Sunday, October 17, 2021

Book Review: Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro (translated by Frances Riddle)


I made a terrible mistake for at least half of my reading of Elena Knows (Elena Sabe, in the original Spanish) by the multi-awarded Argentinian author Claudia Piñeiro, translated from Spanish by Frances Riddle: I desperately look for a mystery/thriller red thread. So desperately that I was about to give up the moment when I figured out that, in fact, the book has a completely different spin. However, as I continued to read the book, I realized that just opening your mind to a book, without counting on any genre-related label may be a much better way to appreciate a story. 

Rita is dead. She was found hanging from the church belfry. Her mother, Elena, does not believe the official version of a suicide. Rita always avoided the church on a rainy day and when she died, it was raining. Although coping with an advanced form of Parkinson´s, Elena decided to go to Buenos Aires to meet someone that may know why Rita is dead. Maybe that person is the perpetrator of the crime herself.

´Elena knows that her daughter was murdered. She doesn´t know who did it or why. She can´t figure out the motive. She can´t see it´.

The journey - the storyline and the reading - takes a couple of hours only, but the slow pace is intense because builds up: expectations, mystery, body weights. A confrontations of bodies: Rita´s stiff body being taken down from the church belfry vs. Elena´s body controled by ´Herself´, her illness. The lonely lives of two women, out of which only one, the most fragile is left. Bodies controlled by society, men´s desires, the church and their priests. Bodies that are expected to give birth and be mothers when men are just disappearing. Bodies shaped more by society than by the freedom of desire.

The writing - and subsequently, the translation - is excellent. Elena has a well defined voice and the dramatic references to her body´s decline are deeply emotional. But actually, it is less about Elena, but about Rita and how we react faced with the physical impairment of those we love. Sometimes, the cruelty of life is stronger than the power keeping us alive.

Rating: 3.5 stars 

Book Review: On Animals by Susan Orlean

I never been a pet person. My parents weren´t either - for too many reasons to explain right now - and although they never harmed an animal, they never allowed us to have pets. Not that we - me and my brother - didn´t insist - be it only for the pleasure of annoying my stepfather who was organically opposed of sharing his living realm with any kind of four-leg creature. But the answer was always a clear and loud ´no´. Even when I dared to bring up a small dog, hoping that will stay under my bed and take care of my room when I was to school, without figuring out that he may need a place for a toilet and also he may bark, both occurences diqualifying him automatically from receiving a resident permit in our house; the very moment when my stepfather stepped into the house, he started to bark violently, which left me with only 5 minutes to clean all the way up. After that, I never tried to bring any pet in the house, and when I was living on my own, I was too busy to take the responsibility of someone else.

Alas, an adult myself right now, I inherited the same opposition - although in a more gentle way - towards forcing pets to be my companions. Once in a while, I hear requests for acquiring a cat, or a dog or even a hamster that most probably will be left unanswered. Unless one day I will inherit a farm and will decide to leave my urban lifestyle behind and dedicate my time and energy to animals, not pets.

In fact, although the pets were absent from our upbringing, we had animals. We had hens and roosters - therefore, fresh eggs in the morning - and also a cat and a dog which had to fulfill some very specific functions in the household: catch a mouse, respectively guard the household safe from intruders. On my mother side, we often heard about stories about how fond my maternal grandfather was of horses, that even saved his life, and until today, horseback riding remains one of my favorite sports. 

On Animals - which I had access to in audiobook format, narrated by the author herself - Susan Orlean is developing a topic that she previously approached in other books of her - in Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, for instance - about the intersection between human and animal´s lives. A relationship that is going both ways, while maintaining the animal´s autonomy, without degrading them to a companionship level. 

The personal experience plays a role in shaping the richness of an experience. After all, how many of us had a boyfriend bringing a lion to pet for Valentine´s? Or a husband - the same person, a couple of years after - wanting to offer a donkey as a birthday gift? 

A couple of years ago, the international media reported about at least one country in the Middle East who launched a massive campaign of arresting squirrels, pigeons and dolphins and some eagles. who were suspected of being spies on behalf of a foreign power. On a more serious and documented note, Orlean is reporting about Tennessee mules - not the drink - dispatched to Afghanistan in order to help the mujahideens to carry on their supplies needed to fight the Soviet military. 

Animals are everywhere. They may have invisible lives, as the cats in Manhattan or work as municipal workers in LA, as the goats who are operating as living mawn lowers. There are the working animals of Fez - mostly donkeys or Orlean´s own collection at her farm in Hudson Valley, of guineafowls - like Prince Charles and Camilla - and chicken and rabbits. Or the oxes transporting oil. Not to forget about the business of dead animals, taxidermy highlighting a different side - dark, still - of the relationship between we and animals, dead animals, to be precise.

On Animals is a reminder of how intertwined our lives are with animals. Even when we don´t own any pets. But animals not only sustain us - with meat and milk and eggs - but as responsible partners in the ecosystems but also as part of a larger nature-written story. The story are not only unique, interesting and well documented, but also remind us about the complexities of life and at what extent we still depend, at various extends of their existence. Not only for companionship. 

 Rating: 4.5 stars

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Book Review: Unsettled by Reem Faruqi


As a child and young adult whose most early life meant being dislocated - geographically and spiritually - from a place to another, with parents fully unaware of the impact of the semi-nomadic lifestyle to their children - as themselves haven´t know any other stable way of living, I am instantly attracted by books dealing with representation of the unrooting. 

How one should deal with being removed regularly from his or her own familiar school environment? What happen when one has to enter worlds dramatically different of their own in terms of religious practice, curricula, language? Happily, nowadays we have social media and WhatsApp and it is easily to keep in touch with relatives and friends from all over the world, but still there is a deep trauma to leave behind your fragile human network moving in a place where not only no one wants to deal with you, but you become an easy target for bullying.

13 yo Nurah - from noor, light in Arabic - has to leave behind her friends and leave Karachi, Pakistan for moving to America with her parents. Inspired by Reem Faruqi´s own experience, Unsettled is a poetic story of growing up by the force of events. In her new country and home, she lost her voice. She is becoming mute and invisible. She is afraid to speak up, to be herself. Her learned English does not help, her mother is having her own grown-up problems and she is mostly left to herself. A herself that she cannot recognize any more. There is the grammar of separation and heartbreaking that matters right now. It is a new language she learns without even saying its words.

Faruqi succeeded to create a very distinguished poignant voice which is appropriate both for the age and the topics. It is a common issue particular to those whose roots were violently cut. To those new comers who has to adapt, but got lost on the way.

Unsettled is a short and lyrical account that both immigrant children and their parents should read. It helps, on one hand, to learn how to deal with the new environment and, on the other hand, possibly helping parents to acknowledge the difficulties their children are dealing with.

Rating: 4 stars

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Random Things Tours: The Rabbit Factor by Antti Tuomainen (translated by David Hackston)


If spontaneously asked what I know about Finnish literature, I will modestly have two simple answers: The Mumins and Mika Waltari whose The Egyptian was a summer long topic of discussion with a bookish friend of mine who was fascinated by this author (me, partially, but I was in my first university year and was less patient with literature, being more interested in nonfiction, political theories and philosophy). But there is definitely much more on this, and only the lack of translations should be the reason why Finnland is so under represented in the literary realm nowadays. Plus, you don´t only hear about books translated from Finnish, but there are rare mentions about writers and styles and not even children books by Finnish authors.

The truth is that Finnish does not sound so far away from home for me, but only my laziness does. As a once fluent speaker of Hungarian that, again, only my laziness limited over years my vocabulary to just a couple of very basic words, it would have been a great start for learning the language. Yes, I am aware that the two languages are different, but as part of the Finno-Ugric family, there are at least some patterns and words that may be similar, enough to encourage me to abandon my procrastination and gain a new language - a new life, as they say - that may help me discover this neglected European literature. 

But there is a Gd of lazy language learners who made possible the meeting between original books and translators. This match made in the bookish Heaven, for me, was David Hackston (who also translated, among others, My Cat Yugoslavia) whose translation of The Rabbit Factor by Antti Tuomainen published by Orenda Books brought to my attention an author and a book, but what a book, which stands out of all the boxes. You know, those wonder boxes opening up by slightly touching the bottom, hard enough to generate a pressure for opening up the lid at the most unexpected moment in time. A pop-up rabbit box. 

´I resigned because I couldn´t stand watching my workplace turn into a playground. Then I inherited one´.

Henri Koskinen is a passionate mathematician working at an insurance company. As he does not want to comply with the happy hippy attitude of his boss - ´I cannot be part of a team whose highest ambition is going on a sushi-making weekend´ -, he is offered no other option but to leave. But that´s all for the good, as the same day, he found out that he inherited an amusemenet park, YouMeFun, left by his brother who unexpectedly died. But with the fun comes the responsibility as his estranged brother left behind impressive debts that he should pay it with no delay´s not sure what exactly will happen, but be ready for the worse.

If you still haven´t start laughing, maybe you need more tickle but actually those events are taking place at the very beginning of the story. What will follow is one episode after another of amazement, merriment, corpses in the fridge, some local Finnish mafia guys with a basic vocabulary of Italian for Mafia professionals. There is also a cat called Schopenhauer, a giant rabbit places at the entrance to the park, which may hide something as well, and Laura Helanto, which adds a bit of love to this crazy story.

A story which has tons of humour and many thriller twists and also romance. Isn´t it lovely to not be capable of labelling a book in a way or another? And if the book is not enough, there will be a motion picture soon, starring Steve Carell

Besides the hilarious situations and humorous yet very smart twists of what otherwise is a very serious thriller, the fast pace, whose details seems to be mathematically crafted, creates spectacular visual effects. While reading it, at a very fast pace because was very curious to know what happens next and then next and then next, I had the feeling that every single installment of the story has its place and its logic and everything closes up elegantly until the end. After all the Merry-Go-Round and Rollercoasting, the ending may sound a bit too relaxed and very unexpected, at least for me, but it makes sense and it has its place in the logic of the story unfolding. 

As for the characters, Henri Koskinen is my favorite, not only because he is a mathematician - I have a weakness for mathematicians, I may confess publicly - but also because he seems so real and complex and with a mind of his own. The other characters in the book are also lively and interesting and there is a good balance and diversity of personalities in the book. 

Hopefully, I will read soon another one of Tuomainen´s books, but first and foremost, can´t wait to watch The Rabbit Factor, the movie.

Rating: 4.5 stars

Disclaimer: Book offered as part of the book tour, but the opinions are, as usual, my own

Monday, October 11, 2021

Rachel´s Random Resources: The Dance of the Snow Tractors


Children love snow. The child in you will always love snow, no matter how scared of and opposed to the cold and the dirt and the dampness you will turn into as the time passes. It´s the fascination with the snowflakes raining down from the sky, or with the white powder covering everthing you discover with excitement one morning. Children will rarely ask about the natural causes of the snow, will just enjoy the phenomenon as much as possible. A winter without snow is a sad winter for the children and a missed opportunity of enjoying one of the most beautiful natural phenomena.

Designed for preschool children - 3 to 5 years - The Dance of the Snow Tractors by Siena, illustrated by the Canadian computer artist Shannon Wilvers offers a different take on winter. The focus is on Siena, a girl living in Canada, named after the Italian city, watching in excitement the snow tractors dancing around while removing the snow. I haven´t figured out about the visual strength of the image. But it is described in such a simple yet outstanding way that one can only wait for the next summer and a good amount of snow in order to be sure that there will be enough snow tractors for a proper dance.

The book is a good choice for both parents and educators and it can create a lot of opportunities for further discussions - about snow, tractors, dancing; there are no limits for the imagination. The language is simple while based on the basic vocabulary of a preschool child. I was not necessarily impressed by the illustrations but nevertheless it appeals to the visual habits of a child at this age. 

Very often, we forget how does it feel to be in a state of wondering. Having chidlren often does not help because we may be busy, as parents, to support our little ones emotionally and financially. Reading such books to them though may be helpful to bring us back in time and revive those unique feelings. Feelings bringing back those precious childhood memories.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Disclaimer: Book offered as part of the book tour but the opinions are, as usual, my own

Saturday, October 9, 2021

´Can´t and Won´t´

´I´m so tired of your vivid imagination, let someone else enjoy it. That´s how I´m feeling these days, maybe it will pass´.

Lydia Davis is not writing short stories. Lydia Davis does not re-invent the language or words or suggests new narratives. She is simply reshaping the writing. She brings out words polishing the prose and compressing the meanings. Her choice of words is direct, easy and throughout. You have nothing more nothing less of what is supposed to be said. One has to go very far away to come back with such a refined writing technique.

Can´t and Won´t is a collection of short, micro-flash-like prose with a poetic trance. Winner of the 2013 Man Booker International Prize, she is a French translator as well, who re-published translations from Flaubert and Proust. I would love so much to get into some of her translations, eventually in a bilingual variant. Who would say translators can´t and won´t be creators of wor(l)ds?

Rating: 4.5 stars

Friday, October 8, 2021

Book Review: The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris


´Her co-workers could publish books about Bitcoin and Middle Eastern conflicts and black holes, but most of them couldn´t understand why it was so important to have a more diverse publishing house´.

Based on the presentations I´ve read, The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris was ticking all the right boxes: featuring the publishing industry and the non-literary critera governing sometimes the choices of editors; its lack of non-white diversity; the competition between women, black women particularly; even the focus on hair as a significant identity marker was appealing. And, indeed, the book do have separate developments or intertwin but it´s so hard to catch so many fish. 

Nella is an editorial assistant at Wagner Books, owned by a certain Richard Wagner. She is the only Black girl in the office, until Hazel, an enthusiastic and self-aware Black woman is hired. The two of them seem to make a great team, until they don´t. And Nella starts receiving threatening anonymous messages encouraging her to leave the publishing company. Wagner Books has though in its decade-long history another Black girl story, of a female author that created a humongous scandal in the 1980s.

The timeline goes back and forth, from 1980 to the 2020s, and usually such a dynamic enriches the story. Until, it doesn´t and one feels stuck in different time capsules. The action enfolds slowly until it is suddenly cut to switch to another timeline until the next switch. 

Nella and Hazel, for their identity references, do complete each other, but as humans, their features are often simplified and their personalities are incomplete. Like in the case of the big story itself, their personalities are made up of so many dots that may never connect together in the end.

Although I am mostly attracted to fast literary paces, I am capable to appreciate a good slow story, but in this case, I may openly confess that my patience was quite often put on trial. Still, I was about to give up many times and only my stubborness was the reason why I did not give up. 

However, although I enjoyed the writing, I was not convinced by the architecture of the story and the characters´ dynamics. Which leaves a lot of alternatives to other possible books on those topics.

Rating: 2.5 stars