12 August 2015

Film Review: Alone Across the Pacific (1963) by Kon Ichikawa, *****


A powerful hymn to the human spirit, Alone Across the Pacific by renowned Japanese director Kon Ichikawa (An Actor's Revenge, The Burmese Harp, Tokyo Olympiad) tells the extraordinary real-life story of one man's obsessive quest to break free from the strictures of society. In 1962, Kenichi Horie (Yujiro Ishihara) embarks on a heroic attempt to sail single-handed across the Pacific Ocean.

Leaving Osaka in an ill-prepared vessel, the Mermaid, the young adventurer must overcome the most savage of seas, the psychological torment of cabin fever, and his mental and physical breaking point, if he is ever to reach the fabled destination of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. Using Horie's best-selling logbook as his source, Ichikawa portrays the epic struggle of man against nature.

'Scope cinematography with Horie isolated in the oceanic expanse of the frame and a score by celebrated composer Toru Takemitsu, add to the drama of a film for which Ichikawa received a Golden Globe nomination, among other accolades.

New high definition digital transfer, anamorphically encoded, original 2.35:1 aspect ratio
New and improved optional English subtitles
Original Japanese trailer and two teasers newly subtitled
A lavish 24-page booklet featuring a colour reproduction of the original Japanese poster, archival publicity stills, and an essay by Brent Kliewer (professor at the College of Santa Fe)


This is Traveling with a capital T. Traveling for the sake of traveling. The real story of Kenichi Horie's first of many sailing challenges he set for himself. In 1962 he was a young ambitious man in Japan, a country still recuperating from a devastating defeat in WW II. He felt for his country, and said that for a nation with a long maritime tradition it was a shame no one had yet sailed solo across the Pacific. He wanted to do it for Japan.

And yet he wanted to leave Japan, where he suffered because of the cultural and social restrictions that hampered his wandering spirit. He wanted to be free of Japan as much as of his own family, whom he loved but whose interference with his dreams he could no longer put up with. He was fascinated by America, the power that defeated the Japanese Empire and established such a pervasive presence on the islands. He wanted to sail under the Golden Gate bridge of San Francisco. And he did, after ninety-four days of excruciating adventure and hardship.

He did it in a Japanese way: carefully preparing everything, meticulously executing the plan he had drawn, even trying to apply for a passport (he did not manage to get one in time) because he wanted to follow the rules. It is ironic that when he completed his feat his father, instead of being proud, promised to the media that upon return the son would apologize to the nation for having contravened the rules. (It was not allowed at the time for small boats to leave Japan.)

Buy the book here

In the US buy it here

17 July 2015

Book review: Catching Fire - How Cooking Made Us Human (2009), by Richard Wrangham, *****

Blogger learning to be human

Ever since Darwin and The Descent of Man, the existence of humans has been attributed to our intelligence and adaptability. But in Catching Fire, renowned primatologist Richard Wrangham presents a startling alternative: our evolutionary success is the result of cooking. In a groundbreaking theory of our origins, Wrangham shows that the shift from raw to cooked foods was the key factor in human evolution.

Wrangham argues that it was cooking that caused the extraordinary transformation of our ancestors from apelike beings to Homo erectus. At the heart of Catching Fire lies an explosive new idea: the habit of eating cooked rather than raw food permitted the digestive tract to shrink and the human brain to grow.

When our ancestors adapted to using fire, humanity began. Time once spent chewing tough raw food could be sued instead to hunt and to tend camp. Cooking became the basis for pair bonding and marriage, created the household, and even led to a gender-based division of labor.

Tracing the contemporary implications of our ancestors’ diets, this book sheds new light on how we came to be the social, intelligent, and sexual species we are today. As our ancestors adapted to using fire, humans emerged as "the cooking apes".


Cogito ergo sum, said Descartes. Coquo ergo sum is the gist of this book. According to largely accepted scientific knowledge, Homo erectus sprung up from the earlier Australopithecines by eating meat.The transition from homo erectus to homo sapiens, us, is owed to a major innovation: cooking.

Levi-Strauss, in his The Raw and the Cooked: Introduction to a science of mythology (Pimlico), wrote that fire marks the transition from nature to culture. Few would dispute that the cuisine of any nation is a major trademark of its cultural somplexity and sophistication. And cooking, in its many diverse methods (grilling, steaming, boiling, baking etc) is an essential part of any major cuisine in the world.

Our bodies evolved because we learned to cook: besides a smaller stomach and larger brain, we lost our climbing ability (no need to climb if fire can protect camp on the ground) in favor of better running skills. And we have much smaller teeth compared to our ancestors who did not cook.

Cooking also played an essential role in making mankind a carnivore, as it makes it efficient to digest and store large amount of animal proteins in a way that would have been unthinkable with just raw meat. But for vegetarians there is some consolation as well: cooking made it possible to digest many more types of roots.

Finally, this book dwelves on the social implications of cooking: how it shaped the man/woman relationship in the house, and how it made it easier to use meals as a social event. Some cultures have peculiar (to us) habits: among the Bonerif of Papua, a woman will sleep with every man in the village except her brothers before finally getting married; but the moment she feeds a man she is irrevocably considered his wife!

In the UK you can buy it here:

In the US and worldwide buy it here

If you feel inspored to become more human, consider buying one of these books about cooking!

16 July 2015

Book Review: Geography of Attraction (2015), by Ali May *****


Ali May's collection of erotic short stories.


This is, in its own peculiar way, a travel book, which is why this review has a place in this blog. When I asked the author what his new book was about, his answer was simple: fxxxing around the world. The reader is led from ultra-conservative Iran to super-emancipated Denmark, with stopovers in Italian islands and European capitals. Along the way, we are led through many a decadent tasting of delicacies from around the world and lots and lots of drinking, all of which leads like a funnel to the inevitability of physical attraction.

Whether the protagonist of each story is him, or someone he knows, he wouldn't say. Maybe that's the most intriguing feature of the book. It's part fiction, but not all of it. It could all be real. Some stories are clearly autobiographical. I hope, for the author's good sake, much of it is.

For the rest of us what is left is good reading entertainment and the ability to draw inspiration. My favorite is the one about new year's eve celebration, when at exactly midnight she sat ... oh well I'd better not spoil it here.

You can buy the kindle version here on Amazon.uk

In the US and internationally find it here

Or contact the author here to buy the hard copy.

05 March 2015

Recensione: I Due Viaggiatori (2010) di Paolo Ciampi, *****

Odoardo Beccari


C'è Odoardo, l'uomo che abbraccia il mondo con la sua irrequietezza, con la sua voglia di conoscere popoli e continenti, di toccare con mano. Il battito di ali di una farfalla sconosciuta vale più di una cattedra universitaria. Dategli una foresta vergine e si sentirà al settimo cielo. La sua giovinezza è tutta qui. E c'è Emilio, l'uomo che se ne rimane a casa, però è attratto da tutto quanto è remoto, sconosciuto, diverso. Un nome che profuma di esotico è quanto basta per giocare con i sogni. E lui no, ma i suoi personaggi attraversano tutti i continenti, si muovono per spirito di avventura, di scommessa, di sfida. Odoardo Beccari ed Emilio Salgari. L'esploratore e lo scrittore. Lo scienziato e l'inventore di storie. L'uomo che ha toccato il mondo con mano e l'ufficiale di marina mancato. Così diversi, ma anche così simili. Il viaggiatore in carne e ossa, che calpesta il mondo con i suoi piedi. Il viaggiatore della fantasia, per cui l'avventura non presuppone uno spazio fisico, ma solo gli orizzonti che la mente può scorgere. I due modi di viaggiare. E chissà chi è andato più lontano.


Emilio Salgari
Originalissimo il viaggio di Paolo Ciampi tra Malesia e Indonesia. In compagnia di due grandi scrittori di avventure italiani: uno, Emilio Salgari, arcinoto anche se non era un viaggiatore; e l'altro, Odoardo Beccari, Viaggiatore con la V maiuscola, sconosciuto ai più.

Ciampi più che un viaggio percorre un quello che definirei un metaitinerario: parte vero viaggio (ha visitato alcuni dei posti ove si svolgono le narrazioni di "Emilio e Odoardo", come li chiama lui dopo che, avendone letti e riletti gli scritti, ne diventa amico.

E parte ricostruzione delle peripezie che hanno costellato le vite mirabolanti dei due scrittori. Alla fine della lettura si ha quasi l'impressione di aver letto due biografie in parallelo. Così tra cacciatori di teste e foreste (anche adesso) impenetrabili, Ciampi ci accompagna a scoprire il Borneo (oggi Kalimantan) e Celebes (oggi Sulawesi). Terre che si fa una certa fatica a definire ospitali ma che forse proprio per questo conservano, anche a distanza di molti decenni dal tempo di Emilio e Odoardo, un fascino inalterato. Posso confermarlo anche personalmente sulla base di un mio viaggio al nord di Sulawesi, destinazione che mi sento di consigliare a quei viaggiatori che ancora sentono il bisogno di uscire dal sentiero battuto.

Compra il libro qui:

Dello stesso autore anche questo libro sulle scoperte di Odoardo Beccari.

Questo è un ebook sull'archivio di Beccari.

05 December 2014

Gramex, Rogers Hewland's shop of records and CDs in London

With Roger at Gramex, 104 Lower Marsh, London
I am a music collector, and when I travel some of my first destination targets are the music shops I can find in various cities: mostly CDs and LPs, but also books about music and other paraphernalia. So it was a really amazing coincidence that when I moved to a city as big as London I should find one such shops, which turned out to be the best of its kind, just a few steps from my apartment.

As I walked inside, I was struck by the sight of a huge mass of CDs all over the place, but also LPs and 78rpm discs, and even cylinder recordings! The welcoming owner is Roger Hewland but the shop has been running non-stop, at different London locations, since 1906, when a certain George Russell founded the "Music Exchange" in the Islington market. The shop prospered there until 1922, when it moved to Oxford Street, and from there to Wardour Street in 1956.

On Christmas 1978 Gramex was relaunched under its current name at Wardour Street. Roger was running a book shop then, but was in love with music as much or more than with books. When Gramex went bankrupt in 1981 Roger bought the name and started anew in York Road, just next to Waterloo station, where the shop stayed until 1990. He then moved to 84 Lower Marsh and remained there until 1993. The next move took him to number 25 in the same street, where he remained until April 2014, and Gramex is now at 104 Lower Marsh. He has not had a holiday since he opened shop, and greets customers six days a week, 11am to 7pm, every week of the year. He said he will take Saturdays off when he turns 100, in about 18 years' time.

Roger Hewland's ancestors were Huguenots, protestants who fled persecution in France. Huguenots ended up in many places where protestants were accepted. I have met Huguenot descendants as far as South Africa, where they started that country's wine-making tradition. Roger's family crossed over to England in 1712. He has French, Spanish, Italian as well as English blood in his veins. He is a born and bred Londoner, you can certainly tell he is an Englishman from a mile away but he considers himself a member of the European nation. He hated the British Empire but loves the Commonwealth. He believes in the European Union and will vote accordingly when there is a referendum in a few years time. In his shop he accepts Euros as well as pound sterling.

"It's anarchy, not chaos" is one of the first things he told me. "Having all my music in random order makes you find what you did not know you wanted and trigger impulsive buying instincts in the collector. It makes perfect business sense." He also does not like shelves. Most items on sale are on tables and even boxes, but always displayed so you can see the cover. "No point showing a record spine, no one likes those, but collectors like covers." After a few months of frequenting the store, and several hundred CDs in my collection later, I agree.

Roger is a dealer, but first of all a collector. One has to be a collector before one can be a dealer in music, he says. Still today, he does not tire to repeat that the most important part of his job is not selling records, but buying them, and that is what he enjoys the most. "Good records sell themselves" he says "and customer are my staff: they help themselves to the music." Every day collectors bring in records they want to sell and Roger screens them carefully to pick those fit for sale at Gramex. 

He certainly is an experienced collector, and so are most of his clients. He bought his first record in 1948, on 20 October 1948 at 10:32am to be precise, a rainy day in London.  It was a 78rpm version of the Butterfly. He had £200, spent it all on records, does not regret it a bit, and has not stopped since. He now has over 50,000 opera 78s/LPs/CDs/cassettes/cylinders etc in his personal collection at home. He owns 27 editions of Traviata, all those he could find. Bohème and Trovatore are his favorite operas, though under pressure he would admit Beethoven's Fidelio, my favorite, is the greatest opera ever written.  

Originally the shop only dealt with classical music, but when, about twenty years ago, he asked his customers whether they wanted to add jazz, 90% said yes. And so it is jazz and classical now. Joe, a jazz musician, helps with the jazz part of the business. When a jazz collection comes in, the invaluable Joe is called to deliver his judgement! 

Customers also voted against having any music playing in the shop during business hours. So, no Domingo or Callas in the background: now the chatter and banter amongst patrons, as well as the typical London sarcasm at which Roger is a master, are the only sounds that mix with the franctic shuffling of CD cases by avid collectors. However, a headphone is available if you want to listen to a CD before you buy it.

It's more a club than a shop, Roger says. Many of his customers have become friends, and I like to think of myself as belonging to this category. When he was in the hospital for an operation a few years ago they kept the shop open for him!  People are free to use the toilet and the kitchen, where coffee an tea are complimentary. Good English tea for sure, but coffee left a bit to be desired, so I gifted Gramex with a good Italian Moka machine! One more reason because of which, if you love music, you must visit Gramex when in London.

03 December 2014

Book review: River Town (2001), by Peter Hessler, *****


When Peter Hessler went to China as a Peace Corps volunteer in the late 1990s, he expected to spend a couple of peaceful years teaching English in the town of Fuling on the Yangtze River. But what he experienced -- the natural beauty, cultural tension, and complex process of understanding that takes place when one is thrust into a radically different society -- surpassed anything he could have imagined. Hessler observes firsthand how major events such as the death of Deng Xiaoping, the return of Hong Kong to the mainland, and the controversial construction of the Three Gorges Dam have affected even the people of a remote town like Fuling.


This is a superbly written account by one acute observer of one part of China while the country was undergoing tremendous change in the mid-1990s. One view by one person in one small part of this immense country does not allow a reader to draw more general conclusions. However, the many microstories we read here help a lot in understanding the new (then) China rising from the ashes of maoism. Hessler is curious, even a bit nosy, but always respectful. He learns Chinese and always tries to understand. He questions himself but does not fall into the trap of many travelers who always marvel at what they see and whom they meet, no matter what. He does criticize, with strong arguments, people and practices he meets along the way.

The Yangtse near the Three Gorges
Hessler walks on thinner ice when he addresses more academically charged historical, economic or political issues, but this is not meant to be an academic book. His perceptions of the reality around him, and of how he changes over the years while in China, is what makes this an invaluable read for anyone interested in how China changed during the post-Mao "Reform and Opening" period.

Read my other reviews of books on China here in this blog.

23 November 2014

Film review/recensione: A Walk in the Clouds (1995), by Alfonso Arau, ****

Italian text below


After returning home from the war, Sutton (Keanu Reeves) accepts that his wife has no interest in him or his plans for the future, and sets out in search of a new life on his own. He soon meets up with a vineyard owner's daughter (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), but she finds out she is pregnant and fears for her life when it comes to telling her father. Sutton then agrees to help her by pretending to be her new husband, a decision which will change both of their lives forever.


A film about love: love for a family, a woman (you can see more men loving women, in their own way, than the other way around in this film) but especially love for the land and its wine. Catch the moment, life will offer unexpected treasures if one has the mental predisposition to catch them on the fly! Be ready to change what you planned, don't wait until you must.


Tornato dalla guerra, Paul Sutton, dopo aver riabbracciato la moglie Betty, che per la verità non sembra aver trepidato per lui, visto che non ha letto una sola delle molte lettere inviatele, riprende l'attività di rappresentante di cioccolatini. Una serie di contrattempi fa sì che si ritrovi a "fare" da marito ad una giovane di origine messicana, Victoria Aragon, figlia di un ricco viticoltore delle valle di Napa, che possiede il vigneto modello "Le Nuvole". La giovane, che frequenta l'università in città, aspetta un figlio illegittimo dal suo professore e teme che il padre, Alberto, la uccida.

Accettato il ruolo solo per breve tempo essendo deciso il giorno dopo ad andarsene con una lettera d'addio, Paul incontra subito l'aperta ostilità di Alberto, geloso della figlia e irritato per non essere stato avvertito, ma la simpatia della madre Marie José e soprattutto del nonno, Don Pedro, ritardano la sua partenza. Il rito della vendernmia poi, con il clima bacchico e solare della pigiatura dell'uva, fa perdere quasi la testa a Paul, che decide di rispettare Victoria, pur essendone attratto e ricambiato. Orfano, Paul trova nella famiglia della giovane un rifugio dagli orrori della guerra che ancora lo traumatizzano. Il fatto che i due non dormano insieme insospettisce Alberto che, colpito dalle manifestazioni d'affetto del finto genero per la figlia, decide di farli sposare con rito religioso.

A questo punto Victoria è costretta a dire la verità al padre, mentre Paul a malincuore si allontana per tornare dalla moglie che però, nel frattempo, ha provveduto ad annullare il matrimonio. Libero, il giovane fa ritorno al vigneto, ma trova Alberto ubriaco che si scaglia contro di lui e roteando una lampada a petrolio per colpirlo la lancia nel vigneto, incendiandolo. Vani sono i tentativi per domare le fiamme, poi Paul estirpa la radice, che ha resistito al fuoco, della pianta madre del vigneto, che rivivrà. Alberto fa pace con la figlia e Paul può sposarla accettando di essere un buon padre per il nascituro.


Un film sull'amore. Amore per propria famiglia, la propria donna ma soprattutto per la terra ed il vino. Carpe diem, la vita può offrire inaspettate opportunità a chi ha la disposizione mentale per cogliere l'attimo. Bisogna essere pronti a cambiare i programmi per i quali si è lavorato, anche per anni, quando cambiano le condizioni. Meglio non aspettare di essere obbligati a farlo!

15 November 2014

Film review: Fire (1996), by Deepa Mehta, *****


Ashok (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) runs a family business that sells takeout food and which also has a video rental store at the side. Ashok's extended family includes his wife Radha (Shabana Azmi), his brother Jatin (Javed Jaffrey), their ailing mother Biji (Kushal Rekhi) and their manservant Mundu (Ranjit Chowdhry), all living under the same roof.

Jatin, at the insistence of Ashok and their mother, Biji, agrees to marry the beautiful Sita (Nandita Das) in an arranged marriage, although he is actually in love with Julie (Alice Poon), a Chinese-Indian.

At first glance, you see a happy middle-class family going through the normal paces of everyday life. However, as the layers are slowly peeled back, we find a simmering cauldron of discontent within the family, with almost every family member living a lie. Both marriages in the family turn out to be emotionally empty, without love or passion. While Ashok is an ascetic who has taken a vow of celibacy, Jatin is a handsome ladies' man who is still openly seeing Julie even after his marriage to Sita. Ashok has pledged his total devotion to a religious holy man, a swami, in order to purge his life of worldly desires and temptations. Radha, bound by her sense of duty to her husband, agrees to go along with his wishes.

As you can imagine, with both husbands ignoring their spouses' emotional and sexual needs (albeit with reasons that are totally opposite from each other), it is only a matter of time before Radha and Sita look to one another for comfort and to satisfy their own passions. In this environment, it is only natural that Sita and Radha become fast friends, and, in time, much more than that. But their love is not without its share of painful obstacles.

Major controversy led this movie by Indian-Canadian director Deepa Mehta  to be widely attacked and banned in India. The film's unprecedented lesbian themes led to riots outside cinemas in India and necessitated police protection for the director for over a year.


A daring movie for India. For any country really, but especially for a country like India where the issue of female homosexuality was a big taboo in the mid-1990s and it still is. We learn a lot about an India which travelers hardly ever read of hear about, let alone see with their own eyes. It is an optimistic movie, in the end the right of the women to pursue their own path to happiness wins the day.

The pace of the movie is deliberate, with no rush and no slack, it is just right. We are taken into the home of a traditional Indian family where the modern lifestyle of one young husband contrasts with the stale tradition of another husband of a generation earlier. Both neglect their women and this brings the two ladies together more than they would ever have planned. It is ultimately a movie about freedom and love, not necessarily a movie about male chauvinism in India.

It is also a movie about changing India: millenary traditions crumble under the impact of modernity, and the movie suggests that this is a necessary transformation for the country.

This movie is one of three sometimes referred to as the "Elements Trilogy" by Mehta, including "Water" and "Earth".

See other films about India I reviewed on this blog.

03 November 2014

Book review: South Africa: A Traveller's History (2003), by David Mason *****

Travel to multi-colored South Africa

A Traveller's History of South Africa is intended as a comprehensive single volume survey of one of today's most popular and exciting destinations. Lifting the lid on this most multi-cultural of societies - and its chequered past - the book will begin by tracing the evolution of South Africa from prehistoric times, taking into account the most recent archaeological and anthropological findings. It will then chart the penetration of the region by European explorers and traders; the political, social and economic developments that follow on from this, and finally, the complicated descent into state repression of the majority black population after the Second World War. Bringing the story up to date, the book will also include practical information for the visitor, as well as a full compendium of historical facts and data.


Well written brief history of South Africa, will be a friendly companion to travelers there and will help appreciate the country better than a guide book.

Racial issues of course are prominent in this book, and the white vs black juxtaposition is described in a wealth of details. But the history of South Africa is one of parallel struggles amongst the white colonizers, one the one hand, and among indigenous Africans, on the other. English and Dutch settles (less the French) fought each other as much as Zulu fought Xhosa.

Interesting to learn that the NNC (forerunner of the ANC) supported segregation because it saw it as a way to acquire power over African tribal rulers. Yet, as Mandela put it, segregation developed over time to become " the codification inone oppressive system that was monolithic, diabolical in detail, inescapable in reach and overwhelming it power".

See other books and films about South Africa I reviewed in this blog.

17 October 2014

Recensione film: Il Matrimonio di Tuya (2007) di Wang Quan'an, *****

Testo italiano di seguito


Tuya is a young woman in Inner Mongolia (part of China) who lives with her paralyzed husband Barter and their two children. They are semi-nomad shepards and live off their sheep. Tuya can't cope with the hardships of providing for her family alone and is persuaded to divorce Barter and re-marry, but on the condition that the new husband will have to care for barter as well.


Tuya is a strong woman, realistically attached to her land and her family, and especially her husband. She works hard to feed them all. But she is also an idealist, because she thinks she can bypass love by marrying another man who could then provide for all of them barter included. She tries with two suitors, but it is clear that Barter can't accept being sidelined while his beloved Tuya belongs to another man.

It is a film on the absolute value of love, which can lead to self-denial and masochism, even suicide, but can't accept compromises.

An intersting film on life in Inner Mongolia, now part of the People's Republic of China, where pastoral traditions mix with the modernity that comes with integration into China. The movie is a Chinese production and the characters speak Chinese, not Mongol.

Testo italiano


Tuya è una giovane donna della Mongolia interna (parte della Cina) che vive con Barter (il marito paralizzato) e i due figli in una zona semidesertica. La loro fonte di sostentamento è la pastorizia. Tuya però non riesce più a reggere la fatica e le responsabilità. Accetta quindi di divorziare e risposarsi ma solo con un uomo che si prenda cura non solo dei suoi figli ma anche di Barter.


Tuya è una donna forte, realisticamente attaccata alla sua terra e soprattutto alla sua famiglia, compreso il marito Bater, restato paralizzato in un incidente, ed i figli. Lavora sodo e porta da mangiare a casa per tutti.

Ma anche idealista, perché pensa di poter scavalcare l'amore per poter assicurare al marito semiparalizzato un futuro sposando un altro uomo che si prenda cura di loro. Ci provano in due pretendenti, ma per motivi diversi Bater non può accettare di stare dietro le quinte mentre la moglie crea una nuova famiglia con un altro uomo.

È un film sull'assolutezza dell'amore, che porta fino all'autolesionismo e persino al suicidio per non fare compromessi.

Anche un bel film sulla vita della Mongolia interiore, parte della Cina, dove la cultura pastorale tradizionale si mischia con la modernità portata dall'integrazione con la Repubblica Popolare Cinese. Persino la lingua mongola viene ormai parlata mischiata al cinese.