Friday, December 27, 2019

Javier Mariás - Berta Isla (Hamish, 2018) ****½

Berta Isla is a young Spanish woman who marries Tomas Nevinson, a young Spanish-British man who gets recruited - against his will - by MI6. Because of his perfect language skills, his job is to translate messages by the secret service but gradually he gets recruited to do real spy work. Berta is not allowed to ask him any questions, because it may endanger both their lives and the life of their young son. Tomas has to be abroad a lot of the time, and as time moves forward, he disappears for longer stretches of time. Berta stays at home in Madrid, worried about her young husband and especially about the life of their son, since she feels very threatened by the occasional visit of men whose real intentions she cannot fathom, but it is clear that they are not friendly.

Javier Marías is the omnisicient narrator in the first two chapters, who tells the story from the perspective of Tomas.

In the third chapter, the perspective changes and Berta Isla becomes the narrator, and the subject of her narration is about uncertainty, about what we can know, about what is visible or not, about truth and deception, about following one's heart when there is no longer and present object for that love.

In chapter seven and eight, the omniscient narrator takes over again for the resolution.

Like the other novels by Marías, the lyrical sentences are long, exploring the different conflicting feelings and interpretations that events may lead to, with even more explorations of the ensuing possibilities or needs for action or inaction, resulting in a very realistic depiction of the human psyche in all its hesitating and wavering nature. As usual, and despite the harshness of the plot, the coercion, the absence, the threat of violence, a deep sense of melancholy and sadness permeate the entire story.

Some might find Marías long-winded, but I think his style is utterly enjoyable, and a real treat.

Highly recommended!

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Books of the Year 2019

In the first part of the year, I was still deeply immersed in Voltaire and Emilie du Châtelet, which meant that I spent a lot of time reading biographies and original material by both 18th Century geniuses, including browsing and reading through most of their digitally available material.

Then I read a few novels which were written against the backdrop of espionage, and totally by coincidence: Berta Isla, Sweet Tooth and Warlight. I thought I had read everything by Milan Kundera, but I still found a little gem that was re-issued in English translation this year, together with some more books and poems by Roberto Bolaño. A lot of new books, both fiction and non-fiction, were quite disappointing.

Interestingly enough, some of the best books were suggested by Amazon, based on my previous purchases, rather than by literary reviews on newspapers and magazines.

And I did not manage to read everything I wanted. The new novels by Mario Vargas Llosa, Julian Barnes and Laszlo Krasznahorkai are waiting. I only read 42 books this year, which means that almost half of those books end up in my two books-of-the-year lists, which is of course a little strange. Maybe I should make it two lists of five books each.

The finest novel I read this year is Javier Mariás "Berta Isla", a real work of art, offering an excellent combination of smart plot and beautiful style. The non-fiction book of the year goes to Maria Popova for her astonishing book "Figuring", which describes the evolution of intellectual progress over the last three centuries through the lives of six giants of science, journalism and art.

Top-10 Fiction
  1. Javier Mariás - Berta Isla ****½ 
  2. Laszlo Krasznahorkai - The World Goes On ****½ 
  3. Ian McEwan - Sweet Tooth  **** 
  4. Michael Ondaatje - Warlight  **** 
  5. Olga Tokarczuk - Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead **** 
  6. Milan Kundera - Let The Old Dead Make Room For The Young Dead **** 
  7. Haruki Murakami - Killing Commendatore  **** 
  8. Roberto Bolaño - The Spirit Of Science Fiction ***½
  9. Michael Chabon - Pops  ***½
  10. Virginie Despentes - Vernon Subutex  ***½ 
Top-10 Non-Fiction
  1. Maria Popova - Figuring ****½ 
  2. Barbara Tversky - Mind In Motion  ****
  3. Peter Pomerantsev - This Is Not Propaganda  **** 
  4. Maarten Boudry - Waarom De Wereld Niet Naar De Knoppen Gaat **** 
  5. Judith P. Zinsser - Emilie du Châtelet, Daring Genius Of The Enlightenment ****
  6. Stephen Hawking - Brief Answers To Big Questions  ***½ 
  7. Brian Cox - Forces Of Nature ***
  8. Anthony Gottlieb - The Dream Of Enlightenment ***
  9. David Bodanis - Passionate Minds - The Great Enlightenment Love Affair  ***
  10. Annaka Harris - Conscious **½ 
  11. Anton Jäger - Kleine Anti-Geschiedenis Van Het Populisme **½ 

Barbara Tversky - Mind In Motion (Basic Books, 2019) ****

Barbara Tversky is a cognitive scientist, wife to the late Amos Tversky whose research with Daniel Kahneman is possibly better known. But Barbara Tversky's work in the area of the spatial aspects of cognition is highly original and of equal importance. In "Mind in Motion" she explains in lay language the current state of affairs in her research, with the obvious additions of what other, and more recent, research has unveiled.

She explains why and how front/back, left/right and upside/down perspectives may impact our way of perceiving reality and how we think. She shows how errors of perception arise because of these perspectives. For instance: most people will misjudge distances, overestimating what is close by and underestimating what is far away, which corresponds with discerning details or not. Extrapolating, you could see how that level of perception also impacts how we judge cultures that are far away from us: they are all the same, while people living close by all have different identities.

She shows how our own body perception impacts the way we see, or how the use of our hands, gestures but also drawings help in having different approaches to understanding reality or by turning our intuitions into concepts and thoughts.

She builds her narrative around the Nine Laws Of Cognition:
  1. There are no benefits without costs
  2. Action molds perception
  3. Feeling comes first
  4. The mind can override perception
  5. Cognition mirrors perception
  6. Spatial thinking is the foundation of abstract thought
  7. The mind fills in missing information
  8. When thought overflows the mind, the mind puts it into the world
  9. We organise the stuff in the world the way we organise stuff in the mind.
Like with all recent work on cognitive science, a simpler version of these findings should be compulsory teaching in every school in the world. With a better understanding of the mechanism underlying our thinking, I am convinced the world will be a better place. 

Even if many chapters are very descriptive and not all findings are immediately surprising or unsettling (less than in Kahneman's "Thinking, Fast And Slow"), it is a must read for anybody interested in the workings of our mind. 

Michael Ondaatje - Warlight (Penguin, 2018) ****

This is the story of two children, Nathaniel and Rachel, brother and sister, who grow up as orphans when their parents suddenly abandon them when they're young adolescents. They grow up under the supervision of a shade figure, named The Moth, who looks after them initially from a distance, but gradually the two children get mixed up in the criminal activities of the gang The Moth belongs to.

In the second part of the book, Nathaniel is older and tries to put all the missing pieces back together, including the fact that his mother had been a spy, and even many of the facts and events do not make sense yet, he's trying to turn everything into an understandable and coherent story.

"If you grow up with uncertainty you deal with poeple only on a daily basis, but to be even safer on an hourly basis. You do not concern yourself with you must or should remember about them. You are on your own. So it took me a long time to rely on the past, and reconstruct how to interpret it. There was no consistency in how I recalled behaviour. I had spent most of my youth balancing, keeping afloat".

Life is like a puzzle, with many pieces that do not fit together, and with many pieces missing.

The writing is good, the story captivating and memorable, the characters interesting and unusual, the atmosphere coherent and kept throughout the book.

A good read.

Ian McEwan - Sweet Tooth (Vintage, 2013) ****

Serena Frome is an intelligent, educated and cultivated person, who gets hired to join MI5 as the result of a love affair with her history teacher. She is confronted with two love stories that form the plot lines of the novel. The first one is with her former history teacher, who suddenly dumps her and disappears, the second one with a young and promising novelist who gets recruited by Serena to offer some counterforce against the communist influence in British literature.

McEwan is his own brilliant self. Through the very personal and emotional narrative by Serena, who sees and understands only half of what is happening, McEwan tells a tale of post-Cold War Britain and the place of literature and desinformation in global politics, while at the same keeping us captivated with a detective story about the mysterious disappearance of her former professor, and on top of this all some essential questions are asked about moral principles and ethics, as in who's on the good side of history and how far can an individual go to without being compromised, and even deeper: what if love and ethics collude?

The novel is - as can expected - carefully crafted, well-structured and very entertaining. Serena is real-life person, with her skills and flaws, uncertainties and strong character, some moral flexibility but with principles. And it is through the contradictions of her character that we can also perceive the different sides of our own world: its truth and deception, and apparent truths which had been lies and guaranteed lies which appear to have some truth in them.

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto - Out Of Our Minds (One World, 2019) *

Felipe Fernández-Armesto is a history professor at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana.

The book was and is presented as a "journey through the history of the human imagination", which sounds promising. And while his journey starts in an interesting way, his religious beliefs of catholicism soon start to intervene. His interpretation of the Englightenment in the 18th Century France, and the demand for a secular society, are clouded by his own personal vision of how the world should be organised, instead of describing what the 'minds' of Enlightenment achieved. The role of religion in the last centuries is clearly overstated, and receives much more attention than its actual impact on society deserves.

"But after the failure of politics and the disillusionments of science, religion remained, ripe for revival, for anyone who wanted the universe to be coherent and comfortable to live in."

In fact, the book discusses the role of religion in a world of science where religion no longer has a true place, except as the object of research. But Fernández-Armesto does not delve into this. Quite to the contrary, religion offer meaning and is presented as a solution, its an apologetic proposition for the place of religion in society.

In a way, the publishing company lured its readers with false claims.

Valérie Manteau - Le Sillon (Le Tripode, 2018) ***½

"Le Sillon" is the story of a French journalist living in Istanbul and reporting about the assassinated Turkish Armenian militant Hrant Dink, who started a newsletter called "Agos" (furrow). This is recent history. Dink tried to reconcile Turks and Armenians by trying to make them look forward instead of backward at the genocide which took place during WWI.

The narrator lives in the more progressive part of the city, but the small community they belong to, of journalists, activists and writers is under contstant threat by the repression of the state. The novel holds the middle between a diary and a reflection on life in Istanbul, seen from a Western European's eyes. She's had a relationship with a Turkish militant and she's only half part of the community in which she lives. She has friends, but many wonder why she stays in the country.

Her personal story unfolds through clearly delineated scenes, and while her own personal life gets more complicated and uncertain, she gradually lays bare the structural failures in the Turkish dictatorship and the murder of Hrant Dink, not as a journalistic objective narrative, but as a personal one.

Manteau's writing style is easy and with a very natural flow, as if she is telling the story rather than giving a real life reproduction. In this sense, there are no real dialogues, just personal descriptions of how past dialogues happened. Interestlingly enough, this narrows the distance between reader and writer, as if you're telling the story yourself rather than observing what's happening.

Intimate and relevant.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

David Dolo - Hü (Self, 2018) **½

This is a very strange and bizarre story. It is a nightmare. Francis, a young man, gets out of the subway train and walks in the dark to the end of the tunnel where he ends up in a strange country with no references to his previous world, and taken prisoner by a highly unfriendly creature with a bag over his head.

There is no escape, and completely at the mercy of the unfriendly man, he tries to devise plans to save his own life, because it's clear that the stakes are high.

The writing is good, but the story is too long, and Francis' ordeal is maybe emphasised by this, but then what. Because it's a fantasy novel, anything might happen. It's a mirror of our world, with power struggles, loyalties, creativity and new alliances. In that sense it may give the reader some base for reflection. Some events in the novel are so strong and brutal that it is a memorable book after all.

If you like to be out of your comfort zone, I can recommend it. Otherwise, you don't miss anything by not reading it either.

Karl Ove Knausgaard - Some Rain Must Fall (Harvill Secker, 2016) **½

This is the fifth novel about Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard's own life, or the fifth volume in his series "Min Kamp" ("My Struggle").

The part of his life described here are his early attempts at being a writer, the false language of imitating favorite authors, the dialogue with respected Norwegian authors who gave him writing classes, his romantic love and rejection, his puerile behaviour and further exploration of alcohol, the fun and stupidity of friends, the love of rock music and the local band with his brother and some friends.

Even if the writing is fluent, and the time, behaviour and culture depicted are very close to mine, and hence very recognisable, it all becomes a little too much after so many books. After having read this one, I decided not to read the sixth volume. What more can it offer me? This one is already a repetition of the other ones, even if the story is a little different. And where the first novels where relatively fresh and funny in their solid recreation of the life of a child and young teenager, this has largely disappeared in this volume, maybe because of the age, maybe because of his writing which has become more automatic and less discerning.

Olga Tokarczuk - Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead (Fitzcarraldo, 2019) ****

After the wonderful "Flights" that I mentioned as the best book that I read in 2018, I had to read more by her. "Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead" can also be recommended, even if it is less innovative.

It tells the story of an elderly woman living on a hill in a small village in Poland, near the Czech border. She looks after the empty holiday houses of some townspeople. When people get murdered in her environment, she comes with the amazing story that the victims were killed by the deer in the woods, as a vengeance against their hunting habits. She keeps being rejected by the police who - obviously - do not believe her theory.

Tokarczuk is a great writer. The story-line is original by itself, but Janina's - the old lady - narrative is even more fun. She recounts her story with opinions on each and every thing she sees, commenting on the fly, using her belief in astrology as a guiding rod and the poetry of William Blake as its mirror. She has energy despite her many Ailments.

Here's just a little taste of her tone of voice, by itself already a strong achievement.

Under the surface of the crime story, is the story of human existence, its hesitance between free will and determinism, between the boundaries of humans and animals. Who is responsible for which act? And who defends whom? It's a story about loneliness and society and about the individual's right to be different, to think differently. And it is so much fun to read. In her small village on the border, Tokarczuk managed to create a universe with its own human dysfunctionality.

Stephen Hawking - Brief Answers To Big Questions (John Murray, 2018) ***½

This is the last non-scientific publication by astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, in which he explains the most important questions and answers of our time, some of which he was instrumental in answering.

The topics range from the (non-)existence of god, the origin of our universe, the possibility of other intelligent life in the universe, the inside of black holes, the possibility of time travel to the need to colonise space.

In the early chapters he also talks once in a while about himself, as a young researcher, the onset of his disease (ALS), his life at the university, and considering the value and the situation of Hawking, these are welcome, even if unusual in books of this nature. The early chapters are also the most scientific, presented in a clear an easy to understand language for some of the most complex topic that exist. In the later chapters, when discussing time travel, or the need to colonise space, or the future of artificial intelligence, he talks more about possibilities and things that need to be done or organised rather than about what already is. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but these are more his personal ideas and viewpoints rather than scientifically substantiated claims.

Regardless, the book is worth recommending only because of the author's wonderful depiction of our universe, its origin, evolution and hard to fathom size and weird structure. Not every aspect will be understood by lay readers, but those parts of the text are rather limited. The rest is fascinating.

Roberto Bolaño - The Spirit Of Science Fiction (Picador, 2018) ***½

The "Spirit Of Science Fiction" is a story of two young poets, stranded in Mexico City and trying to get notoriety and recognition. One of them, Jan Schrella, is also passionate about science fiction, and half the novel are letters written by Jan to his idols of the science fiction genre: Alice Sheldon, Forrest J. Ackerman, Fritz Leiber, Ursula Le Guin, Robert Silverberg, James Hauer, which clearly remain unanswered, but that does not keep him from continuing to write. While Jan increasingly becomes a hermit in their flat, the other poet, Remo, is trying to build a life in the city and meet people.

The narrative chapters are not only interlaced with Jan's letters, but also with long dialogues and dreams. This is one of Bolaño's earlier works, now translated by his heirs. The novel shows all of his potential, his sense of literary experimentation, his fascination (and experience) with young people who devote their lives to something as commercially unsustainable as poetry. Also stylistically, the future writer is already present here, with descriptions full of alternate possibilities, uncertainties and open-endedness. His style is propulsed forward by his own love of language and the crazy thoughts that come up in his imagination. Because of all this, it's at times hard to follow what it is all about, but that's not really important. Even if not essential, Bolaño fans will be more than happy to have this translation, which, despite the fact that it's an early work, still stands well above the average of most books that are published today.

Roberto Bolaño - The Unknown University (Picador, 2013) ****

"The Unknown University" is a book of more than 800 pages, offering a collection of poems and texts that Bolaño wrote over the years, and found on his computer by his heirs. They decided to publish it as it was. The book comes with the original Spanish on the left page and the English translation on the right. This is fun, and it shows the freedom and creativity and insight of the translators.

His poems are all his own, little stories about crime and themes that come out of movies, or that could develop into movies, short reflections, melancholy moments, moments of fear and existential angst.

The book again demonstrates the formidable work energy that Bolaño had, producing words and sentences and texts in huge quantities. Many of the scraps of texts are possibly building blocks for new stories, possibly just short texts who can stand on their own, or as part of a string of like-minded texts that are sprinkled throughout the book. Obviously you cannot read this as a book. Keep it on your coffee table and read one poem or one text a day. It will keep you busy for a while. And fascinated.

Peter Pomerantsev - This Is Not Propaganda (Faber & Faber, 2019) ****

Peter Pomerantsev is the son of Russian dissidents who fled the Soviet Union and who later worked for the British intelligence service and radio. He is himself a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Global Affairs at the London School of Economics and an expert in social media manipulation for political purposes.

In this astonishing book, he shows how both democratic and dictatorial forces use social media to wage their wars. He travels around the world to talk to people who have actually used these covert techniques, and who are surprisingly proud of what they are able to achieve, even if it is mass-scale deception. Russia is quite prominent, but also the Balkans, the Philippines under Duterte, North Korea and Latin America. He equally travels through time, recounting comparable stories of oppression that his parents suffered in the Soviet Union.

For anyone who believes in democracy and the power of freedom, the facts described by Pomerantsev are shocking and highly disturbing. It is a part of society that remains unchallenged by politicians because they can benefit from it, regardless of which side they're on.

A book like this one should be re-written as educational material for everyone. Its current form is highly convincing for educated readers, but the people who should understand the reality of what's happening in media warfare do not usually read books.

Elizabeth Strout - My Name Is Lucy Barton (Penguin, 2016) ***

Lucy Barton wakes up in a hospital bed, and is confronted by her mother whom she hadn't seen or heard in years. Even if the latter is concerned about her daughter, the emotional distance and problems of communication between both women is obvious. Lucy recounts the story of her life, trying to involve her mother into it, sometimes also to verify if she could interpret the experiences with the same perspective or not. Growing up in poverty and exclusion in their village created traumas that come to the surface again.

Strout's story is delivered with an authentic voice and crafty structure and balance.

Shusaku Endo - Silence (Picador, 2003) ***½

Endo's novel "Silence", originally published in 1966, has become famous by the movie Martin Scorcese made of it. It's the story of a Portuguese priest, Sebastian Rodrigues, who sails to Japan in 1640 to find out what happened with priests who moved to Japan before, and who after converting many Japanese to christianity, are now oppressed, including the renunciation of his faith by his predecessor, under torture.

Even if he is soon captured by the Japanese, their only interest is to make him renounce his faith to, but now by torturing him personally, but by torturing his fellow christians to make him change his mind.

It is a story of changing allegiances, not only by people, but especially in the mind of Sebastian Rodrigues himself, and his moral dilemma: choosing for the people or for his God.

The novel is based on historical fact, which makes it all the more poignant. Endo's narrative is strong and mature: he depicts the internal struggle of the priest with respect and good psychological insights. Endo himself was a christian, and I'm not. I can imagine it has even more power of ambiguity if you are a christian to confronted by the silence of an absent god whose adherents undergo the most atrocious fate.

It's an interesting read, but not a novel I would want to re-read.

Maria Popova - Figuring (Canongate, 2019) ****½

There are still surprises in the world of books. One of them was Olga Tocarczuk, who redefined the concept of literature with "Flights", and there's Maria Popova, who redefines the concept of non-fiction with "Figuring".

This majestic and voluminous book (over 500 pages) describes the lives of significant figures that shaped one part of our common history over the last three centuries. It is hard to describe what the book is about, as it meanders through the lives of significant people in history, starting with Johannes Keppler (1570-1630) (and his mother), the astronomer Maria Mitchell (1818-1889), journalist Margaret Fuller (1810-1850), sculptor Harriet Hosmer (1830-1908), the poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) and the biologist Rachel Carson (1907-1964).

By focusing on the somewhat connected lives of these six individuals, Popova gives a sweeping overview of intellectual history and emancipation in the past centuries. The book is not about science, it is not about literature, it is not about philosophy, it is not about sociology or religion, but it's about all of this, about the fight of these people to pursue their own personal insights and convictions, no matter what. Popova illustrates their own struggles, doubts and passions with letters, poems and other texts. It's about the human struggle for truth and meaning in the challenge of the established thoughts and morals of the day. Around these characters, all the other influential figures orbit: Goethe, Einstein, Beethoven, Whitman, Tennyson, Hawthorne, Kant, Milton, ... not just for purposes of name-dropping but with little facts that support her story.

It is possibly the human, emotional aspect that makes the book exceptional, because it tells about the aspirations, the frustrations, the victories and the recognition, not only of highly gifted women with strong ideas against the establishment of the day, but also about their love life, which for most women in the book is about lesbian love.

The six individuals in the book fought against all odds to emancipate themselves, to invest themselves and to change the way society operates and perceive.

It is not clear whether the book has a real thesis to defend, except from illustrating how powerful some individuals can be in their endeavours, and how their fights for love, tolerance, truth, knowledge, democracy and environmentalism find each other in society and manage to make a difference. "Figuring" is very detailed, and maybe often too detailed, but I guess that's the price to pay for a book that is well-researched and thorough.

Popova's very high bird's eye view on the intellectual history of the past decades, and paradoxically seen by the eyes and minds of six remarkable people from totally different backgrounds, is unprecedented.

Highly recommended.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Nicole Krauss - Forest Dark (Bloomsbury 2017) **½

In 'Forest Dark' a young American jewish woman travels to the Hilton in Tel Aviv so that she can write about her youth memories and the family holidays at the hotel. She is approached by a literature professor, Silberman, who claims to have the hidden manuscripts by Franz Kafka, including the incredible story that he did not actually die in Prague, but that he staged his death and continued to live as a humble painter in Israel.

In parallel, the famous New York lawyer Jules Epstein leaves his wealth and home and moves to Israel to further spend the rest of his wealth. He's also staying at the Tel Aviv Hilton.

Krauss leads us through the plot in the space between reality and fiction, between the characters' imagined life and the real world, with the knowledge that you risk to disappear in that space, or even encounter yourself already present there.

The narrator and Epstein are not really interesting characters, a little tormented, seekers in a way, but not the kind of individuals whose personality is immediately captivating and driving the story forward. On top of that, Krauss' writing is not very creative and rather bland. Her journey is all about being a jew in this day and age, with Kafka accepting his jewishness or rejecting it, it is not clear. It's the same in the Epstein story, where he gets lured by a rabbi to come to a meeting of direct descendents from King David (!), and which he bizarrely enough accepts, even when he is non-religious.

To me this a mystery of modern day jewish authors: even if they are no longer religious, and possibly condemn the politics of the current Israeli government, they are still fascinated by the jewish identity and culture. As a non-religious person brought up in catholicism, my emancipation from our obscure and narrow religious background is a liberation, including the freedom to embrace the world and finding borders and national identity as something of the past, and more often than not the cause of all evil and war, I find it hard to understand why a modern person like Krauss would dive headfirst in this tradition, especially because you don't want to be defined by it. There is a level of absurdity in this, which I cannot grasp.

Milan Kundera - Let The Old Dead Make Room For The Young Dead (Faber, 2019) ****

Once in a while I check whether anything new was published by some of my favourite authors. Milan Kundera is one of them. I have read everything he's written (as long as it's available in English, French or Dutch), but then I find this little gem, by browsing the internet. It's only fourty pages long, more a short story than a novel, but published as a little book.

It's the story of a woman who meets a former - and younger - lover in the street, so many years after her own husband died. Actually, she travelled to his city to secure a place for her dead husband in the local cimetery, but his tomb has been replaced by a new corpse because she forgot to extend the lease. This explains the title of the story, which in turn captures the renewed sense of attraction between the woman and the man. Is what happened to them so many years ago still alive today? Can they continue where they left off? Can the reality of now replace the memories of then?

Kundera's writing is brilliant: sensitive, subtle, erotic, inventive, balanced, concise, precise, ... it raises questions of psychology, sociology and philosophy by one simple situation. As the omniscient narrator, Kundera can dive deep in their choices, in the difference between what is said and what is thought, what is done with firm decision or full of uncertainty.

Roberto Bolaño - A Little Lumpen Novelita (Picador, 2014) ****

I thought that I had read everything there was to ready by Bolaño, but I was wrong. More of his material is being translated, and we can be very happy for that.

In this 'novelita', a young girl - Bianca - and her younger brother live together in a small flat after the death of their parents in a car crash. Bianca, is the narrator of the story. She works as a waitress. One day her brother invites to friends to join them in the alreay small space, two petty criminals, one from Bologna and one from Lybia who looked like brothers. In order to escape their dreary situation, they plan to commit a robbery, based on some insights that they heard about a rich man's hidden stash.

This novelita is an unmistakable Bolaño story. The pace is fast, the writing is economic, the characters are human and real, and escape any stereotype (the petty criminals are friendly and help around the house and kitchen). Bianca's narrative is full of uncertainty. Every choice has several options, sentences hesitate, descriptions fail, interpretations become their opposite. Because of their poor financial situation, it does not seem to matter what they do any more. Even if everything is presented in a friendly way, and concepts such as ethics and morality become really blurry. But deep down, the misery and hopelessness reign.

What he writes is so good, it is so fluent, deep and comes over like a casual conversation or narrative.

Find it, read it.

Alia Trabucco Zerán - The Remainder (And Other Stories, 2018) ***

"The Remainder" brings the story of three young adults in Santiago, Chile in a not specified time, although it is clear they are the children of ex-militants against the regime of a dictator. Iquela gets the visit of her old friend Paloma who has been living in Germany for many years, with the purpose to organise the funeral of Paloma's body which was expected to be flown over at the same time. Unfortunately, the body was not allowed into the country, so the three young people rent a hearse to cross the border to pick up the coffin.

The story is told from Iquela's relatively balanced perspective, and is alternated by more nightmarish visions of Felipe who sees dead bodies everywhere. All three of them are somehow emotionally damaged, and their relationship becomes one of understanding and miscomprehension, of attraction and rejection, of love and hate.

Trabucco Zerán creates a very tight nucleus of deep emotional distress, set in a context of political and natural violence (there is an ash rain throughout the story). To her credit too: the three protagonists are real people, true humans, all with their generous and petty sides, full of concern for the others and full of self-preservation, and together trying to deal with the ghosts of a common past. Even if the body of Paloma's mother is the pretext for their trip together, the real ghost are the unspoken tensions of the past, between all three and their respective parents.

Worth looking for.

James Salter - All That Is (Picador, 2013) *

Described as "Amazingly Good" by the Guardian, "Masterful" by the Observer and "No question, the best novel I read this year", by the Financial Times, and presented by the publishing company as a "dazzling, seductive and haunting novel (which) offers a fiercely intimate account of the great shocks and the great pleasures of being alive".

In my opinion, it is nothing of all that. The main character is totally uninteresting, and so is his love life, which makes up the topic of this novel. It is so old-fashioned and conservative in nature, that it almost becomes interesting. The style and the content are closer to the 19th century than the 20th. It is as if Salter has missed anything that has happened in literature and narrative power in the past century.

I'm even surprised that I finished it (but I did!).

Annaka Harris - Conscious (Harper Collins, 2019) **½

This book was written. It was written by the body of Annaka Harris, who actually became conscious of it having been written by her after the act. Since she has no free will, I wonder whether her name should even be mentioned on the cover.

Annaka Harris is the spouse of Sam Harris, and a science journalist and writer herself. In this book, she tries to give an overview of possible thoughts and explanations of our consciousness. One of the theories she expands on the most is "panpsychism", the theory that claims that consciousness is everywhere, and not only as a consequence of the activity of our brain. She gives interesting examples of how plants and animals 'experience' things in the outside world by sending and receiving (bio)chemical signals and acting upon them. She gives other interesting examples of how our 'free will' can be colonised by parasites to make us act differently. While these are interesting facts by themselvs, the link between them and the workings or even limits of our consciousness is still a major leap that is not substantiated.

Sam Harris wrote an interesting book on free will - called "Free Will" - and its limits. Like her husband, Annaka Harris expands the definition of both 'free will' and 'consciousness' to areas beyond their normal practical day-to-day use. Instead of enlightening and clarifying things, it tends to confuse things. Even if it is true that is hard to determine the real boundary between conscious experience and decision-making and the more basic chemical reactions between a plant and its environment, I can still determine whether to drink or ingest food, or to write a book for that matter.

Yet it's always good to question our establishd thoughts and assumptions. But that's possibly the only value of this book.

Quentin Tarantino - Pulp Fiction (Faber & Faber, 1994) ***

Watching and re-watching the movie is still a great experience. Now I have my copy of the screenplay. And reading all these almost iconic dialogues at ease is a real treat.

Here is just one, after the issue in the pawn shop.

We're cool, man.

But there's also the funny dialogues between Fabienne and Butch about the attractiveness of "having a pot", or the Esmeralda Villalobos' inquiry about "How does it feel to kill a man?" to Jules' famous quote from the bible (allegedly Ezekiel 25:17), which Tarrantino actually made up.

"The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the
Inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men 
Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will 
shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness 
for he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children 
And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious
Anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers 
And you will know
My name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee"

It's as much fun to read the script as it is to watch the movie.

Monday, August 5, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

See here the full list of my recent Murakami reviews.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 28, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lisa Halliday - Assymetry (Granta, 2018) **

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 27, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly enjoyable read.

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

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

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

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

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

But I guess that's how marketeers work.

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

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

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

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

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

George Saunders - Vos 8 (De Geus, 2019) **

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

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

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

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Voltaire & Voltaire & Voltaire

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

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

 Voltaire - Lettres Philosophiques (Flammarion, 1964)

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

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

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

Voltaire - Traité Sur La Tolérance (Gallimard, 2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Een aanrader!