Book: The Prague Cemetery

The book: The Prague Cemetery, by Umberto Eco

The edition: Italian (original) edition, as published by Bompiani Vintage, 522 pages (with Appendix)

The story: suddenly addled with an incapability to remember the past few days, a man writes the story of his life in order to discover the secrets his mind is trying to repress. And his is a life threaded in all the secrets of European history during the XIX century, as this man is a spy, a forger, an impersonator, as well as the mind behind the biggest conspiracy schemes of the time (think the Protocols of the Elders of Zion).

My experience with the book & my thoughts: I usually say I like Umberto Eco. Truth is, I loved The Name of the Rose to pieces, and his non-fiction is interesting, but no other novel he ever wrote since was anything like that.
This one puts together an horrible protagonist/narrator (one who only lives for his hatred of, basically, any other living person and for his love of good food), a confused story with no positive character and a huge cauldron of every possible conspiracy or sect (Freemasonry, satanism, every possible form of racism, Jesuits, the Church as human power, whatever). Not something I could like.
Sprinkle that with all kinds of scholarly references. Oh, I know, I am limited in that there are surely lots of references I didn’t get. And I have the impression that I was lucky, being Italian, because there were many references that would be completely obscure to a non-Italian reader. Would I have liked this book better, had I been more knowledgeable? Possibly, possibly not (I still need positive characters to root for). To me, it looks more like Eco wrote something just for his own fun, something that no one will get fully, something that is only selling because of the name of its author.

What I liked: mmmm words, maybe?

What I didn’t like: endless descriptions of food preparations, which seem to be there just to pump up the size of the book.

Links to better understand this book:

Read this if: basically, don’t.

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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: The Indies Enterprise

The book: The Indies Enterprise, by Erik Orsenna

The edition: French (original) version, as published by Livre de Poche (paperback), 378 pages

The story: old and on the verge of death, Bartolomeo Columbus, younger brother of the more famous Christopher, tells the story of his brother’s obsession with a new route to the Indies, how it shaped their lives and how this exquisite passion for discovery lead to genocide and destruction.

My experience with the book & my thoughts:I wanted to read this because it is mainly set in Lisbon and written in French. But Orsenna is not an author I like, I already suspected it and here it was confirmed. I’m at loss as for what the general sense of this book should be, but it touches on so many subjects (the relationship between older and younger brother, books as a way of navigating the world, science against religion, to name but a few) that I guess it would make a great book club choice.

What I liked: medieval myths and half-knowledges used to build a scenario for the story.

What I didn’t like: the frame for the main story, with old Bartolomeo in Santo Domingo, looking back and trying to dissect his life in search of a seed for the cruelty.

In the author’s own words: there were several things I’d like to share, too bad I could only share them in French!

Random thought: the Padrão Real. Wow.

Read this if: if you like historical fiction mixed with philosophical fiction

Counts as: Travel with books – Lisbon

Asterix times three

I know many would not consider the Asterix albums as books, but I’m never sure where the boundary lies, so as I counted Fables I’ll count these as well. As I mentioned earlier, my husband and I have an ongoing collection of these albums in several languages. It all started when we lived in Austria and he bought comics because they were almost the most he could read in German at the time. Now, though, he gifted me with these three in French because he knows I like reading in French. Isn’t he a cute?

Anyway… I wouldn’t know how to review them, so I’ll just show you the best scene(s) from each, and a brief comment. (I took the pictures from this site, where you can read the whole series in English. Click on them to see the full size.)

Astérix le Gaulois (Asterix The Gaul)

This was the very first album written by Goscinny and Uderzo, and I love their little aside comments:

Astérix Gladiateur (Asterix The Gladiator)

This is one I had already read, but in French it works so much better.

This scene is just exhilarating in the original, because the place is like an apartment block full of quarrelsome neighbors, and in French they call it an HLM, Habitations Latines Mélangées, referring tho these HLMs.

Astérix Légionnaire (Asterix The Legionary)

This is the one I liked the least, but maybe it was me not getting all the French humor. Still, I liked the way they used typography here:

And this is just genial:

Again, even better in French were he’s called Acidcloridrix and his code is HCL with no numbers… I still have to understand why the names have been changed so much in translation.

Book: The Art Thief

The book: The Art Thief, by Noah Charney

The edition: Simon & Schuster Pocket Books paperback, 308 pages, with reading group guide

The story: a Caravaggio altarpiece is stolen from a church in Rome; a Malevich painting disappears in Paris; and another (or possibly the same) Malevich is stolen from the National Gallery in London just a few hours after it was bought. In the world of art crime the three thefts may be linked, although the officials investigating may never know about it…

My experience with the book & my thoughts: while I like a good crime story, I am not a good judge of them. This one I enjoyed, but the plot is way too complicated for me, I still have to get my head around the details of what happened… Apart from that, I appreciated this book as a good balance of fact and fiction: the art history was good, and I later realized that art crime data were real too, because the author is a specialist in the field (his other published book is a non-fiction tome about the story of the most-stolen piece of art of all history) and created an association with the goal of bringing together the police force working on art crimes and the academy art experts. All in all a good read.

The part with spoilers: am I the only one who feels that everyone turning up in couples at the end was working out too fine?

What I liked: a well-constructed plot with many interesting characters.

What I didn’t like: the low consideration of Italians who are marginalized and described as people who botch up their jobs (e.g. the priest who leaves the alarm disconnected only to wake up to a stolen painting) and don’t care about investigating (e.g. the Carabinieri detective who dismisses all investigation because he has too many art crimes on his hands).

Language & writing: I don’t know if it is a trend or if I’m only happening to read several such books in a row, but what’s up with authors using foreign language dialogue in their books? Here you can find whole dialogues in Italian and French (and lucky me, I could understand both, but what if someone does not?). Unfortunately, the Italian sounded wrong to an Italian ear. I am not French, but even that didn’t sound right. If they want to use a foreign language (and I don’t get the reason for that), why can’t they try and get it right? Ask a native, maybe?

In the author’s own words: a secondary character is an art teacher, and while I didn’t like the character himself, I enjoyed the lessons. As here:

“Ladies and gentlemen, I am taking you on the Barrow high-speed tour of the greatest hits of th National Gallery. Please show requisite awe, veneration, and subsequent enlightenment. […]
Bow your heads, children. You are in the presence of majesty. Screw the Mona Lisa, screw Whistler and his mother, screw the Water Lilies and every other painting that you’ve heard of but know nothing about because it’s famous for all the wrong reasons. This may be the most influential painting in the history of the universe!”
The students collectively rolled their eyes.
“Don’t roll your eyes at me, you ignorant cows! I’m here to enlighten you and, damn it, you will be enlightened! This is The Marriage Contract by Jan van Eyck. […]
It doesn’t look like a Jackson Pollock? You’re right, but for the wrong reason.
Ladies and gentlemen! Art repeats. The history of art is rife with allusion and self-reference. Art is cumulative. The most modern art comments upon, and reflects, everything that came before it.So, although this 1434 van Eyck does not look like a Pollock, Pollock would not exist without van Eyck, and every artist who came between them. Art that looks different is a reaction against, but it is nevertheless a reaction. I’ll give you a train of for-instance.
Ancient Greek sculpture influenced ancient Roman sculpture which influenced Cimabue who inspired Giotto who influenced Masaccio who influenced Raphael who inspired Annibale Carracci who taught Domenichino who worked alongside Poussin who influenced David who inspired Manet who was beloved of Degas who influenced Monet who inspired Mondrian who inspired Malevich who worked with Kandinsky who led to Jackson-goddamned-Pollock, thank you very much! Polydorus to Pollock in seventeen easy lessons.”
The students broke out into smiles and applauded.

Links to better understand this book:

Random thought: too bad the church of the first chapter does not exist, I had wished to visit it on our next trip to Rome!

Read this if: if you like detective stories with a very entangled plot.

Counts as: Italy in Books Challenge #6, One Two Theme Challenge – Art