Great blog post from what looks like an exciting new UK startup, on how the internet is connecting those with the ideas to those with the skill for execution. Being one of the latter – I wouldn’t mind someone creative throwing me an idea now and then, and apparently, since ‘execution is expensive’ I am in possession of quite a skill…

“Crowdsourcing is a way of solving problems and producing things by connecting online with people that you otherwise wouldn’t know”. That’s according to a video by crowdsourcing.org (we posted earlier this month on facebook) and it’s central to what we’re doing. If you’ve read any of our previous content, you already know that we want to help create new businesses by connecting users with the people or the ideas they need to start up; that means finding and collaborating with business professionals to help develop your concept, or finding great startup opportunities to pitch in time and resources.

Sharing ideas online is the starting point of any real or meaningful experience with our community and stats show that the majority of us are comfortable doing it. Most of us live and work in the grey area between total privacy and openness. Life is about engaging with your surroundings –…

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The Octogenarian Who Jumped Out of An Old Life and Into a New One

Italian book cover for The Centenarian Who Jumped Out The Window and Disappeared

So, my grandmother isn’t a centenarian, and nor is she quite blessed with a grandchild with bestseller writing potential and a name like Jonas Jonasson to PR the hell out of it, but – she does have me, and yesterday, as she stepped off her aliyah flight at 80 years old with signature grace and equanimity, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the title of the bestselling book, and of films like Up.

In a globalised, highly-connected and hyper-communicative ‘facebook’ age, it is, I suppose, hardly surprising that more and more of those belonging to an older generation are taking the opportunity to re-discover their vitality and capacity for change.

Don’t let the grace and equanimity fool you, however, my grandmother is not one of those…..

For the full post on The Times of Israel, click here.

This is a question I think about often…anyone any answers?

THE LITERARY MAN

The New York Review of Books asks us: “Why Finish Books?” It’s an interesting question, one which merits some thought. I’m currently laboring through a book, which was highly acclaimed, generally well-reviewed by most major critics, and yet it’s one of the most boring books I’ve ever read. Multiple times throughout, I’ve wanted to just throw the thing away, set it on fire, or throw it onto the subway tracks right before the A Train comes rumbling along, sparking those useless pages into flames.

BUT. But I feel so strongly about finishing every book I start because of two books whose difficulty almost stopped me, but which ultimately shaped my lifelong tastes as a reader (and human being): SOMETIMES A GREAT NOTION, which begins with almost 200 pages of flora and fauna local to the state of Oregon; and 100 YEARS OF SOLITUDE which challenges the reader…

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Review: Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife and the power of fable

Israeli Cover of The Tiger's Wife - quite impressive

There has been a lot of buzz surrounding the beautiful Tea Obreht and her stunning debut The Tiger’s Wife. Obreht was the youngest ever writer to win the Orange Prize and she was named one of The New Yorker‘s 20 under 40. More significantly, The Tiger’s Wifehas appeared on almost every list of the best books of 2011, both commercial and reader-based, and high-brow intellectual and literary.

This last seems to highlight the way that though the book appeals to a wide range of people (it has spent many weeks in the New York Times bestseller list, and has been number 1 on the ABA Indie Bestseller list for almost 20 weeks), it is also receiving praise from critics and prestigious reviewers. This combination of commercial potential and literary value seems hard to find – so what is the secret of The Tiger’s Wife?

The answer is difficult to describe. The book doesn’t exactly have a simple and clear plot, and Obreht’s subject matter stretches from the universality of death to the specificity of the war-torn Balkan experience. Her characters are sometimes mythical and sometimes real, and sometimes both at the same time.

On a simple level, you might say that this is a book about a woman coming to terms with the death of a beloved grandfather, and a country coming to terms with a bloody past, but that would be to ignore the most wonderful thing about the book – Obreht’s talent in using fable to “deliver a truth histories can’t touch“.

Understanding the magic of The Tiger’s Wife goes to the very heart of understanding why we read fairy tales – what emotional and human realities they can reveal to us in ways that normal writing cannot.

Albert Einstein claimed “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” G. K. Chesterton wrote that “Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

By refusing to limit herself to realistic writing, Obreht transforms the tragedies of Balkan history and the struggle of one woman to commemorate her grandfather’s life into an emotional truth we can all share in and identify with. Not only this, she delivers a truth that is at once ‘real’ and believable, and also hopeful.

But Obreht’s achievement is even more complex than that, since she never lets her story fall into fable completely. Instead, by resolutely standing on the thin line between realism and fable, Obreht highlights the way that the two are necessary to each other. The conflict between science and superstition that the book deals with – both stylistically and through it’s content – is never resolved precisely because we need both in life. The breathtaking end of the book works exactly like this, leaving the reader stranded between these two poles of life and forcing them to keep thinking about the book for hours afterwards.

Perhaps the real secret to enjoying The Tiger’s Wife is by following W. H. Auden’s advice: “The way to read a fairy tale is to throw yourself in.” Throw yourself into The Tiger’s Wife, and it will reward you with a stunning reading experience and a moving emotional truth.

Female ‘Sovereyntee’ and The Wife of Bath

Today being International Women’s Day, I’ve been thinking about female role models, as have several other blogs and tweets around. There have been plenty of lists on which literary heroines or fictional characters would come up as our top ten, and with a solid smattering of Bronte and Austen heroines standing next to Katniss Everdeen of Hunger Games fame, there is enough variety to appeal to one and all.

Whilst I’d have to admit that Margaret Atwood’s Joan in Lady Oracle more closely resembles who I am, if we’re talking about heroines or role models for who we’d like to be, Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath comes up trumps.

Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean I want to go around marrying multiply and playing cougar, as Julie Walters so wonderfully portrayed the Wife of Bath in the BBC adaptation in 2003.

But the Wife of Bath does represent some serious girl power – both in her medieval time and in ours. She refuses to conform to contemporary conventions of womanhood, and with irrepressible enthusiasm and joie de vivre she happily indulges in all that life has to offer with no thought for authority.

But the reason I love the Wife of Bath is for her linguistic playfulness and her role as a woman attempting to rewrite women in the canon. She fills her tale with mini-episodes of transformation, highlighting the way women are adept at adapting to different situations and are able to slide, chameleon-like, into forms that can get them what they want. Rather than seeing this as a terrible necessity of living in a patriarchal world (*yawn*), I would celebrate this ability woman have to get what they want. Their clever flexibility that uses the rules of a particular game to their advantage, rather than loudly demanding that the rules be changed or the game aborted.

The Wife of Bath reminds me of that saying, the one that gets recycled and farmed out by mothers and aunts and grandmothers and older sisters and mother’s best friends at every opportunity. It’s most famous appearance might have been in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, when Tula’s mother turns to her and says,

“the man may be the head of the family, but the woman is the neck, and the neck can turn the head any way she wants.’

This, to me symbolizes the ‘sovereyntee’ women can lay claim to. It’s controversial, I know, to claim that women shouldn’t be the head if they want to, but perhaps there is strength and power to be gained in laying claim to a particularly feminine way of being, one that is just as effective as a male one but perhaps not as clearly dominant – rather than attempting to assert that we’re all the same.

Even the Wife of Bath had to use the language of male scholarship and patriarchal religion to clothe her feminist project, but the fact that she could do that at all is, I think, cause for celebration rather than sadness.

In Search of Transparency, or not…

Quote

“The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to “see through” first principles. If you see through everything then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To “see through” all things is the same as not to see.”

C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man

Review: Do We Need To Talk About Kevin?

Finally a review not only for a book that has already been published, but for one that’s been around for a while. I seem to be late to this particular party.

Before it was accepted for publication, Lionel Shriver’s dark and provocative book, We Need To Talk About Kevin, was rejected by over 30 publishers. They objected that the narrator – Eva – was ‘unattractive,’ and that no one would want to read about a mother who failed to form a bond with her son, who, in fact, disliked him.

Indeed, it’s not an easy book. Apart from picking apart traditional ideas about motherhood, the book is ultimately about the brutal, cold-blooded, and premeditated murder of 7 high school students, a teacher, and a cafeteria worker by one, 15 year-old Kevin Katchadourian.

Unlike other fiction books on the subject of high school killings – like Jodi Piccoult’s Nineteen Minutes – We Need To Talk About Kevin doesn’t try and make us understand the killer’s viewpoint, painting him as an outcast, a victim of school bullying who is lashing out at his tormentors. Instead, Shriver asks whether parents can be blamed for their children’s actions. Are you born a psychopath? Or does your upbringing make you into one? Is it Eva’s bad mothering that causes Kevin to become a mass murderer?

Despite all this, the book became a sensation. With an initial publicity budget near zero, the book started by selling slowly, until word of mouth turned it into a US, and then an international, bestseller. Then in 2005, it won the Orange Prize for fiction and now the film adaptation is the star of this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Everyone, it seems, is talking about Kevin.

Is it just the shocking and appalling content that has people hooked? Apparently not. Shriver’s prose is not only finely-honed and polished, it also often richly poetic. Her attention to detail is legendary and is used to great effect in the novel. I have read complaints that the book reads as if Shriver sat down with a thesaurus and used it at every opportunity, but I associated her wide vocabulary more with a need to be exact than a desire to show off. Perhaps that’s because I imagine I would write similarly myself. Her characters might not be likeable – Kevin is truly disturbing and Eva resolutely refuses to bow to our expectations of her innate, maternal core (which troublingly I didn’t take issue with at all, I might hate a child like Kevin too) – but they are compelling, and despite their strangeness, somehow feel vividly real. In short, like the film, the book is compulsive and chilling, and if you are disquieted, you are also unable to stop.

One wise reviewer has said that Shriver forces her readers to look inside themselves and then run away from what they find. It’s true, the book presents some uncomfortable truths to its reader, not just about juvenile murder, but also about motherhood and nature versus nurture. It breaks taboos and deals with difficult, complex issues in fine, highly literary language, and (perhaps most worryingly of all), refuses to give the readers an easy answer on who is to blame for a child’s murderous actions. As Shriver says, the verdict is up to the reader. One thing is for sure, it seems we must, indeed, talk about Kevin.

Review: The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

This book is being published in England by my idols Virago Press, and should be on UK shelves by end of March. The Hebrew edition will be published by ours truly, but I don’t yet have a tentative date. Will post when I do…

 

Grace Winter, newly married to the rich and handsome Henry, is one of 39 survivors on a lifeboat after the wreck of the Empress Alexandra. The book opens with her standing trial for murder along with two of the other female survivors, though we don’t know of whom or any of the other circumstances, and the book returns immediately to the moments following the shipwreck. Luckily, one of the 39 on the lifeboat was Mr. Hardie, a sailor from the ship who takes immediate control of the boat and its passengers given his knowledge of the sea and clear thinking in a crisis. At first he insists on their remaining near the wreckage to ensure that they will be picked up by the inevitable rescuers, but as more days pass and there is no apparent rescue attempt, he allows that they may as well try and sail for land. As the days pass Hardie warns his charges that they are at over-capacity, and that in the event of bad weather the boat will capsize. He suggests volunteers to throw themselves overboard for the good of those left in the boat, and thus begins the main moral dilemma of the book. The narrative continues to switch between Grace standing trial and the torturous, sometimes hallucinatory days in the lifeboat, where the passengers by turns console and connive against one another. Won’t give much more away, but suffice it to say Rogan keeps the reader engaged in the plot despite the limitations of her setting (which actually work for her, in my opinion) and the temptation to go overboard (‘scuse the pun) with being philosophical.

The Lifeboat is a tightly plotted novel that works both as a psychological thriller and as story addressing an impossible moral dilemma. The highly particular circumstances giving rise to this dilemma do nothing to reduce its relevance or immediacy to a reader, and the ‘closed-room’ setting of a lifeboat allows Rogan to explore the dynamics of human relationships at their most real and raw. This she does skillfully, mediating everything through Grace’s strange passivity so that it feels both removed and hyperreal.

It’s also a book about unreliable narrators and unstable, variable versions of the same events. Though Grace is a likeable narrator, she doesn’t come across as reliable – even by her own estimation. She frequently asserts her own uncertainty regarding her memories of the events in the lifeboat, but the reader (and those around her) are never quite sure when she is posturing and when she is truly in the dark about her own motivations or actions.

What Rogan does particularly well is show how Grace’s ‘God helps those who help themselves’ philosophy applies both to her situation pre and post shipwreck. This in turn makes Grace (with all her unreliability) very credible and convincing, and the fine balance Rogan strikes between depicting her admirable tenacity in insisting on taking control of her life and her acceptance of her own vulnerability is pitched perfectly (again, no pun intended…they’re all just bobbing up unintentionally).

The other characters are also well drawn, but Rogan’s real success lies in how she portrays the relationships and interactions between the different personalities on the boat. These are consistently complex, convincing and engaging, and Rogan manages to make them both inevitable in the context of the psyches she has assembled, and also strangely supernatural – as with Mrs. Grant’s curious hold on the passengers of the boat, by turns appearing almost mystical and at others merely the absolute power a parent holds over their dependents.

Above all, instead of using the characters as mouthpieces for philosophical discussions of the moral dilemmas produced by this life or death situation, Rogan turns them into desperate children who decide based less on careful consideration and dry discussion than impetuosity, fear, caprice or the desire for approval.

The structure of the book also functions perfectly to highlight the slow passing of the days and the nights in the lifeboat, and the juxtaposition between the moral question playing out in the boat and then rehashed in the courtroom dramatizes precisely one of the central questions Rogan seems to be asking in the book – how do certain situations impact our ideas about what is acceptable and what is not.

The book is not without its entertaining moments, and Rogan’s writing is accomplished, the dialogue feeling authentically ‘of’ the historical period. There were a couple of moments where Grace seemed to be describing moments straight of Titanic, but the believability of Rogan’ setting didn’t suffer as a result. The Lifeboat was a quick, clever read and I would recommend keeping an ear to the ground for its publication.

For more info on the book or the author, click here.