Wednesday 19 December 2012

The Game - The PUA (pickup artist) community through the eyes of a woman

A pick-up artist must be the exception to the rule. You must not do what everyone else does. Ever.

When I first met him I was strangely attracted to him because he was acting a bit like an asshole. I liked his smile and the sense of fresh air when you meet someone different that doesn't instantly interrogate you: where you work, how old you are, where you live and what you grandma's middle name is.

Negging (neg:an ambiguous statement or seemingly accidental insult delivered to a beautiful woman a pickup artist has just met, with the intent of actively demonstrating to her (or her friends) a lack of interest in her)

When I told him I was an investment banker, he said I was selling for money. He insulted my job over the whole night (going a bit too far, I must say). To the extent I understand negging, you must insult a woman in a gentleman way (?!?) in order to lower her self-esteem. However, you must be careful not to go too far and actually drive her away. He was lucky I am generally attracted to rude men, so his negging didn't push me away. By the end of the night I was telling my friend he was awesome and she was telling me he was a superficial wannabe asshole and I was immature. Yeah, like I EVER listen to her advice.

Demonstrate value (i.e the cube or how to hit on Paris Hilton)

Then he told me the cube routine. Imagine you are riding through the desert and you see a cube. Is the cube big or small? Can you see through it? Now imagine a ladder. And then a horse. A sort of psychological exercise that interests the woman and demonstrates the man's value, distinguishing himself from all of those boring primates of his sex. Given my inherent love for psychology, I fell into the trap instantly.

I didn't meet a pickup artist as per Neil Strauss's bestselling novel The Game. I just met someone who has read the book and applied some of the routines to me. Of course, I realized that later, when I read the book and started recognizing patterns and stories. To be honest he wasn't an expert but I appreciate he tried and I am glad he tried on me. And whatever means he used, well he got me at the end so good for him (and me).

The first time I heard about the PUA (pickup artist) community and Neil Strauss was when one of my best friends told me she was sort of dating a guy who sort of read the book and sort of was playing techniques on her. I was mesmerized by the idea that men take courses and read books to hit on women.

Neil Strauss was an average looking man and writer, who had been insecure in approaching and seducing women all of his life. He had a few unsuccessful relationships and he almost committed himself to being a nerdy and socially awkward guy. When his editor at the New York Times asks him to write an article about the growing popularity of the PUA, Neil finds himself immersely attracted to the routines and lifestyle of these men. His introduction to the seduction community is Mystery, a legendary PUA with whom Neil travels around the world giving seminars and lectures. In less then two years he transforms himself from a shy and boring man into Style - a successful, confident, and cocky PUA, whom everyone starts to immitate and follow. The book explores his interactions with famous PUA such as Mystery, Rasputin, Steve P. and Ross Jeffries as well as with celebrities including Courtney Love, Britney Spears and Tom Cruise.

The religion of the PUA is simple. They have routines, steps, memorised phrases and even language of their own with the sole purpose of attracting a woman (and eventually sleeping with her). Looks don't matter as long as you dress to get attention and talk and act as if you are the prize.Do not get the wrong expression. These men say they don't hate women or see them as inferior objects to be conquered and I actually believe that. They are scared of rejection when approaching. They are scared of ridicule and pain. They want to learn what comes to many men naturally - being confident and self-aware when hitting on a hot girl. When finally they reach the Holly Graal of feaml approval, they feel omnipotent.

The success of the seduction community is spreading like a virus. Everyone, from college students to average IT guys and successful businessmen is looking for that magic pill and routine that will transform them into seduction Gods. Mystery, Style and the other "gurus" are intoxicated by the success and decide to launch Project Hollywood. They all move into a promiscuous house dedicated to seduction seminars and sexual adventures.

The lifestyle is great. The confidence that steams from being able to walk in a bar and knowing that every woman can be yours within 30 minutes is what these men have been waiting for all their life. Unfortunaly, every success is a double-edged sword. Many of the PUAs-to-be give up their jobs, their hobbies, their families and their friends and submerge into the community to master the game. Neil starts to see the dehumanizing of his pupils, turning themselves from well-rounded individuals into PUAs. Only PUAs. The community becomes more about sharing with fellow PUAs your success stories, your failures and your sexual experiences than about meeting women and enjoying them. The ultimate satisfaction is not going out with a HB10 (hot babe 10) but actually braggin about it to the less fortunate ones. As with any other religion or cult, imitations spread like bacteria and suddently Neil and some of the others find themselves living a life they didn't really sign up for.

I am far from feminist and I tend not to judge people as long as they are doing something good for themselves. And to my belief, that is what the PUA community, Neil Strauss and other fellow artists are trying to teach. They are helping insecure men with low self-esteem become more confident and successful. Not only with approaching women in bars but with life in general. Reading about all the examples Neil Strauss gives I see the benefits of taking a course like that. Most of the "students" were uncomfortable in almost any kind of social interaction. Feeling confident around women gave them that much needed confidence to succeed in life. Unfortunately, there is a time and place to stop everything, even sarging. Hitting on women is like a drug and when you overdose you need to take a step back.

For Neil, this step turns out to be someone who can beat him at his own game. I was just hoping that I will be spared the cheesy romantic ending another one of my best friends dreams of - the PUA meets the woman that changes him. I wasn't, but the tone of the book is such that even a trivial love story as this cannot be taken as cheesy. It seems quite natural, in fact. It made be think about something else - am I becoming too cynical to bear? The tales of true love that books, movies and TV seem to bomb us with, never managed to get to me. I don't trust that sugar-coated stories of the perfect love at the perfect time. Come save me, oh white knight! Yeah sure! I am starting to doubt myself (or I want to). If it has flooded mass literature and cinema so much, there must be some truth to it. There must have been that one lucky guy (girl) that was actually kissed under the rain and then decided to tell everyone about it

I actually liked The Game. For a book on the rather shallow topic of picking up women, it actually made me evaluate a lot of things. And I can proudly say I was actually a victim of a proclaimed PUA and honestly, it did feel good. Maybe more men should start reading that. I am tired of the good old: What do you do?

Tuesday 11 December 2012

100,000+ views

It took this blog 2 years and 6 months to reach more than 100,000 views. For some this might seem a modest accomplishment, but for me it is a great source of pride. Some of the views most probably are worthless (i.e people randomly stumbling upon the blog and leaving it quickly) but on a Tuesday morning, when this dreamt of Friday seems so far away, I intend to be positive. Even if 1/2 ot these 100,000 views were worth something to someone, I feel I haven't lost my time.

A lot of things have changed since the last time I reviewed the development of Read with Style. I, for a start, have changed tremendously. Unfortunately for all of us I don't have as much time to read as before. I am sad to announce that I entered the depressing, "I wanna kill myself every Monday morning", suicidal world of working full-time. I am in a long-term relationship with my bed and I must tell you it is a difficult one as we don't spend as much time together as I would like to. The result is obvious, both from the amount of posts I write every month and from the monthly views development. Nevertheless, I believe I have become a bit more wise as I no longer walk and read. On the positive side, I no longer break my chin. On the negative, I lose even more time when I could be reading.

Looking back at the books I have read, I notice a few trends. Yes, I continue to read diverse books, jumping easily from George Martin to Milan Kundera. However, I have given a chance to books I never thought I would: World War Z and Dracula

Let's see what has changed from the 10,000 Pageviews and Counting:

Top 5 most viewed reviews (before):
1. The Bronte Paradox - Wuthering Heights VS Jane Eyre - 2,260 views
2. L'Homme Qui Rit by Victor Hugo - 673 views
3. Charles Bukowski's Alter Ego in Post Office - 345 views
4. Life of PI by Yann Martel - 297 views
5. Stephen King - The Dead Zone - 122 views

Top 5 most viewed reviews (now):

1. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time - 7,467 views
2. The Bronte Paradox - Wuthering Heights VS jane Eyre - 7,175 views
3. 13 Reasons Why You Should NOT Read Thirteen Reasons Why - 2,428 views
4. The Beat Generation and Jack Kerouac - 2,132 views
5. Laurent Gounelle Teaches us How to be Happy - 2,069 views.

Quite a substantial turnaround with the ultimate winner before (The Bronte Paradox) pushed down to second place by the sweet story of an autistic child. The controversial 13 Reasons Why with 42 comments (making it the most commented review without competition) takes third place. I believe I was quite harsh in my review of Hannah's 13 reasons to kill herself and I provoked quite a few outbreaks by passionate teenagers. I stand by my point though - one of the worst books I had the displeasure of reading. Fourth place makes me extremely happy, as it goes to one of my favorite books. Fifth place is not surprising - yes, we are constantly looking for ways to feel happy. The only book that doesn't make it to top 5 and makes me sad is Life of Pi (movie to be released next week) because it truly is a different and provoking novel.

Top 5 visitors from countries (before):
1. USA - 2,800 views
2. UK - 1,459 views
3. Bulgaria - 1,422 views
4. Canada - 387 views
5. India - 224 views

Top 5 visitors (now):
1. USA - 30,693 views
2. UK - 13,281 views
3. France - 7,134 views
4. Bulgaria - 6,986 views
5. Canada - 4,474 views

The only apparent difference is France's debut in third place, which of course is quite understandable and expected as in 2011 I started my Master's degree in France (where obviously my fan base is growing:)).

In 10,000 Pageviews and Counting I was extremely proud of the graph showing the progression of monthly views. Today I am not so proud (I am actually a bit disappointed) but I will share it anyways, of course giving my usual excuse: I WORK 70 HOURS A WEEK!

I won't set any goals for next year (except working less, sleeping more and basically being a totally unproductive gal, which of course is not going to happen). As for books, I know I will be reading and reviewing (someone has to tell apart the good books from the mediocre ones) and what you should do is...well read!

Monday 10 December 2012

Zafon's Barcelona tetralogy continues with The Prisoner of Heaven

The first one was The Shadow of the Wind., the good daughter, who always comes home on time and brings joy to her parents.

The second one was The Angel's Game, the bad daughter, the naughty, dark, suspicious and always causing trouble one.

The third one is The Prisoner of Heaven, the one I will call the honest and revealing sister, the one that tells you truths that prompt revenge.

The Prisoner of Heaven brings us back to the mysterious streets of Barcelona and once again back to the world of The Cemetery of Forgotten Books and the Sempere & Sons bookshop. Like The Shadow of the Wind., The Prisoner of Heaven is also narrated by Daniel Sempere. Now a grown man, married to his beloved Beatrice and raising a boy named Julian (after the mysterious author Julian Carax), for Daniel life seems to be settling into place. The marriage of his best friend Fermin to Bernarda and the arrival of a strange man connected to Fermin's past, however, set to reveal secrets deeply connected to Daniel's childhood. The figure of the strange writer David Martin, the narrator of The Angel's Game, also emerges in Fermin's terrible past. Daniel's life is much more connected to Martin's than he expects as a special bond between Daniel's mother Isabella and the writer is revealed. While Fermin takes a journey down memory lane, Daniel discovers a mother he didn't know, a villain he wants to kill, and a writer, whose books he must read. Set in the light of imprisonment, betrayal and evil the Prisoner of Heaven reveals secrets that will provoke Daniel to seek revenge.

It is extremely difficult to write a review about Zafon's books as any little hint might destroy the immense pleasure of flipping through the pages, of following trails and people, of wondering what will happen next. Zafon is the same enchanting author i remember from the first two books. His prose sticks you to the chair, keeps you awake in the middle of night, submerges you into a beautiful but dangerous Barcelona in the 1960s. The story unravels quite naturally and remains connected to its prequels. Or should I say sequels? In an interview, Zafon shared that his Barcelona tetralogy shouldn't be regarded as a tetralogy. The books can be read in any order and still make perfect sense. Without ruining the surprise, I would just say that The Prisoner of Heaven reveals facts about David Martin's life that make me want to read The Angel's Game seeing it in a different light. Towards the end of the novel Daniel once again returns to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, now with Fermin, to discover David Martin's last book, The Angel's Game.

The only negative aspect of The Prisoner of Heaven is its ending. The last sentence opens the door for the next novel but leaves the reader in a terrible (even painful) anticipation.

The Barcelona tetralogy is a set of books about...well about books. Books that hide secrets, books that reveal the past, books that must be protected because they are among the biggest treasures. Rare books and evil books, the Cemetery of Forgotten Books is where they are buried only to be rediscovered at the right time. God knows what Zafon has prepared in his next novel.


Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

She was Lo, plain Lo in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

The first lines of Vladimir Nabokov's controversial novel Lolita immediately transfer the reader to a different world - the perverse, conflicted, tormented, and socially unnacceptable world of Humbert Humbert. Far from pornography, as some little souls may claim, Lolita explores the demons and temptations a 30 something man has to fight to restrain his passion. His passion for young girls (12-14). Not all of them, oh no. Just the nymphet ones. According to most dictionaries, a nymphet is "an attractive and sexually mature young girl". Humbert's passion, started as an innocent childish love, transforms into a driving force. Sexual desire (and especially unsatisfied one) shapes one's life no matter how we might try to ignore it. I am suddenly reminded of Michael Fassbender's disturbing performance in "Shame". For those of you who haven't seen it, well Fassbender's character is a sexual maniac. His desire to have sex anywhere and all the time affects his personal relationships, his work performance and every every other part of his life. Just like Humbert Humbert, though, he is extremely good at hiding it.

Oh, isn't Humbert Humbert quite the charmerer and the deceiver? In order to get closer to his beloved Lolita he marries her mother. The old, fat widow Charlotte Haze doesn't even suspect Humbert's hidden agenda. And then one day, when she is usefully eliminated by mere chance, Humbert's way towards Lolita (and her pants) is set clear.

Is Lolita innocent? Can we blame her? That question tormented me as I followed Humbert and Lolita's road trip across the USA. I guess no definite answer can be given. Yes, she was tempting him. Yes, she was being playful and presumptious. Yes, she was sitting on his knees, kissing him, showing parts of her body here and there. But and there is a big but, she was a child. She was supposed to be protected and taken care of. She doesn't bear responsibility for her actions. On the other hand, Humber Humbert does. His passion towards Lolita, however wrong socially it may be, has a far more negative effect in the long-term. It destroys her life irrevocably. Can we blame the girl? I can't. On the same note, can we blame Humbert? I can't either.

For many (and for me including) the novel is a bit disturbing. The parts describing Humbert's infatuation with little girls (and various parts of their body) made me flush read and look both sides, as if someone could actually see what I was reading. Humbert's sexual arousal and dreams are portrayed with such vividness that I felt I was walking through his mind. More than that, I even felt I was the one infatuated with little girls (oh, such is Nabokov's power). However, Lolita, I repeat, is not a pornography. Nor it is based on Nabokov's life (I read that bulshit somewhere). It is a mere recollection of a man's life, ruined by his sexuality. Humbert Humbert was not a pedophile. He was a man in love, just the wrong type of love. His sufferings, together with Lolita's destroyed life, make the novel a powerful insight into our devils and our angels, into what drives us to fall and into desires that ruin lifes.

Wednesday 7 November 2012

Honour - Elif Shafak

I sincerely thought that after Forty Rules of Love and The Bastard of Istanbul, there is not going to be much that Elif Shafak can surprise me by. I gave the benefit of the doubt to both novels and even though I wasn't disappointed at all, I have to say I wasn't out in the balcony screaming THIS IS FUCKING GENIUS either.

However, my ever loving aunt decided once again that I really need to read more of Shafak (honestly, I told her the books were good but I don't remember being enthusiastic to get even more of them) so she bought me yet another novel - Honour.

I was just in the middle of Dawkins' The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, which is not exactly the type of book you would use to fall asleep. It requires a great deal of concentration. As the author himself warns, "If you are reading this late at night tired of work, well stop". Well, I am always tired of work and it is always beyond the normal human concept of late that I manage to reach the haven of my bed, so I decided to stop reading it altogether and just postpone to another (hopefully calmer) time in the future. So, Elif Shafak came as a save rescue and without expecting too much but with a fare amount of excitement, I flipped the first page of Honour

And I flipped and flipped and flipped until it was almost 4 o'clock and I was contemplating doing an allnighter not to work, not to drink, and most certainly not to fornicate (a favorite word of mine!) but to read Shafak.

Honour is a novel about honour and shame. In the Turkish community even the most dishonorable men have honor and are bound to protect it and even the most honourable women have shame and are cursed to carry it. Even if it's not theirs. Honour follows the story of several generations of the Toprak family, from a small village in Turkey throught the sands of Abu Dhabi and to the skyscrappers of London. Shafak draws a scarily real story about how we tend to hurt the most the ones we love the most.

Esma, an independent and open-minded woman from Turkish origin but living in London begins with a rather startling statement: "My mother died twice". On her way to the prison to pick up her brother, Esma begins the fragmented story of her family. Recollections from various points-of-view and time periods slowly reveal the tragic destiny of the Toprac family. The two twins Pembe and Jamila (Pink and Beautiful) were born and raised in a Kurdish village. A disappointment to their mother (who wanted a boy after 6 girls) Pink and Beautiful grew up to be very different and took on separate paths. Pembe, the more adventurous one, married and moved to London with her husband Adem and their three children: Esma, Iskender and Yunus. Jamila adopted the role of the Virgin Midwife, dedicating her life to helping women give birth. However, the connection between the two never ceased to exist and when Jamila senses something is going terribly wrong with Pembe's life, she sets on a long journey to London, a journey that is going to prove fatal for both of them.

The clash between the Turkish traditions and the Western promiscuity is inevitable. Adem, the loving and honourable father soon falls for an exotic dancer (Bulgarian!) and leaves the family. The protection of the family honour is left with Iskender, Pembe's favorite. Ever since he has been a child, Iskender has been the Sultan in the home. Growing up in the violent 70s, when uprising against racial differences turns London into a battlefield, Iskender develops a violent and impatient nature. He treats his mother's behaviour according to Islam rules and his girlfriend's - according to Western. When Pembe gathers the courage to look for happiness elsewhere, Iskender is outraged and takes the protection of family honour to drastic ends.

In Honour Shafak tackles the everlasting issues of the Muslim woman's place in a man's world. Or rather, her lack of place. Shafak has been a favorite to open-minded individualist Turkish women and reading this novel you can scarcely wonder why. The author defends the woman's right to love and to pursue happiness but prominently shows that maybe the Turkish society hasn't fully warmed up to that idea. Men are being raised to value honour as the biggest virtue. Loosing it, a man is dead to society. Loosing it, a woman is dead. Period.

Honour provokes thoughts about revenge, retribution and forgiveness. It is a pleasantly surprising piece of literature I never expected from Shafak. Certainly her best novel from the ones I have read so far, Honour skilfully deviates from the trivial and sugar-coated writing i kind of expected from Elif Shafak. Highly recommended.

Wednesday 17 October 2012

World Without End - the sequel to the fascinating The Pillars of the Earth

After reading the more than 1,000 pages long The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet, you would think there is possibly not much more he can actually say about Kingsbridge and its cathedral. The novel is extensive in description, spanning more than 20 years and covering every possible spectrum of human emotion and relationship. Quite entertaining, of course, and when you finish that last page (FINALLY!) you feel a bit disappointed. You actually feel you are going to miss Jack, Aliena, Philippe and even William. However, even though you wanted it to last a little bit longer, you are definitely worried about the fact that the sequel is even longer. What could possibly Follet has to say more and would he actually ruin the good impression of the first novel with a rather weak second one?

These were the thoughts running through my head as I finally finished The Pillars of the Earth and seconds later grabbed World Without End, its appraised sequel. As I already mentioned, it was even longer than the first one - nearly 1,200 pages with the smallest font size I have ever come upon to. However, it was set nearly 200 years after the first one so Mr. Follet certainly gave himself room for a new story.

The novel begins with an awful secret. Four little children from the town of Kingsbridge (now a prosperous English market and religious center) witness a disturbing scene in the forest. The knight Thomas is nearly killed because of a terrible secret he knows and has sworn to protect. To escape his mysterious enemies, Thomas becomes a monk and joins the Kingsbridge monastery. Before that, he swears oath to Merthin, one of the children, to never reveal what he saw or that would be the end of his life. This secret (which is not revealed until the last few pages and you hardly remember that it existed) doesn't shape the lifes of Merthin, Asia, Ralph and Gwenda as the useless description on the back says. It scarcely affects their lifes so please don't always trust what some "clever" mind has written as a book description.

Merthin and Ralph are the two sons of the fallen nobleman Gerard, who after losing all his money is forced to live on the charity of the Kingsbridge monastery. The boys cannot be more different. Ralph is the younger one, but he is stronger and since early childhood he shows signs of violence. Merthin dreams of being a knight but his weak figure and father's disapproval destines him to the fate of a mason. Here comes the first of oh so many similarities between The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End. Yes, the stories are different, but the main characters are way too the same. Caris (Aliena?) is the smart and sceptible daughter of one of the richest woolers in the town. The love-hate relationship that forms between her and Merthin will span many years and several continents (a little reminder of Aliena's pilgrimage to find Jack). Ralph of course, turns out to be the biggest villain in the novel (William!) and by the 500 page we all hate him so much that we wonder which one was worse - William or Ralph.

Gwenda is the bit of fresh air that actually brings to the difference between the prequel and the sequel. She is a low born woman with a troublesome family. Her father, a most prominent impostor, barely manages to feed his family and from an early age forces Gwenda to steal. At one point he even sells her as a prostitute for a cow (I know, FOR A COW!). Seeing that she cannot get help from her mother or father, Gwenda becomes the most independent and admirable character in the novel. Her desperate love for Wulfric, who in turn longs for the stupid but beautiful Annette, shapes her life and gives her strength to fight both for Wulfric and herself. A clash against Ralph unfortunately marks a life of uncertainty and violence. Nevertheless, Gwenda is keen and observant and only her strength of will and sharpness of mind keep Wulfric and herself alive and fed.

What World Without End lacks is the strong figure of the prior of Kingsbridge. Instead the priory and the town are run by Prior Anthony, Caris's ambitious but unscrupulous and shortsighted cousin. When the bridge that connects the town to the rest of the county collapses, Merthin is set on an ambitious project to build a stone bridge and correct any mistakes made by previous builders. Similarly to Tom and later Jack, Merthin is faced with backwardness, intrigues, and cruelty.

The drama of the English-French war is exacerbated by another, more evasive enemy. The plague comes to Europe, to the UK, and to Kingsbridge itself. People are starting to doubt the ultimate power of the clergy and its prayers to cure a disease that seems out of reach. Caris, now a prominent leader of the town, attempts to wipe out widespread prejudice towards medicine and to educate people on the importance of isolating the sick and preventing the further spread of the plague. Herself and Merthin appear to be the white knights of the story, fighting at any point of time corrupted clergy, violent men-at-arms, and conservative townsmen. Their love story passes through ups and downs, with Caris being sentenced to death and Merthin travelling back and forth. Again, it quite resembles Jack and Aliena's.

Ken Follett has rich imagination and is a fascinating and engaging storyteller. He knows the human soul and he has an eye for what constitutes a good story and a good conflict. However, he is a bit too much in World Without End. The novel could have easily been 200-300 pages shorter without that altering its quality. In fact, it would have increased it significantly. In addition, the resemblance with The Pillars of the Earth is annoying at points. I guess if you don't read them one after the other, you might not find that so disturbing, but if you do (like me), you will feel you are reading the same book over again.

I am looking forward to the second part of his 20th century trilogy, Winter of the World (first one: Fall of Giants) and I sincerely hope he doesn't make the same mistake as with The Pillars of the Earth. However, nearly 2,500 pages with Ken Follet later, I definitely need a long break from him.

Friday 12 October 2012

Magnificent Cathedral, Magnificent Ken Follet

Set in the turbulent 12th century, when medieval England is torn by a civil war, The Pillars of the Earth tells the story of the building of a magnificent cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge.There is everything, and a lot of it in the nearly 1,000 pages novel: love, hatred, deceit, rape, wisdom, jealousy, manipulation, life as it was back then and most certainly as it is right now.

Tom Builder is a poor man with a big dream - he wants to build the most beautiful cathedral. Tom himself is not religious, but he sees cathedrals as the most impressive buildings in the world. They were, especially in medieval England when most people lived in something slightly better than a barn. Because of Tom's dream, though, his family is more often than not starving and homeless. When his wife dies in the woods giving birth to his third child, Tom is near desperation and abandons the baby in the woods. Meeting Ellen, a strange outlaw living in the forest, and falling in love with her is the one thing that saves him from desperation.

Ellen is one of the strong and admirable women in the novel. She lives alone with her strange son Jack after leaving the comfort of communal life nearly 10 years ago. The father of her child was wrongly hanged for a crime he didn't commit and in a feeling of desperation, Ellen cursed the church and the accusers. Her life ever since has been in opposition to the greed and hypocrisy of the ruling men - whether they are earls, priors, bishops, or kings.

Prior Philip is one of the most enchanting figures in the novel. As a child his parents were violently murdered and his brother and Philip were saved and raised by monks. His devotion to the Church and God is unshakable, yet as every human being he feels pride and desire to succeed. After becoming the Prior of Kingsbridge, Philip is set on the challenging mission to restore the priory to its former glory, to build the most beautiful church, to reinstall the market, and to transform the small village into a prosperous town.

Agains Tom, Philip, and Jack, who becomes Tom's apprentice and most devout follower stand William, the earl of Shiring and Waleran Bigod, the ambitious Bishop of Kingsbridge. William is probably the only completely evil character in the novel, with nothing human in himself. He is greedy, sexually maniacal, and extremely violent and ruthless. His hatred towards the people of Kingsbridge is well connected to Aliena - the daughter of the former earl of Shiring. When she refuses to marry him, he violently rapes her and throws her out. Now Aliena has united with Prior Philip and the villagers of Kingsbridge and this makes William's desire for revenge even stronger and bloodier.

It is impossible to describe the pathos of this epical story. Spanning from one generation to another, Follet creates rich characters, neither saints nor devils (excluding William of course). The reader feels drawn to the destinies of Ellen, Tom, Jack, Aliena and Philip, trembles when evil threatens to overwhelm justice and leaps with joy when the building of the cathedral is again on its way. Despite Follet's rather negative fame for writing slightly shallow thrilers that can hardly excite a 10 year old, in The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End (so far) he is at his best. I quite enjoyed him in Fall of Giants but to be perfectly honest, he is doing a much better job identifying with the medieval society than with the intriques surrounding WWI.

Monday 10 September 2012

The Bastard of Istanbul - Elif Shafak's Forbidden Book

I enjoyed Elif Shafak's Forty Rules of Love as much as I would enjoy a light slightly over positive book about love, gratitude and selfelssness. Yet, it wouldn't make it to my favorite lists and Shafak for sure wouldn't make it to the authors I follow with excitement. I find her rather too obvious, an author whose writing is too much telling rather than showing. Her prose is so understandable without the slightest effort, it is digestable even for the under-average reader, which I find a bit boring.

Nevertheless, when I read that her novel The Bastard of Istanbul was controversial in Turkey and the author herself was sentenced to three years of prison because of an offense towards the Turkish community, I felt there might be something worth it there. I mean, reading a forbidden book (similarly to doing all that forbidden stuff) is exciting itself. It feels as if you are crossing an invisible boundary and even the simple act of reading a forbidden book might be the spice that makes your day unordinary.

In her second novel in English, Shafak confronts and openly critisizes her country's violent past, in relation to the Armenian genocide of 1915. The plot transcends between continents and years focusing on two families - the Kazanci in Istanbul and the Stambulyan in the US. The Kazanci family is a colorful picture of women, who bear bravely the family curse: all Kazanci men die early. Seven women with seven different personalities from three generations try to coexist between the old Istanbul and the new Istanbul. Banu, the oldest sister, is a self proclaimed clairvoyant; Cevriye is a widowed and depressed school teacher; Feride is an obsessed hypochondriac, who comes up with a new sickness and a new hair color every week; and finally my personal favorite, Zeliha is the black sheep of the family. At the age of 19th she gives birth to Asya, the bastard of Istanbul. She wears short skirts and high heels and makes a living as a tattoo artist. The daughter has inherited her mother's rebelious nature. Asya likes Johnny Cash, philosophy, and random sexual affairs. She smokes, drinks, and openly rebels against the absurdity of her family.

On the other side of the world lives Armanoush, trapped between the Armenians and the Turkish. Her parents separated when she was young, mostly due to her father's strong and obsessive Armenian family. Her mother later married to Mustafa, the Kazanci estranged brother and Armanoush found herself in the middle of a battlefield. Desperately looking for her identity, she sets on a journey to Istanbul.

As much as the two girls are different, Asya and Armanoush quickly form a bond, ignorant of the circumstances that actually tie them closer than they can imagine. The two wander around the colorful streets of Istanbul, talking about politics, confrontation, the genocide, the past, and the future. However, the characters Shafak draws are a bit unconvincing. Asya and Armanoush talk more like 40-year-olds than like two teenagers but through their dialogues Shafak brings up the issues she would like her readers to mostly think about.

The family connections in the novel are so complicated that I often found myself stopping for a while trying to figure who was whom. Shafak slowly reveals the puzzle but it takes more than 2/3 of the novel so that things start to slowly make sense. I literally felt I needed a family tree to understand who came from where. Besides that, the novel is entertaining but largely predictable. I knew long before the end what the "terrible secret" would be and I was disappointed to be right.

As for why Shafak was sued, the novel is controversial only in the context of the Turkish extremists. The Armenians are bound by their sufferings in the pasts, wanting the Turks to admit to the "genocide". They feel as victims, a feeling that they pass on generation after generation, and honestly, a feeling that if lost, wouldn't tie them as strongly as a nation. The Turkish are separated: half of them do not admit the genocide ever taking place, and the other half (including the Kazanci family) have heard of it, feel sorry for the Armenians, but do not understand how they can be blamed for any of it.

Overall, a good book but I found most of the characters (excluding Zeliha) utterly unconvincing and I just couldn't connect with them. At points I felt Shafak was inconsistent in her descriptions and I couldn't form a coherent image for almost anyone. On the positive side, she does a good job bringing up a bit of magical realism (which I am a huge fan of). The djins coexist quite naturally with the Kazanci, bringing some fresh air in the rather stagnant novel.

Wednesday 5 September 2012

Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler - For the love of reading

All the novels I have read are for other people. Interesting, challenging, disturbing, motivational, whatever they might be, they are still for other people. I have identified with them, differentiated from them, loved them and hated them, but I was never them. Calvino is the only writer (so far), who writes about me. Puts me in the center of his novel. Actually, he puts you, as well. Yes, you, the passionate reader, for whom reading can easilly be a substitute for breathing. Yes, you, who would prefer a good book over anything everytime, whose eyes are glued on the novel, who derive immense (almost sexual) pleasure from a literary masterpiece. You, me, us, we the readers are the characters of Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler.

The novel is structured as 10 chapters in 2nd point-of-view (adressed towards you and me, the readers) alternating with 10 beginnings of different novels. The poor reader starts a novel, only to realize everything but the first chapter is missing. He sets on a journey to discover the rest, driven by his reader passion and restlessness. Unfortunately, he doesn't discover the rest of the novel, but the beginnings of another 9 novels. What a complete torture for any reader. You just started something and you are getting curious about what the rest is going to offer, how is it going to make you feel, what it is going to tell you about the world, and how it is going to change you and BAM, you are deprived of that greatest of all pleasures.

To make things easy for us (the reader) Calvino gives us a female reader. To accompany us in the search, to share our reading obsession, and to put a little love touch, without which every self-respecting novel is just words on a piece of paper. The female reader is the personification of the perfect reader. She immerses herself in the world of books. She reads several novels at a time because neither is enough to satisfy her book hunger. She refuses to meet the authors because their mortal body would only ruin the image she has through their voice in the novels. For her, you the reader, travel the world to find that special book or that special self. And along the way, you (me, us) discover the essence of reading. Calvino looks at it from several possible angles, presenting a different literary form with each of the new beginnings. He attempts to be 10 different authors and to his honor, he succeeds. Whatever the new novel is about, the chapter before that has already hinted to. At first it might seem Calvino just lacked ideas to write a whole story, but if you come to think about it, he is a genius indeed.

If on a Winter's Night a Traveler is a strange novel. It takes sometime to get accustomed to Calvino's unusual style. I was even annoyed in the beginning, as I felt completely lost, but once I found my place as "the reader" the novel indeed turned into something else. Calvino in this book needs to be experiences with the soul and not with the mind. It is difficult to say what If on a Winter's Night a Traveler is about. However, the most important fact is that it will appeal to everyone for whom the reading world is an unseparable part of the real world.

Tuesday 4 September 2012

1Q84 or the world with two moons

Even before I started 1Q84, I was trembling with a sweet impatience and anticipation. The days, weeks, and months passed, yet I knew somewhere a different world was awaiting me, the world not of 1984 but of 1Q84.

A friend of mine said I would absolutely love 1Q84. Well, if she meant I would actually be staying until 4 o'clock because my hands were glued to the book and my eyes - to the story, she was right.

People's general reactions to Muramaki's novel were two: 1: This is a huge book (yes, Murakami indeed overdid it by writing 900+ pages) and 2: I thought 1984 was written by Orwell. Let me start by the first question and for the first time by something negative. Indeed 1Q84 could have been a lot shorter. Murakami spends a lot of pages repeating and explaining stuff he already said and explained. At points I felt underestimated as if I am this shallow reader, who constantly needs to be reminded about the sequence of events. In his defense, Book 3 was originally published separately from Book 1 and 2 and within nearly a year time span, so I guess it was somewhat necessary. However, when you read Books 1, 2, and 3 one after the other, you sincerely get outraged at this constant repetition.

1Q84 is a play of words as in Japanese 9 and Q are written with the same symbol. 1Q84 is also a reference to Orwell's famous dystopian novel. The characters in the novel find themselves living in a parallel world, a world where two moons co-exist, where the Little People create air chrysalis and speak through it to the receivers, where there are a dohta and a maza. Yes, you wouldn't understand a word I am saying, but explaining it would ruin the whole novel. And as repeated constantly throughout 1Q84: If you don't understand it without an explanation, you wouldn't understand it with an explanation.

The year is 1984 (not for a long time) and the city is Tokyo. Aomame is a 30-years-old woman, who seems to be living quite an ordinary life - she is a fitness instructor by day and a sexually active hunter by night. Only two people know of her secret life - Aomame is a killer. She eliminates men, who abuse women. On the way to her next assignment, Aomame takes a wrong step (or rather a wrong staircase) and the world she believed she lived in changes completely.

Tengo indeed lives an ordinary life. He is a math teacher, who writes novels in his spare time. When his extravagant editor Komatsu suggests that Tengo rewrite the promising novel of a 17-year-old girl, Tengo doesn't suspect that this is going to turn his world upside down. Fuka Eri is a mysterious girl, whose first (and only) novel Air Chrysalis tells THE fantastical story of THE Little People, who affect the world's direction in mysterious ways. At first to Tengo,this story is nothing more than a girl's rich imagination. However, similar to Aomame, he starts noticing weird things around him.

Murakami quite extensively focuses on religious cults. One of them, to which Aomame's parents belong, believes in the destitution of the human body as a way to reach God. Its followers refuse even blood transmission, as it is a unnatural intervention into what God created and destroyed.

The second one is a more mysterious cult. Sagikake looks like a commune, where people disillusioned by capitalist society have retreated to grow their own food and to live in harmony and peace. As Fuka Eri's Air Chrysalis becomes popular, both Tengo and Aomame start feeling that it might be describing events in the cult. And both of them become unnaceptable to Sagikake.

The story in Book 1 and 2 alternates between Aomame and Tengo, but in Book 3 Murakami brings some fresh air and a new perspective in the character of Ushikawa, an investigator hired by Sagikake to track down Tengo and Aomame. His reflections, along with Tengo's and Aomame' help create a clear picture of the changing world and of the role the cult, the Little People, Air Chrysalis and even Tengo and Aomame play in it.

Tengo and Aomame's paths intertwine as they become closer to closer to realizing that they might be in this world just to meet again. They have shared a special bond as children but 1984 doesn't allow them to reunite. Both of them start believing that this special place with two moons exists for them and because of them.

1Q84 is entertaining and obsessing as you scroll through the lines to uncover the mystery of the Air Chrysalis and The Little People and to see Aomame and Tengo reunited. As I reader, I felt I am walking slowly next to them, patiently waiting for that perfect moment to meet.

More on Murakami: South of the Border, West of the Sun