The Facemaker  by Lindsey Fitzharris – ★★★★★
In this non-fiction, Lindsey Fitzharris (The Butchering Art ) spotlights the achievements made by New Zealand-born, Cambridge-educated and golf-loving surgeon Harold Gillies (1882- 1960), who was one of the prominent contributors to the advances made in plastic maxillofacial surgery during the World War I. Facial disfigurement, the “rudest blow that war can deal”, often causes “loss of identity”, psychological damage, and social exclusion, and Gillies was one of the pioneers of reconstructive facial surgery who recognised the transformative, multi-disciplinary nature of this field, as well as the need for slow, step-by-step procedures to achieve successful results. Fitzharris writes with much passion and clarity, thrusting her reader into the midst of all the events, while providing an overview of the state of medicine at that time. Non-fiction has never felt as engaging or as exciting to read, and we are provided with many first-hand accounts, as well as with fascinating details regarding the brutalities of the battle-field and the stoic life on hospital wards. The overall result is one eye-opening and moving book about an important topic that deserved more attention, and one unsung hero in need of greater recognition.
How Green Was My Valley  by Richard Llewellyn – ★★★★★
“Beautiful were the days that are gone, and O, for them to be back. The mountain was green, and proud with a good covering of oak and ash, and washing his feet in a streaming river clear as the eyes of God” [Richard Llewellyn, Penguin Books, 1939/2001: 153].
This absorbing story is told through the perspective of a small boy and then young man living in a close-knit mining community in Wales during the reign of Queen Victoria. Huw Morgan grows up in changing times and in a family of many other children and plenty of role models. The Morgan family experiences both good and bad times, enduring their daily struggles with their coal employers and the rise of labour unions, but still finds happiness of living so united, peacefully abiding by the laws of the Church and being surrounded by the primordial beauty of nature. Huw makes enemies and friends, both in school and in a wider community, and finds out about friendship, duty, shame, guilt and justice, as well as, later, the value of honest work, and torments and confusion of first love. Permeated with much emotion and with that quiet, poetic and resolute conviction, How Green Was My Value is a heart-felt, bitter-sweet and nostalgic literary masterpiece, a one-of-kind homage to the innocence lost and to Wales that is no more.
La Vita Nuova [1294/2021] by Dante Alighieri – ★★★★★
“Here is a deity stronger than I; who, coming, shall rule over me”. Translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, La Vita Nuova is Dante’s early work dedicated to his beloved Beatrice, a noblewoman. Part autobiographical narrative and part poetry, the book is about this Italian poet’s joy and anguish as he worships Beatrice and her image, dedicating poem after poem to her, and his narrative is filled with tenderness, wonder, and visions and premonitions of all kinds. Being purely platonic and much idealised, this is no ordinary love, especially since Dante allegedly met Beatrice only twice in his life (the first time when both of them were children). So, some in his immediate entourage expressed their scepticism about this otherworldly love of his: “To what end lovest thou this lady, seeing that thou canst not support her presence?” However, Dante had an answer. “Love governs [his] Soul”. In this work at least, Dante’s love is obsessive and transformative, but also pure and unselfish, and does not depend on his beloved being near or reciprocating, though the torment of not seeing her and then seeing her pass to the “otherworld” of Angels is too much to bear (“The look she hath when she a little smiles/Cannot be said, nor hidden in the thought; ‘Tis such a new and gracious miracle” [Dante/Rossetti, Pan Macmillan, 1294/2021: 47]). This is Dante’s soul-crying, soul-searching work; a powerful, moving evocation.
The Magic Mountain [1924/27] by Thomas Mann – ★★★★★
This is the best book I read this month. It is an unforgettable literary journey through the psyche of a man trapped in a comfortable sanatorium high in the Swiss Alpes (see my full review).
Havoc [1930/68] by Tom Kristensen– ★★★★1/2
This Danish classic also exceeded my expectations – a dark existential novel about a man suffering from alcoholism and balancing on the edge of abyss (see my full review).
Black Narcissus  by Rumer Godden – ★★★★1/2
In this atmospheric novel, an Anglican order of nuns sets up a nunnery high in the Himalayan mountains, in a palace where once the local General led his dissipated lifestyle. Sister Superior Clodagh leads her charge of devoted Sisters and they soon establish a school and a dispensary on the premises. A “battle of the sexes” ensures when charismatic Mr. Dean, the General’s Agent and the local “bad boy”, starts helping the Sisters with their tasks, while also making them flushed and uncomfortable. The splendid vistas from the convent, the brazenness of the local people and all the colours and aromas of India soon prove too much for the Sisters, some of whom start having thoughts that are far from God and their religious duty. The claustrophobia heightens, sexual tensions abound, passions and dissatisfactions break out, and then one act of jealousy may just undermine the reputation of the whole order. This is a beautiful, tightly-woven tale of a duty/desire clash set in one exotic place.
“…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?
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?  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 the 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, 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.
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.
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 the book passages on his vegetarianism and Gandhi’s comments on introversion. Rather than the latter 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. The book is a philosophical and deeply honest one, with important life lessons.
Tennessee Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire ) published his partly-autobiographical play The Glass Menagerie in 1944 and this debut became an instant theatrical success. The play only has 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 neurosesand 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 the brutal reality).
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).
This is a short story by “the father of the Japanese short story” who is probably best known for such short stories as Rashomon  and In a Grove . 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“.
A is For Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie  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 the 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.
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.
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.
This American classic by John Williams is a great, even if heart-breaking read. It tells the story of university professor Stoner 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  and to Jack London’sMartin Eden . Continue reading “May 2020 Wrap-Up: From Stoner to Smoking Poppy”→
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  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 if emotional as the story is filled with all kinds of injustice that was 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: From The Way of Zen to Melmoth”→
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
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: From Amulet to The Rise & Fall of the Dinosaurs”→
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.
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: From The Memory Police to The Axeman’s Jazz”→
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 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 easy to follow, and every character is complex and multi-dimensional.
Written before 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. An introspective novel, Hunger focuses on such themes as loneliness and the oppression of the human spirit. Continue reading “May 2019 Wrap-Up: From When Rain Clouds Gather to Idaho”→
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: