Category Archives: 12 in 12

{Review} The Spectacular Group Suicide – Arto Paasilinna

As read for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge

I found this review very difficult to write. Not because the writing was bad or because the plot had more holes than my knitting (I keep dropping stitches).

In fact it was quite the reverse.

From my soapbox: first things first, I don’t find the subject of mental illness funny. After even a short period of depression, it can be almost impossible to just get up and get back on with life. What I do believe is that humour is one of the best methods to break down boundaries and get people talking in earnest about taboo subjects.

“Contemplating suicide? Don’t worry, you are not alone!”

Thus begins the attempt of two men, who feel they have nothing to live for, to found a group for other suicidal people so that they don’t have to die alone.

After attracting more members than they had believed possible, the group sits down to discuss how to go about the business of dying. Their suicide attempts become ever more desperate as they travel across Europe, trying to find the perfect place to die. At almost every turn the group is foiled… by itself.

With each attempt, the Spectacular Group Suicide members explore their own and each others’ reasons for wanting to end their lives. For the first time in months (and years, in some cases), they start to talk about what they are going through.

Paasilinna takes on one of the most difficult subjects to come to terms with. Using bleak humour, shocking (but sadly true) statistics and a surprising level of sensitivity, he tackles Finland’s greatest killer.

Feel free to flame me for saying this, but I felt that The Spectacular Group Suicide was a little like some of Chekhov’s work in terms of the plot’s tragicomic element. Within the first few pages, two of the main characters meet because they’re both looking for a quiet place to commit suicide.

The plot picked up momentum which was sustained for the first third of the novel. As the road-trip/ self-discovery elements started to set in, I felt that the novel started to sag a little. The pace picked up again near the end, but didn’t feel as smooth-flowing as it had done at the start.

There are facts and figures that I couldn’t believe, even after I had verified them. The factual elements are a slap in the face and strengthen (what I believe is) the underlying message that this is an issue that should be discussed publicly.

Whilst the main issue is suicide (and its causes), Paasilinna subtly weaves in a couple of other taboo subjects, such as HIV. This was skilfully done as this allows him to create a few more multi-faceted characters (something that can be hard to find in books about social issues *coughDickenscough*) who were as quick to condemn as they were to open their hearts to others like themselves.

Some elements devolved to the farcical, which did detract from the story. So as not to drop massive spoilers, I’m just going to write: fisticuffs with fascists and leave it at that.

The other element that left me somewhat disgruntled was Paasilinna’s portrayal of almost all people who seriously consider suicide as being able to find things worth living for after a few weeks of talking to others about how they feel. Research does indicate that people who can talk about how they feel can stabilise after months of therapy. The thing is that this ‘rule’ does not work in every case. The generalisation made the ending slightly less believable and could lead to misconceptions.

Whilst it’s easy to find books that deal with death, it’s much harder to find novels that explore suicide and attempted suicide without stigmatizing these people. Paasilinna has a done a wonderful job, taking a taboo subject and some facts and creating a story that gives hope to anyone who wants to start a discussion about this subject.

Whilst I have several disagreements with generalisation and a plot that doesn’t always flow, I truly believe that this book should be read by more adults so as to decrease the taboo nature of this subject.

After all, the main message of The Spectacular Group Suicide is that a little communication and understanding can go a long way in helping the most vulnerable around us.

WNI’s verdict: Wavering towards… WIN!


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{Review} The Story of Malta – Maturin Murray-Ballou

Read for Rose City Reader’s, European Reading Challenge.

I’ve never been one to say, “no” to a free book, so when I saw that Amazon had put a free e-book version of a book that had been published in 1893, I couldn’t not download it. Especially as it seemed to be a travel-guide-and history of the place..

In the late 19th Century, Malta was in some ways, the centre of the nautical world. Half-way between Britain and the (contemporary) Empire of India, it was crucial in her retention of the latter. Murray-Ballou’s work is a unique observation of the ‘Fior del Mondo’, the Flower of the World at this time.

Combining accounts of the country’s history with personal anecdotes and a writing style that is compelling (and sometimes shocking to the modern-day reader), The Story of Malta is a book that encourages the reader to examine his or her own perceptions of the world around them.

If you want a travel guide then this is not the book you want. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a book that explores the culture and the history of Malta or the Knights of St. John, then this is the book for you.


“We only present facts to the mind of the thoughtful reader”

One thing I always forget when I start reading older books about foreign countries is the extent to which the ‘primitive culture’ is always unfavourably compared with the author and his reader’s ‘civilized society’.

This attitude is frustrating for the modern reader: I shouted at him when he wrote several offensive racial stereotypes, called the Maltese, “sadly ignorant”, condemned every religious belief he mentioned that was not his own and expressed Sherlock Holmes-esque views on England’s monarchy.

It goes without saying that this element did sometimes make me question the sort of ‘filter’ some of the information in The Story of Malta had gone through before appearing on the page. As a result, I have learnt key dates and general history of the islands, but I don’t trust the more descriptive elements of the prose.

On the bright side, I do feel as though I have learnt a lot about Murray-Ballou’s personal beliefs and opinions of Malta. As soon as I realised that this book was best taken with a pinch of salt (or snuff, maybe), it became much easier to enjoy it and thoroughly.

Excluding the *ahem* contemporary beliefs on race and religion, Murray-Ballou writes very well, combining poetry, amusing anecdotes and nuggets of travellers’ wisdom that ring true after 100 years.

The one element that eventually persuaded me to like this book was his presentation of the island through the eyes of those who had seen it centuries before him. Of course, the use of Classical figures in contemporary books was common, especially among the well-educated, but lines such as: “It seemed like the eye of a Cyclops peering through the darkness, as though one of Vulcan’s workman, fresh from the fiery furnace beneath Sicilian [E]tna… had come forth to gaze upon the progress of the night”.

I’d be interested to read more of Murray-Ballou’s work: he’s well-travelled, writes very well and made me consider how my own perceptions of customs and people who are different from those I’ve grown up with are coloured by my upbringing.

WNI’s Verdict? Wavering towards… WIN!


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{Summary} Cultural Buffet Challenge – Week One

First of all, I’d like to say thanks to Synthesist Chronicles and The Lupine Librarian for their recommendations. 🙂

This week has been quite exciting: after months of studying and revising, I can sit in the shade with a big bottle of water and a croissant and read for as long as I want. I can take as much time as I like to read the same paragraph or poem several times and I can get as carried away with making notes as I like without being crippled by guilt for not sticking to my daily schedule.

The only downside is that my mind’s whirling with so many concepts and ideas that every time I sit down to write a review, I only manage up to type a hundred words or so before my eyes stray back to a book or a film or my Polish vocabulary book.

So, I’ll start putting reviews up for the asterisked books in the next few days.

If you’d like me to review a particular book or film on the list, just ask. 🙂

Books Read This Week
1) The Prince – Machiavelli *
2) The Age of Innocence – Wharton *
3) The Spectacular Group Suicide – Paasilinna *
4) Sonietchka – Ulitskaya
5) Broadmoor Revealed: Victorian Crime and the Lunatic Asylum – Stevens
6) The Character of Rain – Nothomb *
7) The Gourmand – Barbery *
8) Travels Around Kazakhstan: After the fall of the Soviet Union – Deonna *
9) The Spellman Files – Lutz
10) Water for Elephants – Gruen
11) Italian Shoes – Mankell (re-read)

Films/ Series Seen
1) Dark Shadows
2) Things to Do Before You’re 30
3) The Bridge (series)
4) Medieval Lives (series) *

And I’ve completed the first CD of the Michel Thomas Polish course, so all in all, it’s been a rather good week. 🙂


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{Review} Clash of Kings – George R. R. Martin

As read for the Once Upon a Time VI Challenge.

Since the 2nd series of the T.V. show started, I’ve been searching for an English-language version of this book. I found a copy a few days ago and have just finished it.

Blurb (from goodreads)
A comet the color of blood and flame cuts across the sky. Two great leaders—Lord Eddard Stark and Robert Baratheon—who hold sway over an age of enforced peace are dead, victims of royal treachery. Now, from the ancient citadel of Dragonstone to the forbidding shores of Winterfell, chaos reigns.

Six factions struggle for control of a divided land and the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms, preparing to stake their claims through tempest, turmoil, and war. It is a tale in which brother plots against brother and the dead rise to walk in the night. Here a princess masquerades as an orphan boy; a knight of the mind prepares a poison for a treacherous sorceress; and wild men descend from the Mountains of the Moon to ravage the countryside.

Against a backdrop of incest and fratricide, alchemy and murder, victory may go to the men and women possessed of the coldest steel…and the coldest hearts. For when kings clash, the whole land trembles.


I’m not going to lie; sometimes when I read longer novels the characters start to get tangled in my head and I have to jot the main ones down. No such problems with Clash of Kings though. Martin’s given each POV character a slightly different way of thinking and speaking. Although I do think that Bran (who’s 9 years old) sounds a lot more mature than he is. Maybe the maturity comes from having to be the Lord of Winterfell in his brother’s absence..

The character whose ‘voice’ I enjoy most is Tyrion Lannister. Before I began this series, I never noticed the extent to which handicapped people are vilified in literature. (OK, so the Hunchback of Notre Dame is one exception, but I’ve never read the book, so he could be very different from Disney’s Quasimodo). In the first book, Tyrion always has a riposte at the ready and ‘reads’ situations and people with ease. In Clash of Kings, he is on form and his character develops beautifully and realistically.

The story itself is very good, although I did wish that there had been a more definite ‘ending’ feel to it. Game of Thrones ended with hosts massing and kings coming out of the woodwork. [spoiler alert] Clash of Kings ended with Bran and Rickon fleeing Winterfell and heading into the unknown. [/end spoiler alert] Whilst it is an ending, it feels more like an open ending that will overlap with the third book in a ‘middle of the series’ way.

Overall If you’re looking for lush descriptions that don’t take over the page, witty dialogue that’s as much bite as it is banter, intelligent characters and a story that glues the reader to the page, this is the book for you.

WNI’s verdict? WIN!


Posted by on April 12, 2012 in 12 in 12, Books, Once Upon a Time VI


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{Essay} Geisha by Liza Dalby (Reading, Berkshire: Vintage 2000, 1998, pp 357)

Български: Традиционно облекло и прическа на г...

Български: Традиционно облекло и прическа на гейшата Deutsch: Typische Nacken-Schminke English: 2 Maiko (apprentice Geisha) conversing near the Golden Temple in Kyoto, Japan. Parts of the kimono and the special make-up are clearly visible. Français : Deux maiko arborant le kimono, la coiffure et le maquillage traditionnels. Türkçe: Tipik ense makyajı Русский: Традиционная косметика и причёска гейши (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dalby’s Geisha is referred to by her as ‘an interpretive ethnography’[1] in which she has two main aims. Firstly, to make the geisha world understandable to people from different cultures not merely by describing the customs of this group, but by explaining the cultural meaning and significance of events and objects that, if taken out of context, or out of order in this book can appear at first sight to be unrelated to the group, such as the Buddhist festival of Bon (the Feast of Lanterns).

 Her second aim is to answer the question of what it means to be a geisha in contemporary Japan by using her own knowledge, experience and observations. It is the second of these two goals that makes the book have particular significance in this field of study: Dalby is frequently referred to as ‘the only foreigner to have become an actual geisha’[2][3] as one Geisha community whom she was studying encouraged her to join them for a year so that she could experience life from an insider’s perspective as opposed to that of an external observer. Furthermore, as a result of living in Japan for several of her teenage years, Dalby was bilingual in Japanese, which allowed her to interact fully with all people she encountered whilst a geisha. This has resulted in the greater part of Geisha being written in the first person. Dalby tells the reader from the start that they ‘will not be permitted to forget that his understanding is being shaped by Ichigiku [the geisha name she took on joining the geisha world]’[4]. It is arguably this unique perspective that makes this work so important as Dalby has gained an understanding of geisha which she has been able to link to Japanese culture without exoticising either, a trap that other authors often fall in to.[5]


Although Dalby’s specialization in Anthropology had been cross-cultural studies, Geisha revolves around geisha within Japan with no attempt made to compare it to similar groups from any other culture, although Dalby names several that share similarities as her main goal was to ‘explain the cultural meaning’ of all that she encountered in the geisha world. She often makes a point of explaining the differences between geishas’ behaviour and customs not only compared to those of Japanese non-geishas, but also between geisha from different geisha communities. In order to do this, Dalby leads the reader straight into an eight-chapter section (the first of three-such sections) on relations; those of the geisha community as a whole before dwelling on those between the people from the teahouse she worked in as a geisha. Dalby then goes on to explain the history of geisha from the sixteenth century until the time she was in Kyoto as a geisha. She also mentions several traditions, such as mizu-age[6] that have shaped geisha history and tradition.


The second section deals with differences between geisha from different communities as well as discussing what Dalby claims is the main factor that unites all women who choose to become geisha both at the time of writing and historically: ‘an inclination towards the arts’[7] and to what extent the training and emphasis on each geisha’s ‘gei’, literally ‘art’[8], but in this case taken to mean the branch of artistic study they chose to perfect as it is that that makes up ‘the walls of their world’.[9] The final section is much shorter and deals in much more detail with ‘gei’, kimono etiquette and the place of geisha in contemporaryJapan.


The layout of the book and use of the first person and anecdotes, combined with facts and insights into the cultural mind-frame make the book more and more readable as one goes along. Whilst the history of how geisha came to have their current role in Japanese society is essential, the sheer volume of information combined with understanding the geishas’ mentality, particularly in the first section can feel overwhelming at times. Dalby has included a lot of illustrations in the form of maps, photographs and wood-block prints that are related to each section of Geisha, which are interesting and informative. She has also included pie-charts to illustrate some of the findings from her own research, which, coupled with quotes from some of the responses to her questionnaires, shows where her research was limited or her earlier conclusions had been proven wrong and in what way they were.


For the most part, Dalby chose not to hypothesise on the behaviour of geisha and their world, and instead to draw conclusions from her observations and experiences. As a result, the book feels much more fluidly written than it would probably have been, had it been based on a particular question, as opposed to illustrating the ‘flower and willow world’, or ‘karyukai’ as it is called in Japan and trying to understand what it means to be a geisha. Each section leads on to another and illustrates not only this world, but also contextualises it within Japanese society, for example the section on the position of Japanese wives in Japanese society.


One of Dalby’s conclusions (from the 1970’s) was that geisha were going to continue to exist into the 21st century as they are a part of Japanese tradition, even though their numbers would inevitably decline. This is true as there are 700 or so geisha inJapan. Dalby writes convincingly and authoritatively on the subject


In conclusion, Geisha is an important addition to ethnographical texts about geishas as it understands their place in Japanese society and their culture fully and is able to explain these behavioural patterns and beliefs succinctly, making them clear to the reader. As a geisha, she experienced their world in a way that few observers could hope to and has been able to note fascinating incidents and conversations that would be nigh-on impossible for someone who did not participate in this world to. It seems that had it not been for Dalby’s ‘deepening involvement in the geisha world’[10] and her American upbringing, she would not have been able to understand or explain so thoroughly her observations to the Western reader.


Word count: 1,028


Primary Text

Geisha, Liza Dalby,Reading,Berkshire: Vintage 2000, 1998, pp 357


Secondary Texts

 Geisha: The life, the voices, the art, Jodi Cobb, Knopf:United States, 1995, pp 115

 The Gei of Geisha: Music, Identity and Meaning, Kelly Foreman, Ashgate: SOAS Musicology, 2008 pp 158


[1] P. xvi

[2] Arthur Golden, author of Memoirs of a Geisha, who has rekindled Western interest in geisha by writing about their world in such detail and with such understanding. Dalby acted as a consultant for both the novel and the film of Memoirs of a Geisha, although she felt that they ignored most of her advice.

[3] Fiona Graham, fromAustralia has also completed geisha training; however her frequent disputes with other geisha from the community she works in has cast some doubt as to whether she has done this training in order to promote her own ethnographical research.

[4] P. xvii

[5] Jodi Cobb’s Geisha: The life, the voices treats geisha very much as a throw-back to previous centuries and misunderstands the place of older geisha, placing an emphasis on the desirability of younger geisha. According to Dalby and to men who frequent tea-houses a good geisha is one with wit and character, something that younger ones are still working on building (as a result, this makes them less desirable as older ones).

[6] The sexual initiation that was needed for a woman to become a geisha after years of being an apprentice or ‘maiko’

[7] P.223

[8] From which the term ‘gei-sha’ is said to be derived

[9] P. 222

[10] P.199

1 Comment

Posted by on April 2, 2012 in 12 in 12, Books, Support your Library


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{Review} The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho

The ‘snarky’ tone of this review is a one-off as I usually enjoy the books that I read. Of the 98 books I read last year, only one received a ‘review’ along these lines.

Every time a friend recommends a book by saying, ‘It’s a best-seller… everyone’s read it and you’ll love it!’ it makes me twitch uneasily. Quantity of sales maketh not (necessarily) quality of prose. When the friend who recommended The Alchemist to me used the afore-mentioned line and then declared it to be ‘life-changing’ a few hundred flashing lights and sirens went off in my head. Sceptical? Moi?

Blurb (as written here)
Paulo Coelho’s enchanting novel has inspired a devoted following around the world, and this tenth anniversary edition, with a new introduction from the author, will only increase that following. This story, dazzling in its powerful simplicity and inspiring wisdom, is about an Andalusian shepherd boy named Santiago who travels from his homeland in Spain to the Egyptian desert (my emphasis to illustrate the level of wisdom in this novel) in search of a treasure buried in the Pyramids.

Along the way he meets a Gypsy woman, a man who calls himself king, and an alchemist, all of whom point Santiago in the direction of his quest. No one knows what the treasure is, or if Santiago will be able to surmount the obstacles along the way. But what starts out as a journey to find worldly goods turns into a discovery of the treasures found within. Lush, evocative, and deeply humane, the story of Santiago is an eternal testament to the transforming power of our dreams and the importance of listening to our hearts.


Bizarrely perhaps, the first thing I thought when I’d got into the book was ‘Voltaire’. Each chapter has the repetitive format of, ‘good happens.. bad happens… our hero learns and improves and gets out of whichever scrape he’s in by a hair’s breadth’.

 That is all well and good in Voltaire’s work as he tends to be making a point about society and throws in a few humorous moments. In The Alchemist, I felt as though Coelho were trying to convert me to his way of thinking. This feeling was further intensified by what appeared to be his attempt at setting the tale out to be an allegory. The problem with the moral message that this tale was meant to skilfully contain was re-iterated so many times and in such unsubtle language that I can still see the ‘core ideals’ he wrote about with my eyes open.

 This makes me uncomfortable as it ties in with the first of the pearls of wisdom supposedly imparted by the text: ‘don’t forget the language of omens’. The ‘language’ that this story was supposedly teaching its readers.

 Other elements of the story did not appeal to me, such as dialogue reminiscent of Dan Brown’s and the hint that there would be an Epic Twist at the end of the plot to drive the message about ‘Personal Legends’ further into the reader’s already enfeebled brain.


Don’t believe the hype, believe your heart.

If you feel that you need to justify your desire to do the things that you really want to, don’t read the book, follow the omens you start to see everywhere after having read it and tell the world you’ve had an epiphany. Just do what you love (unless it’s unnecessarily cruel or illegal).

Wild Night In: Wail!


Posted by on March 19, 2012 in 12 in 12, Support your Library


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12 in 12

As hosted by booksonthenightstand

NB: unreviewed books in italics. Click on the titles to read the reviews!

Category One, ‘Through the Grapevine’ (Books recommended by others)

1) Reading Lolita in Tehran – Azar Nafisi
2) Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
3) The Alchemist – Paolo Coelho
4) Fifty Shades of Grey – E.L. James
5) Fifty Shades Darker – E.L. James
6) Fifty Shades Freed – E.L. James
7) The Help – K. Stockett

Cat. 2, ‘ Homocidal Tendancies’ (Crime novels)
1) The Maltese Falcon – D. Hammett
2) Death comes to Pemberley – P.D. James
3) The New York Trilogy – Paul Auster

Category Three, ‘Not just a pretty face’ (Non-fiction books)
1) Geisha – Lisa Dalby
2) Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman- Robert K Massie
3) The Story of Malta – Maturin Murray Ballou
4) Backpacked – A Reluctant Trip Across Central America – Catherine Ryan Howard

Category Four, ‘Young at Heart’ (YA/ childrens’ books)
1) Clockwork Prince – Cassandra Clare
2) The Hatchling – K. Lasky
3) The First Collier – K. Lasky
4) The Coming of Hoole – K. Lasky
5) Exile – K. Lasky
6) The River of Wind – K. Lasky
7) Golden Tree – K. Lasky
8) To Be a King – K. Lasky
9) Sierra Brulante – Pierre Pelot

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Posted by on March 9, 2012 in 12 in 12


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