Tuesday, August 14, 2018

A Thriller with Algorithms: The Silicon Jungle by Shumeet Baluja

The Silicon Jungle predicted long before the humongous Cambridge Analytica scandal - when private data of Facebook users were passed over to a private 'consulting' company to model voting behavior and political prefernes - the trecherous game of the algorithms. When global companies like Google or Facebook are storing billions of details of their users, allowing tracing everything from their personal preferences to consuming behavior, all you need is a good algorithm to know way too much about any one of the users.
Stephen is an enthusiastic intern with a good brain that landed at the famous - for the logic of the book - Ubatoo (a mixture between Google and Facebook) in the Silicon Valley. In less than 3 months he will acknowledge not only the big advantage of having the world's most powerful database as a playground but also the temptation of intruding into private lives. Who would not do it, after all, as you can only by curious about what other people are doing and thinking and eating. There are moral limits to this curiosity, but mathematically speaking, you can build a model and put it on trial and take it as a purely theoretical approach and experiment. McLuhan's observation that information is power still operates in the new 2.0 environment, it only gets even more powerful.
Stephen will enter into trouble by pure naivity and too much trust into the power of algorithms when he offers himself to help an activist for civil liberties. But there is no something like neutrality and being helpful when it comes to information. Depending of whom is using it, it turns to be a weapon of mass and self-distruction. And a thriller story where special intelligence - but not as intelligent as a young intern with lots of data at his disposal - agencies and terrorists also some academics naively believing that they can change the world as we know it through theoretical speculations only.
The book has a heavy informative technical algorithms-based background but in most cases succeeded to introduce it into the narrative. Although the risk floated in the air, it was avoided the impression of reading an academic research on algorithm and data instead of a work of fiction. 
There are so many characters in this book, not few of them greedy - either for money, for information, fame or both - but skilfully, the author outlines the good and bad side which resides in everyone of us. Sometimes, you only need some special circumstances to leave one part or another outshine. 
Although the future doesn't look always rosy, especially for the Internet users, Baluja avoided to use a dramatic pessimistic tone about what the future has in stock. It doesn't make predictions or allows deep - to be or not to be kind of meditations about life and how transparent our lives are becoming. It is a story using the modern background but it still stays a story, not political or futuristic and even less intelligence projection. But it seems that it made big media stories like Cambridge Analytica seen it coming. A good use of literary skills, anyway. 

Rating: 4 stars 

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Memories of a Diplomatic Wife: Vodka&Apple Juice, by Jay Martin

It happened often lately to have on my reading list memoirs written by wives of diplomats, sharing their impressions, frustrations and challenges of their life abroad. Trying - often unsuccessfully - to cope with the liguistic barriers, the sadness of being taken away from their jobs and former social and family responsibilities, with their marriage in a limbo. Maybe it should be created soon a new literary category of 'diplomatic wives memoirs'. At least, they lived to tell the story and almost created a special genre. 
Jay Martin's memories of her 3 years accompanying her husband during his diplomatic assignment in Poland on behalf of the Austrialian embassy doesn't differ too much of previous works I've read. Wives able to write a memoir - and even knowing the local language - are obviously a step and a half further than the frustrated housewives spending their time calling their friends and relatives at 'home' and hardly going out of the appartment and appearing at embassy events only to complain about their precarious expat life. But besides the literay add on, the experiences as such are overwhelmingly boring. We all take decisions in life, some bad some good, and we need to get the best of it. More than one episode about the diplomat of husband coming back home early in the morning after spending the night who known where doesn't make it as a story for me, unless there is really something interesting that happened during this time. Or the wife reacted somehow, or whatever can be relevant to a story you share with the world...
But besides adopting a worn out perspective on diplomatic encounters and daily life - 'Poland is cool. It's just that my life here sometimes seems like an endless round of cocktail events with complaining expat wives...' - Jay Martin really used her experience to get the best of it. She went all over the country, revealing travel destinations unfortunately mostly unknown outside the country, learned a language known for her relatively high level of complexity and explored Europe and even the badly famed Kaliningrad. Those part of the book are the best and I really enjoyed in their fullest, before another couple of pages of complaining and experiences of couple alienation.
Would I recommend this book? Yes, if you are interested in European and particularly Polish history and if you are a diplomatic consort that would love one day to write a better memoir. 
I personally liked the cover - joyful and appealing to someone curious about Poland and with a call for wanderlust.

Rating: 3 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Book Review: For Today I Am a Boy

For Today I Am a Boy is probably the best book about transgender identity I ever read. It is one of those books that open your eyes and the mind to a world that you weren't aware of before, in a very swift, literary, non-ideological way, and it is what it means for me to write good books. 
Peter, the character of the book, belongs to a Chinese family of immigrants. His uniqueness as the only man-to-be in a family with other three girls is that he actually doesn't feel as a boy. 'Boys were ugly and foreign, like another species. Like baboons. I was not one of them. The evidence was right there, all the time, tucked into my tight underwear, but I still didn't believe it. I didn't have one of those things, that little-boy tale of flesh'. 
Peter's personal history is intertwined with the identity interactions with the father and the challenges his other three sisters had to deal with in their adult life. Although from a stable family - except the father who had a white lover - all the kids ended up unmarried and at a certain extent unhappy. The tyran of the father who forbade the mother to speak Cantonese or cook original Chinese foods, dreamed about his children being lawyers and doctors. 'When I realized Father wasn't with her (the mother - WWW), I took her to a dim sum place inside a mall in Chinatown'. The image of the Father - always with F - is overwhelming, fearful and affects in a Freudian way the development and emotional development of the siblings. They all looked so perfectly normal from outside!
Peter's identity is evolving slowly and sometimes he seems himself not so sure about what he really is. When meeting other trans that not even were supported by the family to change their gender but open about their life journey, he refused to acknowledge it, because it seemed like he wasted his real life hiding and containing his feelings: '(...) you couldn't just rename yourself, you couldn't tear down the skyline and rebuild and think there wouldn't be consequences'. His gender identity is growing up slow and it is the new perception on gender and most generous - although not perfect space of expression which is speeding up the process. 
Kim Fu created a beautiful, well-told story to express so many different feelings and life episodes and milestoness. The characters don't leave you indifferent and most of them make you think about them long after the book is over. I've personally found the mother, with her silences and repressed identity, a very interesting figure, representative for her generation and the perception of women in family and society. 
For Today I Am a Boy well deserved the accolades received in the media and set a complex standard in terms of trans-related literature. I will probably read other books my Kim Fu too as I noticed a gentle way of approaching life which appeals to me.

Rating: 5 stars

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Visiting the Brecht-Weigel Memorial House in Buckow, Germany

One hour away from Berlin, the spa and relaxation Brandenburg resort of Buckow is a perfect hideaway if you want to spend some 'me time', far away from the city hussle, surrounded by an idyllic landscape. This July, I spent there three weeks exploring the area, relaxing and reading with views over the esmerald lakes.
It looked that famous literary characters from Germany envisioned this corner of paradise at least as inspiring as I did, as they choose it as their creative retreat. Buckow's famous residents were the couple Helene Weigel - Bertold Brecht that spent summers working and creating here.


The Weigel - Brecht Memorial House is situated - where else - on the Brecht Street, at no. 30. It is at the end of the street, close to the forest and with a view over the Scharm├╝tzelsee.


In a row of one-storey houses, this house stands out by its rounded roof and the discrete wooden panel decorations. Created by a Berlin architect, the house was the property of Weigel, and after her death - she survived Brecht for over a decade - purchased by the GDR and turned into a memorial house. Here are regularly organised various literary encounters and events about Brecht and writers with similar influences.


The house is relatively simply organised, with a huge living room at the ground level, and some small rooms - and probably a kitchen, at the first storey.


Only the huge living room, with a glass wall through which the natural light is soaking the solid wood furniture is available for the visit. Personally, I would have expected more information about the house and its history, as well as a bit more about Brecht than the famous Mutter Courage play, where Weigel had for a long time the main role.


Weigel-Brecht were often compared to the couple Simone de Beauvoir-Sartre. As in the French case, Weigel stayed in the shadows for a long time and was often considered just an actress, in comparison with her worldwide life partner. However her contributions to the evolution of German contemporary theatre are at least as important as Brecht's literary achievements.


The house may look modest to the visitor, but the large garden, where the wild bushes alternate with the neatly trimmed grass, make it the best of the entire estate.


Fragments from the poems written here by Brecht- Buckower Elegies - are spread all over the garden, written in metal boards.


Other small pieces of art are also give a human touch to the garden.



A special space was created with EU money especially for everything related to the famous Mutter Courage. Written during the exile in Sweden at the end of the 1930s, Brecht used the background of the 30 years wars in the 17th century for outlining his ideas about the cruelty of war but also warning about the dangers of capitalism. You can listen and watch there fragments from the interpretations of the Berlin Ensemble, including Weigel's role.
Brecht remains a role model and mythical character in the German literary history, and its portrait displayed in Buckow is missing any eventual critical overview of his positions towards the SED-dictatorship and the lack of significant reaction towards the further evolutions in the Soviet Union and the communist space in general. 


The beauty of the garden though is filling my soul and my eyes with gratitude for being able to visit such place.


In an eyesight, you can figure out how inspiring such a corner can be for a writer and intellectual. It offers you the peace of mind and concentration to completely separate from the outer world and create your unique works. Being allowed in their sanctuary, we, the simple humans, can only understand better their influences and state of mind.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Summer in New York City: A Dangerous Age, by Killy Killoren

I randomly picked up this book thinking about my long evenings in the countryside, when I needed some small connection to the world of glamour, and gossips and the memories of New York City. That kind of sparkling chick lit that makes you feel envirous and longing for the life you traded once in exchange of comfort and predictibility. 
A Dangerous Age had a promise and filled a secret desire, but until the very end of it, disappointed. It lost its mundane sparkle in discussions about art, desire and fantasy, misplaced in the wrong life episodes, or broke down delicious descriptions of euphoric meals with absurde or - again - misplaced dialogues. You have the gracious life of New York celebrities in the summer, but they are not even vane, just happens to pop-up in the story as someone dropping names of the establishment in a discussion about children rearing. It is also a bit delusional assuming that an anynomous blogger posting daily metaphorical/philosophical posts will ever be world famous. 
In the end, all is overpassed, the superficial moments of tension and suspense are just superficial moments and life goes on again at the end of the season. Glamorous life can be vain, but for sure more eventuful and less hysterical than those girls meeting up every week with country girls ambitions.
That's all about this book.
Maybe, as one of the characters in the book said, I need to learn to live my own disappointments. And to be more careful the next time I decide to spend my time with a book. Not all the glitter about New York is really worth literary gold.

Rating: 2.5 stars

Friday, July 20, 2018

The Lives of Many Languages

As someone growing up with more than two complicated languages, I am fascinated by other people's stories of growing up in a multicultural and multi-lingual environment. My children grew up with a similar story, and got even more linguistic boost and I personally cannot see any other way of being a complete citizen of the world - besides usind those multi-lingual skills to travel and use them on a regular basis. 
I am surrounded mostly by people with interesting language stories and I am always keen to discover inspiring stories which involves wordings in more than a language, not necessarily translations, but ways in which multitude of words are taking over and shaping our lives. 


In Other Words/In Altre Parole was on my to-read list for a very long time. A successful writer writing in English, her second language after Bengali, Jhumpa Lahiri decided to challenge herself and switch to Italian, a difficult linguistic choice, but a neutral space for writing a new life page. Words are the cultural connectors, shaping the imaginary mental geography a writer needs to exist. 'Every since I was a child, I've belonged only to my words. I don't have a country, a specific culture. If I didn't write, If I didn't work with words, I wouldn't feel that I'm present on the earth'. 
The relationship started while she was still living in the US therefore creating the linguistic bridge and continuity was not automatically enfolding. 
'My relationship with Italian takes place in exile, in a state of separation. 
Every language belongs to a specific place. It can migrate, it can spread. But usually it is tied to a geographical territory, a country. Italian belongs mainly to Italy, and I live on another continent, where one does not readily encounter it'. Given the geographical separation, the relationship evolved slowly, not at a highly prodigal level. 'In spite of the conversations, the language remains elusive, evanescent', she noticed. 
And then she moved to Italy, in exile from the English language, starting the long-term relationship with Italian, a language she wrote her linguistic memoir. 'Learning a foreign language is the fundamental way to fit in with new people in a new country. It makes a relationship possible. Without language you can't feel that you have a legitimate, respected presence. You are without a voice, without power. No chunk, no point of entrance can be found in the wall. I know that if I stayed in Italy for the rest of my life, even if I were able to speak a polished, impeccable Italian, that wall, for me, would remain'. However, it seems that she encountered the same wall while living in America, for the same reasons, when she needed to justify the language she speaks - and writes in. 'I'm a writer; I identify myself completely with language. I work with it. And yet the wall keeps me at distance, separates me. The wall is inevitable. It surrounds me wherever I go so that I wonder if perhaps the wall is me'. 
In Altre Parole - which I've read in the Italian version, but keeping an eye to the English translation, because my Italian is way too undeveloped to following coherently 100% of the sentences - is a serious meditation about the meaning of languages and words in the life of writers and how words and grammar too can sometimes define ourselves.
Elena Lappin didn't chose some of her languages she started to learn since her early life: she moved to the then Czechoslowakia as a child, using Russian as the family communication tool, but learning Czech and after that German, all before she was a teen. She moved to Israel and learned Hebrew but her language of choice as a writer remains English. Her childhood was lost in words, trying to find the right word to communicate and connect with her peers. 
Besides being a story of many languages, What Language Do I Dream In? is also a story of finding her biological father, an American who lived in Soviet Russia that she discovered late in life. 
For Lappin, languages and countries are clearly defining different ages and life stages, each language having the meaning of acquiring a new life. This also means being part of a world with different words. 

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Travels along the 'Silk Road': Lands of Lost Borders by Kate Harris

After 'breaking up with Mars', because long distance was not her 'thing', Kate Harris embarks on a long cycling journey longside the mythical 'Silk Road'. It is not her first time in the area, and her previous experiences included entering into the Tibet without any of the special permits required by the Chinese government. This time though, together with her school friend Mel she cycles from Istanbul to the Himalayas. 
A brave journey during which besides discovering the human stories behind the encounters on the road, there are constant meditations about borders. Most precisely about the 'triumph of borders': 'The way they make us accept as real and substantial what we can't actually see'. Borders are political symbols and political choices charged often with mythical, conflict-fuelled meanings, especially in the part of the world where Kate was cycling. 
Indeed, she wanted to travel to Mars but somehow during her PhD program she found Earth more reachable, although humans keep drawing borders, fighting and dying for them, oppressing other humans and killing them too. Can a scientifical approach to borders, which also includes an approach to sustainable development save us from centuries-old dreams and obsessions? Most probably not, but people with fresh minds and a direct experience of borders can start a change. 
Personally, I am not sure what I loved the most about this book: the writing, the intelligent references ranging from science to history, the thrive for adventure on the road less traveled, the geopolitical and political references,  the journey in itself and the places she visited. Most probably all of them, as I've read the book in one full afternoon and wished there is another volume by her waiting for me. It is a book inspiring in both ideas and wanderlust, balanced and insightful.

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