30.12.14

2014: Around the Year in Twenty Books

My Varsovian Reading Corner. I won't fool you: I often  fall asleep on that armchair.

One year, one country, one home, one job, and some reviews later, here we are with the list of the best twenty books I read this year.

Unfortunately, I didn't manage to write something on all of them on these columns: apologies. What strikes me the most is that I missed the best two books of my year out. Shame on me, lazybones!

Just like it happened on last year, I've therefore selected a pretty good review which I read online to match each of the titles - save one - that I forgot to rate and discuss down here.

01. Israel Joshua Singer - The Family Carnovski
Rise and fall of a Jewish family turned secularist through three generations and caught between two world wars superinflation, antisemitism. From Poland to Germany and to the US. Excellent stuff.  

02. Giorgy Faludy - My Happy Days in Hell
The picaresque and cosmpolitan adventures of a poet (and womanizer) in and out his native Hungary first to escape the invading Nazis and then torturing Commies. Better than a spy story. And real.

03. Victor Sebestyen - Twelve Days*
A fantastic, detailed and objective account of the 1956 Hungarian revolution/uprising written by a historian with Magyar roots. The perfect travel companion if you plan to visit stunning Budapest.

04. Witold Szabłowski - The Assassin from Apricot City
Excellent and up-to-date reportings from Turkey. A dozen dispatches either from famous or hidden corners of a dynamic but troubled country torn between East and West, religion and secularism.

05. Chil Rajchman - Treblinka
Not another book on Holocaust, you might say. And you would be wrong. For the recently discovered account of this survivor of the worst Nazi extermination camp is a testimony to courage like no other.

06. Jacek Hugo-Bader - White Fever
All aboard a crappy but sturdy Soviet jeep for a mesmerising tour through contemporary Russia and former USSR. The author will take you to hippie hangouts, Siberian Messiahs and  Geiger counters.

07. Kader Abdolah - The House of the Mosque
A richly-textured and exquisite family saga with turbulent Iran in the background. The transition from the elitist Shah to the grim Khomeini won't be smooth for those in charge of a rural beautiful mosque.

08. Stefan Zweig - The World of Yesterday
The director of 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' claimed that his movie was inspired by this memoir. Don't believe him. And yet, this book is a gem and a wonderful guide through a bygone old Europe.

09. Boleslaw Prus - The Doll
Generations of Polish students hate this compulsory school reading. Don't be biased towards it. Sure, you have to be patient, but you'll be rewarded. Reads like Tolstoy or Chekhov stranded in Warsaw. 

10. Halik Kochanski - The Eagle Unbowed
The long and winding history of what Poles did during WWII. For Polonists or Polonophiles only? Not quite. Ms Kochanski draws an interesting picture of a country that paid a dear price to victory.

11. Isaac Bashevis Singer - Love and Exile
Or how a future Nobel Prize in Literature struggled to focus on his work and was often seduced by women during his youth in Poland. A very honest and humble memoir from a masterful storyteller.

12. Jeffrey Eugenides - Middlesex
You will either love or hate this bestseller of a few years ago. I liked it very much and found its author's writing style never annoying and always engaging. A lively introduction to LGBT issues. 

13. Isaac Babel - Tales of Odessa
Excellent short stories from the once multicultural hotspot of Odessa, Crimea. Mr Babel - who died far too young - had a knack for describing the vices and virtues of local gangsters and conmen.   

14. Stefan Grabinski - The Dark Domain
Spooky short stories from one century ago. The author is called the 'Polish Poe', but is much more modern and daring than Edgar Allan. These tales flirt with science, early technology and psychology. 

15. Marek Hłasko - The Eighth Day of the Week
Depressing, nihilist, if you like. And yet, this book takes a brilliant snapshot of many a disillusioned Varsovian in the 1950s. The author, a maudit, knew the blues he wrote about in this striking novella.

16. George Grossmith - The Diary of a Nobody
And now for something completely different, some pitch perfect bits of British humour old style. This fake diary, originally published in instalments, joins the same jolly club of Wodehouse and Jerome

17. Anna Swir - Talking to My Body
Poetry anyone? True, verses might not be your cup of tea (they aren't mine too), but this Polish author knew her business. Her brief, no-nonsense poems aren't any worse than Szymborska's ones.

18. Orlando Figes - Crimea
All that you need to know on the curr former Crimean War. The one fought in 1853-1856, I mean.  Just a remote bloodshed? Perhaps, but something worth to read on given the news from Sevastopol.

19. George Saunders - Tenth of December
The 2013 sensation on many a 'books of the year' list. Not bad, not bad at all. Ok, perhaps not consistently good, but at least half of the short stories here are first class material. And it shows.  

20. Ben Lerner - Leaving the Atocha Station
Was going to forget this one as I read it in February. But come to think of it, it was good. Mr Lerner wrote an interesting and original novel on the ramblings of a young American poet in Madrid.

*Another book by Mr Sebestyen that I read this year, 'Revolution 1989', would have made it into my top 20, but I left it out on purpose. I didn't want to have two works written by the same author in the list. Sorry. Luckily, Kinga wrote a great review of the aforementioned book. 

21.12.14

Witold Szabłowski - The Assassin from Apricot City (Zabójca z miasta moreli)

Rating 8.5

A reportage book cannot get much better than this.

Believe me when I say that I'm actually lobbying for Witold Szabłowski to get translated into Italian as soon as possible. And I'd like all of my English reading friends to give The Assassin from Apricot City a well deserved chance. They might listen to me. Go and tell them if you happen to stand this review!

Mr Szabłowski himself, a Pole who got interested in Turkey and speaks flawless Turkish, is only 34 years old and I think that Zabójca z miasta moreli is his very first book. But I bet you won't notice that.

Now, you might not be familiar at all with Polish reportage and I won't annoy you here with its main authors and chief characteristics. Still, if you like well-written journalistic accounts on interesting aspects of foreign countries (think about your better than average New Yorker text), young Szabłowski is your man.

So, what do we know about Turkey?
Well, I guess the answer to this question depends on your whereabouts.

As a born and bred Italian who had the chance to travel and to live abroad for a number of years, I learnt something on this topic; first hand accounts, if you like. In fact, I met, befriended, worked with and even interviewed many a Turkish person in Germany, the Netherlands and the UK. They were all cool (and pretty fashion conscious too) people who mostly disliked Mr Erdogan's doings, admired Mr Ataturk and knew a lot about basketball.
And yet, to be honest with you, I still don't know much about their fascinating and everchanging homecountry. I didn't have the chance to visit Turkey so far and - when I'll do that - I suppose I stick to Istanbul as there's quite enough to see and to grasp there.

Witold Szabłowski writes about Istanbul and does it beautifully. If you followed or heard what happened down there between Taksim Square and Gezi Park on 2013, this book will refresh your memories by taking you right on the spot. The author interviews plenty of the 'rioters' who are against Mr Erdogan's government, but gives voice to conservative and pro-Erdogan people too. Szabłowski  talks with students and clerks, journalists and shopkeepers, politicians and drag queens and this pot-pourri makes his Istanbul modern, dynamic (if troubled) and believable. There are a few hints here and there proving that the author of this book is all but a fan of Orhan Pamuk, the wordy bard of old Constantinople, and I get his point.  

What's more, Szabłowski travels around Turkey and, in doing so, he delivers excellent pieces of journalism. Whereas he writes about awful honour-induced women-slaughtering in remote provinces or he tells the poignant and dramatic stories of migrants trying to reach Greece and then Europe by sea, the author always does a great job. Even when Mr Szabłowski recounts the story of Ali Agca - the Turkish guy who attempted to kill the former Pope John Paul II -, a subject that has been covered for thirty years, he sounds refreshing in its observations.

The Assassin from Apricot City is right there in the footsteps of the best tradition of Pol...ehm actually world class reportage. If you want to know something about contemporary Turkey from the pen of a brilliant foreign reporter, this is the book you were looking for.

14.12.14

A.M. Bakalar - Madame Mephisto

Rating 6.8

I confess I had a lot of fun while reading this novel which is a fantastic page turner indeed.

I guess that living in Poland right now and having dealt with always smiling but often treacherous HR personnel in the UK for some years played a significant part in my enjoyment, though. Well done to A.M. Bakalar for having taken such a good snapshot of both aspects, then.

But wait a moment. Did she?
Well, yes and no.

To be honest, the author here indulges way too much on some stereotypes about Poland that you might have not expected to find in a book written (in English) by a born and bred Pole like she is.
This doesn't mean that reading 'Madame Mephisto' was not entertaining, but I'd daresay that A.M. Bakalar could have avoided a number of things which were not that necessary to her plot.

I lived in Krakow for a couple of months and the idea that many locals might insult a black person calling him 'monkey' while he's taking a stroll in daylight and in the beautiful Old Town is just absurd. I'm not denying that Polish society might be racist sometimes, but placing racist insults of that sort and in that place was just gratuitous and left a foul taste in my mouth.
You see, the author there was trying her best to stress out the differences between multicultural UK and a current almost monocultural Poland. But it didn't work well.
Another dumb note was the cannabis selling subplot. This stuff looked (and read) overimposed on the novel merely to make the point of Magda's double personality clear. I don't know anything about cannabis homegrowing and handshaking purchase, but my impression is that the author herself relied on information coming from some friend(s) of hers and magazine features to build up those junkie bits.

To counterbalance my criticism, I have to say that the pages focusing on Magda aka Madame Mephisto changing jobs in London were much better than those set in Warsaw.
I didn't live in London but spent four years working in the UK and most of the office dynamics described here were similar to those I experienced myself. The importance given to summer parties, KPIs (Key Performance Indicators), silly Excel spreadsheets and involvement in charity events instead of to the quality of your work and the results you gain. That and the often disturbing interference of people working in Human Resources on your job and career were depicted perfectly here. I'd like to stress out that I'm not against HR (cannot guarantee for A.M. Bakalar, though), but more than once I had the impression that they struggle to legitimate their position within a company by making up the most absurd procedures and regulations. Smiling everyone?

The fact that Madgda/Madame Mephisto is a natural born troublemaker and a whistleblower displaying the occasional fits of rage certainly helped in having plenty a tragicomic job-related scene included in this novel.
And that I enjoyed a lot.

Perhaps the reason why I give this book a decent pass is that - for all its flaws - it was funny to read and with a first person narrator that didn't annoy me. The same fact that there are some interesting, if slightly clumsy, switches to a third person narrative whenever Magda looks at her other self Madame Mephisto, helped in alleviating the prose. Oh well, I don't really know.
What I can say is that if you had the chance to experience both, the UK and Poland you might like this book. And yet, if you hail from Poland, be prepared to stumble upon some cheesy scenes about your homecountry.

4.12.14

Zadie Smith - NW

Rating 5.8

Zadie, my Zadie!
What have you done?

If I had to put all of my money on just one young novelist from the UK you would have been that author. I liked the books you wrote as well as the odd feature you published on The Guardian and on The New Yorker. I admired you and highly-rated your intelligence.

And yet, this long-awaited NW of yours is - how to put that nicely? - a major disappointment. How came? How?

I remembered you as a talented, sophisticated novelist with a knack for accents and a real talent in building up believable, if sometimes disturbing, characters. What's more, your plots were always carefully handcrafted and were as pitch-perfect as a clockwork.

But here? Here, my Zadie we have none of that.
For reading NW was like skimming through the drafts of an unfinished novel - well, actually a couple of unfinished novels - with only a few disjointed moments of actual Smithesque brilliance.

Were you simply lazy in tying the threads you wrote down or - even worse - did you truly believed that this stuff was worth of publication?
Don't take me wrong. Had any other novelist written something like NW I would have at least appreciated the sheer ambitiousness of its syncopated structure and savoured those few good moments of literature in it.

But you're Zadie Smith, for goodness' sake!
And precisely because you're Zadie Smith, you cannot deliver something as clumsy as NW.

Listen, I appreciated the inclusion of The Village Green Preservation Society by The Kinks into this novel (?) and all that, but you fell short in pretty much everything else.

Shall we talk about characters? Let's do that.
What you gave us here is an unlikely bunch of individuals revolving around North West London with - I reckon - two strong leading roles: Leah and Keisha/Natalie. Not that they're perfect, but they sort of work. Unfortunately, all the other characters in NW are exaggerations, highly-stereotyped figurines which could be easily dismissed.

Enter. The poor former teenage mum begging for attention and a few quids who comes from a tough neighborhood. Check.
The half-Italian spoiled rich guy who lives in his own bubble and peppers his Oxbridge English with mamma and the likes. Check.
The French black hairdresser (oh my!) who never grew up and only looks for confrontation. Check.
The old hippie vegetating and getting stoned in a dirty messy council flat. Check.
The artsy cougar who happens to be a heiress and chases uncouth youngsters dispensing sex and grammar. Exeunt.

Come on! Each one of the people in this parade is just a spoof. And you know that!
Plus, some of them are shown to the reader and then promptly left behind. For good, I guess.
But still...

To be honest with you, Zadie, the most touching and authentic moment of the whole NW - The Kinks aside - was the sudden death of a beloved dog and the grief that follows it.
I know, I know that some reviewers in the UK compared this novel to Dickens (of all things!) and I'm sure that thousands of readers worldwide found it sharp and loved its original structure, but to me it didn't work. And I'm genuinely sorry for that.

I look forward to liking your next novel.