Thursday, December 24, 2015

In the mind fields, Casey Schwartz

Science journalist Casey Schwartz's "In the Mind Fields" introduces us to a small group of mental health professionals who have made a compelling case that psychoanalysis and neurobiology should converge and support each other, maybe become one thing wherever possible. For them, Freud should not be relegated to a footnote. These critics acknowledge the value of brain research, but they also think that there is still a huge value in psychiatry. Just as 20th century Freudianism erred by being too brainless, they argue, 21st century neuroscience runs the risk of becoming too mindless.

I found this book fascinating for the most part. The concept is ambitious and surely sooner or later these two fields of study will converge, as ultimately their subject is the same: the human brain.

However, I do not think this book presents really strong examples, and I don't think it has a lot to offer in the practical sense.

First though, I have to say I am not fully in agreement with the author's basic premise. She is right in suggesting that neurobiology can often make the mistake of forgetting the person, the mind, the human being behind the neurons, the synapses, the proteins etc. and that the approach of psychoanalysis can sometimes help scientists get a more holistic approach to the patient. However, through her intense love for Sigmund Freud, she far overestimates the value of psychoanalysis per se, which is today - as it should be - dying a slow death.

It was during the 80's that Schwartz's protagonist, Mark Solms, began to feel dissatisfied with the field. In 1985, Solms headed the neurology department in Baragwanath Hospital in Cape Town, the largest hospital in the world at the time. Amid political chaos, language barriers and the after-effects of violent crimes, Solms underwent "an immersion education in human fragility," Schwartz writes. "One bump, one bullet, one burst blood vessel, and suddenly our identity is pulled out from beneath us, and we are someone else".

So he turned to psychotherapy. Thus began Solms's quest to integrate Freud's work into rehab. He founded neuropsychoanalysis and began preaching its benefits to all who would listen. In 2001, Solms organized a group of psychoanalysts who would meet in a small apartment on New York's Upper East Side to discuss their work with brain-damaged patients and seek advice, round-table style.

Schwartz travels to South Africa to attend Solms' sessions and to take copious notes about his life and work. Some of Solms' intuitions are powerful, but I didn't think there is enough "meat". In other words, neuropsychoanalysis is a great concept, but still very underdeveloped (because of our lack of neurobiological knowledge).

Here are my thoughts: Freud is not as important today as the author would like him to be. He had some great intuitions, yes, but without having any scientific instruments at his disposal, he jumped to conclusions that in many cases were wrong or even horribly wrong. A bit like those ancient people who said "the Earth looks flat, therefore it's flat". It wasn't their fault they were wrong. But they should not have jumped to conclusions.

For example, in "The interpretation of dreams", Freud went completely off a tangent and gave dreams a symbolic value they very rarely have. For the most part, dreams are just what they are: incoherent mental farts.

In my opinion, today psychology and psychoanalysis should not even be around anymore. We should get rid of them altogether, place them in a museum, next to the telegraph and the Commodore 64. After 100 years, there is still no proof that they can actually "cure" a patient, aside from the random successes that they can have, especially when the patient has a very specific and superficial issue (i.e. fear of blades, or fear of dogs).

Neurobiology is the present and the future of our understanding of the brain. Research instruments are getting more and more powerful, so give it another 10-20 years, and neurobiology will finally hammer that last nail into the coffin of psychoanalysis.

Therefore, I find the author's stance unbalanced when she sees psychoanalysis and neurobiology simply as two disciplines that find themselves on the same level, only with a communication issue. Yes, the mind is only one, and why have two separate fields trying to explain the same thing, but no, today the two fields are not equally valid or important. Psychoanalysis is almost a corpse, and it carries with itself so much engrained ignorance and prejudice, while neurobiology is a little kid buzzing with energy, opportunities, and most importantly, a fresh and open mind. Schwartz never really acknowledges this huge and fundamental difference.

Plus, why would you need Freud in order to have a more human approach to your patients and their minds? You just need to take a more human approach. That can come from anywhere, not only from Freud: literature, music, personal experience, religion, anything else. Why do you need Freud?

From the formal perspective, the book is very well written and you can often feel the author's passion coming through, but I have to say, the structure is messy.

This work contains something like 4 or 5 different books, all of them incomplete and cobbled together like random sticky notes. While the various chapters are all vaguely about the same topic, it seems like Schwartz couldn't make up her mind on what kind of book she was actually writing: a memoir, a travelogue, an essay, a series of short biographies? This book is all of these things patched together, and glued together by autobiographical notes that don't seem to matter for the book, or to go anywhere.

While researching the material for a non-fiction book, many authors travel, interview specialists, talk with professionals in a specific field. But then what they do in the book is they provide the results of that research, not the actual description of their work of researching. Why would the readers care about that, unless the writer is an eye-witness to moments of great historic importance?

Unfortunately, for the most part of the book, that is what the author decided to do, and in my opinion this does not work well, because: 1) it slows down the book; 2) it adds little or nothing to the subject matter - which is the only reason why you are reading the book, and 3) it gives you the idea that some greatly important epiphany or discovery is going to come out of that conversation or that piece of research, while in fact nothing much really happens, only a few examples of patients whose problems were helped by analysts who were open minded and cared for the human side.

Finally, the last few chapters follow a specific case that - again - is presented as truly important for the subject matter, but while reading it you realize that it doesn't really add much, despite the author spent a lot of time on it. 

Overall, a work of great ambition and an important concept. At best, it might be too soon for a book like this. At worst, this is a messy book that over-reaches and ends up with not much to offer.

Everything that rises must converge, Flannery O'Connor

I wonder why so many people keep calling Flannery O'Connor a genius. She was a good writer, maybe, from the point of view of the craft. But boy, there is something seriously wrong with these stories.

What exactly is wrong?

Well, let's start with the fact that they are sermons, parables: O'Connor has no interest in telling you a story for the sake of narration. She is out to preach from her typewriter. Her readers need to be taught how to accept the grace of God in their life, and O'Connor believed that writing her type of weird, grotesque stories was the best way to do exactly that.

But do these stories achieve their goal to make your soul stir and open up to God?  Hell, no. Not for one second. They do not resonate with me and they did not resonate with many other readers whose reviews I've gone through. As a catholic myself, I could find not even a pale reflection of my spirituality in these stories.

Why? Because the preaching is aggressive, bitter and enraged. These stories emanate a really, really bad energy. And I don't mean the bad energy that the author consciously created as a personality trait of her doomed characters (especially the "young ungrateful intellectual male", who is everywhere in this book), no, I have no problem with dark stories or characters. I'm actually talking about the deep, underlying energy of these stories, the raw emotional energy of old Flannery herself. You know that feeling you get when as a reader you touch the soul of the writer? I felt Flannery's soul was seriously tormented. And angry. That feeling her soul was emanating, whatever she thought she was doing with her stories, had nothing positive about it.

Nothing forgiving, nothing joyous, nothing constructive about the soul that she infused in her stories. Through her writing, she just emanates bad vibes, she gives out whiffs of unhappiness, of frustration (personal issues, maybe?). She judges her non-redeemed characters mercilessly, she hates them with a passion, she tortures them until things inevitably end up in disaster for them. How is this supposed to dispose me, as a reader, in an open listening mode at all? What brand of Christianity is this? Maybe one that was popular in the 13th century? Even if it came from a priest in church, as opposed to a writer, I would find this type of preaching bigoted and, frankly, revolting.

Perhaps most importantly, I found myself in complete disagreement with the author's "moral of the story" every single time.

Her goal was to portray characters who did not allow the grace of God in their lives, and to show how badly that works out for them (as she said in an interview). And even worse, she does that by constantly siding with the wrong characters, and by condoning any type of nasty, anti-social behavior as long as a character is adhering to some superficial aspect of Catholicism.


1) One can be an insane, violent criminal (like the old guy in her novel "Wise blood"), but as long as he is driven by the obsession to baptize his kid, he wins and he gets the moral high ground in O'Connor's world.

2) "The enduring chill": One can be a loud, annoying, disrespectful and aggressive priest who barges into your room while you're actually dying and you don't want anyone around, but as long as he says that you need to open up to the Holy Spirit, he is the real hero of the story. You are wrong and he is right.

3) "Greenleaf": One can be a poor single mother who had to work hard all her life to raise two sons, but if she doesn't accept God in her life, she gets the Wrath of Flannery. There is a gigantic bull ruining her property, and all the poor woman wants is to get the fucking bull out of her loan, but no. She is wrong. Her employees, who are responsible for the bull, are lazy and totally unreliable. However, because they are somehow open to God, they get to win first prize: they have happy children, wealth, and serenity. While the poor woman is the baddie of the story.

I could go on and on, but I hope this is clear enough.

On the other hand, there are vignettes that deserve mention, like the little girl and her grandpa in the second story: their dialogue makes for vibrant, original comedy. But even with that story, things go south very soon, and rather than feeling that you should accept the grace of God, you feel like you have no clue what the story you just read actually meant.

Tastes are different, but let's at least use the word "genius" with extra care around this author.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Edge of tomorrow, Ken Follett

This is the third and final - and worst - installation of the "Century Trilogy" by Ken Follett. I listened to the audiobook, read with too much pomp and too little warmth by the actor, as if he was reading the news.

The book is good until about half way through, but the second part turns into a YA novel and it doesn't work as well.

Be warned: there is no real, 360 degrees history here. Most of it is over-simplified, cartoonish history, as seen through left-leaning eyes.

Yes, I enjoyed flashing through the Cold War period, while following the descendants of the five families that readers have been following since the first book, Fall of Giants, set against the background of WWI. Geographies included are, again, mainly the US, Russia, Germany and the UK.

But ... this is definitely NOT a book I would recommend. It was ok to listen to, and it kept me company in my walks or car trips. But, unlike the first and second book, this third one has some very, very big issues.

THE ONLY GOOD THING: the plot is constantly gripping, and it drives you forward. Ken Follett is a master at that. He is a plot-driven writer. It's not that he doesn't write well, it's that he cares mostly about the story. His language is only a tool. He said that he wants his language to be like a "glass pane", that you can clearly see through to the story, while when a writer uses a richer or flowery language, the glass pane is distracting the reader from the story. His favorite writers are Ian Fleming, Stephen King and the likes. In short, writers of fast-paced, action-packed stories. In fact, action scenes are where Follett really excels.

BAD: the history is accurate, but it is reported with an awfully simplistic, politically charged, stereotypical approach. What are the stereotypes about the Cuba crisis? Here you find them all. What are the stereotypes about the Watergate scandal? Here you find them all. Did Kennedy sleep around and was gossiped to love rubber ducks in his bathtub? Check and check, sleeping around and rubber ducks.

(in line with being stereotypical, Follett never mentions the heavy womanizing of Martin Luther King. Because, you know, that's something you just don't do).

Not only Follett puts his own political agenda in the novel (especially in the second part of the book), he also does it so superficially, with the same high-school level of historic depth you would get from a drunk in a pub, telling you how Reagan was just a murderer and Nixon was nothing but a crook.

Trust me, you will find much more historical insight in the movie Forrest Gump.

Everything is explained with the childishness of a cartoon. Even worse, it sounds like Follett's opinions are actually built on this type of cartoonish reconstruction of the events.

The WORST thing of Edge of Eternity is that, while typically good historic fiction helps you get in the skin of the people who really lived in a specific time, in this book the characters are there to make only high-school history come alive. They are not real people, they are puppets in the hands of a writer (and his many ghost writers) who seems to base his political opinions on a slim book of "World History".

Real history is the real victim of this book. It is completely forgotten.

BAD: Republicans and conservatives in general have zero positive traits. They are literally the baddies in this book. Aside from the other left-leaning narratives that Follett fully embraces, he reaches his peak when he presents the end of Communism purely as a spontaneous combustion, while explicitly describing the US and CIA foreign policy efforts during the Cold War as completely useless, as having no effect whatsoever on the fall of Communism. Therefore, every US foreign policy operation was totally stupid and worthless. Ugh!! *pukes* Is it too much to ask for some middle ground where someone sees things in a more balanced way? The problem is that many teenagers will read Follett's own lefty narrative as if it was the only way to interpret the facts of the 20th century.

BAD: every character is driven by ideals, and almost no one by self interest. Obviously, that takes a lot away from the sense of realism. Let's just say the characters never become real, not once. They are all symbols or tools Follett uses to make his own points, or at best they are the embodiments of wikipedia bullet points about the Cold War period.

He also seems to have a real soft spot for female characters who are self-righteous and aggressively moralizing.

BAD: every single scene ends up in graphic, meticulously described sex. One moment a character is discussing the positives and negatives of the Polish unions, one second later he turns into a porn actor, performing acts of libido on a female journalist as if there was no tomorrow. This is such a killer to the elegance of the overall work. Clearly a commercial decision, to sell to the lusty teens who enjoy that crap, but hey, Follett, did you forget that this really lowers the level of the book to the YA level? No, worse: it's like having the band Kiss jump on stage every 15 minutes while you're seeing a serious well-played drama, and having them sing one of their loud songs, red tongues sticking out and all. Real trash.

Mr Follett, you are part of the 1% as you are already worth 45 million dollars, do you seriously need to use these trashy tricks at the expense of the book's style and elegance? Your name is today a 35 people company ... did none of these 35 ask you: "Are you sure you want to ruin this book with all those graphic sex scenes?". The only reason I can think of is, more sales, more money. I find it really sad.

But most of all, I wish you had had more respect for history, and not made it into a cartoon, parroting out the lefty version of the Cold War era

The Anchor book of new american short stories, edited by Ben Marcus

This book is the literary equivalent of a wine tasting experience. Some wines I found myself spitting all over the wall, but others are incredibly good ones, and make the whole experience worth it.

Sea Oak by George Saunders. 5 stars. Just out-of-this-world wonderful story. Great balance of humor, social commentary and a sprinkle of magic. But mostly humor.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower
. 4 stars. Vikings feeling the blues. Without the attention-grabbing "blood eagle", I'm not sure this story would be as popular as it is.

Do Not Disturb by A.M. Homes
. 3/4 stars. Well crafted but SO brutal in its depiction of a failing marriage.

Gentleman's agreement
by Mark Richard. 4 stars.

The Girl in the Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender
. 1 star. Almost total nonsense. We get a "bunch of subconscious feelings and metaphors about a story", but we don't get the story. Too many elements are either obscure or left to the reader's interpretation (i.e. the two mice, the ending and the title's meaning). So why shouldn't the reader open a phone directory and find his own interpretation of that instead?

The Caretaker by Anthony Doerr.
5 stars. Phenomenal. It inspired me with delight and pleasure. It drew me in completely and made me care for the main character. Also loved the shift of location from Liberia to Oregon.

I'm slavering by Sam Lipsyte
. 1 star. Another "WTF" story that some people may say they like in order to feel special about themselves.

The Old Dictionary by Lydia Davis
. 4 stars.

The Father’s Blessing by Mary Caponegro
3 stars. Makes you really uneasy with its weirdness, and there is a "Whoa!" moment where magic realism comes in, but at least in this story you are allowed to understand what's going on.

The Life and Work of Alphonse Kauders by Aleksandar Hemon
. 1 star. I don't care what thinking went into this biography-by-list of an imaginary person, the story is just bullshit with a cherry on top. I remember writing exactly that type of nonsense (and funnier, too) with a friend of mine at school when we were 12.

The paperhanger by William Gay
. 5 stars. Unbelievable, electric raw-power mystery in the "southern gothic" style. What intensity.

People Shouldn’t Have to be the Ones to Tell You by Gary Lutz
. 1 star. All form, zero substance. I need someone to build a house and here comes this guy who loves bricks, every single one of them, but doesn't care about the house.

Histories of the Undead by Kate Braverman
2 stars. Beautiful writing, absolutely uninteresting content (a mentally ill woman's thoughts)

You drive by Christine Schutt.
1 star. A delicious piece about a father and a daughter having sex in a car. The topic itself is not the main problem (although it would be for me, as in "not interesting, thank you"), the problem is that, in the style of much of this "modern literature", the reader is called to create meaning and interpret things, because all is left unclear. Isn't that cheating? When did writers stop having the responsibility to actually write a story?

When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine by Jhumpa Lahiri.
5 stars. Elegantly written, this story is the only one in the anthology (aside from The Caretaker) that acknowledges the existence of something else outside of America. Yes, it is called "American short stories", but given that fiction is open to anything, I would have liked some more internationally-minded authors.

Down the Road by Stephen Dixon
. 1 star. Crazy dude walking in the night with a woman who is probably dead, and with whom he probably has sexual intercourse. Yeah. Really.

Two brothers by Brian Evenson
. 2 stars. Far too much horror and gore. Not my taste.

All American by Diane Williams
. 3 stars. Sounds like a page taken from a psychopath's diary.
X Number of Possibilities by Joanna Scott. 5 stars. Yes. This is a truly compelling story. Some weird elements but it drew me in in its originality and uniqueness.

Tiny, Smiling Daddy by Mary Gaitskill
. 4 stars. Clever story, father doesn't understand how bigot and disrespectful he's being to his lesbian daughter.

Someone to talk to by Deborah Eisenberg
. 3 stars. Very well written, clever, not pleasant but interesting. Someone said this is the "spiritual core" of this anthology! I scoff with arrogance and move on.

Where I work by Ann Cummins
. 4 stars. Nice little story with no ending.

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace
. 2 stars. I found it uninteresting. The mental ramblings reminded me of the other story in the anthology, "Down the road". I don't think pointless mental ramblings make for very good stories.

The Sound Gun by Matthew Derby
. 3 stars. Surreal war and surreal soldiers.

Short Talks by Anne Carson.
1 star. Angry garbage.

Up the old goat road by Dawn Raffel
. 2 stars. Very unclear. One of those "to be read slowly" maybe, but still very unclear.

Field Events by Rick Bass
. 2 stars. Fairy-tale-like story full of fit male bodies and male nakedness. Next!

Scarliotti and the Sinkhole by Padgett Powell
3 stars - Good, but I found it a bit too experimental, trying to convey the world of someone with some sort of mental issues. Still worth a read.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

City of thieves, David Benioff

City of Thieves"City of thieves" is a wonderful, fun and horrific story based in 1941 Leningrad, a time and a place where you would not want to find yourself. Not even for a minute.

In the hands of the local police, instead of being executed, two young boys are given a shot at saving their own lives by complying with an outrageous directive: secure a dozen eggs for a powerful Soviet colonel to use in his daughter’s wedding cake. In a city cut off from all supplies and suffering unbelievable deprivation, Lev and Kolya embark on a hunt through the dire lawlessness of Leningrad and behind enemy lines to find the impossible.

The book is written in a KenFollettish adventure style - which is not a bad thing, it's just a fast-paced, action-filled style - and it's unbelievably engrossing. The historic background is also very credible and well-researched.

Charming and delicate at times, but mainly dark, grim and repulsive, like a story about the siege of Leningrad should be. There is some real horror in this story, the stuff of urban legends, and despite I'm sure it all happened (and worse) during the II World War, the author seems to aim a little too carefully for the reader-shock effect. But he also infused the novel with a lot of sense of humor, and a good number of heart-warming scenes.

The greatest thing about "City of thieves" is perhaps the dialogue: it's so vivid and alive. Benioff is an accomplished screenwriter (he wrote many if not all episodes of Game of Thrones), and I think you can hear that in the way he masters each character's unique voice. He also has a special skill at setting up exciting scenes where the stakes are raised and the tension is high. Unfortunately, among a lot of good work that he authored, he also wrote one of the very worst movies I've ever seen : "Troy". A rare opportunity to bring the heroes of ancient Greece alive on the silver screen, completely and utterly wasted and gone to the dogs. Although, to be fair to Benioff, the main problem with that movie was the dreadful casting. But that's another story. This novel is so worth reading.

Finally, I have to say I listened to the audiobook, read by Ron Pearlman. He's got a great baritone voice, and his Russian accent is realistic. His intonation and expressiveness were great when he read the dialogue, a bit less so when reading the narrating voice, where his tone verged on the "tough guy" side, without the need to do that.

Gilead, Marilynn Robinson

Gilead (Gilead, #1)Although a work of literary fiction, this is probably the best book about God and the Christian Faith that I've ever read. It achieves what "The experience of God" by David Bentley Hart does, and then it surpasses it, by acknowledging the presumptuousness of anyone who tries to judge anyone else's faith.

Gilead (winner of 2005 Pulitzer for fiction) is written as a letter from a 76-year-old Congregationalist Preacher, John Ames, to his seven-year-old son. The pastor has been given only a few weeks to live by his doctor, and he writes down his thoughts in the hope that his son will read them in the future. This is really a fictional vehicle for the author to offer a splendid meditation on life and death and faith.

This rare thing happened to me while reading Gilead: at first, I couldn't stand it. Once I was about half way through, I started to flat out love it, and by the end I loved it even more, as it's a book that resonates with me in an almost perfect way. I heard that other readers also took some 50-70 pages before warming up to it. 

Initially I couldn't stand the main character, his "I made myself so happy by having you, my 7 year old son, but I'm so sorry I'm not leaving you any money at all, because I am 77, dying and broke". While on one hand he was complaining that he didn't have any money to pass on to his son, on the other he was idolizing his grandpa, who used to bully his wife into giving away all their money and possessions to anyone who asked. Typical human conflict, and typical struggle with money of every idealistic man, who doesn't want to get his hands dirty with the "dung of the Devil", except for when he needs it (can't live with it, can't live without it). In a fictional character, this doesn't make him particularly likable. But the truth is, I was too quick to judge John Ames.

Gilead is a book so full of depth, wisdom and poetry that by the end of it I was in awe. It also contains a lot of Christian theology and explicit and implicit references to the Bible - in particular, to the parable of the prodigal son - but none of that is presented in a preachy or academic tone. And certainly this is not a "book for Christians", as the tone is very open to a universal spirituality (for example: John Ames never mentions Jesus, only God).

In his balanced, slow-paced letter-style monologue, the main character also addresses atheism, and the thoughts of Feuerbach, Hegel, Calvin and other fine minds. His voice feels genuine, coming from the heart, and I'm sure the author often speaks her own mind through John Ames. You can tell that not only Marilynn Robinson means what her main character is saying, she also has clearly given these matters a lot of thought and study, and yes, I admit that, selfishly, seeing her thoughts on religion align perfectly well with mine helped me enjoy the book even more (I am catholic and the author comes from a Congregational church, but that makes zero difference to me).

Above all, it's so rare to find great depth and great positivity mixed together in the same book (or in the same artist / writer / person). It's much more common to find depth and desperation, or a happy superficiality. That's what makes Gilead such a treasure, its profound and optimistic wisdom.

Some reviewers found Gilead boring because there is "no plot". That's not exactly the case, but I can understand that if you are looking for a plot-driven book, this is not a title for you.

Gilead is much larger than its characters and much larger than the events that are being narrated.
As I mentioned above, Robinson used the vehicle of fiction to express some very deep and heartfelt points about faith and religion. In my opinion, her greatest achievement in Gilead is that she succeeds in painting Christianity at its best. Christianity as a living, real thing, as opposed to a bunch of mindless dogmas. Christianity as a way of living, with all its messiness, contradictions, failures and struggles. But also, Christianity as seen from a very wise, positive and self-aware point of view. In fact, I found many thoughts and ideas in this book that seemed to come straight from St Augustin (whom I consider "Christianity at its best" when it comes to thinking).

Here is John Ames, the old pastor, writing about religious self-righteousness:

"People of any degree of religious sensitivity are always vulnerable to the accusation that their consciousness or their understanding does not attain to the highest standards of the faith, because that is always true of everyone. St Paul is eloquent on this subject. But if the awkwardness and falseness and failure of religion are interpreted to mean there is no core of truth in it, then people are disabled from trusting their thoughts, their expression of belief, and their understanding, and even from believing in the essential dignity of their and their neighbors' endlessly flawed experience of belief. It seems to me there is less meanness in atheism [than in religious self-righteousness], by a good measure."

And here's an excerpt from an interview with the author:

Interviewer: "Is GILEAD on some level a novel about “being Christian,” about what it might mean to live a Christian life?"

Robinson: "I think I can guardedly say yes. The fact is, being who I am, my definition of human life is perhaps not readily universalized. But I hope that it is not a narrow view of human life itself. I don’t have the feeling that people need to be Christian in order to understand what the novel is and what it means and so on, to recognize it’s about father-son relations, or parent-child relations. In the New Testament, of course, that’s the major metaphor for the situation of a human being in the world relative to God. I think that, in using that metaphor, the New Testament is appealing to something that people profoundly and universally know: what it is to love a child and what it is to love a parent. So that’s a big subject in the book."

Monday, August 24, 2015

Jack Glass, Adam Roberts

Jack GlassWhat a splendid thing this book is. Inside and outside. Full disclosure: as an experiment, I bought this book ONLY because I loved its cover. I didn't read anything about the content or the author, I carefully avoided reading the cover blurb, and jumped into it in complete ignorance.

I have a very visual imagination and I've loved many book covers before, but I've never bought a book just because of its cover, this was the very first time for me. A complete gamble. And I'm glad it paid off so well!

So, just for a second, take a look at this cover. Not only its intricately crafted stained glass drawing is very beautiful in itself, it also:

1). succeeds in evoking a certain complexity in the plot / content, therefore attracting thinking readers;
2). it works wonders on a tablet or computer screen: the back-lit surface of your device screen will give this cover an even more credible "transparent glass" effect. This cover, in summary, is just a marvel to look at. It deservedly won the BSFA award for "best SF book cover". 

Adam Roberts loves Science Fiction. In a brief TED talk, he said: "Science Fiction is not similar to poetry, science fiction is poetry". So, no surprise there, Jack Glass is a Science Fiction book. In the author’s own words, the novel is a collision of ‘the conventions of ‘Golden Age’ Science Fiction and ‘Golden Age’ detective fiction, with the emphasis more on the latter.

The book is divided in three stories, all connected and all taking place in the same world.

From the start, we know from the narrator that the murderer in each story is Jack Glass, but that's all we know. The mystery lies in Jack's true identity, and in why and how he committed these murders.

The first story blew my mind. It was actually reminiscing of some Golden Age SF. Big Ideas SF. It's dark, intense, full of ideas and horrific, heavy moments.

With the second story the writing's tone shifts completely (maybe a bit too much?), introducing new important characters and, finally, providing a big picture overview of the universe where these stories are taking place. In a sense, you can see the first story almost as a prologue to the book. With the second story, Roberts is much heavier on the detective fiction. Yes we are still in a distant future, but it really feels like reading an Agatha Christie or Arthur C. Doyle story. And that is a good, fun, exciting thing. You can certainly feel the playfulness and the joy that Roberts was feeling while writing this book.

One could say that the main difference with a Sherlock Holmes story is that this one takes place in the future, and therefore it will be much easier for the author to come up with a clever resolution and make it seem oh-so-obvious, because he knows things about this world that the reader does not know. But I would counter that argument by noting that many of the Christie or Doyle stories, although firmly based in the present reality (of their author), used very similar deus-ex-machina devices to resolve everything at the end, and to make the reader feel like he had the obvious solution in front his eyes the whole time, and that he was a fool not to spot it.

The third story, "The impossible gun", sums everything up and brings us to a slightly deeper appreciation of Jack Glass as a complex character, and of his background.

Look, "Jack Glass" is just a load of intelligent fun. It's inspired by works from the Golden Age, but it's very original at the same time, and very well written. Does it lose a little bit of momentum at some points? Maybe it does, especially during the second and third story. Is it a bit too cold in its intricate plot? Again, maybe, but deep and involving character development is not the point of this book.

Maybe it's not a perfect book, but it deserves 4 stars and a half from me for the fun that I had reading it, and for the uncommon level of mental stimulation that it can generate.

SF author Paolo Bacigalupi wrote a very positive review of this book, wondering why an author of Adam Roberts' talent has not won any of the big SF awards yet (he did win the BASF award for Jack Glass though). And Bacigalupi finds his own answer in the fact that Roberts is a unique, very unconventional writer, who focuses on the Big Idea for each one of his books, and then moves on to something completely different. A serial experimenter. While it's much easier - and profitable - in these days, to strike gold with a more or less original concept, and then cash in on the series, and keep writing about the same characters. That might very well be true.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Limbo, Melania Mazzucco - Literature as a slap in the face

LimboMelania Mazzucco is the best contemporary Italian writer I know. She is an author "with balls", writing with the ferocity of Edward Bunker and the raw depth of McCarthy. Make no mistake: behind the elegant style, the masterful architecture, the perfect ear for each voice and the accuracy of the details, there is a wild beast that pushes to the maximum to get right into our most intimate essence of being human. The truth in her novels is outlined with a vivid and brutal force, although beautifully controlled by a master of her craft.

No bullshit. No judgements. Just life. Reality. Naked humanity.

I don't read her novels for the topics they cover anymore: in fact, I do not care to read about a gay couple adopting a child (the theme of her latest novel). But I already know that I will read that book anyway, because now I am addicted to that voice, so powerful and brutal. There are not many like it in the international literary scene.

Let me try to explain: whereas an average writer manages to immerse the reader into a character's thoughts and soul, leaving the reader with a certain feeling of comfort, a certain sense that what you are reading is helping you escape your reality, and it has not much to do with yourself and your life, Mazzucco will slap you in the face, yell "Wake up!", grab your hair and drag you into the character, and when you feel like you've touched the bottom, she will make you dig even deeper, to feel the the character's humanity under every aspect, including the physical one, her body, her armpits, her hair, her biological functions. Until the individuality built in the novel becomes almost more vibrant and palpable than the real-life people who are close to you, your family.

In other words, while reading this author you will often have moments when you find yourself saying: "Oh shit, this is me. It's talking to me here".

What I'm talking about is literature. Real literature, vs any light-weight novel that is out there.

This is a novel about an Italian woman who enlists in the army, fights in Afghanistan as a sergeant, is wounded and lives his rehabilitation in Ladispoli as in a limbo, neither alive nor dead. There she meets a man who finds himself in limbo too, albeit quite a different one. It's clear that the ways of writing this novel and make it a horrible, illegible brick are endless. Indeed, we can say that the plot does not do much to attract your interest when summarized in this way. 

But unlike a novel that I would not consider literature, in "Limbo" the language and the narrative form are not tools used to embellish reality or to make it more pleasant, nicer, or more tolerable. 

Melania Mazzucco loves raw: raw reality, raw characters.

Language is essential, focussed, practical. It becomes a tool that the author uses to sharpen the senses of the reader and encourage you to see reality with eyes open wide, throwing beams of bright light onto corners of life that are in the dark or that we keep ourselves in the dark for fear of looking at what's there.

I believe there is nothing better or more useful that literature can do. To be a slap in the face. Wake up the reader, even if only for an hour or two.

Here's what I mean when I say "vivid" and "brutal": Mazzucco's approach to writing is that of a fighter in a ring: fearless. As a writer, she is not afraid of anything. There is no beautification, no makeup, no eye shadow or blush. There is, however, a constant attention to the poetry of the real things - and to the poetry of language (or you would you watch a documentary or you would read a report instead).

Examples: "The waves continue to graze the sand." The description of a sunrise rising, viewed from the bottom of a canyon in Afghanistan: "There was a smell of cordite and smoke. The sun was drawing a yellow patch on the mountain's highest tooth. The light was walking fast on the rocks, the shadow regressed ".

Clearly, in the hands of a writer of this caliber, any narrative line becomes a corollary to what is the true heart of the novel. Sure, it is very interesting to read of an Italian female soldier in Afghanistan, butit is not the story what's most important. It's the voice. The author's personality. It's this, I think, that Alberto Asor Rosa means when he says that "Melania Mazzucco's books are life itself." It is no daring hyperbole. It's true: these are not regular novels, they are a voice that gets into your bones, and that makes you look at yourself as you really are.

I read Alberto Asor Rosa's review in the newspaper La Repubblica, and his comment that "the political-historical judgment runs behind the compact facade of the book, we can guess." I completely disagree with that. What is the political stance? Pacifism? Feminism? No no no, there's none of that within the core of this novel. Indeed, part of the strength of this book is its total lack of judgment on the part of the novel itself, while various judgments are given by the characters. On this point, therefore, I do not agree with Asor Rosa (aka Novel Levon or Radar Radar). 

I firmly believe in Sturgeon's Law, for which "90% of everything is crap", especially when applied to the world of modern publishing world. Such wonderful and important novels are likely to be mixed, on the shelves of a bookstore, with all the crap that is printed and sold these days. Limbo is in the 1% of that remaining 10%. Trust me.

Limbo, Melania Mazzucco (Italiano) - La letteratura come schiaffo

LimboMelania Mazzucco e' la migliore scrittrice italiana che io conosca. E' un'autrice con le palle, che scrive con la ferocia di Edward Bunker e la profondità cruda di McCarthy. Che sia chiaro: dietro lo stile elegantissimo, l'architettura magistrale, l'orecchio perfetto per ogni voce e l'accuratezza dei particolari, c'e' una bestia feroce che spinge al massimo fin dentro al punto piu' intimo della nostra essenza di esseri umani. La verita' nei suoi romanzi assume contorni vivissimi e una forza brutale.

No bullshit. Niente cazzate. Niente opinioni. Solo vita. Realta'. Umanita' nudissima e crudissima.

Il suo "Vita" e' splendido, ma e' "La lunga attesa dell'angelo" che mi ha lasciato letteralmente a bocca aperta, non credevo che lo si potesse scrivere, un libro cosi' vivo.

A questo punto, non la leggo piu' tanto per gli argomenti che tratta o per le storie che racconta: tanto piu' che non mi interessa leggere di una coppia omosessuale che adotta un bambino (tema del suo ultimo romanzo). Tutto lascia pensare che si sia finalmente lasciata andare alla tentazione di saltare nel dibattito politico, del dire la propria, in un'Italia divisa fra difensori ad oltranza della famiglia (a destra) e relativisti per cui tu il tuo sesso te lo scegli, non ci sei nato (a sinistra). Ma so gia' che il libro lo leggero' lo stesso, perche' ormai ho il bisogno fisico di leggere quella voce cosi' potente e brutale. Non se ne trovano tante nel panorama letterario internazionale. E poi ho l'impressione - e spero - che abbia scelto quel tema perche' era alla ricerca di nuovi orizzonti narrativi da esplorare, e non perche' voleva un argomento politico per il quale schierarsi.

Cerco di spiegarmi: mentre uno scrittore mediamente bravo riesce ad immergere il lettore nei pensieri profondi e nello spirito di un personaggio, e lascia al lettore una certa liberta', o una sensazione di comodita' nell'immaginare un personaggio e farlo proprio, la Mazzucco senza che tu te ne accorga ti da' uno schiaffo, ti dice "sveglia!", ti prende per i capelli e ti trascina dentro al personaggio, e quando ti sembra di toccare il fondo, ti porta a scavare ancora piu' in profondita', a sentire fisicamente il corpo del personaggio, le ascelle, i peli, il sesso, le funzioni biologiche. Fino a quando l'individualita' costruita nel romanzo diventa quasi piu' vibrante e palpabile delle persone che ti stanno accanto, dei tuoi familiari. 

In altre parole, questa non è una lettura di evasione, e neppure un libro di denuncia o di quelli che fanno inorridire per cercare di mandare un messaggio. No, in Limbo il lettore si sente preso in causa, coinvolto nel profondo, proprio come dovrebbe essere quando parliamo di vera e propria Letteratura. 

Ecco, in una parola: profondità. Una qualità di un romanzo che non si può misurare scientificamente. Tanto che qualcuno legge Baricco e si azzarda a dire che è "profondo". Ah! Bella questa. Il vanaglorioso re dei superficiali. Be', lasciamo stare. Ecco, Melania Mazzucco è il contrario di Baricco: è un'autrice profonda. Qualsiasi argomento ci presenti.

Questo e' un romanzo su una donna italiana che si arruola nell'esercito, combatte in Afghanistan come maresciallo, viene ferita e vive la sua riabilitazione a Ladispoli come in un limbo, ne' viva ne' morta. Qui conosce un uomo che e' in una specie di limbo anche lui, se pur molto diverso. E' chiaro che le maniere di scrivere un romanzo cosi' e farlo risultare un orribile, illeggibile mattone sono infinite. Anzi, diciamo pure che la trama non promette bene, quando la leggi riassunta cosi'.

Ma a differenza di un "romanzo qualunque", qui il linguaggio e la forma narrativa diventano strumenti non usati per abbellire la realta' o per renderla piu' piacevole, simpatica, o tollerabile. Sono, al contrario, strumenti che l'autrice usa per acuire i sensi del lettore e stimolarlo a vedere la realta' con occhi piu' aperti, a gettare fasci di luce abbagliante su angoli della vita che sono in ombra o che noi stessi manteniamo nell'ombra per paura di guardare cosa c'e' li'.

Credo non ci sia niente di meglio, o di piu' utile, che la letteratura possa fare. Essere uno schiaffo. Svegliare il lettore, anche se solo per un'ora o due.

Ecco cosa intendo quando dico "feroce" e "brutale": la Mazzucco scrive con i controcoglioni, non ha paura di niente. Non c'e' abbellimento, non c'e' trucco, ombretto o fard. C'e', pero', l'attenzione costante alla poesia delle cose vere - e del linguaggio (altrimenti ti guarderesti un documentario o ti leggeresti un reportage).

Esempi: "la grana scettica della voce". "Le onde continuano a brucare la sabbia". Oppure la descrizione di un'alba nascente, vista dal fondo di una gola in Afghanistan: "C'era odore di cordite e fumo. Il sole disegnava una chiazza gialla sul dente più alto della montagna. La luce camminava veloce sulle rocce, l'ombra regrediva".

E' chiaro che, in mano ad una scrittrice di questo spessore, qualsiasi narrazione diventa un corollario a quello che e' il vero cuore pulsante del romanzo. Certo, e' molto interessante leggere di una donna soldato in Afghanistan, ma non e' la storia la cosa piu' importante. 

E' la voce. La personalita' dell'autrice. E' questo, credo, che Alberto Asor Rosa intende dire quando dice che "i libri di Melania Mazzucco sono la vita stessa". Non e' un'iperbole azzardata. E' vero: non sono storie, non sono romanzetti, e' una voce che ti entra nel midollo, e che ti fa fare i conti con te stesso.

Ho letto la recensione di Asor Rosa su Repubblica, e un commento che lui fa è che "il giudizio storico-politico corre dietro la facciata compatta del libro, possiamo indovinarlo". Non sono affatto d'accordo. Anzi, parte della forza del romanzo è proprio l'assenza totale di giudizio da parte del romanzo stesso, mentre i giudizi vengono dati dai vari personaggi. Su questo punto, quindi, non sono d'accordo con Asor Rosa (detto anche Onip Pino).

Credo fermamente nella legge di Sturgeon, per cui "il 90% di tutto e' merda", soprattutto quando applicata al mondo dell'editoria moderna. E quindi mi dispiace un po' che questi romanzi cosi' meravigliosi e importanti rischino di confondersi, sugli scaffali di una libreria, con tutta la merda che si stampa e si vende di questi tempi.

E scusate per il mio, di linguaggio, ma spero di essere riuscito a comunicare la mia passione per questa scrittrice

Friday, July 31, 2015

Kirinyaga, Mike Resnick Mother of Arthur Clarke, I loved this book. I've kept recommending it to friends as a "best kept secret" or "hidden treasure" since I've read it. It is a stunning, intelligent, profound, and unique collection of short stories, even though it reads more like a novel because each story is set more or less in the same location and with similar characters.

Kirinyaga is the "most honored book in the history of science fiction", based on the fact that each story was nominated and won many prestigious awards. And deservedly so.

The novel / collection is based on a simple but powerful concept: an elderly Kenyan rich man, Koriba, leaves Earth to live on a chartered, terraformed planetoid called Kirinyaga, where he reverts to the old ways of the Kikuyu, after realizing that the old Kikuyu culture in real Kenya has been fatally contaminated by modernity. 

As their mundumugu, he’s the repository of the collected wisdom and customs of the tribe, living alone and apart from the rest but participating daily in their lives, the most feared and venerated among them, feared even by Koinnage, the paramount chief. Only Koriba possesses the technology (a computer) that allows him to communicate with Maintenance, which can change the orbit of Kirinyaga to maintain or alter climatic conditions. Koriba uses this facility, unknown to his people, to his own advantage, bringing rain or drought as he sees fit, often to fulfill his own prophecies and prayers to Ngai.
Each chapter presents Koriba with a new problem that threatens the Utopia he and the others have created. Invoking tribal laws with a fanatical stringency, he tries to find solutions. 
Koriba is a megalomaniac visionary, in love with the Kikuyu but cruel in the strict execution of his dream, in a way that the reader is simultaneously repelled by and sympathetic to him.

I found that Kirinyaga reflects a lot of today's reality, especially our world's constant changes, and its many anachronisms and contradictions. This fast-changing background brings great new things but also a lot of pain and nostalgia. Koriba's adventures will stay with you for a long, long time. His ambivalence will haunt you until the end of the book.

Resnick loves Africa and has a great knowledge of East Africa, and it shows in that the stories are infused with a lot of real Kikuyu traditions, sayings and fables.

A must read. One of the few truly great science fiction books.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The quiet light, Louis de Wohl

I read the Italian version of this book, and I find the Italian title to be more meaningful than "The quiet light". The Italian title translates to "The freeing of the giant", a title that captures the two main themes in the book: 1) the power of Saint Thomas's work in reconciling catholic faith with Aristotelian philosophy (Aristotle being the giant); and 2) the story of how Saint Thomas, as a kid, had been imprisoned by his own family who didn't want him to join the Dominican order, and how he ultimately was able to escape and go on to become one of the most brilliant stars of the catholic world (Thomas being the giant in this case. He was also quite a big guy).

"The freeing of the giant" is a historical novel. Luis De Wohl was a German-Hungarian writer who, in the '30s, left Germany and moved to live in London. His specialty were historical novels, and after WWII he committed to writing about the life of the saints. He was himself a catholic and had a face to face chat with the Pope before writing this book. The Pope asked him to write about St Thomas, and so he did with this book. It should be noted that this is not a novel about religion, but rather about history.

While the book certainly does not have great literary value, it is written in a really engaging style, it is well researched and also well balanced between history, philosophy/religion, and fiction, to the point that I'm wondering why this author is not better known.

Writing a historical novel is no easy feat, even if you know your history well. You need to get the details right, and the spirit of the time you are writing about. Moreover, writing a novel about a Dominican Saint who did little else in his life other than read, pray and write, sounds like a real challenge.

But I think De Wohl nailed it on the head. He uses one single fictional character, Sir Piers, to give the novel the dynamism it needs, a little romance, but most of all as a tool that allows him to weave together in one coherent plot various historical characters like emperor Frederick II, his court, Saint Albert the great, and even some contemporary Muslim characters.

The second half of the 13th century was a very interesting time: Frederick II had an immense power over Europe, however the European region was under a lot of pressure from Islam, that was pushing from both the west (Spain) and the East (Turkey). Muslim culture was peaking. On one hand, you had the military conflicts, between the Sacred Roman Empire and Islam, through the Crusades and other battles. On the other, there were cultural battles, no less fierce, among the various intellectuals of that time: on one hand, Averroe and his school of thought were trying to use Aristotle as a way to weaken Christianity, by separating everything religious from what was "rational", and arguing that Aristotle would have never given in to anything but pure rationality and experimentation. On the other, you had the Church, who specifically requested Saint Thomas, one of the finest minds of those times, to find a way to reconcile Aristotle with the Christian faith. And that's what he did, in his "Summa Theologica".

To make things even more complicated, the emperor's relationship with the Church kept worsening, ultimately resulting in a real conflict, that had Frederick II as the end loser, and Italy torn between pro-church and pro-emperor factions.

De Wohl touches on all of these historical and philosophical elements with great simplicity, but never with a heavy hand or in a tacky way, always respecting the known facts in a graceful manner.

In particular, St Thomas's personality comes out of this book as a shining light, as he is depicted as a truly humble, shy, good and highly intelligent man. Yes it is a work of fiction but these personality traits have been well documented.

Sometimes I think that back in those days, "intelligent" people were much smarter than what we are on average today. Or perhaps, they were intelligent in a very different way. They used to have dialectical, rhetorical, and mnemonic skills that today you probably cannot even find (maybe because they are not required anymore?).

You don't really learn history by reading these type of books, although it's clear that De Wohl had done his homework. It will help enjoying the book more if you already know the main historical facts (or keep Wikipedia close to your thumbs). However, this kind of book is able to bring history to life in such a vivid way, that in a sense you do learn about history. It's history for right-brainers.

Overall, a truly enjoyable read for lovers of historical novels, and if you are interested in the history of Catholicism.

PyongYang: a journey in North Korea, Guy Delisle

Delisle's art is so effective: peculiar, essential but very expressive. I also enjoyed some of the humor and seeing some of North Korea through the author's eyes.

"PyongYang: a journey in North Korea" is a diary - in graphic novel format - of a two months period when the author lived and worked in North Korea as Graphic Director of an animation team, employed by a French company. During his stay, Delisle stays at the Yanggakdo International Hotel, and visits other foreigners in the Koryo Hotel. Accompanied by his guide, he visits the massive statue of Kim Il-sung, the Pyongyang Metro, the legation quarter, the Diplomatic Club (former Romanian embassy), the Arch of Triumph, the Juche Tower, the International Friendship Exhibition, the USS Pueblo, the enormous Ryugyong Hotel, the Taekwondo Hall, the Children's Palace and the Museum of Imperialist Occupation.

If you, like me, know very little to nothing about North Korea, this book will shed some light on the basic facts, some of which might shock you. However, bear in mind that this novel is, at its core, a comedy, therefore nothing is taken seriously and, in the tradition of French comedy, the tone keeps shifting from the irreverent to the blatantly offensive.

There are some really funny moments. However, I did not like the author's attitude towards the locals. Too often he comes across as immature and disrespectful, for someone who is a guest in a foreign country (example: in the museum, when he says he would like to try some of that "torture" on his guide because she's so good looking. Or, the way he is poking fun at everyone as if they were not real people), and often as narrow-minded (example: "she decided to show me some example of their musical genius").

New Regency was working on a film version of Pyongyang, with Steve Conrad to write the script and Gore Verbinski to direct the film, and to star Steve Carell, but this was canceled in December 2014 in the wake of threats made by hackers believed to be tied to North Korea to movie theaters over the film The Interview, which mocks the North Korean regime. The film started pre-production in October 2014, and at the time of cancellation was still without a title. New Regency revealed that the scheduled distributor, Fox, pulled out after the incidents with The Interview.

Delisle does not expect to return to North Korea, writing: "I don't think I would be welcome there anymore."

How the world was: a California childhood, Emmanuel Guibert

French cartoonist Emmanuel Guibert's art has a special something that elevates it a notch above most comic artists. In particular, he has a real knack for drawing people, and he gets all the expressions, positions and proportions pitch-perfect right.

In 1994, Guibert befriended an American veteran named Alan Cope and began creating his new friend's graphic biography. "Alan's War" was the surprising and moving result: the story of Cope's experiences as an American GI in France during World War II. "How the World Was" is Emmanuel Guibert's return to documenting the life of his friend. Cope died several years ago, as Guibert was just beginning work on this book, but Guibert has kept working to commit his friend's story to paper. Cope grew up in California during the great depression, and this graphic novel details the little moments that make a young man's life.

If this sounds boring, it's because it sure as heck is. That's where the problem with this graphic novel is - and the same reason why it's so hard to find really great graphic novels. It's so rare to find greatness in both the art and the writing (or content). Since Alan Cope, the real-life friend of Guibert, was an elderly guy who agreed to have his memories recorded by Guibert, the book reads exactly like that: an old guy telling you about his distant past. Unfortunately, he does not come across as an interesting guy at all. I'd say there are some curious bits, and a disturbing WTF/TMI passage about his mother and his penis, but the fact remains that Cope had an entirely ordinary California childhood, with no special event taking place during his formative years.

So don't feel bad if you'll find the book boring and might wonder what was interesting about this. Frankly, this is not a "story worth telling" per se. If Alan Cope had not been a friend of Guibert, his childhood would never have been become a published story.

My advice is, read this book if you want to enjoy Guibert's art, but not for the narration. The artwork is incredible: his style is so confident, essential and elegant that you should immerse yourself in his drawings without thinking of the narration.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Il gusto del cloro, Bastien Vivès

"Il gusto del cloro" means "The taste of chlorine" in Italian. That is the fundamental sensory experience of going to a public pool. Unfortunately there is no English version of this beautiful graphic novel, but given the very limited dialogue, I believe anyone can enjoy it, whether you speak Italian, French, or you don't.

One of the fascinating characteristics of the comic as a form of art is its ability to tell with few images what typically would require hundreds of words. This characteristic is even more remarkable when you narrate events that are minimalistic, small daily events almost meaningless if it were not for the upheavals in the inner worlds of the characters. This is what happens in "The taste of chlorine", the fourth work of French artist Bastien Vives , winner of this year's award "Essentiel Revelation".

The story takes place in a pool where two unnamed characters meet every Wednesday evening: a boy suffering from scoliosis, swimming with difficulty and with a bit of reluctance, merely for therapeutic purposes, and a girl with a past as an athlete, who is an expert swimmer. It is a story of silences and absences, designed with very little dialogue and no caption, where the souls of the two kids seem to move closer, slowly overcoming the initial awkwardness.

The greatest strength of this graphic novel is the graphic and the elegant design: the things the author was able to accomplish with the coloring, the contrasts and the positioning of bodies in space are unbelievable. If you've ever been to a public swimming pool, at some point while reading this book you will smell chlorine in your nose, there is no doubt about it. This is how immersive this graphic novel experience is.

The soothing, hypnotic green-blue is everywhere, and even though the location is always the same, a public swimming pool, the reader has access to at least a hundred different points of view, above and under water.

Don't go looking for a strong plot, because there isn't one. But then that's not the point of this work of art. Unfortunately, the ending is inconclusive and unsatisfying, in desperate need of an editor. I felt let down by the open-ended conclusion. The author does not explain or conclude anything. I hate that, because even if I have nothing against minimalistic stories and thin plots, I've always found that authors do that as if to say "I am so different and sophisticated!", but really what it is, it's a sign of a lack of imagination. Or at best, a sign that the author doesn't know how to write a story, or he was too lazy to do it. Readers who love the artsy-fartsy world will love that ending. Anyone else won't.

In any case, the drawings are so powerful that you will happily forgive the author for this sin.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Deogratias, a tale of Rwanda, Jeann-Philippe Stassen

A truly impressive graphic novel. The drawings, with their Van Gogh-esque thick black contours, the clear colors and the essential style make every object and person jump out of the page.

It's the story of Deogratias, a Hutu kid who lived through the times of the genocide in Rwanda. The horrors he's been witnessing cause him to lose his mind and he gradually becomes an alcoholic. There are many flashbacks to the time when he was younger and healthier, but I did not find that confusing. I think it's a story well told.

The story begins after the genocide. Deogratias is at a bar and meets an old friend, a French sergeant. Deogratias has flashbacks to his life before the genocide. He remembers the crush he had on a girl, and how he tried to spend time with her. In the flashbacks, Deogratias wasn't always a good person.

The editor's idea of writing a brief summary of Rwanda's recent history as a forward to the book was a very good one. This way, Westerners who did not have the chance to familiarize themselves with those events can learn a lot from this small book. And this is what makes this book so important: in our culture, there are some tragic facts of history that somehow seem to have been prioritized, and some others that are almost forgotten. For example, we are constantly reminded by the media about the WWII holocaust, but not much about what happened during the 20th century in Congo, or the unimaginable suffering that the poor people of Rwanda had to endure, on both sides, Hutus and Tutsis.

The graphic novel storytelling is powerful and eloquent. In part, this is a history lesson told from the eyes of a young boy and an older man, but also from natives and white immigrants, soldiers and missionaries. Once again, like in The Photographer, the choice of using the comic form succeeds in portraying a harsh reality, but at the same having a soothing or detaching effect, because the drawing elevates the objective reality to something a little idealized, almost abstract, and therefore not as hard to swallow.

As an aside note, the author doesn't seem to have a great esteem of Rwanda's missionaries and priests, as they come across as hypocrites and cowards in his story. One priest in particular, seems to be always trying to run away from any potential danger, having his own skin as a top priority, and not caring about anyone else. I'm sure this character is based on a real person, given that Stassen, the Belgian author, spent himself a lot of time traveling across the African continent and some time in Rwanda as well.

Read it, it's a gem.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Photographer, Didier Lefèvre

The PhotographerThis book is a stunning work of beauty. In 1986, French photojournalist Didier Lefèvre took on an assignment to document the efforts of Doctors Without Borders in Afghanistan. The story is told sometimes through the black and white photographs that Didier took during his trip, and sometimes - or more often - through the form of comic strips.

The concept of a "visual diary" sounds fairly simple, but it is the story that's incredibly absorbing and powerful. Through the photos and narration, we're immediately transported to Afghanistan, just right beside Didier Lefèvre. The essential drawings and the raw, evocative photographs work together to transport you precisely there, where the author was. We get to see what he sees, hear what he hears. We walk along the same hazardous mountain paths, always on the lookout for Russian helicopters. And we better understand the work done by Doctors Without Borders, the history of Afghanistan in those terrible years, and most of all the people of Afghanistan. I have to say that despite all the reporting news BBC-style or CNN-style that I have read about Afghanistan, it was only when I read this book that for the first time I had a glimpse of Afghanistan's people as real human beings, and not abstractions or statistics. And this is probably a testament to the power of great comic as an artistic tool, and the most important side of "The photographer".

As for the graphic structure: it is magnificent, to the point that I was often spending more than 5 minutes just looking at a single page, to absorb and enjoy every detail. The mix of photos and comics works in such a perfect way, maybe because that's how sometimes our own perception of reality works: when things get too harsh, we find ways to detach, to see things under a different, more bearable light, which is what the comic format does so well. Also, notably, the comic artist is Emmanuel Guibert, who is a master at drawing human beings, expressions, human nuances. So the quality of the art is really high. 

In terms of the content, this is a true modern day adventure with substance. The main charachter's ineptitude often sticks out, but in the end it's the same ineptitude that most of us Westerners would display in those circumstances, and that makes it easier to get drawn into the narration and live the adventure through his skin. And you can learn something in the process.

At a certain point, Didier decides to go cross back into Pakistan by himself. That's a decision that he would regret for a long time, and that put his life at very serious risk, as documented in the book. It was clearly a silly dedision, also given that what drove that decision was a comment by a teammate who said "I feel like the real work will start when you leave". Paraphrasing that in the language of apes (or translating that into its real meaning). that comment was really: "Didiere, you are here as a tourist, while I am here doing the real tough work, therefore I am a bigger ape than you and I piss on your head" (yeah, that's how most of our communication would sound like if you were to really strip it of all bullshit). That's not important per se, but it made me reflect on our human nature, and how - consciously or unconsciously - we cannot escape our desire to see ourselves "surpass" the others, to be on some higher level in our own personal narrative of our life. Even among people who are doing incredibly useful work, like MSF, everyone needs to find their own "illusion of slight (or great) superiority" in order to feel good about themselves. Another example of this phenomenon, as observed in the book, is when one of the doctors tells Didiere that he does not want to go back to a "cushy" job in a "cushy" French hospital. As if doctors in Western hospitals were not just as useful as MSF doctors. Same human nature, right there, over and over: the need for an "illusion of superiority".

All in all, I've never read anything like "The Photographer". It's pure art, it's raw, powerful and incredibly beautiful. Do yourself a favor and read this true masterwork. 

The Greenhouse, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

The Greenhouse
This is the story of the Icelandic Forrest Gump. He is called Lobbi, and he has an intellectually disabled brother. Athough this is never ackowledged throughout the book, he has some serious mental issues too. Some readers might see Lobbi as a real, regular, almost typical 22 years old kid. But unless I am missing the point because I am ignorant of some purely Icelandic way of approaching reality, I will put it out there: Lobbi comes across as border-line autistic. I will explain this a bit further down.

I don't like summarizing plots, but in this case it's really simple: Lobbi's mother is dead. Their shared love of tending rare roses in her greenhouse inspires him to leave everything and travel to a remote village monastery to restore its once fabulous gardens. While transforming the garden under the watchful eye of a cinephile monk, he is surprised by a visit from Anna, a friend of a friend with whom he shared a fateful moment in his mother’s greenhouse, and the daughter they together conceived that night. That is the whole book. There is little else in terms of plot development, and depending on your taste or mood, this can be really good or really bad.

is an Icelandic author. I read the Italian translation, titled "Rosa Candida" (nota al traduttore e all'editore: carissimi, su "do" di "io do" l'accento non ci va. Un errore ripetuto spesso in questa edizione. Ma dove avete studiato?).

Back to the main character's personality: things happen to him and to his body often as if he was watching them on a screen. Yes, teenagers do live a bit like that, with that out-of-body detachment, but they don't rationalize that condition constantly like this guy does, and they tend to express themselves in one way or the other, while this guy is totally passive and uncommunicative. 
Rosa candida
Now, is that particularly Icelandic? Or is this something the author wanted to create? I have no idea. I know that, aside from the normal issues of a twenty year old, this man has other, very peculiar issues: very serious communication problems, and as I said, some autistic traits.

Let me be frank. If this simple, delicate book was not from an Icelandic author, I don't know if anyone would have published it. The young father with baby plot has been used many times, and with better, more coherent results, by Nick Hornby and other writers. "Iceland! A book from Iceland!" is the reason why I, and probably many others, ended up reading this book, for curiosity.

The cinephile monk might have been a strong feature, but no, he has nothing to add to the blandness of the story.

On the other hand, simplicity and quiet are the actual charm of the book, so I understand the readers who fell in love with it for its powerful soothing effect.
But quiet and delicate are attributes that very easily overlap with bland and diluted.
Nothing stands out in the whole story, nothing jumps off the page, an idea, an individual, a feeling.
It is like one of those sweet melodies that might be pleasant to listen to while they're playing, but that, once finished, are immediately forgotten.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Unflattening, Nick Sousanis

Unflattening by Nick Sousanis"Unflattening" is an experiment in visual thinking. A scholarly discourse through the form of comics. Very possibly, the only one ever produced so far.

The author, Nick Sousanis, earned his Ph.D. in interdisciplinary studies last year from Teachers College Columbia University, where he produced his dissertation entirely in comics form.

Harvard University Press decided to publish the dissertation as a book, the first time the press has printed a comic. This fact - in itself - can explain why, unfortunately, the content of the book is not as exciting as the concept itself of "writing a PhD dissertation using comics". It's just not as strong and stimulating as it could have been.

The drawings are beautiful, inventive, and the author's love for comics is palpable all through this book.

Overall, Sousanis argues in defense of multiple perspectives on reality and the power of visual literacy: "For centuries, words have been considered the superior currency of intellect. So much so that our reliance on the written word, like any other kind of dominant perspective, is so pervasive that we don’t even realize our role in perpetuating it", he argues.

The question he fails to answer is the following: is this really a dominant perspective that we all follow sheepishly, or is it rather an evolutionary achievement driven by the need to find the most effective, practical and articulate mean of communication?

But beyond that point, this argument seems to ignore that a big part of the Western world has already evolved, or it is moving on from the limitations of the written word, by embracing a kaleidoscopic mix of words and images. Snapchat. Emojis. Memes. Most young people use their mobile devices more than they read books. Or look at the Kahn academy, at all the new approaches to teaching, the youtube-spin-off educational tools, and any type of internet-based graphic-related serious study.

So  here is the first issue with this work: the fundamental concept doesn't seem to be that solid to start with. Within the academic world, the concept of a dissertation in comics might be extravagant and very exciting (not "oo-hoo! Party!" exciting, but you know, university exciting) , because here is a comic about a serious research work being made of comics instead of words.

But outside of the academic world?

Ok, let's agree with the author's postulate: a university dissertation should not necessarily and strictly be a thing made only of words. That is a thing of the stuffy, rigid past. Images, drawings and comics can be widely used to express complex arguments of philosophy, science, religion, whatever else. Let's agree with the author.

Unfortunately, though, I really do not see how anyone would care for a split second about this, given that academic language is a niche, an extremely limited area of interest. 

Second issue: more importantly, not a single one of the ideas presented in the book is new or even slightly original.

Third issue: the dissertation should have been better articulated, the concept conveyed with stronger arguments. It's good that someone is thinking about shaking things up a bit in the world of dissertations, but let's not forget that this is still, ultimately, a doctoral dissertation, and as such, one would expect much stronger and stimulating arguments.

Instead, the grounds for the dissertation's arguments are actually pretty weak and vague. Is it maybe my snobbish-European-who-studied-philosophy point of view?  I don't think so. Sousanis doesn't go much further in his argument than stating that everything can be seen from different perspectives, and that "people" (never contextualized, never specified who or where) see things in a flat way, never stepping out of their habitual way of thinking, and doing things "just because they've always been done this way".

I kid you not, the author hammers on this simplistic common-sense concept for more than two thirds of the book, using different metaphors and examples to repeat the same concept over and over.

Even worse, these metaphors are conveyed through negative, bleak, pessimistic drawings, as if this lack of out-of-the-box, ever-evolving imagination was a social disease instead of an absolutely normal aspect of being human.

The main practical problem of this view is that keeping a steady point of view, albeit rigid and illusory, is a very healthy thing that a human being can do. People who question their assumptions less than others live more comfortable lives, this is just a fact. Evolution, in its millennial wisdom, has set things up so that only a few people need to make the effort to look beyond the limits of their usual point of view, and provide new ideas, inspiration, new points of view. Not the majority. Because being like that is painful. It's generally the outliers who come up with the best ideas. But here is the thing: either you are, or you are not. A book, in prose or graphic novel format, is not going to change anything at all.

So why argue this point? Just to make an over-long introduction to the real point, which is "comics can communicate as well as words or even better sometimes, even in dissertations like this one?"

What is surprising is that this real point is very thinly argued. The argument, I gather, is supposed to be the book itself. However, trying to prove that using different points of view is a good thing is hardly the most cogent and specific proof that using comics in a doctoral dissertation can be useful. That is too broad, too weak, just not enough.

Yes, there is also a good section about the value of drawings and comics in general, but there are many other arguments that the author could have explored and he left out. Facts, proof that in different world cultures the value of images vs. words changes, and that in many cultures visual literacy was/is higher than in ours, with successful results. What about the power of ideograms? What about the neurobiology of word-based vs. image-based language?

Only one time the book touches on something useful to his argument, that the author should have expanded on, that is the presence of visual literacy and visual communication in other cultures (i.e. Pacific Islanders maps). Had he found more examples of that, he could have made his argument a little stronger, but no, the book ends a few pages later, offering yet another couple of metaphors about, again, how we need to shift our points of view!

So in the end, ironically, this book seems to prove that the comics form, although very powerful, is not as good as the literary form as a mean to convey arguments and to write a scholarly dissertation. If we base our conclusion on "Unflattening", this is certainly true. However, I don't think that is the case. Images can say more than words, if handled with the proper intellectual strength and wisdom.

Finally, a note about page 14: here we find a hugely misguided "good old days" narrative that goes: "This creature [man], who once [again, when?? In Da Vinci's times?] attempted to define the universe through its own proportions, now finds itself confined, boxed into bubbles of its own making.... What had first opened its eyes wide, darting, dancing, has now become shuttered, its vision narrowed". In other words: we used to be able to think with an open mind, look for example at Humanism, but now we are not anymore, and everything is shit because of that. Oh Lord... I'm sorry but this one is so lame. Do you realize that not even 1.5 % of the European population studied or cared about philosophy in Da Vinci's times? By quoting Da Vinci, you are actually proving the opposite point, that it has always been the outliers who brought truly original thinking. In every age, there have been people thinking in a uniform lazy-standardized way, and a few people who thought in new, original ways. There wasn't a golden time when "people used to be all so open-minded". There just wasn't. That is an academic abstraction.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Mediterranean Winter, Robert D, Kaplan

Mediterranean Winter by Robert D. Kaplan“Mediterranean Winter” is a wonderful read. A book that should be read on vacation, when you have more mental space to stop and think, and wonder. It is subtitled: “The pleasures of History and Landscape in Tunisia, Siciliy, Dalmatia and the Peloponnese”. It is in essence a travel book that Robert Kaplan wrote in 2004 about a trip he took back in the ‘70s. The focus of the book is actually on what it says: history and landscape, and how they influence each other.

I already knew Kaplan as I read “The Ends of the Earth”, another fascinating travel book that describes his journey from the poorest areas of West Africa (Laos, Togo, Benin) to Iran and Turkmenistan. Kaplan was a regular reporter when Bill Clinton was spotted with his book “Balkan Ghosts” tucked under his arm during his presidency. That propelled Kaplan’s popularity like a rocket, and he was suddenly advising the US government on various foreign policy matters.

I was familiar with his style, which I would define as that of an introverted left-brainer. Let me explain: the reality in which Kaplan seems to move in is a reality made of facts, objects, and geographic and historical data, rather than people. The real-life dialogue with local people is kept to a real minimum, while most of what he presents is filtered through his own eyes and through the (innumerable!!) books he has read and he keeps referencing. This is fantastic for a book lover, because you get to hear about many wonderful books that you didn’t know about, but, on the other hand, it shifts the writing towards the cold and dry side. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

In Tunisia, Kaplan becomes more aware of the Roman Empire and its vast influence on the North Africa regions. He also makes a compelling case for the history of Carthage being at the roots of Tunisia’s more modern and enlightened current politics, as opposed to other Muslim countries.

In Sicily, he becomes aware of ancient Greece, and the struggle between Athens and Syracuse. And in Greece, he reflects on Byzantium.

For every city or region he visits, he provides a summary of the main historical events that shaped that place and its people. Given the broad geographies described in the book, these summaries are necessarily sketched, but they often provide a good enough insight into the main events.

One of the things that I love the most about travel books is when the author gets his hands dirty and talks to the local people, gets their colors and perspectives about their city, country or history. Kaplan doesn’t do  much of this. He is more of an intellectual traveler, who often prefers the connection with long-dead people through books rather than the face-to-face talking and listening experience.

However, while “The Ends of the Earth” came across as too US-centric, from a cultural perspective, I preferred this book as it is free from any “I am a U.S. geo-strategy adviser” attitude.

Having said that, I read that Kaplan initially was a strong supporter of the Iraq war, but he now regrets that position completely, and he now thinks the war was a mistake. So what have all those thousands of books on history and strategy taught him?

That necessarily makes me wonder: is history able to teach us anything at all, really? Is “Historia magistra vitae”? Probably not. It might be in the future though, once Artificial Intelligence will start advising governments. Not as outlandish as you might think.

In essence, a great travel book for lovers of literature and history. Sometimes you get the impression that Kaplan travels to complete the literary experience he's had, when he read what Flaubert, Maupassant, Gibbon, and other great writers said about certain places and their own visits there. Almost as if those books were more real to him than the actual travel.