January 2022 Wrap-Up

The Magic Mountain [1924/27] by Thomas Mann – ★★★★★

This is the best book I read this month. It is an unforgettable literary journey through the psyche of a man trapped in a comfortable sanatorium high in the Swiss Alpes (see my full review).

Havoc [1930/68] by Tom Kristensen ★★★★1/2

This Danish classic also exceeded my expectations – a dark existential novel about a man suffering from alcoholism and balancing on the edge of abyss (see my full review).

Black Narcissus [1939] by Rumer Godden – ★★★★1/2

In this atmospheric novel, an Anglican order of nuns sets up a nunnery high in the Himalayan mountains, in a palace where once the local General led his dissipated lifestyle. Sister Superior Clodagh leads her charge of devoted Sisters and they soon establish a school and a dispensary on the premises. A “battle of the sexes” ensures when charismatic Mr. Dean, the General’s Agent and the local “bad boy”, starts helping the Sisters with their tasks, while also making them flushed and uncomfortable. The splendid vistas from the convent, the brazenness of the local people and all the colours and aromas of India soon prove too much for the Sisters, some of whom start having thoughts that are far from God and their religious duty. The claustrophobia heightens, sexual tensions abound, passions and dissatisfactions break out, and then one act of jealousy may just undermine the reputation of the whole order. This is a beautiful, tightly-woven tale about a duty/desire clash set in one exotic place.

Continue reading “January 2022 Wrap-Up”

September 2021 Wrap-Up

White Nights [1848] by Fyodor Dostoyevsky★★★★★

…he is an artist of his own life and creates it himself every hour to suit his latest whim“. I loved Jayshree (Literary Gitane)’s review of this short novella by Dostoyevsky and have also decided to read it (but in the original Russian language). The story takes place over a period of four nights, and our narrator is one dreamy young man who wanders the streets of St Petersburg feeling lonely, alienated from everyone and experiencing a strange sense of dread, anxiety and abandonment. His chance encounter with a kind seventeen year old girl named Nastenka suddenly gives his life a new meaning and purpose, a new direction into which he can pour all his buried tender feelings. Just a night after their first meeting, the narrator and Nastenka open up their very souls to each other, sharing with each other their deepest and most secret thoughts and feelings, but to a what (disastrous) end?

Continue reading “September 2021 Wrap-Up”

June 2021 Wrap-Up

The Minds of Billy Milligan [1981] by Daniel Keyes ★★★★1/2

This was my best read of June. The Minds of Billy Milligan is a true story of Billy Milligan, a man who once had twenty-four personalities living inside him. The author of Flowers for Algernon takes the reader on an entrancing journey into a fractured mind.

Who Was Rosa Parks? [2010] by Yona Zeldis McDonough, Nancy Harrison & Stephen Marchesi – ★★★★1/2

…a bus seat may seem like a little thing. But it wasn’t. It represented something big[McDonough, 2010: 47].

This series of books illustrates the lives of notable people for children. Rosa Parks was an American activist known for her involvement in the civil rights movement, in particular, in the Montgomery bus boycott. She is famous for saying “no” to a demand to give her seat to a white passenger on a bus in 1955. Her quiet courage which led to big changes won the world’s admiration. This children’s book with illustrations starts by talking about Rosa as a small child living in segregated Alabama and then moves on to talk about Rosa changing various schools and finally becoming a secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), as well as “one of few women in the civil rights movement” [2010: 36] at that time. I liked the fact that the book talked about Claudette Colvin too, a fifteen year old girl, who refused to give her seat to one white passenger months before Parks’s refusal, but she never made any headlines. The book explains such concepts as Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow Laws to older children/young teenagers, and emphasises the extent of the control exercised over black people’s lives at that time, as well as the inherent injustice implicit in the rules governing bus conduct and seating arrangements in the 1950s Alabama.

Continue reading “June 2021 Wrap-Up”

April 2021 Wrap-Up

An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth [1929/48] by Mohandas K. Gandhi – ★★★★★

In this frank, unputdownable autobiography, Mahatma Gandhi talks about his life, from his upbringing in India (including child marriage) and travel to the UK (to study law) to actions in India, and thoughts on everything, from his relationship with his wife, to the WWI, religion and racism. I particularly appreciated book passages on his vegetarianism and Gandhi’s comments on introversion. Rather than it being a weakness or some “fault”, it helped him to establish that “quiet power” to conquer hearts and minds, and try to lead people to a better life; a very philosophical and deeply honest book with important life lessons.

Letter from an Unknown Woman [1922] by Stefan Zweig – ★★★★★

This short novella was a heart-breaking read and probably goes well with the film of the same name by Max Ophüls. It is as much a story of hidden and forbidden passion as it is a tale about coming to terms with life disappointments and acknowledging people affected by one’s spur-of-the-moment whims and short-lived desires.

Continue reading “April 2021 Wrap-Up”

January 2021 Wrap-Up

The Glass Menagerie [1944] by Tennessee Williams – ★★★★★

Tennessee Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire [1947]) published his partly-autobiographical play The Glass Menagerie in 1944 and this debut became an instant theatrical success. The play has only a handful of main characters, and centres on Amanda, a domineering mother to her two grown-up children – quietly rebellious Tom and completely submissive and “hopeless” Laura who “lives in a world of her own”. When Tom arranges for “a young gentleman caller” to come over for dinner so that he can meet Laura, the family’s hidden neuroses and insecurities come to the surface. Still reliving her years as a southern belle (probably as a way to cope with the Depression era realities), Amanda “overpowers” each individual around her, and her children devised special strategies to deal with their mother’s encroachment, and general isolation and loneliness. If Tom “goes to the movies” and drinks, Amanda’s unmarried and disabled daughter Laura retreats in her own imaginary world of glass figurines (which stand for the fragile world of dreams that is about to be shattered by brutal reality).

Continue reading “January 2021 Wrap-Up”

December 2020 Wrap-Up

The Woodlanders [1887] by Thomas Hardy ★★★★★

In this novel by Thomas Hardy, Grace Melbury is torn between her feelings for simple farmer Giles Winterborne and her emotions towards sophisticated doctor Edred Fitzpiers. Evoking the beauty of rural life and nature, Hardy paints in his story a powerful image of imperfect characters who find themselves in circumstances beyond their immediate control. Themes of unbridgeable class divide, marriage confines and the negative effects of growing industrialisation all feature in this great novel by Hardy.

Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death [1985/1998] by Yoel Hoffmann ★★★★★

I cleansed the mirror/of my heart – now it reflects/the moon [Renseki, 1789];

“A tune of non-being/filling the void:/spring sun/snow whiteness/bright clouds/clear wind” [Daido Ichi’i, 1370].

Japan has always stood unique in the world in its attitudes towards death, including death taboos and rituals, and there was a centuries’ old tradition in Japan to write “death/final farewell poems” (jisei). This well-researched book compiles these poems written by both traditional haiku writers and zen monks, and some of the poems in the book have been translated to English for the first time. If poems by zen monks are full of (hidden) meaning and profound philosophy, poems by traditional haiku poets are more evocative. The book is a “must-read” for anyone interested in Japanese haiku (a type of short form poetry) or Zen Buddhism (because the introduction by the author also elucidates on many complex Zen Buddhism concepts, quoting direct sources and providing numerous examples).

Continue reading “December 2020 Wrap-Up”

November 2020 Wrap-Up

Hell Screen [1918/1948] by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa – ★★★★★

This is a short story by “the father of the Japanese short story” who is probably best known for such short stories as Rashomon [1915] and In a Grove [1922]. Said to be the reworking of the Uji Shūi Monogatari, Japanese tales written in the thirteenth century, Hell Screen tells the story of Yoshihide, an eccentric painter and allegedly a despicable human being, who resides at the court of one powerful Lord Horikawa. When the Lord requests Yoshihide to paint the picture of Hell, the artist takes this request too close to heart. Moreover, slowly, Yoshihide’s beautiful daughter becomes the centre of the newest rumour and intrigue. Akutagawa’s story may be short, but it also evokes the most powerful imagery. The author was a master of story-telling, and in this story we are presented with vivid descriptions that he also coupled with the peculiarly Japanese literary minimalism. The outcome is one disturbing, unforgettable story of obsession and damnation. I read Hell Screen thanks to the amazing post by Juan Gómez-Pintado titled “10 Extraordinary Tales of Terror“.

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September 2020 Wrap-Up

A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie [2015] by Kathryn Harkup ★★★★★

When it comes to morbidly-curious books, it does not get better that this book. The author takes a deep look into all the poisons that Agatha Christie used in her books to “kill off” her “victims”, and the result is a read that both fascinates and informs – Full Review.

Doctor Glas [1905/1963] by Hjalmar Söderberg★★★★1/2

Truth is like the sun, its value depends wholly upon our being at a correct distance away from it” [Söderberg/Austen, 1905/1963: 138].

This little novel is a Swedish classic written in a diary form from the perspective of one dutiful doctor Tyko Gabriel Glas. He is a rather lonely and introverted individual who is used to handle expertly delicate matters of city inhabitants. That is, until he meets the charming wife of one “repulsive” priest Rev. Gregorius. As he gets entangled in the affairs of this couple, the doctor also starts rethinking his stance on life and his thoughts turn darker. Soon, torn between his medical ethics and objective morality on the one hand, and his rising sense of injustice and romantic emotions on the other, Doctor Glas is quite ready to commit the unthinkable. Deemed highly controversial upon its release in 1905, this tale of obsession, suppressed emotions, sexual frustration and jealousy is now rightly considered to be a national classic. Existential angst and hidden psychological torments mingle ominously within the pages, with the author making a sober, but surprisingly potent statement on the power of the unconscious in human actions and condition.

Continue reading “September 2020 Wrap-Up”

July 2020 Wrap-Up

Le Père Goriot [1835/1991] by Honoré de Balzac – ★★★★★   

This French classic lived up to my high expectations and even went beyond them. This is a tale of Eugène de Rastignac, a young man from countryside, who gets entangled in some tricky situations while chasing his coveted place at the very top of Parisian high society. Impoverished Father Goriot may just force the young man to rethink his quick and morally-dubious leap to success.

The Betrothed [1827/1942] by Alessandro Manzoni – ★★★★★    

This tale of two lovers separated by circumstances may remind of Romeo & Juliet, but there is more here than first meets the eye: colourful characters include the Unnamed, the Nun of Monza and Cardinal Federigo Borromeo, and it so happens that Renzo and Lucia must face a plague, a city in revolt and a war before even thinking about any reunion. This is a true Italian classic.

Continue reading “July 2020 Wrap-Up”

May 2020 Wrap-Up

Stoner [1965] – ★★★★1/2 

This American classic by John Williams is a great, even if heart-breaking read. It tells the story of Stoner, a university professor, as he finds his way through life. He means to lead a simple life, but certain tragedies and disappointments in it get the better of him. The book is beautifully-written and is a quiet meditation on life and its meaning. The book can be compared to Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure [1895] and to Jack London’s Martin Eden [1909].  Continue reading “May 2020 Wrap-Up”

March 2020 Wrap-Up

The Way of Zen [1957] by Alan Watts – ★★★★★

I thought The Way of Zen was a great introduction to the concept of Zen and its origins. The book does not just talk of hard-to-grasp notions within Zen, but also explains the application of Zen to such arts as poetry, painting and gardening. 

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West [1970] by Dee Brown – ★★★★1/2

“They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one: they promised to take our land, and they took it“. Brown wrote a detailed and engaging book showing the history of the American West from the point of view of the Native American population. From Columbus who described native people as “so tractable, so peaceful” [1970: 1] to the battle of Black Rock, Brown’s account is an important read even though emotional as the story is filled with all kinds of injustice that have been committed against the native population. The book shows the bravery of individual American Indian leaders who simply tried to defend their people and land against the onslaught of white settlers and numerous unfair treaties. Native people were caught in the senselessness, savagery and greed of white settlers who were after more productive land and precious metals and who wanted either to convert Native Americans to their own ways, leave them to die in hostile conditions or simply eliminate them leading to hundreds of thousands of lives destroyed through hunger, combat, murder or plagues only in one broad region of the Americas.  Continue reading “March 2020 Wrap-Up”

January 2020 Wrap-Up

Amulet [1999/2006] by Roberto Bolaño – ★★★★★

Amulet impressed me the most in January, and this is only my second novel by Roberto Bolaño. This story is told by Auxilio Lacouture, a woman who proclaims herself to be “the mother of Mexican poetry” and who is friends with up-and-coming poets, writers and artists in Mexico City. When she is left stranded in an empty and already raided by the army university, she starts to reminisce, opening to us the world which is both imaginative and realistic, artful and honest, uplifting and dark.

The Belly of Paris [1873/2007] by Emile Zola ★★★★1/2

I cannot believe that the following two prominent classics on my list ended up below Roberto Bolaño’s Amulet, but here we go. The Belly of Paris, translated by Brian Nelson, tells of Florent, an escaped political prisoner, who arrives to Paris and tries to settle down with his half-brother’s family. He seems to be a newcomer who unwittingly disrupts the usual flow of life in the area. Zola shows the plight of the working-class in the city, and his descriptions of Les Halles, once a famed food market, are sumptuous and exquisitely-rendered. The characters are also interesting and the atmosphere is conveyed, even if the plot itself requires some patience.  Continue reading “January 2020 Wrap-Up”

October 2019 Wrap-Up

The Memory Police [1994/2019] by Yōko Ogawa – ★★★★★

This book is the one that surprised me the most this month. I found myself enchanted and slightly disturbed by Ogawa’s world of disappearing objects. It was very interesting to read about the uncertainty and characters’ determination to live normal lives despite the disappearances and the Memory Police’s harassment.

The Face of Another [1964] by Kōbō Abe – ★★★★★ 

Kōbō Abe’s unusual book proved to be a great read for me. When a scientist in this story becomes facially disfigured, he vows to become “normal” again and have a face to fit into the Japanese society again. Abe explores the mental torment of someone who no longer sees himself as part of a society, making insightful observations on the power of personal transformation. 
Continue reading “October 2019 Wrap-Up”

August 2019 Wrap-Up

Half a Lifelong Romance [1950] by Eileen Chang  ★★★★★

This novel, which was first serialised in a Shanghai newspaper in the 1950s under the title Eighteen Springs, tells the story of Gu Manzhen and Shen Shijun, their respective families, and how their love is being subdued by various circumstances arising in their lives. I did not have any expectations about this book prior to reading it, and found the story “quietly powerful” and very touching. Continue reading “August 2019 Wrap-Up”

June 2019 Wrap-Up

Miracle in the Andes [2006] by Nando Parrado ★★★★★

This non-fiction book impressed me the most in June. Nando Parrado tells of his survival journey when he became one of the people breathing after their plane crashed high in the mountains of Andes in 1972. Parrado and others had to confront and battle inhumane conditions to stay alive and then finally have the courage to venture outside their crash site to seek help. Parrado’s account is modest, moving and unforgettable – this book will stay with me for a long time. 

A Visit to Don Otavio: A Mexican Odyssey [1953] by Sybille Bedford ★★★★1/2

Sybille Bedford wrote about her experience of Mexico in the early 1950s in the format of an exciting story full of larger-than-life characters and colourful descriptions. Insightful, humorous and beautifully-written, Bedford’s account of her journey throughout Mexico is a true classic of travel writing.  Continue reading “June 2019 Wrap-Up”

May 2019 Wrap-Up

This is Bessie Head’s debut novel and what a debut it is! Set in Botswana, the story tells of a refugee from South Africa Makhaya who, together with idealistic Englishman Gilbert Balfour, helps to transform the village of Golema Mmidi, finally seeing it rising above the tyranny and oppression. Head’s writing style means that the plot is very easy to follow, and every character is complex and multi-dimensional. 

  • Hunger [1890] ★★★★★

Written before many famous existentialist writers put their pens to paper, including Kafka and Camus, this short novel by Knut Hamsun is a convincing portrayal of one man trying to find his way and survive in a big city. Having no money, the unnamed narrator’s hunger and lack of shelter are palpable in the story as he also faces other hardship and absurdities of life. Very much an introspective novel, Hunger focuses on such themes as loneliness and oppression of the human spirit.  Continue reading “May 2019 Wrap-Up”

March 2019 Wrap-Up

I have seen bloggers posting their monthly wrap-ups and have decided to follow suit (I do not guarantee it will be my usual blog feature, though). In terms of books read, I had a busy month (I want to believe since I read twelve books) and tried to read widely, an effort which resulted in me reading a Russian classic, a Canadian detective thriller, a Polish mystery, a romantic fantasy, a short story and three non-fiction books, among other genres. Here is my summary:     

  • Doctor Zhivago [1957] by Boris Pasternak – ★★★★★ 

I want to start with this book because although I read it I did not review it as a separate post largely because I read it in my native language Russian and I often want to focus on the language in my reviews. This is a Russian saga which really deserves its name of a classic story because of its power, vividness and relatability. It takes place before the WWI and during the Russian Civil War of 1917-1922, starting from the characters’ childhood to their later years. Surprising and passionate love starts to blossom between Doctor Zhivago and a nurse Lara and there are turbulent times historically (wars, revolution) and for them personally (marriage connections, children). Full of romantic suspense, this touching story is not only about Zhivago and Lara, and a number of characters are introduced to show the fates of different people and uncontrollable nature of their lives.  Continue reading “March 2019 Wrap-Up”