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“.
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  and The Little Friend  – in an even higher esteem.
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.
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) 
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.
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.
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 am continuing my contribution to the Non-Fiction November Initiative with the list below of seven most fascinating “history of medicine” non-fiction books.
I. 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.
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.
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.
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.
A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century  – ★★★★★
In this book, Barbara Tuchman explores the 14th century Europe focusing in particular on the situation in France and on the powerful clan of lords – the Coucy of Picardy, whose ambition at that time almost rivalled that of the King. The centre of the narrative here is the lifetime of Enguerrand VII de Coucy, whose double allegiances and adventures could be compared to some mythical storytelling. Providing vivid insight into various aspects of the medieval life, from childhood to tournaments, and from the state of medicine to the status of women, Tuchman’s book makes one truly step into the intriguing world of the Middle Ages and into the mentality of its people. This was a historical period that was deeply paradoxical and chaotic, in which famine, peasant revolts, foreign wars, the bubonic plague and religious struggles were all taking place in a non-stop succession amidst the existence and the proclamation of a high moral code of chivalry among the nobility, and where magic and superstition reigned inexplicably alongside one strict religious canon.
The Roots of Heaven (Les Racines du ciel) [1956/57] – ★★★★1/2
The Roots of Heaven, the winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt, is set deep in the wilderness of Africa just after the WWII when the complex geopolitical situation meant a world on the brink of an explosion from the collusion of different interests, values and opinions. In this world, amidst all the criticisms levelled at colonialism, cries for African independence and still fresh horrors of the Nazi regime, there emerges a candle of “hope” in the form of one idealistic Frenchman – Morel, whose passion for the protection of elephants soon reaches mythical proportions in the region around Chad. He soon gathers around the most unlikely champions to ban the slaughter of elephants, for example Minna, a woman who suffered much during the Fall of Berlin, and Forsythe, an American who was dishonourably discharged from the army. Morel, equipped only with the belief that his cause will attract public sympathy, faces a lot of adversaries, such as the reality itself, as well as numerous people who hunt for business, pleasure and trophies. Because of his eccentricities and naïve outlooks, Morel is soon converted into a symbol of dignity and liberation, even though his enemies are already closing in on his noble campaign and it is far from certain what will be the real consequences of his increasingly drastic actions. Through Gary’s dense narrative and second-hand accounts, we can piece together a powerful story about the resilience of the human spirit and the power of one unshakeable belief, all coming from the author whose own life was probably more illustrious than any fiction he wrote.
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 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.
I got my idea for this post from youtuberA Little Bit of Monikawho made a post recommending different Studio Ghibli films to her followers based on their zodiac (star) signs. Given the twelve star signs that exist (and their characteristics), I will also try to recommend 12 Japanese fiction books to each of the twelve star signs.
ARIES (March 21 – April 19)
Aries will always be up for an adventure and an exciting action. Therefore, Eiji Yoshikawa’sMusashi  may be a perfect read for them because the book is all about an adventure revolving around an unlikely warrior Musashi. Being confident, courageous, energetic, as well as a natural leader, Aries could identify with the book and its characters.
TAURUS (April 20 – May 20)
Taurus is stable, reliable and devoted. They can be very family-oriented, as well as appreciative of beauty and tradition. Therefore, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters  could be a good read for them since they will enjoy all the practical, day-to-day intricacies and familial values/duties than the book tries to present. The Makioka Sisters takes place in Japan from the years 1936 to 1941 and focuses on one’s family’s attempts to marry off Yukiko, already a thirty year old woman who remains woefully unmarried. Given Taurus’s patience and determination, I trust them to finish the 576-page book, finding it significant.
This is a painting that Dutch-Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted in 1568 and left to his wife before his death. This is not merely a countryside scenery. There is something unsettling in this painting and some have suggested that it hides a secret meaning. In this painting, two men are seemingly enjoying the view to the river valley, but there is something disturbing that comes into their view – a group of dancers on the left happily passing their time in front of the gallows, which stand as an ominous reminder that one day human life comes to an end. Our attention is immediately drawn to the gallows because Bruegel depicted what seems to be an “impossible object” in art. The gallows’ posts are positioned in such a way that cannot occur in real life, with the right side receding into the distance. This alone gives the gallows in the painting a special significance. At the same time, the merry people to the side of the gallows, as well as the person who is squatting on the foreground, seem to be mocking the very symbol of death and “justice”. The contrast between their merriness, and the solitary and sombre gallows could not have been more pronounced, giving a peculiar unnaturalness to the scene. Over the years, there have been a number of interpretations put out forward regarding the magpie that sits on the gallows (as well as the one near the base of the gallows), and one of the most popular ones is that the magpie represents baseless and spiteful gossip that often leads to the gallows. This painting is currently held by the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt, Germany.
Piranesi is a new fantasy novel by the author ofJonathan 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.
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;
A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie  – ★★★★★
15 September 2020 marks 130 years since the birth of Agatha Christie in 1890, and this review is meant to pay tribute to the ultimate Queen of Crime. The author of A is for Arsenic is Kathryn Harkup, a chemist by profession, who decided to plunge into all the poisons that Christie used in her books to come up with her perfect crimes. In A is for Arsenic, we first read about the scientific properties of each of the poisons used by Christie in her fiction, from arsenic and belladonna to opium and phosphorus (including their histories and the ways they kill), before the author illuminates the real cases involving these poisons, and finally talks about the fictitious cases in Agatha Christie’s books. It is clear that reading about different poisons has never been as morbidly fun or interesting as with this book since Harkup is an intelligent and succinct writer with a great sense of humour. A is for Arsenic is sure to fascinate and delight this Halloween season.
Hieronymus Bosch [c. 1450 – 1516] was a Dutch painter known for his unique artistic style and enigmatic, intellectually complex paintings on religious subjects. He is also known as the innovative painter of the fantastic who, paradoxically, never went beyond the religious canon. Below, I would like to present three of his lesser-known works, one of which – Extracting the Stone of Folly – is considered to be the only one the painter produced which centred on a purely secular matter.
I. Extracting the Stone of Folly [c. 1505]
In this curious painting, a man tied to a chair in open countryside is ready to undergo a risky procedure – the removal of a stone of folly or madness from his brain. In medieval times, people believed that a stone lodged in someone’s brain was responsible for either their lack of intellectual prowess, their “madness” or their erratic behaviour. Professor Jos Koldeweij interprets this painting as a quack doctor (on the left) making an incision in the man’s scalp to extract the stone, while the man’s wife (on the far right) and her lover, the priest (in the middle) supervise the procedure. The interesting aspect of the painting is not only the macabre procedure, but also the division of power between the four people in the painting. Despite appearances, it is the wife of the man to be “dissected” who is in control. The book on her head may signal her possessing knowledge or power beyond that of those around her. The doctor is a quack or a fraudster because he has a funnel on his head and a jug hanging from his belt – he is after the money and is not interested in curing his patient. The priest in black, in turn, is supposed to calm the patient and provide a divine assent to the procedure. However, he also seems to possess ulterior motives for being there (having the jug in the hand may also signal deception). Moreover, being a lover of the man’s wife, he is unlikely to interfere to save the man from his fate. Meanwhile, the husband seated represents the party tricked into complete submission, as also evidenced by his overall helplessness to control the situation. The fact that the “surgeon” manages to extract not a stone, but a waterlily from the patient’s head only emphasises the ludicrousness of the procedure. The painting is currently in the Prado Museum in Madrid. Continue reading “Hieronymus Bosch: 3 Lesser-Known Artworks”→
My favourite time of the year has started, and this year I have decided to start the Readers Imbibing Peril Reading Challenge earlier than usual. This is because, firstly, yes, I am impatient to delve into all those exciting scary books, and, secondly, I want to have plenty of time to decide what I want read for this challenge, and then read and review those books. This year I spotted this challenge at Robin’s A Fondness for Reading (it was first started byCarl V), and the goal is to read a certain number of books associated with the Halloween season. This year I am planning to readat least four booksin one or more of the following categories: horror, thriller, mystery, dark fantasy and the supernatural. I have not yet decided on specific books, but I will definitely be reading something from both Daphne du Maurier and Shirley Jackson.Are you participating in this challenge this year? What authors or books are you planning to read?
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.
Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet  – ★★★★
This book is about once purely aristocratic and social dance that was elevated to an art of purest form and principles, which then required almost inhuman perseverance and training, and whose spectacle simply takes one’s breath away – classical ballet. From France and Russia, to Denmark and the US, and from Giselle  and Swan Lake , to Cinderella  and Spartacus , Jennifer Homans traces the history and tradition associated with classical ballet in this book, from its origins in the royal courts of France and Italy to its modern variations of the twenty-first century. The result is a well-researched book that pays as much attention to the dates and principles as it does to the aesthetics and social context.
After Yann Tiersen’s Rue des Cascades, I feel like sharing this quieter but no less beautiful composition by the composer. Comptine d’un autre été forms part of the score for the film Amelie . This piano arrangement/performance is by Rousseau.
Dr Bloodmoney is a wildly imaginative sci-fi book which is set in distant future after a nuclear disaster left the society with new adaptive technologies, shocking mutations, inverted priorities and the hatred for one person who is deemed responsible for bringing it all about: Dr Bluthgeld (Dr Bloodmoney), a deranged physicist who went into hiding. One person who knows his real identity and location is Bonny Keller, the beautiful wife of a successful school principal, and Stuart McConchie, an unfortunate salesman, may also be starting to guess correctly. Meanwhile, orbiting around Earth is the “voice of wisdom” – Walter Dangerfield, and previously marginalised and ridiculed disabled person Hoppy Harrington seems to see his fortunes turn with prospects to gain enviable influence in the community. Although this increasingly disturbing tale from Philip K. Dick is an unfocused one with a questionable ending, it is also an enjoyable literary ride into one of a kind “end-of-the-world” chaos filled with colourful characters and a through-provoking satire on the survival of a community in times of a crisis.
Ingrid Rojas Contreras is a Colombian writer and Fruit of the Drunken Tree is her debut book in which she tells the story of seven-year old Chula and her family living in the 1990s in Bogotá, Colombia in the shadows of the unpredictable world of Pablo Escobar and his incessant spree of violence. In Contreras’s book, two sides of Colombia come face-to-face when the relatively well-to-do family of Chula hires a live-in maid Petrona, a young girl who lives in extreme poverty on the very fringes of Colombian society. Chula tries to penetrate the mystery that is Petrona, and when she tries to guess Petrona’s secrets, the cruel world that once seemed so far away to Chula’s family comes knocking right on their door. Fruit of the Drunken Tree is an emotional story that is also very personal to the author as she tries her best to capture the world of a child living in frightening conditions. However, it is also an imperfect book whose two points of view prevent the story from reaching its full potential. Overwritten, with its weak symbolism of el Borrachero and an even weaker main characters’ connection, Fruit of the Drunken Tree may generally be said to be a book of lost opportunity.
James Horner (1953 – 2015), an American composer, would have been 67 today (he tragically died in a plane crash in 2015), so, as a tribute, I thought I would share this beautiful musical composition of his for the film Braveheart  performed on the piano by Patrik Pietschmann.
I spotted this tag on Clemi’s Bookish World, and though I am not a Taylor Swift fan (or maybe I am and just don’t know it yet), I decided to post the tag because the questions are interesting. My answers somehow ended up to be more French than intended, and I omitted the category: “Peace: A book character you’d die for because you love them so much” because I could not decide on just one. I am tagging everyone who is interested in doing this fun tag.
– The Tenant(Le Locataire chimérique) by Roland Topor – After finishing this psychological, existential book, I really did not know what to make of the ending – but it is definitely thought-provoking. The book astutely explores alienation and the search for identity in a big city as the main character begins to realise that his neighbours may have nefarious designs upon him. The film of 1976 is equally good.
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.
“I never weary of great churches. It is my favourite kind of mountain scenery. Mankind was never so happily inspired as when it made a cathedral.” (Robert Louis Stevenson)
My previous trilogies of travel-related posts concerned “three quirky museums” in Brussels, Paris and London, and “my three favourite bookshops” in Brussels,Parisand London, so this time I am focusing on churches in these three cities, and my first post is about three most beautiful churches in Brussels. I love exploring churches and religious architecture, and, though my favourite place to do so is Italy, I can never resist delving into some great examples of religious architecture of such grand cities as Paris or London.
I. Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula
Gothic architecture and churches dating to the Middle Ages are my favourite, so it is no surprise that the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula starts my list. This cathedral dates to the 9th century when a St. Michael Chapel was established on the Treurenberg Hill, and the building was in construction from the 13th to 17th centuries. It is named as the patron saints of the City of Brussels – St. Michael and St. Gudula, and Victor Hugo once noted that the church represents “the purest flowering of the Gothic style”. Its imposing Gothic-style towers which are 64 metres long, its beautiful stained-glass windows and its famous Grenzing organ are just some of the reasons to visit this magnificent structure.
This is my fourth Balzac (after Lost Illusions, The Black Sheep & Cousin Bette) and it is probably the best of the other novels I have read so far. Le Père Goriot (Father Goriot or Old Goriot) centres on one young man from France’s provinces, Eugène de Rastignac,who has just settled in Paris and set his sights on becoming a lawyer. He desires to climb the social ladder fast and his impatience for money, status and power soon makes him cross paths with one impoverished father of two daughters (old Goriot) who selflessly devotes his remaining time to them (or, more accurately, to the memory of them). From richly-decorated Parisian drawing-rooms to the bedlam that reigns in a poverty-stricken lodging house, the result of this crossing of the paths is a thrilling head-to-head collision of reality and illusion, youth and old age, ruthless selfishness and selfless devotion, all happening at the very heart of turbulent and exploitative Paris of 1819.
Yann Tiersen  is a French musician and composer that likes to experiment with different instruments when creating his music. He is most famous for his soundtrack to the film Amélie . Below I am sharing his composition Rue des Cascades(the instrumental version).
The Betrothed is an Italian classic by Alessandro Manzoni, the man who happened to be the grandson of Cesare Beccaria, the world-famous criminologist and philosopher. The novel is set in medieval Italy where two lovers (Renzo and Lucia) are prevented from marrying by a cowardly priest. From this flows all sorts of misunderstandings and advances from corrupt regimes as the two lovers are trying to overcome numerous obstacles and go through life trials (including a war, a plague and famine) on their path to a reunion. Beautifully translated from the Italian by Bruce Penman and boasting colourful and memorable characters, this classic tale from Italy is about undying love, faith, hope and perseverance in the face of oppression, betrayal and despair.
This comprehensive biography talks about the life of an American icon – Fred Rogers (1928 – 2003), the man behind the famous American television show for children Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1962 – 2001). Fred Rogers was more than just a presenter, his show was more than just one’s usual children’s programme, and, hence, this biography is so much more than a book about one celebrity. Always championing children’s rights and their needs, Rogers has always been known for valuing each viewer “just the way they are” and a child was truly someone who mattered on his television. Unassuming, humble and even shy, but with captivating presence, Rogers hence revolutionised children’s day-time television in the US, believing that television can be uplifting, fun and educational for everyone [2018: 172]. From Rogers’ childhood to his last TV appearance, the biography touches on many aspects of his life, including Rogers’ unparalleled-on-television authenticity, his commitment to child development, and his love for music and swimming. The Good Neighbour is a book to read because Fred Rogers was one of those people whose efforts and commitments should never be forgotten. Fred Rogers’ life is a life worth knowing.
The Woman with a Worm in Her Head is a topical non-fiction book since it talks about those infectious diseases which present a real puzzle for medical staff. Referring to her experience of working as an infectious disease doctor, Nagami talks about real patients with such seemingly surreal diseases as cocci or valley fever, leishmaniasis, chickenpox and falciparum malaria, and, of course, with live worms loose in their bodies which cause havoc and distress. Nagami’s book is definitely not for the faint of heart or the squeamish, but those who are interested in mysterious diagnoses or in unusual and rare medical illnesses will find much to appreciate in this book.Continue reading “Mini-Review: The Woman with a Worm in Her Head by Pamela Nagami “→
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.
Thomas Cole [1801-1848] was an English-born American painter who painted Romantic landscapes and history art. Largely self-taught, he is also known as the founder of the Hudson River School. Below are five of his paintings that have historic significance and symbolic meaning.
This non-fiction book is Peter Mayne’s account of his life in Marrakesh, Morocco in the 1950s. Mayne recounts his bewilderment and mishaps as he tries to live the life of a local in a country that is very different from his own. He tries to learn Arabic and make friends with local people only to find that his attempts lead him to the myriad of unsaid etiquette rules and cultural intricacies still to be learnt. Though Mayne tries his best to capture the mentality of people living in Morocco and their culture, his account turns out to be predictable and exasperating, though with welcoming doses of humour.
Kenzaburo Oe’s debut should remind of Lord of the Flies  by William Golding, but, undoubtedly, the author had other inspirations too. In his first book, the Japanese Nobel Laureate tells of a group of boys from a reform school that get stranded high up in forested mountains and forced to confront hostile villagers, the possibility of a plague, starvation and inhumane conditions. As the boys take matters into their own hands, their boyish desire to play and youthful confidence/hopefulness clash violently with the necessities posed by the war and traumas experienced by the most desperate. The boys finally realise that they have to choose between truth, principle, loyalty and compassion, on the one hand, and their own lives, on the other.
I haven’t previously posted this tag, and I thought it would be fun – I have seen it on both theLiterary Elephantand There’s Something About KMblogs. I have also skipped the questions on “best sequel” and “newest fiction crush” because, so far this year, I haven’t read a good sequel nor had a fiction crush.
Best Book You’ve Read So Far in 2020
That’s a tough question – it will probably be Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red– I enjoyed the murder mystery there, the intellectual and historic atmosphere, and the ending. The Silent Cry by Kenzaburo Oe was my other memorable read.
New Release You Haven’t Read But Really Want To
Death in Her Handsby Ottessa Moshfegh (the author of Eileen  and My Year of Rest and Relaxation ).
The synopsis to Death in Her Hands reads that this is a novel “of haunting metaphysical suspense about an elderly widow whose life is upturned when she finds a cryptic note on a walk in the woods that ultimately makes her question everything about her new home” (Goodreads). I also need to pick up The Truants by Kate Weinberg.
“Death was the only absolute value in my world. Lose life and one would lose nothing again forever… Death was far more certain than God, and with death there would be no longer the daily possibility of love dying. The nightmare of a future of boredom and indifference would lift. I could never have been a pacifist. To kill a man was surely to grant him an immeasurable benefit. Oh yes, people always, everywhere, loved their enemies. It was their friends they preserved for pain and vacuity”
Belgian author Amélie Nothomb (Sulphuric Acid) is known for her short, thought-provoking books that often shock, but Fear and Trembling misses the mark. In this story, translated from the French by Adriana Hunter, a young Belgian woman starts working for a prestigious Japanese company Yumimoto and soon finds herself overwhelmed: she is delegated meaningless, absurd and increasingly demeaning tasks, while her relationship with her immediate supervisor Fubuki Mori undergoes drastic changes – from deep admiration to extreme hate. While Nothomb’s deadpan satire on corporate culture works at the start of the book, her attempt to shockingly satirise the Japanese culture and the difficulty of the westerner to integrate into it is completely misguided. Thus, with Fear and Trembling, what starts as an intriguing and delicate satire soon turns into something bewildering, unfocused and ignorant, a strange, barely-hidden polemic on traditional female roles and Japan with some very needless and overly-shocking episodes. Continue reading “Review: Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb”→
This American classic by John Williams is a great, even if heart-breaking read. It tells the story of Stoner, a university professor, 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”→
Shamanism is by a Romanian historian and author Mircea Eliade [1907 – 1986], and is considered to be one of the first attempts to approach shamanism so systematically and scholarly. From costumes and drums to spirit animals and dreams, Eliade elucidates one of the most misunderstood practices/traditions in the world. The great thing about the book is that it talks about shamanism as it is applicable in different regions of the world, from Siberia and India, to South America and Oceania, attempting to draw parallels between them and talking about their general concepts, including similarities in initiation processes. The result is a quite fascinating account of shamanism, even if somewhat dated.Continue reading “Review: Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy by Mircea Eliade”→
Erik Satie [1866 – 1925] was a French composer known for his Gymnopédies and Gnossiennescompositions, among other late 19th century experimental music (he was “a precursor of minimalism, repetitive music and the Theatre of the Absurd”). This week it will be 154 years since the composer’s birth, and I would like to share his uplifting Je te veux composition to brighten everyone’s Wednesday.
“…there was no doubt in Phil’s mind of the end of [the] pursuit. The dog would have its prey. Phil had only to raise his eyes to the hill to smell the dog’s breath [Thomas Savage, 1967: 76].
This book is by an underappreciated American author Thomas Savage, and Jane Campion (The Piano (1993)), one of my favourite film directors, is currently shooting an adaptation of it. The story takes place in a small town in Montana in the 1920s where two brothers’ interests clash when one of them unexpectedly decides to marry a widow with a son. Raw, uncanny and psychological, The Power of the Dog is probably known for its intense character study of Phil Burbank, whose brooding and quietly menacing presence haunts the pages of this book, making it virtually unforgettable. Thomas Savage undoubtedly drew from his own previous experience of working as a ranch hand to produce a different kind of a western, whose deep sensitivity to the characters and their dynamics is nicely offset by the “harsh” authenticity of the language. Continue reading “Review: The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage”→
It is Victory Day in Russia (my homeland), and I thought I would post a tribute especially since today marks 75 years since the defeat of Nazi Germany and the end of the World War II in Europe. My grandparents lived through the WWII (for example, my grandfather on my mother’s side was a paratrooper (a military parachutist) and was involved in many WWII operations and my grandmother on my mother’s side worked in trenches). Some heroic actions are less evident than others and some heroes remain either unknown or forgotten. I have always found it touching when children or young teenagers distinguished themselves as heroes of war. Although there were many such examples, below, I would like to briefly talk about Zinaida Portnova. Continue reading “Victory Day: 9th May”→
This is a book by a Dutch writer Gerbrand Bakker, whose previous book The Twin won the International Dublin Literary Award. The Detour (also known as Ten White Geese), translated from the Dutch by David Colmer, is about a Dutch woman who moves from her country and starts to live alone on a farm in rural Wales. Some of her nearby neighbours are badgers, cows and ten white geese whose number declines rapidly and mysteriously the longer she lives on her rented farm. Equipped with a poetry book by Emily Dickinson, the woman seems to be on the run from her past, trying to either delay or solve her immediate problems by seeking refuge in an unknown and isolated location. Her peace is soon disturbed by those with curiosity and inquisitiveness. With elegance and delicacy, Bakker draws on the nature in his book to shed light on the mystery that is this woman and her past, with his book becoming a quiet and poignant exploration of loneliness, pain and human connection.Continue reading “Review: The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker”→
“A. J. Finn’s voice and story were like nothingI’d ever heard before,” Editor, William Morrow Publishing; “Even in fiction, there are precedents in copyright law where the borrowing of plot elements is so extensive and blatant that plagiarism crosses into copyright infringement”, Rebecca Tushnet, Intellectual Property Expert, Harvard Law School
The Woman in the Window is a 2018 debut thriller and international bestseller by A. J. Finn (Dan Mallory), which sold millions of copies, with the film based on the book to be released in 2020 starring Julianne Moore. Daily Express called the book “masterpiece of storytelling” and Stephen King said that it was “unputdownable”. Saving April is a 2016 lesser-known book by Sarah A. Denzil, released two years beforeThe Woman in the Window and first being available in an e-book format. As I will show below, the similarities between the two books are overwhelming, both in their scope and in their nature, and, clearly, Finn took everything that he possibly could from Denzil’s thriller to write his bestseller. Jane Harper noted that Finn is “a tremendous new talent”. By the end of my comparison, it may become clear that the only talent Finn possibly has (apart from insolence) is taking nearly all of other writers’ ideas, elaborating on them slightly and then passing others’ stories as his own.
Both books undoubtedly drew inspiration from classic film noir, especially from Hitchcock’s Rear Window  and Amiel’s Copycat  as well as from such books as Gone Girl  and The Girl on the Train . However, even though The Woman in the Window feels like a more accomplished and elaborate book that Saving April, it is still the same exact story as Saving April and the similaritiesbetween the two are too numerous in their number and too close in their nature for there to be any talk of “inspiration” or “simple source”. In fact, the two stories are so similar that Saving April can be the first/second/third draft of The Woman in the Window. Reading the two thrillers side-by-side, one may become immediately confused which part they read in which book – so similar they are in virtually every way.
Edward Hopper (1882 – 1967) was an American realist painter, depicting both landscapes and social situations. Some of his most well-known paintings are Nighthawks  and Automat . His paintings are often said to portray people’s social isolation and loneliness, and even his landscape paintings feel desolate. Hopper’s paintings also inspired numerous filmmakers, for example, Alfred Hitchcock drew inspiration from Hopper’s House by the Railroad  to make his film Psycho  and Ridley Scott purposively wanted his film Blade Runner  to have the atmosphere of Hopper’s Nighthawks. Below I discuss four other works by this interesting painter.
“Those who experienced evil may forget it, but those who committed it – never” (A. Mare).
This is a true story of Eric Lomax, a British Army Officer and ex-Prisoner-of-War (POW) during the World War II, who was tortured and held in confinement while he and his fellow comrades were forced to work on the Siam-Burma railway line. Years after the WWII, he came face-to-face with one of his captors – Japanese interpreter Takashi Nagase, a meeting that finally led to a reconciliation. This is Lomax’s incredible true story, which is an inspirational and moving read.
American novelist Patricia Highsmith (1921 – 1995) is probably known for her Tom Ripley thrillers (among which is The Talented Mr Ripley ), as well as for psychological suspense/thriller books that later also became films – Strangers on a Train, The Price of Salt or The Two Faces of January. Below are the reviews of her two books, novels that showcase the depth of this author’s psychological character studies and her admirable, low-key stream of suspense.
I. Edith’s Diary  – ★★★★1/2
“The difference between dream and reality is the true hell” [Highsmith, 1977: 291].
I first spotted this great book onRadhika’s Reading Retreat (check out her amazing blog and book recommendations!) and I knew I had to read it. In this story, Edith Howland moves with her husband Brett and her young son Cliffie from New York City to Pennsylvania. The family is not rich and hopes for the best in their new community. Edith starts to run a political newspaper in the new place, while keeping in touch with her old neighbours in New York and her wealthy aunt Melanie. Pressure on Edith intensifies as her son Cliffie becomes first troublesome then passive and aimless in life and Brett’s uncle George arrives to demand attention to himself. Soon, it is evident that the life that Edith imagined for herself and her family does not quite accord with reality and Edith finds herself increasingly prone to fantasising as she writes in her dairy. What will be the cost of this fantasy? – Simple paranoia and mental health concerns, or maybe the complicity in the death of another person? Edith’s Diary is a nuanced, psychological novel full of hidden, but real fears, and a quietly disturbing account of a woman whose repressed despair caused by social and personal expectations may just surface to lead to tragic results. Continue reading “Patricia Highsmith: Edith’s Diary and The Tremor of Forgery”→
“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”→
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 though emotional as the story is filled with all kinds of injustice that have been 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”→
My readers probably know by now that I love film music. In October 2019, I “celebrated” the 70th birthday of film composer Gabriel Yared (The English Patient , Betty Blue ), so now I want to highlight that today Alan Silvestri, an American film composer known for his collaborations with director Robert Zemeckis, is 70 years old too. Given this, I think it is perfect time to share one of this composer’s greatest scores for the film Forrest Gump  that starred Tom Hanks.
“…the true practice of Zen is no practice, that is, the seeming paradox of being a Buddha without intending to be a Buddha” [1957: 95, 96]. “The basic position of Zen is that it has nothing to say, nothing to teach. The truth of Buddhism is so self-evident, so obvious that it is, if anything, concealed by explaining it” [1957: 163].
This non-fiction book by a British philosopher and writer illuminates one of the least understood concepts in the world – Zen. Patiently, Watts traces the origins of Zen Buddhism– its Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism foundations, and then explains very clearly some of its basic principles and practices (such as the nature of direct experience, “no-mind”, the present “Now” and sitting meditation). The last chapter in this book is devoted to the application of Zen to a number of arts: from haiku (a form of Japanese poetry) to archery, with the author explaining how Zen started to permeate virtually every aspect of life. The Way of Zen is a short and remarkably lucid account of Zen which is very informative, on top of being a pure pleasure to read.Continue reading “Review: The Way of Zen by Alan Watts”→
To complement my previous post that was about books featuringidentical twins, I am presenting this list of 7 books that feature doppelgängers and look-alike people. Doppelgängers or doubles sometimes appeared in folklore and paranormal stories and, famously, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a German writer, saw his identical self on horseback. The way literature deals with this phenomenon is also curious, giving rise to very thought-provoking and interesting psychological situations, with characters or narrators sometimes questioning their own identity. In that vein, short stories by Edgar Alan Poe (William Wilson ), Henry James (The Jolly Corner ) and by Guy de Maupassant (La Horla ) all focused on this theme, and this situation involving the meeting of two look-alike people also appeared in such novels as Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities  and in Du Maurier’s The Scapegoat .
I. The White Castle  by Orhan Pamuk
In this book, Turkish author and Nobel Prize Laureate Orhan Pamuk introduces a young Italian scholar who becomes a prisoner in the Ottoman Empire. He meets Hoja (the master) and it soon becomes apparent that both men are virtually identical to each other in appearance. Fiercely intelligent, uncanny and mythical, The White Castle may a short novel, but it astutely portrays a curious situation whereby the two men grapple with each other, each other’s identities, each other’s knowledge and with their respective countries’ histories and cultures. Continue reading ““Mirror Image”: 7 Books That Focus on Doppelgängers/Doubles”→
“And the angel said to them “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord” [Luke 2: 8 – 14].
I thought I would return to religious art (see also my previous post 5 “The Last Supper” Paintings). I am choosing to focus on three artworks that depict the annunciation to the shepherds because this is a somewhat overlooked episode from the Bible and most prefer to focus on the nativity scene itself or on the adoration of the Magi when depicting Biblical episodes. The episode concerns the appearance of the angel who tells the shepherds the location of the Christ Child.
I. Annunciation to the Shepherds by Taddeo Gaddi
Maybe this artwork is my favourite because I remember I visited many times the Basilica of Santa Croce when I lived in Florence and this fresco is from there – located in the Baroncelli Chapel. It dates to around 1328 and is said to be one of the first night-time depictions of this kind. Taddeo Gaddi approached differently the presentation of the angel here, especially by the standards of that time, and the spiritual light surrounding the angel and the casting of this light on the rocky surface and on the shepherds are striking. In this fresco, the shepherds are slowly arousing themselves from their deep sleep, their cattle is still asleep and one of their dogs is already awake, looking distrustfully, but also obediently at the source of the light. There are both quietness to this depiction (especially in comparison to the paintings below) and a sense of conviction: the messanger has come and what he has to say is true. Continue reading “Annunciation to the Shepherds: 3 Artworks”→
Maybe because I have a twin brother myself I have always been fascinated by twins and especially how they are presented in literature. Some narratives focus on the differences between identical twins (one “evil” and another “good”) or on the infernal competition between them, while others are more realistic and emphasise brotherly love or the pain of separation. A pair of twins has always represented something mysterious, poorly understood, and even eerie and unsettling. The level of this close emotional bond between identical twins can hardly be comprehended for someone born without a twin. What is it really like growing up with another human being beside you who looks exactly like you? Below, in no particular order, are 7 fiction books that focus on identical twins or on the consequences of having an identical twin in one’ s life:
I. The Separation  by Christopher Priest
This book is the book about identical twins since every imaginable and unimaginable scenario involving them is explored, including mistaken identity and a battle for one girl. At the centre here are two brothers who find themselves on the eve of the WWII – one becomes a RAF pilot and another is a conscientious objector. Their destinies play out in a curious manner, and Priest employs sci-fi elements and the alternative history trope to make the story more intriguing. Continue reading ““Double Trouble”: 7 Books That Focus on Identical Twins”→
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 am continuing my contribution to the 13th Japanese Literature Reading Challenge with this book by Seishi Yokomizo. The Honjin Murders is considered to be the classic Japanese murder mystery, first serialised in 1946 and published in 1973. It is a debut work of the author and the winner of the first Mystery Writers of Japan Award. This story centres on the well-to-do Ichiyanagi family living in the village of Okamura who prepare for the wedding of their eldest son– Kenzo to a young woman of humbler origins – Katsuko. The whole village is shaken when both Kenzo and Katsuko are found slashed to death in their room in the early morning hours after their wedding. One strange clue follows another and soon it becomes clear that the murderer could not have possibly escaped the premises after the commission of the murder. The local police feels stuck with this case, and it is at this point that one young and unassuming amateur detective Kosuke Kindaichi takes his turn to try to solve this highly unusual “locked-room” mystery. Offering a curious insight into traditional Japan, The Honjin Murders is a compact, tightly-woven crime mystery, which, while paying a direct tribute to other crime masterworks, provides its own similar brain-teaser.Continue reading “Review: The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo”→
This list features book-to-film adaptations where either the film director or book author (or both) was female. This list excludes Jane Austen& Bronte sisters’ adaptations  to draw attention to other novels/stories. In no particular order:
1)To Kill a Mockingbird (1962): Harper Lee, author
2) The Virgin Suicides (1999): Sofia Coppola, director
3) The Talented Mr Ripley (1999): Patricia Highsmith,author
Since I am currently learning Japanese, as well as participating in the Japanese Literature Challenge, I thought I would talk more about Japan, and its culture and tradition. Below, I will briefly and very generally highlight 3 aspects of the traditional culture of Japan which I find fascinating.
I. Inari Shrines
Inari is a deity (a Shinto God) associated with foxes, rice, prosperity and household-wellbeing. There are many Inari shrines in Japan (close to 3000!) since this deity is much respected in the country (rice, as well as its protection, is very important). The origin of this worshipping goes back to ancient times, and both Shinto and Buddhist traditions have this deity in their ranks. Inari’s messenger and guardian is a fox or kitsune (a fox in Japanese) – probably because foxes were traditionally seen as rodent-eating creatures who help to preserve rice. Thus, often, you can find small kitsune statues near the shrines, under which one can leave their offering to the spirit in the form of cooked rice soaked in rice liquor (inari-zushi). No statue of kitsune resembles any other, and there is a great variety of them. It is said that Inari shrines even have symbolic holes somewhere so that spirit foxes may have an ease of access to the shrine. There is also a special festival called Motomiya-sai (“Main Shrine Festival”) held during the summer at Fushimi Inari-taisha or the head shrine of Inari in Fushimi-ku, Kyoto to celebrate this kami (or a spirit in Japanese). Continue reading “3 Aspects of Japanese Culture and Tradition”→
Since I am participating in the 13th Japanese Literature Challenge hosted by Dolce Bellezza, I am now reviewing this book by Japanese Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Ōe. In The Silent Cry, we are presented with the early 1960s and Mitsu, a disillusioned husband to an alcoholic wife and a father to a child who is now in an institution. Mitsu sees his life changing when his estranged brother Takashi arrives from America and together they travel to their native village in Shikoku, one of the main islands in Japan. There, they find that there is a shift in local power and one rich Korean magnate is proposing to buy what remains of Mitsu and Takashi’s land inheritance – their storehouse. Reluctantly, Mitsu finds himself drawn into a complicated political situation of the village, while also realising that Takashi starts to wield the unprecedented power over the village inhabitants. The Silent Cry is a slow-paced descent into one kind of a nightmare where the violent history of the village is about to be re-enacted and other grim discoveries made as the relationship between the two brothers takes an unexpected turn. Full of uneasiness and foreboding, The Silent Cy is a subtly powerful work that masterfully evokes the unsaid, the forbidden and the terrifying, getting us close to the real Truth and to the final Hope. It really becomes one of those books you do not have to enjoy, but to simply experience and live through.Continue reading “Review: The Silent Cry by Kenzaburō Ōe”→
“The things my brother read shaped him; they became his visions. He believed in them. I have now come to know that what one believes often becomes permanent, and what becomes permanent can be indestructible.”
This debut book, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2015, is set in a quiet neighbourhood of Akure in Nigeria in the 1990s and centres on four young brothers (Ikenna, Boja, Obembe and Benjamin) whose lives change when their father gets a job transfer to another city and they hear a prophecy made about the death of one of them. Though the parents plan a big future for each and every one of their sons, they soon have to confront unimaginable horrors as the brothers take their fishing nets and hooks and head down to a local river. Steeped in local superstition and African folklore, The Fishermen explores the relationship between brothers from an interesting perspective, and, although it may be dragging its narrative for its first half, by the end, the book strangely redeems itself to become a story with a purpose and a conviction. Continue reading “Review: The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma”→
I have not posted a book tag this year, so I thought I would participate in one. The Wanderlust Book Tag was created by Alexandra from Reading by Starlight, and everyone is free to participate.
I. Secrets and lies: a book set in a sleepy small town
Still Life by Louise Penny is a detective story and a debut set in a small town called Three Pines in Canada. Another detective thriller-debut which is set in sleepy small town is The Dry by Jane Harper. That one is set in a small fictional town called Kiewarra, Australia.
II. Salt and sand: a book with a beach-side community
Jaws  by Peter Benchley is a book that popped into my head first, but I think I will settle for a coastal community in Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura. This is a story about a poor fishing village in Japan that desperately wants and tries to attract shipwrecks to its coast so that villagers can survive. Continue reading “The Wanderlust Book Tag”→
WordPress informed me that I reached 500 followers on my blog, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank all my followers and readers for following me, and reading and commenting on my posts! I am also pleased that people are “liking” my travel, art and general culture posts, and not only my book-related content. To “celebrate” this milestone, I am sharing a couple of quotes by Seneca, who was a Roman Stoic philosopher, on friendship and reading.
“Lectio certa prodest, varia delectat” – “A limited list of reading benefits; a varied assortment serves only for delight/pleasure” or “Desultory reading is delightful, but to be beneficial, our reading must be carefully directed.” (It is quality rather than quantity in our reading that matters).
“Non refert quam multos sed quam bonos libros habeas ac legas” – “It matters not how many, but how good books you have, and that you read them“.
“Cum his versare, qui te meliorem facturi sunt” – “Spend time with people who will make you a better person”. Lucius Annaeus Seneca
“It is fateful and ironichow theliewe need inorder to live dooms us to a life that is never really ours” [Becker, 1973: 56].
Ernest Becker (1924 – 1974) was a cultural anthropologist whose book The Denial of Death won the 1974 Pulitzer Prize. It deals with the topic that few people want to consider or talk about – their own mortality and death. The paradox is that, although this topic is considered to be a societal taboo, everyone on this earth will have to confront it sooner or later. In fact, Becker argues, everyone is confronting and dealing with it from the moment that they are born – they just do it subconsciously or unconsciously. The Denial of Death delves into the works of Sigmund Freud, Otto Rank and Søren Kierkegaard, as Becker puts his thesis forward that all humans have a natural fear (or terror) of death and their own mortality, and, thus, throughout their lives, employ certain mechanisms (including repression) and create illusions to deal with this fear and live. Though the book relies heavily on the works by other authors, it is also a very deep and insightful read – a cry of the soul on the human condition, as well as a penetrating essay that demystifies the man and his actions.Continue reading “Review: The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker”→
“If there is one sure thing about food, it is that it is never just food [in books]. Like the post-structuralist text, food is endlessly interpretable, as gift, threat, poison, recompense, barter, seduction, solidarity, suffocation” (Terry Eagleton). Below is the list of 10 fiction books that include food as part of their narrative/descriptions or revolve around food/its preparation. Food can play different roles in a book, such as emphasise the character’s belonging to a particular culture or simply be there to stress the coming of people together, such as at a dinner table, where they can form or cement their relationships.
Food/its preparation is everywhere in this heart-warming novel by Japanese author Durian Sukegawa. In this case, it is delicious home-made dorayaki (Japanese red-bean pancakes), which the main character decides to cook at his street stall and employs an elderly woman with a secret to help him. Both subtle and powerful, this short novel stresses the love for good food, as well as the importance of friendship and the fight against societal discrimination.
II. Chocolat  by Joanne Harris
This book is about Vianne Rocher, a single mother who arrives to one provincial French town and opens there a chocolaterie. The novel explores such themes as the mother-daughter relationship, discrimination and hypocrisy, and all in the background of sumptuous chocolate and chocolate-making descriptions. The film of 2000 with Juliette Binoche, Johnny Depp and Judi Dench is a perfect companion to this book. Continue reading “10 Fiction Books Featuring Food”→
This short existential noir thriller tells of Albert, a thirty-year-old man, who arrives to his Paris apartment where he grew up. His mother died some years before, and, feeling nostalgic, Albert wonders around his Parisian quartier, trying to recall happy memories from his childhood. His day-dreaming is cut abruptly short when he meets a beautiful and enigmatic young woman with her daughter at the restaurant he never dared to go into before. Like some nightmare that he is unable to shake off, Albert soon finds himself trapped in a mystery so confusing and layered it is beyond his wildest imaginings – a dead body and a seemingly impossible crime emerge, and accounts of what happened are all as numerous as they are all improbable. Recalling the work of Georges Simenon, Bird in a Cage is a disturbingly delightful read, which is also suspenseful. Perhaps Dard is not as clever as he thinks he is with his big reveal, and much is left both unaccounted for and unbelievable in the story, but his concise and stylish approach to telling the story, that includes both existential and erotic themes, is rather fitting and appealing.Continue reading “Review: Bird in a Cage by Frédéric Dard”→
As with my series of “bookshops” posts (Paris, Brussels, London), I thought it was also the time to conclude my series of “quirky museums” posts (see my previous posts “3 Quirky Museums of Paris” and “3 Quirky Museums of London“). I think Brussels is the city to go if you love museums, and there are some 80 museums in the city to choose from. The city frequently hosts Museum Night Fevers and Brussels Museums Nocturnes (when museums are open until 10 p.m.), and it is also good to know that, while there are both paid and free museums, the majority of the prominent ones are free the first Wednesday (or Sunday) afternoon of every month. Whether you are a fan of Belgian surrealism (MagritteMuseum) or the comic strip (Belgian Comic Strip Center), want to know more about dinosaurs (Museum of Natural Sciences), or interested in Brussels’ history (Brussels City Musuem) or its beer (Beer Museum), there is a museum for every taste and interest.
I. Museum of Musical Instruments
This very central museum is in a stunning Art Nouveau-style building and boasts some magnificent views as seen from its top floor. This unique three-floor museum is a host to some 7000 musical instruments that come from different historical periods and continents. From familiar musical instruments to some very exotic musical objects, the museum is bound to surprise, and the great thing about it is that the visitor experience will be interactive: through an audio-guide/headphones provided, one can actually listen how some of the instruments on display sound like or sounded like. Overall, this museum is a great place to go for those interested in music (who isn’t?) and would like to find more about the diversity of musical instruments, and the history of music. There is also a shop on the premises that sells music-related gifts and souvenirs. Continue reading “3 Quirky Museums of Brussels”→
Frida Kahlo [1907 – 1954] was a Mexican surrealist painter whose artworks, mainly self-portraits, often emphasised the Mexican national heritage and dealt with the issues of gender, race and class. She was also known for producing intense self-portraits which showed her inner state of being and responses to various events in her life. The following three self-portraits of Frida are meant to demonstrate the heartbreak she experienced.
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
I cannot believe that the following two prominent classics on my list ended up below Roberto Bolaño’s Amulet, but here we go. 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”→
First, I would like to say to my followers that the reason I have not been so active on my blog recently is because I have taken a number of projects simultaneously over the past month, including taken more work assignments, started learning Japanese officially, started writing two fiction books (one of which will be a historical fiction/murder mystery set in France), and also started learning the piano. January has been a month of (intense) new beginnings for me (including yoga), and I finally have more time to move forward with my blog posts. Here is my first review of February, and I am continuing with a book by Julia Alvarez for my Latin America Reading Challenge.
Before We Were Free  – ★★★★
Julia Alvarez’s Before We Were Free is a moving coming-of-age account of a young girl who grows up in the Dominican Republic under the dictatorship in the late 1950s. Anita de la Torre may be only twelve but she already knows what it is like to have her family members suddenly disappear and a secret police raiding her home. Alvarez’s book strikes a delicate balance between the joys and sorrows of late childhood, including first love and early teenage insecurities, and the external tragedy and the experience of the world falling apart because of random acts of violence. The book is short and easy to read, even though it does lose some of its compelling force in the middle and no longer provides any fresh insights by the end. Continue reading “Review: Before We Were Free by Julia Alvarez”→
“…those who can see into the past never pay. But I could also see into the future and vision of that kind comes at a high price: life, sometimes, or sanity” [Roberto Bolaño, 1999/2006: 64].
Last year I had a goal to read a certain number of books by Asian authors (see my YARC), and so, this year, I set myself a similar goal, but, this time, I will travel to another part of the world and try to read as many books as possible by Latin American authors. I will begin my Latin America Reading Challenge with a short book by Chilean author Roberto Bolaño (1952 – 2003) titled Amulet. In this vivid “stream of consciousness” account, our narrator is Auxilio Lacouture, a woman from Uruguay and the “mother of Mexican poetry”. She works part-time at one university in Mexico City and at one point realises that her university (National Autonomous University of Mexico) is being surrounded by an army (event that happened two months before the infamous Tlatelolco massacre of 1968). Auxilio finds herself alone and hiding in the lavatory of the university as the army rounds up the staff and students. At that point she starts to recall her own past, talking to us about her dedication to nurturing the artistic talent of others. As time passes and her hunger and exhaustion increase, her account becomes increasingly hectic and imaginative. Amulet is an unusual novella with one unusual narrator at its heart, which is also strangely compelling as it tries to tell us the truth of the situation in the country and the state of Latin America’s literary talent and tradition through an unconventional and slightly dreamlike voice.Continue reading “Review: Amulet by Roberto Bolaño”→
The Big Oyster: A Molluscular History of New York  – ★★★★★
“The history of New York oysters is a history of New York itself – its wealth, its strength, its excitement, its greed, its thoughtlessness, its destructiveness, its blindness and – as any New Yorker will tell you – its filth. This is the history of the trashing of New York, the killing of its great estuary” [2006: xvi], so begins this marvellous non-fiction book by Mark Kurlansky, who is also the author of such popular books as Cod  and Salt . The Big Oyster tells the story of the city of New York through the prism of once one of its most famous and prized commodities – its unparalleled oysters. Currently, New York is known for its skyscrapers, its shopping and its business (among other things), but for a long time in history when you thought of New York, you first thought of its delicious and plentiful oysters [2006: xvii]. There was, indeed, a time when New York was known for its “sweet air”, enviable water and tidal systems, and its marine produce, especially its oysters. Through engaging historical accounts, literary anecdotes, culinary recipes and some of the most famous New Yorkers, Kurlansky tells a story of New York like you have never read or known it before and one we should never forget, especially in today’s ever-rising environmental and climate change concerns. Continue reading “Review: The Big Oyster by Mark Kurlansky”→
First, I would like to wish a Merry Christmas to all my followers and may the New Year bring happiness and only the best to you and your families! Here is the list of my 5 most anticipated books of 2020. I wanted to draw attention to a diverse range of books, so I am presenting a literary thriller, a fantasy, a family saga, a contemporary novel and a non-fiction book.
I.The Truants by Kate Weinberg (Release Date: 28 January 2020)
This book is supposed to have similarities with both Agatha Christie and Donna Tartt’s works, so it immediately shot to my list of anticipated books. I first spotted The Truants on Rachel’s site Pace, Amore, Libri, and this debut thriller is “set in an English [sic] university, [following] a group of friends as they become entangled under the influence of a mesmerizing professor” (Goodreads). The description hints at Tartt’s The Secret History, and I hope there will be more instances of originality in the book and maybe something unexpected even. I do not really want to see a second If We Were Villains , which, in my opinion, strayed too closely to Tartt’s novel. Maybe that is what I will get, but the mention of Agatha Christie keeps me hopeful.
II. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (Release Date: 15 September 2020)
Words cannot describe my excitement for this book. I am a huge fan of Susanna Clarke’sJonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which I recommend to everyone, and Piranesi is a novel coming after the 15 years’ wait. I think it is unrelated to Jonathan Strange’s story and the summary is as following: “Piranesi has always lived in the House. It has hundreds if not thousands of rooms and corridors, imprisoning an ocean. A watery labyrinth. Once in a while he sees his friend, The Other, who needs Piranesi for his scientific research into A Great and Secret Knowledge. Piranesi records his findings in his journal. Then messages begin to appear; all is not what it seems. A terrible truth unravels as evidence emerges of another person and perhaps even another world outside the House’s walls” (Bloomsbury). Continue reading “My 5 Most Anticipated Books of 2020”→
“Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Matthew 7: 7- 8, The King James Version of the Bible).
“The universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine” (Sir James Jeans).
Did you know that it has been experimentally proven in physics that the way you decide to look at something (your observation) changes that something or dictates/creates its locality/position? This happens on the atomic level and no one disputes that finding in the scientific community because this has been proved through the so-called“double-slit” experiment. However, virtually no one in the scientific community wants to consider what this finding means beyond its practical application. Quantum Enigma is a book that explores the divide that has emerged in science between Einstein’s theory of relativity, governing big objects in the universe and, the quantum theory that governs objects on the atomic level. The book provides a good historical overview of the knowledge so far on quantum mechanics, delving into the famous “double-slit” experiment and the Schrödinger’s Cat Paradox. In this sense, it is a great book for those completely unacquainted with the topic because it explains concepts in a very clear and unhurried way. The downside of this, of course, is that the book is needlessly repetitive and provides very few, if any, fresh ideas beyond the already established knowledge. Continue reading “Review: Quantum Enigma by Bruce Rosenblum & Fred Kuttner”→
This will be an unusual post for me, but since I heard of the death of Marie Fredriksson (1958 – 2019), a once lead singer in a Swedish band Roxette, I thought I would also pay tribute on my blog to the music (and love ballads) of the 1980s by compiling a list of memorable songs from that decade. In the 1980s, Roxette had a hit song – “The Look”  and it is also the band behind a song “It Must Have Been Love” , featured in a film Pretty Woman . Even though I do not listen to the 1980s music anymore, I recognise that that decade produced some of the greatest hits ever, especially in pop music, and no music could compare to the instantly recognisable beat of the 1980s. This was also the decade that produced the best love songs, whose quality (and cheesiness!) is unmatched to this day. In no particular order (trying to feature different genres without repeating artists):
I saw this bookish meme on Laura, Rachel & Callum’s blogs and have decided to post my answers to it, too (the creator of this tag is Roof Beam Reader). The rule is that you must use only books you have read this year to answer the questions below without repeating any of the book titles. It looks like my version of this tag came off much darker than I initially intended it to be (so my answers contain dark humour). As usual, I am not tagging anyone, and anyone is free to participate.
I do not read many graphic novels/comic books, but, once in awhile, I love reading thought-provoking or emotional graphic novels that introduce me to another culture, way of seeing the world, an interesting central character or to a mystery to consider and possibly solve. Below are ten comic books that I enjoyed reading in recent years (they are in no particular order).
The creators of this graphic novel are twin brothers from Brazil who were ambitious enough to make their graphic novel about life and what it means to live, hope, love and have no regrets in life. The opposite of this is to despair and not be brave enough to follow one’s dreams. The creators’ slightly transcendental journey centres on one obituary writer in Sao Paulo who learns his life lessons by experiencing his life in reverse or sometimes jumping through his life events. Emotional, with deep and important messages, Daytripper is a very memorable book that stays with you.
II. V for Vendetta [1982 – 1989] by Alan Moore & David Lloyd
I am not indifferent to the vision of Alan Moore, a British comic writer. His graphic novels are often very insightful and thought-provoking, grappling with interesting issues (such as personal revenge and redemption), and introducing intricate, often misunderstood and complex characters. They also provide for great film adaptations. V for Vendetta may now be better known as the 2005 film, but, in my opinion, the graphic novel has a subtler and more realistic vision, as well as more coherent picture in place, as it introduces a dystopian setting that can rival Orwell’s 1984 and – V, a mysterious character whose extreme methods at doing away with the unfair regime would push our sympathies for him and his cause to the very limit. Continue reading “My 10 Favourite Graphic Novels/Comic Books”→
“The vistas he saw were vistas of green foliage and forest glades, all softly luminous or shot through with flashing lights. In the distance, detail was veiled and blurred by a purple haze, but behind this purple haze, he knew, was the glamour of the unknown, the lure of romance. It was like wine to him. Here was adventure, something to do with head and hand, a world to conquer-and straightaway from the back of consciousness rushed the thought: conquering, to win to her, that lily-pale spirit sitting beside him”
I am happy to inform my followers that I have completed my Year of the Asian Reading Challenge for 2019. My initial, very modest, goal was to read 12 books by Asian authors in 2019, and I managed to read 15 (coupled with time pressure and my other reading challenges). I know that there is still one month left before this challenge officially expires, but since I do not plan on reading Asian authors in December, I thought I would make an official concluding announcement. My mascot for this challenge was an Indian cobra (corresponding to the level of between 11 and 20 books), and, in 2019, I read authors from the following six countries: South Korea, Pakistan,Japan, China, India and Afghanistan. The books that impressed be the most during this challenge came from the Japanese writers Kobo Abe (The Woman in the Dunes/The Face of Another), Durian Sukegawa (Sweet Bean Paste), Akira Yoshimura (Shipwrecks) and Yoko Ogawa (The Memory Police), as well as from the Chinese-born author Eileen Chang (Half a Lifelong Romance). Below are all the books with the corresponding links to reviews. Continue reading “The Year of the Asian Reading Challenge – Completed!”→
The Black Sheep (La Rabouilleuse) [1842/1970] – ★★★★★
The Black Sheep is an outstanding novel by Balzac (Lost Illusions) that tells of a remarkable battle for inheritance. At the centre of this story are two brothers, Joseph and Philippe, who could not be more different from each other, the modest and studious Joseph is the complete opposite of the bold and physically-imposing Philippe. They become the protagonists in the fight against their uncle’s supposed will to leave his fortune to mere strangers that coveted his attention for years. As in other novels, Balzac masterfully concocts a tale that is based on contrasts – the provincial life in Issoudun vs. the town life in Paris, the consequences of immense wealth vs. the results of poverty, the life of the upper classes vs. the destitution of the working class, while his moral spins around the fleeting nature of success, the extent of the individual ruthlessness and cunningness, and the consequences of a mother’s blind love for her child. More than any other Balzac novel, The Black Sheep is all about appearances often deceiving us and the fact that “a leopard never changes its spots”. Continue reading “Review: The Black Sheep by Honoré de Balzac”→
This November I visited Edinburgh, Scotland, enjoying the medieval city centre in particular and exploring the city’s history and literary tradition. Below are my highlights from this fantastic trip (all photos are mine).
I. Edinburgh Castle
Situated on the Castle Rock, Edinburgh Castle “has been the centre of Scottish life for more than 900 years, serving as a royal palace, arsenal, gun foundry, state prison and infantry barracks”. Now, it hosts a number of museums, showcasing Scotland’s rich, complicated and dramatic history. I thought the experience of Edinburgh Castle was just amazing, and it is worth its entry price. There is much to explore inside, from the Royal Palace (where Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to James VI), the magnificent Great Hall and the museum that preserves the crown jewels to the National War Museum, Museum of the Royal Scots and the new barracks. Continue reading “A Trip to Edinburgh, Scotland”→
This longlisted for a Man Booker Prize book traces the story of Harriet Burden, a small artist and once the wife of an eminent art dealer Felix Lord. Through the statements from Burden’s family, close friends and acquaintances, we get to know the story behind Burden’s decades-long experiment to hide behind three male identities in the production of her art. Burden chose to create art and pass it as works by someone else, thereby, exposing the anti-female bias in the art world, but also the subconscious perception that male artists are much more brilliant than their female counterparts. The Blazing World is bursting with creativity, intelligence and originality. It touches on many philosophical and psychological issues, while also debating the nature of art, the process of its creation and human perception. At the heart of the story is one misunderstood individual whose depth and intellectuality may just signal her doom. This unusual book invites us, readers, to be archivists, observers, art critics, judges and psychologists, but above all, it invites us to look at the situation as human beings, trying to understand the feelings and thoughts of another. Continue reading “Review: The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt”→
If the Universe is Teeming with Aliens…Where is Everybody?: Seventy-Five Solutions to the Fermi Paradox and the Problem of Extraterrestrial Life  – ★★★★1/2
I am continuing with my Non-Fiction November Reading Challenge with this curious book on the Fermi paradox. This paradox states that, if there are billions of stars out there in galaxies, and they are similar to and much older than our Sun, there is a high probability that those distant systems have planets that resemble our planet Earth. In turn, the typical nature of our planet means life must have developed and accelerated on other planets too, and, if beings there developed interstellar travel, they should have visited Earth already (or at least sent their probes). The paradox is that we do not see/perceive any extraterrestrial activity. Dr Stephen Webb is a theoretical physicist who proposes and discusses seventy-five solutions to the Fermi paradox in this book, solutions which he divides into three sections: (i) Alien Are (or Were) Here; (ii) Aliens Exist, but We Have Yet to See or Hear from Them; and (iii) Aliens Do Not Exist. This is an enjoyable, mentally-stimulating book that impresses with the number and diversity of different solutions and theories that may explain the Fermi Paradox.Continue reading “Review: If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens…Where is Everybody? by Stephen Webb”→
Since it is Non-Fiction November, I thought I would make a list of non-fiction book recommendations on some of my favourite subjects to explore – the human mind, mental illness and psychiatry. Even though some of the books below border academic and are dated, they still reman very insightful. Some of them were also initially seminal works that opened a new way of thinking about the topic. This list is in no particular order.
I. Asylums  by Erving Goffman
Erving Goffman (1922 – 1982) is considered to be “the most influential American sociologist of the twentieth century”. His work Asylums is a compelling study on mental institutions, in particular, which he terms “total institutions” since, in his view, they insist on certain patterns of behaviour making people inside to conform to certain roles, such as “guards” or “captors”. This is a thought-provoking book which gave way to the whole new theory behind the confinement of mentally ill.
II. History of Melancholy [2009/2011] by Karin Johannisson
History of Melancholy talks about melancholic feelings throughout history – how people viewed melancholy and what forms it took through the ages. It has always been my favourite book on the subject, because it dips into history, literature, psychology and modern psychiatry. It also talks about fugue states, amnesia, anxiety, loneliness and fatigue, emphasising how people were diagnosed with that or this illness depending which one of them was also “in vogue” at that time. I read this book translated (from Swedish) to Russian, and I am not sure whether it is available in the English translation. Continue reading “7 Fascinating Books on Human Mind & Mental Illness”→
“Alchemy is not merely an art or science to teach metallic transmutation, so much as a true and solid science that teaches how to know the centre of all things, which in the divine language is called the Spirit of Life” (Stanislas Klossowski de Rola). However, before alchemy became the modern practice of “consciousness” transmutation, it was an occult art through which people tried to know the secrets of nature and, in the process, discover the “philosopher’s stone” that would grant them immortality or turn ordinary metals into gold. It was a very complicated and obscure process that involved many uneasy steps and sometimes years of work. The six paintings below completed by six different artists can be divided into two camps – (i) those that portray alchemy as a practice of charlatans or the ignorant that leads to poverty, and (ii) those that portray alchemy as a serious and noble intellectual pursuit that laid the foundations of modern chemistry.
Some of my favourite and most beloved people were born in November (my twin brother too!), as well as a parade of my favourite authors: Albert Camus (7th), Kazuo Ishiguro (8th), Margaret Mitchell (8th), Kurt Vonnegut (11th), Robert Louis Stevenson (13th), Vera Caspary (13th), Arundhati Roy (24th), etc. Jose Saramago, a Portuguese author and a Nobel Prize winner, is known for his through-provoking fiction stories that often ask philosophical questions and detail interesting psychological situations. My favourite books of his are The Cave , The Double , Blindness  and Death with Interruptions , which I all recommend.
“Some people spend their entire lives reading but never get beyond reading the words on the page, they don’t understand that the words are merely stepping stones placed across a fast-flowing river, and the reason they’re there is so that we can reach the farther shore, it’s the other side that matters.”
“Words that come from the heart are never spoken, they get caught in the throat and can only be read in one’s eyes” (José Saramago).
I am progressing with my YARC 2019 with this novel by an American author whose Afghan parents immigrated to the US from Afghanistan in the 1970s. In this tale, a terrible crime shook a small community in Afghanistan – Kamal, a husband and a father of four, has been found murdered with a hatchet plunged into his skull. At the scene of the crime is his wife Zeba who is covered in blood and numb with shock. But, was she really the one who committed the crime? Yusuf, a lawyer from the US, arrives to his native land Afghanistan and is immediately tasked with defending his reticent client Zeba, trying to seek justice in this seemingly open-and-shut case. This is a tale of two families – one traditional Afghan, rooted in its community, and another immigrant, with Nadia Hashimi making observations on the Afghan culture, Afghanistan’s criminal justice system and on the plight of women living in that country, paying a special tribute to their strength and resilience. Continue reading “Review: A House Without Windows by Nadia Hashimi”→
I think it is now time to conclude my “European Bookshops” trilogy. Previously, I posted a list of My 3 Favourite Bookshops in Brussels and a list of My 3 Favourite Bookshops in London, and I am concluding with this list of My 3 Favourite Bookshops in Paris. Unlike Brussels and London, I have not lived in Paris for an extensive period of time, but have had a number of interesting visits to the city to compile this list of my favourite (maybe obvious, but still) bookstores that I like to go to if I want to read or browse books in English.
This may be a very obvious first choice and a very touristy place, but I still love this charming store whose windows look out on the Notre-Dame Cathedral that is situated opposite. The shop has a great selection of English-language books, and is labyrinthic and cosy. It also has a nice café next door that sells delicious coffee, pastries and store souvenirs. Shakespeare and Co. itself is considered a literary landmark of Paris, founded by George Whitman in 1951. Its twin store, opened in 1919, once hosted such literary giants as Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The great thing about Whitman’s store is that it is open until late hours; hosts many literary events that showcase Anglophone writers; and, if you purchase a book there, it will be stamped with a unique Shakespeare and Company Kilometre Zero stamp. The Kilometre Zero of France, or the location from which historically all distances are measured, is located on the square that faces the Notre-Dame Cathedral.Continue reading “My 3 Favourite Bookshops in Paris”→
I spotted this tag first on youtube since I follow one book reviewer there – Eric, and decided to post my answers to this tag, too. The creator of this tag is ArielBessett, and I have also seen this tag at Whimsy Pages(Alex’s blog) and at The Book Prescription. I am not tagging anyone for this tag, and everyone is welcome to participate.
I. Is there a book that you started that you still need to finish by the end of the year?
The Maias (Os Maias)  by José Maria de Eça de Queiroz. After I enjoyed The Crime of Father Amaro, I thought I would read another book by this author – Os Maias, a realist family saga, which was also recommended to me by Susana at A Bag Full of Stories. I am still to finish this Portuguese classic even though I started it about three weeks ago, but I do have an excuse – it is 715 pages long! I am enjoying it so far and I think it will be a five-star read for me.
II. Do you have an autumnal book to transition to the end of the year?
Every time I think of autumn or winter, I think of some nice crime mystery to read. I think it is so nice to read something like that in a warm home when there is snow or rain falling outside. I will be reading some detective stories by Andrea Camilleri (The Shape of Water and The Snack Thief will probably be my next reads). I also want to re-read The Essex Serpent , which I enjoyed very much when I first read it. Given its slightly gothic, dark atmosphere and setting, it will also be the perfect autumnal transition. Continue reading “The End of the Year Book Tag”→
Today marks 169 years since the birth of Robert Louis Stevenson, a Scottish author behind such books as Treasure Island , Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hide , Kidnapped  and The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses . I started reading his books at a very early age and continue to admire Stevenson’s power of imagination and a sense of wonder in his books and short stories. He has also been admired by many famous writers, including Henry James, Ernest Hemingway and Vladimir Nabokov, who included Stevenson’s tale Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hide in his famous Lectures on Literature.
“To become what we are capable of becoming is the only end in life”
“Life is not a matter of holding good cards, but of playing a poor hand well“
“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant” (Robert Louis Stevenson).
The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art  – ★★★
This month is dedicated to theNon-Fiction November Reading Challengeand therefore I am trying to read more non-fiction books. My first non-fiction book of this month is The Mind in the Cave, which I have been meaning to read for years (given that I am interested in anthropology, cave art and in the origin of consciousness). The Mind in the Cave is by David Lewis-Williams, a South African archaeologist known for his research into South African rock art, and, in his book, he describes the most breath-taking cave art from the Upper Palaeolithic Period (examples found in the Cave of the Trois-Frères, France and in the Altamira Cave, Spain), tracing the way people thought about cave art through the ages and trying to theorise why Upper Palaeolithic people made such art and what it represented for them. Although the book is engaging, with interesting case studies and beautiful illustrations, it is also problematic. The Mind in the Cave is chaotic, repetitive, not as insightful as one would have hoped, and centres almost exclusively on shamanism and altered states of consciousness. For me, it was only sporadically informative, and made a very feeble attempt to answer one main question for which I picked the book up in the first place.Continue reading “Review: The Mind in the Cave by David Lewis-Williams”→
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”→
“They say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time…when somebody says your name for the last time” (Banksy, re-quoting Ernest Hemingway). Yōko Ogawa (The Housekeeper and the Professor [2003/08]) wrote The Memory Police in 1994, and it was translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder in 2019. In this beautiful dystopian book, our young female character works as a writer on one curious island – there, things sometimes simply disappear from time to time, and with those “disappearances” come another interesting element – people soon forget these things completely, how they looked and what they felt like. For them, these things simply cease to exist. The enforcement of the memory erosion is the task for the special Memory Police, that ruthlessly detects and investigates any traces of disappearing objects, as well as hunts people that are still able to remember them. When one man, R, a book editor, is in danger of being caught for remembering disappeared things, our lead character vows to do everything in her power to save him from a terrible fate. The Memory Police may share some themes related to Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451and Orwell’s 1984, but, in its spirit at least, it is a different book– it is filled with quiet, reflective moments and has its own special, eerie atmosphere. The premise may start with one absurd situation, but it soon transforms into something very heart-felt, as its characters try to make sense of one weird world that is slowly becoming devoid of one essential meaning. At the heart of Ogawa’s novel is the importance of memory and its preservation, which remains at the core of our history and our state of being conscious, free-willed and emotionally-complex beings. Continue reading “Review: The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa”→
I spotted this meme at Kath Reads(it was created by The Broke and the Bookish), and decided to also post my answers to it. We may be avoiding reading certain books on our TBR lists for a variety of (rational and not-so-rational) reasons. We may feel that we simply must be in the right mood for certain books or have enough time in our planners to finish really heavy tomes. Below are ten books from my TBR list which I have been avoiding reading because (i) they are too big and/or complex; or (ii) I receive conflicting messages whether I would love them; or (iii) I want to love them, but I am afraid I will not (for example, because I loved an author’s previous work), etc.
I. 2666  by Roberto Bolaño
The sheer size and complexity of 2666 mean that I keep avoiding reading it. Bolaño’s last book is 1126 pages’ long, and its themes are manifold. It talks about ongoing murders of women in one violent city, but also touches upon the World War II, mental illness, journalism and the breakdown of relationships and careers, among other themes – a monumental work, in many respects.
Since Halloween is the time to celebrate the unknown and mysterious, I thought I would talk about one of the greatest mysteries in South America. The Nazca Lines are a series of geoglyphs or large land designs made by pre-Inca settlers (the Nazca people) in the Peruvian desert. The designs, made between 400 BC and 10th century AD, stretch around 200 square miles, and include straight lines and geometrical figures. The most astounding of the designs are around 70 giant (up to 370 meters in size) designs of animals and plants (as well as some unrecognisable figures). Some of the well-known depictions are that of a hummingbird (hermit), a monkey, a spider, a heron, a dog, a tree and a flower, but there are also designs of human hands and a “giant”.Continue reading “The Mystery of the Nazca Lines, Peru”→
“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be” (Kurt Vonnegut).
After enjoying The Woman in the Dunes  over the summer, I have now read The Face of Another by the same author (translated from the Japanese by E. Dale Saunders). In this story, which is narrated through three notebooks (diaries), we are told of a scientist who gets facially disfigured while conducting an experiment in a laboratory, and struggles from then on to fit into the society with his disfigured face. He manages to make a mask that is indistinguishable from a real face, but soon finds out that his problems have only just began as his personality also starts to change. There is something from Frankenstein  in this novel, something from Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde , something from The Invisible Man , something from Steppenwolf , and something from Franz Kafka and Ernesto Sabato as well, resulting in this novel being a psychologically and philosophically delicious journey into the dark recesses of one increasingly damaged mind. Continue reading “Review: The Face of Another by Kōbō Abe”→
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis – ★★★★1/2
“Whenever people ask me what I’d most like to change about the white working class, I’d say “the feeling that our choices don’t matter” [Vance, 2016: 177].
Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir of a man J. D. Vance, who talks about his childhood (being raised by his single, troubled mother with two children), adolescence and early adulthood, growing up in one of the poorest regions in America. This deeply personal, eye-opening book, which is also both sad and inspirational, provides a glimpse into the Appalachian culture and various (historical, socio-economic, psychological and cultural) circumstances that shape its people. It is about the state of one part of America some would not like to acknowledge fully or whose issues some misunderstand. J. D. sheds away some of the stereotypes surrounding his people, while, at the same time, fairly and bravely acknowledges (people’s) personal and societal responsibilities for many disastrous societal and economic circumstances. This memoir on how class and family affect the poor, as seen through the eyes of one boy raised in one disadvantaged family, is a book hard to forget.Continue reading “Review: Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance”→
I think it is the perfect time in the year to get cosy in a warm place with one’s preferred hot beverage and read a novel by Ira Levin (1929-2007), an American master of psychological suspense, who was capable of expertly evoking the horror out of the mundane and everyday situations, providing thrills and surprises no one expects. I have always been a fan of his books, which also translate marvellously onto the screen (for example, see Polanski’s film Rosemary’s Baby  or Forbes’ film The Stepford Wives ). Below are Levin’s novels in the order of my enjoyment of them (meaning that the ranking is not based on any objective criteria, but on my own perception of their merit).
This is my favourite novel of Ira Levin. It is masterfully suspenseful and completely immersive. In this story, Rosemary Woodhouse is a happily married woman living in New York City with her husband Guy, who is an aspiring actor. Upon moving into a prestigious apartment block Bramford, the couple makes friends with their neighbours next door Minnie and Roman Castevet, an elderly couple. Soon after, Rosemary notices strange, overly-friendly behaviour of their neighbours, and Guy’s demeanour also changes. When Rosemary’s becomes pregnant with her first child, her suspicions escalate also because of her very unusual pregnancy; but are her suspicions simply the result of her active imagination or stem from some fact she simply finds hard to accept? Continue reading “Ira Levin’s Novels: Ranked”→
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a short story by American author Washington Irving. Drawing inspiration from folklore that dates back to the Middle Ages and which concerns the sightings of the Headless Horseman, Irving wrote a haunting tale of one strange village, ghostly apparitions and unrequited love. At the centre of this tale is Ichabod Crane, an odd and superstitious young man who teaches at a local school in one Dutch settlement in New York State. When he sets his eyes on a local beauty Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter of a rich local farmer, he does not even imagine yet the competition he has yet to overcome to claim her hand, the competition that stems especially from Katrina’s suitor Brom Van Brunt. Nor does our young hero imagines the extent of the horror that can be experienced by one who is actually confronting the central figure of many horror stories told by a cosy fireplace. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a very memorable short story, largely because of its haunting atmosphere and the early romanticism of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (“The Sorrows of Young Werther” ) that Irving injects into the story to make it more compelling. Continue reading “Halloween Reads: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving and The Lottery by Shirley Jackson”→