22.10.14

Wojciech Jagielski - Towers of Stone (Wieże z kamienia)

Rating 7.0

This book begs for patient readers and plenty of spare time.
True, I have much of the latter at the moment, but lately I'm not focused enough on my reading to appreciate such a complex and in-depth narration of the Chechen wars.

The point is that Wojciech Jagielski turned out to be very demanding with his readers here. You cannot simply leaf through Towers of Stone casually with your pencil underlining selected passages as if you're reading your average good Polish reportage.
Unlike most of the Polish reporters I read so far, Mr Jagielski doesn't just provide short but significant episodes written in a sparse but brilliant language. No. He deals with a complex and ever detailed narration which gives you no time at all to take a breather.
Don't even think to read this book taking long intervals inbetween (as I did) for you will soon lose your track.

Let's examine the structure of Towers of Stone. Three-hundred and ten pages subdivided into merely four chapters each one named after a season. This means that each proper chapter is around 75 pages long. In my humble opinion, it would be hard to read your way safely through such a bundle in a novel. Not to mention facing chapters of 75 pages each in a reportage book due to the readers being accustomed to the nifty format provided by journalistic accounts on websites and magazines.

All this preamble to say that - to be completely honest with you - I struggled to finish Towers of Stone. Suffice is to say that it took me nearly one month. True, I reckon how Wojciech Jagielski did his reporting job quite well never leaving the reader in the dark and explaining all that needed to be clarified. Nonetheless, now that I'm done with this book I cannot really say that the whole Chechen mess is much clearer into my mind than it previously was.

You'll find great and insightful interviews with Chechen leaders whose beliefs and behaviors are masterly portrayed by the author. But instead of being given the precious room of their own they deserve, these gems are all semi-hidden here and there in the monster-sized chapters and thick narrative of this book. And that's a pity.

The fact that the American publisher Seven Stories Press which translated Wieże z kamienia into English - to their merit - left out any relevant maps or timeline to contextualize this book didn't help either. All that you'll find to guide you through is just a tiny glossary with a few dozen brief bios of the main characters and a page which seems ripped off from an old school atlas.
But Mr Jagielski writes about so many events, places, people, political and military leaders - often related with one another - that I challenge you not to lose your compass more than once.

I admit my defeat here.
I should have read Towers of Stone with less superficiality and less distractions around me. Now that I know what to expect from Mr Jagielski, I will give his book on Uganda a chance only when I'm confident I can read it all in one go.

10.10.14

Artur Domosławski - Ryszard Kapuściński: A Life (Kapuściński non-fiction)

Rating 7.6

Role-playing anyone?

Suppose you are a young journalist hired by the best newspaper of your homecountry. You're talented and ambitious, but not that experienced. Among your colleagues in the newsroom there's a middle aged and well read reporter who everyone looks at in awe. Not only this guy travelled and reported from four continents. This guy is unanimously considered the dean of reporters nationwide and even gained recognition abroad.

Step by step you get to know the great reporter.
He's getting bald, but is still athletic. He's charming, polite and considerate: no wonder women adore him. He smiles to everyone and dishes out compliments and tips to the younger journalists, including you. It doesn't matter that most of those tips are rather generic as they come from Him, the Maestro.

In the meantime you write and publish your own stuff, you get experience and gain some credit into the journalism circles. Now the Maestro pops up very rarely in the newsroom. After all, he has a score of prestigious invitations to oblige. He's often abroad leading seminars, workshops, collecting prizes and meeting his evergrowing readers.
And yet, the Dean of Reporters does spend some of his precious time with you. He invites you at his home. He calls you. He talks politics with you. You two even argue sometimes. That's a privilege and you know it.

Do you know Him well? Not that much. True, you'd like to know the Maestro better, but he doesn't like private questions and always looks reluctant when asked about his youth and his earlier adventures abroad.
You notice that reticence, but that doesn't bother you much. You've your own features to work on and your own travels to write home about.

Then the Maestro passes away.
A few months later you start working on your next book: His biography.

Now some questions arise:
- Why would you like to write this biography?
- What are you going to write about those years and those topics He never talked about?
- Who are you going to interview to learn more about Him?
- Where are you going to take your readers, people who loved His books and wish to know more about Him?
- When are you going to stop in making speculations and writing hidden details of His private life?
And, first and foremost:
- How would you like to portray this friend of yours, this dean of reporters turned into national hero?

I believe Artur Domoslawski posed similar questions to himself and I'm glad he did.
For this Ryszard Kapuscinski: A Life (the original Polish title, Kapuscinski non-fiction, should have been kept) was certainly not an easy book to write. Which doesn't mean that this biography is not interesting to read; in fact quite the contrary.

I do understand Kapuscinski's widow and many reviewers bearing a grudge on the author upon the publication of this book. The dean of Polish journalism and one of the most famous reporters worldwide to date doesn't come out as an entirely positive character from this biography.
To those - like me - who loved Kapuscinski's reportages and essays, Mr Domoslawski could look rather ruthless in writing about the dark sides of the great Polish journalist. Especially considering how he knew him quite well and was a colleague of his. Sometimes the author seems to enjoy digging into Kapuscinski's dirty laundry revealing his extramarital relationships, the troubles with his estranged daughter as well as his political involvement in communist Poland.

Tu quoque, Brute!
Well, to some extent.

True, Mr Domoslawski is far from being soft with his old pal Ryszard and could have easily left out some of the nastiest stuff about him, but I don't look at him as if he stabbed dead Kapuscinski in the back.
Hundreds of pages here are devoted to the great reporter travels and accomplishments and there is literally a ton of quotations from his most and less famous works.
To me it looks crystal clear how the author studied Kapuscinski's oeuvre very carefully and delivered a great insight on his complex personality. Had Mr Domoslawski ignored the shadows drawn by the shining sun of the great reporter, it would have been harder to appreciate what the dean of Polish journalists left us.

And what did Kapuscinski leave us is essentially fantastic literature written with passion and dedication, books full of illuminating observations on the human nature and brilliant analysis on power in politics.
As it happened, most of this excellent literature was delivered through reportages which were - strictly speaking - works of art rather than dry chronicling.
Kapuscinski did embellish or dramatize some of his facts and was aware of that: he just couldn't admit that in public as everyone labelled him a journalist. And yet he considered himself an author, an intellectual, a poet and, coming fourth, a reporter.

Towards the end of his life, Kapuscinski became a victim of his own myth: readers and fellow journalists expected him to tell them how to become reporters, how to put facts into beautiful words.
But what he would have liked to teach them was rather how to put beauty into facts. Unless that he couldn't say that. They regarded him as a Maestro of factual objectivity, but he pursued feelings not objectivity and loved to take sides.

Domoslawski explains this inner dilemma (and others) very well and this goes to his credit.

Five stars don't belong here, see my mild criticism above, but four do fit well.

4.10.14

Buying English Written Books in Warsaw - A Martian's Guide to Warsaw

Dear Reader,

The following text is the first instalment of A Martian's Guide to Warsaw, my humble attempt to chronicle some aspects of daily life in contemporary Warsaw.

Please be advised that the aforementioned title is misleading. In fact – just like you – I hail from planet Earth. However, as an Italian expat who moved to Warsaw just one and a half month ago I still consider myself an alien in this rough and beautiful town; thus the Martian's reference.
Well, to be completely honest with you I sort of borrowed the title of this guide from the excellent Hungarian novelist Antal Szerb who published his A Martian's Guide to Budapest back in 1935.

Please note that the point of view expressed in this instalment (and in the following ones) as well as the choice of topics is entirely my own. I'm a journalist myself, but my own experience in writing about a foreign capitol town is next to nothing. Not to mention that my current knowledge of the fascinating Polish language is still rather patchy.
Due to these reasons, don't expect these short vignettes about life in Warsaw 2014-2015 to be always that reliable and to provide survival tips in town. I'm just a Martian here, trying to get by and struggling to make ends meet.

That being said, do, sit down on a comfortable armchair and follow me rambling along the streets of Warsaw. I'm sure that you won't regret it and hope you'll find your humble Martian quite amusing.

Powodzenia!

The only remaining American Bookstore in town can be found - til November 2014 - at Galeria Arkadia

Earthlings of Warsaw and Beyond,

Let's face it: the right title of this instalment should be On NOT Buying English Written Books in Warsaw. For there is not going to be such a thing called an English or American bookshop in town from November 2014 onwards.

When your humble Martian moved here – merely 45 days ago – I was flabbergasted by the number of bookstores and cosy cafes-cum-bookshelves one can find in central and less central districts of Warsaw. And yet, for all of this profusion of Varsovian bookshops I wasn't able to find a single place selling decent English written books.
True, a few bookstores I visited did sell a tiny selection of (overpriced) non-Polish written books – chiefly tourist guides and chicklit novels –, but a well-stocked section of international titles as well as of Polish novelists translated into English was nowhere to be found.

In the following days I made some research online to find out whether I missed out some hidden booklover's lair wondering around town or not at all. What I've found turned out to be discouraging.

Listen up, folks.
As far as I could track down, there were up to 10 (ten!) bookshops in Warsaw selling English-written books only six years ago, which I will list down below:
Traffic Club, Redding's, All That Stuff, Co-liber, plus 6 (six!) American Bookstore (on Kozykowa,  Nowy Świat, Galeria Arkadia, Galeria Mokotow, Sadyba Best and in some other place).

Eight bookshops out of this lot have run out of business in the meantime and a ninth one – the last American Bookstore – will shut down within November this year. From then on the only bookshop boasting a somewhat large English written books section will be Co-liber on Placu Bankowym 4. They don't have the best English written books selection you might look for but, at least, they're still in business.

Those were the days of the Traffic Club in Warsaw that closed down in 2013
A couple of the bygone bookshops – Redding's and All That Stuff – used to sell second-hand English written books and this is the greatest loss for your often penniless Martian.
Truth be told, All That Stuff's website states that they're on 'a well-deserved break' and that they will 're-launch the bookstore in another place', but I wouldn't count on that in the short term.

According to some conversations I eavesdropped in town as well as to various online forums I read, Amazon is to blame for the death of the Varsovian English bookstores. These bookshops were simply not able to cope pricewise with the competition provided by the evil Jeff Bezos' monster.

Redding's is no more and shut down in 2009. Picture taken from bookstoreguide.org
Now, I won't write down an apology of the self-named Amazon Family (including worthy Abebooks and BookDepository both selling rare and second hand stuff), as it is a smoking gun pointed at independent bookshops indeed.
Nevertheless, I think that - in Warsaw and elsewhere - Amazon and its Kindle are a damn good alibi to justify lazy bookshop owners going out of business and I'll tell you why.

I'm lucky enough to know some booksellers whose shops are still alive and kicking in places much smaller than Warsaw. Small towns with no universities, no decent transport network, no wealthy foreigners and hard to reach for deliverers and clients alike.
What I noticed from those experiences is that a bookshop can survive nowadays by organizing workshops and events, involving kids and their parents, inviting authors, encouraging strong readers to buy rare books by ordering them on their behalf etc. But all of this means passion, knowledge, customer dedication and a good deal of time spent at the phone and on the social networks.


This sign which I spotted in the bookish village of Hay-on-Wye, Wales, reflects the attitude of many former Warsaw English-American bookshops: Amazon and Kindle cannot be fought back, but only forbidden. As much as I dislike reading on Kindle, I believe this neo-luddism is totally wrong. Photo by Christopher Fowler.
Well, I don't want to judge anyone here but I'm afraid that most of the former English/American bookshops in Warsaw didn't do much to save themselves from oblivion. And it's precisely this fatalist passiveness that killed them so quickly. The attitude I witnessed and experienced myself at the only surviving – but not for long – American Bookstore in Warsaw is a prime example of the wrongest behavior in town. Read and see what happened there:

Martian: Hello, I'm looking for this book: XY by YZ, I wonder if you have it here...
Bookseller: Hmm, mmmpf. No.
M: I see. Is there any way I can order it? I'd like to get this book.
B: Hmmm, mmpf. We sold our last copy on February this year.
M: Oh, that's a pity. But can I order another one?
B: Mmpf, no. We have only one copy left at our store in Krakow.

See what I mean?

Co-liber labels itself a 'Professional English Bookstore' but does have some English written novels, history books etc.



Anyways.
If you don't have problems with your budget in zloty and are just looking for a quick read to grab you could go to Empik which has several bookshops in Warsaw. Some of these bookstores (i.e. on Marszałkowska and on Nowy Świat) host a selection of expensive English written books. However, please be aware that in Empik bookshops it will be hard finding many Polish authors translated (Korczak, Hugo-Bader, Kapuscinski might pop up if you're particularly lucky).

Another place in central Warsaw where you could find some good English written books and a dozen of Polish authors translated is on Bracka 25. Unfortunately, every time I went to this bookstore (I don't remember its current name, but it used to be the old Traffic Club) I felt like I was disturbing those who worked there. 

Don't take me wrong: generally speaking the attitude towards a customer in Warsaw's bookshops is far from being friendly, but there in Bracka I perceived open hostility. And when I say hostility I mean shoegazing, inflated prices on the spot, annoyance. Thus, if I were you I would skip this bookshop and try your luck purchasing somewhere else.

For example, you could order your books from the superb – and kind of cheap – Massolit in Krakow and pick them up from Tarabuk one of those nice cafes-cum-bookshelves I mentioned earlier on. Otherwise, I'm afraid you'll either have to join the dark side of the Force Amazon Family or try Awesomebooks which asks only 2.99 £ for delivering in Poland.

Well, all things considered I believe there would be plenty of room left for anyone brave enough to open their own English or American bookstore in Warsaw. Please do that and rescue a poor Martian from the sad sad business of online buying. Do that and I'll mention you in one of my posts!

Summer 2015 Update
This post was written and posted months before I 'discovered' the amazing Aladdin's Cave known as Antykwariat Grochowski down Ludwika Kickiego, a little road in the Praga Poludnie district. Now, this IS the place to buy second hand English books in Warsaw I cried the lack of above. 
If you ever happen to look for good non-Polish written books sold for a song (price starts from 6 PLN and rarely go above 25 PLN) do yourselves a present and go to Grochowski. The owner is an awesome guy who'll recognize you at your second visit to his bookstore, plus they do have tons of good stuff in Polish and the place definitely has its charm with jazzy music often in the background.