Books: Gibraltar reading (part 2)

(Part one is here.)

The book: Scruffy, by Paul Gallico

The edition: Penguin paperback, 288 pages

About the book: a fictional account of ape history in Gibraltar during World War Two, of the people who cared for them, and of the efforts made to safeguard them. Includes an extremely misbehaved ape, a love story, two births, several deaths, a drunken pilot and a very big firework. (Can’t say more without spoilers, but hope it’s enough to pick your interest.)

My thoughts: hilarious. Probably the funniest book I read this year. No, really, you may think “it’s just an ape story, nothing much”, but it is a jewel! And it does something strange: it has characters that are at once stock figures, and very lively. I cannot explain it, because they are all mostly stereotypes, but still they really come to life through the page. Recommended? Definitely yes, go check it out this minute!

The covers you can find online are less pretty than the ones I have. Too bad the picture quality here is so bad 😦

The book: The Rock, by John Masters

The edition: Sphere paperback, 383 pages, including bibliography

About the book: this book is strange in format and hard to define: half history, half fiction. Each chapter includes historical information about a period of Gibraltarian history, followed by a fictional episode set in that period. The narrative is not continuous, although there are elements (especially families and their histories) that return again and again.

My thoughts: such a peculiar format is hard to make right. I don’t think the level is the same throughout the book, there are some parts that stick better than the rest, and I do have a small doubt about the accuracy of the non-fiction part. Still, as a whole it works very well, the author is a good narrator and history makes sense in his stories. Recommended.


Bottom line: two authors I want to read more from. If you know them, can you recommend any titles?

Wondrous Words Wednesday: Steven Pressfield

Wondrous Words Wednesday is a weekly meme where we share new (to us) and interesting (to us, again) words we encountered in our readings. See this week round-up at BermudaOnion’s blog!

My words for this week come from the first pages of Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield, and although they are quite understandable from context I thought I would share them all the same.


The first preamble ends like this:

Inscribed as submitted this sixteenth day of Ululu, Fifth Year of His Majesty’s Accession.

And then, the first chapter begins:

Third day of Tashritu, Fifth Year of His Majesty’s Accession.

So what are Ululu and Tashritu? Clearly, they are months names, and I found out they are from the Babylonian calendar. There are equivalences to Hebrew month names too.


In those two sentences there is another interesting word:

Accession: n. 1 the attainment of a position of rank 2 the formal acceptance of a treaty or joining of an association 3 a new item added to a collection of books or artefacts.


And finally, one more:

The captive was brought in upon a litter, eyes cloth-bound so as to dissanction sight of His Majesty.

I wasn’t able to find a definition, but clearly to dissanction means something like to forbid, to prohibit.


(All definitions are taken from the Concise Oxford English Dictionary © 2008 via unless otherwise stated.)

Wondrous Words Wednesday: John Masters

Wondrous Words Wednesday is a weekly meme where we share new (to us) and interesting (to us, again) words we encountered in our readings. See this week round-up at BermudaOnion’s blog!

This week I found my new word in The Rock by John Masters.


All the soldiers — infantry, artillery, and even the engineers-artificers — are like madmen! I saw a dozen soldiers barbecuing a pig over a fire of pure cinnamon, worth near £200. I watched a corporal of the Highlanders eat 8 lbs. of beef in ten minutes. Others took the Virgin out of the Roman Catholic church and put “her” into the whirligig, as is done to loose women.

At first, I looked for a definition of whirligig and found nothing suitable for this context:

whirligig n. 1 a toy that spins round, e.g. a top or windmill 2 another term for roundabout 3 a process or activity characterized by constant change or hectic activity 4 (also whirligig beetle) a small black water beetle which typically swims rapidly in circles on the surface.

A whirligig — but not the one Masters meant. Photo credits: Brit on Flickr

Then after a Google search I ended up finding the explanation on Wikipedia:

A whirligig is a punitive or torture contraption comprising a suspended cage-like device. The victim would be placed in the cage, which was spun violently in order to cause severe nausea.

This was used as a military punishment, as by the British Army. For example, in Tangiers, the whirligig was reportedly used on women, by whom it was more feared than the pillory, stocks and wooden horse.

Yuck! Definitely not something I would like to try!
(You can find a picture on this page.)


(All definitions are taken from the Concise Oxford English Dictionary © 2008 via unless otherwise stated.)

Wondrous Words Wednesday: Ken Follett

Wondrous Words Wednesday is a weekly meme where we share new (to us) and interesting (to us, again) words we encountered in our readings. See this week round-up at BermudaOnion’s blog!

My words for this week come from Fall of Giants by Ken Follett.


They were the same height, but Otto was heavier, and bald, and his mustache was the old-fashioned soup-strainer type, whereas Walter had a modern toothbrush.

soup-strainer mustache: n. a mustache that entirely covers the mouth, giving the impression that it acts as a strainer when drinking or eating soup.
*This definition comes from UrbanDictionary

So basically Otto had the same style of mustache as his namesake Bismark, while Walter had the one later made famous by Hitler:

Both images from Wikipedia


“My father is…” He searched for words, something that was unusual for him. “Cock-a-hoop,” he said after a pause.

cock-a-hoop: adj. extremely pleased.


There was a cheval glass in Ethel’s new bedroom.

cheval glass: n. a tall mirror fitted at its middle to an upright frame so that it can be tilted.

Cheval glasses are very nice in a vintage environment, but wall-mounted ones are more functional, and I prefer the latter 🙂

Photo credits: Silk Road Collection on Flickr


The opposing armies sat in their trenches day after day, eating bad food, getting dysentery and trench foot and lice.

trench foot: n. a painful condition of the feet caused by long immersion in cold water or mud and marked by blackening and death of surface tissue.


In the years she had worked there she had come to love the gracious old furniture. She had picked up the names of the piece4s, and learned to recognize a torchère, a buffet, a armoire, or a canterbury. As she dusted and polished she noticed the marquetry, the swags and scrolls, the feet shaped like lions’ paws clasping balls.

torchère: n. a tall ornamental flat-topped stand for holding a candlestick.
canterbury: n. a low open-topped cabinet with partitions for holding music or books.
marquetry: n. inlaid work made from small pieces of variously coloured wood, used chiefly for the decoration of furniture.

Above: examples of a torchère
and of marquetry from
Wikipedia. To the right: a canterbury,
from Antiques on


(All definitions are taken from the Concise Oxford English Dictionary © 2008 via unless otherwise stated.)

Antonio Tabucchi week: two books and a movie

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know who Antonio Tabucchi was. When I first read (and loved) Pereira Maintains, he was already famous because of it. It was his one famous book, and the only one I knew, and I loved it.

But I didn’t know the first thing about Portugal, and I had a feeling that you needed to see those places to understand, truly, not so much the book as the author himself. How can you appreciate The Woman of Porto Pim if you have never been to Porto Pim in the first place?

OK, so this was only an excuse to show you a picture of our honeymoon to the Azores…

Except, I may be wrong. On rereading Pereira Maintains earlier this year, with all my newly-gained knowledge of all not enough things Portuguese, I liked it not nearly as much.

Pereira Maintains
Italian edition
as published by La Biblioteca di Repubblica, 190 pages
with a note by the author

Don’t get me wrong, I still did like it. As before, I liked the story of a middle-aged man suddenly revolutionizing (and risking) his life because he was fascinated by the love between a young couple. And more than before I loved the clean, no-frills style: it touched me as a well-balanced marriage between the principles stated by Calvino and the realism searched by Saramago.

But it felt too shallow. Now that I know a little about the Salazar dictatorship, I wish the book was stronger in denouncing it. Of course, this was written well after the facts (Tabucchi wrote that the whole idea of the novel came to him after he attended the funeral of a journalist who had to flee Lisbon because of the regime, and who had returned to Lisbon later, only to end his life completely ignored). And yet, it feels like Pereira Maintains dances over the historical situation without really dealing with it.

“According to Pereira”,
a movie by Roberto Faenza,
with Marcello Mastroianni (Pereira), Joaquim de Almeida (Manuel), Daniel Auteuil (Dr. Cardoso), Stefano Dionisi (Monteiro Rossi) and Nicoletta Braschi (Marta)

After re-reading the novel, I also re-watched the movie, and it was beautiful. I’m not an expert in cinema and I cannot really comment, but I always like a good Mastroianni interpretation! And I did feel that the movie filled up whatever was lacking in the book: I felt the social commentary much stronger here, and I was less annoyed by Pereira’s endless chewing over his soul.

I know, I know, I just showed my ignorance. Pereira’s reflections on his soul was one of the pillars of the book. And a key element in Tabucchi’s work. I know. (It’s just not for me.) And if I didn’t know, it was made clear when I read another novel by Tabucchi recently, Requiem.

Requiem: A Hallucination
Portuguese (original) edition
as published by Dom Quixote, 154 pages
with a note by the author translated by Pedro Tamen

As I was saying before, I don’t know nearly enough to appreciate this book for all its literary references. (Beware, because this is a novel for very cultivated people to appreciate!) But I was interested in its peculiarity: the language. This is the one book Tabucchi didn’t write in Italian but in Portuguese.

I have always been fascinated by people deciding to use a language other than their own. (Did you know that Mozart and his sister wrote to each other in Italian? There is a technical word in linguistics for this phenomenon, but I can’t recall it right now and I don’t have my linguistics texts with me — if anyone knows, I’d like to hear from you!) And I was completely, utterly taken in by Tabucchi explaining how he dreamt a dream in Portuguese, how he began to jot down notes about it in Portuguese, and how this book, stemming from that dream, could only be written in Portuguese. Because Portuguese was the language of his heart. Because he was redefining the concept of maternal language.

I feel like I am liking Tabucchi’s work for all the wrong reasons, but that’s fine with me 🙂

I wrote this post (although a bit late)
for the Antonio Tabucchi Week,
hosted by Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat.

Please check her blog for more Tabucchi content from other participants.