Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Rick Harsch : Skulls of Istria

Pieter Claesz : Vanitas

Rick Harsch's truly excellent “Skulls of Istria” is a book that deserves to be read. This thin novel with less than 150 pages and only 6 or 7 chapters demands but a minimal effort and time investment, say an afternoon read, a few hours on the plane, for what I consider a huge return.

The story too is very readable. I mean by that, that from the first page, the author grabs your attention, you are sucked into the narrative and before you know it, captivated, you keep on reading. Or listening…, for that is what you actually do, you listen to a narrator babbling away while he drinks glass after glass of a local spirit.

The narrator, a self - exiled American academic, a mock historian he calls himself, speaks to the reader from his regular watering hole, a sea front bar in the Slovanian city of Piran. He has taken refuge from the terrible Burja, a legendary storm-wind that rages outside over the Adriatic Sea.

As his voice drones away, occasionally interrupted by his regular trip to the bar’s toilet to relieve himself, you install yourself in comfortable passive listening. But that may be a dangerous lapse of attention for you should listen carefully; close reading is required. The story the historian tells might after all not be as innocent as it is narrated and the steady downing of brandy might not only help the narrator to find his words but maybe also give him the necessary courage to proceed.

The American is basically and safely speaking to himself, for the other person at his table appears to be dead drunk and the other people present in the bar mind their own business playing cards. Anyway, nobody is eavesdropping, and we start following the narrative…

From innocent and funny anecdotes about the excesses of the Burja wind, the storyteller comes to tell us bits of the very violent history of the area, mingling it with his own confessional story of how he washed up in this coastal Istrian town. The man’s story consists of different threads that loop and snake around each other : the reason of his self inflicted exile, his relationship with his traveling companion, his passion for a gypsy women and his desperate search for a historic topic for a book he wants to write.

All this is recounted in a succulent flow of words, full of puns, clever wordplays, literary trouvailles and newly chiseled porte-manteau words. Not only does the narrator’s story turn out to be more than just interesting, it is darkly sarcastic and funny too.

As the reader starts to unravel the separate threads of the narrative yarn, a Hitchcockian structure appears that increases the worrisome mood permeating the pages of the book. The historian seems to have forgotten that what is the past today was the actuality of yesterday. In an area with a history of violent ethnic war, this is a warning not to miss.

Hell under one’s feet, might be but just a drop away.

A must read.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Baptismal font at Munster church in Bonn

When visiting the Munster of Bonn (formerly known as the Saint Martin’s church), I was struck by this charming piece of art depicting an ivory Arch of Noah stuck on a bronze tip of Mount Ararat, the receding waves still lapping the emerging land .

It is a work of the German sculptor Heinz Gernot (1921 – 2009). The art piece was specially commissioned as a lid for a restored 12th century Roman baptismal font.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Reading Oscars 2017

I am cutting down a bit on book purchases for lack of space. I had a traumatic experience in September when I was forced to move my bedside books for sanitary reasons to the library room downstairs. It was about 10 running meters of books that needed to be relocated. But I trust the judgement of others : I could not reach my bed anymore in a normal way and there was a permanent danger that the stack of hardcovers would topple upon my head during my sleep with fatal consequences. 😊

Nevertheless, I tackled a total of a about twenty books which makes 2017 a decent reading year. Reviewing however remains under par.

Best Novel in English

Charles Portis : True Grit. How not to like Mattie, that cocky and smart girl while she chases the murderer of her father. Refreshingly original. Who needs a reliable narrator if the unreliable are more fun?

Rick Harsch : Skulls of Istria 

Winner Rick Harsch : Skulls of Istria

Best Novel in Translation

Gunther Grass : The Tin Drum : The well-known story of the Polish boy who decides not to grow up. His tiny appearance makes him survive the second world war while all around him Horror has its way.

Bruno Schulz : The Street of Crocodiles. Beautifully chiseled and finely crafted sentences to recreate and remember the lost Jewish communities of East Europe. A prose to appreciate in tiny doses. A jewel of a book. For connoisseurs.

Tsjingiz Ajtmatov : Dzjamilia. The Love story that came out of Kirghiz Communist Russia. Unfinished I am ashamed to say although it is known as the most beautiful love story in the world.

Joseph Roth : Radetzky March : The story of the Trotta lineage. A brilliant chronicle of the decline and fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Surprising, impressive, emotional, beautiful. If not for the Moby, Radetzky March would have easily won.

Maria Vargas Llosa : "The War of the end of the world". One of the sole reads where I managed to scribble a semblance of a review. An important and intelligent book. One of those novels that explain the World. A must read.

Roberto Arlt : The Seven madmen. A whirlwind of anarchist thoughts of all kinds. Here too I was enthused to pen down a few of my impressions after the reading. A prophetic book.

Winner Radetzky March by Joseph Roth

Best Poetry

I have dabbled in Ezra Pound’s Cantos throughout the year but the one poem that I like most was Derek Walcott’s “Greatest reader in the world” which was recommended by TC Murr. I bought Walcott’s anthology and will be reading more of it

Winner : Derek Walcott

Best Non-Fiction

Hans Fallada : Alone in Berlin. After losing their only son in the war, an old German couple resists Hitler and his cronies in their own awkward way. A masterful recreation of the suffocating paranoid atmosphere of Berlin in 1943. And a nail-biting story on top of that. While the writing of the book contains traces of propaganda, it is a sure recommendation.

Yuval Noah Harari : Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. A modern and surprising take of human evolution told by a young vegan historicist. Interesting how insights in our history are changing. Did we exterminate the Neanderthals? Well no, we screwed them !

Nathaniel Philbrick : Why Read Moby-Dick? A quick read to double check if I did not miss anything while re-reading Moby Dick. I didn’t. Not really worth the purchase but what the heck, Philbrick gave us “In the heart of the Sea”, for which we haven’t thanked him enough.

Daniel Swift : The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics, and Madness of Ezra Pound. An absolute brilliant reconstruction of Ezra Pound’s days in the looney house. What makes an Artist, what makes a fraud? Who is a fool, who is a genius? A book about the famous “sacred monster”, I wished I had written myself. Enjoyed this well written, well investigated book very much. It deserves a review!

J. Liebling : Between meals; an appetite for Paris. Follow an epicurist in his wanderings from one Paris restaurant to another in a time when cholesterol did not even exist. It reminds one of the villain in Umberto Eco’s Prague Cemetery. A delicious read !

Rüdiger Safranski : Goethe. Either Goethe was a boring fad or Safranski succeeded to write the most boring, impassionate relation of the great literary figure. Or maybe it is just me…

Robert Trumbull : The Raft. A straightforward survival story of three aviators who must ditch their plane in the Pacific during the battle of Midway. Although it is a simple book, the experience of the men served as a catalyst for new insights in survival and navigational techniques for the open sea. For me, a topic of constant interest.

Harold Gatty : The raft book; lore of the sea and sky. The survival manual that was issued by the American Navy after the study of the ordeal described above in “the raft”. A beautiful little book on top of that. For me it was just a must have.

Winner : Daniel Swift : The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics, and Madness of Ezra Pound

Best Reread

Hugh Kenner : The Pound Era. A magical book. Everything you wanted to know about Modernism, explained in a way as to experience it oneself. I’ll keep re-reading and studying its chapters. Crammed with information from the beginning till the end. Bought the book a second time. Over-reading had damaged my first copy.

Herman Melville : Moby Dick. Awesome. Unbeatable. The one secular book that can replace the Bible as the “Good Book”. A story, humankind will read forever.

Overal Winner : Herman Melville : Moby Dick