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!