Friday, December 30, 2016

2016 - Books of the Year

First, this was a strange year in terms of reading. Of the 28 books I read, most were non-fiction, and with Steven Pinker's "The Better Angels of our Nature" taking up a significant chunk of the time allocated to reading. Even if it wasn't published in 2016, I can recommend it to anyone who's interested in our world. And I must say that the non-fiction I read was often more captivating and even entertaining than the fiction, which says a lot about the writing skills of the authors in the non-fiction catagory. In that respect, Andrea Wulf's "The Invention of Nature" could serve as an example for any non-fiction writer.

Second, and in contrast to other years, I did not find any novels that really took my breath away. Javier Marías comes up first on the list, even if his new novel is not as good as "The Infatuations". I enjoyed David Mitchell's "The Bone Clocks", although more for the stylistic prowess and entertainment value. I was disappointed by some generally acclaimed novels, such as Viet Thanh Nguyen's "The Sympathizer" and Yanick Lahens' "Bain de Lune". And of course a whole bunch of books is still waiting to be read: Julian Barnes, Knausgaard, Ian McEwan, Boualem Sansal, Amos Oz, Carlos Castán, Tahar Ben Jelloun to name but a few. I look forward to the new Michael Chabon. All that's for next year.

Third, I decided to switch to English for my reviews, since most of the books I read are in English. That may also increase the readership.

  1. Steven Pinker - The Better Angels of our Nature - A History Of Violence And Humanity 
  2. Amir Alexander - Infinitesimal - How A Dangerous Mathematical Theory Changed The World
  3. Andrea Wulf - The Invention Of Nature 
  4. Scott E. Page - The Difference
  5. Sam Harris & Maajid Nawaz - Islam and the Future of Tolerance
  1. Javier Marías - Thus Bad Begins 
  2. Eduard Márquez - Brandes' Decision
  3. David Mitchell - The Bone Clocks 
  4. Eric-Emmanuel Schmidt - La Nuit De Feu
  5. Miguel Syjuco - Ilustrado 

Steven Pinker - The Better Angels of our Nature - A History Of Violence And Humanity (Penguin, 2011) *****

It took me some years before I actually starting reading this book, because its size, close to 1,000 pages in small print, meant that I needed to have time, also to put aside some other books I wanted to read.

Trust me, this is a must-read ... and more than worth to make time for. Its author, Steven Pinker is a well-know psychologist from Harvard University, and he became famous with his books about the workings of the mind: "The Language Instinct" and "How The Mind Works", both highly recommendable books. Pinker is not only a scientist, he is a very gifted writer, able to synthesise gigantic quantities of studies in a very readable format for an educated lay audience. The breadth of his knowledge allows him to give a very big picture of the broad scientific areas of cognitive sciences, neurology, linguistics and psychology.

In this book, "The Better Angles Of Our Nature", Pinker goes even further in the breadth and scope of his vision, giving an amazing overview of the nature and the size of violence in history, with the remarkable conclusion that we currently live in the least violent period ever in humanity. It is remarkable because we are bombarded on a daily basis with scenes of horror in the Middle East, in South Sudan, in the Sahel, with terrorism apparently on the rise and daily stories of homicides and rapes and brutal aggression.

But Pinker breaks through this bias by presenting us figures from anthropologists, paleontologists, historians, economists, sociologists and other specialists that are truly eye-opening. One of the most striking figures is that in pre-historic times, not less than one third of all the people living in small tribes were killed by other humans. Death by disease, accidents and animal attacks have to be added to this figure. Dying of old age was almost unheard of.

Pinker guides us through history, and the horror of incessant fights and brutal killings among the conquered nations. But he also looks at modern times, at warfare and homicide in the 19th century and the 20th. Sure, not all statistics can be trusted, but even then the results speak for themselves. The rise of human rights, the global agreements on codes of warfare, the increased respect for minorities, the acceptance of societal diversity have led to a significant reduction in rape and murder, also in the most "civilised" societies.

But Pinker wouldn't be Pinker if he didn't delve into human nature and what can be done to improve things in the future. He believes - and he gives the evidence for it - that because the scope of our world has increased, through globalisation, international commerce, travel and tourism, the thinking about "the other" has changed. Global views and policies take consequences about the out-group into account. The financial interests of international commerce make politicians think twice before declaring war on other states. He also sees the importance of women in leading functions as an evolution towards more dialogue and less violence. He introduces some elements of game theory - changing the Prisoner's Dilemma into the Pacifist's Dilemma - to explain how an attitude of non-violence is always the better choice, and as a consequence also one of biological survival.

The amazing thing is that view people perceive our world as such, and think about former times, when everything was peaceful and calm. That past is as much an illusion as anything else of course.

Pinker's book gives hope. It is encouraging for all people who fight for more democracy, human rights, peace and tolerance. He demonstrates that we are moving in the right direction, even if the news of the day may show otherwise.

A must-read.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Paul Bloom - Just Babies - The Origin Of Good And Evil (Broadway, 2014) ***

Yale University psychology professor Paul Bloom ask the simple question: "is morality innate or the result of education?", and this book gives the results of his studies on the moral attitudes of babies and young children. Babies? Yes, studies can be conducted with babies as young as six months to determine their preferences for helping or obstructing characters in very simple tests. Obviously, this will not be reflected in their own behaviour, but babies seem to make judgments very early on about good and bad, about kindness or cruelty. At a later stage, children do show kind behaviour, but until the age of four only towards people they know, never for instance to adults they haven't met before.

The most violent time of everybody's life is around two years old, and as Bloom points out "Families survive the Terrible Twos because toddlers aren't strong enough to kill with their hands and aren't capable of using lethal weapons".

But Bloom goes further, and gives the results of experiments of generosity and altruism, just to check how moral people are and how selfish. He checks how group-thinking and racial bias occur and at what age, and especially under which influence, as well as the feelings of disgust and moral judgments.

"Just Babies" is an easy to read and enlightening book, and it ends with the positive message that it is possible to transcend some of our innate selfishness, by our unique human capabilities of imagination, compassion and rational thought.

Eduard Márquez - Brandes' Decision (Hispabooks, 2016) ***½

The narrator is a painter living in Nazi-occupied Paris and whose entire collection of paintings was confiscated by the Germans. He can only get his own work back in return for another painting by Lucas Cranach that he owns. Brandes' decision is about whether to keep the masterpiece and relinquish everything he ever painted, or to get his own paintings back, and to reliniquish the masterpiece. I will not tell you what decision gets finally made, but the true value of the story is in the telling itself, the narrator's reflections on his own life, his father, his lover. And at an even deeper level, it's a reflection on truth, value, honesty, authenticity. A precious book.

Yanick Lahens - Bain de Lune (Sabine Wespieser, 2014) **

Written by Haitian author Yanick Lahens, the novel relates the story of Olmène, a young peasant woman who gets noticed by Tertulien Mésidor, the wealthy owner the land where the girls lives. The story moves between various generations, and creates a lively picture of the country, yet somehow it didn't capture my interest. Reading gets slowed down by the many characters and you have to flip to the back of the book each time to understand how they fit into the six generations family tree, and you are equally slowed down by the use of many Haitian words that are to be found in a glossary at the back. It did receive the Prix Femina though. It is well written. But not my thing, apparently.

Amir Alexander - Infinitesimal - How A Dangerous Mathematical Theory Changed The World (Oneworld, 2015) ****

Fascinating! In 17th Century Italy, some mathematicians, first the monk Cavalieri, later, Torricelli and Angeli, came to the conclusion that in order to make correct calculations, "a line should be considered as composed of distinct and limitlessly tiny parts". This would later become the basis for calculus. The concept itself was strongly opposed by the Jesuits, the christian order of the educated and educators themselves, who could not accept this reasoning for theological reasons. They could not accept that their god would have created a universe where ambiguity and lack of precision played a role. The mathematicians themselves, had of course no theological or religious intention, but discovered that their use of "infinitesimals" was the only way to calculate slopes and volumes. What ensued was a real battle to destroy any thought and use of this new mathematics, because they endangered the world view of order as organised by the creator himself.

In the Jesuit view, "divine mathematics, universal and perfectly rational, orders and arranges the physical world to the best possible effect".

"For the Jesuits, the purpose of mathematics was to establish the world as a fixed and externally unchanging place, in which order and hierarchy could never be challenged. That is why each item in the world must be carefully and rationally constructed, and why any hint of contradictions and paradoxes could never be allowed to stand. It was a 'top-down' mathematics, whose purpose was to bring rationality and order in an otherwise chaotic world. For Cavalieri and his fellow indivisiblists, it was the exact reverse: mathematics began with a material intuition of the world, that plane figures were made up of lines and volumes of planes, just as cloth was woven of thread and a book compiled of pages. One does not need to rationally construct such figures, because we all know they already exist in the world. All that is needed, as Cavalieri says, is to assume and imagine them, and then proceed to investigate the inner structure. Ultimately, he continues, nothing contractory can be deduced, because the fact that the figures exist guarantee that they are internally consistent".

The attack by the Jesuits was fierce. Excommunication, joblosses for university mathematicians, angry letters and public denunciation, the abolishment of the monastic order who welcomed the mathematicians ... every trick could be used to bring these mathematicians back to order and old-school Eucledian geometry. And even if they managed to destroy the Italian world leadership in mathematical thinking, the concept of the new mathematics resonated with mathematicians in northern Europe, with again a comparable existential philosophical battle between John Wallis who expanded on the new mathematics and Thomas Hobbes who fiercely opposed them, to become gradually accepted, and part of every secondary school curriculum.

Again: fascinating! Amir Alexander manages to write a book on the history of mathematics that reads like a suspense novel. He goes into sufficient detail in the lives and contexts of each of the various 'dramatis personae' to bring them to life, even illustrating their personal hesitations and uncertainties from a load of well-documented material like personal letters. But it is even stronger that he shows how this - to lay people insignificant - mathematical innovation created a seismic shift in the way the worldview changed, how even well before the enlightment, and at the same time of Galileo, another revolution took place to bring science and factual thinking to a higher level than church doctrine to understand reality.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

David J. Hand - The Improbability Principle (Scientific American, 2015) ***

David Hand is a professor of mathematics at Imperial College in London. In "The Improbability Principle", he gives a very readable overview of things that on the surface look like improbabilities, yet for a variety of reasons are fully to be expected.

He guides us through the Law of Inevitability, the Law of Truly Large Numbers, the Law of Selection, the Law of the Probability Lever, the Law of Near Enough, all laws that are active on a daily basis and may at times give the impression that miracles occur, when only the statistics of chance play their game.

At the same time he fiercely attacks quacks and paranormal entertainers for deceiving people. He accuses our education for not helping us understand everyday fallacies better than we do.

And that's why I would recommend this book to anybody with an educational role: it is easy to read, yet filled with examples that at first sight look totally impossible, yet when you listen to Hand's explanation, become totally understandable, like a magician explaining his tricks.

Javier Marías - Thus Bad Begins (Hamish Hamilton, 2016) ***½

Javier Marías might be Spain's best writer of the moment. Last year, I gave "The Infatuations" a five-star rating, and rightly so, I guess, which made me take the next novel that appeared on the shelves of the book stores.

We meet young Juan De Vere, who works for Eduardo Muriel, a Spanish film director in the 1980s, just after the Franco regime. He ends up living with the excentric Muriel, whose relationship with his wife is one of neglect and vicious contempt, and young Juan eavesdrops on their misery and pain, the possible result of something that she may have done in the past, or still doing. As a result, she does her own thing, and young Juan suspects her of having affairs, even if he is also attracted to her, and at the same time he is wracking his brain to find out what she could have done to deserve all this.

One of these possible lovers is the dark figure of a Dr. Jorge Van Vechten, about whom rumours circulate, but who is also willing to take De Vere on night trips to clubs and bars.

Marías is a master of slow and precise prose, and his narrative sucks the reader into the bizarre situation of becoming a spy in the household of two bourgeois people, and even if you think that the narrator has long passed the boundary of privacy, you still read on, to know what is happening. And that is the strength of the book, there is no escape to be taken on a trip to the darker side of human nature, deep under the visible cover of decent bourgeois life, where appearances are almost by definition deceptive. What appears a boring marital problem becomes a moral investigation of respect, guilt, and self-knowledge, full of uncomfortable moments for both reader and narrator.

Simon Blackburn - Lust (Oxford University Press, 2004) ***

I was so thrilled with Simon Blackburn's "Trust", that I also bought "Lust", one book in a series by various philosophers on the seven deadly sins.

The British philosophy professor gives us his best: short chapters each looking at one aspect of 'lust', each time with a different approach, as the essay is a collection of lectures given on the subject. He talks about Plato's view, about Diogenes' public copulations, or the Christian panic of Augustine, who  so abhorred of physical lust that "he preferred the idea that in paradise children might have begotten by purely spiritual love", but he also talks about the biology of lust, and the surprising ways of nature, as well as about the evolutionary aspects of it and the pyschological ones. He compares desire to lust, he discusses prostitution and pornography, skimming through the books of literature and philosophy, illustrating the whole with drawings, paintings and statues, quoting famous philosophers such as Hume and Hobbes, as well as a whole panoply of unknown authors, moralists, feminists and other people with an opinion, in an overall erudite, literate and amusing book.

Eric-Emmanuel Schmidt - La Nuit De Feu (Albin Michel, 2015) ***

This is the true story of French author Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt taking an organised trip in the desert of Algeria. One day, he gets distanced from the others and loses his way in the desert. Left on his own, he tries to stay where he is in the hope to be found again by the rest of the group. During the night he has a kind of mystical experience, abandoning himself to the overpowering night sky, abandoning all hope and concepts and labels, giving himself to the totality of nature, which makes him burn like a flame, full of energy and totally motionless.

I can understand the feeling, even if is totally irrational. It must have been a profound experience. Schmitt writes well. There is no plot. The novel evolves towards the experience I describe above, then he is found again, and they all go home. But something has changed in him.

Worth reading.

C.B. Brooks - The Non-Believer's Guide To The Bible Stories (Pitchstone, 2015) *

I am an atheist and a real bible junk. The biggest mystery on earth is why people are religious. It beats me. Do they actually believe all this nonsense? These stories once invented by totally uneducated primitive nomads herding cattle in the hills of the Middle-East? And some people still believe this superstitions today?

Unfortunately they do, and it remains puzzling.

That's why I buy books like this one. In the hope to understand. I bought it via Amazon without having had the chance to leaf the pages before buying. It's a kind of disappointment. The little book just summarises the real bible in very short easy-to-read chapters and paragraphs. So that you can know what the stories are without having to read the actual bible. That by itself has some value. But I would recommend you to read the real thing.

In my opinion, every person reading the bible today as it is, cannot come to any other conclusion that it is totally bogus: full of mistakes, contradictions, with god as a monster, the 'chosen people' as nothing more than unfaithful and murderous cowards, and no moral guidance of any value to the ethical society of today.

Tom McCarthy - Satin Island (Vintage, 2015) **

I am perplexed. The new Pynchon? The new Beckett? The new Don DeLillo? Huh? Who are you kidding? No, no, no. There is no comparison. McCarty does his best, for sure, and his prose is all his own, no doubt about that. Yet he is far from having created the existential reading experience of the names mentioned above.

It is interesting though. The narrator is an ethnographer who is asked by a company to understand the market and customers and all aspects underlying their interaction so as to sell more. The whole concept remains vague and uncertain, also to the narrator. At the same time, it gives him the opportunity to write his Great Report about the underlying forces of society. That's the story. Nothing happens otherwise, apart from the narrators own day-to-day life and his observations of society around him, which presents itself as quite meaningless as an accumulation of ordinary objects and facts.

Sure, all this leaves you, as the reader, completely perplexed. What is happening? You don't know. In that sense, reference to Pynchon can be made. But that's about it. There is at no single moment a trace of human emotion that you can identify with in such a way to make this book gripping. Or is that the purpose? Maybe. Maybe the purpose is to give such a basic account of reality that there is no story, no plot, no human emotion nor any purpose to find. Fine. But that does not make this compelling reading.

Viet Thanh Nguyen - The Sympathizer (Corsair, 2015) **½

In this Pulitzer Prize winning novel, the main character is a Vietnamese army captain living in America after the Vietnam war. The novel is a kind of diary he has to write with full details and with full honesty to report back to his Vietcong leaders. He loves America, but with a critical and satirical eye. He does not always understand Americans, yet at the same time, he remains loyal to his bosses in Asia, even if he does not always appreciate what's happening there. This double-faced, double-sided approach makes the narrator very human, hesitating between the choices he has, but also hesitating about the moral codes of communists and capitalists alike.

The novel is well written, fluent and rich in perspectives. The only downside in my personal opinion is that the satire doesn't mix well with the horror of what actually happened in Vietnam. Maybe the satire acts as a protective shield from the actual events, but it often sounds like jokes about the holocaust, totally misplaced and not done.

David Mitchell - The Bone Clocks (Sceptre, 2015) ***

I am a David Mitchell fan, even though his books are nog Great Literature (with capital G and capital L), they are in the category of clever entertaining and wonderful story-telling.

In The Bone Clocks, an adolescent girl flees from home, disillusioned by her parents and the betrayal of her boy friend. We follow Holly Sykes' narrative with enthusiasm. Her voice is genuine, we feel with her. She is real. Then she gets confronted with some ununderstandable situation. She is lost. We get lost.

The next chapter is narrated by Hugo Lamb, a cynical student boasting about himself and feeling superior to all the stupidities of the world around him (sounding like Martin Amis in his earlier novels). Another perspective is that of Crispin Hershey, an acclaimed novelist whose career goes down the drain, and who bares a deep secret of guilt. And there are three more perspectives that are described in a realistic setting, with easy-to-identify-with characters.

Yet with all of them, something bizarre happens. Nothing much, but just something that is not right, that cannot be explained by rational arguments and facts. It seems that time and space are somehow suspended at certain moments.

What is happening is the age-long battle between the Horologists and the Anchorites, creatures who live somewhere else yet whose war sometimes extends to our world. In Mitchell's narrative, it's as if fantasy interferes with a very realistic present-day account of the lives of normal people. And that's the strength of the novel. He mixes two genres - realism and fantasy - that are like oil and water, impossible to mix, yet somehow it works, although I just recommended my wife against reading this book, because I know she abhors of anything close to fantasy.

Anyway, as you can expect from David Mitchell, The Bone Clockx is well written, fun to read and full of suspense. Just don't ask too many questions and let yourself be carried away.

Scott E. Page - The Difference (Princeton University Press, 2007) ****

Page's book is one of the landmark books on the topic of diversity of thought, or collective intelligence. He approaches the topic like a mathematician or computer scientist, devoid of any emotional or ideological intentions, analysing how choices can be made by different people, and how the outcome of problem-solving can be improved if diverse perspectives are combined.

He creates a number of theorems that he systematically investigates. He defines all the difference that people may have in their approach to a problem. He defines 'perspectives', 'heuristics', 'interpretations', 'tool boxes' and 'preferences'. He calculates how adding every person's individual set of perspectives, heuristics, interpretations, tool boxes and preferences to another person's, increases the list of possible solutions to a problem with a huge factor.

His conclusion is clear : Diversity Trumps Ability. Collective decision-making will increase the predictive power, will generate more creative ideas, will come to more and better solutions to problems, and will obviously know more facts ... But Page is also clever enough to put some conditions against this strong evidence. It does not work in all situations and in all contexts. It should fit the purpose. A random group of people will not solve a mathematical problem better than a mathematical expert on his own. And it is not because you have good identity diversity (ethnic, gender, age group) in teams, that you have the best possible diversity of perspectives: if they all have the same social and educational background, they may be less diverse than you think.

Page writes well, and like any scientist, his approach his very systematic and in-depth, but he manages to keep it readable, with examples and reasonings that do not require any specific knowledge of mathematics, economy or computer science.

Simon Blackburn - Truth (Penguin, 2006) ***

In this post-truth era, it is good to understand what 'Truth' is, and how it has been looked upon by all great philosophers. Simon Blackburn is a great guide. First, because even if he gives some insights into the history of philosophy, this is not a historical overview. Blackburn tries to identify within history what might be relevant for us today. He guides us through the concepts of absolute versus relative truths, with Protagoras and Nietsche proponents of the latter, and Plato and religions of the former. He ends with his views on realism and pragmatic truth, based on empirical evidence and success in real life.

Like all books by Blackburn, this one is easy to read and follow. He style is light and non-academic.

Andrea Wulf - The Invention Of Nature (John Murray, 2015) ****

This is an incredible book, about an incredible person, written by a magesterial story-teller. Yes, we had heard about Alexander von Humboldt before (starting with 'Humboldt's Gift', the phenomenal novel by Samuel Below), but he remained some kind of vague and hard-to-place figure in my mind.

Andrea Wulf has brought him back to life, and how! With stylistic and compositorial mastership she recreates his life, as a well-to-do 18th century aristocratic boy interested in nature, with an exceptional drive to explore and observe. His mother's death comes as a liberation, and he spends his entire fortune on his travels to South America, where he explores everything he sees. His mind is also at the same time analytic and synthetic: he records everything, big and small in biology, stones and geography, clouds and weather conditions and temperature and height and all the rest that he notices, with absolute precision thanks to all his observation tools, and then he brings it all together in one big picture that demonstrates that everything is linked.

That is why the book is called "The Invention Of Nature", because he was the first person to see that everything is connected. He was the first to complain that logging the forests in South America would have disastrous effects on nature, that it would destroy the basic conditions for renewal. Interestingly enough, Humboldt himself seems to have been self-destructive in a way, pushing himself forward beyond the limits of his capital and physical possibilities. He even ventured to Siberia without official permission from the authorities, and he still went on despite an anthrax epidemic that killed everyone.

Humboldt was a legend in his own time, known and cherished by everyone, from school children to emperors. His works and his vision of nature inspired people like Darwin, Thoreau and of course also Jules Vernes, who used Humboldt's adventures as an inspiration for his novels.

Humboldt was also an ecologist and human rights activist (within limits ... he also understood the value of diplomacy when he needed money), and at the same time a wonderfully skilled draughtsman, who could draw what he saw in the most minute detail, including his geographical maps of plant life.

And to repeat my kudos : Andrea Wulf is an incredibly skilled narrator. Her topic is of course very interesting, yet the way this book is written and composed, is an achievement by itself.

Sam Harris & Maajid Nawaz - Islam and the Future of Tolerance (Harvard University Press, 2015) ****

It's a short book, presented as a dialogue between Sam Harris, known atheist, and Majid Nawaz, co-founder of Quilliam, a religious think tank, on the subject of Islam, as you might have guessed.

Harris asks the questions and gives the comments you might expect, but Nawaz sheds some interesting perspectives on the current debate. For instance when he makes the distinction between fundamentalism and Islamism, in which the first is the result of cultural conservative and traditional ingroup/outgroup thinking, and who see Islamism as "a product of Western modernity born from Western innovation in codifying law in unitary legal systems".

He also makes a good point - and appeal - about what he calls the "regressive left" : "The first stage in the empowerment of any minority community is the liberation of reformist voices within that community so that its members can take responsibility for themselves and overcome the first hurdle to genuine empowerment: the victimhood mentality".

He also makes some historical notes, for instance, that originally, the Quran was not always perceived as the eternal word of God. At one time, the Mu'tazila doctrine, which was the ruling doctrine that the Quran was not the eternal word of God, was "eventually defeated by the Asha'ria, whose views on the eternal uncreated nature of the Qur'an then became accepted as orthodoxy".

Harris also makes some good points, namely that "our moral values has evolved throughout history, and that most of our current moral values are antithetical to the specific teachings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam". Or, to put it differently, today's believers select out of their books the messages that correspond to their current thinking, and disregard or even reject the values that are no longer relevant, implicitly of course questioning the validity of their books as moral compass.

The concept of the book is unique. Sure, it is a dialogue, but unlike the debates you see on TV, the debaters have time to expand on their arguments, to substantiate them with quotes and references and facts, without being interrupted, while at the same time maintaining the dynamics of a dialogue, namely to be challenged and questioned. A welcome approach!

Malcolm Gladwell - Outliers (Back Bay, 2011) **

This book has been hailed by many, and it makes some interesting points, yet often I wondered what all the fuzz was about. Gladwell gives an overview of remarkable extremes - in football, wealth, intelligence, career success stories, etc. ... and comes to the conclusion that luck is a common trait, or rather, to be at the right time on the right place, and to be looked upon by the outside world in the right way. His search for reasons is often interesting, and his anecdotes well researched and presented, but then you say 'so what?'. The value of the book is that it opens new ways of looking at things, instead of just attributing success to personal talent and character. On the other hand, the scientific value of some of his conclusions can be challenged. Some of his claims - like the selection of the players in a soccer team - could be more the result of chance than anyting else.

The most interesting list in the book is the one with the richest people ever in history, including Amenophis III, Cleopatra and Crassus, and guess what, the richest men ever, all come from the same period in the US, and all were active in building railways, oil, steel or cars: Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Mellon, Ford. It is clear that some people paid insufficient taxes.

Miguel Syjuco - Ilustrado (Mouria, 2011) ***½

'Ilustrado' by Philippine author Miguel Syjuco is both ambitious and entertaining. When the body of Crispin Salvador is found in the Hudson River in New York, everybody believes the famous author committed suicide, yet his literary student, Miguel Syjuco thinks otherwise, and starts investigating, going back in history, going back in the deceased author's oeuvre to find out what could have happened.

'Ilustrado' is a puzzle. Together with the author, we try to reconstruct what happened based on diary notes, biographies, novels and real life events. Syjuco uses multiple perspectives and styles to depict a world of corruption, political violence, personal vendetta's, accumulation of personal wealth and other vice. His approach doesn't always work, but at the same time it gives a good picture of Manila (we hope), or at least it puts Philippine literature on the map.

Worth reading, if only to hear a different voice than the ones that come of US Creative Writing Classes.

Derrick Gosselin & Bruno Tindemans - Thinking Futures (Lannoo, 2016)

An interesting book on how companies and organisations can do scenario-planning in uncertain futures. The authors give a good summary and sequence of the models and steps that can be used to develop these future scenarios, although they do not provide much evidence that this will lead to results. Case studies are unfortunately totally absent. So we must trust them that what they propose also actually works in practice.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Jean Manco - Ancestral Journeys (Thames & Hudson, 2015) ***

Writing popular science books requires more than scientific knowledge. This book gives an overview of the genetic and archeologic finds that illustrate the migration of people throughout the millenia in Europe, and this combined with linguistic insights and influences. This is knowledge that every school child should receive, not only in Europe, but across the world. It explains with lots of detail how the idea that an original population took over the customs and tools from coming into contact with other migrating cultures, is not always correct. Often the the invading migrants just replaced the original population. It also illustrates how all cultures are genetically connected while being different at the same time, and this often in the most unexpected areas. I learned in this way that the Berber population in Morocco and the Saami in Finland are genetically linked to a common ancestor. It explains how sometimes the migrating populations took the lead role and changed the language of the country they invaded, as the Romans did with romance languages, yet sometimes the Visigoths who invaded Spain and formed the cultural elite, adopted the language of the country and hence disappeared as a separate culture (although names such as Rodriguez, Gonzalez, Fernandez survive).

The conclusion is clear: we are all migrants.

Despite the highly relevant subject in this day and age, the book is written with lots of knowledge and detail, yet fails to come with a coherent narrative that brings the findings to live. It reads like one long scientific article, and it may be too scientific for non-specialists while being too popular for the real scientists. In fact, the thought occurred to me often while reading, that this book should just be re-written by a non-scientist, someone who has the gift of the pen (Howard Bloom for instance, or Andrea Wulf), to write this great story of Europe's people in way that is compelling and inspiring. Take the same content, yet write it like some of the other great popular science books.

Albert Sanchez Piñol - Cold Skin (Canongate, 2016) **½

A wheather observer is dropped on a remote island somewhere close to the Antartic for the period of a year. The only other person on the island manages the lighthouse. When the boat leaves, the new guest on the island is attacked by sea creatures that are a hybrid between reptiles and humans (at least that's how they come across).

The whole novel is nothing but the battle of the main character against the creatures, first in the company and with the support of the lighthouse manager, yet gradually things start to change, and I will not say more ...

It's an easy read, good for the holidays. It is well written and the subject is so bizarre that the book is memorable, which by itself is already something. On the other hand, there are many other ways to spend time meaningfully than to read this book.

Michael Signer - Demagogue (Palgrave McMillan, 2009)

I read this book because I looked for books on demagoguery and populism in political, and apparently there aren't many, so I ordered this one through Amazon. The reason why I read it is because of what is happening in Russia, Turkey, The Philipines, the United Kingdom, the United States.

Populist politicians, whether left-wing or right-wing, win votes because they manage to deceive people, not by logical and fact-based arguments, but by appealing to the most basic emotions of fear, complemented with outright lies. They can do that of course, that's the risk of democracy. The question I had how we can make sure that these demagogues, once in power, do not undermine the very foundation which brought them to power by installing a totalitarian system that is utterly anti-democratic, as we have witnessed in Russia, Turkey, Egypt, Tunesia.

And that was exactly how this book presented itself. And even if it starts well, with good definitions of what a demagogue is, and giving a good historical background from the ancient Greeks to today, with lots of attention to the United States' Constitution.

Yet then it fails miserably by the bizarre assumption that the United States is the world's leader in democratic thought. It zooms in on the United States as if there was no other democracy in the world. The outside world only exists to give the negative examples, such as why in the US a new Hitler would never be able to come to power.

Michael Signer is a Democrat, as in an active member of the political party. And maybe his book was written with a US audience in mind, although he keeps emphasising a lot that the US has other countries' best interests in mind, so I guess he's also expecting some foreign readers.

The US still has a long way to go. President Trump is the best example that even the US are not exempt from being ruled by a demagogue, despite all the checks and balances that Signer says the US system has in place.

If anyone can recommend a good book on the subject, please let me know.

M.R James - Canon Alberic's Scrap Book (Penguin Modern Classics, 2011) ***

This little book contains three short ghost stories by M.R. James, dating from 1894. They are dark, they are unexpected. It's not the kind of horror that will make you scream out from utter terror. It's the kind that gives you the impression that there might be a darker reality somewhere, that escapes our logic and senses. Nothing pretentious, just good entertainment.

Thomas Verbogt - Als De Winter Voorbij Is (Nieuw Amsterdam, 2016) *

Ik stop met Nederlandstalige romans te lezen. Ik heb me weer laten vangen door positieve recensies en literaire prijzen. Toegegeven, het is een mooi en melancholisch verhaal, waarin de ik-figuur het verleden en het heden vergelijkt in uiterst broze gevoelens voor verschillende vrouwen. Alleen is de ik-figuur totaal oninteressant en het verhaal zo saai als wat. En dan is het misschien wel mooi geschreven, maar dat is niet voldoende.

J. Anderson Thompson - Why We Believe In God(s)? (Pitchstone, 2012) **

The title of the book is intriguing, and to me one of the greatest mysteries of the human mind: why do  people believe in god? Considering the fact that there is no evidence of the existence of any god, and that despite the increase in education levels, and the enormous amount of scientific information that explains things that were part of religious myths, people still continue to believe.

I thought this book would shed some more light on why people believe, and it does only to a certain extent. Maybe I have already read to many books on the subject, and this one gives a concise overview of all the scientific arguments of how religions come to be, but that upside is also its downside: there are not many new ideas to find here.

The book ends with a quote from Stephen Hawking, that "since science is based on observation, and religion on authority, science will win in the end". I am less optimistic. I fear that most people subject themselves to authority with pleasure, instead of relying on their own observations.

Interesting reading if you're not familiar with the arguments.

Clarice Lispector - Complete Stories (Penguin, 2015) ***½

I had heard of Clarice Lispector only through the music of saxophonist Ivo Perelman, also hailing from a jewish background in Brasil, who dedicated several of his albums to her literary work and was inspired by her.

The author is considered one of the leading figures of modern literature in Brazil, and her stories are all closely linked to her own personal life. Her family fled the Ukraine when jews were persecuted and they fled to Brazil. Clarice's husband worked for the foreign service, and she followed him around the world. Her voice is one of feminism, one of an intelligent woman locked into an environment which is too small for her, yet she stays there. With precision and authenticity, she describes the lives of the people around her, including herself, with smart insights and a sharp pen. Her style is often eliptic, she does not share everything, creating in this way a kind of hazy picture of reality, in which the characters have to find their way as through fog. Both characters and the writer try to get some logic and coherence into this world, yet they fail.

Her world is one of mysteriousness and suffocation at the same time, yet all delivered with an incredible sense of words and composition.

It is great that all her stories have been compiled in one book, but you shouldn't make the mistake I made, to actually read it as one book. Eighty-eight stories is problably too much. It is best to keep it as a book to go back to occasionally, and to read it further so as to savour the stories better.

László Krasznahorkai - The Melancholy Of Resistance (Tuskar Rock Press, 2016) ***

As enchanted as I was by Krasznahorkai's "Seiobo There Below", as disappointed that I am with this book. The style is the same, lengthy sentences that never seem to end, yet that meander and flow in an organic and logic sequence out of the consciousness and perceptions and reminiscences of the character into words, yet when in "Seboio There Below", the unusual characters are all driven by their artistic or aesthetic passions, here the shifting perspectives of all the characters circle around a single event, the arrival of a great whale in a circus-like event in the vast planes of a boring and desolate town. The major difference in my opinion is that the characters are less interesting than his later album.

I had seen the movie before, the black and white "Werkmeister Harmonies", directed by Bela Tarr, the slowest movie ever, yet with a great atmosphere.

"The Melancholy of Resistance" will probably please fans of Krasznahorkai, but if you want to be introduced to his strange universe, I would suggest to start with "Seiobo There Below".

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Top-10 boeken 2015

Iets meer dan veertig boeken heb ik gelezen in 2015, en het leek een literair arm jaar te worden tot ik de twee Hongaarse schrijvers ter hand nam, László Krasznahorkai en Péter Nádas, die beiden literaire hoogstandjes schreven en die zowel stilistisch als vormelijk innovatief en verbluffend zijn. De ontgoochelingen waren te vinden bij enkele van de 'gekende' schrijvers, Mario Vargas Llosa, Haruki Murakami, Michel Houellebecq, Will Self, Louis De Bernières, Hédi Kaddour ... In eigen taalgebied stak alleen Mark Schaevers er bovenuit, en een literaire non-fictie. 

Top-10 Fictie

Beste minder recente romans 

Beste non-fictie

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Hédi Kaddour - Les Prépondérants (Gallimard, 2015) **

Hoewel 'Les Prépondérants' de Grand prix du Roman de l'Académie française 2015" kreeg, heb ik het lezen halverwege het boek stopgezet. In de jaren '20 van de vorige eeuw daalt een Amerikaanse filmploeg neer in Nahbès, een niet nader beschreven plek ergens in Tunesië, een gebeurtenis die niet alleen de autochtone bevolking in verschillende kampen drijft, maar ook met argwaan wordt bekeken door de Franse bezetter ten tijde van het 'protectoraat', bij wie de 'colons' beducht zijn voor de Amerikaanse visie op rassengelijkheid en democratie, die de sociale orde dreigen te verstoren. Op zich is dit een prima uitgangspunt voor zowel een krachtig verhaal als een maatschappijkritisch document, maar het boeit me niet. De karakters zijn half uitgewerkt, of teveel karakters komen aan bod, die onderling wel verschillen maar allen op dezelfde golflengte zitten qua manier van denken, en alle Amerikanen spreken Frans, en zo ook de Oostenrijkse die de Tunesische hoofdfiguur op de boot ontmoet, en het zijn allen kenners van de Franse literatuur waar ze vrijelijk uit kunnen citeren ... 

Dan hoop je dat er dan toch een stijl wordt gebruikt die boeit of anders is, maar ook dat krijgen we niet, wel een redelijk directe stijl, lineair en verhalend, schetsmatig vaak. Of heb ik iets echt fundamenteels over het hoofd gezien? Ik weet het niet. Mijn tijd is te kostbaar om het uit te vissen. 

Richard Flanagan - The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Vintage, 2015) ****

Dit is zonder twijfel een van de betere romans van het jaar. Van Richard Flanagan, auteur uit Tasmanië had ik al "Gould's Book of Fish" en "Death Of A River Guide" gelezen, waarvan vooral de eerste de moeite waard is.

In 'The Narrow Road To The Deep North' beschrijft hij het leven van Dorrigo Evans, een jongeling uit Tasmanië die uit het arme land wegtrekt om geneeskunde te studeren in Australië, en daar zijn leven kan voortzetten door boven zijn stand te huwen. Maar dan leert hij de jonge vrouw van zijn oom kennen, met wie hij een passionele liefdesverhouding begint. De tweede wereldoorlog bereikt nu ook het verre zuiden van onze planeet, en Dorrigo gaat als arts naar het leger, waar hij al snel terechtkomt in een krijgsgevangenkamp in Burma, voor de bouw van de Japanse spoorweg die noord met zuid moet verbinden, dwars door de jungle.

Nu, op het moment van het schrijven, is hij een oude man, een man met vele vrouwen, die terugkijkt op zijn jeugdliefde en de horror van de oorlogsjaren, en meewarig doet over de eer die hem te beurt valt als oorlogsheld. Eer is een belangrijk thema in het boek, en ook de conflicterende visies erop tussen de Japanners en de Australische gevangenen. Voor de Japanners zijn de krijgsgevangenen 'eerlozen' die zich liever gevangen lieten nemen dan te sterven voor hun vaderland. Door nu te werken voor de keizer tot ze er dood bij neervallen wordt hun de kans gegund hun eer te herwinnen, zelfs al moeten ze er als honden voor werken en leven. Het is ook een verhaal over liefde, over authenticiteit van gevoelens en van gemiste kansen. Het is beenhard en tegelijk mooi en zacht. En niet alleen vanuit Dorrigo's oogpunt. Flannagan geeft ook het perspectief van de Japanners, in de figuur van Nakamura, een majoor uit het kamp, en een fan van haiku's (waaruit de titel van het boek komt) en wiens verhaal ook na de oorlog wordt voortgezet.

Flanagan schrijft vlot en de structuur van het boek zit schitterend in elkaar. Het is vlot leesbaar hoewel de wreedheid van de gebeurtenissen in het krijgsgevangenkamp geen prettige lektuur is.

Een aanrader!

Jim Crace - Quarantine (Picador, 1997) ****

Wanneer Jezus veertig dagen gaat vasten in de woestijn, is hij niet alleen, ook een aantal anderen hebben hun toevlucht gezocht of gevonden op deze onherbergzame plek. Een handelaar en zijn vrouw, een Griekse jongeling, een onvruchtbare vrouw, een zonderlinge gek en een man die lijdt aan kanker. In deze kleine omgeving doet ieder wat hij doet : de handelaar licht de anderen op, de vrouwen zoeken troost bij elkaar, Jezus verricht een wonder, en ze leven allen tussen hoop, wantrouwen en ontreddering.

In zijn typische, bijna naïeve maar poëtisch dromerige vertelstijl, maakt Crace een klein meesterwerkje van dit gegeven.

Ekkehard Jost - Free Jazz (Da Capo, 1994)

Interessant boekje uit de jaren zeventig dat de belangrijkste muzikanten van de free jazz belicht vanuit een muzikaal technisch perspectief. Coltrane, Coleman, Ayler, Don Cherry en AACM passeren de revue. Jost kiest van elke muzikant de meest markante composities en dissecteert die dan op structuur, ontwikkeling, timbre en interactie tussen de verschillende muzikanten. Dit is het enige boek dat ik ken dat Free Jazz op een dergelijke manier belicht. Het sociale, contextuele en emotionele komen net iets te weinig aan bod om dit tot een standaardwerk te maken, maar het blijft een aanrader voor free jazz liefhebbers.

Massimo Magee - Counter Culture (Array, 2014) ***

Dit debuut werd me toegestuurd door de Australische experimentele muzikant Massimo Magee, en het is best het lezen waard. De titel zelf verraadt al wat het thema is van de roman : een groep jongeren richt een commune op ver buiten de stad, maar wordt door de veiligheidsdiensten als een groep terroristen behandeld. Of anders gezegd, wie de samenleving wil redden met waarden als duurzaamheid, eerlijkheid, solidariteit en integriteit, en die ook in de praktijk wil omzetten, wordt door 'het systeem' meteen gecatalogeerd als subversief en gevaarlijk. Dit lijkt allemaal zeer boodschapperig, maar gelukkig ontwijkt Magee alle valkuilen van een te eendimensioneel manifesto, door de personages menselijk te maken, namelijk met fouten, gebreken en veel vragen. Het boek zelf is niet lineair geschreven, maar mooi opgebouwd uit verhalende gedeelten, transcripts van FBI interviews, dagboekuittreksels en artikels uit media die de dramatische toestand van de wereld weergeven : uit op winstbejag, corrupt, ontransparant, meedogenloos, enz. Dit is slechts deel één van de trilogie. Het geheel baadt in een mysterieuze, thriller-achtige sfeer. Ik kijk uit naar de volgende twee delen.

Peter Buwalda - Bonita Avenue (De Bezige Bij, 2012) ***

Onderhoudend en boeiend verhaal over een wiskundeprof wiens wereld in elkaar stort. Het verhaal spelt zich af tegen de achtergrond van de ramp in Enschede waarbij een vuurwerkfabriek de lucht in ging. Het verhaal en de personages zijn nogal overdreven, de stijl is rechttoe-rechtaan, zonder enige literaire ambitie. Toch zit er vaart in en zit het verhaal goed in elkaar. Peter Buwalda toont zich een meesterverteller, die ons de betere pulp voorschotelt.

Péter Nádas - A Book of Memories (Vintage, 1998) *****

Nog zo'n Hongaarse klepper : 'A Book of Memories' van Peter Nádas, een kanjer van een roman die drie verhalen doorheen weeft als een symfonie van drie levens die in elkaar overlopen, ondanks de verschillende context en de verschillende personages. Het eerste verhaal is dat van een Hongaars schrijver die in de jaren zeventig in Oost-Berlijn een relatie heeft met een Duitse dichter en een eigenzinnige actrice. Hij schrijft het verhaal van een jonge schrijver rond de eeuwwisseling, een verhaal dat emotioneel sterke banden vertoond met zijn eigen leven, en tot slot beschrijft een van zijn vrienden zijn visie over wat er met het hoofdpersonage plaatsvond.

Wat het boek uitzonderlijk maakt, is Nádas' obsessieve beschrijving van emoties, met fileermes en microscoop worden alle gebeurtenissen langs alle kanten onderzocht op het vlak van intentie, angst, verlangen, relaties tot op het niveau van de absolute openhartigheid en absolute twijfel of het wel allemaal zo is verlopen of niet. Het boek is één lange schreeuw om begrip, om duidelijkheid in een wereld van conflicterende gevoelens binnen het individu, tussen gevoelens en het eigen geweten, van conflicten tussen gevoelens en de regels van de samenleving, tussen gevoelens van mensen onderling, en dat alles botst en wringt en dringt zich dieper in elkaar in een onontwarbaar kluwen dat de mens is.  Dat het verhaal zich afspeelt in een door communisme gedomineerde wereld, met de Hongaarse opstand tegen de Sovjets in 1956 als één van de belangrijke historische ankerpunten is een belangrijk gegeven, maar is niet echt essentieel in deze roman die eerder om de existentiële worsteling gaat van het mens zijn.

Een moeilijk boek, dat traag leest, maar dat met kop en schouders boven de middelmaat uitsteekt van wat we in onze boekenwinkels zien liggen.

Vladimir Nabokov - Terra Incognita (Penguin, 1965) ***

Een ander kleinood uit deze reeks miniboekjes van Penguin : drie kortverhalen van Nabokov, inventief en geschreven met het plezier van het schrijven zelf, het spel van de fantasie verwoven met het lot van de menselijke emoties. Zestig bladzijden leesplezier.

E. O. Wilson - The Meaning Of Human Existence (Liveright, 2014) ***

Na zijn meer uitvoerige "The Social Conquest Of Earth", kan ik dit boekje van E.O. Wilson ook aanraden : het is luchtiger, minder wetenschappelijk, eerder een aantal bedenkingen en mijmeringen over de mens in deze wereld als sociaal dier, waar de mens als een dysfunctioneel wezen zijn eigen habitat dreigt te vernietigen, en zichzelf in hetzelfde proces. Hij heeft ook bedenkingen bij het wetenschappelijk bedrijf op zich, waar dogma's soms ook innoverend wetenschappelijke bevindingen tegenhouden, en hij richt zijn pijlen vooral op wie in het zicht van de feiten, weigert die te aanvaarden, uiteraard te beginnen met alle gelovigen van welke godsdienst dan ook.

Het lezen waard.

Karl Ove Knausgaard - A Time To Every Purpose Under Heaven (Portobello, 2009) ****

Een van de vroegere werken van Karl Ove Knausgaard, en een sterke aanrader, hoewel het een vreemd en onevenwichtig boek is. Onevenwichtig omdat het raamverhaal, dat van een Italiaanse jongen die in de 16e Eeuw engelen ziet, en er zijn verdere leven obsessief over leest en schrijft, slechts een klein deel van de tekst in beslag neemt. Die wordt ingenomen door de twee Bijbelse verhalen van Caïn en Abel en de Ark van Noach, op zich zeer origineel, prachtig uitgewerkt en tot leven gebracht, mooier dan de oorspronkelijke verhalen die natuurlijk primitief en zeer kort zijn, maar hier over honderden bladzijden worden verteld, met uitdieping van de psychologie en de familierelaties, de pijn van Caïn, de machteloosheid van de familie en de dorpsgenoten van Noach die worden achtergelaten in het wassende water, en af en toe komen de engelen in beeld, die vreemde wezens die door de bijbel zelf amper worden beschreven, die alle vormen kunnen aannemen, die zowel leven als dood inhouden, die geen mens zijn en geen god zijn, die liefdevol en wreed zijn. Een bizar boek, maar geschreven met het talent van Knausgaard is dit toch een sterke aanrader.

Ian McEwan - The Children Act (Vintage, 2014) ***

Een vrouwelijke rechter moet een oordeel vellen in een zaak van een religieus gezin dat weigert om hun minderjarig kind te laten behandelen voor zijn ziekte. McEwan maakt er voor de rechter een persoonlijke ethische queeste van, want ook zij wordt geconfronteerd met keuzes in haar huwelijk nu haar man vreemd gaat met een veel jongere vrouw. Hij legt het conflict tussen haar twijfels en overtuigingen op zijn eigen mooie manier bloot, menselijk, herkenbaar en alles eindigend met een groot vraagteken.

Een typische McEwan, maar zeker niet bij zijn beste boeken.

László Krasznahorkai - Seiobo There Below (Tuskar Rock Press, 2015) *****

Wat heb ik genoten van dit boek! Het brengt ons zeventien verhalen die elk de passie weergeven van een individu voor één of andere kunstvorm. Of dat nu een Japanse kunstenaar is die een oud boeddhabeeld minutieus restaureert of de suppoost die de Venus van Milo in het Louvre al zijn hele leven in het oog houdt, Krasznahorkai benadert zijn onderwerp met een literaire bevlogenheid die zijn gelijke niet kent. In zinnen van bladzijden lang graaft hij dieper en dieper in zijn onderwerp en laat geen gevoel ongeroerd om de uniciteit van de relatie tussen mens en kunstwerk weer te geven, en door deze bijna buitensporige poging brengt hij ook de onmogelijkheid naar voor om deze bijna mystieke relatie in woorden te vatten.

Een ode aan de taal en aan de kunst in het algemeen. Geen gemakkelijke lektuur, maar een absoluut genot voor wie houdt van literaire kunstzinnigheid.

Fritjof Capra - Learning From Leonardo (Berrett-Koehler, 2013) ***

Interessant overzicht van de spanwijdte van Leonardo da Vinci : hydraulica, plantkunde, architectuur, anatomie, geologie, wapentuig en andere vliegende contrapties. Hij deed het allemaal, en vele van zijn ontdekkingen of hypothesen werden pas in de 20ste eeuw echt getoetst en begrepen. Capra gebruikt de oorsrpronkelijke nota's van Da Vinci, inclusief de vele prachtige tekeningen van de meester zelf.