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 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