Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Bookish travel: Halper´s Books in Tel Aviv

If you are a bookworm visiting Tel Aviv, Halper`s Books is one of the places that encourages you to become even more hungry for more books and quality writing. Selling used books, it is situated on the relatively central Allenby Street, close enough to the beach to make you come again and again for new supplies. It makes permanently new purchases and thus, you never know what bookish wonders you will discover. Most of the books are in English, but there are relevant number of titles in Hebrew, German, Russian, French, Polish, Chinese and Japanese, and even more if you really want something specific.
The shop also has a friendly ambiance and knowledgeable people, including the owner, ready to help, offer suggestions or guide your bookish hunger.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Books that make you think: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

I tried to keep myself as much as possible away from books about the Vietnam war, because for me it is one of those situations when it is hard to pledge the part of the white vs. the black. Ideologies and propaganda played hard on both sides, with me caught in the middle trying to discern the lights from the shadows. The fictional representations about this present historical episode are tainted by appealing discussions creating trustworthy arguments for both sides. For instance, I used to love 'Hair' and tried to understand 'Apocalypse Now', but still didn't change my assumption that communist did any good to the people.
The multi-awarded, owning also the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Sympathizer is a different contribution to the discussion about Vietnam war and identity in general. The story is told by an unnamed spy on behalf of the communists, former film consultant - for a production whose description has many analogies with 'Apocalypse Now' - former Viet Cong combatant, inmate in a communist reeducation camp, French-Vietnamese, the result of the illicit relation between his Vietnamese mother and a French missionary priest, American immigrant and future boat people. The overload of identities and memories plays the story on different levels, exploring feelings and identity segments without ever bringing the discussion to an end. It is not only a situational game, but a story permanently told and retold, reimagined and rephrased, in different contexts. Thinking about who you are is a curse, and being an immigrant is a bigger curse which creates identity dilemma and confusion. The way the others see you is often the result of stereotypes - 'you speak a good English for an Asian' for example - the way you see the others is the result of these stereotypes - like you expect most of the 'others' to see you as a cartoon of yourself.
Is there any end to this story? Writing and filling the empty space with words, the way in which Viet Thanh Nguyen does, challenging the words to tell the truth. It is not a book that delivers you some truths, but forces you to think and explore the ready made ideas about yourself and the world around you. Literary mission accomplished.
Rating: 4 stars book

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Bookish travel: Pick a free book in Israel

I am a very big fan of free books, as an easy way to got good books, in many languages. I have many boots around my home in Berlin, and every two weeks I am there to check what is new, but also to bring books that I want to share with other passionate readers. The most pleasant surprise is when I travel to discover similar initiatives. During my trip to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv a couple of weeks ago, I took the chance to offer myself some vintage presents.
Near the First Station in Jerusalem - Tahana Rishona - there is a big shelves areas with books in so many languages - English, Hebrew, Russian, French, Italian and Spanish, among others - and so many domains - from Mathematics to dictionaries and literature. 
On the way to one of the many beaches in Tel Aviv, make a stop and pick a book as a companion for the long sunny days. The selection here appeals to children with graphic novels and children books, but overall, there is something for each and every one. Another bookish spot in Tel Aviv is at the train station. The train goes slowly and a ride takes usually longer, but with a book times goes faster and at the end of the ride you learned something new too. 

Monday, July 18, 2016

3 Books for your July Summer Travels

Intrigues and crimes and other unexpected occurences are taking place every couple of pages, in this novel about the first and second generation of nouveau riches. 
The main focus is the family of tycoon Sheridan Rivers whose greediness - either money or women, nothing seems to be enough for him - will finally cost his life. The collateral victims are his daughters and wife and, in general, everyone getting in touch with him. 
Every protagonist of the story seems to hide more or less immoral secrets, that are revealed when you expect less. With a lot of hard core scenes and thriller episodes - with thugs from NY and other underworld characters -, there is enough material for an entertaining soap opera. 
I particularly appreciated how the time sequences are integrated into the big story, allowing to see the full picture of the characters through the past and present episodes. 
Rating: 4 stars

PhD and Romance

As a PhD myself, I fancy books where it is about academics finding their way through life and love. French-British Natalie Dryden, doctor in Middle Ages history with a thesis on Cathars, decided to break up with her successful fiance, after overhearing a discussion between his mother and sister about her inadequate dressing and make-up styles. She offers herself a break for spending some time in the South of France with her 90-year old grandmother, her only relative after the sudden death of her parents in a car accident.
While trying to find a serious job and spending some time with her ailing grandmother, she is offered a documentary job for a writer interested in Cathar histories. Surprisingly, he is just the castle owner neighbour next door and from now on, what happens at the beach...
An easy going book, well written, with interesting things to say about women in academia recovering their self respect and aiming to find their equal other half. It makes you feel good and optimistic and ready for a new start.
Rating: 4 stars

Silk Road Stories

I feel in love with this story from the first pages. Well documented and based on the true character of the Niccolo der Conti 14th century traveler, it is more than the history of a mysterious Ming Vase with a dragon. Extended on the span of many centuries, it reaches our 21st with a relatively easy going story of a single mother, Miranda, who inherited it from an aunt, but it is keeping it only for sentimental memories.
When a con auctioner is entering her life and took the vase away from her in exchange of a ridiculous sum after a short, she realizes that it might me more behind it than a pure decorative object. A short investigation and fast decision, will block the attempts though. The legend said that this vase brings good luck, and either true or not, the last owners become overnight multi-millionaires, after its successful sale at a Hong Kong auction house. 
Three stories - of the vase, of the preparation techniques and of Miranda - are interwinned. Miranda's story is by far the least interesting, too slow paced for my taste. I recommend this book to anyone in love with history novels and a bit, just a little bit of suspense. 
Rating: 4 stars

Disclaimer: Books offered by the publishers via NetGalley.com  

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Bookish travel: The book week in Jerusalem

Every two years, Jerusalem hosts the International Book Fair, a prestigious event in the area, gathering top notch writers and edition houses from all over the world. In-between fairs, the most important bookish events are local fairs taking place at the same locations of the fair, particularly the First Station - Tahana Rishona. This year, as I was in the area, I wanted to have a look at some of the edition houses and books presented - mostly in Hebrew.
The event, the 55th fair in the history of Israel, took place in Tel Aviv too, hosted in the Kikar Rabin - Rabin Square, as well as in at least 40 locations across the country. As usual at such events, it is important to be around for the significant discounts, but also for side events that are usually taking place, dedicated to children or adults, book signings or concerts. 
The translations to Hebrew are impressive, as the local book productions. A significant successful and steady book segment is represented by children books. Religious books do have their usual customers, with high demands all over the world, everywhere Jewish communities are living. As everywhere, the e-books are becoming more and more popular and the main topics of interest are, according to the representatives of the industry: commercial novels, life style, thrillers DIY and self-help or new age books. 
As everywhere in the world, the book industry in Israel went through a serious crisis in the 2012 and is still coping with various difficulties. Independent bookstores are surviving very hard, faced with two big chains that are also not doing always too well. A 2014 law is aimed to fix the book prices, at least for a determined period of time, but the representatives of the book industry are not very keen with many of the previsions. I suppose the book buyers too, who were actually encouraged to buy more books at low prices. Aparently, the over discounts policies brough the famous Steinmatzsky chain - my main supplier of book when in Israel, when it is not my favourite bookstore in Mea Shearim, with many English books too - close to bankrupcy a couple of years ago. 
Most probably, many of the participants at the Book week did not care too much about the state-of-art of the book industry. They were here because they loved book, and every time I see small children searching and asking about and for their favourite books I cannot but hope that everything gonna be fine.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Bookish travel: At Lutherstadt Wittenberg

At the beginning of this year, I paid a one day visit to the the city of Lutherstadt, a small and picturesque destination less than one-hour away from Berlin. Passionate book lovers may know that one of the big merits of Reformation was the spread of translations and printed books and the development of mass communication in general, with a direct impact on religious publications, but going far beyond that in just a couple of centuries. One of my longest stops of the trip was at the memorial house of the famous Luther. The first German Bible was published in 1534, with a direct impact on the translation of religious texts in the German language. 
The museum, with very informative explanations both in German and English, is a paradise for the lovers of old books. Since 1877, it started to collect an impressive stock unique in the world for its variety. There are manuscripts and contemporary documents about the history of the Reformation, interpretations of religious texts as well as writings by representatives of this religious movement, such as Melanchton or Zwigli. Regardless of your religion, there are interesting texts to read and understand.
The books are preserved in special conditions. Some of them are presented to the tempted reader behind a glass room. According to the information available on the spot, the inventory counts around 15,000 titles, covering the 16th-18th century, most of them dedicated to the Reformation. In addition, there are also 14,500 sheets of graphic arts.
Any serious book lover visiting the area must pay a visit here, because beyond the religious considerations, it tells stories about the history of books and, therefore, important episodes from the history of humanity as such. 

A Summer Escape full of adventures

It is quite challenging to label this book under a certain genre: for me, it can be romance, investigative journalism, mystery and self-help at the same time. Everything written with a savorous humorous style. Couldn't resist the temptation to read it right now, isn't it?
Obituary writer Ria is coping with a no-future job she does not enjoy and, in addition, that reminds her every day of her grief for loss of her husband-to-be Christopher two years ago, and more recently of her beloved Greek grandmother. In a moment of perfect sincerity, she just decides that instead of going back to her overwhelmingly annoying work, she will book a one-way ticket to Crete. Not necessarily to connect to her roots, but to just take a break and disconnect from her everyday life.
Once arrived, the happy coincidences are snowballing. A new job, working as personal assistant to a famous BBC travel producer, real journalistic assignments, the perspective of a romantic relationship. But beforehand, she needs to find the circumstances of the mysterious fire that ten years ago destroyed the vineyard of Bacchus family - the choice of the family name as the wine loving Greek god is kind of ironic assignment. 
Expect some suspense, surprising twists every 2-3 pages, and a happy ending too. A well writen, hard to put down read for the summer vacation, in Greece or elsewhere.
Rating: 4 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher via NetGalley.com

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Book review: Girl at War, by Sara Nović

During many of the Balkan wars, I used to be a very young journalist, with a serious history background, interested about politics, and covering foreign affairs. For many years, I constantly remained interested about this part of the world, including through many visits on the ground, temporary work for international projects and friendships I made. I was particularly interested in understanding the mechanisms of ignoring the fact that mass murders were taking place in the middle of a civilized continent. It happened once, but the proximity with those events made my intellectual investigation even more relevant. However, the international ADHD moved towards other horizons and I also got new interests, while forcing myself though of keeping an eye on the intellectual debates and political evolutions in the region.
The Girl at War brought me back to those glorious times of optimism when I was confident that I can bring a completely new and fresh interpretation of human everything. It is a story of the Croatian-Serbian war, through the eyes of the little Ana. How you can explain war to a child? How the former friends becoming enemies are seen through the chidren's eyes? A very anecdotic detail, such as a beard, receives different significance: 'I wanted to know what a beard had to do with being sad, why the Serbs had both the JNA and the Cetniks on their side and we only had the police force, but my mother set a knife and a bowl of unpelled potatoes in fron of me before I could bring it up'. War insidiously entered everyone's life, nowadays more throughout than before, due to the television and modern communication: 'As a side effect of modern warfare, we had the peculiar priviledge of watching the destruction of our country on television'.
The story takes a dramatic turn when Ana's parents are murdered by drunken Cetniks in a common grave, while returning from Sarajevo where the little Rahela was sent to America for treatment. Ana escapes and for the rest of the story she is trying to cope with the loss and her survival. She follows her sister in the States, being adopted and started anew everything. And she got a new family 'new, like I had traded one family for another in a used-car deal'. The 'new' life is the struggle to obstruct the old memories: 'The more I lied, the closer I came to fitting in. Sometimes I even believed myself. People assumed I was just bookish or shy, and I was, or had become so'. The present is a projection of the past and read through the keys from the past. The 4th of July celebrations, for instance, are a reminder of the bombings during the Serbian air raids and thus, a frightening experience not an enjoyement. 11/9 is a reminder of the tragic repetability of global drama.
Ana needs to come at terms with her past, so she returns to Croatia. The processs starts with her invitation to present her testimony as a former child soldier in the front of an UN gathering. From her personal relationship to the professional dreams, she takes a break, getting back to the country that stole her childhood and her parents. But there is also Luka, her childhood sweetheart, to whom she wrote many letters left unanswered. 
Their meeting, after so many years, is in my opinion the main downside of the book. It is like the author just wanted to introduce this episode in order to finish it as fast as possible. The last part of the story, in fact I enjoyed the least. The first three quarters of the book are very emotional and strong, while the end is far beyond expectations. Politically speaking, the book does not mention the Croatian war crimes of Gotovina. During such troubled times, the victim and the perpetrator can switch seats too fast. 
It is the merit of the book to bring back to the public attention those too-fast-forgotten wars. It investigates the impact on everyday life of traumatic memories and it is doing it by outlining the fine intrusions and reinterpretations and self defences. 
It is a book I enjoyed reading without interruption. It makes you take life and writing about life more seriously. 
Rating: 4 star book