5.05.2016

A Millennial Search: The Yoga of Max's Discontent - Book Review and Author Interview

Another one of my articles published on Impakter, the magazine for Millennials:

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TIGHT AND SLACK – A MILLENNIAL SEARCH

CLAUDE FORTHOMME on May 3, 2016 at 6:02 PM

  • Life Models: “Tight and Slack” and the Search for Transcendence.
  • Karan Bajaj Talks about Life and his Latest Novel “The Yoga of Max’s Discontent”,  published by  Riverhead Books/Penguin House, out on 3 May 2016  
  • Book Review and Author Interview
A book about man’s quest for himself,  The Yoga of Max’s Discontent, is a book you should read, for many reasons.

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IN THE PHOTO: MOUNT VERNON AND THE BRONX – END OF THE 2 LINE AT 241 ST AND MOUNT VERNON
First, an arresting premise: the main character, Max, a tall, young man in his late twenties, is the personification of the American dream – from the dark despair of the Bronx projects where he was born to the glitter of Wall Street. A first-generation immigrant, there’s no father in the family, just a sister and a mother, a Greek woman who earns a meagre living from housecleaning and sacrifices herself to see her children educated. He manages to win fellowships to the best schools, gets a Harvard degree and lands a highly paid job on Wall Street. His mother dies, the American dream falls apart.

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IN THE PHOTO: HARVARD UNIVERSITY WIDENER LIBRARY
Second, a remarkably  terse, direct way of presenting the yogis’ complex belief system, complete with Max’s own personal doubts as they crop up – and that approach certainly succeeds in drawing in any unbelieving reader. The book is written from Max’s point of view: with his mother passing away,”now that he no longer had his mother’s voice in his head prompting him to become someone, nothing stopped him from seeking the same insight.” The “same insight” referred to here, is the yogis’ belief as reported to Max in the simple words of a recently arrived Indian immigrant who is manning an open-air food cart on a Manhattan street corner. Max has come across him after his mother’s funeral. The night is wintry and bitter, the Indian cart vendor is naked to the waist, apparently heedless of the cold; he certainly looks something of a yogi. The man tells him that yogis believe “that the whole world exists in opposites: up and down, cold and hot, darkness and light, night and day, summer and winter, growth and decay. So if there is birth, age, suffering, sorrow and death, then there must be something that is un-born, un-aging, un-ailing, sorrowless and deathless – immortal as it were. They want to find it”.

The rest on Impakter, click here.

4.20.2016

"Severed Head" on Wattpad

The #JustWriteIt 30 day writing challenge, #EarthLove edition organized by Wattpad has a new participant!




Yes, little old me, and this is the presentation on Wattpad of my new novella, made to celebrate Earth Day coming up on April 22nd. EarthDay. org wants you to plant billions of trees to green the Earth, actually 50,000 more trees by 22 April, do donate! For my part, I just want you to enjoy my new novella and maybe, just maybe, think a little a bit about our common future and our home, planet Earth - hey, remember, it's like your own body, it can't be replaced!

#EarthLove!

Here's the pitch for my novella:

The end of the world: 2116, the year when the last spaceship loaded with humans leaves for Kepler 457, Earth's twin, virgin and new, ready to be settled. 
In that ship: Julie, beautiful, young and alone, the man she loves has chosen to stay behind. She has submitted herself to a harrowing procedure to take the flight, a procedure Dan could not bear to face in spite of his love for her (no spoilers!). He takes refuge on Antarctica that has turned into a lush archipelago, similar to Japan, now that all the ice has melted. 
The unexpected happens, Julie and Dan meet again, but it's not a happy reunion. Julie has another life partner. Can Dan ever win back Julie? 
This is a sci-fi piece set 100 years from now, it's about saving the Earth, it's about love, and even Donald Trump makes a surprise "guest appearance"...Enjoy, let me know what you think! 
  NOTE: For this novella, the author is using her real name (Claude Forthomme) - her past work, ranging from poetry to novels, may be found under her pen name, Claude Nougat.

And here's the opening:
I knew she had done it, we had talked – and fought – about it so many times. But it wasn't until I saw her inch along towards me, one among thousands on the conveyor belt, that the full impact of her decision hit me. I felt faint and had to sit down.
A severed head floating in a glass case.

To read the rest, click here 

If you like it, please share, here's an example of a tweet but feel free to tweet whatever you want!


4.13.2016

FISH FARMING: A WAY TO ADAPT TO CLIMATE CHANGE?

Another one of my articles on Impakter:




FARMING IN WATER: THE CHALLENGES OF AQUACULTURE

A Conversation with Michael New, World Expert on Freshwater Prawn Farming and Founder of Aquaculture without Frontiers (AwF)
For a long time, aquaculture was the foster child of agriculture, but now it has come of age: output has more than tripled over the past 20 years, making it the world’s fastest-growing food producing sector.
After the conquest of land, farming is conquering water, a much greater challenge.
With a production close to 80 million tons annually, fish farming provides the world with 17 percent of its animal protein. The lion’s share of aquaculture production, some 90 percent, comes from developing countries, and while most fish farms are in Asia, aquaculture’s highest growth rates have of late been in Africa and South and Central America.

THE FISH FARMING REVOLUTION

Developing countries get more revenue from farmed fish exports than from meat, tobacco, rice and sugar combined. China however, remains the big player, exporting over twice as much in value terms as Norway that clocks in second.
But rankings are shifting with new entrants. In 2014, Thailand, historically the world’s third-largest exporter of fish products, was surpassed by Vietnam, thanks to the rapid market acceptance of itspangasius production, a freshwater white fish that competes successfully with sea-based speciessuch as cod and the freshwater channel catfish produced in the Americas.
Fish farming is fast becoming big business and fish trade requires regulation more than ever to reassure consumers. According to Audun Lem, Deputy-Director in FAO’s Fisheries Policy Division, one reason aquaculture has surged ahead of open-sea fishing is that its production methods are typically “far less seasonal and volatile.” This allows for easier access to insurance or credit – for example, there are now salmon futures – and even “tailored solutions” such as the production of fattier salmon better adapted for smoking.
PHOTO: (ABOVE) PANGASIUS HARVEST – VIETNAM. SOURCE: VIETNAM PANGASIUS ASSOCIATION.
As aquaculture production becomes more reliable, longer-term investmentS can be made in a number of innovative techniques such as selective breeding, cold-storage facilities and methods to minimize fish waste. This opens the way for “fewer but larger operators,” a process well advanced with species such as marine shrimp, tilapia, Atlantic salmon and European sea bass and bream.
An example of one such large operator is Sino Agro Food, inc., an American company operating in China. It is currently establishing mega farms in China to meet the demands of the Chinese middle class, estimated to be around 500-600 million; one project in particular, in Zhongshan, is unprecedented in size and scope, the largest fish farm in the world, covering some 600 acres and using the most advanced water-recycling technology.


...To read the rest, click here. I believe aquaculture is one of the solutions when climate change hits and normal farming goes under stress, let me know what you think!

3.08.2016

Europe: Time to Clean Up Your Act!

Student debate held at Speak Up November 2015 (video here)

Seven months ago, I blogged about the ignominious stance of Ms. Merkel's Germany, weighing down on poor little Greece, stripping it bare so it would repay its debt - in short, dangerously rocking the Euro boat and nearly sinking it. That post was titled: "Shame on You Germany, You are Killing the European Project".

How times have changed in just seven short months!

Now Europe is facing the twin challenge of Brexit and the refugee crisis.

Brexit - if it actually leads to the UK's exit from the EU and, for now, the chances that it will are about even - could open the way for other Euro-skeptical countries to leave, particularly East European countries like Poland and Hungary that seem to have forgotten how happy they once were to escape from the Soviet Empire.

The refugee crisis has seen an extraordinary change of heart in Merkel: all of a sudden, she has turned into Europe's paladin, fighting for a generous, dignified humanitarian stand (in fact, the only one that would do justice to Europe's values). By contrast, East and Central European countries, in a selfish, amoral and ungenerous fit, led by Hungary and Poland in this case too, are fighting Merkel and closing their borders with razor-thin walls, reminiscent of the infamous Berlin Wall.

This is a continent truly divided: on its western and eastern borders, EU members are hitting hard at the European project, while at the center, particularly in Germany, it has to valiantly grapple with the influx of over a million refugees and economic migrants.

The crisis is not longer at its doors, it's within. Yet, in spite of the deadly urgency, the EU is still grappling in the dark, EU meeting after EU summit, for a solution.

Paralyzed.

Why? Are all our politicians stupid, don't they realize that if they do nothing, voters at home will make them pay? Or is it the EU institutional framework that is causing paralysis? That framework was carefully constructed to preserve "sovereignty" so that no country joining the Union would lose one shred of its precious "national identity".

Result? Political paralysis. Inability to take any decisions. Focus on irrelevant details (like the length of bananas or wrapping mozzarella cheese in paper) rather than keeping an eye on the main road.

Of all the institutional stupidities, the worst offender is the EU presidential system: here, since the Lisbon Treaty came into force in 2009, we have two "presidents" of Europe, one for the EU Council who is full time - first it was the Belgian Herman van Rompuy; now, since December 2014, it is Poland's Donald Tusk -  and then we have a continuing six-month rolling presidency as each EU member country takes its turn at the helm. The next EU presidency falls to Slovakia.

And Slovakia in its recent elections has taken a turn away from Europe: its parties are dangerously anti-European. If you don't believe me, read this excellent analysis in the New York Times: Slovakia's Governing Party Loses Majority as Far Right Makes Gains.

My question is: why do we need a rotating presidency of EU member countries if we have a European President of the Council, a man who presides over the Council that consists of the heads of states or government of EU members as well as the President of the European Commission? Why is this President that comes closest to an individual selected by ALL European citizens (since he is elected by the European Parliament), why is he set aside every six months by whatever country that happens to take over the "EU presidency"?

This is a perfect recipe for political paralysis.

What kind of game are our politicians playing at? Obviously, this is a way to have more juicy positions to fill their pockets as they "rush to Brussels". But it is at the clear expense of European citizens and tax contributors. Slovakia, once it is sitting in the presidential driving seat next July, can be counted upon to at best do nothing and leave the European machine stalled, and at worst, to promote its own anti-European agenda and force the European machine to backtrack.

Time to put a stop to this game and reform the EU institutions. Unifying Europe is a management matter: countries will need to leave behind  chauvinistic nationalism in order to rise up to the challenges and make decisions. Solutions will never be reached as long as countries cling to their antiquated national identity.

To begin with: cancel the six-month presidency turn-over game.  This is the only way to have a real European Union President. Someone we know is dedicated to the European project. Someone who will push it forward and not stall it - as Slovakia no doubt will.

It's only a start, but it would be a good start. Your views?

Update: Turkey is suddenly playing tough on EU demands to help it stem migrant flows - a stiff bargain that reveals how weak the EU really is. "EU Welcomes Bold Turkey Plan to Stop Migrants" is the way Reuters titled it (see here) EU "welcomes"? "Bold Turkey Plan"? In fact, the Turks simply asked for twice the money!

3.01.2016

Poverty in America vs. Poverty in India: The Making of Bestsellers?

I just wrote this article and uploaded it on Thingser, the only social network that lets you do this - write an article and post it on the platform - if you don't believe me, try doing this on Facebook!
It comes with the Thingser logo as a featured image to draw attention to this special feature:

And here's the article:

POVERTY IN AMERICA vs. POVERTY IN INDIA: A JUICY SUBJECT FOR BESTSELLERS?

 

Featured image on NYT review of Evicted, published February 26, 2016

 A book about poverty, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond, a sociologist and Harvard University professor and Co-director of the Justice and Poverty Project, was defined by the New York Times as "an astonishing book". Before going on sale on March 1, 2016, it had already 23 positive "customer reviews" on Amazon. The publisher, Crown Publishers, is ensuring this will be a smashing hit, including pricing the hardcover edition lower than the digital edition. The objective? Echo Katherine Boo's success with her 3-year study of a Mumbai slum. Here are the reasons why such a book, in spite of its dark, depressing content, is very likely to make it as a major best seller and perhaps even as a future blockbuster movie.   

In a recent and impassioned review of Matthew Desmond's latest book, Evicted:Poverty and Profit in the American City, to be published shortly (on 1 March 2016, Crown Publishers), the New York Times wryly noted: "Poverty in America has become a lucrative business, with appalling results".

The author of the review is Barbara Ehrenreich, the noted political activist who was perhaps the first one to publish a best seller about the subject of poverty,  Nickel and Dimed that came out in 2001.

It caused a stir and inspired others to follow in her path, including Adam Shepard with Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25 and the Search for the American Dream and Charles Platt with his blog "Boing, Boing".

Ms. Ehrenreich is also the founder of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project (EHRP) dedicated to "supporting journalism, photo and video about economic struggle". EHRP is run by editor-in-chief Alissa Quart, a professor at Columbia University's School of Journalism and author of a socially-oriented non-fiction book Branded: the Buying and Selling of Teenagers .

Published in 2003, it was considered a "substantive follow-up to Naomi Klein's No Logo" (Publishers' Weekly).

In 2012, Katherine Boo, a New Yorker journalist and recipient of a Pulitzer prize, erupted on this American scene focused with her best selling book about poverty in India, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum .

It instantly earned praise from everyone that counts (1,851 customer reviews on Amazon, over 8,000 reviews on Goodreads) and an accolade from best-selling author Junot Diaz on the New York Times, calling it "a book of extraordinary intelligence and humanity...beyond groundbreaking". 

What have all these authors in common?

They all did something unusual...

Click here to read the rest.

2.25.2016

Writers: Don't be Afraid of Your Plot!


I was recently reminded how often a story doesn't go far enough, and as a result, it simply fails. 


The thought came to me as I watched a film last night on Netflix, Viaggio Sola (I Travel Alone or A Five Star Life), the work of writer/director Maria Sole Tognazzi (a rare woman director!) with a couple of friend writers (Francesca Marciano e Ivan Cotroneo) - all in their forties and unmarried.

The film, done on a tiny budget and released in 2013, met with restrained praise abroad (here and here) and somewhat warmer praise at home, in Italy (here and here) . And it ended with a 6.3 rating on IMDB. Nothing earth-shaking but respectable.

Why was this film (and story) not a blockbuster?

It has a great premise: it's about a woman who works as an inspector, verifying the quality of five star hotels across the world - the film starts with the Crillon in Paris. She has chosen a life of freedom and luxury over marriage and family.

Big themes.

And they transcend gender: one could easily imagine a man doing her job. Would a man in the same circumstances - a job that requires high levels of business traveling - handle better his personal life? Maybe so, but this is a question Ms. Tognazzi doesn't address, her focus is on the woman.

And the film has impeccable photography and actors. If you haven't seen the film, here's the trailer, it gives a fair idea of the "tone" of the film:



The woman, Irene (played beautifully by Margherita Buy who won a David di Donatello award for it) is a little mature, even fanée and predictably very solitary, due to the nature of her work that constantly takes her away from her life partner (who, just as predictably, has an affair with another, more available woman - she doesn't travel - who eventually is expecting his child).

Irene accepts that the price of her life style is not having children but it grates on her; that glossy five star hotel life feels frozen, alienating - all the more so because in her job as an inspector she has to constantly size it up rather than enjoy it.

The film was streaming faultlessly, building to a climax when Irene meets Kate, a sister soul, as they both lounge lazily around in the luxury spa of a 5 star hotel in Berlin. Kate, equally fanée is a bitingly bright English anthropologist and amateur philosopher who suggests they leave behind the luxury world of their hotel and spend the evening together in a loud, raucous Turkish restaurant that she promises her will be full of real life - not the "deceit" of all this luxury.

So there you are, expecting fireworks at the Turkish restaurant, maybe a Turkish macho type will disrupt the evening, maybe the two women will end up in bed, maybe not (too soon? too cliché, more twists needed?).

But the next scene is a total surprise: Irene is not with her new friend Kate dining on exotic Turkish food; she's still in her luxury hotel, and she is apparently having her usual lonely breakfast among the crystal and porcelain, the chandeliers and the white linen.

What happened to Kate? Irene soon finds out she's dead, maybe from a heart attack, in any case it's unexpected. And that throws Irene in a spin, she starts questioning her life, she panics. The end (no spoilers given here) is excellent, with some humorous touches (again, no spoilers). But the film doesn't quite make it, it doesn't take on that added dimension needed for a blockbuster.

I'm totally convinced that if that scene at the Turkish restaurant - a scene we had been led to expect - had been played out, this film would be a classic today. A low-class, warm and human scene with perhaps "osé" sexual overtones would have carried the film onto another level, providing a much needed contrast to the frozen perfection of high-class luxury. Kate could still die her unexpected death and the film end the way it did, but it would have happened after that Turkish scene - and with the added bonus that for us, as viewers, we would have come to know Kate better and would have emotionally felt her death. As it is now, we don't really care that she died.

In other words, fellow writers, don't ever be afraid of carrying your ideas onto their logical end!


2.23.2016

The Western Sahara

Another one of my articles on Impakter magazine: 


Western Sahara

THE WESTERN SAHARA SCANDAL: THE FORGOTTEN EMERGENCY

The Western Sahara scandal. The last colonial war in Africa is still unresolved, in spite of over 40 years of efforts on the part of the United Nations.  A people has been destroyed,  its rights to its native soil confiscated,  half of its people living in refugee camps – three generations now that have never known a normal, free life – while the rest barely ekes out a living in the barren eastern part of the country, just beyond a Berlin-like wall built by the occupant, Morocco.
And all the riches of the country from ocean fisheries and phosphate mining go to Morocco, leaving  not a cent for the native people of the Western Sahara, the Sahrawis.
 
The Berm divides the country: Morocco controls the area to the West, the Polisario to the East. Source: Kmusser
Morocco has brought into the country some 350,000 Moroccan immigrants; they help exploit the phosphate mines and have even set up modern agricultural infrastructures producing tomatoes, while the exploration rights to oil recently discovered in the ocean have been sold to Americans. The Moroccan tomatoes bought by Europeans are often in fact grown in the Western Sahara.
Who knew?
Actually, nobody knows. Or cares. This is an international scandal, one of the worst offenses against human rights and human dignity. And a conspicuous United Nations failure.
How did it all start?

To read the rest of the article, click here.

You will see many comments there already and I signed the petition organized by a Swiss Committee to ask the UN Security Council to organize a referendum as soon as possible, to put a close to this scandal. Join me in signing for this good cause, here's the link: http://www.westernsahara-referendum.org/?section=2&lang=en