Monday, April 14, 2014

Books: Paris: The Novel. Edward Rutherfurd, 2013

Could not finish this book by internationally best selling author of historical fiction Edward Rutherfurd.
It is a combination of a Paris tour guide and a soap opera intertwined with French history on high-school level. 
Think about the vast audience out there that actually reads Rutherfurd - readers endowed with intellectual naivete and literary innocence...

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Saturday, April 05, 2014

Books: My Struggle - Part 1. A Man in Love - Part 2. A Novel by Karl Ove Knausgaard, 2012, 2013

I resisted liking My Struggle. It won me over slowly after I had finished the first half of the book and at the end of it I was convinced that it is one of the best books I have come across recently. The ending of the first part of My Struggle (the events following the death of Karl Ove's father) is an example of some truly great writing without even trying to be one. This is actually the secret of the book - it is great literature pretending to be a documentary account of simple everyday events. The book has some of the magnificent qualities of  Scandinavian literature - the somber tone, the harrowing honesty to oneself to the point of self-flagellation and to the point of cruelty when it concerns the others, the fearless embrace of life. It is written in the great tradition of Ibsen, Strindberg and Bergman...And of course, it owes a lot to Proust but in a sense, it is also quite anti-Proustian. This book deals with the nature of memory but not in the narcissistic way that can be so boring in Proust. It dwells on the minutiae of life with a sense of desperation - the desperation that life has no essence, that there is nothing beyond the string of fleeting moments which can never be satisfactory because one is always speeding towards the next moment dreaming that it would be more complete. The sense that the present cannot be truly experienced because one always is in want of something else. 

I have never been so conscious of the oppression of small talk and socializing as after reading Knausgaard. His account of a child's birthday party is more valuable than a book with dozens of fictional characters vainly searching for happiness. His descriptions of a drive home after a failed attempt at vacationing with his family, or a Christmas party with friends, or trying to return a soup in a restaurant, or just smoking outside his apartment building and observing the kids' play, etc. etc. -- are more insightful than hundreds of pages of many (critically acclaimed) novels.

Sometimes, the emotions conveyed are so true, so close to reality, that because of that lack of fictional distance between the narrator and the reader, one just wants to close the book and cry.

I don't want fiction, I want to read Knausgaard.
                                                                                                                             "Too much desire, too little hope"
                                                                                                                                                                           Knausgaard

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Saturday, March 15, 2014

Media: Boycott Upworthy and Buzzfeed!

Really! I am appealing to people for whom news media mean something as a source of information, analysis or opinion, and just good reading.

Boycott these sites and their intrusive postings and sharings on Facebook. Boycott any headline that is imitating their so called "viral" style. Don't click on any headline that contains a list like "5 things" or "45 tips," etc. etc. or headlines that start with "watch," "see," "this girl (did xyz)" and the like... Don't click on a headline that suggests what your reaction to reading the article should be! Don't be underestimated! Don't allow to be manipulated. Don't be fooled - once or twice --you'll always be the stupid one and shame will be on you and you only. What will you learn if you click on "Humans Aren't Stupid, We Just Happen To Be Acting Very Stupidly"? (Upworthy) Does this headline even make any sense? Curiosity is a great driver of human progress. It urged man to look up at the stars and seek answers about the universe. But the type of curiosity that makes you click on Buzzfeed's headlines is the same as the one that makes you look into your neighbors' window. And, no, you are not going to solve any crime ("Rear Window"). Peeping is a titillating form of entertainment. Can you refrain from it? There are better sources of entertainment - just think about it!

Monday, March 03, 2014

Books: Flour Water Salt Yeast. Ken Forkish

My friend Sibylla gave me the perfect gift -- a cookbook about baking artisan bread. It turned out to be much more than a collection of recipes. It's an ode to bread! After Garlic and Sapphires this is the first cookbook that I read with such pleasure. Mr. Forkish renders the thrills of baking bread vividly and with love --the tactile nature of the work, the magic of the rising dough, the smell of the levain, the simple elegance of the cinnamon-brown pain de campagne and the fantastic aroma of freshly-baked bread in the morning...

Have you ever thought of what a bread-tasting event would be like? Mr. Forkish offers this experience in his bakery.

The book also perpetuates the glory of the life-style change myth - a man's dream of leaving everything behind and becoming a baker, or a wine-maker, or a restaurateur, or whatever... The author was adventurous enough to make that leap of faith himself. After 20 years in the IT business he started his own bakery in Portland. A very successful one at that!

Ah, the romance of waking up at 4 AM to bake bread....


Sibylla Chavdar's perfect hand-made bread photographed by her.

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Books: Troubling Love. A novel by Elena Ferrante

I decided to give a second chance to Ferrante hoping to read something of the quality of Days of Abandonment. Troubling Love is satisfying to an extent. It is a bold and ambitious book which tries to capture the complexities of a mother-daughter love-hate relationship. The narrator Delia, struggles to understand her relationship with Amalia, her mother, on the day after her mother's death by drowning. As Delia puts it quite appropriately at some point: "I was here to cross a line". And she does cross that line. Occasionally, she also crosses the line of literary taste getting lost into convoluted psychoanalytical kitsch. Had the narrative been simpler, crisper, Delia's digging into the past in order to recover the truth buried under convenient post-factum rationalizations and lies, would have provided a more revealing and cathartic experience. The "truth" about Amalia's past, not surprisingly, revolves around her husband's jealousy, his violence, her lover (imagined by her child-daughter), her repressed sexuality. Delia both wishes for, and hates and fears her mother's erotic liberation. One of her childhood memories is of her sitting with her parents in a summer theater, her mother furtively glancing around in the dark, her father possessively putting an arm around her shoulder: "Amalia after a stealthy look sideways, curious and yet apprehensive, let her head fall on my father's shoulder and appeared happy. That double movement tortured me. I didn't know where to follow my mother in flight, if along the axis of that glance or along the parabola that her hair made in the direction of her husband's shoulder.I was beside her, trembling. Even the stars, so thick in summer, seemed to me points of my confusion. I was to such an extent determined to become different from her that, one by one, I lost the reason for resembling her." Good writing.

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Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Books: My Brilliant Friend. A Novel by Elena Ferrante, 2011

This is the second novel by Ferrante that I read and it was a disappointing experience. It traces the friendship of two girls - Elena and Lila in Naples of the 1950s. As the publisher's description has it - the novel is set in "the poor but vibrant neighborhood" in the outskirts of the city. The phrase "poor but vibrant" is a horrible cliche which firstly does not mean anything and secondly by juxtaposing poverty and vibrancy masks a disdain for poverty which (thank God...) can be at least "vibrant"...At the beginning of the novel the girls are eight years old. Ferrante tries to imbue the details of their life with great significance - social and psychological which the two child characters cannot sustain. That is the problem with all novels about children - or stories told through the point of view of children - they are "retrospectively" excessively and annoyingly smart. The adult narrator transpires through the fake child's point of view and imposes her heavy schematics on the child's experience.

I guess, I have no patience for the drama of a lost doll.

In addition, the novel has dozens of characters - all very "vibrant" and "tough" - and the epic picture of a poor neighborhood, industriously built by Ferrante, feels like something I have read and seen (reference -- Italian neorealism) many many times before. The literary style that attracted me to this author in The Days of Abandonment now hangs in thin air, inflated and vain, unsupported by a story worth telling.

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Friday, January 31, 2014

Books: Nine Inches. Short Stories by Tom Perrotta

Perrotta knows his suburbs. The stories in this collection sound like studies for a TV series - and he is making one based on another of his books "Leftovers". He has found his genre and this is not a condescending statement. BTW, Election, based on Perrotta's novel is one of Alexander Payne's best films.
Suburban life according to Perrotta is deeply disappointing. His characters are under-performers who struggle to regain their life after a single faux pas; their stories - light versions of "after the Fall"...His male characters are infantile, his female characters -- bitches with hearts of gold.
The book jacket quotes a critic's definition of Perrotta as the "Suburban Steinbeck". This is an oxymoron! He is nothing like Steinbeck and neither is he a Chekhov - lacks Chekhov's contempt for human pettiness...

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Thursday, January 23, 2014

Books: A Glass of Blessings. Novel by Barbara Pym

I read this novel because it was recommended by Adichie, the Nigerian novelist and author of "Americanah". I can see why she was interested given Nigeria's anti-gay laws.

This is the type of British fiction where you come across sentences like this: "I was glad to be alone in my room, with the view over the garden, well polished mahogany furniture, pink sheets and towels, and  a tablet of rose-geranium soap in the washbasin" or like this: "He is the kind of person who ought to have a steady unearned income." There is a Jane Austin feel to it and the whole plot revolves around a mysterious Mr. Darcy type of character who disturbs the church going and charitable tea party routine of the heroine, a young rich bored Londoner. The great twist here is that Mr. Darcy is gay. A delightful reading. A very subtle novel about sexuality and homosexuality without these topics ever being mentioned or touched explicitly - a 70s novel...

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