Monday, January 31, 2022

Kramberger with Monkey by Rick Harsch


picture by Natasha Juhnov

There was such a man.

Three decades ago, there was, in far-away Slovenia, a self-made businessman with presidential ambitions, orating to his fellow-citizens with a monkey on his shoulder.

He was killed. Someone shot him down, just like the Kennedy's. They caught the suspect; a drunk. Intoxicated he confessed; sober he denied. But he went to prison all the same.

And the Monkey, asks the narrator, where was it when the fatal shot rung? Did it call in sick that day ?

So begins Rick Harsch's novel "Kramberger with Monkey", a wild and runaway exploration on political murders, rogue reporters, innocent scapegoats, invisible hitmen, murdering chimps, seedy politicians, ludicrous conspiracy theories, emerging democracies and coagulating autocracies.

In 44 dazzling funny chapters, and with a handful of devilishly selected scenes ( both true and fictional ), the author reminds us of the senselessness of the human comedy played out in an indifferent world.

As always with Harsch : dark entertainment shedding light.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

"Anabasis" by Xenophon

Lately I have been reading, enjoying and schooling myself with the 2400 year old "Anabasis" written by Xenophon.

The story relates the ordeal of the 14.000 Greek mercenaries who enter the Persian Empire in 401 BCE, commissioned by the Persian prince Cyrus (the Younger), in his attempt to dethrone his older brother King Artaxerxes.

But things do not go as planned and the mercenaries get themselves stranded a few kilometers from the city of Babylon (the actual Bagdad), deep into enemy territory and with all their senior commanders dead. The troops however are feared Hoplites and the army of Artaxerxes hesitates to launch a frontal attack, even at the moment when the Greeks are at their weakest. This gives these foreign phalanxes just the few days they need to reorganize and elect new leaders.

Enters Xenophon. It is a bit unclear why this 30 year old, well-educated scion of a wealthy Athenian family, is among these fighters, but in this moment of confusion and chaos, he stands up as one of the new leaders. Their new objective: get the army of mercenaries out of Persia as fast as they can. A march of 1500 km through unknown and dangerous territory, surrounded by numerous hostile armies and tribes, awaits them.

It is no wonder that such a story still captivates the mind.

I have read Xenophon narration in the illustrious Robert Strassler's Landmark edition. This is a series of important historical texts, translated and annotated by numerous specialists in the field. Lavishly illustrated with maps, with detailed drawings of battle formations and with pictures of the actual sites, these books make a huge difference on the reading experience. If there is a proof that digital reading will never fully replace reading a paper-book, this is it.

Xenophon’s Anabasis (which basically means an "inland march") turns out to be a detailed report of the long retreat to get out of enemy territory. Its main attraction is that it is written on the level of the individual grunt; no great overarching strategic vistas. It is continuous "problem solving" on human level. Do we attack or negotiate? Do we cross the river or not? Shall we advance or wait? And this with the continuous concern to keep the vanguard and rearguard safe and the distance between them never dangerously overstretched.

Besides turning out to be a very capable and humble commander, Xenophon is also a perfect narrator. Even though he is an Athenian, he has strong and open sympathies for the Spartan lifestyle: resilience, perseverance, grit. No wonder he is banned from Athens. And he couldn't care less. Xenophon was an early student and follower of Socrates, and he was disgusted with the Athenian city for the condemnation of the famous philosopher. His Anabasis therefore can somehow be read as Socratian philosophy applied to a long survival situation.

Tough as steel in battle, proud when deserved but humble when in error.

A strong recommendation

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Reading Oscars 2021



I Kicked off the reading year 2021 with Ray Bradbury's Martian chronicles. I liked the novel and I wrote a review.I followed it up enthusiastically with "The illustrated Man", another Bradbury, but gave up after two chapters.

 I looked for something else.

 A few years ago, a handful of Belgian journalist assembled the "Flemish canon", a list of 50 must-reads in the Dutch language.

From that list, I choose the one most recently written: Hugo Claus' "The sorrow of Belgium". I read it front to back in one long reading rush; I was captivated by this wartime story . Claus' was Belgium's most likely candidate for a Nobel Price, but he passed away a decade ago. Brilliantly written, thoughtful, intelligent.

With that positive experience, I next opened Harry Mulisch's "The invention of Heaven". Although it is also very well written and reads easily, I abandoned the thick volume half way. I picked it up a few days ago, started reading again and expect to finish it before the end of the year. Intriguing.

 A book, I did finish was "Paradise" by Nobel Prize winner Abdulrazak Gurnah. I don't know yet what to make of it, but I have a soft spot for Tanzania and the East African coast so it brought back a few memories.

 The winner I choose for this year fiction reads : Claus' "The sorrow of Belgium"

Non Fiction

Parallel with the fall of Kabul ( but not intentionally ) I read "Alexandria" by Edmund Richardson . It is a very interesting book about a country, people and a chunk of history that does not get too much attention normally. A reviewed it on my blog. I find reviewing nowadays difficult. My attention tends to wander.

I followed that reading with a book containing a collection of articles from musical author Alex Ross :"Listen to this". I am a huge fan of Alex Ross, but this novel is not as good as his "The rest is noise" and the "Wagner" - book, that are both, as far as I am concerned, genuine masterworks.

Then I immersed myself in Homer and the Odyssey for a couple of weeks.

A review on Daniel Mendelsohn' s " An Odyssey" in the Octavian report ( why to read the classics? ) directed me not only to Mendelsohn's book, but also to the most important text-books he consulted for his personal take on Homer's work. So I read:

- Odysseus : a life by Charles Rowan Bey Brillant!

- Homeric moments : clues to delight in reading the Odyssey and the Iliad by Eva T. H. Brann. Fantastic !

- The world of Odysseus by I. Finley. I had this classic already in my library. Interesting

- Disguise and recognition in the Odyssey by Sheila Murnaghan I did not read. It is too expensive to purchase (even on the second hand book market).

I topped up this Homeric readings with "Hearing Homer's song : the brief life and big idea of Milman Parry" by Robert Kanigel. The book gives a good idea about how the Iliad and the Odyssey were created and how Milman Parry got the inspiration for his theory.

As a reading coda, I finished this Homeric streak with Mendelsohn's "Three rings : a tale of exile, narrative, and fate", a kind of spin-off, musing or footnote to the writing of his very personal Odyssey book. It is interesting in itself because it dwells on the Homeric ring composition, Auerbach's Mimesis, François Fénelon and " W.G. Sebald.

Very entertaining and instructive was the book by Spanish Irene Vallejo "Papyrus, the invention of books in the ancient world". It seems it has not yet been translated in English. It is a pity for it is ( at least for Bookish people ) an enjoyable read.

Finally, my nightstand book was "Island dreams, mapping an obsession" by Francis Gavin, an easy enjoyable read of which only fragments linger in my memory after a good night sleep.

The winner I choose for this year non-fiction reads : Homeric moments : clues to delight in reading the Odyssey and the Iliad by Eva T. H. Brann.


To complete my reading report I should add that I left a few books half read : "If this is a man" by Primo Levi, "The Quest for the Tomb of Alexander the Great": by Andrew Michael Chugg, "The dawn of everything : a new history of humanity" by David Graeber, "The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas Machado de Assis ", very much hyped by social networks.

And then finally there was the usual dabbling and rereading : the odd page of Moby Dick, Lacarrières's hagiographic lives of the Desert Saints, "The Pound Era" by genius Hugh Kenner

So in general not a bad year in reading. Especially taking into account a very challenging year, both professionally and privately.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Alexandria by Edmund Richardson

Remnants of an Army by Elisabeth Butler. 

Alexandria, a historical biography of amateur archeologist James Lewis, is a book I enjoyed very much for it succeeds to be interesting on multiple levels. 

First of all, it is captivating read, at moments even a page - turner, with its many narrative surprises, fascinating characters and cliff-hanger-ending-chapters.
Edmund Richardson brings us a deeply researched biography of a James Lewis  (1800–1853) a.k.a Charles Masson, a soldier with the British East India Company, who in 1827 deserts the Army and walks, on foot and with a single companion into the Thar desert in search of the mythical city known as "Alexandria under the Mountain". It is also known as "Alexandria in the Caucasus", a fabulous city created by Alexander himself.
This is the beginning of  narrative worthy of all  the best fictions you ever read. I will not divulge what Masson uncovers in his digs in Afghanistan, but he is the hero of the book and a few pieces he uncovers are still prized artifacts in the British museum.

Alexandria is also the kind of book that leaves the reader, more clever with the ways of the world, after turning the final page. There is the "Great Game" Geo-political for instance, the political climate in which Masson travels, does his research, his diggings and his discoveries. There is the increased meddling of the British into Afghan politics, culminating into the first Afghan - Anglo war. A conflict launched by a British invasion and legitimated by "fake news" ( The Russians meddling in Afghan politics ).  On a more human level, there is the race and the competition for fame and wealth of a handful of adventurers and amateur archeologists. They fiercely grub in the Afghan soil searching for lost cities, treasures, gold and gems. It is a no-holds-barred fight and one cringes at the destructive methods that are used to uncover ancient tombs and price-less pieces of art.  Kipling was inspired by these ruffians for his story "The Man who would be King". All of this is thoroughly researched. The notes at the end of the book total nearly 60 pages for a novel of 260 pages.

Finally, there is a post-modernist tang to this history book, in the sense that it skeptically and ironically reframes what we learned at school, the so-called common knowledge,  the history we were brought up with.

Alexander the great ? Not always so great after reading this book, but what a convenient historical figure  for 19th century politicians who endorse conquest "to bring civilization".

There  was no hard frontier between east and west. The border towns, cities, civilizations merged the best of east and west and were therefore wealthy and striving. Afghanistan was Buddhist before the Arabs conquered the country. The destruction of the irreplaceable Buddha statues of the Bamiyan valley in March 2001, was just "mopping up", a last chapter in eradicating the remnants of a non Islamic culture.

Avarice, plunder and political opportunism will bring you further than mere intellectual curiosity. The famous Archeologists Schliemann and Evans were in fact destroyers and looters.
And men like Richardson are doomed to be forgotten.

Some British officers behaved like savages in Afghanistan and  Pakistan. You are not likely to forget the civilizing works of Lieutenant Loveday.

In the end, the bullies win most of the time; the meek lose most of the time.

An excellent read.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Ray Bradbury : "The Martian Chronicles"

My first reaction when turning the pages of the "Martian Chronicles" was, that even after a lifetime of reading, classic fiction can still surprise, entertain and even delight the most blasé of readers. Now nearly three quarters of a century old, we must acknowledge that Ray Bradbury’s "Chronicles" have aged surprisingly well. The book is certainly as enjoyable, jolting and actual today, as it was when its chapters first appeared in the Planet- and Wonder stories magazines shortly after the War.

A firmly established Classic since long, the book might even have improved over the years. The time elapsed since publication has added a certain hue of innocent boyhood-charm to the pages, albeit darkened with a strange patina of nostalgia and dismay.
Published in 1951, a mere 6 years after the Earth blasted into the Atomic Age and a decade before our first hesitating flea hops into outer space, the novel has lost nothing of its urgency. It raises concerns indeed over values and doings that still worry us today:  Racial oppression and exploitation, genocide and colonization, nuclear war and militarism and even planetary pandemics. Some chapters, with recent occurrences in mind, have the emotional impact of a Biblical text.
I read that “the chronicles” was a book readers liked to "carry with them over a lifetime." And I can easily understand this. Somehow these chapters stick and keep ghosting in the reader’s mind. Bradbury understood this attraction because the "Chronicles", rather than a work of science fiction, had the allures of a myth or a fable.
With only 305 pages and 26 short chapters the “Chronicles” invite easy reading. Even more so because each chapter is a short-story, very loosely related to the previous or the next. One can dip into any chapter without need to have an overall comprehension or an overview of a storyline. The Martian Chronicles are in fact what is called a fix-up, a novel created by combining several unrelated short-stories. Some short interstitial chapters, frame stories and a bit of editing here and there have done the magic of organizing it all into a composite novel.
The lesser effort in reading allows more time for pondering over the stories told.
The general story - line is clear: a sequence of Mankind's efforts to land on, explore, understand and colonize the planet Mars. That the colonization of Mars echoes chapters of the colonization on Earth is of course intentioned. Parallels can easily be detected within our history - books, from the Pilgrim Fathers to the Indian Wars, from Jim Crow laws to Hiroshima.
But when meeting the Martians in the future, unbiased by our nationalities, free from our history, our culture and our skin color, and strengthened this time by our Scientific and Historical knowledge, will Man act differently this time?

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Reading Oscars 2020

For my 2020 reading I managed only 22 books.


non - fiction


The weirdest People in the World by Joseph Henrich. 

Interesting book with topics on race differences, education, social strata. Interesting stuff but balancing on the edge of what the right - thinking citizen of modern society will accept. Interesting but like always with these subjects: Controversial.


Wagnerism: How a Composer Shaped the Modern World by Alex Ross. 

The impact of Wagner on every cultural aspect of the late 19th and early 20th century is impressive and not widely known. That is until one reads Ross. Another brilliant book by this music critic.


Trieste by Jan Morris

It is about has a dreamy feeling and it is about nowhere.


Signatures: Literary encounters of a lifetime by David Pryce-Jones. A collection of very entertaining reminiscences of the bibliophile who met them all: Bowles, Auden, Huxley


A short walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby. 

Funniest book of the year, hugely entertaining! It deserves a reread and a review.


The decline of the novel by Joseph Bottum. 

Can’t remember what it was about…


How to read water: Clues and Patterns from Puddles to the Sea by Tristan Gooley. 

The book describes exactly what is said in the title. Occasionally very interesting stuff for sailors and walkers.


A.N. Wilson: Dante in Love. Fascinating book about the world in which Dante wrote his comedy. Good enough to start an immediate rereading.


The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen. 

Travel lit. from the seventies. Not bad, but not wildly exciting either. Again, Chatwin was right. Tortuga is Matthiessen’s better book.


WINNER: ERIC NEWBY with his Afghan travelogue




La gloire de mon père by Marcel Pagnol. 

A fine read that triggered remembrances of things past: my adolescent years in a French collège.


Hav and lettres fom Hav by Jan Morris. 

A travel guide for an unexistent city. Not bad but Jan Morris presence in the book is a bit too much.


La neige était sale by George Simenon. 

Very believable naturalistic written "fait-divers” against a second war back-ground. Impressive tight writing and a scisseled dark atmosphere.


Silk by Alessandro Baricco. 

A dreamy story of travels to the far East and a mysterious women.


Gabriele, girofle et canelle by Jorge Amado. 

A Love story playing out in the city of Bahia. Ah the voluptuous “Brésiliennes".


WINNER? No real favorite. No price discerned this year.




Topaz by Marcel Pagnol. 

From Rags to Riches by scheming and dealing. Life as it is. At may be a comedy, but it describes the things like they bloody well are.


Knock ou le triomphe de la médecine by Jules Romains. 

Funny modern take on the money - making business of being a doctor.


Both books are good reads!


WINNER? A tie between Pagnol and Romains




Cathay: A critical edition by Ezra Pound. Interesting book if and only if you are interested in Pound’s writing method and techniques. So, only for the interested academician and the amateur delecting in the eclectic.




Marcel Proust, a biography by George Painter. 

Very good bio of Proust. Enjoyed every page of it. Why did I stop reading?


Le Port des brumes by George Simenon. 

Again, the genius of Simenon in sketching in a few words tons of atmosphere and drama. Again, why did I stop reading?


Stalingrad by Vassily Grossman. Fighting in Stalingrad. 

Can you imagine that this book bored me to death? Stopped reading when the first bombs start falling.


The enchanted hour: The Miraculous Power of reading aloud in the age of distraction by Meghan Cox Gurdon.

I ordered a wrong book.


WINNER: Best unfinished book: Marcel Proust by George Painter


OVERALL WINNER: A short walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby. 


Friday, September 11, 2020

Topaze by Marcel Pagnol

Fernandel as Topaze
“It is exactly like the story of my mother's chimpanzee. When she bought, him he was skinny, he stank of misery, but I have never seen such a loving monkey. We gave him coconuts, we fed him bananas, he became as strong as a Turk, he slapped the maid. We had to call the fire department ... "

It was this funny quote, remembered by my dear father, that brought Topaze, this hundred-year old theatre piece written by Marcel Pagnol to my attention. Pagnol is of course no stranger for whoever has benefitted from an education at a French “college”. Especially his biographical novels, like La Gloire de mon père, Le château de ma mère and le temp des secrets were recommended novels for generations of young readers. Pagnol, a member of the French academy, was very famous in his time, not only as a writer, but also as a scenarist and moviemaker. 

Topaze was written in 1928 and an immediate and lasting success as soon as it hit the stage. Even today, the play is very entertaining and has barely aged. It tells the story of Topaze, a naïve and gentle teacher working in a school in a Paris suburb. Everybody, we soon notice, fellow teachers and pupils alike take advantage of this gentle person. Topaz in his unworldly simple-mindedness is unfit for the foul and corrupt world of the big city. When he refuses to falsify the school results of a rich dunce and he has a misunderstanding with the daughter of the school director, he is kicked out without any ado.

The unfortunate Topaze however is not long without a job. One of the students’ mother has noticed the childlike innocence and naivety of the teacher and decides to present him to her lover, a corrupt politician. Involved in many questionable business enterprises, this unscrupulous wheeler-dealer is in search of a straw man to shield himself from too much public attention. Topaze just fits the profile and is hired on the spot. His salary is doubled, his attire gets a make-over and his new business card mentions ‘Director’.

But the shrewd politician might have underestimated Topaz. Because this excellent teacher turns out to be a fast learner too…

An entertaining and funny read.