Thursday, February 28, 2019

About The Art of Leaving...

The art of's such a fine and complex and hard to acquire art. You need to go through the (almost) daily experience of the hard school of life and loss to know how to fight against the gravitation laws of staying. You learn to fly through people and encounters and hands up in the air trying to hold you but still you go...because life proved you over and over again that's safer for your lightness of being to run. Sooner or later you will be left again, so better be always ready.
I got prepared to read The Art of Leaving by Ayelet Tsabari by The Best Place on Earth, a collection of short stories using the complex often conflictual framework of the Israeli society to bring to life unique strong personalities and unforgettable narratives. It was a good preparation, because this is where the memoir has its roots. After all, you come and go and you try to run away, but the roots are still there, oblivious to your desperate efforts.
Born in a Yemeni family, Ayelet Tsabari is exploring those roots, in a society which is not accepting her identity willingly, and often devours its inhabitants. 'In a society that idealized Western beauty standard rarely found within its vicinity - blong, light, skinned, blue eyed - I looked all wrong'. It tooks time until she had the strength to reclaim her origin, against an official narrative too often settled to erase everything that was too different, too Oriental. But while assuming that maybe 'more dancing, less thinking this is the answer', she is happy - at least for a while - to play the multi-cultural, multi-identity card, often accepting those identities assigned to her. 'I enjoyed being claimed by so many nationalities. I like the idea of having a facial structure that is malleable, shifting, as though it makes me a citizen of the world. In my desperate wish to belong, I accept every invitation'. 
Every piece of her life is a small farewell to this assumed/assigned identity though. From the army service to the beaches of India and Thailand, while crossing the States and trying to settle in Canada. Every stage is well explored and documented, with the careful observation of the born writer, which doesn't mean the one who is always writer. There are those skills that makes you a writer, and the fine observation and the need to understand is part of it. 'As an immigrant, my identity was already under review, but as a writer whose sense of self was strongly tied to language, a part of me felt erased. I stopped writing altogether'. Leaving a home, means more than buying that one way ticket to nowhere, but coping with the dramatic challenges of entering a new world and its rules, including grammar rules. It takes courage and ambition and craziness and courage again to conquer your fears and start writing again in a new language. But the gift of being a writer might be stronger than the circumstances. 'English was a place I fled to, an act of reinvention that echoed the anonymity and freedom I had felt whe migrating - a new country, eliciting the same exhilariating thrill of stepping outside my comfort zone'. 
But first, you should experience the deepest lows of leaving, dare to play with your life a little bit, take the risk of not writing and not trusting yourself. Her travels brought her closer to understanding those meanings of being home and away, leaving while still staying. The travels were part of her journey through grasping the sense of life, before starting to put the words on paper. This is how Ayelet describes at a certain point one of her many Indian journeys: 'Maybe this is what I'm doing here: taking a leave from my mind, my life, my boyfriend, my screw-up country. Isn't living wildly, dangerously and in the moment a good thing? Isn't that what being young and a writer is all about?'. 
The memoir is not linear - which is a remedy against the boredom of being privy to other people's lives - but focuses on episodes and benchmarks on the way to settling down her own world outside the constantly moving geography of her everyday life. Like in an old Oriental story, there are episodes repeating, but in a different wording and context, recurrent motives and the repetition iterates the usual memory flow.
She pushes strong the boundaries everywhere: as a woman, Jew, Israeli, Israeli of Yemeni origin, Middle Eastern, writer, being the daughter of her early departed father. Nothing suits the mold and the search brings to life complex crystal-like new forms further nurturing the creativity. Than, there is the cruel reality: 'Leaving, I discovered, did not cure my displacement, but rather reinforced it'. Regardless how much you want to run from your roots, from your story/stories, your luggage only gets bigger and bigger and you need to recreate the mindmaps permanently. And the acknowledgment too: 'Home is collecting stories, writing them down, and retelling them. Home is writing, and it grounds, sustains and nourishes me. Home is the page. The one place I always, always come back'.
The topic and the encounters and many of the stories strongly resonates to me and I've read this memoir with both an open heart and curiosity. It's one of those reading experiences at the end of which you feel enriched and perfectly at peace with your own life. The power of the words overwhelmingly telling part of your personal story too.

Rating: 4.5 stars

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Book Review: The Incendiaries by R.O.Kwon

To enter the mind of a fanatic - regardless of the belief - you need a multi-layered, multi-disciplinary approach. Besides science and psychology, literature outlines the knowledge by its power to recall situations and encounters.
It sounds very dogmatic at the first sight, but for me, the best way to explore the diverse evolutions of fanaticism, is through stories and imagination. You need to make an effort of creativity, challenging your mind outside the comfort zone to switch minds.
In The Incendiaries, an incisive debut novel by R.O.Kwon, Phoebe, a young American-Korean woman enrolled in an elite university, is becoming a perpetrator of terrorist acts in the name of the ideology of a cult. The cult is founded by John Leal, an American that apparently spent some time in the North Korean gulag, witnessed the power of brainwashing that he is trying to use in the everyday practice of a Christian-centered cult. In between, there is Will, a former born-again that could not ignore his God dellusion. He tried to believed but couldn't assume the mindset fully so, he left. Phoebe is not a believer either, but she chose action as the only way to fuel the faith. 
When you try in life to bust the illusion, you can move forward either by acknowledging that there is an illusion, either by blindly trying to convince the others of the truth of your illusion. Blindly but mostly through force.  
The plot in itself is relatively simple and there is nothing to expect from the story. You bet from early on that something it's about to happen, something terrible, you only don't now when. But what makes this book beautiful in its own right is the art of writing. Words are skillfully called to create slow paced moments, with a colourful photographic strength and often an unbearable emotional weight. 
The Incendiaries is a strong book, exploratory and intelligent, and it gives fanaticism a different angle of understanding.

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

Friday, February 22, 2019

In the World of The Expatriates

I don't remember when I haven't lived in my adult life as an expat. From Asia to the Middle East, to France, Switzerland or America and now, to Berlin, I've always look to create a nest far away from a home and an old country that are becoming more and more imaginary. 
Mostly connecting with the English-speaking community, I've witnessed stories and episodes, from the everyday life to tragedies that can easily make it into a book. Or a drama-comedy.
The Expatriates by Janice Y.K.Lee excellently recreates the American life of high professionals and trailing wives in Hong Kong, adding both a pinch of irony and a pinch of empathy. Sex, cultural appropriation and race mix indeterminatly under the simplistic yet realistic label of 'Americans abroad'.
Out of the beehive of people coming and going, to work or on ready to go on vacation to exotic, cheap destination in Asia, the story of three women: Margaret, Hillary and Mercy, intertwin. Drama, hopes, abandonment, motherhood and tragic moments unites and separates the three, in a micro-cosmos where it is almost impossible to get lost, to be yourself and anonymous. In America is much easy, but Hong Kong is apparently small and your story and history are easily getting noticed, for good and for worse.
G, Margaret's son got lost a year ago during a trip to Korea aimed to reconnect her with her family origins, while Mercy was hired as a nanny. Mercy is a Columbia graduate, a success story of an immigrant Korean family, unable to put up together her personal and professional life. Hillary lost her husband who abandoned her suddenly for Mercy. Now, Mercy is pregnant with his child. Far from being (always) friends or sharing any empathy towards each other, the destinies of those women are here more driven into each other than it would have been back home. 
All the three characters, especially Margaret and Mercy, are well defined and with a clear, memorable personality. Most of the other characters populating the story are too, which makes the author knowledgeable of human natures. The dialogues are interrupted back and forth by introspection which creates more depth and complex development to the story. 
The story development keeps you alert and there are some elegant unexpected twists that may wake you up if too much immersed into the small gossips of the Anglos in Hong Kong.
However, what disappointed me greatly was the ending. A very happy sugary Korean drama style ending that brought a sarcastic grin on my face. It could have been any ending, after all, but that one is a bit too kitsch for my taste.
The book will be soon turned into an American drama series for web tv. 

Rating: 3.5 stars

Monday, February 18, 2019

Book Love

Let's talk about love. But not any kind of love. One of the most longstanding, honest and rewarding of all of them: Book love. Faithful companions, although they can also disappoint you once in a while, they will never leave you. Actually, you can learn even from a bad book, especially if you are a writer. 
In a graphic novel exploring everything a bookworm will expect from a work called Book Love, Debbie Tung develops topics well appreciated among those who love reading. 'Books are best friends, bringing pure joy', says in one of the sketches and I fully agree with that. 
Although I personally not agree completely that books equals escapism and you read to escape from the current reality - an accusation often threw by those who despise reading people, this topic appears a couple of times in the book. In addition to explaining and elaborating about the book love, there are also not a few ideas about bookish lifestyle and even a couple of hints about why to date a bookworm (couldn't agree more). 
The ideas are relatively easy and frequently referred to by bookworms, the illustration are also simple and without a high level of sophistication. If you have teenagers that need a motivation why to read, Book Love appeals to them in a very direct way, suited for their everyday style and elliptic, telegraphic-like communication. If you are a bookworm yourself - as I do - you can spend some pleasant after-work time in the company of this graphic story. You might want to read (even) more after that.

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

Sunday, February 17, 2019

About Flexible Thinking

The late decade researches in the field of brain studies challenged the classical perspectives dramatically, revealing among others that far from being a amorphous mass that is progressively losing its flexibility the brain never ceases to change. The only condition is to put your brain at work and create or answer the opportunities of change offered by the environment.
A couple of years ago I've translated a very interesting study according to which you can learn foreign languages at an older age too, and in fact, such an opportunity may stop the deterioration of brain functions, among which those brought by Alzheimer's. 
Elastic by Leonard Mlodinow focuses on what he calls our human 'desire to adapt, to explore and generate new ideas'. If you have a relatively minimal human experience, you might rather assume that in fact humans aren't so keen to change looking rather for stability and constance. However, epigenetics and genetics studies are partly confirming this theory, with a special gene DRD4, gene dopamin receptor which 'drives us to be discontended with the status quo, to seek the new and unfamiliar'.
As usual, the circumstances, life context and the cultural influences are at a great extent the main influences driving a brain towards a more 'elastic' status. 'An individual's general attitude toward novelty and change is affected by both nature and nurture - our genes and our environment'.
Although it is approaching a topic with a high scientific complexity, Leonard Mlodinow succeeds to make the topic understandable, carefully using easy examples from the everyday life many of them part of the larger researches outlining the advanced knowledge in the field of brain science.
A recommended read not only for those interested in the functioning of the brain, but also for business and communication experts, as it shows not so aparent ways in which the human mind can operate the nowadays environment facing the challenges of the e-revolution under way.

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

Monday, February 11, 2019

Unterstanding the Hidden Life of Tehran

The Iranian society, like any other society, shall not be evaluated as a massive homogenous block, with goods vs. bad in a permanent struggle. Even in the most sophisticted totalitarian regimes, there are always holes through which people are able to breath and reclaim their difference. Religious communities are not homogenous, political hierarchies are not smoothly and even within a family, people may have different political and religious choices.
City of Lies: Love, Sex, Death and the Search for Truth in Tehran by Ramita Navai reveals the layers under the layers of the Iranian society. An Iranian-born journalist for English-speaking publications, she started to write this book while waiting that the decision to suspend her press permit was reconsidered by the authorities.
The axis of the stories is the Vali Asr street, uniting the reach North with the poor South, an urban development which shares histories and unique encounters.
Through the stories you can understand not only the big social differences and historical influences on the behavior of everyday residents of Tehran, but also the micro-histories and testimonies of people living there. Navai's stories are based on real stories, although names and circumstances might have been changed. My friends knowledgeable with the life in Tehran confirmed that, indeed, life can be as diverse and dynamic and challenging as some of the stories in the book let it think it is. Some people will always look to find windows to breath fresh air that might mimic freedom, as some other people will only look to inflict the freedom lovers the hardest punishment. What personally struck me in this book was the cruelty of humans against other humans, in the name of strict religion. It is cruel to proclaim yourself as a simple human self-righteous and try to control what people are doing in their homes and with whom and eventually put to death those who are not respecting this - out of the many - version of truth. 
The stories are sad and hopeless sometimes, but also full of nostalgy and love for the city and its sins.  
My only problem was that although I've really appreciated the spirit of the stories, the writing style did not excel. I appreciated the alert journalistic reporting but more often either the dialogue or the narrative are not coming along in a smooth literary way.
Otherwise, a good source for reading about contemporary Iran, especially Tehran.

Rating: 3 stars

Thursday, February 7, 2019

'My Year of Rest and Relaxation'

'I'm taking some time off. This is my year of rest and relaxation'.
I love this expression: 'rest and relaxation'. I use it several times the month maybe, when writing about wellness and wellbeing and a life of...well...'rest and relaxation'.
The character from latest Ottessa Moshfegh's book, an author I come across through Eileen, it taking this expression literally, by taking 12 months off life to rest and relax. Helped by a deadly cocktail of drugs - serioulsy, how much a human body can take, as I asked more than once following and counting the eventual qualitities of medicine ingurgitated that sooner or later the anti-hero will die after too much drug consumption - she is delved into deep sleep. She is rarely leaving her home and when she does consciously, she does it for a short ride to buy some coffee and fill the fridge. 
Every month, she is visiting her strange therapist, for getting stronger drugs.
Once in a while her friend is coming buy and sometimes she is stalking her ex-boyfriend.
No feelings, no emotions, just memories and the need to sleep. And sleep. 
I've been afraid a sleep a long time, as a way to shorten my life. Sleeping is like dying and I wanted to live my life in its fullest. Sleep was taking my away from life, love and books. I wanted to be present as much as possible.
The average woman character of My Year of Rest and Relaxation doesn't want to live. According to her own account, her previous life doesn't look much alive either. She has the money to survive the day, but is stuck somehow in some material possessions and memories of her parents. At a certain extent, she replicates the life of her own mother, who lost her life after too much drugs and alcohol. 
Her encounters with sleep are a desperate effort to clean herself from this world, although there is nothing planned the day after the year is over. Most of her efforts are organised around her sleeping.
'I suppose a part of me wished that when I put my key in the door, it would magically open into a different apartment, a different life, a place so bright with joy and excitement that I'd be temporarily blinded when I first saw it'.
Nothing like that will happen and she is delving into every single day of the year with the hunger and relaxation.
The story is taking place in the narrator's mind and Ottessa Moshfegh succeeded to create both an interesting character and story that although is rarely taking any eventful turn, it keeps you connected to the very simple uneventful encounters. The words are modelled and growing up out of the story which is developing in the end as a beautiful non-figurative sculpture.
I don't like characters without features, I don't like women that only want to sleep and sleep and take drugs, but out of the many books I've read with an anti-hero woman character, this one is the strongest and complex one. She doesn't look for or finding herself, she doesn't do meditation or share mindful thoughts. She stays naked, all by herself, facing the non-sense of sleeping. And fully enyoying it.

Rating: 4 stars

Friday, February 1, 2019

Masih Alinejad's Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran

'In the Iranian Republic, being born a woman is like having a disability'.
Watching Masih Alinejad talking online about her fight for freedom in modern Iran and the everyday threats millions of Iranian women are facing with from the morality police doesn't let you indifferent. Even if you have no idea where to find the Islamic Republic of Iran on the map, you will be outraged by the situation of women because is simply unacceptable. The compulsory hijab change women into objects at the mercy of religious and conservative leaders and their instruments. 
'My hair was part of my identity by your couldn't see it when I was growing up, my hair was no longer part of my body. It had been hijacked and replaced with a head scarf', said Masih. 
Her memoir, The Wind in My Hair. My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran, recounts her personal story, from her small countryside world until the halls of the Tehran's parliament and further on in London and NYC, as a feareless journalist ending up being banned from her country after disclosing the corruption and financial favors enjoyed by the Iranian MPs, in full despise of the struggle of the rest of the population. 
Personally, I am familiar with Masih for a couple of years already, through her brave Facebook page My Stealthy Freedom, offering for the first time a space for Iranian women to show their opposition to the hijab laws. 'The women of Iran want to be free, to make their own choices', and Masih's activism gives strength and a voice to all those women having enough of being harassed and put to prison and lashed only because they are women. On Facebook, they dared to show their faces and especially one of the biggest enemies of the Islamic Republic: their hair. 
However, I was not familiar with most of her activism back home in Iran, especially her journalistic activity, and the memoir retraces her entire career and her troubles with the authorities from a very early age. As a former political journalist myself, I recognized the fascination of building up a career identity in a world dominated by men but Masih got double portion of harassment, because she kept breaking rules in a dangerous and hostile world for women. 
'The truth is that we need to create a free Iran. A country where people can freely choose. (...) I want an Iran that is democratic where women have equal right'. No other people than the people of Iran can push towards those changes. Especially the women of Iran.
Although I've found her stories fascinating and her enthusiasm and dedication to truth contagious, I've not always properly enjoyed the writing style, with way too much concentration of facts and names, but not too many personal observations that might put things into a wider perspective. The style sounds a bit dry and doesn't always flows from the literary point of view. But as a journalist, switching from daily reporting to memoir - and any other kind of non-journalistic writing in general - comes with the price of style in favor of the accuracy and attention paid to facts.
Masih Alinejad's book is a heartly recommendation to anyone curious about the challenges of women in Iran, at the end of which you might not only count more your many blessings of the freedoms as a woman, but also to be aware of your responsibility. As a woman who loves to travel, Iran is on the top of my favorite lists to visit. But in sign of respect for the women of Iran and many other reasons, I refuse to visit and be forced the compulsory hijab. Hopefully, one day, the people of Iran will decide to put an end to the nightmare and Masih Alinejad and many other people like her, can freely return to a free Iran. 

Rating: 4 stars