Autumn and Winter Reading 2009

My autumn and winter reading material arrived about a month ago. It’s my usual mildly eclectic mix of science, the Orient and European novels.
I began with a science book, Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science. This is a disturbing exposè on the mass media’s unreliable, error-riddled, poorly-investigated reporting on stories in which science plays a role.
It is a very accessible book and a reminder that you should never believe anything you read in the paper – health scare stories in particular.
If you were ever considering wasting money on alternative therapies then I suggest you read this book first or visit the bad science website.
For a complete change of scene, I then turned to In Praise of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki, a long essay in which the novelist expresses his idiosyncratic views on aesthetics.
The essay itself pays homage to a Japanese writing aesthetic; don’t expect a Western style of composition with familiar organisation and structure and one key idea per sequentially-linked paragraph.
This, instead, is a flowing essay form where the essayist dances the reader around various high and low-brow ideas on beauty, using examples that follow no discernible pattern but that are consistent with the overall theme of shadows.

There are rhapsodies on poor lighting, the joys of outdoor toilets and woman with blackened teeth.   

Junichiro laments the visual impact of Western inventions such as the stove and toilet fixtures on everyday Japanese life, comparing the Western well-lit aesthetic unfavourably with his own. 
“We Orientals” the novelist explains, “create a kind of beauty of the shadows we have made in out-of-the-way places.”
Maybe he does speak for his nation (or his generation), but the essay is essentially personal; it is an account of what one man likes about his own culture. 
I liked this slim book but I am not at all attracted to dimly-lit interiors; give me good lighting any day.      


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The Book Club

Two months ago I hosted a book club event at a local bookshop. It was an open book club, that is, anyone could come along provided they were willing to participate in English.

The book in question was called The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton (not my choice). Ever-diligent, I read the book twice. I then prepared notes, activities and discussion points on it.

I wanted to begin with a brief bio of the writer and a brief synopsis of the book. After that, I thought I’d explain what I liked about the book (the accessibility of the prose, the way it flowed, its Britishness, the references to writers and artists, and the logical structure of the work).

Then I planned to entrance the group with my list of dislikes. These were to include the writer’s constant moaning, his ability to feel miserable in any setting , his tendency to state the obvious in a supercilious tone and the white, privileged European male-centredness of the whole enterprise.

The next step was to invite the group to take me on. To let them tell me why I was wrong about the book and to get into a good-humoured (hopefully) debate about the merits and defects of the book…creating a minor stir in our corner of the bookshop. Perhaps casual browsers would look our way and envy the fun we were having. Or not. They could just eye us suspiciously, too. That would have been fine.

Aah, but none of the 8 book club participants had read the book. You see, in Italy, and possibly elsewhere, a ‘book club’ is not necessarily a ‘reading group’, especially when the book concerned is in a foreign language.

Perhaps the participants showed greater judgement than me. The Art of Travel is a mediocre read. They’d saved themselves some disappointment. I hope they’d been reading something more captivating, instead.

Actually, most of the people had come along to practise their English and the book was irrelevant. The event was free and the intent was to promote one of the language schools I work at.

It was easy enough to focus on the broad theme of the book: travel, as well as the destinations featured in it (Madrid, Provence, London and Amsterdam).  Bookshop types and people who go along to free, informal book clubs tend to have travelled. Well, actually, everyone tends to have travelled these days; even my father-in-law and he has no interest in books whatsoever.

Non-reading travellers aside, another aim of the club was, of course, to promote the book, to encourage sales. I failed on that score, too. No one hastened to buy a copy. In fact, I think the group decided that it was something they’d rather not read. But, hey, we were in a bookshop and so there were plenty of other book-buying options.

It could be argued that I was providing a useful service. Deciding what not to read, helps us to narrow down our options, bringing us closer to deciding on what our next literary adventure will be.

It’s possible too, that the book club members were way ahead of me and had checked out the book on-line, read a few reviews and concluded that it wasn’t the right book for them.

And so, just in case you’ve ever wondered whether it’s possible to engage in an hour’s chat about a book that no one has read, with a group of people you barely know, then let me assure you that the answer is “yes”. I’d even go so far as to recommend it – the experience, that is, not the book!




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One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

Why do you read books? Curiosity? Entertainment? To get out of your head and into someone else’s?

Sometimes I read books because I think they’ll be good for me. That’s why I picked up One Hundred Years of Solitude.  Curiosity was also a factor. I hadn’t read any Latin American novels and I thought I might as well start with a Nobel Prize winner.

One Hundred Years of Solitude is a challenging novel; at the same time, it’s not really challenging at all. Not challenging in the sense that once you let go of your preconceptions about how you think literature should be served up to you, it’s actually a very amenable read.

Even a lack of knowledge of Colombian history – such as mine – does not prevent the novel from being accessible, relatable. (Do I sound like a Supertramp song?) The narrative imaginatively retells the big events of Colombian history, using the fictional town of Macondo as the setting.

The main characters are the founding family of Macondo, along with their long line of descendants. Names are handed down from one generation to the next and this is indeed confusing for the reader. But once you let go of your preconceptions about how you think characters should be named, you realise that the writer makes this work. Interconnectedness, and even incest, are part of the story, as is the propensity for history to repeat itself within the family.

This original novel is ultimately satisfying and I feel more well-read after reading it. I strongly suspect it reads much better in Spanish but something is always lost in translation, isn’t it? Be that as it may, this English translation is a fine piece of work.

I intend to explore more of the literature of Latin America. Suggestions would be welcome.


Long paragraphs are another feature of this novel.

Long paragraphs are another feature of this novel.


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2014 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 600 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 10 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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2013 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,600 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 27 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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What to eat in Rome

What to eat in Rome?

If you want to eat well in a foreign city, it’s always a good idea to do some research before you go.

I didn’t do any research before going to Rome. Slight mistake.

But Rome is a foodie’s city, so we had some positive eating experiences in spite of my lack of preparation.

These positive experiences were had at:


This restaurant can be found at the Maxxi (the National Museum of 21st Century Art). Here we had a delicious buffet lunch of fresh, well-prepared, modern Italian cuisine. Cost:  18 euros a head.


This photo does not do the buffet justice, either in terms of quality or quantity.


The restaurant itself is very aesthetically-pleasing.

da Trani Rome Restaurant

Located in a side street off Via Nazionale, this place was a fortuitous find. The staff were amazingly patient and tolerant of Signor Lu’s cross-examinations of the daily specials. (Romans give as good as they get.)

We had a very tasty mezze maniche all’amatriciana (short tubular pasta with a cured pork cheek sauce and pecorino -Roman cheese)  and linguine all’aragosta (pasta with lobster) – washed down with the house white wine.



Nuova Stella Trattoria

We had a simple but satisfying lunch at Nuova Stella, located near Rome’s main train station. Pizza with mozzarella and tomatoes and some grilled squid.


Tartufo nero (the black truffle)

Signor Lu had a tartufo nero in Piazza Navona. The tartufo nero is a very rich and sickly iced dessert. Not for the delicate of stomach. He could not eat all of it and so threw most of it away. I know that is not a ringing endorsement but the black truffle of Piazza Navona is something of a Roman ritual. Someone in your party should sacrifice their better judgement and try it out…


A post-dinner reflection

These days, practically every Italian eating, drinking and boarding establishment has a Trip Advisor sticker on its front door. The owl icon has become fairly meaningless and does not necessarily indicate good quality.

This is my last post for 2013, so a very happy New Year to anyone who may be reading this post. Buon Anno!

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Breakfast in Rome

A Roman breakfast is not a gentle start to the day.

On our recent stay in the Eternal City (2 months ago is recent, right?), our budget hotel gave us vouchers for breakfast at the bar downstairs.

The bar was pleasant and clean. The breakfast consisted of a cappuccino, a pastry and, for a few extra euro, a freshly-squeezed orange juice. This was the right combo of caffeine, sugar and vitamin C to get us started for the day.

The view from the bar window was that of parked vehicles along narrow streets.

Traffic trickled and spurted along these secondary arteries. Horns honked clamourously and brakes screeched: the ideal backing track to the music inside the bar – the hissing of the coffee machine, the rattling of cups, the clanging of spoons on saucers and the chit chat of customers.

romebreakfast10202 romebreakfast20200 romebreakfast30201

A Roman breakfast is not a gentle start to the day, but it will wake you up!

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Via Margutta, Rome

Via Margutta is a particularly pretty Roman Street between Piazza del Popolo and Piazza di Spagna.

Faded yellow and terracotta buildings, 3 and 4 storeys high, line the narrow laneway.

Long, thick vines trail down walls and over archways, their green leafiness softening the ageing edifices.



viamargutta-arch0199Via Margutta is not a Roman secret.

Federico Fellini lived there. A plaque marks the spot.

viamargutta-plaque0196What does the plaque say? I shall transcribe it for you because I am that kind of blogger:

Quante strade rare e belle so l’orgoglio dè sto monno / che t’incanti ner vedelle./ Io però sai che risponno?/ Via Margutta ormai è lampante /che le batte tutte quante / perchè è unica e speciale/ e per monno nun c’è uguale!

Loose translation (warning: my Romanesco is even worse than my standard Italian. In fact, I’m not even sure whether the plaque is Roman dialect as Fellini was not a native of Roman. But here goes, anyway:)

How many rare and lovely streets are the pride of this world/ enchanting you when you see them? /But you know how I respond? /Via Margutta, by now it’s clear, beats them all because it’s unique and special and in this world there’s nothing the same!

Do I agree with Federico Fellini?

On a sunny autumn afternoon it was hard to disagree.


We discovered Via Margutta because we ate at a very disappointing vegetarian restaurant called Ristor Arte il Margutta.

But more on what I ate in Rome in a coming post.

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When in Rome

On a grey morning in late October, we caught a series of trains (Mantova-Modena-Bologna-Rome) to Italy’s ancient capital.


By lunchtime we were eating at an outdoor table at a Roman restaurant.

The waiters were those elderly/middle-aged Italian guys that you find working in traditional Italian restaurants up and down the peninsula, especially in tourist hot-spots.

We ate well: a simple pizza and some grilled squid.


For the next few days, we visited churches, museums, squares, and so on. Walking, walking, walking in the lovely, warm autumn sunshine.


My trusty map (a relic from a previous visit).

My trusty map (a relic from a previous visit).

But the eternal city is a smelly city, a ruined city with one of the least attractive underground metro systems in the world. (The staff were helpful, though, and pointed out known pickpockets to us. Did we look like potential victims? Was my inner ninja not evident??)

Homeless people and beggars are everywhere and Rome looks its age. Swathes of tourists continue to wear the city down and there is a general lack of cohesion, co-ordination and common-sense.

Tourists in Rome during the low-season.

Tourists in Rome during the low-season.

Is Rome a livable city? Is it a viable city? Will it ever reinvent itself and become a thoroughly functional urban centre or will it always be a beautifully dysfunctional museum-piece with good food?

For all that, I like visiting Rome. It’s also a beautiful city. A stimulating city. A city with depth.

I threw a coin into the Trevi Fountain because I would like to return there some day.


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On Being 47

Looking Back

46 is already behind me and now I am 47; newly 47. Today is my birthday.

46 was a good year. I moved into a new house. I worked hard. I visited Paris, Sicily and Rome (more on that in future posts). I cemented existing friendships and let others fade away. It happens. That’s life.


Being 46 (just!) in Rome.

What did I learn? I don’t think I acquired any new skills – sad to say – but I was constantly reminded of several things:

  • Take nothing for granted.
  • The battle is never won.
  • Buyer beware!
  • Be nice but never obsequious.
  • Work hard but take time out to de-stress.
  • Smell the roses.

I have also learned, or perhaps re-learned, that when you can’t get your own way, a little reverse psychology can work wonders 🙂

Looking Forward

Things I should do while I’m busy being 47:

  • Work, but not harder, just do things differently and always explore ways of doing things better.
  • Move more in order to fight off incipient decreptitude.
  • Eat more greens.
  • Drink more water.
  • Go to the hairdresser regularly and experiment with growing out my artificial colour and letting myself go grey.
  • Write in my diary regularly.
  • Discover new music.
  • Take care of my garden and outsmart that neighbourhood cat that keeps pooping in the stones around our shrubbery.
  • Laugh!
  • Read more.
  • Be less judgemental.
  • Learn some Spanish.

I think that should keep me pretty busy.

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New Red Kitchen

About one year ago, we moved into a lovely new house and one of its many delightful features is the new red kitchen.

Actually, only the kitchen cabinets are red, but such is their glossy lustre that the entire room basks in their cheery glow.

newredkitchen-fromdoor0186Some people say that red is an appetite stimulant. Fast-food outlets use it in the hope that their customers will eat more and therefore spend more too.

But the new red kitchen hasn’t turned us into greedy gluttons. Not yet, anyway.

If anything, I have simplified my cooking and added new food items onto my list of things I prefer not to eat.  (These are mostly meat products.) I get pickier and pickier as I get older.

The fridge is usually empty, too.

But what’s nice, is that the red kitchen is a very comforting and caring place. Even a stale, dry cracker tastes good in there.


It’s a very lovely space to come home to.

In summer, we open up the french doors in the evenings and revel in the extra daylight hours.

In winter, we close the heavy window shutters and take shelter from the elements.


It’s not a huge space, nor is it a luxurious kitchen, but we are very happy with it. Our new red kitchen is a modest success story.


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