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For today’s Sunday Salon I would like to share my thoughts about The Gargoyle, published last year (2008). You’ll find other bookish news at the end of this post.


This picture of a gargoyle overlooking Paris was made by Simon & Vicki.

According to the online Merriam – Webster dictionary a gargoyle is

1a : a spout in the form of a grotesque human or animal figure projecting from a roof gutter to throw rainwater clear of a building
1b : a grotesquely carved figure
2 : a person with an ugly face

I read Andrew Davidson’s The Gargoyle during the dark days before Christmas because it’s the December read of my virtual book group, the Boekgrrls. And it was an excellent time for reading this book! It’s an easy pageturner (no brainteaser), although pretty gruesome at times.

*** spoiler alert ***
*** read on at your own risk ***

The Gargoyle is a story about a vain, superficial ‘Greek God’ type of boy getting massively burnt in a car crash. Outwardly turning into a grotesque creature (like a gargoyle; even his voice gets distorted to a gurgling sound), he becomes more human than he ever was during the healing process — thanks to his new acquaintances in the hospital.

The story starts with the accident and I can’t imagine anyone NOT wincing at the visual description. It was hard to read on (and I know people who didn’t), but you’ll be rewarded if you do. After a while the story makes a turn when the protagonist gets a weird visitor while being hospitalized, Marianne Engel.
Engel’ is the Dutch (and German) word for ‘angel‘ btw.

It’s a book in the style of The Shadow of the Wind (by Carlos Ruiz Zafón) and The End of Mr. Y (Scarlett Thomas). But I think I like The Gargoyle best, probably because it appears to be the least ‘pretentious’. Even though there’s a lot in it: history, art, (medical) science, religion, language and — of course — literature.

The most literal connection is La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy) by Dante Alighieri. I wish I had read it before I got my hands on The Gargoyle, like I’ve been meaning to for so many years! I think it would have added something extra to the reading experience. Next to being a pageturner about redemption (sic), this was a good read for the season because the stories about the rings of Dante’s Hell reminded me of the three ghosts of Christmas in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

I have thought about whether the horrifying descriptions in The Gargoyle were ‘justified’ — if you can even question a thing like that. I mean it as opposed to sensationalism in trying to reach an audience that has grown used to violent movies and video games. The strange thing is that I can’t recall wondering about that while reading Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, or Iain Banks’s debut The Wasp Factory, both with their own gruesome scenes. Maybe because they happened later in the story, while The Gargoyle begins with a bad one. Like its narrator says:

Truth be told, I started with the crash because I wanted to catch your interest and drag you into the story. [p.5]

Aside from that it’s just plainly well-written, I do think it is valid. I believe I now have a better understanding of what burn victims have to go through and indeed it grabbed my attention. Also it is important for the story as a whole; fire being the first association of Hell, and a medium for purification. Like water that washes away sin.

Other contemplations:

  • Can the protagonist feel sorry for himself or does he only have himself to blame?
    A fate like that can never be said to have been deserved. It is inhumane to think so. “And I am unanimous in that.” ;)
  • How do I react to people that are deformed?
    I wish I would react like I do in relation to ‘normal’ people, but the fact is that I get self-conscious. Not that I look away as if that person doesn’t exist, but I do wonder about what the best way to react is. Usually I tend to get over-friendly, which might not be a good way either :\
  • The way the story is told it could either be true that the main character has been reincarnated, or not. So which is it?
    Like the protagonist himself I believe it is all in the head of Marianne Engel. But still, I like the idea that it could be possible and maybe there are too many coincidences to doubt the truth… In example the hallucination about arrows that cause the car accident to begin with.
    (“You do not want to believe.”)
  • How about the moral dilemma that the main character did not call out to Marianne in the end, considering his own thoughts about the truth?
    This is something I can’t put my finger on yet. I actually feel the need for a real life discussion to get my thoughts together on this point!

Like I said, The Gargoyle was a good read for these cold & dark winter days. But it won’t make my top-5 reads of 2009.

Andrew Davidson is a Canadian author who has lived an worked as an English teacher and website editor in Japan for several years. Look at the book’s website to read more.

Want to know what tea I drank with the book?

Other bookish things

During X-mas I also finished reading Zijde (Silk) by Alessandro Baricco. And I received the last book I was awaiting, 2666 by Roberto Bolaño (again a recommendation by Kazuo Ishiguro)… It scared the wits out of me! It is a real chunker: 898 pages in small print!

The Sunday Salon is a virtual gathering of booklovers on the web, where they blog about bookish things of the past week, visit each others weblogs, oh — and read ;)

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During Dewey’s 24 hour Read-a-Thon I read Neil Gaiman’s book Coraline as a graphic novel (adapted by P. Craig Russell). Technically it might not have been the first graphic novel I’ve read, but it certainly was the first one I bought myself, knowing it to be one!

About 15 years ago, shortly after I had met Mr Gnoe, I read the Pulitzer Prize winning work by Art Spiegelman: Maus, a Survivor’s Tale — an autobiographical story about Jews (depicted as mouses) surviving the World War II Holocaust. At that time I also got acquainted with the (just as grim) comic books of Tardi. Both I did not consider to be graphic novels at the time, because the term seems to be in in vogue only since the last few years.

So what is a graphic novel exactly? Well, there’s no real consensus about that :) Some consider it to be a posh term for all kinds of comic books provided they’re bound in a durable format like printed books, others believe there’s a distinction in artistic quality (which of course is a subjective matter).

Neil Gaiman himself — yes, I will get back to Coraline in a short while — considers it to be nothing more than a marketing term, a sales category.

[..] there’s no meaningful difference. For some reason the term “big thick collected or original comic published in book form” has never really caught on, while “Graphic Novel” did.

Cover Best of MuttsMyself, I am still in doubt whether or not to distinguish graphic novels from ‘ordinary’ comics. It just doesn’t feel right to call the collected Best of Mutts (Patrick McDonnell), that I bought along with Coraline, a graphic novel as well — even though it is a beautiful hardcover ‘coffee table book‘. I think I would like to hold on to the idea that a graphic novel is a story or collection of short stories in comic format (a balanced combination of narrative art and dialog or explanatory text), that holds something more than plain, popular entertainment. Like: could it be a novel without the image art? Does the story have some sustenance? I know I’m walking on thin ice here ;)

Do you have an opinion about graphic novels?

Cover Coraline

Back to Coraline now. It’s the fantasy/horror story of a girl moving with her family to a huge house that’s divided into four apartments. Exploring the house, Coraline finds a door into an ‘other world’, where her ‘other mother and father’ live. These parents tempt her with things that are all better than at her real home, because they want her to stay.

Doesn’t that immediately make you think of Alice in Wonderland? It does even more when you read about the neighbours persisting in mispronouncing Coraline’s name as Caroline in the first pages (think Lewis Caroll). It’s been too long since I read about Alice’s adventures (I must have been a child of about 9), but it would be fun to compare the stories.

Another book Coraline reminded me of is the classic Japanese novel I was reading for the read-a-thon as well: I Am a Cat, by Natsume Sōseki (from 1905). It begins as follows:

“I am a cat. As yet I have no name.” (p.5)

And here’s when Coraline meets a cat at the new property (p.41):

Whats your name

And it explains to us on the same page:

“Now, you people have names because you don’t know who you are. We know who we are, so we don’t need names.”

Or, when Coraline first sees the cat on ‘the other side’ (p.39):

I'm no other anything

Cats naturally being wise, it has a theory about it on the next page (p.40):

“You people are spread all over the place. Cats on the other hand, keep ourselves together. If you see what I mean.”

Back to I Am a Cat:

“Cats are truly simple. If we want to eat, we eat; if we want to sleep, we sleep;” (p.26)

Reading synchronisity!

I guess the fact that Coraline reminded me of these classics helps in making it more of a reading experience than simple entertainment. Although it was also just plain fun to read Coraline ;)

Like Maus, the graphic adaptation of Coraline by Russell has won an important prize: the 2009 Eisner Award (an ‘Oscar’ for comics) in the category of Best Publication for T(w)eens. Er.. that’s not my age group! And since I’ve grown up I don’t really like reading YA or children’s books. But it didn’t bother me now ;) At least it’s obvious that a targeted audience of adults is not a condition for being called a graphic novel (as some argue).

Russell, who’s some sort of god in the graphic novel world, says about his adaptations:

“The appeal of an adaptation is in starting a piece secure that there’s literary worth in the source material. If it fails, I can’t blame it on that. I’ve always been fascinated by the challenge , the puzzle-solving challenge of taking a piece apart line by line and reassembling it into an entirely different art form.

[..] It’s the beautiful writing. It also helps that Neil has a huge following so I know all the effort I put into the work will actually be seen. I’ve done plenty of work that left me feeling I’d thrown it down a well. Doesn’t happen with Neil’s stories.”

Covers Persepolis 1 & 2I bought my comics for the read-a-thon following advice from veteran participants. Next to Coraline and The Best of Mutts I ended up with Persepolis and Persepolis 2 by Marjane Satrapi. But during my 24 hours of reading I only got to read Coraline! Which indeed made a nice change of palate. And as you notice I’ve come to learn some things about the graphic novel world at the same time ;)

Now that I’ve crawled out of my familiar reading nook I might also try one of Gaiman’s actual fantasy books — next year. For the rest of 2009 there’s something else to consider: with my other graphic books on Mt. TBR I might join the Graphic Novels Challenge I would only need to decide on two more before December 31st to make the minor level of six books. Why not reread Maus volumes I & II?

Cover De pianomanYay, I have finished my first book! De pianoman, by Bernlef. I liked it, but as I said in my previous update post I didn’t get to concentrate as much I should :( I hope that will get better with my next read: I am a cat by Natsume Soseki. I need to review it for the Japanese readalong, so I’d better know what it’s about!

The Piano Man

The Piano Man is fiction based on a true story of a man washing ashore in Sheerness in 2005. Because of his taciturnity, the authorities couldn’t identify him for quite some time. Once identified as the German Andreas Grassl, he was put on a plane home.

The fictional Piano Man is a Dutchman named Thomas Boender, who prefers to keep silent because his upbringing in the northern part of my country never taught him to speak his mind very well. Like Andreas Grassl he’s lower-class and homosexual. Not being good with words, he is rather clever at playing the piano (taught to him by his school teacher). That’s why the English call him Piano Man. The book is about him ending up in Sheerness — and getting back home. Keeping all thoughts for themselves makes people heavy, talking makes you (feel) lighter.

Bernlef is fascinated by language. Even his pseudonym has something to do with it: he named himself after a 8th century, blind lyrical poet from Friesland (in the upper part of The Netherlands).

Status report

16:30 – 19:00

Currently reading: I am a cat (starting with the first chapter at page 3)

Progress since last update

Time read: 0 hrs 54 mins
Amount of pages: 44 pages
Books finished: 1 book (De pianoman)

Mini-challenges I participated in: 1 (Bart’s Title challenge)
Blogging time: hard to keep track of… So I won’t bother you with it anymore.

Totals

Hours read: 2:05
Pages read: 88
Books read: 1
Mini-challenges: 4

spotvogel2It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird [..] They don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.

Thanks to a bookcrossing book ring I have finally read Harper Lee’s 1960 classic To Kill a Mockingbird. It had been on my wishlist for quite a few years and became part of two challenges: the 2009 Classics Challenge and my personal 2008-2009 challenge. There has been written a lot about this book so I’m just going to add my personal view. Well.. and a little about the story for people who haven’t read it (yet).

To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel in which a female attorney, Jean Louise — Scout — Finch, looks back on her childhood during the Great Depression in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama.

Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first new it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the court-house sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft tea-cakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.

People moved slowly then. They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything. A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County. [p.11]

The story focusses on the events of a certain summer, that morally and socially shaped Louise into the adult she became. Because of this, the book is considered a Bildungsroman. Although Harper Lee used a lot of autobiographical elements, the novel is fiction.

Cover To Kill a MockingbirdI am very glad I got to read the book. I don’t think it will end up in my 2009 top 5 list, but it was a quick, entertaining read: the story immediately grabbed me and I liked the atmosphere of doom, suggesting that ‘something was going to happen’. The first paragraph sets the tone:

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right -angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn’t have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.
When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident.

The reader now knows that the rest of the book will tell about the events leading up to Jem’s accident. But like in a court case where seperate witnesses have different truths, the sibling’s have different points of view on where it all began.

In my online Boekgrrls book group there was some discussion whether or not the quote above contains vivid imagery. I think so ;) Some people didn’t find it evocative — worse, they thought it gawky because they had to physically try the position of the arm. I rather like it that everywhere around the world and through time, people are swinging their arms while reading ;)

Some women also didn’t find it believable that children were accepted into the courtroom. Well, it was a long time ago… And honestly, isn’t it really harder to believe that black people were treated as lesser humans? And they were! Even though you know that it’s true, it is still shocking to read about this kind of racism. To Kill a Mockingbird was published 5 years after Rosa Parks had refused to give up her bus seat for a white passenger (also in Alabama); Harper Lee had been writing on the book for a few years.

Aside from the main storyline (which I am not writing down because it is broadly known and when you’re in the dark about it you might want to keep it that way), you can feel how Scout grows into her later profession even though that was not yet common for women of that time.

“There are lots of reasons. For one thing, Miss Maudie can’t serve on a jury because she’s a woman –”
“You mean women in Alabama can’t –?” I was indignant.
“I do. I guess it’s to protect our frail ladies from sordid cases like Tom’s. Besides,” Atticus grinned, “I doubt if we’d ever get a complete case tried — the ladies’d be interrupting to ask questions.”
Jem and I laughed. Miss Maudie on a jury would be impressive. I thought of old Mrs. Dubose in her wheelchair — “Stop that rapping, [judge] John Taylor, I want to ask this man something.” Perhaps our fore-fathers were wise.
[p.225]

After Jem and his sister have sneaked out to watch the court case, some Southern ladies tease Scout afterwards:

“Watcha going to be when you grow up, Jean Louise? A lawyer?”
“Nome, I hadn’t thought about it..” I answered, grateful that Miss Stephanie was kind enough to change the subject. Hurriedly I began choosing my vocation. Nurse? Aviator?
“Well…”
“Why shoot, I thought you wanted to be a lawyer, you’ve already commenced going to court.”

Recently To Kill a Mockingbird became #1 on the list of the best 60 books of the past 60 years. Maybe not because Harper Lee is the most skilled writer of recent history, but because her book is about the equality of Man.

“Well how do we know we ain’t Negroes?”
“Uncle Jack Finch says we really don’t know. He says as far as he can trace back the Finches we ain’t, but for all he knows we mighta come straight out of Etiopia durin’ the Old Testament.”
“Well if we came out durin’ the Old Testament it’s too long ago to matter.”
“That’s what I thought,’ said Jem, ‘but around here once you have a drop of Negro blood, that makes you all black [..]”
[p. 165]

John Sutherland remarks in his article about the list of 60 books:

“[..] as Henry James said, the house of fiction has many rooms. One important room is reserved for fiction that expresses the basic ideals of its time: such as Oliver Twist, or The Grapes of Wrath. To Kill a Mockingbird will always have a high place in that company.”

Cover Grapes of WrathHa! I have just finished John Steinbeck‘s The Grapes of Wrath, which is also on my challenge list (review pending). That book is more about equal rights for ‘poor’ white people from the East of the US migrating to the West in the same period as To Kill a Mockingbird. Both books won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in the year after they were published (respectively 1940 and 1961). And both books play in the American South.

Have you ever heard of Southern Gothics, a sub genre of the gothic novel and unique to American literature? I hadn’t. But To Kill a Mockingbird is (by some) considered to belong to this genre.

“Like its parent genre, it relies on supernatural, ironic, or unusual events to guide the plot. Unlike its predecessor, it uses these tools not for the sake of suspense, but to explore social issues and reveal the cultural character of the American South.

[..] the writer takes classic Gothic archetypes, such as the damsel in distress or the heroic knight, and portrays them in a more modern and realistic manner — transforming them into, for example, a spiteful and reclusive spinster, or a white-suited, fan-brandishing lawyer with ulterior motives.”

Lawyer. Heroic knight. That’s why Atticus, Scout’s father, seems a bit too good to be true sometimes! But I think it is also because most of the story is told through the eyes of a child — don’t young girls often look up to their fathers, seeing them as hero’s?

Gregory PeckI had to think about my father a lot whilst reading this book. He was a great fan of Gregory Peck, who played Atticus in the 1962 movie adaptation. But he was also born in the same year as Harper Lee and had a huge sense of morality, of justice. He would have liked to become a lawyer. Hee hee, maybe he even looked a little bit like Gregory Peck ;)

I couldn’t help but think of another film as well: Mississippi Burning. Some marvelous actors playing in it: Gene Hackman, William Dafoe, Frances McDormand (I’ll leave it to you to look them up if you don’t know them ;) I would definitely like to see that movie again soon! I don’t feel the need to see To Kill a Mockingbird. But I liked reading this classic enough to want to have a copy of my own. I’ll be on the lookout for a nice edition! :)

Mockingbird sound recording courtesy of The Quomma.

Cover StrangersI notice I’m recommending Strangers (Ijintachi to no natsu or 異人たちとの夏) by Taichi Yamada a LOT. Other readers’ feelings are mixed — some love it as much as I do, others find it disappointing. I read it in 2005 and immediately wrote an extremely enthusiastic email to my online bookgroup, the Boekgrrls. For now I am just going to recycle my Dutch review here on Graasland, but I hope to get around to translating it in English sometime! Maybe after I have finished my current read: Be With You by Takuji Ichikawa — which reminds me of Strangers. I don’t know why I’m thinking about Yamada’s book so much these days, I also wrote about it relating to my first ‘Hello Japan!‘ mini mission… I even feel like re-reading Sttrangers, something I really never do.

*** The following text is (mostly) in Dutch but you’ll find some English recommendations by famous authors at the end! ***

Ik heb weer een boek gelezen waarvan ik zeker weet dat hij hoog eindigt in mijn top-10 van dit jaar: Strangers, van Taichi Yamada. Een PRACHTIG boek! Het is mooi geschreven, spannend en ontroerend. Het is me lang niet gebeurd dat ik in de trein bijna zat te huilen…

Het is een slim concept: Hideo Harada, tv-scriptschrijver, verloor op 12-jarige leeftijd zijn ouders maar komt 36 jaar later een stel tegen dat sprekend op hen lijkt — even oud als zijn ouders toen ze verongelukten. Niet alleen is dat intrigerend, spannend (‘wat is hier aan de hand?’) en ontroerend, maar ook een erg aantrekkelijke gedachte voor lezers die zelf geen ouders meer hebben. Toch krijg je nooit het idee dat het een verkooptruc is: het is gewoon een mooi, integer verhaal.

Om jullie een indruk te geven hierbij een citaat over ouderschap:

They were there for me, and though by all appearances they spent the day between my visits busy with their own work and play, it seemed quite possible that all time other than the time they spent with me was for them a void in which neither of them actually existed.

Voor veel kinderen bestaan de ouders niet (meer) wanneer ze uit hun blikveld verdwenen zijn.

Ik wens te geloven dat dit de verhaal de schrijver werkelijk is overkomen :-) Niet voor niks lijkt de achternaam Harada sprekend op die van auteur Yamada en schreef hij verschillende filmscripts. Maar ik zeg ‘wens’, want werkelijk geloven doe ik het natuurlijk niet. De suggestie vind ik daarentegen geweldig. Dat Taichi Yamada verder maar weinig romans schreef draagt aan die illusie bij. Strangers is in ieder geval de enige die in het Engels vertaald is: in 2003, 26 jaar na uitkomen.

In de flaptekst wordt het boek vergeleken met Paul Auster en Haruki Murakami. De vergelijking met Paul Auster komt volgens mij door de vlotte, filmachtige stijl. Het verhaal leest als een trein — een echte pageturner. En dat hebben beide ook gemeen met Murakami; die schrijft (be)vreemde verhalen die je bij de kladden grijpen en meesleuren. Zijn hoofdpersonen zijn bovendien vaak enigszins passieve, geïsoleerde ‘einzelgangers’ die bovennatuurlijke dingen meemaken met onbekenden — strangers.

De titel van het boek, Strangers, slaat volgens mij op het idee dat het niet altijd logisch is wie vreemden en wie bekenden zijn. Het verhaal bevat verschillende aanknopingspunten. Als Hideo op bezoek is geweest bij zijn (vermeende) ouders nodigen ze hem opnieuw uit met de woorden

Don’t be a stranger, now.

En doordat deze vreemden zo op zijn ouders lijken, voelt hij zich geweldig vertrouwd bij hen — zo veilig heeft hij zich sinds zijn kindertijd niet meer gevoeld. Van zijn eigen ouders zou je kunnen zeggen dat ze vreemden zijn omdat ze op zijn twaalfde overleden – en in hoeverre ken je je ouders als kind op die leeftijd? Hideo is vervreemd geraakt van zijn eigen vrouw en zoon, terwijl een collega hem misschien het meest na staat van alle anderen. En dan de buurvrouw uit zijn flatgebouw, Kei: ook een vreemde die in enkele dagen volledig met zijn leven verweven is.

Tja, voor mezelf heb ik nog wat notities gemaakt maar die verklappen wellicht teveel of zijn juist te nietszeggend voor jullie ;-) Het moge duidelijk zijn dat ik dit boek van harte aanbeveel als spannend, lekker-weglezend kwaliteitsvoer of zoiets ;-) Dit boek is een parel! Lof dus ook voor de vertaler: Wayne P. Lammers, want zonder hem had ik er nooit kennis van genomen en het is zijn taal. Nu allemaal naar de boekhandel om Strangers te kopen, zodat Yamada’s roman uit 1992 ook vertaald zal worden! Ik denk dat ik voor het eerst van mijn leven maar eens een bedelbrief aan de uitgever moet schrijven :-)

Groet, Gnoe

PS. Voor wie mij nu nog niet gelooft typ ik hier bij hoge uitzondering nogmaals de aanbevelingen van twee gewaardeerde schrijvers over.

David Mitchell:

Highly recommended. A cerebral and haunting ghost story, which completely wrong-footed me.

Bret Easton Ellis:

An eerie ghost story written with hypnotic clarity: quickly paced, intelligent and haunting with passages of acute psychological insight into the relationship between children and their parents, which is also what makes this fascinating book so moving.

The task this month is to read or watch something scary, spooky, or suspenseful, and Japanese of course!

Immediately after I had read about this 1st Hello Japan! mini-challenge on October 2nd, I ran to to the video store and rented the dvd of Dark Water, a horror movie directed by Hideo Nakata. It has been on my wish list for a long time — I guess ever since I saw Nakata’s 4 movie cycle of Ringu (or Ring). Ringu posterNow, you need to know I am not really a scary-movie-grrl… I can manage maybe 3 of ‘em a year ;) But I was fascinated by Ringu, especially compared to the not-so-impressive The Ring, an American remake by ‘Pirate of the Caribbean’ Gore Verbinski. I found the Japanese original really chilling. I still shudder when I think back  — without spoiling anything — to a certain scene in a well, or how  ‘the girl’ moved… Even though many years have passed since I saw it!

The American version did absolutely nothing to me. I guess Japanese film language is much more frightening! ;)

But I am getting sidetracked… It wasn’t Ringu I watched for the mini challenge, but Dark Water, or Honogurai mizu no soko kara (I love the sound of those Japanese titles ;)

Dark Water got rehashed in the US as well, by Walter Salles. I thought the main character was played by Jodie Foster, but it appears I’m confusing her with Jennifer Connelly — what on earth made that happen? A while ago I started watching the remake on tv, until I remembered my experiences with The Ring — and decided I should wait until I had seen the Japanese original.

A woman and her young daughter move to an eerie, run-down apartment building pending the decision of guardianship after a divorce. The ceiling of their ‘new’ flat has an active, dark leak. In the upstairs apartment, which appears to be the source of the leakage, used to live another young girl that went missing more than a year before…

Dark Water posterI enjoyed watching Dark Water. It find it an entertaining movie, even though I was never terrified during the film, just a little tensed sometimes. The story is more… gross, and above all SAD. Because of that it made me think of a book I like a lot: Strangers, by Taichi Yamada. I didn’t find that ghost story horrifying either — and it moved me to tears. I figure there’s a certain distinction between Japanese ghost movies and horror, in which tragedy plays a main part!

I really love the idea of these Japan related mini missions and plan to do all of them. When do you think our host tanabata will challenge us to go to Japan?? :))

Would you read a cursed book, if you had one? [p. 54]

Well, Ariel Manto, a lonely PhD student on the outlandish Victorian scientist Thomas Lumas and heroine of The End of Mr. Y (by Scarlett Thomas), does. Guess what the title of the cursed book is?

Cover The End of Mr. YIn 2008 the novel was nominated for the Orange Prize for Fiction — one of the reasons why I wanted to read it. But which book addict would NOT put a page turner about a mysterious publication on his or her reading list? I read The End of Mr. Y while recovering from the flu and quite loved it. At times it has a really feverish plot! I’m just not sure about the ending… Intellectually I would have liked it to end differently, but sick & sentimental me sort of felt good about it.

The End of Mr. Y is a thought experiment wrapped in a contemporary adventure story that asks questions about thought, language, destiny, and the very limits of being and time. I didn’t think of that myself, I just copied Wikipedia ;) What does the book itself say on the topic?

[though experiments] are experiments that, for whatever reason, cannot be physically carried out, but must instead be conducted internally, via logic and reasoning, in the mind. There have been ethical and philosophical thought experiments for hundreds, if not thousands, of years but it was when people began using the experiments in a scientific context that they were first given the title ‘thought experiment’, a literal translation of gedankenexperiment, although Lumas had always referred to them as ‘experiments of the mind’. [..] Edgar Allan Poe used the principles of the thought experiment to solve the Olbers Paradox, and, some people believe, to more or less invent the Big Bang theory a good hundred years before anyone else [..] somthing close to the way he described infinity, as the “thought of a thought”.[p.95]

So not only is The End of Mr. Y a book-in-a-book, but also a thought experiment about thought experiments… Well, although I did write down the quote, I didn’t think about these things while reading. I was way too much carried away by the story!

Another quote, about quantum physics, brought two other books to mind: One, by Richard Bach (today I wouldn’t be caught dead reading it LOL), and Child in Time, by the well-respected author Ian McEwan.

There’s the many-worlds interpretation. In a nutshell, while the Copenhagen interpretation suggests that all probabilities collapse into one definite reality on observation, the many-worlds interpretation suggests that all the possibilities exist at once, but that each one has its own universe to go with it.

I hope I am not putting anyone off by these ‘scientific’ quotes. Just look at some of the excerpts on the book’s homepage to get a real taste of it!

Scarlett Thomas obviously likes to play with words. The name of the book’s protagonist, Ariel Manto, is an anagram of I am not real. And the Victorian writer Thomas Lumas has part of his name in common with the author herself. It made me contemplate about the name of Mr. Y, but I couldn’t come up with any nice theories. I’ll be glad to hear yours! I’ve thought about:

  • Mr. Why
  • Mr. Y being the opposite of, or familiair to the more well-known Mr. X
  • (maybe my best guess) x and y being opposites in a coordinate system, creating dimensions; this book being about other dimensions, you could think of the x-axis (horizontal) being our ‘ordinary’ world and ‘y’ going away from that. I hope I am not sounding too foolish? :\

I considered releasing The End of Mr. Y as part of the Utopian/Dystopian Sunday Sunset Release of February 1st (yes, that long ago), since the novel is definitely dystopian (about a society in which conditions of life are miserable). But because this book was a Random Act of Bookcrossing Kindness by rapturina, I figured I couldn’t just leave it somewhere out there in the cold, cold world. Now I am happy to have found it a new destiny: sterestherster, and Gondaaa after her; tweeps that have joined some other twitter people in a real life book group — and their next read is The End of Mr. Y. I hope they’ll write a (short) journal entry when they have finished it, because it is always nice to know what other readers think. The social web provides a great new dimension to our lives!

I am not afraid of bringing more people in danger because even though my health was weak, I still survived The End of Mr. Y (phew!). I guess the curse has diminished! Or has it?

* * *

My remark about the social web just reminded me… several weekly geeks asked about this book when I posted ‘Help me catch up on book reviews‘. I have already implicitly answered Dreamybee‘s, Maree’s and (most of) Jackie’s questions above, but there are two left that I want to touch on briefly.

Bart asked what I thought of the story-in-the-story. Can I just say: hey, I like reading about books?! :) I’m not sure what you want to know exactly. It’s a bit much to really go into details of the story itself — and I must admit: a bit too long ago as well!

Also Trisha wanted to know what the book says about the unconscious mind… I feel really DUMB now, but I have no idea. It is a mishmash of philosophical and scientific theories put into a quick and believable read. You wonder how Thomas managed to make such a coherent story of it. I feel I’ve done a worse job with this blogpost… :( Can’t blame the flu anymore, can I?! ;)

Obviously I am not used yet to my new routine of working at home on Thursdays — I started making a bento last night! And did I have some good foodies to put in it… YUM! But when I remembered I stopped and went to do other things (like blogpost my third book review for the What’s in a Name challenge), so today’s bento is a small one. It’s a pity I can’t name it #77.5! LOL

We tried out some new Japanese take-away — Dutch readers might think I mean Tiny Tokyo which can be found at train stations but noooo, we went to Maneki, which seems to be a new branch of Kyushu, our favourite local restaurant. And I managed to save 1 avocadomaki (avocado sushi) and 1 tamagomaki (Japanese omelet) each, alongside some seaweed salad known as chuka wakame (わかめサラタ).

I LOVE that salad — I wish I could make it myself! But it is really hard to find the exact recipe, let alone kuki wakame: the stems and ribs of wakame seaweed that are the main ingredient. I’ll have to wait until an acquaintance is going to Japan again so I can put in a request! According to the great (Dutch) Tokowijzer weblog the correct name for this salad would be chuka kuki-wakame. “Chuka” meaning ‘Chinese way’ btw, because of the typical Chinese ingredients.

I have read somewhere that most Japanese restaurants in Holland/Europe buy this salad prefab… I wonder if that is true.

But I am getting side-tracked. The rest of bento #77 contained radish flowers, a cucumber divider, some runner beans and a soy fishy that Katie and Anita brought me all the way from Japan. In the lower tier there are also a small shalot ‘fan’ and a ball of dark miso to make miso soup. Next to it in the container you can see a tiny piece of black stuff: that is fueru wakame: dried leaf of wakame seaweed, which will swell enormously when soaked in hot water. The beans, onion and some radish also went into the soup.

All this talking about kuki wakame made me think of kukicha, or ‘takkethee’ (‘twig tea’) as we call it. I am going to make myself a pot RIGHT now! Strange how a small bento like today’s can result in such a long post like this… ;)

After I went on a biking trip to Austerlitz Pyramid I started reading Martin Bril’s book The Little Emperor (De kleine keizer in Dutch). Its subtitle is Account of a Passion, describing the author’s quest in search of Napoleon Bonaparte. That means I am participating in the What’s in a Name reading challenge with another non-fiction book (category: profession)!

The monument in Austerlitz was built in 1804 by the army of general Marmont, to celebrate the French ruling of Holland. Inspired by his adventures with Napoleon in Egypt, he let his soldiers make a pyramid… At first it was called Mount Marmont but soon Louis Napoleon of Holland renamed the structure, commemorating the victory of his brother in Austrian Austerlitz. To be honest this folly isn’t really impressive in real life…

But my trip to this historic site was (of course) not the main reason for wanting to read Martin Bril’s book about Napoleon. My interest was triggered by the first paragraph (in Dutch but I’ll paraphrase afterwards):

“De kist staat open. Op het eerste gezicht zit er niets in, anders dan wat proppen wit, zacht ritselend papier. Eén voor één haalt Mark van Hattem, conservator van het Legermuseum in Delft, ze eruit. Bijna eerbiedig legt hij ze terzijde.
Hij wordt op de vingers gekeken door een jonge, stille Fransman in dienst van het Musée de l’Armée in Parijs – waar de kist vandaan komt. [..] De sfeer is bijna plechtig, hoewel elders in de zaal wordt geboord en gezaagd. De voorbereidingen voor de tentoonstelling ‘Voor Napoleon. Hollanders in oorlogstijd, 1792-1815‘ zijn in volle gang.
Als bijna alle proppen uit de kist zijn verwijderd, blijft er een groot, wit pakket over. Aan de vorm is te zien wat erin zit, zo beroemd (of berucht) is die vorm: een steek, Napoleons hoofddeksel. Van Hattem aarzelt, mag hij het pakket uit de kist tillen? Hij kijkt naar de vertegenwoordiger van het Musée de l’Armée, die glimlacht.”

The paragraph describes Bril’s visit to the Dutch Army Museum in Delft, where he was allowed to witness the unpacking of Napoleon’s cocked hat in preparation of an exhibtion about the emperor’s time in Holland. And… I was working at the museum at that time! When the curator and the French supervisor weren’t paying attention for a minute, Bril managed to secretly touch this relic of Napoleon for a minute! Sssshhht! ;)

Cover De kleine keizerIn The Little Emperor Martin Bril reports of his Napoleon craze: for a long time he read everything about the man and he went on a pilgrimage to several historically important sites to get a feeling of ‘the events’. He paints a vivid image of Napoleon Bonaparte as a person — and also of himself as an author. His enthusiasm is contagious, his short chapters are easily readable and most times arresting.

A few days before he died in april this year, Martin Bril was awarded the Bob den Uyl Prize for The Little Emperor. The annual award is given to the author of the best literary and/or journalistic travelogue of the previous year. I’m afraid the book hasn’t been translated into other languages (yet). But there are a lot of Napoleon aficionados around the globe that might be waiting for another prize-winning book about the emperor? So you never know what happens next.

It would be cool to bookcross my copy of The Little Emperor at the Pyramid of Austerlitz… But nah, I’ll just keep it as a memento! ;)

I feel like I’ve been on a long (and sometimes arduous) expedition. I started reading The Mapmaker’s Wife on Quatorze Juillet, the French national holiday, and it took me more than f i v e weeks to finish those 350 pages of non-fiction by Robert Whitaker! I could have lost a lot of weight during this undertaking, but thankfully I didn’t (according to a fact on page 261):

Because women have a higher percentage of body fat, they tend to outlast men in starvation situations.

Isabel Godin GramesónThat information might come in handy ;) So, who is the mapmaker’s wife? Isabel Gramesón, a Peruvian girl who married Jean Godin (geographer in a 18th century scientific expedition at the equator), when she was thirteen years old. The title suggests the book is all about her — but it isn’t. For the most part it’s the story of the French-Spanish quest that meant to solve the Newtonian – Cartesian dispute about the shape of the earth: flattened at the poles or elongated, with a ‘waist’ at the equator. More details about this mission can be found in Monalisa(a)’s journal entry of the book — her enthusiasm made me participate in this Bookcrossing bookring (that is almost at the end of its journey).

Even though the main subject is not what you expect beforehand, The Mapmaker’s Wife is an interesting read. Scientists of the Enlightment still had lots to discover! Jean Godin and his group were the first foreigners allowed by the Spanish rulers to explore the New World in 1735. So their curiosity went way beyond their main objective: measuring a degree of latitude at the equator. Their expedition took 9 years — and even (much) longer for those members of the team that couldn’t return home immediately.

Cover The Mapmaker's WifeI sometimes felt that the author identified too much with the ‘scientific omnivores’ of that time. There were soooo many details holding up the story. In example: a long way into the history I really didn’t feel the need to hear extensively about Riobamba city. I wanted to learn more about the characters (some of whom I didn’t get to know very well at all). Let’s say that in his enthusiasm, Whitaker was very thorough ;)

This might also be the cause of why Isabel’s story only really starts somewhere in the second half of the book. And that is when it all gets very exciting. After having been separated from her husband for about 20 years, Isabel has to conquer the Amazon rain forest by herself to be able to join Jean in French Guyana and move to France with him. At times her journey left me in complete horror. And pretty astonished in the end! It is a moving tale, well worth reading.

Maybe I would have finished the book quicker had I read it in my native tongue (Dutch) — and maybe then I would have been less bored occasionally because of the scientific descriptions that I didn’t all ‘get’ but couldn’t find worth looking up? It did trigger associations with some favorite cinema though: Longitude, a tv-series about the 18th century quest to find the key to determining longitude, and one of my most cherished movies about a repenting slave trader in South America: The Mission. Attentive readers may notice that Jeremy Irons plays a main part in both ;) I will definitely watch The Mission again on a rainy day this autumn! I advise you to do the same :)

But for now: if you want to get a feeling of the adventures in The Mapmaker’s Wife, you can explore the book’s website where you’ll find reproductions of prints made by the expedition members, a copy of Jean Godin’s letter in which he takes 7000 words to describe his wife’s perils and, last but not least, a slide show of the author, Robert Whitaker, retracing Isabel’s steps in 2002.

Myself, I am going on another journey with a female traveler in the New World: next I will be reading Away, by Amy Bloom.

Gnoe goes ExtraVeganza!

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