Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Book Review: Brother by David Chariandy

We, at least in Europe, we are used to portray Canada as a paradise of multiculturalism, featuring a perfect communication between different cultures, races and religions. However, although in theory and partly in practice, the situation might look qualitatively different than in America and even in Europe, the ethnic tensions and the race and social divide remains a reality of the everyday life.
Brother, by David Chariandy offers through a fine diagnosis of the inter-ethnic relations the view of a state-of-mind of the relationships between different groups, in the troubles years of 1990s, when Canada witnesses various ethnic riots in various multicultural suburbs.
A young with a Carribean background is mistakenly killed by the police. His brother is left with the memories of a life of growing up together with his sibling and with a mother devastated by the loss. The simple story is a pretext for a fine analysis of various small stories of other people living in the neighbourhood, about social mobility and the gaps between the expectations of the immigrant parents and the failures of the children that enjoyed a freedom and a a social comfort unknown to their 'homes'. Their case was part of the complex web of local stories about to fade away following the new waves of residents in what once used to be prohibited neighbourhoods. 'For these newer neighbours, there is always a story connected to Mother and me, a story made all the more frightening through each inventive retelling among neighbours'. It is a stors 'o a young man deeply ''troubles'' and a younger brother carrying ''history'' and of a mother showing now the creep of ''madness'''. Crime and food are attached to this Carribean identity which is not only carried away willingly by the local residents of no-go areas, but are also perpetuated by the outsiders, including the law enforcement representatives. The result, there is a dead end, which is impossible to escape.
Besides the many intersting sociological and cultural questions, it is the evocative writing which makes the story outstanding. Through the words, closed doors of the heart are open towards a better understanding of the world and human suffering. 

Rating: 4 stars

Monday, June 17, 2019

What Adulthood Looks Like...

Actually, this blog post title is missing a question mark. Regardless how old you are from the mathematical point of view and how many adulthood responsibilities you are assigned, what exactly does it mean to behave as one on a regular basis is highly problematic. With the last theories regarding the need to listen to the voice of the 'inner child', the understanding of such a concept is becoming even more problematic.
In The Adults, the debut novel by Caroline Hulse, two couples, out of them two 'exes' are getting together for the winter holidays in a winter resort to offer to the little girl a warm, family-like ambiance. Although all the four of them look like simple, uncomplicated adults with a life of their own and with a deep acceptance of their relationship history and failures, the moment when they are getting together is unleashing hidden emotions, half-truth and way too much unhappiness. Meanwhile, a 7 yo girl - the reason why the couples are there - is finding a comfortable shelter against the big people nonsense in her discussions with Posey, an imaginary rabbit, as a way to counter the adult confusion.
The dynamics between the each member of the couple builds up through tensed dialogues and various everyday life interactions. The story is so simple and hard to offer too many surprises that the reader might really need to be entinced into going deep through the story. Therefore, there are some little hints about a dramatic - absurd at a certain point - incident that will take place at the end of the book that keeps the attention awake despite a certain level of predictibility of the story. 
I particularly loved how the dialogues are build, through which the characters are not only interacting with each other but also discover themselves. At a great extent, this is the only way to see the characters themselves.
The reality is that after a certain age, getting back into a relationship means dealing with a lot of loads from the past, with or without children. There are memories and wounds and failures and secret dreams of taking the ex back, maybe one day. Things are forcefully complicated because of the histories and it is not always an easy task to deal with them. Sometimes you need a lot of humor and a certain easiness of the being - quote from the title of a book by Milan Kundera where actually a white lie reveals deep dramatic truths about a relationship - which shall not be coped with according to the classical adulthood-focused couple approach. Some couples survive, some not, and not always because the two parts of the couple are adults enough.
Although an easy read for the weekend or the vacation time (regardless the time of the year, although the book is set during the winter holidays), The Adults asks some serious questions about relationships, especially in complex family structures, about the need - and lack of - honesty in explaining feelings and open up to the other person, but also in approaching life a bit easier, without overthinking all the time. Being an adult can involve being a bit of childish sometimes.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

'The President is Missing'

A retired Army general, US president Jonathan Duncan is facing a difficult moment for America: a deadly cyberterrorist attack is threatening the country. The countdown of the moment when 'Dark Ages' will take over USA starts, and a complex web of betrayal among the president's security cabinet and political and terrorist intrigues requires a short amount of time, and international political cooperation in order to succeed. 
The goal of the terrorists 'was to cripple the United States'. Therefore, there is a race against the clock  
The President is Missing is a novel written by the bestseller author James Patterson and the former US president Bill Clinton. I was curious to read it because of the possible 'realistic' feedback regarding the ways in which the presidential functions are operating provided by the former American president as well as for checking out Patterson, an author I did not have the chance yet to read.
Relatively slow paced - at least compared to usual fast-forward pace of the thrillers I am usually reading - the book covers rightly the technicalities both from the political and operational points of view of the function of the president, as from the technical aspects regarding the cyber attack that is supposed to bring what is called - probably easily using a Cold War distinction not too much useful nowadays - 'world's most powerful nation' into the Dark Ages. Snippers coming from corners of the world relatively - if not completely - unknown to the American public such as Balkans or Georgia or Abkhazia, Turkish cyber terrorists involved in coordinating 'Sons of Jihad', a president with fresh memories from his captivity in Iraq. Plus, some trustworthy elected representative which for very human personal reasons accepts openheartly to betray the country.
All the ingredients for a great unique story are there, but somehow the way in which the story is told and the outcome which is at a great extent predictable and not original doesn't answer my literary expectations. With a bit of originality and inspiration you can use common places for the latest political thrillers - the combination between militant Islam and cyber terrorism - and turn them into an exciting unique story but this is exactly what The President is Missing failed to provide, at least according to my taste.
For me, this book will be included in the category of 'those bestsellers that you can eventually skip next time'. Not all bestsellers are really worth reading, whatever how exciting their topic is and how famous literary or political stars the authors are.

Rating: 2.5 stars

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

'The Beautiful Bureaucrat'

Josephine Newbury and her husband, Joseph moved from the hinterland - defined as a 'hint of land, the term they used to dismiss their birthplace, that endless suburban non-ness' - in the big city. They need a new luck and a new life, a better one.
She've found a job at a company where her main task was to enter and update information into a Database. She shall pay attention to the names, letters and punctuations, while working in an office where she is not allowed to hang anything on the walls and to take dinner on her desk, fully enjoying every day 'the lonesomeness of the bureaucrat's lunch'. She is not supposed to disclose the nature and location of her work.  
'Every morning, the Database awaited her like a living thing, luminous and familiar, alongside stacks of gray files'.
Most of the other employees are like ghosts in grey suits and her boss is the 'Man with Bad Breath'. She is lonely but keep working as this is her main source of revenue and unemployment - again - is not an option. Until one day, she had a revelation about the nature of her work. 'Things get closed out when the time comes for them to get closed out'. In fact, by introducing data in the Database she is assigning people to die. Once the numbers are becoming flesh, and are assigned stories, her interest in work decreases and her newly awakened conscience is burning her quiet times in the front of the Database. Josephine doesn't want to be 'the bureaucratic queen of death dates', but taking off is lonesome and confusing. In just a couple of months of work for the Database, she started to share the lunacy and hypocrisy of her working environment'.
On the other end of the building though, her husband was in charge of a different mission: assigning birth dates, and his attempt to create bureaucratically their own child failed. Because her wife, figured out that he is supposed to dead, stole his file and attempted to save him, in a brave act turned against the grey suits. 
In the end, the errors will be corrected and the everyday rhythm in the build will return to normal after the two intruders are fired.
The fantasy story within a bureaucratic context has many literary influences, among which Calvino, Saramago and Kafka too, but in the end, there is the author's creativity which originally created the trademark. The writing is well-paced, ironic cold, mostly descriptive and with a certain neutral sobriety. All the characters in this book are lonesome in their own right, alienated and rather the objects than the subjects of their lives. 
I've read somewhere that The Beautiful Bureaucrat is a critical stance against capitalism. Socialism needs bureaucracy too, it only might be a bit less organised and more absurd - if there are degrees of comparison of this measure of reality. Bureaucracy is cruel, lunatic and self-sufficient because it has a logic that often goes beyond the human - feelings-inflused - logic. We are all a number in a vaste database and stories, emotions and memories are their biggest enemy. They - the bureaucrats and the state they serve - need it, but we can live without it. The story of The Beautiful Bureaucrat is a reminder to keep ourselves alive, regardless what the database assigns for or against us.

Rating: 4 stars

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Anatomy of a Lie

'What, you didn't read anything yet by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen?', is one of the questions I've often been welcomed by some of my bookish friends, which are in constant sync with the literary trends and trend setters in the part of the world to whom Goshen belongs to. Keen to finally fill the conversation gap, I've randomly picked up Liar - in the German translation by Helene Seidler, published in Switzerland - which I will find out later is her latest book. 
A lonely 17-year old girl selling icecream during the summer to get some extra money accused of sexual assault an ex-reality show star. A lonely teen boy that happens to be in the store at the time accepts to cover her but not for free. Meanwhile, the girl is becoming fame overnight while the ex-star - who only assaulted her verbally - is almost one step away from spending a couple of good years in prison.
A trained psychologist, Gundar-Goshen doesn't write about the rape culture, sexual politics and not even approaches the Israeli politics in general - which are always a very tempting topic anyway. Her characters, all of them, actually, are living in the proximity of lies - white lies, big lies, survival lies, lies we tell to ourselves to survive, lies we tell to other people to survive. Nothing dramatic will happen in the end, as the life of the characters, as our everyday lives as well are often moving into grey areas where the lines between right and wrong, good and bad, victim and perpetrator are very fluid. Why are we driven to lie? Is truth not relevant for our life values and especially relationship to the others? What happens actually when a little white lie goes out of hand, first and foremost when there are other people and their destiny involved?
There are so many questions that keep running around the reader's head once the book is over. Any of the questions are openly stated into the book though. There are no moral judgments or condemnation either. All you have to do is to read this very simple everyday life story and use your critical reader mind to question not only the characters in the book, but also yourself.
As for me, I know for now that Ayelet Gundar-Goshen is on my list of readers to get to know better and another of her books is already on my writing desk.

Rating: 4 stars 

Short Stories from the Old and New Russia

I am used to read novels or short stories about the Soviet and New Russian times written by authors with a certain Russian-speaking background. For instance, people that were born there or at least whose parents were, with the memories of the Gulag and the old Stalinist times still alive.
When I started to read the stories from The Tsar of Love and Techno, I was almost sure that it might be something of a non-literary nature that connects Anthony Marra to this complex cultural, social and historical context. The interwoven stories with characters that are dying or growing up in the Soviet times or are re-born in the Russia under oligarchs sound so authentic, with even the pace of the storytelling being told with that specific voice for the Russian literature. 
It doesn't mean that Marra is completely foreign to this realm: he taught himself Russian and also visited the country. Among others, he was among the first foreign tourists to visit Chechnya after the war, a province which plays a significant role in many of the stories from The Tsar of Love and Techno.
The short stories are organised as short episodes from the life of characters that are coming up and again, in different stages of their personal story and on different epochs from Russia's history. Some are active ideologists in the time of Stalin and a living memory - with all the falsification that usually operates in the case of memories - in the time of the oligarchs. Some others are connected to their past - which again is the work of distorsions due to various interpretations and ideological manipulations - in a time when the left bombs from the time of the Chechen wars are fragile enough to blow into air any accidental trepasser.
The characters are diverse and recompose at a certain extent the distribution of the Russian society: the ex-ideologue, the soldier, the drug dealer, the ballerina, the diva, the cultural propagandist, the artist. Some of them changed roles from an era to another and they suit their new lives almost perfectly, although the differences are dramatic. 
Not all stories are equal in terms of intensity but all contain a little dosis of interesting story that makes you curious to encounter a bit later, on another occasion, a couple of short stories later. And there is a complete detachment in telling the story, which avoids expectations and makes the writing flow, without tensions or extraordinary encounters. It is a curse and a blessing in such a choice. On one side, there is a certain monotony that might become a deterrent of keeping reading the book in one sitting. After all, there are short stories which means you can leave the book for a while and continue reading it later. The blessing is that you can observe the chain of events from afar, make jugments pro or against the characters and their actions. It is not the writer's task to take stances, but of the reader to utter intelligent observations.
Anthony Marra is clearly an author to follow and short stories might be a more often presence into my reading menu.

Rating: 4 stars

Book Review: Lake Success, by Gary Shteyngart

Some authors and books are simply not supposed to be a match. Like in the case of the encounters with humans, there are situations when the character feature of two humans are in conflict or leave each other completely indifferent. In the case of books, either the topic or the style or the writing in general do not resonate at all with the reader or even worse, makes the reader anxious and unhappy. Often, the best is to do not finish such a book, which happens once in a while in my reading life. Life is short enought to be wasted reading bad and/or unpleasant books. 
However, in some cases, when not sure enough about my first impression, I rather prefer to give to the aithor one more chance. It might be that the topic didn't resonate or the writer was just going through a specific stage in his or her life when his writing was just evolving.
This happened to be recently with Gary Shteyngart. I tried Little Failure and didn't come along well. A memoir of Jewish immigration from Leningrad - Sankt Petersburg nowadays - to America, life adjustment and evolving of family relationships, it was the writing, not the topic that was not for me. It is hard to describe 'scientifically' such a mismatch, but it has to do with a certain writing flow and the ways in which a story is told - or failed to be told. 
But wanted to give it one more chance, therefore I started Lake Success. Barry, a hedgefund manager with a taste for luxury watches, Jewish from an immigrant family (named as simple as Cohen) an autistic son and an Indian wife, lives in the time of Trump. Driven by absurd impulses, he is on a road trip on Greyhound to discover 'deep America', which is as absurd as the plan in itself. Altough most actions and dialogues are sliding into the awkward category. In between bus hoping when he is not getting into trouble, there are discussions about identity and morality and once in a while Trump and white supremacy too. But not the absurdity of the encounters bothered me, but the completely lack of direction. Yes, we are talking and complaining and we are writing about it and that's all. The characters are like completely emty emotionally and humanly, in a very autistic way, at the very extreme part of the spectrum. And America is the same. A good comparison which partly resonates with that awkward majority that brought Trump to power. There is a grain of truth in it, but for me, the whole storytelling doesn't resonate and it is simply a matter of literary preferences. It's a pitty, as there were so many topics that would have die to see developped but in a completely different way.
As in life, also with books some things are just not meant to be. 

Rating: 2 stars