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venerdì 30 dicembre 2011

My 2011 in books

I've been away from my blog for a couple of weeks.... we moved back to Italy and I had to deal with a turmoil of positive emotions and energy. After being away for so long my perception of smells, colours, atmospheres was amazingly sharp and intense. For instance, the smell of winter. The earthy, foggy, rich smell of winter evenings in the countryside struck me both as something completely new and overwhelmingly familiar. A beautiful feeling, yet slightly melancholic, evoking mixed memories from past winters.

Every morning, when we get up, we open the window in our study and see the sun rising in the field opposite our house, so preciously beautiful.

Anyway, in less than 48 hours a new year begins, and I wanted to list the books I've read during 2011, maybe write a few lines about each of them, and some reviews. At the moment I'm deeply into 1Q84, wonderful as only Murakami can be.

So, here's my list. I'll write books in the language I've read them.


Innan du somnar, by Linn Ullmann
The Sea, the Sea, by Iris Murdoch


A Severed Head, Iris Murdoch
Fleana, bambina triste, Laura Facollo
The Unicorn, Iris Murdoch


Not I, but the Wind, Frieda Lawrence
Sons and Lovers, D.H.Lawrence
Una bambina e basta, Lia Levi
Nessuno si salva da solo, Margaret Mazzantini
Stelle di cannella, Helga Schneider


The Hours, Michael Cunningham
Il bambino ritrovato, Alda Marcoli


Il cammino dell'uomo, Martin Buber
Memorie di una Geisha, Arthur Golden
L'abito di piume, Banana Yoshimoto
Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami


Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami
After the Quake, Haruki Murakami
La fine del mondo e il paese delle meraviglie, Haruki Murakami
The North-China Lover, Marguerite Duras


The key, Junikiro Tanizaki
Il mio Nome è rosso, Orhan Pamuk
Dance, Dance, Dance, Haruki Murakami
L'anulare, Yoko Ogawa
Profumo di ghiaccio, Yoko Ogawa


L'energia vitale della donna, Xiolan Zhao
L'isola di Arturo, Elsa Morante


Il sole si spegne, Osamu Dazai
Polvere rossa, Ma Jian
Un bacio, Ivan Cotroneo
La madre del riso, Rani Manicka
Il medico di te stesso, Naboru Muramoto


Il rumore delle onde, Yukio Mishima
Il sorriso dell'agnello, David Grossman


Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
Why Love matters, Sue Gerhardt
Trastulli di animali, Yukio Mishima


The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers
The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
The Beach, Alex Garland

Each book deserves at least a short post, so I will be busy writing these days. :)

martedì 13 dicembre 2011

The God of Small Things

Simply lost for words after reading this book. Touched by its unbearable beauty and stunning perfection. By the hopeless sadness and bottomless tenderness it has left in me like a strong, lingering aftertaste.

When you realize who The God of Small Things is and why, you just want to cry.

"The God of Loss.
The God of Small Things.
The God of Goose Bumps and Sudden Smiles."

Arundhati Roy's writing is wonderful: full of beautiful imagery, unusual word combinations, and so alive and exploding with smells and colours and textures that you really feel you are inhabiting her world, touching it and breathing it. It is funny, grotesque, tender, crude, poetic, down-to-earth.
I often just stopped at a passage, read it again and again, to savour its charm.

The novel is partly based on the author's childhood memories and tells the story of a Syrian Christian family in the town of Ayemenem in Kerala, India. Events unfold in a nonlinear, multi-perspective way, so that what in the beginning seems like a fragmented kaleidoscope image, gradually takes shape and each single small detail makes sense and echoes much bigger things.
When I finished the book, upset and incredulous, I read the beginning again and it didn't feel like the beginning at all but like a prosecution, or a totally new start where everything makes sense. A terrible sense.
John Updike wrote in his review:

"Roy peels away the layers of her mysteries with such delicate cunning, such a dazzling adroit shuffle of accumulating revelations that to discuss the plot would be to violate it."

It is absolutely true. There's little to say before you read this novel, but so much to say after that you are utterly breathless and lost for words.
It's a book about many things, but most of all, it's a book about Love. "They all crossed into forbidden territory. They all tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much."
At the moment I feel I can't read anything, I'm too entangled in this story, and I'm afraid any other book I read will somehow be overshadowed by The God of Small Things. So heartbreaking and indelible.

A handful of books, and nearly Goodbye Stockholm

We are going back to Italy in a few days, and we are going to stay there for a little more than 3 months. There are billions of things I could write about: my feelings, my expectations, the things I've missed here and those I'm going to miss there. I could write about how from an Italian perspective I'm an emigrant, from a Swedish perspective I'm an immigrant, while from my own perspective I'm caught somewhere in between, suspended between two worlds, two ways of life, two completely different ranges of possibilities. Both places are mine, in very different ways. Both my tiny home town in the North of Italy and the always-perfectly-functioning capital of Sweden. But none of that has anything to do with a book&film blog.
I will just say that, though my heart has been craving for All I Left Behind, and though I'm definitely happy to go back to Italy, now, with our passports ready and the floor scattered with open bags and suitcases, some sort of submerged fondness makes my heart sink a little at the thought of being away from Stockholm. The bare fact of Leaving a place implies melancholy thoughts. So, I'm madly happy to go home, but with a slightly melancholic happiness.
When we move from our flat in Stockholm to our house in Italy (or the other way around), I always perform my Browse-through-the-books Ritual: I look at all the books on the shelves, take out some, leaf through them, put them back and pick some more until I decide what book I want to read. I'm very fond of this little ritual, and I'm already thinking about the books I'll take out and start first. Here they are:

Michel Faber - The Crimson Petal and the White

Jon McGregor - If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things.

Mo Yan - Red Sorghum

David Grossman - To the End of the Land

Elizabeth Von Arnim - Vera

John R. R. Tolkien - The Lord of the Rings

Charles Dickens - The Old Curiosity Shop

So, my heart packed with happiness plus a blend of nervousness and submerged melancholy, I'm ready to go!

venerdì 9 dicembre 2011

Tea & Books Reading Challenge

As far as I can remember, books and tea have always been in my life. An immense pleasure, a reviving comfort, and even - seriously - a biological necessity. My brain freaks out without a constant dose of tea and books. I don't just love to read books and drink tea. I love to leaf through books I've already read, carry a book or two wherever I go; I'm mad for opening metal tea boxes and smelling the scent of dried tea leaves, I'm always eager to try new teas, and I have an obsession with tea cups. So, this Challenge is just perfect for me! :)
During 2011 - so far - I've read around 40 books, I mean read through, from cover to cover, while some more were left unfinished along the way. They were mainly in English and Italian, and a few in Swedish (I've been lazy with French and Russian, I will try to compensate for this next year). None of all those books reached 700 pages. I have nothing against huge books, I've read and enjoyed a few, like The Brothers Karamazov, the fact is that there aren't that many big tomes I've ever felt interested in. BUT I have two on my bookshelf, they've been there quite a while now and actually one of them was already on my 2012 list. I'm talking about The Crimson Petal and the White, by Michel Faber. I've read other things by him, and liked them a lot, and The Crimson Petal is set in my beloved London, so I really don't know why I haven't read it yet. The other book is The Lord of the Rings. Generally speaking, I'm not much of a fantasy reader, with a few exceptions. Yet I've always felt that The Lord of the Rings is not only for fantasy readers, and we even have it in three languages (English, Italian and Swedish, as usual). So I will take part in this challenge, humbly picking the basic level Chamomile Lover. I will start with The Crimson Petal in January at the earliest because I'm reading other things for pleasure, plus some more stuff for my upcoming new job, which is my biggest challenge at the moment! I might upgrade my level anyway, who knows. And I'm curious to see what other readers will choose....

Haruki Murakami Reading Challenge 2011

Just found out about this. Of course, I couldn't resist!

giovedì 8 dicembre 2011


NELLI PALOMÄKI was born in Finland in 1981. She started exhibiting her works in collective exhibitions in 2004, and in 2008 as a solo artist. She is a portrait photographer, it is true, yet this definition in her case is very reductive. Portrait photographs are usually not natural, because the subject is perfectly conscious of being looked at, studied, examined. The photographer has time to think, search, decide. Yet Nelli Palomaki makes every picture dreamy and suffused with different emotions, because the interaction between photographer (herself) and subjects makes every single photo different from all the others, and the feelings experienced in the acts of photographing and being photographed create the final image. She wrote:

The way people act in front of camera, is truly fascinating. Desperately searching for their mirror-face which only exist in their mind. Everyone is aware of their better side and even more aware of their flaws, unsuccessfully hiding them. But they can recognize the same thing in me, realizing this makes me really insecure and nervous. This makes the portraiture, the actual moment of taking the image, really extraordinary. Accepting the fact that we are there as we really exist, with our good and bad features, makes it suddenly quite comfortable.

Kulturhuset in Stockholm is currently hosting a selection of her works.

This is her personal website.

domenica 4 dicembre 2011

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers

When I got this book I knew nothing about Carson McCullers. I was just very intrigued by the plot of the novel, and I was not disappointed. On the contrary, I'm determined to read other works by the same author.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is set in a small town in the South of the US, and events take place within one year, between two hot summers just before World War 2. It is a complex book, and the amazing thing is that Carson McCullers was only 23 when she wrote it. Her sensitivity and understanding of human loneliness are unbelievably deep. The novel is about people whose lives accidentally intermingle, and about the changes and feelings their encounter brings about. It is also about life in the south of the US back in the 30's, when racism was still part of everyday life and when rumours of the Nazi horrors were starting to flutter about. The book starts describing the lives of John Singer and Spiros Antonapoulos, the only two deaf mutes living in town. They share a flat, walk to work together, walk back home together, never mix with other people. Their existences unfold following such regular patterns that they feel more like rituals rather than plain habits. Singer works in a jewelry and Antonapoulos in a candy shop. They both work at the back of the shops, one repairing things and the other preparing candies. Singer is very devoted to his friend, he speaks a lot to him with his hands, using the sign language. Antonapoulos is a fat, dull guy who hardly listens, only cares about eating, and never seems to react to Singer's attentions. He's a rather annoying character. At some point, after having to diet for a while due to bad health, he freaks out, doing very rude and embarrassing things, so he is taken to an asylum. Singer is left alone.
He starts to wander the streets late at night, and even moves out, unable to inhabit the same place he had shared with his beloved friend (Antonapoulos is described as such an unpleasant and irritating person that it feels very strange that anyone can like him so much, but still). Singer moves to a boarding house run by the Kelly family: mother, father (based on the author's father), and many children: Bill, Hazel, Etta, Mick, Bubber and baby Ralph. Mick is a twelve-year-old girl who dreams about composing music and who is going through the brittle time between childhood and early adolescence. She's a tender mixture of child-like attitudes and big thoughts and dreams. She's without a doubt my favourite character in the book.
Singer finds a small restaurant nearby, the New York Café, and decides to have his meals there every day. Mr Brannon, the owner of the café, is somehow attracted to Singer, which is basically what happens to everyone who meets him. The novel is about the struggles of four of these people: Mick, Mr Brannon, Doctor Copeland, an idealistic African American doctor, and Jake Blount, an alcoholic labour agitator. As time passes, their lives will be changed forever by their encounter with Singer. I won't go into the very details because I hope people will read the book. I will just say that I think the main theme of the novel is the impossibility to communicate one's deepest feelings and needs. All the characters lay their souls bare to Singer, share with him thoughts they would never think to share with anyone, and feel desperately close to him, as if they were sharing the most precious secret. Singer can make them feel in peace, can soothe their troubled minds with his silence and calm smile. The fact is that they unconsciously interpret his silence as they please, while Singer is just puzzled. He is simply trying to fill the time gaps between his rare visits to Antonapoulos at the asylum.
If, in the beginning, it seems that Singer's presence is positive, in the end we understand it isn't, because the people who were attracted to him are left alone with the longings and struggles his presence has triggered.
Carson McCullers is great at creating characters and at calling into being atmospheres and minute states of mind, those sharp feelings that strike us like painful revelations, yet are too quick and sheer to be grasped. Here are some passages:

The place was still not crowded - it was the hour when men who have been up all night meet those who are freshly wakened and ready to start a new day. The sleepy waitress was serving both beer and coffee. There was no noise or conversation, for each person seemed to be alone. The mutual distrust between the men who were just awakened and those who were ending a long night gave everyone a feeling of estrangement.

That was when she realized about her Dad. It wasn't like she was learning a new fact - she had understood it all along in every way except with her brain. Now she just suddenly knew that she knew about her Dad. He was lonesome and he was an old man. Because none of the kids went to him for anything and because he didn't earn much money he felt like he was cut off from the family. And in his lonesomeness he wanted to be close to one of his kids - and they were all so busy that they didn't know it. He felt like he wasn't much real use to anybody. [...] That night she sat down in a chair by his bench and they talked a while. He talked about accounts and expenses and how things would have been if he had just managed in a different way. He drank beer, and once the tears came to his eyes and he snuffled his nose against his shirt-sleeve. She stayed with him a good while that night. Even if she was in an awful hurry. Yet for some reason she couldn't tell him about the things in her mind - about the hot, dark nights.

Carson McCullers was born in Georgia in 1917. Her father was a watch maker and jeweler of French descent. He gave her her first type writer when she was 15. She started taking piano lesson when she was 10. Her grown-up life was rather hard. At a young age she began experiencing strokes, so that by the age of 31 the left side of her body was completely paralized. She suffered from depression and had problems with alcohol. She married the aspiring writer Reeves McCullers in 1937, divorcing him in 1941. They remarried in 1945 and were together for some more troubled years, during which she attempted suicide. Reeves tried to drag her into a double suicide but she fled. He killed himself in 1953 with an overdose of sleeping pills, in a hotel room in Paris. She died in 1967 after a brain hemorrhage.

sabato 3 dicembre 2011

In a Lonely Place. Gregory Crewdson's America

Today I finished reading The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by American writer Carson McCullers. The characters of the novel and their stories are still trying to settle down in my mind, so it will take a few days before I can write a review of the book. The novel is set in the US, somewhere in the South, in the late 30's. While I was reading I realized more than once that I visualized streets, houses and places through the photographs of Gregory Crewdson. Last spring I saw an exhibition of his works at Kulturhuset, Stockholm. It was called In a Lonely Place. I don't know whether the photos were actually shot in the South of the United States or not, anyway they remained very much with me, especially their nocturnal, slightly surreal atmosphere.
Gregory Crewdson was born in NY in 1962. His photos almost always represent either streets of small towns or household scenes. In both cases he shots them with the help of big crews as they are elaborately staged and lighted. Films and paintings influenced his works: echoes of David Lynch and Edward Hopper are particularly evident. Surreal and uncanny elements creep into his pictures, making them disturbingly unnatural, yet fascinating and beautiful. Here are some.

giovedì 1 dicembre 2011

Japanese Literature Challenge 5, my review: The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima

I've had a blog for only a week, and I've already found so many interesting things: sites, blogs, challenges, blog hops. When I found out about this, hosted by Bellezza, I just couldn't resist. I've always been interested in Japanese literature and culture in general, and this interest has grown and swelled up to a point where the word "interest" is not enough anymore. It has become something bigger and stronger, and if I hadn't studied English and Russian at University (learning also French at school and Swedish by accident and keeping in mind and heart my mother tongue, Italian ) I would certainly have studied the Japanese language. Who knows anyway, Marguerite Yourcenar started when she was in her 70's, so: never say never. This year I have read many Japanese books, more precisely:

Kafka on the Shore - Haruki Murakami
Norwegian Wood - Haruki Murakami
Hard-boiled Wonderland & the End of the World - H.Murakami
After the Quake - Haruki Murakami
Dance dance dance - Haruki Murakami

The Setting Sun - Osamu Dazai

The Key - Yunichiro Tanizaki
Diary of a Mad old Man - Y. Tanizaki

The Ring Finger - Yoko Ogawa
Profumo di ghiaccio - Yoko Ogawa

Asleep - Banana Yoshimoto
Hard-boiled & Hard Luck - Banana Yoshimoto
Argentine Hag - Banana Yoshimoto

Trastulli di animali - Yukio Mishima
The Sound of Waves - Yukio Mishima

The Sound of Waves

Shinji is a poor fisherman who lives with his mother and younger brother on a small island, where the sea - with its sounds and colours - is always present, pacing and shaping the rhythm of everyday life and acting as a source of spiritual strength. Everything is very much the same, day after day and season after season, until Hatsue returns to the island. She is the daughter of the richest man in the village, and the news of her arrival spreads quickly. Many young men, including Shinji, begin to like her. When Hatsue and Shinji fall in love, they have to face malicious gossip and jealousy until Hatsue is forbidden to see him. This separation strengthens their love and after many vicissitudes and through the intervention of different secondary characters, Shinji outshines his rivals and the lovers will be engaged to get married. The Sound of Waves is a simple, lyrical love story, offering evocative descriptions of the sea and detailed sketches of lives on the island. There are passages of extraordinary beauty, especially one: a blend of eroticism and innocence, taking place when Shinji falls asleep by the fire at the Temple, and wakes up to find Hatsue naked, waiting for her clothes to get dry. Their desire for each other struggles with the respect they have for their love as something too pure and sacred to be consumed there and then, and their decision to wait draws them irretrievably close. Shinji is described as a very down-to-earth person, probably not particularly smart yet strong and loyal. He is not used to ponder on his emotions, or to experience feelings he can't explain or relate to something clear and precise. It is with increasing amazement that he realizes something is happening to him.

"Shinji always went to sleep easily, but last night he had the strange experience of lying long awake. Unable to remember a day of sickness in his life, the boy had lain wondering, afraid this might be what people meant by sick."

"Shinji was not at all given to brooding about things, but this one name, like a tantalizing puzzle, kept harassing his thoughts. At the mere sound of the name his cheeks flushed and his heart pounded. It was a strange feeling to sit there motionless and feel within himself these physical changes that, until now, he had experienced only during heavy labor."

The charm of this novel lies in the haunting presence of the sea and in the awakening of Shinji to love and manhood, in his acceptance of the new feelings blossoming so suddenly within him. Despite having a simple plot and a happy ending (unusual in Mishima), there's an aura of solemnity surrounding Shinji and his sudden growth to manhood and love which makes everything vibrant and almost holy. Shinji and Hatsue represent a pure and simple way of life in harmony with nature, far from the the corruption and complexity of society, represented in the book, among other things, by gossip and prejudice. Their purity and endurance will be stronger and eventually succeed, and in this perspective the happy ending is not as simple as it may look at a superficial level. They are both "creatures of the sea", Hatsue winning a diving competition and Shinji outstanding a terrible thunderstorm. Their moral natures and respect for traditional values make them keepers and defenders of the island's beauty and austere simplicity. A truly beautiful book, where apparent simplicity conceals some of the author's ideals and beliefs.

Literary Blog Hop: The Suitcase, by Sergej Dovlatov

Literary Blog Hop The Blue Bookcase has raised an interesting question in the last Literary Blog Hop: what book(s) would we recommend to a literary-shy person? There are, of course, infinite possibilities, especially considering that we would probably recommend different books to different people, or at least I would. Anyway, here is my answer. There are broadly two kinds of people who find it hard to appreciate literature: those who innocently claim they don't like it, and those who think they do, yet are blindfolded with all sort of prejudices: they won't read books that are "too short" (as if "good" literature were a question of quantity and not quality), or written by authors that are "too young". They might as well self-righteously claim that To the Lighthouse is boring because "it has no plot". Some wonderful works of literature would unfortunately reinforce these attitudes, but some might, on the contrary, crumble them up. One of these, I think, is The suitcase by Russian émigré writer Sergej Dovlatov. He was born in Ufa in 1941 of Armenian mother and half-Jewish father. He emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1979, together with his mother. All emigrants were allowed to bring only one bag. After many years in America, Dovlatov finds a battered suitcase into his wardrobe. It is still full of stuff: a poplin shirt, a pair of boots, a stained jacket... each item triggers a chain of memories, and each chapter in the book corresponds to an object from the suitcase and its story. Dovlatov shares glimpses of his Russian life with us with his dry, irresistible humor, full of tenderness but absolutely far from sentimentalism. I would recommend this book to literature-shy friends because it is a short book, which will be good for the lazy and will at the same time show how good literature doesn't only come in thousands of pages. It is a book you read easily, and it is funny and ironic, yet exquisitely human and full of depth and subtle melancholia. It is well structured and the language is simple but bright and clever, showing with simple, detached grace what an extravagant blend of laughter and gloom life is. It's a lovely, "happy sad" book that will leave no one dissatisfied.