Sunday, July 29, 2018

Summer in New York City: A Dangerous Age, by Killy Killoren

I randomly picked up this book thinking about my long evenings in the countryside, when I needed some small connection to the world of glamour, and gossips and the memories of New York City. That kind of sparkling chick lit that makes you feel envirous and longing for the life you traded once in exchange of comfort and predictibility. 
A Dangerous Age had a promise and filled a secret desire, but until the very end of it, disappointed. It lost its mundane sparkle in discussions about art, desire and fantasy, misplaced in the wrong life episodes, or broke down delicious descriptions of euphoric meals with absurde or - again - misplaced dialogues. You have the gracious life of New York celebrities in the summer, but they are not even vane, just happens to pop-up in the story as someone dropping names of the establishment in a discussion about children rearing. It is also a bit delusional assuming that an anynomous blogger posting daily metaphorical/philosophical posts will ever be world famous. 
In the end, all is overpassed, the superficial moments of tension and suspense are just superficial moments and life goes on again at the end of the season. Glamorous life can be vain, but for sure more eventuful and less hysterical than those girls meeting up every week with country girls ambitions.
That's all about this book.
Maybe, as one of the characters in the book said, I need to learn to live my own disappointments. And to be more careful the next time I decide to spend my time with a book. Not all the glitter about New York is really worth literary gold.

Rating: 2.5 stars

Friday, July 20, 2018

The Lives of Many Languages

As someone growing up with more than two complicated languages, I am fascinated by other people's stories of growing up in a multicultural and multi-lingual environment. My children grew up with a similar story, and got even more linguistic boost and I personally cannot see any other way of being a complete citizen of the world - besides usind those multi-lingual skills to travel and use them on a regular basis. 
I am surrounded mostly by people with interesting language stories and I am always keen to discover inspiring stories which involves wordings in more than a language, not necessarily translations, but ways in which multitude of words are taking over and shaping our lives. 

In Other Words/In Altre Parole was on my to-read list for a very long time. A successful writer writing in English, her second language after Bengali, Jhumpa Lahiri decided to challenge herself and switch to Italian, a difficult linguistic choice, but a neutral space for writing a new life page. Words are the cultural connectors, shaping the imaginary mental geography a writer needs to exist. 'Every since I was a child, I've belonged only to my words. I don't have a country, a specific culture. If I didn't write, If I didn't work with words, I wouldn't feel that I'm present on the earth'. 
The relationship started while she was still living in the US therefore creating the linguistic bridge and continuity was not automatically enfolding. 
'My relationship with Italian takes place in exile, in a state of separation. 
Every language belongs to a specific place. It can migrate, it can spread. But usually it is tied to a geographical territory, a country. Italian belongs mainly to Italy, and I live on another continent, where one does not readily encounter it'. Given the geographical separation, the relationship evolved slowly, not at a highly prodigal level. 'In spite of the conversations, the language remains elusive, evanescent', she noticed. 
And then she moved to Italy, in exile from the English language, starting the long-term relationship with Italian, a language she wrote her linguistic memoir. 'Learning a foreign language is the fundamental way to fit in with new people in a new country. It makes a relationship possible. Without language you can't feel that you have a legitimate, respected presence. You are without a voice, without power. No chunk, no point of entrance can be found in the wall. I know that if I stayed in Italy for the rest of my life, even if I were able to speak a polished, impeccable Italian, that wall, for me, would remain'. However, it seems that she encountered the same wall while living in America, for the same reasons, when she needed to justify the language she speaks - and writes in. 'I'm a writer; I identify myself completely with language. I work with it. And yet the wall keeps me at distance, separates me. The wall is inevitable. It surrounds me wherever I go so that I wonder if perhaps the wall is me'. 
In Altre Parole - which I've read in the Italian version, but keeping an eye to the English translation, because my Italian is way too undeveloped to following coherently 100% of the sentences - is a serious meditation about the meaning of languages and words in the life of writers and how words and grammar too can sometimes define ourselves.
Elena Lappin didn't chose some of her languages she started to learn since her early life: she moved to the then Czechoslowakia as a child, using Russian as the family communication tool, but learning Czech and after that German, all before she was a teen. She moved to Israel and learned Hebrew but her language of choice as a writer remains English. Her childhood was lost in words, trying to find the right word to communicate and connect with her peers. 
Besides being a story of many languages, What Language Do I Dream In? is also a story of finding her biological father, an American who lived in Soviet Russia that she discovered late in life. 
For Lappin, languages and countries are clearly defining different ages and life stages, each language having the meaning of acquiring a new life. This also means being part of a world with different words. 

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