Monday, February 27, 2017

The city of Aleppo is dying...

Dictatorships corrupt not only institutions, but souls and the inner chore of private lives. The death of Syria and of its charm started way before the current tragic events which seem to never end, it started long ago. What we see now are the last breaths of a country.
In No Knives in the Kitchens of This City, Khaled Khalifa a writer that himself had to cope with the censorship and the intrusion of politics into arts, a family is falling apart while together in the ciy of Aleppo. A former corner of beauty in the city, where 'lettuce was at its most succulent and women their most feminine', is becoming a crime-ridden quarter. The house is also deteriorating more and more every day, gone being the times when the matriarch used to buy lined papper which smelled of cinnamon.
'Aleppo itself was as ephemeral as the act of forgetting; anything which remained of its true form will became a lie, reinveted by us every day, as not to die'. However, this parallel city is not strong enough to resist the pressure of the outside world, which means corruption of souls and pokets. The dream is less stronger than the reality. 'My mother, who died in the early evening, used to believe that everything will be all right as long as she could open the window and watch the sun set over the lettuce fields and distant mulberry tree'.
I have my own short by intense experience of life in a dictatorship and now, many years after, I know that the shell of culture is not strong enough to defend your soul. Most of the people you invite to share your passion for forbidden books and music and whispered conversations about dangerous topics may be themselves agents of the power. The reason to do so can be weakness or revenge or short-term advantages. In more than one situation featured in the book, 'classmates who joined the Party seeking revenge for their own ugliness and to teach her old friends a lesson'. 
Interestingly, the family sage is going through the entire recent history of Syria, from the WWI, the Ba'athist coup in 1963 who brought to power the Assad family and the situation before the current conflict. Sectarian divisions and confrontation between tradition and modernity, perception of mental illness and homosexuality, the resurgence of religious extremism. It is just a fragment of a bigger feature, in a region which seems to be restless, but in the bad sense of the world, self-consumed with internal conflicts and alienation. 
The flow of memory is slow, remining a bit of the style of Naguib Mahfouz, with intervowen layers, each telling a different story on a different voice. It makes you nostalgic and longing for a city you cannot meet any more, for the broken destinies because of the absurd politics and for the people born without hope for a better future. 
This book just open up my literary appetite for discovering even more contemporary Middle Eastern writers, a journey I will continue in the next reviews. I was very happy to read a book which lacks ideological bias and tries to make way for telling a story. A sad and heartbreaking story, but deeply authentic.

Rating: 4 stars

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Book review: Marriage material by Sathnam Sanghera

The intricacies of rules and religious and traditional interdictions may create a lot of frustrations and the impulse to struggle hard against, but it also can be an illimited source of literary inspiration. Dealing with identity challenges of first generation of immigrants of Sikh from Punjab to England, Marriage Material by Sathnam Sanghera is actually offering voice to more than one specific community.
The language limitations of individuals living in a country without actually connecting with other community than the one of their own, the desire to have outperforming children - preferably doctors or lawyers - whose studies are paid hard from their small - often ethnically-oriented - business, the religious reliance of traditional food chore identity issue or the intensive matchmaking is not only the priviledge of Sikhs, but it can be often encountered to almost any close-knitted community. This is the background of the story, against which people die, drink, smoke or try to find their way out of the community. 
Ironically and with a well-deserved pintch of sarcasm, Sanghera created a story which uses the dilemma and challenges of a mysterious Sikh community. Personally, I didn't know too much about them except the turban issues and some few other lines about political stances in India and alcohol interdiction - although the realities of booze consumption may be a bit different. However, all the restrictions governing the everyday life and social relationships rang a bell from different non-Sikh story. 
The struggle between free choice of the new world and tradition of the family world creates the main tension lines of the story, that aren't necessarily solved but lived by and creatively developped to live by. At different periods of time, Arjan and his aunt are making the same step outside the community, by marrying out of the group, but still remaining closely knit - at least sentimentally, with the 'home'. Because, even in the most radical cases of going 'off the path', there is a sparkle that still keeps you there and it is very important how you can go beyond the resentment for coming at peace with your past and yourself. 
In inter-racial, or inter-religious relationships there is at least one moment when one side or the other or both will realize their longing for 'a relationship which didn't require the constant explanation of cultural differences'. But when you want to be part of the big group - at least aiming at reaching the same social and political status with the majority - the desire to leave your traditions behind may enroll you in the same camp with racists and people accusing your group of not being integrated or grateful enough for the priviledges granted by the 'new country'. 
Even after two generations and a couple of mixed marriages away, the struggle never ends in fact. For the literary world, it is a good news, as there will be always in stock interesting books dealing with identity dilemma for many years from now. Readers like me will keep looking for them because you always long for a taste of home, regardless what is the name of that home.

Rating: 4 stars

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Blog tour: A Valentine Secret by Emily Murdoch

February it it the season of love - it sounds a bit stereotypical as love should be here to stay all round the year. Anyway, at least once the year, if not each and every one of the 365 days, it is about time to remember and think more about love and its challenges. Even only at a literary level. 
In the honor of Valentine's Day, I had the pleasure to be invited by Priya from Writerly Yours to be part of a dedicated blog tour focused on the Regency novel by Emily Murdoch, A Valentine Secret. For me, it was my first Regency novel and the decision to be part of this new bookish adventure was also motivated by my curiosity to find out directly about this special genre. The literary experience was pleasant and stirred my interest for more such works. Using as background the British society in the 19th century, Regency novels are basically focused on love stories, many of them of the impossible kind, with social barriers and class differences the main impediment to love. It might sound unfair or unacceptable for our 21st century eyes and ears, but such situations, even though without the same intensity and drama and frequency, might happen in our illuminated times too.
Emily Murdoch is a medieval historian and writer with large experience in the field of media, art and museums, a background that explains the interesting approaches and topics of her books.

The book review

Visiting from Oxford where he was enrolled as a student, Jonathan, the descendant of a noble heritage, falls in love with the modest Penelope, the adopted daughter of Mr. Baldwin, the owner of the florist shop from the village of Maplebridge. From the very beginning of the story, there are secret meanings to be discovered in the story. As in life. This fragment of dialogue between Mr. Baldwin and Jonathan can be considered revelatory for the direction of the story: 'Young Sir, there is not a single flower or plant in this world that does not have its own specian meaning, if you know what you are looking for'.
Although a familiar of the florist shop, Jonathan ignored the presence of Penelope that he is calling now 'the most unparallel beauty in England', caught between the glass walls of his social class and distant world. Impetuos and straight forward, he is inviting her and his family to dinner to his home, creating a serious faith with his conservative father - 'She is no one! These Baldwins, they are not of our social standing, Jonathan, and you know this!'. Even though belonging to the high-class, the noble father is behaving rudely in the presence of the guests. with the only effect of only increasing the pride and ambition of his son to continue the girl's courtship. 
The book is a short read, but relatively fast paced emotionally - including some roller-coaster episodes - and with some nice turn of events - including on the father side. I particularly loved the dialogues and the ways in which beneath the pretentious exchanges, normal feelings and ideas were elegantly hidden. Another plus of the book is the reality of the characters: you can see and feel and be with them, from the very beginning of the story, which encourages the reader to follow their journey.
I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in a good written romance that raises questions about love and trust and the artificial limits to finding real and genuine love.

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

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Bookish interview: 'Keeping traditions alive in the home'

A couple of months ago, I was offered the chance to read and review a wonderful funny Jewish children book - A Gefilte Fishy Tale, that I had the opportunity to review extensively elsewhere. The book is not only well written, approaching a very special audience, but succeeds to make relevant old family stories and customs. Curious about how it is possible to create Jewish stories that appeals to the young readers I approached the authors, Allison and Wayne Marks, for an extensive interview. Here is the result of the exchange.

What inspires you to write?

The word we’d use is not so much “inspires” as it is “compels.” Stories will logjam in our brains if we don’t put in the time to write on a daily basis. Writing together is one of the joys in our lives. The moments we share haggling over diction questions and debating plot twists are highlights of our busy week.

How do you find inspiration for your books?

Story ideas come from many different sources: family photographs, a Yiddish saying, dreams, childhood memories, or a piece of Talmudic text. We are always looking for a unique angle on different aspects of Jewish life and culture to share with a young audience.
A Gefilte Fishy Tale sprung from a conversation after a Passover seder in which we were discussing Wayne’s love of the whitefish, carp, and pike delicacy. The idea of a difficult-to-open jar soon blossomed into a Jewish sword-in-the-stone quest. Working with our publisher, Margie Blumberg, the book took new and exciting directions with the addition of Yiddish words, a recipe, and an original song. 
The inspiration for Og’s Ark came from Allison’s reading of Jewish folktales from around the world. Since there had never been a picture book version of Og helping Noah collect the animals, we thought this format would be an ideal way to introduce this old story to a new generation of young readers. In our retelling, we turned it into a bedtime story by bringing in the biblical reference to Og’s iron bed. 
Our latest book, The Art Lesson: A Shavuot Story, is rooted in personal experience. When our twins, Elliott and Claire, were young, they took art lessons from Grandpa Marks, much like the main character, Shoshana, does in the book. Inspired by artworks hanging on the walls at Temple Israel in Akron, Ohio, we researched papercuts and learned how they were used as decorations to celebrate Shavuot in Eastern Europe. Blending these elements, we created a story that touches on several themes: the importance of imagination, the passing on of traditions, and the idea that creating a beautiful work of art can be a messy business.
Our publishers, Margie Blumberg (MB Publishing) and Joni Sussman (Kar-Ben Publishing) have been true creative forces in helping to bring our manuscripts to life and making them available to children everywhere.

What is the most difficult part of writing for children?

Since our books are written for four- to eight-year-olds, it can be challenging to strike the right balance between word choices and expressive language. Our goal is to write books children want to read again and again, so we try to incorporate bits of humor and a sense of wonder to our stories, while delivering a message without being didactic. We think back to the books we loved as children (e.g. Stone Soup, The Sneetches, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel) and ask, “What made them special to us?” We’ve concluded that though cultural sensibilities and technologies have changed, children still know a good story when they hear one.
In The Art Lesson we wanted to make Shoshana’s visits to Grandma Jacobs’ art studio magical. The solution was a 100-drawer cabinet holding treasures for the young artist in our book to discover every week. A Gefilte Fishy Tale pushes the boundaries of absurdity by having Bubbe and Zayde go to extreme lengths to unscrew the stubborn lid in time for their Friday night dinner. And what child would not want to share their bed with all kinds of animals like Og the Giant does?

How is it possible to keep alive Jewish traditions among children in a world that never wants to stop?

In a small but significant way, Jewish-themed picture books play a role in keeping traditions alive in the home. First, the act itself of reading to a child, whether snuggled in bed or sitting on a lap, creates a lasting bond and shared memories. Further, books that show modern families celebrating customs together (e.g. making papercuts or gathering for a Sabbath meal) can influence a child’s awareness of how traditions honor the past and celebrate the present. Yes, the world moves at a frantic pace. However, books demand us to slow down, reflect, and think about what is truly important. They can be a precious alternative to the unceasing stream of technology bombarding children every day.     

How do you connect with your audience?

We do book readings, library talks, and book festivals. The most satisfying part of being an author is reading your book to children and seeing them anticipate what’s going to happen with the turn of each page. Also, we make time to talk with aspiring writers and to encourage children to pursue their own writing projects.

What does your audience think about your stories?

The response to our books has been overwhelmingly positive. Since writing can be a solitary experience, you hope for the best when your book finally comes out into the world.
Much praise has deservedly been given to each book’s fine illustrations. We have been fortunate to have had three fabulous artists of differing styles brilliantly capture the tone and essence of our stories: Martina Peluso (Og’s Ark), Renée Andriani (A Gefilte Fishy Tale) and Annie Wilkinson (The Art Lesson: A Shavuot Story).
Last autumn, during the Jewish Art & Food Festival at Temple Israel, older congregants would pick up A Gefilte Fishy Tale, scan through the pages and laugh. Then they would reminisce and share stories with us about making gefilte fish with their mothers the old-fashioned way.

What are your writing plans for 2017?

Our goal is to continue laughing together and writing more children’s picture books.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

What about a Life Swap?

When we feel down and life events are rather a collection of bad luck, we wish we can swap our life with someone else. Maybe only for a while or for good. 
On different ends of the story, Polly and Simon are going through hard times. Debts, failed relationships, strained spouse, unstable work situation, and even more debts. The future doesn't sound good and both of them feel belittle by the glamour and constant achievements of their friends. And when they have to look back...better not, as nothing seem to give any single chance for a better future. In fact, the past occurrences are the proof of their lack of achievements. Any improvement to expect in the near future? Don't think so!
Separately, both Polly and Simon got in touch with an agency run by demons - yeah, them - and accept to swap their life with someone else's they admire or envy. The business aim of this company: 'Humans are often suck of their lives and want to change them. We saw a gap in the market and decided to fill it. We offer the people the opportunity to change their lives. You can change all of it or some of it. It's up to you'. Within some limits, of course, as 'you can't just straight to world domination'. Therefore, the person with whom to swap the life should be chosen only among those who are personally known.
Once the choices were made, Polly and Simon are embarking on a strange and self-revealing adventure at the end of which they will discover their strengths and the importance of appreciating the simple and genuine things in life. Not all that glitters is gold.
The book is slow paced but with a couple of surprising revelations towards the end, written with a lot of humour. A good company for the gray days of winter or every time you need some fun and discrete remainders about what is really worth in life.

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

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Stories from the Rotten Row

It is almost impossible sometimes to dissociate an author and its works from its original environment and country of origin. Particularly if the author is outside our usual literary comfort zone. In many such cases, the first line of the book review insists to mention some references to the passport identity of the author.  The problem in such cases is that creates already the bias of placing the work in the context, neglecting details regarding the human and literary aspects as such.
Rotten Row, by Petina Gappah is a collection of short stories has a clear geographical localization: a main street in Harare, the capital city of Zimbabwe, crossed among others by Robert Mugabe street, in the honor of the president in office since 1987. It is also the place where the Magistrate Court is situated, the delivery and interpretation of justice being one of the recurrent topics of the stories. Petina Gappah herself is a lawyer by profession. 
Each story starts with a Biblical sequence, also translated in an original dialect. Through the stories, expressions or even full sentences, not all of them translated, are inserted, adding more genuine ambiance. The characters from one story may appear in other story too, mirror reflections of a life where the individual can hardly survive and exist beyond the context of the big numbers. Either it is the family, the local church, the society or the crowded bus, the humans of Rotten Row are rarely alone. When they leave the country, they will seek the same comfort of the groups, mostly virtually, through the virtual forums. 
Everyone is longing for something, trying to achieve their aims, but achieving the aims reveals a tragi-comical mixture of beliefs. The author is not condescending when tells the story of the search for magical remedies for health, wealth or kindling the flame of a fading love by using baboon piss. The story is told with the sharp mindfulness of the observer, wrapping the characters into their humanity. The reader should expect to encounter deep cruelty and indifference, corrupt rapacious bureaucrats and policemen, shameless and vane NGO activists and acts of justice who aren't right. From a story to another one gets caught into the net of facts and stories and you can hardly want to go out. Rotten Row stays with you long time after the book is over.

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

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

An interesting YA novel: Going over, by Beth Kephart

With a story set on the both sides of the Berlin Wall at the beginning of the 1980s, this YA novel with a historical touch is unique for its approach and deep understanding of humans caught into the intricacies of history and histories.
Ada is a teenage girl whose hair colour is constantly changing, living in a community of hippies and punkers, working with the Turkish women from Köttbuser Tor (Köti for the usual Berliners) in the Western side of the city. Stefan is 18, spying with his telescope from Friedrichshain - 'Because no one can stop us from looking' and planning the escape to freedom. They both knew through their grandmothers, good friends sharing the memories of the WWII aftermath. 
Stefan, as some of the Turkish people working in West Berlin, are in the wrong place, but he, he is still free to make the right choice and escape his place of destiny. The little Savas and his mother from Köti can't and they will be the victim of a tyrannical father unable to accept their humanity and refusal to obey his orders. In mirror, the two dictatorships are reflected, with Ada and her friend being the intermediate chains to freedom. 
The time line is going back and forth to explain events and create the general context, starting with the moments when the two grandmothers were sharing the same country and the post-war traumas. The general mood is nostalgic. Until the very end of the story - which ends with Stefan's attempt to land on the other side of the wall - the readers are turning fast the pages in order to know what will happen next. It is hard to guess and although the book is more focused on feelings and inner changes than loads of action, it keeps you curious. 
It is an interesting book, brilliantly using a complicate historical context for telling a story of young love. One of the best in this category I've ever read.

Rating: 4 stars