Sunday, 31 August 2014

Friday, 29 August 2014

Oracle night, Paul Auster

A story about stories, about a writer who hasn't written in a while. A story that plays with past, present and future and where, in the end, still not everything is clear. In short, a typical Paul Auster novel.

Sidney Orr is a writer, but he has not worked in a while because he has been very ill. Slowly his health returns and he is able to make longer walks outside. During one of his walks he sees a shop that sells notebooks etcetera. He buys a new notebook here, a blue one, made in Portugal. He takes it home and before he knows it, he is writing like he hasn’t done in such a long time.

He writes a story after an idea by Dashiel Hammett, about an ordinary man who is almost hit by something falling and then changes his life completely. Sidney uses this to write his own story about an editor who leaves everything behind and takes a plane to Kansas city when something almost falls on his head when he goes to the mailbox. In Kansas, his adventure becomes very strange.

Sidney tries to finish his story, but in the meantime he is also worried about his wife and their friend, author John Trause who is very ill.

Stories, wrapped in stories while a story is being told. That is one of the main characteristics in Oracle night by Paul Auster, who knows, like no other, how to take all these different stories and make them into one. In the meantime you are constantly wondering if what you read is a vital clue for the next bit of the story, or the previous part.

Past, present and future are also mixed. One of the stories is about a man who can see the future and it drives him mad, and Sidney writes a story based on the Time machine by H.G. Wells. It also becomes clear Sidney is writing this story twenty years after it happened, and it is not clear if what he claims to know is true, or based on what he learned later.

Very intriguing are the footnotes, with extra explanations about the story. Often these footnotes are going on for pages, making two parallel stories in the same book. Very interesting and unexpected.

All these things make Oracle night a typical Auster, constantly challenging what you know and making you think everything can be a vital clue. I love it.

Published in 2003

Wednesday, 27 August 2014


Isn't it funny how mundane things can become pittoresque when you are on holiday? I would never dream of making a photograph of my neighbour's laundry hanging on the washingline, but in Italy I do photograph it.
Laundry in Venice, photograph made by me

Laundry in Trastevere, Rome. Photograph made by me.

Monday, 25 August 2014

The song of Achilles, Madeline Miller

Patroclus is a prince, but his father is not very happy with him. Patroclus is not fast enough, smart of enough or princely enough to satisfy his father. By accident Patroclus kills another boy and his punishment is to be banished. He is taken in by the king of Phthia, the father of Achilles. Achilles is a golden boy, he is strong, handsome, kind and an amazing fighter. Despite their differences the boys form a friendship that grows into love.

Paris of Troy kidnaps Queen Helena of Sparta and that is the beginning of the Trojan war. The Greek kings from an alliance to revenge what happened.

According to the prophecy Achilles will earn fame and claim the title as best of the Greeks. Patroclus is worried for his beloved friend and he comes to Troy with Achilles.

The war does not go very well, sometimes the Greeks are on the winning side, sometimes the Trojans. It will take ten years before there is finally a winner. During these ten years Patroclus and Achilles have to make choices, and often the outcome of these choices cannot be foreseen. 

The story of the Trojan war came to us in the form of the Iliad, that is contributed to the Greek writer Homer. He probably did not write the whole thing himself, it is very likely the story was already told in an oral tradition and these days scholars even think more than one writer contributed to the story.

The new story Madeline Miller tells fits within this tradition. She tells the story from the viewpoint of Patroclus and this gives the story, but most of all Achilles, a new dimension. Achilles is now a lot more human and a lot more sympathetic then when he was just ‘the war hero’.

Patroclus tries to do the right things, and has to find his way between the prophesies of the gods and the manipulations of the kings.

The growing bond between Achilles and Patroclus is written beautifully and that makes The song of Achilles not just a story about a hero fighting a war, but a story about the power of love.

I do not know why it took me two years to finally pick up this book and read it, but I am glad I finally did. I really enjoyed it and I even cried at the end. Beautiful.

Published in 2012

Saturday, 23 August 2014

In memoriam: my grandmother

Last Thursday, my grandmother passed away.
She was ninety years old and the last months she suffered from dementia. I am glad to say she was not alone when she died, my parents were with her.

My grandmother loved reading and I often talked about books with her. I also know she was proud of me for becoming a schoolteacher. She always wanted to be a schoolteacher, but when she was young there was no money to let her study.
And although we knew the end was coming, it is still a very sad time for us. I will miss my grandmother, but it is a comfort her passing was peaceful and she is now with my grandfather again.
My grandparents in 2007, on their 65th wedding anniversary.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Family life, Akhil Sharma

Ajay, his older brother Birju and his parents emigrate from India to the US when Ajay is eight years old. They come into a new world full of possibilities and abundance and everything seems possible. The family has high hopes for Birju, especially when he is accepted into a prestigious school.

Unfortunately, during the Summer vacation Birju hits his head in a swimming pool and suffers from brain damage and can’t recover. From that moment the whole family life is centered around Birju. The different family members have different ways of coping with their grief, and there is little attention for Ajay.

Although Family life is a book about a family that emigrates, emigration is not the most important aspect in this story. It is mostly a book about a family and how each member of the family deals with the tragedy and how this effects everybody. 

I did like the story, but I did feel like something was missing from it, I did not like it as much as I had hoped.
I think this is because the story is told by Ajay, from his (eight year old) perspective. He mostly tells what he feels, so I could not really empathize. Ajay, I am sorry to say, is also not a very nice boy, at least, I did not care for him very much. All this makes I could not really get involved in the story.

In short, I am afraid I did not like it as much as I thought (and hoped) I would. 

Published in 2014

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Italian cooking

The four Italian cookbooks I regularly use
One of the Italian things I admire is the Italian love for food and cooking. Each meal you get there is delicious, I never had a bad meal when I was in Italy. In the markets you see fruit and vegetables displayed, and the taste is usually amazing. I am not a fan of Dutch strawberries, but Italian ones are little taste-explosions, the same goes for tomatoes.

Italians love their food, talk about it endlessly and enjoy planning what they will eat that day.
Italian food is also healthy, can be easy to make and not to forget: it is absolutely delicious.

I decided I want to follow the Italian example and pay more attention to my meals. I have a few Italian cookbooks and I selected four of them to use regularly. I will try to make one of the recipes from these books at least three times a week.

As for breakfast and lunch I will see what I can do there, I am not fond of coffee in the morning, I really like my tea, but perhaps I can do something Italian for lunch.

I’ll keep you updated.
My other Italian cookbooks

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Quote: Evelyn Waugh

Punctuality is the virtue of the bored.
Evelyn Waugh (English author, 1903-1966)

Friday, 15 August 2014

The lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri

Why do people have a connection? Is it because they are family or is it based on shared experiences? And what is left of that connection when you realize you did not really know the other at all?
How important are tradition and heritage? And how can you find the freedom to live your own life and what is the prize that has to be paid for that?

Two brothers, so different and still so connected. Subhash is the eldest and he is the careful one, Udayan is the younger brother and he is the risk-taker.

The brothers grown up in Calcutta, when India just became independent. The boys do everything together and form an unity. When the boys go to university during the sixties, there is a lot of unrest in India. Many people are angry about the hunger and the poverty. Subhash does not get involved with this, he goes to America to continue his studies.

Udayan gets involved with radical communists who want to change society by violent attacks. Against the will of his parents he marries Gauri, a student of philosophy. This goes against all tradition where arranged marriages are the norm. Udayan now leads a double-life, he is a married man and a teacher but also a radical terrorist.

Two years later Subhash gets the message he needs to come home, his brother has been shot. When Subhash arrives in Calcutta, he decides to marry his brother’s widow and raise his child as his own. An honorable idea, only it does not bring him the happiness he hoped for. Gauri is too preoccupied with her grief to give Subhash or her daughter any chance.

Almost nobody is happy in The lowland. A deep feeling of melancholy comes from every page, as each character is struggling with longings, expectations and most of all themselves. But do not worry, it is not a depressing book, far from it.
I loved how Jhumpa Lahiri managed to change perspective so you could get to know the different characters and their motives. I also enjoyed how the atmosphere of Calcutta and the difference with life in Rhodes Island became clear. That was done very well and with empathy.

The lowland is the second novel written by Jhumpa Lahiri, who also wrote The namesake and two books with short stories. Her parents are from Bengal and she grew up in the US. Now she lives with her husband in Rome. The lowland was on the Man Booker prize shortlist last year, but it lost from The luminaries.

I thought The lowland was a beautiful book and I really enjoyed it. I also bought The namesake, so that will be read soon.

Published in 2013

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Shadows in the sun (2007)

If you cannot go to Italy, you must try to bring Italy to your own home. Watching a film set in Italy is a very good way to do this.

Jeremy works at a publisher in London. He is sent to Tuscany to convince the writer Weldon Parish to write another book, even though Weldon has not written a book since his wife died. Weldon lets Jeremy know he is not welcome and Jeremy is almost on his way home when he falls in love with Weldon’s daughter. Jeremy decides to stay a little longer.
Slowly a friendship between Weldon and Jeremy grows and in the end there are happy endings for everyone.

Some movies are completely predictable, but sometimes this does not matter. From the first minute you know Jeremy will lose his slick ways in the Tuscan village, he will get the girl and of course the writer will start writing again.
This predictability does not matter, because Shadows in the sun is such a heartwarming and lovely romantic comedy. The beautiful landscape of Tuscany and the picturesque village with the eccentric villagers only add another dimension.

Jeremy and Isabella at the village dance
Some good actors are in this film Harvey Keitel for example plays Weldon Parish and the beautiful Claire Forlani plays his daughter. Jeremy is played by Joshua Jackson and he does this well.
Harvey Keitel as Weldon Parish
So, if you are in the mood for a lighthearted movie filled with Italian atmosphere, Shadows in the sun is guaranteed to give you a great afternoon.

Monday, 11 August 2014

The Mussolini canal, Antonio Pennacchi

This is the story of the Peruzzi family. Peasants in the north of Italy. Many children, working hard all day long and always depending on the landlord.

Grandfather Peruzzi once helped the socialist Edmondo Rossoni during a fight, and they event went to prison for it together. Something like that creates a bond and a friendship was formed. Rossoni often came to visit and brought with him a socialist schoolteacher, with the name Benito Mussolini.

The Peruzzi’s were not that interested in politics, but because of their connections with Rossoni and Mussolini they also become socialists. After all, socialism fights for the peasants and the workers, so the idea is not that crazy.

The Peruzzi-sons fight during the first world war and experience first-hand that there is not a lot of appreciating for the soldiers and what they did when the war is over. When Mussolini starts his fascist-movement, the Peruzzi’s join. After all, Mussolini fights for the peasants and the workers and at least he appreciates the soldiers and what they did.
The Peruzzi boys are involved in everything, they were there with the March on Rome and they fight against the socialists.

When the family lose their farm due to the agricultural reforms, there is an opportunity for them. As former soldiers and good fascists they can have a new farm in the Agro Pontino. These marches south of Rome had just been drained under Mussolini’s order and the land was distributed under the farmers from the north, the pioneers. The family gets lot 517, next to the Mussolinicanal.

It is a hard life, everything has yet to be build and there are still many malaria-mosquitos. Still they all have hope they will have a better future here.
But in the meantime Italy invades Ethiopia and shortly after that WWII breaks out, and the Peruzzi’s play their part in these events as well, and that has consequences.

The Peruzzi family is full of eccentric and hot-headed characters and it is the clear the storyteller in this book is also a Peruzzi. He tells the story in his own way, and often chides the reader if perhaps he could raise some objections to a claim about one of the histories that are told. He tells the story the way he heard it and he tells it like he wants to tell it, basta.

Digressions, anecdotes and family-drama form the heart of this story, but also tell the story of Italy during the first half of the 20th century.

I read Antonio Pennacchi’s first novel Il fasciocommunista in English translation as My brother is an only child. The film Mio fratello è figlio unico is based on this book.
His own family were pioneers in the Agro Pontino and without a doubt he put some of their experiences in this story.

The Mussolini canal won the Premio Strego in 2010, the highest literary prize in Italy. That is no wonder, since this book is overwhelming, colorful and vivacious and it is impossible to put down.
For everyone who enjoys family histories, Italian history and great literature.

Original Italian title: Canale Mussolini
Published in 2010

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Quote: Dalai Lama

Be kind whenever it is possible.
It is always possible.
Dalai Lama

Friday, 8 August 2014

Death in August, Marco Vichi

The warmth is blanketing the city and most people left to celebrate their holidays at the beach. It is August in Florence and the city is very quiet. Commissario Bordelli is the one to hold the fort and he is called when an old lady is found dead. On first sight it looks like a natural murder, brought on by an asthma attack, but soon it becomes clear it was murder. The two nephews are suspects, but how can Bordelli prove they killed their aunt?
Bordelli is assisted in this case by bright young police officer Piras, who happens to be the son of Bordelli’s old comrade when he fought in the partisans against the fascists and the Nazis.

Death in August is the first part in a series about commissario Bordelli. The stories are set in the sixties, and in this first story it is 1961. The war ended fifteen years ago, but the memories of what happened in Italy and the things he saw often plague Bordelli. He never married, but still hoped to meet the right woman one day.

Commissario Bordelli has a strong sense of justice, for example he does not like to put people in jail who stole something because they were hungry.
And when he goes to the house of a prostitute he knows who is on holiday, Bordelli promised to water her plants, he finds a burglar there. Bordelli recognizes the man and knows he never has any luck. His solution is to give the burglar the keys of the house and the job of watering the plants.

Bordelli has friends from all walks of life, one of the high points in the book is the diner party where a thief is cooking and a psychiatrist and a pathologist are amongst the quests and they all discuss the war and life.

If you want a fast-paced story with loads of action, than this is not the book for you. Death in August by Marco Vichi is told slowly, both because it is August and the city is too hot to do anything with haste, and also because it is set in 1961. It is a story with a commissario who has his own sense of moral and justice, and the atmosphere of Italy can be found on every page. If these are things you enjoy, than this is the book for you. I really enjoyed it.

The next books in the series are: Death and the Olive grove, Death in Sardinia and Death in Florence. 

Original Italian title: Il commissario Bordelli
Published in 2002
English publication in 2011
Translated into English by: Stephen Sarterelli

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

A few favorite blogs

I often browse the web for new and inspiring blogs. I always like it when a blog has a blogroll, because that is the place where I find more blogs of the same kind. I read bookblogs, but also blogs about personal style and lifestyle.

Here are (in no particular order) a few of the lifestyle blogs I really enjoy reading at the moment, filled with inspiration and interesting articles.

The rich life on a budget Here
Living in the beautiful wine country in California, Adrienne lives a very rich life, only she does so on a budget. She knows it is not necessary to spend a lot of money, for example a lot of her clothes come from second-hand stores (and she has great style). I especially like how she always tries to make the best of life and to improve herself.

Ciao Domenica Here
Sunday loves all things British (especially Bloomsbury), with a dash of Italian or French. She writes about her garden, books, cooking and much more. Beautiful photographs and often very interesting posts that are well put together.

How to be chic Here
Fiona lives in New Zealand, but in her dreams she has an apartment in Paris. She tries to incorporate all kinds of French chic in her lifestyle, especially in the way she behaves and looks to life. Very interesting and inspiring posts about being chic in every-day life, in a way that is actually do-able.

The gardener’s cottage Here
Simplicity boring? Absolutely not when you read this blog about cooking, veganism, style and gardening. Beautiful, elegant and most of all: inspiring. Janet manages to make simplicity look stylish and easy.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Mio fratello è figlio unico (2007)

Mio fratello è figlio unica is the intriguing title of this Italian movie, it means: my brother is an only child.

Antonio Benassi is called Accio (bully) by his whole family. His family is quite poor, father works in the factory and mother struggles to make ends meet. They live in a house that is almost falling apart.

It is 1962 and Accio is attending seminary, although he asks too many critical questions so they send him home. He has an older brother Manrico, who is his mother’s favorite and an elder sister Violetta who studies the violin.

His parents promise Accio he can study Latin if his grades are high enough, but when he has high grades he is still not allowed to study. He has to learn a trade, because later he has to support a family. Learning a trade can do that, studying Latin cannot. 

Accio feels unappreciated and misunderstood by his family, but luckily there is his friend, market salesman Mario who tells him about Mussolini and how he helped the poor. Accio wants to believe this and also wants to go against his brother and sister, who are communists. So he becomes a fascist, although asking critical questions is something he keeps up.

There are often violent rows between Accio and Manrico, but when Accio learns the fascists want to set fire to Manrico’s car, he prevents it, after all, Manrico is still his brother.
Manrico has a girlfriend, Francesca, and Accio is also in love with her. They become good friends, despite their political differences.
Accio leaves the fascists, and joins the communists, but when he realizes they also only talk he leaves politics behind.

In the meantime Manrico went to the north of Italy and became involved with revolutionaries, but this goes horribly wrong. Finally it is Accio who has to come to the rescue and take care of his family and he does so in a very practical manner.  

Mio fratello è figlio unico is based on a book by Antonio Pennacchi, Il fasciocommunista. (English title: My brother is an only child)
Accio (l) and Manrico (r)
This is one of my favorite Italian films. Elio Germano plays Accio and he does this very well, he plays the hothead so that you understand his choices and you do like him.
The movie is set in an interesting period in Italian history, although not everyrhing is explicit. Manrico gets involved with a group of revolutionaries, probably the Red Brigades, but this name is not mentioned.
There are often very funny scenes, and the ending is wonderful. I love Italian films in general, but this is one I keep watching over and over.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Quote Marcus Aurelius

Each day provides its own gifts.
Marcus Aurelius (121-180, Roman emperor and philosopher)

Friday, 1 August 2014

The dream of Scipio, Iain Pears

When there is a war or a conflict, what do you do? How do you make sure civilization, your society stays intact? Do you try to keep out of it or do you participate? And when you participate, which side do you choose? And how do you deal with the decisions you have to make then?
These questions are at the core of The dream of Scipio by Iain Pears, an absolutely beautiful book.

It is set in France, in the Provence in the area around Avignon, in three different historical periods.
At the end of the 5th century Manlius Hippomanus saw the world change. He was a well educated Roman nobleman and the Roman Empire was almost at its end. There was hardly any government left, there was no more infrastructure and trade almost disappeared.

Manlius was interested in philosophy and he was taught by Sofia, a philosopher from Alexandria.
He was determined to withdraw from the world and surround himself with his books and philosophy, but Sofia convinced him he should play a part in making the situation better.

At that moment the only organization with some authority was the Catholic Church and Manlius takes the offer of becoming the bishop of Vaison, even though he is not a Christian and he has little patience for what he sees as illogical nonsense. For him, becoming bishop was purely the means to an end.

In 1322 Olivier de Noyen was born in Vaison. His father wanted him to become a lawyer, but Oliver had no patience for the law, he wanted to write poems. He joined the household of cardinal Ceccani, at the papal court in Avignon. By coincidence Olivier read a text by Cicero and this stirred his interest in ancient writers. He wanted to discover more of these texts and the cardinal often send Olivier on missions to find them.

At a certain point Olivier found a text called The dream of Scipio, written by Saint Manlius, the bishop of Vaison. It was a  summary of philosophical ideas and Olivier did not really understood it all, but the Jewish scholar rabbi ben Gershon helped him to understand the text.

In the meanwhile the pest broke out in Avignon, and the Jews were blamed. Olivier gets involved because he is in love with the rabbi ben Gershon’s servant girl, Rebecca, and he has to make some difficult choices.

Finally, in the 20th century Julian Barneuve lives in Vaison. He is a historian who researched bishop Manlius and Olivier de Noyen, because he found a 14th century copy by Oliver of the text Manlius wrote.
When the second world war broke out, the Provence was under the Vichy regime.
Julian was determined not to let Barbary get the upperhand, he had seen how horrible that could be in the first world war. An old schoolfriend asks him to join the Vichy-regime and despite himself, Julian finds himself working as the head of the department for the Censorhsip, while he also tries to keep the woman he loves, the Jewish artist Julia, safe.

Each of these three men had to make a choice; what do you do and which side do you choose?
In a masterly way Iain Pears combines these three stories, in the place where they live, how their lives cross sometimes and the women they love.
Each of these men has different motives for the choice they make and you think very long about these men and who made the right choice and why.   

The title is from a manuscript that Manlius wrote, and he copied it from Cicero. In The dream of Scipio Cicero wrote about how Scipio Africanus looked at the world and the society and the way people should behave.

The dream of Scipio is a beautiful historical novel. The three periods in history are well written and come to live. The characters are definitely not one-dimensional but have all kinds of different traits, good and bad.
Very beautifully is also shown how facts change during the course of time, as what happened with Sofia shows.

I read this book in 2002 and re-read it again a few weeks ago. Again I was gripped by these three stories, the way Iain Pears combines them all and the moral implications of each story. Again the story stayed in my mind for a long time, thinking about the choices I would make or would like to make in situations like that. I am afraid I still don’t know for sure, but this is probably something you never know for sure.

Published in 2002
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