Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Book Review: The Vegetarian, by Han Kang

The Vegetarian by Han Kang is an unforgettable, very emotional and heart-breaking novel about identity, sense of the body and unbearable social pressures. 
Yeong-hye is a 'completely unremarkable' woman, with a husband, a lot of home chores, a freelancing job. In the novel, her voice is hardly heard, if ever, as the story of her dramatic change since her sudden decision of becoming vegetarian is told by her husband, her brother-in-law and her sister. Everything started when based on a terrific dream, she decided to give up meat, in a society where being a vegetarian seems to be an outrageous exception. But it is the only way Yeong-hye is taking back her body and her life. The more she is pressured to give up her choice, including in a violent way by her father, the symbol of how males might request in traditional societies that their desires are heard and followed accordingly, the more she is turning into a kingdom of silence and refuses food. Any kind of food in the end.
The choice of Yeong-hye might look absurde and narrow minded - after all, you can escape social pressures in more subtle, middle-of-the road ways, but it is an ultimate scream of freedom. It is the pure freedom of requesting the right to decide of your rights and wrongs. It makes you think completely differently of your personal and social limits, those accepted because no other apparent options. It is a novel that haunts you long time after you finish it, because it is so accurately describing feelings and personal torments of a woman in a world submitted to the will of men.
My only reason for not giving 5 full stars to this novel is that as someone who went through a - luckily - anorexic stage, but with close family members having to cope with it for long years, I am still not completely convinced - or refusing to believe it - that refusing food is more than a hard way to punish yourself. 

Rating: 4 stars


Sunday, November 26, 2017

Telltales - Poems by Monica Bhide


Telltales, the newest book by the very talented Monica Bhide whose writings I am often featuring on my blog opens a door to a different world of emotions, feelings and the hidden senses and promises of spiritual world. 
I am rarely reading poetry and I don't remember to write poetry since some childish failures in my eary teens therefore I am a dried muscle for poems. But Telltales convinced me, after the second reading, that I might consider my bibliography. There is a certain art of words and wordings that Monica Bhide wisely uses it to bring the reader into a different universe, which does have its own challenges and imperfections, but at the end of the complex maze, there is the promise of light and self-reliance. 
The verses reveal things the eyes cannot see, but the soul can feel and nurture. It opens unknown hidden doors in the immediate reality and makes you start a fantastic journey beyond the daily appearances. Love, loss, healing, friendship and faith are wrapped into golden powerful words and eternal stories are rewritten. 
I equally loved the beautiful cover, by the talented creator of visual poems, Simi Jois. 
If you want to offer yourself an hour or more of beautiful reading, you can download your free copy from Monica's (newly redesigned) website

Rating: 5 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the author in exchange for an honest review

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Book Review: Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe

Thomas Foley is the Cold War, UK bureaucrat version of The Man Without Qualities. Minus the usual soul unrest typical for Viennaise characters. Sent to manage the Britannia inn at the EXPO 1958 in Brussels, the first after the end of the WWII, he is faced with a completely new reality and challenges, compared to his usual life back home: with a 9 to 5 job, a wife and a small daughter, an uneventful routine-based existence typical for almost 90% of the world population. 
Expo 58 is something different, and as someone who worked herself to such a grandiose event, and keep a small track of literary representations of international exhibitions, I reckon that this is an interesting source of inspiration, well described in the book. For a limited amount of time, people from all over the world are gathering to work and know each other, more or less intimately. At the end of the show, everyone is back to the home reality, and this is how world goes round.
Against his will and without any warning, Foley is caught into a hilarious net typical for that time of the Cold War. There are two spies looking exactly as spies and talking as someone might expect spies are talking, at least if you had enough James Bond bibliography. But there are also people that might look completely different than their appearance display: like the KGB spy versus the attractive American counterpart. Foley's role, which even working at a public institution in a country involved in the Cold War diplomacy and daily invisible war, he is greatly unaware of the geopolitical challenges, is not even to report - as every space around him seems to be bugged - is of low level, to flirt with a girl. One of those 'patriotic calls' simple citizens, otherwise completely un- and a-historical, might be called to do in special situations, like many of the events branded so during the fierce Cold War years. 
What I've found really entincing intellectually in this book is the subtle second plan game between reality and appearances, text and subtext and context, about how we remember and read facts versus how the naked facts really are. Once you discover this layer of interpretation, the book is getting a completely different perspective and value.
My only annoyance with the book was the obsessive use of 'old man' by more than one character. Regardless the original meaning aimed by the author, if any, it doesn't bring in my opinion anything good or hilarious to the story.

Rating: 4 stars

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Tokyo Kill: A Complex Thriller Set in Japan

Horrendous murders, mysterious histories set many decades ago, cruel fights of the Tokyo underground. Detective Jim Brodie is on a strange mission by his Japanese ex-WWII official in China to identify the authors of strange murders and eventually protect his life. The second in the series - although you can read it without a necessary background of the stories from the first installment - Tokyo Kills delves into the complex layers of Japanese life. 
The issues pertaining to WWII actions of the Japanese Army in the neighbouring Asian states, particularly China, are not an easy topic to deal with both in daily life and literature, equally from the political and diplomatic point of view. Barry Lancet has the detailed necessary knowledge and writing skills to write about it in a very diplomatic yet entincing way, although I was able to feel the choice of a very cold account of events, as told by one of the characters. The sensitive stories were confined to the pure narrative, but there is still the background which completely shocks you, especially if you are not familiar with the context and various historical and documentary accounts.
But history is only the story background, as the book involves much more, and has so many interesting twists that 50 pages before the end of it I was still not aware how it will end. The local knowledge also allows to play skillfully with various Asian underground references, such as the differences in operations between the Chinese triads and the Japanese Yakuza, and their dance for influence. The only thing in the story which I've found hilarious and inadequate was the 'Chinese spy', with whom Brodie has a dialogue which is too stiff and mostly uninspired.
Otherwise, the book is a good recommendation for Asian thriller stories, translated through the European literary sensitivities though.

Rating: 4 stars

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Book Review: The Women in the Castle, by Jessica Shattuck

In a Germany brought to ruins by its abuses and paranoid dreams of grandeur, three women - Marianne, Benita and Anja - and their children are getting together their broken fragments of their lives in a Bavarian castle. Their husbands were part of the von Stauffenberg plot and therefore killed and the good deeds and honour of their husbands is their ticket entry into a world free of Nazis. 
Once the story develops, there are secrets revealed not all of them convenient, in a country where not few of the people are hidding even more terrible stories of abandon of the basic human values and behavior. It is a world of lost souls and orphans, of people that will need decades to realize the historical pain and trauma created during those terrible dictatorship times. To describe those years, Jessica Shattuck found the right pace and wordings, and more than once I've found myself able to imagine that I am in the middle of the devastated Berlin or in the then Bavarian wasteland. The three women in the castle are a match that probably in real life would be hardly working, but the 'resistance' their husbands were in - at least two of them - and the post-war hardship creates different human solidarities. Their children, although experienced at different extent the same reality, are able to build a completely new world, interacting with that of adults, but without affecting them significantly. Children, they do have the rare art of coming along with the most unusual situations and deep loss. 
An interesting direction of the book is how the characters do deal with the current historical events, not necessarily in terms of the deep moral meanings, but for starting anew their life. Marianne, for instance, refuses to give credit to the blind actors of the history, while Benita 'held no reverence for anything old or historic. History was horrible, sloppy tail of grief. It swished destructively behind the present, toppling everyone's own personal understanding of the past'. For Fritz, the former German prisoner, 'shame was the only right way to live'. However, there is the assumption that under the impact of history, the individual might have little choices, therefore the difficulty of assigning guilt. 
I personally found the late post-war years experiences of the characters a bit too simplistic, with most of the characters going to America to start a new life in the country of the liberators. There is a certain unbalance in the narrative, not necessarily entincing, with the moral issues softened for some details about American comfort. I've also found a little temporal glitch, with a contemporary reference to the suits of Angela Merkel in 1991, when she was for sure a less known personality.
The Women in the Castle is a book which raises questions and creates moral dilemma with some realistic insights into the issue of historical guilt and responsibility.

Rating: 3.5 stars

#MeToo

The recent Weinstein scandal is a revelation not only about the sexual harassment regularly practised in the film industry, at Hollywood and abroad, but almost in every creative industry. And beyond. Some might say that bohemians and creative people in general do need muses and inspiration and loose morals in order to create. 
I remember my disgust when as a young reporter I was often invited to late parties in the office, with a lot of booze and people with loose morals for whom it was normal to go to bed before the next press conference early in the morning with whoever was of the opposite sex. The new employees and interns were expected at least to answer the flirts if not to accept sexual favors, not necessarily compulsory for getting a long term contract or a salary raise. I was told that this is part of the hardship of a job where you have to be always alert, on the road and ready to spend hours waiting for a scoop. Longterm relationships were rare, and marriages even seldom. I am sure many of those people were not evil or predators or even sick people, but just individuals self-righteous in their own way, unable to realize that what they were doing was humiliating and wrong and it was the fault of their weakness for not being different
The collection of essays edited by Lori Perkins - available for free download on Amazon.com - reveals personal experience of both and women that at certain moments of their careers or human development faced different degrees of sexual harassment and abuse. The testimonies are liberating but also aimed at giving strenth and support to those not yet able to talk about their trauma. It helps - although at a limited extent - to deal with the everyday weight of the soul drama, but also to realize that sharing is a way to empower others in similar situations, the silent voices of the victims. Such a collection has also the role of educating both potential victims and aggressors, offering examples of how much suffering sexual abuse can bring and how avoid ending up as a victim. Each and every one of us has a voice that we need to use it to fight and counter inequalities, injustice and abuse. And perpetrators, regardless how close to kin they are and what personal trauma they went through either, they need to be revealed. 
A very useful collection to read for everyone interested in understanding the subtle ways of sexual abuse and how important is to reject such public behaviors, regardless of the professional background and social status of the perpetrators. Abuse is just not acceptable. 

Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Book Review: The Copenhagen Affair by Amulya Mulladi

Relationships aren't healing if you move countries. Instead, you are only faced with a new, often magnified reality, which shows 10 times or more bigger the big hole you are in. 
Sanya and her successful charming and fashionable husband move for one year to Copenhagen hoping that the 'implosion' she suffered recently will go away, while he is busy to supervise the purchase of a local company. The new expat family is received with open hand by the high-end local society, for a very serious reason: there are so many secrets to hide among the people supposedly selling the company that they better behave nicely and even try to flirt or have an affair for the price of it. 
Nouveau riches and old money, desperate dedicated housewives, illicit affairs and a lot of showing off, this is the expat world where the good Sanya is introduced too. But she is also going through a dramatic transformation, with a clear line between the 'old' and 'new' women who is trying to change into.
The writing is very captivating, although the story is not so original and the expat life in happy places around the world, with its illicit and legal aspects was often used as a background in recent books - for instance, The Expats by Chris Pavone. The intricacies of the mental breakdown Sanya went through are very well described and together with the other elements of the story, mid-way between irony and thriller, with unexpected twists and some unanswered questions - what really happened between Sanya and Ravn during her 'kidnapping'? - which make the book a pleasant and hard to put down read.

Rating: 4 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review