Book recommendation: “La montagne magique” by Thomas Mann

An absolute classic, about which I am a bit intimidated to write. But I am moved by how close I felt to the people and events related in the book. I read it in French and I found the language and form very pleasant, elegantly aged. I wonder how it feels to read it in the original version, and in the many translations.

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I remember the impact with the first pages of the book. Even more than with Barkskins, I started at my standard reading speed (a reading trot!), but, as soon as Hans Castorp arrives at the sanatorium, the rhythm of the narration slows down so abruptly that I felt like falling in a metre of soft snow. I was stuck for a couple paragraphs, then found out how to wade forward by reading much slower, paying attention to every word, stopping sometimes to think about a line.

It has been a deeply fascinating read. I felt a lot of affinity with Hans Castorp’s thoughts and discussions about the world and the meaning of life, and I suppose this is because I am, like him, currently sitting away from the world’s continuous, sometimes frenetic, activities. I sympathise with his unheroic stance, his trembling look up to the higher truths that stand white and tall like sublime but also dangerous mountain peaks. This novel is an incredibly detailed soul journey. I hope that my heartfelt review will encourage you to give a look at this book 🙂 – and as usual, let me know your impressions in the comments!

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Book review: “Sachgeschichten”, published by Duden

I regularly check the children section of my local libraries, because I find witty and instructive books written in way that is easy to understand. I appreciated this one a lot:

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It is edited by Duden, unfortunately out of print. It features several one-page summaries of various topics, with accurate and funny illustrations, followed by two pages of related words. I like the open approach that permeates the book: each topic is presented in its various facets and with a lot of questions, suggesting further research. The final chapters explain how to prepare an oral presentation and a poster, and tips on how to present in front of classmates. I wish I had such a book when I was a kid! My schoolbooks were usually on the oversimplified side, while scientific literature was too complex. I am nevertheless happy to have found it now, because it is a great way to learn German! I noticed that I know around half of the words presented for each topic, so I have a lot to catch up 🙂

Book recommendation: “I dodici abati di Challant” by Laura Mancinelli

This novel is a favourite of mine. What I love most is the atmosphere, in that medieval castle in the Eastern Alps.

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Laura Mancinelli wrote in a style that evocates troubadors, storytelling and human society in a time that none of us can directly remember, but strongly resonate as our common past. The many characters appear like in a theatre play, each with a defining characteristic. Some pages sound like poetry, or songs, with repetitions and rhymes. Here and there are life lessons, cooking recipes, drama, melancholy, deep thoughts.

I like this story because it feels close to me, even if so many details definitely belong to a distant past. Sometime I spot the contemporary thinking in the words of a character, or maybe that thought was common in those times already…

The other two stories included in Einaudi’s edition are set in different times and places, but the atmosphere and the way of writing are similar. I liked Il miracolo di Sant’Odilia a lot, but not as much as I dodici abati di Challant, my first and unforgettable encounter with Mancinelli’s prose.

Book recommendation: “Memoirs of Hadrian” by Marguerite Yourcenar, “Dieser Mensch war ich” by Christiane zu Salm

I read Dieser Mensch war ich (this person was me) many years after Memoirs of Hadrian,  but I wish to review them together, as they share common themes, and have woken similar emotions in me during reading.

Source: randomhouse.de
Source: bookdepository.de

Marguerite Yourcenar wrote a first-person novel about the life of emperor Hadrian, examining various events of his long life with the wisdom of his last moments. I felt that Hadrian showed an uncommon serenity towards the end of his life. Christiane zu Salm collected one- or two-page summaries of hospice patients in her care (she is Sterbebeglieiterin – assisting people approaching death), who agreed to be published in her book. These people are much closer to us than Hadrian: they were mechanics, shopkeepers, teachers, unemployed, with children, with complicated families, married, alone, sad, ready, desperate; it is easier to relate to their words and their feelings, because we share common experiences. Still, I see that the approach of the end of their lives made them all (Hadrian included) think of the same questions, and made them all simply human. I appreciated the somber, elegant lyrism of Hadrian’s long monologue, but I didn’t feel that zu Salm’s patients were less interesting or important because they used ordinary words. Presentation in this case is not relevant to me, and I hope I’m not alone thinking that.

I wish to end with the thought that these are stories of people’s lives. Death is of course very present in both books, but as a future event, as the end, rather than a fact in itself. I felt that their message was to appreciate every moment of life, and they made me think about what makes my life meaningful right now.

French books in my local libraries

I want to dedicate a post to a few French books I found in the libraries in my corner of Berlin, as I have been able to find both books that I knew already, and to discover books at random, and being very happy with it. Thanks to the librarians who have picked up such a valid array of books from an immense pool, to populate the handful of shelves dedicated to foreign language literature!

I start with Amélie Nothomb’s Ni d’Ève ni d’Adam (that I already reviewed here), and Stupeur et tremblements:

Didier Daenickx’s L’espoir en contrebande, a series of black novels which won the Prix Goncourt in 2012. I loved the atmosphere, not so much the plots (spoiler: murders!):

Erik Orsenna’s La chanson de Charles Quint – I had read his novel Madame Bâ a few years ago, and I found his emotional, philosophical and almost myth-like prose again:

And last, Marie Sabine Roger’s La tête en friche – the story of a young man who discovers, step by step, a way of thinking that he thought unattainable and even unuseful. I like her tact in letting the protagonist explore friendship and affections under a new light, with his words, and with all serenity he is capable of.

Stay tuned for more book reviews, and feel free to send me your suggestions!

Book recommendation: “Ce n’est pas toi que j’attendais” by Fabien Toulmé

I read this comic yesterday at the library, in its German translation.

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I have been moved by the story of this father and his family, who discover that their newborn baby has Down syndrome. Fabien Toulmé includes the hard moments as well as the happy ones, his doubts, his difficulty in accepting his daughter, the various degrees of help he receives from doctors, colleagues, family and friends. He doesn’t hide that it took him weeks to take his daughter in his arms. He tells how his wife and older daughter reacted, and how they all took care of the newborn baby.

I found that this story portraits ordinary people, not heroes, facing difficulty, and overcoming it with their own forces and with the medical support available to them. I have thought myself what would happen if I become the mother of a special child, and I felt so unprepared. I wonder how many people feel this too. I am glad that Fabien shared their journey so honestly, and especially happy that he did it in a comic: emotions and feelings pop out of the pages more strongly than printed text would do. I recommend this book to everyone, not only future parents: knowing a bit better what journey it is to raise a special child would hopefully increase empathy and support.

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Book recommendation: “The life-changing magic of tidying up” by Marie Kondo

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I bought this book a few years ago and I cherish it, as a call for more clarity, simplicity, lightness in life. There is something deeply liberating in trying out KonMari‘s advice to gather all items of a specific type, see them all together, see the different ages of your life from where they come from, and decide to keep the ones that sparkle joy. This is a very condensed summary of her method, that she explains in detail in the book, with a great deal of thoughtful tips. I am aware that this book is very very popular and that countless reviews have already been made; still, I wish to shout my little +1 for it. One can decide not to answer the call immediately, but could consider specific tidying advice, and improve one thing at a time.