Tuesday, October 16, 2018

History in the Making Explained to Children

'I can't help but think how much easier it is to live in one place your whole life. I will never know that feeling'.
Zomorod is a curious teen from Iran, that moved to America with his parents, after her father received a work offer in the oil industry. We are in the end of the 1970s, without social media, smart phones and selfies and the communication between teens is completely different. She has to leave one place for another, leaving behind friendhips, school mates and teachers. Plus, with a name hard to pronounce and his parents hardly speaking any English the integration is even more difficult. Plus: 'Speaking Persian in America is like speaking a super-secret language that no one understands'. Teenagers all over the world want to be part of something, of a community and not to be outrageously different. It's time for Zomorod to make a change: from now on, she will be Cindy, she will go to the usual events American teens go, including summer camps, she is even getting a job. I've found very interesting how New York Times bestseller author Firoozeh Dumas created the main character, as a curious child learning through comparisons with the world of adults.
Meanwhile, the situation in Iran is going through dramatic changes and his father lost his job. They are living on savings and planning to return back home, despite the rapid pace of Islamization the open minded Persian society is going through. Although Zomorod is assumedly living in an area of middle-class Americans, the fact that a 12 years old is asked repeatedly about the situation in Iran, as she is a political analyst sounds a bit forced and unrealistic to me. The book is supposed to have a serious historical content, to be further used for discussions about Iran and other cultures, but more than once I've found this part a bit exaggerated, from the teenagers' point of view.
It Ain't So Awful, Falafel is a slow paced, insightful mid-grade novel appealing to curious children, open to learn about cultures, trying to adapt to new cultures while building their strong identity based on their full acknowledgment of their roots and traditions. 

Rating: 3.5 stars

Monday, October 15, 2018

A Fine Psychological Thriller: The Chalk Man, by C.J.Tudor

Everything started as a children's game: creating a secret language by drawing chalk man of different colours and sizes, with meanings familiar only to the 4-member of the 12-year old gang. Each has a special colour to use. Life in the small English town of Anderbury isn't spectacular: everyone knows everyone, what they do, where and especially with whom. 
But it seems that the closer the community the harder to understand what really happens sometimes. Especially when young people die or are killed, a reverend is beaten to near death. Almost three decades later, the mystery remains and some members of the old gang would love to find the truth. Each of them has his or her own version of truth, and more than one assumptions. Are those assumptions a step forward to the truth or just an unreliable variant of the truth?
'There are some things in life you can alter - your weight, your appearance, even your name - but there are others that wishing and trying and working hard can never make any difference. Those things are the ones that shape us. Not the things we can change, but the ones we can't'. There are no spiritual mysteries, including in what it is assumed to be the House of Gd - but in this book assumptions are approximations, never leading to the truth - in The Chalk Man. The plot and the development of the characters are so carefully and finelly built that one can rarely predict what to expect. Who is really the criminal? Why the crime was committed? In a way, more than once the story reminded me of Twin Peaks: twisted minds, bizarre characters, meteoric presences whose meaning cannot be understood not even after the 10th sight. 
I've read some reviews where there were complains that the plot is very slow paced but I think that instead of a car-racing development, C.J.Tudor rather built a puzzle made of very small pieces, one by one. The fact that after the book is over one might think a bit more if it really grasped what is the final verdict is an excellent example in this respect. 
I can only be very curious about the author's next book. If for the debut the writing is so elaborated and entincing I allow myself to expect only good bookish things. 

Rating: 4 stars

Friday, October 12, 2018

How to Read More...and More...and More

Only a couple of months left from 2018, and my Goodreads challenge is going smoothly, although I am a couple of books behind the schedule. Until now, it was a busy year, with many professional and personal challenges, with a lot of planning and new assignments in sight, but also beautiful bookish discoveries that I am happy I have the chance to share it on my blog.
However, you may ask, how it is possible to juggle so many balls in the everyday life and still have time to read? Actually, for years, I regularly spent at least one hour reading, in more than one languages, every day. Meanwhile, I had to take care of two kids, mostly on my own, have jobs, a social life, personal friendships and many many interesting trips all over the world. How can this be done?
First and foremost, I am an avid reader from a very early age. I've learned to read only when I went to school, but books were my companion and my background all my life. I've spent my childhood in a house full of books - with four rooms full of books and the kitchen too. My bookish education included French classics like Balzac and Proust, classical of world literature like Dickens, Galsworthy, Tolstoi, Dostoievski and Pushkin - and a lot of crap Russian/Soviet literature as well - Kafka and Thomas Mann. To be perfectly honest, until around 17 years old, I was able to fluently talk literature with people that used to do literature for a living. So, one of the reasons why I am reading so much every year - at least 250 books, plus various academic articles - is because I am used to. Reading so much during times created special abilities and skills that are just part of my way of being as eating.
With a very busy schedule every day, which often involves commuting and children management, how I can find time to read though? As my life was never easy in time of schedule, I've developped special time management skills and methods, and this helps me a lot to create small islands of reading paradise in my life. This involves getting out of bed a bit early in order to have my long coffee and at least 30 minutes of reading, but also to use the best of my time for learning and, obviously, reading something too. For instance, while waiting for my train, or in the metro. This is usually how I am filling in my waiting time - either at the doctor's office, at the metro, or in the park. 
But books need time and a special mood to read, and sometimes you are just not in the mood for reading a special type of - heavy, thoughtful - books. It is a rightful question which makes sense. During time, my interests splitted between different literary styles and approaches, domains and authors. Actually, except vampire books, I am open to any kind of literature and literary approaches. Therefore, when I am not in the mood for something, I only have to browse my Kindle or library to find what I am looking for. Today, it can be that I want to read some poetry and a self-help book, but tomorrow it is a classical literature giant that I am into. A children book or an YA novel might follow, but also a graphic novel. I am very well into memoirs, but also political science and economics book. And I don't feel guilty for reading more than a book at once. 
What is important, is that you find your own pace and your bookish styles. After all, you have to read as much as you want and when you are not in the mood for, find a different way to enjoy your time. And, the kind of book that you enjoy reading, as it brings you more knowledge and beauty into your life.

Happy reading!

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

'The Magnificent Esme Wells'

'(...) I knew who Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen were long before we met them, men who made their own way, like my father. Jews who stood up for themselves, refused to be peddlers, pushed back against the world that wanted to hold them down'. 
Esme Wells is magnificent by its simplicity and realism. There is nothing to romanticize when it comes to the Las Vegas of the 1940s. Las Vegas itself is a wild place where money are exchange and outbreakers are punished, especially those among your 'own people'. They were wrong because did not understand the chances offered, cheated their peers and tried to run away with money. 
It is a sense of emergency among the male characters of this book. They run against time, they are always out of resources and fearful that things will change. Which happens very often. Killing is the last and easiest resort. You can be either one of the big ones, like Bugsy Siegel or Meyer Lansky, or a small pawn, like Esme's father, Ike, who always dreamed to build a future for him and his sad family. But Ike is born a 'luft Mensch' and will die one, killed because he played with dirty money. He wanted to make it his own. 
Esme is telling the story of her family which happens to intervow with the history of Las Vegas and Hollywood, with the Jews who refused to be peddlers trying to build their own way in the wild part of America. With back and forth down the memory lane, she is a quiet witness of all the changes as well as to the broken destiny of her parents. Her mother always wished to be an artist but ended up as a second raw dancer, and her father just a tool used for the other people businesses and supposed to never challenge his role. 
But Esme, herself caught up in the lures of bad boys and glittering dances in the Las Vegas casinos, is more than a witness of her times. She is a woman which compared to her mother, was strong enough to leave everything behind, including her father and rich much older lover. She, she can start a future of her own. She is magnificent.
The book is well researched but created autonomous characters, which although historically less relevant than the big bad bosses, offered to the author of freedom of creation. 


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

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Innovative Writing: 'Her Body&Other Parties', by Carmen Maria Machado

Her Body&Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado is a collection of complex explorations of bodies and sexual journeys. The stories are populated with wild desires, uninhibited acts and courageous body experiments, that are elevated to the level of art and vital source of inspiration. It is the act vividly described through the sights and words enhancing and challenging the physicallity of the body-focused experience/experiment.
And it is more than that for the literary adventures. The stories are surrounded by a hallo of imagination and fantasy, mind projections of the body in the world of magical thinking. Such layers of extra-experience augment and beautify the physical experience. It adds to the writing an extraordinary strength and potential, which diversifies the details of the sensual experiences. 
This complexity of the writing and different literary approaches within the same short story were for me the most interesting part of the reading. I may reckon that more than once I've  felt that the sexual explorations in themselves were not unique or mind blowing. 
The literary approaches are and promise a special unique voice. It also saves at a great extent the world of desires which is relatively worn out and risks by intensive use to end up as a simple casual encounters. The brilliance of the innovative style saved it.


Rating: 3.5 stars


Why 'We Should All Be Feminists'

'The problem with gender is that it prescribes how we should be rather than recognizingh how we are. Imagine how much happier we would be, how much freer to be our true individual selves, if we didn't have the weight of gender expectations'.
A short essay based on a TED-Talk, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's We Should All Be Feminists is a simple yet insightful explanation why the current gender attribution in life, social assignments and professional projections is wrong. The 'We' from the title means that me, and you, and your neighbour and your son all of us, we need to challenge those narrow restrictive roles because are simply obsolete. The mindsets persist through, perpetuaded through the daily cultural and educational stereotypes. 'A man is as likely as a woman to be intelligent, innovative, creative. We have evolved. But our ideas of gender have not evolved very much'
'I am trying to unlearn many lessons of gender I internalized while growing up. But I sometimes still feel vulnerable in the face of gender expectations'. More than in other historical moment, we have more freedom to define ourselves. 'Culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture'. 
However, very often the gender gap is the result of educational patterns. 'If we keep seeing only men as heads of corporation, it starts to seem ''natural'' that only men should be heads of corporations'. 'We spend too much time teaching girls to worry about what boys think of them. But the reverse is not the case. We don't teach boys to care about being likeable. We spend too much telling girls that they cannot be angry or aggressive or though which is bad enough, but then we turn around and either praise or excuse men for the same reasons'. 
Regardless how advanced and progressive one might consider him or herself, assuming a challenging positive role in the gender determination process means going through an inner process. We need not only think repeatedly about it, but being strong enough to assume the role and become a voice of change yourself. 
'My own definition of a feminist is a man or a woman who says. ''Yes, there's a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do it better''. Which means a definition in progress, whose content is made by every man and woman who is challenging the traditional role setting. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a 'Happy African Feminist Who Does not Hate Men And Who Likes to Wear Lip Gloss and High Heels For Herself and Not For Men'. What Feminist are you?
Many of the ideas outlined in the essay need definitely more development and focus, and I would have to follow-up with other writings by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, but maybe it is up to each and every one of us to write our own feminist manifesto(es).


Rating: 4 stars

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Book Review: 'Goodbye, Vitamin'

In the style of Jami Attenberg's All Grown Up, Good bye, Vitamin features the voice of Ruth, in his early '30s and never coming to age. 
Moved temporarily with her mother to stay with her as her father, an university teacher, is showing the first signs of Alzheimer's, never going over of the cruelty of being left by her boyfriend, who naturally breaking up in the day they were supposed to move together, with no career plans, Ruth is observing. Anchored in the present and haunted by the past, she is trying to put together the pieces of the puzzle which is the life of her parents. Through their story, she seems to start discovering what adults are all about and how they cope with main life decisions and betrayals. 
Unfairly and for obvious marketing reasons, the book was often described as 'humorous'. I would rather say it is an ironic pamphlet about never growing up, confused ages and not assuming responsibility. Ruth is simple, not judgemental, happy to have friends but doing nothing against existential inertia. She is an interesting character of our ages, having a bit of everything but actually nothing of her own. 
The book is written in a diary format, with often divagations to the past. It includes short notes of the diary of her ailing father, ironically, with referenecs to her early childhood, the first existential questions and the mispronunciation of words. Ironical, because the father himself is entering a stage where not only the short-term memory is disappearing, but also the capacity of remembering some words and their meaning. 
Overall, Goodbye, Vitamin is a subtle meditation about aging in our times, obsession with healthiness that couldn't predict our fate though. Personally, I don't like characters like Ruth in books and in real life, but the book is worth reading for its unique style and approach to modern life and its craziness. 

Rating: 3.5 stars

Sunday, September 30, 2018

When Everything Fails, Backpack and Book That Ticket!

Tired of your 9 to 5 life? Not sure where your life is about to head? In need of a break from your current relationship? Looking to find your other half? Trying to escape an abusive relationship? Or freshly separated from the man you spent decades with?
For those and many more questions, the answer sounds very simple nowadays: get your passport, book that flight and run! Hopefully you have enough funds into your account or a job which allows you to work remotely. Doesn't matter your age, relationship status and mortgage situation. Take a break from the everyday chores and look for a beautiful island to soak under the sun sipping your coconut from your hammock. It is amazing how many books and memoirs are on the market lately encouraging wanderlust and taking risks far away from home and I (at least partially) support such mindset.
The hour after Lorraine discovered she is betrayed both but her husband and her best friend, she is leaving behind her quiet family life to embark on an adventure on a lifetime. It starts in Thailand and continues with a happily ever after. It doesn't matter that she was '(...) homeless, redundant and my marriage vows are void'. She flipped a new page of her life and I can only support such people, either in real or literary life. What matters is to be happy and purposeful, especially after living a lie for such a long time. 
The author of The Backpacking Housewife, Janice Horton is a traveller and travel writer herself, therefore many of the descriptions of places in the book sound authentic and based on her own inspiration. Targeting mid-aged women, in a difficult personal situation, travel looks like the proper answer to overcoming a complicated time. Especially if you are looking for a purpose and your account is fat enough to help you finally make your dreams come true.

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

Saturday, September 29, 2018

The Desperate Search for The One

I am coming from a culture obsessed about matching, finding the right one, the one and only soul mate meant for me in the Heavenly Courts. Wouldn't it be so easy to find a marvelous mathematical - or other - solution which will just get that 'someone made for you, rather than leaving it to chance'?
The One, by John Marrs, was as hard to put down as my first encounter with this author a couple of months ago. Five people are followed through short, suspense-filled episodes, as they are discovering love following being matched via a scientific system Match Your DNA. Among them, the founder of this company, the success driven business woman Ellie. Their adventures finding and conquering the hearts of their matches are as weird as the idea in itself. Some of them are so strange to get match-trapped into getting inseminated with the sperm of a purposelly dead half, only because he was designated as such.
However, who would refuse the call of genetics when such an opportunity is offered? Nowadays, we are more than never potential victims of algorithms, scientific illusions of comfort and system aimed at being our life easier because a certain projection created that possibility. Playing Gd is easier than never but the results may still be the random choice of feelings or chemistry. Which no DNA-related match can't replace. Would it have been a different fate for each of the five matches if not a hack into the system have altered the results? 
There are twists and changes of situations - and sometimes of minds too - on every pages, and Marrs succeeded in The One to build a great story of hope and deceit, with a lot of thriller and mystery outlines and surprising endings. You can't predict where everything is going to lead and this makes this book a perfect match for any lover of good books. 

Rating: 5 stars

Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Story of a Convenience Store Woman

In his recent introduction to the Penguin Book of Japanese Short Fiction, Haruki Murakami openly declared his lack of interest in the so-called 'I stories', a very popular section of the contemporary Japanese literature. 
However, for someone who is not living in Japan but interested in the literary phenomenon, among other things, such approaches reveals interesting aspects about the inhabitants of this country, the intellectual reaction to everyday social facts and cultural artifacts. 
The 36-year old Keiko Furukura is happily enjoying her work at a convenience store. First a part-time job she started during her university studies, it turned into a full time professional assignment. She doesn't want more than that and the mechanical behavior learned through her practice in the store are a personal staple nowadays. She has security and comfort and relies on her close family to offer explanations about why she is, after all, still in the same job for over a decade and happy with it. Why, for instance, she is happy being unmarried and without any history of personal intimacy, and not interested in romantic relationships. She always was 'strange', she confessed, and her lack of normality is nowadays mostly reflected through the open disaproval  of her next to kin.
In a subtle way, Sayaka Murata openly put into question the normality in the Japanese society, the ways in which the projections and expectations affects the personal perception on others and self-perception of individuals not necessarily conform to this view. Keiko has a stable job and is successfully conforming to what is expected from her at work, but her personal life is not, therefore  she is considered a falure. 
The social pressure means full conformity, and even she is not doing anything, trying to be as anonymous as possible, the society at large doesn't accept her. There is no place for half-ways. 
Although Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata is slow-paced, told in a very introspective way which is not always equally interesting, the social landscape it is carefully painted has the strength of a stroke. It asks the reader to think and reconsider the previous thoughts about women in Japan, especially single women which do enjoy their mechanical professional life in a convenience store (the author herself is working as one of them).


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

Saturday, September 22, 2018

'Things Are What You Make of Them'

Either you are a creative writer or a creative business owner, inspiration and support are something that you need regularly. You need it because once in a while, more often than you've expected, things are going wrong, or not how you expected them to turn out. 
Personally, I can't have enough of such books, explaining the basic principles of a creative everyday life, over and over again. Sometimes, you need confirmation that the right mindset is on, or just that you have to finally make that change.
Things are What You Make of Them. Life Advice for Creatives, by Adam J. Kurtz is a welcomed addition to my collection of such inspirational books. If you are already a couple of miles away from the start, do not expect too much novelty, but otherwise, there are some daily shoots that you need because life is not looking always as you planned to be.
My favorite part of this book has to do with the way to approach failure. Instead of considering it the end of the journey, the author's (and mine) advice is to take it as a challenge. Take your time, as much as you need, think about everything again, reconsider your options, and be ready to start again (preferably in a different way). Of course there are a lot of desperate moments of agony in between - especially if you have a mortgage to pay and children to feed - which are also real, but the mindset should be this and helps tremendously to reboot and keep working again - to your projects, to a specific job assignment. 
Although old on the market, there are still lots of things to keep in mind and wake your interest, therefore my recommendation for this book, preferably consumed in small installments, because you need to return to your projects to check if you are following the right path.
The graphical presentation of the book is special, but personally was not too much impressed with it. It is different than other books for creatives and sometimes it might just be enough.

Rating: 3 stars

Thursday, September 20, 2018

My Poetry Fix: The Nectar of Pain, by Najwa Zebian

'You see, in love you don't ge what you want
You get what you think you get'.
A poetry obsessive exploration of painful hearthbreak, The Nectar of Pain is a journey through the lows and highs of relationships with no future. Most of us been there at least once and going through the diversity of feelings ignited by such encounters is what a writer can offer as an alternative to being stuck in desperation. 
'Homes stay
But you walked away'
After all, a heartbreak may be just the acknowledging of the fact that nothing stays the same and saying - or being said - 'good bye' is all for the good. It's what saved your self from being completely obligerated, changed, transfigured, desfigurated, destroyed by someone else's intrusion.
Feelings are often projections of our own wishes and expectations, hopes and dreams. Feelings are delicate butterflies and we suffer, but understanding what are we going through and how to use this experience as a way to know ourselves and the human world in general is what poetry can do. There are many poems in this book which simply helps you better see and understand a full range of feelings that heartbreak tends to obliterate. At first, there is only suffering and that feeling that your heart really broke. But hearts are strong muscles though that can overcome bigger life shocks. Hence, the name of the book The Nectar of Pain, as it has to do with that secret pleasant feeling at the end of a heartbreak where you are far beyond the suffering, a new person, ready for more, better, different. 
Besides being a trustworthy companion through hearthbreaks, The Nectar of Pain reveals hidden meanings and different, unique interpretations and a hopeful, yet realistic approach on dramatic life events. Maybe after you go through half of the book you may think it is a bit too much and there are only different variants of the same thing, but you don't have to read this book in one sitting. Take your time, one heartbreak to heal at a time. 

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

Where is Wolfsburg?

Jan loves Lina and for love he relocates from the bubbling Berlin to Wolfsburg. City of wolves, or what? Best known among the locals as 'Volkswagen' City or 'Autostadt', Wolfsburg is less than two hours away from the new capital city, offering a mix of anonymous late 1960s architecture - not good - and a luxurious Autocity area and a very interesting Museum of Science designed by the famous architect Zaha Hadid. 
But the poor Jan, a freelancer artist of words, can hardly survive here, is often depressed during the long time when his girlfriend is at work, at a hospice. This is what the book is all about: coping with deep boredom in Wolfsburg. Meanwhile, Jan is often getting drunk, befriending a fireman, buying himself a car from a guy in love with Nana Mouskouri's music. 
As a resident in Germany for 10 years and counting, I often noticed the supreme disgust of 'city people' when I mention some obscure countryside place when I am spending my weekend. Not impressed or deterred, I keep going on with my Germany off the beaten track agenda and happy with the discoveries. But the feeling that big cities with recognizable names - like Munich, Cologne, Berlin (not too many in fact) - are worth, and the rest - thousand of them - not, is real and Wolfsburg! breath this mindset. 
Which is a pitty because although the book is well written and with nice language turns and plays - which does a lot of good to my German -, the plot doesn't exist, the characters are self-sufficient, that translates as completely not interesting, there are hilarious episodes but the book in its entirety is a book about nothing. The nothing is having a name: Wolfsburg! I bet that there are worse places to live in Germany and anywhere else, but still they can make it into a good story. This one is really missing the story point and I can only be sorry for it because there is not bad literary material.
Although I am not so knowledgeable in matters about contemporary German literature - work in process - I noticed a relative big gap between the entertainment books - well written but lacking completely any story point - and the very high end which features novels that are really impressive both in terms of language, plot construction and trendmill of ideas. Wolfsburg! belongs to the first category and although I am grateful for the language lessons self-taught through reading while commuting, I may rather make an effort and take more time to make more acquaintances among the contemporary elitist literature. Search in process for the best German contemporary novels. 

Rating: 2 stars

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The American Age of Memoir

In opposition with the European literary mindset, in the USA you can write a memoir regardless your age and your professional and personal achievements. As long as you have a story to tell and you enjoy a certain notoriety in your profession, age doesn't matter. On the other side of the pond, you don't have to reach a very ripe age to share your story to the whole world.
Amy Poehler is a comedian, with a long list of roles, a professional partner of Tina Fey. Her Yes Please memoir tells her story as a woman, mother and comedian, through small energetic essays which cover both her personal life - from childhood on - and her encounters as comedian to famous politicians, music stars and actors. With a lot of humour and self-irony she makes you laugh and think and it is already enough for reading this book. 
Truth is that sometimes you may ask why exactly you need to read a specific encounter or not, as I didn't find all - or most of the - adventures necessarily relevant, but being famous sells and I bet there are people in the States who really consider it relevant. For us, Europeans, it may not, as the distribution and the roles are  mostly foreign to us - thanks Gd there is Netflix which bridges the trans-atlantic cultural misunderstanding gap. 
But justice to be done to the book, there are also interesting advices about career and women in show-biz, and some family inspiration. Enough to fill some columns in some women-oriented publication but not realized always why this should be a book, rather than a collection of essays. The writing flows too and if you want to fill your afternoon with some not-challenging, not-so-bad kind of writing, this is a wise way to use your time. 

Rating: 2 1/2 - 3 stars 

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Mothers and Daughters of Halsey Street

In the Bed-Stuy Brooklyn's neighborhood, Penélope is haunted by the failures of her own art life and her parents' break up. By nature a rebel without a cause, she rather prefers the accidental relationships to the long-term commitment because afraid of the disappointment of being left behind. An only child, with both her mother and father loving her, she is looking for something that didn't have yet but it's too lost in her failures to look for.
Halsey Street uses the sociological reality and media-hype about gentrification in Brookyln and generational shifts, especially in the predominantly non-white neighborhoods to create a story which moves by its simplicity, natural, non-sentimental way of expressing feelings and the relatively simple plot. The small human stories within the story are circling around the need to belong, either to a group, country, neighbourhood or social category. Such an inclination lives within the deep hidden layers of our self, surviving all our attempts to 'normality'. 
We belong to a family, the racial and ethnic heritage of both our mother and father, that in addition instilled in us their wishes and failed dreams too.
Ralph, Penélope and Mireille are three particular destinies featured in this debut by Naima Coster, that may be some of the many residents of Bed-Stuy, children of children that once went to school hungry. If they were been to school at all. Themselves waiting for their sometimes first generation of American-born children to outperform personally and professionally. Such a pressure may get results but it can also create anything at all. Especially when their parents' dreams are breaking, like in the case of Ralph, whose music store, his greatest life achievement that fed his family for decades, become obsolte faced with the rabid competition of bio/eco stores. 
The estranged relationship between Penélope and her fugitive mother Mireille, that escaped the bubble of the American dream to quietly enjoy the solitude in her native Dominican Republic, is deeply cruel and one of the most dramatic moments of the plot. Very often, it is what happened when unfiltered raw feelings are left free. Often, it is just how life really is. 
The slow-paced stories told by the characters of Halsey Street require the attention of the reader for its genuine human simplicity and drama. Especially if you are interested in racial stories, this novel offers a direct literary approach, without subtelties or convoluted messages, just by using a natural art of storytelling. 
Maybe I stumbled upon this book and appreciated it as I was in the mood for a micro-society focus and in a different set of personal and literary circumstances I would have been hesitant to finish it. However, I am glad I did, as it open up the window to a special writing style and approach.

Rating: 4 stars

Sunday, September 16, 2018

YA Book Review: Words on Bathroom Walls, by Julia Walton

''I really didn't want to be crazy. Nobody wants to be crazy, but now that I know I know what's happening to be, now that I understand what's going on in my head, I don't want to think about what it means to know you're crazy. To know that your family knows you're crazy'. 
Adam was a boy entering his teens years, when after some medical checking was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Although it usually manifests later in life, he was unlucky enough to show signs and an fast progress which require proper medication. He has a supportive mother and step-father on his side, but his friends left him and had to change schools. In his new (Catholic) environment, he is slowly making new friends, while on medication with a new drug, which limits the period when he is hallucinating. But once the drug administration diminishes, he is haunted again and risks to loose his newly acquired friends and girlfriend. 
Written as a diary where he is observing the effects on the drug, to replace the talking therapy during which he refuses to talk, the book is a fine investigation about what does it mean of being haunted by your own mind. 
I personally think it is a very sensitive, yet welcomed discussion. Living with someone with a mental disease is hard and needs time to accept a condition. For children, as pure and innocent as they are, abnormalities and strange behaviors are automatically rejected. Does education and understanding of various sides of the malady change this situation? Hardly, because sharing personal medical details is not always desired by the patient's family and explaining the different nuances of the malady - in Adam's case that compared to the Sandy Hook shooter he is not manifesting an aggressive form - is sometimes too much. 
'Cancer kid has the Make-A-Wish Foundation because Cancer kid will eventually die, and that's sad. Schizophrenia kid will also eventually die, but before he does, he will be overmedicated with a plethora of drugs, he will alienate everyone he's ever really cared about, and he will most likely wind up on the street, living with a cat that will eat him when he dies. That is also sad, but nobody gives him a wish because he isn't actively dying. It is abundantly clear that we only care about such people who are dying tragic, time-sensitive-deaths'.
It is a sad reality that Julia Walton reveals beautifully, through a life story that moves you to tears. The simplicity of the story touches both teens and adults, both with a resonsibility in creating a mindset which rejects an individual, especially a child, with a mental disability.
Did you ever happen to observe how children or teens, but also adults react to someone - sometimes a homeless - person haunted by his own mind? They frequently make fun, laugh loudly, when not provoking themselves the poor being. Such books may help a better understanding of the everyday world of someone dealing with such a burden and at least open the gates of understanding and compassion. It may make things better for everyone.

Rating: 4 stars

Monday, September 3, 2018

Blog Tour: Summer at Hollyhock House, by Cathy Bussey

Life hasn't been too exciting lately for Faith. At 26, she has a boyfriend that bores her to tears and a job which is not too demanding either. She dreams of taking some classes for learning gardening, but there is no time or encouragement on behalf of her life partner. 
After refusing her boyfriend's proposal, she decides to spend some time in the countryside, at her parents', catching up with her girlfriends. But she has a well-kept secret that no one knows and this secret has a name: Rik, which happens to also be around at the same time, after an absence of almost 9 years. 
Slow paced, brought to life by complex characters exchanging elaborate dialogues, Summer at Hollyhock House is a well-written summer or weekend story read, about taking decisions, questioning relationships and falling in love again. Most of the action is going back and forth down on the memory's lane, with Faith recalling the moments that lead to the dramatic break up with Rik and her long heartbreak thereafter.
Although the story follows a frequent scenario - the escape back to the childhood place, after a big disappointment, job vacancy or dramatic, mostly sentimental event taking place in the big city - this story is filled with attractive actions and likeable characters making the story pleasant to the reader. However, it is good writing you are filling with your afternoon at the beach or elsewhere and therefore it is worth reading it. A simple story, with a happy ending and a moderate course of events. No glamour but down-to-earth characters, likeable for their realistic description. After a start which did not promise anything surprising in terms of narrativel, slowly slowly I got into the story and couldn't put it down until it ended. It was mostly due to the writing and the lively dialogue between the characters.
The end is predictable too, but somehow one may need predictable stories which are not too often happening in real non-literary life.

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

Saturday, September 1, 2018

In the Heart of the Cold War: Gleisdreieck Berlin 1981

I wish I have more time to read graphic novels. Especially when it covers a topic I am well familiar with, the graphic illustration is a delight for both the eyes and the curious mind. Besides the classical children graphic novels, I am particularly interested in those with a political layer. As I noticed already in previous reviews, there are an important tool to create meaningful stories and bring near areas located far not only geographically, but from a while mentality standpoint. 
However, a more than basic knowledge about a topic is necessary. Gleisdreieck. Berlin 1981 is about a policeman infiltrated into the anarchists from West Berlin and a terrorist returning to his comrades from Syria. Their ways predictably intertwin. But a lot is requested to know about the topic so dramatically escalated in the last decade of the Cold War: the KGB-East German connection with the anarchists movements (ecologist/against nuclear plants/occupy-type of actions); the generous help from former Nazis hidden in Syria and other Middle Eastern corners to the RAF militants, both as a training basis and a safe haven, as well as for help when counterfeit papers are needed; the lack of neutrality of most of the actors involved in the pro-socialist movements in the capitalist Germany. 
With the dark background of the images - the architectural details deserve a thumb up, for the precision and sense of perspective - and the conflicted stories, the episodes of the novel unfold. Sometimes, you have a long succession of images, with only a couple of words at the end of the page. Enough to get into the ambiance of a place without thinking too much. You are just being drawn into the story and for a graphic novel it is a great achievement.  
An interesting historical episode from the everyday life of the West Berlin citizens in 1981. Some bank robberies, street fights, Molotov cocktails and former RAF comrades. An useful lecture for anyone interested in the visual and literary transpositions of the Cold War.
The novel was initially published in French, by Des ronds dans l'O. A playlist with contemporary 'revolutionary' hits is also provided.

Rating: 4 stars

Sunday, August 26, 2018

An African Thriller: Nairobi Heat by Mukoma wa Ngugi


Nairobi Heat is more than a simple thriller about an investigation taking place between USA and the African continent: is about coming home or rather longing for it, about tragic histories and pathetic human weakness and the relativity of good and evil.
Ishmael is in charge with discovering who is the blonde girl found murdered on the footsteps of the house of a famous Rwandan war hero. Following an anonymous call suggesting vaguely that the answer might be in Kenya, he is taking the first flight and starts a counterclock investigation. (Honestly, I doubt that bureaucracy is so weak in the States that you actually can convince anyone to pay the cost of a trip based only of a very unclear hint). What Ishmael will find there is enough for a lifetime: he fell in love, is always challenged to define his own identity as although Black himself he is obviously took for a mzungu - a white in local slang, is dangerously entering a spider web of corruption, crime and genocide guilt. Killing is a local sport, life does not count when even a little amount of money is involved. Good sensitive people are in fact with a black heart, individuals only looking to steal a little bit to survive. And survival is differently defined from a person to another. 
The thriller is following its program and so do the human stories behind the characters. The multiethnic and racial divide both in Africa and America are hunting Ishmael. In the USA, the fact that he was a 'black cop arresting black people' cost him his marriage, but in Africa, black people killed millions of other black people based on an assumption of theoretical race purity. When it comes to corruption, it does not matter what is the colour of the hands the money are exchanged through. 
At a great extent, the background - corruption, deep wounds left by the Rwandan genocide - is predictable and unpleasantly stereotypical and although the thriller story has some interesting twitches it is relatively secondary in my opinion. What I personally found interesting was the human dialogue and philosophical suggestions which are really a great topic of discussion about identity and human nature in general. 

Rating: 3 stars


Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The Trap of Tradition in Challenging Times: Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Although my strong black-and-white opinion that a terrorist remains a terrorist and there is no excuse or mercy for the fanatics killing in the name of a religion, the ideas revealed through the characters and events in Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie added a lot of nuances and angles to the discussion. And this is what good books are all about: raising awareness and changing the direction of sight through words.
There are plenty of ideas and even more questions about Muslim identity and challenges of citizenship, assuming responsibility and the relative choice between good and evil. Should terrorists with double citizenship still considered citizens of a democracy they aimed at destroying through their acts? Is terrorism a kind of pandemic, which might be transmitted from father to son? What is the impact of terrorist activities on families? Should the members of the family considered accountable for the acts of their relatives? What loyalties should come first: family or state? 
The life of the main characters in the book - the siblings Isma, Parvaiz and Aneeka and the family of the 'Lone' Wolf the newly appointed Home State Secretary - are pending between tradition and modernity, adapting their cultural and religious habits to the democratic frame, rejecting democracy altogether or religion. Their interactions and discussions are displaying different shades and nuances of what are the challenges of Muslim identity, but personally I think that finding the right balance between tradition and modernity, particularly adapting traditional ways of dressing and behavior in the modern world is specific other religious identities too. This observation by Auntie Naseem in the book outlines those aspects: 'In my days, either you were the kind of girl who covered your head or you were the kind who wore makeup. Now everyone is every thing at the same time'.
The challenges facing the second or third generation of immigrants are relatively new, especially to the Muslim minorities in Europe, facing the interaction with modern, rationalist state settings only in the last decades. What does it take, for instance, for being the member of the British government as a Muslim? Should the person in charge with this position be completely against his religious background? (Ironically, Kamila Shamsie created a Home Secretary with Muslim background that will be later a political reality)
From the literary point of view though, I've found that despite the rich ideological and philosophical background, the characters are very often lost in the intricacies of the story. You may know their thoughts on certain issues of interest for the story, but the chance of knowing them as complex humans is very limited and they are very fast abandoned for switching of to another character which may be more or less raising similar issues.
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie is an important book for those interested in an in-depth knowledge of the last decade intellectual discussion about terrorism, civil liberties and religious and democratic identity. I would personally be interested to keep reading more books, especially literature, about those challenges.

Rating: 3 stars

Saturday, August 18, 2018

The Decadent Charm of Asia: Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw

'That's what happens in Shanghai. People say it's the size of a small country, but it is not, it's bigger, like a whole continent, with a heart as deep adn unknown as the forests of the Amazon and as vast and wild as the deserts of Africa. People come here like explorers, but soon they disappear; no one even hear them as they fade away, and no one remembers them'. 
Five characters: Phoebe, Gary, Justin, Yinghui and Walter Chao. One common treat: been born in Malaysia. One destination: Shanghai, the big city of all wonders and wanderings. Born more or less under a lucky star - mostly not - aiming to forget their past, hoping to build a new future. 
In Five Star Billionaire, Tash Aw created a captivating story made of life stories. The destinies of each of the characters may intertwin at certain moments of the story and all of them might be blinded for a little while by the glamorous city lights. The characters are all tragic in their struggle with their past(s), illusion of recreating new lives and destinies, when in fact they might follow a well beaten destiny path. Even when they are on the top of their career and finally welcomed by the sophisticated Shanghainese elites , the characters are unable to escape their past, and the weight of the past will finally take its toll. Some might resist and turn this old obsession into a new creative project some might simply buy a one way ticket back to their country. 
Besides creating captivating human stories, Aw has a special art of creating ambiances, with a cinematic precision. Words are powerful enough to paint worlds and settle photography-like moments. 
The literary work is based upon various researches on studies not only about corruption in Malaysia and China, but also in issues related to foreign workers and other sociological aspects facing the New China and this part of Asia in general.
I've personally found hard to say good bye to the book. The story was becoming so real - that perfect mixture between an interesting socio-political part of the world made alive through an unique storytelling - that I was simply expecting to see more episodes from the lives of the characters. The way in which the book ends is not perfectly satisfactory - some endings were predictable, some not, but it is completely in sync with the specific behavior of the characters. 

Rating: 4 stars


Tuesday, August 14, 2018

A Thriller with Algorithms: The Silicon Jungle by Shumeet Baluja

The Silicon Jungle predicted long before the humongous Cambridge Analytica scandal - when private data of Facebook users were passed over to a private 'consulting' company to model voting behavior and political prefernes - the trecherous game of the algorithms. When global companies like Google or Facebook are storing billions of details of their users, allowing tracing everything from their personal preferences to consuming behavior, all you need is a good algorithm to know way too much about any one of the users.
Stephen is an enthusiastic intern with a good brain that landed at the famous - for the logic of the book - Ubatoo (a mixture between Google and Facebook) in the Silicon Valley. In less than 3 months he will acknowledge not only the big advantage of having the world's most powerful database as a playground but also the temptation of intruding into private lives. Who would not do it, after all, as you can only by curious about what other people are doing and thinking and eating. There are moral limits to this curiosity, but mathematically speaking, you can build a model and put it on trial and take it as a purely theoretical approach and experiment. McLuhan's observation that information is power still operates in the new 2.0 environment, it only gets even more powerful.
Stephen will enter into trouble by pure naivity and too much trust into the power of algorithms when he offers himself to help an activist for civil liberties. But there is no something like neutrality and being helpful when it comes to information. Depending of whom is using it, it turns to be a weapon of mass and self-distruction. And a thriller story where special intelligence - but not as intelligent as a young intern with lots of data at his disposal - agencies and terrorists also some academics naively believing that they can change the world as we know it through theoretical speculations only.
The book has a heavy informative technical algorithms-based background but in most cases succeeded to introduce it into the narrative. Although the risk floated in the air, it was avoided the impression of reading an academic research on algorithm and data instead of a work of fiction. 
There are so many characters in this book, not few of them greedy - either for money, for information, fame or both - but skilfully, the author outlines the good and bad side which resides in everyone of us. Sometimes, you only need some special circumstances to leave one part or another outshine. 
Although the future doesn't look always rosy, especially for the Internet users, Baluja avoided to use a dramatic pessimistic tone about what the future has in stock. It doesn't make predictions or allows deep - to be or not to be kind of meditations about life and how transparent our lives are becoming. It is a story using the modern background but it still stays a story, not political or futuristic and even less intelligence projection. But it seems that it made big media stories like Cambridge Analytica seen it coming. A good use of literary skills, anyway. 

Rating: 4 stars 

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Memories of a Diplomatic Wife: Vodka&Apple Juice, by Jay Martin

It happened often lately to have on my reading list memoirs written by wives of diplomats, sharing their impressions, frustrations and challenges of their life abroad. Trying - often unsuccessfully - to cope with the liguistic barriers, the sadness of being taken away from their jobs and former social and family responsibilities, with their marriage in a limbo. Maybe it should be created soon a new literary category of 'diplomatic wives memoirs'. At least, they lived to tell the story and almost created a special genre. 
Jay Martin's memories of her 3 years accompanying her husband during his diplomatic assignment in Poland on behalf of the Austrialian embassy doesn't differ too much of previous works I've read. Wives able to write a memoir - and even knowing the local language - are obviously a step and a half further than the frustrated housewives spending their time calling their friends and relatives at 'home' and hardly going out of the appartment and appearing at embassy events only to complain about their precarious expat life. But besides the literay add on, the experiences as such are overwhelmingly boring. We all take decisions in life, some bad some good, and we need to get the best of it. More than one episode about the diplomat of husband coming back home early in the morning after spending the night who known where doesn't make it as a story for me, unless there is really something interesting that happened during this time. Or the wife reacted somehow, or whatever can be relevant to a story you share with the world...
But besides adopting a worn out perspective on diplomatic encounters and daily life - 'Poland is cool. It's just that my life here sometimes seems like an endless round of cocktail events with complaining expat wives...' - Jay Martin really used her experience to get the best of it. She went all over the country, revealing travel destinations unfortunately mostly unknown outside the country, learned a language known for her relatively high level of complexity and explored Europe and even the badly famed Kaliningrad. Those part of the book are the best and I really enjoyed in their fullest, before another couple of pages of complaining and experiences of couple alienation.
Would I recommend this book? Yes, if you are interested in European and particularly Polish history and if you are a diplomatic consort that would love one day to write a better memoir. 
I personally liked the cover - joyful and appealing to someone curious about Poland and with a call for wanderlust.

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

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Book Review: For Today I Am a Boy

For Today I Am a Boy is probably the best book about transgender identity I ever read. It is one of those books that open your eyes and the mind to a world that you weren't aware of before, in a very swift, literary, non-ideological way, and it is what it means for me to write good books. 
Peter, the character of the book, belongs to a Chinese family of immigrants. His uniqueness as the only man-to-be in a family with other three girls is that he actually doesn't feel as a boy. 'Boys were ugly and foreign, like another species. Like baboons. I was not one of them. The evidence was right there, all the time, tucked into my tight underwear, but I still didn't believe it. I didn't have one of those things, that little-boy tale of flesh'. 
Peter's personal history is intertwined with the identity interactions with the father and the challenges his other three sisters had to deal with in their adult life. Although from a stable family - except the father who had a white lover - all the kids ended up unmarried and at a certain extent unhappy. The tyran of the father who forbade the mother to speak Cantonese or cook original Chinese foods, dreamed about his children being lawyers and doctors. 'When I realized Father wasn't with her (the mother - WWW), I took her to a dim sum place inside a mall in Chinatown'. The image of the Father - always with F - is overwhelming, fearful and affects in a Freudian way the development and emotional development of the siblings. They all looked so perfectly normal from outside!
Peter's identity is evolving slowly and sometimes he seems himself not so sure about what he really is. When meeting other trans that not even were supported by the family to change their gender but open about their life journey, he refused to acknowledge it, because it seemed like he wasted his real life hiding and containing his feelings: '(...) you couldn't just rename yourself, you couldn't tear down the skyline and rebuild and think there wouldn't be consequences'. His gender identity is growing up slow and it is the new perception on gender and most generous - although not perfect space of expression which is speeding up the process. 
Kim Fu created a beautiful, well-told story to express so many different feelings and life episodes and milestoness. The characters don't leave you indifferent and most of them make you think about them long after the book is over. I've personally found the mother, with her silences and repressed identity, a very interesting figure, representative for her generation and the perception of women in family and society. 
For Today I Am a Boy well deserved the accolades received in the media and set a complex standard in terms of trans-related literature. I will probably read other books my Kim Fu too as I noticed a gentle way of approaching life which appeals to me.

Rating: 5 stars

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Visiting the Brecht-Weigel Memorial House in Buckow, Germany

One hour away from Berlin, the spa and relaxation Brandenburg resort of Buckow is a perfect hideaway if you want to spend some 'me time', far away from the city hussle, surrounded by an idyllic landscape. This July, I spent there three weeks exploring the area, relaxing and reading with views over the esmerald lakes.
It looked that famous literary characters from Germany envisioned this corner of paradise at least as inspiring as I did, as they choose it as their creative retreat. Buckow's famous residents were the couple Helene Weigel - Bertold Brecht that spent summers working and creating here.


The Weigel - Brecht Memorial House is situated - where else - on the Brecht Street, at no. 30. It is at the end of the street, close to the forest and with a view over the Scharmützelsee.


In a row of one-storey houses, this house stands out by its rounded roof and the discrete wooden panel decorations. Created by a Berlin architect, the house was the property of Weigel, and after her death - she survived Brecht for over a decade - purchased by the GDR and turned into a memorial house. Here are regularly organised various literary encounters and events about Brecht and writers with similar influences.


The house is relatively simply organised, with a huge living room at the ground level, and some small rooms - and probably a kitchen, at the first storey.


Only the huge living room, with a glass wall through which the natural light is soaking the solid wood furniture is available for the visit. Personally, I would have expected more information about the house and its history, as well as a bit more about Brecht than the famous Mutter Courage play, where Weigel had for a long time the main role.


Weigel-Brecht were often compared to the couple Simone de Beauvoir-Sartre. As in the French case, Weigel stayed in the shadows for a long time and was often considered just an actress, in comparison with her worldwide life partner. However her contributions to the evolution of German contemporary theatre are at least as important as Brecht's literary achievements.


The house may look modest to the visitor, but the large garden, where the wild bushes alternate with the neatly trimmed grass, make it the best of the entire estate.


Fragments from the poems written here by Brecht- Buckower Elegies - are spread all over the garden, written in metal boards.


Other small pieces of art are also give a human touch to the garden.



A special space was created with EU money especially for everything related to the famous Mutter Courage. Written during the exile in Sweden at the end of the 1930s, Brecht used the background of the 30 years wars in the 17th century for outlining his ideas about the cruelty of war but also warning about the dangers of capitalism. You can listen and watch there fragments from the interpretations of the Berlin Ensemble, including Weigel's role.
Brecht remains a role model and mythical character in the German literary history, and its portrait displayed in Buckow is missing any eventual critical overview of his positions towards the SED-dictatorship and the lack of significant reaction towards the further evolutions in the Soviet Union and the communist space in general. 


The beauty of the garden though is filling my soul and my eyes with gratitude for being able to visit such place.


In an eyesight, you can figure out how inspiring such a corner can be for a writer and intellectual. It offers you the peace of mind and concentration to completely separate from the outer world and create your unique works. Being allowed in their sanctuary, we, the simple humans, can only understand better their influences and state of mind.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Summer in New York City: A Dangerous Age, by Killy Killoren

I randomly picked up this book thinking about my long evenings in the countryside, when I needed some small connection to the world of glamour, and gossips and the memories of New York City. That kind of sparkling chick lit that makes you feel envirous and longing for the life you traded once in exchange of comfort and predictibility. 
A Dangerous Age had a promise and filled a secret desire, but until the very end of it, disappointed. It lost its mundane sparkle in discussions about art, desire and fantasy, misplaced in the wrong life episodes, or broke down delicious descriptions of euphoric meals with absurde or - again - misplaced dialogues. You have the gracious life of New York celebrities in the summer, but they are not even vane, just happens to pop-up in the story as someone dropping names of the establishment in a discussion about children rearing. It is also a bit delusional assuming that an anynomous blogger posting daily metaphorical/philosophical posts will ever be world famous. 
In the end, all is overpassed, the superficial moments of tension and suspense are just superficial moments and life goes on again at the end of the season. Glamorous life can be vain, but for sure more eventuful and less hysterical than those girls meeting up every week with country girls ambitions.
That's all about this book.
Maybe, as one of the characters in the book said, I need to learn to live my own disappointments. And to be more careful the next time I decide to spend my time with a book. Not all the glitter about New York is really worth literary gold.

Rating: 2.5 stars

Friday, July 20, 2018

The Lives of Many Languages

As someone growing up with more than two complicated languages, I am fascinated by other people's stories of growing up in a multicultural and multi-lingual environment. My children grew up with a similar story, and got even more linguistic boost and I personally cannot see any other way of being a complete citizen of the world - besides usind those multi-lingual skills to travel and use them on a regular basis. 
I am surrounded mostly by people with interesting language stories and I am always keen to discover inspiring stories which involves wordings in more than a language, not necessarily translations, but ways in which multitude of words are taking over and shaping our lives. 


In Other Words/In Altre Parole was on my to-read list for a very long time. A successful writer writing in English, her second language after Bengali, Jhumpa Lahiri decided to challenge herself and switch to Italian, a difficult linguistic choice, but a neutral space for writing a new life page. Words are the cultural connectors, shaping the imaginary mental geography a writer needs to exist. 'Every since I was a child, I've belonged only to my words. I don't have a country, a specific culture. If I didn't write, If I didn't work with words, I wouldn't feel that I'm present on the earth'. 
The relationship started while she was still living in the US therefore creating the linguistic bridge and continuity was not automatically enfolding. 
'My relationship with Italian takes place in exile, in a state of separation. 
Every language belongs to a specific place. It can migrate, it can spread. But usually it is tied to a geographical territory, a country. Italian belongs mainly to Italy, and I live on another continent, where one does not readily encounter it'. Given the geographical separation, the relationship evolved slowly, not at a highly prodigal level. 'In spite of the conversations, the language remains elusive, evanescent', she noticed. 
And then she moved to Italy, in exile from the English language, starting the long-term relationship with Italian, a language she wrote her linguistic memoir. 'Learning a foreign language is the fundamental way to fit in with new people in a new country. It makes a relationship possible. Without language you can't feel that you have a legitimate, respected presence. You are without a voice, without power. No chunk, no point of entrance can be found in the wall. I know that if I stayed in Italy for the rest of my life, even if I were able to speak a polished, impeccable Italian, that wall, for me, would remain'. However, it seems that she encountered the same wall while living in America, for the same reasons, when she needed to justify the language she speaks - and writes in. 'I'm a writer; I identify myself completely with language. I work with it. And yet the wall keeps me at distance, separates me. The wall is inevitable. It surrounds me wherever I go so that I wonder if perhaps the wall is me'. 
In Altre Parole - which I've read in the Italian version, but keeping an eye to the English translation, because my Italian is way too undeveloped to following coherently 100% of the sentences - is a serious meditation about the meaning of languages and words in the life of writers and how words and grammar too can sometimes define ourselves.
Elena Lappin didn't chose some of her languages she started to learn since her early life: she moved to the then Czechoslowakia as a child, using Russian as the family communication tool, but learning Czech and after that German, all before she was a teen. She moved to Israel and learned Hebrew but her language of choice as a writer remains English. Her childhood was lost in words, trying to find the right word to communicate and connect with her peers. 
Besides being a story of many languages, What Language Do I Dream In? is also a story of finding her biological father, an American who lived in Soviet Russia that she discovered late in life. 
For Lappin, languages and countries are clearly defining different ages and life stages, each language having the meaning of acquiring a new life. This also means being part of a world with different words. 

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Travels along the 'Silk Road': Lands of Lost Borders by Kate Harris

After 'breaking up with Mars', because long distance was not her 'thing', Kate Harris embarks on a long cycling journey longside the mythical 'Silk Road'. It is not her first time in the area, and her previous experiences included entering into the Tibet without any of the special permits required by the Chinese government. This time though, together with her school friend Mel she cycles from Istanbul to the Himalayas. 
A brave journey during which besides discovering the human stories behind the encounters on the road, there are constant meditations about borders. Most precisely about the 'triumph of borders': 'The way they make us accept as real and substantial what we can't actually see'. Borders are political symbols and political choices charged often with mythical, conflict-fuelled meanings, especially in the part of the world where Kate was cycling. 
Indeed, she wanted to travel to Mars but somehow during her PhD program she found Earth more reachable, although humans keep drawing borders, fighting and dying for them, oppressing other humans and killing them too. Can a scientifical approach to borders, which also includes an approach to sustainable development save us from centuries-old dreams and obsessions? Most probably not, but people with fresh minds and a direct experience of borders can start a change. 
Personally, I am not sure what I loved the most about this book: the writing, the intelligent references ranging from science to history, the thrive for adventure on the road less traveled, the geopolitical and political references,  the journey in itself and the places she visited. Most probably all of them, as I've read the book in one full afternoon and wished there is another volume by her waiting for me. It is a book inspiring in both ideas and wanderlust, balanced and insightful.

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