Saturday, December 15, 2018

A Captivating Middle-Grade Novel: The Elephant Thief by Jane Kerr

Based on real facts that took place in the 19th century, The Elephant Thief is also a beautiful story of friendship between the elephant Maharajah and the pickpocket Danny. From the slums of Edinburgh until Manchester, he will be part of a race against all odds to save a menagerie and gentlemen's honour. 
Slow paced yet not missing adventures and page turning events, this middle grade book has an elaborated plot which reminds a bit of the Dickensian novels about children from unpriviledged environment, faced from an early age with the hardship of outlaw adulthood. The writing is simple, accessible for the mindset and reading habits of a child outlining though creating an easy to grasp authentic historical ambiance. 
There is a big array of characters appearing more or less suddently in this story, often with doubtful intentions and problematic character features. The human mosaique as portrayed in The Elephant Thief is really diverse and complex and a challenge for a mid-grade child although it offers a good knowledge about the human diversity in itself, regardless of the historical location of the story. Personally, I've learn a lot about human nature while reading at the same age the novels of Balzac and Dickens, both outstanding artists of humanity with all its lows and highs. 
In addition to the human story, there is another part of the story which is highly sensitive and well done from the literary point of view: the wordless communication between Danny and the elephant Maharajah and the deep connection built in a relatively short time between the two of them. 
Although not the audience target of this book, I've found it highly enjoyable and the smart writing makes it a good reading choice for everyone. The way in which historical facts were researched and used further for creating a good story that stands the test of time is an example of how far you can go when you do your historical homeworks while filling the episode with quality writing.

Rating: 5 stars

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

A Runaway Amish Girl Memoir

I am personally fascinated by Mennonite/Amish stories, as I am curious about the possibilities of surviving as a very recluse community in a world which is very fast moving forward. As the members of the communities themselves are closed and without access to modern tools - Internet, edition houses - to share their stories, the information about everyday life are predominantly coming from people that leaved the fold. 
Runaway Amish Girl: The Great Escape, by Emma Gingerich is such a story. Growing up in what she described as the 'group of the least modern and uneducated Amish people on the planet' - the Swartzentruber Amish a group created following a split from the mainstream at the beginning of the 20th century - she decided to run away from her Missouri community finding her own path as an educated, modern free woman. Speaking mostly a local German dialect, with a very restricted use of technology use and refusing to accept hot water or plumbing into the house, the Swartzentrubers (named after a religious leader) look indeed very reclused and my later documentation about them outlines their insularity among other Amish groups that they refuse to mix or inter-marry with. What for me was extremely awkward was the description of some of their dating habits sleeping and hugging together in a bed while fully clothed. 
Once away, Emma is having a lot of challenges understanding the modern world, not only from the technological point of view, but also in understanding human relationships and intentions. Some of her tragic episodes reminded me of accounts shared by Leah Vincent in her excellent memoir Cut Me Loose, of leaving the strictly religious Jewish life. The transition is never easy and time will only help to alleviate the pains of the cultural shock. 
The story in itself has a certain anthropological and cultural value but when it comes to the literary aspects, the shortcomings are evident and bothering sometimes. The style is linear and lacks any literary appeal, mostly following the memory lane, without too many serious personal insights from the author. The story is simple, predictable and self-focused, which makes it into a healing confession but with a very limited literary value.
My interest for reliable interesting reliable Amish stories will continue, as it helps to put many things into the right cultural and history of religions' perspective. 

Rating: 2 stars

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Who is on Your Dinner List?

The Dinner List by Rebecca Serle is the second book in less than one week that I wish I liked, give it 5 star and heartly recommend to other people. The writing is gentle, emotional and connecting the dots between characters, but I couldn't heart the idea itself - of bringing together at a birthday dinner dead and alive people, among them Audrey Hepburn.
The love story between Tobias and Sabrina - the main character at whose birthday party the people are invited to - although a typical young relationship, with all the innocence given by age - is by far one of the most beautiful I've read lately. Sabrina's struggle to reconciliate with her now dead father who left her when she was a little girl is also worth a literary mention. The writing flows and the intertwinning of the temporal streams iswell-braided. 
However, as much as I tried, every couple of pages at a time, I couldn't stand the idea. It was not because I might not like magic realism or because my imagination is limited. All the time, I felt that it is such a good story told in the completely wrong context. Therefore, I was left with the strong impressions about character looking for connection that ended up in a spiritist-kind of session. I also wished that Audrey Hepburn was not on the list - among the possible guests, there was also Plato - only because it become such a omnipresent character, with all its kitschy downsides of such an overuse and often abuse of the brand. 
I would definitely read something else by Rebecca Serle as I was won over by her writing style. However, I wish for myself there is a different spin of the story. 

Rating: 2 stars

Friday, November 30, 2018

Feeling as a Literary Outsider

I rarely feel completely as an outsider in the literary world. I love a good story regardless the topic - with only one exception, the vampire stories - and I always appreciate a skillful storyteller. I am not too much inclined to taste the supernatural stories, with djinnis and other strange mythical creatures but a strongly emotional story like Carrie, by Stephen King is for me a fundamental read in terms of literary achievements. In the last years I've almost devoured many of Stephen King's books, one of my latest favorite being Mr. Mercedes. It is almost not impossible not to learn something from his books that might help improving the writing skills, regardless how far you are on the way to achieve as a published or not-yet published writer. As just a reader, you are entering a world of suspense, surprises and where good and evil are often notions empty of any moral value. I am far from reading all his books, but at least most of those I've had the chance to read were a good lesson in how to create a very suspensful plot, almost always with a very surprising ending - rarely a happy one.
The Outsider was published this year and I decided to start reading it without a previous research. After all, it is the King who wrote it and regardless the topic, it might be something interesting about it. For over 50 pages though, I've felt that the writer is actually playing with his charming position as a literary star and is slowly slowly bringing the story in. He can do that because after all, you know something is waiting for you, regardless after how many pages.
Personally, I have nothing to say against this book: complex plot, surprising page turning episodes and a lot of suspense surrounding some hard to describe crimes committed against children in a deep American town. Although the perpetrators are obvious, yet their alibis are strong and their innocence is also easy to prove. The answer is belonging to the supernatural register and therefore, this is the very moment when I am usually leaving as a faithful reader. There is nothing kitsch about the explanation and the urban myth is smoothly introduced into the narrative, but once the revelation is brought to light, little by little, there is nothing to expect further. I personally lost any interest and after over 300 pages, I think I was having enough of moving in circle over and over again only for waiting for the final - predictable revelation.
That's all about this book. I wish I did read a bit more about what it is about. The fault is all mine.

Rating: 2 stars  

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Exploring Germany's Booktown

This year was not blessed with too many bookish travels, as most of my travels were rather focused on culture and travel, but without a clear touch on the local bookstores (there are still some good weeks left, so many I will achieve something meanwhile). One of the most memorable bookish adventures was a visit to a very bizarre destination: Waldsdorf-Wündsdorf. A bunker city where over 40,000 soldiers of the Red Army were living until 1994, it also has a cultural character, and not only for the historical traces of the old times.

This relatively modest city both by look and by size was the first German city to be declared 'city of books' or 'booktown'. The project of awarding such titles to cities all over the world was started back in 1962, by Richard Booth from Wales. that created such a city in 1962, in Hay-on-Wye. The condition is to create a coherent complex of cultural locations, antique books stores and restaurants.

And Wünsdorf is a place where the cultural offer is generously shared. Besides tons of old books, mostly in German and from the time of the former Communist Germany, there are also plenty of cultural locations where book readings or other cultural events are taking place. With rows of books from the floor to the ceiling, the visitors are invited to take a seat, check the offer of books, take one or two and eventually leave the amount in a piggy bank. Book readers should always be trusted, isn't it?

Although this time I didn't take any book, spending so much time surrounded by books is always a good time. With so many open spaces ready to host authors and their works, I would actually love to come back at least once soon to check the local cultural vibe as well. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Story of the American Panda

I am glad that more and more books are focused on the Asian/Chinese, but also Vietnamese - American identity and the challenges to tradition. Asian societies are very traditional and especially for the first generation living abroad for various reasons - mostly for political reasons - the pressure on their, eventually, American-born children is enormous. The children should be respectful towards their parents while getting the best education - doctors and lawyers mostly - and marrying another successful-educated child - doctor and lawyer mostly - wthin the tribe.
The American Panda by Gloria Chao tells the story of the very smart Mei who with 17 she joined MIT, in preparation of a medical school program, but who little by little gets the strength to tell her parents that she has a path to follow and a life to live. A life that she wants to - finally- chose by herself. Her adventures into getting control of her own life are sometimes hilarious, sometimes too childish for my taste, but what's important is the genesis of her strength.
She is not completely on her own though as she has the example of her brother, Xing, cut off from the family already 4 years before, because he refused to comply. From a naive, dominated by her authoriarian mother, Panda-like girl, Mei is little by little getting out of the family chains and start thinking completely by herself. Thereatened to be cut off by the family, she has at least her brother. 
The making off of Mei's character strength is for me one of the most interesting part of the book and really enjoyed the literary achievement. Mei's naivity and her childish episodes were not my favorites but it makes sense for her way of being, although sometimes they were stupid enough to not concur with her apparently high intelligence. But after all, you can be intelligent and still lack a basic knowledge of how the world is and functions. 
If you are interested in stories about Asian-American identity, with a touch of YA, this book is a good and easy way to start the exploration. 

Rating: 3 stars

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Windfall, by Diksha Basu - About the Indian New Money

In the line of the Singapore-based trilogy by Kevin Kwan, Windfall, by Diksha Basu delves into the adventures of an Indian family into new money. After a life of hard work, Jha family is overwhelmed by the chance of starting anew, in a new posh neighbourhood, where they can order a sofa from Japan with Swarovski crystals - not so comfy for your back - and fly business to visit their son which is theoretically study for an MBA in Ithaca - not Cornell. 
The Jhas are not completely 'new money' type - that kind of people who are so overwhelmed by their success although they can hardly can write and read. They are middle class and belonged to a knit-tighted - maybe too much - 'normal' Delhi neighbourhood. They are not turning their back to their former neighbours and friends - although clumsly doing their best to come along to their new acquaintances from the posh areas, so extravagant that they ordered to a painter to make a copy of the Sixtine Chapel - men dressed though - for their living room's ceiling.
The contrasts are hilarious when it comes both to the characters and the situations. It involves also some good for nothing sons, perhaps also the victims of too much wellbeing and money to reach at least for two generations, but also a realistic reflection on the place and role of the women, regardless of the financial stability of their family and success of their husbands. Did money changed the traditional society? It rather only challenges the status for a while, but changes are still at least one generation away.
Although the story is well told, I felt more than once that it was quite predictable and without any page-turning events. A slow yet reflective read, about a world on the move, but changing more slowly than the way in which money is changing hands. 

Rating: 3 stars