Friday, July 28, 2017

Robert Hazen - The Story Of Earth (Penguin, 2012) ****

This is nothing less than amazing. Mineralogist Robert Hazen explains the painstaking effort of collecting rocks and minerals, and then painstakingly analysing them all under a mass spectrometer and then cataloguing them and organising them and thinking about what it all might mean. Thousands and thousands of pieces of rock from all over the world. What you can do with it sounds simple, to reconstruct the history of the earth, the full 4.5 billion years it exists. You get a wonderful chronological journey from day one till now and with some wise words for the future to conclude.

Everything that ever happened on our planet of any significance is captured in the minerals around us: the chemical properties of basic elements, the level of oxygen in the air, the eruptions, the collisions, the moving of the continents, the arrival of life, the state of the atmosphere, the change in the magnetic field of the earth, the brutal differences in temperature, etc, etc.

It is nothing but spectacular, and sure the object itself is incredible, but how Hazen writes with passion about his field of study is equallly amazing, with the right level of explanation to make it understable for non-geologists but I guess that specialists will also find it rewarding to read about their subject in layman's language.


... and then you wonder about the morons who think the earth is 6,000 years old. How is it possible that major scientific work never reaches the masses?

Juan Gabriel Vásquez - Reputations (Bloomsbury, 2016) ****

Javier Mallarino is a celebrated political cartoonist who survived his criticism of corrupt politicians and the pressure from dictatorship and of the publications he worked for. He meets a young woman, Samanta Leal, who used to be his daughters friend when they were kids. She forces him to think back about an even that happened twenty-five years earlier, during a party at the cartoonist's home.

Juan Gabriel Vásquez weaves the remembering and the present into a fine, subtle and sensitive texture of questioning of his own achievements, the power of the media, the abuse of power, the fragility of life, and the shifting perspectives between being prey or predator.

His style is an interesting mixture of Milan Kundera (the questions, the distant observation of his characters, ...) and Javier Marias (the long sentences, the shifting interior musings, ...) and both trying to come to grips with a reality that is hard to understand and fathom, while at the same time very recognisable and intimate.

A really strong novel, written with a wonderful sense of composition, sensitive characters and wit.

Michael Chabon - Moonglow (4th Estate, 2016) ****

Every new Michael Chabon novel is one to look out for, as was this one. He is without a doubt one of the best stylists in American literature, with a wonderful sense of humour, greatly influenced by comic book and other adventures in novels such as "The Yiddish Policemen's Union", "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay", and the incredible "Gentlemen Of The Road".

With Moonglow, he moves into new territory for him, namely the life of his grandparents, as told by his grandfather on his deathbed, and at the same time the story of the weight of being jewish.

His grandfather was a rocket engineer and one of the first people to have entered Nordhausen at the end of the Second World War, the place where the V-2 rockets were being produced. Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow" comes to mind, and is even mentioned several times in the novel, but apart from the historical context, there is no other comparison. Chabon's prose is direct, precise, unusually without any demonstration of stylistic prowess, almost as the chronicler of events, even if once in a while you can read wonderful sentences such as "got his grandfather so drunk that he was able to directly experience, if not communicate, some of the unlikelier effects on time and space called for by Einstein's Special and General Theories of Relativity"

Yet he goes further, much further, actually reconstructing the lives of his grandparents - and parents - by adding a strong dose of fiction of their daily lives, the conversations, the details of clothing, behaviour and thoughts that no person could ever remember, let alone fully recount during the last days of one's lives. This creates an almost obscene intimacy, by putting yourself in the position of these people you probably knew so well, including the sexual longing and sexual acts.

The book is as much about the grandfather's fight and moral concerns about German rocket scientist Werner von Braun and his gang, who participated in the US space programmes, and even more about his grandmother, a French jewish refugee, an actress with a great joie-de-vivre, and independent thoughts and action, who increasingly becomes the victim of schizophrenia. It is about his grandfather's attempt to build a new relationship after his grandmother has died.

Both grandparents are damaged goods, yet they try to live together as almost totally opposing forces: he is the principled engineer with a strong sense of ethics, who even spends a year in prison for an impulsive physical attack on his employer, she is the artist, the beautiful woman who lives in a world of fantasy and fear, using tarot cards with her grandson. Despite the differences between them, there is love and deep respect, even if they are fully aware of each other's shortcomings.

The whole novel is pieced together in a very non-chronological form, with memories, pictures and additional detail provided by his mother as elements to reconstruct something that will always be a little less than what it was, yet paradoxically, it's the novelists fictitious additions that make the people come to live, and maybe even make it bigger and more moving than it actually was.

Peter Stanford - The Devil - A Biography (Arrow, 2003) ***

A fascinating history of the Evil One, the demon, and it is surprising that Satan only appears in the Old Testament in the Book of Job as a real person - in contrast to the other mentions of 'stn' or the fallen angel or demon in a limited number of passages elsewhere in the Old Testament.

There was not much place for the Evil One in the Old Testament, since God himself was portrayed as booth good and evil, merciful and vengeful. It is only in the New Testament that he becomes a real character, albeit still a vague presence.

Gradually, over the centuries, he started collecting physical characteristics, to become the horned figure we see in horror movies, with influences from other religions and popular folk tales. No depiction of him even exists before the sixth century. And in popular beliefs, strongly influenced by the church, he became a real presence in people's everyday life over the centuries, and now gradually being reduced back to the fantasy figure he always was to the realm of fiction and movies.

It is fascinating to read how he has been used over the centuries, how he instilled fears in uneducated populations. In sermons some hundred years ago, he was still often mentioned in Europe. I think he has even completely disappeared from all sermons these days in Europe, with the exception maybe of some maverick extremists.

Everything he every embodied, has now been reduced to our human psyche (the internal evil) and to chance happenings (earthquakes, floods). There seems to be no need anymore to blame a distinct person to create and organise all that's unwelcome in society.

Etienne Vermeersch - Over God (Vrijdag, 2016) ***

Van de weinige intellectuelen die ons land rijk is, denk ik dat ik vooral voor Etienne Vermeersch de grootste achting heb. Hij durft niet alleen standpunten innemen, maar hij slaagt er ook in om die helder te onderbouwen, met tegelijk een goede tegenargumentatie voor alle punten die zijn betoog zouden kunnen tegenspreken. In televisiedebatten heeft hij alle standpunten van zijn tegenstanders al grondig overwogen voor hij naar de studio kwam. Dat maakt hem zo sterk. Hij kent alle andere standpunten al, vaak zelfs beter dan degenen die ze uiten. In "Over God" leren we niets nieuws (ik toch niet), maar het korte boekje geeft wel een zeer goed overzicht van de verschillende argumenten die god kunnen reduceren waar hij thuishoort: in het domein van de fictie.

Vermeersch toont aan dat het bestaan van een god op basis van rationele grond niet kan. Maar dat hadden we al begrepen voor we begonnen te lezen.

Jan-Werner Müller - What Is Populism? (Penn, 2016) ***

Jan-Werner Müller is professor of politics at Princeton University. In this short book (approx. 100 pages), he describes populism in one of the best, concise and balanced reviews I've read on the subject.

He describes what populism is and stands for, in its many forms: the only true representative of "the people", the true representatives of moral values, against the immoral elites, against the establishment, waging an apocalyptic war against the secret and oppressing forces. Their enemies are the press, intellectuals and civil society.

He explains how populism is created by the strong democratic deficit of open debate and the rule of technocrats whose language not only doesn not appeal to the general population, but which is also not directed to them. Specifically in the US, the economic interests of a significant part of the population is underrepresented in Washington.

When populists gain power, they will, interestingly enough, not bring politics "closer to the people" or even reasserting popular sovereignty.

He mentions a number of solutions, which is of course a much more open and public debate on the topics that are on people's minds, including a good democratic representation (but not through referenda!).

Julian Barnes - The Noise Of Time (Vintage, 2016) *****

One of the best books of the year, easy to recommend in these political turbulent times. The time is only different, somewhere in the middle of Soviet reign in Moscow, and composer Dmitri Shostakovitch is in the clutches of the Power. His opera "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" was described as "muddle instead of music" as a means to put the composer under pressure and to denounce colleagues who were conspiring against the system. Luckily for him, his interrogator himself becomes the victim of the purges that are going on.

The theme is about the balance between authentic artistry and survival, between coming up for your ideas and ideals, while trying to stay alive in a very hostile environment. He yields and stays true to himself. Barnes' account of the composer's life is built around memories of situations, not always chronologically, nor even logically, but as little vignettes that gradually present his feelings, his remorse, his doubts, his moral musings, placed in the context of history.

It is a novel about the individual survival within the system he abhors. It is about authenticity and untruth, the constant lies by the Power, the propaganda and their so-called moral superiority ... and later the fact that becomes a puppet for the Soviet system, and tries to avoid it. Shostakovitch is not a hero in the traditional sense, and even the very concept of "hero" gets undermined: "But these heroes, these martyrs, whose death often gave a double satisfaction - to the tyrant who ordered it, and to watching nations who wished to sympathise and yet feel superior - they did not die alone. Many around them would be destroyed as a result of their heroism. And therefore it was not simple, even when it was clear".

His only heroism is to be true to himself and his music: to create something that would survive him, the music that would say everything there is to tell, that is more and better than dying as a martyr, but also this comes at a price:" 'He could not live with himself'. It was just a phrase, but an exact one. Under the pressure of the Power, the self cracks and splits. The public coward lives with the private hero. Or vice versa. Or, more usually, the public coward lives with the private coward. But that is too simple: the idea of a man split into two by a dividing axe. Better: a man crushed into a hundred pieces of rubble, vainly trying to remember how they - he - once fitted together."

This novel is brilliant because of its style, its composition, its tone and lack of answers, its sensitive rendering of internal and external struggles, its historical value and insight in human nature.


Barbara Tuchman - The March Of Folly (Abacus, 1984) *****

Finally, after all these years, I've read the history book that was highly popular during my early twenties. And it matches all the expectations.

What is the March of Folly - it is the stupidity of those in power to create their own downfall when all the indicators demonstrate what is going to happen. Despite all the warnings, including from friends and close allies and counselors and advisors, the men in power still decide to move forward with their mad schemes, which will enexorably to their dawnfall.

The theme is the legend of the Trojan Horse, pulled inside Troy when filled with Greek soldiers who come out at night to open the gates so that the army can invade the city after so many years of battle. Did not all the Trojans warn not to bring the horse into the city? Yes, of course, but when stupidity reigns, it will not listen to reason.

The other historic moments to illustrate the March of Folly are the catholic popes of the 15th and early 16th century, who rule like modern day dictators, unhindered by any moral or ethical considerations, but lusting for sex, money and power. Instead of making the church more powerful, the exact opposite happened, and half of Europe turned its back on catholicism.

The second historic moment is how the Brits lost America as its land across the ocean. Tuchman describes in detail how stupidity and ignorance were the key characteristics of the politics in London at that time. "The attitude was a sense of superiority so dense as to be inpenetrable ... the (successive) ministries went through a full decade of mounting conflict with the colonies without any of them sending a representative, much less a minster, across the Atlantic to make acquaintance, to discuss, to find out what was spoiling, even endangering, the relationship and how it might be better managed".

The last example is about the United States' desperate attempts to win the Vietnam war, and when everybody saw the stupidity of what was happening, the needless bloodshed, the hundreds of thousands of victims, the United States government still kept moving forward to an inevitable loss. As the French General Leclerc said to his political advisor prior to the war 'it would take 500,000 men to do it, and even then it could not be done'. The amount of men sacrificed was indeed an underestimation.

In the current world, with other madmen ruling the world: Trump and Putin for the major powers, and many other of a minor order, yet equally mad, such as Erdogan, Duterte, Maduro, Kabila, Mugabe, to name just a few, the book remains a strongly recommended read.

Listen to these sentences, "When private interest is placed before public interests, and private ambition, greed and the bewitchment of exercising power determine policy, the public interest necessarily loses" or "Personal self-interest belongs to every time and becomes folly when it dominates government" or "Their three outstanding attitudes - obliviousness to the growing disaffection of constituents, primacy of self-aggrandizement, illusion of invulnerable status - are persistent aspects of folly" and know they refer to the popes of the 15th century, they are still equally valid for many of the rulers of today.

And as a final comment: this history book reads like a novel. She writes with passion, not hiding her own opinion. In that sense it's more of a pamphlet, albeit a hefty one, but one that is crammed with facts as it should be for a well-researched history book. Of course you know what's going to happen, and the fact that the cases are so extreme, the stupidity so overwhelming, the human cost so high, make the novel all the more important today.

Barbara Ehrenreich - Dancing In The Streets (Granta, 2007) **

A nice and easy to read history book on "The History of Collective Joy", from ancient dances in Greece to today's rock festivals, and how celebrations have always been at the center of all cultural activities, often within the culture, but equally as part of a counter-culture and even strongly opposed by the official authorites and moral leaders.

Keep dancing!

Amos Oz - Judas (Chatto & Windus, 2016) **

Shmuel Ash is a jewish student in the Jerusalem of 1959, and although he was writing a university text on early christianity and the role of Judas, he drops out and becomes the assistant of an old man, to keep him company when the old man requires. Shmuel falls in love with the old man's 40-year old lively yet mysterious daughter-in-law, Atalia Abravanel. Her deceased father used to be one of Israel's traitors, a man who advocated for one single state under international control where jews and arabs could live together. As a vocal anti-zionist his named and reputation had been smeared. Like Judas, he was the traitor of his own heritage and culture.

The concept of the novel sounds good. Different layers are at work, past and present, myth and reality, personal lives and historic facts, with often differences in perspectives, including during the long discussions between Shmuel and the old man. The shifting perspectives on the concept of traitor of course also surface. Was Judas a traitor, or was he the one without whom the crucifixion and resurrection could not have taken place?

So far so good, but all this does not make the novel really a strong literary achievement. The characters are dull, with the exception of Atalia, the story is without inherent tension, and stylistically it is not very special. What remains is a novel of ideas. Strangely enough, the deep sense of anger caused by betrayal, the confusion it creates, the uncertainty about whether or not to go against the own group, the cowardice or courage are all very strong and deep emotions that deserved a better story than the one offered. But maybe that's just another layer. That the distant reporting by the uninteresting characters is in itself a betrayal of the deep personal human crisis that betrayal constitutes.

Christian Kracht - Imperium (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2012) *

"In 1902, a radical vegetarian and nudist from Nürenberg named August Engelhardt set sail for what was then called Bismarck Archipelago. His destination: the island of Kabakon. His goal: to establish a colony based on worship of the sun and coconuts. His malnourished body was found on the beach on Kabakon in 1919: he was forty-three years old", is the short description on the back cover of the book. And the man actually existed. He had even a degrees in physics and chemistry from Erlangen University, and he wrote a book "The Carefree Future"in 1898.

In this novel, Kracht reconstructs the life of the excentric man, telling his arrival in New Guinea, the creation of his plantation, his local servants on the island, his interactions with the authorities and other Germans on the main land. Somehow it fails to make the person really come to live. Kracht depicts his main character with a kind of detached superiority, instead of really trying to understand the man's motivations, actions and ensuing insanity. At times it made me think of that other bad novel "The Confederacy Of Dunces", for the simple reason that the main character is stupid, and you wonder the whole time why a novelist would spend time to ridicule his main character. Why?

Kracht's writing is not bad by itself, and sure, no doubt Engelhardt's vision on life and on diet were pretty narrow, one-sided and doomed to fail, and even the author did a lot to bring historical facts back to us, the condescending tone kills what could have been a strong book.

Howard Bloom - The Genius Of The Beast (Prometheus, 2011) ***

Howard Bloom is a kind of a unique author. He is well-read, and knows his way in many science areas, but he is not a scientist (even if he pretends to be astro-physicist, evolutionary biologist and cognitive scientist - which he never formally studied). He used to be the PR guy for famous rock stars in the 70s and 80s for Prince, Billy Joël, Michael Jackson, Queen and pretends to have generated more than 28 billion USD by doing that. He is many things but he is not humble. His self-obsession in his books can be irritating and off-putting, but at the same time he has some great qualities.

Why I like him is because of his big picture thinking. He brings things together in a way that very few people can, creating links between mass behaviour theories with physics, history and paleontology. I like the way he tries to build grand theories about how abstract processes underly totally different phenomena. I like the way he writes, with passion, without dwelling too much on the details, but steadily dragging the reader on towards new insights and new parallels and new facts. He is strong at giving new perspectives on known realities.

In The Genius Of The Beast, he tries to look at the forces that drive us, our emotions and values to create innovations and a better world, or as the subtitle says : "a radical re-vision of capitalism".

Like a good marketeer, he gives names to his own inventions: he calls itthe "secular genesis machine", the "evolutionary search engine", and the two rules of science: the truth at any cost, including the cost of your life, and to look at what is right under your nose as if it is the first time you have seen it, then proceed from there. He describes how our deepest feelings of personal self-fullfilment combined with empathy will move the world forward, looking for improvements in the culture we create, failing oftentimes, yet moving forward, course-correcting and continuing on the new track. And why capitalism is important, because in the end the consumer will dictate where he or she wants to go, and go for those items that are giving pleasure, that surprise and that create fun. And if there are side-effects, the system will handle those and move forward.

This book, like some of his other books, reads like an endless rant, without clear structure but written with passion. I'm not sure whether you have to take what he writes seriously, clearly he jumps from one subject to the next, finding big analogies between the way molecules work, or beehives, or tribes or complex societies, without any evidence that there is a natural link. Bloom is not a scientist, despite his own claims, but he creates wonderful collages of related and unrelated facts.

If you have a good sense of criticism, some of his ideas may be of interest, and surely challenging some of the thoughts you currently hold, making you think about the topics he writes about. That by itself is already a good result, even if you won't find any conclusive answers.

Maylis de Kerangal - Réparer Les Vivants (Gallimard, 2014) ****

A young man dies. A woman needs a heart. This is the incredibly moving story of a heart transplant. Simon dies during a surfing accident. It is the story of his parents, who rush to the hospital. It is the story of the surgeon who wants to do a good job. It is the story of the young nurse with her own problems. It is the story of the young doctor who has to ask the parents to decide then and there to donate the boy's organs, while his body is kept on an artificial breathing machine. It is the story of Claire, who receives the heart.

It is all one story. One day. With a full description of all the medical processes and procedures, in detail. It is factual and cold. It is even without emotion, like a job that needs to be done, a product that needs to be produced by a machine. Hanging around this medical trajectory of the heart from one body to the other body, there is the deep emotional description of the different protagonists's lives, all of them presented by the omnicient narrator as if they all are the lead character. The contrast is fascinating, the writing is subtle and sensitive.

De Kerangal writes with an uncanny precision both to describe the actions of the humans who go their way, as their emotions and thoughts. She does not offer answers. She offers choices. Terrifying choices.

Giles Milton - Nathaniel's Nutmeg (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1999) ****

Wow, how I loved reading this book. It's a historical account of the nutmeg wars in the late 16th and early 17th century between the European powers: England, The Netherlands and Portugal. Nutmeg was an incredibly expensive spice, that was available from a few tiny islands in the Pacific. The profit was 3200%. It was costlier than gold.

In its incredibly detailed account, Giles Milton actually recreates the entire history directly based from source material from that time: log books, letters, correspondence between the owners and investors in the East-Indian Companies. The real account of how people treated each other is shocking to modern eyes, not only - and obviously - when you were the enemy, but also among fellow countrymen. A person's life was worth nothing. Boats expected many sailors to die while sailing across the globe. Sailors were sometimes only informed about the destination after they left the harbour. It is the story of how the British and the Dutch waged wars around the island of Run and the Banda Islands, mobilising the local people to choose sides.

In retrospect, the whole endeavour seems absurd, yet of high historical significance. In the final deal, the Dutch came to a deal with the British, and they obtained the rights for the island of Run (3km by 1 km) in exchange for New Amsterdam on the East Coast of the United States, now better known as Manhattan, which came into the hands of the British.

If you're interested in history or in the stupidity of mankind (and how we have luckily evolved over time), this book comes highly recommended.

Boualem Sansal - 2084 - La Fin Du Monde (Gallimard, 2015) *

As much as I liked "Rue Darwin", the novel by French Algerian author Boualem Sansal, as much I never got into this one, called "2084  La Fin Du Monde", with reference obviously to George Orwell's "1984". 

This time, the depicted world is called Abistan, where all inhabitants follow the rule of the prophet, and where only one culture, religion and history exists. Thanks to an abstract "Enemy", the people live united and in full submission without any room for personal thoughts or questions. Ati, the main character starts finding cracks in the system, finding evidence that there is another world somewhere, and that other civilisations once existed. But trying to uncover the forbidden truth is an act of rebellion with the severest punishment. 

The dystopia is cruel. It's a horrifying thought about what would happen if the entire world was ruled by one oppressive religion. Like "1984", it is a frightening prospect. And like "1984" as frightening as the projected future world is, as shallow is the plot. A significant amount of space is used to describe the world in the book, with the religion as the main character, more than Ati himself.

Reading this book was not fun. And even if that may not have been its main purpose, it also did give any new insights or new perspectives or even delight in the style or the composition. Somehow, the novel left me totally indifferent. 

Paul B. Wignall - The Worst Of Times (Princeton University Press, 2015) ****

Life on earth has existed for approx. 3.5 billion years, and it took a 1 billion years after the creation of the earth to start happening in a chance reaction of molecules. This book gives an overview of the major extinctions of life during the Permian, Triassic and Jurassic period some 260 to 200 million years ago, which has known no less than 6 major catastrophes that almost wiped out all life on earth. And if you're interested, there have been many, many more global scale calamities of the same nature, but few with the same power. Volcanoes, igneous rocks created a global warming that killed nearly every known animal, reptiles, early mammals and crustaceans, by not only heating up the atmosphere but also by desoxygenation the oceans. Interestingly enough, this unprecedented massacre of life, paved the way for the famous dinosaurs to emerge, who survived the cataclysm (together with the crocodiles).

Wignall writes for a broad audience, but with a level of detail and explanation of his scientific methodology which may go beyond the average educated non-geologist readers capacity such as mine. At the same time, it gives a wonderful account of what the mysterious world so long ago might have looked like. You can only wonder how little we know, and probably what more mysteries will be unveiled in the coming years now that new technology allows us to recreate the world of the past.

John Banville - The Blue Guitar (Viking, 2015) *

I forced myself to read till page 30. Then I decided that time was too precious to keep reading. The narrator is a kind of loser, complaining in a self-mockery kind of tone about his fate, which is of course due to his own fault. Is he interesting? No. Did anything special happen? No. Is it funny? No. Is it well written? No, because the narrator is too self-contained, too pleased with his own wit and choice of words. So I stopped.

But please read his other novels. Read The Book of Evidence, or The Sea. He is an excellent writer, only not everything can be a success.

Dave Eggers - Heroes Of The Frontier (Penguin, 2016) *

What is wrong with Dave Eggers? He is one of those authors whose quality of writing decreases with the years, as if he has nothing more to say, both in terms of content and stylistically. If you have read "You Shall Know Our Velocity" and "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius", you will have been thrilled by the fresh approach to writing, to the wonderful characters and stories in the books. Then somehow he started to lose his power and freshness, and he thought it was a good moment to start changing the world by adding societal messages in his literature, which is not a good idea unless you are a truly great writer. "What Is The What", brought the interesting story of an Sudanese refugee in the US. "Zeitoun" brought the story of Syrian building contractor in the wake of hurricane Katrina who gets incarcerated. These books are still palpable by his accusation of injustice in the world, and even if I fully agree with his viewpoints, that does not make great literature. 

"Heroes of the Frontier" brings the story of a mother who flees to Canada with her two children, away from a malpractice lawsuit as a dentist, away from her husband, away from the life as she had known it, on the run for life itself so it seems. The only problem is: nothing happens. The people she meets are friendly, her kids understand the situation and don't rebel. They meet people, and deal with every circumstances of finding a place for their van, or a place to eat. There are no male predators on the lose, no bears lurking in the bushes, no criminals intent on stealing her stuff, and even the kids can wander around without any risk. There is no tension, no conflict, no anticipation, no expectation. There is no cynicism, no humour, nothing absurd, nothing bizarre. There are no deep insights, no changes of character, no entertaining dialogues, no stylistic wizardry. There is nothing that fuels the reader's mind to keep reading. I did finish the novel though, and I wonder why in retrospect.

Michael Cunningham - A Wild Swan (4th Estate, 2015) *****

What a delight! Michael Cunningham re-writes fairy tales as modern style short stories, and modern times stories, and all that in a mesmerising, poetic and lyrical style, full of rhythm and the fluency of a real narrative, stories as they ought to be, told to you directly, full of wonder and amazement, full of knowledge about how it's going to end, and building up the tension, playing the ignorance of the attentive listeners changing into emotional identification and anticipation about what's coming next. And the takes the reader along on the spells and curses of the mighty and the beautiful, because "who wouldn't want to fuck these people up?"

Cunningham does it beautifully, graciously, and don't be afraid, these are not just blunt 're-tellings' of know stories. He gives them his own twist, he tells us what came before the known tale, or after.

And as the tales themselves, what Cunningham does is magic. And if the only criteria for good literature is that you can't wait to read it again, then these writings reach the top.

The book is short, elevent stories only, beautifully illustrated by the drawings of Yuko Shimizo.

Michael Cunningham - Specimen Days (Harper Perennial, 2006) ***

Mmm ... A strange novel, this one. Three short stories with the same (?) characters but set in three different times, all joined by the verses of Walt Whitman and the relationship between 12-year olds and adults.

"In The Machine", the first story takes place in the 19th century, when a young boy starts working in the factory, at the very machine that killed his older brother, as the only possibility to earn a living. He falls in love with his dead brother's adult girl friend. He is a great fan of Walt Whitman and even speaks only in Whitman verses. The story is dark, bizarre and gripping. You cannot but feel the deepest sympathy with the strange boy and his uncanny interpretation of reality.

"The Children's Crusade" takes place after 9/11. Young boys are recruited to blow themselves up in New York, housed in empty appartments and prepped by an anarchist woman. The policy psychologist unravels the system and gets into contact with one of the boys.

"Like Beauty" is kind of science fiction. An android with a programming mistake - he is too human - escapes from the city (New York) together with a lizard-like alien to a place where they expect a space ship to leave for another planet. Again, the android is programmed with Walt Whitman poetry.

Interestingly enough, it starts all very well. The first story is special and amazing. Then the quality decreases, as do the characters and the writing. Sometimes it's good to know what to publish and what not. If the novel only contained the first story, I would give it a five star rating, so if you're interested, please read it. The two other stories are unfortunately not of the same quality.

Howard Bloom - The Lucifer Principle (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995) ***

In "The Lucifer Principle", self-proclaimed scientist Howard Bloom investigates the power of evil: its  reason to exist, its value, its biological, psychologial and social causes and purpose, and luckily also how to deal with it. As with any of Bloom's books, you get an incredible display of borrowed knowledge, from biology, paleontology, sociology, philosophy, anthropology, history, economy, psychology and any other "ology" you can think of. He is the guy with the big picture vision, who identifies patterns and analogies to substantiate his thesis, regardless of whether these patterns actually exist, or regardless of whether there is any causal relationship between these grand analogies he identifies.

In his view, evil is an inherent part of our life. It's part of everything that happens. It's the power of destruction versus the power of creation at work in everything that's taking place.

Like in his other books, he has an optimistic view on the future. The global superorganism to which we increasingly belong, will try to find ways to deal with evil, and the former tribal fights over resources (land, live stock, women), the deepest savagery that drives humanity, will be turned to positive outcomes through the power of imagination, the new world that we can imagine to live in one day.

Even if Bloom connects what should not be connected, or even if he jumps to conclusions, or even if he too eagerly wants to prove that he is right - instead of taking the scientific method to question his own theory - the sheer amount of interesting facts make this a highly interesting book, which will surely challenge your current ideas. If only for that reason, it's worth reading.

Colm Tóibin - The Blackwater Lightship (Picador, 1999) ***

Because I was so enthralled by Irish author Colm Tóibín's latest novels, I bought this earlier work, "The Blackwater Lightship", shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize. The story is about three generations of women who each have problems with the mother-daughter relationship. Because the son/grandson is dying from AIDS, the family now has to live together at the remote country house of the grandmother.

Like with his other novels, Tóibín is a master at creating real-life characters, people of flesh and blood, whose position you can understand, and even if you can't understand them, they are still presented as entirely plausible and natural. All the characters have own personality and even way of dialoguing: cynical, confrontational, conflict-avoiding ... but at a much deeper level they are thrown together by life itself. They have no other choice but to deal with the situation, and because of Declan's disease, they have to overcome their own all too human smallness to create something grander for the young man's last months.

Even if it's not his best novel - I think his writing style has much improved - its still above average by any standard. Tóibín is the master of the deep emotions of daily life and he loves all his characters. There is no evil to be spotted, unless in fate itself.


Luckas Vander Taelen - De Grote Verwarring (Houtekiet, 2016) ***

Luckas Vander Taelen, documentaire-maker, ex-politicus, columnist en vrijdenker durft het zoals gewoonlijk aan om zijn mening te uiten over één van de heikele thema's van het moment: hoe omgaan met het toenemend fundamentalisme in de islam, en dan met name in België?

Als atheïst is hij tegen elke vorm van indoctrinatie door religieuze instanties, hoewel hij uiteraard niemand het recht ontzegt om te geloven.

Hij klaagt de houding aan van politieke partijen en opiniemakers die het verschil niet kunnen zien tussen iedereen gelijke kansen geven aan de ene kant, en religieus fanatisme aanvallen aan de andere. We leven in een samenleving waarin mensen kansen krijgen, en het eindeloze verwijt dat het "de samenleving" is die verantwoordelijk is voor de problemen, of dat het "Westen" de oorzaak is van alle problemen - zowel lokaal als internationaal - houdt geen steek.

Hij verwijt "links" dat ze mee gaan in dit discours, wat leidt tot een soort blinde verdediging van "de migrant" zonder dat de problemen worden aangepakt die sommige migranten creëren of waar ze ook zelf het slachtoffer van worden.

Hij pleit voor betere en meer integratie (maar geen assimilatie) met respect voor de waarden en vrijheden waar deze samenleving eeuwen voor heeft gevochten. Het probleem durven onderkennen is een eerste stap om tot een oplossing te komen.

Ik hou van zijn logica, zijn rechtgeaardheid en zijn echte bekommernis om er iets aan te doen. Jammer dat iemand als hij de politiek de rug heeft moeten toekeren.

Karl Ove Knausgaard - Dancing In The Dark - My Struggle 4 (Harvill Secker, 2015) ***

Book 4! Two more to go and Knausgaard's "The Struggle" series will be finished, I guess. In this book he describes how he became a teacher right after secondary school (!), moving to the north of Norway to start working in a local school. Like with the previous 'novels' he takes the concept of autobiography to a new height, recreating in minute detail the facts and dialogues and thoughts and feelings that he cannot possibly have remembered, fantasising the day-to-day happenings around the key moments of his life.

And you get it as it is: the love stories, the friends, the teachers, the distress, the puerile attitude, the young man's irresponsible behaviour now that he's living away from his parents, and his responsible behaviour now that he's a teacher, his disrespect for his drunken father, his brother, his mother, and his own drunken bouts ... all themes and stories that we have started to know from the previous books. But nevertheless, it makes for fun reading, especially because it is so easy to identify with him. Knausgaard is nine years younger than me, but the context, and even the music where not that different then. The people are real people, with real stories and behaviour, erratic or friendly. The plot and the characters are real, and then you may wonder why you read this description of a reality that is nothing special, that is so unbelievably common and recognisable ... because that's exactly what it does. His writing is so good, that you get transposed again, not into fiction, but into a reality that you had almost forgotten. It brings back memories of what you, as the reader did at that time. It's a kind of literary time-machine. And that makes it fun. There is doubt about it that I will read the other two books.

Orlando Ortega-Medina - Jerusalem Ablaze (Cloud Lodge, 2017) *

Orlando Ortega-Medina is a Californian of Judeo-Spanish descent, and "Jerusalem Ablaze" is a series of short stories that take place in Japan, Oregon, Canada and Israel.

The stories are immature, with unreal and dark situations that are created for effect, but without any sense of humanity or even tension. The narrating is distant, without any interest or even deepening of the characters. You read and wonder 'so what'? Who are these characters and why would I care about them? The stories and the characters remain at the surface, with the plot twists as the only element of interest, but as I said, mainly there for effect. The writing is good, but without a specific style or voice.

I have better things to read.

Carlos Castán - Bad Light (Hispabooks, 2016) ****

A man is murdered. His friend muses over their friendship. There is not much action. There is no investigation, apart by the friend himself, near the end, rummaging through his appartment looking for clues. The rest of the novel is an abstract investigation, about life, about art, about the relationship between the individual and life and art. It is a philosophical quest, more than a crime investigation. It is a search for a lost friendship, a reconstruction of lost loves too, as both men have become single recently.

Castán's style is poetic, meandering from thought to memory and back in a kind or abstract stream of consciousness, and every fact, and meeting and plot twist is lifted to a higher level, a comparison with art, with philosophy all drenched in an incredible sadness and darkness. Even love does not bring light, only sorrow and a sense of abandonment: "One cannot truly love a safe haven unless there are dark forces lurking outside, a world brimful of orphanages and tombs and beasts, of children who have gone hungry that night and a wind that howls as it whips around the corners of the neighborhoods in which we had never set foot".

This novel will not cheer you up, but offers the kind of writing that luckily escapes the "creative writing" courses that destroy literature, offering a voice that is special and unique, that defies commercial interests or even literary pretense. That authenticity and careful craftmanship, together with a wonderfully sustained and balanced atmosphere make it a strong book.

Lawrence Krauss - The Greatest Story Told ... So Far (Simon & Schuster, 2017) ****

"The Greatest Story Ever Told" obviously refers to the bible, but that is just fiction, so Krauss brings us the wonderful story of science and matter, which is the real "Greatest Story Ever Told ... So Far", allowing for new scientific insights to change our current beliefs.

Krauss takes you along to the very tiniest particles of matter, and beyond that, explaining how to even can exist, and explaining what we don't understand. And despite his genuine efforts to include the layman among his readership, by inventing analogies and visual explanations to give us a glimpse of what mathematics or what the Large Hadron Collider has revealed, the outcome is still as mystifying as it was before. But luckily not only to me, but also for particle physicists and astrophysicists who look in wonder at their findings, probably even more surprised than I am, because they can understand at least part of it : "Not only have our explorations revealed the existence of dark matter, which is likely composed of new elementary particles not yet observed in accelerators, but far more exotic still, we have discovered that the dominant energy of the universe resides in empty space - and we currently have no idea how it arises" .

But that makes it fascinating. Not an easy to read book, but fascinating stuff.

David Bezmozgis - The Betrayers (Penguin, 2014) **

Israeli politician Baruch Kotler flees from his country with his young lover Leora to the Crimea, where, by accident, he meets the KGB officer who once betrayed him when he was a Soviet resident, sending him to the gulag so many decades ago. They had already rented a room at his betrayer's place, so they stay locked up in the same space for much of the novel.

The novel is about betrayal, and as Vladimir betrayed Baruch so many decades ago, so does Kotler himself feel to be a betrayer, not only to his wife but also to his country. But is also about being Jewish in modern times, even if non-religious, about the state of Israel, about zionism.

Even if the overall concept of the novel and the plot are good, and even the writing is not bad, the overall impression is one of a missed opportunity. The tension never goes really deep, and maybe too many questions are answered, especially the place of 'jewishness' is a little too preachy for the non-jew that I am.

Daniel Dennett - From Bacteria To Bach And Back (Allen Lane, 2017) ***

In this ambitious book, American philosopher Daniel Dennett describes the evolution of mind and consciousness as the result of biological adaptations in a very Darwinian way. No problem with that of course. And to a large extent you can only agree with all the different facts that support his vision.

But then he suddenly makes a jump to the description of consciousness which is, if I understand him well, an illusion. I can understand that the perception of the ego is an illusion, but consciousness itself? He calls it a 'user-illusion' at the same level as the color that stays on your retina after you've closed your eyes, a kind of imprint of continuity that does not exist in reality. I have no problem with this either, but he does not substantiate this fully, apart from a philosophical plausible explanation. Suddenly, the facts are no longer there, only the analogy with visual illusions.

At the same time you wonder who is writing for? The language is too complicated and the arguments too subtle to be read by mass audiences. But then why does he spend so much time on attacking "Intelligent Design", when surely none of his readers will need to be convinced of its stupidity? Why does he need to attack Noam Chomsky in such a way, when it's not even needed for his reasoning? Why does he refer so often to his own work to make his point?

In the end the reader will have read an interesting overview of a selection of scientists working in the area between biology and cognitive science, or seperately but brought together by Dennett in a synthesis of current thinking, with a original viewpoint of his own. At the same time, it is needlessly complicated, with divergence and repetitions that could have been avoided.

Steven Sloman & Philip Fernbach - The Knowledge Illusion (McMillan, 2017) ****

Steven Sloman is professor of Cognitive Linguistics and Psychological Sciences at Brown University, and Philip Fernbach is Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of Colorado. In "The Knowledge Illusion" they have written one of the most interesting and thought-stimulating books about the mind that I've read in quite a while. The writing is fluent, easy to understand for lay audiences, well substantiated with evidence and coherent in its narrative, which is not always evident for prominent scientists.

They describe quite a number of cognitive tests that demonstrate how little we actually know, and how strongly we over-evaluate our own knowledge. They explain the 'Illusion of Explanatory Depth' (which demonstrates how shallow our knowledge is of evern everyday things such as zippers and flushing toilets), they explain how our perceptions fool us by (re)constructing the gaps in our vision for instance. They explain the Illusion of Comprehension when you think you understand it because it looks familiar (as in a student re-reading his course without integrating the knowledge).

Their theory is that the mind is actually much broader than the individual. You don't store information because you know it's available elsewhere (as with the natural distribution of sharing knowledge within couples: tasks of storing information becomes divided). There is the obvious 'groupthink' that reflects the unquestioned beliefs and assumptions that you take over from the group you belong to.

Our brain has evolved to work properly in an action-oriented environment. Sufficient to act in different circumstances, driven by a simple cause-and-effect logic.

It's a humbling book because of all the flaws that we have in our thinking, the faulty perceptions, the lack of logic, the overestimation of our own capacities, the shallow memory, etc. At the same time, it is also enriching, in the sense that it demonstrates that in specific circumstances, we can obtain strong results by collective thinking, by adding different perspectives to our own. We are social animals, and by listening and challenging and enriching each other, we can challenge assumptions, misperceptions,  and other illusions.

Highly recommended!