Sunday, July 15, 2018

Travels along the 'Silk Road': Lands of Lost Borders by Kate Harris

After 'breaking up with Mars', because long distance was not her 'thing', Kate Harris embarks on a long cycling journey longside the mythical 'Silk Road'. It is not her first time in the area, and her previous experiences included entering into the Tibet without any of the special permits required by the Chinese government. This time though, together with her school friend Mel she cycles from Istanbul to the Himalayas. 
A brave journey during which besides discovering the human stories behind the encounters on the road, there are constant meditations about borders. Most precisely about the 'triumph of borders': 'The way they make us accept as real and substantial what we can't actually see'. Borders are political symbols and political choices charged often with mythical, conflict-fuelled meanings, especially in the part of the world where Kate was cycling. 
Indeed, she wanted to travel to Mars but somehow during her PhD program she found Earth more reachable, although humans keep drawing borders, fighting and dying for them, oppressing other humans and killing them too. Can a scientifical approach to borders, which also includes an approach to sustainable development save us from centuries-old dreams and obsessions? Most probably not, but people with fresh minds and a direct experience of borders can start a change. 
Personally, I am not sure what I loved the most about this book: the writing, the intelligent references ranging from science to history, the thrive for adventure on the road less traveled, the geopolitical and political references,  the journey in itself and the places she visited. Most probably all of them, as I've read the book in one full afternoon and wished there is another volume by her waiting for me. It is a book inspiring in both ideas and wanderlust, balanced and insightful.

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

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Literary Explorations: Brigitte Reimann and Burg bei Magdeburg, Germany

Burg b. Magdeburg is not only the city of birth of the famous military strateg Von Clausewitz, but also the birthplace of the relatively unknown - at least outside Germany - writer Brigitte Reimann. 
A multi-awarded author for her short stories, many of them with a socialist-communist topic in the former GDR, Reimann's name was given to the local library and to a promenade. Willi Reimann, her father was in the Soviet prisons after the war and upon return worked at a local bank. 
Her premature death at 40 due to cancer didn't give her the chance to finish her only novel Franziska Linkerhand, published posthumously many years after her death in 1973. Besides being a writer and teacher, she followed the spirit of the time and also worked for a while in Hoyerswerda in a factory, for a better grasp into the world of the working class. She also lived in Neubrandenburg where the local literature center was named after her. Fragments of her diaries and letters offering outstanding insights about the literary life in the 1950s and 1960s in the communist Germany were published in the last years, and hopefully I would be able to have a look at her writings soon.
In 2004, a movie about her life - Hunger auf Leben (Hunger for Life) - was aired. 
Reimann was the witness of a different post-war generation of German writers, together with Christa Wolf or Reiner Kunze. Her way of representing the world was at a great extent the result of her ideological beliefs. I am curious to see how she succeded to maintain the literary quality.  

Sunday, July 8, 2018

A Story of a Family Break: The Walls Came Down by Ewa Dodd

During one of the big Polish Solidarity protests in 1988 in Warsaw, little 4-year old Adam has suddenly disappeard from near his mother and sister. His case was never clarified by the Polish authorities although two decades later his sister, a journalist at a big local newspaper now, never gave up finding him. Adam's disappearance destroyed their mother for ever, as she ended up in an institution for persons with mental disabilities.
Meanwhile, in London, Matt is unsuccessfully trying to dig dip into the history of his mysterious adoption. During a weekend trip to Warsaw with his girlfriend strange memories are coming back, and he is shocked by the discovery. It will take a long, dramatic journey to find out the real story of his upbringing.
In Chicago, Tom is dying and is eaten up by a secret he never shared: his escape from Poland after faking his death in a mining accident. Although he did pretty well financially, his life is empty, especially thinking about the family he left behind in Warsaw.
There are walls to be broken and each of the characters has his or her own walls to tear. The knitting of their stories and the happy ending of the three of them coming together has some surprising twists keeping the reader interested in the follow up. Particularly Tom's story is the most unexpected one, an it takes some time to figure out his role into the narrative.
What I've personally found a bit artificial was the construction of the memoriy flow in the case of Matt. First, how he was struck by the memories during his visit to Poland, and thereafter, as he progressively got back fragments of his past. It is like his memory is activated automatically every time a specific trigger is present which is a good wishful thinking but it doesn't work this way in reality. A more detailed memory mechanism would have clearly added more depth and psychological complexity to the novel.
The political Polish context, during the Solidarity protests and in the post-Communist era is interestingly reconstructed, with the nostalgic tendencies and deep feelings of disappointment towards the current social and economic situation. 
The Walls Came Down by Ewa Dodd is an interesting novel with a stand alone subject which captivates. The writing flows and the stories within the story make sense, although, at least in the end, I felt like the pace is too fast forward, jumping too high through events to reach the final conclusion. 

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

Friday, July 6, 2018

YA Book Review: Heretics Anonymous, by Katie Henry

There are not too many YA novels approaching the relationship of young souls with religion - or rather the complete disdain for it - and it is an unusual situation, as in my experience this time of life is rather associated with a complete reconsideration - and once in a while, rejection - of the own religious roots and beliefs. In Heretics Anonymous, Katie Henry made a noticeable effort to fill this literary gap. 
In a strict private Catholic school, the atheist Michael is introduced to a secret society of rebels made of the Catholic Lucy who would love that women are given more place in the church and with a genuine, anti-institutional approach - 'Lucy believes in a world that's fair' -, the Jewish gay Avi - the riddle of how exactly he ended up in such a strict religious school is not solved until the end of the story - Eden which is polytheistic, and Max which according to my understanding loves to be dressed in a rather Gothic way. Together, they want - and sometimes succeed - to challenge the strict rules of the school in terms of dress-code or the views on marriage or relationship between gender. With the exception of Michael - which in the end, for the love of Lucy, will reconsider some of his radical atheism - they work and fight together against the absurdity of the school rules based on their unique and sometimes lonely situation. As the character Michael recognizes: 'I'm an atheist surrounded by priests and portraits of popes. Of course I know what it's like to feel alone, to feel closed in by people who want to change to fit their worldview'. 
However, when things are not fitting within the group and out of his mounting conflict with his father, Michael decides on his own an extreme act that will almost cost him his place in the school, all the members of the HA are leaving him. 
More than once I felt many of the characters in the book are there mostly to populate the book, as their personality and features are not properly displayed. The 'peaceful' and 'harmonious' way in which the book ends displays a certain restrain in creating a dramatic story, the focus being instead on the 'therapeutic', second-chance follow-up. Which means that that YA book with strong rebelious characters still remains to be written.   
As for the cover, it deserves a special 5-star as it is inspiring, ironic and smart, which doesn't always happen in the case of YA books, which most often are illustrated in a very pathetic, childish way.

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

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Start-Up: Living the Illusions-Driven Life

Start-up culture dramatically challenged not only the working culture in general, but created new habits and approaches of human resources, a new way of reading the news and defining the media relevance in general. But how dramatic are those changes on the scale of gender, age and race gaps? How many women, in fact, are top managers of start-ups, not necessarily those aimed at helping women to overcome their limited working status?
Start-Up by Doree Shafrir is an excellent ironic journey into the glittering life of overnight 20 something billionaires. Rich, with a good often financially generous family background and the best education, they - the men - are out creating fantastic apps aimed to sell happiness. Part of this everyday dream is also the hedonism. Money are made fast, the social interactions at work are easy and the borders between employees and managers are rather vague. One night stands are non-binding, and sexting via Snapchat with your employee who in fact it is no more into you doesn't matter because, you are the king of the start-up, isn't it?
Plus, over 25 you already feel old and if it happens to be a mom with kids, marriede and over 30, most probably your understanding of social media is ridiculously limited. 
The women characters of this book - Katya, the journalist, Isabel, the start-up girl and Sabrina, the wife of the busy journalist that used to have once a brilliant career of writer but gave up everything for family - are ready for changing things, in their own candid quiet ways. They are not radical and it took time to Isabel to realize that the pictures sent by her self-sufficient narcissist boss were in fact an outrageous example of sexual harassment. But although slowly - too slowly in my opinion - each and every one of them they realized that things can change and they can be part of this wave of changes.
The story about the start-up working mood and ambiance that Doree Shafrir brilliantly wrote is hard to put down. She knows perfectly well not only the challenges and its superficial characters, but also the extent of which the medium - social media - might traumtically distort the message. 
Start-Up is one of those books I had on my TBR list for a couple of months, and I am happy I finally had the chance to read it. Not only I was not disappointed, but open up a lot of discussions about women and their continual challenges in being considered full human beings. It seems that regardless how revolutionary your app and office is, bad habits die hard.

Rating: 4 stars

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Book Review: When Life Gives You Lululemons

With so much advertising about this book, plus my own pleasant experience of reading Devil Wears Prada, I couldn't wait to put my hands on When Life Gives You Lululemons. I hungrily grabbed the book from the shelves of my always updated public library and couldn't wait to start reading it.
Unfortunatelly after a couple of dozen of pages, I realized that something doesn't work for me. 200 a pages later, I went so bored that I took a break from the book for one hour. In the end, I grew up in complete disappointment about it.
Let's explain myself a bit more: There are so many characters in this book, coming and going, cheating, being cheated or being afraid of being cheated, or maybe considering to cheat in a while. Psychotic Greenwich mothers with rich husbands giving up their brilliant career to end up attending babyshowers or shopping private presentations, filled by plastic surgery, unhappy with their weights, developing different kind of eating disorders because what else can you do in between various parent conferences and children events. Emily Charton, the brilliant sympathetic secretary of Miranda Priestly working now as an image and communication advisor to Hollywood stars is about to become one of them.
There is also a nice episode which would have been a great story if developed properly and not in counter-balance with stories of Lululemon-dressed moms: the former top model Polish-born turning into the wife of an US politician keen to become the president of the United States, desperate to be a mother and being cheated too. Apparently caught drunk, with some empty bottles in the back of the car while driving home some kids, she is fighting hard to recover her honour, and apparently the American public is very interested about her fate.
I wanted to like this book, especially as I started with it my countryside reading retreat, but it is so stereotypical and the characters are mostly repeating themselves without a reason other than to fill the story with some sensations. Regardless of the type of the story - and I love chick-lit enough to consider writing one myself - I am for a strong unique story and characters with personality. When Life Gives You Lululemons is not what I am looking for, unfortunately. 

Rating: 2.5 stars

Monday, June 25, 2018

Blog Tour: Girlfriend, Interrupted, by Patricia Caliskan

They say love is blind and they may be right. And some loves are bigger than life to not embrace, even though the love hug  includes also two little kids.
Ella, the main character of the book, has her own life and professional dreams and a media star mother and a boyfriend that brought into the relationship two grown up children, one a teenager. But love is strong and Ella will learn her ways as a mother too. 
By using a relatively simple life episode, the book succeeds to create an interesting story which may inspire other couples in similar situations. Besides the 'lecturing' and learning aspects, it is a nice story with a slow pace but with many unexpected changes. My favorite part of the book are the dialogues, bubbling with life and creating humorous and hilarious situations that you can't easily resist without laughing out loud. Ella's mother is by far the champion of open minded and hilarious remarks are fully in the spirit of a liberal woman as she is described.
The book is organised in small chapter a choice which creates a certain dynamic of the story, as a chain of theatre-like moments, therefore keeping the reader focused and curious to catch up with the next moments of the story.
Easy to read and with a story to remember, Girlfriend, Interrupted is a recommended lecture for the long summer days and evenings. 

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

Merman Erotica Doesn't Work for Me

I love and I am curious to read almost everything written in more than one language, except vampire stories. Nor my sense of humour either my life and literary interest. I am a person of simple tastes after all. This was until yesterday, when I added on my 'not/never to read' list a new category: adult books with a merman/mermaid character. Merman erotica, to be more precise. 
At 38, Lucy just broke up with her boyfriend and is about to loose the stipendium for writing her PhD thesis on the poet Sappho. Unsure about her future she accept the offer of her sister to petsit a diabetic dog in her house in Venice, LA while attenting a women therapy circle and trying to figure out her future. Lucy is lost, surrounded by other women even more lost than her and life goes on, with hook-ups on Tinder or other adventures. Until she met the merman, Theo. 'Did it take a mythological deformity to find a gorgeous man who was as needy as I was?'. 
The writing is ok, the topics are relatively common - the millenial searching for herself while working a non-sense PhD. Introducing the mythological hottie may be new and challenge the narrative, but it is not exactly the kind of stories I am interested in. My bad, I know. But my literary logic doesn't accept that although the life of Lucy is often going through deep periods of emptyness and depression - skilfully described - an impossible romance may be the way out. Meanwhile she is neglecting the poor dog who will pass away until the end of the story.
The next time I will read more carefully the plot descriptions of the books I am supposed to read and review. 
PS. Although the temptation was enormous, I decided, for the sake of the review, to read The Pisces until its very end. 

Rating: 2 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Inspiration for Writers: Read. Write. Reflect by Monica Bhide

There is no such thing as enough inspirational books for writers. As writing is a process which involves constant changes and practice, one may need different kind of inspiration corresponding to the current stage of professional development. There are also different aspects covered by writing in general, as nowadays it does not mean exclusively producing literature or non-fiction tomes. It means also writing for a newspaper or for a blog. For me, as long as you keep yourself busy with words on a daily basis, you are a writer. Read.Write.Reflect, the 10th book by the very talented Monica Bhide is another important contribution to the list of references for writers, regardless the domain covered. Monica herself has a complex experience in various fields, from poetry to cookbooks and interviews with other inspiring women like her or works of fiction. The diversity of writing experiences give her authority to share her lessons learned and also inspire people looking for the right sources of inspiration and support. Most ideas were developed through a program - Powered by Hope - initiated through her website.
But what can you find in this book with a beautiful cover created by the artist of images Simi Jois? I personally liked that after each topic approached, you have to answer a question and eventually develop a new theme. It is an instant brain storming which leads to a different level of creativity. Each chapter is concise, mostly created around a personal story or moment of inspiration Monica experienced herself. Such an approach gives authenticity and connects with the readers on a more direct personal level. Last but not least, at the end of each section there is a list of recommended readings or resources - including podcasts - which may diversify the creative shift.
Read.Write.Reflect by Monica Bhide is a work worth the experience of a complex writer that reached a professional level allowing her to share her experiences and inspire other people in search of fulfilling their creativity. Recommended to any writer with a curious mind and keen to improve the quality of his or her work and reach a new creative level.

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

Crazy Rich People Secrets

After reading Crazy Rich Asians and Rich People Problems, I was not sure if I can live without reading the second part of the trilogy, China Rich Girlfriend, but I was sure that sooner or later will give up and spend one day or so in the company of the special characters developed by Kevin Kwan.
From the point of view of the writing style and the literary skills, it was a time well spent. The more or less sympathetic long line of characters from the other books got more colour and even a bit of political background by adding a lot of characters from the New China: politicians with entrepreneur wives, Instagram and blogging stars with multi-billion accounts, shopping addicts closing and emptying the luxury brand and couture shops in Paris. Forget the Russian oligarchs, they are so passĂ© and bourgeois, faced with their Asian tycoons counterparts. 
A good, easy-going and often hilarious read of people with overinflated egos, living a glittering fake reality they created following their trips in the outside world of luxury. From private jets at the size of Air Force Once and a bit more to special assistants for dogs, you have all the symptoms shared among the characters of this book. I bet they are real, at least some of them. 
The author also introduced a couple of dramatic elements which makes the read more interesting and entertaining, especially after being overwhelmend by fashion and interior design detailed descriptions (which are very illustrative, by the way). Also, psychological elements outlining the ways in which a new financial and economic status challenges personality are a good food for thought and add more interesting spices to the reading.
The book has plenty of characters to love and hate and pity - some of them at the same time, and it is far beyond your usual chick-lit read. The outrageous spending habits and hilarious behavior of the new China riches are authentic and make the book an interesting read not only for those intersted in gossips about celebrities and fashion icons and trend setters. It shows a part of China that probably only few people envisioned a couple of decades ago. 
Once I finished the trilogy, I would be very curious to read something completely different by Kevin Kwan as he is such a talented writer that obviously can write about many more topics.

Rating: 3 stars

Monday, June 18, 2018

Journeys into Our Dark Sides: Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

'Had I been born into a different family, I might have grown up to act and feel perfectly normal'. 
Does it actually work like this in real life? Are family circumstances necessarily a strong influence into further personal and psychological developments? Isn't it only an easy way to blame the others for shortcomings that in fact might be avoided?
Eileen, with her ex-cop alcoholic father, is in his early 20s, working an office job in a correctional facility in X-ville. She has an anonymous isolated life, nurtured by fantasies about a guard she is stalking without any success. 'I'd never learned how to relate to people, much less how to speak up to myself', she says in a confession written many years after the events leading to her runaway from home and the beginning of a brand new life. Most of the time, she is invisible, with no chance of becoming a functional human being, with a real life. 
It is not sure that she knows or want a real life either. An experience shoplifter, it is unclear what and why she may fit outside her correctional facility. Most probably she will become an alcoholic like her father or a depressed woman like her mother or both. She dreams meanwhile, unable to push herself to reach a better position socially or emotionally: 'My curiosity for stars is obvious: I wanted something to tell me my future was bright'. 
Her future will change completely in only a matter of days, after the extravagant Rebecca made a spectacular entrance into the grey prison world. Manipulative, she is using the naive Eileen for her own aims and in the end, help her to escape the miserable life.
The mention of episodes from her future life are aimed at offering more information about her new life chances. From the literary point of videw, I've found the technique stereotypical. Most probably childless, Eileen ended up by accepting her feminity and becoming more or less like everyone else.
This slow paced, psychologically introspective novel sounds like an inquiry into the permeable limits between good and evil. Is evil able to nest even in the most innocent soul? Is evil in fact an acceptable part of being a human being and only the fear of repercursions or the luck of not being caught. Those poor beings from the prison for minors were not so lucky, with their crimes an outrage to their pure age.    
The writing may create sometimes a suffocating and incongrous ambiance and the self-centered erratic Eileen doesn't make it into a favorite character. No character in this book is sympathetic, in fact. We may also keep in mind that the action takes place in the 1960s, with all what it means for a certain perception of women and their psychology in particular. Would be very curious to read more from Ottessa Moshfegh, as she is gently touching upon very dramatic topics with the strength of her writing. She has an unique voice I would love to follow in her other books. 

Rating: 4 stars

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

About Mourning: A Separation, by Katie Kitamura

The translator wife of a relatively successful non-fiction author is mourning the sudden death of her husband in Greece. The real story though, told by the wife whose name is never disclosed is of a separation. Her sudden arrival to Greece slowly searching to meet her husband was the result of an ultimatum of her mother-in-law, who sent her there to find her son, apparently on a research trip documeting mourning rituals. The meeting between the two never takes place, as he is murdered. The case will be closed after a year, with the culprit never being found.
Before arriving to Greece, the wife wanted a divorce, as the couple secretly separated for month. Upon arrival from Greece back to London, she is a widow, with a rich inheritance involved in various projects dedicated to her ex-husband. She is mourning. 'Sometimes it is comforting to think that his death was a result of his being in the world, rather than his death having occured entirely at random, as if erasing a presence that had already failred to leave its mark, that had not insisted sufficiently upon his life: that it would be truly be as though he had vanished into thin air'.
The wife's account is sometimes confusing, ambiguous, from the position of someone who assumed a shadow role, without necessarily being asked to. In fact, during the book-long monologue we are shared a limited amount of information about her, her eventual motivations and life. There are some references about her work - French translator - a relatively safe financial status, a 8-year difference between her and her husband. Everything is about her husband, whose infidelities created drama for a young lady during his short stay in Greece too, and might have been the cause of his death, but her absence although she is the one through whose eyes we are told the story, is not playing in the advantage of the story as such. 
Personally, the moment the death of the husband was announced, was like a welcomed stroke, as the letargy was almost complete and was not sure if I really have to keep reading this book. But it did not change the story too much, after all. Still, there is not clear why exactly this marriage of opposites ended - and started at all, why she accepted to just go to follow her husband although she knew well that things were finished anyway between them. Also the sudden long mourning after his death is a bit pathetic and extra-dramatic. She was engaged to a friend of the husband, after all. 
It may be an apology of mediocrity, of low life, of a woman without features. Maybe. But it's a pitty for the writing potential of the author that the characters are so lost in words, words about feelings, about 'what ifs', but completely failing to be real.

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

Sunday, June 10, 2018

On Creativity and Genius

Once in a while I recall a discussion I had with my mother, with was a languages prodigy and a long-time teacher: she insisted there are people that are really gifted for languages, while I assumed that once you have the right mindset for learning it and also the practical need to do it, the change of learning language is equally distributed among humans. Many years after, I insist that all you need in order to learn a language is the will and the need and a lot of exercices practicing it. 
Although it is approaching the issue of creativity as a pattern which has to do with a certain historical and social context of circumstances, Allen Gannett's The Creative Curve is rejecting the genius-driven idea of the intellectual elites and cultural achievements. Mozart worked a lot, Picasso also, Beatles did it too. Their success was a matter of being the right person at the right time. 
The idea and the many premises developped in the book are not new at all. Many decades ago, the Historical French School of Annales sought for thought and ideas patterns which are creating the red thread of disparate historical events. Applied to the explanations from the book, it explains why certain songs, for instance, may look like successful overnight, when in fact it has to do with a certain pattern familiar to the public in a certain historical moment. The historicity of the moment when a certain idea emerges explains why not all new ideas are becoming instant success. It has to bring a new interpretation while maintaining the right balance with the ideas already accepted. The Harry Potter books, for instance, besides being the result of a systematic work and documentation and punctilious development of the literary structure, it also used elements of children books already present. The result and the following success were not a revolution, but a creative interpretation of expectations of the audience. And again, the lot of hard work, instead of a struck of a genial inspiration. 
Although I personally agree with most ideas shared in the book and the examples are well chosen to explain the conclusion, I may still believe that in some cases, such as playing a musical instrument, you may need a pinch of so-called talent, besides thousands of hours of practice and dedication. I personally played piano for almost 10 years, and despite the fact that I reached a certain level of technical achievement, my basic interpretation was as impressive as the wood the piano was made of. My technical accuracy was not accompanied by what you usually need in order to impress your audience: the dedication and the talent that are not for everyone. Maybe I was in the wrong place, and in the wrong time, and obviously was missing any support group and professional support that are so important to live in the highest clouds of creativity - regardless the domain - as much as possible. 
The Creative Curve is a book encouraging dedication and hard work and I am very much inclined to follow its advices.

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

Book Review: The Adulterants, by Joe Dunthorne

Growing up is hard, especially when it happens at the honorable age of 30+. Growing up means not only physically and emotionally, but also from the point of view of meeting certain social and status (old school) requirements.
The characters in The Adulterants by Joe Dunthorne are fine. Some work in tech journalism, or inherited some properties, or are kind of artists and creatives. Mostly over 30, not necessarily decided to have their own families. They are selfish in the mediocre way, not necessarily because they are busy traveling the world or writing books or building up a career. They just don't know for sure what to do with a new life in their own limited life. In the posh expensive London they can hardly afford a centrally-located place to rent and buying a property is almost impossible. They do have jobs but not sure if those jobs will cope with the sudden changes on the market.
The characters in The Adulterants, by Joe Dunthorne are shadows. Moving slowly from a party to another once in a while, filling up their duties and enjoying their kind of life. They are really fine.
And then, the civil disobedience took London by surprise in 2011. Angry people against the establishment, some of them those 'fine' people, put the beautiful city on fire. When you don't have nothing, you have nothing to lose. Another shock of wave for our millennial characters, because absurdly, they are part of a scenario they couldn't care less about only seconds before being themselves involved in some occurrences. Ray, the main character and the narrator of the story, will end up in prison, after being featured on a 'Shop a Looter' billboard, with his image caught on CCTV, while intruding the office of a real estate that failed to helped he and his wife Garthene to find the family house of their dreams. 
Even though I related at a minimal level with the characters, what I really loved about this book is the language. Polished to obsession, elevated and persuasive in its own right. So bad that, as the characters themselves, is so disconnected from the surrouding reality.

Rating: 3 stars 

Friday, June 8, 2018

What is Copywriting?

As a writer or journalist, you may consider copywriting as a not-so-noble profession, when you accept to sell your gifts for producing well-paid but cheap stylish pieces of writing. But copywriting, and advertising in general, may mean much more than producing some advertorial content. A good work of writing has the power of changing the world, either it is read in less than a minute or more than 100-page long. Wherever you are using your skills, you are not wasting them, only using your words for a different aim, and sometimes audience too, and as long as you write well, there is nothing to be ashamed of.
Copywriting Made Simple by Tom Albrighton offers an overview of the challenges and daily briefs a copywriter need to deal with on a daily basis. It is not aimed to someone completely new in the world of writing, but eventually to a professional looking for a career switch. The skills and knowledge in matters related to writing, there is only the need to understand how exactly a copywritter works and what his or her job involves on a daily basis.
Otherwise, if you are already active into this field, the book doesn't help too much. Personally, I would have been interested in even more examples but also how to use your well-honed writing skills to persuade difficult clients unable to understand your work. 
In other words, it is an useful book, but it also has some limitations in terms of the reading audience. Noteworthy is also the list of  bibliographical references at the end of every chapter, and the couple of exercices recommended.
It makes copywriting simple, indeed, but in a professional way.

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

Monday, June 4, 2018

Peacock Ironies about the Corporate Life

If you are looking for a relaxing read in one of the uneventful summer weekend afternoon, in the German language, Der Pfau by Isabel Bogdan is a right ironic choice. If you look to improve both your vocabulary and the pronunciation, the audio version is recommended. 
A couple of bank employees are booking a team building retreat in Scotland, in a remote location at a small property with more animals than people. Among them, a peacock (der Pfau) which literally is getting crazy and starts attacking the guests. Hence, the need to kill him. But who really killed him? What to do with the remains of the poor crazy bird? How to deal with the secrets that the peacock-events are generating among the members of the team of respectful bankers? Who is really worth sharing the terrible secrets about the peacock (which in fact are just misunderstandings and the result of missing some small parts of the puzzle regarding the everyday activities around the property they are living)?
There are so many ironical situations and some slices of British and Scottish humour that it is worth considering for an insightful lecture. The interactions between characters and the comical course of the events raises so many questions recommending this book for a book club, as it allows to create a long lists of questions about the intentions and reactions of the protagonists.
All being said, I am also proud of me keeping up with my plan set at the beginning of the year, to read more books in other languages than English. 

Rating: 3 stars

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Laura Esther Wolfson Talks about Her Blind Date with the Russian Language

Photo by Florence Montmare
For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors stands as my literary revelation of the year thus far, an  essay collection that mixes favorite elements of mine:  subtle irony, intellectual curiosity and a love of Russian literature and of authenticity. Laura Esther Wolfson was generous enough to answer my questions about writing and her love of Russian language and literature. Follow her on Twitter as @EstherLaura and check her website for updates on book events and publications. 

How did your love story with the Russian language begin?

Like many love stories, it began as a blind date. For all that I knew about Russian, I could have chosen French, Swahili or Chinese almost as readily. (And in fact I did consider them all, and other languages too.) I sought adventures in remote latitudes, precisely where was unimportant. I boarded the Russian language as if it were a long-distance train that would carry me off to faraway places.

What tipped the scales toward Russian was a desire to read books I loved—Anna KareninaDoctor Zhivago—in the original.

During the early stages of foreign language immersion, I lived in a state of euphoria: able to speak and understand, but continually aware, as in a dream, of moving within a network of uncertain meaning and shifting shapes I could put my hand through. Everything I encountered was weightless, and so was I.

Who are your favorite Russian writers?

I love Pushkin and Babel best. And Tolstoy. But there is so much of Russian literature that I have yet to read; omissions from this list are as likely due to ignorance as to taste.

Is there a book you wish you had written yourself?

I cannot imagine writing someone else’s book. Every book is to a large extent the result of idiosyncrasies in the author’s upbringing, education, taste, reading habits, surroundings, experiences, relationships, and more. You cannot have anyone’s idiosyncracies but your own.

I want to write in my own voice, but more prolifically, and much, much better.

What kind of books in translation appeal to the American reading public nowadays?

I cannot say with any certainty what kinds of translated works the American reading public wants now—the answer is probably ‘many different kinds’— but I do think that developments of the past decade amply disprove the tired notion that American readers are not interested in translations.

Publish it, and they will come. See Elana Ferrante, Klaus Ove Knausgaard, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Haruki Murakami and other translation sensations. Publishing houses specializing in translations have proliferated: Archipelago Books, Deep Vellum Publishing, New Vessel Press, Open Letter, Two Lines Press  and more. Why, even Amazon has leapt on this bandwagon, yes, bandwagon, with AmazonCrossing, its translation arm. The magazines Words Without Borders and Asymptote specialize in literary translation. Each year, the PEN World Voices Festival in New York City, founded in the aftermath of 9/11, introduces to the U.S. reading public dozens of authors working in many languages. Clearly, there has long been a thirst for high-quality literary translations that is only now being slaked.

Do certain languages become fashionable for geopolitical reasons? Was Russian such a language during the Cold War, and is Mandarin the new Russian?

My undergraduate Russian instructors, who are, thirty years on, my friends and colleagues, tell me that whenever Russia makes the headlines, enrollment spikes. But only for one semester. There is no question that during the Cold War, perestroika and glasnost, there were many more students enrolled in Russian classes than there are now, pace Robert Mueller and Donald Trump.

I cannot speak about Mandarin, though of course I’ve heard that it’s fashionable for people in certain circles to enroll their children in Mandarin classes. I cannot point to specific political events that might be a factor.

When someone asks me what language to study, I suggest Spanish. It’s such an important language in the United States, where I live, and knowledge of it unlocks the rest of the hemisphere. I also sometimes mention Arabic, whose speakers are now center stage in world affairs. But Arabic takes years to master, and unforeseen events could crowd it out at any time, pushing some other language to the fore and leaving high and dry anyone who chooses to study it based on geopolitics.

The best and most meaningful choices are often those we make for no other reason than love or obsession.

Have you tried to write in languages other than English?

Asked at a public event if she ever thought of writing in English, Russian author Tatiana Tolstaya, who lived and taught in the United States for many years, replied (in flawless English) that the only language she could ever write in was the one whose nursery rhymes and lullabies she’d heard as a tiny child. I could not agree more.

I cannot imagine writing in any language except English. My writing is shot through with wordplay and sound play, rhymes and half rhymes, alliteration, assonance, irony, literary allusions and quotations. It is sprinkled with foreign words that, stripped of their English-language scrim, would be about as interesting (and as visible) as a shooting star at noon. I could never achieve or even attempt any of this in another language.

What is for you, the most challenging part of being a translator?

It depends on whether we are talking about the work of the interpreter; the translator of commercial, technical, diplomatic or other specialized documentation; or the literary translator. (In the language services industry, ‘translator’ refers specifically to a linguist who works with written materials. The person at the dignitary’s elbow or in the booth with headphones orally transferring meaning into another language is an interpreter, not a translator. And most people who toil in the translation trenches do not translate works of literature, but mundane and necessary materials such as software and other instruction manuals, patents and legal documents.)

Subject knowledge is far more important in language work than the public realizes. How can you translate a text on astrophysics if you are not fluent in astrophysics? Fluency in the subject is as central to the task as fluency in the languages. A professional interpreter or translator specializes in a limited number of subjects that she knows well, prudently declining offers of work that fall outside that range, or, if she decides to take on something new, boning up on the topic thoroughly ahead of time and consulting specialists in the field.

Translators are generally self-employed, always hustling for the next contract. Translation work is often sent abroad to countries where the rates are so low that first-world translators cannot compete. There is also a gray market of semi-or unqualified translators who do poor-quality work and drag down the reputation of the whole profession. Staff translators in international organizations such as the United Nations must master and unswervingly adhere to house editorial and style guidelines, precedents and turns of phrase enshrined in previous documents.

Interpreters must have the words and phrases at their fingertips, improvising ingeniously when they do not. (But the latter should not happen too often.) Interpreters derive pleasure from pressure. They are skilled orators and mind readers, comfortable in the spotlight, yet adept at invisibility. Their work draws on training, habit, adrenaline, and the psychological state of flow. They prepare fiendishly before each assignment.

Literary translators capture subtleties of culture, tone and music. They convey qualities and fragrances, the drift, the waft, the weft, the woof and the whiff. FenĂȘtre=window is only the beginning. Is it bay or casement, dormer or storm? Diamond pane or stained, leaded glass or plastic?

Of course, every category of linguist should avoid the word-for-word approach where the forest becomes overgrown with trees.

What book you would love to translate into English?

After thirty years as an interpreter and translator, I now have the opportunity to devote more time to writing. Translation has, over the decades, provided me with a livelihood; training as a reader and writer; excuses for postponing getting serious about writing; and finally, a wealth of stories. Writing and translation draw on the same part of the mind. For some people, this means that they can switch easily between the two. For me, it means the opposite: Now I need to save that part of my mind for writing. So I won’t be translating much in the near future.

As I was revising For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors for publication, I noticed that the book includes a subgenre of essay about translation that I haven’t seen elsewhere: the essay about not translating, about a work the essayist/translator declined to translate, and her reasons for so deciding. The book contains two of these: “The Book of Disaster” and “Losing the Nobel.” Given how many books I have not translated and never will, this is a vein I could mine for several lifetimes.

What are your writing plans for the coming months?

I recently began something new that is best described as ‘autofiction.’ Meaning that the first-person narrator is nearly indistinguishable from the author, and that while the story hews closely to lived events, the narrative arc is paramount and the purpose of the work is not to say, ‘here’s what happened,’ but to move, entertain, delight or disturb. Thus no one can cry foul at any divergence, real or perceived, from the so-called facts of the matter.

This work, entitled Super-Pricey Royal Blue French Lace Bra, is about the impact of chronic illness and disability on a love relationship, with sections (that initially appear to be digressions) about international affairs, history and literature .

Ultimately I may choose not to publish it. It is very revealing.

Friday, May 25, 2018

An Icelandic Thriller Hard to Forget: The Legacy by Yrsa Sigurdardottir

Besides the pure curiosity of my first meeting with a representative of the Icelandic literature - adding one more country to the list of my literary travels - and the plan of spending some hours in a company of a thriller that was well received by the professionist book reviewers, I did not know what to expect from The Legacy by Yrsa Sigurdardottir. 
Tracing the crimes committed by an aparent psychopat targetting women without any aparent connection between each other, the thriller is more than a simple criminalistic investigation. It has that pinch of life which connects the crime story with the outside context of the society, and the more or less observations about the limited social contacts between neighbours and even between people belonging to the same families make it an interesting sociological evaluation in itself. 
It is a very intense reading, where the psychopatic elaboration of the crimes intercedes with the mystery of an adoption mentioned at the beginning of the book and the question if there is any connection between those crimes and what the reader will easily guess as a terrible - blood soaked - secret. 
There are many characters in this book, with more or less forefront role in the story, and the author succeeds to connect them in so many various ways that it almost looks like a puppet theatre very well coordinated. Most of the main characters, especially the children ones, are hard to forget and at least a couple of days after finishing the book I had them in my mind, as much as you can have a complex human being from the real life, thinking about the motivation or their psychological depth.
At the end of the story, each and every one piece of the domino is falling down to its place. And what and ending this story has! Completely unexpected and exactly how I like my thriller stories: unexpected, outrageously surprising and impossible to predict.

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

Sunday, May 6, 2018

How to be a Healthy Writer

I am not a full time writer (yet) but all my working life I've spent on a chair, in the front of a computer, tiping either my academic papers and articles or books or journalistic articles or translations. Everything I ever did for money in my life involved writing - from a chair in the front of a computer. I even had a vintage time, in my first university year, when I even wrote my papers at a typing machine - also from a chair. Such work habits lead in time to various issues: my poor sight, back pain, excessive use of coffee and cigarettes. Those were the times and it took me a long time to realise that I really need to change everything in order to have a longer, healthier life. At the time, there were not too many books or mindsets pledging for a healthier lifestyle; if you wanted to deal with words for a living, you had to be self-distructive, crazy and drunk, smoking packs of cigarettes after the other when the writing was blocked and avoid sleep because it cuts you from the genuine root of creativity. 
Such a romantic view is proved greatly toxic in fact, and you need to witness the slow or sudden death of your ex-colleagues to realize that life is a gift that literally gifted or not, you have to reason to waste.
The Healthy Writer is an example of how writers can start changing dramatically their toxic life,  one step at a time. It helps, among others 'reduce your pain, improve your health and build a writing career for the long term' (which means also that you can increase your lifespan). The main keyowrds are empowerment and sustainability: as a writer you can avoid health issues that may impede your writing - both in length and quality - and create long-term strategies for a better mental and physical health. It calls both for balance and clear acknowledgment of your limits, also taking into account the personal health history. 'We need to bear in mind that health is intrinsically bound up in all sorts of factors that include whether you work for a living, where you live, what you eat, whether you smoke and your social and family circumstances'.
The book was written based on the personal experiences of the writers - one of whom Dr. Euan Lawson is a medical doctor - but also following surveys done within the community of writers. What I personally liked very much about this book is its realistic approach: it offers a systematic overview of the threats the writer cope with in his or her daily life - from sleep deprivation - sleep being considered 'one of the basic bulding blocks of a healthy resilient life' (note to my insomniac self) - to peculiar work space or serious mental health issues - with simple, doable solutions - from yoga to walking or proper eating habits. 
Those new habits may have a dramatic influence on the quality and quantity of writing as well. 'Persistance is the secret of success in writing as much as general fitness or finishing ultra-marathons'.
Provided with a list of questions at the end of every chapter, aimed at figuring out the main issues that one may deal with from the health point of view featured as well as with a list of bibliographical references, The Healthy Writer is one of those books you keep near your desk as you may need to return to a specific section later. 

Rating: 5 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by one of the authors in exchange for an honest review  

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Book Review: Tatiana by Martin Cruz Smith

Important thing about me: I am fascinated and passionate about novels set in the former post-Soviet/post-Communist time. As myself I am familiar at a certain extent with the life in those countries, I love the feeling of reading fiction inspired by hard and always worth a couple of novels realities. However, it is not enough to have the perfect details and set of characters in order to write a good book.
I had a similar impression when I had my first encounter with the Arkady Renko novels, in Stalin's Ghost: great setting, interesting characters and some curious story developments, but in the end of the day, the domino pieces did not match together and the entire story ended up in a very disappointing course of events. 
It happened the same in the case of Tatiana, which features the extraordinary pressures against the work of investigative journalism in post-Soviet Russia. There are all the elements for an excellent story: local mafia, former USSR problems - Kursk submarine drama, for instance - and state of mind and also Chechen fighters. It seems that the author has a subtle knowledge of the realities in this troubled part of the world. The dialogues are the part I've loved the most in the book: full of live, smart and witty. However, when all those parts were brought together: the dialogues, the bizarre characters, the circumstances, the story failed of being more than plain, less exciting than the everyday news in the Russian media. There is something in the art of storytelling which is missing and it is enough to discourage me from liking the book.
However, will give another - last - try to this author, as I have his latest book ready for a review. Hopefully things are sounding better but as for now I am not impressed at all.

Rating: 2.5 stars

Friday, April 20, 2018

Ada Twist, scientist...

Meet Ada Twist, a little black girl, with a lot of questions, although she did not start properly talking before the age of 3. Meet also her family, surprised by her interest in science and the art of questions, but with a relatively low level of tolerance when it comes to bizarre experiments, such as of making a cat stinky.
But even if grounded for a short while, Ada's mind cannot stop, and as a veritable scientist, she keeps asking questions and looking for answers. That's how science advances, after all...
Luckily, her parents realized that her curiosity and dedication to science is bigger than life, so they better keep up the pace with their gifted girl, instead of forcing her out of the scientific comfort zone. 
Ada Twist, Scientist, by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts is truly inspiring both for children - especially curious little black girls - and for their parents. To the children, it gives them another motivation to dare. For the parents, to be tolerant and instead of cutting short the wings of their children, to rather go to school and use the luck of having a gifted child for their own improvement too. I personally haven't found the illustrations outstanding, just a normal visual background for a well-told story. The messages are encouraging and simple, the easy motivation that most probably parents of gifted children took some long time to find otherwise. Or in some cases, too late, as many were impatient and unprepared enough to understand their gifted children so they discouraged their little girls to move forward with their dreams. The book can be also used for a class discussion, as teachers also need more than once to cope with the curiosities of some of their gifted pupils.

Rating: 4 stars

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Short funny stories from a time that was

Once upon a time it was the first Internet address - mine was hotmail - and the chat rooms, and the MySpace and the Mozilla, and so many wanders hard to describe to someone that grew up with. Besides the technological novelty, the Internet brought a tremendous change in the realm of human relationships, creating that easiness of talking with strangers and in many cases, encouraging people to be themselves, at least while online. Although I have no therapist background at all, I am sure that for many, it helps a lot to create that strength of coming up in the real life too. 
In a this funny collection of short stories from the very first time of the Internet - which were not so old times at all, by the way, Jess Kimball Leslie is sharing her own experience of life, identity and love stories. The angle outlining how the birth of the Internet contributed to empower her identity and help her be in touch with people sharing the same interests adds relevance to her story itself. It shows the impact of the late decades of technological development on human behavior and the ways in which Internet and its communication tools helped create better stories. Obviously, there are so many downsides and dangers and unpleasant and even tragical occurences that took place under the anonymous cover of the Internet, but in the case of 'I Love my computer because my friends live in it', there is a positive vibe which make you think that there could be good Internet-related news too, and not only short-lived chat room romances.
This collection of stories by Jess Kimball Leslie is that kind of book that you can read easily but not without leaving you with some deep thoughts about how the Internet changed - with its good, bad and ugly - your life.  I loved the (self)ironic style and the authentic strong voice of the author. She is a good storyteller and would love to read more from her. 

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

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Interview with Medeia Cohan, author of Hats of Faith

As a mother of a small child growing up in a complex world, teaching tolerance is part of my educational priorities. Besides the personal examples from the family, and interactions with people and children belonging to other religions, books and movies are a good tool for teaching the lessons of tolerance. But finding the right books with a straightforward message is not always easy. A couple of months ago, I've been offered the chance to read and review a quality book about head-coverings in different religions, Hats of Faith. As I enjoyed the book, I wanted to further explore the topic, through an interview with the author, Medeia Cohan. Here is the result of our exchange, shared via e-mail. The title and inter-titles are my selection. 
Photo from the personal archive of Medeia Cohan (left). 

'There simply isn't enough diversity in books'

How did you decide to write Hats of Faith?

I never really decided to write this book, it sorted of decided on me, rather than the other way around.
I really just wanted to buy it for my son, but it didn’t exist. Normally with something like this I would have thought, “Oh well” or “Too “bad” and moved on with my life, but I just kept thinking how important it was, at this moment in time that a book like this existed. In this time of increased intolerance and faith and race based hate crimes, the world really needs something secular and factual and mainstream; something that wasn’t preachy and is beautiful to give children an early familiarity with head coverings.
The more I spoke about the idea with other parents, the more I kept hearing stories of children reacting badly or making embarrassing gaffs when they’d encounter someone in a head covering, like my neighbour’s 2 year old daughter who called a women in a grey niqab a ghost. I also heard stories from those who covered their heads about never seeing themselves in mainstream books and the impact that had on them.
Stories like these fuelled my belief that there simply isn’t enough diversity in books and children aren’t getting important interfaith and diversity education early enough. It’s the lack of these things that lead to fear and ultimately negative views of the unknown.
Motivated by a drive to make a difference and encouraged by other parents, I decided it was my job to write this book. Before I knew it I was in talks with my now publisher and long time friend Hajera Memon to bring this book to life.

What was the most challenging part of writing it?

A subject like this you are never going to make everyone happy but I wanted to do the best we possibly could to pull together generally agreed upon accurate information that we could stand proudly behind. This proved harder than I thought.
People are passionate and thus sensitive about their faiths. Getting the tone and information in this book right was a total challenge and we still occasionally get complaints. But on the whole I think people see the effort we’ve made and are supportive.
Writing this book was a huge and very time consuming responsibility and at times working with so many experts to get it right threatened to ruin the entire project. Something like this can only be done as a passion project as we’ll never financially cover the hours we spent researching and rewriting to get it just right without compromise.

The research took over a year...

I've read that the writing process took a long time, as the opinion of various religious experts was requested. How did this consultation process work?

The research for this book took just over a year and as I said, it was not an easy process. We made a commitment from the beginning to make sure that we were writing something as accurate as possible and to do that we need to consult with experts, faith leaders, curators and professors of theology from around the world. It was a grueling process where we’d write something based on loads of on and off line research and then send it out to experts from every faith and it would come back covered in red. And then we’d start again. It was truly painful, but in the end I’m proud of the work we did and the end result.

Projects for the betterment of future generations

What are your recommendations for anyone embarking on a journey writing about such a topic?

It’s so important that we realise these projects for the betterment of future generations, but this kind of thing will not make you money. You must do it because you believe in it and you need to see it reaslied, otherwise you’ll end up resenting how much time of your life it takes.

I’m proud of what we’ve achieved and overcome and I see the difference it’s making when we run workshops or parents or teachers post pictures on social media. I hope one day religious or race based persecution is a thing we read about and can’t imagine. And I don’t mind that it’s taken a huge part of the last few years of my life and eaten into my income because I love it and I believe in it.

What are your favorite multi-cultural sources of inspiration when it comes to children books?

At our house we read a lot of books on repeat. Some of the favs include:
The Colour of Us
Last stop on Market Street
Ganesh’s Sweet Tooth
The Journey
Hanukkah Oh Hannukkah

What are your next writing plans?

Oh god, I can't even think past this project at the moment. We've just finished our FREE Interfaith Education Kit and are embarking on our first UK wide workshop  tour. That is currently consuming every minute of my thoughts.