Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Short Story in Translation: Table for One by Yun Ko Eun

´She leads an active and enthusiastic solo life. And this solo life all started with a course to learn to eat alone´.

After Kim Yiyoung and Han Kang, Yun Ko Eun is my newest discovery. Table for One is inspired by a new phenomenon among the young Korean - especially women - the lifestyle of going alone to eat, drink, to movies or trips. According to the 2015 local census, South Korea has over 5 million single people, mostly in their mid-30s. Single by choice or just unable to make place in their life for a relationship for many reasons - psychological or due to the workload - they continue to live in a society whose emphasis is on family and togetherness. A society that seems to be in denial of the reality of their new generation. Going out on your own continue to be a shame and Table for One deals with the anxieties of young women - ´For a woman to come alone at 7.00 pm, it is sort of change´ - and men of enjoying their lives, no matter what. ´People eating alone worry more about stares from others than they do about menu options´.
Therefore, they need to learn how to get the best of this lifestyle and end their self-isolation of eating and drinking at home and not doing anything really social. A course about how to eat alone is teaching the participants - in exchange of a greasy fee - not only to make the right choice of food without bothering what other people think, but also to enjoy the food in a musical-like rhythm. Keep your eyes in your plate and try to connect the inner music of your plate, with bonus a short conversation with the waiter, and your evening is done. A successful evening. After all, eating with someone requires so much preparation of the topics to discuss, outfits etc.
I really enjoyed the reading - in translation, by Lizzie Buehler who also translated The Disaster Tourist by the same author that I am looking forward to get to know in the next weeks: the short sentences do create a perfect description of an intense inner-emotional scenery, although there is not too much action happening - except moving the plates and enjoying the various foods. I cannot vauch for the different Korean dishes as I have a limited familiarity with this cuisine.
I personally have mixed feelings about the topic as such. Long time ago I considered eating alone as a sign of social and personal failure but once my world opened up and I reorganized my priorities I am very much at ease eating alone and doing many activities on my own too - including when I am not single. To be honest, I really enjoy being on my own, with a good book and having a full tasting of my food, without being under the pressure of having a conversation. Professionally, I often have to eat on my own for various food reviews and writing assignments. On the other hand, nothing compares with sharing food with friends. Food is also a social experiment and I can´t imagine fully enjoying a meal made in my beloved Middle East enjoyed alone. I also don´t believe that we, humans, we are meant to live and be alone and enjoying being single is not an option that I consider. 
Sociologically, but also as a literary topic, Table for One by Yun Ko Eun is an interesting read about a culture I have a limited knowledge about, but with literary voices that impress me every time I get in contact with.

Rating: 4 stars

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Kafka: Letter to the Father

What happens when your beloved family members know that you are blogging? They send you once in a while recommendations - where to travel, what to write about, what to read and what not, what to write and what not about, for different reasons. Also, you can receive questions of the kind: What are you not writing about...for instance, classical authors instead of all those debut novels or new titles or chicklit or and or...But they are part of my - steady and stubborn - audience, so answering the requests of my readers is a matter of online survival. 
What exactly can I do for them now? I´ve read most of the classical books and authors long before starting blogging. I am not always in the mood for that kind of authors that were part of the bibliography of my beloved relatives. Difficult bookish times. However, as I decided to dedicate my summer months to a lot of foreign language writing and reading, after a serious scrutiny of my messy book shelves, I´ve found what I was looking for. A book I wanted to read for a long time: Letter to the Father by Franz Kafka, in the Italian translation Lettera al Padre - by Claudio Groff).
No pun intended: there are my relatives on my father side which are very active in following my professional steps, by my father - of blessed memory - died when I was too little to remember him. My stepfather had no influence in my upbringing and reading blogs, in English especially, is not part of his lavish retirement plan.
I´ve found the translation excellent with an extraordinary attention to convene subtle emotional details that can be easily lost when switching from languages so different as structures and . The terrible torment the 36 years old Kafka is going through when writing this letter is a tensed testimony of a failed parent-son relationship. 
At the time when Kafka wrote this letter, dr. Freud was elaborating his classification of mental disorders including narcissism among them. Freud´s writings about the psychological mechanisms of the relationships between father and son were also probably well-known to Kafka at the time of the letter - end of 1919.
The father will not have the chance to discuss or apologize or to reconsider his relationship with Franz, but the letter addressed to him remains available for many strained relationship between fathers and sons. Many of them, at least.
The beginning reminds of a discussion the two of them had before, when the father asked his son what he is afraid of him. This fear is constant and mentioned more than once in the letter. Time for Kafka to mention the real everyday conflict between one of them. It starts from the son´s lingering to emulate his father but ending up being the opposite of him and especially of his expectations of him. Kafka is craving for the attention of his father, but every time he is reminded he is a failure. A weighty oppression - which is emotional therefore harder to cope with - which comes from the judgemental and narrow-minded attitude of the father. A hurtful emotional behavior that, among others, explains Kafka´s failures in finding a wife or to take over the family business, managed in a dictatorial way by his father. Indeed, his father allowed him to do whatever he wanted, but the free choice is a curse for his son because of the extremely critical evaluation of the father. Manipulative, emotionally limited, unable to properly listen and communicate with his son and family, he is the victim of his own upbringing as well. His mother is compensating with ´infinite kindness´ the dry and emotionally abusive character of the father, but Kafka wanted desperatelly to please his father an no one else.
Also in terms of Jewish education, their relationship is problematic. A son is learning from his father the main Jewish obligations in terms of praying and everyday practice but in this case, the communication is missing or is distorted again, with the father unable to understand the emotional needs of his son. 
The relationships between father and sons do have a deep psychological complexity, similarly with that between mothers and daughters. No matter how outdated Freud is nowadays, his basic observations about those binomial relationships do operate in very strange ways, especially if not nurtured by understanding and love, emotional availability on both sides, especially parents´. Kafka´s Letter to the Father is a sad meditation about how the missing love of a parent can affect one child´s emotional and personal development. Physical abuse is indeed a serious threat to a child development but so is the emotional one. In both cases professional support to overcome such threats to an everyday life normality are more than recommended. Taking the rightful distance and even leaving completely behind the source of abuse, with or without a letter is what such narcissists deserve. 

Rating: 4 stars

Book Review: Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler

´I had a thing for Brazilian girls
Used to love Brazilian porn
Oh my god!´

In Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler, a young British-Brazilian woman recounts her random memories of her split identity. Compared to books exploring a double identity, this book does not stand apart from the philosophical/theoretical point of view - as usual, there is always the question of belonging to two worlds without being fully accepted as a member in none of them - but it acknowledges about identities rarely spoken about: Latin Americans, particularly Brazilians, living in Europe. Most specifically, it has to do with the children of mixed couples, when one of the parent is of foreign origin.
The unnamer storyteller - whose story resonates with the author´s herself, who is British-Brazilian, growing up in South London etc. - is a young woman who is exploring her identity while writing, being heartbroken and trying to use her knowledge in working in an area close to home - she is requested to use her linguistic knowledge for a documentary about beauty surgery in Brazil.
Her grandparents visiting from Brazil do face the local customs, the food and the sales on Boxing Day and the cold weather. Her brain may be exhausted from time to time for talking a foreign language, the Brazilian Portuguese that remains a foreign language, no matter her chosen identity - which is, anyway, a process that grows in different, unprogrammed directions, like a hectic tree.
Shortlisted for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award in 2019, Stubborn Archivist is an interesting debut novel, especially from the point of view of the writing techniques. Being out of the classical storytelling may give freedom to the writer sometimes, a freedom of the mind that can be equated with that beautiful dance on the beach from the end of the novel.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Monday, August 3, 2020

Mystery at the academia, metoo and a lot of secrets: Reputation by Sara Shepard

A massive hacking exposing 40,000 personal and professional email successfully targeted Aldrich University. All the dirty secrets are out in the open and from employees and students to donors, everyone is curious to read what other´s were doing or saying, and what episodes from their lives are now public. Greg, a successful surgeon, married with Kit, the daughter of the university dean is found murdered in his kitchen by his ebriated wife. Is she the killer? After all, she had more than one reason to do it, as an illicit affair with a Lolita is the gossip of everyone from the campus and well beyond. This nightmare took Kit completely by surprise, just arriving from a business trip where she met a handsome mysterious guy who, in fact was the husband of one of her coworkers. Maybe it was just too much for her: ´I just burried my second husband, a murder happened in my house, the whole world knows that my dead husband had an affair, and a man I made out with is married to my coworker. Am I really going to keep it together?´

But it´s hard to keep it together for everyone in this book. The crime put into motion a roller coaster of guilts, secret affairs and betrayal, untold secrets and trauma. No one is exempt and every single adult character in the story has some terrible guilt to carry on. Everyone is at a certain point suspect of something, if not of Greg´s murder directly. Dirty laundy appears where you expect less and the cracks are hidden everywhere, even in the most perfect looking relationships. 
Although there were some moments when I felt trapped in a never ending soap opera, with con artists and secret sexual habits, I´ve found the intrigue very well built and challenging for the reader. It is a very interesting story construction which only weakens in the very end. Personally, I´ve found the end too mild for what one was expecting after so many details and hints for a potential killer, but it´s not less relevant. The reference to the #Metoo movement is relevant for the context the events are taking place, as were the recent investigations regarding the problematic academic admissions and promotions in some high-end institutions in the USA.
Reputation by Sara Shepard is a tensed yet entertaining reading, with an unexpected end and some nicely crafted intrigue. A good companion as a summer or weekend bookish recommendation.

Rating: 3 stars

Beautiful Graphic Novel: The Zolas by Méliane Marcaggi and Alice Chemama

The Zolas by Méliane Marcaggi - text - and Alice Chemama - beautiful illustrations - made it for a perfectly loveable hour of reading and food for the eyes for several literary and intellectual reasons. 
First, the painted-like illustrations of this graphic novel are a full feast for the eyes. The choice of pastel colours and the minutiae of every installment are worth a prize. Second, for the quality of the writing reducing Zola´s long and adventurous life - both as a human and as a writer - to a couple of lines while keeping the essential of the story. A story that includes his wife, Alexandrine, as a full character. With a life that inspired some of his characters in the Rougon-Macquart series, Alexandrine was a simple woman, without education, but a supporter of his works and furtrher on, of his intense social and political engagement - particularly during the notorious Dreyfus Affair after he authored J´accuse denouncing the lack of evidences in accusing Alfred Dreyfus, a general in the French Army of Jewish origin, of espionage. Zola had a more or less secret life as well, which involved two children fathered with Jeanne Rozerot, his misstress. To her he dedicated the last volume of Rougon-Macquart, Le Docteur Pascal, a fact that no matter how open his relationship with his wife become, was for sure not an easy burden for his wife. After all, she was the one who was on his side during all those years of writing, during which he turned from a poor copywriter for Hachette into a successful writer. 
In the end, after Zola´s accidental death, the two women are portrayed together in the book as partners involved in raising Rozerot´s children, but the truth as it was is probably different, at least for coming to terms with the reality of this double life.
Personally, this book took me back to my teenage years, when I had the chance to read Zola in the original French. Zola took his inspiration as journalists do - or used to before the Google searches - going out on the streets, checking the pulse of the markets and observing people on the move. The realism of his books that were often prohibited by the Ministry of Interior were due to their rough description of the life as it was during the intense process of industrialism that involved changes of fortune and a challenge to the personal relationship and everyday life psychology. From the mundane, the journalist was extracting facts and further describing in the news reports. The writer was able to create stories out of nothing that were rooted in the reality, but whose characters were imaginary.
Besides Balzac, Zola was the original inspiration for my writing - although I haven´t returned to those writings ever since - and even as a graphic novel, While following the texts and illustrations of this book, I welcomed the thoughts and questions, old and new, about my intellectual roots.

Rating: 5 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Memoir Review: Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhonda Janzen

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhonda Janzen is a book I wanted for such a long time to read, based both on the topic and on friends´ recommendation. 
I am usually interested in stories of people that left the religious fold - although interesting too, but less popular for the edition houses tastes are also those stories of those that decided to become religious. In the last years I had the chance to read a couple of insightful Jewish memoirs labelled ´off the derech´ /´off the path´, my favorite so far being Leah Vincent´s Cut me Loose, both in terms of writing, authenticity and dramatism. And, to be against the fashion, I held a very separate opinion about Unorthodox, which I think it is very overrated, especially in Germany, for non-literary reasons.
Belonging to a different fold, Educated by Tara Westover is another good example of good and insightful writing by someone who left behind a religious community in order to join the most generous community of spirit. 
Rhonda Janzen is the daugher of a Mennonite church leader, part of a big family that followed the Ukrainian branch of this religious group. Compared to the Amish - both groups are Anabaptists and use an old German/Prussian dialect for the everyday communication - they allow more technical devices and - what is most important - they go to college. Janzen´s parents travel often in very far away parts of the world and most of her siblings do have college degree. She, though, she decided a little different path, where religion do have rather a philosophical place than is part of a daily practice. 
Once she turned 43, a flow of events overwhelmed her bookish existence: her 15-year marriage ended with her bipolar husband running away with a guy he met on called Bob. She went through a serious car accident. Her health was not doing well at all. 
After 25 years, she returns home to her parents to look for inner peace, answers to her life questions and a good borscht - the Mennonites brought something good from Ukraine after all. She never broke up completely with her family and she maintained a good communication with her parents and some of her siblings. An academic, Rhonda Janzen´s path was more against the securities of the religious minds and was more interested in a different kind of daily life. Her life, as it was at that very specific moment, was what she expected? Why did she failed in her personal life ? Why her husband left her for a man named Bob?
Without hate and drama, she is able to connect the dots that she abandoned once she started to make her own path. She is returning in a family that loves her and in a community who is not judging her. On both sides, a respectful curiosity about the other part´s lifestyle and life choices maintains a conversation that from a chapter to another covers food - especially those foods to not give your child to school, dating, depression, infidelities and betrayal. 
She tells her story with so much irony and humour - the old Mennonite lady writing cat detective stories that matched her with her 17 years old younger nephew was delightful - that I could not resist not listening the story until the end hour after hour - I had the audiobook version of the book. In addition to the story, I was delighted to learn a lot about a religious group I had only basic information about. 
This year may have been a complete failure by now in terms of achieving my personal and professional plans, but at least I´ve finished Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. Time to celebrate, no matter what.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Not my kind of hacking story: Breaking and Entering, by Jeremy N.Smith

I love a good hacking story, because our life depends so much nowadays on computers that it´s inevitable not to deal at least once in a while with it. Either we buy online or we use email for work or for personal communication or we just use the Internet, the e-crimes and their perpetrator are always there. Understaing their way of thinking and their techniques may be sometimes a matter of personal survival therefore either for someone with a basic Internet knowledge - not me - especially nonfiction books about hackers and their lives are useful.
Breaking and Entering by Jeremy N. Smith is based on the true story of ´Alien´ a woman hacker that from her very early years at MIT was selected to be part of a very selective group of gifted students involved in various forms of hacking. ´Alien´ was not her real name, but was inspired by her admission essay where she was describing how she was kidnapped by aliens. She wanted to be first an aerospace engineer but her plans changed and the book is aimed to trace her history while describing what does it mean to be a woman in such a male-dominated industry. 
Nowadays, she is working as a consultant in the field of Internet security.
Good premises but not an impressive results. The book - which I had in audio format - tells a lot about the character´s adventures in sex and drugs and drinking. Too much college romance, in a story that was supposed for an adult, serious audience, maybe curious like me to learn a little bit more about how hacking operates and how does it feel to be a woman in such a world where supposedly what that matter is the intelligence to be virtually against the system, any system.
This book is an example of a good story, lazily told and I was very disappointed about the experience.

Rating: 2 stars

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Book Tour: The Curse of Calico Jack by Colin Garrow

Ignore the cover - from the literary point of view, otherwise it has a good marketing appeal ! Don´t get scared! The Curse of Calico Jack, by Colin Garrow, the second book from the Skeleton Cove Horror, is the kind of horror book that suits a middle grade reader with interests for quality books.
Relatively short in length - under 100 pages - it is written in a fast pace, with horror entering slowly the story. It is not coming through the computer or virtual realities, but through a book, which makes the book a follower of classical horror stories. A choice which suits the 17th century ghost which is visiting a group of school friends. You have elements of suspense but also a healthy touch of mystery, while looking for hidden treasures and angry pirates.
I am usually careful with my choice of horror books, but The Curse of Calico Jack is tempered in the sense that you do not have blood and nightmares and aggressivity unless necessarily for the further development of the story.
Although is part of series, one can read the book independently, as the story is autonomous, but after all it will make you curious to find out more about how the adventure actually began.
A good read even if you are not a middle grader, but only looking to spend some pleasant time in a company of a book full of adventures.

Rating: 3.5 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered for review as part of the book tour, but the opinions are, as usual, my own

Book Review: These Ghosts are Family by Maisy Card

Abel Asley was not dead. Instead, it is Stanford Solomon whose name he is bearing, his friend, that died and Abel took his name a couple of decades ago. He is 69, about the die and reunited his family in Harlem for the moment of truth. For Maisy Card, this moment is a pretext only to unfold long histories crossing oceans and centuries.
In the vein of Yaa Gyasi´s Homecoming,  but with a less dramatic and historical twists, The Ghosts are Family is a collection of individual stories where colonialism is omnipresent. ´Duppies´ or ghosts are an important element of the Jamaican urban culture, and here, they are often invading the stories, no matter how modern the present times are. Resentments and alienation are also part of the DNA, built through migration and old slave trade. This historical destiny is reflected through the high tensions of family relationships, with mothers and fathers and daughters and sons entangled in never-ending conflicts. 
But there is always a hilarious note in the middle of a dramatic story which maintains the seriousness of the tone and content though. How else than by taking things easy and blaming the ghosts can one survive so much suffering and hardship? It is part of the humanity of those characters to take things easy and find the sparkle of laugh in the complexity of their situation. In addition, the stories are also a meditation about memory and how reality may be betrayed by different and sometimes highly conflictual versions of the same event. 
Presented as a diary, told at different persons, the stories are revealing interesting aspects about the Jamaican identity, at home and in diaspora. 
The Ghosts are Family is a result of intensive research and documentation and for a debut novel shows a pleasant storytelling talent. I´ve listen to the audio version of the book, lively narrated by Karl O´Brian Williams. (And yes, it seems that audiobooks are becoming a part of my regular reading program).

Rating: 3 stars

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Book Review: Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore

Gloria Ramirez, an American-born Mexican girl is savagely beaten and raped by the white son of a well-connected West Texan localite, Dale Strickland. Although it starts with a lengthy and very powerful description of the circumstances surrouding the case, for most of the book it deals rather with the reaction to different women involved in the case as well as the condition of women in this Gd forgotten corner of America.
The action happens in the 1970s and there are some vague hints about the Middle East oil crisis in the background but it could be taking place any time in fact. There are prejudices by and against women, against mothers and non-Americans, non-White, Latin Americans that are currently still generously shared in the American public discourse.
In the background, more than one moral question: What does it really mean ´innocent until proven guilty?´, especially when it is clear who is the perpetrator? At what extent the good credentials - in the case of Dale Strickland the fact that he not even received a speeding ticket, and his father, a Pentecostal preacher, certified about the quality of his son´s character? Instead, Gloria was accused of being out in the night of the incident and her mother for not keeping an eye on her daughter.
Despite all evidences - Ramirez decided to not testify - he was not sent to prison. Wounded, physically and psychologically, she will finally leave America where she was born to join her mother, that was deported meanwhile, in Mexico. At a certain extent, Strickland is the result of social circumstances: ´The cops and lawyers and teachers and churches, the judge and the jury, the people who raised that boy and then sent him out into the world, to this town - everyone of them is guilty´. 
More than investigation about the circumstances of Gloria Ramirez´s terrible incident, Valentine is an investigation about lives of women. The women are the most important and complex characters of the books. Men are mostly absent - taking care of the cattle, drunk, killing themselves, buying busy around the oil rig, but their absence does not mean that women are free. They are forced to stay at home, give up their career, take care of children, be the victims of aggressive behaviors and random rapes. When they, as Mary Rose, are defending the 14 yo Gloria Ramirez, they are called many names, including ´race traitors´. 
There are many novels in the last years aimed to give a voice to voiceless women and Valentine is doing it in a news-like matter of fact way. Although for my taste, the narrative is too slow paced and meditative sometimes, and I favour a more dramatic, even aggressive story, the writing stands for quality and complexity and Elizabeth Wetmore is a writer would love to hear more about. 

Rating: 3.5 stars

Book Review: Transit by Rachel Cusk

You know how I recognize and appreciate a really good writer? When no matter how mundane is the topic, it sparkles by the way in which the words are put together to create a story. Most often, out of nothing. In the words of Faye, the narrator of Transit: `(...) each reader came to your book a stranger who had to be persuaded to stay´.
Transit is the middle book of the Rachel Cusk trilogy. Logically for my reading habits, I would have take all the books and read them chronologically. If I would have plan to read them, but I didn´t. It just happened to see Transit available at the library and spontaneously decided to loan it. 
I ended up reading it in a sitting, sipping the words and the sentences, although not necessarily interested in what was really happening in the book. 
Faye is a middle-aged woman, recently divorced, with two boys, a writer - whose job and presence is mentioned in different social contexts to be encountered with replies of the kind ´I think I´ve read one of your books but I don´t remember which one´. From a life episode to another, there are dramatic topics sliding into the conversation: marriage, stability and freedom, writing and creativity, parenting and love, women writers encountering male predators (of different shades). A discussion at the hair dresser about hair dying turned into a philosophical dialogue with Dale, the hair stylist (´What´s so terrible of looking of what you are?´, ´What you need isn´t a colour wash, it´s a change of attitude´). 
Often, various definitions of freedom are coming into question, but it is not how I usually see it - as a freedom of choices - but rather as a chance of moving within a predictable framework, with a high degree of repetability and consistence. Interestingly, as I never think about freedom in this way. 
Frequently, the characters are involved in rebuilding/refurbishing projects, which could be more than a proper construction challenge, but involves methaphorically, although a bit cliché, the idea of a life that before goes on, it has to be completely upside-downed. Sometimes life is as boring as that.
But no matter how common this kind of transit is, the power of telling stories saves, by the insidious way in which it can make sense or build sense from the simplest fact. Maybe Faye has right and marriage or relationships are like fairy tales sustained by ´the avoidance of certain realities´ and ´the suspension of disbelief´. It also might be that human relationships - including friendships - simply die when we are out of words and stories.
Most probably would love to read the other parts of the trilogy and other books by Rachel Cusk because intellectual approaches of simple life encounters are so mind-refreshing. 

Rating: 4 stars

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Book Review: The Stationery Shop by Marjan Kamali

The Stationery Shop by Marjan Kamali is such a dramatic story of broken hearts and miscommunication and that absurdity of destiny which is not meant to be. I avoid usually to read such stories as I have enough of real life memories, but Marjan Kamali charmed me with Together Tea and was expecting this book to be a good companion for some busy days doing my administrative chores (I´ve listen to the audiobook). Far from that...
After 60 years of physical separation, Roya meets his first and biggest love of her life, Bahman Aslan, that he met first in a stationery shop in Tehran, Iran. They were supposed to get married but the events that brought the desmise of the then prime minister Mossadegh and the complicated family nets made the marriage impossible. Roya left for America to study and find relief, and got married to an American man. She will meet Bahman, ´the boy who wanted to save the world´, in America in a care home and spending his last days spending time together. Then, she will find out what actually happened in those days. It was not only that Bahman decided to leave her and marry someone else, for the sake of his mentally instable mother, but she was lied and letters were sent to her aiming to put an end to their relationship. 
The moment of the late confession hasn´t changed anything. Both of them made their separate lives, although not as they were expected too. Roya did not ended up as a successful woman scientist and Bahman gave up his revolutionary plans for a life of financial stability for his family. However, at least the two of them reached a certain peace of mind, after so many years of torments of the heart. 
The story goes back and forth, from a timeline to another, sharing different voices of the characters. This choice of storytelling gives depth and diversity to the story and creates a lively conversation across time between them. 
Indeed, we are living in so superficial times, when the so-called ´me time´ are an excuse to give up people that may matter and some may find easier to live on their own because are dried inside and in a self-imposed emotional quarantine. The Stationery Shop is not a happy story because life is not a happy story in general, but at least, it is about people who realized that no matter what they did, those meetings in the stationery shop in Tehran of Mr. Fakhri were meant to be. What happened later maybe was not, but meetings with other human beings are footprints that remain in our lives, no matter how superficial we try to be. 
I was not probably in the right emotional and personal mood for this book, but no one can mend a broken heart, not even a book about broken hearts.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Rebecca Solnit: Call Them by Their True Names

What a time to be alive! Everywhere but especially in America. What I personally appreciate is to see that although the political life is failing on people, voices of intellectuals are raising. And there are so many situations right now when public voices are needed, more than ever.
In her collection of essays Call Them by Their True Names, Rebecca Solnit offers not only an example of engagement, but shares also pieces of well-documented and courageous journalism. Organised as a diary-like, those essays are testimonies of the many American crisis of the last and current century. She documents police brutality in San Franscisco, the resurgence of homelesness, the police brutality - that did not start with George Floyd and has a very long history in the recent American history - the unfinished war of statues and the omnipresence of the confederate flag. Solnit shows new angles of recurrent topics, especially right now in an electoral year in America. For instance, does anyone wander what will happen if all the undocumentend residents of NYC - that, in comparison to Donald Trump, pay taxes regularly therefore do have a valuable contribution to the local budgets - will leave? She also partially explains the conflictual position of the American authorities - not only during Trump administration - about climate change, as a thrive towards a historical isolationism the USA is encouraging. 
But there is much to be said and written about the crisis, the American crisis, and I wished that Solnit, as many other public intellectuals, are more critical about the failures of the Democrats as well, including adored people like Clinton and Obama because this is how a public intellectual should be. Courageous to expose the failures wherever they are.
I´m an optimist though, that there are more and more engaged members of the American society ready to raise their voices. Maybe for the first time after the end of the 60s and the Vietnam War, the idealists are back.

Rating: 3 stars

Monday, July 20, 2020

Book Review: A Door Between Us by Ehsaneh Sadr

´Their greatest success is when they can destroy a people from the inside and make them turn on themselves and forget who they are´.

Set against the background of the protests of the 2019 Green Movement in Iran, A Door Between Us by Ehsaneh Sadr is a page turning story of survival in what looks like neverending times of religious dictatorship. 
For the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that overturned the dictatorship of the Shah with a theocracy, millions of people, mostly youngsters, were on the streets of Tehran and main cities to protest against what they considered the stealing of their vote. In the presidential elections, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner against Mir Hossein Mousavi despite verified claims of electoral fraud. Although Ahmadinejad was confirmed for a second mandate and Mousavi and his wife is since then under house arrest, and thousands of people were arrested and tortured, the scream "Where is my vote?" was a serious warning that young middle class people were having enough of the a situation that since then become worse.
Those challenges for the Islamic Republic are reflected in A Door Between Us through the interactions and serious challenges the main characters are going through. It starts with - for me, the unlikely - marriage between Ali and Sarah. I said unlikely because I have some doubts that people with such a different social and intellectual background in Tehran may ever accept to an arranged marriage. Another detail from the book that I´ve found a bit forced is the fact that the Basiji abusive interrogator Heydari beats Azar, a human rights lawyer with a copy of Karl Popper´s The Open Society and Its Enemies (a title very popular in Iran and adapted to the Iranian realities by religious intellectuals). But those are really details, because what really kept me highly interested is the ways in which the chain of events involving the characters was skilfully built as well as the dramatic changes the characters are going through.
Take, for instance, Sadegh, the member of the paramilitary Basij forces - which were attributed many abuses against the protesters. Based on his religious credo, he believes that the protesters are a threat to the Islamic Republic. He thinks: ´Yes, perhaps our government makes mistakes but what these people are advocating - overthrow of the government - will only lead to chaos and subjugation to the West´. But once he is able to see with his own eyes the extent of the abuses, until the end of the novel he changes his mind and can even critically assess the blind attitude of his wife, Sumayeh. What happen to most of the people in the book is to discover their genuine humanity and solidarity, no matter their degree of observance and social background. 
And there are so many other questions raised that do affect people living under opressive regimes all over the world, like for instance, how far can you get with your fight for the truth? Is it worth to put your family and children under risk for freedom? Indeed, your fight will, if successful, also guarantee a different future to your children, but what if the fight will fail. One goes to Evin prison - a detention site for political prisoners in Tehran -, separated from his or her children, endures torture and interrogations and how can you change the system from there? A former political dissident told me long ago that when the gates are closing in the front of you and your freedom is stolen from you, different ethical standards apply. 
A Door Between Us is emotionally and intellectually heavy. I particularly appreciated that the book does not have a thesis or is trying to convene a political message. Instead, it explores how historical events influence the life of simple people, which makes it a valuable contribution to the Iranian disapora literature.

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

A Musician´s Credo

In those times when democracy almost everywhere is under threat, but especially in the USA, the voices of public personalities are requested to show that there are still chances for a change. For the readers, especially those outside America, those voices remind that, in fact, there were always there, except that as for now, they may be overwhelmed by the anti-democratic screams.
Tori Amos is more than a special voice and composer. A child prodigy having a Methodist priest as a father, she is aware that her role is more than that of a creator. Especially in the current times of ´unprecedent crisis´ she is raising her voice against the dark forces. 
Resistance, her latest book, is a ´story of hope, change, and courage´. I´ve listened to the audio book, narrated by the author, and had to stop more than once to listen to some of her more or less recent songs. I needed an almost perfect immersion into the creative and intellectual world of Tori Amos.
The short articles included in Resistance are chronological and are not covering exclusively politics, although most part of them are mentioning it - from the invasion of Iraq to the current administration - but also personal episodes, like the death of her mother and the sadness of mourning one´s parent passing away. I am not necessarily subscribing to all her political opinions, but the threats to democracy as an institution shall not be diminished. Artists can either be instruments of propaganda, as it happens easily in totalitarian/non-democratic regimes - or be the voices of change. Tori Amos chose to firmly tell her opinion because there is no other way to be honest to one´s self. She is an artist documenting times when the patriarchy seems to get drunk on its partial victories, when empowering through hate seems to be the name of the deal and when minorities of all kinds are under threat. Partially, she experienced - although at a very limited extent - the threat many artists are coping with on a daily basis, when there were attempts to intimidate her during her concerts in Russia and in Turkey, particularly for her support for LGBT.
Indeed, it is true that we are living very complex times, but the gain of those times are the many intellectual works of artists and creators and writers publishing their worries and outrage against the current situation. Their voices serve as a warning that things cannot be cover up too smoothly. And they will never be covered for good, no matter the deal. 
An extra point for the cover: indeed, Tori Amos can put that red piano on fire.

Rating: 3 stars

Friday, July 17, 2020

Immigrant Stories: Missed Translations. Meeting the Immigrant Parents who Raised Me by Sopan Deb

Growing up in a very tensed and complicated family situation, Sopan Deb, cultural reporter for the NYTimes, rejected for a long time his roots. He blamed Hinduism and arranged marriages, among others, for all this family problems. He idealized whiteness which, at the time, was for him, the greatest way to communicate emotions and their open relationships with their children.
Then, he approached 30 and wanted to find out more; about his father and his mother and his family in India and how his parents meet. Not exactly the kind of conversation that Asian parents do have with their children. Between 2018 and 2019, he recorded his conversations with his parents and searched through his family memories. 
Missed Translation. Meeting the Immigrant Parents who Raised Me is the story of those encounters. Coming to terms with his parents - that he avoided to deal with for a long time, for reasons having to do with the tensed situation he had to deal during the last years of their marriage - was a long and sometimes painful process. It involved sometimes a completely new reading of facts and events, working out vulnerabilities that belong to the human nature in general. 
It takes so long to accept that your parents too are not perfect. That you cannot change them, their traumas and memories and ways of being. But love is not about change, but about accepting and embracing the inadequacies, especially of the close kin. 
Told with a lot of humour too - Deb is also stand-up comedian - you cannot end by falling a bit in love with his parents. Through his interviews and stories, there is an entire culture that reveals, hard to accept by any child who grew up in open societies like the USA or Europe. In other culture, expressing and explaining your feelings may be limited, and parents are choosing not only the future spouse, but also the profession - doctor and lawyer and engineer, nothing more, nothing less. Mental health is tabu and is always less important than professional achievement. From a generation to another the communication is improving and so are the cultural habits, but the tensions between parents and children are hard to overcome.
Sopan Deb had the chance to reach a certain level of understanding of his parents and their generation. He made peace with the ugly episodes of the past and with himself. A great exemple to follow by other immigrant families too. ´Missed translations´ applies to the non-verbal language of emotions as well. 
I´ve had the book in the audio format, narrated by the author.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Blog Tour: The Awakening of Spies or about the Secret Life of Spies

Real spies are not exactly James Bond. Some of them, maybe, probably, who knows, but otherwise, they can be as big as a failure as any other human facing the challenge of a simple riddle. 
Thomas Dylan is one of those unusual spies that not only got rejected by the famous MI6 - Queen´s Secret Intelligence Service - but once in a mission for the less exciting Defense Intelligence Service failed more than once. 
Thomas Dylan (not Dylan Thomas, for the connoisseurs) is coming from the cold of the Cold War and his missions are tailored accordingly. The enemies are from the other side of the curtain, some of them bearing such exotic nicknames as Samovar. In the name of the beautiful Briths-American collaboration, Dylan is sent to Brazil to recover a submarine interrogator stolen from the US Navy. Not necessarily accidentally, he has to deal with the craziness - close to brothel kind of ambiance - of the South America in the late 1970s, where former Nazis are in the big business as nothing happened and the dictatorships are supported with $$ because it might stabilize the region. At the time, this region was as eventful as the Middle East of nowadays.
I liked the way in which the story is told - by the agent Thomas Dylan - , on a very phlegmatic sarcastic yet realistic tone. The sentences are short describing situations and events in a very cinematic way. When the situation on the ground looks so complicated, you need at least clear sentences to figure out what it is all about. This writing style also brings a healthy note of certain realism and honesty to the story. 
For any lover of spy novels, Awakening of Spies by Brian Landers has a good offer to make: action, surprising characters and turn of events, secrets of spies, in the cold style of British keepers of secrets.

Rating: 3.5
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange of an honest review

Saturday, July 11, 2020

A Memoir of Escape: Talking to Strangers by Mariane Boucher

Graphic novels suit every genre. Important is to have a golden balance between the graphic part and the text. 
Talking to Strangers by Marianne Boucher is a special kind of work, because it approaches the author´s experience in her late teens with the highly controversial cult of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church. The cult has an institutional component facilitated by the intricacies of the Cold War but its more intimate development had to do with the Moon´s religious ideology. 
Marianne was at the time a professional skater that moved to Santa Monica, California, from Canada. The cult members approached her on the beach and she thought she was given the chance to save the world and to live a selfless life of universal love. Soon, she will be caught into the cult´s brainwashing mechanisms and only the resilience of her mother saved her from their grip.
The story is relatively simple and linearly told, the strongest point of the book being the graphic part: realistic, with a dynamic of the lines and a bold lettering. 
Since leaving behind her teenage cult adventures, Marianne Boucher is working for over 30 years as a courtroom sketch artist for a Toronto-based TV station. 
An enjoyable graphic novel read with some good food for thought about the inerent methods of brain manipulation of religious cults.

Rating: 3 stars

Latvian Literature: Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena

´We carried flags in May and November parades in honour of the Red Army, the Revolution and Communism, while at home we crossed ourselves and waited for the English army to come and free Latvia from the Russian boot´.
Be aware, very aware of the duplicity and hypocrisy a dictatorship - atheist, far or left-right religious no matter what - induces into the daily lives. Once you learn from a very early age that you should wear two masks and you have to guard your tongue from talking the truth it is very hard to lose knowledge of those habits that are becoming automatic. A very good academic friend of mine that grew up in a very communist country told me that even today, after having lived for decades in the ´free world´ being surrounded by people that only knew democratic governments, she still cannot fully trust other fellow human. 
Soviet Milk by the Latvian author Nora Ikstena is one of the many stories from the everyday life Soviet Union. A monologue which alternates between the daugher and the mother - not named, which I am not sure I really appreciate because a name bestows and individuality to a person - it covers the eventful period between 1969 and 1989. The communist rulers change in Moscow, some of the deportees from Siberia return, the KGB satellites in the republics are becoming more and more intrusive and aggressive, including among their targets the very young teenagers. The mother is a deeply depressed gynecologist whose non-conformity with the many political directions will cost her job. She is far from being a dissident, just a non-significant victim of the big historical turmoil. Her daughter is having her early meeting with the regime, including being forced to denounce some of her teachers, but is breathing a different air: she is just trying to life further, to find her place, while the mother is stuck in a present without a future. 
A pathetic parable of this situation is the fate of Bambi the hamster who gobbled his own children and waiting to be let out of his cage and died for not enjoying this pleasure any more. The daughter asks: ´How can one eat one´s children and then die from yearning for freedom?´ The communism distorted the human nature - which is not a perfect medium for morality and goodness anyway. What was left, the hypocrisy and many untold stories of everyday failures.
I´ve read the book - which in 2015 won the Annual Latvian Literature Award - in the English translation of Margita Gailitis. 

Rating: 3 stars

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Memoir Review: The Long Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden

I´ve read somewhere a couple of time ago that from the economy of writing in general, memoirs are a genre more widespread in the English-speaking realm compared to the European literature. When the - mostly American - writers decide to write a memoir at 30 years of age, the French do still wait until 70 or late. 
When is the story of your life worth telling after all? What makes it relatable? The mathematical age or just the fulfillement of an extranous mission - high professional achievements, family, a discovery, political adventures etc.? Do you need to be the witness of a terrible historical event or your simple everyday life may be more than enough?
Personally, I´m completely happy with the memoirs of the young or of the overaccomplished, as it does not have to do necessarily with your age but with the dynamics of your story. Again, I am - for just another reason - happily on the side of the American cultural trends.
I am intellectually happy again for books like T Kira Madden´s Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, a coming of age healing through writing memoir. T Kira Madden started to write it when her father died. Initially, she was a writer in residence preparing a novel, but settling her family story was a more urgent matter. 
Her multi-racial upbringing - a Jewish father, a mother with a Chinese-Hawaiian heritage, raised in a Mormon household with Buddhist grandparents - is naturally part of the story. Yes, she is all of those DNA add-ons, but her identity is not split between one or the other of those identities. She is also the girl who is trying to discover her sexual identity, or the daughter of two drug-addicted parents. Or the girl who was sexually abused.
Another literary details that I loved about this intense memoir is that the stories are not lineary - chronological - but organised in snippets of stories. More dynamics are due to the dialogues integrated into the predominant monologue of the memoir and the short sentences chosen to express the story. For the reader, it creates a completely different and intellectually entertaining ambiance.
In the same way as, from her early childhood, T Kira Madden connected to other humans through beings, her memoir, her words are connected to the world outside her memoir story, not necessarily relating to her story or sharing a common experience. The strength of her story goes beyond her tribe, a fact of human life documented for the sake of the intellectual exploration. 

Rating: 3.5 stars

Florida by Lauren Groff - Beautifully Written Short Stories

The words are filling the emptiness of the white page and desertes spaces. They send emotions - ´I have somehow become a woman who yells´ - and heartbreaks and tell the stories of children that have been abandoned on an island during a storm, all by themselves. How cannot your heart startle only by the reading of the story description?
The 11 short stories by Lauren Groff are using the geographical pretext of the physical location of Florida. But the geography is in this case just a name that is receiving a variety of meaning depending on the creative line.
Indeed, there are enough traces of creative writing in those stories which might may diminish at a certain extent the authenticity and the genuine human connection of the stories, but the writing is beautiful enough to forget about this technical aspect. I will probably keep Florida among those books that I will read over and over again when having writer´s block. Reading a paragraph or a couple of pages once in a while brings oomph to both ideas and writing energy. It´s shows off what you can achieve when you are a good writer and who else one can turn into a good writer if not by reading good writings?

Rating: 3.5 stars

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Armenian Magic Stories in Three Apples Fell From the Sky by Narine Abgaryan

In my repertoire of languages, Armenian is the most challenging one. No matter how long I study it, I am still far from being able to properly read a simple text and make a basic conversation. Reading local authors in the original language is out of question as for now - and probably at least the next five years or so, may I have a longer life. The most easiest way to have access to authors from this space is Russian, as in the case of all the sucessful authors from the former Soviet space, but I am lazy for such an intellectual endeavour. Therefore, all I have to do is to wait until a decent translation is out on the market.
Narine Abgaryan, listed by The Guardian´s literary critics among Europe´s most exciting authors, wrote several children books, edited several anthologies of modern Russian prose, and is a successful blogger and lives since 1993 in Moscow. Three Apples Fell From the Sky was awarded four years ago the Yasnaya Polyana Award, considered Russia´s most prestigious award. The jury - that selected as winners among the foreign authors in translation Orhan Pamuk and Mario Vargas Llosa - is chaired by Vladimir Tolstoy, the great grandson of Leo Tolstoy but also cultural advisor to president Putin. Small world...
The story from Three Apples Fell From the Sky is taking place in a remote mountain village, Maran, mostly out of time, unless there is the big war or the big earthquake or the big famine. Tbhe case of the Armenian genocide is gently mentioned but the memories of this traumatic event are not necessarily playing a big part of the memories of the characters. Anatolia Sevoyants, among others a librarian keepers in time of distress, is ready to die, at 58 years old. But her story will go on for at least two other years or so, when the story stops. 
The novel is told in a fairytale style, that suits a realm where dead people are often visiting back home and decisions are taken based on interpretations of dreams. The everyday life of those people might not be extraordinary, but it has its own routine and sense of comfort. As well as its ironies, like in the case of the unique proposal in marriage that Vasily made to Anatolia: He was ´tired of waiting for her to appreciate him for his kindness, so he came to see her with a tool´: a scythe with a sharpened blade. She said ´yes´ because she was expecting to die anyway. There is a dosis of grotesque in most of the characters - especially men - but like in the case of a naive painting, the ugliness is balanced by the simplicity of the everyday human interactions. 
Narine Abgaryan tells the story on a poetic voice which beautifies the mundane. It may be that I am missing many intimate cultural references therefore the book lost me a couple of times - especially in the second part -, but I gloriously made it to the end. Hopefully very soon, will gather my thoughts together to write a review of another Armenian author - also read in translation - and also advance my Armenian language skills.

Rating: 3 stars 

Friday, July 3, 2020

The Ensemble, by Aja Gabel: A Classical Music Story of Love and Betrayal

´They were so close to the things they wanted - needed - for the next stage of their career, and if they got it, so many other things seemed possible´.

Brit (second violonist), Jana (furst violin and the leader), Henry (viola) and Daniel (cello) are the four members of Van Ness Quartet whose dynamics, everyday life and connections over the everyday music rehearsals are uniquely explored by Aja Gabel in her debut novel The Ensemble. A professional cellist herself, Gabel wrote about a fascinating and rarely approached topic of the everyday life of a music ensemble. 
Brought together by the fate of their talent and eventually by the randomness of their school connections, how they can operate together and connect beyond the strict professional network. In a simple - non-complex from the intellectual point of view - work intellectual setting you don´t have to extend your allegiances after the work hours. But, in the case of a quartet, as for any intellectual entreprise, working - aka playing together - requires a different kind of connection. ´(...) with the quaretet, they had to share a goal, distribute the dream between them (...)´. Playing a means more than an impecable technical individual reproduction of the score. It means connecting the pieces to create that ensemble that shapes the individual musical representation of each musical work. After all, the score is an inert assembly of notes brought to life each and every time in an unique way by the art of the musician(s). 
Each part of the book has a dedicated musical menu that helps to better connect with the characters and the narative. In each section, each and every one of the characters are going through different stages of transformation, from the family and past connections to taking decisions to influence the present and endeavouring the future. 
The novel is focused on the character development and the evolution of the members of the ensemble through time, with their close circle as well as between them. This intense spiritual exploration gives material substance to Brit, Jana, Henry and Daniel, so at the end of the book one may have a clear human representations of the literaray fictional characters. It may not be an eventful novel, indeed, but the action is taking place at a spiritual, human level which reveals a world of the musician brains that I find fascinating.
Those interested in learning more about how to write about music are also offered beautiful examples enabling a certain representation of the musical wordings.
The Ensemble is a book like no other I´ve read opening the door to a rich world of sounds and feelings that remains a mysterious revelation. It encourages me to explore more classical music and music writing in general. 
A special note for the book cover, a colourful representation that resonates with the intense life of the characters.

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

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Book Review: Ecstasy by Mary Sharratt

I haven´t listen to the musical works authored by Alma Mahler, but I am familiar with her writings and her image as a femme fatale of the 20th century Viennaise intellectual realm. Her compositions - out of which only 14 survived as for now - are publicized nowadays therefore the interest for her long and eventful life.
Born in a family of artists, she was first kissed by Klimt, married Gustav Mahler - 19 years her senior - had an affair with Oskar Kokoshka, and after Mahler´s death, married Walter Gropius and Franz Werfel. In the States where she moved at the end of the 1930s, she created a salon gathering artists in exile, like Stravinsky, Arnold Schöneberg or Thomas Mann. 
The overwhelming representation of her is of an enchanteress, a sin that Ecstasy by Mary Sharratt, a historical novel about her, is repeating as well.  
Vienna of the beginning of the 20th century was becoming a center of intellectual creation and women were starting to become involved in the process, more than from a role of amusing the guests while playing a nice piece of easy piano music. But unless heirs of significant heritage. Being a spinster, no matter how far your intellectual achievements, was most likely a shameful label. Succesful men like Mahler wanted to marry beautiful women to have children with and respect their working routines. And the Mahler represented in Mary Sharratt book is a person of strict habit: ´Gustav could tolerate no disruption in his routine even to accommodate her pregnancy or their newlyweed status´ as ´Nothing and no one was permitted to disturb his creative trance´ ´It was Alma´s task to keep the household running smoothly and discourage imopportune guests so Gustav didn´t need to worry about anything besides his own work´. To be honest, I´ve heard more than once of such career distribution of home tasks, implemented in very intellectual families where the woman is walking on egg shells trying not to bother the creative flow of the husband, although she might be more gifted and talented than him, but thanks Gd never had to experience it myself.  
Alma, on the other hand, was dreaming of having a colleagues, an intellectual companion on her side, like the power musical couple of Clara and Robert Schumann. She loved Mahler but she could not forgive him the cruelty of being asked to give up her musical ambitions for the sake of their marriage. She accepted, despite the cruel remark of her mother: ´He can´t ask you to give up your music. It´s monstruous´. Alma is longing to be considered more than a beautiful face and Mahler´s wife and this uncertain status increases her insecurities and nervous breakdowns once she advances in age. As her beauty is fading, what she is left with? Hence, the easy stereotype of novels set in Vienna at the time, of the visits to the spas and the follow up of Mr. Freud therapies - there must be a hysterical outburst after all. Which is a medical possibility, after all, but I think personally that it can be a more complex mental setting for understanding Alma and her turmoil. The same for her depiction of a highly sexual person, which is perfectly normal, but it does not necessarily played well with her intellectual aims - a kind of German hausfrau Madame Bovary reading Nietzsche.
The male characters in the book are emotionally instable, taking for granted the gifts of liberated women, womanizers and selfish. Very often, childish and driven to Alma mostly for her position within the Viennaise socialities, acquired through marriage. Mahler is clumsy, indeed, with his hilarious reading aloud from the Kant´s Critique of Pure Reason on the topic of the seemingly futility of metaphisics when Alma´s waters broke down. In the book it is not explicitly mentioned if he was reading it to Alma or just to himself. The other men, including Gropius, are equally tained by the morb of insecurity, longing for a stable 3-meal lifestyle, but driven towards creative, strong women, that are keen to betray. 
For a historical novel, I´ve found that some of the mentions of media approaches at the time rather belonging to our 21st century than of the journalistic behaviors from the beginning of the 20st.
However, despite the shortcoming of some of the characters, Ecstasy by Mary Sharratt had a monologue worth considering about intellectual power couples - not often a possibility in real time/life - and at what extent being partners in a relationships should be followed by giving up your professional ambitions and creative gifts. Mostly, women are faced to such options, therefore the feminist touch of the book. Next, I would prefer to read Alma´s diaries and her personal accounts about life and her quests and her intellectual journey in general.

Rating: 3 stars

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Unfollow! or A Story of an anti-Social Media Obsession

I will share with you how I start my very early working morning - around 4.30, the latest 5am: by checking my social media tools - Instagram or Twitter, once in a while Facebook. I listen to the latest music releases on YouTube from musicians I´ve subscribe to, or travel and media chanels of interest. I also check my Goodreads and update the bookish selection of the books I want to read and, when necessary I even download some ebooks or order some physical ones. For almost half an hour, my brain is reconected to the reality of my everyday busy schedule in a very smooth, sometimes intellectual sometimes entertaining way.
Yesterday, my ritual followed the same format, with a plenty of good reasons for a good beginning: a food blogger I admire is advancing her cookbook project, some of my travel e-buddies are sharing their photos from their new destinations, some people do learn a language, another artist released a new album, a beautiful soul of a friend of a friend that was tragically widowed from the love of her life and left alone with 4 kids, remarried recently. 
Then, on the high waves of positivity, I started to read Unfollow. How Instagram is destroying our life - please observe the use of the 1st person plural, like lady Nena Schink, the author, is my defender and spokeperson. 
For Miss Schink, being on Ingtagram is a painful experience she has to go through for the sake of the research for her book. She is unhappy that women are posting pictures on bikini, she included, that their are getting 7-number advertising from big fashion brands therefore she decides to avoid those brands. She is completely against sharing her life to strangers, though, she is stalking ex friends and stars having a look at their live stories. However, she is ´wise´ enough to warn&lecture you, me, ´us´ how Instagram can be the cause of mental illness and depression, according to the principle that you envy what you do not have - beautiful family, shining car, fancy outfits. By the way, you don´t need Instagram to figure this out and eventually feel bad about it and the warnings are not based on any serious scientific and medical basis. And if her therapist told her so, better find another one. 
Nena Schink is not alone in her approach towards social media in Germany. I recall the abhorrent obsession of teachers a couple of years ago with the Digitale Demenz by Manfred Spitze, on the same alarmist tone warning against the dangers of social media and Internet in general for the young generation. Hopefully the school fans of Mr. Spitze changed their mind, as the current Corona crisis displayed the very limited skills of German teachers in dealing with online teaching, an environment very familiar to their peers in France, to mention only one of the neighbouring EU advanced countries.
So bad you cannot unfollow a book instantly, but in many respects, this book - which I´ve read in the original language - is an useful bibliography if you want to understand the misunderstanding of the German public opinion towards social media and Internet. This may explain why the most boring social media consulting projects were those aimed to the German market. The potential is there but unfortunatelly the decision-makers and some of the journalists - although young (after all, Nena Schink is under 30) - are thinking with mindset pertaining from another century.

Rating: 2 stars

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Bella Figura by Kamin Mohammadi or How to Make Your Italian Dream Come True

Made redundant from her job at a glossy magazine in London,without a rental contract, no cat, single and in her late 30s, Kamin Mohammadi landed in Florence initially for a couple of month, trying to figure out her life. From the very beginning of her new life adventure, besides the tastier fruits and vegetables compared to the bland offer from the British supermarkets, there is something else that caught her attention: bella figura
This concept means ´making every aspect of life as beautiful as it can be, no matter when, from what we eat to how we get to work in the morning´. It means welcoming the day and every moment of it with grace, charm and relaxed, the opposite attitude of the burnout life of a busy professional in London. 
And what a beautiful lifestyle it is but how hard is to get rid of old habits. But it is worth more than all the detox and diets and positive thinking and expensive therapy sessions. On the other side, the men, the Italian men - some of them still living with their parents in their 40s seems they can - , are real trouble but going through the experience of loss or romantic failure is part of the long process of knowing how to deal with your own life, moving forward and discovering one´s strengths and resources. 
The memoir, Mohammadi´s second after the book that she wrote during her Florence adventure about her childhood in Iran and her family escape after the Islamic Revolution, is organised monthly, around some important details, such as the produce of the season, the scent of the city, the Italian moment and the word of the month. Every chapter has its own repertoire of recipes, simple and filled with natural ingredients. Expect a lot of olive oil, maybe too much for my taste, but when in Tuscany...
Kamin Mohammadi has a charming way of writing, inviting the reader into the story. She is not only a great storyteller but also an inspirational travel writer, her detailed descriptions of her Florence environment and trips deep into Tuscany being instant recommendations for a slow, off-the-beaten path adventures, with insightful observations about the architecture and local vibe.  
Kamin Mohammadi keeps living her Italian dream in Tuscany with a handsome Italian men, sharing her experience of bella figura and enjoying it every day, and writing about beautiful places. 
It is Tuscany on my mind right now...

Rating: 3.5 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review 

What About My Bookshelves?

It is summer time and the life is getting easier when you have all your bookish plans settled for the coming months. In case that you are brave and lucky enough to afford thinking about your next holidays plans, outside your home/garden/lockdown location. Bookish or not, this year was like no other, forcing many of us to think and focus more on our immediate reality and environment priorities.
Like, paying more attention to decorating the house and the rooms, adding exotic ingredients to the pantry, experimenting more with recipes, returning to old hobbies like visual arts - both painting and photography -, handwork and jewelry making, and once in a while even with some interior design ideas. With money saved from my weekly travels, I added a piece of furniture here, another tablecloth there, new cooking tools for the kitchen. Just wanted to feel comfy enough to better enjoy my long reading list, nothing more, nothing less. 
However, in-between two interesting books, I´ve decided I need more movement. Thus, most of my parcimonious free time I´ve also spent organising and re-organising carefully my closets, shelves and other corners in the home that for various reasons were left untouched for at least one year. 
As someone who rarely enjoyed more than a year or so in the same place - or the same country - I am very conservative when it comes to reorganising my rooms. I like my mind free and my schedule full of activities, but I prefer my home environment to be safe, predictable without dramatic changes or frequent furniture removals, unless necessary. Under ´necessity´ being filled: the damage of the piece of furniture, the need to accommodate the space for welcoming new residents in the house. In over ten years of living in the same place - an outstanding success given my previous long list of addresses - I only changed twice the outline of the rooms, the last time almost five years ago, when my son was born.
An adept of minimalism - except when it comes to bags and shoes - most of my house space is taken by books and notebooks. I love my e-books and to read on my Tablet, but the physical books are still part of my life, especially those that accompanied my life journey for a long time already. They are survivors therefore they deserve to stay with me. There are books autographed by people as diverse as Henry Kissinger and Salman Rushdie or books authored by people I count amount my closest intellectual friends from all over the world. There are books - very few of them - that I grew up with and belonged to my family, like an old Larousse which is filled with a lot of outdated information however it reminds me of those few times when I was sharing learning time with my mother of blessed memory. I have books in an impressive amount of languages, I am playing with once in a while, with different levels of knowledge: dictionaries, handbooks, short stories and novels. My son started his own library, as for now, in his three languages he is starting to read the world through. In addition to this, I have a shelf which is dedicated to the books I regularly loan from the many generous libraries spread over Berlin that I visit regularly.
When it comes to organising my shelves, I am again an example of plain simplicity. There are, indeed, people who are organising their books using various criteria: the colours of the book covers, the edition houses, the styles and historical periods of time, the alphabetical order, the topics covered. I refrain from criticizing or judging some of those choices, that may not be necessarily intellectually relevant. Sometimes, the choices for an option or another depends at a great extent of the amount of available space for the books. I envy my childhood times when we used to have a room dedicated exclusively to books, a library with books from the floor until the ceilings, organised, according to the wishes of my grandfather on my mother side, alphabetically, with the name of the books and authors carefully written in a Répertoire, eventually with mentions to whom and when books were loaned. An admirable work of library planning that does not make too much sense though for my everyday 21st century habits.
As many other things in my material life, the organisation of my shelves is following a very low level sophistication and the criteria are based on different topics of interest: a couple of shelves for my history and political science books, a couple of shelves for my languages´ books, a space for Central and Eastern European literature, another one for the Middle Eastern authors I love, another one only for the French-language books, anogther one for English books - the largest so far -, neighbouring another hosting the few books in languages as diverse as Spanish, Portuguese, Italian or Hungarian. A big shelf, with double rows, hosts my new collection of German books. In the last years I added a shelf for all my travel books which counts only few guides, besides an increasing number of travelogues and diaries. I haven´t read all of those books, and once in a while those who are not interesting enough, I give them away or sell to the English-speaking bookstores in Berlin. The topics of my books are as diverse as my interests: from cooking books to theories about philosophy, mathematics and poetry, feel good and mysteries, prayer books and historical topics. 
This variety of choices is nothing compared to the over 1,000 books well stocked on my electronic devices. In a physical format, I would need at least three more rooms only for books, or at least a little castle with a dedicated library covering a space much larger than my current apartment. 
Last Sunday, I had enough time and energy to completely reorganise my shelves. Took all them out of their shelves, cleaned the dust, rearranged everything in a more orderly way. Surprisingly, I´ve found a couple of books I completely forgot I purchased that were instantly added to by TBR of the next days and weeks. Especially the books from the languages shelves motivated me to be more organised with my foreign languages maintenance, therefore, a modest plan for more grammar exercises and easy reading was set. 
Reorganising my shelves was one of the best time investment I´ve done this month. Nothing fancy, minimal physical activity, a lot of inspiration for my next reading and intellectual chores. As for now, there will be nothing fancy happening with my bookshelves, except that probably in a couple of months I see some new shelves, maybe a complete new library setting, coming my way. Until then, I will keep being busy with my books and happily blogging about it.