Sunday, August 26, 2018

An African Thriller: Nairobi Heat by Mukoma wa Ngugi


Nairobi Heat is more than a simple thriller about an investigation taking place between USA and the African continent: is about coming home or rather longing for it, about tragic histories and pathetic human weakness and the relativity of good and evil.
Ishmael is in charge with discovering who is the blonde girl found murdered on the footsteps of the house of a famous Rwandan war hero. Following an anonymous call suggesting vaguely that the answer might be in Kenya, he is taking the first flight and starts a counterclock investigation. (Honestly, I doubt that bureaucracy is so weak in the States that you actually can convince anyone to pay the cost of a trip based only of a very unclear hint). What Ishmael will find there is enough for a lifetime: he fell in love, is always challenged to define his own identity as although Black himself he is obviously took for a mzungu - a white in local slang, is dangerously entering a spider web of corruption, crime and genocide guilt. Killing is a local sport, life does not count when even a little amount of money is involved. Good sensitive people are in fact with a black heart, individuals only looking to steal a little bit to survive. And survival is differently defined from a person to another. 
The thriller is following its program and so do the human stories behind the characters. The multiethnic and racial divide both in Africa and America are hunting Ishmael. In the USA, the fact that he was a 'black cop arresting black people' cost him his marriage, but in Africa, black people killed millions of other black people based on an assumption of theoretical race purity. When it comes to corruption, it does not matter what is the colour of the hands the money are exchanged through. 
At a great extent, the background - corruption, deep wounds left by the Rwandan genocide - is predictable and unpleasantly stereotypical and although the thriller story has some interesting twitches it is relatively secondary in my opinion. What I personally found interesting was the human dialogue and philosophical suggestions which are really a great topic of discussion about identity and human nature in general. 

Rating: 3 stars


Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The Trap of Tradition in Challenging Times: Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Although my strong black-and-white opinion that a terrorist remains a terrorist and there is no excuse or mercy for the fanatics killing in the name of a religion, the ideas revealed through the characters and events in Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie added a lot of nuances and angles to the discussion. And this is what good books are all about: raising awareness and changing the direction of sight through words.
There are plenty of ideas and even more questions about Muslim identity and challenges of citizenship, assuming responsibility and the relative choice between good and evil. Should terrorists with double citizenship still considered citizens of a democracy they aimed at destroying through their acts? Is terrorism a kind of pandemic, which might be transmitted from father to son? What is the impact of terrorist activities on families? Should the members of the family considered accountable for the acts of their relatives? What loyalties should come first: family or state? 
The life of the main characters in the book - the siblings Isma, Parvaiz and Aneeka and the family of the 'Lone' Wolf the newly appointed Home State Secretary - are pending between tradition and modernity, adapting their cultural and religious habits to the democratic frame, rejecting democracy altogether or religion. Their interactions and discussions are displaying different shades and nuances of what are the challenges of Muslim identity, but personally I think that finding the right balance between tradition and modernity, particularly adapting traditional ways of dressing and behavior in the modern world is specific other religious identities too. This observation by Auntie Naseem in the book outlines those aspects: 'In my days, either you were the kind of girl who covered your head or you were the kind who wore makeup. Now everyone is every thing at the same time'.
The challenges facing the second or third generation of immigrants are relatively new, especially to the Muslim minorities in Europe, facing the interaction with modern, rationalist state settings only in the last decades. What does it take, for instance, for being the member of the British government as a Muslim? Should the person in charge with this position be completely against his religious background? (Ironically, Kamila Shamsie created a Home Secretary with Muslim background that will be later a political reality)
From the literary point of view though, I've found that despite the rich ideological and philosophical background, the characters are very often lost in the intricacies of the story. You may know their thoughts on certain issues of interest for the story, but the chance of knowing them as complex humans is very limited and they are very fast abandoned for switching of to another character which may be more or less raising similar issues.
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie is an important book for those interested in an in-depth knowledge of the last decade intellectual discussion about terrorism, civil liberties and religious and democratic identity. I would personally be interested to keep reading more books, especially literature, about those challenges.

Rating: 3 stars

Saturday, August 18, 2018

The Decadent Charm of Asia: Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw

'That's what happens in Shanghai. People say it's the size of a small country, but it is not, it's bigger, like a whole continent, with a heart as deep adn unknown as the forests of the Amazon and as vast and wild as the deserts of Africa. People come here like explorers, but soon they disappear; no one even hear them as they fade away, and no one remembers them'. 
Five characters: Phoebe, Gary, Justin, Yinghui and Walter Chao. One common treat: been born in Malaysia. One destination: Shanghai, the big city of all wonders and wanderings. Born more or less under a lucky star - mostly not - aiming to forget their past, hoping to build a new future. 
In Five Star Billionaire, Tash Aw created a captivating story made of life stories. The destinies of each of the characters may intertwin at certain moments of the story and all of them might be blinded for a little while by the glamorous city lights. The characters are all tragic in their struggle with their past(s), illusion of recreating new lives and destinies, when in fact they might follow a well beaten destiny path. Even when they are on the top of their career and finally welcomed by the sophisticated Shanghainese elites , the characters are unable to escape their past, and the weight of the past will finally take its toll. Some might resist and turn this old obsession into a new creative project some might simply buy a one way ticket back to their country. 
Besides creating captivating human stories, Aw has a special art of creating ambiances, with a cinematic precision. Words are powerful enough to paint worlds and settle photography-like moments. 
The literary work is based upon various researches on studies not only about corruption in Malaysia and China, but also in issues related to foreign workers and other sociological aspects facing the New China and this part of Asia in general.
I've personally found hard to say good bye to the book. The story was becoming so real - that perfect mixture between an interesting socio-political part of the world made alive through an unique storytelling - that I was simply expecting to see more episodes from the lives of the characters. The way in which the book ends is not perfectly satisfactory - some endings were predictable, some not, but it is completely in sync with the specific behavior of the characters. 

Rating: 4 stars


Tuesday, August 14, 2018

A Thriller with Algorithms: The Silicon Jungle by Shumeet Baluja

The Silicon Jungle predicted long before the humongous Cambridge Analytica scandal - when private data of Facebook users were passed over to a private 'consulting' company to model voting behavior and political prefernes - the trecherous game of the algorithms. When global companies like Google or Facebook are storing billions of details of their users, allowing tracing everything from their personal preferences to consuming behavior, all you need is a good algorithm to know way too much about any one of the users.
Stephen is an enthusiastic intern with a good brain that landed at the famous - for the logic of the book - Ubatoo (a mixture between Google and Facebook) in the Silicon Valley. In less than 3 months he will acknowledge not only the big advantage of having the world's most powerful database as a playground but also the temptation of intruding into private lives. Who would not do it, after all, as you can only by curious about what other people are doing and thinking and eating. There are moral limits to this curiosity, but mathematically speaking, you can build a model and put it on trial and take it as a purely theoretical approach and experiment. McLuhan's observation that information is power still operates in the new 2.0 environment, it only gets even more powerful.
Stephen will enter into trouble by pure naivity and too much trust into the power of algorithms when he offers himself to help an activist for civil liberties. But there is no something like neutrality and being helpful when it comes to information. Depending of whom is using it, it turns to be a weapon of mass and self-distruction. And a thriller story where special intelligence - but not as intelligent as a young intern with lots of data at his disposal - agencies and terrorists also some academics naively believing that they can change the world as we know it through theoretical speculations only.
The book has a heavy informative technical algorithms-based background but in most cases succeeded to introduce it into the narrative. Although the risk floated in the air, it was avoided the impression of reading an academic research on algorithm and data instead of a work of fiction. 
There are so many characters in this book, not few of them greedy - either for money, for information, fame or both - but skilfully, the author outlines the good and bad side which resides in everyone of us. Sometimes, you only need some special circumstances to leave one part or another outshine. 
Although the future doesn't look always rosy, especially for the Internet users, Baluja avoided to use a dramatic pessimistic tone about what the future has in stock. It doesn't make predictions or allows deep - to be or not to be kind of meditations about life and how transparent our lives are becoming. It is a story using the modern background but it still stays a story, not political or futuristic and even less intelligence projection. But it seems that it made big media stories like Cambridge Analytica seen it coming. A good use of literary skills, anyway. 

Rating: 4 stars 

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Memories of a Diplomatic Wife: Vodka&Apple Juice, by Jay Martin

It happened often lately to have on my reading list memoirs written by wives of diplomats, sharing their impressions, frustrations and challenges of their life abroad. Trying - often unsuccessfully - to cope with the liguistic barriers, the sadness of being taken away from their jobs and former social and family responsibilities, with their marriage in a limbo. Maybe it should be created soon a new literary category of 'diplomatic wives memoirs'. At least, they lived to tell the story and almost created a special genre. 
Jay Martin's memories of her 3 years accompanying her husband during his diplomatic assignment in Poland on behalf of the Austrialian embassy doesn't differ too much of previous works I've read. Wives able to write a memoir - and even knowing the local language - are obviously a step and a half further than the frustrated housewives spending their time calling their friends and relatives at 'home' and hardly going out of the appartment and appearing at embassy events only to complain about their precarious expat life. But besides the literay add on, the experiences as such are overwhelmingly boring. We all take decisions in life, some bad some good, and we need to get the best of it. More than one episode about the diplomat of husband coming back home early in the morning after spending the night who known where doesn't make it as a story for me, unless there is really something interesting that happened during this time. Or the wife reacted somehow, or whatever can be relevant to a story you share with the world...
But besides adopting a worn out perspective on diplomatic encounters and daily life - 'Poland is cool. It's just that my life here sometimes seems like an endless round of cocktail events with complaining expat wives...' - Jay Martin really used her experience to get the best of it. She went all over the country, revealing travel destinations unfortunately mostly unknown outside the country, learned a language known for her relatively high level of complexity and explored Europe and even the badly famed Kaliningrad. Those part of the book are the best and I really enjoyed in their fullest, before another couple of pages of complaining and experiences of couple alienation.
Would I recommend this book? Yes, if you are interested in European and particularly Polish history and if you are a diplomatic consort that would love one day to write a better memoir. 
I personally liked the cover - joyful and appealing to someone curious about Poland and with a call for wanderlust.

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

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Book Review: For Today I Am a Boy

For Today I Am a Boy is probably the best book about transgender identity I ever read. It is one of those books that open your eyes and the mind to a world that you weren't aware of before, in a very swift, literary, non-ideological way, and it is what it means for me to write good books. 
Peter, the character of the book, belongs to a Chinese family of immigrants. His uniqueness as the only man-to-be in a family with other three girls is that he actually doesn't feel as a boy. 'Boys were ugly and foreign, like another species. Like baboons. I was not one of them. The evidence was right there, all the time, tucked into my tight underwear, but I still didn't believe it. I didn't have one of those things, that little-boy tale of flesh'. 
Peter's personal history is intertwined with the identity interactions with the father and the challenges his other three sisters had to deal with in their adult life. Although from a stable family - except the father who had a white lover - all the kids ended up unmarried and at a certain extent unhappy. The tyran of the father who forbade the mother to speak Cantonese or cook original Chinese foods, dreamed about his children being lawyers and doctors. 'When I realized Father wasn't with her (the mother - WWW), I took her to a dim sum place inside a mall in Chinatown'. The image of the Father - always with F - is overwhelming, fearful and affects in a Freudian way the development and emotional development of the siblings. They all looked so perfectly normal from outside!
Peter's identity is evolving slowly and sometimes he seems himself not so sure about what he really is. When meeting other trans that not even were supported by the family to change their gender but open about their life journey, he refused to acknowledge it, because it seemed like he wasted his real life hiding and containing his feelings: '(...) you couldn't just rename yourself, you couldn't tear down the skyline and rebuild and think there wouldn't be consequences'. His gender identity is growing up slow and it is the new perception on gender and most generous - although not perfect space of expression which is speeding up the process. 
Kim Fu created a beautiful, well-told story to express so many different feelings and life episodes and milestoness. The characters don't leave you indifferent and most of them make you think about them long after the book is over. I've personally found the mother, with her silences and repressed identity, a very interesting figure, representative for her generation and the perception of women in family and society. 
For Today I Am a Boy well deserved the accolades received in the media and set a complex standard in terms of trans-related literature. I will probably read other books my Kim Fu too as I noticed a gentle way of approaching life which appeals to me.

Rating: 5 stars

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Visiting the Brecht-Weigel Memorial House in Buckow, Germany

One hour away from Berlin, the spa and relaxation Brandenburg resort of Buckow is a perfect hideaway if you want to spend some 'me time', far away from the city hussle, surrounded by an idyllic landscape. This July, I spent there three weeks exploring the area, relaxing and reading with views over the esmerald lakes.
It looked that famous literary characters from Germany envisioned this corner of paradise at least as inspiring as I did, as they choose it as their creative retreat. Buckow's famous residents were the couple Helene Weigel - Bertolt Brecht that spent summers working and creating here.


The Weigel - Brecht Memorial House is situated - where else - on the Brecht Street, at no. 30. It is at the end of the street, close to the forest and with a view over the Scharm├╝tzelsee.


In a row of one-storey houses, this house stands out by its rounded roof and the discrete wooden panel decorations. Created by a Berlin architect, the house was the property of Weigel, and after her death - she survived Brecht for over a decade - purchased by the GDR and turned into a memorial house. Here are regularly organised various literary encounters and events about Brecht and writers with similar influences.


The house is relatively simply organised, with a huge living room at the ground level, and some small rooms - and probably a kitchen, at the first storey.


Only the huge living room, with a glass wall through which the natural light is soaking the solid wood furniture is available for the visit. Personally, I would have expected more information about the house and its history, as well as a bit more about Brecht than the famous Mutter Courage play, where Weigel had for a long time the main role.


Weigel-Brecht were often compared to the couple Simone de Beauvoir-Sartre. As in the French case, Weigel stayed in the shadows for a long time and was often considered just an actress, in comparison with her worldwide life partner. However her contributions to the evolution of German contemporary theatre are at least as important as Brecht's literary achievements.


The house may look modest to the visitor, but the large garden, where the wild bushes alternate with the neatly trimmed grass, make it the best of the entire estate.


Fragments from the poems written here by Brecht- Buckower Elegies - are spread all over the garden, written in metal boards.


Other small pieces of art are also give a human touch to the garden.



A special space was created with EU money especially for everything related to the famous Mutter Courage. Written during the exile in Sweden at the end of the 1930s, Brecht used the background of the 30 years wars in the 17th century for outlining his ideas about the cruelty of war but also warning about the dangers of capitalism. You can listen and watch there fragments from the interpretations of the Berlin Ensemble, including Weigel's role.
Brecht remains a role model and mythical character in the German literary history, and its portrait displayed in Buckow is missing any eventual critical overview of his positions towards the SED-dictatorship and the lack of significant reaction towards the further evolutions in the Soviet Union and the communist space in general. 


The beauty of the garden though is filling my soul and my eyes with gratitude for being able to visit such place.


In an eyesight, you can figure out how inspiring such a corner can be for a writer and intellectual. It offers you the peace of mind and concentration to completely separate from the outer world and create your unique works. Being allowed in their sanctuary, we, the simple humans, can only understand better their influences and state of mind.