The Garden of the Finzi-Continis [1962/2005] – ★★★★
“Nothing I know matters more / than what never happened.” John Burnside
This Italian classic tells the story of the prominent and aristocratic Finzi-Contini family in the Italian city of Ferrara in the 1920-30s through the eyes of a boy and then a man hopelessly in love with this family’s beautiful daughter Micòl. Our narrator’s family and that of Micòl could not be more apart on a societal standing, but they are both Jewish, and our narrator is soon admitted to Micòl’s entourage, making friends not only with Micòl, but also with her brother Alberto. A well-kept tennis court in the garden of the Finzi-Contini becomes the central point of the young people’s existence, and also, as it turns out, a sort of a safe haven, as anti-Semitic forces are tightening their grip on Italy on the eve of the World War II. Unbeknown to all, the ground is already set for the ultimate tragedy. This sensitive novel does not have the clearest of narratives, but it is still a touching coming-of-age story of lost love and opportunities, where emotions of first-love and tender friendship learn to co-exist with such feelings as pride and shame.
“The opposite of poverty is not wealth, the opposite of poverty is enough” (Dr. Wess Stafford).
“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage” (Seneca).
This graphic novel is based on a classic novel by Upton Sinclair The Jungle  that tells of a Lithuanian family of immigrants who arrive to Chicago, Illinois in 1899 and find their hopes slowly turning to dust as they all take jobs exploiting them and their desperate need to survive in the foreign country. Jurgis Rudkus is a twenty-one year old man eager to work at any job in America and soon finds himself in a meat-processing factory, working in very unhygienic and even horrifying environment. His fiancée Ona starts working in packaging, while her cousin Marija begins painting cans, and even Jurgis’s elderly father tries to land some job in order not to be dependent on others, among other family members. This family comprising of three generations is soon hit very hard by the “hidden costs” of their American Dream, which becomes very hard to bear, especially when most factories close in winter and the mercilessness of the family’s employers and landlords leads to traumatic experiences. Though I have not yet read the original novel by Sinclair, I found this graphic adaptation deeply moving, offering an uncomfortable, yet valuable insight into Sinclair’s vision and the conditions of blue-collar workers in early twentieth-century Chicago.
Louisiana, 1828. Manon Gaudet, the wife of a domineering owner of a sugar plantation, tells us about her life, at times recalling her past. Her husband rules the house and the plantation with an iron fist, signalling slave girl Sarah as his lover. However, their stable life is soon repeatedly threatened by slaves’ rebellions in their region, making both re-evaluate their life positions. Although the novel is uneven and the narrator is made intentionally unlikeable, Valerie Martin still wrote a chilling, eye-opening and interesting account of slavery and the meaning of ownership in the mid-nineteenth century US, not least because of her particular focus on the perspective of a slave-owner.
This novel, which spans from 1848 to 1888, focuses on Jean Marie Latour, a young Frenchman recently appointed as a Vicar Apostolic in the state of New Mexico, a part of land which has only recently been annexed to the US. The Father becomes a new Bishop in the region and he came there with his loyal friend and compatriot Father Joseph Vaillant. The two priests face a whole array of problems in establishing a religious jurisdiction in the new area, from the region’s isolation and merciless climate to authority challenges on the part of Mexican priests. This historical novel can be called a “descriptive tour de force”, rather than a straightforward narrative story. It is more of an anthropological/historical travelogue, focusing on the nature of land and on the people living on it, rather than a linear story. However, this does not make this book a “lesser” novel. On the contrary, Cather leaves plenty of space in the book for colourful descriptions of exotic environs, paying attention to the particular themes, including the ardour of religious duty and the dilemmas of missionary work.
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“.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet  – ★★1/2
In this tale by David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas (2004)) the year is 1799, and Jacob de Zoet, a Dutch clerk, arrives with the Dutch East India Company to the trading post of Dejima, an artificial island in Nagasaki, Japan at the time of the sakoku, when Japan permitted only very limited contact with foreigners. Engaged to be married, de Zoet seeks a fortune and a high position to impress the family of his fiancée in Europe. However, “inadvertently”, he falls under the spell of one disfigured midwife Miss Aibagawa, who, in turn, aspires to knowledge and then freedom. In times of all kinds of persecutions and discriminatory policies, de Zoet has to navigate a very uneasy road in the foreign country through cultural differences and alleged conspiracies.
I have been thinking (again) about the place of food in booksrecently, 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
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.
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;
“Why does man not see things? He is himself standing in the way: he conceals things.” “What are man’s truths ultimately? Merely his irrefutable errors“. (Friedrich Nietzsche)
In My Name is Red by Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk, murder of one miniaturist – Elegant Effendi – was committed within the circle of miniaturists working for the Sultan in medieval Istanbul. At the same time, thirty-six year old Black returns to his hometown of Istanbul after his twelve years’ absence to seek once again the hand of his beloved Shekure, an opportunity that was denied to him twelve years previously. Unwittingly, Black becomes entangled in the intrigues of miniaturists working under Enishte Effendi, Black’s uncle and Shekure’s father. Masterfully, Pamuk takes us deep within the art circle of medieval craftsmen who labour to produce a mysterious new book, a circle repleted with professional jealousy, narcissism, hidden love and, above all, differences as so the proper way of painting and representing pictures under one strict religious canon. In this historical novel, Persian art-forms clash violently with rising Venetian art influences as Black starts to realise that, in order to find the murderer of Elegant Effendi, it is necessary to go deep into the worldviews and art opinions of each of the three suspected miniaturists – “Stork”, “Olive” and “Butterfly”, testing their loyalties and beliefs. It is impossible not to get swept away by this novel of great insight and intelligence. My Name is Red is like a rich, tightly-woven exotic tapestry whose secrets lie in elaborate details, red herrings and in the depth of the soul of its maker, celebrating the beauty, imagination and intelligence of ancient artworks and methods of painting. Continue reading “Review: My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk”→
This is a debut historical fiction book that fictionalises realserial killer murders that shook New Orleans in 1918 and 1919 and were dubbed the Axeman’s murders. The book is a winner of the 2014 John Creasey (New Blood) Award, and I just could not pass by an opportunity to read this book since it is set in New Orleans of all places, a city that has been fascinating me for a long time and so much I have previously mentioned/talked on my blog about its history, artand notablecelebrations. This very atmospheric book follows three people investigating the gruesome murders of the Axeman: (i) a professional investigator Detective Lieutenant Michael Talbot; (ii) a nineteen year-old amateur sleuth and secretary at a local detective agency Ida Davis, and (iii) a recent convict and once detective Luca D’Andrea. Each one of them is under pressure to discover the identity of the murderer before anyone else, and the task is not easy since the murderer taunts the police and leaves strange clues behind, such as Tarot cards. Soon corruption in high places, the Mafia and false leads all complicate the case, as well as the most recent strange demand of the murderer: “play Jazz on one particular Tuesday and you will be safe”. Charmingly evoking the atmosphere of one-of-a-kind place in the world which was New Orleans in the early twentieth century, Ray Celestin concocts a worthy-of-a-read crime thriller, even if it is at times slow, overwritten, unnecessarily confusing and wobbly in its logic. Continue reading “Review: The Axeman’s Jazz by Ray Celestin”→
I saw this tag at The Orangutan Librarian and decided to post my answers to it too. I will probably end up being hated for some of my opinions below 🙂 but a confession is a confession.
I. Which book, most recently, did you not finish?
Celestial Bodies by Jokha al-Harthi (translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth). This is the recent winner of the International Booker Prize and, naturally, I wanted to read it as soon as possible. It is a tale of three sisters and their relationships in Oman. It is told through various characters’ perspectives, not only of the sisters’ but also of their children and husbands, apparently. I read first twenty or so pages, and though I liked the beginning, reading about the perspective of Mayya, one of the sisters, when other characters started telling about themselves, my attention veered off and I did not finish the book. I promised to myself to come back to this novel to finish it. The book has all the qualities of an important novel and I especially love that it is set in Oman, portraying a different culture.Continue reading “The Book Blogger Confessions Tag”→
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.
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”→
Will at Coot’s Reviews suggested that I read Serena by Ron Rash for my Appalachia Reading Challenge, and both H.P from Hillbilly Highwaysand Emma at Book Around the Corner also recommended that I read Rash’s work, so thank you! Serena pleasantly surprised me. This novel tells the story of a newly-wed couple the Pembertons who arrive to a logging community high up in North Carolina Mountains to take over a timber business there. Every worker at the camp is awed by Mrs Serena Pemberton, a woman so strong-willed and determined she can match any man’s will power or shrewdness. Masterfully-executed and beautifully-written, Serena evokes vividly both the beauty of North Carolina’s landscape and horrors involved in the business of cutting trees to make profit. Ron Rash even packs in the novel “slow-burn” suspense since Mr Pemberton’s past actions give rise to unforeseen consequences, and, as the couple arrive to North Carolina, with them also descends upon the village something disturbing and sinister.
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café  – ★★★★
“I may be sitting here at the Rose Terrace Nursing Home, but in my mind I’m over at the Whistle Stop Café having a plate of fried green tomatoes“, Mrs. Cleo Threadgoode, June 1986 (preface quote to Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café).
This book is about two women – Evelyn Couch, a middle-aged housewife, and Ninny Threadgoode, an elderly woman in a nursing home, – meeting in 1985, and Ms Threadgoode starts to tell Evelyn about her youth spent in Whistle Stop, Alabama during the Depression era. Evelyn goes back in her mind to that time when Ms Threadgoode’s wild, free-spirited sister-in-law Idgie and her beautiful, soft-spoken friend Ruth ran a café in Whistle Stop, discovering the hardship they went through and the happiness they found. Mrs Threadgoode also hints at a murder mystery which got everyone talking in the 1930s in Whistle Stop. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe is a “feel-good” book at the centre of which is a powerful story of two women whose friendship and love enabled them to overcome obstacles in their way. Originally presented, paying special attention to the connecting power of food and cooking, the book also touches on such themes as racism, aging, marital violence, and finding hope in difficult times.
“You’re not off to find the Northwest Passage on a thousand-mile plain of ice populated by six Esquimaux and an owl. It’s only Peru” [Pulley, 2017: 46].
When I found out that there is a book set in Peru, takes place in the 19th century, and concerns itself with Incan mythology, I knew immediately I had to read it because all these things appeal to me immensely. In the book by Pulley, we meet an explorer Merrick Tremayne, previously of the East India Company, who now resides in Cornwall with his brother. He has an injured leg and no prospects in England since his family fortunes are in decline. When his friend Clem visits him and suggest that he goes to Peru to fetch cinchona cuttings (which yields quinine), which can then help to cure malaria in India (on the orders of the East India Company), it seems like an impossible task. This is not least because there is a local monopoly regarding the trees in the region, and the journey can prove to be very dangerous. Merrick goes to Peru, with the aim to reach the village of Bethlehem or Bedlam, and soon finds that he needs to rethink his understanding of indigenous traditions, history and beliefs, and do it quickly if he wants to survive. The Bedlam Stacks is steeped in Incan folklore and has an eerie atmosphere, providing for a curious read. However, this book was definitely not a page-turner for me. It has a messy and confusing overall theme, caricature presentations, some unclear and dull descriptions, and – what I believe – a very unsympathetic character in the centre, all making the reading experience less enjoyable. Continue reading “Review: The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley”→
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”→
The Miniaturist, “The Sunday Times Number One Bestseller”, has received much praise, but is all the hype justified? The original idea for the book came to the author in Amsterdam, where Burton first saw Petronella Oortman’s cabinet house at the the Rijksmuseum. In her fictional story set in the 1680s, eighteen-year old Nella comes to Amsterdam after her advantageous marriage to an older rich merchant Johannes Brandt. Nella finds out that Johannes lives in a house with his domineering sister Marin, and soon begins to question the security of her husband’s finances. When Johannes gifts Nella a miniature doll house, which is the exact replica of their own home, Nella does not hesitate to ask for services from an elusive miniaturist, leading to unpredictable turns of events. This atmospheric novel is perfectly readable, but it is also too simplistic and melodramatic. Even worse, despite some obvious hints, The Miniaturist does not put its main mystery about the miniaturist or the doll house (the cabinet) at the centre for the readers to uncover; the novel’s male characters are superficial; and its surprises – preposterous. The plot does not go anywhere or reveal anything of substance, and the actions of the characters are as nonsensical as the ending is unsatisfying. Continue reading “Review: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton”→
“Weshall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will beto arrivewhere we started and know the place for the first time” (T. S. Eliot).
What is the most intelligent, complicated and intricately-designed novel of this century? Eleanor Catton wrote it in 2013 and titled it The Luminaries. The winner of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2013, The Luminaries is a multi-layered tour-de-force, running about 820 pages, that tells the story of mysterious events, including a disappearance and a possible murder, taking place in a gold-mining town of Hokitika, New Zealand, in 1865 and 1866. To tell her story, Catton employs astrological charts, planetary positions and planetary relationships vis-à-vis zodiac constellations, thereby twelve leading male characters in her novel correspond to twelve zodiac signs, such as Scorpio or Sagittarius, and other characters relate to planets, such as Venus or Mercury. These characters’ interactions with each other take a complicated turn and, as we find out more about some eerie coincidences, undoubtedly influenced by astral positions, the mystery deepens and we uncover hidden relations, start to doubt our prior perceptions and come full circle to glimpse at the real truth. As Te Rau Tauwhare explains the origin of the word “Hokitika” to Balfour, “Understand it likethis. – Around. And then back again, beginning” [Catton, 2013: 106]. Beautifully-written and cleverly-construed, this rich in detail/description novel may be difficult for the reader to get into at first, but the book proves hugely rewarding and could really be called a modern classic. Continue reading “Review: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton”→
“The Japanese could think what they wanted about them, but none of it would matter if they survived and succeeded” [Min Jin Lee, 2017: 117].
Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko had a long road to publication, almost thirty years, being first conceived as an idea by the author in 1989. The story spans four generations, and tells of Korean immigrants who come to Japan to seek a better life in 1933. This family then faces all manner of hardship, including poverty and discrimination, in the new country. For example, we follow Sunja, a daughter of a cleft-lipped, club-footed man, who takes her chance to marry a missionary, Isak, and goes to Japan to give birth there to her son, whose father, Hansu, remains a powerful man in Korea. In Japan, she meets her brother-in-law and his wife, and their life to survive begins. This emotional novel is a real page-turner and this is so not only because of its fascinating story set in a particularly turbulent time period. Pachinko is sustained by its vivid characters whose resilience in times of hardship is somehow both admirable and chilling. The characters’ determination to survive and succeed in conditions which are designed to make them fail will not leave the reader uninvolved. Continue reading “Review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee”→