Of sin and class – only drafted:Smoke, by Dan Vyleta, book review

​The publishers of this book (at least, I’m assuming it was the publisher’s idea to do so) have been selling it as the new “Harry Potter meets his dark materials” book, ensuring – I think – that most people will be interested in reading it (so, good strategy) but also will come to it with  expectations going through the roof.

I think they must have been aware of this while coming up with teir marketing strategy, and therefore won’t feel guilty about being (maybe just a touch) over critical with it. In short, it’s not Harry Potter. It’s not His dark materials. It’s okay.

What it is, well, it is set in a fantastic version of Victorian England, where sins, or pulsions, or maybe even strong emotions, are visible as a smoke coming out of people’s bodies.

The story opens -quite masterfully – in an Eton-like boarding school, suitably dark and gloomy, where the students participate in a sort of moral tribunal (based on smoke). You meet Thomas, a boy with a dark past and even darker intensity, his friend Charlie, very posh, very proper, and a collection of somber and enigmatic headmasters. It is very victorian, thrilling and lyrical, has some of the magic of hogwarts and the premise is indeed good. 

As Christmas approaches, the boys leave school to visit Thomas’ Aunt, and go on a journey to find answers to their questions about smoke: is it really sin, is it something more, how have the richest managed to control it, and from there the novel weakens. 

Partly because it tries to be to many things at once: This world, where smoke is present, must be built and explained, with lengthly parallels and rewritings of the bible, tales of explorations to lands inhabited by various “non smoking savages”, and its political structure and class struggles must be exposed, also at lengths, all the while with a relatively fast plot (everythings happens in a week or two), filled with increasingly far fetched coincidences that beg the question “do they actually have a plan or do they just bump into each other repeatedly?” (which is the plot-level of pride and prejudice, by the way, so not allways a problem but you better have a few Elisabeth Bennet if it is the case), everything interwoven with metaphysical discourses about smoke, from every protagonist. 

I suppose, if you want to stand aside Philip Pullman’s trilogy, you should give yourself time and space to build a world. Here, there’s not enough of both. And while the central premise, smoke and its meaning, is promising, it seems overused as a plot device and “question of interest” and turns out to be everything and anything: sin, anger, passion, pulsions, it is hard to tell. You would have enough with it, but Vyleta somehow decided to add class struggles (and class privileges, and guilt) into the mix, and – as it is a YA novel – a love triangle (stereotypical, but then which love triangle isn’t), teenagers growing up and finding themselves, women who are all seductresses and mysterious (but never with the degree of complexity of Pullman’s Ms Coulter) and…, well, a lot.

So everything is sketched – there’s no time for more, and it is a shame, because it could have been better. Still, it’s a pleasant book, and it passes the time in public buses around dusty small towns in Myanmar. I could have said I didn’t ask for more, but it made me ask for a lot more, comparing itself to such giant books. Your fault, then, I’ll leave smoke and return to dust and quidditch matches. After all, I don’t need any other novel that is like those two, we are lucky enough to live in a world where they exist.


​Anatomy, golf  and geopolitical history – Yangon bookshops 

I’ve been in Myanmar for 3 days now, after just a short stop in Bangkok (just enough time to get, in a blink of a eye, a sense of innumerable crowds and hectic traffic), and I should (and will eventually) try to gather all my thoughts and experiences into an article, but as today we went on a idle walk all around the center, without any sense of purpose, just to discover small streets and corner stalls, I couldn’t wait to share a few glimpses into some of Yangon’s bookstores. 

There are many, ranging from open air stalls (that is, a plastic cover with piles of books arranged in a way that clearly defines gravity) appearing and disappearing just as quickly with each rain shower, to two storey bookshops in ancient, crumbling colonial houses. In one of those, (Yangon book house) the owner was idly scratching on a guitar when we came in, giving to the small, peaceful place an Cuban atmosphere, and we talked for a long time about Myanmar History, its various (and numerous) ethnic tribes and about Burmese colonial days.He had everything, from old reader’s digests to “Burmese Pamphlet”, my favourite of those, dated 1937, was a collection of “up to date basic statistics on Burma”, where you could read, under telecommunication: ” the number of telephone exchanges for the year 1936 was 9″.

In a other one a bit further down the same road (I love the organizing system of markets in Asia:everything grouped by articles, that road was apparently only books+tea stalls, a perfect combination) we found another second hand book store, dusty and dark just as we like it, with a various collection of bookish gems,  old penguins, and half destroyed books on Buddhist history and culture. To note, “how to improve your golf”, written in Burmese language, with a handful of schematic drawings picturing a very English gentleman golfing (very wrongly,  under a big red cross,  and then the right way, with a satisfactory smile),  a book on numerology for the years 1968 to 1970 (useful, to predict the past) and a scientific book on sexual anatomy, complete with detailed measurement of the “median size of Sexual appendages”, but not one picture inside, despite the cover saying it’s “illustrated” (probably the term they were looking for is graphic).

In the end, amongst all these treasures, I managed (with the help of my friend, who kept showing me my backpack as a warning) to restrain myself,  and only bought a battered orange penguin, collective short stories and radio plays by Muriel spark, from 1966. 

I now don’t want to leave Yangon before I’ve been through all those small bookshops, but it appears we must travel on (at the risk of me using my food budget on outdated books),so I’ll jump in the public bus with Muriel Spark. It’s a worthy company for a stunning country.

​Reader, I married him, (edited by Tracy Chevalier) book review

I’ve just read this in one sitting, on the plane over the middle East, instead of sleeping (who needs sleep). This is, as mentionned earlier in my haul, a collection of short stories about Jane Eyre, and more specifically, about the famous phrase in the book that gives the title to this collection. 

I think this is going to resonnate with any one who has read and loved Jane Eyre. It might also be worth it if you don’t know anything about Jane Eyre, I think most of the stories would be worthy as stand alone short stories, though it is almost impossible to judge how I would have felt about it not knowing anything about Jane Eyre. Something I almost wished I could do: rediscover Jane Eyre as the first time I read it. Anyway, I suppose the point is moot because I would guess the majority of people reading buying this book are Jane Eyre fans. And for you, reader, as Charlotte Bronte would say, it’s a treat. 

Some of the stories are set within the Jane Eyre universe, but told with a different perspective (from Mr Rochester: Reader, she married me, from Grace Poole), some are twists on other moments of the story (Audrey Niffeneger’s is about the relationship between Jane and her friend at the Orphanage, for example), other are retellings set at different times, different settings, or broader reflections on mariage, gender roles, and the power of the sentence, “reader, I married him”. Now, I just want to reread Jane Eyre at the light of all those new leads given by this book. I think the power of Jane Eyre always was the multitude of possible ways it fives to supposition, to interpretation: do we see a protofeminist in Jane, who decides to tell her own story, what do we see in Bertha, in Mr Rochester. And this book gives us many other openings, not definitive ones, but templates for the imagination and the rediscovery of the classic. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll happily return to Jane!

Sauntering vaguely downwards, and other hilarious considerations on the End of Days – Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, book review

​I don’t feel like doing a traditional review on that one. First, because it’s such a classic probably every one knows what it’s about. If not, well, in short, the Apocalypse is coming, according to the prophecies of a mad witch, the Antechrist (a boy called Adam) is nowhere to be found and an angel and a demon, both not knowing which side they’re on after such a long time on Earth, are trying to sort things out. 

Now, with that premise, and the combined writing of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, you may suppose it’s a fantastic book. You would be right. I re-read this a few weeks ago in the middle of the rainy bicycle trip, and had to explain why I was laughing so much in my tent, under a storm. No, not from exhaustion or as a nervous response to the army of ticks climbing up my tent. From Good omens. And because nothing I’ll manage to say about it will equal the words in it themselves, I’m just going to let them speak: (Warning, behind the hilarity and absurdity, a lot of these might actualy be very true).
“God does not play dice with the universe; He plays an ineffable game of His own devising, which might be compared, from the perspective of any of the other players [i.e. everybody], to being involved in an obscure and complex variant of poker in a pitch-dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a Dealer who won’t tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time.”
“It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people.” 
 “An Angel who did not so much Fall as Saunter Vaguely Downwards.”
“Aziraphale collected books. If he were totally honest with himself he would have to have admitted that his bookshop was simply somewhere to store them. He was not unusual in this. In order to maintain his cover as a typical second-hand book seller, he used every means short of actual physical violence to prevent customers from making a purchase. Unpleasant damp smells, glowering looks, erratic opening hours – he was incredibly good at it.”
“Anyway, if you stop tellin’ people it’s all sorted out afer they’re dead, they might try sorting it all out while they’re alive. ” 
And the most important truth of it all: “All tapes left in a car for more than about a fortnight metamorphose into Best of Queen albums.” 

Summer reading Tag

IMG_2626Saw this tag over on Booktube (I’m procrastinating the last things I need to do before going to the airport – which is insane, but I’m not the kind that prepares her backpack in advance, there’s a lot more fun to be had with a sense of urgency), the original video was made by Amy Jane Smith. The questions are as follow:

1. What three books do you want to read this summer?
Based on the ones I recently bought or borrowed and will have to read in the next 6 weeks (because they’ll be the only ones available):
  • Amitav Gosh’s The Glass Palace, because it is set in Myanmar (then Burma) where I’m headed in a couple of hours
  • Reader, I married him, by Tracy Chevalier. Because Jane Eyre inspired short stories. And because Tracy Chevalier. Need I say more?
  • The day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham, which is a S-F classic I haven’t read, and I love a good classic in the summer.
2. Which character most embodies the traits of summer?
I’ve been thinking about it and, apart from every character in Fitzgerald’s novels, I would say Laura Sheridan, the protagonist of The Garden Party, by Katherine Mansfield. Not only because the short story itself takes place one summer day but Laura herself, young, joyful, with so many hopes and expectations, is one of the sunniest characters you could find.
3. What book do you most associate with the physicality of summer?
Well, perhaps quite obviously every novel and short stories by Fitzgerald, from The great Gastby to Flappers and Philosophers – particularly the short story in that collection taking place on a yacht. The summer nights with cocktail parties, the colours, everything by Fitzgerald is the embodiment of summer.
Other titles which spring to my mind are Sputnik Sweethearts, by Haruki Murakami, for the depictions of the small Greek Island the novel ends in. I read it before going to Greece on a holiday and had an eerie feeling of deja-vu until I realized it came from Murakami’s atmosphere depiction, spot on.
Finally, there’s a very short novella, almost a short story by Doris Lessing, called The grandmothers, which is everything and more about generations, life, taking place one summer.
4. What kind of books do you like to read on holiday? Any books that hold memories to certain places?
Well, what is available, really, I’m not picky. Growing up the main selecting criteria was the size, because I was allowed to take 10 books at the public library (upper limit, not negotiable, trust me I tried) for the 2months holiday, so each one had to last at least a couple of days. And still the horrifying moment where I reached the end of the pile would come (usually by mid July) and I was left with re-reading every single book in my grandparent’s bookshelves.
Apart from size I like to read at least a Thriller/mistery, and often classics I wouldn’t have the time or the concentration ability to read during the year.

Tuscany summer, by the lake: find a book and hide somewhere

As for memories, where to begin?
I went to Benin a long time ago and still remember all the books I read during those two months, because they are covered in the bright red dust of the Benin earth, and amongst the most battered of all my books. Most strikingly Duong Thu Huong’s Terre des Oublis (No man’s land), a beautiful novel about three characters and the effects of the Vietnam War on individual destinies. Also, and forever, I will associate binge reading comic books to Italy where I used to spend the summer holidays, after aforementioned pile of borrowed books had run out, mostly Tintin and Lucky Luke, but piles of old “Spirou Magazines” as well.
And finally reading Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace in Greece, on a small Island, in one sitting.
5. If you could you go on holiday with any author, who would you go with and where? What would you want to know?

wouldn’t you want to ride along too?

My holidays tend to be rather adventurous, so it would have to be somebody motivated into doing something rather crazy. I think I would have loved more than anything to jump into Nicolas Bouvier’s 4L on a 2 years trip to Asia. As for living authors I wouldn’t mind taking Bill Bryson on a walk across, well, anywhere really, he seems he would be able to point out the quirks and oddities of travel anywhere on the globe.

6. What’s your book of the year so far?
So far… well, looking into my goodreads list, I would have to pick Human Acts by Han Kang – terrifying, but necessary – and The art of asking by Amanda Palmer for non fiction.
7. How did you spend your summer holidays as a child?
In Italy, where my grandparents have a house. 2 continuous months of what is really now the very idea of summer for me: the constant sound of the cicadas, afternoons building sand castles, and lots of climbing up various pine and olive trees to hide with a book.
And: What are your plans this summer? 
I’m on my way to Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, enjoying my last 3 months of freedom before starting work again in a hospital, I’ll be backpacking with a bookworm friend, we neither of us are fans of days of farniente at the beach so it will probably be “as many secluded temples as possible, public buses into the middle of nowhere and letting the road decide where we end up”. And monsoon. My kind of summer.
Here are all the questions, consider yourself tagged if you want to, and enjoy a great summer of reading!

 Individual destinies and global catastrophes – Ghostwritten, by David Mitchell, book review

David_Mitchell_GhostwrittenI know I should stop reading David Mitchell’s books. Not because they’re not good, but because I’m very close to having read all of his backlist, and then I’ll be left with the unpleasant feeling of not having anything left (until he writes a new one).
Those might be worthy considerations but they weighted very little when I saw Ghostwritten somewhere, his first novel. Well, I still have “Slade House” left.
I half expected the fist novel syndrome – that is, something that felt unpolished, unaccomplished, where you can recognize some of the later style or content but somehow veiled or clumsier. I should have known better.
This, as with his later work, is a novel split in narrative sections, most with first person narrators, who are interconnected in some tenuous ways, each one to the previous section. Some are also characters recurring in his other novels, unshackled by space or time.
It starts in Japan, where the narrator, called quasar, is the member of an occult cult hiding after having committed a gas attack in the subway, moves to a young Japanese guy working in a Jazz shop (Murakami’s influence duly noted, and homage paid on a side note with the character receiving a Fitzgerald novel translated by Murakami), then to Hong Kong with a British lawyer involved in money laundering schemes and fighting a strange ghostly presence and a separation, to China on a Holy Mountain, spreading through the life of a woman who echoes the whole contemporary history of China, to Mongolia with nomads and travellers, to Russia with art smugglers and to a New York Radio late night DJ to come back to Japan, on a circle. If that makes your head spin, so does the book, that’s the principle.

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A (travel-friendly)book haul to fight despair and (on a side note) boredom in airplanes.

In these times of gloom I’ve figured, just as I always do, that books might help. My guilt at the thought of buying more was much helped by the facts that:
 1) I almost had to buy or borrow new ebooks, as I’ll be travelling through Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia for six weeks, and can’t possibly bring the amounts of paper books I’d read in this period of time with me unless I have a book-carrying travelling elephant with me (which I’m still considering, but I don’t know major airlines policy on checked-in pachyderms)
2) It’s ebooks, they don’t take any space
3) I’ll be spending hours in transit in airports, which I abhor (weirdly, for someone who can’t live with a “next travel” project at any time)
I bought or borrowed: (no order whatsoever, for a change)

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Nothing but grief

I’ve been, as yet again (and the fact that I even have to write the words “yet again” in this context says it all) floored and crushed by the string of violence and utter monstrosity of the events in Nice, and Baghdad, and the violences in Turkey, and…It’s getting too long and too grim to list them, and they occurred in a couple of weeks. Weeks!
More than ever I hate that the first feeling when the news alert pops in is a sort of disgusted “oh, not again”, as if this succession is expected somehow. And the political discourse, and the awaited raise in xenophobic or racist reply, and the violence building up.
Mostly I’ve been thinking on a loop about the people – the children – who lost their lives and about their families and friends. And about how there must be mountains of grief and sadness I can’t even grasp. So much suffering that can’t be expressed but becomes everything. And sometimes I think about the fact that someone actually drove a truck with the intent of killing as many people as possible, and the atrocity of that shocks me into not being able to think any more.
It’s been days feeling this way and not finding any words to write. But somehow as I was trying to write today about trivial things, and books I recently borrowed or bought for my next travel I felt I couldn’t let it pass and just go on. Even if not writing about it absolutely doesn’t mean not thinking about it, even if writing about it absolutely doesn’t help. Even if I have been loving reading about something else, like other people buying books and reviewing them, and that has helped me in these moments utter despair in humanity. Somehow today I can’t do just the same, it will probably come back tomorrow.
This just helps me to stand still for a moment and grieve, because I’ve been grieving almost constantly but never truly in the past days, always thinking about it when I had a minute of calm but then letting the daily life go by. Which is no way to grieve at all.
So stop.
And cry.
And try to rekindle hope and conviction in humanity’s tolerance and love.
That’s all I can do today.


A Fly has less sting than a wasp – Vinegar Girl, by Ann Tyler: book review

“If I be waspish, best beware my sting.” 

The Taming of The Shrew

vigI bought this book for a couple of reasons:I had never read any of Ann Tyler’s novels, and considering it a sin since she is consistently acclaimed as a Great Modern American Novelist, had always promised myself to get to it one day. Then I heard of the Hogart series about modern retellings of Shakespeare’s plays by novelists, with (amongst others) Jeanette Winterson, Margaret Atwood and Howard Jacobson – 3 authors I greatly enjoy and became slightly frantic at the idea of re-immersing myself into Shakespeare’s world via great contemporary authors. Now, while trying (and failing ) to find an ebook version of Winterson’s The Gap of Time (I don’t know why, but I’m beginning to suspect my ereader’s library-search-engine-thing is acting on behalf of the weirdest censorship comity) I found Ann Tyler’s vinegar girl instead and was intrigued:how do you modernize a play about a Father trying to marry off his fiery daughter to a boorish man who wants to tame her?

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​(Indoor)view from the top of my book, impending doom allegories and Ikea-googling

So I’ve been home,…

(or what comes closest to home for me at that moment, that is the shared house we’ve had with friends for the past 4 years, which we won’t be able to live in any more by end of august, and in which I’m not even an official room-mate any more, having passed my room to a friend for this last year of acute nomadism. So really I should say: I’m on the couch in the living room of what used to be my shared house that is still home to some of my stuff in boxes and my piano, but that’s a lot longer, so…) :

 I’ve been home for 2 days.
Again (and as it seems always) in transit, between two travels, taking time to sort out the remaining boxes, organizing the moving of my piano from one city to another (or rather, trying to, it seems it is akin to getting your Indian Visa renewed in a small not-touristic city in Tamil Nadu (yes, I have fun activities sometimes!) in terms of general organizational Hell). And getting Visas. And hanging out with friends and coffee. And trying to pretend it is summer in Geneva, which means going to concerts in parks and open air cinemas armed with a collection of waterproof vests, umbrellas and fleeces. You can pretend the pouring rain is actually tropical monsoon season if you try hard enough, I know that for a fact.

A David Mitchell’s book taking place in Japan on a Yamaha piano. The world makes sense again.

But reading outside is more problematic due to most of my books being made out of boring paper and not waterproof plastic. I know, that’s strange. The minute someone actually creates books for adults that you can drop into the bath without any damage, I’ll buy the lot and go read under water or in the rain. Develop it, someone!

So there has been a lot of reading on my piano stool, as I started sorting out my piano sheet music pile (a.k.a. the modern art installation that is an allegory of impending doom on the left corner of said piano, see 1st picture) and then getting distracted because, well, books are there. And suddenly I realized: all these books are books I bought (or received) after putting all my books in boxes, last August. All of this I bought in 9 months. It may not seem a lot to you but when you think that usually about 90 percent of the books I read are library books, it’s scary. Even more so because at the moment I stacked all my books in boxes there were already way too many books for the space I have in my bookshelves. And, not having the crammed bookshelves on sight any more, I gave myself almost unlimited book-buying license. That is very scary.

Now I have to move my bookshelves, get my boxes and… live another few days of pure horror because some “getting rid of books” will have to happen. And it makes me now sad to look at this lot of books, having realized that. Poor books, they look so innocent here (apart from the Angela Carter’s fairy tales collection cover, that is some devious looking mermaid-serpent-lady , this one knows what’s coming).

Being in existential distress I’ve started googling the location of the Ikea closest to the city I’m moving to. Surely my future room-mate won’t object to one more bookshelf, right?