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 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

Book: Mostly Harmless

Cover

The book: Mostly Harmless, by Douglas Adams

The edition: Pan Books paperback, 230 pages with foreword by Dirk Maggs, plus materials from the Douglas Adams archives

The story: the 5th and (very) final chapter of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy “trilogy”, wherein Arthur Dent has to deal with multiple Universes, sandwiches, Elvis Priesley, and his own daughter, about whom he didn’t know anything about. (And this is as much as I can write without spoiling this book or the previous ones.)

My experience with the book & my thoughts: since the first Guide book, things get more absurd and more complicated with each book. Still very enjoyable, extremely funny, and genial.

The part with spoilers: I don’t think I get how the Grebulons contributed to the Vogons destroying Earth. It has to do with swiveling turrets, but I just don’t get it.

What I liked: language, absurd and enjoyable fantasy.

What I didn’t like: the ending, and the way things get too complicated and only rely on absurd to glue them together.

Language & writing: I just love the inventiveness of it!

In the author’s own words: accidentally, this book explains very well why New York doesn’t appeal to me as a touristic destination (although it seems to fascinate almost anyone else):

Tricia loved New York because loving New York was a good career move. It was a good retail move, a good cuisine move, not a good taxi move or a great quality of pavement move, but definitely a career move that ranked amongst the highest and the best. Tricia was a TV anchor person, and New York was where most of the world’s TV was anchored.

Also, I love how Adams turns ideas around his little finger:

If you are reading this on planet earth, then:
a) Good luck to you. There is an awful lot of stuff you don’t know anything about. […]
b) Don’t imagine you know what a computer terminal is.
A computer terminal is not some clunky old television with a typewriter in front of it. It is an interface where the mind and body can connect with the Universe and move bits of it about.

But most of all I love the way he can turn words around his little finger. Like this:

[After a very complicated explanation] “Yes?”
“Y… e… e… s. Ish.”

And this:

There were about three other customers in the place, sitting at tables, nursing beers. About three. Some people would say there were exactly three, but it wasn’t that kind of place, not the kind of place that you felt like being specific in.

And this:

He wasn’t his job to worry about that, though. It was his job to do his job, which was to do his job.

Links to better understand this book:

Random thought: I recently realized that students in Coimbra use their capes in much the same way a hitchhiker should use a towel… for just about anything!

Read this if: if you have read and enjoyed the previous four.

Counts as: Global Reading Challenge – the 7th Continent

“if you are reading this on planet earth, then good luck to you

Book: Her Fearful Symmetry

The book: Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger

The edition: Vintage Books paperback, 487 pages

The story: twins Julia and Valentina live in near-symbiosis, when they unexpectedly inherit a flat in London, near Highgate cemetery, from their estranged aunt Elspeth. The flat is bequeathed to the twins under the condition that they live there for a year, and their parents do not to set foot in it. What nobody expected, is for Elspeth to turn into a ghost and haunt the flat. The ghost, the new city, the new neighbors (including Elspeth lover) will change how the twins see life and how they live their relationship.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: I think Niffenegger was very unlucky to reach such heights with her first book — there was no chance at all she could do so again with her second! Don’t get me wrong, this is a good novel, a well constructed story, a fully developed setting, nice (and not so nice) characters… But it’s nothing to compare to The Time Traveler’s Wife. Too bad!

The part with spoilers: I have two issues with the storyline. One is about the Elspeth/Edie change/marriage/motherhood. I still cannot get my head around it. I see the need for a big secret in the past, to keep the plot going, but I feel it was overdone. Seriously, two identity exchanges? A bit morbid, right?
The other thing has to do with Valentina’s plan to “die and resurrect”. After Robert tells her that Elspeth surely has her own plans, why do the two of them go on with the plan anyway? I’m sure Robert could see what was coming… so why?

What I liked: a gripping story and a good analysis of loss in its various forms (mourning, separation, saying goodbye…). Side characters and side stories were nice, especially James and Jessica, and the twins’ father, and partly Martin and Marjike.

What I didn’t like: the almost morbid relationship between twins. I do not have multiples in the family, but even I know that you cannot let twins (or siblings, actually) become so dependent on each other! And that’s not the only morbid thing in the book…

Language & writing: lovely choice of words (and not only those I shared here). I feel the author has some issues with dealing with the passing of time in her books. It worked wonders for The Time Traveller’s Wife, but here it bothered me.

In the author’s own words: I loved the ghost tree scene (I know everybody quoted this, but it’s so lovely…)

James said, “I saw a ghost once. […] I was quite small, only a lad of six.  […] So, I was put to bed upstairs.  I remember lying there with the blanket pulled up to my chin, my mother kissing me goodnight, and there I was in the dark, not knowing what terrible thing might be ready to slink out from the wardrobe and smother me…”
Jessica smiled.  Robert thought it might be a smile for the morbidly fantastical imaginations of children.
“So what happened?”
“I fell asleep.  But later that night I woke up.  There was moonlight coming in through the window, and the shadows of the tree branches fell onto the bed, waving gently in the breeze.”
“And then you saw the ghost?”
James laughed.  ”Dear chap, the branches were the ghost.  There weren’t any trees within a hundred yards of that house.  They’d all been cut down years before.  I saw the ghost of a tree.”
Robert thought about it.  ”That’s rather elegant.  I was expecting ghouls.”

I also appreciated the way she described the process of mourning, as in this passage:

He was not ready for her absence. No one he loved had died, until Elspeth. Other people were absent, but no one was dead. Elspeth? Even her name seemed empty, as though it had detached itself from her and was floating untethered in his mind. How am I supposed to live without you? It was not a matter of the body; his body would carry on as usual. The problem was located in the word how: he would live, but without Elspeth the flavour, the manner, the method of living were lost to him. He would have to relearn solitude.

Links to better understand this book:

Random thought: what’s the point in cemetery tourism? I just don’t get it.

Read this if: if you like Gothic novels, unusual ghost stories, and at the same time books that analyze feelings and relationship evolutions.

Counts as: I want more Challenge book #2

SIDE NOTE: I added two more sections to my review format, now I feel it should be good. I owe the “links to better understand the book” to this blog. If you have any comments about the format, please share.

Book: Mistress Shakespeare

The book: Mistress Shakespeare, by Karen Harper

The edition: New American Library paperback, 409 pages (plus reading guide)

Cover blurb: “A bold and intriguing historical novel about the woman who was William Shakespeare’s secret wife.”

Synopsys: the book is based on one of the biggest mysteries surrounding William Shakespeare’s life: according to records, the playwright was betrothed to one Anne Whateley and just a few days later he wed another woman by the same name, Anne Hathaway. This novel is imagined as an autobiography by the first Anne, Shakespeare’s true love. It ranges from the way they met, when they were little more than children, through family feuds and historical wars, down to Shakespeare’s years of success in London and to his death.

My thoughts: while the idea was good and could make for an intriguing historical novel; while the books seemed (as far as I can judge) well researched; while the idea of a novel with the structure of a play, divided in Acts, was brilliant; still, the execution was wanting. Most of the time, the author was telling us things, not showing or narrating them. For example:

“Wintertime, it was when it was so cold my little brother Gilbert’s tongue stuck to a pewter cup when he licked it, and everyone was blowing on their fingers who didn’t have warm gloves, and people spoke with white puffs of air as if those tiny clouds could carry their quick words to stinging ears.”
[…]
Will never just said something plain, like the weather was cold, but always made word pictures to prove it.

Now, it would be great if it actually was that way. I imagine William Shakespeare did use word pictures quite commonly in speech. But the Shakespeare character in this book doesn’t, the example above is the only instance of this kind of words. For most of the novel he just speaks plain words, at most sometime he quotes from his own plays and sonnets. Too bad.
Even worse is the way the author tells readers about historical facts. In a good historical novel history should come to life by happening to characters. Here, the big problems of the time (wars, the plague, etc.) do involve relatives of the main characters, but they read like a history book.
It doesn’t get better on the level of characters or story. I found the whole story of this forbidden love quite boring. And I cannot fathom why Anne should continue to accept and love William, if she was the strong character she is depicted here, and he the jealous, violent rogue never giving her anything, not an ounce of love or respect. Do you mean she could stand all of it just because of a childish crush on him? Come on, people grow out of such crushes!
Bottom line: don’t bother.

Read this if: I think that it would be a good read for people who like women fiction and the Kinsella books. It is a quick read with no pretense.