Saturday, March 25, 2017

'The Year of Magical Thinking'

Joan Didion, and her late husband, belong to a different category of writers than what we usually encounter nowadays. It is the professional writer for whom everything revolves around the words. As journalists or novel writers, they are always surrounded by books and stories because they cannot do anything else. The process of writing doesn't have anything to do with spontaneous thinking or improvisation, but relies on serious research on everything written on the topic and hundreds of files of notes. In addition, Didion is also a public intellectual, a proof of the importance assigned to the writer, as a conscience whose opinions shall be listened and shared. 
'In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information was control'. This is what she will do following the sudden death of her husband after 40 years of marriage, while her daughter was in coma. The Year of Magical Thinking is the account of the terrible times she went through then, a memoir recording carefully the feelings and events in the aftermath of the tragedy. First and foremost, she is trying to understand what happened, with the help of books and medical reports or psychology studies, but also, on long term, to reconstruct the moment of their relationship, dissecting and looking for meaning in events from the past weeks and months. There is the grieving phase followed by the mourning stage, and the question if he ever had the prescience of his death. And shortly after he died, there is also the strange feeling that maybe he will come back, the refuse to acknowledge that her husband will not come back. Never. 
It is the kind of book one needs to read after a tragedy, not because it would solve the questions about life and death, but because it shares a human experience of trying to understand through words an occurence hard to explain with words. Every experience is unique because every human being is unique, but what connects each other is the power to share and describe, write and talk about what is happening. Although it doesn't alleviate the suffering, at least it can make the moments meaningful, and in moments of doubt and emotional turmoil, this can be more than enough.

Rating: 4 stars

Friday, March 24, 2017

Longing for home

In the last weeks, I started to read a couple of writers from the Middle East - some of them will be featured in the next posts - discovering that in the case of many, there is a common topic: the longing for home, after long years of dislocation. This specific exploration of a topic brings new interpretations into the world literature and I am really glad that those works are introduced to the Western public, many of them directly in English.
In her debut novel, Nada Awar Jarrar is exploring the idea of home through the stories of three different Lebanese women, whose life stories interwin at certain moments. The intensity the stories are told decreases from the first to the last story, which creates a certain disbalance and, in my case, the disappointment as it raises high expectations at the beginning. 
The first story is for me an outstanding example of how the words can be powerfully used to bring back to life worlds and alternative stories. The writing is so beautifully that I hardly wanted to stop reading. The chosen words can reveal deep feelings and different layers of emotions, like in this case: 'I was somewhere between child and woman, feeling the same anxiety the adults did but not knowing what to do with it'. 
The main protagonists of the stories are women, for whom love is hidden and marriages are set since early childhood to avoid the worries of the future. But they are also able to decide their own future, including by staying out of the usual society requirements, assuming the singleton status. All are united though by the search for home, for the place, real or imaginary, made of memories or the everyday moment, where they assume they belong to. I especially loved this description of home, from the first story: 'Back home was where fragrant pine trees grew into tall umbrellas and rivers chimed down to a light-blue sea. Back home were snowy winters and balmy summers, and gentle sunshine every where in between'. 
However, in the case of the war-torn Lebanon, there is always a 'before' and 'after', with the right of belonging to a home being often symbolically refused based on the lack of a common past during hard times. This is an example of the ways in which doctor Kameel comments to Aida: 'It's always like this. People like you return, not having known the terrible years of the war, and you want to teac us about life'. 
Another aspect I've found interesting in this book is how the urban and rural collide, with Beirut often seen as a mythical city - 'Beirut is like nothing I have ever imagined'. 
There is a little house in the mountains though that brings everyone together, but the search for identity doesn't have to stop, as it only needs a proper framework to operate properly. The language which, in the first part, is evocative and poetic helps to recreate worlds and a particular genuine ambiance. Maybe this is both the strongest and weakest point of the writing. Half through the book, my disappointment increased as the writing is becoming self sufficient when is not just plain, monotonous. 
Despite the mishapes of the writing towards the end, I strongly recommend it for some of the powerful stories as well as the literary testimony. I am looking forward to explore more writers from this region. 
On a side note, I really appreciated how the political issues that cannot be dissociated from a book dealing with Lebanon, are delicately used just as a background of the story, leaving the literary discourse untammed by the usual diatribes that unfortunatelly diminish considerably the quality of any work. 

Rating: 3.5 stars

A Publishing story

'Good editors don't grow on trees' and this is true both in real life and in fiction. I ended up reading this book attracted by the subject: the publishing industry, which you rarely find featured in novels. 
Focused on the competition between publishing houses and the dramatic conflict between a super-star writer whose entire talent seems to have been lost after the first best-seller hit the shelves ten years ago and his ambitious talented editor, this book is an easy yet pleasant read. You can read it as an humorous account of the publishing industry - including the promotional tricks and the marketing twists - and the fate of the bestselling author. It also offers, in a literary form, a story about what may happen with a manuscript from the final draft until it hits the shelves. 
Maybe I am wrong but it is one of the few - good - books which covers this topic and it is doing it in a very smart way, including the fierce competition between publishing houses. As one of the characters noticed: '(...) ten thousand books have been written on how the CIA operates and next to none on how publishing actually works, from the inside, and that's because we know how to keep secrets'. 
The book has all the ingredients of a comfortable read: interesting characters, good writing, a bit of suspense and a story which flows interestingly until the end. I particularly loved the ambitious young editor Annie McGuire, who dared to go deep into the manuscript of the famous author and whose editing will bring him the fame back, although completely by mistake. Unfortunately, she is excessively described through her Englishness, an attribute used to answer questions and doubts about her, which is not a very creative choice. 
It is a read recommended to both young editors and publishers, as well as to anyone in love with books, curious to discover unknown stories about their favorite hobby.

Rating: 3.5 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Weekend read: Monday to Friday Man, by Alice Peterson

Gilly 'with a G' is a 34 young recently single woman living in the hard-to-find-your match city of London. Her fiance left her shortly before the wedding, and in less than 6 months he is already married with someone else. Her social activities are mostly enjoying the company of her nieces, the daughters of her twin brother or meeting other dog lovers in the park, while walking her little dog named Ruskin. 
She decides to rent for the week a room in her apartment, creating a profile on a website called 'Monday to Friday', for people commuting to and from London for the week and going out for the weekends. Through it, after a couple of hilarious adventures, she've found a handsome and mysterious man interested to share the home with her for five days, Jack. Meanwhile, her friendship with Guy, the temporary owner of Trouble, while his fiance, Flora is on a round trip around the world, develops beautifully. 
And this is just the beginning of a story with many ups and downs, solidarity and strong, opinionated women. Many of the characters populating this book are funny and there is hardly anyone which is not special in his or her way of being or talking.
The story is in some respects predictable, with the writing not always very appealing. However, there is a background story, of Megan, Gilly and Nick's little sister, and of how the family fell apart following her death. This part of the book creates balance with the less 'entertaining' parts and also brings meaning to the whole history. 
In addition to the romantic complications and many emotionals ups and downs and insecurities, this book is worth a read - be it only for a weekend - for the challenging questions it opens about the ingredients of a trustworthy relationships, honest and unconditional friendships and how personal changes may affect a relationship. Therefore it is more than a superficial read, I recommend to anyone going through a time of reconsideration and reflection about human connections and search for a partner, not necessarily 'the one and only'.

Rating: 3 stars

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Bookish travel: Luisenbad Bibliothek in Berlin

More than any other European cities, Berlin is in a permanent process of reinventing itself. A ruin in the aftermath of the WWII, divided by the Cold War and reunited in the last decade of the 20th century, it succeeded to cope successfully with the challenges, recreating spaces and reassigning new meanings to buildings.
One of such case is the renovated neo-Baroque Luisenbad Bibliothek in the Wedding neighbourhood. Situated around 10 minutes of walk from the metro station Osloerstrasse, on Travem├╝ndestr. 2, the building, itself a mixture of at least two different styles, has more than one history. It used to be a public pool - Bad means bath, but also pool in German - named after the beloved Prusian princess Luise, a restaurant and coffee shop - See the more colourful part with mosaique-like tiles added to the classical structure, where you can read KafeK├╝che - Coffee and Cake - and lately Marienbad Kino/Movie Theatre until the construction of the Wall. 
Since 1978, the construction is part of the historical landmarks and therefore, its renovation process, done by the architecture bureau Rebecca Chestnutt-Robert Niess in 1995, was requested and paid by the local authorities. 
As in the case of many other historical buildings that went through dramatic renovation process, the principle of collage was used in the case of this library, meaning that the original structures and patterns were maintained as much as possible, to which modern and more functional layers were added. For instance, the original tiles from the pool can be walked in for entering the library.
The building has two floors and an underground level. Besides the space of the library, an additional first store is available for various literary events or dedicated to children activities. (On a side note, it is amazing how many programs offered by the local libraries in Berlin target children, including within the first two years of life. I will write a post about this soon.) One of the nowadays activities halls do have exquisite cherub decorations, originally from 1912.
The older and newest part of the construction are brought together by white bridges punctured by suspended lights. The effect is an interesting game of delicate volumes filling the space between steady resistance structures. 
The walls and roofs of glass, through which the natural light is beautifying and adds volume to the entire structure. I've seen media reports about the existence of bullet holes from 1945 in the walls, but maybe my visit was too fast and I haven't noticed anything. The next time I will look more careful.
As for the book collection, it is really impressive. During my trips all over the various libraries of the city, I noticed how different is the usual bookish menu, and how actually, you can find completely different books in every library. Here I noticed a very rich music and video collection - including an extensive Bollywood shelf, plus a children library in at least 10 languages. It also has interesting hobby and self-help and wellness books, in German.
Books are smart people's best friends, but when the company is enjoyed in a very creative space, the beauty effects are amplified. I really enjoyed visiting this place, my only regret being that I am living too far away to check even more seriously their offer of books and literary events. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Bookish interview with first time author Anlor Davin

Writing your first book, especially a memoir which has a strong personal element, is a big challenge, because one struggles between the temptation to tell his or her story and the need to be authentic and interesting. Some stories though do not need too much effort to be appealing to the reader, as revealing extraordinary life journeys. One of such encounters I had the last year was reading the book by Anlor Davin, Memoir of an Autistic Mother, Immigrant and Zen Student. A couple of months after the launch of the book, she had the kindness to answer a couple of questions about her writing challenges and her interesting life story. 

What was the most difficult part of starting to write your memoir?

At the time I started to write my memoir, which was the year before my formal diagnosis of autism and the proper medical treatment for it, I had become so ill and in I was in such terrible pain I thought I was going to die.  That blocked writing because I did not have much physical strength, and I was also in a mental kind of fog.  
In case one is interested in my illness: In a few words, my sensory challenges had become such that I could no longer go out at all (I dragged myself to do grocery and such vitally important chores, but it was extremely difficult, always). One of my co-morbidities was adrenal insufficiency and a “nervous knot” had formed in the left side of my neck that paralyzed my upper left and had me in pain at times of stress (most often when exposed to artificial sounds, smells, lights, etc.). I limped in pain as the pain shot all the way down my back.
Your mother tongue is French, but your language of choice is English.  How hard was it for you to juggle between the two languages?
I did not juggle between the two languages as by the time I started to write my memoir I had been long enough in United States (over 20 years) that I had become quite American.  I thought, spoke and dreamed in English.  Also, at that time I did not know the “autism jargon” in French, learning the English one was already enough novelty.
What inspired you to write?
When I was so ill I felt so trapped inside: I was unable to express myself because I became overwhelmed at extreme speed and just about all the time.  I also felt invisible: nobody understood what was going on with me, people just thought I was plain nuts.  
Often t that time when I talked out loud to someone (which was not very often), I had “pressure speech”, which Wikipedia defines as “a tendency to speak rapidly and frenziedly, as if motivated by an urgency not apparent to the listener. The speech produced, sometimes called pressured speech, is difficult to interrupt. It may be too fast, or too tangential for the listener to understand. It is an example of cluttered speech.” Thus friends who were also (patient) zen students were often the only people who spoke with me during those difficult times, and they felt I ought to write down what I was trying to say.  And that’s how I started to write my memoir.  Now I even have a website -anlordavin.com for it!
What are your favorite authors? What kind of books do you like to read?
By now my Zen practice has pervaded my entire life: I often feel the only books that really interest me are about zen, for example “Training in Compassion” by Norman Fisher, “The Forbidden Lamp” by Sue Moon and Florence Caplow or “Nothing Special” by Charlotte Jocko Beck.  
I am a voracious reader, I always was, so at age 52 I still read just for the pleasure of it, all sort of books, picked kind of haphazardly in the public library near me because I can’t stay too long in the library due to lights, smells…and yes, even noise at times; I am easily engrossed, but no matter how much I get enthralled by the book I am reading, in the end I often feel it is a distraction: It often happens that several months later I have completely forgotten about a book I have read and I accidently check it out again.  I avoid violent books of any sort. If the title and the book cover of a book seem in any way aggressive I won’t read the book. I don’t have filters and my mood quickly becomes pervaded by what transpires in the book; my sleep might even be disturbed later that night.
I also read a lot of books by other autistic people.  Some of them I like, like the “classic older books” by Liane Holliday Willey, Temple Grandin, William Stillman, Carly Fleishman and her father, Rudy Simone.  I also like some more recent books like “The Reason I Jump”, “NeuroTribes”, and recently of course, other autistic authors have shared their books, like David Patten “Dummy”, Joy Raven “Life in the Asperger’s Jungle”, or Anne Ross “Beyond Rain Man”. I usually find something interesting in all of them: After all, I can relate.
How important is sharing their personal story for rising awareness about autism ? Do you have any feedback so far from people in a similar situation?
I find that all of the autistic authors have something new to tell about autism: it is really such an unknown territory yet. I am all for “sharing your personal story to raise awareness about autism” because it dearly needs it.  We might think we understand autism much better these days, and to a certain degree that is true, but we are really only about a third of the way…the remaining 2/3 still have to be told.  For example many people still think that autism is a disease that can be cured.
Judging by the type of feedback I get when I do book readings for people with disabilities, I find that my book is better understood and liked by those like me.  I also get a lot of emails from people like me, and they are always positive.  It seems to me that when I have received comments I do not understand well, it is from people who are not autistic. No matter how much I want my book to inform people who are not autistic what it is like to be autistic, it seems not to reach people whose interests are somewhere else and far away; autism seems to be yet another “beyond words” thing (just as, for example, it is impossible to explain what exactly is “spiritual awakening” and how Zen practice “works”).

What are your writing plans for the next months?

One of the most rewarding happenings has been the meditation group I facilitate once a month in San Rafael, California, for people on the autism and neurodiverse spectrum. More information about it can be seen at the website autsit.net

Also, in a few months my book will be published in France (since translation is a way to earn money for me, I translated it myself) under the title Etre Reconnue.  Since everyone seems to like the book’s cover and its images, my French publisher kept it the same in the French version, only of course in French.

My partner and I have been told a few times now that we ought to write a book about the relationships of autistic people, or something in that vein -- especially after people watch the video “https://youtu.be/nEv5MoecWK8. But we have not yet decided to do that.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

'Your heart is a muscle the size of a fist'

Placed during the turmoil of the anti-WTO protests in Seattle in 1999, this debut novel by Sunil Yapa is a beautiful meditation about tenderness and trauma, the limits of violence and the challenges of social activism. The violent encounters during that November are covered for one day, and told from the different angles of the participants. 
Very often, there is a kind of point-counterpoint technique, when a event is retold starting with the last encounters of the previous story. The events - most of them of very violent nature - are unexpected and so vividly described that as a reader, you can easily feel yourself as part of the action(s) unfolding. 
Another interesting aspect of the book - named after the name of a song by a punk band, Ramshackle Glory - has to do with the perceptions and discussions regarding the evolutions of leftist movements and mode of actions, from 1968 until the present. 
I personally was very interested in this book, because I am always looking for literary interpretations of current political events and social context. From this point of view, both the topic and the approach are very appealing unique choices.  
When I started to read the book, I was instantly caught by the story, especially during the first 100 pages. However, shorly after my disillusionment increased, as after a while the narrative seems to turn in the same emotional circle which is a trap because emotions aren't always communicating information or can help advancing the story. Therefore, I ended up wishing that this book was less a therapy-like confrontation and overview and consequences of feelings and more a well-built story. In this case, the author is not a good story-teller but still succeeds to reveal interesting aspects of the human psyche and of the psychology of the masses in general.
One of the characters which are more than a bundle of feelings is the Sri Lanka representative to WTO, Dr. Charles Wickramshaw. Through his personal story and encounters, it is possible to understand all the contradictions and tensions of the street activism, as well as of the institutional functioning. Two worlds collide, one of them where the cost of protesting can be the lost of individual freedom, as his own experience of prison proved. Seen from the eyes of a representative of the 'third world', a region the protesters assumed to defend, the anti-WTO debacle was in fact a deterrent of the efforts to help those countries to reach the level of economic and social 'normality'. 
Despite its inerrent ups and downs, this is a book I recommended to anyone interested in discovering a new perspective and an unique literary angle on a slice of social and politcal reality, either you are in the US or out in the big protesting world. 

Rating: 3.5 stars