Book Review: Mašen'ka

Masen’ka (or Mary) is Nabokov’s debut novel. It was written when he was in his twenties, living as an émigré in Berlin, just like the story’s protagonist. In the introduction of my Italian edition (Adelphi), the author admits that some life events poured into the narration. The depiction of Ganin’s life in a pension filled with fellow Russian ex-pats, and the relationships between them, is undoubtedly reminiscent of Nabokov’s own experience. »

Book Review: The Crow Comes Last

The Crow Comes Last is a collection of thirty short stories written between 1945 and 1948, primarily based on the author’s wartime experiences as a resistance fighter during WWII and then in postwar Italy. Some are brutal, others funny, and some are gritty. They all revolve around the themes he perfectly defined while talking about his book: I prefer to divide the subject into three parts, to highlight three thematic lines of my work from those years. »

Book Review: Ravenna

Nerdy prelude. Local Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) were all the range when I was a teenager. With my group of local hackers, we hacked our way into ITAPAC, the then-leading Italian packet-switching network (we are talking pre-Internet era here.) Via ITAPAC, we’d connect to so-called “out-dial systems” in the USA. From one of those, we’d finally call our target BBSes with a local call at no cost. We felt so invincible! »

The Tripitaka Koreana

The Tripitaka Koreana - carved on 81258 woodblocks in the 13th century - is the most successful large data transfer over time yet achieved by humankind. 52 million characters of information, transmitted over nearly 8 centuries with zero data loss - an unequalled achievement. The full story is available here (via). Subscribe to the newsletter, the RSS feed, or follow @nicolaiarocci on Twitter »

Book Review: The Count of Monte Cristo

In my early morning stroll, I sometimes listen to audiobooks. This was the case with The Count of Monte Cristo. Rai Radio 3, the third channel of the national broadcasting service, has been airing Ad Alta Voce (Aloud) for many years. In the program, top-tier actors read old and new literary classics. The quality of these productions is astounding. Audio editions are often edited, which was the case with The Count, as the unabridged edition surpasses the 1200-page count (a little-known fact is that most printed editions are also edited for brevity). »

Book Review: Smiling Bears

My perception of zoos has always been of prisons—places of suffering where animals are held captive for human entertainment. Smiling Bears offered a new perspective. Some (hopefully most) zoos provide a safe harbor to abused and rescued animals who could never return to their natural habitats. Zookeepers like Else Poulsen care for these creatures, accompanying them in their rehabilitation process. I imagine not all zoos and zookeepers meet these standards, but it is reassuring to know these things happen. »

Book Review: A Captive West or the tragedy of Central Europe

Adelphi1 prints in book form two unpublished speeches by Milan Kundera, one from 1967 and the other from 1983, in which the great Czech writer reflects on the fate of the small nations in central Europe and the cultural drift of (western) Europe as a whole. As we read along, thanks to Kundera’s acumen and depth of analysis, we find many surprising ante-litteram references to today’s critical situation (Russian-Ukrainian war). »

Book Review: Just an Ordinary Day

As a Shirley Jackson fan, I couldn’t pass on this new collection of unpublished short stories. A good chunk of these was unheard of for thirty years until someone unearthed some cardboard boxes in a Vermont barn and then sent them to her heirs. Unlike The Lottery, where all tales followed a distinct theme, Just an Ordinary Day has little to unite the stories. Several genres are represented: classic family stories, supernatural, horror, and unsettling accounts of day-to-day life in the fifties all make up the list. »

Book Review: Italica

Suppose you are looking for a juicy and thought-provoking read on Italy’s twentieth-century crucial moments. In that case, I heartily recommend Italica by Giacomo Papi, a significant collection of short stories by prominent Italian writers of the period including the likes of Italo Calvino, Elsa Morante, Beppe Fenoglio, Natalia Ginzburg, and Giorgio Scerbanenco. A short essay introduces each tale. I thoughtfully appreciated these introductions, sometimes even more so than the story itself, as they are quintessential to comprehending the tale’s historical background. »

Book Review: The Rings of Saturn

W.G. Sebald is widely considered among the best modern German authors, so I approached this book with curiosity and high expectations. The Rings of Saturn records the author’s walking tour along the East Coast of England. As W.G. Sebald resides in the intellectual world, his tour naturally brings up literary, cultural or historical reminiscences. An astute Goodreads reviewer noted that Britain’s decline’s eccentric and grotesque aspects are this work’s central theme. »

Book Review: Invisible Cities

“Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco Polo says when he describes the cities visited on his expeditions, but the emperor of the Tartars does continue listening to the young Venetian with greater attention and curiosity than he shows any other messenger or explorer of his.” So begins Italo Calvino’s compilation of fragmentary urban images. As Marco tells the khan about Armilla, which “has nothing that makes it seem a city, except the water pipes that rise vertically where the houses should be and spread out horizontally where the floors should be,” the spider-web city of Octavia, and other marvelous burgs, it may be that he is creating them all out of his imagination, or perhaps he is recreating fine details of his native Venice over and over again, or perhaps he is simply recounting some of the myriad possible forms a city might take. »

Becoming the Emperor

Today, probably not just by coincidence, I came across Becoming the Emperor, an excellent New Yorker piece from 2005 on Memoirs of Hadrian, Yourcenar’s other works, and her peculiar career and life trajectory. Having just read the Memoirs, I was glad to see several of my reading impressions confirmed. I found the New Yorker article to be spot-on on Yourcenar’s prose and theme: Actually, some of Yourcenar’s prose is marmoreal, but not so that you can’t get through it. »

Book Review: Memoirs of Hadrian

Memoirs of Hadrian and its author Marguerite Yourcenar have always induced a cautious fear in me. I fretted the tome for high literary circles, one of those texts so infused with learned quotations and obscure literary references as to be utterly indigestible to the average reader. Despite their evident reputation, I relegated the Memoirs to the bottom of my reading list for a long time. When I stumbled on another reference to Yourcenar’s work a couple of weeks ago, I finally decided to plunge and pull the Memoirs off the shelf. »

Book Review: Lone Rider

In 1982, at just twenty-three years old and halfway through her architectural studies, Elspeth Beard left her family and friends in London and set off on a 35,000-mile solo adventure around the world on her 1974 BMW R60/6. Exhausted by a recent breakup and with only a few savings scraped together from her job in a pub, a tent, a few clothes and some tools, all packed on the back of her bike, she was determined to prove herself. »

Neuromancer and the birth of Cyberpunk

I went back to my library to check the year of my original Neuromancer edition. It’s 1993. For some context, I was 23 back then, with my software company founded only a couple of years earlier. The World Wide Web was at its very early stages. I distinctly remember getting out of that book dazed and confused. Characters were two-dimensional at best. There was a certain lack of exposition. The recurring streams of consciousness were complex for me to follow1. »

Book Review: Roumeli

Roumeli describes Fermor’s travels around Northern Greece and Macedonia. He visits secluded and remote areas and describes the rugged countryside and how people of these remote regions live. As he meets Sarakatsan shepherds and spends some time with them, visits the impressive monasteries of Meteora, attempts to track a pair of Byron’s slippers in Missolonghi and investigates Kravara and its secret language, he makes acute observations about these communities and their history. »

Endurance: Shackleton's lost ship found in Antarctic

A few months ago I started my review of Lansing’s Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage with these words: Of all the stories of maritime adventures I’ve read, that of the Endurance, masterfully told by Alfred Lansing in this book, is the most incredible and shocking. And I meant that. As the book’s title suggests, that story is simply unbelievable, yet true. Imagine my astonishment this morning at the news that the Endurance was found in the depths of the Antarctic. »

Book Review: Thinking Fast and Slow

This book stands up to its fame. It’s chock-full of precious insights on our decision-making and behavioral processes and how and why we humans are often capable of making informed yet awful decisions. The bad news is that we can hardly avoid most of these biases, no matter how hard we try and even if we know about them. So-called experts in the field are subject to these same biases: their short-term estimates and predictions can even be pretty good, but they will fail miserably in the long term, like any other man or woman. »

Book Review: Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Report on the Banality of Evil

This book is not about the famous, daring, and in some ways fortunate capture of Eichmann in Buenos Aires in 1960, nor about the covert transfer of the Nazi officer to Israel. Instead, the volume recounts the 1961 trial in Jerusalem, which ended with the defendant being sentenced to death. Hannah Arendt followed the trial as a correspondent for The New Yorker. She took notes, studied the papers, and reconstructed the many witnesses’ personal stories. »

Book Review: Finnish Fairy Tales

Over the years, Iperborea, one of my favorite Italian publishers, has been publishing an unofficial Nordic Tales series. Their renowned nordic fiction series includes one fairy tale volume per year, usually published in December, just for Christmas. The first book was Lapland Tales in 2014, and then they continued with Danish, Icelandic, Swedish, Faroe, Norwegian, Greenlandic and then Finnish in 2021. I’ve been greedily reading each one of them, usually as my last book of the year. »