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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7 Great Novels Revolving Around Visual Art

I. The Goldfinch [2013]the goldfinch book cover

In The Goldfinch, one boy comes to terms with his tragic past while clinging to one work of art that still reminds me of his late mother, an exquisite painting of a goldfinch created in 1654 by Carel Fabritius. This is a great book about growing up, friendship, love, loss and hope. Even though The Goldfinch is an international bestseller, I hold Tartt’s two previous books – The Secret History [1992] and The Little Friend [2002] – in an even higher esteem.

II. My Name is Red [1998] my name is red

Turkish Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk has crafted something magnificent, unputdownable and exquisite with this book. Pamuk’s novel is part murder mystery, part meditation on history and the nature of art. When one of the miniaturists working in the Ottoman Empire is murdered, the suspicion falls on the three remaining, but who is the murderer and will Black, a recently returned miniaturist, help solve the murder? This is a beautifully- written novel with unreliable narrators, red herrings, and unexpected and delightful forays into the very nature of art-making in the Ottoman Empire.

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Arnold Böcklin: 3 Symbolic Paintings

Arnold Böcklin (1827 – 1901) was a Swiss painter working in the genre of symbolism. He was known for painting motifs from mythology, and his works often depicted otherworldly beings, mysterious places and dark allegories. In this post, I will talk about three of Böcklin’s works of art.

I. Isle of the Dead (Third Version) [1883]

This is Böcklin’s best-known painting in which he depicted “the Isle of the Dead”, a mysterious island with dense vegetation inside (cypress trees) surrounded by the white “fortress” of white rock. A lone boat approaches the island head on with the mysterious veiled white figure standing in it. In the boat, one can also see another white object, probably a coffin. The dark waters and gloomy skies build a sombre atmosphere, and the funeral motifs are also emphasised by the cypress trees since these too have been traditionally associated with cemeteries and mourning.

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Review: Monarchs of the Sea by Danna Staaf

Monarchs of the Sea: The Extraordinary 500-Million-Year History of Cephalopods [2017/2020] – ★★★★

This book is about the magnificent, enigmatic and elusive cephalopods (a class of molluscs to which octopuses and squid belong), their origin and 500-million-year history. Danna Staaf, a marine biologist, traces their evolution from the very origins of life on Earth in the sea, to the demise of some cephalopods in the Cretaceous period and our modern age. From the causes of the “Great Dying” that happened in the Permian period (when up to ninety-six percent of all marine species perished) to our present day threat of global warming and dangers that face nautiluses, Dr Staaf explains clearly the many issues that concern cephalopods, as well as introduces a whole variety of weird and fascinating sea creatures: from the first sponges and worms, to now extinct ammonoids and a variety of curious present-day octopuses and squid (for example, the pygmy squid and the mimic octopus). This well-illustrated book, which is written with surprising humour and succinctness, will completely delight all those who are interested in marine evolution and curious about the history of present-day cephalopods.

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Mini-Review: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet [2010] – ★★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.

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7 Fascinating History of Medicine Non-Fiction Books

I am continuing my contribution to the Non-Fiction November Initiative with the list below of seven most fascinating “history of medicine” non-fiction books. 

The Butchering Art CoverI. The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine by Lindsey Fitzharris

Lindsey Fitzharris’s book on British surgeon Joseph Lister and the transformation of the Victorian medicine is an unputdownable book that introduces the reader to the astonishing medical practices that people expected in the 19th century. In times when the “germ” theory was deemed “implausible” and when hospitals were places with unsanitary conditions, one man challenged the traditional way of looking at operations and diseases that follow open wounds. I cannot praise this book highly enough. 

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Thoughts on Non-Fiction

Since November is designated for the Non-Fiction Reading Challenge, I thought I would talk about my favourite non-fiction genres and my experience of reading non-fiction books. The only non-fiction genre which I love but will not cover below is medicine/cognitive science. It will be the topic of my next post and I also previously covered it in this list here.

This new book on my TBR list traces the history of human movement on water

Some of my favourite non-fiction books fall into the categories of history and travel (culture exploration). Be it dinosaurs (The Rise & Fall of the Dinosaurs), the Middle Ages (A Distant Mirror) or stories of survival in hostile terrains (Miracle in the Andes), I find all these topics completely fascinating. My previous favourite reads also included books on Mexico, New Orleans, New York and Rome. Though some I enjoyed more than others (for example, I did not get along with Peter Mayne’s Marrakesh book nor with Kurlansky’s Havana), I am always keeping my eyes open for interesting books in these categories. Thus, I am currently looking forward to reading A History of the Bible by John Barton, The Ghost: A Cultural History by Susan Owens, The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans by David Abulafia, and Medieval Civilisation 400-1500 by Jacques Le Goff, an author that was recommended to me by Ola G.

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Review: The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier

The Scapegoat [1957] – ★★★★1/2

In The Scapegoat, two complete look-alikes switch places and we follow the Englishman John as he reluctantly takes the place of seemingly wealthy but troubled Frenchman Jean de Gué. Previously somewhat shy and leading an uneventful life, John is unexpectedly thrust into the very limelight of life, acquiring a big family overnight, but also overbearing responsibilities and a failing business. As this is a Daphne du Maurier book, this is no ordinary tale of switched identities. In this tale, we step into an atmosphere that is haunting and unsettling, into a strange château peopled by still stranger people whose complex relationships and buried secrets first puzzle and then “liberate” our protagonist. Blending wonderfully the surreal and the realist, Daphne du Maurier created a fascinating psychological situation, a deep and intricate central character study and vivid minor characters, while touching on such themes as the nature of identity, the unpredictability of the human nature, the meaning of a family and the importance of forgiveness. With du Maurier, readers know that they are in the safe and confident hands of a master who will deliver something subtle, unsettling and over and above their expectations.

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