Wednesday, September 27, 2017

What I Didn't Like about The Lubetkin Legacy, by Marina Lewycka

After completely disliking The Short History of Tractors - I love good humour, but stereotypical, slightly racist humour is not my cup of tea - and unable to finish other two books by Marina Lewycka, 50 pages into The Lubetkin Legacy I was a little bit thriller and decided to continue.
Mostly based on a compound designed by the architect Berthold Lubetkin which supported affordable housing projects in London, it takes an ironic twist to the bed-tax, which limits the number of rooms assigned to socially assisted families. 
After the death of his mother, Berthold Sidebottom a 50+ unemployed actor, named after the architect with whom she apparently had an affair, is dealing with the perspective of being removed from his flat. In order to save his legacy, he requests a bizarre woman, Inna, met at the hospital, to move with him and impersonate his mother. 
In parallel with his story, told in the first person, there is the story of Violet, the Kenyan-born young lady next door, which is always said at the third person, which is running at the same time. Although their lives cross for short, and always ridiculous amounts of time, there is not too sense of this second story which involve corrupt Kenyan politicians and dishonest London city companies. Each of the stories flow, but their presence in the same book do not make too much sense. 
The social message of the book with discourses about equality and social justice is understandable, but the characters are so ridiculous, greedy and created to prove that, it seems that human nature is not designed to reach this aim. Therefore, you have unidimensional, mostly greedy and superficial, characters, unfinished and soul-less. Actually, there are way too many stereotypes for one single book.
Note to self: the next time be clear about the authors you definitely don't like, which is not a frequent occurence in my case

Rating: 2 stars

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Book Review: Hausfrau, by Jill Alexander Nussbaum

A modern times version of both Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina, Anna is an expat version of an American 'Hausfrau' living in Switzerland, married with a local man working in the banking sector and mother of three. She is filling her uneventful life with sexual adventures with men met on different random occasions. Anna collects lovers, each a 'version of love'.
The action is taking place during three months, from September to November, and the period of time is filled with episodes from the past, fragments from therapy sessions, encounters with new and old friends and meditations on language. The story has an extraordinary construction, made of paragraphs reflecting each other like mirrors, creating a certain density of the story.  
From the very beginning, there is inequal intensity of the different fragments of the story, with reflections and projections being interwoven with intense sexual encounters and wanderings through the night. 
At 38, Anna is searching: for herself, meaning of friendship, understanding home, finding a sense of her memories, her loneliness...Her everyday lies, her treasons, the incapacity to resist the temptation of doing over and over again the same mistake(s) are hunting her day and night, with the strength of a deadly psychosis. The first half of the novel promises a lot, a promise not delivered in the end. I personally got caught and charmed from the beginning - I've read the book in just a couple of hours - but as the story was reaching it end, my disappointment grew. I was not expecting a spectacular end, but even the predictable can be shaped in a proper literary form. Instead, I felt like that the last quarter of the story, despite with some dramatic shifts, was just hurried up to the reader. 
The daily geographical and cultural background of the novel, especially the insights into the Swiss mentality, are authentic, probably based on the author's own experiences as expat in Switzerland.
Although the novel promises a lot but delivers only half, the author has a great writing potential and would be curious to read other works signed by her. 

Rating: 3 stars

The Magic of Poetry: The Age of Magic by Ben Okri

On their way from Paris to Basel to film a documentary about Arcadia, an imaginary land considered the classical epithome of the perfect co-existence between humans and nature, the 8 members of the film crew are going through dreamlike spiritual experiences. Their inspiration for searching and finding new depths into the concept of Arcadia is stimulated by their stay for 3 days and two nights at a hotel near the Swiss Regi mountain, whose mysterious reflection into the lake is a source of tremendous inspiration.
But inspiration is supposed to be a gift and a poison, and the search for Arcadia means also pushing the limits of creation, which is always a dramatic challenge for the being. Wrapped in an ambiance of dream, some of the conversations remind of some mild variants of the Platonic dialogues. Most of the discussions are though fragments of dreams: '(...) there are some conversations so strange that they are only remembered much later, but not noticed at the time'. 
As a reader, you often feel in the middle of a cocoon, where you go back and forth, looking for your own sense of life and humanity, or just being left out of a dream. At the end of the prose poem, each of the characters is taking the chance of a change and the opportunity of a metamorphosis; 'Standing on the shore, they sensed a syllabe streaming through all things. They heard the sustaining hum which seemed to originate in the depths of their hearts and in the farthes reaches of space. The hum washed through them and sweetened the taste of life'.
The text flows smoothly, like the background music of the meditation soundtrack. For me, reading this book was like a journey through the deep meanings and dream textures. A recommended read when you long for a creative touch for switching life paths.

Rating: 4 stars

Children Book Review: The Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson

Abandoned as a child and found by accident in a church by two maids to a family of Austrian professors in Vienna, Annika was always dreaming about finding - or being found miraculously by -  her real mother. Far for being ungrateful for the life she was offered, but she was curious and hoped that the mystery of her birth will be revealed. She was ready to forget everything about being abandoned only to have the chance to meet her.
But take care what do you wish for. One day, exactly as in her dreams, an elegant lady is arriving at the professors' door, loaded with a noble title, a lot of documents proving the family connections and the promise of a glamorous future in Germany. With a broken heart, she is leaving those who were her closest family from birth while optimistically looking forward to her bright future. But things are not what are not supposed to happen as planned this time, and the more time Annika is spending in her new environment, the more suspicions arise. A curious and good nature, she is easily finding friends in any circumstances, as her new social status and condition doesn't change her dramatically.
The last episodes are deem of a fast-forward mystery, with some hilarious, but also some sad episodes and incredible adventures.
Probably I haven't read a classical children book with a touch of history for a long time, but although I am trying to come along with the new mindsets and styles, there is the old adventures' books which will always have my heart. Fast paced, with characters which you either love or hate, faced to make choices in face of adversity, The Star of Kazan is the perfect read for children passionate about history, adventures and a drop of mystery, looking for characters to fall in love with. It is the kind of book whose stories and heroes are staying with you longer after the book is finished, regardless the age. 
As it was my first encounter with Eva Ibbotson, I would probably continue reading her books.

Rating: 4 stars

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Bloody Secret of the Three Envelopes

A gripping debut thriller written by a professionist in the field of intelligence, Three Envelopes explores the darkest labyrinth of the mind of the psychopat master killer. Agent 10483 was recruited by the Organisation a structure within the Israeli secret services, succeeding to simulate sanity and on the other side, despite the fact that at least one person was aware of his serious mental instability. 
The problem appears when the puppet assumes he is the master and takes his role seriously. A dairy written in the present tense sent to the people responsible for him ten year after his presumed death shade light into some of his operations he was part of, but also warns that he might be ready to kick back again against those with a minimal involvement in his case. In fact, for a long time, Agent 10483 has embarked on an ssassination campaign on its own. The reasons are not security-related, but dictated by his sick mind. 
The novel takes back and forth from the dairy to fragments from the past and episodes taking place in the present, when his deep psychosis and the dangers of him being alive are finally acknowledged. The back-and-forth alternation of time sequences creates an interesting profile of the Agent, with its obsessions and psychosis. Maybe in 'real world' his issues could have been fixed through therapy and psychological support, but his drama is that not all gifts are equal and he was easily took for something that he was not. Intelligence has its own limits and this is clearly one of the lessons learned of this book.
As for the ending...the reader might realise that he or she is also part of a mind game, not sure if clearly understood where everything is leading. 
A very interesting thriller, written in a very alert style, hard to put down and with a haunting charm. 

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

Friday, September 15, 2017

Jerusalem Ablaze: 13 Short stories with a taste of darkness

A collection of 13 short stories of different lengths, the debut of Orlando Ortega-Medina, Jerusalem Ablaze is an exploration into the darkest labyrinths of the mind and the soul. Introduced as 'stories of love and other obsessions', each story is an emotional roller coaster, which brings you Tokyo's Ginza to the Israel's Masada,  alongside with people on a journey to their inner self and dark sides. 
Although a debut, the book is written in a style mature enough to reveal admirably hidden feelings, secret desires and a cultivated ambiguity of the being. You will encounter people searching for their own self or who already found it and are scared enough to show it to the world. People with strange and maybe too many identities and confused feelings, lonely in their unicity and difference. A big role in the emotional investigation pursued in each of the 13 novels is played by the sharp dialogues which compliment the equally well-crafted descriptions.  
Very often, I felt I am part of an adventure set in the art of the Japanese masters of writings and it is no wonder as the author himself recognize his admiration for the mysterious Mishima Yukio. But the discussion on influenes is not so relevant, as long as the writer's style reveals to be unique despite all the literary references that can be identified in the stories. This is the case of Orlando Ortega-Medina, which promises even greater writing achievements in his next endeavours that I am curious to know and especially read about.

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

Saturday, September 9, 2017

My Thoughts about The Patriots, by Sana Krasikov

It is something about reading this book that didn't expect to happen: to make me feel at home intelectually, after so many years when I avoided to have anything to do with a world that I know so well. Better than any other worlds that I was blessed to know in the last years, because after all, the concepts and stories you grew up with are so much part of yourself, that even invisible crumbs of a Madeleine will bring you with the speed of life back in the past. 
I couldn't read The Patriots by Sana Krasikov as fast as I wanted to. I was so caught up by the dense writing, so powerful that you can even imagine the dialogues in English with a strong Russian accent. Every 30 pages or so I wanted to take a breath and think about stories I've read or or heard as a small child growing up in a communist paradise - not Russia - while eavesdropping the complex political dissident discussions of the adults. Revealing only a quarter of them to anyone outside the four walls would have bring long years of prison to the participants, and I was warned regularly that if I dare to share some of the things I've heard accidentally - including fact that they were listening to forbidden radio stations - the orphanage will be my next home, as my parents will for sure end in prison. Actually, it was more than a case when such episodes actually happened, as the classrooms were often the place where teachers working for the secret - intelligence was something rarely associated with those institutions - services were requested to check the ideological conformity of the families, through repeated interogations of children as young as 6. 
I had my own intellectual time when I was reading about prisons and communist delusions and comrades' betrayal and the state-supported anti-Semitism. In the last years though, I rather wanted the company of a 'chick lit' than to read the drama from the Gulag(s). I deeply disapproved communism, and hated the naive involvement of my own parents and family and their weaknesses and the fact that they gave up fighting accepting instead the daily compromises, even after the 'gods' were longed revealed as naked. Most of the people I know from those times are long gone and gone are my parents and the young people I used to know are out of my current sight. Actually, I gave up for a long time to go in the 'old country' and my contacts with that world are almost inexistent nowadays. 
As a fact, as a child, I've read once some Soviet literature about Americans who joined the Russian Revolution and ended up building socialism as far as Magnitogorsk. The characters in the short stories were happily sharing their achievements in a society where classes and races were not counting, but the full dedication to the ideals of the Party. The main character of The Patriots, Florence Fein, is one of them. She wanted to be part of a great future who was built now and then. She bought a ticket dreaming about a Soviet man she met while working in New York, and ends up being accused of being a spy and condemned to forced labor. Florence is not one of the top communist leadership of the Internationale - she is not even a party member - later kept prisoners in Hotel de Luxe in Moscow. She is just a young lady enamored with the Revolution who will be wiped out by the destructive forces of the history. 
Florence, as many middle level people in those times, will survive, whatever the circumstances. She has the right intuition to do it and to live to tell the story. Her husband, Leon, who can see clearly the failures of the system and it's becoming an ardent Zionist after the visit of Golda Meir to Moscow - proclaimed to his wife a well proved truth: 'Don't fool yourself. Everybody's tied together with the same rope' - will disappear without trace. In a personal way, I wanted to not like Florence, for her narcissism and her failures and her many compromises, but I ended up by admiring her. What should someone want to be a hero, until you are Nadejda Krupskaia? Following my personal and society post-communist interrogations I dare to say that the 'Party' suceeded to achieve a perfect confusion between victimes and perpetrators. Sadly, those who actually orchestrated the system often survived with their position unaltered, some of them even becoming successful characters of the new era. 
The episodes of the story are alternatively placed in various time periods, which creates a welcomed balance of the story. I waited for the 2008 episodes, relating the adventures of Florence's son and grandson into the new Russia, as bringing a certain relaxation into the narrative, after the heavy episodes about interrogations and the darkest time of the communism times.
I am glad someone wrote this book as no one before. With humour - I couldn't stop laughing when Florence was accused of being part of the spy cell 'mish-pok', a mispelling of 'mishpucha', the Yiddish word for family she mentioned in a letter to her brother from Brooklyn - , smartly, without drama and passion, using the historical background to create stories. A very good book which resonates with the life of many simple people who although lost the fight with their beautiful ideals, survived to tell the story.

Rating: 5 stars

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

What's in a Name: Curry, by Naben Ruthnum

I love to read and taste food stories because of the hidden promise of more than a combination of various ingredients. If you know how to read correctly a recipe, you can create incredible stories. Think only about the stories of how different ingredients were introduced into various geographical spaces and the full history of their appropriation by different cultures. 
In his collection of essays about 'Eating, Reading and Race', Naben Ruthnum analysed the case of 'curry' which he proclaims: '(...) isn't real. Its range of differentiations, edible and otherwise, rob it of a stable existence. Curry is a leaf, a process, a certain kind of gravy with uncertain ingredients surrounding a starring meat or vegetable. It's an elevating crust baked around previously bland food stuff, but it's also an Indian fairy tale composed by cooks, Indians, emigres, colonists, eaters, readers and writers'. I personally haven't cooked curry - yet - and I have a very limited taste experience therefore I can hardly go to far when it comes to the eating part of the stories. 
However, I can trace various interpretations and contextualizations acquired through the literary representations. Ruthnum outlines the requested literary conundrum assigned to the novels by and about that part of the world. 'Food and literature are the most definint elements of the Indian diaspora on the small world I've built around myself as a brown adult in the West. Curry's the vehicle I use to look at how we eat, read and think of ourselves as a miniature mass-culture within the greater West. Curry's just as fake and as real as a great novel, as a sense of identity'. 
The book is a collection of essays, with interesting references of authors exploring the limits of food and identity and the pressure to find yourself outside those limitations of the 'India's of the mind'. 'South Asian Writers is an identity, not just a pair of adjectives and a noun, and it's an identity that establishes a tacit promise to an audience that is seeking it, whether the author intended it or not'. 
It is almost impossible to think that this mindset will change any time soon, but the efforts to deconstruct this reality are small breaks into the wall of imposed creativity. Think about how much potential there is when the challenge of offering different streams of identity is really taken, word by word.

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

This is How We Talk. Another Novel about Tel Aviv

Recent books set in Tel Aviv - or Israel - aimed at a foreign audience, do have some common ingredients nowadays: post-Army depressed youngsters, eventually who spent an indefinite sejour in India or, more recently Thailand; Yitzak Rabin; leftist mindset; start-ups; the protests against the prices of housing couple of years back; secular background; the hedonistic night life in Tel Aviv. If there is space left, add a couple of expensive sky scrapers where one single apartment is the price of a lavish mansion in the priciest LA neighbourhood. A couple of observations about the rift between the Jews of Oriental origin and those of European origin. Sometimes, the kibbutz life is also present somehow, but this element is missing from This is How We Talk, the debut novel by Julian Furman. 
It is rightly described as 'a novel of Tel-Aviv' because it has sometimes more to do with the city mood than with its normal people. In the words of Yonatan, the first character introduced in the novel: 'Tel Aviv is a hive of activity, but he senses all the excitement is occuring above his head. Giant cranes swing lazily through the day and night, towers growing, teasing of bountiful heavens just beyond his reach'. 
Relationships do need context, and when the political and social context pervades the everyday life, it is almost impossible to ignore them. Especially when this context is foreign or assumed exotic to the reader, it might be so catching that in fact takes over the literary layer. 
Four young people: Yonatan, Lia, Nadav and Sharon are telling their stories. At the beginning of the story, Yonatan and Lia are together. Nadav and Sharon - Lia's sister - come late and relatively for the blink of the eye into the story. The have struggles, are confused and want to escape themselves, their family secrets and the weight of the country. They succeed on short term - as Nadav and Sharon - but fail on the long term - Yonatan and Lia. The story of Yonatan, which opens the novel, can easily stand alone as a short story and it has speed and a balanced back and forth exchange down the memory lane. For the following stories, the sparkle is fading and I ended up asking myself if there is really any real connection between the characters, besides the fact that they are together under the same book cover. They can be foreigners meeting accidentaly on a hot day at the beach or in a club, and meeting each other again only because it is a small city. 
Each character has the common features of being just your 'average Tel Avivian' next door, take it or not. Each story has a good flow and dynamic. There is a potential both in the story and in the writing. Maybe it is just me, expecting a bit more from 'a novel about Tel Aviv'. 

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