Monday, August 5, 2019

Haruki Murakami - Killing Commendatore (Penguin, 2018) ****


Any Murakami is a must-read. And this for the simple reason that his writing itself is such a pleasure to read, almost regardless of the story. Like in his other novels, reality is not what it seems, and when a commercial portrait painter gets divorced, he finds temporary refuge in the mountain-top house of the father of one of his friends, a former painter, Tomohiko Amada, now in a home for the elderly.

In the house he finds a painting hidden in the attic, depicting a scene of Mozart's Don Giovanni opera, but then painted in medieval Japanese style. The painting is completely wrapped and the only painting by the former resident that was still in the house. Discovering and unwrapping the painting unleashes strange things, and magic starts pouring in a perfectly sound everyday environment. And even if there is no real horror in the story, the situations and events are at least uncanny and eery. There is no reason for the characters to fear for their life, yet things are troubling and bizarre, and because of their happenings, the interpretation of other people's intentions become tainted by them.

In Murakami's small geographic mountain-top environment that serves as the backdrop for this story, openings are to be found through time and space: first, before the second world war Tomohiko Amada, the owner of the house, was part of an assassination attempt on Hitler in Vienna, or was he not? Second, digging a strange opening in the garden leads to a world of darkness with its own inherent logic, where things can be their own and their opposite, where apparitions can be helpful and dangerous, where darkness sheds light on things ... or not.

Murakami repeats himself in a way. His recipe of a plot that explores the grey zone between reality and fantasy, between materiality and a much deeper subconscious, is presented by 'normal' individuals, with their almost bourgeois longings and desires, who are now forced to make choices, and all this written in very light and accessible style, often even a little naive.

I don't think he will ever equal the power of his "Wind-Up Bird Chronicle", but I can still recommend this novel. It's well written, with interesting characters, a great plot and a lot of questions. If nothing else, it's highly entertaining at worst.

See here the full list of my recent Murakami reviews.



Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Nana Kwame Adjej-Brenyah - Friday Black (Quercus, 2018) **½


"Friday Black" is a collection of short stories by the young author American author Nana Kwame Adjej-Brenyah, and his first publication.

His stories are about violence, racism, injustice and the impossibility to get out of a bad situation. People are vicious to each other without reason, and regardless of their story and context, realistic or fantasy, their situation is depressing and almost without perspective.

Nana Kwame Adjej-Brenyah is creative with his bizarre plots, and he manages to create unique perspectives in telling them, often by a lead character who is also out of the ordinary. At the same time, his style is often too artificial, enjoying his writing skills too much and not always very congruent with the content of what he is writing about.

He has talent. He will persevere. He will define his own voice. He has all the qualities. His future books are almost guaranteed to be better.

Esi Edugyan - Washington Black (Serpent's Tail, 2018) ***


In this charming story, the young Washington Black is raised by two brothers on a plantation in Barbados in the early 19th Century. As an 11-year old, he gets the opportunity to serve the excentric Titch, the brother who is more concerned about exploring technology and geography, rather than running the plantation.

Edugyan makes it a kind of adventure and mystery novel, with escapes, travels to foreign lands, strange flying contraptions, and much more. But at a deeper level, it's a novel about escaping: from the oppressive system of slavery and from a world of ignorance. It is a tale about getting opportunities and taking them, but also a reflection of the lost potential of slavery (how much richter would life be in all people in deprived situations would have managed to fulfill their full potential). Young Washington is an expert draughtsman, and his skills get recognised and provide a life-line beyond the prejudices he encounters in the outside world.

Instead of a lifelong confinement to work as a slave within the boundaries of the plantation, Washington gets an education, gets the chance to flee, and to discover foreign lands. At the same time, he feels indebted to his benefactor whose tracks he looses. He journeys from the tropics to icy Canada, to the civilisation of London and then to far-away Morocco. It is also the story of two men, who become unlikely friends. The young one learning the bizarre ways of men, the older one an equally bizarre specimen, but in that respect also a good counterpoing for the rest of society.

Edugyan writes well, with compassion for our characters, with a vivid imagination, and with a nice and controlled tempo that pushes the reader on to read further and further. It's a story about emancipation, about going beyond the boundaries of what is expected.

Her fantasy is as rich as her writing is economic and functional.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Anton Jäger - Kleine Anti-Geschiedenis Van Het Populisme (De Geus, 2018) **½


In deze "Kleine Anti-Geschiedenis van het Populisme" schetst doctoraal onderzoeker en columnist Anton Jäger naar de oorsprong van de term 'populisme' die terug te brengen is naar de Amerikaanse beweging die eind 19de Eeuw in de Verenigde Staten ontstond in reactie op de achterstelling van een groot deel van de bevolking. De oorspronkelijke woede van deze mensen ging in tegen het establishment, tegen de besluitvorming zonder inspraak, tegen de economische actherstelling, tegen corruptie en ondoorzichtigheid van het politiek en juridisch bestel. Ze verenigden zich in de "People's Party" die ageerde over de rassengrenzen heen. De term 'populisme' heeft in de loop van de eeuw een andere definitie gekregen, en hoewel het aanvechten van het establishment een ingrediënt is gebleven, is de lading ruimer geworden, met nationale identiteit als bijkomend ingrediënt, en populisten zowel van linkse als rechtse signatuur

Jäger vult zijn boek met heel veel data en verwijzingen, die heen en weer springen in zijn verhaal, met jammer genoeg een niet altijd duidelijke structuur, en hij haspelt gebeurtenissen, theoretische kommentaren en zijn eigen opinie door elkaar, iets om als lezer tureluurs van te worden. Er zijn veel bomen, maar was is het bos? Er zit veel vlees aan zijn verhaal, maar waar is het skelet?

Het 'populisme' zoals we het vandaag kennen (Trump, Johnson, Orban, Farrage) heeft inderdaad niets meer te maken met de oorspronkelijke bottom-up beweging, maar het is een top-down strategie van op macht beluste individuen geworden, die gebruik maken van de meest basale emoties onder het volk om democratische instrumenten zoals het stemrecht/stemplicht naar hun hand te zetten.

In mijn opinie als communicatie-deskundige hebben de huidige politieke leiders, zowel op nationaal als Europees niveau, het verzaakt om aan de bevolking uit te leggen wat er is bereikt en waar we naar toe moeten (probeer maar eens te zoeken waar onze belastingen aan worden besteed). Er is geen communicatie tussen de politieke klasse en het gros van de bevolking. Ze zijn bezig met hun eigen kleine wereld en het beheren van de machtsverhoudingen. Ze spreken een technische taal die geen burger nog begrijpt. Als dan een populist zijn "big picture" komt vertellen vanuit een geconstrueerd doemscenario, en in eenvoudig taalgebruik, goed en slecht duidelijk polariserend, en gebruik makend van het ongenoegen onder de bevolking (dat is er altijd wel ergens), dan heeft die alle ruimte om succes te kennen.

Het zou me te ver leiden om dit hier uit de doeken te doen, maar er is een gigantische leemte van kennis en emotionele connectie met de bevolking die vandaag wordt gevuld met de destructieve rethoriek van de populisten. De populisten zijn marketingstrategen die zelfs bewust onlogisch en incoherent mogen zijn, want ze weten dat hun doelgroep, zelf dagelijks wordt verweten dit te zijn. Daarom spreken ze aan, daarom mag Trump onzin blijven verkondigen, daarom mag Johnson regelmatig tegenstrijdige standpunten innemen. Dat stoort hun kiezers niet. Ze herkennen er zich in.

Het populisme is een dusdanig gevaar voor onze samenleving dat het meer verdient aan aandacht en publicaties. Jägers boek is een kleine aanzet in ons taalgebied. Er is ook nog Jan-Werner Müllers boek "What is Populism?", maar ook dat schiet tekort, net als Michael Signers "Demagogue".

Zijn er nog intellectuelen in België om hier echt eens diep op in te gaan?

Laszlo Krasznahorkai - The World Goes On (Tuskar Rock, 2017) ****½


You love Krasznahorkai or you hate him. In fact, that's what great art does to you. It does not leave you indifferent. The artist takes risks, breaks norms, breaks codes and expectations, and either you go along on that journey, or you just stop and decide you were on the wrong journey to start with. Both options are of course valid.

"Seiobo There Below" is brilliant. I can recommend it. In "The World Goes On", the Hungarian author presents us with twenty-one 'stories' if that word can be used, or maybe rather 'pieces of text', organised in three parts "He speaks, He narrates, He bids farewell".

As with most of his other writings, Krasznahorkai destabilises the reader. You, the reader, have the incredible challenge to find out what's actually going on, and in that respect you are exactly like most of the main characters in his prose: struggling to understand reality, which is opaque, obscure, illogical and unintelligible. Despite this, the characters keep trying to pierce through this oppressive and dreamlike complexity, asking questions, wading through, blindly. Our senses are not enough to grasp what's happening, or they are deceptive.

If the characters have problems understanding what is going on, then the narrator has even a tougher job: language is completely inadequate to capture what's going on, as is our rationality and sense of logic. But like in a dream, everything that happens has a dramatic and emotional impact on the characters. Even if reality is hard to grasp and to navigate, you have to move on, you have to struggle your way through it, and that effort makes you exhausted and breathless and may even move you to tears.

Reading Krasznahorkai is an almost physical experience. His endless sentences, his constant shifting of alternative possibilities, the predicament of the people in the story: it hurts, it takes your breath away.

At the same time, he is inventive and creative with language, going deep into the nature of our world, travelling to distant places (China, India, Russia), his texts are speeches (delivered to an unknown audience, with no clear instructions on the topic by unknown sponsors), nightmares, or the sermon by a bishop who explains to his congregation that they have failed, that there is no hope for them, that God has turned away from them. It is all about our little humanity, our limits of understanding in a meaningless environment that defies understanding.

On of the last 'stories' is called "The Swan of Istanbul", and it contains 'seventy-nine paragraphs on blank pages'. All the pages are blank, but at the end of the blank pages, you get all the footnotes to what is not written, mentioning the sources, and adding explanations.

Without a doubt, Krasznahorkai is one of the most profound and creative writers of the moment.

Enjoy!




Lisa Halliday - Assymetry (Granta, 2018) **


This is printed on the book's cover: "Scorchingly intelligent" (New York Times), "Thrilling" (Guardian), "Dazzling" (Daily Mail), "Brilliant" (Scotsman), "Exceptional" (Financial Times), "Startling" (Observer), "A literary phenomenon" (New Yorker), "startingly smart" (New York Times Book Review).

To be honest, it's not bad, but I would not recommend it. There are two narratives running in parallel in the story, the first one by a young female book editor, and her relation with the much older established author (inspired by Philip Roth), the second one is about an Iraqi economist, who's fled his country, but now wants to return to find his brother.

Even if Halliday manages to write a convincing, well-researched and disciplined prose about both stories, somehow it did nothing to me. Both main characters are in fact uninteresting, especially Alice's whose life is determined by her awe for the author she lives with. And of course the Iraqi economist gets all the expected hurdles of bureaucracy and prejudice to get where he wants to go.

The style is nothing special. Again well-balanced and unobtrusive, but is this what we like? We expect art to be non-committal and willing to take risks, to open new perspectives on life and language. What we get here is the exact opposite. Intelligence is not enough.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Virginie Despentes - Vernon Subutex (Grasset, 2015) ***½


There is no culture in the world, no language in the world, which allows for such brutal, cynical, arrogant and scornful personal interaction as French. Whether it's in movies or in books, the joy of listening to the French attacking each other verbally with no restraint on their level of political correctness is at the same refreshing and funny.

And that's the big joy in Virginie Despentes' "Vernon Subutex", a young man who gets kicked out of his house with no other financial choice but to live homeless on the streets of Paris, talking his way into staying at other people's flats for short periods until he gets kicked out again. But Vernon, the lead character, has something other people want to, without his knowing it: some personal tapes by a former pop singer.

Despentes creates a whole world of marginal people and very rich people who suddenly interact, all driven by their own weaknesses (craving for sex, attention, drugs and money), scolding, betraying, deceiving, but they become all so human by it. Despentes is the ruthless narrator who zooms in on all these little character faults of each and every individual in the story.

Every single part of society is ridiculed and exposed: left wing, right wing, rich and poor, Europeans, Arabs, Africans, Jews, homeless and stars, gay and straight people. They are all somehow sick to the core, but at the same time, their perspective and emotional context are somehow understandable.

Despentes destroys them at the same time as she digs under their skin and narrates each character from its own deep human needs. She loves her characters as much as they love themselves, and that is the recipe for a high energy literary explosion.

Here's an example of her typical "French" style.


There are three volumes to this trilogy (as it should be). Can't wait to read the other ones.


Michael Chabon - Pops (4th Estate, 2019) ***½


Michael Chabon is not only a great literary stylist and entertainer, he is also a great human being, as was already demonstrated by his recent novel "Moonglow". In "Pops", a compilation of seven short stories about his relationship with his children and father, he links personal insights and emotions with the literary expert's skill of building up the stories to an unexpected and sensitive end.

The fun thing is that he - the author, the father - builds his stories often by making a lot of assumptions. He has to educate his children, he has to navigate his off-spring through the difficulties of life and social interaction, but in doing so, he also misunderstands the inherent logic of why his children are doing what they're doing, rectifying or surprising him for his narrow, protective fatherly perspective on things.

There's a lot of warmth and love in this little book. In his introduction, he is challenged by another writer with the unwritten literary law not to have children: "You cannot write great books when you have children". Obviously - and luckily - Chabon proves him wrong.

Highly enjoyable read.



Frank Swain (Ed.) - This Book Will Blow Your Mind (New Scientist, 2018) *


Let marketeers have their way, and you end up with a book title such as this one. In reality, This Book Did Not Blow My Mind, for a number of reasons.

First, it's a compilation of very short and easily accessible factoids about a zillion different topics, from nocturnal sun to computers and physics and chemistry and biology.

Second, there is no big picture. There is no relationship between the topics suggested, other than that they ever appeared as articles in the New Scientist. And for every topic selected, there may be a hundred other topics that easily qualify for publication. So you get a lot of trees, each three to four pages long. But there's no wood. There's nothing linking these factoids. And some of the factoids are even less than that, and they present only a theory that's as yet not further investigated.

Third, and maybe because of the second reason, this is not truly science. There's no effort to understand what's happening, or why. It's as boring as reading the Guiness Book of Records.

But I guess that's how marketeers work.

Next time, it would be better to let the scientists do the work.


Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Joshua Foer - Het Geheugenpaleis (De Bezige Bij, 2014)


In "Het Geheugenpaleis" leidt wetenschapsjournalist Joshua Foer ons naar de wereld van de wereldkampioenen geheugenwedstrijden. Wat eerst een wetenschappelijk queeste was naar tehnieken om ons geheugen beter te begrijpen en te gebruiken, wordt al snel een persoonlijke uitdaging voor de schrijver die ingaat op een uitnodiging om zijn geheugen te trainen zoals de wereldkampioenen het doen. En wat blijkt: je hebt geen speciale gaven nodig om dit te kunnen. Ook hier baart oefening kunst en kun je door visuele technieken vele abstracte gegevens in je geheugen opslagen zonder dat die verdwijnen. Die verankering vindt plaats door het nauwgezet associëren van de gegevens (woorden, cijfers, data, ...) in een echt geheugenpaleis, een ruimte die je zelf bedenkt en waar je al die gegevens ergens in onderbrengt, zodat je ze achteraf bijna fysiek kan terugvinden.

Om zoals Foer uiteindelijk te kunnen deelnemen aan de wereldkampioenschappen, moet je wel ongeveer een uur per dag oefenen. Fijn dat hij dat heeft gedaan. Ik zou de inspanning niet kunnen opbrengen.

George Saunders - Vos 8 (De Geus, 2019)


After the success of "Lincoln In The Bardo", I was treated to this short novella by George Saunders by one of my friends, also called George, about the encounter of some foxes with the world of humans, or 'yumans' in fox language. It's a kind of an allegory to comment on the world we live in from the perspective of the foxes. And Fox8, the narrator, is able to understand and speak the language of the humans, but the whole tale is written in a kind of phonetic English, with all words written down in the way they are pronounced, which makes it fun to read, even if not always easy.

The book ends with an address to humanity: "If you Yumans wud take one bit of advise from a meer Fox? By now I know that you Yumans like your Storys to end hapy? If you want your Storys to end happy, try being niser: I awate your answer”.

It's fifty pages long. It's creative in its approach, not pretentious, and a basis for reflection, even if not for long.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Voltaire & Voltaire & Voltaire

The French author and philosopher Voltaire was one of the main representatives of the French enlightenment, stubborn, intelligent, rebellious and ambitious. He was as much against the establishment of church and state as he was keen to be considered highly by the aristocracy of the times. His authorship was originally primarily focused on the theatre, with tragedies in the most classical sense. But his main influence resided in two literary innovations.

I read several of his books earlier this years, including his "Dictionnaire Philosophique", and many of his letters.

 Voltaire - Lettres Philosophiques (Flammarion, 1964)


The first one were his Lettres Philosophiques, a new approach of commenting on life and society without actually writing a philosophical essay, but rather easy to read comments on what was happening in reality. His exile in England allowed him to comment on the benefits of many aspects of the way the English state was organised, and implicitly comparing this to what was happening in France. He published his Lettres Philosophiques when returning from his exile, but the book was immediately forbidden and even burned on the stairs of the French parliament. In his Lettres, he praises the tolerance in England, the acceptance of different ethnicities and especially religions next to each other without repression. He also hailed the formal accounting the government had to show for the parliament.


Voltaire - Micromégas/Zadig/Candide (Flammarion, 2006)


His later political and philosophical novels were equally a literary innovation. He uses a kind of "what if" approach, putting his main characters in a surreal environment so that he could comment on societal mishaps and philosophical or scientific insights. Micromégas offers a kind of science fiction account of a huge space traveller (37 km tall!) who eventually come to our earth, where he and his friends get a laughing fit because of the stupidity and arrogance of mankind and its religions. In Candide, the main character is a naive young man who comes in a whole series of unpleasant situations, allowing Voltaire to test whether we really live in the "best of all possible worlds", as Leibniz pretended. Obviously, Voltaire makes a charicature of the German philosopher and his thinking.

Voltaire - Traité Sur La Tolérance (Gallimard, 2016)


In his "Treatise on Tolerance" he attacks the church and the justice system after the execution of Jean Calas, who allegedly had killed his son who wanted to convert to catholicism. Voltaire attacks the total inequality in the justice system, the torture, the manipulation of evidence, the influence of the church in judicial verdicts.

It is hard for us to understand the efforts that Voltaire made, including the writing of hundreds of letters to restore the honour of people he never even met, with the sole purpose of changing the justice system

In today's world, these books are still relevant. Whether in Iran, the United States, Russia, Israel, Syria and many other countries, Voltaire and his thoughts and actions are still needed. Stephen Pinker is advocating for "Enlightenment Now", and it's more than high time that the voices of obscurantism are overpowered again by the voice of reason.

What Voltaire means in today's world, cannot be overstated.






Anthony Gottlieb - The Dream Of Enlightenment (Penguin, 2016)


Despite having studied philosophy every year at university, few details remain about the learnings of the great philosophers apart from some big picture ideas, so it's good to go back to many of the philosophers who largely shaped the world we live in today. If people sometimes wonder about the impact of philosophy on real life, I can only recommend this book, if only because it shows the gigantic divide between general common sense today, and the clear lack of knowledge and even rationality among thinkers in the 18th Century, let alone if compared to the less educated people with power.

Gottlieb starts with Descartes, and his narrow evidence-less thinking about the world, starting with his own personal ego as the basis to understand the world. The comes Hobbes, the Monster of Malmesbury, whose Leviathan designed the ideal state, that in today's view appears very much to be a dictatorship, even if Hobbes believes in the righteousness of the sole leader to whom everybody should report. Then he moves on to Spinoza, the Dutch ex-communicated jew who questioned everything and defined concepts. What people think is their own private affair, he says, and the role of the state should be limited to create a secure place in which individuals can enjoy their liberty, and no church should be given any legal powers.

Then comes the great John Locke, whose concept of the tabula rasa, the fact that humans are born without any preconceived knowledge and notions, shocked the world even more. Then comes Leibniz with his "best of all possible worlds", who at the same time tried to make a synthesis of all things, using calculus and evidence. He rejected the idea even suggested by Newton that God could intervene in things and course-correct trajectories of planets to make them match the math. From Hume we move to the French philosophers and Voltaire, who gave broader appeal to the ideas of the enlightenment, and not hesitating to criticise each other's thoughts and ideas. Good examples are Voltaire's attacks on Leibniz and Rousseau.

When you learn about these philosophers when you're eighteen or nineteen, you are baffled by their knowledge and the subtletly and nuance of their thinking. When you read them today, some of their concepts are risible and totally alien for most educated people living today. Nobody would take Descartes or Hobbes seriously, but then again, they paved the way to get us where we are today.

We really have to appreciate how our views of the world has changed. Unfortunately, the enlightenment has still not reached some so-called civilised countries.

This book is easy to read, with interesting biographical and historical anecdotes that help us frame where some of the ideas came from, and written with deep interest and appreciation.

An easy book to recommend to readers interested in one of the greatest moments in western philosophy.

David Bodanis - Passionate Minds - The Great Enlightenment Love Affair (Little, Brown, 2006)


One more biography on the life that Voltaire and Emilie du Châtelet had together at the castle of Cirey. Bodanis is more interested in the story of the two figureheads of the French enlightenment than he is in their thoughts and new insights.

Nevertheless, it's insightful, interesting and funny at times, and for a biography, also easy to read. With two characters such as Voltaire and Emilie, not much can go wrong in the description of their lives. They did so much and meant so much for later generations that is almost seems like a feat to describe their lives in 230 pages.



Judith P. Zinsser - Emilie du Châtelet, Daring Genius Of The Enlightenment (Penguin, 2006)


In my Voltaire year, I also read this fascinating biography of an even more fascinating woman, Emilie du Châtelet, an 18th Century mathematician and scientist who was the mistress of Voltaire for many years. She was of very high nobility, yet never really fit in. She was more interested in science and mathematics than in the shallow life at the salons of the King and Queen. After her third child was born, she moved to the castle of Cirey in the Champagne region where she lived with Voltaire, and with the blessing of her husband. Together, they translated Newton into French, wrote books about physics, the nature of fire.

They organise evenings at the castle for other influential thinkers. Du Châtelet fought her entire life against the prejudices of the male world against women, and showed both by her knowledge, her insights and her character that the actual opposite was true.

Maybe a little less known, is her influence of the scientific approach, and the strong importance she gave to the role of hypotheses as the foundation of building up evidence and counter-evidence. Despite her great interest and admiration for people like Newton and Leibniz, she still challenged some of their thoughts and argued against some of their conclusions.

For her and for Voltaire the entire world was opening up. Stories about new territories, other cultures, about the forces of the universe, about the orbits of planets, about the possibilities of the microscope and even the invention of inoculation of children to prevent diseases created a new world of vast opportunities that suddenly broke the narrow and oppressive confines of religion and state.

Both she and Voltaire did everything they could to open this new found crack in this narrow world as wide as possible. Du Chatelet also published a book on happiness, including some for that time shocking disclosures on the importance of pleasure, and a book enumerating all the completely irrational things in the Bible, demonstrating that scripture is made by men, and then men with limited possibilities of coherence and logic.

Zinsser's book gives a wonderful description of the complexities of this budding of rationality in a still very obscure society.

Maarten Boudry - Waarom De Wereld Niet Naar De Knoppen Gaat (Polis, 2019) ****


Wie Stephen Pinker's 'The Better Angels Of Our Nature' en het meer recente 'Englightenment Now' heeft gelezen, of nog Hans Rosslings "Factfulness" of Bob Duffy's "The Perils Of Perception" zal één en ander herkennen in dit boek van filosoof Maarten Boudry. De thesis is dezelfde: het gaat beter met onze wereld dan in het verleden, en alle feiten ondersteunen deze vaststelling. Alleen staat onze gebrekkige perceptie in de weg om dat te zien.

Mijn vakterrein is de gezondheidszorg, en wat we op dat gebied in de voorbije decennia hebben gezien als vooruitgang, zouden mensen zelfs dertig jaar geleden niet hebben kunnen geloven, en niet alleen bij ons, maar ook in ontwikkelingslanden.

Boudry vertrekt vanuit eenzelfde bezorgdheid voor het kennen van de juiste feiten en die ook correct te interpreteren. Hij richt zich tegen de intellectuelen (en anderen) die een positieve houding tegenover de vooruitgang als te snel wegwuiven als een naïef gebrek aan kritische zin. Boudry verdeelt deze vooruitgangscritici in vier groepen: de nostalgische pessimisten, de doemdenkers van de 'wacht maar'-school, de cyclische pessimisten en tenslotte de tredmolendenkers.

Hij behandelt de grote thema's van vandaag: ongelijkheid, racisme, islam, de globalisering van de media, ons milieu, en de grote boeman: het neoliberalisme. Zijn ontwarring van deze thema's is verfrissend (waarschijnlijk omdat ze ook sterk aanleunen bij mijn standpunt hierover).

Mijn opinie hierover: mensen hebben vaak een verkeerd beeld over de grote onderwerpen als ze die moeten evalueren op een abstract niveau. Maar als je aan mensen vraagt hoe hun leven er vandaag uitziet, wat ze doen, of ze doen wat ze willen, of ze zien wie ze willen, enz, dan merk je al snel dat het heel goed gaat met de mensen. We kunnen vandaag waar onze grootouders nog niet aan dachten te kunnen doen. Ze leefden in een uiterst bekrompen wereld van kleine dorpen met versmachtende sociale controle, pestgedrag en machtsmisbruik, een verstikkende godsdienst en als je het slecht had ook geen enkel perspectief om het ooit beter te hebben.

Boudry geeft een brede en diepe analyse van onze wereld, zowel internationaal als in Vlaanderen en Nederland.

Een aanrader!


Brian Cox - Forces Of Nature (William Collins, 2017)


Physicist Brian Cox produced and presented one of the most beautiful and educational documentaries on the nature of our nature, answering questions about things that are so everyday that we rarely ask questions about them, such as: why do snow crystals have the form they have or why is the sky blue?

He takes the reader on a fascinating journey from the most obvious and easy to understand things in a step-by-step approach to more complex matter, such as the nature of space and time, or the deepest essence of light, or the origin of life and free will. Cox is a wonderful guide in all this, keeping a big picture view, and once in a while digging deeper in the complexity of our nature.

In passing, he also advocates for more investments in basic research, to help us understand the deepest questions about our universe, even if they do not immediately result in economic or social benefits. I can only support that vision.

I can recommend both the documentary (the quality filming by the BBC is as usual astonishing) and the book. Both really are complementary.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Books Of The Year 2018


Of the 37 books I read this year, only a few come out on top. I have possibly read more non-fiction than fiction, and possibly because the times demand it. In the 'novel' section I was wonderfully pleased to read one masterly novel, that is surely among my top-10 of the decade: Polish author Olga Tokarczuk's "Flights". I also read Cormac McCarthy's "All The Pretty Horses", not so recent anymore, but highly recommended. The other winners are George Saunders with the brilliantly original and haunting (literally and figuratively) "Lincoln In The Bardo" (thanks, Luc!), and the amazing proze - as usual - by Colm Tóibín's re-writing of the ancient Greek tragedy of Iphigenia's sacrifice, and not to forget Leïla Slimani's modern tragedy in "Chanson Douce". These are the real highly recommended novels. The others are good, but without being exceptional.

In the non-fiction list, Robert Sapolksy's majestic "Behave" comes in the number one spot: it gives us a perspective on how one single act (firing a shot), is the result of events in our brain and body being conditioned from biochemical interactions in the last fraction of a second up to biological and cultural   triggers that can be traced back to pre-history. Second in the row is David Reich's genetic analysis of our ancient past, with clear explanations of why our view of ancient migrations and cultural relationships should be revisited. The third group are equally relevant to our world today: Pinker, Rosling and Duffy present us with a strong plea to look at facts, and to understand the limitations of beliefs, assumptions and perceptions. They also show us how wrong we actually often are. In today's world, all three books should be mandatory literature for everyone in the world. Voltaire's biography has its part on this list, as well as other books about biology and religion.

I also read a lot of books of more limited quality. I will not expand on those.


Best novels of the year 

For me, there is no doubt or discussion about this year's top of the list : the brilliant and genre-bending book "Flights" by Olga Tokarczuk.

  1. Olga Tokarczuk - Flights *****
  2. Colm Toibin - House Of Names ****
  3. George Saunders - Lincoln In The Bardo ****
  4. Leïla Slimani - Chanson Douce ****
  5. Ian McEwan - Nutshell ***½
  6. Roy Jacobsen - The Unseen ***½
  7. Colson Whitehead - Underground Railroad ***
  8. Richard Flannagan - First Person ***
  9. Benedict Wells - The End Of Loneliness ***
  10. Paolo Cognetti - The Eight Mountains ***

Not so recent novels
  1. Cormac McCarthy - All The Pretty Horses ****

Best non-fiction books of the year

  1. Robert Sapolsky - Behave *****
  2. David Reich - Who We Are And How We Got Here ****½
  3. Stephen Pinker - Enlightenment Now ****
  4. Hans Rosling - Factfulness ****
  5. Bobby Duffy - The Perils Of Perception ****
  6. Bill Messler & H. James Cleaves II - A Brief History Of Creation ****
  7. Ian Davidson - Voltaire, A Life ****
  8. David Quammen - The Tangled Tree ****
  9. Bart Ehrman - The Triumph Of Christianity  ***
  10. Alice Roberts - The Incredible Unlikeliness Of Being ***

Bill Mesler & H. James Cleaves II - A Brief History Of Creation (Norton & Company, 2016) ****


The title of this book has to be taken literally: it's a history of all the theories about the origin of life, a fascinating subject that has boggled the minds of the smartest scientists in the world since time immemorial, with the exception of course of religions.

They start with the ancient Greeks - where else? - and then guide us through the centuries. It's a wonderful overview of scientific questioning, research and discovery, but at the same time the book offers a good insight in some primitive and wrong theories, including the very longstanding error that animals could arise out of nothing. Aristotle already concluded that eels just came to existence out of water, because he couldn't figure out how they migrated to the Mediterranean (unaware of their travels to the Sargasso sea), but even in the 19th century, people believed that mice could come to life just out of hay.

Luckily, cleverer minds made interesting discoveries. Belgian alchemist Jan Van Helmont came to the conclusion that all life came from eggs. Dutch weaver Anthony van Leeuwenhoek discovered microbes in the placque from his teeth that he put under his newly developed microscope.

The more interesting and in-depth analysis is the one from Darwin to Crick and Watson, followed by the initially controversial theories by Carl Woese into the real origins of life by studying DNA. He shook the foundations of scientific thinking by adding new, and more archaeic life forms into our general notion of how nature is organised, and how evolution works.

Today, we know that life must have come to existence out of the most basic amino acids, small chemical entities that create proteins. In lab tests, self-replicating RNA has been developed, yet never without the presence of a copying protein. Bacteria were discovered in the most uninhabitable places on earth, such as the hot water vents at the bottom of the ocean. Expectations are that in such extreme conditions chemical reactions have come into play to start the replicating process. But how, that still remains a mystery.

"A Brief History Of Creation" is an easy to read, and fascinating overview of the theories of creation throughout the ages. It demonstrates again how important science is to come to an understanding of our world. The biggest challenges remains to make sure that everybody in the world because aware that life was not created in the garden of eden.






Ian Davidson - Voltaire - A Life (Profile Books, 2012) ****


Voltaire is one of those amazing figures in literature and enlightenment. Even if he started as an author of theater, he soon became a leading political voice in France in the eighteenth century, advocating for more democracy, justice, science and less church. He wrote around 20,000 letters in his life, and many of those were the source material for Davidson to write this magnificent biography. We not only get insights in the author's opinions, but also about his ongoing battles with the establishment, his incarceration and exile, his turbulent love life with Emilie de Chatelet, his scam to win the Paris lottery which made him extremely rich. A man with opinions on everything and everyone, but at the same time willing to suffer the consequences of his opinions.

The book is quite heavy, with close to 500 pages of relatively small print, and many letter excerpts, yet Voltaire's thinking and life seem to come back to life in Davidson's extremely well-documented text. That is of course largely due to Voltaire's own unusual life, but also to Davidson's skills.