31 March 2014

The History of the Siege of Lisbon by José Saramago

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1860467229/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_il_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1634&creative=6738&creativeASIN=1860467229&linkCode=as2&tag=editsmisc00-21Reviewed by Edith LaGraziana

Is the past an objective reality that always stays the same? Is it a subjective and momentary, yet commonly accepted view of what once was? What if we did the unthinkable and changed the course of history with one simple stroke of the pen? Inserting one word into the proofs of a book, the protagonist of The History of the Siege of Lisbon by José Saramago does just that. He changes events that took place eight centuries earlier. And the arbitrary act of a proofreader serves the laureate of the Nobel Prize 1998 to combine a love story with metafiction about writing alternative history. 

José Saramago, in full José de Sousa Saramago, was born in Santarém, Portugal, in November 1922. At first he worked as a car mechanic, but soon turned to translating and journalism which earned him a living until he lost his job as assistant editor of a newspaper in the mid-1970s. Only then José Saramago’s career as a full-time writer began. His first novel, Manual of Painting and Calligraphy (Manual de Pintura e Caligrafia), was published in 1977. General acclaim came with Baltasar and Blimunda (Memorial do Convento: 1982) and increased with novels like The Stone Raft (A Jangada de Pedra: 1986), The History of the Siege of Lisbon (História do Cerco de Lisboa: 1989), The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (O Evangelho Segundo Jesus Cristo: 1991), and Blindness (Ensaio sobre a Cegueira: 1995). In 1998 the Swedish Academy awarded the writer the Nobel Prize in Literature. Among his notable later works are The Double (O Homem Duplicado: 2002), Seeing (Ensaio sobre a Lucidez: 2004), Death at Intervals (As Intermitências da Morte: 2005), and his final novel Cain (Caim: 2009). José Saramago died on Lanzarote, Canary Islands, Spain, in June 2010. 

Despite its title The History of the Siege of Lisbon doesn’t revolve around proven historical facts of the defeat of the Moors camping in front of the gates of Lisbon in 1147. Those important events of the Portuguese past serve José Saramago only as background for a story within the main plot taking place eight centuries later. Correcting the proofs of a history of the siege of Lisbon written by a renowned scholar, a poor proofreader in his early fifties called Raimundo Benvindo Silva feels the sudden and irresistible urge to insert a NOT where it doesn’t belong, a NOT that might have changed the course of Christian-European history, had the Crusaders on their way to the Holy Land really refused to help the defenders of the besieged city. When the mistake is discovered a few days later, an erratum sheet is added to the already printed copies and the publishing house engages Senhora Dona Maria Sara to supervise all proofreaders in order to avoid similar problems in future. The encounter of the bachelor Raimundo Silva and the divorcee Maria Sara is the beginning of their hesitant love story. Encouraged by Maria Sara the proofreader sets out to write his own, alternative history of the siege of Lisbon and is ever more drawn into his imaginative world crowded with twelfth-century Moors and Crusaders. At the same time he courts Maria Sara, at first with much restraint because he can’t imagine the younger woman to be interested in him, but like Morgueime and Ouroana in his historical novel they get closer day by day. 

The History of the Siege of Lisbon is a partly metafictional novel told from the point of view of an omniscient narrator. The two plot lines, the historical novel that Raimundo Silva writes and the love story between Raimundo Silva and Maria Sara, are interlaced and often interdependent. In the story within the story the author plays with possibilities and probabilities that even most accurate historical research must leave open because it relies on usually very limited sources. In other words the message is that our picture of history can be no more than a collage of a smaller or greater number of snapshots of the past, moreover an arrangement of individual pieces showing the subjective touch of the person, people or society that put them together. And as uses to be the case with pictures, we can only guess what people thought – the perfect starting point for a novel! In fact, The History of the Siege of Lisbon gives an interesting insight into the creation of a historical novel set in an alternative past. The contemporary love story, on the other hand, shows the hopes and fears, the doubts and convictions of a man and a woman who are attracted to each other and yet afraid of being hurt (again) and how they take cautious steps towards each other. The novel is written in the typical style of José Saramago which can be quite a challenge at first because he refrains from using punctuation except many commas and scarce periods. Paragraphs are long and often incorporate complex dialogues which are made visible only by capital letters within the sentences. Despite all I had no problem at all following the plot. 

For me The History of the Siege of Lisbon by José Saramago has been a very delightful and absorbing read, one of my best ever and one which made me long for more by this justly famous Portuguese author. Blindness confirmed my first impression and others of his novels made it on my list of books to read. In a nutshell, I enjoyed The History of the Siege of Lisbon immensely and am more than pleased to finally recommend this writer, particularly this book of his for reading.

This review was first published on Edith's Miscellany

26 March 2014

Pavilion of Women by Pearl S. Buck


Reviewed by Marianne from "Let's Read"

I have always loved the books by Pearl S. Buck. She writes about a world that is so different from the one I know. And every single one of her stories is telling us a new aspect of that life. In this case, rich Madame Wu who lives in pre-communist China. On her 40th birthday, she decides that she wants to retire from her conjugal duties and informs her husband that she will bring in a young second wife and changes her whole life. Her family is absolutely horrified but she carries on with her own life, she starts reading and then goes on to study, something women at that time in China didn't do.

Her books captivate me every time. They raise so many subjects, often about women but also about freedom and justice. I love them. If I've had the misfortune to choose a few books in a row that I didn't like very much, Pearl S. Buck is always a safe bet to get me back to good reading.

From the back cover: "On her fortieth birthday, Madame Wu carries out a decision she has been planning for a long time: she tells her husband that after twenty-four years their physical life together is now over and she wishes him to take a second wife. The House of Wu, one of the oldest and most revered in China, is thrown into an uproar by her decision, but Madame Wu will not be dissuaded and arranges for a young country girl to come take her place in bed. Elegant and detached, Madame Wu orchestrates this change as she manages everything in the extended household of more than sixty relatives and servants. Alone in her own quarters, she relishes her freedom and reads books she has never been allowed to touch. When her son begins English lessons, she listens, and is soon learning from the "foreigner," a free-thinking priest named Brother Andre, who will change her life. Few books raise so many questions about the nature and roles of men and women, about self-discipline and happiness."

Pearl S. Buck received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938 "for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces".

Read my other reviews of the Nobel Prize winners for Literature

28 February 2014

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

(German Title: Der Zauberberg) - 1924

Reviewed by Marianne from "Let's Read"

"Buddenbrooks" is one of my favourite books ever. Thomas Mann is a very famous German Nobel Laureate and he has written a lot of books worth reading. Why I haven't read more novels by this fantastic author is beyond me. But this was a first step.

"The Magic Mountain". Even the title sounds enchanting. Who wouldn't want to step into it, even if it means you have to go through 1,100 pages to get to the end. I think this book deserves five stars just for the brilliant title which is as magical in the original as well as the translated title.

"The Magic Mountain" is a lot more philosophical as the "Buddenbrooks", it doesn't really give you more hope, though. The novel is classified as a "Bildungsroman", a work of formation and education. It might as well been an irony of it.

Thomas Mann lived during a very difficult time, He was born in 1875, so he was quite aware of the situation in Europe before the first world war and he also lived through the second one.

This novel is a great idea of putting all of Europe into a Swiss sanatorium, letting them find a solution out of the situation the continent is in. But they can't, can they? A bunch of lung sick people of all sorts of education, most of them quite rich, all of them busy with their own problem of dealing with their illness, trying to get better and get back into the "normal" world.

The authors words are both wise and beautiful, ironic and philosophical, historical and astoundingly contemporary.

Hans Castorp is a young man with money who seems to have a goal in life which is overthrown in one minute when he visits a cousin who has to stay in a Swiss sanatorium. As we imagine a stay in any sanatorium, it stars very slow, just like you might feel when you yourself have to be admitted to such a place. But it gets better, a lot better, I promise. It's amazing how someone at the beginning of the 20th century had so much insight into today's world. Probably because history doesn't change much.

The plot of the story is easily explained, there isn't a whole lot. But that doesn't make it uninteresting. On the contrary, the book is based on a whole lot of ideas. You won't read this book quickly but you will also not forget it quickly. It will stay with you for the rest of your life.

This is a fantastic book. Give it a chance.

From the back cover: "With this dizzyingly rich novel of ideas, Thomas Mann rose to the front ranks of the great modern novelists, winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1929. 'The Magic Mountain' takes place in an exclusive tuberculosis sanatorium in the Swiss Alps–a community devoted to sickness that serves as a fictional microcosm for Europe in the days before the First World War. To this hermetic and otherworldly realm comes Hans Castorp, an 'ordinary young man' who arrives for a short visit and ends up staying for seven years, during which he succumbs both to the lure of eros and to the intoxication of ideas. 'The Magic Mountain' is a monumental work of erudition and irony, sexual tension and intellectual ferment, a book that pulses with life in the midst of death."

Thomas Mann received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929 "principally for his great novel, 'Buddenbrooks', which has won steadily increased recognition as one of the classic works of contemporary literature".

I was lucky to be able to visit the Buddenbrook House in Lübeck, you can read about my experience here.

Read my other reviews of the Nobel Prize winners for Literature.

Snow by Orhan Pamuk

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0571218318/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_il_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1634&creative=6738&creativeASIN=0571218318&linkCode=as2&tag=editsmisc00-21Reviewed by Edith LaGraziana

From Sweden I’m moving on to the South of the continent or rather to the European tip of the Bosporus and above all to Asia Minor, in other words to modern Turkey between Black and Mediterranean Sea. As a matter of fact, there aren’t an awful lot of Turkish writers whose work is translated into English or German although as late their number is increasing gradually. For today’s review I picked the novel Snow by Orhan Pamuk. Without doubt the laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature 2006 is one of the most renowned authors of his country. 

Orhan Pamuk was born in Istanbul in June 1952. Already before graduating in journalism from the University of Istanbul, he dedicated his life entirely to writing. His first novel Cevdet Bey ve Oğulları (Cevdet Bey and His Sons) won the 1979 Milliyet Press Novel Contest under a different title, but was first published only three years later. Several other novels followed until the writer’s big breakthrough came with The Black Book (Kara Kitap) in 1990 which was followed by highly successful works like New Life (Yeni Hayat: 1995), My Name is Red (Benim Adım Kırmızı: 1998), Snow (Kar: 2002), and Istanbul: Memories of a City (İstanbul: Hatıralar ve Sehir: 2003). In 2006 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The literary criticism The Naive and Sentimental Novelist (Saf ve Düsünceli Romancı: 2011) is his latest released work. Orhan Pamuk lives in Istanbul. 

The scenery of Snow ("kar" in Turkish) is the Eastern Anatolian town Kars which has seen much better days. It’s in a winter of the 1990s when Kerim Alakuşoğlu, who already as a schoolboy took to abbreviating his detested name as Ka, travels to Kars. Ka is a middle-aged poet of small renown who has been living in political exile in Germany for many years and who suffers from writer’s block. The commission of a newspaper in Istanbul to report about the upcoming local elections in Kars and a series of suicides by young women who refused to take off their head-scarves serves him as pretext to visit the town of his early childhood and to meet his adored former schoolmate İpek. He secretly hopes that the recently divorced will accept to marry him. At his arrival under heavy snowfalls Kars is cut off. The following three days are filled with investigations for articles which Ka doesn’t even mean to write and with courting beautiful İpek. Talking to military, police, Secret Service, secularists, communists, nationalists, moderate Islamists, and the wanted Islamic extremist Blue, Ka is drawn into the thicket of conflicting political convictions. Moreover the aging actor and leader of a travelling theatre group Sunay Zaim, who always dreamt of impersonating Atatürk on stage, takes advantage of being cut off from the world and of a live television broadcast of their performance to seize power in a coup de main executed on stage. Ka doesn’t really care about it, not even the killings and the arrests. He is a poet in love and in the snow he feels the presence of Allah. The writer’s block is broken and poem after poem flows into his pen and into his green notebook. But sooner or later even the heaviest snowfalls stop, traffic connections are cleared from snow and the old order is restored. Inevitably the events have some kind of sequel for everybody who got mixed up in them, for Ka too. 

It isn’t obvious from the very beginning, but Snow is told by a first-person narrator who traces Ka’s every move during those three days in Kars. As the reader learns later on, Ka was shot dead in Frankfurt four years after the events and the narrator, his writer friend Orhan (Pamuk), made it his business to reconstruct the nineteen poems which Ka wrote in Kars and which are lost to the world because his green notebook has disappeared. The genesis of the poems together with Ka’s life story serves the author as the perfect background to touch on the complex political and cultural situation in Turkey, a country between Asia and Europe, between Islamic heritage and western lifestyle, between tradition and modernism. The contradictions manifest also in the great variety of characters with often opposing views populating the novel and in Ka’s inner strife. They are described very carefully and with a certain degree of irony and playfulness. Orhan Pamuk’s language and style remain simple throughout and make it easy to follow the plot. Unfortunately, the protagonist’s poems are revealed only by their titles and by their position on a symbolic snow crystal which is a bit of a let-down. 

As you can easily guess, I enjoyed reading Snow by Orhan Pamuk very much. It shows the dilemma of the Turkish people in search of a new identity which pleases followers of all the different ideological and religious movements present in the area, be it on the national or on the individual level. To me it seems only natural that the topic is on the minds of Turkish writers. Also the novel The Flea Palace by Elif Shafak, which I reviewed almost exactly one year ago, revolves around the difficulties of finding a comfortable place between East and West. As for Snow by Orhan Pamuk, it’s a read which I recommend highly both for its literary quality as well as for the glimpse into the Turkish soul which it allows.

This review was first published on Edith's Miscellany.

10 February 2014

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

(German Title: Siddhartha) - 1922

Reviewed by Marianne from "Let's Read"

This is by far my most favourite Hesse story. Maybe because it is so much more positive than his other books, despite the subject. But I don't think that is it. I think he has given this book a lot of thought and describes the voyage any young person has to make all over the world, not necessarily the same way as our protagonist Siddartha but we all have to find our goal, our meaning of life, our meaning in life.

In ancient India, Siddhartha, the son of a Brahmin, the highest caste, becomes an ascetic. Together with a friend he wants to find the enlightenment. We accompany him on his quest.

The story might be set in ancient times and in a country quite far from Hesse’s native Germany but it could have been anywhere and at any time. The author himself actually lived like his character, searched for the meaning of life in Hindu and Buddhist scriptures.

This philosophical novel has a very lyrical writing style. I really enjoyed reading it. (i.e. the German original.)

It would be great if everyone read this book at least once in their life, the earlier the better. And I am sure everyone will enjoy it, no matter whether they belong to a religion, any religion, or not, whether they believe in a higher being or not. Because this is not a book about Buddha, God or religion, it is a novel about our soul.

Two quotes from Siddhartha:
Wisdom is not communicable. The wisdom which a wise man tries to communicate always sounds foolish... Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it.

When someone is seeking ... it happens quite easily that he only sees the thing that he is seeking; that he is unable to find anything, unable to absorb anything ... because he is obsessed with his goal. Seeking means: to have a goal; but finding means: to be free, to be receptive, to have no goal.

Need I say more?

Book Description: "Siddhartha is perhaps the most important and compelling moral allegory our troubled century has produced. Integrating Eastern and Western spiritual traditions with psychoanalysis and philosophy, this strangely simple tale, written with a deep and moving empathy for humanity, has touched the lives of millions since its original publication in 1922. Set in India, Siddhartha is the story of a young Brahmin's search for ultimate reality after meeting with the Buddha. His quest takes him from a life of decadence to asceticism, from the illusory joys of sensual love with a beautiful courtesan, and of wealth and fame, to the painful struggles with his son and the ultimate wisdom of renunciation."

I also read “Steppenwolf” by the same author.

Hermann Hesse received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964 "for his inspired writings which, while growing in boldness and penetration, exemplify the classical humanitarian ideals and high qualities of style".

Read my other reviews of the Nobel Prize winners for Literature.

31 January 2014

The Emperor of Portugallia by Selma Lagerlöf

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/3849152014/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_il_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1634&creative=6738&creativeASIN=3849152014&linkCode=as2&tag=editsmisc00-21Reviewed by Edith LaGraziana

Life isn’t always easy. Now and then most of us have to go through a situation when reality is so hard to bear that it almost drives us crazy. At such times many people withdraw into themselves and some seek relief in the realm of imagination. Usually this escapism is temporary and limited to reading novels or watching films, but others are drawn further away from reality. Hundred years ago the first female laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature wrote a story about a man who slips into a dream world and is much happier for it. Of course, I refer to the novel The Emperor of Portugallia by the Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf which I decided to review today for ROSE CITY READER’s European Reading Challenge 2013

Selma Lagerlöf was born in Mårbacka, Värmland, Sweden, in November 1858. While working as a teacher, she began writing her famous first novel The Story of Gösta Berling (Gösta Berlings saga: 1891). As from 1895 Selma Lagerlöf dedicated herself entirely to writing, but only her novels Jerusalem and The Holy City: Jerusalem II (Jerusalem I: I Dalarne: 1901; Jerusalem II: I det heliga landet: 1902) earned her undisputed renown as a novelist. The author’s best known work up to this day is the children’s book The Wonderful Adventures of Nils (Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige: 1906/07). In 1909 Selma Lagerlöf was the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature and five years later she became the first female member of the Swedish Academy. The Emperor of Portugallia (Kejsarn av Portugallien: 1914) is said to be her last great work since in her later years she wrote little. Selma Lagerlöf died in Mårbacka, Värmland, Sweden, in March 1940. 

The novel The Emperor of Portugallia is set in Southern Sweden between 1860 and 1870. A girl is born to poor Jan Anderson and his wife Katrina working on the Falla farm. A beautiful sunset inspires the father with the perfect name for the baby: Glory Goldie Sunnycastle. Jan loves his daughter and their relationship is very close. When Glory Goldie is seventeen, the new master of Falla threatens to drive the family away from their home because the late master of Falla never thought it necessary to give Jan property papers for their land. Moreover, Jan and Katrina can’t raise the huge sum which the new master wants now. So Glory Goldie persuades her parents to allow her to go to Stockholm. She believes that taking service in the capital she can easily earn the necessary money within a few months. From the first day Jan misses his daughter and anxiously waits for her return. As time goes by and no word from her arrives, he begins to gradually fill the blank surrounding the girl’s fate with his imagination. Rumours of her immoral conduct reach the village, but in Jan’s dream world Glory Goldie is the spotless Empress of Portugallia… which naturally makes him the Emperor of Portugallia representing her in the country. Jan wears now the stiff, high-crowned leather cap and the long, silver-mounted ebony stick of the old master of Falla as his imperial regalia and begins to act as he thinks befitting a person of his high rank. He loves talking about his noble daughter and the villagers like listening to his fantastic stories. He doesn’t notice when people make fun of him and ever again it seems that his madness makes him clairvoyant. In this way fifteen years pass. At last Glory Goldie returns to surprise her parents and is plunged into a world beyond her understanding.

The entire novel revolving around The Emperor of Portugallia reminds of a sad fairy or folk tale. Language and style of the author are simple, yet very powerful and moving. The story’s beginning is slow because nothing out of the ordinary happens, but this normality only prepares the ground for the despair in which Jan is plunged as soon as his daughter Glory Goldie leaves home and for his wild imagination which transforms the idealized girl into the Empress of Portugallia. His madness allows him to challenge the established social hierarchy and although the villagers often make fun of him, they tolerate and even hold him in certain estimation after a while because he has a good heart… and maybe because they are a bit afraid of his prophesies, too. In the end, those few who wished him ill are all crushed and those who were good to him are rewarded like in every fairy tale. 

All in all, The Emperor of Portugallia by Selma Lagerlöf was an enchanting read although also an increasingly sad one towards the end. I enjoyed this novel written a whole century ago very much and I think that it deserves more readers. I don’t have to think twice to recommend it!

This review was first published on Edith's Miscellany.

03 December 2013

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck


Reviewed by Marianne from "Let's Read"

No wonder this author is so highly regarded by so many. He can make a short story, alright, a novella,  into an epic tale, one that will never leave you.

This book is so full of everything, it touches so many subjects, it's amazing. Of course, as in all his works I have read so far, the story takes place during the Great Depression, this time he talks about migrant workers. In just a few pages, he pictures the life they lead and you are right in the story. You can take this story as an example for so many bad parts of society, prejudice, racism, the poor and ugly side of the world and people dreaming of a better one.

Steinbeck is the best author to explain what has gone wrong with the American dream, he describes the downside of it, the people who don't fit in, even if they try hard. His phenomenal writings cast a shadow into the next century. Nobody describes people and situations better than he did. Nobody draws an image of society as well as he did.

"Of Mice and Men" is certainly one of the gems of world literature that should be read by everyone. You know what is going to happen but you desperately don't want it to happen. Simply beautiful writing.

From the back cover: "The tragic story of the complex bond between two migrant laborers in Central California. They are George Milton and Lennie Small, itinerant ranch hands who dream of one day owning a small farm. George acts as a father figure to Lennie, who is a very large, simple-minded man, calming him and helping to rein in his immense physical strength."

John Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962
"for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception".

Read my other reviews of the Nobel Prize winners for Literature.