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“Ever since I was a university student, I’ve loved the copperplate prints of the Italian artist, Giovanni Battista Piranesi.  Piranesi left many sombre prints of prisons.  He was a portrayer of imaginary prisons.  Floor upon floor of high ceilings and dark metal staircases and also towers and aerial walkways.  And of course metal drawbridges.  His prints were full of those kinds of things.  I wanted to build this house in that image.  I even thought about calling it “Piranese Mansion.” – Kozaburo Hamamoto, owner/builder of the Crooked House.

cover soji shimada murder crooked houseFrom the opening lines of this locked-room mystery, author Soji Shimada piques the reader’s interest in the odd kinds of architecture which particularly lend themselves to mysterious events, describing, first, Cheval’s Palais Ideal (ca. 1916), a small rambling castle built by Ferdinand Cheval, a postman who picked up stones along his mail route to use in building his “palace.”  Ludwig II’s Linderhof Palace (ca. 1886), with its cave and underground lake, oyster shell-shaped boat, blue lighting, and romantic paintings, might also have been ideal for such a mystery, as would some of the modern geometric design and architecture of Antonio Gaudi in the early twentieth century, he suggests.  Ultimately, Shimada sets this newly translated 1982 mystery, the second novel of his career, at the top of Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido, facing the sea, in a fictional building designed by the main character, Kozaburo Hamamoto.  From the outset, the author stresses that Hamamoto’s house is a very special creation, with floors that are not level and a tower with the same five degree tilt as the Tower of Pisa.  Other irregularities with stairs, drawbridges, ladders, doors, and locks make the house seem more like the wild engravings of Giovanni Batista Piranesi than the “civilized” work of earlier architects, even those who stretched the concepts of home architecture in their own day.

soji shimadaThis unique fictional residence is the setting for a celebration of Christmas, 1983, as owner Kozaburo Hamamoto, a widower, has invited eight guests to spend the holiday weekend with him at the Crooked House, also called the Ice Floe Mansion.  The full-time residents of the house include Hamamoto, who, in addition to being the house owner is also the president of an industrial company; his daughter;  a married couple who act as butler, chauffeur, and housekeeper; and a live-in chef, all of whom are happy to share the holidays with their guests.  The guests who join the household for the weekend include a man who is president of a manufacturing company, his secretary/mistress, his chauffeur, an executive of his company, and three college students.  Author Shimada, a perfectionist regarding details of all kinds, includes a Dramatis Personae, identifying all these characters, and a drawing of the house, officially the Ice Floe Mansion, showing its numbered rooms, the staircases, and the drawbridge to the tower.  A special addendum also identifies the library, display room for art works, salon, sports equipment storeroom, table tennis room, kitchen and study.

A great admirer of the prison designs by Piranesi, Kozaburo Hamamoto, was attracted to the designs for staircases, drawbridges, ropes, and beams.

A great admirer of the prison designs by Giovanni Batista Piranesi, Kozaburo Hamamoto, was attracted to the designs for staircases, drawbridges, ropes, and beams when he built his house. Click to enlarge.

Elements of mystery begin immediately, as one of the students, who had been helping to decorate the Christmas tree earlier, looks out the window into the garden and sees a thin stake sticking out of the snow.  It had not been there earlier.  He is even more surprised when he sees a second stake in the snow a bit later.  He forgets about this as the host suggests they solve some mysteries which he will present to them as entertainment.  No matter how difficult these puzzles may seem, one guest, a student, manages to solve all of them.  Hamamoto, however, has one more mystery to challenge them, and they must all go to his tower to see it.  Looking out the window, he points at the garden at the base of the tower and asks his guests to figure out the significance of the design of the flower bed below the tower, a garden which must be in that exact spot, with no leeway allowed in any direction.  No one is successful in completing this task, but the guests are encouraged to keep working on it and, perhaps, return to the room another day to view the garden from above.  That night, one of the women wakens to hear faint noises very close to her, then a metallic sound.  Panicked, she screams, then sees a face with crazy eyes, charred skin on the cheeks, and a frostbitten nose staring at her through a gap in the curtains.  Since her room is well above ground level and offers no foothold, she knows the face could not really have been looking inside, but she also knows that what she saw was not a dream – she had heard the creature roar.

Golem and his puppet.

Golem and his puppet from the 1915 silent film, The Golem and the Dancing Girl.  The actor is on the right, the puppet on the left.

At breakfast time, one guest does not answer his door, and outside the room a dark figure is lying in the snow.  As the guests go outside to get closer, they see that there are objects strewn around the figure.  The “body,” however, turns out to be one of  Hamamoto’s antique puppet dolls from Czechoslovakia – a Golem – with a missing head.  When they return to the house, they find the body of a chauffeur who has come with one of the guests, stabbed to death with a hunting knife which has a white string attached.  There are no footprints around, and no clues to how it happened or how it might be related to the earlier-discovered stakes, the golem, the noises heard by the woman that evening, or the golem’s missing head.  When Hokkaido investigators arrive to do their jobs, they are as stymied by the murder – and several successive crimes, including another murder – as the guests, and they are just as unfamiliar with the bizarre architecture of this “mansion” as the guests have been.  The arrival of Kiyoshi Mitarai with the constable of the local police station brings a whole new element into the story:  Mitarai is a fortune teller, psychic, and self-styled detective, and he suddenly and dramatically becomes the new first person point of view for remainder of the novel.

Tengu masks play a role in the conclusion of the novel.

Tengu masks play a role in the conclusion of the novel.

Author Soji Shimada goes overboard here as he sets up seemingly unlimited barriers to the solving of crimes for which almost none of the guests have alibis.  As the guests interact, some resentments, past histories, and jealousies are revealed, but these are buried so deeply in all the “atmosphere” of architecture and the excruciatingly detailed descriptions of the methods and materials of the murder that the characterizations feel incidental. When the final crime takes place, many readers will know who the murderer has to be, but the ways in which that person manages to outwit everyone else are so outlandish, unpredictable, and esoteric that I doubt that any reader will have any clue about how the murders actually took place before the Great Reveal at the end fills in the blanks.  Sacrificing characterization for technique, Shimada makes this one of the most complex locked room mysteries ever, one to admire instead of love.

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://archive.shine.cn

A great admirer of the prison designs by Giovanni Batista Piranesi, Kozaburo Hamamoto, was attracted to the designs for staircases, drawbridges, ropes, and beams when he built his house.  This Piranese prison engraving is from 1761.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/

This Golem and his puppet star in a Berlin silent film from 1915, The Golem and the Dancing Girl, starring Paul Wegener as the Golem.  In this photo, the real Wegener is on the right, the puppet on the left.  https://www.jmberlin.de/

Hamamoto’s collection of Tengu masks like this one have a role in the conclusion.  https://www.kisspng.com/

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Classic Novel, Historical, Japan, Locked room Mystery
Written by: Soji Shimada
Published by: Pushkin Vertigo
Date Published: 06/25/2019
ISBN: 978-1782274568
Available in: Ebook Paperback

“Tell me the truth,” I said.
 “What truth?” he echoed.  He was making a rapid sketch
in his notebook and now he showed me what it was: a long,
long train with a big cloud of black smoke swirling over it,
and himself leaning out of a window to wave a handkerchief.
    I shot him between the eyes. – Opening lines of this book.

dry heart cover_When she died in 1991 at the age of seventy-five, Italian author Natalia Ginzburg was described in her New York Times obituary as “an author commonly ranked with Umberto Eco as one of Italy’s most important writers of fiction.”  Few English-speaking readers will recognize her name, however, despite the fact that she was published from an early age by Italian publisher Giulio Einaudi, who was also the publisher of Italo Calvino, Cesare Pavese, Primo Levi and other world famous Italian authors.  Now two of Ginzburg’s works, The Dry Heart, originally published in 1947, when she was thirty-one, and Happiness, As Such (originally entitled Caro Michele), published in 1973, have just been reprinted in English by New Directions Publishing, giving American readers a new opportunity to experience the fine, understated writing of this neglected author. 

The Dry Heart shows little trace of the agonies which Ginzburg must have faced in her personal life in the years immediately preceding the book’s publication.  During World War II, she had escaped military arrest and imprisonment by using a pen name while she and her husband ran an anti-Fascist newspaper. Her husband, however, was arrested and tortured to death in 1944, leaving her to care for their three children. In The Dry Heart, her first novel after the war, she shows no resentments, however.  Instead she deals with the “world writ small” telling the story of the marriage of an uncommunicative and unnamed woman married to an even more uncommunicative man.  Less than a hundred words after the novel opens, the conclusion is revealed:  “I shot him between the eyes,” a statement of great drama because of the context’s lack of drama.

author photoUsing the woman’s point of view, the author carefully shifts back and forth in time, illustrating what happens, and more importantly, what often does not happen, in this marriage.  Matching her realistic style to the undramatic nature of the marriage, Ginzburg slowly builds the tensions, eventually revealing everything the reader needs to know about the past which will explain the bold admission of murder in the first few words.   On the night of the murder, the woman’s husband Alberto had asked her to give him something hot to take on a trip, and she had dutifully made tea with milk and sugar, taking it back to his study.  When he shows her the sketch he has been working on, however, she shoots him with the revolver from his desk drawer: “For a long time already I had known that sooner or later I should do something of the sort.”  Unperturbed, she puts on her raincoat and gloves, goes out, drinks a cup of coffee at a cafe, and walks “haphazardly” throughout the city.  The couple had been married for four years, and he had threatened to leave her many times, but they had never officially ended the relationship until she ended it with murder.

A rural Italian village similar to the one in which the speaker grew up and to which she returns on vacations.

This rural Italian village is similar to the one in which the speaker grew up and to which she returns on vacations.

Sitting on a bench in the deserted park, the woman reviews her marriage, knowing that if she goes to the police, she will have to go back to the beginning of their relationship to explain the circumstances leading up to the murder. Instead she reviews it for herself – and the reader. Daughter of a country doctor, the woman is a twenty-six-year-old teacher from Maona, who has been introduced to forty-year-old Alberto at the home of a doctor she knows in Rome, where she is living.  She is attracted to Alberto’s “gay and sparkling” eyes, and she begins to think he is attracted to her, but she has no romantic interest in him, thinking instead that she might meet someone she really likes through him if they become friends.  While she shares her feelings throughout their contacts with each other, Alberto shares nothing, saying only that he lives with his mother, who is “old and failing.”  Summer vacation arrives, and the woman returns to the country to stay with her family.  He does not write to her, except for a single postcard, but when she returns to the city at the end of summer, she is still expecting Alberto to visit.  Obsessed with the uncertainty after several days, she consoles herself by imagining a relationship, and when Alberto does finally see her, “I looked at him and tried to recognize in this little man with the curly black hair the cause of all my anguish and torment.  I felt cold and humiliated by his failure to call or to stop by.”  Still, she soon convinces herself that she is in love with him, and confesses that to him.  He never says that he loves her in return, though they do marry.

Throughout the novel, many references occur to the Duino Elegies by Rilke, made by various characters.

Throughout the novel, the various characters make many references to the Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke.

Alberto lies continuously during their marriage, and a month after they marry, he disappears for ten days, insisting, upon his return, that he has been alone.  A few months later, he disappears again, and again, and again, each time for a couple of weeks, while his wife keeps herself functioning during his absences during those the months, and eventually years, by reminding herself of his declaration, not of love, but that “You’re all I’ve got.  Just remember that.” Eventually, however, these words “lost their sweetness, like a prune stone that has been sucked too long.” Ultimately, it is one of Alberto’s friends who tells her about a woman with whom Alberto has been having an affair, off and on for over ten years.  Still the wife refuses to give up on the marriage, and even on the day of Alberto’s death, she is still serving him his tea.

The novella, which benefits from being read in one sitting, feels “ordinary” and familiar in terms of its characters as they deal with their stories of frustrated love, however extreme their behavior, and those who enjoy carefully crafted, often subtle, and deliberate writing will especially enjoy the pacing of this novel and its structure.  Though none of the critics I have read have suggested any satire here, I cannot help but wonder how much of this novella may be slyly satiric, especially considering the commitment of the author to freedom from Fascism during World War II.  Here a decidedly unliberated female finally takes action against a husband who has betrayed her for four years, deciding murder is the only answer. The control the author exerts over the pacing and atmosphere is deliberate, and the ultimate outcome for the wife is never stated outright, though the unstated ultimate result is clear. 


Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://www.pinterest.com/

The female speaker grew up in a rural hill town, Maona, perhaps similar to this one:  https://www.alamy.com/

Throughout the novel, characters refer to the Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke.  This edition is part of by the European Poetry Classics series by Northwestern University.  http://www.nupress.northwestern.edu/

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Historical, Italy, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Natalia Ginzburg
Published by: New Directions.
Date Published: 06/25/2019
ISBN: 978-0811228787
Available in: Ebook Paperback

“It’s rough walking out of those alleys, sharing the stairs with pipes upon pipes, stepping over open sewage drains, staring down rats, swerving your head to dodge electrical lines, and spotting your childhood friends carrying weapons of war only to be faced fifteen minutes later with a condominium with ornamental plants decorating its metal gates, and spying teenagers at their private tennis lessons. It’s all too close and too far.” – description of the South Zone favelas.

cover martins sun on my headWith this collection of stories, the favelas of Rio de Janeiro have produced a young author of stunning talent and the ability to convey images and feelings about the overcrowded, poverty-filled neighborhoods which are homes to many young teens seeking some control over the neighborhoods in which they grow up.  The teens, as we see in these stories, sometimes face death because they get mixed up with the “wrong” crowd, sometimes resort to theft and physical force to survive,  and often become involved with guns simply because they are available.  Some teens may have high hopes but find few legitimate outlets for their energy and creativity.  Debut author Geovani Martins knows the Rio favelas well, having grown up and lived in them until the end of his teen years, but unlike most of the teens whose stories become the subjects of this collection, Martins was able to take advantage of a unique opportunity: he attended writing workshops at FLUP, the literary festival of the Rio favelas, which gave him a chance to channel his talents in surprising new directions – and he now has this powerful, new story collection to his credit.

Author Geovani Martins

Author Geovani Martins

Thirteen stories make up the collection, which is narrated primarily by young locals in the casual slang of people who are part of a particular group, sharing the same popular vocabulary and its cadences.  Many congratulations are due to translator Julia Sanches for her role in converting it all into a comparable kind of “urban English,” as one critic labels it.  The author takes full advantage of this style to set the mood and to place his speakers in a variety of contexts.  The first story, “Lil Spin,” sets the tone as the main teenage character wakes up after a night out with his friends experimenting with all sorts of drugs and alcohol: “Woke up blowtorches blazing.  For real, not even nine a.m. and my crib was like melting….Clear it was gonna be one of those days when you walking ‘round and the sky’s all fogged up, things shiftin’ about like you hallucinating.”   Gradually the activity of the previous night unfolds, as does the background of the speaker, an episode involving his brother, references to his mother, and the tricks some friends played on a couple of show-offs on the beach.  Then he remembers the cops “coming down hard”: “If you got no money for a bus ticket, you goin’ downtown, you got way more money than a bus ticket, you goin’ downtown, got no ID, you going’ downtown.”  At which point the speaker ditches his flip flops and takes off down the beach.

Rio in the background, and its favelas in the foreground.

Rio in the background, and its favelas in the foreground. Presentation by Maureen McCann

The stories are not all sheer action and not all drug-related.  The author provides needed sociological information in one early story, explaining that living in a favela in the South Zone is considered an advantage among favelas because that area is not uniformly poor.  With a few residents of means living nearby and providing private schools and sports to serve their children, the overall level of teen violence is reduced.  A poor teen speaker points out, however, that having some nearby residents who are not poor makes the contrast between the poorer residents of southern favelas and “the hill” more dramatic:  “The border between the hill and the blacktop runs much deeper,” he explains.  Now at an age in which he is able to walk home from school, the teen passes a private school and begins to notice that the students there “shook whenever my crew walked past.”  Ironically, at his own school, these same students “spent our lives running from bigger, stronger kids who were braver and more violent.” 

The Rio Botanical Gardens, where the speaker secretly follows a man and his family.

The Rio Botanical Gardens, where a  speaker secretly follows a man and his family.

“Spiral” provides an example of a bright and curious teen from the South Zone caught between favela life and the better lives he sees among other nearby residents.  On one occasion when the boy is waiting at a bus stop, an old woman, also waiting, becomes “obviously flustered” at being alone with him. When she starts to back off, he follows her to see what will happen, increasing his pace as she increases hers, until she rushes forward into a cafe.  Feeling guilty and terribly lonely because he has been feared for no reason, he decides to make a real study of how humans relate to each other, and he finally chooses one person, a man with a wife and two young daughters, whom he decides to follows at a distance.  Seriously observing the man’s life and orchestrating the times in which he himself is in proximity to the man, the teen is unobserved and never intrudes.  For three months the man fails to recognize him from their many near-contacts, then suddenly and dramatically realizes he has been followed by the young person for weeks.  When the man escapes into his apartment, the boy waits outside, then looks up to see his subject at the window aiming an automatic pistol at him.  The teen’s conclusion is not surprising.

Other stories raise issues of father-son relationships, depict drug lords getting children between eight and ten years old to push drugs, and illustrate the competition between cops and cartels leading to murders which are never solved.  Even graffiti as an addiction among some youth is a subject here: 

In "The Trip" a group of college students goes to Arrial do Cabo for New Year's Eve.

In “The Trip” a group of college students goes to Arrial do Cabo for New Year’s Eve.

“Tags are about eternity, about marking your passage through life…He felt he couldn’t go through this world unnoticed.”  Themes of individual life vary.  In “The Mystery of the Vila,”  spiritual elements related to macumba prevail;  “Padre Miguel Station,” creates an intensely personal story of drug use, how it feels, and how it impacts friends; “TGIF” considers a young man with high hopes but whose life seems to produce no results, except depression and an end to hopes.  “The Crossing,” the last story about murder, is the most dramatic, and saddest, yet. 

Author Martins’s stories are so full of dramatic energy that it is hard to imagine a reader not being caught up in them even when they are often harsh and violent, and though not all stories have a neat ending, no story here is wasted.  Against what must have seemed like impossible odds in his teen years, Geovani Martins has done it.  His youthful enthusiasm and perception, his personal experiences and observations, and his ability to convey the emotional toll of favela life have all resulted in a story collection which is staggering in its immediacy and raw insights.

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://globoplay.globo.com/

Rio and its favelas are featured in this presentation by Maureen McCann:  https://app.emaze.com/

The speaker of “Spiral” follows a man as he visits the Botanical Gardens with his wife and family.  https://www.istockphoto.com

Arraial de Cabo beach, where a group of college students gets a surprise on the way home. https://www.123rf.com

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Brazil, Experimental, Literary, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Geovani Martins
Published by: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Date Published: 06/11/2019
ISBN: 978-0374223779
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

Note:  Every six months or so, I enjoy looking at the statistics regarding this site to see which reviews garner the most interest.  Reviews which have been on the site for many years have a greater chance of being in the Top Ten than new books, of course, and, as a result, some books have been in the Top Ten almost since they were posted.

cover-wasington-blackThis year I wanted to highlight those reviews by new authors and those new books which are just getting wide attention, so I have posted two separate lists – one of the newer books, on the list for fewer than five years, and a list of older books which are more than five years old and have been here in the Top Ten for three or more years.

Here are the newer reviews.  Links provided for all reviews.  Hope you enjoy the results!

NEW FAVORITE REVIEWS from the PAST FIVE YEARS (to June, 30, 2019)

1.  Esi Eduggyan – Washington Black,  reviewed here Nov. 2, 2018.  (Barbados, England)cover-tommy-orange-there-there

2.  Tommy Orange – There There, reviewed here July 19, 2018.  (Native American)

3.  Hendrik Groen – The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, Age 83 1/4, reviewed here July 12, 2017.  (Netherlands)

4.  Patrick Modiano – So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood, reviewed here, Oct. 8, 2015.  (France)

5.  Simon Mawer – Prague Spring, reviewed here Dec. 21. 2018. (Czechoslovakia, Russia)

6.  Paolo Cognetti – The Eight Mountains, reviewed here April 22, 2018.  (Italy)

7.  Patrick McGuicover29nness – Throw Me to the Wolves, reviewed here May 16, 2019. (England).

8.  Yusuke Kimura – Sacred Cesium Ground, reviewed here Feb. 15, 2019.  (Japan)

9.  Liv Ullmann – Unquiet, reviewed here Feb. 25, 2019.  (Norway, Sweden)

10. William Trevor – Last Stories, reviewed here June 2, 2018.  (Ireland, England)

OLD FAVORITES, Those Favorites which have been in the MWR Top Twenty for five or more years.  Note:  Several books among the Old Favorites show dates of posting from earcover-waiting-for-an-angel-195x300ly 2011.  It was at that point that I transferred a number of reviews from my previous site (of the same name) to this one.  As the old site is no longer available, I’m not sure of the original posting dates for those reviews – hence, the asterisk.

1.  Helon Habila – Waiting for an Angel, reviewed here July 12, 2011.  (Nigeria).

2.  Favel Parrett – Past the Shallows,  reviewed here August 1, 2014. (Tasmania)

3.  Kim Thuy – Ru, reviewed here  Nov. 19, 2012.  (Vietnam, Canada)

4.  Jo Nesbo – The Redeemer posted here *Feb. 8, 2011.  (Norway)

5.  Irmgard Keun – The Artificial Silk Girl, reviewed here June 28, 2015. (Germany)

6.  Gecover-uncommon-readerrald Durrell – A Zoo in My Luggage, posted here *Jan. 20, 2011. (Cameroon)

7.  Kate Atkinson – Started Early, Took My Dog, posted here March 26, 2011.  (England)

8.  Roberto Bolano – The Insufferable Gaucho, posted here *Jan 23, 2011.  (Chile)

9.  Alan Bennett – The Uncommon Reader, posted here *Jan. 14, 2011.  (England)

10. Kamila Shamsie – Kartography, posted here, *Jan. 15, 2011.  (Pakistan).

Thanks for being here.  I hope some suggestions from fellow readers may inspire you, too.

Note:  In 2017, Paolo Cognetti’s The Eight Mountains was WINNER of the Strega Prize, Italy’s most prestigious prize, and WINNER of the French Prix Medicis Etranger, awarded for a work of translated fiction by an author whose “fame does not yet match his talent..”

“At thirty I had almost forgotten what it was like to be alone in a forest, or to immerse myself in a river, or to run along the edge of a crest beyond which there is only sky.  I had done these things and they were my happiest memories.  To me, the young urban adult I had become seemed like the exact opposite of that wild boy, and hence the desire grew to go in search of him.  It wasn’t so much the need to leave as the desire to return; not to discover an unknown part of myself but to recover an old and deep-seated one I felt that I had lost.”

cover Paolo Cognetti’s previous book, The Eight Mountains, details a fictional life much like the author’s own early life and introduces a family from Milan who spend each summer in Italy’s northern mountains throughout the main character’s childhood and teen years.  During this time, the speaker, Pietro, has adventures in the mountains, forms a strong friendship, learns to value nature, and eventually, becomes an adult. Realistic and filled with the insecurities of puberty, the novel allows readers to understand, if not identify with, the feelings of Pietro as he matures.  The Wild Boy, a memoir, continues Cognetti’s themes.  Here the speaker is the author himself, now thirty. He has completed his schooling, traveled, and worked for years in and around Milan, but he has not been to the mountains in a decade, and he feels an emptiness in his adult life without the forests, rivers, and mountain crests with which he, like Pietro, grew up.   When he decides to revisit the mountains, The Wild Boy becomes a natural extension of one life vibrantly lived by two people – Pietro, the fictional character of Eight Mountains, and Paolo, the author of The Wild Boy.  Those who loved the first book will be intrigued to follow Paolo in this memoir, as he continues his life as an adult, while newcomers to Cognetti’s writing will experience a fresh, modern point of view about the return to nature as experienced by a quiet young man deciding where his values – and his happiness – ultimately lie.

primo-piano-cognetti-253x300The memoir opens in Milan in winter, with the thirty-year-old author feeling “drained, disoriented, and disillusioned…I had tried hard, but what did I have to show for it?….I was not writing, which for me is like not sleeping or not eating, in a kind of void I’d never experienced before.”  To pass the time, he has read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, and The History of a Mountain by Elisee Reclus.  Ultimately, he is “particularly taken” by the journey of Chris McCandless, as told by Jon Krakauer in Into the Void.  Believing that his “true nature” is connected to the mountains of his childhood and teen years, Cognetti decides to return and quickly finds a place to live, a small hut of wood and stone about six thousand feet above sea level.  He has never been to this place before, but as it is just the other side of the mountain where he lived with his family in previous summers, about six miles from town and a few minutes away from the village, it feels familiar.  Arriving in late April, he heads out along a mule track and through the slopes of the mountain, still covered in snow.  For an unspecified time, he will live alone in his rented hut, surrounded by nature and the books and notebooks he has brought with him, hoping to restart his writing career.

Monte Rosa, the northern Italian mountain close to the heart of the author.

Monte Rosa, the northern Italian mountain closest to the heart of the author.

That spring on Monte Rosa, he hikes and explores, and, fascinated by the wild life and the quietude, he is not lonely.  For two weeks he does not see another human, and when a man comes up the path, he finds it “difficult to explain the effect a visit has when it comes after a period of complete solitude: for me, it had only been two weeks, and yet my heart started to beat faster on seeing that man approach.”  The man is Remigio, his landlord, and they end up, ironically, talking about the writing of Erri De Luca and Mauro Corona;  Cognetti ends up lending Remigio a book of stories by Rigoni Stern.  Later, alone, he begins musing about hikes he has taken with his father and uncle on the adjacent mountain, reviews his plans to plant a garden for vegetables, and notes the eagles, foxes, goats, and marmots in the area. He cannot help wondering when the cowherds will be arriving with their cattle and herding dogs for a summer of grazing on the mountain.

Chamois, similar to a goat, which inhabits the high altitudes of the northern Italian mountains.

Chamois, similar to a goat, which inhabits the high altitudes of the northern Italian mountains.

Summer brings the cattle, and he shares a home-cooked dinner at the camp of a lame cowherd, Gabriele – a meal he “earned” by corralling two runaway calves for Gabriele.  They continue to exchange dinners, occasionally, these being among the very few occasions in which Paolo has anyone to talk with until haying season brings him in contact again with Remigio, whom he helps in the fields.  Later, he makes a long, frustrating journey exploring the sights at the eight thousand foot level, and while it brings him into contact with the chamois, a beautiful goat-like creature, he loses his way and becomes desperate to find a route back to his hut during the next several days of hiking.  Solitude, he decides, resembles a house of mirrors:  “Everywhere I looked I found myself reflected: distorted, grotesque, multiplied an infinite number of times.”  Autumn arrives with little change in Paolo’s life, except, ironically, that he is now tending a herding dog who does not enjoy herding and seems to have no interest in cows.  When the grass runs out and the snow begins in October, the cowherds and the cows return to ground level, the gas runs out, and the electricity becomes problematic.  It is time for Paolo to return to Milan.

A black rosy finch, the kind a Alpine finch that Paolo sees when he arrives at the hut where he lives.

A black rosy finch, the kind of Alpine finch that Paolo sees when he arrives at the hut where he lives.

As is obvious from this summary, “action” in this book is often inaction, a cerebral coming to terms with life on the part of a young Paolo Cognetti, as much as it is a story of mountains, hikes, and unusual animals.  Readers of fast-paced novels of adventure will be accustomed to plots with climaxes and resolutions, whereas a memoir, by definition, is a collection of memories, some of them the result of action and some of them of quiet reflection.  Here the author bares his soul, without drama, honestly asking himself questions about his life, evaluating his choices, and making decisions based on his experiences.  For those looking for a break in their own hectic lives, this book may be the perfect answer – an opportunity to share the life of a person of letters who wonders about taking a new direction, a quiet book by a thoughtful writer for whom the trip to the mountains is a chance to relive times past and learn from the experience.  For many busy readers it will be a vicarious escape through someone else’s adventure, and, perhaps, an inspiration.


Photos.  The author photo is from https://leultime20.it/

Monte Rosa, the northern Italian mountain closest to the heart of the author.  https://pixabay.com/

Chamois, an animal similar to a goat which lives at high altitudes, and which Paolo sees on his trip to the 8000-foot mark on the mountain.  https://animals.net/

A black rosy finch, an alpine finch which greets Paolo when he arrives at his hut in the mountains.  https://allaboutbirds.org

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Autobiography/Memoir, Exploration, Italy, Literary, Psychological study
Written by: Paolo Cognetti
Published by: Atria, Washington Square Press
Date Published: 07/02/2019
ISBN: 978-1501196713
Available in: Ebook Paperback

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