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‘The Red Tenda of Bologna’ by John Berger *****

I had not read anything of John Berger’s before reaching the thirtieth book in the Penguin Moderns series.  The Red Tenda of Bologna, which was first published in 2007, is a ‘dream-like meditation on memory, food, paintings, a fond uncle and the improbable beauty of Bologna, from the visionary thinker and art critic.’

9780241339015The Red Tenda of Bologna opens in an intriguing, even a spellbinding, way, when Berger depicts the relationship which he had with his uncle Edgar: ‘I should begin with how I loved him, in what manner, to what degree, with what kind of incomprehension.’  The way in which he describes his uncle is quite lovely: ‘When he first came to live with us, I was about ten years old and he was in his mid-fifties.  Yet I thought of him as ageless.  Not unchanging, certainly not immortal, but ageless because unanchored in any period, past or future.  And so, as a kid, I could love him as an equal.  Which I did.’

The Red Tenda of Bologna is comprised of a series of untitled vignettes, some of which are only one sentence long, and which together form a wonderful fragmented memoir.  These vignettes follow one another in their content; a rumination in one about Berger and Uncle Edgar sharing affection for one another by giving small gifts leads to a list of some of the things which they exchanged, ranging from ‘a map of Iceland’ and ‘a pair of motorbike goggles’, to ‘a biography of Dickens’ and ‘one and a half dozen Whistable oysters.’

Berger fittingly brings his memories of his uncle to life on the page.  It soon becomes quite possible to see Edgar sitting astride his upright bicycle, with its pile of books strapped to the luggage rack, ready to be exchanged at Croydon’s public library.  Edgar was clearly a huge influence upon, and comfort within, Berger’s life.  He writes: ‘Whenever I stood beside him – in the figurative or literal sense – I felt reassured.  Time will tell, he used to say, and he said this in such a way that I assumed time would tell what we’d both be finally glad to hear.’

Indeed, Berger decides to travel to Bologna quite some time after his uncle’s death, as it was a place which Edgar held dear.  The scenes which unfold on the page are both sumptuous and observant; for instance, Berger writes: ‘I notice that some people crossing the square, when they are more or less at its centre, pause and lean their backs against an invisible wall of an invisible tower of air, which reaches towards the sky, and there they glance upwards to check the clouds or the sky’s emptiness.’  Thus, the history of his uncle, and the history of Bologna, begin to converge.  Berger writes about a singular relationship, as well as the relationship which he has with Bologna.

The ‘tenda’ of the book’s title is the name of the red cloth used to make window awnings in Bologna, all of which are in varying shades of red according to their age.  Berger wishes to buy a length of it, as a souvenir of his trip.  He writes: ‘I’m not sure what I’ll do with it.  Maybe I only need it to make this portrait.  Anyway I’ll be able to feel it, scrumble it up, smooth it out, hold it against the sunlight, hang it, fold it, dream of what’s on the other side.’

The Red Tenda of Bologna is a tender, thoughtful rumination on life and love.  It is a small but perfectly formed book, artful and intelligent.  The prose is best savoured, written as it is with the all-seeing artist’s eye.

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The Book Trail: From ‘Artful’ to Footnotes

For today’s Book Trail post, we begin with one of Ali Smith’s lecture series-cum-incredibly readable book, and weave our way through tomes weird and wonderful.

1. Artful by Ali Smith
15811569In February 2012, the novelist Ali Smith delivered the Weidenfeld lectures on European comparative literature at St. Anne’s College, Oxford. Her lectures took the shape of this set of discursive stories. Refusing to be tied down to either fiction or the essay form, Artful is narrated by a character who is haunted—literally—by a former lover, the writer of a series of lectures about art and literature.  A hypnotic dialogue unfolds, a duet between and a meditation on art and storytelling, a book about love, grief, memory, and revitalization. Smith’s heady powers as a fiction writer harmonize with her keen perceptions as a reader and critic to form a living thing that reminds us that life and art are never separate.  Artful is a book about the things art can do, the things art is full of, and the quicksilver nature of all artfulness. It glances off artists and writers from Michelangelo through Dickens, then all the way past postmodernity, exploring every form, from ancient cave painting to 1960s cinema musicals. This kaleidoscope opens up new, inventive, elastic insights—on the relation of aesthetic form to the human mind, the ways we build our minds from stories, the bridges art builds between us. Artful is a celebration of literature’s worth in and to the world and a meaningful contribution to that worth in itself. There has never been a book quite like it.

 

2. And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos by John Berger
In an extraordinary distillation of his gifts as a novelist, poet, art critic, and social historian, John Berger reveals the ties between love and absence, the ways poetry endows language with the assurance of prayer, and the tensions between the forward movement of sexuality.

 

3. The Ongoing Moment by Geoff Dyer 378529
The Ongoing Moment is Dyer’s unique and idiosyncratic history of photography. Seeking to identify their signature styles Dyer looks at the ways that canonical figures such as Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Walker Evans, Kertesz, Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus and William Eggleston have photographed the same scenes and objects (benches, hats, hands, roads). In doing so Dyer constructs a narrative in which those photographers – many of whom never met in their lives – constantly come into contact with each other. Great photographs change the way we see the world; The Ongoing Moment changes the way we look at both. It is the most ambitious example to date of a form of writing that Dyer has made his own: the non-fiction work of art.

 

4. Yours Ever: People and Their Letters by Thomas Mallon
Yours Ever explores the offhand masterpieces dispatched through the ages by messenger, postal service, and BlackBerry. Thomas Mallon weaves a remarkable assortment of epistolary riches into his own insightful and eloquent commentary on the circumstances and characters of the world’s most intriguing letter writers. Here are Madame de Sévigné’s devastatingly sharp reports from the court of Louis XIV, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tormented advice to his young daughter, the besotted midlife billets-doux of a suddenly rejuvenated Woodrow Wilson, the casually brilliant spiritual musings of Flannery O’Connor, the lustful boastings of Lord Byron, the cries from prison of Sacco and Vanzetti. Along with the confessions and complaints and revelations sent from battlefields, frontier cabins, and luxury liners, a reader will find Mallon considering travel bulletins, suicide notes, fan letters, and hate mail–forms as varied as the human experiences behind them.  Yours Ever is an exuberant reintroduction to a vast and entertaining literature–a book that will help to revive, in the digital age, this glorious lost art.

 

5. Classics For Pleasure by Michael Dirda
249203In these delightful essays, Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Dirda introduces nearly ninety of the world’s most entertaining books. Writing with affection as well as authority, Dirda covers masterpieces of fantasy and science fiction, horror and adventure, as well as epics, history, essay, and children’s literature. Organized thematically, these are works that have shaped our imaginations. Love’s Mysteries moves from Sappho and Arthurian romance to Soren Kierkegaard and Georgette Heyer. In other categories Dirda discusses not only Dracula and Sherlock Holmes but also the Tao Te Ching and Icelandic sagas, Frederick Douglass and Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Whether writing about Petronius or Perelman, Dirda makes literature come alive. Classics for Pleasure is a perfect companion for any reading group or lover of books.

 

6. 500 Great Books by Women, edited by Erika Bauermeister
Here is an articulate guide to more than 500 books written by women, a unique resource that allows readers the joy of discovering new authors as well as revisiting familiar favorites. Organized by such themes as Art, Choices, Families, Growing Old, Growing Up, Places and Homes, Power, and Work, this reference book presents classic and contemporary works, from Lady Nijo’s thirteenth-century diaries to books by authors including Toni Morrison, Alice Hoffman, Nadine Gordimer, and Isabel Allende. With annotated entries that capture the flavor of each book and seven cross-referenced indexes, 500 Great Books by Women is a one-of-a-kind guide for all readers and book lovers that celebrates and recommends some of the very best writing by women.

 

7. The Book of Lost Books by Stuart Kelly 329275
In an age when deleted scenes from Adam Sandler movies are saved, it’s sobering to realize that some of the world’s greatest prose and poetry has gone missing. This witty, wry, and unique new book rectifies that wrong. Part detective story, part history lesson, part exposé, The Book of Lost Books is the first guide to literature’s what-ifs and never-weres.  In compulsively readable fashion, Stuart Kelly reveals details about tantalizing vanished works by the famous, the acclaimed, and the influential, from the time of cave drawings to the late twentieth century. Here are the true stories behind stories, poems, and plays that now exist only in imagination.

 

8. Slightly Chipped: Footnotes in Booklore by Lawrence Goldstone
More than a sequel, Slightly Chipped: Footnotes in Booklore is a companion piece for Used and Rare. A delight for the general reader and book collector alike, it details the Goldstones’ further explorations into the curious world of book collecting. In Slightly Chipped, they get hooked on the correspondence and couplings of Bloomsbury; they track down Bram Stoker’s earliest notes for Dracula; and they are introduced to hyper-moderns. Slightly Chipped is filled with all of the anecdotes and esoterica about the world of book collecting that charmed readers of Used and Rare.

 

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Really Underrated Books (Part Five)

The fifth and final part of this week’s Really Underrated Books series is here.  These are so fun to create, particularly as I seek out underrated books myself to read and review.  Have you found any hidden gems this year?  Which were the most recent underrated books which you read?

97818702068081. Dew on the Grass by Eiluned Lewis
First published in 1934 to great acclaim, this enchanting autobiographical novel set in the Welsh borders vividly evokes the essence of childhood and a vanished way of life through the eyes of nine-year-old Lucy. She describes the great events—haymaking, harvest, a seaside holiday—set against the tapestry of the everyday  routines of summer and winter, with the constant background of the garden outside. There is the world of the imagination too, which includes the invested heroes and heroines of childhood whose deeds are as important as those of any real person. Recapturing this world in a deceptively simple style, this novel brings to life the whims, terrors, and intense feelings of childhood.

 

2. Blue Trout and Black Truffles: The Peregrinations of an Epicure by Joseph Wechsberg
After World War II, the author revisited some of Europe’s most famous restaurants. But every chapter in this book goes far beyond food critiques: each is a delightful essay on the art of graceful living.

 

3. The Alone to the Alone by Gwyn Thomas 6393369
Uniting the author’s lyrical and philosophical flights of narrative in a satire whose savagery is only relieved by irrepressible laughter, this work explores the underlying meaning of South Wales’ history, which is not so much documented as laid bare for universal dissection and dissemination. The novel, with its distinctive plural narration, is a choric commentary on human illusion and knowledge, on power and its attendant deprivation, on dreams and their destruction.

 

4. Europe in Sepia by Dubravka Ugresic
Hurtling between Weltschmerz and wit, drollness and diatribe, entropy and enchantment, it’s the juxtaposition at the heart of Dubravka Ugresic’s writings that saw Ruth Franklin dub her “the fantasy cultural studies professor you never had.” In Europe in Sepia, Ugresic, ever the flâneur, wanders from the Midwest to Zuccotti Park, the Irish Aran Islands to Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim, from the tristesse of Dutch housing estates to the riots of south London, charting everything from the listlessness of Central Europe to the ennui of the Low Countries. One finger on the pulse of an exhausted Europe, another in the wounds of postindustrial America, Ugresic trawls the fallout of political failure and the detritus of popular culture, mining each for revelation.  Infused with compassion and melancholic doubt, Europe in Sepia centers on the disappearance of the future, the anxiety that no new utopian visions have emerged from the ruins of communism; that ours is a time of irreducible nostalgia, our surrender to pastism complete. Punctuated by the levity of Ugresic’s raucous instinct for the absurd, despair has seldom been so beguiling.

 

184063185. Written in the Stars by Lois Duncan
An extraordinary look at the genesis of a great writer’s career, Written in the Stars is a collection of Lois Duncan’s earliest stories. composed from the ages of 13 through 22. From family relationships, to the joy and angst of first love, to the struggles of a young soldier returning from war with PTSD, this unique book, whose stories originally appeared in magazines such as Seventeen and American Girl, is a marvelous portrait of the depth and breadth of Duncan’s youthful work. As a special bonus, Lois has followed each story with a brief essay describing her work and life at the time the story was written. Written in the Stars is a must-have addition to the library of work from this spectacular and groundbreaking young adult author.

 

6. A Dog’s Head by Jean Dutourd
Jean Dutourd’s A Dog’s Head is a wonderful piece of magical realism, reminiscent of Voltaire, Borges and Kafka. With biting wit, Dutourd presents the story of Edmund Du Chaillu, a boy born, to his bourgeois parents’s horror, with the head of a spaniel. Edmund must endure his school-mate’s teasing as well as an urge to carry a newspaper in his mouth. This is the story of his life, trials, and joys as he searches for a normal life of worth and love.

 

7. Mario and the Magician: and Other Stories by Thomas Mann 1573375
In this extraordinary collection of short stories, Thomas Mann uses settings as diverse as Germany, Italy, the Holy Land and the Far East to explore a theme which always preoccupied him: the two faces of things. Thus, in A Man and His Dog and Disorder and Early Sorrow, small domestic tempests become symbolic of the discordant muddle of humanity. In The Transposed Heads and The Tables of Law the demands of the intellect clash with the desires of physiology, an idea developed more fully in The Black Swan, where body and spirit are tragically out of harmony. Written between 1918 and 1953, these stories offer us both an insight into Mann’s development of thought and also some impressive literature from these interesting times.

 

8. A Seventh Man by John Berger
Why does the Western world look to migrant laborers to perform the most menial tasks? What compels people to leave their homes and accept this humiliating situation? In A Seventh Man, John Berger and Jean Mohr come to grips with what it is to be a migrant worker—the material circumstances and the inner experience—and, in doing so, reveal how the migrant is not so much on the margins of modern life, but absolutely central to it. First published in 1975, this finely wrought exploration remains as urgent as ever, presenting a mode of living that pervades the countries of the West and yet is excluded from much of its culture.

 

48862679. The City of Yes by Peter Oliva
Alive with history, myth, and wonder, The City of Yes is a luminous novel of parallel journeys through old and present-day Japan. In Saitama to teach English, the narrator is confronted by unlikely visions of home as he gradually enters the world of contemporary Japan, with its floating stories, enigmas, and contradictions. His own story is deftly interwoven with that of a real-life nineteenth-century Canadian adventurer, whose strange confinement in a Japanese prison, beginning in 1848, is so vividly imagined by the narrator. Full of delightful tales and eccentric characters, and written with the delicacy of a brushstroke artist, The City of Yes is suffused with warm humour, and with the intelligence and curiosity of a keen observer of life’s riches and eccentricities.

 

10. The Stone Fields: Love and Death in the Balkans by Courtney Angela Brkic
When she was twenty-three years old, Courtney Angela Brkic joined a UN-contracted forensic team in eastern Bosnia. Unlike many aid workers, Brkic was drawn there by her family history, and although fluent in the language, she was advised to avoid letting local workers discover her ethnicity. Her passionate narrative of establishing a morgue in a small town and excavating graves at Srebenica is braided with her family’s remarkable history in what was once Yugoslavia. The Stone Fields, deeply personal and wise, asks what it takes to prevent the violent loss of life, and what we are willing to risk in the process.

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5

The Book Trail: Caitlin Doughty to Walter Benjamin

I am always on the lookout for ‘different’ posts which I can schedule here at The Literary Sisters, and inspiration struck in this instance when I was browsing reviews on Goodreads.  Why don’t I create a post where I begin with a book on my TBR, and then click on one of the recommended reads on that particular page?, I thought.  On the next page I will do the same, and so on, until I have created what I am terming a book trail.  I hoped to pick up some interesting choices along the way, which would then be written into my book journal.

To begin with, I have decided to go with a book on my library TBR – Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematorium.  I will be copying the blurb for each book as we go along.  Without further ado, let us begin!

Our starting point…
9781782111054Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematorium by Caitlin Doughty
‘From her first day at Westwind Cremation & Burial, twenty-three-year-old Caitlin Doughty threw herself into her curious new profession. Coming face-to-face with the very thing we go to great lengths to avoid thinking about she started to wonder about the lives of those she cremated and the mourning families they left behind, and found herself confounded by people’s erratic reactions to death. Exploring our death rituals – and those of other cultures – she pleads the case for healthier attitudes around death and dying. Full of bizarre encounters, gallows humour and vivid characters (both living and very dead), this illuminating account makes this otherwise terrifying subject inviting and fascinating.’

 

This leads to book number two…
Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner 9781925355369
‘Spanning fifteen years of work, Everywhere I Look is a book full of unexpected moments, sudden shafts of light, piercing intuition, flashes of anger and incidental humour. It takes us from backstage at the ballet to the trial of a woman for the murder of her newborn baby. It moves effortlessly from the significance of moving house to the pleasure of re-reading Pride and Prejudice. Everywhere I Look includes Garner’s famous and controversial essay on the insults of age, her deeply moving tribute to her mother and extracts from her diaries, which have been part of her working life for as long as she has been a writer. Everywhere I Look glows with insight. It is filled with the wisdom of life.’

 

And three is not far behind…
9781922147165Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers by Janet Malcolm
‘In Forty-one False Starts one of the world’s great writers of literary non-fiction brings together for the first time essays published over several decades. The pieces, many of which first appeared in the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, reflect Malcolm’s preoccupation with artists and their work. Her subjects are painters, photographers, writers, and critics. She delves beneath the ‘onyx surface’ of Edith Wharton’s fiction, appreciates the black comedy of the Gossip Girl novels, and confronts the false starts of her own autobiography.’

 

And the fourth…
The Myth of Sisyphus 
by Albert Camus 9780141023991
‘Inspired by the myth of a man condemned to ceaselessly push a rock up a mountain and watch it roll back to the valley below, The Myth of Sisyphus transformed twentieth-century philosophy with its impassioned argument for the value of life in a world without religious meaning.’

 

Onto the fifth…
9780241970065The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton
The Art of Travel is Alain de Botton’s travel guide with a difference. Few activities seem to promise us as much happiness as going travelling: taking off for somewhere else, somewhere far from home, a place with more interesting weather, customs and landscapes. But although we are inundated with advice on where to travel to, we seldom ask why we go and how we might become more fulfilled by doing so. With the help of a selection of writers, artists and thinkers – including Flaubert, Edward Hopper, Wordsworth and Van Gogh – Alain de Botton’s bestselling The Art of Travel provides invaluable insights into everything from holiday romance to hotel mini-bars, airports to sight-seeing. The perfect antidote to those guides that tell us what to do when we get there, The Art of Travel tries to explain why we really went in the first place – and helpfully suggests how we might be happier on our journeys.’

 

The sixth is a book which I have read several times and heartily admire…
Nineteen Eighty Four
 by George Orwell 9780141187761
‘Hidden away in the Record Department of the sprawling Ministry of Truth, Winston Smith skilfully rewrites the past to suit the needs of the Party. Yet he inwardly rebels against the totalitarian world he lives in, which demands absolute obedience and controls him through the all-seeing telescreens and the watchful eye of Big Brother, symbolic head of the Party. In his longing for truth and liberty, Smith begins a secret love affair with a fellow-worker Julia, but soon discovers the true price of freedom is betrayal. George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four is perhaps the most pervasively influential book of the twentieth century.’

 

Our penultimate choice…
9780141035796Ways of Seeing
 by John Berger
‘”Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.” “But, there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but word can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.” John Berger’s “Ways of Seeing” is one of the most stimulating and influential books on art in any language. ‘

 

And the final book!…
The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
 by Walter Benjamin 9780141036199
‘One of the most important works of cultural theory ever written, Walter Benjamin’s groundbreaking essay explores how the age of mass media means audiences can listen to or see a work of art repeatedly – and what the troubling social and political implications of this are. Throughout history, some books have changed the world. They have transformed the way we see ourselves – and each other. They have inspired debate, dissent, war and revolution. They have enlightened, outraged, provoked and comforted. They have enriched lives – and destroyed them. Now Penguin brings you the works of the great thinkers, pioneers, radicals and visionaries whose ideas shook civilization and helped make us who we are.’

 

I had great fun making this post; it has added books I had not encountered before to the (ever-growing) TBR list, and has made me rather eager to find some new essay collections to boot!  This is my first foray into such a post, so I hope it has an enjoyment level for you too!  Please let me know what you think of it.  Do you have another starting point which you think would be good for me to use?