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 that 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 the clean 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. I stopped reading it but I guess that it never left me. I’ve always tried to peek (in a safe way) at that dark side of modern and developed societies, at least to remind myself that the life I was living was a privilege and that good can be found also where we’re taught only the bad thrives.

Thursday, June 22, 2023

SuperFreakonomics - Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

I’ve already talked about the 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: humans 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 described 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 a 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 - 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 - 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 (Original title: 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.