Thursday, January 23, 2020

Book Review: The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion

It seems that I still haven't found a book to love which deals with various details of Asperger, or the autism spectrum in general. Some are simplistic and some are just so plain that only the curiosity about the topic in general convinced me to finish the book.
For instance, The Rosie Project, by the Australian author Graeme Simsion. Highly recommended by a variety of readers, friends and bok lovers and an international bestseller, it failed to impress me at all. 
Don Tillman is 40, an accomplished university professor that decided to start a minutious project of finding a wife. This romantic investigation involves a long questionnaire covering topics such as love for mathematics and food habits.
Don has a couple of issues, though, that he describes himself - the book is written at the first person: 'But I'm not good at understanding what other people want'. He's fine but just 'wired differently'.
He meets Rosie, a PhD candidate in psychology, which is completely the opposite of the profile aimed to be created through the answers to the questionnaire, with whom he will fall in love and finally marry. 
The continuation is The Rosie Effect, a book that I promise to read, by curiosity, in the next days.
My problem with the way in which Tillman is presented is the unidimensional character he introduced. You can live and be happy and have relationships when you suffer of different manifestations of autism spectrum, but it is not easy and enjoyable. Especially for the person that may love you and cannot understand what is wrong, why some reactions are lacking any human empathy. Living with someone that has obsessions, OCD, has a limited or any emotional intelligence is not a pleasant experience and besides the blind love you need professional advice and a deep understanding of how such issues may change and evoluate over time.
True is that the book is written at the first person and it may explain the limitations of the character. Still, from both the literary and scientific point of view it is not an inspired technique.
Talking about the literary style, I was not impressed either. The story is written as a big journalistic article, which is not intrinsically a bad idea but there are many other ways to do it in a better literary way.
Let's hope Rosie Effect will surprise me somehow. To be continued...

Rating: 2 stars

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Book Review: Trust Exercise by Susan Choi

Some books are entering my life like people. Regardless how good and extraordinary they are, they are just not suited for my tastes and interests. I may like them a lot but there is no place for them in your life.
It's my case with Trust Exercise by Susan Choi - which I've listened as an audio book. It's one of the most interesting books I've encounter lately in terms of writing: it has a complex meta-construction through which the voice of the writer intervenes directly, it has intricated story built around unique characters, and the balance between the dialogues and the discoursive side of the characters is achieved. But, during the development of the book I had no empathy for the topic, which deals with coming to age of 14-15 years old in an art school.
The first part is the most intense, and we'll find later was actually a story written by someone, so it is not a stand alone story, it is how someone seen it. It is a story about children failing to fit in, whose growing up evolves around theoretical discussions and art theories. Did those elitist framework help them achieve in their life? Will they have a different, much better trajectory than the rest of their peers? What I also loved about this part is the focus on the moment in its plenitude. This is how the characters are surviving at this stage of their lives, trying to give as many possible answers to the question: 'what is the moment and the now you are supposed to answer to?'
Moving on to the second part of the story, this momentum is lost. What some of the characters who are appearing in the book are experiencing is the dissolution of the time. Their stories of hope are becoming banal and their lives are lagging very much behind.  It is a certain sense of the moment, as it seems that the characters themselves are unable to achieve anything else. They are frozen in the moment but because incapable of changing or advancing.
Despite my personal struggles to go through this book, it was worth reading it. It was a meta-literary pleasure and despite the unattractive topic for me, it was good enough written to convince me I have to finish it.

Rating: 3 stars

Monday, January 20, 2020

Book Review: Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad

I visited Bangkok and Thailand and I still remember the mysterious mixture of tradition and super-modernity - encountered in other places in Asia, like Japan. Before embarking on my trip I knew some basic old and recent historical and political data, but it was not enough to really grasp the spirit of the places I was visiting. Without this deep familiarity with a place, we are nothing more than tourists, with a very superficial or nonexistent view of the human network. 
In my opinion, this is also due to the fact that you rarely find information about Thailand other than of touristic nature. Before reading Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad I haven't known any other Thai author. The serious information about this country and its authentic culture seem to flow in very elitist environments, rarely succeeding to reach at least a middle-level audience.
Shortlisted for the 2020 Edward Stanford Fiction with a Sense of Place award, this book is a jewel of literary work. It fills the geographical map of Bangkok with a human sense. It gives life to corners and streets and street food. It build up the human belonging. It makes Bangkok real through its humans, even as for now they are displaced; their spirit is still wandering the rain-washed streets of Bangkok. Throughout the book ones wanders the streets of the city that comes to life through the stories of its inhabitants. Humans and places co-exist together in a symbiotic relationship. No love, no hate, but the feeling of belonging. Is like the fact that you were born or lived in a place cannot be separated from your identity; it grows up within you, no matter what. 
Bangkok Wakes to Rain is such a beautiful, intense book, nostalgic and full of love. It is written with an unique art of playing with words. After this book, Bangkok will never be the same. All the touristic superficial assumptions are dramatically washed leaving instead the mystery which is what makes every city unique.

Rating: 4 stars

Monday, January 13, 2020

Book Review: The Bride Test by Helen Hoang

I have conflictual thoughts about The Bride Test, by Helen Hoang. I've read excellent reviews about the author, this book and I have The Kiss Quotient on my TBR list. The author herself is affected by Asperger syndrome as the main man character of the book, Khai Diep and the idea to instrumentalize literarily this form of autism, particularly in the context of a relationship is excellent.
This aspect is one of the things I've liked the most about the book: the fact that it raises awareness about living with Asperger and building healthy normal relationships. It describes persons with Asperger as different, but not awkward. There are individuals that are brilliant in their studies, overperforming at work, but with a different way of thinking and processing emotions. Someone with Asperger may need more support and being in a relationship with someone may raise specific issues especially if the terms of the relationship are not clearly stated and eventually a therapeutic advice is required, but it is not impossible or not desirable.
This part of contextualizing Asperger syndrom was my favorite one and I've learned a lot while reading this book.
On the other hand, the overall setting of the book turned me completely off. The future partner of Khai Diep, Esme Tran is brought from Vietnam by the ambitious Khai's mother for an arranged marriage. I've already mentioned in a previous post how popular the arranged marriages are as literary topics, regardless the culture. This time, I got introduced to the Vietnamese customs - not that there are too many differences anyway. Khai's mother went especially to Ho Chi Min to find a potential candidate for her son, luring the women with the hope of getting moved to America. Esme Tran was cleaning toilets, was sleeping on the floor in a small apartment together with her mother and grandmother and her child out-of-the wedlock. She accepted to go through the 3-month trial of trying to seduce and marry Khai Diep, being brought directly to live in his house although they never met before. How desperate you can be to leave your daughter for three months in order to live for three months with a stranger that maybe you will marry once the trial is over.
This approach destroyed any empathy for the positive representation of people with Asperger. In the end, Esme is succeeding to finish Standford University, not before she almost accepted to marry Khai brother in order to be able to apply for Green Card and remain in the USA. And there are many other ackward moments in the story when Esme Tran is shamelessly assigned the attitude of a gold digger or at least of a woman ready to use some sexual favors for getting what she wants.
I can understand that there are such situations in real life, many more than I can imagine. I do not try to criticize from my middle class white Western European position. However, there is not the kind of 
characters I want to deal with, both in literary and real form. I am more interested in women who struggled, lost the struggle or did something better using their circumstances. Those are the kind of stories that resonate with my upbringing and principles and there is nothing to change here. 
I will probably read the Kiss Quotient in the next days, but I have no expectations though.

Rating: 2 stars

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Balkans in Graphic Novels: Vaterland by Nina Bujevac

Overwhelmed by the constant bad and scary news coming from a region close to my heart and mind, the Middle East, I am drawn lately back to the Balkans, another region where I left pieces of my heart and precious time. During the many wars in this region, called the 'power keg' of Europe, I got to know the intricated personal histories and especially wonderful people whose life was suddenly broken by the absurdity of an ethnic conflict that was actually boiling underground for many years.
Expressing this load of information as a graphic novel is a risky approach as it floats over the accusation of not being able to properly cover at least a quarter of the many details of the conflict. Which is indeed true, but someone needs to take the risk.
Nina Bujevac's Vaterland (Home Country, I've read the book in the German language) is half-memoir, half-historical report, covering her father's and family destiny before the Yugoslavia was created and during the Tito years. A very complex task.
My first impression has to do with the graphic itself: black-and-white, in a semi-pointilliste, semi-realistic style. I really liked it and it make the reading more pleasant if there will be just some clumsy cartoons threw over the white page. After all, 'reading' a graphic novel has a lot to do with the illustrations.
The book is organised in various autobiographical sections, where sometimes the information is repeated which helps to deal easily with the information. Which information is very well written, although it has to do with a complex quarter of a century: from the different rivalities between Serbs and Croats during the war to the active - and sometimes terrorist - anti-communist Serbian diaspora to the dramatic moment in the European communist history represented by the dissidence of Milovan Djilas. This information is spread in between long stories of various family members of the author and his memories from the time she spent far away from her father in Canada - involved in terrorist activities of the Serbian diaspora - with her grandparents, mother and sister in Tito's Yugoslavia. In a way, I would have been curious to find out more about the daily life during those time, a curiosity not satisfied by Vaterland.
I've read the book in one sitting, keen to devour snippets of old information while immersing into the story. 
It was good to be back on the heavy ground of Balkan history. A graphic reminder that the whole world can be at any moment a 'power keg'.

Rating: 4 stars  

Monday, January 6, 2020

Book Review: 'It Can Be Arranged' by Huda Fahmy

The topic of arranged marriages - regardless the religion --- enjoys a considerable popularity, being often considered with curiosity yet repulsion for its unnatural approach of free love and choice of partners. It's just an observation, as I do not want to start now a critical discussion either about this choice of topic nor about the issue of arranged marriages in general.
That Can be Arranged. A Muslim Love Story is a graphic memoir about how the author Huda Fahmy met her husband. It has a lot of similarities with Ayesha at Last as it has to do with marriage between observant Muslims, except that it is mostly expressed as a graphic novel and is autobiographical. Personally, I liked Ayesha at Last but I've read reviews by Muslim bloggers who were not so impressed about it so I suppose besides the literary standards the approach of the content makes a difference between curious people about other traditions and culture and those who are part of the respective culture.
Huda Fahmy prefers rather to be single than stuck in a horrible marriage. Although she is to meet her matches in the classical way - after they get in touch with her father, a research via CV of the potential match takes place and the meeting is taking place in the presence of the mother - she is the one who will chose in the end the one and only, who will later become her husband. Long before they met 'officially' she saw and liked him and only further circumstances made the encounter possible. Her story adds a note of diversity to the main story of visible Muslim women in America: she goes to university, loves Jane Austen, her parents are divorced, she is interested in someone to connect with spiritually and less in the dowry. It is an unique story which invites the reader to open his/her mind and accept diversity without too much ado. 
I've found the voice of the writer authentic with hilarious accents, which makes the story readable for the less knowledgeable audience. I only was not impressed by the illustrations.

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

Le Suspendu de Conakry: An Easygoing Slowpaced French Mystery

Since coming back from France/Toulouse, less than one month ago I can't stop thinking about the overwhelming feeling of being home in the language. Ten years of Germany and many others across the world that brought new languages and cultures into my life did not change at all the familiarity I have with the French language and the easiness of feeling at home anywhere on the French territory. Compared to Germany, no one is asking me where I am coming from because I am automatically considered a local and using the language outlines this belonging.
Although I do not believe in New Year's resolutions, I wish to myself more French books and more trips to France in the next month, because this conundrum of culture and civilization is an important part of my identity and personal history.
I brought from France a couple of books not necessarily belonging to the Top 10 - and definitely no Houllebecq - but that caught my attention for very specific reasons. Among them, Le Suspendu de Conakry by Jean-Christophe Rufin, member of the French Academy and one of the founders of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders). The catch: the short presentation on the cover about a Romanian consul that helped to solve a mystery. 
This Romanian, Aurel Timescu is a hilarious creature: speaks French with a bad accent - got his position in Quay d'Orsay - the headquarters of the French diplomacy - due to a good marriage connection, is semi-alcoholic (he loves Tokay, as partly Hungarian) and a bit psychotic and used to play piano in a brothel before. While working in consular affairs at the French Embassy in Conakry, Guinea, he is isolated and constantly humiliated professionally. While on professional assignment outside the embassy he dresses completely indequate, with an old world touch that adds even more awkwardness to the character. Flashes of his Romanian past during the communist times are constantly sparkling during the story, and they integrate well into the bigger narrative.
Completely on himself, and without informing his superiors, he is solving the riddle of the killing of a French national whose body was found hunging in the port of Conakry. By using almost medium skills and lucky connections with the locals, plus a bit of intuition, he's able to find the solution, but justice after death will not be delivered though. Aurel Timescu is that hilarious anti-hero which is following his own way but his satisfaction is mostly personal. No upgrade of his peculiar diplomatic status either.
The book is one of those airplane or weekend reads that you finish in one reading. It has some traits of the classical mysteries, with out-of-the blue hints that only the author can predict. As a reader, one feels like a passive receiver of information but regardless how much you know you will never manage enough to solve the case yourself.
Also, it has way too many aesthetics which beautifully add some literary drama to the story but it is not necessarily what I am looking for in a mystery. 
As for the Timescu guy, he has a unique personality, but it is the kind of people I usually avoid both in my real and literary lives, as it has 'looser' written all over.
There are another 2 books that will be part of the series but most likely would love to try another new French author instead.
De gustibus, after all...

Rating: 3 stars 

Friday, January 3, 2020

Bookish Travel Toulouse: La Médiatheque Cabanis

During my travels, nothing makes me happier than visiting various public and academic libraries over the world. I am driven not only by the curiosity of checking the available titles and translations, but I also want to take the chance of understanding the public architecture and therefore the place of libraries in the social and urban geography.
While in Toulouse, France, last December, I paid a visit to the Médiatheque José Cabanis.

The library is part of a massive construction built at the beginning of 2000s on the premises of the former Veterinarian School demolished in 1965. The architectural work of Jean Pierre Buffi features two massive blocks: on the left side, there are media institutions and commercial offices, while the library/médiatheque on the right side. Underground, there is the network of public transportation which connects this central area situated close to the Matabiau train station to the rest of Toulouse.

Named for José Cabanis, a novelist, essayist, historian and magistrate, member of the prestigious French Academy, the library was inaugurated in 2004. The 4 floors part of the 35 meters high building cover almost everything you are looking for in a library: youth, science, music, arts, history, civilization.
Both elevators and stairs are available. Most of the system of loaning and returning books is made electronically.

It also has an exhibition space, which at the time of my visit displayed a very interesting documentary of the North African immigration to Toulouse, trying, at least through words, images and sounds, to recaliber the problematic social acceptance of those group of immigrants into the wider French society.

The library spaces are huge, generous with computers and seating places where you can quietly enjoy  the pleasure of reading. Since its opening, over 800,000 visitors have enjoyed this bookish ambiance, and I am happy I count as one of them too.