Saturday, June 25, 2022

Book Review: I Want to Die but I Also Want to Eat Tteokbokki by Baek Sehee translated by Anton Hur

´I´ve thought in extremes for so long that I keep forgetting to think otherwise´.

Let´s start with the delicious part: I have a love and hate relationship with Korean food, but I mostly avoid it but I am also curious about trying new foods - within some limits. Reading about food and food histories interests me always but like a language, food is the best to be tried in its everyday environment. I don´t remember to have ever encouter any mention of tteokbokki in my short visits to Korean restaurants in Europe/Germany. Shortly, they are hot and spicy rice cakes, a popular street food dish in Korea. A short Google search revealed that in fact there are a few restaurants in Berlin serving it so my next mission for the coming week is to have a taste of this dish. 

If one is still curious about food, about enjoying something, than he or she has a chance to remain alive - at least until finishing the dish. But, in fact, you never know...

Baek Sehee, the author of the short yet insightful memoir I Want to Die but I Want to Eat Tteokbokki, was at first hand diagnosed with dypthymia, a persistent depressive disorder. Labels are in most cases very problematic in psychological practice, unless there are clear extrem classified symptoms like schizophrenia. The everyday depression though may mislead and trick on classifications and the testimony of the author´s therapist is a testimony of how limited science is in dealing properly with the challenges of the brain. 

Sehee is a successful social media director at a publishing house, has relationships, a degree, an average salary still unhappy. She is looking at herself through the eyes of the others: colleagues, passants, former school mates. Practically everyone. Like a flower in the wind, she is moving violently back and forth, in the hidden chambers of her mind. There is darkness and medication and doubts. A cycle of self-assumed failures and depression, a fear of attachment. She searches for self-esteem quizzes on the Internet, but most importantly, she is getting a therapist.

The book is mostly a collection of her recorded therapy sessions, plus a couple of short and beautifully written essays. ´I want to focus on the things that are changing and keep hoping´. Not everyone is going through bouts of depression and self-depreciation and I suspect that social pressure and family context force at a great extent the disbalance to manifest. Any traditional society - Korean or Middle Eastern or Eastern European - may ignore the wishes of individuals to write their own life stories. Often such projections belittle any individual who may consider the help of a therapist. 

The testimonies of Bael Sehee are reminder of the hardship of surviving darkness every single moment. It´s a bet, worth a tteokbokki at least.

A special note to the seamless translation by Anton Hur, whom I discovered through one of my favorite collection of short stories of the decade. I don´t speak any word of Korean although I hope to be able to one day. But reading I Want to Die...I never felt any single moment the need to doubt the choice of a word or the structure of a sentence. All came to place seamlessly and beautifully. It´s highly probably that the original text is at least as beautifully written as the translation and I owe this conclusion to the faultless translation by Anton Hur.

Rating: 5 stars

Friday, June 24, 2022

Random Things Tours: Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight by Riku Onda translated by Alison Watts

´At some point during this night, will I be able to get her to say with her own lips that she killed that man?´.

´Will he tell me the truth? And if he does, will he believe me whwn I say that I have no intention of reporting him?´

A young couple is spending their last night together before breaking up for good. They realized their story does not have any future recently, during a trip when their guide violently died. During their last night, each hopes to convince the other one to confess the crime of having killed the guide. But the hour of truth arrives when there is a truth to reveal.

I dare to compare Fish Swimning in Dappled Sunlight by Riku Onda translated from Japanese by Alison Watts  to a painting, whose details are revealing surprisingly under the brushes of the painter. The ways in which the strory is built are highly precise, starting from the details of the rooms to the details of the plot. The hints are hiting a crescendo after the other, as the reader is wisely guided into the final revelation of the story. 

It is a book of fine and elegant psychological suspense, raising questions and keeping the reader constantly connected to the story as curious and keen to reveal - or being revealed - the truth. The permanent switch between one point of view to another infuses a unique dynamism and suspense into the story. You feel like your head is constantly switching from the right to the left, until you just forgot which side you are and then...boom!...we have a solution.

Besides being an excellent suspense crime story, this book raises in parallel several fundamental questions and discussions, such death and relationships. Such an intellectual intermezzo may actually help to fix the details of the story, and gives depth and character to the protagonists of the story.

Rating: 5 stars

Disclaimer: Book offered as part of the book tour, but the opinions are, as usual, my own

Book Tour: The East German Police Girl by Natalia Pastukhova


In a small university town in East Germany, anti-regime posters are shaking the communist dream. It is the year 1955, announcing a dramatic move of the tectonic plates of the totalitarian regimes. State-pawns are set into motion for searching the culprit. 

In totalitarian regimes, everything is touched by politics. Innocent lives are at risk, by the simple act of protest of a family member. From the beginning until the end, The East German Police Girl by Natalia Pastukhova is repeatedly outlined. Either the result of the encounter with Stasi, or by simply not accepting the fake truth sold by the communist establishment, destinies are put on hold or simply brutally destroyed.

The author creates the right, time-bounded ambiance of the time, both in terms of language and of specific political details. The dialogues are the strongest part of the book, as it reveals the best different character features and details about them. 

There is a diverse cast of characters bringing The East German Police Girl to life although not all of them properly displayed or featured within the story. However, the main players do reflect at a great extent the everyday life pressure and intricacies.

The East German Police Girl is a book recommended to anyone interested in contemporary historical fiction with a touch of political adventures. Especially those passionate about Cold War and communist histories will be delighted to follow and imagine the life of the characters.

Rating: 3.5 stars

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

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Book Review: Les Prépondérants by Hédi Kaddour


Set in a small village in the North of Africa - Nahbès - Les Prépondérants - The Influence Peddlers, according to the English translation by Teresa Lavender Fagan - by Tunesian author Hédi Kaddour - follows the encounters of an American crew from Hollywood interacting with the locals during the production of a film. They are called Les Prépondérants as applied to a group in a position of economic, social and politic superiority and not simply the Elites because the chosen word gives a better measure of the amount of the discrepancies. 

First and foremost, the book is a social novel, which explores on different levels the interactions between those who were born in a position of priviledge and those who haven´t. It is a relatively easy construction, with a clear dynamic, therefore what is interesting is the extent to which the author is exposing various inequalities and civilization shift which is about to happen.

There are some interesting dynamics between characters, of a purely sociological nature and recent reflections on the issue of colonialism, particularly French influence in this part of the world. However, most of the time, I felt like the action does not necessarily takes place at a specific moment of time, as it can easily happen in our times as well. There is a certain feeling of familiarity and mental comfort that does not necessarily make justice to the chosen topic of the novel.

I also felt like that many fragments of the story could have been easily either reduced or eliminated, as they are just filling up the space of the story without necessarily bringing anything new to the story itself. Somehow, the good intentions of the storytelling are lost somewhere in the first quarter of the novel. Which is a pity, because there is a good premise and a good idea and developing it in the 1920s might guarantee a certain distance from the current self-criticism about caste and priviledges. But the momentum was lost in my opinion.

Rating: 2.5 stars

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Artists and Power: Le Monument by Elsa Triolet

I will try another time to understand why society is so harsh on intellectuals who embraced the communism - including its Stalinist version - but rarely sanctions with the same violence the far right suppoters. At least, there were many able to figure out of the ideological errors and eventually analysed in a critical way their support. For instance, there are many literary confessions and novels inspired by the failures of communism, particularly the one applied in the Soviet Union, signed by French or Spanish intellectuals, among others. How many righ-wing writers went through such a reflective process of acknowledging their blindness? There is something to think about it in this case.

Talking about the French intellectual realm, all eyes were so much on Sartre and de Beauvoir, with their betrayals and separate yet together lives, but there is hardly half of this amount said about another literary couple: Elsa Triolet and Louis Aragon. Triolet and Aragon who also fought together in the French Resistance, were together for 42 years, supported each other´s works and, were supporters of Soviet/Stalinist Russia.

Aragon was a founder of surrealism, and before, a Dadaist. His poems that I had the chance to read in French have a rich imagery and an unique language. His wife and muse, Elsa Triolet was born in Moscow in a middle-class intellectual Jewish family and had an equally famous sister who spent her life in Russia though, Lilya Brik, who was a member and supporter of the Russian avantgarde and, among others, the beloved of Mayakovsky. It seems that Aragon first met Triolet in the company of Brik and her lover, as well as of the film director Sergei Eistenstein, of Potemkin fame. 

I´ve re-read Le Monument after many many years and it wasn´t easy to do it. My mother - of blessed memory - loved both Triolet and Aragon and we often used to read and talk together about their works. Especially Le Rossignol se Tait à l'Aube (I wish I can find my copy lost during frequent movings, probably an impossible mission). How I wish after I finished the book to be able to hear her opinion and exchange some heated arguments about art and politics, as we used to. This post is for you, Ima.

Le Monument is inspired by the events that shaked the Communist Party - in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, following the revelations about the personality cult after the death of Stalin. After so many years, I am still trying to figure out the fascination of Stalin for so many intellectuals, altough he was not an ideologue and overall a grotesque cruel dictator. Maybe due to his success during the war...Another food for thought. There is also a specific episode who nurtured Triolet´s intellectual curiosity and expanded her understand of the clash between art and artists on one side, and ideology, on the other side. On the occasion of Stalin´s death, Picasso sent to the official newspaper of the French Communist Party L'Humanité, a drawing of Stalin which was considered licentious and worth a harsh proletarian critique.

Lewka, the main character in Le Monument, is going through a similar experience, but he is unluckily so invested into and inebriated by his mission as an artist that he will end up killing himself. A French-educated artist, with connection with Cubists, he was commissioned by comrade Torsch, a former political prisoner.

In a purely literary, not ideological way, Triolet is revealing the struggles, limitations and absurdities of the artist quest to create a realm for his arts and interpretations. The political weight of the momentum is as overwhelming as in the ´old times´ the church´s authority. The interpretation of art is done through standards foreign to the art and therefore, the artist himself is alienated from the source of his contentment: the free creativity.

The action of the book takes place ´somewhere´ in a popular democracy, in Central and Eastern Europe. The exact geography is irrelevant because Lewka´s self-questioning under the empire of political ideology was shared by many local intellectuals. Not surprisingly, the book was only translated in Hungary, one of the countries that enjoyed certain levels of intellectual freedom. 

I am planning to spend more time in my happy place of French leftist delusions in the coming months and Le Monument is one of the most lucid acknowledgements of the impossible marriage between talent and politics. An artist is not a teacher or a prophet able to inspire and nurture masses. Art is elitist in its inner composition and the failures of the supporters of popular democracies like the imaginary yet so real Lewka, can teach us a whole lot about it.

Monday, June 20, 2022

Book Review: Die Bagage by Monika Helfer

Die Bagage - the suitcase - is a family reconstruction of the author´s mother. Grete was born in a village, as the daughter of Maria and Josef Moosbrugger, a poor family named ´Die Bagage´, a heavy human weight for the locality they were living. While Josef is at war (WWI), the mayor is taking care of the family. When a foreigner from Hannover comes to visit, shortly after Maria is getting pregnant with Grete. Paternity may be unsure, but Grete is part of the family.

The book is part of a wider take on literary memoirs: it uses a biographical detail which is fictionalised at a great extent within the limits of personal facts. We may not know exactly the contents of the discussions between the mayor and Maria for instance, which took place long before Grete was born. Maybe those stories were not directly shared by her grandmother. Nevertheless, those details are less relevant, they serve as a counter-point of the factual account itself. 

I´ve found it an interesting exploration, playing tricks with the always unclear borders between fiction and nonfiction, between facts as they were, and facts as we do remember and facts as we imagine them. 

Die Bagage is part of a memorialistic trilogy, and I will soon review the next volume Vati, about her father. The cover of this trilogy is outstanding, the difuse colours and moving plans of the painting being a proper illustration of the memory games the author herself is playing with.

I had access to the book in the audiobook format, read by the author, but I haven´t enjoyed too much her voice. 

Rating: 3 stars

Random Things Tours: Tell Me the Truth about Love by Susanna Abse


Relationships conjugate truth with love. More than with trust and surprisingly even more than with intimacy. When we talk about true love, we don´t stop mid-way, we go fast through the highest peaks of perfection. We want to be the best for the best of us. But somewhere half-way, or even earlier, we taste the sour grapes of failure. Sometimes love is not enough or there is no trust and intimacy is an illusion. 

Some may never knew what true love is. 

There is no other better place to learn about love than the therapist´s couch. A therapist is blessed to have access to so many different stories about love and how to be out of love, but it is also cursed to be shared the sadness of broken hearts. Sharing those experiences with wider audiences may help to understand our own relationships, feelings in couple and especially our errors therefore I am a big readers of family and relationship therapy testimonies.

Tell Me the Truth about Love by Susanna Abse is an intriguing collection of 13 tales of couples who decided to ask the help of a therapist for moving forward or maybe out of love. Abse has 30 years of experience as a coach and family therapist and is a former chair of the British Psychoanalytic Council, and presenter of Channel 4 News Britain on the Couch

Every story features different situations created by people with different mentalities, backgrounds and age. Thus, their approaches to relationships and ultimately, love, may differ and is not always open to change. Some are willing to be part of the emotional process of building trust, some others can´t wait to separate and start probably different stories. 

I may confess that I´ve found all stories interesting, but longed for much more. I bet it was difficult to make a selection after thousand of stories but as any therapist may outline, humanity is an open book and there is never shortage of characters. I was personally intrigued by the idea of curiosity as a part of building trust and the basis of a relationship. But it does make a lot of sense, as when someone is curious, most likely is not judgemental and stays open to discover the other person and its personality.

Tell Me the Truth about Love adds a lot of important testimonies about what does it mean to love and be loved in our contemporary era. It is a book written with the knowledge of the therapist and the acknowledgeable empathy of someone who herself may remain curious about the hardships of love. A must-read for anyone keen to understand how relationships may work, no matter if single or in a loving relationship.

Rating: 4 stars

Disclaimer: Book offered as part of the book tour, but the opinions are, as usual, my own.