Friday, October 19, 2018

Ali Smith's Seasons: Autumn

It is the late autumn of life for Daniel Gluck and the autumn of reason for England. 
A former refugee child from Germany who survived the war while on a boarding school in England, now a bit over 100 he is deeply delved into his sleep before the big sleep. A film of sensations and figures and stories are running in the front of his closed eyes.
His former child neighbour, Elisabeth Demand, is the only one visiting him. Every day, she reads him from her books she carries with, once from The Brave New World. She also remembers various episodes of the past, especially how her talks with Gluck, once familiar with the rebel artists of the 1960s-1970s, influenced her professional choices.
Torned between past and future, our projections and memories of the memories, we often - if not always - experience the human imprecision of the moment. Our memories are shaped by others, the media impact and context and our subjective personal histories. We may forget names but we keep in mind encounters, or the other way round. Memory in Autumn reminds of one of the well elaborated collages of the pop artists mentioned in the book. Highly selective, random, unfair and a matter of very personal choice after all. What we actually experience as 'present' is the vital outburst of the second, we are rarely fully aware about.
The book is taking place on different temporal layers, which may intertwin, contradict each other or simply go on parallel lanes. Although the story in itself is minimal, and there are maybe too many details of stories wasted into disparate allusions (like the Brexit suggestions which are welcomed for creating the context but not always in my opinion in the right narrative place; I've liked the strong sarcasm of this quote though: 'But news right now is like a flock of speeded-up sheep running of the side of a cliff), I've found the temporal exploration both fascinating and revealing. It raises questions about memory and what it is made of, and especially how. 
I'm curious to explore the other writings by Ali Smith, and Winter is already waiting on my shelf. 

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

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

History in the Making Explained to Children

'I can't help but think how much easier it is to live in one place your whole life. I will never know that feeling'.
Zomorod is a curious teen from Iran, that moved to America with his parents, after her father received a work offer in the oil industry. We are in the end of the 1970s, without social media, smart phones and selfies and the communication between teens is completely different. She has to leave one place for another, leaving behind friendhips, school mates and teachers. Plus, with a name hard to pronounce and his parents hardly speaking any English the integration is even more difficult. Plus: 'Speaking Persian in America is like speaking a super-secret language that no one understands'. Teenagers all over the world want to be part of something, of a community and not to be outrageously different. It's time for Zomorod to make a change: from now on, she will be Cindy, she will go to the usual events American teens go, including summer camps, she is even getting a job. I've found very interesting how New York Times bestseller author Firoozeh Dumas created the main character, as a curious child learning through comparisons with the world of adults.
Meanwhile, the situation in Iran is going through dramatic changes and his father lost his job. They are living on savings and planning to return back home, despite the rapid pace of Islamization the open minded Persian society is going through. Although Zomorod is assumedly living in an area of middle-class Americans, the fact that a 12 years old is asked repeatedly about the situation in Iran, as she is a political analyst sounds a bit forced and unrealistic to me. The book is supposed to have a serious historical content, to be further used for discussions about Iran and other cultures, but more than once I've found this part a bit exaggerated, from the teenagers' point of view.
It Ain't So Awful, Falafel is a slow paced, insightful mid-grade novel appealing to curious children, open to learn about cultures, trying to adapt to new cultures while building their strong identity based on their full acknowledgment of their roots and traditions. 

Rating: 3.5 stars

Monday, October 15, 2018

A Fine Psychological Thriller: The Chalk Man, by C.J.Tudor

Everything started as a children's game: creating a secret language by drawing chalk man of different colours and sizes, with meanings familiar only to the 4-member of the 12-year old gang. Each has a special colour to use. Life in the small English town of Anderbury isn't spectacular: everyone knows everyone, what they do, where and especially with whom. 
But it seems that the closer the community the harder to understand what really happens sometimes. Especially when young people die or are killed, a reverend is beaten to near death. Almost three decades later, the mystery remains and some members of the old gang would love to find the truth. Each of them has his or her own version of truth, and more than one assumptions. Are those assumptions a step forward to the truth or just an unreliable variant of the truth?
'There are some things in life you can alter - your weight, your appearance, even your name - but there are others that wishing and trying and working hard can never make any difference. Those things are the ones that shape us. Not the things we can change, but the ones we can't'. There are no spiritual mysteries, including in what it is assumed to be the House of Gd - but in this book assumptions are approximations, never leading to the truth - in The Chalk Man. The plot and the development of the characters are so carefully and finelly built that one can rarely predict what to expect. Who is really the criminal? Why the crime was committed? In a way, more than once the story reminded me of Twin Peaks: twisted minds, bizarre characters, meteoric presences whose meaning cannot be understood not even after the 10th sight. 
I've read some reviews where there were complains that the plot is very slow paced but I think that instead of a car-racing development, C.J.Tudor rather built a puzzle made of very small pieces, one by one. The fact that after the book is over one might think a bit more if it really grasped what is the final verdict is an excellent example in this respect. 
I can only be very curious about the author's next book. If for the debut the writing is so elaborated and entincing I allow myself to expect only good bookish things. 

Rating: 4 stars

Friday, October 12, 2018

How to Read More...and More...and More

Only a couple of months left from 2018, and my Goodreads challenge is going smoothly, although I am a couple of books behind the schedule. Until now, it was a busy year, with many professional and personal challenges, with a lot of planning and new assignments in sight, but also beautiful bookish discoveries that I am happy I have the chance to share it on my blog.
However, you may ask, how it is possible to juggle so many balls in the everyday life and still have time to read? Actually, for years, I regularly spent at least one hour reading, in more than one languages, every day. Meanwhile, I had to take care of two kids, mostly on my own, have jobs, a social life, personal friendships and many many interesting trips all over the world. How can this be done?
First and foremost, I am an avid reader from a very early age. I've learned to read only when I went to school, but books were my companion and my background all my life. I've spent my childhood in a house full of books - with four rooms full of books and the kitchen too. My bookish education included French classics like Balzac and Proust, classical of world literature like Dickens, Galsworthy, Tolstoi, Dostoievski and Pushkin - and a lot of crap Russian/Soviet literature as well - Kafka and Thomas Mann. To be perfectly honest, until around 17 years old, I was able to fluently talk literature with people that used to do literature for a living. So, one of the reasons why I am reading so much every year - at least 250 books, plus various academic articles - is because I am used to. Reading so much during times created special abilities and skills that are just part of my way of being as eating.
With a very busy schedule every day, which often involves commuting and children management, how I can find time to read though? As my life was never easy in time of schedule, I've developped special time management skills and methods, and this helps me a lot to create small islands of reading paradise in my life. This involves getting out of bed a bit early in order to have my long coffee and at least 30 minutes of reading, but also to use the best of my time for learning and, obviously, reading something too. For instance, while waiting for my train, or in the metro. This is usually how I am filling in my waiting time - either at the doctor's office, at the metro, or in the park. 
But books need time and a special mood to read, and sometimes you are just not in the mood for reading a special type of - heavy, thoughtful - books. It is a rightful question which makes sense. During time, my interests splitted between different literary styles and approaches, domains and authors. Actually, except vampire books, I am open to any kind of literature and literary approaches. Therefore, when I am not in the mood for something, I only have to browse my Kindle or library to find what I am looking for. Today, it can be that I want to read some poetry and a self-help book, but tomorrow it is a classical literature giant that I am into. A children book or an YA novel might follow, but also a graphic novel. I am very well into memoirs, but also political science and economics book. And I don't feel guilty for reading more than a book at once. 
What is important, is that you find your own pace and your bookish styles. After all, you have to read as much as you want and when you are not in the mood for, find a different way to enjoy your time. And, the kind of book that you enjoy reading, as it brings you more knowledge and beauty into your life.

Happy reading!

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

'The Magnificent Esme Wells'

'(...) I knew who Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen were long before we met them, men who made their own way, like my father. Jews who stood up for themselves, refused to be peddlers, pushed back against the world that wanted to hold them down'. 
Esme Wells is magnificent by its simplicity and realism. There is nothing to romanticize when it comes to the Las Vegas of the 1940s. Las Vegas itself is a wild place where money are exchange and outbreakers are punished, especially those among your 'own people'. They were wrong because did not understand the chances offered, cheated their peers and tried to run away with money. 
It is a sense of emergency among the male characters of this book. They run against time, they are always out of resources and fearful that things will change. Which happens very often. Killing is the last and easiest resort. You can be either one of the big ones, like Bugsy Siegel or Meyer Lansky, or a small pawn, like Esme's father, Ike, who always dreamed to build a future for him and his sad family. But Ike is born a 'luft Mensch' and will die one, killed because he played with dirty money. He wanted to make it his own. 
Esme is telling the story of her family which happens to intervow with the history of Las Vegas and Hollywood, with the Jews who refused to be peddlers trying to build their own way in the wild part of America. With back and forth down the memory lane, she is a quiet witness of all the changes as well as to the broken destiny of her parents. Her mother always wished to be an artist but ended up as a second raw dancer, and her father just a tool used for the other people businesses and supposed to never challenge his role. 
But Esme, herself caught up in the lures of bad boys and glittering dances in the Las Vegas casinos, is more than a witness of her times. She is a woman which compared to her mother, was strong enough to leave everything behind, including her father and rich much older lover. She, she can start a future of her own. She is magnificent.
The book is well researched but created autonomous characters, which although historically less relevant than the big bad bosses, offered to the author of freedom of creation. 

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

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Innovative Writing: 'Her Body&Other Parties', by Carmen Maria Machado

Her Body&Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado is a collection of complex explorations of bodies and sexual journeys. The stories are populated with wild desires, uninhibited acts and courageous body experiments, that are elevated to the level of art and vital source of inspiration. It is the act vividly described through the sights and words enhancing and challenging the physicallity of the body-focused experience/experiment.
And it is more than that for the literary adventures. The stories are surrounded by a hallo of imagination and fantasy, mind projections of the body in the world of magical thinking. Such layers of extra-experience augment and beautify the physical experience. It adds to the writing an extraordinary strength and potential, which diversifies the details of the sensual experiences. 
This complexity of the writing and different literary approaches within the same short story were for me the most interesting part of the reading. I may reckon that more than once I've  felt that the sexual explorations in themselves were not unique or mind blowing. 
The literary approaches are and promise a special unique voice. It also saves at a great extent the world of desires which is relatively worn out and risks by intensive use to end up as a simple casual encounters. The brilliance of the innovative style saved it.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Why 'We Should All Be Feminists'

'The problem with gender is that it prescribes how we should be rather than recognizingh how we are. Imagine how much happier we would be, how much freer to be our true individual selves, if we didn't have the weight of gender expectations'.
A short essay based on a TED-Talk, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's We Should All Be Feminists is a simple yet insightful explanation why the current gender attribution in life, social assignments and professional projections is wrong. The 'We' from the title means that me, and you, and your neighbour and your son all of us, we need to challenge those narrow restrictive roles because are simply obsolete. The mindsets persist through, perpetuaded through the daily cultural and educational stereotypes. 'A man is as likely as a woman to be intelligent, innovative, creative. We have evolved. But our ideas of gender have not evolved very much'
'I am trying to unlearn many lessons of gender I internalized while growing up. But I sometimes still feel vulnerable in the face of gender expectations'. More than in other historical moment, we have more freedom to define ourselves. 'Culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture'. 
However, very often the gender gap is the result of educational patterns. 'If we keep seeing only men as heads of corporation, it starts to seem ''natural'' that only men should be heads of corporations'. 'We spend too much time teaching girls to worry about what boys think of them. But the reverse is not the case. We don't teach boys to care about being likeable. We spend too much telling girls that they cannot be angry or aggressive or though which is bad enough, but then we turn around and either praise or excuse men for the same reasons'. 
Regardless how advanced and progressive one might consider him or herself, assuming a challenging positive role in the gender determination process means going through an inner process. We need not only think repeatedly about it, but being strong enough to assume the role and become a voice of change yourself. 
'My own definition of a feminist is a man or a woman who says. ''Yes, there's a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do it better''. Which means a definition in progress, whose content is made by every man and woman who is challenging the traditional role setting. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a 'Happy African Feminist Who Does not Hate Men And Who Likes to Wear Lip Gloss and High Heels For Herself and Not For Men'. What Feminist are you?
Many of the ideas outlined in the essay need definitely more development and focus, and I would have to follow-up with other writings by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, but maybe it is up to each and every one of us to write our own feminist manifesto(es).

Rating: 4 stars

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Book Review: 'Goodbye, Vitamin'

In the style of Jami Attenberg's All Grown Up, Good bye, Vitamin features the voice of Ruth, in his early '30s and never coming to age. 
Moved temporarily with her mother to stay with her as her father, an university teacher, is showing the first signs of Alzheimer's, never going over of the cruelty of being left by her boyfriend, who naturally breaking up in the day they were supposed to move together, with no career plans, Ruth is observing. Anchored in the present and haunted by the past, she is trying to put together the pieces of the puzzle which is the life of her parents. Through their story, she seems to start discovering what adults are all about and how they cope with main life decisions and betrayals. 
Unfairly and for obvious marketing reasons, the book was often described as 'humorous'. I would rather say it is an ironic pamphlet about never growing up, confused ages and not assuming responsibility. Ruth is simple, not judgemental, happy to have friends but doing nothing against existential inertia. She is an interesting character of our ages, having a bit of everything but actually nothing of her own. 
The book is written in a diary format, with often divagations to the past. It includes short notes of the diary of her ailing father, ironically, with referenecs to her early childhood, the first existential questions and the mispronunciation of words. Ironical, because the father himself is entering a stage where not only the short-term memory is disappearing, but also the capacity of remembering some words and their meaning. 
Overall, Goodbye, Vitamin is a subtle meditation about aging in our times, obsession with healthiness that couldn't predict our fate though. Personally, I don't like characters like Ruth in books and in real life, but the book is worth reading for its unique style and approach to modern life and its craziness. 

Rating: 3.5 stars