Books: little to say about these

Alternate title: it’s mini-review time!

The book: Lisbon – What the Tourist Should See by Fernando Pessoa

The edition: Italian translation by Luca Merlini, 65 pages, as published by Einaudi with an essay on modern-day Lisbon by Maria Teresa Bonafede and pictures by Gianmario Marras, total page count 115

My thoughts:  while it opened my eyes to a couple of things in Lisbon that I had never noticed before, this is nothing more than a dated guidebook. From such an author as Pessoa was, I expected something more, some poetic commentary or some inside knowledge or some social satire. Nothing of the kind.


The book: Stabat Mater by Tiziano Scarpa

The edition: Italian (original) edition as published by Einaudi, paperback, 144 pages, with a note by the author

My thoughts: you may have heard me praise Scarpa’s love song to Venice in Venice is a Fish, but that was the one and only book I had ever read by him up to now; this one, also a winner of a prestigious Italian award, was supposed to be at least as good. But I’m afraid I cannot say so. It is supposed to be a homage to the musical tradition of Venice, and especially to Vivaldi, but all I could see was the pointless and sometimes horrific meanderings of a man’s mind trying to come to terms with the female body. I mean, this is supposed to be the story of a girl on the brink of womanhood, but all the details of her dealing with this change and her body either made me laugh for how improbable they were (think: a girl having a nightmare about water and waking up to find her legs covered in blood from her first period — I have lost count of the male authors believing this is how it happens!) or made me sick with disgust (think: comparing the belly of a woman giving birth and the bubbles exploding in boiling water — and this is just the least example).


The book: The Sacred Night, by Tahar Ben Jelloun

The edition: French (original) edition, as published by Seuil, Points paperback, 189 pages

My thoughts: I read this for the Africa challenge, and because I hope to visit Morocco, and Ben Jelloun is said to be the author to start from. I’m afraid I have to say this one went right over my head, and I understood nothing of it. I guess it is intended to raise the subject of gender, and of identity, but it does so in a way that is completely different from anything I had read before. It’s a kind of magical realism, but full of symbols, and dreamlike details and events that may or may not be symbols, and I can’t say I know what most of them stand for. If you have read this and can help me understand, I’d really like to hear from you!


The book: Fables 11 – War and Pieces, by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha, Niko Henrichon and Andrew Pepoy

The edition: Vertigo edition, 191 pages

My thoughts: this is the closing book for a cycle of the series, with most threads coming to an end. I already mentioned that I did not like the way this particular story (i.e. the Adversary) was being developed, and this may be the one book I liked the least. It read like some war movie, and that’s not a compliment. The series is still great, and I love it to pieces, but I’d have chosen another angle and another story altogether. Now that that is closed, I’m curious to read where the authors will bring us next!

4 comments on “Books: little to say about these

  1. Me too, in many years, I have lost count of the female readers believing to be the exclusive owner of “how it happens” about events regarding women and girls… Things happen in many different ways, but, most of all, Scribacchina misses the point: impressions, comparisons etc. are made by the character in this particular situation: the novel is not about the “pointless and horrific meanderings of a man’s mind trying to come to terms with the female body”; it is about a specific and particular and desperate situation of a very sad and depressed girl. Impressions, opinions, comparisons, not only about the female body but also about life, the world etc., are made by the characters, not by the author: that’s why they can seem “pointless and sometimes horrific”. Not only about the human body (male or female) but also about life, the world, etc., one could say that comparisons and images etc. made by Cecilia are too gloomy and desperate and don’t fit with reality. But Cecilia is in a very particular situation. A novel is about the situation of a character, it doesn’t express directly the opinions of the author about life and the world and so on. This is important. If Scribacchina wants to become a literary translator, perhaps she should pay attention to this.

  2. Dear anonymous commentator,
    may I point out something that in the rush of commenting you may have overlooked? This is not a professional review site. This is a personal blog where I record my reaction to the books I read, my extremely personal and subjective reaction. I hope you are not implying that I am not entitled to have my own opinion about what I read.
    In the case of Scarpa’s book, my reaction is that for me it was a complete waste of time and money, and not because I didn’t understand it. I can assure you that I understood it all too well, and could have written plenty about Cecilia’s coming of age, her music, her identity and whatever else, but I’m not interested, because I feel I have wasted enough time with it as is. If you liked it, good for you: I firmly believe that no book is good or bad per se, but only good or bad for the single individual reader.
    Also, I know perfectly well the difference between character and author’s point of view, there’s no need to lecture me on that. But books don’t grow on trees, they come from their author’s views and ideas and experiences. And in reading this book I saw a very heavy male perspective on Cecilia’s feelings, images and comparisons that cannot simply be explained away with her desperate situation. (This is not to say that they are the author’s thoughts unfiltered. I’m not saying that Scarpa does not understand the female body. The distinction is much more subtle than that, as any reader knows.)
    That said, you are in no position to comment on my ability as a translator (literary or otherwise, professional or wannabe, you have no way to know), so please refrain to do so.

  3. Dear Scribacchina,
    I agree with you: no book is good or bad “per se”: that’s why the arguments we advance saying that a book is good of bad become particularly relevant; because there is no “per se”, but only arguments.
    But, first of all, let me say that I am surprised by your reaction. Please read again what I wrote: I didn’t comment anywhere your ability as a translator (how could I? I never read anything translated by you). I just said that, if you want to become a translator (as you say introducing yourself in this blog), in case you want to to become a literary one, you should always pay attention to the basics of fiction. You may know them very well in theory, and in practice, too, reading and judging other books; but in this particular case you really seem not to take those basics into consideration.
    Your opinion about the book is an insult to the author: “all I could see was the pointless and sometimes horrific meanderings of a man’s mind trying to come to terms with the female body”, and later I will explain why it is an insult.
    If you are not only a reader, but a wannabe translator, you should try to understand a book, before judging it. Of course, understanding a book doesn’t mean that you have to like it (on the contrary!, of course, it can happen that the more we understand a book, the more we dislike it…; that is obvious – I don’t want to lecture you, I just want to be plain, explaining my point of view very clearly, not to be misunderstood). Why I think that you didn’t understand the book? Because you say that “all the details of her dealing with this change and her body either made me laugh for how improbable they were”. Sure, they are improbable. But that’s the point. That poor girl living three century ago, abandoned by her mother, grown-up in an orphanage, has a very strange perception of her body: for us, now, living in this epoch, this perception is very improbable (I add another example to the ones you gave: Cecilia thinks to be pregnant just because she played the music written by Vivaldi for her…! Very, very improbable to our eyes!!). But those historical and particular conditions (three centuries ago, the orphanage, not having a modern sexual education, etc.), maybe, gave to some particular people (a young girl very depressed and pessimistic) a vision of life, of the world, and of her body too, completely different (and, maybe, artistically interesting) in comparison to what we feel and normally live now. But isn’t it, precisely, one of the (possible) targets of fiction? Giving a portrait of different and particular situations, with particular and “improbable” experiences and perceptions of life, the world, the body etc.?
    Maybe I was wrong, but I think that your sentences (particularly “all I could see was the pointless and sometimes horrific meanderings of a man’s mind trying to come to terms with the female body”) are insulting because they imply that the author didn’t make one of the basic efforts required to a fiction writer, which is precisely to put himself/herself in the situation of his/her characters. In other words, on my point of view, what the author made, in this case, was precisely to leave apart his male and personal point of view about the female body, trying to figure out the “pointless and horrific” perceptions of life, of the world and of her body that a girl living in an orphanage three centuries ago could have. Of course, as a reader, all this stuff can make you laugh, and you have the right to consider it a waste of money and time; and no one ever said nor implied anywhere that you are not entitled to have your own opinion about what you read. My suggestion – it was only a suggestion -, if you want to become a literary translator (I don’t know if you want to be a literary one; but, in case you want to became a literary translator, perhaps you can listen to my suggestion; and, of course, you are free to throw it in the waste-paper basket), is to use more subtle and less gross keys of interpretation than “these details are improbable because the author is a man” as you did in this case, as you showed with the arguments you advanced.

  4. Dear anonymous commentator,
    if a reader does not find in a book what the author intended to convey, does it mean that the reader is not intelligent enough to understand the book? No. Does it mean that the author failed that book? No. It simply means that that given book did not work for that given reader. Nothing more and nothing less.
    In this case, this book did not work for me. I was not commenting on Scarpa’s ability as an author, I simply stated what my experience of the book was, and tried to do so in as few words as possible, because I did not want to waste more time on it. So let’s go back to that sentence that you found insulting and offensive: “all I could see was the pointless and sometimes horrific meanderings of a man’s mind trying to come to terms with the female body”.
    1. If you choose to read this as an insult, that’s your choice, but not my intention. I wrote “all I could see”, this is what the book had to give to me, I’m not commenting on any objective value of either the book or the author.
    2. “pointless meandering”: I found the book to be extremely repetitive and redundant. Again, just my opinion.
    3. “horrific”: I don’t think you can deny that most of the recurring images tend to be on the disgusting side. They stem from the situation Cecilia is experiencing for her whole life, they fit the character, but still I don’t think there’s anything wrong in calling them “horrific”.
    4. “a man’s mind trying to come to terms with the female body”: Please give me some credit: I am intelligent enough to understand that Cecilia comes from a very different background, growing up in that specific social and historical context. It is actually that context that gives her character some potential, which is one of the reasons why I kept reading (the other reason being the prose which was still interesting and good to read, despite the horrific imaging keeping it down). But even taking all this difference into consideration, I still found her character unbelievable and her reactions improbable, as in, not in line with what, in my experience, being a woman is like. My point being, that if you look at the whole of history and at the wide world with its different societies, it’s usually the men who make such a fuss over the changes that happen in a woman’s body, while women tend to accept them in a much more natural way — even when they have no education and no way of knowing what is happening to them. (And it’s not like Cecilia had no access to any information. She lived in a female-only institution, she probably wasn’t the first girl to have her period.)
    So, you see, I was in no way implying that “the author didn’t make one of the basic efforts required to a fiction writer, which is precisely to put himself/herself in the situation of his/her characters”, as you wrote: I was saying that in this case his efforts did not work for me. If you feel insulted by this, know that I too feel insulted by your remarks on my intelligence and by what you may not have said, but certainly seemed to imply, about my translation sensibility and skills.

Ditelo con parole vostre/Let your words be heard

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