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!

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Book conversation: The Last Will and Testament of Senhor da Silva Araujo

Welcome to something completely new for this blog! As we both were reading the same book for the Africa challenge, Alex from The Sleepless Reader agreed to discuss it with me (please do click through and say hi to her!). So instead of my thoughts alone, you get to read our conversation — which turns out to be much more interesting, if you ask me!

The book: The Last Will and Testament of Senhor da Silva Araujo by Germano Almeida (a mouthful of a title, isn’t it?)

The edition: I read the Portuguese original, as published by Leya, 151 pages

The story: a successful businessman, well-known and respected on the whole island, when he dies Mr Napumoceno leaves a 387-page last will where he tells his own story. Through those pages, and through the reactions they generate in the people who knew the man and are affected by his will, we get to know a different face, a different man altogether from the one publicly known.

The discussion: (beware, the following may contain spoilers)

Alex:Did you think there was an “African feeling” to the book? It somehow reminded me more strongly of South American story-telling. I often thought of the Brazilian Jorge Amado and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the way one describes Salvador da Bahia and the other the fictional village of Macondo. There’s no magic realism in The Last Will, but a the sort of other-worldly feeling about life in São Vicente, that had the same effect. It also reminded me why I love books set in islands, there is something about the feeling of isolation that’s perfect for growing eccentric characters and habits 🙂
I found the funeral (sorry to say it) delightful to read and couldn’t help but smile at all the loops the heir had to jump to be able to fulfill Napomunceno’s last wish to be buried to the sound of Beethoven’s Funeral March. Any favorite moment?

Me: It is interesting that you cite Marquez, because from the start I kept comparing The Last Will to his Chronicle of a Death Foretold, if just for the structure: the death (or the last will) of a man is the excuse to tell different histories about several people in a close society. But I feel the parallelism (if there is one) ends there. To me, it did feel more like another African novel I read, Mia Couto’s A River Called Time, which was my first experience with African magical realism — and while there is no magical realism in The Last Will, the society feels very much alike. But I do see what you mean, and I do agree that in a way all of them talk about closely-knit societies and how they influence the type of characters that live in them.
At the same time, I feel The Last Will is much more focused on identity than society. Little by little we are told how Napumoceno’s saw himself. How he tried to be more European than he was — the Beethoven March is part of that effort, I think. But because the book is so much focused on real and perceived identity, I was completely baffled by the last chapter, which basically contradicts everything that we have been told previously: we are told that no one knew about his affair, but then Carlos says that everyone knew Maria da Graça was Napumoceno’s daughter; we are told that he was one of the most influential men in town, but then it looks like everyone still considered him the small-village poor he was when he was young… How did you react to the ending? Did it come out of the blue, or do you think it was expectable?
One of the things that made me LOL was Napumocenos’ reaction to green: basically, he’s so passionate about the Sporting football club that when he sees his cleaning lady dressed in the team’s green, he takes her on as his lover. (Of course that is not exactly what happens. It is a rape, but nobody seems to perceive it that way. What do you make of that?)
[ETA: I realized that this may give the wrong idea to those who haven’t read the book. I’m not the kind of person that laughs off a rape. It was the way the whole scene was set up that made me LOL]

Alex:I was reading the green parts to my boyfriend who’s a hard-core Benfica fan 🙂
First about the ending, I wasn’t surprised because I assumed that over time the “affair” slowly came to light, it’s just that Carlos expected the money to go only to him. We are told even her husband knew, and Napumoceno’s regular rent must have become suspicious. About the way the village saw him, I spend long months of my childhood and early teens in a small village in Serra da Estrela and I recognize those “mood swings” as typical of a close community. It’s very hard to forget that a stranger is a stranger, especially if the person is envied.
Interesting that you saw identity over society, because I did the other way around. I think the humor and witty language is used expose the public and private morality of village life. I wouldn’t be surprised it some stabs were private Cape Verdean-jokes, that we just don’t get.
I’ve read in another site an interesting quote that might shed some light into why the novel reminded us of South America, Europe and Africa:

Discovered in 1462 and settled before Columbus’ arrival in America, the arid Cape Verde archipelago is arguably home to the oldest, most thoroughly Creolized culture in the world. Indeed, the Portuguese used the islands as an advertisement for their missao civilizadora or assimilationist colonialism. (…) Cape Verdeans, scattered around the Atlantic Rim by geography and economics for centuries, intuitively understood the idea of “transnational identity” long before it became a buzzword in cultural studies journals.

It must be a very interesting society and I look forward to visiting it at some point (maybe in my honey-moon). (Did you know there’s going to be an Observatory of the Portuguese Language there?) I felt Almeida, captured that peculiarity of the country well and subtly.
What do you think about Napumoceno the man as a metaphor for Cape Verde: isolated, with an apparently controlled and repetitive life, but full of secrets and adventures. He’s a serious business-man, with a good dose of the comical about him (he became rich by selling umbrellas in a country where it doesn’t rain!). He’s the poor foreigner, who cannot be part of the exclusive club, no matter how rich and philanthropist he becomes (Cape Verde vs. Portugal after independence?).

Me: I love your interpretation of Napumoceno as a metaphor for the country, it fits perfectly! At the same time, I know too little about Cape Verde to judge (I had to go and check out history and geography on the Internet), but I think that parallel to that metaphor there may be another, less subtle one: Napumoceno as a symbol (or even as a satire) of part of the local society, struggling to identify themselves less and less as African and more as Westernized. Or am I just mis-constructing Cape Verdean identity here? I would love to know how the locals reacted to the novel — I’m sure there are inside jokes as you mentioned, but also because they have the first-hand knowledge of the place that we lack.
Moving back from society (thanks for the links!) to plot, what do you think about Adélia, the lifelong love/lover that no one seems to know about? I wonder if it was some kind of wishful thinking on Napumoceno’s part, a fantasy that he created to redeem his bleak life and give it some color?

Alex:That is also a great point! And I guess it can be applied to every country that was under some sort of restriction and then became infatuated by the wonders of the west and all its status symbols (Napumoceno’s car, the office gadgets). Regarding Adélia, I’m still convinced she’s the toothless old woman. We only see her described by Napumoceno and who’s to say he didn’t embellished her here and there? If the old woman is really Adélia, I can’t but to admire her pride and stubbornness.
Regarding the whole individual vs. societal focus we discussed above, I was thinking: there is a strong sense of place, but surprisingly little about history or politics in the book (unless we count our guessed metaphors). In the end, it’s really a story about a man trying not to be the poor child who arrive in São Vicente penniless. He wanted to exit this social limbo, so he divided his live between the boring bachelor business man that everyone esteemed (but maybe didn’t really respect?), and the man to whom the color green was so irresistible that he basically raped his cleaning lady when she wore a green skirt.
I really liked Germano Almeida’s style of writing: the ironic and witty way he gradually built this extraordinary character and I’m looking forward to reading more by him.

Me: You really think that woman is Adélia?! She doesn’t fit Napumoceno’s description at all, nor the character I had imagined! I’d rather set for the interpretation that Adélia was some kind of fantasy. But then again, nothing in the will completely mirrored his life, so…
In the end, I think I was less impressed by this book than you were, but the best thing about it (apart from the witticism you mentioned) is that it can be read on so many level. It is just the story of a man who tries to overcome his poor origins. It is just the story of a man who basically missed each and every chance at happiness he had. And at the same time it is the social satire, and the reflection on identity, and probably many more things that we don’t see yet.

Thank you Alex for your great input! I enjoyed the chance to discuss this book!

To everyone else: Have you read The Last Will? Do you have anything to add?

Challenges and book clubs and read-a-longs, oh my!

Sorry for posting so little lately, it’s been an IRL whirlwind, and still is. But I’m still here and, guess what?, I’m ready to challenge myself some more. As if I had not over-committed already. Oh well, I cannot resist.

Earlier this year, I mentioned that I wanted to try read-a-longs. Alex directed me to Unputdownables.net, and I have to say that Wallace seems to be an extraordinary and extremely well-organized host. So I decided to take the step. Starting today, Unputdownables is hosting a 13-week read-a-long of Dickens’ Bleak House (follow the link for more information and sign-up).

I downloaded this as an e-book (it is also my first experience with my brand new Kindle) and hoping for no tech problems I am all ready to go. It’s been a while since my last Dickens book and I am looking forward to it, but even more so I am looking forward to the read-a-long experience. To say it all, it looks daunting… but I’m ready for the challenge 🙂

Speaking of which… I have a new postful of reading challenges to sign up for!

Remember how I was looking for a non-fiction challenge? This one, over at The Introverted Reader, may be the best one around. It lasts the whole year 2012, you can sign up any time, it features 4 levels and basically all you have to do is

Read any non-fiction book(s), adult or young adult. That’s it. You can choose anything. Poetry? Yes. Memoirs? Yes. History? Yes. Travel? Yes. You get the idea? Absolutely anything that is classified as non-fiction counts for this challenge.

Last year I read 4 non-fiction books, and I want to do better, so I’m signing up for the Explorer level, 6 to 10 books.

Kinna is hosting the Africa Reading Challenge. I discovered this through Alex and was tempted to follow her idea and read all Lusophone authors. Then I thought again, because I want to read some Francophone lit too. Aaaand, I still hope to visit South Africa sometime soon, so that comes into the equation for the Travel With Books Project. Anyway, the idea is to read 5 books by African authors in 2012. That’s it! I’m in.

I’ve seen this challenge around in the past, and never participated… but I think this is the right challenge for me. According to host Vasilly, a chunkster is 450 pages or more of adult literature, whether non-fiction or fiction. And because, as they say, I do like my books fat and chunky, here I am. I should probably sign up for level 4, but I couldn’t resist the name of level 3: “Do These Books Make my Butt Look Big?“, so I’m in for SIX Chunksters from the following categories: 2 books which are between 450 – 550 pages in length; 2 books which are 551 – 750 pages in length; 2 books which are GREATER than 750 pages in length.

And the Chunkster Challenge also has its own book club! The Chunky Book Club has a schedule of four reads this year. I am already late to participate in the first discussion, and I am not sure I will be able to read the other books in time, but I sure hope so!

That’s all (for now…). If you want to join any of these events, just click through!

Year’s end: short thoughts on my latest reads

I’m more or less back. (Meaning: after all the traveling of December, I’m still not back home, but will be blogging more often.) Meanwhile, it’s the end of the year and everyone else has been publishing stats and projects… I have less than 12 hours to catch up. And I need to jot down my thoughts on the last books I read this year, wrap-up challenges, set down reading goals for 2012, compile yearly stats… not to mention finish one last book, prepare the dinner for New Year’s Eve and spend time with my family (who is right now chatting away in the next room).

Let’s see how far I’ll get.

As a start, here’s some very short thoughts about my latest reads.

*****

The book: The Last Cato, by Matilde asensi, in the Italian translation by Andrea Carlo Cappi, 483 pages.

My thoughts: a quick and quite engrossing read, this book falls exactly halfway between The Da Vinci Code and Fucault’s Pendulum, as it can boast a conspirational plot while being neither silly as the former, nor too learned as the latter.

Hidden jewel: use of the Divine Comedy as a code for conspirators through the centuries

Pet peeve: a nun who understands nothing of vocation

Counts as: I read this for the Italy in books challenge

*****

The book: the “Short Guide to Great European Wines” is the chapter about wines from Alexandre Dumas’ Great Dictionary of Cuisine. It was published in Italian as a self-standing book, translated by Augusta Scacchi, 105 pages.

My thoughts: rarely have I read something so useless. It seems written without a general plan, as if the author was simply jotting down any thought about wine as it crossed his mind. It may have been better inside a wider work, but I sincerely doubt it.

Hidden (very hidden) jewel: a few nice anecdotes, like the story of the Est! Est! Est!

Pet peeve: machism (the book shows its age)

Counts as: One! Two! Theme! challenge – wine

*****

The book: Erik Fosnes Hansen, Psalm at Journey’s End, in the Italian translation by Margherita Podestà Heir, 476 pages.

My thoughts: this book is a little jewel, and I am sad that I don’t have the time to tell you more about it. It brings together the stories of very different men from different countries and different backgrounds, only put together by the fateful destiny of being aboard the Titanic in its first and last voyage. It’s like a majestic fresco, colorful and full of life and facets. It’s one of those books that make reading worthwile.

Hidden jewel: music!

Pet peeve: the Titanic is only a pretext to bring the characters together, and quite useless in the general economy of the book, as these are not the real musicians who were onboard, but other, completely invented characters.

Book connections: it mentions the Rubaiyat and features a pianist without a name

*****

The book: The Other Foot of the Mermaid, by Mia Couto, Portuguese original version, 482 pages

My thoughts: this book is very African. Or at least I think it is, because it’s so far removed from my own feeling that I could only scrape its surface in terms of understanding. It’s strange and different, and while beautiful it remains full of things that are not part of any culture I know.

Hidden jewel: the book tells a major story, interwoven with a second one which comes from manuscripts read by the characters. The publisher used a different paper with a different color and texture and a different typeface for these parts.

Pet peeve: footnotes that explained almost nothing

Counts as: I want more challenge

Book: King Solomon’s Mines

 

The book: King Solomon’s Mines, by Henry Rider Haggard

The edition: Italian translation by Stefano Sudrié, as published in Biblioteca Economica Newton (1995), 188 pages, with introduction by Silvano Ambrogi

The story: how three adventurers set off from South Africa to find the legendary diamond mines of Sheba, and the adventures that follow.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: this is the kind of book that people of my age would be given to read as children. The age of the great adventure books. Reading some of them (this and Journey to the Center of the Earth) for the first time as an adult, I wonder at how different they are from today’s YA literature, a genre I’m not too fond of. Of course, reading this as an adult, I am shocked at its intrinsic racism and full-fledged violence; but still I can see how I would read it as a child, only seeing the adventure of it, and it’s good. (This could open a whole discussion about — did the racism, sexism, violence in the books we read as children influence us, although we didn’t see it? Well, I don’t think it did. And that’s why I have little patience for all the politically correct books/movies aimed at children today. I’ll stop here, because it has nothing to do with this book anyway.)

The part with spoilers: as with Journey to the Center of the Earth, I was disturbed by the first person narrative. If you already know that the protagonist will live to tell the tale, how are you supposed to feel the thrill of the adventure?

What I liked: feeling like a child again.

What I didn’t like: endless battle descriptions, violence and racism.

Language & translation: I was amused to discover a translation mistake that I had heard about some years ago, and appalled at some other horrors, but as a whole the translation has strangely aged very well.

In the author’s own words: nothing to say.

Links to better understand this book: nope.

Random thought: too bad we’re not going to South Africa this year!

Read this if: if you are in your thirties and want to feel like you were a child again.

Counts as: Travel with books – South Africa