Strange Pilgrims – Gabriel García Márquez

For my 100th post on this blog I have chosen one of the lesser known works by Gabriel García Márquez, in fact it is his last published collection of short stories. They were started during the 1970’s and 80’s but were not actually published until 1992 with an English translation appearing a year later. My copy is the Penguin books edition translated by Edith Grossman and published in 1994 with a bizarre cover by Matthew Richardson of Eastwing Design. The twelve tales are linked by being all about Latin American characters travelling or living in Europe, this was a familiar position for Márquez at the time as he lived in Barcelona for seven years in the 1970’s, going there after the success of his novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude”.

Born in Columbia, Márquez spent a lot of his life in Mexico, although his time in Europe clearly had a significant influence on these works. Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982 he is probably best known for his novels, three of which are also on my shelves along with three more books of short stories. However because there are so many reviews of his novels such as “Love in the Time of Cholera”and “One Hundred Years of Solitude”  and also as I have a soft spot for well crafted short stories this collection had to be the one to read this week.

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In the preface Márquez explains the long gestation of these stories, beginning with an exercise book in which he wrote sixty four tales none of which he was quite happy with, the dates each story was started is given after each one in the book and I have added this information as a date in brackets after each title below. He had several goes at rewriting but was never satisfied and the book was added to his papers to be looked at again when he might have a better idea how to work with the material. Unfortunately the exercise book got lost, presumably thrown out by accident, so he had a go at recreating them from memory. This reduced the total to about thirty and he is sanguine about this regarding the other half as clearly not good enough if he couldn’t remember how they went. The stories were still not right though and it was not until a final eight months of solid work finished the last ten included in this collection, which were all worked on simultaneously, that he finally had a book that he was happy to publish in the early 1990’s.

The twelve stories are each briefly reviewed below:-

Bon Voyage, Mr President (June 1979)

The first story concerns a familiar subject for Latin America, that of a deposed and exiled president finding treatment for illness in a foreign country, in this case Geneva in Switzerland. He is recognised by one of the ambulance drivers who comes from his original country and the driver plans along with his wife to get money from him by selling a fake insurance and funeral plan. The plot does not go as they intended and the development of the three characters makes an interesting twist.

The Saint (August 1981)

The Saint in the story is the incorruptible body of a seven year old girl from Columbia being taken round Rome by her father in an attempt to have her recognised as a saint. Well that is the initial premise anyway. In truth the story is more about the various characters staying in the hostel near the Vatican and their inter-reactions not only with each other, the saint and oddly the lion in the nearby zoo. The final two sentences of the tale though switch the meaning of the title in an unexpected way.

Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane (June 1982)

I’m not sure what to make of this story, it has a distinct voyeuristic tone that can be a little uncomfortable. The narrator sees a beautiful woman in Charles de Gaulle airport, Paris and then is pleased to see that he has the seat next to her on the plane to New York. The descriptions of watching her sleep next to him throughout the flight without any communication taking part between them throughout the journey makes odd reading.

I Sell My Dreams (March 1980)

Another tale regarding sleep, although this time the prophetic dreams of a Colombian woman who had come to Europe as a child and is first encountered by Márquez in Vienna. He sees her again many years later in Barcelona when he meets the Chilean poet Pablo Naruda and she is in the same restaurant and she is still making money from her dreams.

“I Only Came to Use the Phone” (April 1978)

The most disturbing story in the collection. A woman is driving on the way to Barcelona in a storm when her car breaks down. She is eventually picked up by a bus which drops her off at its destination so that she can use the phone. However the rest of the passengers are female mental patients and it is assumed at the asylum that she must also be a patient and she is prevented from calling her husband, sedated and admitted. The story describes her ultimate mental collapse as she tries and fails to explain her true situation.

The Ghosts of August (October 1980)

At less than four full pages this is the shortest work in the collection and is a really good ghost story, this time set in Tuscany and again involving a real person, in this case Venezuelan writer Miguel Otero Silva.

María dos Prazeres (May 1979)

Maria is a semi-retired prostitute in her seventies, originally from Manaus in Brazil but living for most of her life in the Gracia district of Barcelona. She now has only one client who has come to her weekly for decades and it is more a relationship than a business proposition. Convinced she is soon to die the story concerns her elaborate plans for her funeral and what is to happen with her belongings including her little dog afterwards. You really get to know her as the story unfolds and just as with other stories in this collection things suddenly change at the end.

Seventeen Poisoned Englishmen (April 1980)

The eponymous Englishmen are simply bit players in this tale of a Colombian widow who has travelled to Italy planning to see the Pope soon after the end of WWII. What it is more about is her reactions to post war Naples and her fears when she has to make her own way rather than the planned help she was expecting.

Tramontana (January 1982)

The Tramontana of the title is a persistent and powerful wind that the narrator of the tale experienced for three long days whilst staying in Cadaqués in Catalonia. He describes it as oppressive presence taking a personal affront to the presence of him and his family. It also clearly has a strong effect on all those who experience it.

Miss Forbes’s Summer of Happiness (1976)

Two young boys from Alta Guajira on the Colombian Caribbean coast are on the island of Pantelleria at the southern end of Sicily for a long summer holiday. For the first month they were with their parents and all was wonderful but they had left them in the care of a German governess called Miss Forbes whilst they went on a writers retreat elsewhere in the Mediterranean. She is very strict and the holiday had become intolerable to the boys, so much so that they resolve to kill her but the plot does not go as they intended…

Light is Like Water (December 1978)

This very short tale (around five pages) is positively surreal and again features two young boys around the ages that Márquez’s children would have been when he started to write it. As the narrator explains, he was asked how the light came on at a touch of the switch and replied “Light is like water, you turn the tap and out it comes”. Taking this seriously the boys break a bulb and sail a boat on the pool of light that cascades out of it despite being in an apartment on the fifth floor of a building in Madrid. But you should never play with liquid light.

The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow (1976)

Like the boys in ‘Light is Like Water’ the protagonists of this final tale are originally from Cartegena de Indias on the Colombian Caribbean coast but this time they are wealthy young adults recently married and travelling from Madrid to Paris overnight in a Bentley convertible that had been a wedding present. But Nena has cut her finger on a rose thorn and the bleeding will not stop.

A very enjoyable collection and if you have never read any Márquez it’s a good place to start. The stories do all feel that they belong together, possibly due to the simultaneous final rewriting yet are sufficiently different to highlight alternate aspects of his style. Highly recommended.

Summer Lightning – P G Wodehouse

A certain critic – for such men, I regret to say, do exist – made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained ‘all the old Wodehouse characters under different names’. He has probably by now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elisha: but if he still survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against Summer Lightning. With my superior intelligence, I have outgeneralled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy.

The opening paragraph of the preface by Wodehouse to Summer Lightning is typical of the humour of the man and is a perfect example of why I love his works. I don’t care that you can often recognise bits of previous characters in some new ones. Frankly the world of which he writes of stately homes in the country and clubs in London all populated by the most bizarre yet oddly believable characters is what I’m looking for when I pick up one of his books. Of invariably rich and often foolish young men, sensible young women, wildly eccentric uncles and terrifying aunts is the Wodehouse world made and the occasional sensible male character such as Jeeves, the gentleman’s gentleman in the Wooster stories or Beach the butler at Blandings merely highlight the craziness going on around them by being a beacon of solidity. They are an escape from reality to a time and place that probably only ever existed in Wodehouse’s fertile brain but which is instantly recognisable as 1920’s England and could be nowhere else.

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Summer Lightning is part of the series of books and short stories that relate to the goings on at Blandings Castle and was originally published in 1929. For those people who only know Wodehouse through the ever popular Jeeves and Wooster stories we are introduced to a whole new collection of odd characters and yet more bizarre plots in this series of books. Summer Lightning is not the first in the series but it is a perfectly good place to begin as you are introduced to the population of the castle very well and don’t need the earlier volumes to know the dynamic between them. Head of the family and, theoretically at least, in charge of the castle is Lord Emsworth who would be quite happy if left alone with his library, the castle grounds and of course the love of his life, his prize pig The Empress. In reality the castle is run by his sister Lady Constance who as châtelaine makes certain that things actually get done, as long as they are what she wants doing. The two do not exactly get on and Lord Emsworth usually gets bullied into at least starting some of the things his sister plans although usually by his absent-mindedness they rarely end up as she intended. The other constant inhabitant of the castle is the butler Beach who invariably gets caught up in the shenanigans of the various family members and guests there.

As the novel starts there are three other significant people in residence, one of Lord Emsworth’s nieces Millicent Threepwood, his newly appointed secretary Hugo Carmody (who is secretly engaged to Millicent) and his brother Galahad Threepwood who is writing his scandalous (and possibly slanderous) memoirs. You can already see two plot lines that will be developed. Later on add in Ronald Fish who is one of Lord Emsworth’s nephews, a friend of Hugo Carmody who he ran a failed nightclub with and whom Lady Constance hopes will marry his cousin Millicent, along with Sue Brown, a chorus girl in a London theatre, who is engaged to Ronald but would definitely be regarded as unsuitable by the family and things really start to get mixed up. Throw in pig-napping, mistaken identity, rivalry with the neighbour Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe, more pig-napping and a detective brought in who is also in love with Sue Brown although she dislikes him and it becomes quite complicated. Having said that Wodehouse is a master of this and you can always follow the various machinations of the characters as each tries to get to their desired outcome with greater or lesser success.

Beautifully illustrated by Paul Cox this 2004 edition of Summer Lightning is published by The Folio Society and as well as this stand alone volume it is available as part of a boxed set of six books which between them make up roughly half of Wodehouse’s output about Blandings Castle and it’s inhabitants. I now live within four or five miles of where the Blandings books are set in north Shropshire. Precisely which place gave Wodehouse his inspiration is not known but journey times and the fact that The Wrekin can be seen from the castle means that it has to be round here, local newspapers mentioned in the books although fictional also refer to local towns. The most likely house that the prototype for Blandings is Apley Hall and the sheer scale of this property fits in well with the descriptions of the castle in the books. This local link is what has encouraged me to re-read the books set round here and this had led to me exploring more of his works since moving to the area. He wrote over 70 novels and well over 200 short stories so is remarkably prolific and is possibly even more popular now than he was in his lifetime with a 1000 strong membership of the P G Wodehouse Society and deservedly so. His books are great fun, now which one shall I read next?

Ars Amatoria – Ovid

Much better known for his work Metamorphosis, Ovid also produced this treatise on the technique for finding and importantly keeping the love of your life. That it also includes hints for hiding infidelity and some of the advice is a little too true to life for some of its readers two thousand years ago probably didn’t help when he fell out of favour with the Emperor and was exiled from Rome for the final sixteen years of his life.

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As the lovely Folio Society edition that I have is quarter bound in leather with a plain brown cover I have chosen not show the outside as it is rather dull but instead to have three extracts with the drawings by Victor Reinganum which decorate most of the pages, including the opening shown above where Ovid sets out what he hopes to achieve. The book was published in 1965 and uses the translation by B.P. Moore originally published by Blackie & Son Ltd. The font used is Poliphilus 13 point and I think suits the text admirably well. Unusually for Folio the book was reprinted just two years later which attests to its popularity.

The work consists of three short books, the first two are aimed at men trying to find a partner and get her interest (book 1) and then Ovid looks at how to keep her (book 2). The third book was written slightly later and is aimed at women looking for a man. Despite being over two thousand years old much of the advice given by Ovid is as good today as it was in Roman times. The first, and most obvious, but still got wrong many times, is that if you want to meet a woman then it is best to go to where they are, don’t hang around in places with your male friends, go to the parks or theatres. But remember you are not there just to watch the play.

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When you have found ‘the one’ then how to make sure she knows you are not only interested but are looking for more than just a friend is covered next, and then once a relationship has started make sure that she knows that she is the only one for you.

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The third book, for women hoping to secure a man, repeats the suggestion from the first book to go where they are although it point out that the sensible men that are also looking for women (and have read the earlier treatise) will be where she already is, so maybe start at the theatre. However there is also beauty advice, such as for make-up (basically don’t overdo it, use enough to enhance not redefine) and hair (pick a style that suits your face shape). The words about makeup are particularly poignant when you consider the very basic types available at the time which would degrade quite quickly in the Italian sun. I love the suggestion in the passage shown below that the morning beauty routine is best done away from the gaze of the man the lady is hoping to attract, after all why should he know what she has done to enhance her beauty.

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I don’t want to give the impression that Ovid is just covering beauty tips, there is much the same sort of advice given to the ladies as to the men in how to attract a mate and even what to do when you have got him. How to arrange messages between you when things are still not publicly known and you don’t want anyone else to know. This also applies to illicit trysts when secrecy is vital and he is not shy of making this clear in his text.

Overall the book(s) are a fun read and in places could be lifted straight into the advice columns of today. It’s a fascinating glimpse into an ancient past that perhaps is not that ancient after all.

A note on the translation used is probably useful here at the end of the review. Clearly Moore updated some parts, there are two references to cars for instance when leaving the vehicles as period would have been far less jarring. There are other lines where I felt the intrusion of the modern was out of place and disturbed the flow of the text. Having said that the translation is very readable apart from these examples and the deliberate attempt to keep notes to an absolute minimum (just two pages at the back which mainly name the character referred to when a reader in 2AD would have simply known who it was) makes it more a reading pleasure rather than an academic exercise. There is a translation available at Project Gutenberg which dates from 1885 but this is in prose rather than the verse employed by Moore and is a lot less fun to read so overall I’m glad I have this edition.

Cannery Row – John Steinbeck

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.

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From the Penguin ‘Drop Caps’ series that I covered last year in a general review of all twenty six books, and I’m amazed that I had never read it before, the quote at the top is the opening line and immediately draws the reader in. What little Steinbeck I have read in the past I have thoroughly enjoyed, he really was a master wordsmith able to conjure totally believable characters with just a few sentences or even a handful of words and what characters he has populating Cannery Row and it was his “keen social perception” that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. There is a plot to the narrative but it is definitely secondary to the characterisations deployed. You really get to know marine biologist Doc and his lab/home, Mack and the boys at the Palace Flophouse and Grill (a rather grandly titled abandoned storage shed), Dora and her girls at the Bear Flag Restaurant (in reality a bordello), Lee Chong and his shop which seems to stock everything, albeit totally randomly, and the general human detritus living in whatever shelter they can find along the Row.

The people are poor but making the best of their situation, the time is the 1930’s during the Great Depression and times are hard. The main employers are the sardine canneries that give the area its name although the work depended on the arrival of the boats loaded with fish which also gives the area its distinctive odour. None of the characters are actually in employment at the canneries though, apart from when they need some money which they cannot get some other way. Lee Chong, Dora and Doc all have legitimate businesses in their own right. Lee’s grocery presumably would make money if his customers actually had any, what it mainly makes is debts which do mainly get paid off when he refuses to extend any more credit to somebody unless they actually part with some money to cover the backlog. Doc is the main character of the book, he owns Western Biological Laboratory, and if anyone in the US wanted a specimen of pretty well any sort of animal Doc would get it for them, eventually anyway. Dora as stated above owns the bordello and probably makes more money than any of the other characters but has to hand over large parts of it in ‘charity’ just to ensure that the authorities keep looking the other way. She is genuinely kind hearted though and looks after her staff who can’t work much due to age or infirmity, one breaks her leg during the book and there is no suggestion that because she can’t work she would lose her room or meals each day.

Mack and the boys at the flophouse, which they con Lee Chong out of at the start of the book, don’t work unless they have to, they have developed over the years a sense of contentment about their lives where they can get what little they need to survive somehow, even if it actually belongs to somebody else at the time. What they will do is get creatures for Doc at a fixed price that everybody knows because that’s more of an adventure than ‘working’ for a living. Despite their low grade criminality you can’t help but like them, they are more victims of their schemes than pretty well any one else and they are genuinely remorseful when things go badly wrong.

Even the bit parts are masterful, I particularly enjoyed the regular appearances of the old Chinaman as he wandered down to the sea and back each day; and like a minor character in a West End farce he always failed to interact with any of the major players whilst just walking through the narrative adding nothing to the plot apart from a comic interlude and a sense of wonder. Just what is it he is doing and why? It’s never explained.

The book revolves around Doc, his need for specimens and his love of classical music, his books and a quiet life. The plot, such as it is, involves Mack and the boys wanting to do ‘something nice for Doc’. They decide on a party so then need to raise some money to finance it, how they get the ‘money’ and the form it takes is really funny and the disaster of the party leads to real poignancy as the various characters reflect on how it went so horribly wrong and what to do to try to make it right. The book is brilliant and difficult to put down when you have started you just need to know more about the population of Cannery Row and apparently there is a sequel so I have to get a copy of that.

Sailing to Freedom – Voldemar Veedam & Carl B. Wall

This beautiful volume was a gift from a friend in Estonia and tells the tale of sixteen people escaping from the Russians after the annexation of their country post WWII. This edition of the book was published as part of the 100th anniversary of Estonian independence in 2018 and includes a preface by the president of Estonia, Kersti Kaljulaid. Sadly that initial period of independence was snuffed out by the start of World War II with first the Russians then the Germans and finally the Russians again taking control, Estonia would not be independent again until the 20th August 1991. Estonians therefore celebrate two Independence Days, the 23rd February marking the first time they were their own state back in 1918 and the 20th August for the current and longest period of independence the country has had in the centuries it has existed.

During the early 1940’s the Russians instigated mass deportations of ethnic Estonians to Siberia and the majority of those sent there never survived to get back to their own country. To escape these deportations many Estonians sailed across the Baltic to Sweden where they were largely held in camps amongst these escapees were the heroes of this book. They were faced with yet another problem at the end of the war as Sweden was set to send the Estonians back to their own country and Soviet control.  In March 1945 Voldemar Veedam was sitting with his friend Harry Paalberg when the first of the letters from the Swedish foreign ministry were received by the refugees informing them that they were to be returned and the Soviets has assured the Swedish government that they would be safe. Needless to say the refugees in Sweden didn’t believe the Soviet assurances and it turned out to be a correct supposition as tens of thousands more Estonians were sent to their doom in Siberia during the 1950’s.

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And so the plan was hatched between Voldemar and Harry to escape, this time from Sweden and try to get to the USA. They would need a boat and a few more people to man it and also help raise the money needed for the trip; this was going to be difficult enough never mind the gruelling ocean voyage. Money was tight and they couldn’t get more from family abroad as Swedish law severely limited the amount that could be sent to the refugees. In the end they managed to purchase a 36½ foot long (11.1m) by 13 foot wide (4m) sloop called Erma and an erratic diesel engine, but only by taking so many people into the escape attempt that the crew numbered twelve adults and four children. Working out how to get all those people on board with sufficient provisions and still be able to sail was a logistical nightmare. So much so that one of the recurring themes is the amazement of bystanders whenever they did manage to make it to a port as to how so many people were aboard. When they bought her Erma was over fifty years old and had been out of the water for years so leaked badly when she was refloated.

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There was a massive amount of work needed to make Erma seaworthy and this took far longer than any of them hoped even with four men working up to sixteen hours a day rebuilding the boat to be able to get everyone on board. So much so that instead of the hoped for summer departure it drifted into the autumn and meant that they ended up crossing the Atlantic during November and December.  This undoubtedly increased the amount of bad weather they hit during the crossing and caused a lot of the delays which hit their rations hard. It really is a magnificent tale of daring-do and remarkable seamanship that they managed to get all the way making repairs to their tiny vessel whilst on the way.

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When the book came out it appears from some of the blurbs reproduced from the old book covers that the trip was compared with that of Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl and his crew on the Kon-Tiki expedition whose book had been published a few years earlier. Somewhat unfairly I feel as his was a well funded trip (along with equipment from the US Army) with no pressure on him other than to prove his own theories. The sixteen people on the Erma had no such backup and made an amazing trip out of desperation to avoid the Soviet oppression in their homeland. I’m amazed that I haven’t come across this book before especially as it was clearly an international best seller in the 1950’s but checking on Amazon it appears that it is no longer in print apart from the edition I have now read which despite being in English does not appear to be available here. Thank you Christel for a fantastic gift which I have greatly enjoyed reading.

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The cover of the first UK paperback edition

The copy I have was published by Eesti Mälu Instituut, The Estonian Institute of Historical Memory, and a beautiful job they have made of it. The colourised photos from the trip, a couple of which are reproduced above, are wonderfully atmospheric and the inclusion of lots of covers of previous editions appeals to me as a book collector as well as showing just how popular this book has been around the world. Surprisingly, to me at least, the book was originally written in English by Veedam with the assistance of Carl B Wall who was an American journalist. It was first published in a much shorter form as The Cruise of the Erma in the February 1947 edition of Readers Digest and subsequently expanded in 1952 to the text that is now used. The front cover photo was taken from the American patrol boat John P. Gray soon after they had found the Erma and re-provisioned them for the final few days journey to an American port and journeys end.

Below are some more international translations, including ones on the right where the cover designer has clearly not read the book and has no idea what sort of boat Erma actually was.

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Wishful Drinking – Carrie Fisher

Hi, I’m Carrie Fisher and I’m an alcoholic

And this is a true story.

The start of Carrie Fisher’s first memoir certainly sets out her stall all too well. This is going to be a roller coaster ride through the highs and lows of her life told with self deprecating humour honed by telling much of the material covered in the book in a hit one woman show which premiered in 2006. The copy of the book I have is the 2008 first edition published by Simon and Schuster.

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The daughter of film star Debbie Reynolds and singer Eddie Fisher, Carrie grew up in a far from normal household. Her father left when she was two when he started an affair with Elizabeth Taylor, who was also married at the time. Reynolds married again a couple of years later to a millionaire business man (who later lost all his money along with Reynolds’ due to bad business decisions and gambling) but he was Carrie and her brother Todd’s step father through most of their childhood. The book is quite open about this time in her life, how they only saw their mother occasionally, her step father even less often and her biological father about once a year. From the descriptions of the two children spending time with Reynolds’s clothes as they smelt of her when they couldn’t be with her and the times she was around spending as much time as possible in her presence they clearly missed having her in their lives.

By her mid to late teens Carrie had discovered alcohol and drugs, mainly marijuana at this stage and was what would become her life long addictions to both had started. This could have been a really dark book but the humorous way she addresses this along with her later mental health problems (she was bipolar) makes you laugh along with her even when she is describing really low points.

Okay, have it your way. I’m a drug addict.

You know how they say religion is the opiate of the masses? Well I took masses of opiates religiously.

or talking about her committal to a mental hospital a couple of years after giving birth to her daughter.

I was invited to go to a mental hospital. And you know, you don’t want to be rude, so you go. Okay, I know what you must be thinking – but this is a very exclusive invitation.

I mean, hello – have you ever been invited to a mental hospital?

So you see, it’s exclusive. It’s sort of like an invitation to the White House – only you meet a better class of people in the mental hospital.

The reader is introduced to Fishers fragile mental state right at the beginning of the book as she discusses the electroconvulsive therapy she has undergone and the effects it has had on her, including sporadic memory loss but she has also gained a re-awakening of things she has done which had been lost in the fog of drugs, drink and mental imbalance. This enabled her to create the stage show which led to this book.

Yes there is a section about Star Wars, but it’s quite a short one, and surprisingly nothing about her later career as one of the top Hollywood script doctors where she fixed scripts for various TV shows and films, including working for George Lucas. She got the role as Princess Leia at just nineteen years old and you get the impression that she is slightly irked that Lucas owns the image rights to the character including a throw away wry comment that every time she looks in the mirror she owes him a dollar. All those t-shirts, posters, dolls, figurines (large small and Lego) earn money for Lucasfilms not Carrie Fisher and it still seems odd to her that Leia became a sex symbol ‘while being chained to a giant slug’.

One afternoon in Berkeley I found myself walking into a shop that sold rocks and gems.

“Oh my God aren’t you…” the salesman behind the counter exclaimed.

And before he could go any further. I modestly said “Yes, I am”

“Oh my God! I thought about you every day from when I was twelve to when I was twenty-two.”

And instead of asking what happened at twenty-two, I said “Every Day?”

He shrugged and said “Well four times a day.”

Welcome to the land of too much information.

In the book there is a lot of information and a lot of it is dark but there is never too much and it is a great read while she takes us through her fascinating life.

Ten Italian Folktales – Italo Calvino

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As the title states there are ten tales included here and they are a wide mix so the best way to review the book is to look at each one in turn. Please note there will be the occasional spoiler but as these are folk tales it is entirely possible that you have come across the stories already or at least variants of them and it is those variants that I will mainly be referring to. The first story is Crack and Crook, this is one of the shortest tales and also one of the oddest included. It tells the story of two thieves who decide to team up to pull off a major robbery by tunnelling into the King’s treasury. They succeed in the attempt but this is where the story gets weird as the King, advised by another thief come up with stranger and stranger ways to identify the culprits. Story two is The Land Where One Never Dies which is basically a morality tale, the protagonist wishes to live forever but eventually discovers that he misses his family and local village.  Pome and Peel is another weird one as the title refers to two boys who were born after their mothers ate parts of a magic apple (one the flesh and the other the peel) and were inseparable throughout their lives until one wishes to marry a wizard’s daughter who puts a curse upon her when she runs away with the two men.

The Sleeping Queen is a strange variant of the classic Sleeping Beauty tale as it really seems to be two stories merged into one with the Sleeping Beauty part sandwiched between a morality tale. The middle bit has the castle surrounded by a motionless populace and in the castle is the Queen in her bed, however unlike the Perrault and Brothers Grimm versions of the story where she is awakened by a kiss, the Prince in this version gets into bed with her and she is awakened nine months later when she gives birth with everyone else starting to move again at the same time. This is much truer to the original version of the story from the fourteenth century where a princess gives birth to twins after her ‘rescuer’ leaves nine months earlier. But there is also the interwoven morality story in this tale about a blind King and his three sons who go off one after the other to find a cure for his blindness; but the two eldest abandon their quests when they find beautiful women that they fall in love with and decide to marry and forget all about the reason for their journeys. This leaves the youngest to complete the quest but he also gets betrayed by his feckless elder siblings before they get their comeuppance in their turn.

The next tale is The Enchanted Palace and this time a Prince gets lost in a forest whilst out hunting and finds a strange apparently deserted palace until a veiled lady with twelve maidservants suddenly appears, she dines and indeed sleeps with him all without saying a thing or removing her veil. It turns out she is under a curse and when he unwittingly breaks the terms of the spell she has of all things to go to Peterborough and be given as a prize in a jousting competition even though she is in fact the Queen of Portugal. That was a definite twist I hadn’t seen coming. After that is The King of Portugal’s Son so as the Italians clearly think the Portuguese Royal family are strange I was expecting something odd and wasn’t disappointed. It is difficult to summarise the plot of this one without giving too much away but yet again the twist in the end is well worth the reading of the story.

The two stories that follow are both very short, Apple Girl tells of a Queen who gives birth to an apple but inside the apple is a beautiful girl who escapes each day to bathe and do her hair before returning to the fruit until the spell is eventually broken. Joseph Ciufolo, Tiller-flautist is another short morality tale and is probably the weakest of the stories included.  There then follows Misfortune which is the tale of the youngest daughter of the Queen of Spain who is desperately unlucky and is cast out from her family to try to restore the luck of the rest of them. Eventually she meets and improves the temper of the grumpy witch who is controlling her fate thereby reviving her own fortune and that of her estranged family.

The final story in this selection is Jump into My Sack and this definitely felt familiar although I cannot place where I first heard it. It tells of a magic sack which will fill with anything the owner wishes and a stick which will do anything it is commanded to. Using these the hero of the story manages to have great wealth and use the powers for the betterment of others and even defeat the Devil.

Italo Calvino was born in Cuba in 1923 to Italian parents but grew up in Italy after they returned to their home country before he was two years old. After WWII he became a journalist on a Communist newspaper and also started to write novels and short stories. These folk tales are a selection from the two hundred that Calvino collated in 1956 from collections of folklorists across Italy. Having read this book, which was published in 1995 as part of a set marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of Penguin Books, I definitely need to get hold of the full collection to be able to enjoy the others but for now this is the only work by Calvino on my shelves.