Saturday, April 30, 2011

Nathaniel Hawthorne - The Birthmark

 IN the latter part of the last century there lived a man of science, an eminent proficient in every branch of natural philosophy, who not long before our story opens had made experience of a spiritual affinity more attractive than any chemical one. He had left his laboratory to the care of an assistant, cleared his fine countenance from the furnace smoke, washed the stain of acids from his fingers, and persuaded a beautiful woman to become his wife. In those days when the comparatively recent discovery of electricity and other kindred mysteries of Nature seemed to open paths into the region of miracle, it was not unusual for the love of science to rival the love of woman in its depth and absorbing energy. The higher intellect, the imagination, the spirit, and even the heart might all find their congenial aliment in pursuits which, as some of their ardent votaries believed, would ascend from one step of powerful intelligence to another, until the philosopher should lay his hand on the secret of creative force and perhaps make new worlds for himself. We know not whether Aylmer possessed this degree of faith in man's ultimate control over Nature. He had devoted himself, however, too unreservedly to scientific studies ever to be weaned from them by any second passion. His love for his young wife might prove the stronger of the two; but it could only be by intertwining itself with his love of science, and uniting the strength of the latter to his own.    Such a union accordingly took place, and was attended with truly remarkable consequences and a deeply impressive moral. One day, very soon after their marriage, Aylmer sat gazing at his wife with a trouble in his countenance that grew stronger until he spoke.
   ``Georgiana,'' said he, ``has it never occurred to you that the mark upon your cheek might be removed?''
   ``No, indeed,'' said she, smiling; but perceiving the seriousness of his manner, she blushed deeply. ``To tell you the truth it has been so often called a charm that I was simple enough to imagine it might be so.''
   ``Ah, upon another face perhaps it might,'' replied her husband; ``but never on yours. No, dearest Georgiana, you came so nearly perfect from the hand of Nature that this slightest possible defect, which we hesitate whether to term a defect or a beauty, shocks me, as being the visible mark of earthly imperfection.''
   ``Shocks you, my husband!'' cried Georgiana, deeply hurt; at first reddening with momentary anger, but then bursting into tears. ``Then why did you take me from my mother's side? You cannot love what shocks you!''

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Book Choice: The Scarlet Letter

Friday, April 29, 2011

Book Review: Where Europe Begins by Yoko Tawada

As the acclaimed director Wim Wenders points out at the forward, this book could have only been written by a Japanese. And a great book it is.
     Where Europe Begins is a collection of short stories that someone, anyone really, could call postmodern. Dream and reality, fantasy and life, legend and history seem to be bounded together in harmony in these narrations. The author seems to be playing games with us and her heroes, winking an eye every now and then and saying: Nothing really is what it seems.
     The collection opens with The Bath, a story where the main characters change roles or maybe costumes all the time; as if they are only faces distorted by the mirrors of reality or, in a strange way, just like puppeteers.
     The Reflection, which follows, is extremely poetic and talks about the drowning of Buddhist monk in a small lake and a young girl’s connection to him.
     In Spores, the writer seems to find herself in an acrobatic exhibition, walking the tightrope of words, meanings, dreams and reality, while in the Canned Foreign we start on a journey to language and its wealth, with the precious help of Sasha and Sonia.
     Gilda, a woman full of fears and insecurities, is the main character in The Talisman. She does nothing but collect talismans, which will supposedly protect her from the alien that hides inside her own body, or in the computer, or even in her soup.
     Raisin Eyes is a story that sounds funny but it’s not. It’s the story of a girl, whose father became a woman after eating some fresh bread.
     Storytellers Without Souls is more like an essay about language, hearing and narration, than a short story. Written in a kind of light way it’s a pleasure to read.
     The title of the next story tells it all: Tongue Dance. Through this weird story the writer allows us to take a look into a world of total paranoia, where we meet a girl that dreams that she’s been transformed into a giant tongue.
     One of the very best (if not the best) stories in this collection is the one that gives it its title. A young woman starts off from Japan for a long sea and land journey towards Europe; or rather towards Where Europe Begins. The narrator starts writing her travelling journals even before the trip begins, in order to know what to say next. The narration here seems fractured, constructed by bits and pieces that hold it together lightly, moving forth and back all the time, mixing myth with reality. During the long journey we come to learn a few things about the Sleeping Land (Siberia), its people and their traditions.
     We come to the end with A Guest, which tells the story of a woman that visits the doctor because of a severe pain in the air, only to find out that she’s pregnant. As if that’s not enough she then goes on to buy a book, which turns out to be tapes. In these tapes someone is reading the book so that’s not too bad after all. Or is it? As it seems it actually is, since sooner than later the sound of that voice will start driving her crazy. She’ll hear it all the time, whether she plays the tapes or not, day and night. Left with no other option and in her struggle to survive she’s trying to do the only thing she can do; abolish the alphabet. In this story every boundary seems to be coming tumbling down and one can no longer tell what is real and what is not.
     Where Europe Begins is one of the best short-story collections I’ve read lately and Yoko Tawada is in her own special way a superb storyteller. Highly recommended.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Christina Rossetti - Goblin Market

Morning and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
"Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy:
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpecked cherries-
Melons and raspberries,
Bloom-down-cheeked peaches,
Swart-headed mulberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
Crab-apples, dewberries,
Pine-apples, blackberries,
Apricots, strawberries--
All ripe together
In summer weather--
Morns that pass by,
Fair eves that fly;
Come buy, come buy;
Our grapes fresh from the vine,
Pomegranates full and fine,
Dates and sharp bullaces,
Rare pears and greengages,
Damsons and bilberries,
Taste them and try:
Currants and gooseberries,
Bright-fire-like barberries,
Figs to fill your mouth,
Citrons from the South,
Sweet to tongue and sound to eye,
Come buy, come buy."

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Image taken from here

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Hugo and Orwell award nominations

The shortlisted novels for the Hugo Award are:

Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis
Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold
The Dervish House by Ian McDonald 
Feed by Mira Grant
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

The shortlisted books for the Orwell Award are:

The Rule of Law by Tom Bingham
Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus by Oliver Bullough
The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore
Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens
Death to the Dictator! by Afsaneh Moqadam
Supermac: The Life of Harold MacMillan by DR Thorpe

The winners of the Hugo Award will be announced Saturday, August 20th, 2011, while the announcement for the Orwell will come three months earlier on the 17th of May.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Book Review: The Sixth Man by David Baldacci

The Sixth Man is the second book that David Baldacci brings out in just six months, while a new one is yet to follow in June. The good writer seems to be in a very creative mood these days as he has his best characters taking decisive action against corrupt officers of the state and the like time and again. A Baldacci novel without a conspiracy theory is hard to find, but that’s exactly his strong point so there’s no reason to think twice about using it.
     Conspiracy theories abound in The Sixth Man, which sees private investigators Sean King and Michelle Maxwell return to action. The two of them, as you probably already know, have a unique ability in finding themselves at the wrong place, at exactly the wrong moment. As a result they just seem to spend their lives wandering from one place to the next, from one dangerous situation to another. However, things have changed, as they are now an “item”, which means they have to think twice before throwing themselves in the line of fire. They have to be cautious and they are trying to be, but sooner or later things are bound to get out of hand and then what? That is the question that finds its way into their souls? Then what? For how long how can they go on living like this? All of a sudden things get pretty complicated.
     However they don’t have the luxury of time, so for the time being they have to put their thoughts aside and get on with the work. A work that asks for them to travel to Maine to help a friend of King’s, who’s a lawyer, defend one of his customers. On their way there though, things turn upside down, as they discover their employer dead in his car, viciously murdered. Who killed him and why? But more to the point: Why now? Does his murder have something to do with the case? Well, by the looks of it, it sure does, because when the two of them report the crime to the police, FBI rushes to the scene. What are the feds doing there?
     As time goes by, and the investigation progresses from dead end to dead end, King and Maxwell realize that there’s more to the case than they thought. The man they are trying to help is definitely not who they think he is, since the FBI is doing its best to keep him under wraps, in the high security prison for the criminally insane, where he’s held. Maybe for the first time the dynamic couple needs to ask for help. So, the young assistant of the dead lawyer flies in to fill in the gaps; the local sheriff is willing to do his best, after King helped one of his deputies out of an unnerving situation; and a mysterious woman who until that moment seemed to be in hiding steps in to tide loose ends. However, things begin to get from bad to worse, and soon the investigating team will find out that they should watch their back, as a fatal encounter is never out of the question for them.
     While these things are taking place in Maine, in Virginia some high ranking officials of the intelligence community are playing their very own power games – games that will have a direct effect on the lives of everyone involved in this case. These are ruthless people, whose only interest is gaining a bigger share in the country’s defense industry; the goose that lays the golden eggs. That’s where all the big money is, and since Uncle Sam is willing to pay a lot without asking much, everyone is eager to dig their fingers in. Thus, the nonstop plotting, the backstabbing, the corruption and the conspiracy theories come to the epicenter of the case with flying colors. And for once again Baldacci aims his arrows towards the various centers of authority; the ones that make rules, but do not play by them; the very same that seem to care more for their own good than for the good of the country.
     King, Maxwell and partners, will have to fight the good fight with some unseen and dishonorable enemies and by the time they come to the end of the tunnel, they will not know who to trust and in which direction to turn to. The truth will eventually come out of course, but the game will be far from over, as their opponents will have yet another surprise in store for them.
     This is an action packed thriller, by a master of the genre. The nonstop action, the twists and turns, even that little touch of romance that creeps in, make this novel one of the best by this author.
     We look forward to reading his next, One Summer, a family drama, which will not be a first for him since he’s already delivered the excellent Wish You Well.

Also read: Hell’s Corner

Monday, April 25, 2011

Free, at last!

He’s lost everything; everything that he ever had; everything that he ever loved. And now, he walks around the city streets day and night, a man full of sorrow, thinking of the past; a past full of joy and laughter, forever gone. He thinks about the dreadful years that followed his times of happiness, and about a youth exploding into pieces by the hand of destiny. And he thinks of his present state; a state of despair, and quietly weeps. He thinks and he remembers. His mind’s eye is alight with memories; about his lovely loving wife; about his beautiful little daughter; about the friends that one after the other let him down. Once he was a dreamer, now he lives in a nightmare.
    He feels like a rag. His life is of no importance at all. Oh yes, he feels like a rag that he would like to set on fire; to burn all his troubles and sorrows away. No more worries, no more anxieties, is all that he asks for. He wants to forget, and be forgotten.
    “Where was I? Where am I going? Who am I?” he wonders as he wanders into the narrow dark side streets of the big city, where only the children of the night, the women of sin and sorrow, still seem to have a life.
    “I myself am nothing but a whore,” he thinks aloud, staring at the women that stand alone and idle at the street corners, waiting for some customer to show up. “I’m even worst than a whore. They only sell their bodies, but I have sold my soul.”
    He sheds bitter tears. “Why? Why? Why?” he keeps asking himself but of course receives no answer. Only one of those great and almighty invisible gods could explain to him Why; they could maybe make him understand the reason, the reasons, why his daughter and wife had to die, killed by a hit and run car that rushed them to meet the angel of death. “How unfair!”
    Since the very day they died he’d taken on drinking. Alcohol took over their place in his heart. As for a home, he now lived in the streets, a bitter life; he’s a friend with the vagabonds and the damned. He sold everything he had and became a bum by choice, a drunk who was killing himself little by little, day by day. No, alcohol didn’t help him forget, but at least it soothed the pain just a little bit; it made it more bearable. And it gave life some color; it made it look somewhat better in his wet and sorrowful eyes.
    A world created by angels he once thought that this one was. Now, it is a world full of pain, and in the middle of all that pain, he stands alone. No matter how much he drinks, no matter how bad he treats himself, his sad thoughts never leave him. “I must put an end to this joke of a life, I must find serenity,” he thinks quietly, tiredly.
    His feet lead him once again, despite himself, at the exact point were all those years ago, his life was blown into pieces, the place where the bodies of his loved ones lay before leaving for the home of no return, six feet under. His face looks like a stream flooding with hot shameless tears; his eyes burn and his vision blurs. “The End!” he cries out and runs blind into the street. A passing lorry abruptly shutters the thread of his life into pieces, and sends the now happy man, smiling wide into the underworld, to meet his loved ones. He is free, at last!

Image taken from here

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Allen Ginsberg - Howl


I've watched the movie last night and really liked it, so I've decided to look for a video of the poem recited by the poet himself; and here it is. We do not actually see Ginsberg perform but never mind. I have to say that the movie at some points looked like it was directed by Woody Allen and at some others that Akira Kurosawa had something to do with it. Impressive really.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Book Review: Wizard’s First Rule by Terry Goodkind

I’ve decided to read Wizard's First Rule after watching a few episodes of the TV series The Legend of the Seeker. I really didn’t know what to expect when I got hold of the book. Would I enjoy it as much as I enjoyed the televised adaptation? (Not as much as Merlin though) Would I like it more? Or would I just be disappointed? I have to say that even now, after reading the first outing of this multi-volume opus, I cannot really say how I feel about it; a bit confused maybe. And that is only because in some parts I prefer the TV version and in others the written. But also, I have to say that every now and then the series ill serves the text, while at points the text becomes kind of boring. However…
     However, I cannot really say that I’ve wasted my time reading it. It took me less than a week to slip through the more than 750 pages of the paperback edition and at the end I left it behind with a wide grin on my face, while at the same time wondering about what is going to happen next. No, I don’t know that since in their effort to adapt the books the TV people decided to move back and forth through the various volumes and thus make things complicated for any future readers. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing.
     Now, let’s take a look at the story. A young man who works as a Forest Guide and goes by the name of Richard sees his entire world falling apart from the one moment to the next as his father falls dead in the hands of some foreign intruders. At the same time a strange yet beautiful woman comes out of nowhere looking for him and his good old friend Zed who has quite a lot of secrets to share. She’s on a mission to lead them across the liquid and terrifying wall that divides the world to the other side where they are to fight the good cause against the legions of a new tyrant in the land of D’ Hara. The latter, Darken Rahl, intends to unite the three parts of the world and rule them as one. Richard, according to the legend, is the Seeker, the only one who can oppose his plans, despite the fact that he’s still ignorant of his special fate. So we follow his steps as he’s struggling to find his way in a yet unknown land; a land much tougher that he could ever comprehend. His journey will be a journey of blood-baths and hard-earned experiences, which will lead to his self-fulfillment and a new sense of knowledge that will hang heavy on his mind and soul. During the best part of this ordeal he’ll have Kahlan, the mysterious woman, by his side; a woman unlike any other: strong and fragile, logical and at parts quite out of her mind, brave but weak in the face of love.
     The Wizard’s First Rule is a fantasy adventure, with tones of mystery, which takes place in a strange land where the metaphysical is the rule not the exception. Its author may not be Tolkien but he sure knows how to create an imaginary world and help the reader travel through it. But, and this is an important But, I think that the book would be much better if it was, let’s say, a hundred pages shorter. I’d point out to the part of the story during which Richard travels with the Mord’Sith; that could really benefit from some editing. Who knows, though; maybe the author is yet another victim of the publishing world’s demands of… writing bricks of volumes.
    Anyway, despite the above, I’m sure that the friends of fantasy writing will enjoy this book just as much, or even more than I did, since it more than serves its purpose.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Martha's Drama. A short story

She was crying for days on end. She had lost the one she loved; her one and only beloved. Since the day he died her whole world has started falling apart, her life has lost every meaning. Her restless mind and her embittered soul couldn’t really comprehend the awful truth that she now had to live with. Why did he have die? How could he do that to her? It was unfair, it was painful, and it was wrong; so wrong.
    Before she met him she used to say to her friends and close family that what she really needed was somebody to love! Yes, she needed someone and she repeated it monotonously just like that old Queen favourite: “I need, somebody to love. I need, somebody to love. Somebody, somebody, somebody to love…”
    It was not long before she found that special one and from that day on her life became more colorful, her being acquired essence. He was exactly what she hoped for; tender, caring and sweet, and always willing to listen to what she had to say. In a word he was perfect. Johnny was. From day one he made her feel happy; she was always with a smile on her face when sitting next to him. Just his being there made her feel like a princess in an imaginary kingdom, where she had everything she wished for, but most importantly: “Somebody, somebody, somebody to love…”
    During their, alas, brief time together they’ve managed to live a lot of beautiful moments; moments of happiness and serenity, of beauty and true love. Martha thought that nothing, absolutely nothing, could ever separate them; that they were made for each other. For her, having Johnny by her side meant, that she’d never be in pain again, never ever shed a tear of sorrow.
    At nights, when he was asleep she used to lie awake for the longest of times just staring at him. He looked so beautiful, so little, so weak, just like a child, her child. But of course a child he was not, he was her beloved; the one she always dreamed of. So when he suddenly and quite unexpectedly died she felt like losing the world beneath her feet. “At least he didn’t have to suffer for long,” she told herself. He got sick and died at almost no time at all; as if his life was but a little candle blown off by an invisible whisper of the wind.
    There were not many people at the funeral. Just a few close friends and her family. It was as if he did not ever exist in the eyes of other people. As if his life and death were of no importance. Martha cried and cried, like an old widow, for many days, non-stop. She had lost her beloved. How could she ever get over a pain that, like a furious fire, consumed her soul?
    “I need, somebody to love. I need, somebody to love. Somebody, somebody, somebody to love…” she started thinking and grievously singing once more, but where could she ever find again someone like him, someone who loved her for who she really was?
    As time passed and she wouldn’t stop crying, all the people close to her, or most of them anyway, started feeling pretty nervous, even furious at times, when she was around. Her endless weeping, the pain and the tears that were always streaming wildly out of her eyes and over her smooth pale face, were more than they could handle. For how long? For how long, would her heart belong to yesterday? And when would she at last manage to understand that life does not begin and end at a person? And when would she start smiling again? That’s what her parents wondered; but not for a single moment did they stop hoping that time would eventually heal the wounds. But it didn’t. Day after day Martha seemed more resigned from life, free of hope and joy. Their lovely daughter now looked like she was falling apart. And they knew that there could be but one solution to her problems; she had to find somebody to love. So, after they discussed the whole matter thoroughly between them and reached a decision, the poor and desperate mother - who was on the verge of a nervous breakdown - headed for the girl’s room to break the good news to her. But when she found her crying and raving like crazy she just couldn’t take it anymore; she exploded; but that explosion sounded like sweet music at her daughter’s ears. “Martha, listen to me. Listen to me, Martha. Marthaaaaaaaaaaa, shut the fuck up. Shut up! We’re going to buy you another hamster!” On hearing the good news the little girl lifted her cute and teary head from the pillows and gave her mother the sweetest of smiles, an angel-like one. Oh yeah, at long last, she would once again have, somebody to love. “I’ll have, somebody to love. I’ll have, somebody to love. Somebody, somebody, somebody to love…”

Image taken from here

The Pulitzer Prize Winners announced

Here are the winners of this year's Pulitzer Prizes in categories relevant to this blog:


A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Runners up:

The Privileges by Jonathan Dee
The Surrendered by Chang-rae Lee


The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Runners up:

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our BrainThe Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr
Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S.C. Gwynne


The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery by Eric Foner

Runners up:

Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South by Stephanie McCurry
Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston by Michael Rawson

Biography or Autobiography

Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

Runners up:

The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century by Alan Brinkley
Mrs. Adams in Winter: A Journey in the Last Days of Napoleon by Michael O'Brien


The Best of It: New and Selected Poems by Kay Ryan

Runners up:

The Common Man by Maurice Manning
Break the Glass by Jean Valentine

Monday, April 18, 2011

Book Review: Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

Kafka on the Shore is the first book by Haruki Murakami that fell into my hands and, even though I came to read more than a handful of his novels and short stories, I still consider Kafka on the Shore his best offering. I used to have my doubts about the merit of his work since the man is a star, but after reading this great novel I came to realize that he more than deserves his popularity.
     The main characters in this book are actually no more than two: Kafka, a fifteen year old, who runs away from home before he “explodes”, and Nakata, a somewhat mentally challenged old man who’s a professional cat detective. These two diametrically different people are bound together with an unseen thread, which obsoletes time and turns the worlds of yesterday and today into one. They are in the centre of the plot, or rather they are the plot, but we also see a few other people hanging about or around, which have some important or not so important role to play in the story: the androgynous librarian Oshima that takes Kafka under his protective wings, just when the youngster arrives at the city; miss Saeki, who seems to be the link between the present and the past; the enigmatic man that goes by the name of Johnny Walker and drives Nakata to the limits of despair; and Hoshino, who for no apparent reason at all, and without giving the matter a second thought, decides to follow Nakata on his quest.
     Murakami delivers a story that could be read as a fairytale; where people and times seem to merge together and where mystery sets the ground rules; where the answer to every question is always close at hand, but not the one we expect it to be. His heroes are people with passions and secrets; kept hostage by feelings of guilt and loneliness. They are as lonely as one can ever get. What if they cross paths? What if they feel at a time or another that they are close to each other? In the end it is the loneliness that prevails; it is only in isolation they can exist. The only one of them who seems to have a chance to break the rule is Nakata; because he lives every day as it comes; because, despite his desperate poverty, he is a symbol of the most simple and true values in life, values he can put into words, words he can put into action; unlike Oshima. The latter, a modern day philosopher, somewhere says: “Gays, lesbians, straights, feminists, fascist pigs, communists, Hare Krishnas – none of them bothers me. I couldn’t care less about the kind of banner they hold. What I cannot stand are empty people…”
     Fate has some sad times in store for the heroes of this story; but it is fate that in the end brings about the final solution. As the boy that goes by the name of Crow, (Kafka in Czech), says: “Sometimes fate looks just like a small sandstorm that changes direction all the time. You change course and it follows you. You turn elsewhere and it adjusts”.
     This book is just like a journey around the two distinct worlds of the souls and of fantasy; a trip into the regions of truth that cannot find their place in the colorless reality we live in. An enjoyable read, by a master storyteller, which every now and then just seems to take the reader’s breath away. Pure magic.