Friday, March 29, 2019

All the Rivers, a Novel by Dorit Rabinyan

I haven't read in a very long time such a heartbreaking beautiful love story, that breaks you into little pieces and makes you feel the pain and the regret for all your love stories that you forgot about only because you were so blind to hope there will be a happy ending. For the waste of every single moment of togetherness because social conventions and sometimes political projections forced you to overthink and refuse being taken by the unique flow of every single second you are together with someone because he is there and nothing else should matter.
All the Rivers by Dorit Rabinyan is a book that obsessively makes you reflect about your love and lovers and the chances you took or were too coward to assume. About being different but equal in love, about the time you wasted thinking about 'why' obligerating the 'now'. 
The love story between the Israeli Liat and the Palestinian Hilmi is just happening, within a given amount of time, in New York City. They met, fell in love and parted ways to never met in life again. Hilmi drowned on Jaffa beach and never had the chance to talk with Liat again. While in New York, they both long for a home that might mean different for each of them, but in many respect is so similar. 'Everything around us was iron and concrete, asphalt roads and stone huls, but we were rhapsodizing about olive trees'. 'The similarity between us, that shared destiny, must be what they mean when they say that man is imprinted by his native landscape'.
Inevitably, there are rifts and conflicts and political interpretations and 'me' versus 'you'. Liat is so annyoing sometimes for not being brave enough and breaking up with her past, present and future and making the dramatic choice for love. Between her and Halmi there is the political wall who says it is not socially acceptable and her past weights into her present. There is passion after all and this shall also pass because how else would we survive as a people otherwise. Making painful choices and leaving the intensity of the moments behind. It is a moral and social and even political obligations to move on the beaten paths of life. She will give up sharing with her sister about him. 'So, I don't tell her how we enjoy making each other laugh. I don't tell her that I spend all the day gatheirng sotries to share with him the evening, so I can hear him laugh, so I can laugh again with him. I don't tell her about the moments when I can feel that he understands me, that he can make his way in and out of my mind's twists and turns, that can look at his wise eyes and see the wheel of his mind spinning in perfect synchrony with comfort that fills me in those moments when we talk and talk and talk, I feel that if I had been a sort of enigma to myself, a difficult ride to solve, he has come along to know me and to answer all my questions'.
But the intensity of the moment is what makes the life alive, gives a sense and a direction, even not always a clear one. Liat and Hilmi are part of those sad impossible love stories, but until there is an ending, it is what happens right now and then that counts. 'The the grimy mirror, I see pedestrians and cars reflected, and suddenly something happens, a flash that vanishes so quickly that Hilmi doesn't catch it. For a moment our two reflections are doubled, multiplying and procreating endlessly, drawing an infinite chain of more and more Hilmi and Liat behind us'. 
The book created a fierce political debate in Israel. Banned from the high-school curricula in 2003, the author herself was the target of the righ-wing Lehava fighting against relationships between Jews and non-Jews. Rabinyan, whose novel was inspired by her own love story with the Palestinian artist Hassan Hourani that died tragically in 2003, was supported by the most important Israeli writers of the time like Amos Oz, David Grossman, A.B.Yehoshua or Meir Shalev and received a letter of support from the German chancellor Angela Merkel. 
I didn't know what exactly to expect from this book and was a bit reluctant following all the political and ideological fuss made around it that it might be a pro-domo story, with clear lessons learned and a rather political, non-literary message. I am so glad I was wrong and so happy to go through all the painful reflections about love and relationships, about what matter and what shall never matter in love. In many of her interviews, Rabinyan mentioned a quote from the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas according to whom 'we can redeem our humanity by not just caring about our own perspective but by seeing details of the other individual in the mass of humans'. In reality, it seldom works and there is such a painful and long process, sometimes that takes longer than to build the love. But even if love is gone, being able to see this human light is one of the greatest life's achievements which open the doors to a life of authenticity. We are more than our borders, religions and habits but we are also creatures of habit and the struggle to overcome our little humanity is hard and painful.
The English translation of the book is beautiful and knits together the words and worlds. It makes you shiver and cry and brings your smile back to your face again, because maybe you can do it too, one day. Or at least to hope to acknowledge the very simple yet painful fact that love is love is love. What matters, as usual in our short life is to focus on the moment and live its intensity in its fullest. That's all what lasts, after all, 'all the rivers run to the sea'.

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

Rating: 5 stars

Monday, March 25, 2019

Be Aware of Life-Voyeurs

Unhappy psychotic personalities with a propension to voyeurism left unattended could be lethal. 
Louise looks like the perfect babysitter: serious, trustworthy, knowledgeable, loved by the children, furiously cleaning the house and cooking perfect meals. Since she entered the life of Paul and Myriam a successful young couple from Paris and especially of their children, Mila and Adam, they can easily take care of their jobs and social responsibilities while Louise is diligently in charge with the everyday childcare. 'She has only one desire: to create a world with them, to find her place and live there to dig herself a niche, a burrow, a warm hiding place'.
If Louise has a house, a body or a history, we will be only parsimonously informed once in a while, as the main focus of the story is on the babysitter at work and her interactions with her employers and the children. Nothing suspect at the first sight, and if not the tragic end -when she is killing the two children with a ceramic sushi knife - because she was became aware that most probably her days in the service of the family are counted, it would be just a short story about boring babysitters. 
But Louise has a life and a body and a history and a house. A mediocre life, ridden by debts, with a runaway daughter and a late husband that died and left her in deep debt. She was always a sought-after babysitter. She is lonely and without friends or a serious partner. In her silences, the tension that will lead to the dramatic ending is building up piece by piece. 'She has the strange certainty that all strugle is futile. That all she can do is let evets carry her away, wash her over, overwhelm her, while she remain passive and inert'. Until the calamity hit and it is way too late.
The story is built backwards, trying to recreate and explain the possible reasons of the crime. In the end, not the detective-like reconstruction matters but the ways in which Louise's behavior sent various signals outside, not fully took into consideration. Civilized people we are hardly able to notify the abnormal behavior and predict crimes and dramas because we've lost the fine detection sensors of wilderness. 
The book, originally written in French, awarded with the prestigious Goncourt Prize, is more about human weakness and incapacity to predict evil, as well as about the fragile border between perfection and the evil intentions. Sometimes because maybe the human nature is simply not capable to seize the dangers.
I've found the ideas interesting, although maybe would have expect more dramatism and fine construction. However, Leila Slimani is an author whose next books would be curious to read, eventually in the original language.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Friday, March 22, 2019

The Russians are literature

The Russians are the spy books and that's the only good news of the old/new chaotic geopolitical realities. After a short post-Cold War intermezzo when spy stories were terribly boring, with characters that were rather impersonations of peace workers than fierce fighters for the security and safety of their own countries - or sometimes other countries' too - Daniel Silva brought the typical KGB/SVR/FSB etc. operatives infiltrated in the heart of the Western democracies.
Silva's latest novel The Other Woman is ingenious in construction, with a hint of romance, but well tempered and using patterns common to the Cold War novels, but who still goldies. 
Rebecca Manning, the secret daughter of the famous Soviet mole in the heart of the British intelligence Kim Philby, is back to revenge and finish the work his father started: destroy the West and NATO, among others. As the MI6 head of mission in Washington - like her infamous father - she is one step further of leading the service sooner than later. Until the Israeli - lead by the famous Silva's character Gabriel Alon - are entering into the picture and cut the story short. 
Compared to other novels by Silva, the action is rather limited to a historical diorama of facts and events that mostly took place into the past, while the ongoing race of encounters is moderately slow paced. Which brings a lot of background into the picture, not necessarily familiar to the contemporary reader, but which makes a suspense story into itself. As usual, Silva uses a lot of interesting and realistic details that pertain to the everyday realities in both Europe and the Middle East creating the fitting context for the novel plot.
The ways in which the plot is created and written and the story in itself makes it a great spy story with some old times' charm. This is the only reason it is good to be back, on firm ground.

Rating: 5 stars

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Top Recommendations of Apps for (Small) Children

Many conservative parents nowadays reject completely the possibility of allowing their dear children to spend too much time in the front of various electronic tools. Smart phones, tablets or computers are considered dangerous not only for the eyes of the little ones, but also a potential deterrent to a normal intellectual development. Spending too much time in the front of a screen will eventually estrange them from the real world, such as nature, and will also diminish their social skills.
However - as usual - I am always counter-current. Personally, I am very happy to live in a time and place where I can have access instantly to so much knowledge. Learning foreign languages - when there is a will - was never easier and acquiring new skills from the comfort of your home at relatively affordable prices is so easy nowadays. For little children, early reading skills and interaction through apps and various games can help brain development at a faster pace and some interesting web-tailored book versions can infuse the love for reading and knowledge from a very early stage.
I love my son to be connected to the nature and to other children, to play with blocks and Lego, but also to improve his language skills - he is 3 years old and already tri-lingual - and learn faster through songs and e-books. He can spend one or two hours the week, at specific time schedule, browsing apps designed for his age, while the rest of the week he is running wild in the park or practising sport with his friends.
For those parents looking for a balance between real and virtual life, I made a short selection of apps that might fit the development needs of children until maximum 5 years of age. I covered in this post both English and German apps.

- Baby's Musical Hands - Recommended for children until 4, this iOS app helps to learn both colours and music. When the baby touches one of the 15 colourful squares, each colour utters a different sound, while colourful stars will burst from their fingers. Available in English.

- Emma by Jutta Bauer - Emma is a bear and she needs your help. Feed her, help her chose the right food and help her many other daily chores that all of us should do. This bilingual - English and German - app helps children to learn the daily routines while having fun spending time with a cute little bear.

- Ham Ham! Tiere füttern -  Animal feeding is the first step towards learning how to feed yourself, while acquiring basic life skills. This app available only in German which has an interesting graphic content will guide the little children to find out what is the proper type of food a specific animal is enjoying. 

- Janosch: Oh, wie schön ist Panama (Oh, wie beautiful is Panama)- Based on the book with the same name by the famous German children author Janosch, this app is the 3D version of the adventures of Tiger and Bear in the search of happiness. The original drawings were integrated into a visually appealing app that was awarded with the Deutscher eBook price. Available only in Germany.

- Miximal - The little children can create their unique combinations of shapes and figures, building up new animals and fantastic names. I haven't been so impressed by all the graphic choices, but overall it is a very creative and challenging apps that will keep the little ones immersed for a quite long time. A time well spent! Besides English and German, the app is available also in French, Italian and Spanish.

- Petting Zoo - Available in a good bunch of languages - English, German, Dutch, Russian and Portuguese among others - this app includes 21 animated animals offered in animated snaps with special effects. Perfect for very active and curious children.

- PumiLumi Touch Zoo - Animals, again...This time, 15 funny characters - among which a silly monkey, an owl with electric ears, a many-armed octopus - that can be done and are doing a lot of funny things. You can feed and touch them, they will jump and utter funny sounds. Available for children aged 2 and plus.

- KlangDings - Let's end up the list in a high chaotic musical note. This app - in German language - has beautiful visuals introducing to funny friendly characters together with whom can have a lot of noisy fun. 

Hope you will find at least one interesting app for your child and discover fantastic worlds together!

Sunday, March 3, 2019

About Historical Appropriations: Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss

As a historian specialized in deconstructing historical myths, I've find historical appropriation at least as toxic than the cultural appropriation. The (mis)use of cultural symbols for another culture can easily pervert the original meaning eventually for further insertion into a propaganda narrative. Historical appropriation monopolizes and idealizes the meaning of past epochs and events, projecting them into the contemporary context as a ideal reference. An ideal past versus the imperfect and failed present is aimed at creating a perfect reiteration goal. The simple incentive is to change the present until it corresponds to the subjective representation of a past that lies in a completely different and mostly misunderstanded time cluster.
In the beautifully written (the nature descriptions are so poetic and breathing tension) Ghost Wall, a small community of history hobby lovers coordinated by a Professor are spending two weeks living as in the Iron Ages in the English countryside. An England obsessed by race purity and the proclaimed right to isolationism, as Brexit showed it. Silvie's father, a bus driver obsessed by Iron Ages, who forced his family to live as 'it used to be' - an expression often heard among those who believe in a better past. Ironically, for his everyday life he still drives a bus and uses money to purchase goods, but historical appropriation usually operates on a selective basis. You keep living in the present, while picking up from the 'perfect past' those elements, mostly of spiritual nature, which are glued to the everyday life. The result is a kitsch and it doesn't change at all either the very nature of time or of the humans pushing forward for the reiteration. 
The push towards recreating a paradise-like world is an everyday nightmare for Silvie, who's acknowledging not only the imperfections and inaccuracies of what his father chose, but will be the direct cruel victim of a historical reenactment.
In times when the calls for a return to an ideal yet inadequate past are more strident than ever, the reflection on such facts, expanded at the length at the novella is more than welcomed. Books like Ghost Wall fills the wide intellectual void that is not yet prepare to tackle seriously the reality. 
The story has outbursts of tensionate episode that are crisscrossing the relatively descriptive and slow chain of events. What disappointed me was the relatively bland ending, clearly not at the same level of intensity and expectations with the rest of the story.

Rating: 4 stars