Book: Q

The book: Q, by Luther Blissett

The edition: Italian (original) edition as published by Einaudi, 677 pages
(Note: quotes in this posts are from the English translation by Shaun Whiteside, as published by Random House, and taken from the e-book version that you can download for free, together with other works by the same author, from this page)

The story: an historical novel set in the first half of the 16th century, as Europe is thorn by the results of the Protestant reformation. The narrator, a former student at Wittenberg during Martin Luther’s predication, gets attached and involved in several of the major uprisings and religious wars of the century. His nemesis is Q (Qoèlet), a spy for the Roman Catholic Church.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: there is a quote that sums this book quite well:

Books only change the world if the world is capable of digesting them.

My major problem in talking about this book is that I’m not sure that I have digested it correctly. It was presented as a pamphlet, and this kept me from enjoying the novel as such, while still not being sure to understand what the pamphlet was all about. So please bear with me while I share my thoughts on these two separate levels.

The novel: the first third of the novel is extremely slow, and that means over 200 pages that seem never to end. In this part the structure is very complicated (think a series of flashbacks and flash forwards inside a major flashback, and then complicate it some more), the stile a bit stale, and the subject matter (the finer points of religious differences between the various Christian denominations) not too reader-friendly. I have to admit I only trudged forward because I am very stubborn when we talk not abandoning a book — and because husband was vouching for it.
It then picks up. The second part is much better, and the last part is very good. For one thing, you get a wider understanding of the structure of the book and are not lost anymore (it also is way simpler here). Characters grow to be more interesting, more fully developed (although you never quite get to understand their motives), even though very few of them are what you would call likeable. And the story gets on a roll and finally grabs you.
I also liked that the novel was extremely well researched: the narrator and Q may be the only two invented characters in the whole book! And it generally felt right for the time it described, more so than any other historical fiction I have ever read.
Bottom line: it starts slow, but it still gets thumbs up from me!

The pamphlet: Q was a novel published under “copyleft”, and well before the era of Creative Commons. This alone was enough to justify considering it a pamphlet. The cover blurbs and everything around it also presented it as such. But a pamphlet about what? I didn’t know and went into the book bewaring this aspect.
For most of the book I thought it was about religion. I still believe there is a component of this, and it still bugs me. For a book to be successful among the Italian intelligentsia it needs to be anti-Catholic, and that is an aspect that I hate of Italian literature; but never did Q strike me as completely anti-religious.
But in the end, I am convinced that the major part of this message is about books and the power of ideas. It is not by chance that the authors set the novel at the exact time when print was making books and ideas available for a wider public. It is not by chance that they decided to free their book for everyone who wanted to read it. It is not by chance that they make use of a character that is a book-seller and says:

‘Mine is the riskiest job in the world, you know? I’m responsible for the distribution of ideas, maybe the most awkward ideas in existence.’

And this ode to the power of books is an aspect that I can relate to and admire.

Language & writing: oh how I hate their use of commas! (Sorry, pet peeve, don’t mind me.)

Venice: the third part of this book is set in Venice and I think it does a great job at depicting a Venice that is at the same time the real one (full of schemes and people trying to get rich and thieves and lords and whatnot) and the one so often imagined, of palaces and mysteries and charm and undying fascination. Here it is in the author(s)’ own words:

St Mark’s Square doesn’t seem like part of a city, it’s more like a great salon in some palace or other, the covered deck of a huge vessel, the mainmast being that robust campanile, wide at the base and narrow at the top, and the clock tower the fo’c’sle, beneath which we are now passing, with two admirals perched at the top ready to ring the big bell.

Somehow or other I’ve crossed the labyrinth of this strange city that now separates me from St Mark’s. I wouldn’t know where to start if I wanted to go back the way I had come. Doubtless I’d find myself a few yards away from that enormous church without being aware of it, and end up who knows where. And that’s exactly the prevailing sensation: that you could go on walking endlessly without ever getting anywhere, or else finding yourself in places you’d never imagined, hidden places. Wonders await you behind every corner, at the end of every alleyway.

Links to better understand this book:

Read this if: if you are into historical novels and are interested in that period, in religious wars and namely the Protestant Reformation and everything that followed.

Counts as: Venice in February challenge.

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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 Book Thief

The book: The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

The edition: Knopf/Random House paperback, 552 pages, plus readers’ guide and author interview

The story: a teenage girl in Nazi Germany during World War II, Liesel Memminger can hardly read, but she develops a love and crave for books due to several random facts. Her stealing books (either from book burning stakes or from houses) is only part of a life that goes through the tragedy of war, which is nothing more than a setting for her everyday life.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: all in all, I enjoyed this book more than most of the other ones I read this year. The story is compelling, and its characters lovable. So: although I got distracted by the snippets of commentary on every page; although I feel that Liesel and Rudy were represented as younger than their stated age (at 14 you were adult, back then; I cannot believe they would get away with all they did if they were already teenagers); although I felt it was very partial to “the good Germans” and forgets all the other people that suffered in that war; still, I can say this was a very good read.

The part with spoilers: I felt let down by the ending, all the characters disappearing at once… Didn’t feel right to me.

What I liked: characters. I quite liked almost all of them, even those that only made a cameo appearance.

What I didn’t like: Death as a narrator. To me, either Death knows the story of each and everyone of us, or he doesn’t. That he would be interested in Liesel and not, say, in her mother… it’s not a nice thought for me.

Language & writing: a simple and straightforward style, not much to say about it… except that I hated all the snippets inserted here and there. I don’t like when an author uses typographical tricks to keep the reader interested. Also, I appreciated all the German expressions, but I wonder at how that was perceived by readers who have no knowledge of German.

In the author’s own words: although this is not a book for quotes, here is one I’d like to share (remember, it’s Death who’s talking):

It was a year for the ages, like 79, like 1346, to name just a few. Forget the scythe, damn it, I needed a broom or a mop. And I needed a vacation.
[…]
In all honesty (and I know I’m complaining excessively now), I was still getting over Stalin, in Russia. The so-called second revolution – the murder of his own people.
Then came Hitler.
They say war is death’s best friend, but I must offer you a different point of view on that one. To me, war is like the new boss who expects the impossible. He stands over your shoulder repeating one thing, incessantly. ‘Get it done, get it done’. So you work harder, You get the job done, The boss, however, does not thank you. He asks for more.

Links to better understand this book:

Random question: why is Death perceived as male in English-speaking countries? And as female in Southern, Romance-language ones?

Read this if: if you are looking for a different take on World War 2.

Counts as: Global Reading Challenge – Oceania

Book: Death and the Devil

The book: Death and the Devil, by Frank Schaetzing

The edition: Italian translation by Emanuela Cervini, as published by TEA (paperback edition), 461 pages

The story: Jacop the Fox, a young man living by his wits, is perched on a tree stealing apples, when he sees the architect of the Cologne cathedral falling from the unfinished building’s roof, pushed by a black-clad figure. Scared, he still approaches the dying architect and hears his last words — enough to make him the next target of the killer. Not sure whether he’s chased by a mortal man or by the devil himself, Jacop will face days in which everyone he speaks to ends up a target for the killer’s fury.

My experience with this book & my thoughts: I approached this book with high expectations. Centered about the building of a cathedral, I expected it to be on the lines of The Pillars of the Earth and The Cathedral of the Sea, both of which I liked a lot (Falcones’ more than Follett’s, but still). I was completely wrong because, unlike those two which span several decades, the story of this book evolves in just a few days. Because of that, it is much more similar to The Name of the Rose (another book I love), both in the mysterious deaths of the storyline, and in the psychological setting it tries to create. Schaetzing tries to convey the idea of a world where people would truly be afraid of meeting the devil on any given night… unfortunately, while you see what he is trying to do, he doesn’t succeed in creating the fearful atmosphere that one can breathe in The Name of the Rose. At times, Jacop seems to be enlightened and to know that all the talks of devils and angels in everyday life are but legends, so his fear didn’t make sense to me. This is the book’s major flaw, because not knowing first-hand the fear characters are supposed to feel, I didn’t really feel for them. Apart from that, it was still a gripping novel and a quick, passionating read.

What I liked: the quick-paced story and its several likeable characters.

What I didn’t like: knowing the culprit almost from the start. Also, historical explanations interrupting the storyline time and again (or the characters stopping in the middle of a fearful chase to explain political and historical facts to each other).

Language & translation: I liked Schaetzing’s writing style (in the rendering by a different translator) in the first book by him I read, years ago — simple language that flows seamlessly. In this case, it’s just as readable, but I missed all the medieval words he could have used to create a setting: there were very few of them.

Read this if: if you like historical novels set in the Middle Ages; if you liked The Pillars of the Earth, The Cathedral of the Sea and The Name of the Rose, you want to remain in the same setting and don’t mind a lighter book.

Counts as: What’s in a Name Challenge – Evil

This review is part of the
Loving the Reviews Challenge Extravaganza
at Sniffly Kitty’s Mostly Books blog