Monday, December 30, 2019

Book Review:Travelers by Helon Habila

'Once upon a time, to be away from the known world was exile, and exile was death'. 
The last decades redefined exile. Exile means salvation, from physical and spiritual death. Millions of people run for their lives outside of their geographical, linguistic and cultural comfort zones driven by the desire to live in a better place. In a place where their children can learn and live peacefully. But before this happens, there is a dramatic proof of survival that should be passed. Sometimes it means crossing the sea in inhuman conditions. Sometimes it means that not all of them will reach the safe shore safe.
Travelers by Helon Habila, an author familiar to me from Oil on Water, is a small collection of intertwined stories of - mostly - African immigrants in Europe. Although the main character of the story is an American resident, we are hardly shared details about his life as an immigrant there, as the focus instead is on accounts of the various interactions of the steady or random characters taking place in Europe.
There is not too much to be said about the inner feelings about exile of the characters. They already assumed that they need to go and what we are presented is the final result: they arriving/struggling/mourning in Europe. The image of the people from the refugee camp on a shore in Italy facing the sea while listening to the voices of the dead coming from the depth of the sea is one of the most hunting images I've read in a while.
The exile happens fast, and the characters rarely do have time to properly 'document' and research their journey. It may be that they actually arrive in a completely different place than expected, like in Bulgaria instead of the dreamland of Germany.
The connection with their home countries is not always important, both from the human and spiritual point of view. The old generation of exiles were still politically present at certain extents in the life of their countries, although they may not seize the fact that the political conditions changed too. The refugee of today is longing for his country but rarely want to remember its love for it. He/She wants to succeed or survive in the new place.
Why are those people called Travelers then? Because of their long journey they took from a corner to the other of the world. For the strength of the wave of changes they are undergoing. For the challenges and choices they have to make on the road - like leaving behind children and partners that they may never meet again.
Travelers is part of a new literature emerging in the last year focused on exile and alienation, refugee life and challenges. We definitely need more of it to figure out this new reality and the hardship of arriving in 'civilized' countries where there is a mainstream movement against foreigners.
The characters in this book are risk-takers when it comes to leave, both out or back to their home countries. They have a genuine will to exit a reality, even if it means at a certain extent spiritual suicide.
What I personally did not like in this book was that despite the beautiful storytelling, not all the stories come together well and some fragments of the narrative are not matching. It sounded more than once to me that a story was broken to follow a different direction that was also later on abandoned for a different turn.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Dismantling the Culture of Sexual Predators

I know the media well, I have friends in show biz in more than one country and I am aware of some gossips in the academia as well. There might be a couple of things to say about some religious institutions too. You know, those kind of information about who is a predator, with whom, and for how long. The kind of man you better stay away of. Men with power, influence, money, a smiling wife and children at home. Some are sick, some are simply taking advantage of their position and social status. No one challenges their habits as they might get the argument of the old 'tolerant' school of attitude towards women. Like it is acceptable to aggressively flirt with the women in their office, as long as they come at work well dressed and wearing make up, isn't it?
Does this excuse rape and traumatic sexual abuses, committed against victims whose silence is sealed by NDAs and 6-7-digit 'compensations'?
While reading the excellent research and journalistic investigation by Ronan Farrow Catch and Kill. Lies, Spies, Conspiracy to Protect Predators, I had in the front of my eyes more than one  familiar case of both predator and victim. While when judging the predator many just preferred to invoke his status the victims are often judged as 'weak', 'indecent', having that 'something' that may provoke a certain reaction in men.  
This is the culture that allowed the behaviors of Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein and Donald Trump. Let's not forget Bill Clinton either. Weinstein's predation was 'enmeshed with his professional life'. His system involved powerful attorneys, media friends and experienced investigators (like the famous - for all the wrong reasons -  'creative intelligence'-driven Israeli company Black Cube).
On the other side, the women themselves rarely received support from their fathers and partners in revealing the truth. Many simply gave up 'and then they feel like it's their fault'. The system is aptly    described by Farrow as 'a network news culture that made women uncomfortable and unsafe, and left little room for accountability around its larger than life stars'.             
Brave journalistic investigations as those done by Farrow, who took the risk to go on with his researches despite the tremendous personal and professional pressures he was subject too - which included among others surveillance and phone tracking - are sealing the end of the culture of silence. It's about time for people like Weinstein and the likes to understand that their time will be soon over.
Catch and Kill is excellent also because it gives a chance to serious investigative journalism, in an era of easy readings and futility. There are still fierce journalists around that will not leave in peace the predators and their minions.

Rating: 5 stars

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Ayesha at Last: A Multicultural YA Novel with a Romantic Twist

My reading/intellectual plan for 2019 was to expand my reading horizon by including in my reading list authors from countries not always on the first page of literary news but also topics outside my literary comfort zone.
Ayesha at Last, by Uzma Jalaluddin offered my a double take on my literary priorities. Uzma Jalaluddin is a Canadian author, and she approaches a romance between young Muslims. I may know a thing, or two, about religious dating and arranged marriages, but I am not familiar with the Muslim customs in this respect.
Although in many reviews, the comparison with Jane Austen novels comes - too easily - at hand, I rather prefer to take the book as it really is: an adventurous story with lively characters living in a Muslim community in Canada. The author also includes elements regarding discrimination and prejudice against religious Muslims. 
Hafsa and Ayesha are cousins with different personalities and interests still brought together by family ties and histories. Time has come that they are getting married and the potential candidates are quite a few. How would they cope with the pression of old traditions while keeping a foot in the modern world?
Although not all characters are equally built, but the interactions between them and the ways in which the story unfolds is full of surprises and keeps your attention awake until the very end, although you bet how the story will actually end. I particularly loved the assigned capacity of the characters to take decisions on their own, while remaining faithful to their traditions and upbringing. 
Especially for those judging superficially the Muslim community in an unilateral, often biased, way, Ayesha at Last brings on so many nuances and dimensions to every individual introduced into the  story.
If  you are looking for a good novel about young Muslims, this book is a good introduction, which keeps you awake until the very end thanks to the good writing and well-built literary structure.

Rating: 4 stars 

Monday, December 16, 2019

Memoir about a Country that Doesn't Exist

Sasa Stanisic was born in Yugoslavia. A country that doesn't exist any more. Few people remember about it and even fewer will know that it ever existed. Born from a Bosniak mother and a Serbian father, Stanisic and his family refugiated to Germany, where he is currently living, reading and writing. 
Herkunft - written in German, which means in a very simplistic translation Origin - is a memoir about life in a country that does not exist anymore. A country that was destroyed by identity wars, leaving behind thousands of dead and refugees spread all over the world. A genocide was perpetrated in Europe, the old good Europe, that again was unable to take any decent moral and military action.  Maybe because some of its public intellectuals were too busy taking the sides of the Serbian criminals, among them Peter Handke, one of the recipient of this year's Nobel laureate for literature - with whom Stanisic personally started an online war to no avail, as it seems in Stockholm it takes a long time to grasp such serious information.
I've read before How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone has the right absurd humour and touch that relates to the biggest absurd war game that was played in the ex-Yugoslavia. Herkunft is more realistic and cruel in a journalistic kind of way. No regrets and tears, but disparate memories of him and his close families put together. There are small such unique stories creating the memory thread, which is subjective and not necessarily coherent, but it makes the story of origin. It is like a tree of life we fill in with life stories. 
I often read memoirs and I love this genre but Herkunft is by far one of the most beautiful I've read in a while. Also because at a great extent it resonates with stories and memories that I've gathered myself as a journalist from this unique realm.
In an era when we forget so fast what happened not long ago in the heart of Europe, Stanisic reminds a neglected narrative. The more we know about it, the more Handke's distorsion of truth is revealed in its ugly nakedness.

Rating: 5 stars 

Why I Am Disappointed by 'We Are the Weather'

When I love an author, I love to go though his or her works no matter what. Every new book is an exciting encounter with a familiar yet creative environment. 
I've read almost all the books by Jonathan Safran Foer - I keep Here I Am for a late date for literary personal reasons - and even been to some of his public readings in Berlin and abroad. I fell in love with his fiction and gave it a chance to the Eating Animals, which although it is not necessarily my type of book - I cannot be vegetarian - it has a coherent narrative about food habits and the secret life of the meat we enjoy on our plate, especially in America.
When I've read about JSF's newest book We Are the Weather, about the climate change, I couldn't wait to read it. As in the case of the previous non-fiction book, it is a topic I am reading about but I am not knowledgeable enough to create a long narrative. For me, it is obvious a very serious issue, but I unable to see all the aspects yet, especially from the very cold scientific point of view.
I had hopes that one of my favorite contemporary readers will help me more in this direction, but it is obviously a serious intellectual mistake to expect and assume that other people will do the academic homeworks and researches for you.
Therefore I may be disappointed by my limited knowledge and lack of coherent thinking on the topic. Because, We Are the Weather is for me one of the most disappointing readings of the year. The main premise is that in the case of climate change there is a huge gap between feelings and awareness and the conceptual threat is far from being articulated. Like in the case of the very aware decision of giving up meat, taking the decision of writing the counter story of the threats to our climate and ultimately, our life, belongs to us. From the creative, literary point of view it sounds satisfactory, but this is the variant of the story a couple of years ago. The sense of emergency requsts a different and more coordinated approach, including at the level of the narrative. The narrative is still absent but filling it with average facts about climate change does not work. At least not for me.
The fact that literary stars prefer to approach climate change from the nonfiction standpoint is a good start, but using the honed literary skills to fill-in some journalistic information doesn't advance the cause, the knowledge, the message.
I hardly wish the next year JSF will release a new fiction book. Until then, hope to get into the red mood to finish Here I Am.

Rating: 2 stars
   

Secrets of the Restaurant's Backyard

Anthony Bourdain was famous long before his very private decision regarding his life. Chef, author of many fiction and non-fiction books, TV host, Bourdain started his adventurous hard drug- and and alcohol-tained life as a chef, also as a successful CIA - Culinary Institute of America - graduate.
Kitchen Confidential can be read as a diary of his adventures around preparing dishes around US - mostly NYC, at a time when chefs were not enjoying the nowadays stardom status. It is a 'testosterone-heavy, male-dominated world of restaurant kitchens', and Bourdain is getting the best of it. Best in the sense of living it at its fullest, with the perks of the underworld adventure. At the time, the chefs and the people in their charge were rarely clean both from the criminal and the drugs&alcohol point of view. 
Does it really matter who is cooking your food? People going to restaurants want to eat good, eventually at a good price, and to survive the meal if possible. Most of us, we have zero interest in how a kitchen is organised, what kind of people are working there and what motivates them. Hence, the novelty of Bourdain's book which makes you curious about the secrets behind the restaurant doors where the food is prepared. And he writes it passionatelly, with the vein of the raconteur and the cruelty of Henry Miller. The writing is intense, the life is horrible sometimes, even worse than the street fights and raw life that reminds me of the life of a contemporary German chef Tim Raue whose life in the deeBerlin underground was challenged by his decision to dedicate his life to fine cuisine.
Before reading this book, I was only familiar with Bourdain's work as a TV-host. I've liked  the writing but after a couple of stories I've become kind of uninterested in all the very step-by-step details of the restaurant underground.
If you are into food writing, it's a must read also because of the knowledge about the insights of the fine dining industry in the past and nowadays. 

Rating: 3 stars

Friday, November 29, 2019

'Maybe You Should Talk to Someone'

'Therapy elicits odd reactions because, in a way, it's like pornography. Both involve a kind of nudity. Both have the potential to thrill. And both have millions of users, most of whom keep their use private'.
Even therapy is relatively widespread as a psychological remedy in the US and Western Europe, it is still associated with stigma. If you are seeing a therapist, you might have a 'problem', a serious mental issue so better not to deal with such persons, or at least be cautious. But sometimes, you really should talk to someone. Someone completelly neutral and with experience in the field of human relations and psyche. Either it is because of a breakup or a deep depression, a childhood trauma or inability to cope with the daily chores, you should talk to someone.
Lori Gottlieb offers extraordinary, humorous sometimes, insights about the life and work of a therapist that herself had to go through therapy. Yes, therapists are humans too. 
The experiences shared are deeply human, with what involves contradictions, fear to go beyond an episode by fear of a scary big picture. Many might go to therapy looking for a solution to their problem or to a confirmation of their mindset. Rarely they get what they want, but they could actually leave with a completely different, and better outcome.
Maybe You Should Talk to Someone deals not only with the stigma around emotional struggle but equally with the intricacies of taking decisions and change in general. Which change is not an easy task at all. 'We can't change without loss, which is why so often people say they want change but nonnetheless stay exactly the same'. 
It is also an honest book about what exactly therapy means and the many mirrors we, as humans, we need to reflect ourselves. It is based on the author's own experience, which adds more authenticity to the writing. 'Sometimes we are the cause of our difficulties. And if we can step out of our own way, something astonishing happens'. But this dramatic step can rarely be taken without support. Therefore 'Maybe You Should Take to Someone'

Rating: 5 stars

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Do We Talk Enough about Race(s)?

Do we talk/read/think enough about race(s)? About bi-racial families/couples? About their struggles to fit in in each of their separate, racially distinguished families? About how bi-racial children feel about the discussion about race? About racism and racial discrimination in the public space? In America. And elsewhere. Especially in America those days. 
For some, one might really go through such a challenge to understand the deep roots of racism. Everywhere, both within the majority and the minority.
Mira Jacob's son is born in an Indian-Jewish family in India. He has questions like: Can you change from white to black - or the other way round? Is it bad to be brown? How bad?
All her life Mira herself had her own race experience, both in India and in the USA. Often not recognized as an American in USA, being the wrong colour in India. 
Good Talk is indeed a 'memoir in conversations' which approaches race and colour on a very humorous, cynically-ironical way. Any discussion on such issue do have, besides a serious and dramatical layer, also a very humorous aspect. How else can one comment discussions about 'how to get a lighter skin' - apparently it is possible and there are some intensively trying to do it.
Humour, irony, the literary approach does not matter. It is important to keep the conversation going on. Because it looks like there no end in sight. The aggressive Trump era brought back the old evils and it seems like the discussion never advanced. Therefore, the need to challenge again the old racially-biased narrative. A book like Good Talk plays a serious role in this approach.
Last but not least a short mention about the format of the book. I've listen to the audio version, narrated by the author. An excellent choice as the lecture adds unique dynamics to the subject, especially the dialogues. It encourages me to get more audio books and this is what I am doing right now and can't wait to share more about this new 'reading' experience.

Rating: 4 stars

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Book Review: 'My Sister, the Serial Killer'

Korede and Ayoola are two sisters living in Lagos, Nigeria. Ayoola is beautiful, free mind, fashion designer, with a line of dates begging her favors every day. Korede is educated, disciplined, hard working in a hospital, secretly in love with a doctor. The two of them have a couple of secrets to share: the men Ayoola is killing.
Is no specific reason those men are killed. Maybe they are too much, or violent or are boring Ayoola to tears. They are not long-term relationships. Maybe she sees in them reminiscences of their own father's behavior. Not clear. Fact is that Korede always helps her to hide the bodies. Ayoola might be under suspicion, got to answer some police questions, but never caught. 
One victim, who happens to be Korede' secret crush, happens to survive. And ends up in prison as accused of trying to kill Ayoola as he his proposal was dismissed. The sisterhood loyalty survived.
I loved very much the rough simple journalistic style of this story: facts after facts, plus the chaotic everyday life in Lagos. Direct - non-pathetic - accounts about how the life of women in Nigeria is going on, how they have to struggle for their existence, adapt to the men's world who still seems to lag centuries behind in terms of respecting women and their rights. 
Ayoola's relatively high social fragility turns into a murderous asset: the easiness to show her power against those men, in a fatal way. A knife in the back reminds them how short their life is, but too late to teach them a lesson.
I've seen mentioned in many reviews that My Sister, the Serial Killer is a humorous book. Not sure what to say about it. There are tragi-comical situations, and this is always like this when under high social pressure, but life is mostly like this. Which doesn't make it humorous though. 
Oyinkan Braithwaite is now on my list of Nigerian writers to follow in the next years.

Rating: 4 stars

Monday, November 4, 2019

Book Review: Family Trust by Kathy Wang

There is something that I couldn't grasp as for now when it comes to Asian literature in the English language: why most of the characters are so greedy and put financial interests of any kind besides any other purposes in life? The fact that there is a pressure on children, especially the first or second generation of immigrants to outerform in professions as doctors or lawyers I can fully understand, in my world - which is not Asian - such jobs are enjoying the highest prestige too and therefore the children are kindly directed towards such achievements. But why in the end the social status and the intellectual achievements are obsolete faced with the financial projections?
In Family Trust by Kathy Wang, most characters are utterly despicable, in a vicious way. When Stanley Huang, the family patriarch is about to die, on the lips and minds of everyone, from his children to his ex-wife and his younger wife, Mary, much younger and with a rather modest background is: what about the will? How much everyone will be left with? How much are Stanley's assets worth, by the way? Those questions are making the round of the characters and are influencing their life decisions and paths and are further echoes in the lives of other people involved, including Mary's poor and greedy first grade relatives. 
I am not a blind feminist, and I have my own limits when it comes to -ism(s) of any kind, but the women in this book are completely despicable. They are thinking about poor Huang's money obsessively, and not only those without a professional future in hand, but also his daughter Kate, a relatively successful business woman in Silicon Valley. And this feature extends to the women outside the family too, as Fred's fiancée, Erika who, unhappy with her ruined prospects of marrying him, she sent a circular email to his work and business colleagues revealing his porn habits. Erika is Hungarian.
At certain moments in the development of the plot, there are however some delicate hints about the pressure put on women: to marry, to outperform, to be silent and just accept to count in the mathematics of political corectness. Still, it does not explain fully why they should be so monomanic in searching for opportunities of free money. Maybe it's my fault for not being privy to anyone like this in my inner circle or not being one of them myself.
The negative character threats of the people in the book does not diminish the good writing though. 

Rating: 3 stars

Sunday, November 3, 2019

A Dangerous 'Social Creature'

Lavinia is a glamorous NYC socialite, taking a sabbatical from Yale to write her novel. Louise is a poor girl that landed in the famous city fighting hard to make the end of the month, by tutoring, bartending and ghost writing.
Accidentally, two met, are becoming best friends and it seems nothing can stand Louise's chance to writing fame and a good life. But as usual when it comes to the dynamics of the relationship between two beings - regardless the gender - there are tensions and jealousy and a requested dependence that Lavinia is requiring from Louise after they moved together and Louise is losing one by one her contracts as unable to balance the non-stop-party-life and any work schedule.
In Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton you are welcomed in the vain and wasted life of NYC money heirs and their glamorous social life, as well as their satellites, made of 'yesmen/women' always keen to comply in exchange of a bit of networking and some free gifts. But everyone is equally longing for attention, either it comes to a haircut or a fancy opera show. Almost everyone is writing a novel or is an aspiring writer in this story when they are not busy listening to Wagner or name dropping the people they have lunch with (which it is not necessarily an exclusive NYC-thing those days). 
Over a quarter of the book is mostly about this. The rest is a murder story in the 2.0 age, where the criminal - which might be in fact serial - is not caught while it keeps intensively posting updates on the victim' social media channels. The innocent Louise is in fact a completely different person as she shows. A very dangerous revengeful, socio-path one. Not only the thief who is using Lavinia's generous credit card to sniff some hundreds of dollars every day. She will actually will end up killing Lavinia - and not only her - in cold blood but no one notice that something is not fine. 
In full honesty, I liked the writing style a lot. Witty dialogues, creating that realistic landscape of the snobbish rich white collar Americans in their 20s. However, the 'crime' part lost me, and if not reading the book while commuting an impressive amounts of trains I would probably would not have finished it. I may reckon the writer did not want to write a thriller story, but at the end of the book still did not figure out how to integrate the crime part into the overall story. It looked for me as the momentum to make the writing even greater was completely lost.  
I leave at this for now, but I will definitely look more about Tara Isabella Burton writing, especially non-fiction that I've heard is really good - particularly the travel-related one.

Rating: 2.5 stars

Thursday, October 31, 2019

The Guide for Creating 'Confident Digital Content'

Storytelling never dies it only embraces different medium and technologies in order to diversify and magnify the stories. Especially nowadays when social media plays such a dramatic role in our everyday life, it is important to acknowledge every single aspect and angle of the digital content.
In Confident Digital Content you are offered a couple of practical insights guiding anyone interested in a career in this domain to start on the right foot.
Content means more than a good choice of words, it has to do with the setting, the timing, the organisation of the materials, the visual - photo and/or video - accompaniment. 'By understanding how to make great content you can get your customers to do your advertising for you as they share your osts and watch your videos'. A career in this domain is as challenging as engineering sometimes, although the ironic smile cannot be avoided when you might answer to someone active in a classical job what you are actually doing. However, selling digital content requires a lot of skills, time and dedication and even more hard work. Being multiskilled guarantees professional success translated into an expanding portfolio of customers. 
The knowledge in this domain is a permanent workshop and a successful professional in this field should keep being updated to various techniques, editing programs, SEO and algorithms, webdesign techniques, types and capabilities of various smart phones or social media specificities. On the other hand, a considerable investment is not requested. 'You don't need specific qualifications, expensive equipment or exclusive contacts. All that's required is a desire to learn, to be creative and a passion for telling stories'. As the book rather addresses beginner and mid-level professionals such a statement stays valid but once you are on a higher level you cannot further advance without a significant financial investment. At this level though, you can learn about various techniques and medium while watching YouTube videos, for instance. 
The book provides exercices and practical examples, which increases its practical value. 
The guidelines are useful both if you want to create individual content or content for various communities and organisation. It's written in a systematic simplew way, browsing all the currrent possibilities and opportunities. 
My only big observation about this otherwise good useful book is why the cover is so uninspired. But the content hiding under that cover is worth reading it.

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

Stories of Love from the Therapy Couch

Love, as a fact of mentalities, depends at a great extent on a social, geographical and historical concept. Includig the absence of it. For centuries, marriages were not supposed to answer the overwhelming cry for love and perfect compatibility, but very peculiar yet socially important reasons, such as social and economic status or simple reproduction. Romeo and Juliet failed to turn their passion into love and who knows what would have happen of their feelings once settled in the household routines?  
The last two centuries - at least in Europe - changed the shift: love is what it matters and not finding the right partner to answer our idealized - often unrealistic - conception(s) or projection(s) of love delays considerably the 'yes' moment. Some are becoming so fearful and unable to assume resposibility that they rather prefer to be alone, eventually caring of a pet, than in a stable relationship. 
But what is love, actually, beyond the poetic smokescreen? The Incurable Romantic by Frank Tallis is mostly a very clear, surgical-like account of various faces of interpretations of love. You will read about jealousy and depenndency and obsession, all tragical masks of what we call and sometime experience as 'love'.  On the therapist's couch, there are people that cannot give up former relationships, manifestatios in fact of deeper trauma and psychological urges, people fantasizing about relationships that do not exist or unable to have any relationships at all. The diversity of cases and backgrounds - although at a great extent limited to England, the country of practice of Frank Tallis - is overwhelming and gives a complex - although frightning overview - of what we call love, which often fell closer to a psychotic manifestation than on the romantic dreams we are nurturing way too much. But as Alfred Adler, quoted in the book said: 'The only normal people are those you don't know very well', and this may apply to ourselves as well. Getting to know yourself through therapy and introspection might reveal unpleasant truths and realities.
Average life, of many those not ending up on the therapist's couch is simple and less tormented, including when it comes about relationships. 'In reality, few people get to marry their ideal parter. Love involves making a series of compromises. This is non bad thing, because an idealised partner is only nominally human'.
Besides the diversity of cases and angles, what is recomforting in Frank Tallis' book is the diversity of methods used for the analysis, from the classical Freudian sources to systemic. The pure account of the author's challenges and personal experiences makes the book valuable not only for those curious about a different perception and interpretation of love, but also for future and current therapy practicians. 
Although each and every one of the cases presented are complex and with a long term impact on the reader, I've found some of the stories ending up too abruptly and without a much deserved conclusion or in-depth and outreach. 
But am I to judge when it comes about love? Some things are better left the way they are without further ado. 'Life is a precarious business and love is its essential ingredient'. As essential as death some optimists will say.

Rating: 4 stars 

Monday, October 28, 2019

A Slow-Paced Delicious Chick-Lit Novel for the Beginning of the Winter

If you are looking for a slow-paced novel with realistic characters with many historical references and a inter-cultural touch, this debut by the Iranian-American writer Marjan Kamali is a perfect way to spend some quality reading hours. Published in English as Together Tea (I've read the German version translated as Tausendundein Granatapfelkern - which means 1001 Pomegranate Seeds, not necessarily a smart choice), the novel follows for several decades the story of an Iranian family that left the country for America after the Islamic revolution. Darya is looking for a perfect marriage candidate for her 25-year old daugher Mina, among the available bachelors within the Iranian community in the USA. After 15 years in America and an American citizenship later, Darya is still longing for the smells and the warm human relationships from her home, although she despises the religious dictatorship. 
When Mina realizes she needs a moment of reflection about herself and her future, the decision she took is to revisit the places of her childhood and reconnect to her Iranian roots in her country of birth. Her mother can't wait to join her and together they embark on the adventure that involves not only revisiting old relatives and places, but also coping with the religious police and the double life mostly the young people are living: the segregated outdoors life where the women outfits are under the scrutinity of the religious police versus the freedom of enjoying the simple things in life behind the closed doors. 
Finelly written, the story is flowing nicelly. The character are realistic that you can imagine each and every one of them in real life. The story is adorned with interesting details about the rich Persian history, culture and cuisine. Those details are adorning beautifully the narrative offerig an alternative to the scarcity and usually stereotyical information available about Iran in the Western media.
This quality chick-lit has everything a modern reader might be interested in: a coherent story, a love episode, strong women fighting with difficult circumstances, multicultural contexts and recent history. On a weekend afternoon, you hardly want to move from the couch until the book is finished. 

Rating: 4 stars


Tuesday, October 15, 2019

PJÖNGJANG, by Guy Delisle, a Visual Diary of 2 Months in North Korea

On professional assignment for two months in North Korea - apparently, such projects are possible for foreigners in the world's most absurd dictatorship - Guy Delisle is taking note of his environment. 
He is not the only foreigner here, as he joins once the week another bunch of people working for NGOs or other projects using local workforce. Always surrounded by assigned personnel, never able to see the country with his own eyes, Delisle is offered the version that the propaganda set up for him. Everything is a potemkinesque show aimed to brainwash the locals and confuse the visitors. 
Once out of North Korea, where he worked in an animation studio, Delisle is setting up the visual diary, where he mentions the camps and the political and economic/social restrictions from the everyday life. He is not a passive observer, far from it. However, he mostly prefer a very detached, half-ironic attitude. After all, he is just a passer-by through this bizarre world.
Pjöngjang - which is the North Korean capital city - could be a good introduction into this strange universe. The information is dense and the illustrations might help to figure out the extent of the everyday life absurdity.
Personally, the graphic format did not appeal too much to me, as I am more into expressive drawings. Delisle style is very much typical for the French school of graphic novels. There are also a couple of arrogant/mysoginistic observations when it comes to women characters that are completely out of context and completely misplaced - not that such lines are ever welcomed in a public text.
I've read the German speaking version, published by Reprodukt.

Rating: 3 stars

Friday, October 11, 2019

ISTROS Books put SE Europe back on the publishing map

South Eastern European countries are interesting - or rather were - only when a bloody conflict was taking place. The wars in the ex-Yougoslavia and the difficult post-communist transition to democracy in the former communist block created a certain interest for a limited amount of time for this part of Europe, including from the cultural point of view. After that, nothing. The funding for various projects was severed, the scholarships covering topics related to this area were considered 'unuseful' and a curtain of neglect separated this part of the world from the centers of intellectual and political interest.
When I've discovered Istros Books on Twitter recently, I felt like coming back home. Home not only because I've spent a couple of years discovering and learning about SE Europe but also because it took the risk of revealing special authors from this region to the world. Like, for instance, Ludovic Bruckstein a literary voice for long forgotten in his native Romania. 
I am honoured to be given the opportunity of publishing an interview on my blog with Founding Director Susan D. Curtis about this very special edition house, whose works are more needed than ever. 

- What was the idea of creating this edition house?

I started Istros with the deliberate cultural agenda of making the literature of SE Europe more visible to the English-speaking world (and therefore a large portion of the world). Being a regular visitor to Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Romania, I knew a lot about their literature and also about the lack of translations available in English. 
 
- The literature from this part of Europe is not so well known worldwide. Besides the shift of political interest in the last decade, what are the reasons for this unfair treatment?

Borders change but some things stay the same - the invisible Byzantine/ Catholic divide or the West/East Europe divide still exists in a way. Nothing much has improved in terms of the exposure of the literature or culture of that region, despite the EU expansion. This is obviously an unfair state of affairs and also dangerous - the less we know, the less we care, and we know to our detriment how short-sighted it was to ignore the Balkans in 1914 or Yugoslavia in the 1990s. 
 
- How do you pick up the list of books for translation? How do you find the translators?

Almost all of the authors I publish have won prestigious national or international awards.  I have seven winners of the EU Prize for Literature on my list. I also attend book fairs, conferences and publishing fellowships around the region, and get to talk to key players in the book world, so I know which books or authors are getting attention. 

- Do you have an approximate profile of your readers?

I don't like to think in terms of marketing and find this a difficult question. I think that many people would like to read books with and authentic authorial voice and with an original story. Authors from SE Europe have so much to offer - the region itself is so multicultural and so rich in story. The main problem for me as a small publisher is not being about to reach readers because I don't have a marketing budget or the reach which the bigs boys have. I rely on reviews, the enthusiasm of individual booksellers and word of mouth. 

- What can be done, in your opinion, to create interest for the literature from this part of Europe? 

I cooperative with a number of embassies and cultural institutes and try to organise as many book launches and promotional events as possible. It would be great if more literary festivals were open to having foreign authors as well as the much loved best sellers and celebrity writers. The best thing that us small players can do is cooperate with like-minded organisations and other publishers in order to find new ways to reach the public.  

- What are your publishing plans for the next six months?
 
Our October titles come from two Slovenian authors writing about two different periods in the history of their country: a story of survival in the northern town of Morska Sobota during WWII, and a tale of loss and confusion during the more recent conflict of the 1990s. Billiards at the Hotel Dobray is Dušan Šarotar's second book in English, following on from his highly praised 2016 novel, Panorama .Once again, we are offered a semi-autobiographical story which blurs the distinction between fact and fiction. The End. And Again offers a beguiling, imaginative reworking of the history of the independence of Slovenia and the break-up of Yugoslavia through the eyes of its four main characters.

Friday, October 4, 2019

'What My Mother and I Don't Talk About'

Mothers are a difficult topic to talk about. Even to think about it is frightening. More than the relationship with our fathers mothers - or their absence - are setting up impossible to break neural networks. Their love, neglect, indifference, hate and aggressivity is what further define our relationships, life disfunctionalities or success. We want to be like our mothers, or someone else completely. 
What My Mother and I Don't Talk About. Fifteen Writers Break the Silence is a terrible testimony of this complex reality we set up - rarelly consciously - with our mothers. The fifteen essays collected in the book expose different aspects of this relationship. Each story is different as each and every relationship with a mother differs, with its goods and bads. The essays differ also in intensity and in the ways in which the writers are reevaluating this relationship. From curiosity to complete rejection and pity, mothers are not easy to talk about, to understand and describe in just a few words.
Each essays open wounds or questions, and one of the heaviest emotionally is the opening one by Michele Filgate, about how her mother ignored the repeated abuse of her step-father. I've heard about similar situations more than once and I am still puzzled: how it is possible to sink into such a deep denial that you ignore the terrible things done to your own child? The answer to this question always leaves me speechless in sadness. 
Between mothers and children there are so many open questions, silences and regrets. But after going through the essays I figured out that there are so many ways left to see, understand and translate motherhood. So many questions to ask, answers to get and forgiveness to allow. Unless by the time you are reaching such a level of self-reflection, your mother is long gone. 

Rating: 4 stars

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

The Story of the Cat Man from Aleppo

When a conflict breaks up, animals and children are the first victims. They cannot protect themselves, they depend upon other people and when those humans are killed or disappear or forced to leave, they are left with no one. 
In the famous city of Aleppo, a treasor of humanity destroyed by the intensive 7-year conflict, Alaa choose to stay. His friends and relatives left or were killed, but he cannot live anywhere else. Alaa has a mission too: to rescue the cats whose owners are no more. He is feeding them and with the help of other generous and kind people he is able to create shelter for cats first, where other abandoned animals are hosted too. Soon, he will extend his generosity to orphan children which are offered a playground and a regular daily care.
The Cat Man of Aleppo by Irene Latham and Karim Shamsi-Bashi is a beautifully illustrated story - by Yuko Shinizu - about the story of this kind man, Alaa. In simple words, his tremendous efforts and kindness are explained and introduced to the reader. Because Alaa exists. Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel is living in Aleppo and he is helping abandoned animals and children on a daily basis. There is some hope for humanity, indeed...
'Alaa loves his ciy of Aleppo. He hopes one day soon its bazaars selling pistachios and jasmine soap will return, and he can enjoy eating boiled corn and dried figs. Meanwhile, he loves the sanctuary's courtyard filled with fat, sleepy-eyed cats. There's no place he'd rather be'.

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

NaNoWriMo is coming. And this time I am in! Again!

In one month, NaNoWriMo, an online challenge for writers to finish a 50,000-word novel within 30 days, is on. I've been a successful participant a couple of years back, but unfortunatelly, for a couple of more or less excusable reasons, I've give up. I not even know what happened with the text of my novel I've written during that month. 
However, during all those years, my writing went sometimes well, sometimes at all. Although I do not suffer of writer's block - as a big part of my revenue is provided by my writing, I simply cannot afford such a luxury - I often notice how I am getting lost in small - blogging projects - instead of working on my big writing endeavours, such as my books. True is, in the last years, I've self- published three books on different topics, but I'm very far from reaching my potential. I have for over a year three books in various stages of elaboration. I am writing fast and enjoying it, and the research stage is also an enjoyable activity, but what I am sometimes lacking is that strong motivation of finishing them. Sometimes I am thinking the reason for the delay is that I am also a bit afraid to expose myself publicly, but it is not such a serious thought as I love clearly and strongly express my opinions - on almost everything
After so many second thoughts and the prospect of just another year of delays, I took a very brave decision. This year, I am back to NaNoWriMo and as I am writing, I also set up a new fresh profile on the website. As I want to dedicate October to finishing my non-fiction projects - hopefully will be able to finish at least two of them until the end of the month - and focus on November on a fiction book. The topic and the final outline are to be determined in the next weeks. Enough is enough. It is about time to assume my writing identity and invest my time and energies accordingly. When you know from the age of 16 - blame it on Virginia Wolf's essays - that all you want to do is writing and nothing else, all I have to do is to channel my energies and start writing those books and articles that are waiting for.
The countdown starts now and I can't wait to. Meanwhile, I have enough time to practice my writing and eventually, to win again the NaNoWriMo competition. 

Monday, September 30, 2019

Forward Collection: Amor Towles - You Have Arrived at Your Destination

In a time of genetical engineering and Artificial Intelligence, how far can we go to 'program' our offsprings? Can we offer to our children not only an almost perfect genetical combination, but also to happily align the stars of virtue and the chances of professional achievement to offer them the path to happiness (only)?
'But our genes don't merely express who we are. They contain all manner of talents from previous generations that we may not benefit from personally but that can be passed on to our progeny'. Part of the Forward Collection which includes six stories of 'near and far future', You Have Arrived at Your Destination by Amor Towles approaches - at least at a certain extent - the issue of genetic makeup. Towles' writing that I adored in A Gentleman in Moscow two years ago flows beautifully and captivates by its storytelling magic. Sam and Annie reached an age - mid-40s - of professional and personal achievement and they are looking to have a baby. But they want the best for their baby, not like every one of us want, but in a more organised, focused, genetically-minded way. Although it is not highly precise how exactly they are supposed to control and direct the future of their progeny, Sam is visiting a fertility lab, Vitek, where he is shown three possible outcomes of his to-be-born son (the gender was apparently easily determined just during the talks about the possibility of a child). 
However, once Sam is leaving the lab, the novella - which like the other books from the series, can be read in one hour-long sitting - is taking a completely different turn. The second part has nothing to do with a possible discussion about the pros and cons of genetic engineering or other ethical issues. A good idea to avoid predictability and literary boredom. However, I haven't found satisfactory, story-like, the rest of the story which is like a mosaique of disparate, grotesque episodes. 
The story is literally broken and the pieces are never brought together and this is how I got lost. It is not like Sam is starting to put into question everything around him, including his relationship with Annie - an assumption I've seen repeated in reviews reproducing the original release description. It is like the reader lost completely the contact with the characters from the first part. Ironically, Towles maybe is trying to convince us that not only the genetical engineering cannot control everything but also the creative process is sometimes against the logical neat projections. However, out of an infinity of choices, not the best one was selected in the end. Hence, the disappointment.

Rating: 3.5 stars 

Daniel Tammet: Thinking in Numbers

A little 'secret' fact about me: for my first eight years of school I went through intensive mathematical training - which included also couple of times the week spent with a private teacher-, that brought me to various maths competitions with pretty good local results. Later on, in the high-school, I went for two years in an intensive mathematics-physics classroom and achieved the highest score at my graduation exam. But as my university and life plans included more humanistic orientation, I randomly got in touch with numbers, otherwise than by calculating mortgages and monthly revenue.
However, my love for science and particularly mathematics remains and every time I am looking for stability and clarity in my life, I keep myself busy with some very specific high-end science reading.
About Daniel Tammet I've read and heard a lot and more than my science friends recommended to read his books. As it took me a bit of time until the moment has come to connect deeply with my mathematical soul, I only had the chance to get to know his writings this weekend. 
Thinking in Numbers. How Maths Illuminates Our Lives is a collection of essays covering a variety of topics where numbers are involved. Although there are way too many people not so keen to hear and deal with maths - blame it on a teaching art which completely disconnects science from the surrounding reality in general - numbers and mathematics are everywhere. 
The Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdos said that 'I know numbers are beautiful. If they are not beautiful, nothing is'. From heartbeats to languages, the numbers offer clarity and directions in everyday life. 'Like works of architecture, mathematical ideas help expand our circle of empathy,  liberating us from the tyranny of a single, parochial point of view. Numbers, properly considered make us better people', said Tammet opening a completely new door towards a complex, beautiful world hidden to many.
The references he uses are impressive, from Greek philosophers and literature to simple example took from life. Definitely a Renaissance outlook so rare nowadays. However, I've found that in many cases the bibliogprahy and the conclusions do not match necessarily the examples from real life. In some cases, the real life examples were not explored in all their details and at the end of the essay you are left with a kind of unmet expectations that not all the conclusions were extracted or maybe some details were actually missing.
Overall, Thinking in Numbers is a good book to spend an intellectual afternoon but it enters rather in the category of the popularization of science than pure scientific treaty. Which is not so bad - unless as in my case, you were expected to put your brains at work with highly abstract knowledge - because the world needs more people that discover the beauty of science and numbers. Maybe, as Tammet said, it makes us better people.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

The Deadly Secrets: The Other Wife by Claire McGowan

A tangle of lies, deceival and marital abuse. Two women with similar destinies, whose lives were brought together and partly destroyed by a professional liar. The Other Wife by Claire McGowan is a complex thriller of deceival and revenge, which explores the deep secrets of the angry brain. 
Suzi, heavily pregnant and Eleanor/Nora a sad widow are new neighbours in the middle of the nowhere English countryside. A simple friendship which evoles to something else. More complex and unexpected. Both of them met a man that meant something to them. A man that apparently died and took with him part of those women' lives. But what actually do they know about this man?
Step by step, the novel is delving into revealing snapshots of secrets that were hidden. In both women lives there are secrets, deadly in some cases. The reality proves to be completely different and the truth is always hidden. When it comes out, it's a corpse left behind. 
I've been fascinated by the technique of building the narrative, with unexpected turns and dramatic developments. All characters do have issues and bloody secrets they are easily living with and this is a pretty scary view on human nature. It might be, as one of the police officer said at a certain point that most crimes are committed by a person you know, but this dark side of humanity is terrifying. Maybe this is how it is, maybe not.
From the literary point of view, I've had often the feeling that the narrative is disbalanced as the main interest is on the characters. It's like the writer is so keen to share so much about the dark sides of them that sometimes the proper development of the plot is somewhere lost in between the cross-stories shared by different viewpoints. 
The Other Wife by Claire McGowan is a chilling novel, you hardly leave it until it is finished, with a maigre touch of feminism - as both women are victims of manipulative men. A story that makes you think and pessimistically encourage you to suspect any couple you might see happily holding hands on the street. Something to think about later on.


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

Sunday, September 22, 2019

On 'Dirty Wars and Polished Silver'

Lynda Schuster's memoir Dirty Wars and Polished Silver made me nostalgic about the way in which non-yellow journalism used to be done. 
Typewriter on your lap - well, maybe this is not necessarily something to be nostalgic about - doing serious research - instead of Wikiedia copy-paste, meeting sources in real life - and not over phone or email, being in the middle of the events instead of compiling reports based on online reports. It was something heroic and engaging in that journalism which made it as a life choice, not as a job to do until better opportunities occur. Being a journalism was a profession with tremendous challenges, responsibilities but also that conferred upon the writer of the daily news a certain social status. 
Former Wall Street Journal and Christican Science Monitor correspondent Lynda Schuster seen them all: Central American wars, the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, civil war in Lebanon. Her first husband, LA Times reporter Dial Torgerson was killed on the job near the Nicaragua-Honduras border. Herself, she was lucky enough to get out of a convoy that was bombed in Lebanon shortly after she and the driver decided for a different route.
But love changed her life and after she've met the man that will be her second husband, a diplomat, she continued her adventures but as a companion/wife of a member of the US diplomatic service. Gone were the days of intensive reporting in burning spots on the world map. She had to go now to the Ambassatrix School and attend lectures, among others, on 'when to use the official China embossed with the seal of the United States'. The diplomatic appointments were challenging as well, in areas with complicated geopolitical and political landscapes - as everywhere, a nice post in predictable places like Paris or Berlin are reserved for big contributors/politically supported ambassadors: Mozambique or Peru. But despite the professional relocation, the journalism blood kept running through her veins: '(...) truth be told, leaving daily journalism is similar to what smokers say about quitting: you only set a hankering when you're around it'. (Been there, done that - both smoking and journalism).
The writing is flowing easily, with ironic and self-ironic turns and a healthy balance between the evenemental layer and the personal details. The many international politics references are inserted into the story smoothly, without dramatically challenging the reader not familiar with the events. It is a rare memoir that encourages you to keep the memory of journalism alive, while understanding a woman's search for daily professional meaning. Trying her own life to avoid the 'housewife' destiny of her mother, Lynda Schuster ended up with a family, a daughter, two books written and a lot of memories that hopefully will continue to be shared in writing. Sometimes, even if you don't want to, you can see a path of balance, made of wise choices.

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

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Fleishman is in trouble. And so are we...

'How miserable is too miserable?'
I haven't read in a long time such a mind blowing novel featuring so many important ideas about relationships nowadays. Ideas that are actually up in the air but rarely formulated so clearly and literarily as in Fleishman is in trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner.
Meet Toby, a relatively successful MD, from an easygoing middle-class Jewish family from LA, in his early 40s. Meet  Rachel his (ex)wife from a broken family, a very successful business woman. They have two beautiful children that are part of the usual high-end educational circles with a permanent baby sitter and many hobby classes and private classes. 
Married for a long time but unhappy. Love is gone? Maybe way too many social obligations and bills to pay and pressure to be as fast as possible in climbing the social ladder. That's what happens when you are not born in the big, very big money. You have to fight hard your way.
Now, they are in the last stage of divorcing. The story of the sudden freedom is told differently by Rachel and Toby.
Toby is downloading a couple of dating apps and starts exploring. Just think about it: you haven't dated since the 1990s and out of nowhere you are brought in a world where the first online contact is a sexting message. Not necessarily lack of inhibitions, but lack of interest in something more than the immediate. This suited Toby's hunger - and anger - for new: 'Toby realizes he was under no moral obligation to marry the woman he kissed'. 'He heft like he might combust from the freedom he felt. All this new opportunity! There weren't enough hours in the day!'. Or, in the words of his eternal bachelor friend Seth: 'Marriage is for young people who don't have a concept of time (...). It's for people whose lives will be made measurable better by it'. The brave experimental Seth will finally propose his girlfriend until the end of the novel.
But his enthusiasm for the midlife sexual freedom is often undone by his anger. Because Rachel is in trouble too. She disappear without trace for weeks and he has the full responsibilities of the children, besides some difficult cases at the hospital. For a couple of pages, you might fully sympathize with Toby against the career obsessed woman. How can you leave your children like this, after all? How can you leave such a great man like Toby, faithful, home-bound and dedicated?
Wait to listen Rachel's story. Which has equal elements of sympathy. How does it feel to be a woman not born into wealth, with ambitions and a good mind and unable to advance because...men. Men who would rather prefer to hit on her than to promote her for her achievements, who would criticize her for being too focused on her work (her husband) although she is the main source of  revenue. She is taken back by her gender, by her family condition - two children, by her age. She is never enough, regardless of how much time she invests in her business, planning her children schedule, in her yoga classes or while trying to decorate her house according to the high society standards. The tragical part is that women like Rachel grew up dreaming and being encouraged to think that being a woman and successful is easily achievable. I personally think it might be achieved but easy is not and personal sacrifices, like family are at stake.
I love both of them, Rachel and Toby. They have candid believes that they own their present. They are a bit out of this world because maybe dreamed too much. Some of their dreams are obsolete, but they are candid and with a good heart. Will miss both of them.

Rating: 5 stars

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Book Review: Pain by Zeruya Shalev

I love every single book written by Zeruya Shalev. Her fine knowledge of relationship and alienation, emotional separation and couple loneliness always goes deep into the nature of facts and feelings. 
Her latest novel, Pain, to be released at the beginning of November, is another introspection into mature relationships and families and the pressure between genuine pure love and the weight of family circumstances.
What would you do when the love of your life reappears suddenly into your life, 30 years after he left you? How will you deal with the memories of the old pain, or actually, had this pain ever left? Ironically, Eitan, Iris' first love is an expert in pain but apparently unable to go beyond the flow of emotions. Childishly, he is back in Iris' life as nothing happened, driven by emotion and passion. He appears like an element of the main story and we are unable to figure out what exactly he is thinking or if he is having any specific reflection on the relationship at all.
Instead, Iris is caught between her family obligations, a daughter that she always wanted to have with her first love not with her emotionally distraught husband and that apparently is the victim of a strange liberation cult directed by the bar owner where she is working in Tel Aviv, and her daily professional load as a school principal. She has to deal also with the physical pain following a terror attack she was victim thereof - the author herself was hurt in such a tragical occurrence. 
I was misleaded to focus mostly on the reignited relationship and superficially, was about to bet about what exactly will happen with Iris' relationship. But it would have been so stereotypical and melodramatic. 
Iris is becoming so involved in dealing with the challenges of the present, while keep investigating her feelings and relationships that what it matters in the end is the moment. The past consumed in pain for the lost love or the future of the happiness together with the found love are relatively irrelevant. Iris has the strength to create a new story made of the fragments of the everyday fight with against the pain, both physical and emotional. 
The translation from Hebrew to English was done admirably by Sondra Silverston which also brought to the English-speaking public authors like the late Amos Oz and Eshkol Nevo.
Personally, will add a special mention for the suggestive cover as well.

Disclaimer: ARC offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 5 stars

Monday, August 12, 2019

Visiting Dorotéenstadt Cemetery in Berlin

People having their lunch break while resting their feet on the centuries-old dark stones. Alone or with company. Young students resting on a bench surrounded by graves. So Romantic. Nearby, a young lady is snitching a short note on a box set on Brecht's grave. A request for feedback, for inspiration?
And there is me, a little voyeur, camera in hand, for the first visit at Dorothéenstadt Cemetery Berlin, also called the Berlin's Père Lachaise.


Weirdly maybe,  I always considered cemeteries interesting places. In France, or Spain or Portugal,  in Central and Eastern Europe or the Middle East, I always searched for little stories beind the stones. It is not always about the famous people, but also about those unknown residents which might left some stories about their lives on the stones. 
I remember how me and my brother we discovered once in the old country a cemetery of pilots. On some of their graves part of their circumstances - flight accident for instance - was revealed - and we used to set up stories about their destiny.
For Berlin cemetery, you don't have to be that creative: most of the lives of the famous residents are told already in tomes.


The 17,000 sqm cemetery situated in the Mitte area - Chauséestrasse 126 - reunites in dead artists, writers, industralists - like Borsig, for instance - or court architects - like Schinckel, my favorite German's architect.


Compared to the notorious Père Lachaise, there are no orgiastic parties here. No desperate screams of the fans of Jim Morrison. Artists and intellectuals do have a high, often unapproachable status in Germany. You treat them with respect, quietly. Or you leave pebbles on the stones - or even a pen - like at Christa Wolf's grave. 


Besides the potential stories - most of them I never wrote - there is the tombal architecture which interests me when visiting a grave. What I've mostly seen here is a very simple one, without glamour and special style. Dorothéenstadt is usually considered an example of 18th-19th century tombal architecture but in my humble opinion someone really interested in good samples in this respect should go somewhere else. 
For instance, I've found more glamour and creative patterns in the Jewish cemetery of Weissensee. The emerging Jewish class wanted to copy the style of the successful gentiles and suceeded to pay for impressive works of tombal architecture. Completely against the average Jewish belief that in death,  all graves shall look the same, simple, without pictures or any significant identification mark.


You have to walk a lot until you find some interesting corners but they are worth the view. There is some information posted at the entrance - in German - and you might find other tourists - or curious locals as me - wandering near the graves. You can ask about famous people eventually.


Although not exactly impressed, it was a literary visit worth doing it once in a lifetime. At least I've learned something about the local tombal architecture, and even learned something about the easygoing way of munching a sandwich at the shadow of a famous person's grave.
I only have a big regret: why I haven't asked the girl with the note on Brecht's grave about her message. I am becoming too private sometimes...

Friday, August 9, 2019

Short Stories from the Days of Awe

Short stories do have such an ephemeral appearance. Such a collection does require a specific order of reading, you don't have to keep in mind a unique story line and characters. You can abandon it for a couple of days or even weeks or months and read it again without influence to the overall knowledge and understanding of the writing.
However, when reading a collection of short stories, I prefer to keep reading it. It goes faster sometimes and in this way I am able to follow patterns and ideas, the so-called red lines which are inevitably a trademark of any writer. 
Days of Awe by A.M.Homes are impossible to be read otherwise. A story delves into the other, the characters are developped from a story to another, in their full strangeness. They are dual - in both their gender orientation and their desires - at the limit, looking for different emotional experiences and obsessed with past - theirs, of the world, of their group. Some of them look like pictures in a therapy book. 
The most complex characters are the women: they might be dual in their sexual desires, They are struggling with their mothers, their past and their identities are often a construction made of multiple layers. The men are almost lost in their shadows.
The dialogues are for me the strongest literary part of the short stories. They reveal a lot about the inner lives and secrets of the characters, about their hidden desires and their past obsessions. They are vivid and spontaneous and a noteworthy part of the staged narrative. 
Although I am not reading so often short stories, this collection left traces into my literary desires and created the appetite for even more such experiments. I may have to continue with more short stories by A.M.Homes maybe.

Rating: 4 stars

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Visiting Anna Seghers Memorial House in Berlin

In my primary school years, back in the old country, I used to visit a lot of memorial houses and I kept a certain nostalgy for this type of encounters ever since. Visiting the house of a writer means sometimes connecting the dots between the literary work and the personal milieu. However, once my critical thinking developped, my expectations were to experience besides the personal touch of a writer's life also eventually a critical perspective of his or her writings and decisions. This goes especially for those writers with a certain political implications, as it is the case of Anna Seghers. 
I grew up with the full collection of her works in French, and read some of them in my teen years. Most probably, would love to read them in German, now that I am relatively well managing this language. Also, I am a grown up today, with a complex critical thinking system and a new read will definitely shape a different perception on her works and the mentality it reflects.
Anna-Seghers Museum, under the administration of Akademie der Künste, in Berlin is situated on the street bearing the name of the writer, 5 minutes of walk from the Adlershof S-Bahn station. A couple of blocks away lived the Bulgarian communist Georgy Dimitrov. She lived at this address from 1955 until 1983, after she decided to settle in the communist Germany - GDR. During the war Seghers moved to Paris and after Mexico, where she made friendship with other communist believers like the painter Diego Rivera, together with her communist Hungarian husband Laszlo Radvanyi. At the end of the war, she lived shortly in an apartment in a wing of Adlon Hotel which was not affected by bombings.
Seghers was born Netty Reiling in a middle-class Jewish family in Mainz. (Seghers was apparently the name of a Dutch painter she become familiar with, probably through his father art business). During her exile, she wrote many of her important works, including The Seventh Cross, about the escape from a concentration camp, which was turned into a Hollywood movie. Once settled in the communist part of Germany, she was awarded several prizes and was a co-founder of the Academiy of Arts and the World Peace Council.
One of the most important reasons I love to visit memorial houses is for having a look at the libraries. What were the sources of inspiration? What were the authors preferred? Anna Seghers' library includes around 10,000 titles as diverse as the Pesah Hagaddah, Boris Polevoi (which I had the chance to read as a teen too) or Stalin's works in Russian. Originally, she was a sinologist (haven't spotted any book in Mandarin though), and I am not sure if she was fluent in Russian. 
The house - whose interior cannot be photographed - includes the original furniture, including the Remington typewriter she bought from Mexico, where she wrote her books and articles. 
However, what I was really missing from this memorial house, was a complex critical perspective. The visitor who is not very familiar with her works will leave with the impression that she was probably a perfect followers of the German communists. What was her opinion on the freedom restrictions in the GDR? About the incidents that other writers like Stefan Heym, who was a literary friend, went through with the local system. It is a complete painful silence that makes me feel that very often, memorial houses are just a place to have a check of the famous people's libraries.