Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Short Story in Translation: Table for One by Yun Ko Eun

´She leads an active and enthusiastic solo life. And this solo life all started with a course to learn to eat alone´.

After Kim Yiyoung and Han Kang, Yun Ko Eun is my newest discovery. Table for One is inspired by a new phenomenon among the young Korean - especially women - the lifestyle of going alone to eat, drink, to movies or trips. According to the 2015 local census, South Korea has over 5 million single people, mostly in their mid-30s. Single by choice or just unable to make place in their life for a relationship for many reasons - psychological or due to the workload - they continue to live in a society whose emphasis is on family and togetherness. A society that seems to be in denial of the reality of their new generation. Going out on your own continue to be a shame and Table for One deals with the anxieties of young women - ´For a woman to come alone at 7.00 pm, it is sort of change´ - and men of enjoying their lives, no matter what. ´People eating alone worry more about stares from others than they do about menu options´.
Therefore, they need to learn how to get the best of this lifestyle and end their self-isolation of eating and drinking at home and not doing anything really social. A course about how to eat alone is teaching the participants - in exchange of a greasy fee - not only to make the right choice of food without bothering what other people think, but also to enjoy the food in a musical-like rhythm. Keep your eyes in your plate and try to connect the inner music of your plate, with bonus a short conversation with the waiter, and your evening is done. A successful evening. After all, eating with someone requires so much preparation of the topics to discuss, outfits etc.
I really enjoyed the reading - in translation, by Lizzie Buehler who also translated The Disaster Tourist by the same author that I am looking forward to get to know in the next weeks: the short sentences do create a perfect description of an intense inner-emotional scenery, although there is not too much action happening - except moving the plates and enjoying the various foods. I cannot vauch for the different Korean dishes as I have a limited familiarity with this cuisine.
I personally have mixed feelings about the topic as such. Long time ago I considered eating alone as a sign of social and personal failure but once my world opened up and I reorganized my priorities I am very much at ease eating alone and doing many activities on my own too - including when I am not single. To be honest, I really enjoy being on my own, with a good book and having a full tasting of my food, without being under the pressure of having a conversation. Professionally, I often have to eat on my own for various food reviews and writing assignments. On the other hand, nothing compares with sharing food with friends. Food is also a social experiment and I can´t imagine fully enjoying a meal made in my beloved Middle East enjoyed alone. I also don´t believe that we, humans, we are meant to live and be alone and enjoying being single is not an option that I consider. 
Sociologically, but also as a literary topic, Table for One by Yun Ko Eun is an interesting read about a culture I have a limited knowledge about, but with literary voices that impress me every time I get in contact with.

Rating: 4 stars

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Kafka: Letter to the Father

What happens when your beloved family members know that you are blogging? They send you once in a while recommendations - where to travel, what to write about, what to read and what not, what to write and what not about, for different reasons. Also, you can receive questions of the kind: What are you not writing about...for instance, classical authors instead of all those debut novels or new titles or chicklit or and or...But they are part of my - steady and stubborn - audience, so answering the requests of my readers is a matter of online survival. 
What exactly can I do for them now? I´ve read most of the classical books and authors long before starting blogging. I am not always in the mood for that kind of authors that were part of the bibliography of my beloved relatives. Difficult bookish times. However, as I decided to dedicate my summer months to a lot of foreign language writing and reading, after a serious scrutiny of my messy book shelves, I´ve found what I was looking for. A book I wanted to read for a long time: Letter to the Father by Franz Kafka, in the Italian translation Lettera al Padre - by Claudio Groff).
No pun intended: there are my relatives on my father side which are very active in following my professional steps, by my father - of blessed memory - died when I was too little to remember him. My stepfather had no influence in my upbringing and reading blogs, in English especially, is not part of his lavish retirement plan.
I´ve found the translation excellent with an extraordinary attention to convene subtle emotional details that can be easily lost when switching from languages so different as structures and . The terrible torment the 36 years old Kafka is going through when writing this letter is a tensed testimony of a failed parent-son relationship. 
At the time when Kafka wrote this letter, dr. Freud was elaborating his classification of mental disorders including narcissism among them. Freud´s writings about the psychological mechanisms of the relationships between father and son were also probably well-known to Kafka at the time of the letter - end of 1919.
The father will not have the chance to discuss or apologize or to reconsider his relationship with Franz, but the letter addressed to him remains available for many strained relationship between fathers and sons. Many of them, at least.
The beginning reminds of a discussion the two of them had before, when the father asked his son what he is afraid of him. This fear is constant and mentioned more than once in the letter. Time for Kafka to mention the real everyday conflict between one of them. It starts from the son´s lingering to emulate his father but ending up being the opposite of him and especially of his expectations of him. Kafka is craving for the attention of his father, but every time he is reminded he is a failure. A weighty oppression - which is emotional therefore harder to cope with - which comes from the judgemental and narrow-minded attitude of the father. A hurtful emotional behavior that, among others, explains Kafka´s failures in finding a wife or to take over the family business, managed in a dictatorial way by his father. Indeed, his father allowed him to do whatever he wanted, but the free choice is a curse for his son because of the extremely critical evaluation of the father. Manipulative, emotionally limited, unable to properly listen and communicate with his son and family, he is the victim of his own upbringing as well. His mother is compensating with ´infinite kindness´ the dry and emotionally abusive character of the father, but Kafka wanted desperatelly to please his father an no one else.
Also in terms of Jewish education, their relationship is problematic. A son is learning from his father the main Jewish obligations in terms of praying and everyday practice but in this case, the communication is missing or is distorted again, with the father unable to understand the emotional needs of his son. 
The relationships between father and sons do have a deep psychological complexity, similarly with that between mothers and daughters. No matter how outdated Freud is nowadays, his basic observations about those binomial relationships do operate in very strange ways, especially if not nurtured by understanding and love, emotional availability on both sides, especially parents´. Kafka´s Letter to the Father is a sad meditation about how the missing love of a parent can affect one child´s emotional and personal development. Physical abuse is indeed a serious threat to a child development but so is the emotional one. In both cases professional support to overcome such threats to an everyday life normality are more than recommended. Taking the rightful distance and even leaving completely behind the source of abuse, with or without a letter is what such narcissists deserve. 

Rating: 4 stars

Book Review: Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler

´I had a thing for Brazilian girls
Used to love Brazilian porn
Oh my god!´

In Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler, a young British-Brazilian woman recounts her random memories of her split identity. Compared to books exploring a double identity, this book does not stand apart from the philosophical/theoretical point of view - as usual, there is always the question of belonging to two worlds without being fully accepted as a member in none of them - but it acknowledges about identities rarely spoken about: Latin Americans, particularly Brazilians, living in Europe. Most specifically, it has to do with the children of mixed couples, when one of the parent is of foreign origin.
The unnamer storyteller - whose story resonates with the author´s herself, who is British-Brazilian, growing up in South London etc. - is a young woman who is exploring her identity while writing, being heartbroken and trying to use her knowledge in working in an area close to home - she is requested to use her linguistic knowledge for a documentary about beauty surgery in Brazil.
Her grandparents visiting from Brazil do face the local customs, the food and the sales on Boxing Day and the cold weather. Her brain may be exhausted from time to time for talking a foreign language, the Brazilian Portuguese that remains a foreign language, no matter her chosen identity - which is, anyway, a process that grows in different, unprogrammed directions, like a hectic tree.
Shortlisted for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award in 2019, Stubborn Archivist is an interesting debut novel, especially from the point of view of the writing techniques. Being out of the classical storytelling may give freedom to the writer sometimes, a freedom of the mind that can be equated with that beautiful dance on the beach from the end of the novel.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Monday, August 3, 2020

Mystery at the academia, metoo and a lot of secrets: Reputation by Sara Shepard

A massive hacking exposing 40,000 personal and professional email successfully targeted Aldrich University. All the dirty secrets are out in the open and from employees and students to donors, everyone is curious to read what other´s were doing or saying, and what episodes from their lives are now public. Greg, a successful surgeon, married with Kit, the daughter of the university dean is found murdered in his kitchen by his ebriated wife. Is she the killer? After all, she had more than one reason to do it, as an illicit affair with a Lolita is the gossip of everyone from the campus and well beyond. This nightmare took Kit completely by surprise, just arriving from a business trip where she met a handsome mysterious guy who, in fact was the husband of one of her coworkers. Maybe it was just too much for her: ´I just burried my second husband, a murder happened in my house, the whole world knows that my dead husband had an affair, and a man I made out with is married to my coworker. Am I really going to keep it together?´

But it´s hard to keep it together for everyone in this book. The crime put into motion a roller coaster of guilts, secret affairs and betrayal, untold secrets and trauma. No one is exempt and every single adult character in the story has some terrible guilt to carry on. Everyone is at a certain point suspect of something, if not of Greg´s murder directly. Dirty laundy appears where you expect less and the cracks are hidden everywhere, even in the most perfect looking relationships. 
Although there were some moments when I felt trapped in a never ending soap opera, with con artists and secret sexual habits, I´ve found the intrigue very well built and challenging for the reader. It is a very interesting story construction which only weakens in the very end. Personally, I´ve found the end too mild for what one was expecting after so many details and hints for a potential killer, but it´s not less relevant. The reference to the #Metoo movement is relevant for the context the events are taking place, as were the recent investigations regarding the problematic academic admissions and promotions in some high-end institutions in the USA.
Reputation by Sara Shepard is a tensed yet entertaining reading, with an unexpected end and some nicely crafted intrigue. A good companion as a summer or weekend bookish recommendation.

Rating: 3 stars

Beautiful Graphic Novel: The Zolas by Méliane Marcaggi and Alice Chemama

The Zolas by Méliane Marcaggi - text - and Alice Chemama - beautiful illustrations - made it for a perfectly loveable hour of reading and food for the eyes for several literary and intellectual reasons. 
First, the painted-like illustrations of this graphic novel are a full feast for the eyes. The choice of pastel colours and the minutiae of every installment are worth a prize. Second, for the quality of the writing reducing Zola´s long and adventurous life - both as a human and as a writer - to a couple of lines while keeping the essential of the story. A story that includes his wife, Alexandrine, as a full character. With a life that inspired some of his characters in the Rougon-Macquart series, Alexandrine was a simple woman, without education, but a supporter of his works and furtrher on, of his intense social and political engagement - particularly during the notorious Dreyfus Affair after he authored J´accuse denouncing the lack of evidences in accusing Alfred Dreyfus, a general in the French Army of Jewish origin, of espionage. Zola had a more or less secret life as well, which involved two children fathered with Jeanne Rozerot, his misstress. To her he dedicated the last volume of Rougon-Macquart, Le Docteur Pascal, a fact that no matter how open his relationship with his wife become, was for sure not an easy burden for his wife. After all, she was the one who was on his side during all those years of writing, during which he turned from a poor copywriter for Hachette into a successful writer. 
In the end, after Zola´s accidental death, the two women are portrayed together in the book as partners involved in raising Rozerot´s children, but the truth as it was is probably different, at least for coming to terms with the reality of this double life.
Personally, this book took me back to my teenage years, when I had the chance to read Zola in the original French. Zola took his inspiration as journalists do - or used to before the Google searches - going out on the streets, checking the pulse of the markets and observing people on the move. The realism of his books that were often prohibited by the Ministry of Interior were due to their rough description of the life as it was during the intense process of industrialism that involved changes of fortune and a challenge to the personal relationship and everyday life psychology. From the mundane, the journalist was extracting facts and further describing in the news reports. The writer was able to create stories out of nothing that were rooted in the reality, but whose characters were imaginary.
Besides Balzac, Zola was the original inspiration for my writing - although I haven´t returned to those writings ever since - and even as a graphic novel, While following the texts and illustrations of this book, I welcomed the thoughts and questions, old and new, about my intellectual roots.

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

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Memoir Review: Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhonda Janzen

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhonda Janzen is a book I wanted for such a long time to read, based both on the topic and on friends´ recommendation. 
I am usually interested in stories of people that left the religious fold - although interesting too, but less popular for the edition houses tastes are also those stories of those that decided to become religious. In the last years I had the chance to read a couple of insightful Jewish memoirs labelled ´off the derech´ /´off the path´, my favorite so far being Leah Vincent´s Cut me Loose, both in terms of writing, authenticity and dramatism. And, to be against the fashion, I held a very separate opinion about Unorthodox, which I think it is very overrated, especially in Germany, for non-literary reasons.
Belonging to a different fold, Educated by Tara Westover is another good example of good and insightful writing by someone who left behind a religious community in order to join the most generous community of spirit. 
Rhonda Janzen is the daugher of a Mennonite church leader, part of a big family that followed the Ukrainian branch of this religious group. Compared to the Amish - both groups are Anabaptists and use an old German/Prussian dialect for the everyday communication - they allow more technical devices and - what is most important - they go to college. Janzen´s parents travel often in very far away parts of the world and most of her siblings do have college degree. She, though, she decided a little different path, where religion do have rather a philosophical place than is part of a daily practice. 
Once she turned 43, a flow of events overwhelmed her bookish existence: her 15-year marriage ended with her bipolar husband running away with a guy he met on called Bob. She went through a serious car accident. Her health was not doing well at all. 
After 25 years, she returns home to her parents to look for inner peace, answers to her life questions and a good borscht - the Mennonites brought something good from Ukraine after all. She never broke up completely with her family and she maintained a good communication with her parents and some of her siblings. An academic, Rhonda Janzen´s path was more against the securities of the religious minds and was more interested in a different kind of daily life. Her life, as it was at that very specific moment, was what she expected? Why did she failed in her personal life ? Why her husband left her for a man named Bob?
Without hate and drama, she is able to connect the dots that she abandoned once she started to make her own path. She is returning in a family that loves her and in a community who is not judging her. On both sides, a respectful curiosity about the other part´s lifestyle and life choices maintains a conversation that from a chapter to another covers food - especially those foods to not give your child to school, dating, depression, infidelities and betrayal. 
She tells her story with so much irony and humour - the old Mennonite lady writing cat detective stories that matched her with her 17 years old younger nephew was delightful - that I could not resist not listening the story until the end hour after hour - I had the audiobook version of the book. In addition to the story, I was delighted to learn a lot about a religious group I had only basic information about. 
This year may have been a complete failure by now in terms of achieving my personal and professional plans, but at least I´ve finished Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. Time to celebrate, no matter what.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Not my kind of hacking story: Breaking and Entering, by Jeremy N.Smith

I love a good hacking story, because our life depends so much nowadays on computers that it´s inevitable not to deal at least once in a while with it. Either we buy online or we use email for work or for personal communication or we just use the Internet, the e-crimes and their perpetrator are always there. Understaing their way of thinking and their techniques may be sometimes a matter of personal survival therefore either for someone with a basic Internet knowledge - not me - especially nonfiction books about hackers and their lives are useful.
Breaking and Entering by Jeremy N. Smith is based on the true story of ´Alien´ a woman hacker that from her very early years at MIT was selected to be part of a very selective group of gifted students involved in various forms of hacking. ´Alien´ was not her real name, but was inspired by her admission essay where she was describing how she was kidnapped by aliens. She wanted to be first an aerospace engineer but her plans changed and the book is aimed to trace her history while describing what does it mean to be a woman in such a male-dominated industry. 
Nowadays, she is working as a consultant in the field of Internet security.
Good premises but not an impressive results. The book - which I had in audio format - tells a lot about the character´s adventures in sex and drugs and drinking. Too much college romance, in a story that was supposed for an adult, serious audience, maybe curious like me to learn a little bit more about how hacking operates and how does it feel to be a woman in such a world where supposedly what that matter is the intelligence to be virtually against the system, any system.
This book is an example of a good story, lazily told and I was very disappointed about the experience.

Rating: 2 stars