Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Papyrus, the invention of books in the ancient world - Irene Vallejo

This gem is a book about…books. The history of books, from a physical and literary point of view. From when the ancient oral stories were first fixed on tablets to the invention of papyrus (hence the title) and parchment, the advent of paper and the current day digital era. From manually copied texts to the printing press revolution.

Sunday, December 10, 2023

The praise of folly - Erasmus of Rotterdam

I’ve been having this book on my reading list since I was a student. I finally checked it off. It’s a very ironic, yet extremely disruptive text written by this Dutch renaissance intellectual at the beginning of the 16th century. It targets superstitions, common ideas and attitudes of a wide share of society, and it’s particularly sharp against theologians in genearal and the Catholic Church more specifically. 

Monday, November 6, 2023

The Ides of March (Idi di marzo) - Valerio Massimo Manfredi

I knew about the topic of this book from my high school years. I don’t know how many times I had to translate some of Caesar’s and Cicero’s passages as part of my Latin classes. Yet, reading Valerio Massimo Manfredi’s version of the events that lead to Caesar’s assassination - enriched by details, characters’ insights and cultural references - was a real pleasure.
As usual, Manfredi’s books combine the competence of an expert and the skills of a talented novelist. A good way to learn history, especially if you are not keen on reading specialized textbooks.
The story: Caius Julius Caesar has recently pacified the state.

Thursday, November 2, 2023

Theorem (Teorema) - Pier Paolo Pasolini

Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote this book and directed a movie with the same title. However neither the movie is based on the book nor the other way around. They were written at the same time: two sides of the same coin, or - like the author himself likes to say - two plates of the same diptych. Was Pasolini a genius, you might be wondering? Oh yeah, he was.
This is a very unorthodox book. Is it a story? Well, yeah, but…Is it prose? Well, yeah, but…Is there a timeline? Well, yeah, but…Is there a location? Well, yeah, but…

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Confessions of a citizen (Egy polgár vallomásai) - Sándor Márai

Some chapters of this book read like an autobiography, others like a travel diary. And yet, the whole work is probably neither. It starts with the author's upbringing in a Magyar hometown, before WWI put an end to the Austro-Hungarian empire. After that Sándor Márai started to travel abroad. This is a summary of those years: a collection of impressions, experiences and encounters of a clever, refined, erudite and restless young man, moving around Europe between the two world wars. Tension is in the air. Excitement, desperation and extravagance as well.

Thursday, October 19, 2023

Alexander, trilogy (1. Child of a dream, 2. The sands of Ammon, 3. The ends of the earth) - Valerio Massimo Manfredi

This trilogy is about the life of Alexander the Great - son of Philip II, king of Macedonia - who became the chief of the largest empire of the world when he was just 30.
Alexander spent the first years of his life in Macedonia, trained by his father’s officers and the great Greek philosopher Aristotle. He then joined his father’s army as the commander of the cavalry special corps. After his father’s death he was crowned king and promptly started a military campaign that would first lead him to control the whole of the Ancient Greek world, and eventually the Persian empire, including Egypt, Central Asia and the western part of the Indian subcontinent.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Hitler - Johann Chapoutot, Christian Ingrao

We all somehow have the impression that we know a lot about Adolf Hitler as a historical figure. Even those who haven’t read any books about Nazism or WWII have surely watched at least a documentary or a couple of war movies on those topics.
Yet, it turns out that most of the common ideas about this famous character are at the very least overestimated, at times even outright wrong. His fame as an evil genius is usually blown out of proportion (as far as the “genius” part of the expression is concerned), and his assumed fame as a great military tactician is as far from reality as it can possibly be.

Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Esperanto - Rodrigo Fresán


Esperanto is the name of a language that its creator thought could be used by everyone, but that isn’t actually used by anyone. And it is also the name of this novel’s main character. Esperanto is a 35-year-old troubled musician, who hasn’t written a song for a long time. A friend of his and her baby went desaparecidos during the Argentina military junta era, while the baby’s father, a revolutionary fighter, was killed in action. A few years after that tragic day Esperanto was somehow considered responsible for his own child’s death and the resulting mental breakdown of his partner.

Monday, October 2, 2023

1914 - Luciano Canfora

This is a brief essay about the sequence of events that, over the course of a few weeks, triggered what has come to be known as The Great War or World War I. The year is 1914. Europe has enjoyed almost fifty year of peace, marked by economic growth, scientific and technological progress and social reforms. There still are some unresolved issues, neglected tensions and unsatiated appetites in the air though, and the situation will come to a critical point in the summer of that year.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Mao: the unknown story - Jung Chang

We have already met Jung Chang when we talked about her “Wild Swans: three daughters of China”. She had already introduced us to the hardships the Chinese population had to endure under Mao Zedong’s rule.
This book, as the title suggests, features the dictator himself as the main character. Jung Chang tells us how this son of a farmer, born in a remote rural province, managed to take over the Chinese communist party first and the whole country after that. It also tells us how dozens of millions Chinese had to suffer and die because of the ambitions of a single man.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Moth Smoke - Mohsin Hamid

I had already read and reviewed another book by Mohsin Hamid: “The reluctant fundamentalist”. That was a pleasant surprise, as I had never heard of this author before. “Moth smoke” confirmed my first impression. Hamid's stories always feature some young, well educated, smart Pakistani who migrated to the USA or is friend with someone who went there. I suspect that this is an autobiographical touch.

Friday, September 15, 2023

Out of Africa, Shadows on the grass - Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen)

Made super-famous by the Sydney Pollack’s movie of the same name featuring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, “Out of Africa” contains Karen Blixen’s memories about her stay in Africa and has inspired millions of people around the globe.
Blixen moved to British East Africa (current Kenya) with her husband just before the beginning of WWI and remained there until the early thirties. She owned a coffee plantation where, for almost two decades, she lived and worked surrounded by various groups of locals, belonging to a multitude of ethnic groups, speaking different languages and adhering to several faiths.

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

The World Until Yesterday - Jared Diamond

I’ve already said that Jared Diamond is one of my favorite authors and popular science writers. I don’t need to say it again, and by doing that I’ve basically said it again. No problem: he deserves it.
Diamond’s works are the ones I would have liked to read when I was at school. I think he also writes young readers editions. Some of his lessons would do great as schoolbook chapters.
He’s particularly skilled at explaining why, over the course of aeons, the world, the environment, living organisms and human societies have become (as opposed to have always been) what they are today.

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

The rape of Nanking - Iris Chang

Nowadays what happened in Nanking (current name: Nanjing) on the eve of WWII, when the Japanese army invaded the city, looted it, killed and raped hundreds of thousands - children and elderly alike - is a very well established, known and discussed fact. But up until the mid ’90s it had been swept under the carpet of history, quite unbelievably, given the prominence of the sides involved and the magnitude/typology of the tragedy.
Iris Chang’s book is one of the main sources of the limelight that was suddenly and belatedly shed on the event.

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

The most beautiful woman in town - Charles Bukowski

I used to read Bukowski - translated into Italian - when I was a college student. Bukowski depicted a world of decadence, problems, poverty, alcohol addiction and free sex that could make my neat and standardized life in the province, at university, in the family, with ordinary people, among conventional ideas, a little less standardized. It was a comparison term, a paradoxical mix of a threat to avoid and a goal to achieve. I found it so fascinating.

Thursday, June 22, 2023

SuperFreakonomics - Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

I’ve already talked about the first book of the series (Freakonomics) a few months back. In this new non fiction work the authors keep analyzing situations that apparently don’t have anything to do with economics, by using tools that are normally handled by economists.
The theme is still the same, only this time it is expanded, explained more in detail and displayed with new examples: human beings behave in response to incentives (positive or negative). Basically when we do or say something we are always trying to get some gain or avoid some loss, not necessarily tangible ones.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

The inheritance of loss - Kiran Desai

Yet another Indian novel. This one is based in West Bengal. Not in Calcutta or anywhere near the sea though, but up north, in Kalimpong district, deep into the Himalayan mountainous region, where many ethnic minorities live.
It’s the mid 80s, the Gorkhaland movement insurgency for Nepali independence is underway and the life of Sai - a westernised orphaned Indian girl who lives with her grandfather (a retired judge), his cook and his pet dog - is shaken by the gruesome events and the ambiguous behaviour of his tutor/lover.
Meanwhile in Manhattan, Biju -  the son of the aforementioned cook - lives and works as an illegal immigrant constantly dreaming to be granted a green card.

Monday, May 22, 2023

Lost Horizon - James Hilton

Have you ever heard of something called "Shangri-la"? The mythical and mystical place hidden at the edge of the Tibetan plateau that has become a synonymous with “paradise on earth”, besides being the name of a well known luxury Asian hotel chain? Well, that’s an invention of James Hilton’s and it’s introduced in his book “Lost horizon”.

Thursday, May 11, 2023

What the dog saw - Malcolm Gladwell

If you enjoyed Gladwell’s bestsellers such as “The tipping point”, “Blink” and “Outliers”, this collection of articles is a must read for you.
Malcolm Gladwell has worked as a columnist for “The New Yorker” since the mid nineties. Many of the articles he’s published in that paper posed as groundwork for some of his most famous non fiction books. “What the dog saw” is a collection of the best of those articles.

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Family matters - Rohinton Mistry

When I read Rohinton Mistry’s “A fine balance”, a few years ago, I thought that it was a beautiful story about Indian castes and politics (the story is based at the time of The Emergency and the sterilization campaigns of the ’70s), but I didn’t like the writing style at all.
I found “Family matters” a much better written novel. A little less interesting from the historical and political point of view, this book delves into the lives of a family belonging to the Bombay’s Parsi community. Mistry, being a Bombay Zoroastrian himself, is very detailed about the description of the community customs and traditions. I did like that aspect a lot.

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Madrid - Edmondo De Amicis

I was looking for De Amicis’ “Istanbul” and I found his “Madrid” instead.
De Amicis lived and wrote in the nineteen century, so expect style, vocabulary and mindset of that epoch. Yet, it is an extremely interesting, accurate and even modern account of one of the most fascinating European capitals.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Interpreter of maladies - Jhumpa Lahiri

This is a collection of stories. The recurring theme is that of Indians living in the west, or Indians visiting or living in India as foreigners. The author is an American woman of Indian descent herself, so she is familiar with most of the situations depicted in her stories. I am both interested in good Indian literature (or literature about India) and short stories, and I definitely enjoyed reading this book.

A violent life (Una vita violenta) - Pierpaolo Pasolini

Pierpaolo Pasolini - poet, novelist, journalist, political commentator, civil rights activist and movie director - is one of the very nicest Italian (and European) intellectuals of the 20th century. Clever, knowledgeable, well read, refined, independent, original and brave, he has had and still has a great impact on Italian culture, society and politics.
“A violent life” is his second novel based in post WWII Rome (the first one being “The street kids”, original title: “Ragazzi di vita”).

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

M: Son of the century (M. Il figlio del secolo) - Antonio Scurati

Classifying this book is no easy feat. Most of the time it reads like a fictional novel but - especially if you are Italian or a foreigner who’s well acquainted with contemporary Italian history and culture - you’ll be thrilled and quite upset by the fact that the characters portrayed are real life people such as Mussolini, Giolitti, D’annunzio, Sarfatti, Balbo, Togliatti, Kuliscioff, Marinetti, Gramsci or Matteotti, who had a tremendous impact on the events of that period in Italy, in Europe and worldwide as well.
Most of the chapters are supported by official documents, telegrams, letters, articles and recordings, which might temporarily interrupt the flow of the plot, but at the same time contribute to increase the sense of authenticity of the events narrated.

Friday, February 3, 2023

The mystery of Majorana (La scomparsa di Majorana) - Leonardo Sciascia

In this book the famous Sicilian novelist and essayist Leonardo Sciascia (pronounced Shasha) delves into the mystery of the talented theoretical physicist Ettore Majorana’s disappearance.
A member of the “Via Panisperna boys” - a group of scientists lead by Nobel prize laureate Enrico Fermi - Majorana was considered a rare genius (he was only in in early thirties when he disappeared and had already proven to be greatly more talented than many of his colleagues, in Italy and elsewhere). In the mid thirties the group, working at the Royal physics institute of the University of Rome La Sapienza, made important discoveries in the neutron energy field, which a decade later made the construction of the American atomic bomb possible. The same Fermi, an Italian Jewish, defected to America after receiving his award in Stockholm.

Monday, January 30, 2023

Mazzini - Denis Mack Smith

If there is a person that every Italian should be proud of, that person, in my humble opinion, is Giuseppe Mazzini. He probably deserves that gratitude even more than Giuseppe Garibaldi, another protagonist of the Italian Risorgimento (the 19th century Italian struggle for independence). Even though the famous general - due to his action hero aura - was arguably more famous than the Genoan ideologue, he has had a less far reaching influence on Italian culture and political education. Camillo Benso, count of Cavour, the third main character of that famous era, a very skilled politician and tactician indeed, can’t even compete with Mazzini as far as moral, philosophical and literary standing is concerned.

Monday, January 23, 2023

凍りついた香り Kōritsuita kaori (Italian: Profumo di Ghiaccio) - Ogawa Yoko

I don’t think there is an English translation of this book. At least I couldn’t find one, even searching the web. That’s why I’m mentioning the Italian title next to the Japanese one. If there really isn’t a translation of this novel in the most important language in the world, well, that’s a pity. This story is a good example of the peculiar Japanese fondness for details, surgical change of pace, tactfulness, delicacy and melancholy. Even of their atavistic tendency for seppuku or harakiri.  

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

The Mussolini canal (Canale Mussolini) - Antonio Pennacchi

Besides being an excellent read, this is also a very good summary of twentieth century Italian history: the rural society at the turn of the century, the First World War, the socialist uprising, the birth of fascism, Mussolini’s takeover, the Second World War, the post war reconstruction and the ensuing economic growth. These events are all part of a story which revolves around a family - the Peruzzi - from the Veneto (that’s actually where I come from). They are sharecroppers, people who - for generations - have worked the land and farmed animals, gone to war, brought up dozens of children, eaten meager meals and made up for that by drinking barrels of wine, coped with natural disasters and famines, economic crises, pandemics, political instability and social abuse, who have fallen in and out of love, made friends and enemies, fought family vendettas and formed strong social bonds.

Friday, January 13, 2023

Inshallah (Insciallah) - Oriana Fallaci

A novel based in Beirut, Lebanon, during the 1982-84 Italian army peacekeeping mission to the Middle Eastern country.
The Israeli army has recently invaded the country and ousted the Palestinian fighters. Along with American, French and a few British soldiers, Italian sailors, paratroopers and Bersaglieri are patrolling the sensitive areas in and around Sabra and Shatila, where a few months earlier bands of Maronite phalangists had carried out a terrible massacre.

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

The diving pool - Ogawa Yoko

This is a collection of three short stories, novellas actually. Each story has a young woman as the main character. The first one is watching closely her childbearing older sister, the second one is visiting the boarding house where she used to live as a student - now almost empty - and the third one is experiencing a life crisis at the orphanage managed by her parents, where she also grew up.

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Istanbul: memories and the city - Orhan Pamuk

I’ve seen this book on the same shelf of my parent’s house bookcase for a few years. I thought it was a novel, I don’t know why. When I finally picked it up I found out that it is actually a collection of memoirs. Every chapter deals with a different topic. Sometimes it’s an area of the city, sometimes a person, a building, a situation, a life phase. This work doesn’t feature a proper narrative thread. It is rather a set of recurring themes - mostly sensations - that keeps together not only the pages of the book, but - the author feels - also the city and the people who live in it.
Istanbul - aka Byzantium or Constantinople - and its inhabitants are torn between the desire for modernization and westernization on one hand, and the melancholy and longing for a glorious past which is no more on the other: poverty, mess and filth are always there to remind one of the reality of that loss.