Dolce Bellezza

for literary and translated fiction

Skylight by Saramago


Just as a skylight is an opening in the roof, either admitting a brief illumination of light or giving outsiders a peek as to what’s inside, so Jose Saramago gives us a view of the inhabitants of an apartment building in Lisbon during the early 1950’s. Each member becomes almost as familiar to us as the members of our own family; in fact, I felt as if I was living in the apartments with these people. Which wasn’t always a pleasant feeling, for we are face to face with a lonely cobbler and his wife who have recently taken on a renter, a beautiful mistress and her benefactor, a family of four spinster women: the mother, aunt and two adult daughters, and an embittered couple with their ten year old son.

Each family has its own dreams and disappointments; their lives are lived out before us as a slice of life. We, as the reader, never leave the apartment. But, we see the complexities and emotional drama inherent to each person. We find ourselves taking sides, nodding our heads in agreement with a conversation, or silently cursing foolish choices.

When I closed the book, I had only an indication of where each person’s path would take them. Nothing is wrapped up or finalized. But I saw that the steps which had been taken would be next to impossible to reverse, and that for each family, nothing much would change.

The elderly cobbler and his wife would continue to love each other throughout their old age and loneliness; the mistress would continue to find a benefactor who would support her financially; the embittered couple would go their own way with excuses for needing freedom; and the four women would listen to classical music as they continued to stifle their inner passions. It isn’t concluding what would happen that makes this novel fascinating, it’s discovering who each character is, how he thinks, and what prompts him to take each step in his life.

It is no wonder to me that Skylight is in the top of the important book lists lately. Although it took almost four decades to be published, it is a beautifully written observation of human lives. I will be thinking of it for a long time to come.

Publishers often take a while to decide whether to publish a novel, but 36 years is pushing it. This is what happened to the Portuguese writer José Saramago, whose book Skylight was submitted in 1953 and returned in 1989, a few years before he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The author, whose work has been translated into 26 languages and whose sales exceed 2m copies, refused to let the novel be published in his lifetime. It would be a constant reminder, he thought, not so much of rejection, but of indifference and bad manners. ~Independent

Some favorite quotes:

“They had their past to remember, the present to live in, and the future to fear.”

“On this side- or perhaps on the other side too – of the inevitable noises lay a dense painful silence, the inquisitorial silence of the past observing us and the ironic silence of the future that awaits us.”

“All I mean is that we won’t become what we are meant to be in life by listening to other people’s words or advice. we have to feel in our own flesh the wound that will make us into proper men. Then it’s up to us to act.”

I Envy Those Of You Who Have Found a Template…and Stick With It

For me, there is always something wrong.

The header area is too crowded, or the sidebars are too distracting, or the site is too difficult to navigate, or…

nothing can please me for long.

I tend to think this is the problem, for in a drawer of red lipsticks half used up, I reach for a different one every day.

On a shelf of French perfume, I spray a different one almost every day.

And while traveling through this blogging land, I’ve changed my template four times since September.


I can’t promise you I won’t change it again.

But, I am promising myself to be content with what I have because nothing in this world is quite what we hope it to be. Perfect.

Five Must-Haves For Winter Survival

red blanket

a monogrammed cashmere blanket to snuggle under…

a kitty to lay on it with you…

a cup of Earl Grey with a shortbread cookie or two…

a journal to record one’s thoughts on a snowy afternoon…

and at least one full case of books. (As yet unread.)

What are your five requisites?

(Find more must-have ideas here.)

Five Favorite Winter Reads from Last Winter

While looking back over last year’s favorite winter reads, I give you the illustrations from my top five, with the title linking to my review:

snow queen

The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Anderson

The Long Winter

The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder


Iron Lake by William Kent Krueger

A Meal in Winter

A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli

The Sorrow of angels

The Sorrow of Angels by Jon Kalman Stefansson


Did you read any of these? Do you have any you recommend for the Winter of 2015?

The Narrow Road To The Deep North by Richard Flanagan


For an instant he thought he grasped the truth of a terrifying world in which one could not escape horror, in which violence was eternal, the great and only verity, greater than the civilisations it created, greater than any god man worshipped, for it was the only true god. It was as if man existed only to transmit violence to ensure its domain is eternal. For the world did not change, this violence had always existed and would never be eradicated, men would die under the boot and fists and horror of other men until the end of time, and all human history was a history of violence.

After every page I read, I wondered how I could go on. The brutality with which the prisoners were treated in a Japanese POW camp during World War II was almost more than I could bear. Yet, Richard Flanagan’s writing is so compelling it was impossible to turn away.

I finished the book late last evening, and I was unable to sleep for most of the night. The images of ulcerated sores and amputations, lice and filth, shit-running streams of mud and one gray rice-ball for lunch whirled in my vision. Underneath it all was a tender beauty which I will not soon forget.

The prisoners became family as they endured their imprisonment. One small rice ball was shared among two after a prisoner slipped and dropped his. The men banded together as men should, regardless of difference in age or strength; they suffered identically and silently vowed to be courageous as one.

More significant to me, though, was a parallel story to the one involving the camp led by a Japanese Colonel who knew he must preserve his honor by building a railroad from Siam to Burma under any condition. This parallel story was of Dorrigo Evans, the doctor who loved Amy with the red camilla in her hair.

Why is it that the loves which are felt most passionately are destined to be crushed? We marry who we marry, and make peace with what is proper and solid and right. But the one with whom our soul is most intricately linked is never the one with whom we can live.

I don’t know why that is.

I don’t think Flanagan proposes an answer, either. He just tells us of characters whom we feel we know, and the sorrows we feel that we, too, have endured, with a master’s hand.

Some favorite quotes:

“Virtue was vanity dressed up and waiting for applause.”

“It wasn’t really the great poem of antiquity (Virgil’s Aeneid) that Dorrigo Evans wanted though, but the aura he felt around such books–an aura that both radiated outwards and took him inwards to another world that said to him that he was not alone.”

“The day their talk turned to him and Amy was the day their private passion would have transformed into public tragedy.”

“…love does not end until all its power is exorcised in misery and cruelty and obliteration as much as in goodness and joy.”

“Without love, what was the world? Just objects, things, light, darkness.”

Find more thoughts here, here, here, here, and here.

Five Favorite Non-Bookish Things

A few of my favorite non-bookish things:

Belle Noir

Red lipstick, particularly this shade from make-up artist Julie Hewett in Los Angeles. It is called Belle Noir, and it is the perfect shade of red. It is not too bright, not too orange, not too pink, not too drying, not too anything but wonderful.

iPad mini with red cover

My iPad Mini with a red cover because it says Merry Christmas all year long. And, it helps me blog and read and play games and surf the web.

Chanel brush

Chanel brushes because my mother gave me one for the second Sunday of Advent, and it is so lovely I have yet to bring myself to use it.

Rhodia pencils

Rhodia pencils because they’re Italian, made of linden wood, have  a black eraser, and their triangular shape prevents them from rolling off my desk. Or the desk of a student who has taken it.


Cappuccinos from Starbucks, mostly because my son works there, and it’s wonderful to see him so happy.

What are a few of your favorite non-bookish things?

Link up with Andi here.

A Year In Books Timeline

January marked the beginning of the Japanese Literature Challenge 8.  It is rather unbelievable to me that I have been blogging for eight years, as well as hosting this challenge. It was the beginning of my passion for books in translation.

February‘s best read was The Dinner by Herman Koch, showing me that children behaving badly can only be expected when their parents behave worse.

March was the beginning of my reading as a member of the IFFP Shadow Jury, which comprised some of my favorite titles of the year. During this month I read The Infatuations by Javier Marias, The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke, The Dark Road by Ma Jian, Back to Back by Julia Franck, and Ten by Andrej Longo. My favorite books in translation this month were the first two of the list.

April held my favorite of all the books read for the IFFP: The Sorrow of Angels by Jon Kalman Stefansson. It also held one of the most disappointing books I read in 2014, which was The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair. I found it so unbelievably contrived and naive that I didn’t even bother to review it.

May was the month where I read another book I loathed, this one more than any all year. It was The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim, and to my great surprise, it won the IFFP for 2014.

June held Edward St. Aubyn’s hilarious novel, Lost for Wordswhich couldn’t have been better received after the disappointment in May. No one writes satire like Edward St. Aubyn, and I found his mocking of literary prizes most apt. June also was Angela Carter Month, the first time I ever read her writing. I loved Bluebeard, which I would not have read had it not been for the event which Caroline and Delia hosted.

July marked Paris in July, for which I was so pleased to be one of the four co-hosts along with Tamara, Karen, and Adriana. It provided me with a chance to go down memory lane, from the time I was in Paris as a child and wondered at the French affection for the Arc de Triomphe, to 2001 when I bought my wedding dress at one of the grand magasins. I also read a fabulous collection of memoirs set in Paris called Paris Was Ours by Penelope Knowland.

July also held Richard and Stu‘s Spanish Literature Month for which I read many titles. Never able to appreciate Roberto Bolano as others do, I was determined to find a Spanish writer to adore. Alas, the closest I came was Javier Marias.

August brought the long anticipated novel by Haruki Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage. While I enjoyed it very much, because I feel Murakami always puts words to loneliness and alienation which I can never quite articulate, it did not match my favorite books of his which would be Kafka on The Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

September is when school starts for me, and it is therefore a difficult month for me to get much reading done as I prepare for the arrival of my students. I attempted to read the shortlist for the Man Booker prize, but all I could manage was To Rise Again At a Decent Hour. It was one of the few contenders from an American writer; needless to say, Joshua Ferris did not win. Although, his writing is almost as acerbic as Edward St. Aubyn’s.

October was a revisit to a High School classic: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Although it is one of my son’s favorite novels ever, I found it much more meaningful as an adult than when I was 17. Which also holds true for other High School reads such as The Grapes of Wrath and anything Hemingway wrote.

November held German Literature Month, hosted by Caroline and Lizzy, during which I focused on Thomas Mann. I began with his novella, The Black Swan, and went on to probably his most popular book, BuddenbrooksThe later, at 700+ pages, didn’t leave a lot of time for other German authors, but I so want to read more of Deitrich Bonhoeffer in 2015.

December is now, the month of favorites brought to us by Estella’s Revenge, Traveling with T, and Girlxoxo. What fun it is to laugh and sing about all the books we’ve read this year. 

And, if you want numbers, here are a few breakdowns:

Total books read so far: 82

Percent of books in translation: 41% (34 books)

Reading challenges I participated in: 5  (The Japanese Literature Challenge 8, Angela Carter Week, Paris in July, Spanish Literature Month, and German Literature Month)

It was a glorious year, and while there are books I wanted to read as yet unread, I revel in the ones which I did.

(I’m looking forward to hearing about your year’s timeline, and you can find more timelines at Girlxoxo.)

Top Ten New To Me Authors of 2014

I loved going over my reading log trying to narrow down the top ten new-to-me-authors of 2014! I felt I was revisiting all the glorious moments of bookish pleasure from each of the twelve months past. Here, in order of which I “met” them, are the new-to-me-authors who spoke to me this year, and here’s to hoping they will speak to you, too, if they haven’t already:

Eleanor Catton for…


Herman Koch for…

The Dinner

Javier Marias for…


Birgit Vanderbeke for…

The mussel feast

Jon Kalman for…

Sorrow of angels

Simon Van Booy for…

The Illusion of Separateness

Tom Rob Smith for…

Child 44

Joshua Ferris for…

To Rise Again at A Decent Hour

Robert Harris for…


Ludmilla Petrushveskaya for…

There Once Lived a mother Who loved her children until they moved back in

You can be assured that I will be reading more of what they’ve written in 2015.

(Find more lists at The Broke and The Bookish here.)

The New York Times’ Favorite Books of 2014

Most Notable Books of 2014

Yesterday’s Book Review in The New York Times had several pages of the 100 Notable Books of 2014. As fiction is my favorite category, I’ll record the books listed under Fiction & Poetry here:

All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu

All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr*

American Innovations by Rivka Galchen

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories by Hilary Mantel

The Ballad of A Small Player by Lawrence Osborne*

Bark: Stories by Lorrie Moore

The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell*

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber*

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristian Henriquez

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi*

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis

The Cold Song by Linn Ullmann

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami (read)

Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offill

The Dog by Joseph O’Neill

Euphoria by Lily King

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng*

F. by Daniel Kehlman

Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Gluck

Family Life by Akhil Sharma

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride

I Pity the Poor Immigrant by Zachary Lazar

The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson

Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel by Anya Ulinich

Let Me Be Frank With You: A Frank Bascome Book by Richard Ford

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose

The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman

The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami

Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals by Patricia Lockwood

My Struggle Book 3: Boyhood by Karl Ove Knausgaard

The Narrow Road To The Deep North by Richard Flanagan* (am loving it so far)

Nora Webster by Colm Toibin*

Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters*

The Poetry of Derek Walcott by Glyn Maxwell

Redeployment by Phil Klay

Remember Me Like This by Bret Anthony Johnston

A Replacement Life by Boris Fishman

Song of The Shank by Jeffery Renard Allen

10:04 by Ben Lerner

Thirty Girls by Susan Minot

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Book 3, The Neapolitan Novels Middle Time by Elena Ferrante*

The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas (read)

When Mystical Creatures Attack! by Kathleen Founds*

Now, of this entire list I’ve only read two and one half: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, We Are Not Ourselves., and The Narrow Road to the Deep North. But, thanks to you and your wonderful reviews, I have plans to read the ones which have an asterisk after them.

The only problem is now we’re facing 2015, and how is one to read all one wanted in 2014 before then? Do you have any particular favorites of your own?

(Find more favorites at Girlxoxo)

A Month of Favorites Day 5: Picking Favorites

Can I say how fun this week has been?! It’s brought fresh life into my blogging joy with the daily themes. But, better than that, it’s brought me into an awareness of bloggers previously unknown to me.

I don’t have a favorite list, because they all were intriguing and inspiring, but I did have wonderful conversations with Flo. We discussed book covers, in America and in France; we shared books we’ve loved from French authors and even Norwegian. I’m so glad to have “met” her through this week’s events.

A big thank you to all the organizers of A Month of Favorites: Estella’s Revenge, Girlxoxo, and Traveling With T.  I’m so glad you’ve provided this opportunity for sharing about our book loves with fellow bibliophiles. Each comment left by a participant has made me smile; every post has brought me a fresh title I want to read.

(Link up here at Girlxoxo.)


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