Zhang Xianliang - Grass Soup

Rating 7.8

Grass Soup is an extraordinary little book dealing with the infamous Chinese "labour camps" during the worst years of the Communist regime, when the horrors of Bejing rhymed with the ones of Pyongyang.

At that time, Zhang Xianliang was barely 23 years old but already labelled as a right-wing extremist and an enemy of the Chinese people. Zhang was an "intellectual", a pernicious, disgusting semi-human sub-specie created by the evil influence of the American imperialism in the socialist Chinese motherland.

And yet, due to his status of a potentially "useful intellectual" being only mildly corrupted by the Western enticements and having an undeniable skill for writing sharp tazebao and elegiac poems to the Great Helmsman, Zhang only needed to be "re-educated".
A strict and extended diet of green grass and red ideology under the blue skies of China would have healed comrade Xianliang, just in case he managed to pull himself together and keep himself alive.

And Zhang Xianliang got by. Despite all odds and difficulties he survived to his re-education and, years later, wrote a book out of the dry notes he took during the long hard months he spent at the labour camp. Zhang wrote no diary. The tiredness of his body and the fear of the recoils he could have experienced has his notes being read by the authorities (as they eventually did), forced Zhang not to leave a written trace of his daily torments.

Zhang was no Primo Levi and no Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He wrote Grass Soup as a free man and when his own mind had cooled off, but his goal was not to reveal the horrors of the Chinese re-education scheme or show the existence of a labour camps archipelago in China, but rather to look back at himself in those days.

"What I was thinking to when I wrote down those dry monotonous notes and what lies beyond their apparent repetitiveness? And how much the impact of hunger into my stomach and brainwashing into my mind annihilated the intellectual betrayed by his brain making a self-preservation instinct driven man out of me?".

Zhang Xianliang never poses these two straight questions to himself here, but both are implicitly stressed out all through the pages of this book.
The wonder of Grass Soup is that is a heartbraking story, the account of a small personal victory into a wider national defeat, but there is humour and even fun here. Mr Xianliang chose a style which combines miracolously well unforgettable scenes of death and human abjection with equally memorable moments of temporary peace of mind through laughters, one's fill and moral resistance.

The author spending a whole afternoon just eating kilos and kilos of melons and pissing in a grove or the vain pursuit up and down the river bank of a cow with her tempting udders full of milk, are comic highlights. But then again these "Life is Beautiful-like" moments were brought by hunger and desperation.
The fact that Mr Xianliang survived to his re-education was due to his ability of not giving up in the darkest times, behaving with well-chosen impulsiveness and with the awareness that the thin line separating the saved from the drowned was partly luck but, above all, a matter of self-discipline.


George Orwell - Inside the Whale

Rating 7.3

Back in 1996 I jotted down "Nel ventre della balena - Orwell", the Italian title of Inside the Whale in my yearly reading list (a habit I took from my Prussian-like, overprecise dad).
"November - two stars and a half". That was the rest of my entry.

However, honestly speaking, I hardly doubt I had read this book when I was 14 years old. What I certainly did was moving this collection of essays and articles by George Orwell from the long brown bookcase which fills the long side of our living room to the white bookshelves of my room.
Then the book was catalogued with a special stamp and reported on my library notebook between Gordon Pym by Edgar Allan Poe (two stars and a half) and The Foundations Trilogy by Isac Asimov (two stars). I was a harsh reviewer or, perhaps, a neglectful reader.

Unlike what happened with Poe and Asimov, whose novels I never liked, I rediscovered George Orwell in the following fifteen years; well, actually, fifteen years later, on 2011.

It does make a difference reading anything by Orwell in English rather than in its Italian translation, but during my 2011 Xmas holidays guest for a few days in my old Italian room, I picked up Nel ventre della balena from its white bookshelf.

I blew a thick layer of dust away from the book and start (re)reading it.
Now I like all that George Orwell wrote and "Inside the Whale" made no exception.
Of course Orwell the novelist is quite different from Orwell the essayist and both sides of Eric Arthur Blair stand on a class of their own.

Nevertheless, there is a common ground: as an author, Mr Blair/Orwell was not always able to reach the same quality level. And he knew it very well.
Most of the people who read something by Orwell chose 1984 and/or Animal Farm and ignore everything else. Those who decided to explore the sociological and political side of Orwell gave a chance to Homage to Catalonia and a minority of them went on The Road to Wigan Pier or to In and Out in Paris and London.
And that's pretty much all George Orwell is remembered for today. I bet you will have very few chances of coming across any reference to novels like Coming Up for Air, Keep the Aspidistra Flying and - above all - A Clergyman's Daughter. The same autobiographical Burmese Days is not really on any Orwellian top list.

The same Orwell died too early for getting but a hint of his fame, but knew how he delivered great stories and average stories. I really liked Coming Up for Air and appreciated Keep the Aspidistra Flying but their author was never particularly proud of both novels.

What we have with the articles and essays written by George Orwell is, somehow, a similar story. Inside the Whale offers a wide menu where, say, childhood memories stand cheek to cheek with a bittersweet analysis of Gandhi and literary criticism on Koestler, Swift, Tolstoy lies in between a "pop" essay regarding the different British teenager magazines of the 1930s and a sort of bucolic elegy of the toad (!).

Then we have the pedantic eccess of Orwell who sometimes indulged a bit too much in quantifying his own work and life in mathematical terms (Oh my dad would have liked this!) counting how much he spent for his own book collection including what he borrowed or was given or never gave back and demonstrating that reading is a less expensive pastime than smoking cigarettes. Charts included. This scrivener syndrome reveals the human side of an author whom - I recall - compared his own literary production with the coal dug out of Lancashire caves from a miner. Pages for rocks.

Let's face it: this behavior was really naive but also extremely humble. A big towering man like Orwell although affected by breathing troubles for all of his life (and dying because of that) felt somehow guilty of being an intellectual, a failed worker, a failed craftsman.
I adore this human side of Orwell and Inside the Whale includes several examples of this inner fragility of him. Here we have an author that never claims his infallibility or confidence but also specifies that he is expressing his own ideas, the result of his own studies and research.

It's true how Orwell held sway after his death and became one of those "Great Masters" whose main writings are constantly reprinted and minor production is always available and often praised beyond its virtues, but he himself would have laughed of the posthumous aura he got.
Reading what he wrote here on his hard childhood at a posh public school and the wonderful analysis he does of the time he spent as a bookseller assistant, one can easily get the impression that Eric Arthur Blair was a very decent fellow: not a Nabokov or a Mailer, but the kind of person one would have liked having as a neighbour.


Beware of the Parents!

Monday mornings are always the best ones.
After having spent most of the weekend relaxing from a heavy, stressful double-job spiced week, I start a new five working days strip with less energies than expected.

The alarm clock on my cellphone ringing up at 6 AM.
My girlfriend cuddling up against the duvet.
The winter darkness indoors.
The winter darkness outdoors.
The gentle muttering of the coffee mocha.
Three handfuls of cold water on my face.
(Those awful rings below my eyes).

Another daily article from the UK to deliver within a quarter past eight.
Do the Italian audience know what NHS, OBR and NIN are?
(Do you? Behold! The last one doesn't stand for Nine Inch Nails, apparently). I assume not and need to write them down.

Alright. Article done.
Now there's only a short bike ride through the suburbs left, all the way down to the business park where another monitor awaits me.

On normal circumstances this is an enjoyable part of the day.
I live pretty close to a primary school and I do like seeing kids on their way to school. My mum was a primary school teacher, loved her job and I'm sure she would have liked to see that too. I often think about that when I see these little Britons chasing each other in the school playground with their violet sweaters and their funny jargon.
I've always been kind of sympathetic towards the British kids and their parents. And I've always thought that - as long as they don't discover alcohol - they're generally more polite than their Italian counterpart.

When I ride to work, it's nice seeing these kids walking to school hand in hand with their parents with very little traffic in the streets and a sort of relaxed, joyful attitude even in the freezing cold of December. It is something that calms me down and I think I smile while cycling at a very moderate speed till the end of the road.

But today things went differently. Today, as usual, I slowed down before the zebra crossings and let a kid cross the road. I almost stopped in the process. Then I had a look at my left and saw how a bunch of kids with their parents were approximately 5-10 yards before reaching the stripes and I pushed on the pedals.
I mean these people were not even crossing. But that didn't occurred to an outraged mother who screamed at me:
«You're supposed to stop at the zebra crossing».
«Idiot!» (added up an outraged father).

Now, is it crying at the passing cyclist a national sport, I wonder? Or is it just me being an irresistible marvel of the streets?

I decided not to reply, but maybe it was a wrong idea.
Later on I couldn't get over the anger and frustration of that moment.
Ah, you should have heard the hatred these people expressed with their remarks! They made me feel like a beast. They made me feel like the worst bastard on the peaceful tree-lined and pot-holed streets of England.

Let's make it crystal clear. It's not a matter of racism as I could have been British myself, as far as these parents were concerned.
It's just that I cannot explain what I did wrong. Am I supposed to stop at the zebra crossing forever, I wonder? No kid was in danger, no one get closer to my bike than 5 yards, nobody had even put their feet on the stripes. I actually STOPPED. I let a kid cross.
What if I had had a car? I am sure nobody would have said anything. They saw a cyclist and they thought they could express their rage to him. Well done, Mother and Father Courage! You are brave-hearts.

What I thought is that these over-apprehensive, moral censoring parents went nuts. And what worries me is the kind of education these people are giving to their own kids screaming "idiot" at strangers without any reason.
Now I'm not that sure if the education provided here is all that good. But let me just add one more thing: no kid said a word. Perhaps, despite of their arrogant, street fighting parents they could still grow up in a decent and well-mannered way.
And, after all, we are all in this together. For what it's worth.


Ernest Cline - Ready Player One

Rating 7.1

I was born on 1982. Which means that I was only 8 years old when the 1980s were over. My first personal computer came home on 1996. I never owned a game console.

And yet, one of the clearest memories of my childhood is the envy I felt for the kids who were playing at the the coin operated videogames in a bar I used to buy ice creams at. It was that sort of typical Italian bar including billiards, a television set, dusty football flags hanging on the walls, a bald bartender sweeping the counter always with the same cloth, old customers swearing, playing cards and ordering red wine or vermouth. Not a woman was on sight. The sort of bar made to stay forever unchanged, untouched by progress, unspoiled in its placid lull. But.

But at some point during the roaring geeky 1980s someone decided to push away a broken jukebox and a table from the dark corner at the left of the main entrance making little room for three mammoth-like coin operated videogames.
Don't ask me what videogames they were, because I don't remember it. What I do remember is that, due to some Italian law, kids who were under 14 couldn't play with these videogames. It was printed on the lower case of the videogames themselves, black over white:


which meant and means

I don't know how the bartender was supposed to check your age or if he ever bothered to do that, but I stuck to the law with that kind of sheepish respect for any given rule that shy, eye-glassed little kids may sometimes have.
I was forced to watch the other players play and sometimes I did, although those black screens where alien battleships were blown away, spiders from Mars killed and magic treasures discovered all in different beep variation were hard to spot from my poor 3 feet 9 inches tall perspective.

I remember how much the fact of being under 14 pissed me off at that time and what kind of magic aura of invincibility the self-proclaimed over 14 years old kids had. When I was at the bar waiting for the bartender to notice me, I could see these demigods when they approached the videogames chewing a bubble-gum, tossed a token into the slot of the shiny altar, stretched their fingers and then gave a jingling life to a whole world of exciting adventures hidden beyond my reach.

Words like "level", "bonus", "credits", "tricks", "final villain" and "death" became a part of my daily vocabulary thanks to those videogames watching sessions while the old customers playing cards shook their head mumbling complaints to the evil players.

And you know what happened when I finally hit the big 14? The coin operated videogames were gone. Game over. They had become relics of the 1980s. And let's face it, the 1980s were all but fashionable back in the 1990s when even in the steamy Bolognese summer you could see people wearing a flannel shirt chequered black and blue over Alice in Chains t-shirts.
The bar itself had closed down one year earlier. For a few months someone took it over renaming it "Odin's Cave" or something and trying to convert it into a gothic bikers' meeting point. But local gothic bikers had better places to spend their time in and the Odin's Cave was shut.

So when 15 years later I heard about a book praising the 1980s and the pop culture sprouted from coin operated videogames, Atari, Amiga and Nintendo consoles I was a bit sceptical about it. Because I missed all that stuff. I was born just 6 or 7 years too late, I guess. But, yeah, eventually I ordered the book after having read a few posts on the blog of its author. What I learned is that Ernest Cline is a cool nerd guy and the proud owner of a DeLorean just like the one working as a time machine in the Back To The Future movies, but including some Ghostbusters' stickers and a Night Rider's hood light which I found a bit too much.

Anyways, what Ready Player One is if not an eye-catcher just like the DeLorean of Ernest Cline? This book literally catches the eyes of the reader and don't let them go anywhere else till the story is over. If you think about that, it seems a bit scary and indeed it is. Some compared RPO to porn for geeks and being my knowledge of both, porn and geeks, pretty limited I cannot really say if that's true. It doesn't sound like a compliment.
What I can say is that while reading this novel on an actual paper copy, I sometimes had the weird feeling of being in front of my laptop hanging around: the same kind of headache brought by too many hours spent surfing the Internet without a real goal.
You know what I mean.

Ready Player One is at the same very original and extremely derivative. Personally, I had never read about a whole battle fought by avatars manouevring 200 metres tall Japanese robots in an alternative universe while their owners are sitting in an Oregonian-Rivendell in the year 2040 something.
And yet, at the same time, Cline plays way too much here with his notionism regarding hundreds and thoudands of 1980s related stuff. From tv series to pop music passing through cereals advertising, teen movies, sci-fi books and, of course, videogames.

There are many style lapses here (Pink Floyd and Monty Pythons in the 1980s? YouTube still operating in 2044? The adjective Rubenesque) and countless obscure references to stuff no doubt Cline is very familliar with but not the rest of the world. Not even in 2011.
But there are also many brilliant ideas and an excellent pace which makes you wonder what happens next and this is not easy to accomplish with a first novel.

On the one hand, nobody can deny that Cline had no second thought in casually borrowing around tons of cues, sometimes rather noble (Aldous Huxley, Roald Dahl, Douglas Adams) but also pretty obvious like the clear link which ties Minecraft to the OASIS, the alternative universe on the Internet where most of Ready Player One takes place. On the other hand, here Cline did an excellent copy and paste of all the stuff he loved, delivering a book which is enjoyable and led by a surprisingly convincing main character.

The author decided not to explore too much the topics he felt uneasy with (social and political life of the 2040s, climate change, power crisis, life out of the US) and his choice had a good impact on the plot of a novel which doesn't really need a serious background layer.
One may wonder what this nerd guy will be able to write after this novel and I think he will have a hard time in finding it out but no problems in getting a good literary contract now.

Now that I'm done with Ready Player One and I even managed to write an astonishingly long review about this novel, it comes the hardest part of the game: convinving my girlfriend that this is the right book for her, a self-proclaimed geek. I know it won't be easy divert her attention from her online strategy game setted in some pseudo-Greek world of oceans, islands, polis and alliances, but I will try to. She became an experienced player and has far more chances than me to find where Cline's Easter Egg really lies.


Paul Kingsnorth - Real England

Rating 7.1

The main thesis behind this book is that there is no such thing as a "Real England". Not anymore. Not if you don't seek and fight for it. Whereas community pubs, local shops, farms and orchards used to stay for centuries an avalanche of Tesco supermarkets, chain stores and suburban "redevelopment" settlements have drawn a new English-non English landscape.

This is a new England where you can travel from north Brighton to south Carlisle without noticing any difference around you. Some people may find this evenness somehow reassuring making their grocery at Asda, buying clothes in Primark, selecting a new tea table from an Argos catalog, sipping a latte from a Starbucks branded cuppa and then heading to the nearest multiplex cinema, but not Mr Kingsnorth. And I am with him.

Although, Real England could be sometimes too idealist and no-logo oriented for my liking, I have to admit how what still strikes me in this country is how many things have this tendency of looking everywhere the same. What made either a little town or an average size city different from the others, that local character these places used to have is fading away while a few people seem to care.

Let's talk about my own personal experience in England. I moved to Abingdon (30,000 inhabitants) from Oxford just 9 months ago. In the meantime, 4 pubs have closed down just like 3 shops did in the downtown area, while two mini-Tescos and a Coop supermarket have opened. Abingdon High Street is lined with estate agencies, branch banks and the occasional charity shop. The local council thought about move and diminish the local library. There is no functioning movie-theatre in Abingdon and very little to do after 5 PM, apart from shopping in a 24 hours open Tesco at the edge of town. The favourite meeting point of the local kids is a kebab van parked in the Market Place.

Overall, I have got the feeling that Paul Kingsnorth is right: everything which made England English has been swallowed by international standardization and poor redevelopment policies. What I don't really like in this book is just the way it talks about "They".
"They" are the enemies of local communities, co-operatives and villagers who try to defend their surrounding from the brand invasion. "They" could be banks, local authorities, corporations or quangos (the funny neologism they use to name State-owned agencies in the UK), but are always evil.
Which is a point of view. As a matter of fact, Kingsnorth here creates a counterposition between these "They" and a sort of "Us" suggesting that every Englishman and woman should be aware of what is happening to their country.

This clash is nothing new. It's decades that English anthropoligists, historians, sociologists, economists and novelists are warning against the end of England as an identifiable entity. Some people blamed the growing influence of immigrants on the English society while others (and Kingsnorth gets the credit of being among them) reckon how foreigners actually brought even more diversity and cultural richness into England being victims and not executioners of the social impoverishment of a whole country.

Back in 1938 and back from the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, George Orwell decided to dedicate to his own homeland the final lines of Homage to Catalonia:

Down here it was still the England I had known in my childhood: the railway-cuttings smothered in wild flowers, the deep meadows where the great shining horses browse and meditate, the slow-moving streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms, the larkspurs in the cottage gardens; and then the huge peaceful wilderness of outer London, the barges of the miry river, the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings, the men in bowlers hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen - all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.

Nowadays, this extremely long - but all the same wonderful - paragraph could be easily read as a prophecy of what would have happened next: World War II, Coventry and the Blitz, the hard years after the end of the conflict with the final gasp of a tottering British Empire.
But what Orwell was also trying to say in this elegy of a bygone land is that his own country was on the verge of losing its peculiarities, its character, what made England a different place than the rest of Europe.

That deep, deep sleep which the abrupt awakening of German bombs and V2s would have eventually stopped was at the same time a critic and a praise of England in Orwell's words. On the one hand, it certainly meant distrust and closeness towards the rest of the world, but on the other hand it also implied a diversity brought by centuries of a parallel social, cultural and political development. England was going to lose all of this and Orwell knew very well how, for better or worse, most of the unmistakable Englishness he liked and despised would have disappeared soon.

It's no coincidence that Paul Kingsnorth quotes Orwell pretty often here.
Real England worths to be read if only for learning a few things about England that don't appear very often in the newsreels and becoming familiar with a bunch of characters who dedicated their lives to the survival of what the Kinks named "The Village Green Preservation Society". It was 1968 and a pop band had already spotted very well what was going on in England.


A.D. Miller - Snowdrops

Rating 5.8

It seems like initials rather than first names are a token for success in the English speaking literature. Let's think about J.R.R. Tolkien, P.G. Wodehouse, H.G. Wells, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden and, more recently, to J.K. Rowling.

This is probably what A.D. (Andrew Dylan? Annus Domini? Arkady Dandy?) Miller has thought while choosing his nom de plume: "If I do that, if I omit my birth names and replace them with capitol letters, then I have more chances of entering the pantheon of the successful novelists".

This expedient apparently worked when Mr Miller was shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize with his first novel. At the end of the day, our A.D. was not the winner, but managed to get a handful of good reviews around, convincing even his politically correct colleagues at The Economist to praise him.

Much ado about nothing - as William Shakespeare would have said (out of his envy for not being christened W.J.R. Shakespeare)?
Quite likely, but let's not be too harsh with our A.D.

Snowdrops is, as many readers pointed out, a novel about Moscow. Mr Miller spent several years of his young life reporting from the Russian capital and got clearly ensnared by its seductive grim flamboyance.
The problem with this book is that what our A.D. saw and felt in Moscow appears only sporadically here with a bunch of good periods being blown away by one of the most impressive collection of cliches you could dream of.

What some gym obsessed (and probably drunk) reviewer at the Daily Mail called "like Graham Greene on steroids" should be read like "a minor Graham Greene on sex hormones". Honestly, the only similarity I can find here between the brilliant prose and subterranean tension of Greene and the dull sex-driven Muscovite life portrayed by Miller is the banality of the main protagonist. A banality which is only apparent and subtle in Greene, but a block of reinforced concrete in Miller.

Nicholas "Kolya" Platt here is a pathetic odd person who pretends to be 38 years old (come on! he cannot be 38! not this guy!) and hangs out in Moscow parvenu-infested night-clubs with the guilty pleasure of a British kid on a school trip being afraid that a teacher may scold him.
The literary expedient of having Nicholas writing to his fiancée back in England about his bygone Russian adventures is awfully unrealistic and it seems like the same A.D. Miller forgot about it more than once while the story goes on.

The catalog of unfortunate choices made by our A.D. is pretty long for such a short book and includes a bunch of unnecessary English translations just like this selected gem:

"Normalno" he replied (Normal).

Overall, Mr Miller desperately tries to convince us that he did the real thing. He lived in Moscow, not only written about it, and therefore he knows what tak and spasibo mean. Wow! That's remarkable. Not really "normalno", isn't it?

Not too bad. Not too bad indeed.
If only our man in Moscow A.D. could have remembered that he is - or was - a journalist explaining, say, that "The Great Patriotic War" one of the characters refers to at some point is actually World War II as called by the Russians, I would have been less critical with him.
That and the way "Kolya" is mesmerized by discovering that the word "sister" could also mean "cousin" in Russian after nearly 4 years he spent in Moscow.
Wow! What a scoop. But after all, quoting gospodin Platt:

I was on my way to being fluent, but my accent still gave me halfway through my first syllable

Yes, of course, the accent.
But let's just report another shining example of Mr Miller's blatantly cheap style, the one in which Nicholas Platt meets the Russian doll he will fall "in love" (should read lust) with:

"Spasibo" said Masha. (Thank you). She took off the sunglasses.
She was wearing tight tight jeans tucked into knee-high brown leather boots, and a white blouse with one more button undone than there needed to be.
Over the blouse she had one of those funny Brezhnev-era autumn coats that Russian women without much money often wear. If you look at them closely they seem to be made out of carpet or beach towel with a cat-fur collar, but from a distance they make the girl in the coat look like the honey-trap in a Cold War thriller. She had a straight bony nose, pale skin and a long tawny hair, and with a bit more luck she might have been sitting beneath the gold-leaf ceiling in some hyper-priced restaurant called the Ducal Palace or the Hunting Lodge, eating black caviar and smiling indulgently at a nickel magnate or well-connected oil trader.

Now, wait a moment.
How many stereotypes you can count here?
Let's ignore the useless translation of a single word put in brackets as well as the Oxford comma and the evident fetishism for the hyphen (7 in 10 lines!). Let's just focus on the cliches.

The Russian girl looks like a bimbo, therefore she must be poor, therefore she has to wear a Brezhnev-era coat with sunglasses and those tight tight jeans and a half open blouse. But, being this Masha a poor girl she is also unlucky, therefore with a little bit of fortune she could have hooked the right pimp who must definitely be a nickel magnate or an oil trader and eats caviar. Oh really? Don't even tell me! Anna Chapman, c'est moi.

I'm afraid our man in Moscow only forgot about vodka, a Zhiguli, a dacha and a balalaika.
Ah no. Obviously all of this stuff is also included in Snowdrops. Apart from the balalaika, quite surprisingly. Perhaps our A.D. doesn't like folk music.

To cut it short, this book doesn't have too much to say.
You may expect some action, but there is almost none. You may expect some sex and there is a little, but in a chilly voyeuristic fashion which looks like exhibitionism.
All in all, there are maybe three or four characters here who don't look like parodies, but they don't manage to rescue Snowdrops from dying down without a shake.


Barbara Demick - Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

Rating 9.0

Just for once, I would like to start a review from the flaws of a book. I think that Nothing to Envy gives me the perfect opportunity for doing that.
So, let's start with my criticism, then. Ordinary Lives in North Korea the subtitle said. But these are not ordinary lives at all! You would be unfair with the people portrayed here calling them "ordinary". My dear editors of Barbara Demick how did you dare? Luckily some other editors decided to replace that "ordinary" with "real" which is the word appearing on my edition of this book. Well done!

Alright, that said, let's go straight to the next point. Which is an unusual one, I reckon: this book has no other flaw. Or, at least, I was not able to find anything else here which is not perfectly placed, well documented, interesting and informative to read and, on the top of all, extremely well written.

In short, Nothing to Envy is what we may call a masterpiece, particularly if one considers the complexity of its topic.
And mind you! I'm not that easy to convince in using this term, especially while dealing with a book written by a journalist. I didn't like a bit what Åsne Seierstad wrote about Afghanistan and always found Anna Politkovskaja's prose very heavy to stand although admiring her for what she did and when and where.

Unlike what happened with Seierstad and Politkovskaja, I had no idea who Barbara Demick was before jumping into this book. At first, what interested me was more the main topic of Nothing to Envy than the pen who wrote it. And, quite snobbishly, I thought that a foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times was likely to write in a not so engaging style. How wrong was this silly prejudice of mine.

I found what Mrs Demick did here amazing if not prodigious for a person who, after all, was allowed to visit North Korea only twice by a regime that defining "communist" would be reductive.
It's the old toxic mixture of totalitarianism, nationalism, warmongering and self proclaimed racial superiority which made North Korea a land of oppressed termites ruled by a caste of bureaucrats and a dynasty of self-proclaimed gods.
Overall, this is an awful country where to live. Perhaps the worst country around. No questions about it. A country much worse than many could imagine.

And yet, despite indoctrination and famine, propaganda posters and repression North Koreans are real people.
This is exactly what Barbara Demick shows us here. Nothing to Envy is not a history essay, but a book about human beings. And it's human beings who make history through their personal stories, although many history books omit to mention them citing only leaders and dictators. Kim li-sung and Kim Jong-il are not the core of this book, just its sharp frame.

The choice of giving voice to six among the hundreds of the North Korean defectors she met while in South Korea was good but not that revolutionary in itself. There was a clear risk of lingering into personal lives in a morbid way while taking the chance of writing down a pamphlet praising the virtues of the "American imperialist bastards" and treating North Korea as a dangerous masochist little country orbiting in the "axis of evil" with some queasy dives into its politics.

Barbara Demick took the Democratic People's Republic of Korea quite seriously and with a respect and a depth of sight that left me astonished, but without aiming at the head of the pyramid. In fact, she did, quite the opposite narrating the lives of common people deprived of all privileges.
The author manages to provide factual information delivering personal stories so perfect in the way they portray the unbelievable struggle and difficulties experienced by generations of North Koreans that cannot fail to impress anyone.

There is a colossal work behind and beyond this book which is essential in giving a very convincing background to all that Barbara Demick writes about. And the six real lives or (extra)ordinary people she chose to write about became quite soon characters I sympathized with and whose vicissitudes I was more and more eager to know.

You have what really counts here.
Twenty years of life in North Korea as seen from one of its most important and secluded towns, Ch'ŏngjin, up in the north. A place so poor and remote that even grim Pyongyang looked like Heaven from there not to mention the splendor of a relatively free and rich China.
But Barbara Demick hasn't forgotten to mention the way North Korean defectors are welcomed and seen abroad, investigating on the uncomfortable sense of common and yet separated belonging between them and the South Koreans.

Well, it seems like I could write for hours just for listing down the merits and importance of this book and perhaps I will go ahead, later on. What I can tell you now is that Nothing to Envy is a jewel and probably the best book you will come across for a long while. I could bet on this. Just get it and let me know. I grant you that you will feel the urge of talking about this book.


Karel Čapek - War with the Newts

Rating 8.8

It may not be a conventional Czech or Slovakian speciality, but a válka s mloky is an excellent and tasty alternative to the unbearable lightness of being when a metamorphosis into an engineer of the human souls is too loud a solitude.

Preparation time: 1936-1937
Cooking time: approximately 3 days

You will need:
- An aquarium
- An atlas reporting the pre World War II borders
- Around 100 newts of both genders
- Sea salt
- Lemon
- Mayonnaise
- Biscuits in crumbs
- Granny Smith apples
- A long spoon
- A dictionary
- A wireless radio
- A comfortable armchair
- Several bottles of Pilsner Urquell
- Small explosive devices.

Fill the aquarium with tap water. Put sea salt into it. Mix it up with the long spoon.
Uncork a Pilsner Urquell. Pour a few drops of beer into the salty water. Mix again in clockwise circles.
Take your time. Move the armchair close to the aquarius so that everything is at hand's reach.
When the daylight is fading out, turn on a lampshade.

Start adding up pinches of fresh newts into the aquarium. Let them swim creating their sexual milieu. Let the newts multiply. When the newts reach a number of thousands, switch on the radio and find some station broadcasting a selection of classic music. Then, open the dictionary and read in a clear, firm and loud voice all the terms between letters A and M and let the newts repeat them.
(You can have some breaks for uncorking additional bottles of Pilsner Urquell).

Feed the newts with the biscuits crumbs. Add lemon at will. Turn off the light. Switch off the radio. Go to sleep. Shut the door of your bedroom. Let the newts multiply and explore your living room mainland out of their aquarius during the night time.

The morning after start by mixing up the aquarium waters clockwise with the long spoon. Your newts won't bother. Switch on the radio looking for some jazz or, even better, either charleston or fox-trot. Read in a clear, firm and loud voice all the terms between letters N and Z in the dictionary. Let the newts repeat them.
At tea-time feed the newts with more biscuits crumbs and give them some slices of Granny Smith apples.

Take the atlas and look for the following items: 1. A map showing Europe in the 1930s. 2. A map showing Indonesia. 3. A map of the United States focusing on Louisiana. 4. A map of Japan. 5. A map of Africa including Cape Verde.
Put the atlas in a way so that its open pages are facing the long side of the aquarium. When the night falls, turn off the light but don't switch off the radio. Leave the small explosive devices not too far from the aquarius, at newt hands' reach.
Shut the door of your bedroom and lock yourself in. Some sleep pills may help.

At the dawn of the third day, your válka s mloky will be finally ready. You could serve millions of educated newts with mayonnaise and Granny Smith apples if you like. Now two problems may rise while coping with this elaborate Czech-made delicacy.

First and foremost, it must be said that newts are not really edible. But this unforeseen difficulty can be easily solved by boiling them up (if you will manage to convince them) so that your newts will taste of inferior beef.
Secondly, your living room is likely to be already underwater by now while the rest of your home, armchair and radio included, has been blown up by those small explosive devices the newts are so fond of.
No worries: you can work it out. With the newts. For the sake of the newts.


David Lodge - The British Museum is Falling Down

Rating 6.2

Dear David,

I hope this review finds you well.
You will be delighted to know that I've just finished to read The British Museum is Falling Down that juvenile novel of yours which, although widely ignored back in 1965, later became one of the most successful books you wrote.

Dave, you know how I like pretty much everything you wrote (apart from literary criticism, but that's my Achille's heel) and I would like to be frank with you as I've always been: this novel disappointed me.

Perhaps, it's more my fault than yours.
I assume I just read The British Museum is Falling Down too late. If I had not become familiar with books of yours such as Paradise News, Nice Work, How Far Can You Go? and the whole epic of professors Swallow and Zapp in the meantime, I would have probably enjoyed far more this third novel you wrote.

Alas! Being a big fan and a proud owner of most of your novels, I cannot say I liked this one. I hope you will take my humble opinion not as mere criticism, but more as a friendly reprimand.
In your afterword, you call The British Museum is Falling Down your "comic" and your "experimental" novel. Well, I'm afraid that both aims were not fully fulfilled here.

On the one hand, this novel is funny but never very funny. There is satire, yes, and there is farce, I reckon, but always in a very mild manner without going as far as you could (and you did 15 years later in How Far Can You Go?, hence the title).
The most plausible aspect of the protagonist, Adam Appleby, is - oddly enough - his own name. We never know how Adam manage to feed and clothe his own family including a housewife and three kids without having any sort of job so that his spasmodic seek for an occupation at the end of the book, doesn't really make sense. Are four kids so much dearer than three, I wonder?

On the other hand, the characters who pop up in "A Day in the Life of Adam" (which had this novel being written in 1967, would have been a perfect title) are drawn in a very childish way.
Argentinean butchers with their fingers hewn? A man named Camel? (Catholic symbolism? If so, where is the eye and where is the needle?) A Catholic debate society discussing contraceptives? A seventeen years old girl molesting a married man? (beware of the feminists!).

My dear Dave, let me tell you that you could have done so much better!
It's not that all these people are not funny in their own way, it's just they don't really fit here and cannot stand the comparison with most of the others you created as a novelist.

You were young when you wrote this novel, Dave, therefore some naivety can be understood and even forgiven (I know how much you like this verb), but then if what you wanted to deliver was merely a comic novel, why making it heavy with a stream of consciousness at the end, I wonder?

In that afterword of yours, you wrote that you were trying to find a literary stratagem for finishing the book "with a climactic parody in a single stroke". But, Dave, Barbara here is no Molly Bloom and the only thing these two women have in common is that they had their period, as you stated. Well, honestly Dave, do you believe this coincidence justify your choice? I don't think so.

All that said, David my lad, you managed to make me smile even here but mostly in a primary school style (Kingsley Anus! C.P Slow!) than in the scholar-like fashion you are so good with.

I am sorry if this review of mine sounds too harsh, Dave.
I hope you will understand what led me to give The British Museum is Falling Down only a pass degree.
I am now looking forward to hearing more from you.

Cheers and take care

PS: Have you heard the last joke on ol' Benny the 16th? Oh, it would amuse you!


When Harry Kept Tally

«Harry! You are a wizard!»
(followed by a burst of wild laughter soon disappearing thanks to the Doppler effect).

That's what someone screamed to me from a passing car while I was walking my bike on the way back home on a gloomy Oxfordshire evening.
The bike was fine, I had just forgotten my pocket lights and preferred not to risk to be driven over by a British lorry (what the rest of the Anglo-Saxon world calls truck).

But this is not the point.

I beg your pardon, should I take it as a compliment?
Is it about the fringe?

This is something new. And completely unexpected.
A misspent ten years time working on the Frodo character!


Graham Greene - The Human Factor

Rating 7.6

When Graham Greene wrote this book he was seventy-four years old and had published his first novel forty-nine years earlier. These are two facts that show how extraordinarily long-lived the literary career of this man has been.

But those who may look for decay or incipient senility in The Human Factor will be disappointed.
Among the six novels of Mr Greene I read so far, this is among the best ones even considering the usual high-quality standards of this author.

The Human Factor is a novel of apparent stillness and the power of memories where not so much seems to happen in the present with the main characters constantly looking backwards. The daily life of middle-aged Mr Castle is spent between his desk in a tiny office in London and a detached house in the sleepy little town of Berkhamstead, where Graham Greene himself was born.

And yet, Mr Maurice Castle is no Bartleby.
He would not prefer to, but he got the habit of his dull office life spending his lunch breaks alone at the nearest pub and chatting with his only colleague, whom he calls by his surname, Davis. Mr Castle may look like a common commuter trying to read heavy books on the train and then cycling back home being welcomed by his wife, his son and a glass of J&B, but he is and he was something and someone else. The memories of his very different past are not forgotten and soon enough will blow Castle's life to pieces.

What I liked here is that Graham Greene aged well and by all accounts. The Human Factor is not your usual spy story, but a book where cliff-hangers are hidden and the tension is subterranean and treacherous. There are masterfully drawn scenes with some of the best dialogues I've ever read and there is even humour every now and then.

All the references to Maltesers, whisky brands and some horrible artificially-palmed hotel on the way to Heathrow are carefully chosen with an accurate and sensitive attention to every minor detail which could become a key point in the development of the story.
How Greene fulfilled this technique without indulging in over-descriptions or wordy digressions is the best sign of a great novelist who once again managed to stay very focused on what was going on around him from history to politics to social trends.
Julian Assange must surely have read this one.


Vanity, Unfair

When I lived in the Netherlands, my landlord welcomed me in the rickety house where I would have spent the next six months chasing mice up and down wooden stairs with the words
"Ah! You're coming from I-taly".

Despite the awful conditions of the house he was renting out, Mr Bhawanie was a chatterbox and a friendly chap. When we had problems with our shower, he tried to fix it personally. He failed miserably, but then was nice enough to lend us a second-hand plunger to unblock the drain and avoid the whole house from being flooded by muddy water.
According to him, one of his beloved daughters was going to marry "an I-talian boy, like you". I couldn't help but feeling sympathetic with Mr Bhawanie apart from when he accidentally started pushing up my monthly rent.

Anyways, at that time my English pronunciation was even worse than it currently is, but all the same I tried several times to correct my landlord by putting many "Italy" and "Italians" in my sentences.
Every time, after a brief moment of dismay, Mr Bhawanie was breaking out with a "Maybe you mean I-taly, you I-talian!". I gave up.

Now, I'm starting to think that my Dutch landlord was a genius.
That "I-taly" of his stood for "first me, myself and I" and then the rest of the world.
This is, at least, the way another Mr B ruled (in his spare time) a whole country in the last years, like a mere extension of his personal short and aging body. And not even the most noble extension, I dare say.

I will not talk that much about him here.
I will not write what our quintessentially I-talian Mr B did and how hard it became being an "Italian" abroad. It will suffice saying that as all the Italian ex-pats in the last years, have never been short of flattering topics they were asked to talk about: fascism, terrorism, mafia, bribes and then finally the man who managed to sum all this stuff up: our current prime minister.

Let's face it. I-taly became a joke. And for many good reasons.
First of all for being represented abroad by a pimp and a corrupt tycoon who considers himself never-failing, attractive and -even worse- blessed by an irresistible sense of humor.
Although reading the foreign newspapers it seems like these 17 years of a nightmare are over, I wouldn't be that sure. What Mr B is if not the living portrait of all the worst vices and aspirations of millions of "I-talians" who wish to set themselves before the others calling altruists losers and being the office kings and the block tyrants of our lives?

Of course, there is nothing bad in being ambitious and success-driven but within some limits, respecting the laws, helping the others, not considering all that walks on this Earth an annoying obstacle to pull down and tread on.
What happened with Italy is that its "I-talian" part become larger and larger, heavier and heavier to carry almost obliterating the majority of those who still work hard and honestly and couldn't sell their parents to the best bidder.
On these selfish foundations a man like Mr B found the perfect soil for growing up, getting power and money by promising many others to share a part of the plunder.

Now that this blotch of a man is on his way to resign (but he will stay around, don't worry) the biggest mistake we could do as "Italians without a dash" is thinking that all of our problems will suddenly disappear. They will not.
That arrogant "I" part of us boosted up by Mr B is still making a mess.
Mr Bhawanie knew it better and I hope his daughter knew it too.

Photo courtesy of Spinoza and The Economist


J.R.R. Tolkien - The Silmarillion

Rating 6.4

Read in Italian and found hopelessly boring and abstruse when I was ten years old and just done with the doom of reading for the second time the Lord of the Rings. At that time (1992) I was so much involved into LOTR that I knew by heart the first 20 minutes introduction, dialogues and all of the often despised Ralph Bakshi's cartoon which I had found fantastic.

Being my memory oddly selective, I'm afraid I can still recall most of the cartoon. Should I prove it? The Italian version began with the lines "In un passato molto, molto remoto grandi artigiani del ferro forgiarono magici anelli. Nove erano per gli uomini. Sette per i nani. E tre per i re degli elfi". And so it goes.
I must say that the translation was not really accurate, but I couldn't know it at that time and it challenged the rhymes of Garcia Lorca and Leopardi in my mind.

Anyways, let's stick to The Silmarillion. I re-read this tome in English in A.D. 2011 after having found a wonderfully preserved first edition (the one portrayed on the top left of this post) for just 4 £ in a charity shop. At first I tried to resist to the call of the wild-buyer and ran away, far from the geekery. But when the same book was still popping up from the same shelf in the same charity shop one week later, I surrendered and bought it.

Much, too much, has been said about this book. I will cut it short: to put it as straight as I can, The Silmarillion is the Bible of Tolkien's mythology and cosmogony. A Bible with no dogmas but full of parables, in its own way. A book where pronouns "thy", "thine", "thou" and "thee" set themselves at ease.
You cannot expect any humour or brilliant dialogues here, but a heavy old-fashioned narration of the events of the so called First Age of bygone Beleriand where Elves dwelled and which used to stand at the north-west of Middle-Earth before being broken by a cataclism and swallowed by the sea (a recurring escamotage in Tolkien's mythology as well as in many others).

This is a book for John Ronald Reuel's geeks who not only know what Numenor was but where to put the accent on it (on the U). If you're not into Tolkien's world, just leave it: you won't find anything that you may like here.
The Silmarillion is an extremely accurate imitation of a whole epic in the fashion of his author's beloved Norse-Germanic mythology. Here Mr Tolkien didn't care about details and made an apparent mess with personal names (among the ones who belong to several characters on different ages we have Glorfindel, Denethor, Boromir, Gothmog) so that you do need a glossary and a map to get an orientation in time and space. Both compasses are provided here.

Still, as a half-geek for all that concerns what Tolkien invented, I enjoyed this book at this time and spent more time than necessary looking at the map of Beleriand attached. And yet, I do think that this book could be a burden if not a bane for all those who became familiar with the Lord of the Rings thanks to the entertaining pop movies directed by Peter Jackson.


Larry J. Sabato - Peepshow

Rating 5.8

I know my girlfriend will hate me for giving such a low rate to this book she brought me straight from the Smithsonian Museum bookshop in Washington DC, but I cannot lie.

The idea behind Peepshow (great title, by the way) is brilliant aiming to discuss the blurry limit between private and public life and behaviors of American politicians starting from the famous Monica Lewinski scandal which led to the impeachment of Bill "Sax & Sex" Clinton.
The authors suggest and report the different approaches that a journalist may decide to have while reporting about politics and gossip and the way these two fields are becoming more and more intertwined.

Unfortunately, what lacks here is some proper writing.
I found the six-handed style of Larry J.Sabato, S.(Sorry?) Robert Lichter and Mark Stencel absolutely flat and dry, way too much American-centric and with just a few moments in which my yawns became inappropriate.
As for me, Peepshow could have been much better in the merely two hands of a better journalist such as David Remnick or Walter Cronkite who would have been able to put some salt in this interesting topic.

My impression is that this book was written in a hurry with not enough anecdotes and research on the field, but interviewing or quoting only people well known to Mr Sabato and company.
But perhaps it's just me having read Peepshow in the wrong moment or with a negative spirit. I will come back to it when I can. I wonder if I missed something good here.

I just hope my girlfriend will not put her eyes on this review!


Tobias Jones - Utopian Dreams

Rating 7.2

I was extremely critical with Tobias Jones while reviewing his debut The Dark Heart of Italy. Being myself Italian you may think that I got somehow offended by what Mr Jones wrote there. On the contrary, I thought that Tobias was way too soft in tolerating some aspects of my home-country which need to be despised, especially by a journalist.
I mean, am I wrong or the title of the book is The Dark Heart of Italy and not The Jolly Dark Heart of Italy or something?

Alas, Tobias Jones fell victim of that "Audrey Hepburn's Roman Holiday Complex" which may lead English-speaking authors to match unpleasant aspects of contemporary Italy with reminiscences of a long gone "dolce vita".
The final result was a journalistic-like insight on Italy where, say, corruption in politics went along with tasty food, religious superstition walked hand in hand with enjoyable (?) football, social problems flirted with old picturesque traditions. And so on.

This tendency of forgiving Italy for all of its recent sins is understandable in the occasional Anglo-Saxon holiday-maker who keeps on saying that "oh, it's such a lovely, delightfully country to live in: the sun, the people, the art, the wine!", but less justifiable in the work of a foreign correspondent. That's why I was very harsh with Tobias and that Italian fairytale of him even more considering how Mr Jones showed (and spoiled) some sharp thoughts and interesting potential in The Dark Heart of Italy.

Now it's time to be fair.
My expectations when I bought Utopian Dreams for 49 pence in a YMCA shop were all about having an indignant laugh reading some sort of retro hippie rubbish mixed up with the new wave of biological spiritualism which raised up in the 1990s.
I could imagine Tobias Jones rolling the sleeves of his shirt and spotting his tank suit with stinky mud while tilling his own vegetable garden under the pouring rain somewhere up in Cumbria and quoting Thoreau in the process. I could easily picture the Oxford educated handsome intellectual writing about the joy of growing his own cucumbers and contemplating the corns on his hands in the candlelight after a hard day's work.
Well, I was wrong. And the times I laughed while reading this book were because Jones turned up to be a very good observer, not a true believer although he later converted himself to a sort of bucolic life managing a ten acre woodland shelter in Somerset.

What surprised me more is that almost five years after its publication, nobody in Italy gave Utopian Dreams a chance. Oddly enough, but this book has not yet been translated into Italian. Which is very stupid thinking how most of the communities Jones went to are in Italy.
Actually, calling "communities" the places Tobias Jones chose to live in for a while and write about here doesn't make them any justice.
What links places like the Tibet-inspired eco-hi-tech Damanhur on the first spurs of the Alps with its huge subterranean temple including "the biggest Tiffany glass cupola in the world" with the Catholic hard-laboring microcosm of Nomadelfia in Tuscany where money and advertising are banned is the feeling of "being good people" of those who dwell there. That and the adoration for the almost mythological leadership of the founders of both communities.

Tobias Jones did a very good job in writing about the daily life and genesis of the communities he selected, both in Italy and the UK. He sometimes played the naive one, sometimes not. He raised questions and waited for answers without jumping to obvious conclusions. The only thing that seems pretty unclear to him - and he admits it was - is what he was looking for. Why he chose to visit "Libera Terra" in Sicily (an association farming lands confiscated to the Mafia) and not "San Patrignano" (a little town for the rehabilitation of drug-addicted people) in Romagna or "The Elves" up on the Appennine mountains (some hippie Luddites living of agriculture and bargains)? For Libera Terra, after all, is not technically what one may call "a community" but rather a brave project with a solid principle behind.

The same mild criticism to this book could be raised while talking about the Utopian dreams which Jones selected in the UK. The Quaker village in the Yorkshire looks more like a retirement garden city for the wealthy than a good example of self-sufficient, self-indulgent community while the solidarity-driven Pilsdon in Dorset makes more sense but - once again - seems like a random word of mouth choice. What about the bunch of Tolstoyan fundamentalists of the Whiteway Colony in the Cotswolds? And what about an Irish travelers' camp? Are gypsy communities not enough Utopian to be reported here?

Alright, now I'm kind of joking but perhaps the only problem of this otherwise clever book is the arbitrariness of the examples Mr Jones brought to his narrative. Utopian Dreams is well researched, funny and often a pleasure to read, but I think there was room enough for more cases.
Some may say that this book lacks of a specific goal, but I think Tobias Jones got a point in never trying to convince anyone on what is right and what is wrong but simply reporting what he saw, heard and did.


Calf Curse

I was called a muscle strain
I am the twist in the court, the sharp stroke.
Call me not cramp, please, I am more
Than the minor injury after a crooked jump
I am the jarring and piercing note
of a fiddle played upside down.
I mean pain, I do hurt.
(now hearken to me)
Where you walk, I stalk and – mind it!
When I get there, you're bound to crawl
Whoever you are, down on your knees!
(if you manage to do it).
Understand this: no more track and fields
You rickety little thing sucking dry ice
One leg and a half minus a hamstring
borrowing clutches but unable to rise.
Call me names if you want, I swore
I was the faulty leap, I tame the limp.
I am the balance you lost and seek.


Tibor Fischer - Under the Frog

Rating 7.2


I used to play basketball in the same team for around 10 years in a row from childhood to the mid-teens. Those were glorious days.

My team was named Polisportiva Lame (quite funny for English speaking ears, isn't it?) also known as Pol.Lame (pollame meaning "poultry" in Italian) and we were very consistent players.
Years passed by and we were always standing at the bottom of our league.
Nevertheless, I was passionate or masochist enough reporting the scores of all our matches on a pocket calendar. But I don't need to find out where one of those pocket calendars ended up for reporting that once we lost a match 196-30.
Ok, ok our opponents in that match were the junior team of the then Euro dominating Virtus Bologna and it's true how 3 or 4 of them became first-league players in the following years, but still we were dedicated losers overall.
Around 20 of our 30 points came from free throws and one of the five or six baskets we managed to get in 40 minutes came along with jubilant cries of "I scored against Virtus!, I scored against Virtus!" while towering Virtus players kept on dunking on the other side of the court.
I didn't scored a point in that match.

Between 17 and 24 I spent countless summer afternoons at the basketball playground but never thought about joining another team: perhaps I couldn't find any which had the right losing spirit I liked.
When I lived in The Netherlands I tried to join a local team, The Eagles, but after writing down a first enthusiastic account not so much happened. Perhaps the fact that the training sessions were held in Dutch didn't really help.

A couple of weeks ago, I joined a basketball team based in Witney, Oxfordshire, UK together with a German workmate of mine, Martin. It turned out that the team changed its very self-ironic name (Witney Houstons) into the way more serious Wolves. I immediately understood how that losing spirit I was desperately looking for got lost, but had a terrific first training. The Wolves are guys who really love the game. It has to be said how being fond of basketball in the UK is just like loving cricket in Italy or rugby in the US: a passion against all odds, a little bouncing perversion.

"So have you watched any NBA video for inspiring you at this time? - Martin asked me while driving in the dark from Oxford to Witney.
"Oh no I didn't have the time today, but I started reading a book about basketball".
"Ah, really? And what's the book about?"
"Oh well, I've just begun it, but it's some fiction revolving around a basketball team"
"In Hungary".
"In the 1950s".
"It's not too bad, though".
"I see. And what's the title of the book?"
"Under the Frog. I know. It doesn't sound very promising".
"Well...who knows? Perhaps it's a British way of saying or a specific play they have here"

Actually, "Under the Frog" stands for the polite short form of "under the frog's arse at the bottom of the coal pit" which, Wikipedia tells me, is a a Hungarian expression used to describe any situation when things can't seem to get any worse.

And things got indeed worse on that night as my second training with the Wolves left me with a muscle strain in my left hamstring. But there was a little stroke of luck in my injury. Being unable to walk and sit down for more than 10 minutes, meant that I had to take a day off from work and got plenty of time to read Under the Frog while lying on the bed.

I liked this novel, but I'm afraid I cannot put it on my favourite shelf.
English-born Mr Fischer took a lot of his narrative ideas for this debut novel from his Hungarian parents who were both professional basketball players in their homecountry before leaving Hungary behind after the failure of the 1956 Revolution.
Whereas the basketball related parts of the book are not always convincing with a few surreal matches won by the guys of the Locomotive team where the two protagonists Gyuri and Pataki play, there is much to save in Under the Frog.

The last chapter is sublime, poignant and informative and all thorough the novel one can find both good humour and pretty trivial jokes, which somehow never trespass the coarseness line. I read some reviews around and it seems like many readers found Fischer using uncommon terms and chiselled sentences, but I didn't have this impression. At the contrary, I would have liked finding more Magyar words and authentic Hungarian stuff here and there.

I don't know if I will ever reread this book, but now that I'm done with it I feel like Tibor Fischer made a good job, delivering an interesting novel where basketball stands on the background being largely forgotten at the end.
I saw the point of this choice and I will not criticize it. My only concern is that the same departure from basketball could happen to me, now that my hamstring still pains an awful lot.


Timothy Garton Ash - Facts Are Subversive

Rating 7.3

What we have here is a very good collection of articles, political essays, book and movie reviews along with public speeches turned into ink on paper by Timothy Garton Ash (TGA), one of those fellows teaching at Oxford University and being rather proud of it.

Facts Are Subversive could have easily ended up as a messy pot-pourri of intellectual exhibitionism, but luckily it stands far from it thanks to a very clever editing. The idea of putting a world map at the beginning of the book with the titles of Garton Ash's writings matching up with the places they spoke about is simple and brilliant at the same time, just like the way this book is subdivided into sections and chapters.

That said, I found more convincing Garton Ash as an historian and a political writer than as a cultural reviewer, but I think it's good he shows up some interest in contemporary culture and not only in an often dry world of first-class academics.

Moreover, Mr Garton Ash is clearly more at ease and on his favourite ground when writing about Britain and Europe than the times in which he delivers articles on Burma, Brasil or the US. What I liked the most here are the essays on whether Britons and - more specifically - Englishmen consider themselves Europeans or not.
Less interesting, by my point of view, is the article dedicated to a meeting Garton Ash had with Aung San Suu Kyi, mainly because it dates back to 2000 and is way too old considering how many things happened in the life of Mrs Suu.

The review of Orwell's opera omnia is entertaining to read although Garton Ash cannot simply say - as he does - that apart from Animal Farm and Homage to Catalonia nothing else that Eric Arthur Blair wrote is masterful. I found puzzling how after self-declaring himself "a fan of Orwell", TGA never mentions "Down and Out in Paris and London" or "Coming Up for Air" or "The Road to Wigan Pier" among the author's literary production that could be worth to get and read.

Besides, the idea that Evelyn Waugh or Joseph Conrad "were consistently better writers than Orwell" is absolutely a moot point, I think.
Still, Timothy Garton Ash is a pretty good and engaging writer and not as much conservative as I would have thought.


Samuel Beckett - Waiting for Godot

Rating: 6.0

I read this play three or four years ago and then watched it a couple of times on a theatre stage. Both of the times I fell asleep. Such is the deep influence of absurdism on me.

And yet, tonight Godot came back again. I mean, metaphorically, as he never found the decency of showing up.
I dreamt they made a Broadway rock musical based on this cornerstone of a play.
Now it's hard to remember how the whole show went on, but I'll try to do my best in reporting a rough account of my dream.


Estragon, sitting on a low mound, is trying to take off his boot. He pulls at it with both hands, panting. He opens The Kinks' songbook and moans:

'I'm so tired
Tired of waiting
Tired of waiting for you

I'm so tired
Tired of waiting
Tired of waiting for you

I was a lonely soul
I had nobody till I met you
But you keep-a me waiting
All of the time
What can I do?'

He gives up, exhausted, rests, tries again.
As before. Enter Vladimir. He is Tom Waits.
(don't you think he is perfect for this role? He's Waits. He waits. For Godot).

Advancing with short, stiff strides, legs wide apart.
Vladimir broods, musing on the struggle. Turning to Estragon:
'So there you are again'.
He starts singing using a carrot as a microphone.
He mumbles an old hit by The Sonics.
Estragon makes the chorus parts (-)

'It's too late (it's too late)
You lied (you lied)
Now you (now you)
Will fry (will fry)
It's better (it's better)
Than hate him (than hate him)
He's waiting (he's waiting)
He's waiting (he's waiting)
For you, wowww'.

A terrible cry, close at hand. Estragon drops the carrot.
They remain motionless, then together make a sudden rush towards the wings. Estragon stops halfway, runs back, picks up the carrot, stuffs it in his pocket, runs to rejoin Vladimir who is waiting for him, stops again, runs back, picks up his boot, runs to rejoin Vladimir.
Huddled together, shoulders hunched, cringing away from the menace, they wait.

Enter Pozzo and Lucky. Pozzo drives Lucky by means of a rope passed round his neck, so that Lucky is the first to enter, followed by the rope. Lucky whispers a melancholic version of "Tainted Love":

'Sometimes I feel I've got to
Run away I've got to
Get away
From the pain that you drive into the heart of me
The love we share
Seems to go nowhere
And I've lost my light
For I toss and turn I can't sleep at night'.

Pozzo (with magnanimous gesture):
'Let's say no more about it. (He jerks the rope.) 'Up pig!' (Pause.) Every time he drops he falls asleep'. (Jerks the rope.) 'Up hog!'

Coup-de-theatre! Pozzo is actually Lou Reed. He's dressed up in velvet.
Pozzo turns a sunglassed glance to Vladimir and Estragon.
Then begins to hum:

'Oh pardon me sirs, it's the furthest from my mind
I'm just lookin' for a dear, dear friend of mine
I'm waiting for my man
Here he comes, he's all dressed in black
Beat up shoes and a big straw hat
He's never early, he's always late
First thing you learn is you always gotta wait I'm waiting for my man'

End of the first act.

Regretfully enough, I woke up during the interval. Which is funny, because it's exactly the same moment in which someone shook me calling me a sleepyhead both times while watching Godot live at the theatre.
My apologies for being unable to tell you how what happened in the second act of my dream. What I assume is that even in the Broadway rock musical version Mr Godot deserted the stage perhaps adducing some rehab engagement with a press release projected on the background.
Semi-quoting Vladimir/Tom Waits: "Godot's away on business".


Herta Müller - The Land of Green Plums

Rating 7.7

Reviewing this book is all but an easy task. I devoured these green plums and am still hungry after that although they were far from being tasty and what they left is bellyache, malaise and discomfort.

And yet, I think that there is no better antidote than swallowing the unripe venom into these green plums picked up by Herta Müller for winning over apathy and resignation.

Ceausescu's Romania was indeed a horrible place to live and even worse if your mother tongue was German and you were the son or daughter of a former SS soldier as miss Müller was.
One of the worst post World War Two tragedies is, in fact, the impact the conflict had on redrawing not only the European borders, but the way some countries started to think about themselves: monochromatic. And there where red was the primary color there are dozens of minor Diasporas which left local communities isolated in a sea of hatred.

The German speaking Swabians living in Romania were one of these communities engulfed in the flames of the craziest dictatorship of the Eastern bloc. But one cannot forget the Poles who found themselves in USSR, the Turks who ended up in Bulgaria or the Germans whose towns became Polish. Not to mention that sort of hazardous melting pot called Yugoslavia which erupted in the 1990s.

I was just a 7 years old kid when Ceausescu was dethroned and it's interesting how I have clearer memories of his fall in December 1989 than the demolition of the Berlin Wall which had begun one month earlier.
I do remember the livid face of the Romanian dictator and his wife thrown on the tar after their farce trial and execution as shown on television. Or so I think. I never had nightmares. That man was evil - I was probably told - and he got what he deserved.

Here Herta Müller mentions the former cobbler only twice, preferring to call him "The Dictator" and not too often. This is not the story of a personal resistance against Niculae Ceausescu, but against the way of thinking, behaving, reporting and vilifying that took over Romania during its last dictator's rule.

There is little surprise that some found this novel hard to tolerate because of its hopeless despair. That is the way it was. But actually I think that this book, despite all of its grimness, has plenty of joyful intimate moments showing how life could go on in hell.

The closest literary comparison I can find is with Agota Kristof's The Notebook, The Proof, The Third Lie, but Herta Müller is far more stinging and yet poetic and evocative in her prose.
Green plums won't ripen, though.


Peeling the Union

What do Winston Churchill and David Hasselhoff, the Dalai Lama and Shakira (portrayed above), Albert Einstein and Pamela Anderson, Malcolm X and Diego Armando Maradona have in common?
It's easy. They all gave a speech at the self-proclaimed World's Most Famous Debauching Debating Society, the Oxford Union.

Quoting the Union's current president, Izzy Westbury: "Our speaker line-up continues to be something that other societies in Oxford, Britain and across the world can only dream of".
And miss Westbury has very good reasons to be proud of it.
One need only consider that the 2011 Michaelmas Term debate season beginning on Sunday 9th October was opened by Katie Price. I mean, yeah, Katie Price. No less a person than Katie Price. Ka-tie. Pri-ce. Formerly known as Jordan.
According to the Union's programme "she is everywhere - you can't help but know who she is". Do you? If you don't, you shouldn't despair. Just keep in mind that this is Oxford. Only the best ones are addressed here. But a pic may help in clearing up your mind.

A recent snapshot of Miss Price out of a members only club

"Everyone should work for a living" said Katie Price - A powerful attack to the unemployed and those getting benefits or rather a strong defence to The Sun's page 3 girls and teenage lingerie models? - it was later debated at the Union's cocktail bar.

And it's not over yet.
If you missed what Katie Price talked about, you will have plenty of choices to hear and see some of the most significant orators of our time in the forthcoming weeks.
Behold! The Junoesque (but extremely clever, eh!) Sky Sports host Hailey McQueen will be at the Union on 8th November. The topic of her speech is still undisclosed, but some deep throats say that she will talk either of quantum mechanics or football gossip. Unfortunately the brainy busty sensation Imogen Thomas, refused the Union's invitation for the same day having a previous engagement at her Mensa club.

The Hoff (here portrayed with his long-time partner) became famous on February 2011 for having delivered a feverish speech at the Union regarding alcoholics. A dedicated follower of both the Stanislavski system and the bottle, Mr Hasselhoff took the floor while completely drunk.

But Hailey is only the most promising name on a list that includes a wild bunch of "simply splendid speakers" as the Union's leaflet puts straight.
The first appointment will be on 26th October with director Roland Emmerich who's working on a romantic comedy set up in Oxford starring Miley Cyrus and Richard Dawkins and involving the accidental sinking of the British isles in a minor cataclism. In the following weeks the presidents of Finland, Macedonia and Mongolia (special discount, see 3 pay 2) will pop up together with music stars Snow Patrol ("One of the biggest bands of the last century") and The Hanson ("MMMBop!").

It's utterly true how these people cannot compete with the likes of icons of contemporary pop culture such as pornstars Ron Jeremy and Jenna Jameson who both spoke in Oxford years ago, but I think one has to reckon that the guys at the Union are doing their best.

So, in case you are a student at Oxford University, you might give them a chance and join the Union here. A Life Membership costs only 218 £ and it's "an Excellent investment". You won't miss the next pornstar live!