Saturday, November 18, 2017

Book Review: Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe

Thomas Foley is the Cold War, UK bureaucrat version of The Man Without Qualities. Minus the usual soul unrest typical for Viennaise characters. Sent to manage the Britannia inn at the EXPO 1958 in Brussels, the first after the end of the WWII, he is faced with a completely new reality and challenges, compared to his usual life back home: with a 9 to 5 job, a wife and a small daughter, an uneventful routine-based existence typical for almost 90% of the world population. 
Expo 58 is something different, and as someone who worked herself to such a grandiose event, and keep a small track of literary representations of international exhibitions, I reckon that this is an interesting source of inspiration, well described in the book. For a limited amount of time, people from all over the world are gathering to work and know each other, more or less intimately. At the end of the show, everyone is back to the home reality, and this is how world goes round.
Against his will and without any warning, Foley is caught into a hilarious net typical for that time of the Cold War. There are two spies looking exactly as spies and talking as someone might expect spies are talking, at least if you had enough James Bond bibliography. But there are also people that might look completely different than their appearance display: like the KGB spy versus the attractive American counterpart. Foley's role, which even working at a public institution in a country involved in the Cold War diplomacy and daily invisible war, he is greatly unaware of the geopolitical challenges, is not even to report - as every space around him seems to be bugged - is of low level, to flirt with a girl. One of those 'patriotic calls' simple citizens, otherwise completely un- and a-historical, might be called to do in special situations, like many of the events branded so during the fierce Cold War years. 
What I've found really entincing intellectually in this book is the subtle second plan game between reality and appearances, text and subtext and context, about how we remember and read facts versus how the naked facts really are. Once you discover this layer of interpretation, the book is getting a completely different perspective and value.
My only annoyance with the book was the obsessive use of 'old man' by more than one character. Regardless the original meaning aimed by the author, if any, it doesn't bring in my opinion anything good or hilarious to the story.

Rating: 4 stars

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Tokyo Kill: A Complex Thriller Set in Japan

Horrendous murders, mysterious histories set many decades ago, cruel fights of the Tokyo underground. Detective Jim Brodie is on a strange mission by his Japanese ex-WWII official in China to identify the authors of strange murders and eventually protect his life. The second in the series - although you can read it without a necessary background of the stories from the first installment - Tokyo Kills delves into the complex layers of Japanese life. 
The issues pertaining to WWII actions of the Japanese Army in the neighbouring Asian states, particularly China, are not an easy topic to deal with both in daily life and literature, equally from the political and diplomatic point of view. Barry Lancet has the detailed necessary knowledge and writing skills to write about it in a very diplomatic yet entincing way, although I was able to feel the choice of a very cold account of events, as told by one of the characters. The sensitive stories were confined to the pure narrative, but there is still the background which completely shocks you, especially if you are not familiar with the context and various historical and documentary accounts.
But history is only the story background, as the book involves much more, and has so many interesting twists that 50 pages before the end of it I was still not aware how it will end. The local knowledge also allows to play skillfully with various Asian underground references, such as the differences in operations between the Chinese triads and the Japanese Yakuza, and their dance for influence. The only thing in the story which I've found hilarious and inadequate was the 'Chinese spy', with whom Brodie has a dialogue which is too stiff and mostly uninspired.
Otherwise, the book is a good recommendation for Asian thriller stories, translated through the European literary sensitivities though.

Rating: 4 stars

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Book Review: The Women in the Castle, by Jessica Shattuck

In a Germany brought to ruins by its abuses and paranoid dreams of grandeur, three women - Marianne, Benita and Anja - and their children are getting together their broken fragments of their lives in a Bavarian castle. Their husbands were part of the von Stauffenberg plot and therefore killed and the good deeds and honour of their husbands is their ticket entry into a world free of Nazis. 
Once the story develops, there are secrets revealed not all of them convenient, in a country where not few of the people are hidding even more terrible stories of abandon of the basic human values and behavior. It is a world of lost souls and orphans, of people that will need decades to realize the historical pain and trauma created during those terrible dictatorship times. To describe those years, Jessica Shattuck found the right pace and wordings, and more than once I've found myself able to imagine that I am in the middle of the devastated Berlin or in the then Bavarian wasteland. The three women in the castle are a match that probably in real life would be hardly working, but the 'resistance' their husbands were in - at least two of them - and the post-war hardship creates different human solidarities. Their children, although experienced at different extent the same reality, are able to build a completely new world, interacting with that of adults, but without affecting them significantly. Children, they do have the rare art of coming along with the most unusual situations and deep loss. 
An interesting direction of the book is how the characters do deal with the current historical events, not necessarily in terms of the deep moral meanings, but for starting anew their life. Marianne, for instance, refuses to give credit to the blind actors of the history, while Benita 'held no reverence for anything old or historic. History was horrible, sloppy tail of grief. It swished destructively behind the present, toppling everyone's own personal understanding of the past'. For Fritz, the former German prisoner, 'shame was the only right way to live'. However, there is the assumption that under the impact of history, the individual might have little choices, therefore the difficulty of assigning guilt. 
I personally found the late post-war years experiences of the characters a bit too simplistic, with most of the characters going to America to start a new life in the country of the liberators. There is a certain unbalance in the narrative, not necessarily entincing, with the moral issues softened for some details about American comfort. I've also found a little temporal glitch, with a contemporary reference to the suits of Angela Merkel in 1991, when she was for sure a less known personality.
The Women in the Castle is a book which raises questions and creates moral dilemma with some realistic insights into the issue of historical guilt and responsibility.

Rating: 3.5 stars

#MeToo

The recent Weinstein scandal is a revelation not only about the sexual harassment regularly practised in the film industry, at Hollywood and abroad, but almost in every creative industry. And beyond. Some might say that bohemians and creative people in general do need muses and inspiration and loose morals in order to create. 
I remember my disgust when as a young reporter I was often invited to late parties in the office, with a lot of booze and people with loose morals for whom it was normal to go to bed before the next press conference early in the morning with whoever was of the opposite sex. The new employees and interns were expected at least to answer the flirts if not to accept sexual favors, not necessarily compulsory for getting a long term contract or a salary raise. I was told that this is part of the hardship of a job where you have to be always alert, on the road and ready to spend hours waiting for a scoop. Longterm relationships were rare, and marriages even seldom. I am sure many of those people were not evil or predators or even sick people, but just individuals self-righteous in their own way, unable to realize that what they were doing was humiliating and wrong and it was the fault of their weakness for not being different
The collection of essays edited by Lori Perkins - available for free download on Amazon.com - reveals personal experience of both and women that at certain moments of their careers or human development faced different degrees of sexual harassment and abuse. The testimonies are liberating but also aimed at giving strenth and support to those not yet able to talk about their trauma. It helps - although at a limited extent - to deal with the everyday weight of the soul drama, but also to realize that sharing is a way to empower others in similar situations, the silent voices of the victims. Such a collection has also the role of educating both potential victims and aggressors, offering examples of how much suffering sexual abuse can bring and how avoid ending up as a victim. Each and every one of us has a voice that we need to use it to fight and counter inequalities, injustice and abuse. And perpetrators, regardless how close to kin they are and what personal trauma they went through either, they need to be revealed. 
A very useful collection to read for everyone interested in understanding the subtle ways of sexual abuse and how important is to reject such public behaviors, regardless of the professional background and social status of the perpetrators. Abuse is just not acceptable. 

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

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Book Review: The Copenhagen Affair by Amulya Mulladi

Relationships aren't healing if you move countries. Instead, you are only faced with a new, often magnified reality, which shows 10 times or more bigger the big hole you are in. 
Sanya and her successful charming and fashionable husband move for one year to Copenhagen hoping that the 'implosion' she suffered recently will go away, while he is busy to supervise the purchase of a local company. The new expat family is received with open hand by the high-end local society, for a very serious reason: there are so many secrets to hide among the people supposedly selling the company that they better behave nicely and even try to flirt or have an affair for the price of it. 
Nouveau riches and old money, desperate dedicated housewives, illicit affairs and a lot of showing off, this is the expat world where the good Sanya is introduced too. But she is also going through a dramatic transformation, with a clear line between the 'old' and 'new' women who is trying to change into.
The writing is very captivating, although the story is not so original and the expat life in happy places around the world, with its illicit and legal aspects was often used as a background in recent books - for instance, The Expats by Chris Pavone. The intricacies of the mental breakdown Sanya went through are very well described and together with the other elements of the story, mid-way between irony and thriller, with unexpected twists and some unanswered questions - what really happened between Sanya and Ravn during her 'kidnapping'? - which make the book a pleasant and hard to put down read.

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


Monday, November 6, 2017

Writers' Secrets: Interview with Nic Joseph, author of The Last Day of Emily Lindsey

Nic Joseph, foto: personal archive
After reading the page-turning novel The Last Day of Emily Lindsey, I wanted to find out more about the author, Nic Joseph, and her creative habits. In my latest installment of the Writers' Secret series, she is sharing some of her tips and inspiration for creating beautiful books.

How do you find inspiration for your books?
Inspiration for my novels can come at any time! Sometimes, I'll be driving to work and see someone or something that catches my eye; or, I'll read a news report that I can't get out of my head. My inspiration for The Last Day of Emily Lindsey came to me after I'd had a particularly hard day at work. I arrived home, sat down on my couch and didn't move for a while. Granted, I wasn't covered in blood or holding a hunting knife, and I did get up after about five minutes! But that's where the story started. 

What's important for me is that I capture ideas, even if they are not fully formed, so that I can return to them later. I keep a running list of story ideas on my phone so I can come back to them later and figure out which ones I want to pursue.

Do you have books or writers that inspire you?

I am a huge Ken Follett fan and am constantly inspired by his world-building. Two books that have influenced my writing in very different ways include Involuntary Witness by Gianrico Carofiglio and Eddie Krumble is the Clapper by Dito Montiel.

How do you fight writer's block?

I remember reading advice that said if you're not having fun writing something, chances are no one will have fun reading it. I took that to heart. Often, when I'm having writer's block, it's because I'm trying to work through a scene that doesn't really deserve to be there. Maybe I've already put a lot of effort into it and don't want to give up on it (and hence lose the word count!) To break through, I have to force myself to take a step back and be honest about what's wrong with the scene. Once I'm on the right track, it's usually pretty easy to break through writer's block - emphasis on usually!

What is the most difficult part of your of being a writer?

Resisting the urge to daydream about my characters all the time. I find myself plotting while I drive, while I'm in the shower, over dinner and while I lay in bed at night. I have to remind myself to turn it off sometime!

What is your next project?

I am currently working on a novel called The Night in Question. It's an idea that's been brewing for a long time, and I am extremely excited about it. The story centers around two women: an Uber driver who makes a very bad decision in order to help someone she loves; and the detective who is investigating a crime that is linked to that very bad decision.

What do you recommend to a beginner writer?

Find the space to enjoy it. Writing can be stressful for so many reasons - lack of time, writer's block, characters that don't seem to want to do what they're supposed to! But find the parts of writing that make you happy, whether that's daydreaming about plot twists, outlining, drafting the perfect sentence, revising, or all of the above, and give yourself dedicated time to enjoy it. Not only will it make the experience more enjoyable, your writing will be all the better for it. 

Saturday, November 4, 2017

A Book about Indian Millennials

I hear or read every single day stories about people who left behind sucessful business careers to pursue for long or medium term their dreams of traveling the world, making jewellery or becoming artists. The three girls characters of The Writers' Retreat are the Indian Millennials following an un-traditional path, lookin first for 'a life of creative enrichment' before fishing a husband and a stable business oriented career. 
Amby, Bobby and Mini are each of them successful in their world, Mini including as a brilliant writer of children stories. But they want more from themselves and writing seems to be their world of choice. Therefore, they register for a 2-week writing retreat in Greece, where they meet each other and become the best friends. Meanwhile, they are finding their own creative path and creative voice. The three girls are not alone in their pursuit, as Amby's former boss, KayKay, a successful handsome Indian actor is also joining the Millenial path, by giving up his filming caree, for living his dream of being trained as a chef, at the famous French school Le Cordon Bleu. There is also some gentle romance taking place too, which leads to a happy ending deem of a Bollywood movie.
The story is slowly paced, but with some nice twists that keep you awake, even the lecture is easy and non-problematic, the kind of book you would love to read while on a Greek beach. It is told alternatively by Amby, with some insertions of the author's voice, which is an interesting idea, but somehow outlines too much the idea of a pre-set, predictable story. 
Overall, it is an enjoyable story, with loveable characters and a bit of both adventure and romance and some Greek islands scent.

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

Friday, November 3, 2017

A Different Kind of Book: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Faced with the choice of deciding between a non-fiction science book and a novel, most probably would rather choose the science because besides exploring imagination I am always keen to discover facts about the immediate reality. One might say that imagination is also part of the reality, but as science plays an important part of my background, I love to have on my reading list a considerable amount of non-fiction books, including about mathematics, physics or medicine.
What matters, after all, is to read a good book, and many forget that the rules of good writing are applying for all genres. Whatever the rules of the narrative, you still have to tell a story, either you are writing about a big unhappy love or an episode from the history of science. This week, I was finally able to read two beautiful science books that I had on my TBR for years: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot and The Emperor of All Maladies, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. 
Both do have in common a serious writing based on years of scientific research and investigation, and both succeded to present very complicated medical-related issues in a very readable fascinated format. Especially when you are approaching such a humanly difficult topic as cancer, but Mukherjee offers emotional human stories wrapped in the wise knowledgeable words of the practising doctor and the scientist.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a complex story about science, race, medical ethics and destiny in 20th century America. An anonymous actor of the world medicine, Henrietta Lacks was given her name to cancerous cells removed without her consent when in her final stage of cancer. Those cells were further used for various medical aims, among others for creating the polio vaccine. Rebecca Skloot investigates stubborny this complicated story, giving voice and face for the first time to Lacks and her family an experience that challenged and changed her too: 'The Lackses challenged everything I thoughts about faith, science, journalism and race'. The story is well structured and told so beautifully that I was hardly able to go to sleep before finishing it. After all, maybe there are hopes that investigative journalism is still alive. And that good books are belonging to any genre.

Rating: 5 stars

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Germany Loves Books

Advertisment in the Freiburg Central Station, summer 2017
I rarely see so much governmental interest to encourage people to read and support the book industry. From translations published the day the original is out on the market, to subsidized prices for books and generous libraries with all the possible books in the worlds, and programs encouraging children to read and love books from as early as 1 year old, German authorities are doing their best for supporting this elite industry.
You might ask, what exactly is the advantage for the society to invest so much in books which are encouraging imagination and the fantasy, features not necessarily well welcomed in a society aimed to create material value? As someone growing up surrounding by books - sometimes I had the feeling that the separation walls between the rooms of the house were made of books instead of concrete - I cannot see my life without books. I am an avid reader and since the blogs are out, I am blogging and sharing my love for stories. I personally find it normal to bring my 2 year old son to the library to find together the books he might find interesting, using his special library card. We even went to some special classes for baby - 1 to 3 year old (more about that in a next post). Therefore, a country where libraries are so rich and even the most remote place has at least one library, it most likely to beconsidered my home. 
For people for whom bookstores are as important as gas stations or supermarkets, there is a website you can use to find the neareast bookstore, an useful recommendation especially if you are away of home and curious to check the local literature available: www.buchhandlung-finden.de. I am doing it very often during my travels, as I can easily discover local German authors and even special events with writers. This website offers access to over 22,000 bookstores all over Germany, including those selling best sellers and offering specialty books. Just in case you forgot to bring your favorite books for your trip.
Bonus: if you are planning a trip to Condor Airlines, a sticker indicating that you have books in your luggage may substract a number of kilos from your bags from the general counting for your carry ons.
Only in Bookland Germany!

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Salman, the Storyteller

Every encounter with the literary world of Salman Rushdie is a storytelling feast. Told in the slow-paced Oriental tone, his stories, often turned into novels are journey into the deep layers of imagination, freely playing with universal symbols and philosophical meanings.
Two Years, Eight Months&Twenty-Eight Nights - mathematically 1001 nights - is an equisite magic adventure into the world of djinnis and their interactions with humans, a panoramic story of human grandeur and decadence. 
I've recently read a novel writing advice according to which it is preferable that you are roughly limiting the number of characters populating your story. Rushdie proves that he is able to have an infinite number of them, and to infuse them with life, will and adventures of their own. The number of stories included into this story is like a mosaique of fractals, a charming chain of stories that are taking the reader in without acknowledging. 
When you are reading some of Salman Rushdie books you are reminded about that high end society of hommes de lettres of the old centuries, when putting words on paper meant more than creating spontaneously stories, but creating meaning and giving a violent, debate-oriented life to the ideas. Although the setting was an Oriental big table where characters are coming and going, the content of the writing reminded me of both Saramago and Russian literature - Bulgakov, among others. 
If at the end of the novel you keep asking yourself: 'What the author meant in fact?' without finding a clear answer is also because we almost forgot how to approach perfect literary worlds. Writers do have extra powers to read the world and re-write the story of reality for us, and Rushdie is one of them. The rest is a hard work of imagination.

Rating: 4 stars
PS: Can't wait to read a review in the next weeks his latest book The Golden House, received from Random House Publishing Group via NetGalley.