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