Friday, December 30, 2022

After dark - Murakami Haruki

I try, I always do, I swear. I really try not to buy another book by this author when, while walking past the bookstore section dedicated to him, a novel that I still haven’t read catches my eye. The first thought that comes to mind is: “Come on, your reading list is so long and varied, and you’ve already read quite a few of Harukis’s books recently, no need to buy another one so soon!” Famous (and useless) last words, I think, while I walk out of the shop intrigued by the synopsis that I’m reading on the last page of the paperback I’ve just purchased.
“After dark” is a short novel that can be read in few hours. It does not feature the usual surreal and outwardly set of characters and bizarre situations of all of the Murakami’s novels - but one - that I have read: “The wind-up bird chronicle”, “1Q84”, “Killing commendatore” and “Kafka on the shore”, just to name a few. And it’s not hyperrealistic and nihilistically dramatic like “Norwegian wood” - his first major hit - either.
The story unfolds over the course of one night and deals with the lives of a bunch of Tokyo residents who seem to have little in common and whose stories, nevertheless, intersect and interact for a reason or another. As usual Murakami might be using the events narrated in the book to dig into the meaning of life coincidences, destiny, purpose, relations and fate. Or he could just be telling a story for the sake of it.
It’s up to you to decide how you want to interpret and enjoy the book.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

The Prague cemetery (Il cimitero di Praga) - Umberto Eco

It happened a few times while I was abroad. I said that I was from Italy and the person with whom I was speaking suddenly informed me that their favorite author was also Italian. Once they even asked me to guess who it was. Dante? I thought. No, too old. Montale? Too obscure. Volo? Come on! I give up, who is it? But of course, Umberto Eco! That was their answer. Eco? Wow, I’m surprised, I said. But why was I surprised, then? I have read my first Eco’s novel when I was a kid (if you guessed “The name of the rose”, well, you guessed right) and I have read every novel by him I came across ever since. I loved each and every one of them. There was no reason to be surprised at all.
I hadn’t read “The Prague cemetery” yet, being one of his most recent works. And of course I’m glad I did finally read it. His usual brilliantly orchestrated complexity, his enormous vocabulary and knowledge of language technicalities, his history expertise - European middle age in particular - with all its corollary of mason lodges, monastic orders, political scheming, military affairs and conspiracy theories: I find it all so fascinating.
This is not only a great novel, it’s also a treaty on counterfeiting, plotting, spying, betraying and lying. The main character does it all by himself, but he might represent a whole section of a secret service, a revolutionary cell, a terrorist organisation, a religious sect, you name it.
I’m so sad that Umberto Eco passed away. I will be forever expecting his next new novel.
Original title: Il cimitero di Praga.

Thursday, December 22, 2022

The emperor of all maladies - Siddhartha Mukerjee

I’ve already introduced Siddhartha Mukherjee when I reviewed “The gene”. What I said about Oliver Sacks is true for Mukherjee as well: a great scientist with outstanding literary skills.
He studied biology - that’s why he wrote a book about genetics - and works as a haematologist and oncologist, hence this work about cancer. A great book about a terrible subject, some might say.
Mukherjee decided to write about cancer because, when asked questions by his patients about their illness, he couldn’t find any good source of information for the layman to point them to.
Mukerjee likes to call his work a “biography of cancer”, referring to the fact that cancer leverages many mechanisms that our bodies use to keep us alive, such as cell division, biological pathways, mobility, vascularization.
The book tells the story of those who played a part in the battle against the disease (which is actually many diseases that have uncontrolled cellular proliferation in common): surgeons, oncologists, biologists, chemists, pharmacologists, but also philanthropists, activists and of course patients and their relatives.
Intentionally informative, frequently heartbreaking, engaging throughout. A masterpiece.

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Thus bad begins (Así empieza lo malo) - Javier Marías

In this novel Javier Marías makes use of a literary technique that has been employed in the past by some very famous colleagues of him: Francis Scott Fitzgerald (The great Gatsby) and Truman Capote (Breakfast at Tiffany's), just to name a few.
The main character, with whom the readers become very acquainted as the story unfolds, is actually just a proxy through which the author tells his story: he acts as a mere narrator and has little or no impact on the plot, besides observing and relaying, of course. On top of that the plot itself is not particularly engaging or original. Why did you read the book then? Or why are you recommending it? You’ll be asking. Because the plot is not necessarily what makes a book a good book.
Marías is very skilled at digging, analyzing and explaining human nature: its pitfalls, its contradictions and its weaknesses in particular. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina’s famous overture comes to mind: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” “Thus bad begins” (a title borrowed from Shakespeare’s Hamlet) is the story of a family which is indeed unhappy in its own way. And the author's pen gradually uncovers the reasons behind this social failure.
The book’s slowness and verbosity could be a nuisance to some readers: I’m not a fan of long sentences myself but in this case it took me very few paragraphs to adjust to the author’s style and I found that his baroque-ish prose often helps creating a well structured suspense. Plus he can also be very philosophical in his digressions and examples.
As a bonus, reading this book we get a lot of insights about the Spanish civil war and what life in Spain could be like for those who were on the losing side of the conflict.
My only regret is that I read it in Italian. Although I can read common Spanish I was afraid that my level was not high enough to cope with good literature. Despite the fact that the Italian translations (and I suppose the English ones) are very good, I still feel I should try to tackle the original version next time I come across one of Marías’ books.
Original title: Así empieza lo malo.

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

The scent of India (L'odore dell'India) - Pierpaolo Pasolini

In 1961, Pierpaolo Pasolini - Italian poet, novelist, journalist and film director - joined colleague authors Alberto Moravia and Elsa Morante on a month-long trip to India.
The entries in this travel diary mostly reflect the author’s reactions to the situations he’s experiencing in terms of feelings and sensations - and some cultural/religious interpretation - rather than being cool headed rational, sociological and political explanations of them. India comes out as a barren, dirty and bad smelling pile of shaky buildings, open-air sewers, busy roads and temples, populated by a vast majority of multi-religious, ragged, placid, kind and sweet people, and a still new, stunned and unprepared well-off minority, whose only human strengths are their webs of family ties.
Yet some features of this traditional society - whose stratifications survived the waves of foreign invasions and occupations by gradually degenerating, but are still similar to the ones that characterize poor peasants all over the planet (including some areas in the Europe of those years) - could actually serve as an example to a western world where the recent wave of bourgeois conformism is totally disconnected from the issues and needs that humanity has had to face for thousands of years.
In order to understand some of the passages, the reader has to keep in mind that at the time of writing, western society was still anchored to some ideological axioms that would later be shaken by the major geopolitical events of the following decades.
An interesting read offering the point of view of a very refined European intellectual traveling to India sixty years ago.
Original title: L’odore dell’India.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Snow flower and the secret fan - Lisa See

This is yet another novel about women in China. It’s based in the nineteenth century, in a very rural area. Ancient traditions still apply: feet binding, arranged marriages, transfer to the groom family after the wedding ceremony, seclusion in dedicated rooms, tiring house chores, endless childbearing. Women are expected to deliver sons and they are looked down upon and abused in case they only give birth to daughters or they don’t have children at all. More often than not their husbands take up concubines when their wives get older and less attractive.
This is the story of two women, who as children are matched as laotong, or “old same“, a bonding that is supposed to last for life. They become best friends and communicate using nu shu, a written language that women have passed down through generations for a thousand years, and that has never been discovered by any men yet (it will become publicly known only in the second half of the twentieth century).
Lily comes from a poor Yao family, but due to her beauty, her perfectly shaped, sized and bound feet and her laotong status (it’s a rare thing) she will enter a very lucky marriage and lead a successful life. Snow flower - her old same - on the other hand comes from a prominent family that got disgraced. And she has always striven to keep that a secret.
An interesting and tragic story with a background of historical facts such as poverty, famines, opium addiction, typhoid outbreaks, the Taiping rebellion and the ensuing army crackdown.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Something happened, Work - Joseph Heller

If the name Joseph Heller doesn’t ring a bell, just think of how many times you’ve said “Catch-22”, when referring to a lose-lose situation, a dilemma, a deadlock, a paradoxical standoff. Well, that’s the title of his masterpiece, and that’s where the expression comes from.
“Work” is actually an extract from “Something happened”, Heller’s second great work. I did read the actual novel a few years ago, but I really loved reading this brief selection of some of its best parts again.
If “Catch-22” is a satirical story about the madness of war, “Something happened” adopts a similar approach about corporate life, associated with an upside-down, hypocritical, ruthless, psychologically unhealthy and almost dystopian social environment. And I’m afraid that I have to agree with Joseph, having being able to put up with it only a couple of years after graduation myself. Since then I’ve only coped with training activities (I love teaching) and independent work (I’m some kind of a loner sometimes). And yet, more often than not, I still feel I’m standing too close to a source of toxic vibes.
Joseph Heller is a masterclass satirist, and has personally gone through both military life during wartime and corporate jobs, therefore he knows what he’s talking about. Corporate office social networks seem to be structures where one is sometimes (or even often!) encouraged to do bad things, pretending they’re actually good. And when someone is doing something good which goes against the grain, they are asked to stop and adjust to the standard way of doing things.
Joseph Heller is able to picture all this through the eyes of Bob Slocum, a clever, ambitious, refined, cynical, witty, disenchanted, unscrupulous but also good-hearted executive of a fairly big New York firm.
“Something happened” is a cult book, along with “Catch-22”. You can try “Work” as a brief, juicy foretaste of it.

Monday, November 21, 2022

Chinese Cinderella - Adeline Yen Mah, Mao's last dancer - Li Cunxin

Chinese Cinderella and the Secret Dragon Society is one of five books that I picked up from the Chinese literature section of a second hand bookstore in Bangkok. While reading the introduction I found out that it is categorized as children fiction. I was about to drop it, then I decided to give it a try. Well, if this is a novel for children, then nowadays children are very lucky! I read it all. Though I am a bit of a history buff and I have spent quite some time in China and Shanghai, where most of the characters live, reading this book I’ve learned a few things I didn’t know or I had forgotten.
The story is based in WWII China. The country has been invaded by the Japanese, and even the concessions that were previously occupied by American and British authorities are subjected to Japanese rule. The French one, being controlled by the Vichy government, which as a Nazi puppet is a Japan’s ally, is an exception. Pearl harbor has recently been attacked and the Americans are planning a retaliatory bombing of four Japanese cities.
A group of orphaned and outcast kids embark on an adventure which will change their lives and the lives or many others.
You can pretend that you’ve bought it for your children, but you’ll end up reading it yourself!
The second book is not - in its original version - a book for young readers. But there is a young readers edition, and that’s what I erroneously picked up from that second hand bookstore shelf. It’s the story of a poor Chinese peasant, born and grown up between the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, the two worst phases of Mao Zedong’s rule. He is selected to join the Chinese Ballet Academy and goes through plenty of hardship and personal crises before eventually becoming a world famous dancer. It sounds like the plot of one of those American stories of the ’80s, about music and dance breakthrough. But it’s actually a real autobiography, and it’s Chinese rather than western.
Teenagers might like it better than adults. Or maybe not. 

Monday, November 14, 2022

Wild swans: three daughters of China - Jung Chang

This novel reminds me of great family sagas such as War and Peace, One hundred years of solitude or The house of the spirits, where the authors tell the history of their respective countries over many decades through the vicissitudes of a few generations of one or more families.
Jung Chang recounts the history of twentieth century China while writing the biographies of three women: her grandmother, her mum and herself. The story starts during the last years of the imperial era, when young women still had to go through the ordeals of bound feet, concubinage, seclusion and de facto slavery. It goes on narrating the events of Sun Yat-Sen’s revolution, the warlord epoch, the Japanese invasion and occupation of Manchuria first and of the whole country later. At this stage the author’s grandmother is the main character and her mum is still a young girl trying to find her place in a fast changing world. The civil war between Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang and Mao Zedong’s communists and the first decade of the People’s republic see Jung Chang’s parents as the two adult protagonists, with good job positions in the Sichuan’s provincial party administration. This is the time of the unrelenting purge campaigns (first against former Kuomintang members or rich landowners, then against more or less imagined internal opponents), of the Great Leap Forward and the resulting terrible famines which decimated the Chinese population. The author becomes an adult at the time of the infamous Cultural revolution, during which the country’s heritage, culture, economy, infrastructures and very identity are dealt an almost deadly blow. One by one the family members become the targets of the factions that get the upper hand at the various stages of the ten-year-long collective descent to a social and political abyss.
The book ends when the author, having been awarded a scholarship, migrates to the UK, where she still lives and works.
A must read to understand the recent history of this great country.

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

The bridegroom - Ha Jin

This is a collection of short stories. I’ve always liked the genre and I’ve read quite a few such books in the past, mostly American but also European and Asian - Korean and Japanese to be precise. This is the first time I read short stories by a Chinese author (who writes in English though).
The stories are all based in post cultural revolution China. The country is developing fast but still recovering from the social and material disasters of the previous decade.
The mastery of the English language by this Chinese author is impressive, and his style is captivating. He writes his stories as if nothing special were going on, while the world around the main characters is actually being turned upside down. Sometimes you get a feeling of lightheartedly reading about the end of civilization.
The book starts with a guy who is bullied by a couple of cops without an apparent reason and then taken to prison when he dares to protest. It goes on with another man who loses his memory after having being caught in a devastating earthquake, an actor who is asked to fight against a real tiger for a movie scene, extramarital and homosexual relationships against a very conservative social background, a woman who is taken for a ride by a powerful guy who is trying to avenge an old offence, a couple of peasants who are arrested on account of a joke with political implications, a little kindergarten girl learning how the world around her works, a weird recommendation letter sent to a university professor, another woman who comes back to her hometown after spending a few years abroad and finally the vicissitudes of the crew of a foreign fast food chain branch.
If you’re interested in Chinese society this is a very good read.

Thursday, October 27, 2022

This changes everything - Naomi Klein

Although I’ve seen Naomi Klein’s books on bookstore shelves dozens of times, this is the first one that I actually bought and read. For some reason I thought she was a particularly literary version of a no-global fanatic. And I am not very attracted by fanatics, even though their cause might be a noble one. Damn, I was wrong. She is quite the opposite: a competent, clever, original opponent of neoliberal and free trade fanaticism. In this book she tackles the effects of the modern capitalist dogmas on arguably the most precious thing that we - as a community, a living species, and an integral part of nature - all posses and share: the earth, its ecosystems and delicate balance. 
More than three decades after the first intergovernmental climate-change related debates and agreements, carbon emissions, rather than being reduced or at least kept stable, have increased manyfold and global warming has reached unprecedented levels, causing ever more frequent and devastating natural disasters all over the planet, the poorest parts of it in particular.
Why? What happened?
Well, almost simultaneously a wave of neoliberal policies, free trade agreements, corporate globalization and an unbridled capitalist ideology, with its corollary of business deregulation, austerity, public spending cuts and privatizations, has turned entire economic and social systems upside down.
Naomi Klein explains how this mad mutation of capitalism, aided by an ever more self centered, hedonistic and greedy consumerist culture on one hand and a huge political void on the other, has lead to a massive increase in oil, gas and coal extraction, most of it with new, risky and polluting technologies such as hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking), tar sands, deepwater drilling and mountaintop mining.
She goes on explaining what the viable alternatives to this destructive system are and how they will never be implemented if the initiative is left to the market, the governments or supposedly good willing multi-millionaires, as the changes needed would go against the interests of some of the world’s richest and most powerful corporations, which are generously lobbying the political class that is supposed to implement those reforms. A political class that even if not lobbied would have to take measures that contradict the dominating economic ideology that has driven its activities for decades.
Change has therefore to happen bottom-up, rather than top-down, through a switch from individualistic to communal mentality, through workers co-ops and citizens groups that would take back control of local grids and decision making platforms.
She also enumerates a few examples of regions where this has already happened (we’re talking about countries like Denmark and Germany, not some backward soviet oriented state), and other places where groups of common people are opposing extractivism and are being brutishly cracked down by the local authorities.
This book is an eye opener, highly recommended.

Thursday, October 20, 2022

The reluctant fundamentalis - Mohsin Hamid

This is the story of a well groomed, clever and charming Pakistani young guy who moves to the US, graduates brilliantly from one of the best American colleges, finds a well paid job in a successful New York financial firm and gets a rich and beautiful - although troubled - girlfriend.
Everything seems to progress perfectly for Changez, when, all of a sudden, 9/11 happens. Little by little all the bricks of his apparently solid fortress start to crumble and he finds himself torn between affection for his own culture and gratitude towards the country that has adopted him, between his love for his girlfriend and the effects of her tragic memories.
The protagonist tells his story through a monologue directed at a mysterious American man who’s visiting Lahore, the Pakistani city where Changez was born and raised. The foreigner’s actions and words are conveyed through remarks that briefly interrupt the flow of the account, and maybe this is the weakest of the techniques employed by the author. A mere trifle if compared with the elegant prose, the rich vocabulary and the well knitted plot.
An excellent novel with an ending open to interpretation.

Monday, October 10, 2022

Five past midnight in Bhopal - Dominique Lapierre & Javier Moro

I’d already read a couple of books by the French author Dominique Lapierre. I particularly liked “Freedom at midnight” about India and Pakistan independence and partition, which I read when I was traveling in the subcontinent. “O Jerusalem”, about the birth of the State of Israel and the first dramatic days of war between the Jewish state and its neighboring Arab countries, is also a very good one.
“Five past midnight in Bhopal” takes us back to India, a country that the author knows well. Lapierre often collaborates with some colleague when writing non fictional works. He wrote the aforementioned books together with the American journalist Larry Collins and this one with Javier Moro from Spain.
Bhopal is for chemical accidents what Chernobyl is for nuclear ones. Before the early minutes of the 3rd December 1984 Bhopal was known for being one of the most beautiful and best administered cities in India, but ever since that moment its name has brought to mind the biggest chemical disaster of all times. An extremely toxic cloud escaped a methyl isocyanate tank at the local Union Carbide plant - built to produce the Sevin pesticide - and instantly killed or badly injured tens of thousands of people (death estimates range between 15000 and 30000).
Lapierre and Moro skillfully reconstruct the series of events that lead to the building of the plant and eventually to the catastrophic accident, taking into account both the point of view of the managers and workers of the American corporation and that of the dwellers of the slums that were most badly hit by the toxic gas cocktail.
As it’s always the case with Lapierre’s books, history and investigative journalism go hand in hand with accounts of human hopes, happiness, disappointments, joy and suffering. It’s an enriched way of learning history. And if you, like myself, are into anything related to India, this is a must read.

Tuesday, October 4, 2022

The algebra of infinite justice - Arundhati Roy

I read Arundhati Roy’s bestselling debut novel “The God of small things” many years ago. It’s a fantastic story about castes, power, exploitation, love and violence. “The algebra of infinite justice”, on the other hand, is a non-fiction book: a collection of essays and articles that Arundhati wrote between 1998 (the year Pakistan and India tested their newly developed nuclear weapons) and 2002, one year into the war on terror waged by the US and their allies after 9/11, when talks about attacking Iraq after Afghanistan were mounting.
The themes of the book are pretty much the same as the ones of the novel, but on a much wider scale. The topics are both diverse and deeply connected. The surging wave of Hindu nationalism (bordering fascism) that swept over India after the nuclear tests and how this is getting to the very ancient soul of the country. The mega dam projects that destroy entire ecosystems and displace millions of poor and powerless people. The effects of corporate globalization, free market policies and privatization of public services on the social and economic system of India and other developing countries. Religious conflicts in India (particularly chilling is the account of the 2002 pogroms against the Gujarat Muslim community - tolerated, if not outright encouraged by the local government, headed back then by the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi). And finally the relation between Islamic terrorism, US foreign policy and the Cold War.
Arundhati also discusses the roles of writers and activists and challenges the idea that only experts have the right to talk about topics that actually affect the lives of pretty much everyone. It’s really amazing how she can put together superior narrative skills, social and political insights, global vision, courage, intellectual independence, logic and competence. She says so many things I’ve always thought myself but have never been able to express so clearly and convincingly. And she is always so forward-looking: this book is twenty years old but some of the chapters could have been written ten years from now for how visionary they appear.
Read it, and if you haven’t read “The god of small things”, well, read that as well.

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

The God delusion - Richard Dawkins

You might be sincere and passionate about your religious faith and conviction, yet debating the topic with the likes of Richard Dawkins turns out to be a very difficult task. He not only is an evolution theory guru, he’s also skilled in philosophical arguments and seems to be very at ease debating religious matters with the most prominent theologians.
Dawkins admits that religion could well be regarded as an innocuous matter of personal choice, under some specific theoretical conditions. Unfortunately those conditions are not met in the real world: religions continuously put pressure on institutions that have a secular nature, interfere with the private preferences and lives of common people (both religious and non religious) and are at the bottom of countless conflicts worldwide. It’s been like that for centuries. Sometimes those conflicts are actually about something entirely different - land control, natural and financial resources, political power - it’s true, but without religions you wouldn’t be able to separate the various factions in the first place. And if you didn’t have the conflicting factions, you wouldn’t probably have the conflicts at all.
One of the most subtle aspects of religions - of every religion - is that core convictions and the absolute value of unquestionable faith are inculcated in the minds of children that are not old enough to understand - let alone reason about - the myths, the rules and the narratives that are being forced upon them. Quite likely if you didn’t start brainwashing individuals before they have displayed the ability to make their own life decisions, in a few generations you would have forgotten about religions altogether.
And for those who think that without religion you have no morals, Dawkins informs us that there is more and more solid evidence proving that ethics predate religion, not the other way around. Religions don’t include morals: they actually restrict their scope. Plus, if you go to the root of the scriptures, they state in-group vs out-group moral standards, not universal ones.
Finally, if you feel irritated or offended by the arguments of people like Dawkins, ask yourself the following question: you don’t agree with them or you just don’t like what they say, regardless of whether they’re right or wrong?
This might well be defined the "Bible of atheism". Give it a try.

Monday, September 12, 2022

A short history of nearly everything - Bill Bryson

This is the kind of science book I would have liked to read when I was a high school student.
Bill Bryson, the famous travel writer, one day realized that he didn’t have an answer for even the most basic questions about why the world is the way it is and works the way it does. Therefore he embarked on a journey through articles, books and interviews that helped him shed some light on many of nature’s supposed mysteries.
The book covers topics such as astronomy, subatomic particles, plate tectonics, biology, ice ages, natural disasters and mass extinctions. The language and the style used make it accessible to the wider public. At the same time though it also tries to be as rigorous as possible. Bryson particularly enjoys focusing on the sequence of events, successes and failures that lead to the most important scientific breakthroughs, the idiosyncratic behavior of famous scientists and the relationships between them (I particularly like the part on Newton, Halley and Hook).
Often funny, always engaging, it’s a great read for those who want to have an overview of the history of science, fill some knowledge gaps, refresh one’s memory or getting an update on some specific topic.
Finally, the most important lesson this book teaches us, in my opinion, is that life in the universe is extremely rare (for all we know it might exist only on our planet), and intelligent life is even rarer. As we are gifted with arguably the most advanced form of it, we should enjoy it at the fullest, without complaining about it or even try to erase it.

Monday, September 5, 2022

Living planet - David Attenborough

Who doesn’t know David Attenborough? Everyone has watched at least one of his documentaries, listened to his elegant narrating voice, enjoyed his poetic, delicate, sometimes ironic comments on the world wildlife and plants. Richard Dawkins, in one of his books, referred to him as “arguably the most respected person in the UK”.
For my Italian readers who are fans of the late Piero Angela (arguably one of the most respected individuals in Italy), I think it’s pretty obvious that David Attenborough’s BBC documentaries have always been the model on which Angela based his work. By the way, David was born before Piero, and fortunately he is still alive!
Although I watched a lot of Attenborough’s documentaries, I had never read one of his books. In Living Planet, he gives us an overview of the various types of environment of our planet, and for each one of them he explains how it mutated over the course of thousands of years and how plants and animals have adapted to those changes, how old species have disappeared and how new ones have managed to arrive from elsewhere and fit in.
It is a wonderful adventure through plate tectonics, astronomy and climate change, where seeds, flowers and leaves on one hand and insects, fish, reptiles and mammals on the other, exploit and/or help each other to survive and proliferate, given the opportunities and the dangers that characterise the particular environment in which they happen to be born, live and die.
If you’ve enjoyed his documentaries (and I’m sure you did), you’ll love his books.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

To have and have not - Ernest Hemingway

The first time I read a Hemingway’s novel I was still a student. It was an Italian translation of “The old man and the sea” (“Il vecchio e il mare”). I liked it, but it didn’t lure me into reading more from the same author. Maybe it was the translation, or I was not yet ready for it. A few years later - I was already working and travelling around the world and my English had gotten a bit better - I bought another one of his books - not sure whether it was “The Sun also rises” or “The first 49 stories” - and I fell in love with him. His apparently plain style that is actually meant to start the reader onto a psychological digging trip, the train of thought technique, the intense dialogues, the fascinating characters, the extreme situations, feelings, actions and consequences, they all got me hooked. I kept reading Hemingway for months on end. I loved it. It even shaped my own communication style in some way. And then I looked for other authors that reminded me of him. That’s how I got to read F.S. Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Henry Roth, Cormac McCarthy and many more.
A few weeks ago I found this book at one of my favorite family run second hand bookstores in Bangkok, and I realized that I had never read it. I bought it and once I started leafing through the first pages the old feelings got back over me. The protagonist is a typical Hemingway character, a tough, smart, stubborn seaman riding his boat between Cuba and the Florida keys. The situation is complicated, the Great Depression, prohibition is gone and not even alcohol smuggling can help. People around him are literally starving. Workers are being abused. But he won’t let his family down. He has to take up odd and dangerous jobs to gather the money they need. And of course he will. Drama is just around the corner. Read on.

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Life, the universe and everything - Douglas Adams

I was looking for the most famous book by the same author - The hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy - and as I didn’t find it I left with this one instead, to see what it is about.
It’s a comic science fiction novel. I had already read some science fiction books before, even though it’s not my favorite genre, but never one of the “comic” variant. I didn’t even know it existed as a category, actually.
Well, first of all it’s really amusing, and in a very clever way. Secondly, it plays with science most advanced theories and paradoxes in an extremely cunning fashion.
The plot is quite complicated but always consistently woven. The protagonists are retrieved from some remote spacetime deadlock where they have probably been left at the end of the previous book of the saga. Then they are launched into an adventurous trip (of course across spacetime) that will finally bring them to save the world (a couple of times!) from an army of robots built by the inhabitants of the planet Krikkit (it rhymes with cricket, and not by chance), which are actually good-hearted folks who’ve lived for eons thinking that they were the only living beings in the whole world and got enraged when a spaceship crashed on the surface of their planet and they suddenly realized that there must be someone else out there. Don’t mind the fact that the spaceship was actually a decoy designed by some kind of conscious computer/algorithm…but I’m saying too much: you better read the story yourself.

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

The disappearing act - Florence de Changy

I remember the MH370 case very clearly. I was in S.E. Asia at the time, chilling out in the Philippines. I knew Malaysia airlines very well, having flown with them numerous times. Not Kuala Lumpur to Beijing (the actual route of MH370), but from KL to Bangkok, Singapore, Manila and also Kunming in the PRC. I might even have been onboard that same aircraft, or have met some of the unfortunate flight crew members.
I remember the airplanes, the airports, the cabin crews and their uniforms, the food and all the amenities. It was one of my favorite airlines. Then came 2014, the annus horribilis of Malaysian aviation: first the disappearance of MH370, then the destruction by a missile over east Ukraine of MH17 bound to Amsterdam, and finally the crash of an Airasia flight that had just left from Indonesia.
MH370 is known as one of the greatest mysteries in modern aviation, maybe the greatest. And it’s had a huge impact on the public opinion worldwide, mostly because of the disappearance narrative, the enormous contradictions, the various parties involved and the desperation of the families of the victims.
I was surprised that no one had actually written a book or made a movie out of it, but I was wrong. Florence the Changy, an excellent French journalist, has dedicated years to investigating the case, and has come up with a remarkable work. Her conclusion might be labelled as conspiratorial by some, but it actually makes much more sense than the official one, which is full of inconsistencies, contradictions and blunders. I was flabbergasted by the implausibility of the official story since the beginning: a plane which is perfectly fine suddenly disappears, stops emitting any kind of signal, changes route, makes a left turn over the Thai-Malaysian border, totally unnoticed, then heads south, pinged by a satellite system that is supposed to do something else, keeps flying for hours undetected and finally crashes fuel-starved into the Indian Ocean. Where no one can locate any remains, even after spending millions of dollars and using the best technology at hand.
De Changy’s version of the story might not be accurate, but it makes much more sense. Read the book and find out about it.

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

David and Goliath - Malcolm Gladwell

The question and wonder that has become a metaphor: “How did David manage to achieve such an improbable feat as beating Goliath?”.
The answer, as Malcolm Gladwell suggests, can be found in another question: why do we suppose that David is the weaker party, the underdog, the likely loser?” Maybe we haven’t assessed the situation well enough. Let’s see: Goliath is an awkward giant (probably due to a rare disease), pinned to the ground by a heavy armour, nearly blind (probably due to the same illness), not agile, armed with swords and daggers, ready for close range combat, in the middle of a vast expanse with no defense supplied by the environment. David, on the other hand, is slim, young, agile, dressed lightly, coming down from a hill, armed with a sling that he is very skilled at using (he’s a shepherd by trade, and he often has to chase - and kill - fierce predators). Plus, he is clever, and is not gonna engage his enemy on a body to body fight. He stops a few dozen meters from Goliath, loads his sling with a heavy stone and shoots. Bang! Goliath can’t even see the projectile coming, is hit on his head and dies on the spot.
Surprised? Really? Does it look like the giant even had a chance?
There are countless other examples of apparently surprising success stories that actually shouldn’t surprise us at all, if we analysed the odds more accurately.
Wanna find out more? Gladwell’s book is unsurprisingly full of inspiring examples.

Monday, July 4, 2022

Mr nice - Howard Marks

I’ve seen this book on the shelves of the second hand bookstores of pretty much all the places I’ve visited in the last two decades. It’s one the young travellers’ favourites. Sometimes a shop might even have three or four copies of it, which for a used book is a lot. It’s not surprising though, being it the autobiography of Howard Marks, a famous dope smuggler that eluded capture while importing tons of weed and hashish to the US and Europe for decades, making millions of dollars, living in luxury in England, Switzerland, Italy and Spain, smoking the best cannabis, visiting exotic places and living an adventurous life. A hero for many young travellers.
And that’s exactly why I’ve always ignored it: I thought it was a shallow and silly topic. Last month though I changed my mind and bought a copy of it. The guy was really “nice”, extremely talented and smart. Before becoming a smuggler he got a higher degree in Physics at Oxford University, Balliol College. He was not a ruthless criminal at all, he never engaged in violent activities and he only strictly stuck to cannabis products. No heroin, cocaine, pills or meth.
The story reminds me a bit of “Shantaram” by Gregory David Roberts, with a touch of Keith Richards’ “Life” and obviously a pinch of other dope smugglers' biographies, such as “Blow”, a movie featuring Johnny Depp.
If you liked any of those stories you might also enjoy this one.

Monday, June 27, 2022

The border trilogy - Cormac McCarthy

You might not know Cormac McCarthy but you probably know some of his stories. Famous movies have been made based on some of his novels: “No country for old men”, “The road” and “All the pretty horses”.
The last one is part of the trilogy I’m talking about here. The other two books of the series are “The crossing” and “Cities of the plain”.
The stories are all based across the border between the US and Mexico. Parts of the dialogs are in Spanish. The stories are set between the 40s and the 50s of the twentieth century and some of the characters are old enough to remember the Mexican revolution.
The main characters are young cowboys: simple, honest and uncompromising people. They’d do anything to stick to their values, what they were taught and what they think is right. They fall in love, complicated stories, risky relationships. They are ready to pay the price for that, and they do, even if the price is their own life.
John Grady Cole is the protagonist of the first book. He is, of course, a master of horse breeding, and he falls in love with the daughter of a Mexican rancher. Bill Parham is the protagonist of “The crossing”, where his brother falls in love with a poor Mexican girl. Both of them are the protagonists of the third book, where John falls in love again with a Mexican girl, a sex slave this time, with whom her pimp is in love as well.
A blend of Western and tragic romanticism: if you fancy the genre this is great literature.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Why we sleep - Matthew Walker

This book is super interesting. People who like to sleep a lot will love it and those who are sleep-deprived or, even worse, boast about being able to carry a healthy and active life with only a few hours of slumber each night, well…they definitely need to read it.
Matthew Walker, a real guru on the subject, starts by explaining what sleep is, how it works and how it evolved over the aeons. You’ll get to know about sleep phases (NREM, REM, etc.), circadian rhythm, fundamental chemical reactions, how different animal species sleep and the various changes across the life span.
He goes on illustrating how sleep regulates our body and mind functions and how sleep deprivation can lead to utter disaster. We are talking about serious stuff here: cardiovascular diseases, cancer, memory loss, immunodeficiency and the likes.
Then comes the part I liked the most: REM sleep dreams. Recent research and experiments gave us clear explanations on why evolution endowed us with such a wonderful feature. Dreaming seems to have two major purposes: 1. it helps remove heavy emotional loads from particularly traumatic memories and 2. it boosts problem-solving and creative skills.
The last chapter deals with the effects of modern society on sleep: 24h noise and light, work/school hours, electronic devices all play a (negative) part on our sleep habits. A couple of good tips are provided here, and some ideas for societal change as well.
Are you interested in knowing how our brain does all that stuff through sleep? Read the book and you’ll find out.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Girl with curious hair, The broom of the system - David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace is considered a rare genius, and not just as a writer. I don’t know much about his life, except that he committed suicide when he was still quite young. All I know about his work is what is written in these two books I recently read. The first is a collection of short stories, the second one is a novel.
The guy was definitely talented: gorgeous prose, rich vocabulary, fervid imagination. He could masterfully play with language and literary techniques, mix real characters and fictitious ones, handle history, psychology and popular culture.
He could also be irritating at times, writing pages on end without any trace of punctuation, dropping too much idiosyncratic jargon or even ending a novel in mid sentence!
Yet, his stories are a real pleasure to read. I particularly liked four of his short ones: “Little expressionless animals”, “Girl with curious hair”, “Lyndon” and “My appearance”, most of them featuring real famous people, such as the whole “Jeopardy” TV program crew, the talk show host David Letterman and the former US president Lyndon Johnson.
Many of the chapters of “The broom of the system”, his debut novel, are also a wonderful read.
I haven’t read “Infinite jest”, arguably his masterwork. Sooner or later I’ll give it a try.

Friday, March 25, 2022

Hard boiled wonderland and the end of the world - Murakami Haruki

Murakami, buy-one-get-one-free option. Two stories told through alternating chapters. The first one is based, as usual in Murakami's novels, in a slightly dystopian version of modern day Japan, where two powerful organizations are fighting an all-out cyber-war, and a band of invisible mutants roam around a web of tunnels connected to Tokyo's subway system. The second one takes place in a totally fictional world, a walled city inhabited by unicorns and people deprived of both heart and shadow. At the end of the book Murakami unveils the connection between the two plots, and the fictional world turns out to be a product of the mind of the first story’s protagonist. A bit confusing sometimes, still an intriguing and creative novel though.

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

A history of Western philosophy - Bertrand Russel, Sophie's world - Jostein Gaarder

These books offer two different approaches to anyone who wants to be introduced to western philosophy. They both range from the Greek Pre-Socratics to contemporary German, French and English speaking thinkers. One of them even gets to talk about the Big Bang Theory.
“Sophie’s world” is genius, no wonder it’s been a worldwide success among readers of all ages and walks of life, although it deals with such a tough topic. Jostein Gaarder decided that the best way to introduce new people to philosophy is by telling them a fictional story. It is a marvelous and instructive voyage through western philosophy that also deals with tangent topics such as reality and illusion, wonder and indifference, compassion and suffering.
Bertrand Russel’s work, on the other hand, is a classic, a traditional overview of western philosophy written by one of the greatest contemporary thinkers. Yet, it’s not just a didactic and detached textbook. Russel is original and bold, unafraid to tell us that a great master has made a gross mistake or inspired tyrants and warmongers. Plus, even though it is much more challenging than Gaarder’s book, it’s not inaccessible to people who are not familiar with the subject.
Philosophy is one of the best topic I know. If you’re new to it take your pick. Or, better even, read them both!

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Thinking fast and slow - Daniel Kahneman

In this book the Nobel prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains how our mind works as if it housed two separate systems, each one with its own skills, specialized in dealing with different circumstances: the fast and slow thinkers the book title is about.
System 1 is automatic, always switched on, intuitive, looking out for surprises or anomalies, keen on stereotyping and sampling. It is very good at doing what it does, most of the time that is, but is sometimes prone to catastrophic errors. System 2, on the other hand, is analytical, logical, statistical, can perform complex calculations and reasoning, but it’s lazy and effortful, in sleeping mode as often as not, and might also act as an apologist for its mate’s shortcomings.
The two systems don’t really exist: they are just useful models that help us understand how and why our mind acts the way it does when confronted with specific situations.
By means of this structure Kahneman teaches us how we unconsciously use heuristics to simplify complex problems and how that mechanism can generate biases. He tells us how our innate overconfidence can make us feel extremely at ease when we make our worst blunders. He lists the rules we follow when we make important decision or choose between various options, sometimes even against our own best interests. He exposes the weaknesses of the dominant economics theory that treats human beings as rational agents (the so called mythical “econs”, as opposed to the real humans), and concludes by illustrating how the struggle between our “remembering” and “experiencing” selves is often won by the former, leading us to choose greater suffering, if that leads to a better memory of the event.
This book teaches us about the manufacturing defects of our mind, so that we can learn how to minimize their effects and consequences.

Thursday, February 3, 2022

Convalescence, Human acts, The vegetarian - Han Kang

I’m writing from the depth of the contemporary Asian literature tunnel that I’ve entered a while ago and which I want to keep exploring a little longer. This section of the cave opens up on the work of Han Kang, a very skilled South Korean female writer.
Despite the title, “The Vegetarian” is not a book about animal rights, ethical food choices or the impacts on the environment of pig and chicken farms. This is a story about eating disorders, mental illness, violence, sexual perversions and the psychiatric consequences of child abuse.
“Convalescence” and “The fruit of my woman” are two short stories. Once again the protagonists are women whose bodies change as a consequence of inner conflicts, incompatibility with the outer world and critical personality traits. Self annihilation seems to be the only antidote to the poisons of ordinary life activity.
“Human acts” is tragic, I mean Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides kind of tragic. The real Ancient Greek version of tragic. I knew that South Korea, before becoming an advanced, wealthy, industrialized and free country, had been oppressed by a harsh dictatorship. But I didn’t know the details. This book is about those details. Many of them. Extremely tragic and realistic. And very beautiful.
Excellent read, if you're not in a sad mood.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

1Q84, Kafka on the shore, Killing commendatore - Murakami Haruki

These three books are typical Murakami Haruki's style, full of metaphors, surreal events, bizarre characters and historical references.
The story always starts when the lives of the main characters have reached some kind of a dead end. There is some deep meaning that must be deciphered in order to untangle the messy knot, a mystery that is most often hidden among the brush strokes of a mesmerizing painting or the chapters of a fancy novel. The process might take the protagonists on a trip to the unfamiliar dimensions of a netherworld, a thick forest inhabited by soldiers of a distant epoch, or maybe a parallel world with two moons. It is also a journey to the human subconscious deepest recesses. Each book has its dark side as well: homicides, suicides and violence abound in Murakami’s world. And finally there is music, a lot of it: jazz, classical and rock, you name it.
Reading a Murakami’s novel is a multisensory experience. Totally healthy and side effect free.