Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Book Review: The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai drives you through complicated and complex layers of recent history through memorable characters telling unfathomable stories. 
The main characters are gay, dead or miraculously surviving the surge of AIDS epidemics at the end of the 1980s. They are Americans, from Chicago, close to the artist movement and at least some of them, ressenting the injustice of the establishment's incapacity to offer a proper institutional answer - not based on morality or religious lessons - to the medical crisis that dramatically affected the American society. 
The stories are spread across two temporal slots: in the 1980s America and in 2015, in Paris. The constant presence of both times is Fiona, sister of one of the first in the community to be killed by the deadly virus. A faithful companion and helper to the other memers of the group that suffered the same fate, she is looking for her estranged daughter, that apparently found refuge here, after escaping a bizarre religious cult. 
Although I personally found more than once that the stories are not always greatly built and at least for the 2015 period of time, are just stealing space from the initial plot, the construction of characters is what really makes The Great Believers a fantastic read. They have substance, personality, struggle and physical shape, everything made out of words. The book is also well researched, therefore the historical background creates a specific reality, and the artistic references are perfectly inviting the characters to come it to add their personal touch. 
I've read it very slowly, sometimes with couple of days in between the reading sessions, becaue I wanted this book to continue. It opens up hearts and minds to a different reality and historical time frames, to intellectually charming characters. Probably the plot could have been more structured and from interviews with the author I understood that the final version was very far away from the first version of the book.  But there is a strength to create characters, with a touch of words as strong as it could be the hand of a painter on the canvas.

Rating: 4 stars

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

My Reading Challenge for 2019

I've finished 2018 with 20+ books short of the Goodreads challenge. I haven't done it until 250 books as I planned and although I've started the year in a relatively optimistic bookish  note, somewhere in the middle of the year - probably around July/August, I've noticeably slowed down. 
With piles of books from the local libraries - both fiction and non-fiction - and over 1,000 ARCs ready to be reviewed, I've somehow failed to reach my optimistic reading goals. 2018 was a good yet confuse year from me, both professionally and personally, therefore the choice of and approach to books was  relatively challenging. From literature to politics and science books, to self-help and even poetry (an area that I relatively neglected in the previous years), my choice of books was well tempered and helped me to navigate smoothly through the realities of my life and the new professional assignments. 
Therefore, I am definitely ready to embrace the new challenges of 2019, while keeping the commitment to finish at least as many interesting books as in the previous year. Books that will help me better understand my personal writing challenges, books that would open up new worlds and human emotions and experiences, books that will teach me new skills and encourage me to follow new spiritual paths. 
The last year I was able to discover a couple of new interesting writers outside the usual European/Western realm and hopefully would be able to continue the exploration. As my plans for the year is to improve my Spanish and Portuguese, hopefully there will be more books read in original in those two languages. Another relatively secret dream of mine is to be able to read and fluently understand Hungarian again, a language I grew up with but neglected for way too many reasons. However, I see this coming only from April on, when I might be more safe with my other two languages. More reading - and preferably writing - in German is also part of the to-do-list for 2019, and 2018 was relatively a good year for improving - although not at the level I need to start writing and pitching in this language - my skills, but I am still far from my expectations.
With so many books received to review from the previous years, at least for the six first months I would rather focus on my current library than hurry up to purchase or request new books. It is quite hard for me, but a bit of moderation in bookish issues is more than welcomed. As for now, I will prefer to focus more on writing than on various events - book tours and interviews - but for the second part of the year I want to focus more - again - on libraries and the bookish lifestyle and challenges in general of being nowadays a person who reads, attached to the physical books.
I also want to be more prolific in writing my reviews, as much as I would love to see my writing style changing, improving and creating a more significant impact than before. Maybe, a little bit of more social media activity would not hurt as well, but given all the blogs I have to manage and their attached social media channels, I could only dream about finally jumping out of the mediocrity level and maybe becoming a bookish 'influencer' too. As someone who is doing social media curation and daily management, I know oh so well how much time such activities require and honestly I have no idea how would find that necessary amount of time to juggle with the branding of this bookish identity hat. 
2019, I am ready for your reading challenges! Bring on those unforgettable books and amazing authors, with their unique stories! Can't wait to read my way through the year and share on my blog as many bookish adventures as possible!

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Making Your Way Through Sales

I am currently working on a small project on sales, the first ever I did and I am shyly half through it, therefore I picked up this book for 100% professional reasons. 
Wise Me Up to Cold Calling by Shea Heer helps the beginner and mid-level sales professional to learn how to do sales right by approaching potential customers using the right message and attitude. Although cold calling might be considered obsolete in the era of Internet and social media, approaching someone on the phone it is still a doable alternative, based on the very human urge to communicate and connect. 
Personally, my biggest issue when started this small project was that I will really turn into a big joke, by fear of not having anything really interesting to say and sometimes not really interested in saying it. However, everything changed when I considered taking every potential contact as a way to connect, not necessarily to sell something but to offer something valuable in exchange. Of course that my PR and communication background helped me to really create some stand alone attractive offer in only a couple of words and a couple of seconds, but before sending my message, those couple of seconds before actually making the call were sometimes painful and Shea Heer is addressing this fear. The fear is usually the result of lack of confidence in what you are about to say. As 'being prepared is half the battle', figuring out what your project or company stands for is very important and must be clarify way before starting the conversation.
Talking about communication, it is equally very important to make everything as plain and simple as possible, especially by avoiding the heavy jargon language. When you send a communication via email, the words are there to be seen and eventually someone can do his or her own Internet research for checking your wording, but when you only have a couple of minutes, firing a conversation loaded with difficult words is a loss at first sight. 
The book is simply written, systematic and well organised which makes it an easy read, eventually at the beginning of starting your week of cold calling. I would have expect also a little bit of more writing about how to organised the call calling schedule, for instance by including a follow-up etc. Nowadays there are very efficient management systems that help coping with a big range of calls, such as, not mentioned in the book.
Strongly recommended to anyone curious about sales, or considering to begin a career in this domain.

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

Saturday, December 22, 2018

A World of Joyful Living in 50 Words

I am fascinated with languages and trying to learn as many as I can. Learning languages is like getting a new life, with a completely new world of meanings and feelings opening up in the front of your eyes and mind. As a translator myself, I know that there are so many words hard to translate and finding locals equivalents is rather an approximation of the meaning than a reproduction of the word. 
Therefore, I approached The Happiness Passport by Megan C. Hayes with a lot of curiosity, but also keen to learn new words. Although it makes the world tour in just 50 words, there are enough new insights into languages to win you more than a life. The words chosen are mostly words of yearning, expressing familiarity, intimacy and happiness. Words deeply rooted into the culture telling in just a few letters unique ancient stories full of hidden meanings to the non-native speaker. Take, for instance the Russian prostor which means yearning for wide plains. Or the Innuit unikkaagatigunniq, which reflects 'the power of storytelling and the role of stories in the communal ways of being'. I've also learned on this occasion two English words: petrichor - 'a noun that describes the pleasantly earthy smell of rain after a long period of dry, warm weather' and psithurism - 'the sound of wind whispering through the trees'. And I was reminded of an old Hungarian expression: 'Ugy szép az élet, hazajlik', meaning approximatively: 'Life is beautiful if it is happening'. 
Of course there are many more than 50 words to catch the spirit of the world, as the number of spoken languages and dialects in the world is impressively high, but this small level approach open up your eyes to search in your own native language(s) about those words that are impossible to substitute. 
The illustrations, the work of Yelena Bryksenova are nostalgic, romantic pastels that inspire to meditate about life, worlds and its making in words.

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

Saturday, December 15, 2018

A Captivating Middle-Grade Novel: The Elephant Thief by Jane Kerr

Based on real facts that took place in the 19th century, The Elephant Thief is also a beautiful story of friendship between the elephant Maharajah and the pickpocket Danny. From the slums of Edinburgh until Manchester, he will be part of a race against all odds to save a menagerie and gentlemen's honour. 
Slow paced yet not missing adventures and page turning events, this middle grade book has an elaborated plot which reminds a bit of the Dickensian novels about children from unpriviledged environment, faced from an early age with the hardship of outlaw adulthood. The writing is simple, accessible for the mindset and reading habits of a child outlining though creating an easy to grasp authentic historical ambiance. 
There is a big array of characters appearing more or less suddently in this story, often with doubtful intentions and problematic character features. The human mosaique as portrayed in The Elephant Thief is really diverse and complex and a challenge for a mid-grade child although it offers a good knowledge about the human diversity in itself, regardless of the historical location of the story. Personally, I've learn a lot about human nature while reading at the same age the novels of Balzac and Dickens, both outstanding artists of humanity with all its lows and highs. 
In addition to the human story, there is another part of the story which is highly sensitive and well done from the literary point of view: the wordless communication between Danny and the elephant Maharajah and the deep connection built in a relatively short time between the two of them. 
Although not the audience target of this book, I've found it highly enjoyable and the smart writing makes it a good reading choice for everyone. The way in which historical facts were researched and used further for creating a good story that stands the test of time is an example of how far you can go when you do your historical homeworks while filling the episode with quality writing.

Rating: 5 stars

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

A Runaway Amish Girl Memoir

I am personally fascinated by Mennonite/Amish stories, as I am curious about the possibilities of surviving as a very recluse community in a world which is very fast moving forward. As the members of the communities themselves are closed and without access to modern tools - Internet, edition houses - to share their stories, the information about everyday life are predominantly coming from people that leaved the fold. 
Runaway Amish Girl: The Great Escape, by Emma Gingerich is such a story. Growing up in what she described as the 'group of the least modern and uneducated Amish people on the planet' - the Swartzentruber Amish a group created following a split from the mainstream at the beginning of the 20th century - she decided to run away from her Missouri community finding her own path as an educated, modern free woman. Speaking mostly a local German dialect, with a very restricted use of technology use and refusing to accept hot water or plumbing into the house, the Swartzentrubers (named after a religious leader) look indeed very reclused and my later documentation about them outlines their insularity among other Amish groups that they refuse to mix or inter-marry with. What for me was extremely awkward was the description of some of their dating habits sleeping and hugging together in a bed while fully clothed. 
Once away, Emma is having a lot of challenges understanding the modern world, not only from the technological point of view, but also in understanding human relationships and intentions. Some of her tragic episodes reminded me of accounts shared by Leah Vincent in her excellent memoir Cut Me Loose, of leaving the strictly religious Jewish life. The transition is never easy and time will only help to alleviate the pains of the cultural shock. 
The story in itself has a certain anthropological and cultural value but when it comes to the literary aspects, the shortcomings are evident and bothering sometimes. The style is linear and lacks any literary appeal, mostly following the memory lane, without too many serious personal insights from the author. The story is simple, predictable and self-focused, which makes it into a healing confession but with a very limited literary value.
My interest for reliable interesting reliable Amish stories will continue, as it helps to put many things into the right cultural and history of religions' perspective. 

Rating: 2 stars

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Who is on Your Dinner List?

The Dinner List by Rebecca Serle is the second book in less than one week that I wish I liked, give it 5 star and heartly recommend to other people. The writing is gentle, emotional and connecting the dots between characters, but I couldn't heart the idea itself - of bringing together at a birthday dinner dead and alive people, among them Audrey Hepburn.
The love story between Tobias and Sabrina - the main character at whose birthday party the people are invited to - although a typical young relationship, with all the innocence given by age - is by far one of the most beautiful I've read lately. Sabrina's struggle to reconciliate with her now dead father who left her when she was a little girl is also worth a literary mention. The writing flows and the intertwinning of the temporal streams iswell-braided. 
However, as much as I tried, every couple of pages at a time, I couldn't stand the idea. It was not because I might not like magic realism or because my imagination is limited. All the time, I felt that it is such a good story told in the completely wrong context. Therefore, I was left with the strong impressions about character looking for connection that ended up in a spiritist-kind of session. I also wished that Audrey Hepburn was not on the list - among the possible guests, there was also Plato - only because it become such a omnipresent character, with all its kitschy downsides of such an overuse and often abuse of the brand. 
I would definitely read something else by Rebecca Serle as I was won over by her writing style. However, I wish for myself there is a different spin of the story. 

Rating: 2 stars