Monday, June 9, 2008

Wind, Sand and Stars + City + Il libraio + branchie!

Here are a few more books I've read recently...

1. "Wind, Sand and Stars" by Antoine de Saint Exupéry

This is a compact selection of philosophical memoirs by a pioneer of
French aviation.  Antoine de Saint Exupéry was born into an old, noble
family.  During his military service he was trained as a pilot.  He
later became a pilot for the French aviation company called Aéropostale,
which specialised in delivering mail between France and the French
Colonies in Africa and South America.

The chapters look at various episodes in the author's life when he was
as a pilot.  One of the main chapters is about how he and his navigator
survived a crash landing in the Sahara Desert, with very little food and
water.  It's a classic story of desperation and survival.

Within the memoirs there are meditations on life and other philosophical
issues.  There are many interesting quotes, such as this one about
 "A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing
  left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."

It's an inspirational little book, challenging the reader to make their
lives special, not necessarily by taking dangerous risks, but rather by
being open to new ideas and perspectives.

2. "City" by Alessandro Baricco

The central character in this book is a 13 year old boy genius, Gould.
He's already studying at university, but lacks emotional development.
His childhood has been anything but ordinary, having missed out on many
things that normal children do.  His father is in the army and lives at
a military base.  His mother suffered a mental breakdown shortly after
his birth, and has been in hospital ever since.  So the boy has to live
with governesses in a house off-campus.

The story starts when Gould meets his new governess, Shatzy Shell.
She's a single woman in her thirties who carries around photos of Walt
Disney and Eva Braun!  She also carries around a tape recorder, which
she uses to capture ideas for a screenplay of a Western she's writing.
Gould, meanwhile, daydreams about a championship boxer, and makes up
interviews and stories of championship bouts while he visits the
bathroom.  Often he gets so wrapped up in these stories that he forgets
why he's even in the bathroom.

I wasn't that interested in Gould's boxing stories, but Shatzy's Western
had an amazing climax which was the highlight of the book for me.  This
"story within the story" is about a town in the Old West where time has
suddenly stopped.  This coincided with the disappearance of the town's
founder, and the exact moment when a large clock in the town stopped
ticking.  The people of the town have grown tired of eternity.  They
engage a clock repairer from out of town, in the hope that once the
clock starts up, time will flow freely again.  The resolution is
suitably intriguing.

Several other interesting characters appear throughout the book.  For
example, the disgruntled academic who has become sickened by the process
of academic research, and has written a critical "Essay on Intellectual
Honesty" (on the back of a pamphlet for a strip club!).  There's another
professor who is obsessed with the rules of soccer, and together with
Gould they sit and watch kids play in a local park.  Gould always
challenges the professor to apply the rules to hypothetical situations
that occur in a game (e.g lightning hitting and almost destroying the
ball before it goes into the net).  The hypotheticals get more absurd
over time.

I didn't find this book as cohesive and compelling as some of Baricco's
other work ("Silk", "Ocean Sea" and "Without Blood"), but it was still a
good read.

3. "Il libraio di Selinunte" by Roberto Vecchioni
(not available in English - title translates as "The Bookseller of

This is a short story about a strange bookseller who sets up shop in a
sleepy Sicilian town.  He's a short man who dresses oddly.  His shop is
full of books, all with the same blue binding.  It seems the man is less
interested in selling books, and more concerned with sharing the stories
contained within them.  The other people in the town don't seem to like
the new bookseller, and try to avoid him.  He holds regular readings at
his shop, but nobody ever attends.  Despite this he still goes through
the motions and reads selections and poems from the greats, including
Dostoyevsky Proust, Manzoni, Shakespeare and Dante.

One boy, Nicolino, is curious and sneaks out of his house late at night
to eavesdrop on the readings.  The boy is moved and inspired by what he
hears.  This goes on for several months, until one day, the bookshop is
engulfed in flames.  The boy thinks he sees the books floating away,
following a pied piper-like figure into the sea.  After that day, words
began to lose their meaning in that town.  People could no longer
communicate easily.

An interesting story - more of a fable, really.

4. "branchie!" by Niccolò Ammaniti
(not available in English - title translates as "gills!")

This is the debut book from the author of "I'm Not Scared", which was
published in many languages and made into a movie.  The first part of
the story seems pretty "straight".  Marco Donato is a 30 year old fish
and aquarium expert.  He has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer,
and despite the wishes of his mother, he isn't seeking treatment.  He
hasn't even told his girlfriend of his condition.  He's pretty resigned
to his fate, and is happy to live in his "den" above his shop until the

One day he receives a letter from a rich Englishwoman living in India
who wants to commission him to build the biggest aquarium in India.  A
cheque for 5000 pounds is included with the letter, so Marco believes
the offer is genuine.

When he arrives in New Delhi, the story takes a surreal turn.  After
getting off the plane, he is drugged and kidnapped by a group of people
dressed in orange.  He manages to escape and starts looking for his
client.  He soon realises that the letter was not genuine and there is
no client.  Despite this he decides to stay, and he soon meets up with a
musical group ("BAP") that likes to rehearse and perform in sewers and
other confined places with special acoustic properties.

The group performs for a rich Indian industrialist, and things start
looking up for Marco.  Alas he gets seduced and drugged by Mila, the
nymphomaniac daughter of the tycoon.  It turns out she is in cahoots
with Marco's mother, who was behind the letter that lured him to India.
Marco's mother, obsessed with youth and beauty, has arranged a dual
lung transplant for Marco.  The operation is to be performed by the evil
Subotnik, a radical plastic surgeon who is harvesting human organs to
make rich people look younger and live longer.  Marco is taken to
Subotnik's secluded castle in the Himalayas.  Marco is locked up in the
castle's dungeon, along with captured Indian villagers whose organs are
being harvested.  With the aid of his BAP bandmates, Marco escapes the
dungeon.  They later decide to go back and free the other prisoners,
then destroy the castle.  There's a lot of blood, guts and general gore
in the resulting mayhem.

Many of the things that happen in this book are bizarre and hilarious -
possibly the most outrageous things I've read for a while.  It's not
surprising that Marco's favourite director is Peter Jackson (who
directed some far-out stuff before going mainstream).  The ending is
suitably far-fetched.

Not quite the book I was expecting, and I wouldn't say it's a great
piece of literature.  But it was quite entertaining.  Apparently it
was made into a movie in Italy.