Saturday, February 29, 2020

Hot in This?

Before I become familiar with the struggles of practicant Muslim women in Western societies to maintain their individual religious choices - I am  talking about the assumed free choices - I knew so well what my religious Jewish friends went through. How can you wear long sleeve during this hot weather? Why are you not shaking hands with a man, it's such an outdated/read primitive/ habit...Whoa' are you wearing a wig? Over your hair...it may be hot for you...And so on and on and on...
What about everyone minding his/her own business and stop asking the triad of offensive and at the limit stupid questions to someone that looks different: Where are you from? You speak English/German/etc. so well...where did you learn it.
Huda Fahmy is one of the few voices that are raising in a humorous yet clear way the everyday stupidity an American-born practicant Muslim woman is going through every day. Her comics are filling the void of the relative lack of representation in the everyday intellectual life and entertainment industry in America and abroad.
'Society made me feel like the odd one out...' her character in the comics say. And it's such a matter of lack of information: she went to law school, married a man she loves, can run a marathon and watch a movie by her own in the movie theater. Despite those signs of normality, she spends a lot of time convincing people she is not a threat and she is more cute than hot.
How people see and interact with her is the result of misunderstanding, lack or manipulation and information but because voices like hers are missing. I love the humour and simplicity of her memoirs and I can only hope that she will create more books on this topic and more voices like hers will be heard.

Rating: 4 stars

Book Review: The Last Tourist by Olen Steinhauer

The impact of the post-Cold War and post-9/11 to the intelligence community and challenges are hard to fathom. Those changes still in the making require a completely different knowledge and type of personality to deal with.
Olen Steinhauer's books are often opening windows into both the old and the new worlds, with both sides of the coins revealed. The Last Tourist, forthcoming the 24th of March, is the fourth into the Milo Weaver series, following octopus-shaped connections of money and corporate interests from West Sahara to Davos.
There is a world in the making that the tourists - CIA-trained assasins - are molding, together with other groups of interests and overnight powerful individuals. The human relationships - family ones particularly - are desintegrating and sometimes replaced by cruel survival instinct. Ethnic identities, nation-states or languages are no longer sources of power but the corporations and results of mergers and acquisitions. 
The world the characters of Olen Steinhauer inhabit does not have any hint of nostalgia, it is described as simply and realistically as possible. 
Maybe the action as such in this book is not so breathtaking, at least not for my taste, but what was fascinating for me was the dynamics between characters. The majority were motivated to join secret societies and intelligence offices in order to search the hidden knowledge enabling to understand how the world really function. While searching, they've found though different meaning and fragments of truth that further shaped their course of action. Nowadays, there is no more a single truth and reality is multiple and often depends on the viewer's interests,
The Last Tourist is a really interesting thriller, for both the writing and the actuality of the topics featured. It might make things more blurred before they got clearer but it's worth the intellectual suspense.

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

Friday, February 28, 2020

The Story of an Unexpected Spy

It started in the most genuine, innocent way: a young student passionate about history and politics attended a job fair and left a CV to the CIA stand. Shortly after, she got a call at her sorority house and started the recruitment process that she concluded successfully. At 22, she enters the Agency as a woman, the youngest and often the only woman from teams she was part of.
Woman, Jewish, often bullied in school but other girls, Tracy is resilient: 'ignore them, shore up, focus on what you want to do, who you want to be and not what other people want from you'. Long before she joined the agency, she wished she is able to be part of a context that allows her to change something from this world: 'More than ever, I wanted to be part of the solution to these worldwide and domestic problems, but I couldn't bring myself to admit this aloud'. I dare to say many political science graduates nurture such wishes, but not all achieve them so straightforward. 
During that September 11, 2009 she was already part of the counterterrorism staff and had the feeling of a big professional failure for not being able to prevent the terrorist attacks: 'There had been chatter about Al Qaeda's plan to hijack planes, there had been chatter about plans to blow up buildings. But no one in the CIA had detailed information about when or where'.
For Tracy, the stakes are high and she travels often all over the world to cope with the new realities. The cause of her disappointments are not only related to the complexities of the new situations on the ground but also due to the new hawkish American policy directions. And there is something else that seems to interfer with her professional qualifications, especially when abroad: the fact that she is a woman. Intelligence doesn't need to have a gender but not everyone working in the field of intelligence is intelligent. 
The worse is yet to come: as she decided to change career and was accepted in the FBI, the sheer degree of sexism and bullying encountered during her training is hard to imagine. But apparently, the order of the day.
Tracy's voice is genuine, avoiding any pathetic temptations. It's rather describing than making personal statements or offering an adventurous account of her life. It is a story of a journey of self-discovery and ackowledging of the reality, including of the unfair limits women had to fight against everywhere, even by succumbing to the temptations of becoming themselves the defender of the mysoginistic injustices.
But Tracy wants to change the world therefore she will not accept this 'reality' aiming at offering to her daughter something different. Therefore, The Unexpected Spy is more than an adventurous account of a lady spy, it is a book about personal experiences and women voices that want to be heard.
The final version of the book was sanctioned by the departments in charge of the intelligence agencies and the sensitive fragments were obliterated. 

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


Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Embarking on the Mother Ship

The latest book of Francesca Segal is different than all the other ones she ever wrote. Mother Ship is a memoir documenting diary-style the time her identical twin daughters born ten weeks prematurely spent in the neonatal section. 
As usual, there is a before and after and and the future is filled  with uncertainties. It shows the fine lines separating life from death, the fragility of human beginnings, and the power - although random and temporarily - of human connections and sisterhood. 
Day by day, she is recording the slight changes into the life of the girls, born 10 weeks earlier than expected: she is destructuring gestures and feelings, learning to learn and decipher new languages and values. 'The consultant replies with averages, with statistics, with outcomes, with contingencies', she shares about her interactions with the many specialists and nurses surrounding the little daughters. This new world is unexpected and obviously she is not prepared for it. It is not the motherhood she was looking for: guarding the screens recording the vital signs of her daughters, feeding them with syringe, trying to see them through the many tubes obstructing their small faces.
The words are helping to reflect on this reality. She is no more a writer or an employed busy person, she is becoming a mother. What does it really mean is a matter of personal interpretation. Sisterhood of the mothers in the neonatal section helps, it offers a background but most importantly the much needed support.
'Today, I sit down silently in a room of strangers, expressing and expressing. I have no milk. But women talk there while there own bottles fill, and I listen at their feet like a disciple'.
Once the situation is getting stable, she is starting to reclaim her life back, her body, her relationship. Also her own interpretation of motherhood, beyond what are the society and cultural expectations. 
In addition, this memoir is also a kind account of the dedication of the medical personnel, their unconditional professionalism and love for the little humans.
The Mother Ship is different of other books about motherhood from the point of view of the topic approached but also the genuine, not emotional yet candid different introduction to motherhood. Although not a favorite topic, the good writing kept me interested until the happy ending.

Rating: 4 stars

Visiting the Existentialist's Café

Between 16 and 18 yo, I've breath, eat and read philosophy. Day and night, in all the languages I knew at the time. It was less an 'existential crisis', but rather the sudden discovery of how far the mind can go. It was not my intention of becoming a philosopher or a revolutionary thinker but most of my intellectual development in the years to come owe to those intensive years when the world of thinking opened up to my curious teenager mind. Later on, the contacts rarefied in terms of new information but my thinking is at a great extent anchored in concepts I've acknowledged then.
The existentialists were by far my favorite clique. I become familiar with them long before my feverish philosophical exploration due to family affiliations and the French culture I was naturally connected. Out of the many other schools of thought it made the most sense for me as it offered a way to integrate the abstract concepts into life by effectively living them at their fullest. At a great extent, it reached my expectations in terms of the duality life/thought.
But as in the case of the other abstractions I had to deal to during my adventurous life, soon I will cease thinking about existentialists too because life was expecting me and I refuse to decline its appeal for abstractions of any kind.
At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell brought me back to those carefree years of my life when my biggest worry was how to get another excuse for skipping the boring regular school for some extra reading hours. Its biggest merit is of pledging for the authenticity and actuality of existentialist philosophy nowadays: 'When reading Sartre on freedom, Beauvoir on the subtle mechanisms of oppression, Kierkegaard on anxiety, Camus on rebellion, Heidegger on technology or Merleau-Ponty on cognitive science, one sometimes feel one is reaching the latest news'. 
Through punctilious research on various interpretations of Existentialism in its different languages, Sarah Bakewell documented not only the concepts but especially the individuals that created them. Thus, she broke the convenient tabu for too long imposed in human sciences according to which the personal life of humanists and their work must be separated. Which is so wrong and a superficial solution for hiding under the carpet inconvenient truths about problematic personalities national cultural 'heroes'. Like, for instance, the notorious case of Heidegger whose work and philosophy cannot be separated from his brown past.
The lecture is entertaining, particularly if you are familiar with the works and ideas. Sometimes it's like reading gossips about famous people and not all chapters are equal, but it is good written and made me think to return to some serious philosophy reading. Not necessarily Heidegger, for the record.

Rating: 3 stars

Thursday, February 20, 2020

'10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World'

'Istanbul was, and would always remain, a city of impromptu spectacles and ready-made, eager spectators'.
10 minutes and 38 seconds after her body was dumped in a garbage bin in the outskirts of Istanbul, Tequila Leila reminds her life. Her heart stopped beating, but her brain is still working and is intensively involved in recollecting the most relevant episodes of her existence.
Tequila Leila is a sex worker, an outcast that left her native Van fleeding sexual abuse, lies and a dysfunctional polygamous family - a house 'full of lies and deceptions'. Her memories are made not only of people, but of vivid smells and tastes, the testimony of a life lived fully, although from the margins of the society.
The actions are taking place in the 1960s-1990s, and the political context - both local and international is following shortly the personal story. No detail is accidental - including the fact that the main hero was born in Van, an important benchmark on the map of the Armenian genocide that Turkey adamantly refuses to ackowledge - and the similarities with the changes the Turkish society underwent in the last years are obvious: religious intolerance, suspicion against intellectuals, aggressivity against minorities and foreigners, particularly refugees.
Even when she is talking about the sexual abuse she was the victim of as a small child, Tequila Leila doesn't let hate prevail. The beautiful storytelling of Elif Shafak is there to remind the power of human deeds and friendship. Leila's five long time loyal friends will try to get her out of the Cemetery of Companionless and eventually bury her near her revolutionary husband D/Ali. The comical turn of a tragic event as well as their dedication to Tequila Leila's memory are the best answer to the everyday violence that took over the streets of Istanbul. 
The story might start with THE END, but her life will be remembered through her friends and then, there is no end.
This is the power of storytelling, to bring beauty and eternal consistency to the fragility of life in this strange world.

Rating: 5 stars

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Book Review: All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg

How and why what we call 'love' lasts? How can we keep being in love with an abusive - not necessarily physical - human despite all? Did love make you strong? Does hate make you weak?
Victor Tuchman has a gangster-like reputation and lifestyle. He seems to be the kind of human doing what he wants with his and other people lives. His wife, Barbara, is mostly aware of it but couldn't care less. For her, life with him is safe, although with time she developed her own emotions-free way to deal with all this. Their children, Alex and Gary are estranged from their parents and as Tuchman is on his deathbed they are haunted by questions regarding their parents. At what extent do we carry the choices of our parents? What do we need to know about our parents?
All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg - previously present on my blog with All Grown Up -  is a book of many questions and questioning. It is about a clash between generations and completely different definitions of relationships and romantic love. There are no answers as those able to give it are eventually too busy living their lives.
For me, this was one of those books where although I appreciated the writing and the characters development, I could not relate at all with the characters. Sometimes it just happens to feel alienated as a reader.
(I've listened to the audio version of the book.)

Rating: 3 stars

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Rumi, unseen poems

'You're at peace when you don't need more or less, When you don't need to be a king or a saint, When you're free from the sorrows of the world, When you're free from the tiniest atom of himself'.

The 13rd century Sufi mystic Rumi is enjoying an outstanding popularity nowadays. During those times of 'me-time', and other selfish excuses we invent to avoid for fully assuming human relationships, some might find refuge in its poetry. Or looking for excuses. Which is wrong.
Rumi is writing about being one and free, but only for joining the togetherness thereafter. Isolation is not for him an act of singular and lonely destiny, but an intermediate stage during which the spirit is getting accustomed with both happiness and sorrow, ackowledge them just to feel further liberated from them.
Many of his poems are easily categorized in the 'Love' shelf, but for me it often refer to a much bigger and stable one, aiming at the spiritual meeting between creature and Creator. More than once, his love poems reminded me of the hidden beauty of Shir Ha'Shirim (The Song of Songs). 
Those are my fresh thoughts on Rumi after going more than once through the recently Unseen poems published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group last autumn. There is no surprise that many of Rumi published poems are in fact translations of translations which seems to happen often in the case of Persian poetry. I personally own an old edition of Shahnameh by Ferdowsi which I discovered recently was in fact translated from a French edition. The Rumi poems collected in this edition are not only first time published for the English-speaking public but translated from the original Persian by Brad Gooch and Maryam Mortaz.
We need more poetry, more insights and guidance through spiritual life, and less selfishness and mean excuses for a 'safe' life of emotional isolationism. Read correctly, with an open heart Rumi can offer a remedy.

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

Monday, February 3, 2020

Book Review: The Institute by Stephen King

The latest book by Stephen King, The Institute, is a classical thriller, with a touch of science fiction, with elegant terrifying references to everyday America and its nasty president
Gifted children from all over America are kidnapped and brought to the Institute, whose aim is to extract and manipulate those super powers - telekinesis and telepathy - and turned them into heartless monsters ready to kill.
The action of the book, like all Stephen King's books, takes place in America and a significant part of it is dedicated to description of the deep American countryside and its inhabitants, haunted by conspiracy theories and urban myths. 
Some of those myths had to do with the so-called curse of the intelligence, as it is considered that those with an over the norm IQ may hide demonic powers threatening the normality of the rest of the people. The Institute, to whom we are introduced after many hundreds of pages and as we will find out at the very end of the book was a relic of the Cold War, is aimed to supress and control those gifts. Different, special people, either intelligent or minorities are easily becoming a target.
The children are kidnapped from all over the country, their parents are murdered and brought to this bizarre establishment, organised as a semi-military basis and served by people with a military past themselves. Here, the children are submitted to various medical experiments, by people able to torture and kill those innocent souls because they made a clear distinction between real life and duty. The duty of serving a superior good, not explicitly stated but strongly believed. Very often, the ambiance of the book is suffocating and filled with strange energies. You don't know what it is about to happen, for how long and what torture method will follow. The reader is becoming part of the experiments too. Even as a spectator, it is mentally exhausting.
Everything changes once the impossible occurrs: Luke Ellis is the first kid to ever escape The Institute. Once this happens, the pace and the ambiance change and for a certain amount of pages, the focus is if he will really succeed to escape the network of stringers the Institute has all over the country.
I've read the book fast, but often had to take long breaks to relieve the pressure which doesn't necessarily had to do with the thriller/horror part of it. It is unbearable to witness, even as a reader, so much evildoing. Something we witness way too much nowadays around the world.
From the literary construction point of view, I felt more than once that the book is focused more on characters building, with the course of action being left behind. Despite those imbalances, The Institute is one of those books that you hardly forget. Like many of Stephen King's books.

Rating: 4 stars

Book Review: The Book of Unknown Americans, by Cristina Henriquez

'We're the unknown Americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they've been told they're supposed to be scared of us and because maybe, if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we're not that bad, maybe even that we're a lot like them. And who would they hate then?'
In a time when the hateful political discourse in America targeting immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries is at its peak and the literary world is discussing who and at what extent is allowed to write about non-white immigrants, there are decent books on the topic to keep you away from this Babel.
The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez is made of different first person stories of immigrants of South or Central American origin whose lives are intertwined. There are voices from Panama, Nicaragua, Mexico, Guatemala and Venezuela, of different ages and with different social and educational backgrounds. Some are citizens, some just arrived. Some come here for their children, others for a better life for themselves. For all, America is not a dream, but a necessity. There is no other place they would go, and often once they took the decision to move here there is no way back. 
The accounts are simple, sometimes just an account of facts, slow paced, without anything special happening. This simplicity gives authenticity to the writing in my opinion, because everything goes smoothly and is as natural as the daily flow of life. Those modest voices sound like voices of real people, normal everyday people, struggling to survive and working hard. The survival from a day to another is the meaning they often give to life.
This uncomplicated slow-paced life account reveals though terrible realities those 'unknown Americans' are facing every day: abuse in the workplace, discrimination, racism. However, those people do not try to change the world, at the same extent they don't come here to build fantastic careers. They try to protect themselves, to strengthen their ties with their local community and live their life. They will never accuse America, they will never hate America. They just keep living their modest lives.
In a very simple beautiful way, The Book of Unknown Americans reveals a world rarely seen. No one is writing news stories about those 'unknown' people. They are too human to make it on the front page. But I am glad to have discovered them. Knowing they exist makes your life of priviledges humble.

Rating: 4 stars