Monday, June 18, 2018

Journeys into Our Dark Sides: Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

'Had I been born into a different family, I might have grown up to act and feel perfectly normal'. 
Does it actually work like this in real life? Are family circumstances necessarily a strong influence into further personal and psychological developments? Isn't it only an easy way to blame the others for shortcomings that in fact might be avoided?
Eileen, with her ex-cop alcoholic father, is in his early 20s, working an office job in a correctional facility in X-ville. She has an anonymous isolated life, nurtured by fantasies about a guard she is stalking without any success. 'I'd never learned how to relate to people, much less how to speak up to myself', she says in a confession written many years after the events leading to her runaway from home and the beginning of a brand new life. Most of the time, she is invisible, with no chance of becoming a functional human being, with a real life. 
It is not sure that she knows or want a real life either. An experience shoplifter, it is unclear what and why she may fit outside her correctional facility. Most probably she will become an alcoholic like her father or a depressed woman like her mother or both. She dreams meanwhile, unable to push herself to reach a better position socially or emotionally: 'My curiosity for stars is obvious: I wanted something to tell me my future was bright'. 
Her future will change completely in only a matter of days, after the extravagant Rebecca made a spectacular entrance into the grey prison world. Manipulative, she is using the naive Eileen for her own aims and in the end, help her to escape the miserable life.
The mention of episodes from her future life are aimed at offering more information about her new life chances. From the literary point of videw, I've found the technique stereotypical. Most probably childless, Eileen ended up by accepting her feminity and becoming more or less like everyone else.
This slow paced, psychologically introspective novel sounds like an inquiry into the permeable limits between good and evil. Is evil able to nest even in the most innocent soul? Is evil in fact an acceptable part of being a human being and only the fear of repercursions or the luck of not being caught. Those poor beings from the prison for minors were not so lucky, with their crimes an outrage to their pure age.    
The writing may create sometimes a suffocating and incongrous ambiance and the self-centered erratic Eileen doesn't make it into a favorite character. No character in this book is sympathetic, in fact. We may also keep in mind that the action takes place in the 1960s, with all what it means for a certain perception of women and their psychology in particular. Would be very curious to read more from Ottessa Moshfegh, as she is gently touching upon very dramatic topics with the strength of her writing. She has an unique voice I would love to follow in her other books. 

Rating: 4 stars

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

About Mourning: A Separation, by Katie Kitamura

The translator wife of a relatively successful non-fiction author is mourning the sudden death of her husband in Greece. The real story though, told by the wife whose name is never disclosed is of a separation. Her sudden arrival to Greece slowly searching to meet her husband was the result of an ultimatum of her mother-in-law, who sent her there to find her son, apparently on a research trip documeting mourning rituals. The meeting between the two never takes place, as he is murdered. The case will be closed after a year, with the culprit never being found.
Before arriving to Greece, the wife wanted a divorce, as the couple secretly separated for month. Upon arrival from Greece back to London, she is a widow, with a rich inheritance involved in various projects dedicated to her ex-husband. She is mourning. 'Sometimes it is comforting to think that his death was a result of his being in the world, rather than his death having occured entirely at random, as if erasing a presence that had already failred to leave its mark, that had not insisted sufficiently upon his life: that it would be truly be as though he had vanished into thin air'.
The wife's account is sometimes confusing, ambiguous, from the position of someone who assumed a shadow role, without necessarily being asked to. In fact, during the book-long monologue we are shared a limited amount of information about her, her eventual motivations and life. There are some references about her work - French translator - a relatively safe financial status, a 8-year difference between her and her husband. Everything is about her husband, whose infidelities created drama for a young lady during his short stay in Greece too, and might have been the cause of his death, but her absence although she is the one through whose eyes we are told the story, is not playing in the advantage of the story as such. 
Personally, the moment the death of the husband was announced, was like a welcomed stroke, as the letargy was almost complete and was not sure if I really have to keep reading this book. But it did not change the story too much, after all. Still, there is not clear why exactly this marriage of opposites ended - and started at all, why she accepted to just go to follow her husband although she knew well that things were finished anyway between them. Also the sudden long mourning after his death is a bit pathetic and extra-dramatic. She was engaged to a friend of the husband, after all. 
It may be an apology of mediocrity, of low life, of a woman without features. Maybe. But it's a pitty for the writing potential of the author that the characters are so lost in words, words about feelings, about 'what ifs', but completely failing to be real.

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

Sunday, June 10, 2018

On Creativity and Genius

Once in a while I recall a discussion I had with my mother, with was a languages prodigy and a long-time teacher: she insisted there are people that are really gifted for languages, while I assumed that once you have the right mindset for learning it and also the practical need to do it, the change of learning language is equally distributed among humans. Many years after, I insist that all you need in order to learn a language is the will and the need and a lot of exercices practicing it. 
Although it is approaching the issue of creativity as a pattern which has to do with a certain historical and social context of circumstances, Allen Gannett's The Creative Curve is rejecting the genius-driven idea of the intellectual elites and cultural achievements. Mozart worked a lot, Picasso also, Beatles did it too. Their success was a matter of being the right person at the right time. 
The idea and the many premises developped in the book are not new at all. Many decades ago, the Historical French School of Annales sought for thought and ideas patterns which are creating the red thread of disparate historical events. Applied to the explanations from the book, it explains why certain songs, for instance, may look like successful overnight, when in fact it has to do with a certain pattern familiar to the public in a certain historical moment. The historicity of the moment when a certain idea emerges explains why not all new ideas are becoming instant success. It has to bring a new interpretation while maintaining the right balance with the ideas already accepted. The Harry Potter books, for instance, besides being the result of a systematic work and documentation and punctilious development of the literary structure, it also used elements of children books already present. The result and the following success were not a revolution, but a creative interpretation of expectations of the audience. And again, the lot of hard work, instead of a struck of a genial inspiration. 
Although I personally agree with most ideas shared in the book and the examples are well chosen to explain the conclusion, I may still believe that in some cases, such as playing a musical instrument, you may need a pinch of so-called talent, besides thousands of hours of practice and dedication. I personally played piano for almost 10 years, and despite the fact that I reached a certain level of technical achievement, my basic interpretation was as impressive as the wood the piano was made of. My technical accuracy was not accompanied by what you usually need in order to impress your audience: the dedication and the talent that are not for everyone. Maybe I was in the wrong place, and in the wrong time, and obviously was missing any support group and professional support that are so important to live in the highest clouds of creativity - regardless the domain - as much as possible. 
The Creative Curve is a book encouraging dedication and hard work and I am very much inclined to follow its advices.

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

Book Review: The Adulterants, by Joe Dunthorne

Growing up is hard, especially when it happens at the honorable age of 30+. Growing up means not only physically and emotionally, but also from the point of view of meeting certain social and status (old school) requirements.
The characters in The Adulterants by Joe Dunthorne are fine. Some work in tech journalism, or inherited some properties, or are kind of artists and creatives. Mostly over 30, not necessarily decided to have their own families. They are selfish in the mediocre way, not necessarily because they are busy traveling the world or writing books or building up a career. They just don't know for sure what to do with a new life in their own limited life. In the posh expensive London they can hardly afford a centrally-located place to rent and buying a property is almost impossible. They do have jobs but not sure if those jobs will cope with the sudden changes on the market.
The characters in The Adulterants, by Joe Dunthorne are shadows. Moving slowly from a party to another once in a while, filling up their duties and enjoying their kind of life. They are really fine.
And then, the civil disobedience took London by surprise in 2011. Angry people against the establishment, some of them those 'fine' people, put the beautiful city on fire. When you don't have nothing, you have nothing to lose. Another shock of wave for our millennial characters, because absurdly, they are part of a scenario they couldn't care less about only seconds before being themselves involved in some occurrences. Ray, the main character and the narrator of the story, will end up in prison, after being featured on a 'Shop a Looter' billboard, with his image caught on CCTV, while intruding the office of a real estate that failed to helped he and his wife Garthene to find the family house of their dreams. 
Even though I related at a minimal level with the characters, what I really loved about this book is the language. Polished to obsession, elevated and persuasive in its own right. So bad that, as the characters themselves, is so disconnected from the surrouding reality.

Rating: 3 stars 

Friday, June 8, 2018

What is Copywriting?

As a writer or journalist, you may consider copywriting as a not-so-noble profession, when you accept to sell your gifts for producing well-paid but cheap stylish pieces of writing. But copywriting, and advertising in general, may mean much more than producing some advertorial content. A good work of writing has the power of changing the world, either it is read in less than a minute or more than 100-page long. Wherever you are using your skills, you are not wasting them, only using your words for a different aim, and sometimes audience too, and as long as you write well, there is nothing to be ashamed of.
Copywriting Made Simple by Tom Albrighton offers an overview of the challenges and daily briefs a copywriter need to deal with on a daily basis. It is not aimed to someone completely new in the world of writing, but eventually to a professional looking for a career switch. The skills and knowledge in matters related to writing, there is only the need to understand how exactly a copywritter works and what his or her job involves on a daily basis.
Otherwise, if you are already active into this field, the book doesn't help too much. Personally, I would have been interested in even more examples but also how to use your well-honed writing skills to persuade difficult clients unable to understand your work. 
In other words, it is an useful book, but it also has some limitations in terms of the reading audience. Noteworthy is also the list of  bibliographical references at the end of every chapter, and the couple of exercices recommended.
It makes copywriting simple, indeed, but in a professional way.

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

Monday, June 4, 2018

Peacock Ironies about the Corporate Life

If you are looking for a relaxing read in one of the uneventful summer weekend afternoon, in the German language, Der Pfau by Isabel Bogdan is a right ironic choice. If you look to improve both your vocabulary and the pronunciation, the audio version is recommended. 
A couple of bank employees are booking a team building retreat in Scotland, in a remote location at a small property with more animals than people. Among them, a peacock (der Pfau) which literally is getting crazy and starts attacking the guests. Hence, the need to kill him. But who really killed him? What to do with the remains of the poor crazy bird? How to deal with the secrets that the peacock-events are generating among the members of the team of respectful bankers? Who is really worth sharing the terrible secrets about the peacock (which in fact are just misunderstandings and the result of missing some small parts of the puzzle regarding the everyday activities around the property they are living)?
There are so many ironical situations and some slices of British and Scottish humour that it is worth considering for an insightful lecture. The interactions between characters and the comical course of the events raises so many questions recommending this book for a book club, as it allows to create a long lists of questions about the intentions and reactions of the protagonists.
All being said, I am also proud of me keeping up with my plan set at the beginning of the year, to read more books in other languages than English. 

Rating: 3 stars

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Laura Esther Wolfson Talks about Her Blind Date with the Russian Language

Photo by Florence Montmare
For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors stands as my literary revelation of the year thus far, an  essay collection that mixes favorite elements of mine:  subtle irony, intellectual curiosity and a love of Russian literature and of authenticity. Laura Esther Wolfson was generous enough to answer my questions about writing and her love of Russian language and literature. Follow her on Twitter as @EstherLaura and check her website for updates on book events and publications. 

How did your love story with the Russian language begin?

Like many love stories, it began as a blind date. For all that I knew about Russian, I could have chosen French, Swahili or Chinese almost as readily. (And in fact I did consider them all, and other languages too.) I sought adventures in remote latitudes, precisely where was unimportant. I boarded the Russian language as if it were a long-distance train that would carry me off to faraway places.

What tipped the scales toward Russian was a desire to read books I loved—Anna KareninaDoctor Zhivago—in the original.

During the early stages of foreign language immersion, I lived in a state of euphoria: able to speak and understand, but continually aware, as in a dream, of moving within a network of uncertain meaning and shifting shapes I could put my hand through. Everything I encountered was weightless, and so was I.

Who are your favorite Russian writers?

I love Pushkin and Babel best. And Tolstoy. But there is so much of Russian literature that I have yet to read; omissions from this list are as likely due to ignorance as to taste.

Is there a book you wish you had written yourself?

I cannot imagine writing someone else’s book. Every book is to a large extent the result of idiosyncrasies in the author’s upbringing, education, taste, reading habits, surroundings, experiences, relationships, and more. You cannot have anyone’s idiosyncracies but your own.

I want to write in my own voice, but more prolifically, and much, much better.

What kind of books in translation appeal to the American reading public nowadays?

I cannot say with any certainty what kinds of translated works the American reading public wants now—the answer is probably ‘many different kinds’— but I do think that developments of the past decade amply disprove the tired notion that American readers are not interested in translations.

Publish it, and they will come. See Elana Ferrante, Klaus Ove Knausgaard, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Haruki Murakami and other translation sensations. Publishing houses specializing in translations have proliferated: Archipelago Books, Deep Vellum Publishing, New Vessel Press, Open Letter, Two Lines Press  and more. Why, even Amazon has leapt on this bandwagon, yes, bandwagon, with AmazonCrossing, its translation arm. The magazines Words Without Borders and Asymptote specialize in literary translation. Each year, the PEN World Voices Festival in New York City, founded in the aftermath of 9/11, introduces to the U.S. reading public dozens of authors working in many languages. Clearly, there has long been a thirst for high-quality literary translations that is only now being slaked.

Do certain languages become fashionable for geopolitical reasons? Was Russian such a language during the Cold War, and is Mandarin the new Russian?

My undergraduate Russian instructors, who are, thirty years on, my friends and colleagues, tell me that whenever Russia makes the headlines, enrollment spikes. But only for one semester. There is no question that during the Cold War, perestroika and glasnost, there were many more students enrolled in Russian classes than there are now, pace Robert Mueller and Donald Trump.

I cannot speak about Mandarin, though of course I’ve heard that it’s fashionable for people in certain circles to enroll their children in Mandarin classes. I cannot point to specific political events that might be a factor.

When someone asks me what language to study, I suggest Spanish. It’s such an important language in the United States, where I live, and knowledge of it unlocks the rest of the hemisphere. I also sometimes mention Arabic, whose speakers are now center stage in world affairs. But Arabic takes years to master, and unforeseen events could crowd it out at any time, pushing some other language to the fore and leaving high and dry anyone who chooses to study it based on geopolitics.

The best and most meaningful choices are often those we make for no other reason than love or obsession.

Have you tried to write in languages other than English?

Asked at a public event if she ever thought of writing in English, Russian author Tatiana Tolstaya, who lived and taught in the United States for many years, replied (in flawless English) that the only language she could ever write in was the one whose nursery rhymes and lullabies she’d heard as a tiny child. I could not agree more.

I cannot imagine writing in any language except English. My writing is shot through with wordplay and sound play, rhymes and half rhymes, alliteration, assonance, irony, literary allusions and quotations. It is sprinkled with foreign words that, stripped of their English-language scrim, would be about as interesting (and as visible) as a shooting star at noon. I could never achieve or even attempt any of this in another language.

What is for you, the most challenging part of being a translator?

It depends on whether we are talking about the work of the interpreter; the translator of commercial, technical, diplomatic or other specialized documentation; or the literary translator. (In the language services industry, ‘translator’ refers specifically to a linguist who works with written materials. The person at the dignitary’s elbow or in the booth with headphones orally transferring meaning into another language is an interpreter, not a translator. And most people who toil in the translation trenches do not translate works of literature, but mundane and necessary materials such as software and other instruction manuals, patents and legal documents.)

Subject knowledge is far more important in language work than the public realizes. How can you translate a text on astrophysics if you are not fluent in astrophysics? Fluency in the subject is as central to the task as fluency in the languages. A professional interpreter or translator specializes in a limited number of subjects that she knows well, prudently declining offers of work that fall outside that range, or, if she decides to take on something new, boning up on the topic thoroughly ahead of time and consulting specialists in the field.

Translators are generally self-employed, always hustling for the next contract. Translation work is often sent abroad to countries where the rates are so low that first-world translators cannot compete. There is also a gray market of semi-or unqualified translators who do poor-quality work and drag down the reputation of the whole profession. Staff translators in international organizations such as the United Nations must master and unswervingly adhere to house editorial and style guidelines, precedents and turns of phrase enshrined in previous documents.

Interpreters must have the words and phrases at their fingertips, improvising ingeniously when they do not. (But the latter should not happen too often.) Interpreters derive pleasure from pressure. They are skilled orators and mind readers, comfortable in the spotlight, yet adept at invisibility. Their work draws on training, habit, adrenaline, and the psychological state of flow. They prepare fiendishly before each assignment.

Literary translators capture subtleties of culture, tone and music. They convey qualities and fragrances, the drift, the waft, the weft, the woof and the whiff. FenĂȘtre=window is only the beginning. Is it bay or casement, dormer or storm? Diamond pane or stained, leaded glass or plastic?

Of course, every category of linguist should avoid the word-for-word approach where the forest becomes overgrown with trees.

What book you would love to translate into English?

After thirty years as an interpreter and translator, I now have the opportunity to devote more time to writing. Translation has, over the decades, provided me with a livelihood; training as a reader and writer; excuses for postponing getting serious about writing; and finally, a wealth of stories. Writing and translation draw on the same part of the mind. For some people, this means that they can switch easily between the two. For me, it means the opposite: Now I need to save that part of my mind for writing. So I won’t be translating much in the near future.

As I was revising For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors for publication, I noticed that the book includes a subgenre of essay about translation that I haven’t seen elsewhere: the essay about not translating, about a work the essayist/translator declined to translate, and her reasons for so deciding. The book contains two of these: “The Book of Disaster” and “Losing the Nobel.” Given how many books I have not translated and never will, this is a vein I could mine for several lifetimes.

What are your writing plans for the coming months?

I recently began something new that is best described as ‘autofiction.’ Meaning that the first-person narrator is nearly indistinguishable from the author, and that while the story hews closely to lived events, the narrative arc is paramount and the purpose of the work is not to say, ‘here’s what happened,’ but to move, entertain, delight or disturb. Thus no one can cry foul at any divergence, real or perceived, from the so-called facts of the matter.

This work, entitled Super-Pricey Royal Blue French Lace Bra, is about the impact of chronic illness and disability on a love relationship, with sections (that initially appear to be digressions) about international affairs, history and literature .

Ultimately I may choose not to publish it. It is very revealing.

Friday, May 25, 2018

An Icelandic Thriller Hard to Forget: The Legacy by Yrsa Sigurdardottir

Besides the pure curiosity of my first meeting with a representative of the Icelandic literature - adding one more country to the list of my literary travels - and the plan of spending some hours in a company of a thriller that was well received by the professionist book reviewers, I did not know what to expect from The Legacy by Yrsa Sigurdardottir. 
Tracing the crimes committed by an aparent psychopat targetting women without any aparent connection between each other, the thriller is more than a simple criminalistic investigation. It has that pinch of life which connects the crime story with the outside context of the society, and the more or less observations about the limited social contacts between neighbours and even between people belonging to the same families make it an interesting sociological evaluation in itself. 
It is a very intense reading, where the psychopatic elaboration of the crimes intercedes with the mystery of an adoption mentioned at the beginning of the book and the question if there is any connection between those crimes and what the reader will easily guess as a terrible - blood soaked - secret. 
There are many characters in this book, with more or less forefront role in the story, and the author succeeds to connect them in so many various ways that it almost looks like a puppet theatre very well coordinated. Most of the main characters, especially the children ones, are hard to forget and at least a couple of days after finishing the book I had them in my mind, as much as you can have a complex human being from the real life, thinking about the motivation or their psychological depth.
At the end of the story, each and every one piece of the domino is falling down to its place. And what and ending this story has! Completely unexpected and exactly how I like my thriller stories: unexpected, outrageously surprising and impossible to predict.

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

Sunday, May 6, 2018

How to be a Healthy Writer

I am not a full time writer (yet) but all my working life I've spent on a chair, in the front of a computer, tiping either my academic papers and articles or books or journalistic articles or translations. Everything I ever did for money in my life involved writing - from a chair in the front of a computer. I even had a vintage time, in my first university year, when I even wrote my papers at a typing machine - also from a chair. Such work habits lead in time to various issues: my poor sight, back pain, excessive use of coffee and cigarettes. Those were the times and it took me a long time to realise that I really need to change everything in order to have a longer, healthier life. At the time, there were not too many books or mindsets pledging for a healthier lifestyle; if you wanted to deal with words for a living, you had to be self-distructive, crazy and drunk, smoking packs of cigarettes after the other when the writing was blocked and avoid sleep because it cuts you from the genuine root of creativity. 
Such a romantic view is proved greatly toxic in fact, and you need to witness the slow or sudden death of your ex-colleagues to realize that life is a gift that literally gifted or not, you have to reason to waste.
The Healthy Writer is an example of how writers can start changing dramatically their toxic life,  one step at a time. It helps, among others 'reduce your pain, improve your health and build a writing career for the long term' (which means also that you can increase your lifespan). The main keyowrds are empowerment and sustainability: as a writer you can avoid health issues that may impede your writing - both in length and quality - and create long-term strategies for a better mental and physical health. It calls both for balance and clear acknowledgment of your limits, also taking into account the personal health history. 'We need to bear in mind that health is intrinsically bound up in all sorts of factors that include whether you work for a living, where you live, what you eat, whether you smoke and your social and family circumstances'.
The book was written based on the personal experiences of the writers - one of whom Dr. Euan Lawson is a medical doctor - but also following surveys done within the community of writers. What I personally liked very much about this book is its realistic approach: it offers a systematic overview of the threats the writer cope with in his or her daily life - from sleep deprivation - sleep being considered 'one of the basic bulding blocks of a healthy resilient life' (note to my insomniac self) - to peculiar work space or serious mental health issues - with simple, doable solutions - from yoga to walking or proper eating habits. 
Those new habits may have a dramatic influence on the quality and quantity of writing as well. 'Persistance is the secret of success in writing as much as general fitness or finishing ultra-marathons'.
Provided with a list of questions at the end of every chapter, aimed at figuring out the main issues that one may deal with from the health point of view featured as well as with a list of bibliographical references, The Healthy Writer is one of those books you keep near your desk as you may need to return to a specific section later. 

Rating: 5 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by one of the authors in exchange for an honest review  

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Book Review: Tatiana by Martin Cruz Smith

Important thing about me: I am fascinated and passionate about novels set in the former post-Soviet/post-Communist time. As myself I am familiar at a certain extent with the life in those countries, I love the feeling of reading fiction inspired by hard and always worth a couple of novels realities. However, it is not enough to have the perfect details and set of characters in order to write a good book.
I had a similar impression when I had my first encounter with the Arkady Renko novels, in Stalin's Ghost: great setting, interesting characters and some curious story developments, but in the end of the day, the domino pieces did not match together and the entire story ended up in a very disappointing course of events. 
It happened the same in the case of Tatiana, which features the extraordinary pressures against the work of investigative journalism in post-Soviet Russia. There are all the elements for an excellent story: local mafia, former USSR problems - Kursk submarine drama, for instance - and state of mind and also Chechen fighters. It seems that the author has a subtle knowledge of the realities in this troubled part of the world. The dialogues are the part I've loved the most in the book: full of live, smart and witty. However, when all those parts were brought together: the dialogues, the bizarre characters, the circumstances, the story failed of being more than plain, less exciting than the everyday news in the Russian media. There is something in the art of storytelling which is missing and it is enough to discourage me from liking the book.
However, will give another - last - try to this author, as I have his latest book ready for a review. Hopefully things are sounding better but as for now I am not impressed at all.

Rating: 2.5 stars

Friday, April 20, 2018

Ada Twist, scientist...

Meet Ada Twist, a little black girl, with a lot of questions, although she did not start properly talking before the age of 3. Meet also her family, surprised by her interest in science and the art of questions, but with a relatively low level of tolerance when it comes to bizarre experiments, such as of making a cat stinky.
But even if grounded for a short while, Ada's mind cannot stop, and as a veritable scientist, she keeps asking questions and looking for answers. That's how science advances, after all...
Luckily, her parents realized that her curiosity and dedication to science is bigger than life, so they better keep up the pace with their gifted girl, instead of forcing her out of the scientific comfort zone. 
Ada Twist, Scientist, by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts is truly inspiring both for children - especially curious little black girls - and for their parents. To the children, it gives them another motivation to dare. For the parents, to be tolerant and instead of cutting short the wings of their children, to rather go to school and use the luck of having a gifted child for their own improvement too. I personally haven't found the illustrations outstanding, just a normal visual background for a well-told story. The messages are encouraging and simple, the easy motivation that most probably parents of gifted children took some long time to find otherwise. Or in some cases, too late, as many were impatient and unprepared enough to understand their gifted children so they discouraged their little girls to move forward with their dreams. The book can be also used for a class discussion, as teachers also need more than once to cope with the curiosities of some of their gifted pupils.

Rating: 4 stars

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Short funny stories from a time that was

Once upon a time it was the first Internet address - mine was hotmail - and the chat rooms, and the MySpace and the Mozilla, and so many wanders hard to describe to someone that grew up with. Besides the technological novelty, the Internet brought a tremendous change in the realm of human relationships, creating that easiness of talking with strangers and in many cases, encouraging people to be themselves, at least while online. Although I have no therapist background at all, I am sure that for many, it helps a lot to create that strength of coming up in the real life too. 
In a this funny collection of short stories from the very first time of the Internet - which were not so old times at all, by the way, Jess Kimball Leslie is sharing her own experience of life, identity and love stories. The angle outlining how the birth of the Internet contributed to empower her identity and help her be in touch with people sharing the same interests adds relevance to her story itself. It shows the impact of the late decades of technological development on human behavior and the ways in which Internet and its communication tools helped create better stories. Obviously, there are so many downsides and dangers and unpleasant and even tragical occurences that took place under the anonymous cover of the Internet, but in the case of 'I Love my computer because my friends live in it', there is a positive vibe which make you think that there could be good Internet-related news too, and not only short-lived chat room romances.
This collection of stories by Jess Kimball Leslie is that kind of book that you can read easily but not without leaving you with some deep thoughts about how the Internet changed - with its good, bad and ugly - your life.  I loved the (self)ironic style and the authentic strong voice of the author. She is a good storyteller and would love to read more from her. 

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

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Interview with Medeia Cohan, author of Hats of Faith

As a mother of a small child growing up in a complex world, teaching tolerance is part of my educational priorities. Besides the personal examples from the family, and interactions with people and children belonging to other religions, books and movies are a good tool for teaching the lessons of tolerance. But finding the right books with a straightforward message is not always easy. A couple of months ago, I've been offered the chance to read and review a quality book about head-coverings in different religions, Hats of Faith. As I enjoyed the book, I wanted to further explore the topic, through an interview with the author, Medeia Cohan. Here is the result of our exchange, shared via e-mail. The title and inter-titles are my selection. 
Photo from the personal archive of Medeia Cohan (left). 

'There simply isn't enough diversity in books'

How did you decide to write Hats of Faith?

I never really decided to write this book, it sorted of decided on me, rather than the other way around.
I really just wanted to buy it for my son, but it didn’t exist. Normally with something like this I would have thought, “Oh well” or “Too “bad” and moved on with my life, but I just kept thinking how important it was, at this moment in time that a book like this existed. In this time of increased intolerance and faith and race based hate crimes, the world really needs something secular and factual and mainstream; something that wasn’t preachy and is beautiful to give children an early familiarity with head coverings.
The more I spoke about the idea with other parents, the more I kept hearing stories of children reacting badly or making embarrassing gaffs when they’d encounter someone in a head covering, like my neighbour’s 2 year old daughter who called a women in a grey niqab a ghost. I also heard stories from those who covered their heads about never seeing themselves in mainstream books and the impact that had on them.
Stories like these fuelled my belief that there simply isn’t enough diversity in books and children aren’t getting important interfaith and diversity education early enough. It’s the lack of these things that lead to fear and ultimately negative views of the unknown.
Motivated by a drive to make a difference and encouraged by other parents, I decided it was my job to write this book. Before I knew it I was in talks with my now publisher and long time friend Hajera Memon to bring this book to life.

What was the most challenging part of writing it?

A subject like this you are never going to make everyone happy but I wanted to do the best we possibly could to pull together generally agreed upon accurate information that we could stand proudly behind. This proved harder than I thought.
People are passionate and thus sensitive about their faiths. Getting the tone and information in this book right was a total challenge and we still occasionally get complaints. But on the whole I think people see the effort we’ve made and are supportive.
Writing this book was a huge and very time consuming responsibility and at times working with so many experts to get it right threatened to ruin the entire project. Something like this can only be done as a passion project as we’ll never financially cover the hours we spent researching and rewriting to get it just right without compromise.

The research took over a year...

I've read that the writing process took a long time, as the opinion of various religious experts was requested. How did this consultation process work?

The research for this book took just over a year and as I said, it was not an easy process. We made a commitment from the beginning to make sure that we were writing something as accurate as possible and to do that we need to consult with experts, faith leaders, curators and professors of theology from around the world. It was a grueling process where we’d write something based on loads of on and off line research and then send it out to experts from every faith and it would come back covered in red. And then we’d start again. It was truly painful, but in the end I’m proud of the work we did and the end result.

Projects for the betterment of future generations

What are your recommendations for anyone embarking on a journey writing about such a topic?

It’s so important that we realise these projects for the betterment of future generations, but this kind of thing will not make you money. You must do it because you believe in it and you need to see it reaslied, otherwise you’ll end up resenting how much time of your life it takes.

I’m proud of what we’ve achieved and overcome and I see the difference it’s making when we run workshops or parents or teachers post pictures on social media. I hope one day religious or race based persecution is a thing we read about and can’t imagine. And I don’t mind that it’s taken a huge part of the last few years of my life and eaten into my income because I love it and I believe in it.

What are your favorite multi-cultural sources of inspiration when it comes to children books?

At our house we read a lot of books on repeat. Some of the favs include:
The Colour of Us
Last stop on Market Street
Ganesh’s Sweet Tooth
The Journey
Hanukkah Oh Hannukkah

What are your next writing plans?

Oh god, I can't even think past this project at the moment. We've just finished our FREE Interfaith Education Kit and are embarking on our first UK wide workshop  tour. That is currently consuming every minute of my thoughts.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Book Review: Sophia of the Silicon Valley by Anna Yen

Meet Sophia, a 20-something young girl, no Ivy League graduate, comfortably living in the fancy home of her parents, trying to boost her career. Her pushy Taiwanese mother really hopes that along the way she will maybe find some nice career-oriented partner and she will give up her professional dreams for turning into a dedicated staying-at-home wife. But plans are not supposed to happen anyway, not in this story.
Sophia ends up working in top-notch company, ending up giving her time, life and health too for achieving business plans and communicating to strange CEOs, some of the many bizarre successful creatures of the Silicon Valley. References to Pixar or Tesla are pretty obvious, and the writer herself has her own bunch of experience in this field. 
And the story goes on, with Sophia building her own path, finding a nice doctor boyfriend and climbing to the top, one crazy experience at a time.
The story has many useful thoughts about relationships in the era of women with full succcessful careers, with good examples of how to deal at work with crazy difficult people, meditation on life and startups. The new working relationships and environment are definitely changing not only the economy, but are also a challenge from the point of view of the human resources and relations perspective. Through Sophia's interactions the reader not necessarily familiar with this - sometimes unhealthy - lifestyle can get a good glimpse of the Silicon Valley gold digging fever. 
With a very good intriguing start, the story goes on slow-paced, turning around Sophia and her fast-forward life. The character in itself is likeable, crazy as a bat sometimes, with a colourful way of answering to challenges and an interior life of her own too, but when it comes to complexity, I would expect more details and a different way of reflecting the challenging facts she is exposed too. More than once, I had the feeling that she is over-exposed to way too many things - friendship challenges, dramatic health issues, family craziness - and still she remains completely plain, going on with her life as it is no tomorrow. I would expect Sophia to be as complex as her circumstances were.
Otherwise, Sophia of the Silicon Valley is a pleasant weekend or holidays read, either or not you are part of this corporate world. Sometimes it is good to know well in advance if your envy for a certain kind of glamour is reasonable or not.

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

Monday, April 2, 2018

On Motherhood in the Current Era: The Baby Plan, by Kate Rorisk

Three women of different ages, middle-class, faced with the challenges of pregnancy and all what it involves, from the baby shower to the obsessive planning of every single details of the delivery - or not. It could be you, it could be me, it could be any of us. Thinking pregnancy and therefore motherhood changed not only from the point of view of the medical facilities offered, but also from the way in which women approach it. Mostly, working women, with a career unfolding or in the making, with or without a stable partner. 
Nathalie, Lyndi and Sophia: three women with three different destinies, two of them half-sisters, with destinies inter-wined. In a very lively, page turning way, Kate Rorick creates situations and tell stories which besides the easy-going chick-lit side, make you think a bit more about what exactly you need to keep in - and out - of your mind when it comes to waiting for a baby. Sometimes, we just expect everything to be pastel clear and go as smoothly as an app, when in fact, reality may have its own rules and by far more interesting human challenges. 
Overall, it is an easy read but that makes you think and while enjoying the reading, keep you connected to a bigger picture about our way too entertaining life styles. I really loved the diversity of characters: from the middle class, slightly OCD teacher Nathalie, to the ambitious Maisey, or the sensitive step-mother Kate. Women characters are the most defined and most of them a good example of strong, independent women courageous to face their daily surprises of more or less planned pregnancies. 
Obviously, there is a lot more in the book than pregnancies and although slow-paced, there are a lot of action-catching events taking place. 
Recommended as a weekend/holidays/long trip lecture for quality readers looking for a relaxing yet insightful read.

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

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Back on the Family Memory Lane: Algeria is beautiful like America

'Where you don't know where you're going, take a look at where you come from', goes an Arab saying. Young Olivia is going back in the country of her ancestors, looking to re-create personal histories and memories, mostly left to her through her grand-mother's stories. 
Former 'pied-noir'/'black foot', name given to Jews and Christians who at the beginning of the 20th century 'colonised' Algeria and other North-African countries from France, Olivia's family left the country in the 1960s with a piece of the country in their soul. They left there the best memories and a life lost for ever. Memory is treacherous, adding layers and layers of nostalgia the reality that was maybe completely different. Olivia is inspired by those filtered memories and her journey is both a self-search of her family roots and a travel dairy in a country still wearing the stigma of the bloody civil war in the 1960s.
Telling the story as a graphic novel was a very inspiring way as it offers a proper visual content, but also creates different memoir dynamics, with its own red line of events and encounters, that maybe if told in a classical way would have been less entertaining and interesting. Qualifying this genre as less-literary ignores from non-literary snobbish reasons the rich values that the match between inspiring words and inspiring drawings can bring. 
Algeria is Beautiful Like America is a good example in this respect. Especially when you have to deal with historically delicate topics, graphic novels may bring a pinch of irony into the story, which can deter the otherwise dangerous time bombs of political and ideological discourses. 

Rating: 5 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

I See You. Observations from the ICU. A Caregiver's Journey, by Monica Bhide

It happened to me often - the last time just a couple of weeks ago - to be faced with the unexpected turns of fate, when someone close to me just in a matter of minutes is challenged by a terrible, life threatening illness. The sickness and incapacity took control in just a couple of minutes of the mind and body. You don't know what will happen next and if after you say 'good bye' today there will be a tomorrow of you two.  
The newest book by Monica Bhide, a very talented author that I often feature on my blog, is about the very experience of seeing someone dear falling deep into the painful seas of physical uncertainties. I See You. Observations from the ICU. A Caregiver's Journey is not aimed at raising fundamental questions about life and death and the life after, but about the day by day challenge of surviving alongside with someone close going through a very complicated health-related episode. 
While her husband is in coma, she is observing the new environment, with the curiosity of the writer, while trying to get used with the dramatic reality. In such situations, only your curiosity can actually save you from deep sadness and the overwhelming feeling of being just a puppet of destiny. For good and for worse, things can change and you are just a witness of all those chain of events. What you can do, in fact, as a writer and creator of words-made worlds, is to gather those experiences, filter through your personal art and offer inspiration to those suddenly found themselves in a similar situaiton. It is a noble task to offer spiritual help without promising ultimate explanations. It is this sequence of life through the eyes of a caregiver that in fact never considered being a caregiver. Observations from the ICU, a place where you never wanted to find yourself in the first place.    
Life doesn't come with an user guide anyway so we are left with its incertitudes and unexpected shocks and drama. Books like the one authored by Monica Bhide is a practical guidance to go on with that. 

Rating: 5 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the author in exchange for an honest review