Friday, March 22, 2019

The Russians are literature

The Russians are the spy books and that's the only good news of the old/new chaotic geopolitical realities. After a short post-Cold War intermezzo when spy stories were terribly boring, with characters that were rather impersonations of peace workers than fierce fighters for the security and safety of their own countries - or sometimes other countries' too - Daniel Silva brought the typical KGB/SVR/FSB etc. operatives infiltrated in the heart of the Western democracies.
Silva's latest novel The Other Woman is ingenious in construction, with a hint of romance, but well tempered and using patterns common to the Cold War novels, but who still goldies. 
Rebecca Manning, the secret daughter of the famous Soviet mole in the heart of the British intelligence Kim Philby, is back to revenge and finish the work his father started: destroy the West and NATO, among others. As the MI6 head of mission in Washington - like her infamous father - she is one step further of leading the service sooner than later. Until the Israeli - lead by the famous Silva's character Gabriel Alon - are entering into the picture and cut the story short. 
Compared to other novels by Silva, the action is rather limited to a historical diorama of facts and events that mostly took place into the past, while the ongoing race of encounters is moderately slow paced. Which brings a lot of background into the picture, not necessarily familiar to the contemporary reader, but which makes a suspense story into itself. As usual, Silva uses a lot of interesting and realistic details that pertain to the everyday realities in both Europe and the Middle East creating the fitting context for the novel plot.
The ways in which the plot is created and written and the story in itself makes it a great spy story with some old times' charm. This is the only reason it is good to be back, on firm ground.

Rating: 5 stars

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Top Recommendations of Apps for (Small) Children

Many conservative parents nowadays reject completely the possibility of allowing their dear children to spend too much time in the front of various electronic tools. Smart phones, tablets or computers are considered dangerous not only for the eyes of the little ones, but also a potential deterrent to a normal intellectual development. Spending too much time in the front of a screen will eventually estrange them from the real world, such as nature, and will also diminish their social skills.
However - as usual - I am always counter-current. Personally, I am very happy to live in a time and place where I can have access instantly to so much knowledge. Learning foreign languages - when there is a will - was never easier and acquiring new skills from the comfort of your home at relatively affordable prices is so easy nowadays. For little children, early reading skills and interaction through apps and various games can help brain development at a faster pace and some interesting web-tailored book versions can infuse the love for reading and knowledge from a very early stage.
I love my son to be connected to the nature and to other children, to play with blocks and Lego, but also to improve his language skills - he is 3 years old and already tri-lingual - and learn faster through songs and e-books. He can spend one or two hours the week, at specific time schedule, browsing apps designed for his age, while the rest of the week he is running wild in the park or practising sport with his friends.
For those parents looking for a balance between real and virtual life, I made a short selection of apps that might fit the development needs of children until maximum 5 years of age. I covered in this post both English and German apps.

- Baby's Musical Hands - Recommended for children until 4, this iOS app helps to learn both colours and music. When the baby touches one of the 15 colourful squares, each colour utters a different sound, while colourful stars will burst from their fingers. Available in English.

- Emma by Jutta Bauer - Emma is a bear and she needs your help. Feed her, help her chose the right food and help her many other daily chores that all of us should do. This bilingual - English and German - app helps children to learn the daily routines while having fun spending time with a cute little bear.

- Ham Ham! Tiere füttern -  Animal feeding is the first step towards learning how to feed yourself, while acquiring basic life skills. This app available only in German which has an interesting graphic content will guide the little children to find out what is the proper type of food a specific animal is enjoying. 

- Janosch: Oh, wie schön ist Panama (Oh, wie beautiful is Panama)- Based on the book with the same name by the famous German children author Janosch, this app is the 3D version of the adventures of Tiger and Bear in the search of happiness. The original drawings were integrated into a visually appealing app that was awarded with the Deutscher eBook price. Available only in Germany.

- Miximal - The little children can create their unique combinations of shapes and figures, building up new animals and fantastic names. I haven't been so impressed by all the graphic choices, but overall it is a very creative and challenging apps that will keep the little ones immersed for a quite long time. A time well spent! Besides English and German, the app is available also in French, Italian and Spanish.

- Petting Zoo - Available in a good bunch of languages - English, German, Dutch, Russian and Portuguese among others - this app includes 21 animated animals offered in animated snaps with special effects. Perfect for very active and curious children.

- PumiLumi Touch Zoo - Animals, again...This time, 15 funny characters - among which a silly monkey, an owl with electric ears, a many-armed octopus - that can be done and are doing a lot of funny things. You can feed and touch them, they will jump and utter funny sounds. Available for children aged 2 and plus.

- KlangDings - Let's end up the list in a high chaotic musical note. This app - in German language - has beautiful visuals introducing to funny friendly characters together with whom can have a lot of noisy fun. 

Hope you will find at least one interesting app for your child and discover fantastic worlds together!

Sunday, March 3, 2019

About Historical Appropriations: Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss

As a historian specialized in deconstructing historical myths, I've find historical appropriation at least as toxic than the cultural appropriation. The (mis)use of cultural symbols for another culture can easily pervert the original meaning eventually for further insertion into a propaganda narrative. Historical appropriation monopolizes and idealizes the meaning of past epochs and events, projecting them into the contemporary context as a ideal reference. An ideal past versus the imperfect and failed present is aimed at creating a perfect reiteration goal. The simple incentive is to change the present until it corresponds to the subjective representation of a past that lies in a completely different and mostly misunderstanded time cluster.
In the beautifully written (the nature descriptions are so poetic and breathing tension) Ghost Wall, a small community of history hobby lovers coordinated by a Professor are spending two weeks living as in the Iron Ages in the English countryside. An England obsessed by race purity and the proclaimed right to isolationism, as Brexit showed it. Silvie's father, a bus driver obsessed by Iron Ages, who forced his family to live as 'it used to be' - an expression often heard among those who believe in a better past. Ironically, for his everyday life he still drives a bus and uses money to purchase goods, but historical appropriation usually operates on a selective basis. You keep living in the present, while picking up from the 'perfect past' those elements, mostly of spiritual nature, which are glued to the everyday life. The result is a kitsch and it doesn't change at all either the very nature of time or of the humans pushing forward for the reiteration. 
The push towards recreating a paradise-like world is an everyday nightmare for Silvie, who's acknowledging not only the imperfections and inaccuracies of what his father chose, but will be the direct cruel victim of a historical reenactment.
In times when the calls for a return to an ideal yet inadequate past are more strident than ever, the reflection on such facts, expanded at the length at the novella is more than welcomed. Books like Ghost Wall fills the wide intellectual void that is not yet prepare to tackle seriously the reality. 
The story has outbursts of tensionate episode that are crisscrossing the relatively descriptive and slow chain of events. What disappointed me was the relatively bland ending, clearly not at the same level of intensity and expectations with the rest of the story.

Rating: 4 stars

Thursday, February 28, 2019

About The Art of Leaving...

The art of's such a fine and complex and hard to acquire art. You need to go through the (almost) daily experience of the hard school of life and loss to know how to fight against the gravitation laws of staying. You learn to fly through people and encounters and hands up in the air trying to hold you but still you go...because life proved you over and over again that's safer for your lightness of being to run. Sooner or later you will be left again, so better be always ready.
I got prepared to read The Art of Leaving by Ayelet Tsabari by The Best Place on Earth, a collection of short stories using the complex often conflictual framework of the Israeli society to bring to life unique strong personalities and unforgettable narratives. It was a good preparation, because this is where the memoir has its roots. After all, you come and go and you try to run away, but the roots are still there, oblivious to your desperate efforts.
Born in a Yemeni family, Ayelet Tsabari is exploring those roots, in a society which is not accepting her identity willingly, and often devours its inhabitants. 'In a society that idealized Western beauty standard rarely found within its vicinity - blong, light, skinned, blue eyed - I looked all wrong'. It tooks time until she had the strength to reclaim her origin, against an official narrative too often settled to erase everything that was too different, too Oriental. But while assuming that maybe 'more dancing, less thinking this is the answer', she is happy - at least for a while - to play the multi-cultural, multi-identity card, often accepting those identities assigned to her. 'I enjoyed being claimed by so many nationalities. I like the idea of having a facial structure that is malleable, shifting, as though it makes me a citizen of the world. In my desperate wish to belong, I accept every invitation'. 
Every piece of her life is a small farewell to this assumed/assigned identity though. From the army service to the beaches of India and Thailand, while crossing the States and trying to settle in Canada. Every stage is well explored and documented, with the careful observation of the born writer, which doesn't mean the one who is always writer. There are those skills that makes you a writer, and the fine observation and the need to understand is part of it. 'As an immigrant, my identity was already under review, but as a writer whose sense of self was strongly tied to language, a part of me felt erased. I stopped writing altogether'. Leaving a home, means more than buying that one way ticket to nowhere, but coping with the dramatic challenges of entering a new world and its rules, including grammar rules. It takes courage and ambition and craziness and courage again to conquer your fears and start writing again in a new language. But the gift of being a writer might be stronger than the circumstances. 'English was a place I fled to, an act of reinvention that echoed the anonymity and freedom I had felt whe migrating - a new country, eliciting the same exhilariating thrill of stepping outside my comfort zone'. 
But first, you should experience the deepest lows of leaving, dare to play with your life a little bit, take the risk of not writing and not trusting yourself. Her travels brought her closer to understanding those meanings of being home and away, leaving while still staying. The travels were part of her journey through grasping the sense of life, before starting to put the words on paper. This is how Ayelet describes at a certain point one of her many Indian journeys: 'Maybe this is what I'm doing here: taking a leave from my mind, my life, my boyfriend, my screw-up country. Isn't living wildly, dangerously and in the moment a good thing? Isn't that what being young and a writer is all about?'. 
The memoir is not linear - which is a remedy against the boredom of being privy to other people's lives - but focuses on episodes and benchmarks on the way to settling down her own world outside the constantly moving geography of her everyday life. Like in an old Oriental story, there are episodes repeating, but in a different wording and context, recurrent motives and the repetition iterates the usual memory flow.
She pushes strong the boundaries everywhere: as a woman, Jew, Israeli, Israeli of Yemeni origin, Middle Eastern, writer, being the daughter of her early departed father. Nothing suits the mold and the search brings to life complex crystal-like new forms further nurturing the creativity. Than, there is the cruel reality: 'Leaving, I discovered, did not cure my displacement, but rather reinforced it'. Regardless how much you want to run from your roots, from your story/stories, your luggage only gets bigger and bigger and you need to recreate the mindmaps permanently. And the acknowledgment too: 'Home is collecting stories, writing them down, and retelling them. Home is writing, and it grounds, sustains and nourishes me. Home is the page. The one place I always, always come back'.
The topic and the encounters and many of the stories strongly resonates to me and I've read this memoir with both an open heart and curiosity. It's one of those reading experiences at the end of which you feel enriched and perfectly at peace with your own life. The power of the words overwhelmingly telling part of your personal story too.

Rating: 4.5 stars

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Book Review: The Incendiaries by R.O.Kwon

To enter the mind of a fanatic - regardless of the belief - you need a multi-layered, multi-disciplinary approach. Besides science and psychology, literature outlines the knowledge by its power to recall situations and encounters.
It sounds very dogmatic at the first sight, but for me, the best way to explore the diverse evolutions of fanaticism, is through stories and imagination. You need to make an effort of creativity, challenging your mind outside the comfort zone to switch minds.
In The Incendiaries, an incisive debut novel by R.O.Kwon, Phoebe, a young American-Korean woman enrolled in an elite university, is becoming a perpetrator of terrorist acts in the name of the ideology of a cult. The cult is founded by John Leal, an American that apparently spent some time in the North Korean gulag, witnessed the power of brainwashing that he is trying to use in the everyday practice of a Christian-centered cult. In between, there is Will, a former born-again that could not ignore his God dellusion. He tried to believed but couldn't assume the mindset fully so, he left. Phoebe is not a believer either, but she chose action as the only way to fuel the faith. 
When you try in life to bust the illusion, you can move forward either by acknowledging that there is an illusion, either by blindly trying to convince the others of the truth of your illusion. Blindly but mostly through force.  
The plot in itself is relatively simple and there is nothing to expect from the story. You bet from early on that something it's about to happen, something terrible, you only don't now when. But what makes this book beautiful in its own right is the art of writing. Words are skillfully called to create slow paced moments, with a colourful photographic strength and often an unbearable emotional weight. 
The Incendiaries is a strong book, exploratory and intelligent, and it gives fanaticism a different angle of understanding.

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

Friday, February 22, 2019

In the World of The Expatriates

I don't remember when I haven't lived in my adult life as an expat. From Asia to the Middle East, to France, Switzerland or America and now, to Berlin, I've always look to create a nest far away from a home and an old country that are becoming more and more imaginary. 
Mostly connecting with the English-speaking community, I've witnessed stories and episodes, from the everyday life to tragedies that can easily make it into a book. Or a drama-comedy.
The Expatriates by Janice Y.K.Lee excellently recreates the American life of high professionals and trailing wives in Hong Kong, adding both a pinch of irony and a pinch of empathy. Sex, cultural appropriation and race mix indeterminatly under the simplistic yet realistic label of 'Americans abroad'.
Out of the beehive of people coming and going, to work or on ready to go on vacation to exotic, cheap destination in Asia, the story of three women: Margaret, Hillary and Mercy, intertwin. Drama, hopes, abandonment, motherhood and tragic moments unites and separates the three, in a micro-cosmos where it is almost impossible to get lost, to be yourself and anonymous. In America is much easy, but Hong Kong is apparently small and your story and history are easily getting noticed, for good and for worse.
G, Margaret's son got lost a year ago during a trip to Korea aimed to reconnect her with her family origins, while Mercy was hired as a nanny. Mercy is a Columbia graduate, a success story of an immigrant Korean family, unable to put up together her personal and professional life. Hillary lost her husband who abandoned her suddenly for Mercy. Now, Mercy is pregnant with his child. Far from being (always) friends or sharing any empathy towards each other, the destinies of those women are here more driven into each other than it would have been back home. 
All the three characters, especially Margaret and Mercy, are well defined and with a clear, memorable personality. Most of the other characters populating the story are too, which makes the author knowledgeable of human natures. The dialogues are interrupted back and forth by introspection which creates more depth and complex development to the story. 
The story development keeps you alert and there are some elegant unexpected twists that may wake you up if too much immersed into the small gossips of the Anglos in Hong Kong.
However, what disappointed me greatly was the ending. A very happy sugary Korean drama style ending that brought a sarcastic grin on my face. It could have been any ending, after all, but that one is a bit too kitsch for my taste.
The book will be soon turned into an American drama series for web tv. 

Rating: 3.5 stars

Monday, February 18, 2019

Book Love

Let's talk about love. But not any kind of love. One of the most longstanding, honest and rewarding of all of them: Book love. Faithful companions, although they can also disappoint you once in a while, they will never leave you. Actually, you can learn even from a bad book, especially if you are a writer. 
In a graphic novel exploring everything a bookworm will expect from a work called Book Love, Debbie Tung develops topics well appreciated among those who love reading. 'Books are best friends, bringing pure joy', says in one of the sketches and I fully agree with that. 
Although I personally not agree completely that books equals escapism and you read to escape from the current reality - an accusation often threw by those who despise reading people, this topic appears a couple of times in the book. In addition to explaining and elaborating about the book love, there are also not a few ideas about bookish lifestyle and even a couple of hints about why to date a bookworm (couldn't agree more). 
The ideas are relatively easy and frequently referred to by bookworms, the illustration are also simple and without a high level of sophistication. If you have teenagers that need a motivation why to read, Book Love appeals to them in a very direct way, suited for their everyday style and elliptic, telegraphic-like communication. If you are a bookworm yourself - as I do - you can spend some pleasant after-work time in the company of this graphic story. You might want to read (even) more after that.

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