Thursday, July 18, 2019

Book Review: The Storm, by Arif Anwar

A couple of stories with characters whose destinies are often intertwined, starting from the time of the WWII, the Partition War and the post-9/11 America. People coming and going in the story, sometimes while carrying strong messages and stories, like the waves of a sea in the middle of the storm. Wars, some of them in the name of religions mistreated by humans. The Storm, by Arif Anwar is spanning a couple of generations and has as a main background the 1970 Bhola Cyclone in Bangladesh, that took the lives of half million people. 
It is during this storm that the life of Shahryar, that we meet in our 'days' in the USA, while trying to secure a chance to remain in the States with his daughter, changed tremendously. He lost his parents and was adopted by a childless rich family that chose to invest in his education. 
The stories are coming back and forth, some of them re-told in another sequence later, some not. For those events that are lost in the middle of the bigger story, it is a pitty because they create certain high expectations for an eventual follow-up. Such as is the case of the episode between Claire Drake, a British doctor service woman in Burma and the Japanese soldier Ichiro. Ichiro's tragic ending will be told a bit later in the story, but there is a feeling of a relative inadequacy of his presence into the bigger narrative. The present-time narrative, particularly the 'American story' is also unbalanced, compared to the strength and dramatism of the sceneries taking place in Asia in the time of WWII, or during the nascent conflict between Hindus and Muslims in the bigger India.
In subsidiary, The Storm is also a meditation about how small and narrow are human ambitions, especially the national and religious ones, compared to the enormous force of the nature, which is overpowering and overwhelming. Nature is blinder than the human ambitions. 
As a debut novel, The Storm has an impressive narrative architecture and Arif Anwar is an interesting literary voice to follow. He've found an unique way to create space for human individual stories in the complex context of the separation of Bangladesh from India - the Partition - but also taking into account the dramatic events of the Bhola Cyclone.
It is one of those books that make you curious about a lot of contemporary or less contemporary events, but also opens the heart to stories, with all the imprecisions those are told.

Rating: 4 stars

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Having My Way with Science Fiction Books

I do have a relatively limited intellectual availability of dealing with science fiction books. Time travel, spaceships coming from the future, extra terrestrial creatures...all of those aspects are rarely an encounter in my usual literary timelines, and this from a very early age. I was not that kind of kid getting lost into the fantastic worlds but rather interested to find out how this world works and even today, I think it is enough for a literary concern.
However, I will never cease to challenge myself intellectually therefore forcing myself into reading once in a while books that are not part of my usual reading menu. According to all the reviews and recommendations I've seen, All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai was a relatively easy read. In fact, maybe a too easy for my tastes.
Let's start with the things that I really loved about the book: the writing is good, with sequential chapters - maybe it helped the fact that Mastai is a screenwriter. The information is relatively light, introduced in a very simple way which do not require additional scientific background. Besides the story itself: the history of the first time travel machine, created in July 1965 by Lionel Goettreider, that in 2016 Tom Barren, the son of a scientist whose life was dedicated to this machine is using for the first time in history - there is also an interesting discussion open up by the author regarding writing and the difference between novel - with an autobiographical aspect - and a memoir. The writing is what captivated me at the very beginning and kept me involved during the rest of the book.
Because, and now we are about to start reading about the part of the book that I did not enjoy it: the way in which story unfolds, with all the romantic element added does not do good to the sci-fi setting.Tom Barren is back in time to discover that his lost love is his and there to stay - in the first temporal sequence she committed suicide - and is doing everything in his power to keep her. The famous Goettreider is also using the time machine for love, in order to spend more time to a married lady he has an affair during his laboratory years. 
Although during the last 100 of pages I felt like giving up on the book more than once, I was brave enough to finish it. The book itself is not bad and as I said, there are interesting perspectives shared, the story didn't resonate with me at all, probably because maybe I was expecting something more spectacular and outwordly. I would probably recommend it and I am sure there are much more people enjoying it, but personally I've found it a bit too light for my usual tastes. 
Another positive experience of this last read is that after all, I might be more interested in sci-fi and right now I am looking for more serious, hard-core recommendations in this respect. PS. I've already read Dune and found it at the time relatively interesting.

Rating: 3 stars

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

The Proof of the Honey

The average informed Western reader rarelly associates the Arab or Muslim areal in general with eroticism. And I am not talking about modern contributions by young courageous writers, most of them writing freely about eroticism and free world far away from their home countries. What I am thinking about is an old corpus of texts where the relationships between man and woman are extensively described in terms that have nothing to do with the inflexible extreme religious descriptions way to often encountered in the current media depictions of this part of the world - not necessarily geographical but as an intellectual realm.
Salwa al Neimi recovers this tradition in a short novel where women are sharing their erotic stories and sexual experiences, part of an academic assignment the storyteller - a Syrian academic living in Paris - about classic erotic literature in Arabic.
Thus, the academic background, the references are the support to develop the real-time experience. It is what you need to counter the official narratives and nothwithstanding, Al Neimi's book created a literary scandal. 
But denying eroticis and sexual experiences is similar with denying the existence of the Arab literary sources. You can try to opress the human beings searching for sexual liberalization and simple expression of it, or you can burn or forbid the books. However, they will always be there. 
The Proof of the Honey - which I've read in German translation - is a reading which opens a new perspective on Arab literature and the Arab intellectual real. It helps to make a difference and balance and counter the intolerant stereotype.

Rating: 4 stars

An Interesting Literary Experiment: Bitter Orange

Bitter Orange starts as a slow-paced story of loneliness. On her deadbed, Frances is visited by a vicar which is listening to her confession of a summer spent in the company of a young couple while commissione to catalogue the garden architecture of a mansion in the English countryside. 
It is an innocent story at first, of an old lady getting closer and closer to death as the days are unfolding. In the first three quarters of the story, one can hardly figure out the terrible ending once there is a final revelation of the narrative. At the beginning, there is only the lady in her end 30s, spying trough a small wall hole the couple next door, two Irish youngsters. She thought the young lady Cara is Italian, in fact she's not, only dreams about having an Italian life. Once the three of them are getting to know each other closer, there is a web of stories that builds up. But how much truth they tell, it is a different story which reveals partially in the next stages of the story.
There are moment when the three of them look so happy together, that one may think that this book is in fact about friendship and love in the English countryside. But little by little darkness takes it over. Because we acknowlege it or not, there is a darkness that resides even in the most kindest and gentle of us, humans. It is a Hobessian outlook of homo homini lupus which might not operate fully, but at least in this story, it makes sense.
Otherwise, how to explain the terrible crimes of a poor virgin which spent all her life being a caregiver of her mother - that she killed too.
I might confess that I was very much surprised by the ending. After the first half of the book, I accepted the fact that there is a book written beautifully, but wordings are not enough as I need a good story too, therefore sooner or later I will simply give up. Only when I started to figure out there is a different layer of the story, based on various obvious or just suggested hints, the reading headed in a completely different direction. The relative boredom was replaced by the excitement of the art of writing. 
It is a pleasre to read Bitter Orange, by Claire Fuller. It gives a chance to good literature, where bt the reader and the author are together on an intellectual journey.

Rating: 4 stars

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Book Review: A Woman Is No Man, by Etaf Rum

'Let me tell you something. A man is the only way up in this world, even though he'll climb a woman's back to get there. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise'.
A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum is retracing the story of three generations of Palestinian women from back home to Brooklyn. Geography matters least in this case as 'Palestine or America. A woman will be alone', as one of the women characters, Isra, states. More than a story of dislocation and rootlessness, this book, beautifully told, is about going beyond the cycle of violence against women. 
The same pattern repeated over and over again, how can it be broken? Having girls might be considered a curse and marrying them out as early as possible it is the solution to get them out of the house. They are praised only when they procreate boys as those boys once grown up will not need a woman to get married with therefore girls shall be born too. When they do not fulfill this function, women are worthless, aggressed and put down. They are not allowed to leave the house alone, because it is against modesty, and even if they do, they do not know the language anyway therefore they will most likely make a full of themselves.
There is a similar way of thinking and approaching things which ignores reality. Some say it ignores religion too, as it is only a tradition which kept being repeated by default. Fact is that it is not unusual that in traditional settings, women are beaten to death by their husbands. The mothers of those boys rather prefer to offer supernatural explanations - he was, for sure, posessed by a djinn when he did it - instead of accepting their part of responsibility for preventing such a dramatic episode to happen.
The Palestinian women featured in A Woman is No Man seem to have to chance to escape their fate. They need to accept and hide the beatings beneath layers of makeup, do their best to accommodate their husbands even they are violent and drunk and make sure they marry their daughters as soon as possible, heading them to the same cruel fate. 
Is there any way out? The opression of tradition can be overcome radically just by leaving. Running away and starting anew and this radical solution is the hardest. Are the minds and souls changing nowadays allowing a midle way? The writer found a relatively mild third way. Learning, as the only way to control your destiny, once acknowledged by the other members of the family as necessary but not radically against tradition, can offer a chance. Educated women can still have a chance of meeting educated men belonging to their ethnic or religious group thus preserving the cultural identity, although at a different level - preferably minus domestic violence and with a certain openness towards the big world. Personally, I am not sure that once you are escaping the tradition you can still leave within the limits of the same pattern of behavior of thought, because mind is free and happy to enjoy the freedom of going each and every day one step further its previous limits. I only assume that each story is different and each tradition is different. 
Etaf Rum created that story which leads to infinite discussions. It was hard to say 'good bye' to the characters in this book. Although each and every one of them shared so many conflicting messages and stirs different emotions into the reader. The story is slow paced yet worded strong enough to cover a multiplicity of emotional and intellectual debates. 
There is so much to think and discuss about the topics raised, and this is why we have literature. Not only to save women from being murdered - like in 1001 Nights - or to project perfect worlds, but also to make us even more stubborn when we look for love and genuine intellectual experiences. 

Rating: 4.5 stars

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Book Review: Brother by David Chariandy

We, at least in Europe, we are used to portray Canada as a paradise of multiculturalism, featuring a perfect communication between different cultures, races and religions. However, although in theory and partly in practice, the situation might look qualitatively different than in America and even in Europe, the ethnic tensions and the race and social divide remains a reality of the everyday life.
Brother, by David Chariandy offers through a fine diagnosis of the inter-ethnic relations the view of a state-of-mind of the relationships between different groups, in the troubles years of 1990s, when Canada witnesses various ethnic riots in various multicultural suburbs.
A young with a Carribean background is mistakenly killed by the police. His brother is left with the memories of a life of growing up together with his sibling and with a mother devastated by the loss. The simple story is a pretext for a fine analysis of various small stories of other people living in the neighbourhood, about social mobility and the gaps between the expectations of the immigrant parents and the failures of the children that enjoyed a freedom and a a social comfort unknown to their 'homes'. Their case was part of the complex web of local stories about to fade away following the new waves of residents in what once used to be prohibited neighbourhoods. 'For these newer neighbours, there is always a story connected to Mother and me, a story made all the more frightening through each inventive retelling among neighbours'. It is a stors 'o a young man deeply ''troubles'' and a younger brother carrying ''history'' and of a mother showing now the creep of ''madness'''. Crime and food are attached to this Carribean identity which is not only carried away willingly by the local residents of no-go areas, but are also perpetuated by the outsiders, including the law enforcement representatives. The result, there is a dead end, which is impossible to escape.
Besides the many intersting sociological and cultural questions, it is the evocative writing which makes the story outstanding. Through the words, closed doors of the heart are open towards a better understanding of the world and human suffering. 

Rating: 4 stars

Monday, June 17, 2019

What Adulthood Looks Like...

Actually, this blog post title is missing a question mark. Regardless how old you are from the mathematical point of view and how many adulthood responsibilities you are assigned, what exactly does it mean to behave as one on a regular basis is highly problematic. With the last theories regarding the need to listen to the voice of the 'inner child', the understanding of such a concept is becoming even more problematic.
In The Adults, the debut novel by Caroline Hulse, two couples, out of them two 'exes' are getting together for the winter holidays in a winter resort to offer to the little girl a warm, family-like ambiance. Although all the four of them look like simple, uncomplicated adults with a life of their own and with a deep acceptance of their relationship history and failures, the moment when they are getting together is unleashing hidden emotions, half-truth and way too much unhappiness. Meanwhile, a 7 yo girl - the reason why the couples are there - is finding a comfortable shelter against the big people nonsense in her discussions with Posey, an imaginary rabbit, as a way to counter the adult confusion.
The dynamics between the each member of the couple builds up through tensed dialogues and various everyday life interactions. The story is so simple and hard to offer too many surprises that the reader might really need to be entinced into going deep through the story. Therefore, there are some little hints about a dramatic - absurd at a certain point - incident that will take place at the end of the book that keeps the attention awake despite a certain level of predictibility of the story. 
I particularly loved how the dialogues are build, through which the characters are not only interacting with each other but also discover themselves. At a great extent, this is the only way to see the characters themselves.
The reality is that after a certain age, getting back into a relationship means dealing with a lot of loads from the past, with or without children. There are memories and wounds and failures and secret dreams of taking the ex back, maybe one day. Things are forcefully complicated because of the histories and it is not always an easy task to deal with them. Sometimes you need a lot of humor and a certain easiness of the being - quote from the title of a book by Milan Kundera where actually a white lie reveals deep dramatic truths about a relationship - which shall not be coped with according to the classical adulthood-focused couple approach. Some couples survive, some not, and not always because the two parts of the couple are adults enough.
Although an easy read for the weekend or the vacation time (regardless the time of the year, although the book is set during the winter holidays), The Adults asks some serious questions about relationships, especially in complex family structures, about the need - and lack of - honesty in explaining feelings and open up to the other person, but also in approaching life a bit easier, without overthinking all the time. Being an adult can involve being a bit of childish sometimes.

Rating: 3.5 stars