review


The Song of Achilles
Madeline Miller

I’ve read this novel few weeks ago and ever since am thinking to write review. I’m somewhere in between and not sure what to think about it. So first I’d like to stress that the book is definitively worth reading and I liked it. Truth, I tend not to be too strict, too judgmental when reviewing debut novel (yes, there is “but”).

First impression: it’s clearly there is a massive research about the topic behind the story (which is not surprise considering professional background of the author); I liked a lot she took “Iliad” and Homer as a main resource, therefore there is no famous legend about “Achilles’ heel” (which is unseen in the “Iliad”). Truth, she changed characters, chronology, etc a little bit but that’s fine considering it’s a piece of fiction and in that case artistic freedom is untouchable constant.

When I read “Iliad” in high school I didn’t like Achilles that much. He was like a savage, truth just like the world he lived in. Patroclus as well, though he was kind but nevertheless quite a valiant warrior. However, in the novel they couldn’t be more far away from their image in “Iliad”. They were soft, nature and music loving characters, artistic souls. That especially is the case with Patroclus who is presented as weak (physically and mantaly), clumsy, even as a coward (except that famous last move he made but then it was more love that lead him than his rational he) … it was weird and I’m not sure if I liked that. And the language didn’t help either. It’s strange to mark as a flaw beautiful writing style. It is lovely but in kind of over-blossoming way, it’s lyrically overwritten. Even though the narrator is a man (yes, homosexual but still) those words, sentences he’s saying are so feminine. You simply know those words have been put in his mouth by a woman’s hand. This is (or should be) historical novel with one love story as a main theme and as such there are moment when you can’t escape from the feeling that descriptions are kind of soft-pornish. But don’t get me wrong, there are no sex scenes whatsoever.

Even though I never thought profoundly about that, it’s pretty much obvious that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers. I like she put an accent on their relationship as it was [in one interview she expressed her hope the novel will at least slightly change that homophobic perception about homosexual relationships] but then she made a crucial error: She described their society exactly as if they live in our own. They were facing disapproval of both men and gods because of the feeling they had. And while you can give yourself artistic freedom to change the legend, with this issue you’re entering into the sphere of historical (more/less) facts where you don’t have that freedom anymore.
Not only ancient Greeks but pretty much all pre-Christian civilizations: Romans, gosh just remember (or check if you’re unfamiliar with) Khajuraho Temples in India! I visited India (and temples) in March and you just can’t not be stunned with what you’re looking at as well as with nonchalant way they were depicting all varieties of sexual activity (and I mean ALL!). And temples were built 1000 years ago!

Anyway, point is: homosexuality was something quite common and definitively not prohibited or shameful (like in the novel). It was even called: “the principal cultural model for free relationships between citizens.” (Wikipedia). Truth that mostly (probably exclusively) refers to men. Women were quite socially excluded which is one of the reason why it was acceptable relationship between two men.

Therefore it was kind of strange to see how society is judgmental toward Achilles and Patroclus just as nowadays society would be. And here (along with few more issues, some of which I mentioned here) novel falls horribly.
But even so I think it’s worth reading and, as my friend who gave me the book said (don’t be surprised if realize that you’ll) “think of Achilles differently now”.

Sacré Bleu: A Comedy d’Art
Christopher Moore

This is my first Moore (I know, I know) and I enjoyed very much in it. Here I hope this doesn’t mean I will not enjoy in his previous books (which I have on my never-decreasing to be read pile) since majority is like love previous= don’t like this one.

Three days ago I just peeked inside without intention to do more than just that: peek. But since the book started with one of my favourite work of art (“Wheatfield with crows” in front of which I spent hours and more that, than once) I was like hypnotized, obsessed by sacre bleu 😉 I know it’s just an expression but I literally couldn’t stop reading. Masterpieces after masterpieces (many of which I saw on my traveling), painters I knew so much about, now under totally different light, everyone knows each other; Belle Époque in Paris was never more tempting *sigh*.

I’m a slow reader and plus English is not my mother tongue but I stormed (for my standards) through this book in less than 3 days leaving behind cloud of blue dust 🙂

Yes the story went in all directions; he might have lost his compass but I didn’t mind whatsoever. It was funny, not hilarious but with those subtle (not always so subtle though) jokes that requires knowledge about the (real) characters. That’s probably the reason why I was bothered cause he decided to reveal last name of Oscar (Wilde) and especially (!!!) title of the novel he was about to write. I was like “Oh no! Why?” almost insulted with his presumption that I might don’t know what he’s writing about (and those who wouldn’t know without his “clarification” well… they should go back in elementary school and start all over again). Speaking of wittiness I’ll never think the same about the myth of Sisyphus (there’s only one sentence about it but still).
And of course I’ll never think the same about Toulouse-Lautrec ever, ever again! I had to remind myself more than once what I’m reading IS a fiction 🙂

Half trough the book you will probably realize … umm … well who is who but that will certainly not decrease you interest and spoil the journey. And when the journey is over you’ll most definitively have urge to make another one, to the nearest museum or gallery and meet … someone 🙂

The Tiger’s Wife
Téa Obreht

I’ve read this book in its original language, English even though it has been published in (in Tea’s own words) “the most important of all translations”, Serbian. Because I love reading work in its original language whenever I can. And it was strange experience because I did recognize my own folklore but in the same time was thinking how there’s no way that anyone unfamiliar of that folklore would recognize it and more importantly, understand it.

OK we know Tea is from Serbia (or if you wish ex Yugoslavia) and that is what I believe was the starting point for many foreign (!) reviewers to place its plot here in Balkan region. I being from the region could find connections with it even though she (Obrecht) clearly put an effort not to make it obvious: the only two places mentioned in the book that actually exists in reality are Vienna and Istanbul. All other names are fictional and majority of them sounds quite impossible. The pretty much the same goes with the names of characters (and I’m not sure why she decided to do that). There are only few names that are names in reality. Moreover some of the names (for example Gavran which means “raven” or Dure or Darisa) are words you cannot associate with the person. Maybe those sounds interesting, exotic, or … for English speaking world (which is of course legitimate reason). So I asked myself how would you (if at all) know the plot is in ex-Yugoslavia? Yes there are hints like “we” are celebrating Christmas in January (ok so it is settled in the region where Orthodox Christians live); Muslims don’t have it, Catholics don’t have it but “they” do (meaning tree religions live in the same region); after the war Nobel Prize writer became theirs and we named our airport after that crazy scientist (writer is Ivo Andric but we consider him as ours and scientist is Nikola Tesla, airport is in Belgrade); numerous words she used in their native form (vila, mora, hajduk, gusle, ajvar, … and about that it’s strange the English edition didn’t offer translations or explanation), some names, some last names… etc. So based on those things I would be able to conclude that the plot is settled in my region indeed BUT would I made the same conclusion without knowing these things? If I’m not from here? Well I doubt. But nevertheless it was interesting how everyone (I’m quite sure) without knowing those things, understanding the non-English words or recognizing the customs have placed the book here.

Saying all this I’m not sure can I give one objective review because there are so many things that I’m familiar with and this especially when she was describing air raids in an unnamed city. Of course it was all too obvious she’s speaking about NATO bombing of Serbia 1999 and yes those few pages where she describes those first days, weeks of bombing in real life were exactly how she described: disbelief at first and then people fled into shelters and they came out of the shelters deciding to be in the open, on the bridges, cafes, restaurants refusing to give up of those few scrapes of normal life they had. What a flashback that was! The story about the zoo during the bombing however was fiction.

The story is interesting enough. Really good actually if you consider it’s a debut novel so thumbs up. I did like drops of surrealism combined with a Slavic folklore but what I really loved is a painting of a mentality in a small isolated village and how they are facing fear of the unknown.
In the end it was fast and interesting read.

My Brother and His Brother
Hakan Lindquist

I’ve read this novel in one sitting (which doesn’t happen quite often). It was a lovely melancholic story written in simple but quite effective language. One of those quiet, unpretentious books you stumble upon every now and then and after you’re done you realize that you just found a true gem. Absolutely recommending to everyone in love with fine literature.

This was debut novel that received critical acclaim when it first appeared in Sweden in 1993. It won “Prix Litteraire Bordelaise de Lunetterie” when in was published in French in 2002.

The Time of the Doves [Plaça del Diamant]
by Mercè Rodoreda

I must say that at the beginning I was a little bit baffled with this book. I mean when G.G. Márquez says how I’m holding “The most beautiful novel published in Spain since the Civil War.” I expected I’d be blown away from the page 1. I expected novel profound as an ocean and equally demanding to sail thru… so I was floating page after page after page waiting for a storm and in my expectations ignoring the landscape that has been enfolding before me… until I finally notice that because of the tree I don’t see the forest.

This one beautiful story about a simple girl during a horrible time; story about Natalia [Colometa], a girl who works in a pastry shop and loves her job; I dare to say not very bright girl; quite naïve; girl who doesn’t have ability to articulate her feelings in the that profound way I was expecting before opening this book. Even when she talks about unimaginable things; you have a feeling that behind each word is an entire abyss; you can sense its depth but never see it. You expect scream every second but don’t hear it; you feel the horrors but yet Colometa is playing her role of a cork perfectly:

“To me a cork was like a stopper…I was like a cork myself. Not because I was born that way but because I had to be. And to make my heart like stone. I had to be like a cork to keep going because if instead of being a cork with a heart of stone I’d been like before, made of flesh that hurts when you pinch it, I’d never have gotten across such a high, narrow, long bridge.”

On the backstage of the novel is Spanish Civil War and of course its horror can bee seen everywhere but this is not story about the war. It’s story about simple little things of ordinary people; about their everyday struggle to survive; about their sacrifices; about they ways to turn yourself into a cork to stay alive yes, but much more to stay sane.

When I started to read this novel I talked with my dear friend José Antonio (his BLOGS) from Barcelona and he said that “Rodoreda is considered by many as the best writer in Catalan ever and her “Plaça del Diamant” [the original title of the novel] is a symbol (also against Franco’s regime) with its Colometa and her fight to survive during such a horrible time” oh and he also reminded me that Plaça del Diamant actually exist in Barcelona (it’s in the barrio de Gracia de Barcelona).

Speaking about Franco and Spanish Civil War there is a great Translator’s (David Rosenthal) Note where he wrote small history about Rodoreda and her destiny as a writer who writes in Catalan during Franco’s regime. Of course I knew that then all other languages except Castellano (known as Spanish) were forbidden: Catalan, Gallego, Euskadi. What really stricken me is that Catalan, and probably books in other languages, were burned, newspapers suppressed and offices were hung with signs saying: NO LADRES, HABLA EL IDIOMA DEL IMPERIO ESPAÑOL which means: “Don’t bark, speak the language of the Spanish empire”Of course Rodoreda has left Spain and moved to France.

Another curious thing is that shortly after I finished reading this novel I meet two new friend from Barcelona and just like José Antonio, they were full of admiration toward Mrs. Rodoreda and her work But then in the same time I’ve met two more friends from Spain, but they were from Madrid. They never heard about Rodoreda nor about the book.

How strange (and sad) that something which means so much to so many in one part means nothing in the other part of the same country.

Rag and Bone
~ A Journey Among the World’s Holy Dead
by Peter Manseau

This book is one of my top 2009 reads; moreover before I sent it away I had to reread it 🙂

It is also probably most surprising reading experience I’ve had for a very long time. It’s a great travelog, it’s incredibly funny, equally educational, shocking (how surprising!), ticklingly blasphemous, and absolutely bizarre!

You really would not even imagine (if you’re unfamiliar with the world of relics like myself) what people are able to do with something (human origin) that consider sacred but even worse is to see what Church (!!!) is doing. I was really shocked so many times while reading this book.

First paragraph (I love it!):
”This is a book about dismembered toes, splinters of shinbone, stolen bits of hair, burned remnants of an anonymous rib cage, and other odds and ends of human remains, but it is not book about death. Around every one of the macabre artifacts that, for a variety of reasons, have come to be venerated as religious relics, circles an endless orbit of believers and skeptics, bureaucrats and clergy, con artists, and just plain curious souls. This is a book about life.”

Manseau has done fantastic research about the issue covering all major religions. There are very informative story about each relic while being part of precise human being and that’s very interesting. But the story of the body after soul continued its journey, is stunning! I found that my own religion as the most bizarre (probably because it’s mine). I was more than once reacted like “Oh gosh no! They didn’t! How could they?” and even “Oh hurry up and lets move to Buddhism!” (I‘m joking!) And then the most pathetic: “OK I’m Christian but at least I’m not Catholic”. There are many (I guess ) blasphemous moments; but then how not be blasphemous when you’re reading about Holy Prepuce (Jesus foreskin)!?!? I didn’t even know such thing even exists and is worshiped (by the way do you know the origin of the Saturn’s rings? Go figure! You wouldn’t believe; there is no way you would even guess!)! Or few churches that each enshrines a head of John the Baptist in the same time?!? I’ve seen in Spain part of The Cross (later I’ve found out there are so many pieces of that same cross that Romans must have deforest entire Middle East to made it) also I’ve seen the hand of some saint and then I thought it’s quite morbid (now I see that was actually light image).

What I liked is that Manseau is never offensive; I don’t think he’s hurting religious being in his readers. At least he didn’t hurt mine. He’s looking from a rational point of view on something which is in enormously large scale not rational whatsoever.
As I said he’s very witty and don’t expect from this book to be profoundly serious. Quite opposite; it looks like a coffee chat … OK I admit, the topic would be quite insane but still a coffee chat. And what I liked the most in this book is how people are 100% ready to believe in something so unlikely accurate and even to actually feel the sacred power of it; whether that is a shinbone or a pebble founded in the ash after cremation. It’s really amazing.

From the blurb:
”Manseau’s “Rag and Bone” reads like a novel, entertains like a TV docudrama, and educates like the best college professor you ever had. It is at once informative, quirky, and funny. Do people really think that the leathery tongue of 12th century saint can bless them with good fortune? They do. Why do people believe in such weird things as the holy relics of religion? Read this book to find out. WARNING: you may well discover that you also hold beliefs in holy relics and not even know it!”

Here I’d like to mention one vignette I found very interesting. It’s part of the relics in Buddhism, religion I know little about. The only Buddhist I know personally is my dear friend Shanna (whose BLOG is one of  virtual places I regularly visit; check why) who told me while visiting me in Belgrade something very interesting: That Buddhism is actually not religion but philosophy.  Reading this book helped me to fully realize her words.

There is a story in the book about the Temple of the Tooth in the city of Kandy, Sri Lanka. Of course it’s worshiped and moreover in Myanmar they made a replica equally worshiped as “the original”. As I said I knew little about Buddhism but I knew that much to see a mountain-sized contradiction. And here is an explanation:

There are two branches in Buddhism: one that is following Siddhartha’s words how we should disconnect ourselves from impermanent things in our life (which is basically everything) and the one that is doing completely opposite thing: that is worshiping something so undoubtedly impermanent such is human body (i.e. Siddhartha’s tooth) and even ready to die for. But what was incredibly surprising is that Siddhartha was fully aware that people would hear his sermons and understand what he had meant or they would hear them and understand the exact opposite. He never denied that he told people what they needed to hear to affect necessary change in their lives. He knew that his followers would take from his message parts they needed the most. For some that meant philosophy, for others that meant teeth.

So what about relics? And should they necessary be connected with religion? Are they mandatory sacred? What one relic could be?

“Relics seem to me to admit that, yes, while we do have spiritual dimension to our lives, we are also flesh under the looking glass of all those around us. Our lives and or deaths are witnessed by others, and what our lives might mean to them is mostly beyond our control. We are simultaneously people who need symbols to survive, and we are symbols ourselves. Our bodies – our toes and shins, our foreskins and ribs, our hands and whiskers, our teeth and hair – have the capacity to tell stories we can not imagine. And the facts of our lives can be as mysterious and in need of explanation as anything that lies beyond.”

This is without doubt one of the best nonfiction book I’ve read in years. I so didn’t expect this. I didn’t know what to expect at all. I was attracted with the bizarre topic it deals with and was hooked from the page 1.

American Visa
Juan de Recacoechea

It was my friend Lotus who brought this fantastic book in light for me with her fantastic review (that you can read here). Of course I immediately added it on my wishlist and few months later my wish has been fulfilled.

Since I live in the country whose citizens until recently needed visas to go in majority of countries (mostly the ones that, as Recacoechea called them “First World Countries”) I’m very familiar both with the value of having visa in your passport and all hell you have to survive to get one. Especially if you’re asking visa for the first time because once refused, you’re marked not only for getting visa for that specific country but for many others as well. So it was painfully familiar and so alive the fear of the main protagonist when talking about possible rejection in the embassy and its consequences.

I was reminded on my own experience when I was about to get my first Schengen visa. It was in Spanish embassy and it supposed to be pro forme, nothing complicated: I had all my papers (all in perfect order), I was fellowship holder by Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, had letter of recommendation from the Institute Cervantes (as their student), had invitation letter from the University in Santander-Spain, had letter that confirms that all mu costs (accommodation, food, classes) are covered with the scholarship, had round trip plane ticket Belgrade-Barcelona… so the only missing paper was personal letter from the King Juan Carlos himself! Anyway that wasn’t enough. They were asking me papers that didn’t exist. And huge amount of them. To cut the story they finally gave me visa one hour before my flight! I was in the embassy with all my stuff no knowing will I spend the night in my bed in Belgrade or in Barcelona. That was one of the most humiliating experiences in my life. I told to myself that I’ll not let this to happened again and luckily all following experiences with visa were not nearly like that one.

The other thing Recacoechea is mentioning in his novel is that even if you manage to have visa in your passport that doesn’t mean that the clerk/policeman at the airport will let you in the country. They have all right to tell you “No. Go back!” I did have not one but two visas in my passport, the first one was flawed so they gave me second one and cancelled the one with mistake. OF COURSE I was suspicious… I was trying to explain her (the officer at the airport) the obvious but that was never-ending fight until I said that I’m Fellowship holder of Institute Cervantes. Then she slowly raised her eyes with facial expression I doubted she could even have, she stamped my passport, all of a sudden my Spanish is beautiful, she expressed hope that I’ll enjoy my visit, advised me what should I see before continue my journey to Santander, and she hoped that will not be my last visit to her country. She made me mute (I must have looked like retarded) and I was IN!

Anyway “American Visa” is genre I don’t usually read. It’s sort of detective story (although without detectives lol) influenced by Chendler, main characters’ favourite author but nevertheless it was very interesting and hard-to put-down story (not the same with writing this post since I finished with this book several months ago). This was first Bolivian novel I’ve ever read and I was quite surprised how urban and modern it is. I guess I expected some sort of South American exotic story but what I got was even better; bunch of all sorts of souls on high altitude: prostitutes, thieves, murderers, transvestites, corrupted politicians, high class and the ones at the very bottom. And then there’s the main character, a teacher who’s trying to reach USA and join his son and is capable to do whatever it takes to reach that goal. And it does taking a lot if you live in the country that economy is based on cocaine. You must wonder yourself whether you should feel sympathy toward him or just morally disqualifying him. I guess the environment can transform people into something they never thought they can be. And I’m sure, nor would they want to be.

It’s an interesting story, quite intense about one personal story but also about one country hidden high in the clouds and forgotten by the rest of the world.

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