Thursday, June 22, 2017

Book review: The Idiot by Elif Batuman

During her freshman year at Harvard, the American-born Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, is falling in love with an older mathematics student from Hungary, Ivan. Set in 1995, the love story starts via e-mail, a novelty form of communication at the time, but doesn't go beyond the word level, although Selin will decide to spend a couple of weeks in Hungary teaching English in remote villages hoping to be closer to him.
Although not rich in events and actions, this book has a continual flow of observations and intellectual games. This is an example: 'The professor was talking about the differences between creative and academic writing. I kept nodding. I was thinking about the structural equivalences between a tissue box and a book: both consisted of slips of white paper  in a cardboard case; yet and this was ironic - there was very little functional equivalence, especially if the book wasn't yours'. 
Selin, an autobiographical character, lives her life through stories and believes there is a sense in language, but doesn't necessarily find any connection with feelings and encounters. Her virtual relationship with Ivan, although completed through meetings in real time is just a projection as she is unable to connect the words to life and real emotions. The entire book is Selin journey through words trying to start her life. The constant monologue is creating an image of an active interior life, the permanent struggle to make order in the daily chaos through words. It is Selin's search for meaning and her formation time. She might look lost and the dialogues can sound sometimes like absurd and non-sensical, but did you ever hear how does your interior life conversations sound like?
It is an intense intellectual novel, with unexpected references and associations, a delightful walk to discovery of the limits of rationality and words, with many comics and humorous episodes. 
It took me more than usual to read it because it is a different way of story-telling, but the reading adventure is fully worth the intellectual effort. 

Rating: 3.5-4 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review 

Bookish interview: Martin Wheadon, author of Networking Thoughtfully

Networking is almost everything nowadays. We need to know how to do it correctly for work or for a better, inter-connected life. But are we sure we are doing it properly? In the last years, plenty of books were published aimed to help a better and thoughtfully networking. As an intensive social media user, I am always happy to read and introduce to my readers new ideas and books. M. Wheadon is the author of a recent book aimed to offer fast assistance for an efficient networking. He was kind enough to share his impressions as an author with my readers in the following interview:

- What does it mean for you, *networking thoughtfully'?
It means networking with the other person in mind: changing the emphasis from what can I offer you to what is it you want, and then seeing if you can satisfy that need.
- Does networking work for any domain of activity, for instance mathematics or engineering, domains by excellence confined to the silent world of the lab or research?
Networking only works when people want to network. If people genuinely want to find out what others are doing and if you genuinely want to help them, then networking works in any sphere. It concentrates your mind into fully understanding what your product offers, but integral with that must be a desire what the other party needs, so there can be a successful dovetail of information.
With the readers
- What are the risks of a not-networking attitude, both personally and professionally?
To me, I think it just means you don't broaden your horizons as well as you could. By networking, you can understand trend, foresee patterns and get an in depth understanding of the market in which you operate - the swapping of stories. It's not all about selling product, it's about learning your industry and learning about the marketplace in general.
- What is, in your opinion, the percentage played by networking in the success of a business? 
I think we are networking 100% of the time. Whatever we do, whatever we say and how we do it, is in some respect networking.
- What was the biggest challenge for you of writing this book?
Overcoming the fear that nobody would buy it. But, I knew that whilst it is not a huge book, it genuinely contains tips that worked for me and, therefore, I thought it was worthwhile putting it out there in the public domain.
- What are your next writing plans?
None. I wrote the book a little while ago but tragically my wife died of cancer and it was inappropriate to market the book. Since then, I've left the world of banking and don't think I have anything else to offer on that subject. But, as your question has prompted me to think, there may be a book called Pastoral Caring Thoughtfully, building upon my experiences as a minister of religion.

Photo: Archives of the author

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Book review: Prussian Blue, by Philip Kerr

A political thriller with a German background, going back and forth between 1956 and 1939, Prussian Blue is a dense book with interesting dialogues and an overdose of history.
The 12th installment of Bernie Gunther mysteries, a policeman trying to remain honest in the Nazi Germany without being a party member, the books brings into the story various episodes from the contemporary history, shortly before the start if WWII and during the Cold War. As the story advances, there are some similarities in the structure of the narrative which does not limit the development of the events. 
The investigation requested from Gunther into a crime committed in the 1930s against a relatively low level bureaucrat at Berghof, the dictator's headquarters in the South of Germany brough to life the extent of corruption within the party's leadership. Characters from that time are coming back to life under different uniforms in the Stasi-dominated Communist Germany asking Gunther, refugiated after the war at the French Riviera, to poison a British pawn considered disposable. While trying to escape this task, and his Stasi followers, Gunther remembers his assignment in the South of Germany, where he went through the dangerous beehive of the Nazis. Both stories do have an ending hard to predict, but as the detective is getting closer to the truth, the life is becoming more and more dangerous.
I personally was a bit disappointed by the ending, but it could also be that the dialogues and the writing in general are so captivating that you can hardly want the story to end, regardless of the ending. 
A recommended read to anyone interested to read a good thriller with a solid history background and interesting legal twists. 

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

Book review: Girls' Weekend, by Cara Sue Achterberg

Dani, Charlotte and Meg are heading to a well deserved girls' weekend, far away from their family stress and work overload. But after the two days of rest are over, none of them is ready to return to their everyday lives.
Although maybe the ending is predictable, the way in which each of the three women is developing the relationship with her self is interesting and not without surprising discoveries. At the rented house near the beach, in less than one month, the friends are completely reinventing themselves, looking back to their complex past and starting to get over the failures of their professional and personal lives or grief after loss of a child. 
Most importantly, they learn to discover what it really matters in their life, by finding the inner resources for more rewarding personal relationships and more meaning in life. The women characters are complex and interesting case studies, while on the men side, there is a disbalance, as they are portrayed as almost the same, selfish and pretty simplistic in their approaches to married life.
If you are looking for a thoughtful read at the beginning of the summer or during your weekend - with or without your girls - this book is a good choice, that makes you think about and maybe reconsider your couple life. You may also decide to stay longer out of your usual routine, but what is important is to never think you are done with your life and always keep looking for meaning and never accept getting lost in other people's lives.

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

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Bookish Stuttgart

My trip to Stuttgart, at the beginning of this year, was a well-planned and much waited experience, which involved 48 full hours of exploration and the promise of a coming back. Although not on purpose as early, as I got lost trying to find our way to the hotel, it started with a visit at one of the top libraries in Germany, the Municipal Library - Stadtbibliothek - am Mailänder Platz.
The library is part of an area still in development - Europaviertel created around the main central station where main financial institutions are located -, aimed at offering a contemporary architectural alternative to the usual urban structures. If before, the castle was the beating heart of a city, in the modern world, knowledge overpass social status. The facade is made of a concrete cube made of 9x9 panels, which are illuminated from inside during the night. 
The building can be accessed from all the four sides of the building. The visitors can start their journey with a stop at the meditation room. Inspired by the Pantheon, it has in its center a small fountain wrapped in blue lights. 
After this first silent memento, the bookish adventure can begin. From floor 1 to 8, the soundproofed building lavishly displays an intricated maze of books. There is an art and children section, a music library and a big section dedicated to German and world literature. You can either read on one of the couches placed near the stairs or at the big tables indoors. The 79 million Euro investment, the work of Yi Architects, is an aesthetical surprise, rewriting the way in which libraries are created. A visit at the library means more than hurrying up to pick up your books, but can last as a search for new unexpected sources of knowledge in an inspirational environment. From the last floor, a terrace and a bar, one can also have a view over the new and old Stuttgart. 
After I left, my biggest regret was that I not live in this city to have the regular pleasure of searching for books on the shelves of this work of art.
But it seems Stuttgart has a tradition in terms of bookish love, as a couple of hours later I was exploring a 150-year old bookstore, Buchhaus Wittwer. Situated in the busy area of the Schlossplatz, the old times equivalent of the Europaviertel where the modern library is situated. The four-floor building hosts permanent conferences and meetings with the authors and has a significant English-books section. My favorite corners to explore was the one dedicated to thrillers - Krimi, in German - written by local German authors and the cute children section.
If you are a book lover and you visit Stuttgart, you will not be disappointed as this city has a generous offer for the bookish people like you - and me. 

Monday, May 22, 2017

Meet the Mumins

Meet the Mumins! They are a family of 3 white-hippos looking alike creatures - Moominpappa, Moominmamma and Moomintroll - , carefree and adventurous, curious and nature lovers. The creatures created by the Swedish-speaking Tove Jonsson and later her brother Lars Jonsson, they are considered a symbol of Finland, with a thematic park dedicated to them in Naantali.
Compared to other graphic novels that I devoured, my first encounter with the Mumins, through the volume 9 of the series published a couple of years ago by Reprodukt edition house in Germany, specialized in this genre of literature, wasn't memorable and not even encouraged me to run to the library for reserving the rest of the collection. Actually, it took me a long time to decide to continue with the stories, but I was strongly driven by the curiosity to explore a famous national literary brand.
Apparently, the style of the stories changed from a story to another, with more topics explored including of political and social nature. For instance, in my book, it was approached the issue of colonialism and democracy. The dialogues are usually simple and every snippet has a lot of action going on. 
As the topics approached are relatively complex, I recommend to read it after 9-10 years old. The Mumins are easy going and can be easily resonate with many one-child families.
Probably, my only problem with them is that they are not necessarily my cup of graphic novels, which means either too sophisticated politically or displaying beautiful illustrations for first time readers.
However, I would definitely would be curious to read more critique about them and interpretation of their inclusion part of the Finnish national literary Pantheon. 

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Book review: Rich People Problems, by Kevin Kwan

The third and last installment of the Crazy Rich Asian series, Rich People Problems is back with a slightly different novel which maintain the absurd and non-sensical lavish ambiance of the previous books but adds some insightful unexpected details to this hilarious family saga.
Su Yi, the matriarch of the family is on her deathbed and the future inheritance of Tyersall Park is unknown but creates suspense, envy and tensions among the members of the clan, reunited from all over the world. One of them is the grandmother's favorite, Nicholas - Nick - who was considered a disgrace after marrying for love to an educated woman with an 'inferior' pedigree. He arrives just in time for a reconciliation, but his presence only increases the tension and the suspense which will continue until the will will be read after Su Yi's death.
As in the previous books, there are a lot of gossips and envy and many many brand name dropping, psychotic characters paying thousands of dollars for an eye lift for a fish and soap opera intrigues. Forget the children of the Russian mafia featured in glossy magazines with golden toys and limited edition high-fashion designer clothes, Singapore tycoons - naming their children Harvard, Carlton or Scheherazde - can do it much better.
There are also subtle observations about the evolution of wealth and the matrimonial alliances, mostly uttered by the only fully coherent character, Nick. After his favorite noodle bar, Sun Yik, disappeared, he uttered a long lament about the fate of Singapore: 'Everything I love about Singapore is gone. Or it's disappearing fast. Every time I'm back, more and more of my favorite haunts have closed or have been torn down. Restaurants, shops, buildings, cemeteries, nothing is sacred any more. The whole character of the island I knew growing up is almost completely obliterated'.
Another complex and insightful character is Astrig Leong, who after a complicated divorce and the permanent pressure from her family to conform to the model assigned decided to break free and find herself on a small island in the Philippines.
Especially the last 100 pages of the novel are surprising and add elements of spy novels to the many pages dedicated to real estate tycoons and extravagant private jets rides to buy millions worth dresses. Apparently, Su Yi was modestly hiding many secrets, including a love affair, and her extraordinary services during WWII changed completely the fate of Tyersall Park.
Although one may find the topic too soft, the book has a good structure and there are enough characters that can be easily loved. Kevin Kwan is obviously a writer whose talent can go beyond the glossy magazines intrigues and I am curious what will be the next novel after the Crazy Rich Asians saga is over.

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