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The Library of Babel

A Spin-off of http://bookwormshead.blogspot.co.uk

Death of Grass (Penguin Modern Classics) - John Christopher What? Only three stars?
Am I sure? Did I give this rating by mistake?

Yes, yes. And no, I'm afraid.

Don't get me wrong, folks.
For 'The Death of Grass' is a good novel. Well, actually a very good novel. And I do believe that you should give this book a chance and read through it from page 1 to page 194.

It won't take that long. You won't get bored. But, nonetheless...
Oh well, I don't want to spoil your expectations any longer.

This book was out of print for many years, but the Penguin fellows have recently reprinted it. In a paperback edition. With a fancy gloomy cover. And even a foreword.

So, what are you waiting for?
Go and get it.

See you later for the review.


Got it? Did you read it?
All very well.

Now, tell me, did you really like this?
Becuase I did and yet I did not.

Let me explain this, if you don't mind.

Unlike other British sci-fi novelists (Shiel, Wyndham), the author here does a good job investigating on the psychology of the main characters, wondering about the moral dilemmas they have to face when struggling for survival.

The novel does have a slow kick off, but then it starts rolling smoothly without unnecessary detours and with a clear goal to reach: an almost mythical dale.
An Eden valley protected by a well manned and gun-machined palisade where a less wild bunch of human beings is likely to survive starvation thanks to potatoes, beetroots and unlimited fresh water supply.

The road trip of our heroes from London to the north of England, where the dale is located is hard and bleak enough, but left me with the impression that John Christopher forgot some practical details.

Ok, all grasses belonging to the graminae family are suddenly dead. The soil is bare and the land is brown. And yet, what happened to the fruit trees and to the wildberries?
The death of grass struck England on springtime, but the author never mentions the possibility that people could scrap a living from fruits and berries. Where have they gone?
Or am I the ignorant one who needs to check if fruit trees do after all belong to the graminae family?

Then Christopher tells us that all trains stopped running. Again, why?
Does coal belong to the graminae family too? Oh wait, I bet it's just a sign (and an effect) of the social turmoil bringing England to its knees. All the same, the train empasse hasn't quite convinced me.

And don't let me even start with the way the author treats women in this novel: backwardish even for the 1950s standards.

The fight for survival bits here are convincing enough and quite realistic in their basic roughness.
I can summarize Christopher's post-apocalyptical gatherings with a quotation from the movie 'A Fistful of Dollars':

''When a man with a .45 meets a man with a rifle, the man with a pistol will be a dead man''.

Aw, Charlton Heston and his lot would have loved this.

Not that this fire armed philosophy happens to be very different in, say, 'The Road' by Cormac McCarthy.

At least Christopher's survivors are still able to speak proper English in all of its local and class variations. And, to me, that's a very strong point. Okay?
The Post-Office Girl (New York Review Books Classics) - Stefan Zweig 'The Post-Office Girl' has been my commuting book over the last two weeks.

Hence, I read this novel at intervals from 7.30 to 8.30 AM and from 5.30 to 6.30 PM stuck in the upper deck of buses packed with people coughing, listening to music, talking at their cellphones, playing online games and talking to each other. And necessarily in this order.

You may therefore understand that my attention span to the written word was somewhat fickle and got easily unnerved by the virulent bursts of either cheap muzak or vicious hack erupting around me.

All that said and all distractions considered, I quite liked this book.
Stefan Zweig brought me in a very specific age and place (diminished, depauperated and disillusioned Austria in the mid 1920s) and was extremely good in putting himself in the shoes of a woman, the postal official Christine seducted and abandoned by a posh life in the high districts of the Swiss Alps.

I would say that the best chunk of this novel is its seductive part, with poor Christine brought to touch the stars of a carefree and wealthy life for a mere week just in time to lose it due to the weakness and silly social concerns of her benefactors.

I've found far less convincing the second part of the novel where Christine's acrimony for her dull and miserable life is boosted up by Ferdinand, who seemed to me very much a spoof of an actual character.

True, there were times in which I blushed reading the most feuilleton-ish bits of 'The Post-Office Girl' and the abrupt ending of the novel (an unfinished one) let me down, but nonetheless I have to praise the author for most of what he accomplished here.

Just forget all those 'modern Cinderella story' and 'a tragic reindition of the Sleeping Beauty fable' tags you will see printed on the cover of your copy of this book. There's nothing or very little of that sort here.

If there's one novel I thought about when I was done with this one that is, oddly enough, 'America' by Franz Kafka.

Well, to be honest 'The Post Office Girl' shares very little with 'America', but in both cases I wished that the author had had the time and the willingness to complete what he had started.

Odin's Island - Janne Teller Funnily enough, this is the third book I read involving some big wig from Valhalla taking a trip downstairs.

Whereas the hilarious 'American Gods' by Neil Gaiman and 'The Son of the Thunder God' by Arto Paasilinna focused on Mr. Thor and his kin, Janne Teller chose no less than the CEO of Norse cosmogony: Odin.

'Odin's Island' is a brilliant but long winded novel.
Miss Teller has a knack for creative storytelling and here plays quite skillfully on the thin razorblade separating a young adult from a grown up audience.

However, there's too much on 'Odin's Island' plate to get a satisfactory reading meal.

The author of this book juggles with Nordic sagas, environmentalism, religious fanatism, pure escapism and geopolitical frictions. No surprises that sometimes one of these juggling balls falls down thus affecting the plot of the novel. It's hard to tell a folktale dressing it up with a dystopian cloth.

Characters are very sketchy here and Janne Teller doesn't seem to care much to develop some of them as they may deserve.
Personally, I couldn't help but picture Tintin's 'Captain Haddock' every time 'Ambrosius the Fisher' said anything, just like the character 'Gunnar the Head' reminded me Kjell Bjarne from the Norwegian movie (and novel)'Elling'.

Reading an English translation of this book, didn't help me as too many names were translated and with a randomness that left me quite puzzled. It's quite obvious that, say, if you change the original 'Smedieby' into the plain 'Smith's Town' the whole architecture of a modern saga collapses.

As for the religious subplot here, I found it quite brave but it may be hard to chew for those who don't appreciate a certain blend of Danish humour (including the notorious Mohammed cartoons and a movie like 'Adam's Apples').

Anyways, with its pros and cons, 'Odin's Island' was a pleasant and refreshing novel and left mostly good memories.

The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim - Jonathan Coe Jonathan Coe did it again.

A pretty decent effort of a novel spoiled by an abrupt, clumsy (and metafictional!) ending.

Pity, because 'The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim' has its good moments and includes some brilliant dialogues and ideas.

There's just too much here: too many characters, too many subplots left open, too many letters/emails/essays/short stories to fill the gaps and keep the story going by tossing it here and there. Ah, and too much of a certain NavSat...

330 pages could have been either 200 and something (drying the story up) or 500 and something (by expanding it). But 330 pages left me bored while leafing through them and unsatisfied once done with the book and actually asking for more.

Perhaps only two stars is too harsh a rating, but if I think to what Coe wrote in the past, this novel doesn't deserve three stars. Potential is a double-edged sword: ask Ian McEwan.
The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance - Edmund de Waal
'Hello, this is Mr Editor calling from Big Publisher, may I talk with Mr De Waal?
'Good morning Mr De Waal, I've good news for you regarding the publication of your...ehm Mr De Waal?
'Yes? What's the matter?
'I'm afraid I cannot hear you very well. Are you alright? The phoneline seems to be quite disturbed...
'Oh, apologies Mr Editor. It's only my wheel. You see, I'm working on a rather minimalist bowl for the Victoria & Albert Museum.
'I see.
'You know, I'm first and foremost a potter. And then a flaneur. And then an asthete. And then a researcher. And then a writer.
'Oh, come Mr De Waal! Don't let yourself down. What I was going to say is that we of Big Publisher will be glad to publish your book entitled 'The...the Hare...
'The Hare with Amber Eyes?
'That's it! Thank you, Mr De Waal. And what a brilliant title that is!
'Well, to be honest I'm not quite sure of that Mr Editor. Are you sure that such a title will work?
'If it will work?! But of course, it will. Mr De Waal, let me tell you something. With a title like 'The Amber with Hare Ears...
'It's 'The Hare with Amber Eyes'
'Whatever. With a title like the one we chose, your book on family bibelots will sell like hotcakes. Wait and see. After all I didn't choose 'The Hare and the Embers' for nothing
'It's 'The Hare with Amber Eyes'. I think you are confusing me with Sandor Marai...
'Ah Mr De Waal, Mr De Waal. That's not the point. Now, don't let yourself down and trust me...

And trusted him Mr De Waal did. And 'The Hare with Amber Eyes' sell surprisingly well and also got a bunch of literary prizes including the Costa Book Award (which sounds perfect for hotcakes).

You may be surprised. Despite of its all but aptly chosen title, this book is a little treasure.
I was rather skeptical when I started reading the story of the once wealthy Ephroussi family intertwined with crunchy bits of history and art, but over the course of the book I changed my mind completely.

Edmund De Waal may be a world known potter, but he certainly know how to be an engaging writer and a storyteller. There is much quality and much aestheticism in this book and I savoured it with relish.

When reading 'The Hare with Amber Eyes' you will find yourself in Paris, Vienna, Tokyo and Odessa before and after the Great War and World War Two.

You will learn an awful lot on the Ephroussi dinasty (family tree included!), but - above all - you will wish to discover or rediscover the French impressionists, Proust, Austrian secessionism and Japanese art.

I had never heard of those tiny carved jewels named 'netsuke' before (that's what the hare with amber eyes refers to!) and I have to thank Mr De Waal to open up my eyes. This book works on so many levels that I cannot really give it justice in a short review.

Suffice is to say that one should read this to win over the daily triviality of a commuter's life.
The Uses Of Adversity: Essays On The Fate Of Central Europe - Timothy Garton Ash Still reading this one, but I'm almost done with it.

Next to excellent collection of essays on written in the early 1980s by a then young - and very beardy - Timothy Garton Ash.

On the whole 'The Uses of Adversity' gives a very interesting portrait of a rather abstract concept such as 'Central Europe' as seen a few years before that turning point of a year that 1989 was.

Now that something called 'Eastern Poland' promotes itself on every number of The Economist looking at the equalliy vague 'Central Europe' aka Mitropa (a deceased neologism, I'm afraid) might be worth.

German, Polish, Hungarian and Czechoslovakian politics, social life, cinema and literature are often intertwined here and what the British historian says does often make sense.

Nevertheless, Mr Garton Ash is clearly on steadier ground when writing about Poland, East Germany and Czechoslovakia than when looking into West Germany and Hungary.

If you are looking for the odd interview with the likes of Vaclav Havel, are interested to know how Polish universities or Hungarian censorship got by in the 1980s this is your stuff.

'The Uses of Adversity' hosts a stellar cast including Pope Johnny P, Michnik, Hoenecker, Walesa, Mrozek, Milosz, Kundera and Konrad.

Plus, there's even a cameo of the forgotten Solidarnosc minstrel: Jacek Kaczmarski.
I couldn't ask for much more.
The Appointment: A Novel - Herta Müller I liked "The Land of Green Plums" by the same author, but this novel - while keeping a similar pace, setting and style - doesn't convince me.
Under the Net - Iris Murdoch Have to dig and drill deeper into this one.

One of the characters is the closest model to Beckett's "Lucky" I've ever found in a novel.
The beginning set in grim Newhaven - a place I somewhat know and definitely despise - got me, but the rest of the story didn't so far.
The Day of the Triffids - John Wyndham, Barry Langford
Wow, reading this one was good fun!

I still think that 'War with the Newts' by Karel Capek cannot be surpassed as a sci-fi dystopian novel, but - in its best moments - 'The Day of the Triffids' certainly get close to that model.

You have to agree that carnivorous aggressive two metres tall plants feeding themselves with the rotten corpses of the human beings they hunt down are pretty decent villains. The idea of making all the world population save a few souls blind is brilliant and not redundant at all as the author needed to explain why triffids managed to take the Earth over.

True, this book has a minor flaw. It is affected by a certain post-post Victorian mannerism that makes it less spectacular and apocalyptic that it could have been. Wyndham could have spared us with the unlikely love story subplot and put more gruesome and creepy descriptions in this novel rather than the odd peeping Tom moment.

Wyndham doesn't seem to take his triffids as seriously as they may deserve, but doesn't resort to irony in depicting them: which is a pity.

Nevertheless, the novel keeps an enjoyable pace - apart from a few unnecessary descriptions - and benefits from its metropolitan London and then countryside setting.
Wyndham pay his debt to 'The Scarlet Plague' by Jack London more than once, but manages to keep himself original on the whole.

George Orwell - A Clergyman's Daughter

A Clergyman's Daughter - George Orwell

com·ple·tist /kəmˈplētist/
"An obsessive, typically indiscriminate, collector or fan of something".

Ah, I like this one. I am an obsessive - although not indiscriminate - collector of something: books.
Now, my problem with George Orwell is that I liked, if not adored, all that I read by him, which is pretty much all that the man wrote. With one exception: "A Clergyman's Daughter".

I knew that Orwell himself disowned this novel deciding to don't have it reprinted during his lifetime. However, unlike Franz Kafka - who burned much of his early writings - and Graham Greene - whose second and third works have never been published again - Orwell set a different fate to "A Clergyman's Daughter".

Writing to his literary executor, Orwell agreed to have "any book which may bring in a few pounds for my heirs" printed again after his death.
And that's why a novel which Orwell himself looked at as "a silly potboiler" found its place into the Penguin Modern Classics.

Well aware of the fact that "A Clergyman's Daughter" was all but a masterpiece, I've always postponed the right moment to buy it hoping to bump into a second hand edition in a charity shop, to no avail.
Then, rummaging through the bookshelves of a provincial Oxfordshire library, I found the novel and promptly borrowed it.

Done with the reading, it's time to talk about this book.
And what can I say?
Well, first of all that this stuff is not that bad.

I mean if you're a completist of George Orwell, you might read this one. Just keep in mind that the final version of this novel is far from what its author had in mind having been savagely maimed by its fearful and puritan publisher, Gollancz.
That alone could explain why on my Orwellian scale this book comes last even though in some of its moments is better than the clumsy, but exotic, "Burmese Days".

Let's name the merits first. It's admirable that George Orwell put himself in the shoes of a woman, Dorothy Hare, for the first (and last) time in his career as a novelist.
It's equally praiseworthy that Orwell wanted to open the eyes of his readers on something of a taboo in 1935 England: rape. The idea behind this novel was to highlight the supreme injustice of many English women in the 1930s. Women who were powerless against oppressive families, perverted men, vicious gossip and dodgy employers. Not that many of these nooses have changed in the meantime.

Dorothy Hare is oppressed by her father - a snobbish lazybone of a reverend - and stalked by an old womanizer in a dull village. A village where social life revolves around the male obscenities shouted in a pub and the female backbitings whispered in a tea house.
And Orwell is quite good in portraying the pious monotonousness of Dorothy's humble life and her passive resignation.

Then this bucolic nightmare is suddenly interrupted. But thanks to Gollancz censorship we don't know what happened to Dorothy. All that we can read is that the clergyman's daughter wakes up on a pavement in London unaware of who she is and where she comes from.

Badly struck by his own publisher, Orwell tries not to sink.
The novel follows Dorothy (now Ellen) in her new harsh life as a beggar, a hop-picker and eventually as a teacher in an awful school.
This part of the book deals with George Orwell's personal experiences down and out in London and teaching in order to make a living, but it doesn't work as it could.

Sure, there are vivid and poignant descriptions of a miserable life in London and its countryside among gypsies, petty thieves and prostitutes, but whom the author fails with is Dorothy/Ellen. The poor woman recovers all of her memory, but never develops as a character.
No matter what happens around her, the clergyman's daughter sticks to her role of a musty wallflower at the mercy of events. Till the disappointing but pretty obvious sweet and sour end.

At the end of the day, it's not clear what Orwell wanted to achieve here.
What was the point of putting Dorothy's life upside-down if she didn't change a bit? How doesn't she feel any frustrated emancipation?
True, the woman admits that she lost her faith and that's certainly bad for a clergyman's daughter. But does she seem to care? Mmh, not really.

In all of its insipidity (and due to the significant cuts) "A Clergyman's Daughter" is not a silly potboiler, but definitely a missed chance. What a pity.

Absolute Beginners (Allison & Busby Classics) - Colin MacInnes Published in 1959, "Absolute Beginners" is the sort of novel that became extremely popular in the UK without leaving many traces elsewhere.

To this day, the book written by Colin MacInnes is perceived as a "modern classic" on the eastern shore of the Atlantic Ocean. Some critics compare the impact of "Absolute Beginners" on the British popular culture and literature to the one "The Catcher in the Rye" had in the US.

Now, what surprised me is that this novel is supposed to be an early manifesto of the so called Mod subculture and yet the term "mod" doesn't appear once into the 286 pages of "Absolute Beginners". I mean, not a single time.
Still, the book stages plenty of "Teds" which stands for "Teddy boys" that is the archenemies of the Mods.

Don't get fooled by the yellow Vespa on the cover: "Absolute Beginners" will not take you back to the age of customised scooters, amphetamines and R&B or ska music. True, the protagonist of the novel likes to dress well and spends the money he earns on books and jazz records, but he calls himself "a teenager" and would abhor joining a gang of Mods.

The greatest merit of this novel is the way MacInnes talks about London and - above all - the very specific area between Maida Vale and Willesden that the narrator calls "Napoli". The six pages taking the reader into this Londonian Naples in the 1950s are masterful.

MacInnes is far less skillful in portraying the characters of his novel. There is a lot of attention to the way Wizard, Suze, Ed the Ted, Mr Cool and the Hoplite - the bizarre cast of "Absolute Beginners" - talk, but much less focus on their personalities.

The author shows us these colourful people through the eyes and the ears of the protagonist - a 17 year old freelance photographer - thus limiting their possibilities. Even though this choice makes sense, it's just a pity that, say, a character worth of Isherwood like the Hoplite cannot develop all his potential in this novel.
Other literary influences that I could find here include two minstrels of the down and outs of London such as George Orwell and Patrick Hamilton along with a debt to Evelyn Waugh each time the novel moves uptown.

As a non-English native speaker I found the way the protagonist and his friends talk here very cute and almost irresistible. I'm well aware that all those "cats" (people), "spades" (coloured men), "cowboys" (policemen), "darl" and "hon" are outdated slang from fifty years ago and that's precisely the reason why I liked them so much.
In a way, the extent of what MacInnes did with the language used in this novel is no less than what Anthony Burgess accomplished by creating the Nadsat argot for "A Clockwork Orange".

Reading through the negative reviews of "Absolute Beginners" I found here and there, I can see how many disliked the way MacInnes describes the racial clashes that happened in London in 1958.
I agree that the author doesn't dig very deep into this subplot and treats the whole matter of the Notting Hill riots in a superficial way, but I didn't find that disturbing. Just keep in mind that this book doesn't deal with history, but with lifestyle.

After all, the protagonist and narrator here is supposed to be a 17 year old chap hence having a very limited understanding of the subject.
What I found odd is that, as a freelance photographer, this guy doesn't think to take some snapshots of what's going ill in his neighborhood selling them to the press. Especially considering how the young chap wishes to make easy money as quickly as possible to impress "his" Suze. Shall we consider this lack of initiative like a proof of the juvenile inexperience of the teenager or rather like something missing in the novel?

Mind you, Colin MacInnes is not always consistent in remembering that his hero is just a teenager and often makes him much more full-grown than he should be. No matters. The title of the novel says it all: "Absolute Beginners". You don't expect perfection in greenhorns, don't you?
Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall - Anna Funder The public underground toilets of Alexanderplatz, Berlin in the early 1990s.
It's the wee hours and it's snowing outside onto the vast tarmac and concrete rectangle of the empty square. In the toilets, drunken toothless men zip up their flies. The smell of disinfectant and urine, the sight of vomit stains and cigarette butts.

You bet that not many books begin in a less glamorous setting.

What's even more unusual is the way the author introduces herself: hungover and bumping into rubbish bins, memories of her drinking session at the pub only a "smoky blur".
Certainly, Miss Funder doesn't gain much credibility as a reliable journalist with such an overture. As long as Hunter S. Thompson is not her mentor as a gonzo reporter.

Just like the actual aims and reputation of Anna Funder in Berlin, "Stasiland" took its time to convince me.
This is a book with a clumsy and uncertain beginning. The author seems to avoid at any rate the hard task of introducing her readers to the once called German Democratic Republic (GDR).
What Miss Funder focuses on and seeks for are the relevant details that made the big picture: the personal stories of some of those who lived in the GDR.

But this summon of the drowned and the saved after the collapse of East Germany between 1989 and 1990, develops very slowly.
At first, it looks like the author herself treats the whole thing as a pastime inbetween her part-time job on TV and drinking bouts at the Berlinese pubs.
Then, little by little, Anna Funder finds her angle and "Stasiland" eventually takes off as a very good book with that extra bit of research that fills the gap in each personal account.

Even though, the author puts too much of herself into the book (and seems to enjoy despising herself, for what it's worth), this was an interesting and important reading.
Just don't leaf through "Stasiland" expecting to find much of the remorse and redemption of the Stasi agent portrayed in the movie "The Lives of the Others". Actually, the former Stasi agents Anna Funder meets up after putting an insertion on a local newspaper are all but regretful for what they did and look pretty carefree in the new post GDR years.

As for those who were the victims of the Stasi apparatus, the author gets the credit to pick up a few but significant and rather poignant personal stories.

What I liked is the way physically or/and psychologically tortured people recount their awful and often absurd experiences chatting with Miss Funder in a lucid and analytical way.
What didn't convince me is the counterposition that shows men as the only enforcers and women as their chief victims. I believe this choice is not deliberate and is due to the fact that Funder got in touch more easily with women telling her their private stories while in Berlin. At the same time, there were statistically more chances that former Stasi agents contacting the author (she calls them "my Stasi men") were male. But still.

"Stasiland" does have its flaws, but it's a refreshing book and a honest collection of first hand accounts on the GDR, that dinosaur of a blabbermouth nation once called East Germany.
Open - Andre Agassi, J.R. Moehringer «Did you know that Agassi is an Iranian surname? It should be pronounced Agassì, with the stress on the last "i"».

No, I didn't know that when I was 12. But I kept that in mind, as you can read.
Now, the same fact that, back in 1994, my friend Amir (owner of an Iranian and final "i" stressed surname himself) told me something on Andre Agassi and I knew who that guy was means something.

One year before our teens, Amir and I were all but into tennis. Not that we didn't care about sports - football, basketball and even ski were among our chief interests -, but tennis was definitely not.
On the one hand, as self-proclaimed egalitarians, we looked at the racquet & ball discipline as an elitist pastime of the bourgeosie. On the other hand, the lack of a single talented Italian tennis player in the ATP circuit in those years left us with no one to cheer for.

And yet, Andre Agassi was somehow a household name for us. Why?
Did I care about stylish hairdo and weird outfits? No.
Was I a rebel? Most certainly not.

Well, "Open" worked as a refresher. And a good one too.
Agassi was a character. He did crazy things and the media loved or hated him for that due to the circumstances. When Agassi won, the man was a picturesque, charismatic star with the potential to revolutionize tennis for good. When Agassi lost, he became a bad model and a foul-mouthed buffoon not worthy to set foot on a tennis court.
I knew the name of Andre Agassi, but didn't pick a part.

After learning that the surname Agassi was of Iranian origin, I didn't care a bit about tennis for a couple of years. Then, at the age of 14 all this radically changed. I started reading the main tournaments results on newspapers and on teletext. I couldn't stand Sampras and Becker, the winners. I supported erratic players such as Rios, Kuerten, Henman plus the old champ Edberg because I liked his serve and volley. Andre Agassi didn't stir positive or negative reactions in me.

What led me to follow tennis much more than I used to towards the end of the 1990s?
That's easy to say. Love. Not love for the game itself, even though I quite liked to watch the few tennis matches shown on TV (the Rome and Montecarlo Opens, the fortuitous Davis Cup final reached by the Italian male team).

Nay, love for a girl. Or so I thought at that time. Her name was the same of one of the then rising Williams sisters. She looked mysterious and unapproachable. Schoolyard rumours said she was a countess. Faced with aristocracy, my early egalitarianism went through a teenage crisis. Apart from slightly stalking the girl following her everyday on her way to our school, I did some research. You see, I desperately needed some common ground with her to start a conversation.

And I discovered she was the cousin of two professional female tennis players in the WTA circuit. Two sisters who, unlike the Williams, were far off from the best rankings, but still stayed in the top 100 for years.
To cut a long story short, I was too clumsy at that time to win a single point with my beloved girl. And when I managed to drag my possible countess on an actual tennis court, I played so badly that all I recall of that morning is my double faults. No metaphors involved. We played tennis. I was hopeless. Out.

Not so Andre Agassi. Even though the hairy bald man states umpteen times that he "hates" tennis in this book, he was a talent in the game.
He started winning local tournaments well before his teenage years and became an international sensation reaching number 3 in the world ranking at the age of 18.

The best part of "Open" is when Agassi and his Pullitzer-prized ghost writer J.R. Moehringer recount the early years of the champion. That crazy father of Andre torturing his son by the means of a self-built tennis balls shooting machine. The oddities of the Agassi family. Young Andre humiliating adults on a tennis court and being either mocked or patronized by the likes of John McEnroe and Ilie Nastase.

And, above all, it shines the time Agassi spent at the infamous Bollettieri Academy where the pygmalion of scores of tennis stars created the tennis equivalent of a Victorian mill. I believe Agassi and Moehringer exaggerated some details of life at the Bollettieri Academy, but reading those pages was highly entertaining. The antics of Mr Agassi himself and of, say, Jim Courier were priceless.

Less compelling were Agassi's late years in the ATP circuit, when he starts complaining about his back, his sentimental life, his unfair opponents, etc. I appreciate the man wants to show us how fragile he actually is, but he does that with too much victimism for my liking.

And it's funny to read how the already world famous Agassi decided that Steffi Graf had to be his woman by the means of rumours, slight stalking and finding a common ground: just like I did with my teenage love. Poor Steffi Graf.

Let's face it, just like this review of mine, "Open" is a narcissistic accomplishment. Whatever Andre Agassi does in this book, the reader has to be on his side, no matter how wrong that is.
When Mr Agassi breaks the speed limits on his Corvette it's always for a good reason (charity, love, etc.). When Mr Agassi takes drugs or drinks too much it's because others took advantage of his trust and shattered feelings. When Mr Agassi loses a match with a low ranked player it's always because Andre is not focused on tennis, or injured or DECIDES to lose on purpose. I mean, get over yourself man!

And yet, "Open" is an engaging book. I was brought to the tennis courts where Agassi's career took its turning points for bad or for good. And the way Andre A. tells us what he had in his mind while playing those matches is fascinating although a bit unnatural.

Once a woman asked Louis Armstrong what he thought about as he played the trumpet. And Armstrong answered: "Lady, if I told you, your mind would explode".
Your minds will not explode after learning what Agassi thought when he played, but they will certainly have something to think about.
The Fatal Shore: History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia 1787-1868 - Robert Hughes A few years ago, I came across a book by Anton Chekhov in a second hand stall in Ferrara, Italy.
The book was on sale for a song and I promptly bought it even though at that time I had no idea what "Sakhalin Island" was about and had never heard of it. I knew something about Chekhov and that was enough.

Well, needless to say that the travelogue of Chekhov visiting the remote detention island of Sakhalin - somewhere between Russia and Japan - became one of my favourite books pretty soon.
True, the great Russian playwright and writer was shown a mock-up of that huge chunk of frozen land thus grasping only a fragment of the terrible conditions convicts lived in. Nevertheless, "Sakhalin Island" was an eye-opener for me. The author thanks to his literary and medical background, but also because of his qualities as a caring and sympathetic human being brought me there among the settlers of Sakhalin in the Tsarist forefather of the Stalinist archipelago of "working camps".
From then on, I read Shalamov, Solzhenitsyn and Herling as well as Anne Applebaum's masterful Gulag becoming more and more familiar with the gruesome Soviet equivalent of dreadful Nazi concentration camps.

Now, let's leave Sakhalin behind flying to another and bigger island, Australia.
Down Under. Oz, Terra Incognita. The land of plenty. You name it.

You know where it lies.
You know we're talking about a massive island which is actually a continent on its own.
You know they speak English there (although some Englishman might object they actually don't).
You know they drive on the left side of the road.
You know about kangaroos, koalas and - perhaps - even of wombats and platypuses.
You know the king of all sports: Australian rules Football. And if you don't, that's entirely your fault and you deserve to watch some cricket sticking to you Crocodile Dundee on VHS.

Well the thing is, it's all a coincidence. No, not the Aussie football and its sleeveless gladiators in itself, but actually this whole country of Australia as we now know it. Yessir, just a coincidence.
With just a little twist of history, Australia could have been something completely different for the joy and despair of former Python and current documentary maker Michael Palin.

Consider this, if the random Spanish navigator, Portuguese explorer or Dutch merchant had had better instruments for calculating their longitude, Australia would have had very few chances of becoming the less tempting British colony from the end of 18th century to a good half of the following one.

In fact, well before the first Briton set foot on the Australian continent, a few other Europeans had already done it even though none of them understood the extent of their discovery. Documents show how Dutch vessels reached the coasts of Northern Australia 164 years before James Cook and his Endeavour dropped anchor in Botany Bay, south of modern day Sydney.

With peculiar pragmatism and lack of imagination (scurvy and homesickness must have played a role in the choice), Dutch gentlemen of fortune named that stretch of hostile land New Holland and that was pretty much all they did. The northern Australian soil looked sterile enough and even less welcoming with the visitors were the local aborigines who put the Europeans back on their ship by means of arrows and spears.
Two thousand miles southwards, the Dutchmen were the first to put on the maps a triangle-shaped island they christened as Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania). There was a whole continent between New Holland and Van Diemen's Land, but no Dutch seafaring vessel stumbled upon it.

Ahead of the Dutchmen, Spanish and Portuguese navigators looked for a Terra Australis, but always missed it for an inch or two and, if they ever landed on its shores, failed to bring tidings to the eager courts of Madrid and Lisbon.

You see? Coincidences. Luck and fate were with the Britons.
On 29 April 1770, captain James Cook "discovered" Australia a good 50,000 years after its first inhabitants moved to the continent coming from Asia.
The funny thing is that this discovery was a serendipity or rather an accident. As Robert Hughes makes clear, Cook had no intention of discovering an entire new continent. What the British navigator and his crew wanted to do was actually going back to England as quickly as possible after their long journey around New Zealand and Tahiti. And so it happened that the Endeavour and her crew came across the eastern coast of Australia by mere chance looking for a shortcut back home.

Cook and his men followed the discoverers' protocol. They claimed those lands for the Crown of England. They put a flagpole with its customary Union Jack on the sandy shore. They meticolously named every bay, cove and promontory around them. They picked up a few local specimens to show in London. They waved at the reluctant Aborigines by shooting a gun. Then, they left. The land beyond Botany Bay looked far too vast to explore thoroughly and on the spot, so the Endeavour came back into the open sea.

Now, another funny thing is that in London nobody could care less about this new land of Australia. All the interest of the public was for the fierce Maori warriors and the spectacular natural scenery of New Zealand as well as for the tropical bliss of Tahiti with its sophisticated rituals and its sensual beautiful women (Paul Gauguin would have understood that completely).
Even the kangaroo Cook somehow managed to bring back to England didn't excite the British scientists who found it vaguely similar to a hare. Call them stupid now.

The reason why eleven English ships came back to Australia eighteen years after (18!) Cook's landing is very simple: England wanted to get rid of hundreds of petty criminals who overcrowded its gaols. And what better place to send these thieves, forgers and good for nothings (no prostitutes, but plenty of rapers) than a distant dustbin like Australia? And so the story went on.

I want (or better need) to cut it short now.
This book is extraordinary. To my knowledge there is not a single aspect of the whole early Australian epic that the recently gone Robert Hughes - an Aussie himself - forgot to cover in "The Fatal Shore".

From the age of explorations to the bad conditions of Georgian England which led to the decision of sending convicts overseas. From the first meetings with Aborigines to their sad fate and, quite often, careless extermination. From fascinating early descriptions of wild Australia plants and animals to the harsh and primitive life spent by the convicts and their keepers in Sydney, Norfolk island and Van Diemen's Land. From the appalling way women were treated in the new colony to the crazy attempts of those who tried to escape from Australia ending up dead in the bushland or caught by the seas. And much much more.

"The Fatal Shore" is a gem of a book and a captivating account of approximately a century of Australian history which nobody talks much about nowadays.
The documents, letters, stories you will find here are second to nothing else. And Robert Hughes shows an unbelievable talent in keeping everything accessible and at the same incredibly rich, meaningful and multi-layered. This is history telling at its greatest and if you're Australian, visited Oz or are planning to go Down Under make sure to add this book up to your Lonely Planet or Rough guide.

Robertson Davies - The Deptford Trilogy

The Deptford Trilogy: Fifth Business, The Manticore, and World of Wonders - Robertson Davies

From the snapshots you can find online, Robertson Davies looked like Charles Darwin with a touch of Santa Claus.

The Canadian author had a long white forked beard that was strikingly demode in the 1970s when he delivered the three books of this excellent Deptford Trilogy.
And yet, don't be fooled by the first appearances. You better look more carefully at the photos of Mr Davies. If you do that, you will perceive genuine wit and an eager inquisitiveness in his eyes as well as the intimidating irony of his slightly raised eyebrows.

This man knew what he did and always kept himself up-to-date with the long times he lived in. If Robertson Davies chose to look from another age deserting the barbershops of Ontario, that was not a sign of personal carelessness but very much a deliberate intellectual disguise.

Davies' old-fashioned long white forked beard had at the same time the gravitas of the British born naturalist and the bonhomie of the popular gift-bearer. And in between Darwin's meticolous but revolutionary cataloguing and classifying specimens and Father Christmas' magic but punctual efficiency in delivering airborne gifts, Robertson Davies' prose might be found.

No surprises that reading "The Deptford Trilogy" to me has been like embarking on the Beagle with a flying open sleigh on the deck ready to take off at the author's call.
Captain Davies led our brig-sloop time-machine through his story with remarkable confidence and ease leaving the Canadian shores behind with the occasional brat throwing a snowball at us from the quay. During our navigation he always had the first and the last word on board and - to his credit - he managed to keep his whole crew of characters under control without neglecting the needs of his only reader and passenger.

We followed a circular route with a stopover between "Fifth Business" and "The Manticore" to welcome on board a new first narrator looking for psychoanalysis. Then, thanks to the flying open sleigh we brought along on the Beagle, we left the poor fellow on the Swiss Alps between Jung and the Jungfrau.
Just in time to begin the exploration of the third stage of our trip leading us to the illusive borders of the "World of Wonders" together with a film troupe and eventually back to Deptford.

Believe me, folks. You will suffer no seasickness sailing (and flying) with Robertson Davies. This guy never loses the control of his helm and - as a plus - is not afraid of pointing straight into the whirlwinds of history, politics, religion and love. That and the difficult art and consequences of dodging a snowball thrown by a brat.
The magical realism and real magic you will bring back home after embarking on a journey on The Deptford Trilogy with Captain Davies are equally haunting.

Peter Carey - Bliss

Bliss - Peter Carey

"How to Spoil a Good Plot" a dissertation in form of a novel titled "Bliss" by Peter Carey.


Take a great idea. The apparent death and unexpected resuscitation of the main character would do.
Develop the aforementioned great idea a step forward. The main character thinking that he actually died, went to Hell and that his own life after-resuscitation is just a day to day performance set up by demonic-characters impersonating his family and friends sounds perfect.

Now, this is definitely something. And if you add up that the main character writes down notes comparing the differences between the people he knew before his stroke with those he now believes are performing their roles, the plot you have it's just great with a hint of absurdity.

But that's not the purpose of the dissertation you put your nose onto.
What Mr Author, needs first and foremost is to spoil a good plot. And that's what Peter Carey does for the remaining two thirds of the book.

How he did it? It's quite simple. Just put the absurd element to an extreme, introducing madness, manias of persecution and some deranged characters flirting with lost ambitions, homeopathy, alcohol abuse and - why not? - drugs.
Leave behind all the potentially good subplots you started at the beginning of the novel to focus on the madness of the main character and his clumsy need of redemption while in a psychiatric hospital.

Forget about mentioning Hell again as the same quality of your prose will lead the readers straight into the infernal abyss leaving them quite confused and with an unbearable urge to put the book aside.

Well done! "Bliss" is just ready to be read and, most likely, heavily misunderstood for a decent novel. I repeat: this book is nothing of that sort but the crafty disguise of a masterful dissertation titled "How to Spoil a Good Plot".