This short story collection is from one of the most inventive minds of Italy – writer and poet Dino Buzzati (1906 – 1972). I liked this collection more than the one I read last year – Buzzati’sThe Siren: A Selection of Short Stories. In Catastrophe & Other Stories, there are twenty stories overall, but I am reviewing only five below. Though this collection is a bit of a mixed bag, it is definitely worth a read, especially for those into absurdist, existentialist or Kafkaesque fiction.
I. Seven Floors – ★★★★★
This is the best story in the collection, in my opinion. In it, one Giuseppe Corte enters one unusual sanatorium and desperately wants to remain on its top floor – the seventh, but circumstances are not in his favour. Why such a desire? It so happens that this medical establishment is designed in such a way that its top floors are reserved for mild cases, and the further down you go, the more serious cases you encounter until eventually you hit floor one where the hopeless dying “convalesce”. One hero is soon torn by a dilemma: he does not want to be a serious medical case, but the lower floors also have better medical equipment and more knowledgeable doctors and nurses. What does one do? Seven Floors is a fine example of a purely Kafkaesque terror, and the story can also be viewed as a satire on illness, diagnosis, hypochondria, and medical establishment.
For me, autumn is associated with circuses and carnivals, maybe because Halloween is approaching and I think of country fairs, masks, costumes, etc. Thus, I am presenting ten books, in no particular order and both fiction and non-fiction, that revolve around circuses or carnivals.
I. Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham
Nightmare Alley is a fast-paced pulp noir that tells a journey of ambitious and street-smart Stanton Carlisle, working as a mentalist, through all the dark sides of one second-rate carnival show. The structure of this book is dictated by a Tarot deck, and the novel has now been adapted twice – as a 1947 film noir starring Tyrone Power and as a 2021 film directed by Guillermo del Toro.
II. The Circus Fire: A True Story of An American Tragedy by Stewart O’Nan
This book is about the 6 July 1944 circus fire disaster that occurred in Hartford, Connecticut, when a big top of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus caught fire in the middle of a performance with some 7000 people inside. At least 167 people died and another 700 were injured, and this book, filled with maps and photographs, painstakingly sets down all the circumstances leading up to the tragedy, including previous fires and circus arrangements, before talking about acts of heroism on the day and the aftermath, when the injured had to deal with PTSD.
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)  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 , 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, buttwo Pinocchio adaptations are coming out in 2022: Guillermo del Toro’s stop-motion animation Pinocchio and Robert Zemeckis’s live-action film Pinocchio.
🤥 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 – TheAdventures 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.
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 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.
The Baron in the Trees (Il barone rampante)  – ★★★1/2
The Baron in the Trees is the fourth book of Italian author Italo Calvino (Invisible Cities ), telling of a young man, Cosimo, of the eighteenth century who decides to live on trees, never going down, sticking to his own principle that he would never touch the ground again. His family soon realises that what might have started as a childish tantrum has transformed into something big and life-changing. In time, Cosimo manages not only to live on the trees, but also to hunt, cook food, sleep and wash his clothes up there. He makes himself useful to others and develops friendship with a local girl Viola. The exploration of the new world of Cosimo up in the trees is fascinating and Calvino’s existentialist concept of one man eschewing society and its norms is appealing. It is then even more surprising to learn that, unfortunately, The Baron in the Trees is also quite plot-less and, in the end, delivers little by way of substance.
Piranesi is a new fantasy novel by the author of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell . This time, we have a diary-like narrative and our narrator observes, records and catalogues a curious World around him – the House. In the House, architectural splendours meet natural wonders – sea Tides, bringing marine life and vegetation, often flood the seemingly infinite number of opulent Halls, where numerous enigmatic statues of all sizes daze and confuse. Our narrator’s only human contact is the man only known as the Other, who also often frequents the Halls and who sees the World very differently from our narrator. Then, cryptic messages start to appear in some Halls, and our narrator witnesses strange visions. What other mysteries does the House hold, and is there really a Sixteenth Person who may be residing in the Far-Distant Halls? These are the questions that start to bother our narrator as he is slowly forced to question the very nature of his existence in this bewildering World of Tides and Architectural Beauty. In Piranesi, Susanna Clarke invented one mysterious, otherworldly place whose pull is irresistible, powerful and inescapable, and whose charm works like magic, saturating the reading experience with endless wonder, delight and fascination. Amidst all the watery and architectural beauty, though, there is a want for slightly more meaning and depth, and it is unfortunate that the second part of the book falls into some very familiar and overused literary “thriller” tropes.
This is going to be a very honest review of Haruki Murakami’s twelfth novel. 1Q84 is presented as a whimsical romance epic with elements of magical realism, and, in its proportion, has been linked to such extremely ambitious works as Roberto Bolano’s 2666 and Don DeLillo’s Underworld. In 1Q84, the year is 1984 and the location is Tokyo, Japan. Aomame, a thirty year old woman, becomes entangled in one strange affair involving a manuscript titled Air Chrysalis, a charity that seeks to help battered women seek revenge, and a menacing and unrelenting religious cult called Sakigake. In parallel to her story, we read the story of Tengo, a thirty year old man and Aomame’s alleged lost “love” whom she has not seen in twenty years. Tengo inexplicably gets implicated in the same affair of “another world” when he agrees to re-write Air Chrysalis. His fateful encounter with beautiful Fuka-Eri, original author of Air Chrysalis, soon makes him question his reality, as well as makes him reconsider his relationship with his estranged father. Soon, we read about the world where the so-called Little People have the upper hand and where there are two moons in the sky. Pursued by dangerous forces, will Tengo and Aomame ever meet again? The only problem with all that is that my summary sounds like it could be something far more exciting than what this book eventually delivers. In reality, the 1318-page mammoth that is 1Q84 delivers neither on its “wondrous, parallel-world” concept nor on its “star-crossed lovers” front. In all frankness, it is a tedious book which drags its feet for chapters and chapters and chapters, wasting its reader’s time. It is filled with complete meaninglessness from almost the very first chapter until the last, and from its dialogues to its character’s (almost completely sexual) activities. More than that, unfortunately, 1Q84 is also quite gaudy, ill-judged, melodramatic and pretentious. I will set out my issues with this book under the” story”, “characters”, and “author’s writing” headings, before talking about the good aspects.
I don’t review fantasy books often, but I do read and enjoy them (see my reviews of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and The Night Circus). I love fantasy novels that are well-written, characterised and that take me to magical places. Below I am sharing five fantasy books that are currently on my TBR list and that I am excited to read in the near future.
I. The Gray House  by Mariam Petrosyan
“Rowling meets Rushdie via Tartt…Nothing short of life-changing.”The Guardian
The Gray House is an Armenian author’s debut which she published in Russia in 2009 to a critical and popular acclaim. Translated from the Russian by Yuri Machkasov, this book has been described as a magical realist saga about disabled students who live in the House under the direction of the Outsiders. With references to Russian folklore (a house that is alive) and popular Soviet literature, the tale takes a sinister turn when students deaths pile up and the leaders of the House struggle to maintain their control and power.
First, I would like to say that I loved Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent , its historical context, its beautiful prose, its main character, its plot – it read (almost, perhaps) like a modern classic, and it was a very enjoyable experience. Melmoth is Perry’s third book in which she focuses on the legend of Melmoth the Wanderer as it is seen through the eyes of modern-day characters living in Prague. In this story, Helen Franklin is a forty-something-year-old woman living in the Czech Republic in 2016 and working as a translator. She strikes up a friendship with one “posh” couple Karel and Thea, and it is through them that she reads a mysterious manuscript that details the confessions of certain people who allegedly had an encounter with Melmoth or Melmotka (a lonely woman who once denied the resurrection of Christ and is doomed to wander the Earth forever bearing witness to the humanity’s cruelty). The obsession with the manuscript soon makes Helen confront her own past. Even though there is an attempt made by the author to make this book deep and philosophical by touching upon such issues as sin, guilt, regret and atonement, these messages never get across in a compelling manner, and, overall, the book feels dull and very contrived. As in The Essex Serpent, Perry uses one intriguing and spooky legend here as a bait to entice her readers into picking up this “Gothic and unsettling” book only for those readers to then discover that they, instead, have been served with merely a collection of sad personal historical accounts that the author never even managed to bring convincingly together to make her final important point on history, witnessing and responsibility.Continue reading “Review: Melmoth by Sarah Perry”→
I saw this book tag at Nut Free Nerdand decided to have a go at it (I changed slightly the original tag). I am not nominating specific people for this tag and anyone who wishes to participate is free to do so.
I. Totally should’ve gotten a sequel
This is easy – Susanna Clarke’s amazing fantasy bookJonathan Strange & Mr Norrell should get a sequel. There are still some questions that remain about the story and the story finished in such a way as to hint that there may be a continuation.
II. Totally should’ve had a spin-off series
The Harry Potterbook series. Ok, I know what everybody is thinking, but, please, hear me out. We had Harry’s story in seven books; we had additional books published by Rowling on quidditch and fantastic beasts; and we had screenplays that showed the magical world of America in the eighteenth century. But, I think it would be a great idea to have a spin-off series where we can see the magical world in a historical context. Hogwarts was founded in 990 A.D., and it will be interesting to see students studying at some historical point in time, such as maybe in the middle ages and to see how fashion changed and what spells were in fashion – to see the magical world as a historical fiction with new characters. Perhaps, references can be made to magical schools in Latin America or Africa, etc. The great thing about this is that the Harry Potter events would not be muddled with or changed since the action in any spin-off can take place centuries before Harry Potter. Continue reading “The Totally Should’ve Book Tag”→
The Harry Potter generation is growing up, becoming a dominant group of consumers, and it seems that those books that contain magic or fairy-tale elements have the biggest chance of success in the market (see also Jonathan Strange & MrNorrell). The Night Circus can be considered as yet another book which was written on the back of the success of Harry Potter and its atmosphere of magic. The Night Circus was also originally written as part the NaNoWriMo competition, and contains non-linear, multiple viewpoints narrative. In this story, two “magicians” have arranged for their protégés to compete against each other in a mysterious magic competition. Hector has bound his young daughter Celia to compete against Marco, a protégé of a mysterious man named only as Alexander. Little the “magicians” suspect that Celia and Marco may grow up to be attracted to each other romantically, meaning that the competition may end up to be far from the battle it is meant to be. Meanwhile, Chandresh Lefèvre, a theatrical producer, has plans to set up a different kind of a circus, which functions as a completely “immersive entertainment” for the crowds, providing “a unique experience, a feast for the senses” [Morgenstern, 2011: 74]. The strength of The Night Circus lies in Morgenstern’s ability to establish a truly magical atmosphere (of the circus), as well as in the building of an enchanting, fairy tale-like beginning. The main weakness of the book remains in the plotting and in the establishment of the drama. It seems that Morgenstern was so taken by the task of immersing the reader into her magic circus atmosphere that she forgot to pay attention to the need for a dramatic plot or a hero’s journey. The result is that The Night Circus is almost predictable, devoid of any drama excitement or even a story in a strict sense of this word. In the author’s zeal to establish a Romeo & Juliet-setting for Celia and Marco, she also managed to present romantic love which is very unsympathetic (see the spoiler section below). Continue reading “Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern”→
Neil Gaiman called Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell “the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years”, and I will agree with him. It is a very long book, but it is totally absorbing from the very first page. The novel begins in autumn 1806 with Mr Segundus, a theoretical magician, wanting to know why there was no more magic done in England. He is a new addition to the society of magicians in York, England. Practical magic has declined in England and there are apparently no practising magicians left in the country. The profession of a practising magician has fallen in reputation, and Mr Segundus comes to inquire of another magician who lives in Yorkshire why this is the case. He finds, however, that not only the reclusive Mr Norrell has an established library filled with rare books on the practice of magic, he also claims to be a practising magician himself! Mr Norrell soon desires to establish himself as the only practising magician in the country. The episodic-in-nature plot is delightful to read, and, in style, it reminds of Dickens’s Bleak House . Delving into the British folklore, Clarke opens up a fascinating magical world, which you will not want to leave, and takes her task quite seriously. Inside the book, one will find a gripping adventure-mystery, great characterisation, unforgettable atmosphere, humorous sequences, and the masterful use of the language. The book’s story, format, style and language all give the impression as though the book was written back when it was set – in the 19th century. In sum, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is quite brilliant in every respect, and I cannot recommend the novel highly enough. As I would like to discuss the book here in some depth, the following review will contain spoilers. Continue reading “Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke”→