-of-war to hide from the Nazis, distributed anti-Nazi flyers and sourced medication. She was also involved in the arson of the German Labour Exchange in Krasnodon on 6 December 1942. During this event, a list of about 2000 Krasnodon citizens who were intended for the deportation into Germany was burnt, meaning these people were saved. In 1943, Shevtsova was arrested by the Krasnodon police. The Fascists were actively seeking Shevtsova in particular because she was a Soviet radio-operator and they wanted to know all the transmission codes. Therefore, Shevtsova was subjected to an even longer and more savage than usual torture by the Nazis (source). However, after a month of torture, her interrogators realised that they were wasting their time with Shevtskova because she never said a word. Shevtsova was eventually executed in a forest on 9 February 1943. She met death with dignity and those were allegedly her last words: “…Soviet youth will still see many beautiful springs and gold-leafed autumns. There are peaceful, clear blue skies ahead, as well as lovely full moon nights; there will be good times in our beloved and dear motherland”.

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Detective Fiction Day

Today, 20th April, is the unofficial Detective Fiction Day since on this day in 1841 Edgar Allan Poe’s story The Murders in the Rue Morgue was published by a magazine and many cite it as the world’s first detective story. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, even wrote: “Each [of Poe’s detective stories] is a root from which a whole literature has developed… Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?” So, to celebrate this occasion, I am presenting 15 books (in no particular order) which I reviewed on this blog and which all focus on solving of some murders.

Bird in a Cage (Dard)       The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau (Burnet)

The Axeman’s Jazz (Celestin)       Faceless Killers (Mankell)

The Seven and a Half Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (Turton)

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (Tocarczuk)      The Name of the Rose (Eco) 

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Recent Reading: Short Stories & Novellas

The Duel [1891] by Anton Chekhov – ★★★★★

This is a story that I read in Russian. This novella by Chekhov is set in the Caucasus, near the Black Sea, and tells of Laevsky, a lazy, egoistic, good-for-nothing government official who spends his days playing cards, swimming, drinking, arguing with his mistress and getting deeper into debt. Laevsky is increasingly tired of and frustrated by his mistress, Nadezhda Fedorovna, the wife of another man, and decides “to get rid” of her by going away. However, he starts to understand that he is both out of money and out of friends. On his path then appears Von Koren, a scientist and a man of principles, who does not think twice about challenging Laevsky to a duel.

Chekhov had this incredible talent of conjuring up deep and unforgettable character studies/insights in a very few words and paragraphs, and The Duel is a classic tale of disillusionment, crushed ideals, deceiving appearances and humanity caught in an endless cycle of other people’s opinions and judgement. Everyone “has their own truth” in the story, especially Laevsky, who finds himself at the biggest crossroad in his life, facing the possibility of the weight of harsh reality crushing him. The largest sorrow in life may consist in the actual realisation of the truth of one’s existence and past actions, as well as in the process of brutal self-confrontation. With humour and wit, Chekhov takes a penetrating look at the human nature in The Duel, trying to answer the question whether even self-acknowledged scoundrels like Laevsky could hope for forgiveness and redemption; whether even these people are deserving of hope; and whether even they could also find their place among the virtuous and the good, mending their ways.

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Japanese Short Stories from Akutagawa, Enchi, Endō, Inoue & Kawabata

Meredith at Dolce Bellezza is hosting The Japanese Literature Challenge 14, which takes place from January to March 2021, and this post on five Japanese short stories is my contribution to the challenge (see all the other exciting entries here and for my entries to the previous Japanese Literature Challenge 13 see my reviews here and here).

I. Murder in the Age of Enlightenment [1918] by Ryunosuke Akutagawa ★★★★

This memorable story with confident prose by the “father” of Japanese short stories Akutagawa (Hell Screen [1918]) is told through a letter and diary entries written by one young man to Viscount and Viscountess Honda. The story’s unreliable narration that deludes the truth and makes motives questionable introduces us to one hidden obsession as we plunge deep into the psyche of one disturbed man. If Akutagawa’s short story The Spider’s Thread [1918] relied on Dostoyevsky’s story of a woman and an onion from The Brothers Karamazov [1879], here we also see certain close similarities with other works. The story starts close to The Sorrows of Young Werther [1774] by Goethe (unrequited, forbidden and passionate love/drastic action), but finishes very similarly to Doctor Glas [1905] by Hjalmar Söderberg (doctor/mental torment/similar action taken to secure the future of a beloved woman). I read this story in Murder in The Age of Enlightenment (Essential Stories) by Ryunosuke Akutagawa [translated by Bryan Karetnyk, Pushkin Press 2020].

Continue reading “Japanese Short Stories from Akutagawa, Enchi, Endō, Inoue & Kawabata”

12 Favourite Books From My Childhood

I saw this meme at Golden Books Girl and the original author is The Broke and and the Bookish. It challenges one to name 10 favourite books from one’s childhood (I listed 12 because why not). Although my childhood was spent in Russia, I read a lot of books from foreign-language authors (translated to Russian, of course). I did not read Harry Potter as a child since when I finally got my hands on a translated-to-Russian edition of the first book (probably in the very early 2000s) I was already in the “middle adolescence” age group. My childhood and YA books were generally fairy-tales and adapted-to-a-young-reader stories of Charles Dickens (Oliver Twist), Jack London (The Sea-Wolf), Robert Louis Stevenson (The Black Arrow), Jules Verne (Journey to the Centre of the Earth) and Mayne Reid (Osceola the Seminole). I also read a lot of Agatha Christie when I was in middle school. So, in no particular order:

I. The Wind in the Willows [1908] by Kenneth Graham

I had a very colourfully-illustrated version of this book, and though I don’t remember much of the plot now, I do recall its vivid characters: Mole, Rat, Mr. Toad & Mr. Badger, as well as a sense of adventure. The book has some moral messages (such as on the importance of friendship), and fosters a sense of wonder at nature (the setting is a riverbank).

Continue reading “12 Favourite Books From My Childhood”

Science Fiction Day

Today (2 January) is the National Science Fiction Day (US), which also corresponds to the birthday of famous sci-fi author Isaac Asimov (1920 – 1992). This is a day to celebrate all things sci-fi, from films and books to art and shows. Therefore, I have taken this opportunity to highlight below 10 sci-fi books (in no particular order) that I reviewed over the course of a last couple of years (these also include “dystopia”). Also, see my list of favourite sci-fi books.

Solaris (Stanislaw Lem)       The Memory Police (Yoko Ogawa)

A Scanner Darkly (Philip. K. Dick)       A Maze of Death (Philip. K. Dick)

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (Philip. K. Dick)        Dr Bloodmoney (Philip. K. Dick)

Continue reading “Science Fiction Day”

Recommendations to Boost the Christmas Spirit!

I haven’t done a post of this nature before, but this year I have been very much in the mood for Christmas-related things, activities, videos and posts (especially given how stressful this year has been given the still-ongoing global…health situation). In this post, I would like to suggest a number of (i) books, (ii) films, (iii) animations, (iv) music and (v) ambience videos to boost everyone’s Christmas spirit and hopefully make the holidays even cosier/happier! I am limiting myself to three recommendations for each of the categories.

  • Books: (i) Hercule Poirot’s Christmas [1938] by Agatha Christie – I love reading mysteries come Christmas time because of the atmosphere of cosiness. This book by the Queen of Crime is a wonderful one to get anyone into the festive spirit since the events in the book take place over a Christmas Eve; (ii) A Surprise for Christmas: And Other Seasonal Mysteries (British Library Crime Classics) [2020] – I have not read this one yet, but am planning to do so very soon and have heard very good things about it. The book contains stories by Julian Symons, G. K. Chesterton, Carter Dickson, Martin Edwards and others, and they all revolve around Christmas time: “A Postman murdered while delivering cards on Christmas morning“, “A Christmas pine growing over a forgotten homicide”, etc.; (iii) The Night Before Christmas [1831] by Nikolai Gogol. This classic tale is about the adventures of Vakula, the blacksmith, as he battles the devil. The devil stole the moon above the village of Dikanka, and the blacksmith and the devil compete for the heart of the same beautiful young girl.
Continue reading “Recommendations to Boost the Christmas Spirit!”

Thoughts on Non-Fiction

Since November is designated for the Non-Fiction Reading Challenge, I thought I would talk about my favourite non-fiction genres and my experience of reading non-fiction books. The only non-fiction genre which I love but will not cover below is medicine/cognitive science. It will be the topic of my next post and I also previously covered it in this list here.

This new book on my TBR list traces the history of human movement on water

Some of my favourite non-fiction books fall into the categories of history and travel (culture exploration). Be it dinosaurs (The Rise & Fall of the Dinosaurs), the Middle Ages (A Distant Mirror) or stories of survival in hostile terrains (Miracle in the Andes), I find all these topics completely fascinating. My previous favourite reads also included books on Mexico, New Orleans, New York and Rome. Though some I enjoyed more than others (for example, I did not get along with Peter Mayne’s Marrakesh book nor with Kurlansky’s Havana), I am always keeping my eyes open for interesting books in these categories. Thus, I am currently looking forward to reading A History of the Bible by John Barton, The Ghost: A Cultural History by Susan Owens, The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans by David Abulafia, and Medieval Civilisation 400-1500 by Jacques Le Goff, an author that was recommended to me by Ola G.

Continue reading “Thoughts on Non-Fiction”

Japanese Literature Recommendations for Each Zodiac Sign

I got my idea for this post from youtuber A Little Bit of Monika who made a post recommending different Studio Ghibli films to her followers based on their zodiac (star) signs. Given the twelve star signs that exist (and their characteristics), I will also try to recommend 12 Japanese fiction books to each of the twelve star signs.

ARIES (March 21 – April 19)

Aries will always be up for an adventure and an exciting action. Therefore, Eiji Yoshikawa’s Musashi [1939] may be a perfect read for them because the book is all about an adventure revolving around an unlikely warrior Musashi. Being confident, courageous, energetic, as well as a natural leader, Aries could identify with the book and its characters.

TAURUS (April 20 – May 20)

Taurus is stable, reliable and devoted. They can be very family-oriented, as well as appreciative of beauty and tradition. Therefore, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters [1936] could be a good read for them since they will enjoy all the practical, day-to-day intricacies and familial values/duties than the book tries to present. The Makioka Sisters takes place in Japan from the years 1936 to 1941 and focuses on one’s family’s attempts to marry off Yukiko, already a thirty year old woman who remains woefully unmarried. Given Taurus’s patience and determination, I trust them to finish the 576-page book, finding it significant.

Continue reading “Japanese Literature Recommendations for Each Zodiac Sign”

Imagining Menus from Books

I have been thinking (again) about the place of food in books recently, and I thought it would be fun to make a post where I would try to imagine and devise culinary menus from books, and also come up with objects and particular atmosphere based on a number of books that I’ve read, trying to evoke the particular aesthetics of the books chosen. My selected books are Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book, Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Yasunari Kawabata’s The Old Capital.

I. The Black Book [1990/2005] by Orhan Pamuk

Atmosphere:

Snow-covered Istanbul of the 1990s and 1960s: lonely streets and cold apartments.

What to bring:

Childhood memories, unresolved issues, newspaper clippings, old photographs, a mirror & green boll-point pen.

MENU

Drink: Turkish coffee or cold ayran (a yogurt drink mixed with salt);

Starter: Tomato soup (domates çorbası) or a plate of grilled meatballs (koftas);

Main: Lamb with basmati rice flavoured with cinnamon, mint and apricot, and a carrot salad;

Dessert: Quince dessert (ayva tatlısı).

Continue reading “Imagining Menus from Books”

The 15th Readers Imbibing Peril Reading Challenge

My favourite time of the year has started, and this year I have decided to start the Readers Imbibing Peril Reading Challenge earlier than usual. This is because, firstly, yes, I am impatient to delve into all those exciting scary books, and, secondly, I want to have plenty of time to decide what I want read for this challenge, and then read and review those books. This year I spotted this challenge at Robin’s A Fondness for Reading (it was first started by Carl V), and the goal is to read a certain number of books associated with the Halloween season. This year I am planning to read at least four books in one or more of the following categories: horror, thriller, mystery, dark fantasy and the supernatural. I have not yet decided on specific books, but I will definitely be reading something from both Daphne du Maurier and Shirley Jackson. Are you participating in this challenge this year? What authors or books are you planning to read?

Victory Day: 9th May

It is Victory Day in Russia (my homeland), and I thought I would post a tribute especially since today marks 75 years since the defeat of Nazi Germany and the end of the World War II in Europe. My grandparents lived through the WWII (for example, my grandfather on my mother’s side was a paratrooper (a military parachutist) and was involved in many WWII operations and my grandmother on my mother’s side worked in trenches). Some heroic actions are less evident than others and some heroes remain either unknown or forgotten. I have always found it touching when children or young teenagers distinguished themselves as heroes of war. Although there were many such examples, below, I would like to briefly talk about Zinaida Portnova. 

Zinaida Portnova [20 February 1926 – 15 January 1944] Zinaida Portnova

Zinaida was an active member of the anti-fascist youth organisation of Obol, a town now in Belarus. From 1942 (at the age of fifteen), she was a Committee member of the Obol undercover organisation “Young Avengers”. When she worked in one Nazi canteen, she poisoned soup meant for Nazi Officers which led to the deaths of many Nazis (over one hundred), and to prove that she did not, she ate the soup herself and miraculously survived. She then worked on many undercover operations that involved the undercover bombing of Nazi vehicles and distinguished herself in many other ways. When she was captured and interrogated by the Gestapo, the source says she snatched a pistol from the interrogation table and then killed three Nazi interrogators who meant to torture her for information. She escaped that room, but was then recaptured, tortured and shot (source I and source II). For her courage and heroism in fighting the fascists, she was posthumously awarded the title of the Hero of the Soviet Union.

I am concluding this post with this arrangement by Patrik Pietschmann of the Schindler’s List (1993) soundtrack composed by John Williams.

3 Aspects of Japanese Culture and Tradition

Since I am currently learning Japanese, as well as participating in the Japanese Literature Challenge, I thought I would talk more about Japan, and its culture and tradition. Below, I will briefly and very generally highlight 3 aspects of the traditional culture of Japan which I find fascinating.

kitsune statuteI. Inari Shrines

Inari is a deity (a Shinto God) associated with foxes, rice, prosperity and household-wellbeing. There are many Inari shrines in Japan (close to 3000!) since this deity is much respected in the country (rice, as well as its protection, is very important). The origin of this worshipping goes back to ancient times, and both Shinto and Buddhist traditions have this deity in their ranks. Inari’s messenger and guardian is a fox or kitsune (a fox in Japanese) – probably because foxes were traditionally seen as rodent-eating creatures who help to preserve rice. Thus, often, you can find small kitsune statues near the shrines, under which one can leave their offering to the spirit in the form of cooked rice soaked in rice liquor (inari-zushi). No statue of kitsune resembles any other, and there is a great variety of them. It is said that Inari shrines even have symbolic holes somewhere so that spirit foxes may have an ease of access to the shrine. There is also a special festival called Motomiya-sai (“Main Shrine Festival”) held during the summer at Fushimi Inari-taisha or the head shrine of Inari in Fushimi-ku, Kyoto to celebrate this kami (or a spirit in Japanese).  Continue reading “3 Aspects of Japanese Culture and Tradition”

500 Followers Reached + Thank you! + Latin Quotes on Friendship & Reading

followed-blog-500-2xWordPress informed me that I reached 500 followers on my blog, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank all my followers and readers for following me, and reading and commenting on my posts! I am also pleased that people are “liking” my travel, art and general culture posts, and not only my book-related content. To “celebrate” this milestone, I am sharing a couple of quotes by Seneca, who was a Roman Stoic philosopher, on friendship and reading. 

Lectio certa prodest, varia delectat” –  “A limited list of reading benefits; a varied assortment serves only for delight/pleasure” or “Desultory reading is delightful, but to be beneficial, our reading must be carefully directed.” (It is quality rather than quantity in our reading that matters).

Non refert quam multos sed quam bonos libros habeas ac legas” – “It matters not how many, but how good books you have, and that you read them“.

Cum his versare, qui te meliorem facturi sunt” – “Spend time with people who will make you a better person”. Lucius Annaeus Seneca

My Life in Books: 2019

I saw this bookish meme on Laura, Rachel & Callum’s blogs and have decided to post my answers to it, too (the creator of this tag is Roof Beam Reader). The rule is that you must use only books you have read this year to answer the questions below without repeating any of the book titles. It looks like my version of this tag came off much darker than I initially intended it to be (so my answers contain dark humour). As usual, I am not tagging anyone, and anyone is free to participate. 

In high school I was Quantum Enigma (Bruce Rosenblum & Fred Kuttner)

People might be surprised by The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt (Toby Wilkinson)

I will never be The Architect’s Apprentice (Elif Shafak)

My fantasy job is The Editor (Steven Rowley) – not really, but it fits! Continue reading “My Life in Books: 2019”

The Year of the Asian Reading Challenge – Completed!

year of the asian reading challenge

I am happy to inform my followers that I have completed my Year of the Asian Reading Challenge for 2019. My initial, very modest, goal was to read 12 books by Asian authors in 2019, and I managed to read 15 (coupled with time pressure and my other reading challenges). I know that there is still one month left before this challenge officially expires, but since I do not plan on reading Asian authors in December, I thought I would make an official concluding announcement. My mascot for this challenge was an Indian cobra (corresponding to the level of between 11 and 20 books), and, in 2019, I read authors from the following six countries: South Korea, Pakistan, Japan, China, India and Afghanistan. The books that impressed be the most during this challenge came from the Japanese writers Kobo Abe (The Woman in the Dunes/The Face of Another), Durian Sukegawa (Sweet Bean Paste), Akira Yoshimura (Shipwrecks) and Yoko Ogawa (The Memory Police), as well as from the Chinese-born author Eileen Chang (Half a Lifelong Romance). Below are all the books with the corresponding links to reviews.  Continue reading “The Year of the Asian Reading Challenge – Completed!”

José Saramago (16 November 1922 – 18 June 2010)

Jose Saramago PictureSome of my favourite and most beloved people were born in November (my twin brother too!), as well as a parade of my favourite authors: Albert Camus (7th), Kazuo Ishiguro (8th), Margaret Mitchell (8th), Kurt Vonnegut (11th), Robert Louis Stevenson (13th), Vera Caspary (13th), Arundhati Roy (24th), etc. Jose Saramago, a Portuguese author and a Nobel Prize winner, is known for his through-provoking fiction stories that often ask philosophical questions and detail interesting psychological situations. My favourite books of his are The Cave [2000], The Double [2002], Blindness [1995] and Death with Interruptions [2005], which I all recommend.

“Some people spend their entire lives reading but never get beyond reading the words on the page, they don’t understand that the words are merely stepping stones placed across a fast-flowing river, and the reason they’re there is so that we can reach the farther shore, it’s the other side that matters.”

“Words that come from the heart are never spoken, they get caught in the throat and can only be read in one’s eyes” (José Saramago).

Robert Louis Stevenson (13 November 1850 – 3 December 1894)

dl-portrait-npg-robert-louis-stevenson Today marks 169 years since the birth of Robert Louis Stevenson, a Scottish author behind such books as Treasure Island [1883], Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hide [1886], Kidnapped [1886] and The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses [1888]. I started reading his books at a very early age and continue to admire Stevenson’s power of imagination and a sense of wonder in his books and short stories. He has also been admired by many famous writers, including Henry James, Ernest Hemingway and Vladimir Nabokov, who included Stevenson’s tale Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hide in his famous Lectures on Literature. 

To become what we are capable of becoming is the only end in life” 

Life is not a matter of holding good cards, but of playing a poor hand well

“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant” (Robert Louis Stevenson).

The 14th Readers Imbibing Peril Reading Challenge

rip14 imageIt is not long now until that spooky period of the year begins when we have to be careful if we do not want to become victims of witches, goblins and vampires. Halloween has always been my favourite festivity, maybe because I was born near this period and have always been fascinated by mysteries and the unknown. Thus, this year I have decided to participate in The Fourteenth Readers Imbibing Peril (R.I.P.) Reading Challenge hosted by Andi, and this challenge is all about reading books of mystery, horror, dark fantasy, or the supernatural. There are numerous levels of participation, such as Peril on the Screen and Peril of the Short Story, and I am going for Peril The First which means my goal is to read four books of any length in the broad horror genre in the month of October 2019. I do not have a preliminary list of books, but I do have a goal to cover the works of Shirley Jackson and Edgar Allan Poe. Does this challenge sound interesting to you? Would you like to participate?

The “Appalachian States” Reading Challenge

Sunrise over Appalachian Mountains in Autumn

I have set myself a challenge to read books set in the “Appalachian States” in the United States (since I cannot possibly take up the challenge of reading 50 books set in all 50 different states). For those who do not know, Appalachia is a “cultural region in the Eastern US that stretches roughly from New York to Northern Georgia”. I reside in the UK and, so, it will be interesting for me to discover and learn about life in some American states through literature, as well as bring visibility to that part of the world. I am especially interested in small and remote American towns. Continue reading “The “Appalachian States” Reading Challenge”

Mozart’s Opera: The Magic Flute

The Magic Flute Poster The Magic Flute [1791] 

This opera (see this great production) was composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and is based on a libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder. The opera premiered in 1791, just two months before the composer’s demise. The story is about the adventure of Prince Tamino and bird-catcher Papageno in the kingdom of Sarastro, after the Queen of the Night persuaded Tamino to rescue her daughter Pamina. The Magic Flute was pretty much the product of its time, encompassing humanistic messages which stress the victory of reason and love over vulgarities and superstitions. Notoriously, Mozart is said to have incorporated some “secrets” of Freemasonry into his opera, especially those connected with the initiation process (such as a trial by four elements), see some explanation here. Indeed, the opera is all about mystical symbolism as it fuses family drama, “striving for social utopia” ideas, fantasy and humour. Exotic settings and elements, transformations and miracles also form part of this opera. Continue reading “Mozart’s Opera: The Magic Flute”

The Colour Coded Reading Challenge

Color Coded Reading ChallengeRecently, I have been looking for other reading challenges to sign up to this year (I am already participating in the YARC 2019), and I came across this fun reading challenge hosted by My Reader’s Block The Colour Coded Book Challenge. 

The challenge is to read nine books in the following categories in 2019: 

I. A book with “Blue” or any shade of Blue (Turquoise, Aquamarine, Navy, etc.) in the title/on the cover.
II. A book with “Red” or any shade of Red (Scarlet, Crimson, Burgandy, etc.) in the title/on the cover.
III. A book with “Yellow” or any shade of Yellow (Gold, Lemon, Maize, etc.) in the title/on the cover.
IV. A book with “Green” or any shade of Green (Emerald, Lime, Jade, etc.) in the title/on the cover.
V. A book with  “Brown” or any shade of Brown (Tan, Beige, Sand, etc.) in the title/on the cover.
VI. A book with “Black” or any shade of Black (Jet, Ebony, Charcoal, etc.) in the title/on the cover.
VII. A book with “White” or any shade of White (Ivory, Eggshell, Cream, etc.) in the title/on the cover.
VIII. A book with any other colour in the title/on the cover (Purple, Orange, Silver, Magenta, Pink, etc.).
IX. A book with a word that implies colour in the title/on the cover (Rainbow, Polka-dot, Plaid, Shadow, Paint, Ink, etc.).

I will monitor my progress on this page, and to make this challenge more difficult for myself, I will be reviewing solely those books that have colour in their title. Everyone is welcome to join since the sign-up lasts until November 2019 and there is a links headquarters provided where your reviews can go according to a particular colour.

Six Degrees of Separation – from Pride & Prejudice to The Name of the Rose

It is time for another Six Degrees of Separation post, which I first saw on Books are My Favourite and Best. I propose that there are six links connecting the above books, follow me:

Pride & Prejudice is my favourite novel by Jane Austen, but did you know that it was originally titled First Impressions? Another classic book which changed its title before publication is The Great Gatsby. F. Scott Fitzgerald seriously considered naming his book Trimalchio in West Egg, among other titles.  Continue reading “Six Degrees of Separation – from Pride & Prejudice to The Name of the Rose”

The Year of the Asian Reading Challenge 2019

This week I heard about The Year of the Asian Reading Challenge (YARC) 2019, organised by the amazing bloggers from Shut Up, Shealea, The Quiet Pond, Sprinkles of Dreams, & Vicky Who Reads, and cannot help but join the celebration of Asian authors. The challenge is to read as many books as possible written by Asian authors, and this is a great challenge because there are tons of books by Asian writers, which are just amazing and deserve more recognition. 

cobraFor this challenge I am going for a very modest goal of reading 12 books by Asian authors by the end of the year, and will be updating my progress on this page. This is because I am already participating in my other personal reading challenge on travel, and have too many to-be-read books that have been on my shelf for far too long. As I am going for 12 books, my “mascot” for this challenge is an Indian cobra, representing a challenge to read between 11 and 20 books. I strongly urge everyone else to join this challenge, because there will be monthly prompts, link-ups, as well as interesting discussions and exciting giveways. 

Six Degrees of Separation – from News of the World to The Woman in the Window

I saw this meme on the Books are My Favourite and Best blog, and decided to give it a go. The idea is that books are linked to one another in some way and there are “six degrees” to their separation. This is taken from the idea by Frigyes Karinthy that everyone is separated from everyone else in this world by six links. Since my previous book review was for News of the World, I am deciding to start there. 

Paulette Jiles’s News of the World is an understated adventure story of quiet power and beauty, involving the relationship between two people, and that brings to my mind the novel by Jack London – The Sea Wolf. I read this classic book translated to Russian when I was very young, but what I remember distinctly is the unparalleled sense of sea adventure. In this story, one young man is rescued by another ship captained by Wolf Larsen, a ruthless man, and our main character is forced to play by Captain’s rules if he wants to survive.  Continue reading “Six Degrees of Separation – from News of the World to The Woman in the Window”