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”

Review: Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

Drive Your Plow Book Cover Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead [2009/2018] – ★★★★1/2 

This book by Olga Tokarczuk (the winner of the International Booker Prize Award for Flights) was translated from the Polish in 2018 by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. In this story, an eccentric elderly woman Janina Duszejko recounts a series of murders happening in her small village near Kłodzko, Poland. Her neighbour’s death follows that of other hunting men in the vicinity, and suspicions begin to mount. Janina has her own unusual theories about the murders, and these involve animals. But, is she really a new Polish Miss Marple? Tokarczuk did not just write a detective story – her book combines existential philosophy, animal rights and village politics (small people vs. big power) theses, unchangeable horoscope arguments and literary (William Blake) references to produce one of a kind story whose main narrator steals every other page with her insightful and often bizarre observations. Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead is a strange literary concoction, but also an atmospheric and intelligent one. 

Continue reading “Review: Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk”

Mark Twain

Autobiography of Mark TwainWhat a wee little part of a person’s life are his acts and his words! His real life is lead in his head, and is known to none but himself. All day long, and every day, the mill of his brain is grinding, and his thoughts, (which are but the mute articulation of his feelings,) not those other things are his history. His acts and his words are merely the visible thin crust of his world, with its scattered snow summits and its vacant wastes of water-and they are so trifling a part of his bulk! a mere skin enveloping it. The mass of him is hidden-it and its volcanic fires that toss and boil, and never rest, night nor day. These are his life, and they are not written, and cannot be written” [Mark Twain, 1907, The Autobiography of Mark Twain]. 

Review: The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara

The People in the Trees CoverThe People in the Trees [2013] – ★★★★1/2  

The People in the Trees is a debut novel of Hanya Yanagihara, a writer now best known for her second book A Little Life, a 2015 Man Booker Prize nominee. The People in the Trees is partly an anthropological travelogue, partly a jungle adventure mystery, and party a covert character study, having enough disturbing elements to make its readers feel uncomfortable and even indignant about the content. However, these do not make the book any less masterful. Beautifully-written, The People in the Trees reads for the most part like a memoir/diary detailing Dr Norton Perina’s travel to an isolated Micronesian island country in the 1950s to find and study a “lost tribe”. He did so alongside a talented anthropologist Dr Tallent (who is himself a mystery) and Tallent’s colleague Esme Duff. The mysteries Perina uncovers on the island are shockingly significant, revolutionising what is known about science/medicine and having to do with immortality. Yanagihara fuses pseudo-factual scientific writings with some fantastic elements to rather impressive results, and it all would have been rather delightful and pleasing if the content were not also so devastatingly horrific. The only thing that lets this ambitious book down is that Yanagihara cannot quite manage to strike a balance or make a smooth transition between the book passages that detail the implications of Perina’s island discovery and later elements which deal with Perina’s own character insights.

Continue reading “Review: The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara”

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”

My 10 Favourite Agatha Christie Novels

I started reading Agatha Christie’s detective novels when I was very young, and my passion for crime mysteries stems largely from my early literary acquaintance with the Queen of Crime. I believe that when you read Christie’s crime mysteries, you also pretty much read the best and certainly most influential murder/detective mysteries there are (apart from probably those of Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe), and others either influenced Christie herself, see The Mystery of the Yellow Room [1907], or are twisted imitations, see The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle [2018]. Below are my ten favourite books from Agatha Christie (as you can see I prefer Hercule Poirot mysteries over those of Miss Marple, and also enjoy “exotic location” mysteries).   

And Then There Were None Book CoverI. And Then There Were None [1939]

Obviously, And Then There Were None leads my list since this is Christie’s detective masterpiece. In it, eight people arrive to an isolated island invited for different reasons (some with job prospects in mind). They do not find their host on the island, and, it turned out that the cause of their arrival is more sinister as one by one they die from unnatural causes, with their deaths eerily in line with one nursery rhyme. Full of twists, with one big unbelievable reveal towards the end, this book is Christie at her best, and the cleverness and originality of the plot design is still unsurpassed, even though widely imitated. 
Continue reading “My 10 Favourite Agatha Christie Novels”

Review: The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny

The Beautiful Mystery Book Cover The Beautiful Mystery [2012] – ★★★★ 

Louise Penny is an award-winning Canadian author and this is her eight Inspector Gamache detective mystery. The book is about a murder that happened in a mysterious 400 year old monastery somewhere in the northern Quebec. Twenty-three devoted-to-music monks are grieving for their murdered music director who was killed in the most merciless way. Inspector Gamache and his second-in-command Beauvoir are called to investigate and instantly become enchanted by the divine ancient chants of the eccentric and reclusive monks. But, who killed Frère Mathieu and for what purpose? Clues have been left behind, and, as the investigation slowly moves forward, Gamache realises that he has to first solve one ancient mystery of religious music before he gets to the identity of the murderer. It is so hard nowadays to find a quality detective novel and this book ticks almost all the boxes for me. In The Beautiful Mystery, there is one single eerie location setting, a focus on internal thinking/motivations of the characters, including their dynamics, and an unusual element, since the emphasis is also on mysterious ancient music. The Beautiful Mystery may suffer from having two narratives (a murder investigation and a previous case discussion), which run uncomfortably side by side, and the result is not altogether unpredictable. However, the book is still suspenseful (maybe too suspenseful), and the location and music described are just too beautiful and intriguing not to be impressed. In that way, an attempt to fuse beauty and darkness is the forte of this book.  Continue reading “Review: The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny”

Review: Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid

Moth Smoke Cover Moth Smoke [2000] – ★★★★1/2    

Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist [2007] is one of my favourite novels. Therefore, I had high expectations prior to reading Hamid’s debut book Moth Smoke [2000]. These expectations were met. In Moth Smoke, Darashikoh Shezad or Daru is a hash-smoking banker living in Lahore, Pakistan who rekindles his friendship with his childhood friend Ozi, who is now an influential and rich man living under the protection of his equally influential, but corrupt father. Daru also realises that he is attracted to Ozi’s wife Mumtaz, and, among his friends is also a shady character Murad Badshah, who sometimes acts as his drugs supplier. After Daru is fired from his job, his societal divide from influential and rich Ozi grows even further, and he finds himself on the dark path towards immorality and crime. Moth Smoke is a fascinating, eye-opening journey into Lahore’s criminal underbelly, which makes observations on the societal class divisions and east vs. west mentality conflicts. But, it is also so much more than that: it has an experimental structure and style (with at least four unreliable narrators); employs symbolism and fable-like story-telling; and becomes a book about the limits of morality, friendship and love, while also exploring the nature of guilt and the malleability of truth.  Continue reading “Review: Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid”

Solitaire

Neil Sedaka (1939-), an American singer, composer and producer, is 80 years old today. He is a writer or co-writer of more than 500 songs, and was also a popular singer with some serious hits under his belt. In 1972, Sedaka co-wrote with Phil Cody a beautiful song Solitaire, and it was later famously performed by The Carpenters. The audio below is the performance by Mark Lanegan, an alternative rock artist who I consider to be rather underrated (see the greatest cover of the song Man in the Long Black Coat). Lanegan’s album Imitations [2013] is composed of song covers that he heard when growing up at his parents’ home.

Allegorical Art: The Five Senses

My readers probably already know that I love allegorical and symbolic paintings, and, thus, I could not resist to share and discuss a series of other ones – The Five Senses [1617-18] by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens. The inspiration behind them was probably a series of tapestries known as The Lady and the Unicorn [circa 1500], each depicting one of the five senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch (as well as the mysterious “sixth sense”). Brueghel and Rubens’s The Five Senses now have their home in the Prado Museum in Madrid.

I. Sight

Sight Allegorical Painting

Since this painting is supposed to represent sight, it is all about art, and, in particular, paintings, which are appreciated through sight. In this painting, Venus, a Roman goddess, and Cupid, a little boy, are in a cabinet (room) of curiosities. Cupid is showing Venus one of the Christian paintings  – The Healing of the Blind Man, which is about the miraculous sight recovery of a man. Among other objects in this room are antique busts and scientific instruments, such as a telescope, which can also only be used through having vision.  Continue reading “Allegorical Art: The Five Senses”

Review: The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Yellow Wallpaper Book CoverThe Yellow Wallpaper [1892] – ★★★★   

Yesterday was the International Women’s Day – 8 March 2019, and although I am a bit late, I thought I would still review one of the stories from the feminist literature. This will also be the first post towards the Colour Coded Reading Challenge (Colour Yellow (I hope short stories count!)), and I am reviewing the book edited by Dale M. Bauer. The Yellow Wallpaper is a short story about the narrator’s path towards madness. The narrator is a woman who has recently given birth and is advised by her husband John, a physician, to have more rest and to stop writing in her diary. The narrator, however, loves to write and is very imaginative. On the top floor of their rented cottage, she finds a room which was once a nursery. There, one presence does not let her enjoy her stay – the presence of the yellow wallpaper on the walls. She gradually becomes fixated and obsessed with it until she cannot distinguish reality and imagination. This story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman has always been known for its eeriness, as well as for multiple interpretations that can be given to it. Whether the book is viewed as an unsettling horror story, a mental illness case study or a purely feminist text to highlight the plight of woman at the turn of the century, it still remains a compelling and thought-provoking read.  Continue reading “Review: The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman”

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.

Review: The World That Made New Orleans by Ned Sublette

The World That Made New Orleans Book Cover The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square [2008] – ★★★★★ 

Since my previous post related to Mardi Gras celebrations, it is fitting now to talk about New Orleans, and I am presenting a curious non-fiction book by Ned Sublette, the author behind Cuba and Its Music [2004]. The World That Made New Orleans is a fascinating book that traces the history of New Orleans, Louisiana, from around 1492 to the nineteenth century: from the city’s humble beginnings on swamp soils to the French Spanish, British-American colonisations, and finally the city’s growth and ultimate urbanisation in the nineteenth century. This is not one’s ordinary history non-fiction book, however. Ned Sublette pays due attention to the music tradition of the area, its unique and changing slavery regimes, and spends time explaining why New Orleans became the diverse, jazz-pioneering and carnival-hosting city it is known today. Ambitious and well-researched, this insightful book provides an eye-opening journey into historical and cultural peculiarities of New Orleans. This is definitely the story of New Orleans like you have never read before.  Continue reading “Review: The World That Made New Orleans by Ned Sublette”

The Mardi Gras Book Tag

Mardi GrasI noticed this tag yesterday at Madame Writer, and decided to give it a go because Mardi Gras is a fascinating tradition and New Orleans, the place where it is famously celebrated, is a special place, indeed. The original tag can be found at RandomlyBookishGina. Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday is another name for celebratory Carnival events, when people can enjoy themselves by eating and drinking as much as they want before the Lent season begins. It is celebrated around the world in Roman Catholic countries as a Carnival, and, apart from a big celebration in New Orleans, US, there are also big events taking place in Venice, Italy and in Brazil.

The Secret History Book CoverI. Designated Driver: What re-read book is reliable to get you out of a reading slump? 

I do not really have “reading slumps”, but I can re-read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History [1992] to remind myself why I love “contemporary” books. This is a book that ticks all the boxes for me: intriguing character studies, a slow slide into the macabre, and beautiful language, among many other things. I highly recommend it.  Continue reading “The Mardi Gras Book Tag”

Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus Cover The Night Circus [2011]  – ★★★1/2 

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 & Mr Norrell [2004]). 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”

Review: Tangerine by Christine Mangan

Tangerine Book Cover Tangerine [2018] – ★★★★   

Tangerine is a debut novel which is now both gaining visibility and provoking some strong reactions – there are apparently as many people who love this book as there are those who hate it. The story is about two women – Alice and Lucy, who take turns in the story to share their thoughts on past and present events. Alice, who shared friendship with Lucy in the past, is now married and lives with her husband John in Tangier, Morocco. Unexpectedly, Lucy also arrives to Tangier to rekindle her friendship with Alice after a year of separation. When John disappears, Alice and Lucy have to question both their relationship and their lucidity. The downside is that Mangan’s book gets much too close in its plot and characters to Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr Ripley [1955], but it is still an intriguing and enjoyable read. Mangan uses simple language and manages to weave a thriller which is slow-burning and deeply psychological, while also vividly evoking the colours of Morocco.  Continue reading “Review: Tangerine by Christine Mangan”