Monthly Archives: November 2011

The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, edited by Chris Baldick

There was no way I could have passed by this book and not pick it up, and after picking it up, not wanting to read it. Not even the fact that it was the only copy and looked slightly worn, with a bent corner, could make me put it back on the shelf in the bookstore.

The book is divided into three sections with 37 stories from the 18th, 19th and 20th century. One of them, Sir Betrand: A Fragment, by Anna Laetitia Aikin, can be found here I found the story intriguing, considering it ends just when it gets more interesting. Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher and The Adventure of the Speckled Band by Arthur Conan Doyle I’ve read before – the rest were new to me.

This is a very good collection of Gothic stories; there are bloody ghosts, evil characters, vampires and haunted houses, religious themes, kidnappings, strange plants, and horrifying acts of cruelty. I got literally sick when reading The Bloody Countess by Alejandra Pizarnik – the story of a beautiful aristocrat who tortured and killed young girls and used their blood in the hope of preserving her youth – the gory details, the vivid descriptions of various ways of torture made for quite a disgusting story.

It was a nice surprise to see stories by authors I’ve read before: Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Scarlett Letter – I read it a few years ago as an assignment for school and liked it very much) with Rappaccini’s Daughter, a tale about the beautiful daughter of a scientist and the mysterious and evil power of a plant; Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island – one of the books of my childhood) with Olalla, in which a man falls in love with a beautiful woman of an accursed lineage; H.P. Lovecraft (I’ve read some short story collection by him but was unable to finish – maybe someday…) with The Outsider, about a creature who lives in a castle and sees itself for the first time with scary consequences.
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Stetson sent chills down my spine – I got so engrossed in the story that it became difficult to distinguish reality from a sick imagination, they blurred so well, and only the end provided the key to the mystery.
Sardonicus by Ray Russell is the story of a man punished for his greed: his lips are forever frozen in a horrible grin and no doctor is able to restore his face to normal, until a renowned physician manages to help him but there is a terrible price to pay.

I have been looking for a book like this for a long time; there’s nothing quite like a Gothic tale. There are some good horror stories nowadays but the old ones are still my favorite. I will be reading this again someday.
For some reason I think this song&video by Florence and The Machine fits rather well with the whole atmosphere of the book. I especially love the first part, right before the tempo picks up. The lyrics are good too.

*Read in November 2011

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The Art of Racing in the Rain – Garth Stein

In the morning before breakfast I go outside to say hi to my three balls of fur. I open the door and a black little nose is right there, sniffing at the air. I crouch to give her a pat and she starts barking loudly and jumping about, excited. That’s Blackie, an all-black-with-a-spatter-of-white-on-the-chest little dog. I call her little but that doesn’t have anything to do with her age. From behind a big potted plant I see her mother, a pair of intelligent eyes that look straight at me, and I read the question there: do you have any food? Off to one side lies Honey, big and fat – she barely stirs but I know that if I go to her she’ll start licking my hands slow, methodical, affectionate.
Have I wondered what goes on in their heads, what they would tell me if they could talk? I have. That is why, when I saw “The Art of racing in the Rain” I knew this was the kind of book I would like to read. Not because I’d find some answers (I wish!) but because I love animals. I did love Enzo from the first page, the old lab with an obsession for opposable thumbs, a believer in Mongolian legends. And even if it was obvious from the beginning how the story was going to end, I still wanted to read it.

Enzo was adopted by Denny when he was but a few weeks old. Over the years, the two of them forge a beautiful friendship – there are joys and sorrows and moments of uneasiness, but they are always by each other’s side. Enzo is no ordinary dog – the writer gives him a unique voice, even if that cannot be translated into words:

I tried. I tried as hard as I could to form words for him but they wouldn’t come. I tried to beam my thoughts into his head via telepathy. I tried to send him the pictures I saw in my mind. I twitched my ears. I cocked my head. I nodded. I pawed.
Until he smiled at me and stood.
“Thanks, Enzo,” he would say to me on those days. “You’re not too tired, are you?”
I would stand and wag. I’m never too tired.

Enzo likes to watch tv and he’s a big fan of racing, a passion he shares with Denny, who would leave every now and then to train for racing competitions. Over the course of the entire novel, racing becomes more than a passion, it’s another analogy for life:
“The race is long. It is better to drive within oneself and finish the race behind the others than it is to drive too hard and crash.”

Apart from racing, Enzo enjoys movies and we get to find out about his favorite actors: Steve McQueen, Al Pacino and Paul Newman. There’s also quite a funny observation concerning George Clooney that made me chuckle. In fact I found myself in turns, smiling, nodding, getting excited and in the end, crying.
I loved the end – apart from the inevitable drama there was also hope and a wish that came true, and that was touching and I smiled behind my sadness.

*Read in November, 2011

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More photos from Thailand

Double click on the photo for a larger size.

Damnoen Saduak Floating Market

The Erawan Museum

Posted in Interesting Places | 4 Comments

Day 3 – Maesai & The Golden Triangle

On the third day of our holiday it started to rain – not a great day for photos. We had booked a tour to Mae Sai and The Golden Triangle. There’s not much to say about this day except for a few interesting bits and pieces: a visit to the beautiful White Temple with its own runway through “hell”, a trip to Laos where a taste of cobra whiskey was offered for free, some interesting souvenirs in Vietnam – beautifully carved masks, opium pipes and bone figurines, and a disappointing viewing of a “hill tribe village” that was about as real as a staged play. But the next day, everything got better. Much better.
Double click on the photos for a larger size.

Chiang Mai – 3

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The Kill – Émile Zola

(A new translation, with an Introduction, by Arthur Goldhammer)

It’s time for a classic again and since Émile Zola has been on my list of writers to read, I decided to pick out The Kill as my introductory book into the realm of his works.
The Kill (published in 1871 under the title La Curée) is the second book in a series of twenty novels titled Les Rougon-Macquart. The books follow the lives of descendants of a family set on a background of French history. Banned upon publication, the book was translated several times and even made into a movie, The Game Is Over, starring Jane Fonda, in 1966.

The story begins in the Paris of the 1850’s. It is a time of quick money to be made, of speculations which could turn staggering profits, of luxury, debauchery and gluttony. Every vice is exacerbated; love affairs are used to manipulate deals, while rivers of money pour into the houses of the rich who only think of spending them as quickly as possible. There’s an opulence which dazzles the eye and the people appear to be marionettes to be dressed in the finest, most daring and rich costumes. Indeed, the whole book gives the reader the impression of watching a great spectacle: here a socialite dresses up for a great ball, her clothes a triumph of French couture, there a speculator planning to get his hands in the next profitable business, or a lazy son whose main goal in life seems to be to drink from the cup of debauchery until the very last drop; a rush for pleasure, for aesthetic opulence, for money and more money to spend, for parties and gossip and the latest trend.
Paris seems to be a character in itself, pulsating with life, always changing, always on the move.

“The lovers were in love with the new Paris. They often dashed about the city by carriage, detouring down certain boulevards for which they felt a special affection. They took delight in the imposing houses with big carved doors and innumerable balconies emblazoned with names, signs, and company insignia in big gold letters. As their coupé sped along, they fondly gazed out upon the gray strips of sidewalk, broad and interminable, with their benches, colorful columns and skinny trees. The bright gap stretching all the way to the horizon, narrowing as it went and opening out onto a patch of empty blue sky; the uninterrupted double row of big stores with clerks smiling at their customers; the bustling streams of pedestrians – all this filled them little by little with a sense of absolute and total satisfaction, a feeling of perfection as they viewed the life of the street…They were constantly on the move…Each boulevard became but another corridor of their house.”

The book follows the life of three people: Aristide Saccard, his second wife Renée, and Maxime, his son from his first marriage.
Against this background of decadence, Renée’s life seems just another tiny spark lost in the crowd. Her marriage is merely a business transaction meant to save her reputation – she gets a husband and he gets the fortune he’d always dreamed of. Renée spends her days in frivolous pursuits which her husband finances while at the same time using her influence to increase his fortune. Fleeting between love affairs, bored with her life of leisure, she sets her eyes on her stepson, the young Maxime, and their incestuous relationship will cause her to oscillate between despair and happiness. Her fate brings to mind Flaubert’s Madame Bovary – however, Zola took things much further with vivid descriptions of sexual encounters, parties, and lavish dinners meant to intoxicate and stimulate the senses. Paris is a cauldron of desire always on the verge of boiling.

“She raised her head. The upper branches of the trees stood out against a clear sky, while the irregular line of houses blurred to the point where it resembled masses of rock jutting up along the shore of a bluish sea. But this strip of sky made her sadder still, and it was in the darkness of the boulevard that she found a certain consolation. What remained clinging to the deserted avenue of the evening’s noise and vice was her excuse. She could almost feel the heat of all the footsteps of all those men and women rising from the cooling sidewalk. The shame that had loitered there – the momentary lusts, the whispered offers, the one-night nuptials paid for in advance – evaporated, hovering in the air like a heavy mist roiled by the morning breezes. Leaning out over the darkness, she breathed in this shivering silence, this bedroom scent, as an encouragement that came to her from below, an assurance that her shame was shared and accepted by a complicit city.”

I found it best to savor the novel in small doses. The richness of the language, the obvious “moral hollowness” of the characters combined with the spectacular renderings of Paris made reading the story an interesting and enjoyable experience – a glimpse into the decadent life of the city in the 19th century.

*Read in November, 2011

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Somebody’s watching

A mango tree with an attitude.

Posted in From The Land of Smiles | 8 Comments

Pandora – Anne Rice

Having just finished reading American Gods by Neil Gaiman, I involuntarily reached for Pandora in an attempt to continue on the path of the gods/myths stories. I am not stranger to Anne Rice’s prose, having read a few of her books of which “The Mayfair Witches” was by far my favorite.

The story begins in a café in modern day Paris, where Pandora, an ancient vampire, is writing her life’s story. Like the famous woman who inspired her name, Pandora is about to open the box which contains the memories of a life that goes back to ancient Rome. Reluctant at first but then caught under the spell of remembering, she starts writing about her father, who was an important Senator during the reign of Augustus Cesar, her brothers and her life. It was a time of freedom and learning, of oratorical discourses and leisure which came to an abrupt halt when Pandora’s family was murdered and she was forced to go into hiding to the great city of Antioch. Tormented by blood dreams and followed by a mysterious creature rumored to be a blood drinker, Pandora seeks refuge into the temple of Isis where she learns about the ancient worship of the goddess which included feeding on blood. There she sees Marius again, a blond, blue-eyed “blood-god” whom she had met as a young girl in her homeland. Their love will keep them together for two hundred years in the city of Antioch where they would spend their days reading ancient texts and arguing, keeping vigil over the ancient Pair, the King and Queen whose death would cause the extinction of all blood drinkers.

This book was a tangle of stories, names, writings and old legends set on a background of vampire lore. It starts beautifully, with Pandora slowly trying to gather her ideas and bring back memories of childhood. There are beautiful passages imbued with sensuality:

“Naturally, David, you would leave me something elegant, an inviting page. This notebook bound in dark varnished leather, it is not, tooled with a design of rich roses, thornless, yet leafy, a design that means only Design in the final analysis but bespeaks an authority. What is written beneath this heavy and handsome book cover will count, sayeth the cover.”
“I am thinking about your request in writing. You see, you will get something from me. I find myself yielding to it, almost as one of our human victims yields to us, discovering perhaps as the rain continues to fall outside, as the café continues with its noisy chatter, to think that this might not be the agony I presumed – reaching back over the two thousand years – but almost a pleasure, like the act of drinking blood itself.”

Sadly, these are about the only paragraphs I really enjoyed from this book. I read the story fairly quickly because I just hoped it would get better and I do hate giving up on a book. As the narrative continued and I was thrust into the precipitating events, everything seemed just a blur of people, references to famous writers and texts. Ovid’s Amores and Metamorphoses, a quote from Shakespeare and references to her own books and characters like “Memnoch the Devil” (which I haven’t read), Lestat, “The Queen of the Damned” (I’ve seen the movie), bits of Egypt and Roman history, all contributed to make the story too intricate for my taste. Add to that a penchant for exclamation marks and fast dialogue and the picture is complete. What I can say is that I’m glad I got to read “The Mayfair Witches” first. Had I started with this book, it would have been difficult to give Anne Rice’s books another try.

*Read in November 2011

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15 random things about 500 Days of Summer

In an attempt to forget (even for a short while) about the waters that are creeping slowly but surely into the city, I decided to watch a movie. This one has been on my radar for a while but for some reason got pushed somewhere far away until today and I’m glad I watched it now. It was good, it was romantic, it was lovely, it was the perfect escape. And I loved it.

15 random things about 500 Days of Summer

1. Summer is a cool name for a girl. Autumn is not.
2. If expectations would coincide with reality every time, life wouldn’t be as interesting.
3. Never heard of The Architecture of Happiness by Alain Botton but now that I have, I want to read it.
4. There’s a French song in this movie that I really liked.
5. Things can go from colorful to colorless very quickly when you are in love. Nothing new here, eh?
6. When Tom is depressed he likes vodka and orange juice. Oh, and smashing plates.
7. “To die by your side is a heavenly way to die.” The Smiths said that. Beautiful.
8. Some people can draw a cool picture on the inside of an arm.
9. “She’s like the wind…” Remember that song?
10. There are things you shouldn’t shout in a park in the middle of the day.
11. It’s cool to have a blackboard in your house. I want one too.
12. Have you read The Picture of Dorian Gray? This movie will remind you of it.
13. Vagiant is what happens when you put together vampire and giant. There’s actually a band with that name. I googled it. Shame on me, I know.
14. “The best way to get over a woman is to turn her into literature.” Apparently Henry Miller said that.
15. I dare you to tell me you don’t like this song:

Posted in Movies | 9 Comments

American Gods – Neil Gaiman

I started on American Gods with high expectations. For the longest time I went back and forth between Gaiman’s novels, wondering about which one I should read first (I say “first” because I had no doubt this will be only the first in a line of Neil Gaiman books to be read), and after finally placing Anansi Boys back on the shelf, I took American Gods home.

About the story:

The old gods are still alive and the new gods are not happy about it. There’s a war coming and they are preparing for battle. All of them.
On parole from prison and on his way home to attend his wife’s funeral, Shadow meets the mysterious Mr. Wednesday who offers him a job. Being alternately thrust into the heart of the preparations for war and told to hide in a small town, Shadow meets some interesting people and takes an even more interesting journey across America.

As I am a big fan of books involving gods and other mythological creatures, this book appealed to me from the start. Add to that a few interesting characters some unexpected plot twists and I was all set to enjoy the adventure. However, in the last 150 pages or so I was anxious to get some answers as the story seemed to drag on too long. And I did get them.
This is one complex tale and if you expect things to move in a straight line you will be disappointed. There are quite a few meandering paths to take and many side characters to meet before the mystery can be explained. From an abundance of gods and goddesses who have the ability to shape-shift into animals, to small town people and interesting places, this was no quick read for me. My patience was tried several times to the point where I just wanted to flip ahead a few pages, but luckily I didn’t. Gaiman has the ability to construct a believable story with real-life characters, and inserting them into a plot that has just the right combination of weirdness and total normalcy. I like how even the supposedly ‘good guys’ aren’t perfect but rather a mixture of good and bad, how it was perfectly acceptable to meet a god in prison and have the dead walk again and to read about a goddess who devours men in order to survive.
There are a few references to other authors and their books: Herodotus, Stephen King and Charles Dickens come to mind. I’ll let you discover the names of their works for yourself.

Some of my favorite passages:

“So yeah, my people figured that maybe there’s something at the back of it all, a creator, a great spirit, and so we say thank you to it, because it’s always good to say thank you. But we never built churches. We didn’t need to. The land was the church. The land was the religion. The land was older and wiser than the people who walked on it. It gave us salmon and corn and buffalo and passenger pigeons. It gave us wild rice and walleye. It gave us melon and squash and turkey. And we were the children of the land, just like the porcupine and the skunk and the blue jay. “

“Still, there was a tale he had read once, long ago, as a small boy: the story of a traveler who had slipped down a cliff, with man-eating tigers above him and a lethal fall below him, who managed to stop his fall halfway down the side of the cliff, holding on for dear life. There was a clump of strawberries beside him, and certain death above him and below. What should he do? went the question. And the reply was, Eat the strawberries.”

The edition of the book I got has a peculiarity (typing error perhaps?) which goes on pretty much to the end of the story, so many sentences look like this:

“Aprecise voice, fussy and exact, was speaking to him, in his dream, but he could see no one.“
“Aman in a dark suit….”
“Atired white woman stared at him from behind the counter.”

Somebody loved their A’s so much they didn’t want them to feel lonely.

*Read in October 2011

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