Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Book review: Ru, by Kim Thuy

Decades before the current refugee crisis in Europe, the world had faced an almost similar - by means of transportation, at least - human catastrophe: the Vietnamese trying to escape by boat the war ravaged country. Kim Thuy was one of those people, arriving in Canada when 10. Ru - lullaby in Vietnamese, but sounding also like the French word for street and river - is her account of her identity appropriation.
Like a slow river, the writing - I've read the English translation, as the book was published in French - flows, with point-counterpoint of topics developed from a vignette to the other. 'I first saw the light of day in Saigon, where firecrackers, fragmented into a thousand shreds, coloured the ground red like the petals of cherry blossoms or like the blood of the 2 million soldiers deployed and scattered through the villages and cities of a Vietnam that had been ripped in two'. 
It is less than autobiography, and more an account of the 'boat people' destinies and past, aimed to be a 'voice of the Vietnamese people', aiming to compensate the silence of historical references. The life in the new society - Canadian in this case - was hard, but achievable, and many succeeded build a new life. According to her literary testimony, there were less tensions and drama, just a lot of work and desire to integrate. Each one of the slow paced stories is a testimony, tells a little human story revealing more about the Vietnamese society, its human touch and lost memories. Although a literary fiction, it forces the reader to go deep into the anatomy of feelings and to open up to a new world. At the end of the book, the slow sound of the river song still flows in your ears, reminding you to see more than a thing differently. It is both history, especially political history - and psychology in one single little book. You may feel guilty that it took some time to understand this generation of Vietnamese and grateful for such a testimony to bring you the shades of truths. 
Rating: 4 stars

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Behold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue

One of the few things I tried to teach myself during my various expat adventures was to avoid high expectations - 'dreams' - in order to spare myself the luxury of big disappointments. As one who spent a high amount of time living in other country that the one I was born, this helped me to cope better with harsh realities of learning new languages, finding friends, connecting with the place, going through the bureaucracy and the hardship of a life on the road. But I haven't come here for a dream, but for the chance of being myself, living in a big European country and being able at any time to walk in historical places and see big artists at work. Call this cultural immigration, but this was my choice. And you need a lot of courage to make this step, at any age. 
The protagonists of the debut novel Behold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue, Jende and Neni, do have a lot of dreams about America. Compared with their native Cameroon - the author's country of origin -, they assume it is a country of equality of chances, with no corruption and where in a spam of a generation you can achieve social and financial stability. But you need to work hard, day and night, more than job, but it is achievable. 
Jende is working as chauffeur for the rich Edwards rich family, with the father a top executive at Lehman Brothers, and he is closer than ever to the American dream. But then Lehman filed for the largest bankruptcy in American history and the dream is over. Not necessarily because of the financial turmoil, but because the Edwards are going through their own bankruptcy, a family drama unfolding behind the white walls of their luxurious  penthouse. Caught between his boss, trying to recover after the financial shock with adventures with prostitutes and the over-controlling Edwards wife, who had asked him to report all the moves of his husband, Jende will fail, being fired for being loyal. He returns to a life of scarcity when two jobs are hardly able to make their daily ends meet. Meanwhile, his wife, Neni, who has the dream of becoming a pharmacist should put her aspirations on the side, as she is pregnant with their first American-born child. She is even awarded membership in an elitist fraternity, which doesn't guarantee her success to apply to scholarships, as long as her legal situation isn't solved. And it will never be solved anyway. 
People can wake up from the dream though. Like Vince, the oldest son of the Edwards, who decides to give up a career in law for searching mindfulness in India. Or Jende himself, who will ask to return to Cameroon, after his immigration file is deemed to fail - the immigrant's bad luck to rely on a unreliable lawyer. As for the end of the novel, the family is back 'home', using their savings and knowledge to build a new life. Even Neni, in whom I put all my chances for staying, resigned and for the sake of the family she gave up her dreams. Instead, she returns to Limbe with loads of brand clothes, gifts from Edwards, and fake Gucci bags, convinced to show her people that her times in the States wasn't for nothing. Vanity.
The writing is so captivating, particularly the dialogues, that I couldn't resist to give up the story until was over. The characters are so real and individual that you even can think about people you know and stories you've heard. 
The social - and political - message is not obvious, but insidiously spread over the story, the kind of anti-system and Western-critical kind that usually enfolds in times of such big doubt, as the financial turmoil and the world after 9/11 in general.  
Imbolo Mbue is the writer I wish to read and hear more about in the next years.
Rating: 4 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange of an honest review

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Redefining writing categories: Teju Cole, Every day is for the thief

An unnamed Nigerian doctor in residence in the US is coming back for a couple of weeks in his country after 15 years of absence. From the moment he is landing until the return, he keeps a clear mind to observe everything that he sees around, from the small attention asked at the airport until the 'yahoo yahoo' - scam - letters people are writing in an Internet cafe. He revisits old friends and illusions of love and chat with his family, all of them identified by their name. Coming back to a country where the childhood memories are set is like revisiting a magic land, but as often happens, this exploration has the poisonous risk of leaving you without the magic and with altered memories of the idealized past.  
The story unfolds as a memoir with some alert travel observations, but it is a work of fiction we are offered, although we can easily give a name to the storyteller. The fictional construction uses the hopeless Nigerian reality - in the country where people were recently labelled as one of the happiest in the world - and elements of everyday life to build a fictional story, with autonomous characters sharing a life of their own. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter that much the assigned literary category, but the art of writing. And in this respect, I didn't read for a long time a book with such clear writing, where simple words are enough to express simple or complex feelings, trying to understand human behavior and political craziness. The tone is often changing, from irony to deep sadness and the sense of ending. The volume is accompanied by the black-and-white author's photos, which deepens the elegiac tone of the novel. 
Rating: 5 stars

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Book review: The Other Einstein, by Marie Benedict

After The Atomic Weight of Love, that I particularly loved - including the fine cover - I had the chance to read another book dedicated to a woman with scientific aspirations brutally ended by marriage. In this case, the main character is the first wife of Albert Einstein, the Serbian-born Mileva Maric, the first woman to graduate the Zurich Polytechnic School. 
The two of them met there during the study years and fell in love, promising each other a 'bohemian' future, with husband and wife equal partners in sharing their science and advancing research. As in real life, the courtship part and the effervescent study years are the most vivid and light part of the novel, with Mileva discovering her inner strength and exploring her intelligence while slowly learning her feminine part too. Einstein is hardly noticeable in this section, a shy student looking for alternatives to the classical theories of the teachers and longing for the musical evenings together with his future wife. This section is also an exploration of the deep prejudices and stereotypes typical at the time - we are talking about the end of the 19th century, the beginning of the 20th - regarding women. But Mileva has to cope with a bit more prejudices, as she is originally from Eastern Europe, not an advantage among the predominantly German elites, but also suffers from a limp from birth. One of the most achieved sequence of the book is when Mileva, at the time a primary school student, is humiliated by her peers during a relatively innocent invitation to play, after outperforming her mathematical skills in the classroom. The perspective of a husband-less future was the reason why her parents encouraged her scientific endeavors and invested in her future.
Once she become the life partner of Mr. Einstein - against the wishes of his family and skeptically approved by her parents - her scientific life is about to finish. She is pregnant before being married and gave birth to a girl, Liserl, that will later die in Serbia, her grades fail, and once officially married to him she is just a 'hausfrau' that should answer the needs of the mercurial husband. Probably keen to portrait Mileva better, Einstein looks in this book as a complete arsehole: cheating on her, stealing her academic endeavors - including her contribution to the development of the relativity theory, belittling her as often as possible in a very mean way. 
Partly, the research is based on various new documents published in the last years about Einstein, including exchange of letters and an infamous list imposed upon his wife in order to maintain their cohabitation, shortly before the inevitable separation - according to which, she was limited to do his laundry, cook and clean for him, without requiring any other physical intimacy or special attention. The book doesn't pretend to be anyway a scholarly investigation into the authorship of Einstein works and the ways in which their relationship developed was a good opportunity to create a captivating story. The comparison between the fate of Marie Curie and Mileva Maric offers the alternative, not very common but still possible, when marriage and brains can exist happily ever after.  But even today, it is not a common occurrence. Hence, the need of such inspiring books to make women feel less guilty because intelligent and outperforming. 
Rating: 4 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange of an honest review

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Book review: The Clothing of Books, by Jhumpa Lahiri

I am one of those people who are very often the cover of a book. Once in a while, I am mentioning in my book reviews, if necessary, aspects related to the cover, because I still think that the cover should be the perfect expression of the book content. Unfortunately, it doesn't happen too often to notice many spectacular book covers, in many cases recognizing the same patterns used for various titles - the most frequent one being the different colour mix used initially for the Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert, for instance. Not too much imagination around, it seems.
The Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri develops this topic and creates the author's perspective on the choice and meaning of the book covers. It is an essay offering more insights into the subject outlined by Lahiri on the occasion of the discourse made on June 10, 2015, in Florence, upon the awarding of Premio Gregor von Rezzori. 
Similarly with clothes, the cover of a book is a sign of identity, which singles the literary work apart and confers its specific meaning. For the writer, 'a cover appears only when the book is finished, when it is about to come into the world. It marks the birth of the book and, therefore, the end of my creative endeavor. It confers on the book a mark of independence, a life of its own. It tells me that my work is done. So, while for the publishing house it signals the arrival of the book, for me it is a farewell'. 'I know when the cover makes its appearance, the book will be read, it will be criticized, analysed, forgotten'. For marketing and publishing purposes, '(...) the book jacket is not only the text's first clothing, but also its first interpretation - booth visual and for sales promotion'. 
Interestingly, Lahiri succeeds to explore all the sides involved in the elaboration and evaluation of the 'clothing of books', from the sentimental to the intellectual and practical-technical stages. Step-by-step, she covers with a lot of attention paid to the smallest details. If you want to have a full overview of the process of creating and understanding book covers, this essay offers an extensive overview.
She confesses that in most cases, she isn't happy with her book covers, a feeling I personally share. As for the the current one, that imitates a hand-made cover, made by the needle, it might look a bit unusual, moderately likeable, but much better than most of the other covers I've seen in the last months.
This is a book recommended to book lovers that still hope that the fine art of book covers is still alive, especially in the era of e-books and speed reading (which is not necessarily a bad thing).
Rating: 5 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange of an honest review

In the city of birth of Hans Fallada

The posthumously admired German writer Hans Fallada was born in this house, in Greifswald, in 1893, in Fernstrasse 58-59. On the street facade, a memorial inscription mentions his birth name: Rudolf Ditzen. His full name was Rudolf Wilhelm Friedrich Ditzen, but took the name Fallada later in life, a combination of different names of Brothers Grimm characters. 
He lived in this house, that can be visited during the week, until the age of 6, when his father, a court judge, got a job promotion and had to move to Berlin. In his memory, there is a street bearing his name and the city library also is named after him. 

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Book review: The Storified Life of A.J.Fikry

I am a very bookish person myself that spends an average of three hours the day reading, and often finishing a book the day - at least. I also believe, once in a while, that two persons can fall in love while reading the same book. Thus, I am very tempted by books about book lovers. 
The mediocre life of a newly widower, AJ, owner of a bookstore in a remote locality, only visited during the summer vacation, is shaken after a little 2-year old girl is left in the front of his store by his single mother who shortly after commits suicide. A couple of weeks before that, a precious copy of the Tamerlan poem by E.A.Poe, disappeared from his room in a moment of inebriation, and with it, his hopes of a smooth retirement plan. And before that, AJ did his best by being repugnant to the young Amelie, the new representative of an edition house, showing off his love for books but minimum human empathy. Amelie herself was searching unsuccessfully for good years for her other significant bookish part.
After a while, they fell in love, and get married, while the little Maya is growing up a book lover and writer herself. Meanwhile, you got to know the little community, with its traitors and gossips and the way in which the bookstore become an important social player in the life of the community. I also love how the life of people is changed by books, and I resonate with the sad story of AJ's death, losing his precious gift of using words and ideas. 
However, I was not very happy with the pace of the story: either things are going too fast, or you go pages after pages without anything committing you to keep turning the pages. Some of the characters, including AJ, look and behave sometimes uni-dimensional, despite their complex thoughts and long reading list. I was not expecting pages of intellectual debate and high-end discussions, but in a way I was disappointed that it is not too much of it anyway. The risk is that it can be taken as chick-lit when it haven't aimed at being one.
Rating: 3 stars

Literary Greifswald: Pomeranian Sappho

My words will never be enough to show my gratitude for the opportunity to travel that much around Germany and abroad, discovering so many interesting places and histories. As books are one of the most important part of my life, my gratitude increases as I am revealed interesting stories about writers and their books.
A couple of weeks ago, I visited Greifswald, in the Pomeranian part of Germany, part of my usual travel assignments, and on a side street near the main square, I stumbled upon a derelict building, that looked as once used to be one of the beautiful stone houses built in the local architectural style. In this house used to live the so-called Pomeranian Sappho, a young poetess named Sibylla Schwarz. Her father used to be the mayor of Greifswald in the 17th century, particularly during the hard years of the 30-year religious war in Europe that affected considerably this part of Germany. 
Sibylla - or Sibylle, according to other version, lived a very short life, thinking in our 21st century terms, of only 17 years. Most of her work, over 100 poems published posthumously by her teacher Samuel Gerlach - were written as a consequence of the unstable and troubled times of the war. 1627 was the end of the good times, as the war and its terrible enfolding tragedies entered Greifswald. As a consequence of the war, this part of Germany ended being under Swedish rule for almost 200 years.
Sibylla's poems are talking about friendship, war and dead, and the need of human solidarity. She also shared her love and nostalgia for her beautiful domain of Fretow, near Greifswald, that her family had to leave after the war. 
Although she lived a short life, her poems are considered as one of the few examples of Baroque literature in Germany. In the front of the house, there are often organised various literary happenings and shows inspired by her poetry. 

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The arts of storytelling: Nutshell by Ian McEwan

There is a story with many other stories. It starts as all our stories: 'So, here I am, upside down in a woman'. The story teller is an embryo in the last trimester - was it this choice a diplomatic way to avoid the discussions about when exactly the fetus is becoming a human - who is the silent, but mind active witness of the plans of her mother and lover to kill his father. The location of the plot by Trudy and Claude - who happens to be the less gifted brother of the poet husband - is a decaying house in Central London, on a location worth many millions. 
From the comfort of his amniotic sac, where he learns, among others, to distinguish between different sorts of wines and had the first taste of a scotch - half water though - the soon-to-be-baby is listening, reading emotions, learn together with his mother from the audio classes, is memorizing the poetry his father wrote for the mother when they once were in love, listen the latest news about the world - which is not feeling well at all - 'children are used as bombs in market places'.
They, the adults, do a lot of plotting and end up by hating each other and they regret hating each other when it is too late. Despised by the decaying humanity encapsulated in the equally decaying house, the little embryo tries to kill himself but fails. Meanwhile, his father is dying by poisoning, freeze liquid mixed in his favorite (yellow) smoothie. He cannot stop the crime but he can decide when exactly he wants to go out, the moment when his mother and Claude were about to run, estimating correctly that their story doesn't stand up for suicide and they will be caught, sooner than later. 
Although predictable, the crime story is written in alert mood and you, the reader, remain captivated about the details and the preparations and the ensuing episodes. The author doesn't want to create more than that, and the emotional shocks are strong enough. You can see how big love is turning into utter hate, how the excitement of the crime preparation and the emotions provided by sex are followed by sour guilt and fear. 
And you have a lot of questions to ask: why Trudy ended up with the loser from the family, when her husband was so achieved, although without financial skills? why the baby is so neglected in their conversations - except when he is promised to be get rid of? how the story between Trudy and Claude started?
Now, there are other stories too, many of them as exciting as a crime novel. For instance, the Hamlet-ian references, with a bit of Macbeth too, of the triangle: (Ger)trudy, Claude(ius), John. It can be also a reference to the Indian Mahabharata. Or to any story regarding the envy between brothers and the woman that is the most vulnerable trophy to take.
There is also the ironic references to our contemporary world: where people go to the popular Dubrovnik destination, eat smoothies and listen to self-improving podcasts, often just to have some buzzing background, or can be victims of the real estate sharks.
My favourite monologue is about the state of the poetry, the architecture of words and their coming up together in beautiful structures, like the pieces of the colourful kaleidoscopes.  
'So, here I am, upside down, in a woman'.
Rating: 5 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange of an honest review

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Start living the creative life you deserve

I had the chance to meet Elizabeth Gilbert in Berlin, during the tour for promoting The Signature of All Things, a book that I particularly loved for its well researched plot and inspired characters. But before reading the book, I was for ever charmed by the author's personality: bubbling, always smiling and happy to answer questions. For her, every person she was signing the book for was there, in the front of her, not as I've often noticed in other cases, just the bearer of a book where you leave your signature and you pray that everything finishes as fast as possible (Salman Rushdie, for instance). Usually such an impression might bring more substance to the reading experience (but I will still keep reading Rushdie's books, regardless of what I felt). 
Big Magic has a bit of Gilbert personality and out of her books - I've read them all - is very direct, creating a lively dialogue with the readers. It can be read quite fast, not because it is very easy, but because you feel that you need to sip every single word. It is a lot of inspiration for creative people - although focused particularly on writers - without being a guide of becoming a writer, or a successful artist. The main concept is to create for every human with a penchant for creativity the premises to continue or start improving his or her gift and 'living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear'. 'A creative life is an amplified life. It's a bigger life, a happier life, an expanded life, and a hell of a lot more interesting life'. I know, personally, a couple of people who, even late in late, decided to fill their time creatively and I could see how happy art makes them. They not necessarily dream of having exhibitions or selling their art, they just enjoy the act of doing art in itself. 
Honesty is another important feature of this book. You will not be advised to leave your job and start doing art, or lied that from now on, all the pain and unhappiness will disappear once you have the easel in your hand. Rather the contrary. You should regard your creative gift as serious as possible, without losing contact with reality. 'I believe you can live a creative life and still make an effort to be a basically decent person'. The creative life is difficult and full of disappointments and ups and downs, and anxiety, but once you realize that you cannot live without it, you shall continue working hard, for every bit of word. Until the laws of the universe will make the big magic happen. Warning: there is no guarantee this will happen to you during this life span. The good news: you can keep exploring your creative side without bothering to check what other people think about you. '(...) always remember that people's judgement about you are none of your business'. 
As for the critics distinctions, you better follow Gilbert's own example: 'I cannot even be bothered to think about the difference between high art and low art'. This is one of the things I noticed this weekend, while at an exhibition of contemporary arts at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin. The 'democratization' of arts allowed a high diversity of exploration of various creative paths. You can beatify and dignify anything only by adding a text or changing the location or the context or creating a different context yourself. 
Between the fear of exploring your creativity and sharing openly your ideas and works, and curiosity to explore more, including your own limits, the choice should be for the latter. Start working with 'stubborn gladness' and bring more reasons into your life. For various reasons, I personally went through different anti-creative stages in my life, but always returned to my creative world more determined than ever to stay there as much as possible. An aim that I am more stubborn than ever to focus on accomplishing, be it writing - my main life mission, or photography, or travel, or arts. 
It is a book that every creative being should read, because it gives you more than one reason to be yourself and cope with all the challenges and temptations of the life of the spirit. It gives a lot of hope for humanity and for the life of ideas, without being openly optimistic. It opens the door to a world that I had the chance to discover many years ago, when reading The Glass Bead Game, a book I wished it was quoted in the Big Magic. Regardless of this omission, I feel like I woke up from the creative sleep. Suddenly, I have so many things to do to keep my creativity alive and improve the life of my ideas.
Rating: 4 stars