domingo, abril 16, 2017

Empire of Self - a life of Gore Vidal, by Jay Parini

I have been an admirer of Gore Vidal for a long time, since the 90s. The first of his books I read was Julian, out of my interest for historical novels, then the completely different Myra Breckinridge, out of a praise by Italo Calvino. I liked them both very much, but I think it was Empire that really got me hooked, and then Palimpsest and his essays. Here was an intelligent, sensible and witty voice, even if somewhat narcissistic and not artistically great.

I read all his Narratives of Empire, several of his satirical novels and many of his essays, and his memoirs. I enjoy his writing, and find myself agreeing with him more often than not. His constant auto-biographical remarks naturally led me to take an interest in his life, and what a life it was. He's one of the writers whose life I like to know, like Virginia Woolf, Bruce Chatwin, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Simone de Beauvoir. Deeply flawed as he undoubtly was, his was a courageous life - how else would one rate his publishing a book like The City and the Pillar in the 1940s? - because some writers' lives and work are so inextricably linked.

And how can one not love his witty remarks? Just a few samples: In my country, yes, the people can say anything they want, as long as nobody is listening. They do as they are they are told. On the other hand, Hollywood makes them happy. The sort of exuberant badness which so often achieves perfect popularity cannot be faked. I am at heart a propagandist, a tremendous hater, a tiresome nag, complacently positive that there is no human problem which could not be solved if people simply would do as I advise.

Jay Parini's book looks like a very balanced biography, affectionate and acknowledging its subject's qualities and flaws. I think it's does justice to its subject, and it's also an enjoyable read.

quinta-feira, abril 13, 2017

A weekend in Lyon

So I went to Lyon for a weekend; it's always nice to get away from the routine for a while, and I love to visit European cities. Lyon is a nice city, France's third largest, and I really enjoyed going there. The weather was nice enough, some periods of rain but also some sunny times to enjoy city walks and café terraces.

Arriving on a Friday afternoon, I started by walking around - crossed the Rhône to Presqu'Île at the huge Place Bellecour, headed north along 19th century boulevards to Place des Terreaux with the Hôtel de Ville, then enjoyed a drink at a terrace in the cosy Place Sathonay, where young people chat and smoke at the café terraces while old men play boules in the square.

I went up the hill by the Montée de la Grande Côte, toward a great view over the city, that even features a miniature Eiffel tower. Went down again and crossed the river to Vieux Lyon near the Saint Paul church, lots of people strolling or just sitting by the river banks on that sunny afternoon.

There were lots of kids around Saint Paul, it was probably the time when school finished. After visiting the small church, I walked around Vieux Lyon, the Rue Juiverie, the Rue du Boeuf, and then climbed the many steps of the Montée des Chazeaux to the hill of Fourvière, to enjoy the gorgeous view over the city, next to the 19th century basilica, appropriately described as an elephant on its back, the kind of huge religious building like the Sacré Coeur in Paris or the Notre Dame basilica in Marseilles.

Going down to Vieux Lyon was much easier than climbing the steps, and I had a glass of wine before dinner at the cathedral square, before eating a great meal at a bouchon nearby - I think it was one of the better meals I had in a long time - quenelles de brochet, Lyon saucisson, joue de boeuf, very good wines.

The next day, Saturday, it was cloudy and rainy. But I was lucky since it stopped raining around noon, so I could walk around Vieux Lyon and go to the Saint Just neighborhood to see the old church of Saint Irénée, and then the Roman ruined theatres. There's very little left of the Romah Lugdunum which, being the capital of Gaul, must have been a big Roman city. The site of the theatre is amazing nonetheless, commanding a splendid view over the city.

A rainy afternoon was the perfect time to go to the Musée des Beaux Arts. It has a very good collection, especially of Middle Eastern artifacts from Antiquity, and Limoges art and 19th century sculpture.

Then it stopped raining and I walked by the Opera along the river to my hotel.

On Sunday, I started the day visiting the Saint Jean cathedral, with its beautiful 14th century astrological clock, then went to Place des Terreaux, which was crowded with people coming to some urban races. I walked from there to the Croix Rousse neighborhood, along some very nice traboules, which are shortcuts between main streets, across nice courtyards and stairs.

I loved the Croix Rousse, with its buildings and squares, spent some time in a nice bohemian looking café and enjoyed the views over the river from its slopes. There was a little rain and I came across the Sunday runners several times. Then back to the Presqu'Île boulevards with its beautiful 19th century façades, and perusing the Gibert Joseph bookstore and buying a few books.

What else can one wish from a weekend abroad? Good sightseeing, great food, nice walks and a few good books to bring home and read later. Love Europe!

quarta-feira, março 29, 2017

The Silk Roads, by Peter Frankopan

This is a really excellent book, an extremely enjoyable read, especially for History nerds like myself that were always fascinated with the East and the intricacies of History. The premise is very interesting - a universal history centered in the region between East and West, the famed Silk Roads, instead of Europe as we're used to. This shift of perspective makes for a reappraisal of several historical events under a new light - the same events, some different considerations. One has to know world history to appreciate it, because there are several facts only alluded to or not even covered, like the french revolution or the Enlightenment period.

I think there are two weaknesses in the book though: the first is the author doesn't try to explain how the West (meaning Europe) became the main determinant of the events since the 16th century, mostly due to the scientific revolution (Yuval Harari explains it extremely well in Sapiens); the other is his - in my opinion - misjudged appraisal of the present situation of the Central Asian countries. Yes, they may be experiencing a phase of extreme wealth due to their natural resources, but I don't think that means they're back to being the determinants of world history. Like the Iberian countries after the discoveries, their wealth is temporary and the real moving forces of world history are in the Western world due to their scientific and technological hegemony.

Anyway, I liked this book immensely, it reads like a novel, it's full of interesting and very well researched information, and it helps to understand our world history in an original and intelligent perspective. Peter Frankopan wrote a true masterpiece, and I look forward to read his other books.

quinta-feira, março 16, 2017

We need to talk about Kevin, by Lionel Shriver

I had watched the movie, and liked it - fabulous Tilda Swinton - so I was curious to read the book. I liked it even better; it's very well written, moving and thought provoking. or personal reasons, I am very interested in these questions, of nature vs nurture and parenting, and I think the author poses these questions extremely well. A very good book.

segunda-feira, fevereiro 27, 2017

Scandinavians, by Robert Ferguson

For a number of years now I've been interested in Scandinavia and its culture, ever since I went to Copenhagen - and then to Sweden, Norway and Iceland. I can't remember what first attracted me, maybe the feeling of a very civilised atmosphere, or the beauty of the cities - Copenhagen and Stockholm - so different from our southern European ones, or the extraordinary natural wonders of Norway - the Lofoten islands, the fjords - and later the magical nature of Iceland - but by that time I was already totally hooked. I think it started with a combination of the urban civilisation and the natural beauty, that led me to try to know its culture, and then the somewhat austere and melodic literature kept my interest going - I was already acquainted with Selma Lagerlöf, Karen Blixen and Peter Hoeg, and then I discovered Vilhelm Moberg, Per Lagerkvist, Knut Hamsun, Halldor Laxness. I even learnt a little Swedish, enough to read Swedish papers on the internet, watch some Swedish television series - like Äkta Människor, Bron and 1790 - and even read a couple of books in Swedish.

So, I was curious to read this book, its premise being to analyse Scandinavian culture and "soul" and understand its allure. And it certainly is a very interesting and readable book. The author is obviously in love with Scandinavian culture, he is extremely knowledgeable and the book is very informative, full of interesting anecdotes and details about Scandinavian history and culture, from the Vikings to Bergman, Queen Kristina to Breijvik, the Icelandic assembly to Denmark under Struensee, Knut Hamsun and Edvard Munch to the Abba. All that makes for a very interesting reading, but do we really get that soul of the North the author is searching? I don't think so; it certainly helps us to understand its civilisation and mores, but I guess there is something unfathomable in what attracts us to a culture that's not rationally understandable, and that's part of its fascination.

sexta-feira, fevereiro 10, 2017

Un homme qui dort, de Georges Perec

Ever since I read the excellent La vie, mode d'emploi, I've been an admirer f Georges Perec, and even since no other of his books has appealed as much to me, I have liked all I've read by him. Un homme qui dort is very good, extremely insightful in what concerns the existential disenchantment with the world, a feeling we could call depression, but somehow if feels like is something simultaneous more and less than that, more a state of mind than a medical condition. And he writes in such a beautiful French! At the end, a sentence stuck in my mind: L'indifférence ne t'a pas rendu indifférent. He got it.

sábado, fevereiro 04, 2017

Sapiens - a brief history of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari

This is a really great book, I enjoyed it from the beginning until the last page. The author is extremely knowledgeable and writes in an engaging prose, and really knows how to convey the story of Homo sapiens since its origins until the present times.

It's also a very thought provoking book, the way it depicts the success of biologic evolution against the fate of individual beings, whether men or animals or plants. I really liked the author's description of the several breakthroughs in our evolution and history. All in all, it's an excellent book, and I highly recommend it.