“Breathing lessons” Anne Tyler

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Realism is what Tyler is known for. This novel is infused with such a realism that I felt as if I was in the same room with its characters. So, if you a looking for a escapist reading, look somewhere else. Unless you want to escape to Baltimore of 1988, when the novel was published.

The story line has Maggie and Ira as main characters, whose marriage seems impossible yet lasting. In all they do, “Ira [is] forever so righteous and Maggie so willing to be wrong.” Other characters – their son, daughter, daughter-in-law, granddaughter – seem all to come into play just to testify to that. Tyler manages to make you pissed of with Maggie’ constant intrusion in other people’s lives, just to redeem the character towards the end, by revealing her sweet vulnerability and pure desire to help. Maggie and Ira’s quarrels throughout the novel made me smile at the thought about how much energy we spend on minor things in life, at the expense of what’s important: love, respect, empathy, courage to speak up and courage to shut up, sometimes.

“The woman who breathed two worlds” by Selina Siak Chin Yoke

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The book picked my interest as I knew nothing about life in Malaysia. I absorbed its 476 pages in about ten evenings and was delighted by the richness of the story. The author invested two years in researching for and writing the book and she deserves acclaim for such a rigorous and respectful approach to her culture and inheritance. It also reinforces my belief that if history books would have been written by young women or ordinary elderly of those times, we would be reading something quite different.

In times of constantly changing circumstances, books like this help relativizing and reframing. The story of a widowed mother of 10, who succeeds as an entrepreneur in the turmoil of events of the first half of the 20th century, is a great reminder of the human phoenix power. “We each had power, if only we could harness it” is a highlight of the novel I’ll take with me.

“The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera

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This is the kind of book review which starts with “hm, where do I start?” The plot? Characters? Story line? Or all of them mixed, shaped and projected into a cinema room with several movies screened in parallel? That was my impression of the book.

I loved the merciless writing style. At times it was as if Kundera worked with a scalpel on the human mind. You cannot but wonder how deep can the human mind’s illusions and delusions go. Kundera shows us quite some shades of these: “The old duality of body and soul has become shrouded in scientific terminology, and we can laugh at it as merely an obsolete prejudice. But just make someone who has fallen in love listen to his stomach rumble, and the unity of body and soul, that lyrical illusion of the age of science, instantly fades away.”

Those interested in the history of the Soviet invasion of the Czech land in 1968 might find some eye opening perspectives in the book. The novel was after all prohibited in his home country until 1989. Probably, these lines would have sufficed to ban it: « Anyone who thinks that the Communist regimes of Central Europe are exclusively the work of criminals is overlooking a basic truth: the criminal regimes were made not by criminals but by enthusiasts convinced they had discovered the only road to paradise. »

“My year abroad” by Chang Rae Lee

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I pre-ordered the book and was looking forward to read it. It is a Pulitzer Prize piece of written work. I enjoyed reading it. The story line kept me entertained with a witty voyage and return plot.

Tiller, a young adult, jumps into the epicenter of a saga involving Chinese businessmen, a dying mafia guy, his lonely and egocentric daughter, an obsessed chef and other bizarre characters. These adventures bring him back to some family basics he was deprived of as a child. He searched for himself and found it in the roles of a partner to a woman under witness protection and of a father to her child.

“He’s just not that into you” by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo

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The book is a hilarious and honest take on human behaviour in romantic relationships. The authors – Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo – take turns for different gender perspectives. It is fun to read how they agreed to disagree on a number of topics.

Both authors worked in the “Sex and the city” TV series and its fans will find many commonalities with the series.

“… it’s never going to be good news if you have to think of your relationship in terms of “waiting for him”. He is not a stock you’re supposed to be investing in. He’s a man who’s supposed to be available enough to talk to you, see you, and perhaps fall madly in love with you”. I find this equally valid for “waiting for her” 🙂

“The Remains of the Day” by Kazuo Ishiguro

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I had a truly delightful time with this book. The writing style is as mesmerizing as a warm wind in spring. Flashbacks intertwine softly with stories into a story which is both moving and unemotional at the same time.

The story is narrated by Mr Stevens, a butler at Darlington Hall in its years of fame and prosperity. His British sense of duty and order teleports readers in the behind the scenes of one of the famous aristocratic house of the beginning of the 20th century. Politics, housekeeping, father-son relations, an un-lived love, intricacies of the butler’s profession make a fine story, where values of loyalty and integrity remain central.

“The locust and the bird. My mother’s story” by Hanan Al-Shaykh

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I absorbed the book. It’s my first book by Al-Shaykh and I bet it is not going to be the last. Her writing is as honest and truthful as the crystal water of a mountain river. Listening to and making public the story of one’s mother is brave because it requires introspection and forgiveness of all.

The story of Kamila, Hanan’s mother, is both unique and telling of an era and society dominated by religious patriarchs. Forced child marriage, an early pregnancy, abandonment, dependence and poverty marked Kamila’s life, yet it did not bend her free spirit. She was illiterate, yet her wisdom is deeper than the prescriptions of many scholars. She had no social security, yet her wit and survival instinct enabled her to see all her children into adulthood through the turmoil of war and social change of her country.

I am humbled by the story. And similar stories of million of women who remain anonymous, yet without which we would not be standing here and now.