Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Books Of The Year 2018

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

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

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

Best novels of the year 

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

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

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

Best non-fiction books of the year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bobby Duffy - The Perils Of Perception (Atlantic Books, 2018) ****

In a world of post-truth and alternative facts and fake news, this book is a welcoming read for everybody to understand how wrong they are. It is in fact the perfect companion book to Hans Rosling's "Factfulness".

Bobby Duffy is head of one of the world's leading opinion-polling agencies, which one lucky day started - for promotional reasons - to conduct studies on political thinking and reality. Now, decades later, the agency has conducted their surveys around the world, allowing them to compare countries, trends over time, and of course of perceptions by common people completely differ from the actual reality of the country.

Whether the topic is health, money, immigration, religion ... or even less emotional topics such as internet access, public perceptions are almost always completely off the mark, and not by a short distance, but a very large margin in most countries.

This book is an essential read for anybody in politics, public affairs and journalism. It demonstrates the extreme dangers of referendums, because the average population does not have a clue about reality. They don't. It explains why populism has such an easy task of exploiting these misperceptions and use them to advance their evil cause. It explains a lot of the anger and the fear among populations, two emotions that are often misdirected, but they relate more about people's perceptions than about reality. To put it differently, people seem to be afraid of their perceptions rather than from reality.

And the book is very well written: simple coherent, non-judgmental, objective.

Moshin Hamid - Exit West (Penguin, 2017) **½

In "Exit West", two young people, Saeed and Nadia, try to find the hidden door to flee to the West in order to escape the oppressive religious regime in which they live. The first part of the book is about their love in their home country, their shy efforts at physical and intimate contact, and all this in the context of political tension. The second, shorter part is about their lives once they've succeeded in escaping: the problems of becoming accepted in their new place, carving out their own new lives, and finding each other again.

Even if the novel is not entirely predictable - I won't say how - most of the time it is. It is about the plight of people living in countries such as Iran, unable to live their life to the full, and the disappointment and opportunities in their new home country as refugees. But Hamid's narrative falls short of the real predicament of people in this situation. It is neither brutal nor really gripping. He describes the characters more than making them come to life, his story unfolds as written by an omniscient narrator who looks upon his subject matter from a distance, in a very clinical way.

The plight of migrants deserves literary attention, but the fact that it happens, does not make it necessarily great literature.

Olga Tokarczuk - Flights (Fitzcarraldo, 2017) *****


Winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2018, and fully deserved, I would say. Tokarczuk's writing is exceptional: it is part 'reverie', part history, part travel diary, part short story-telling, part philosophic musings, part poetic prose, and all that that written with a beautiful pen full of lyrical joy and an attitude to life and people that remains positive throughout.

There is almost no page where you don't stop and pause because of a new insight, an interesting perspective to look at things, the beauty of a phrase, the originality of a thought.

The narrator is travelling around the world: in planes, trains, airports and hotels. She meets people, she observes, reflects, interacts, fantasises. At the same time, "Flights" is also a history of the preservation of the human body, literally, with a special attention to plastination. She tells some true and longer stories about the Filip Verheyen, the Flemish 18th century anatomist, who wrote "letters to his amputated leg", about the letters by Josephine Soliman to the Austrian Emperor Francis II to let her bury her father, an African loyal and personal servant of the emperor, whose body was stuffed after his death and put on display in the emperor's curiousity cabinet, a story about the heart of Chopin that was secretly smuggled back into Poland after his death in Paris.

In essence, the book is about life and death, and flights are just the transition moment, when you are traveling from A to B, with body preservation as a futile attempt to avoid arrival, to prolong the flight artificially.

Some of her stories are cut into chapters that form the backbone of the book, but they are sprinkled with little memories and minute stories and thoughts, often not longer than a paragraph.

One example:


After his wife died, he made a list of all the places that had the same name as her: Ruth. He found quite a few of them, not only towns, but also streams, little settlements, hills - even an island. He said he was doing it for her sake, and besides, it gave him strength to see that in some indefinable way she still existed in the world, even if only in name. And that furthermore, whenever he would stand at the foot of a hill called Ruth, he would get the sense that she hadn't died at all, that she was right there, just differently. Her life insurance was able to cover the costs of his travels". 

... and one more:


Flight from Irkutsk to Moscow. It takes off at 8 am and lands in Moscow at the same time - at eight o'clock in the morning on that same day. It turns out to be right at sunrise, which means the whole flight takes place during dawn. Passengers remain in this one moment, a great, peaceful Now, vast as Siberia itself. So there should be time enough for confessions of whole lifetimes. Time elapses inside the plane but doesn't trickle out of it". 

Who wouldn't like to read this again, and again?

Tocarczuk's writing defies all conventions of structure, plot, narrative. Her style is as precious as it is meticulous, carefully crafted, concise, sharp and impactful. And her tone of voice is so full of wonder, optimism and positive thinking, without even a trace of sarcasm. And it is masterly composed, like a symphony of musings.

"Flights" is deep, insightful, gripping, funny, horryfying, philosophical, poetic.

A real treat. A real delight.

Mandatory reading.

David Quammen - The Tangled Tree - A Radical New History Of Life (Simon & Schuster, 2018) ****

In "The Tangled Tree", science author David Quammen gives a historical overview of how the visual image of the 'tree of life' evolved from a mythical concept into Darwin's biological concept of evolution, with one cause of life out of which all the different species branched out.

The discoveries and theories developed after the discovery of DNA, and this combined with the sequencing of the human genome at the beginning of this century, has given a totally new perspective. To put it simply, at the basis of the original "tree trunk", there may have been more species than anticipated, and secondly, DNA and other genetic material does not only replicate from one generation to the next, but evidence shows that genetic material also becomes incorporated through lateral 'infection', possibly through retroviruses. But even in earlier days, in their earliest life forms, the simplest bacteria probably became more complex not through evolution, but by absorbing other bacteria who transformed into useful ingredients with a new function and became part of the host's DNA.

Quammen did some very thorough research to write this book of recent finding in evolutionary biology, not only by making the published science also accessible to lay audiences - even if some basics are needed to grasp everything - but he also spoke to many of the actual scientists about their discoveries. And whether you like it or not, Quammen also spends a lot of time to present the fights between those scientists, their rejection of each other's ideas, their personal feuds and rivalries. It's probably the price you have to pay to receive a narrative such as this one, very readable and fascinating to follow, and I guess the personal and personality aspects of the stories play a good part of that.

Yuko Tsushima - Territory Of Light (Penguin, 1979) **½

"Territory of Light" is about a mother and her two-year old daughter, trying to build a life in Tokyo. The short chapters are all different stories from the same life, about the appartment itself, about meeting people in the park, about the neighbours ...

Her narrative is very descriptive, explaining what is happening and how things are happening, even if what is happening is very average and totally uninteresting. The struggle of a normal person in a modern city. It is not spectacular, it is not even memorable. I often wondered why I was reading this, and why I kept on reading. There is nothing special about this little book, except for Tsushima's elegant and economical writing. And it's only 119 pages long. So I finished it anyway.

Ian McEwan - Nutshell (Penguin, 2016) ***½

How wonderful when Ian McEwen describes human life in all its vulnerabilities, perversities, evil and goodness. How great when the characters are all too human, yet a little exaggerated to make the story compelling. How great when he makes these characters' desire for freedom and self-determination clash with conventions of marriage. How great to show the tragedy of humanity among people who are very close to each other: husband and wife and the husband's brother who is also the wife's lover. How great to put all the ingredients of a tragedy in place and one day: lust, betrayal, murder, greed.

... and how amazing when all this human toil is told from the perspective of the unborn child in the womb of one of the story's protagonists?

... and how attractive when the foetus narrator has this all-knowing, all savouring cynical streak about him, complaining as much about the dick entering his mother's vagina as he can savour the excellent wine she is drinking, and even able to tell from which château.

... but the whole human tragedy, however insignificant and small, has a serious impact on the little boy who's ready to strangle himself with the umbilical cord, the only thing he might be able to do in his little womb-world of powerlessness.

"Outside these warm, living walls an icy tale slides towards its hideous conclusion. (...) The cork is drawn from one more bottle, then, too soon, another. I'm washed far downstream of drunkenness, my senses blur their words but I hear in them the form of my ruin. Shadow figures on a bloody screen are arguing in hopeless struggle with their fate. Their voices rise and fall. When they don't accuse or wrangle, they conspire. What's said hangs in the air, like a Beijing smog".

McEwan at his best.

Martin Dougherty - Celts - The History And Legacy Of The Oldest Cultures In Europe (Amber Books, 2015) ***

Geographically, I could be a descendent of the Nervii, the Celts that lived in Belgium prior to the German and Roman invasion. But who were those Celts, and what more can I know than what I remember from the superficial things we learned in school? In this nicely illustrated book, Martin Dougherty gives many of the answers I needed, discerning myth from reality, leaving the question marks open when information is lacking.


George Saunders - Lincoln In The Bardo (Random House, 2017) ****

Winner of last year's Man Booker Prize, and rightfully so. The book tells the story of the death of Abraham Lincoln's son Willy, who died of a fever at the age of twelve, during a banquet with two hundred guests the president and his wife were organising. Did they neglect their child? Should they have canceled the party? Why did he have to die alone in his room when his family was having fun?

The story is probably well known to Americans, less so to non-Americans, I assume, but it's nevertheless tragic. Saunders uses the story for a fantasy novel that is partly a collection of quotes from existing publications about the tragic event, and partly narrated by the ghosts that live in the cemetery where little Willy is buried in the family tomb. You get dozens and dozens of narrators, who never actually tell anything of any length, excepts small quotes, sometimes offered as parts of dialogues, sometimes as somewhat longer monologues. All ghosts have their own character, their own story, their own time where they came from. They are waiting to be allowed to enter the next realm or not. They are as ignorant of their fate as people who are alive, and as fearful of the next stage they will move to.

The reading experience is totally unique, and by itself that makes it worth to read the novel. At the same time, Saunders is stylistically sufficiently masterful to make all these voices come to life with their own tone and vocabulary, their own character, full of flaws and unintended wisdom and stupidity. It's like a Greek tragedy without actual actors, but in which the choir is the only one speaking.

They weep and are in turmoil as they witness how the president returns to his son's grave at night, only to take him out of his coffin again, and to hold the corpse in his arms, lamenting his predicament, and he does this not only once, but several nights in succession, as if he cannot depart from his son, as if he cannot depart from his guilt.

Saunders manages to turn this tragedy into a long lament on life and death, in a very moving way, using the fantasy aspect to great effect: it is as horrifying as it is captivating and inviting to reflect about our own human existence.

A majestic performance.

David Reich - Who We Are and How We Got Here (Oxford University Press, 2018) ****½

Up until a few decades ago, knowledge of pre-historic humanity could only be collected from archeologic finds. Bones and artifacts only partly revealed their mysteries, but now genetics becomes a new method to allow us to get a better understanding.

David Reich and his teams specialise in paleogenetics, the science of genetics in ancient humans, which created a true revolution in our understanding of our past, overturning many standard theories about migrations and mixing of peoples around the globe.

Some of these findings include: the fact that most Europeans and Asians have a few percent of Neanderthal genes in their genome, demonstrating that interspecies sex occurred some 50,000 years ago or earlier. He also demonstrates how the early humans migrated out of Africa in different waves, with different outcomes in Asia and Europe, or how native Americans moved into the continent in three waves, some of which can be timed, others not. The insight generated by human population genetics also sheds some light on the interaction between peoples within the same continent. In Europe, it is clear that some peoples completely disappeared as the result of viral contamination by tribes that migrated into their geographic area (as in current Germany), or were exterminated, rather than the merging of cultures which was always assumed. In Iberia, for instance, it is clear that in some incumbent human tribes all men were killed, because the existing genetic traits could only be traced back through mitochondrial DNA - through the feminine lineage - meaning that women were kept alive. It also shows the importance of dominant men in history, including Genghis Kan, who through and power and wealth managed to have a substantially more than average offspring.

Reich's discoveries also led to quite some reaction from anthropology and archeology academia, which is not surprising considering the fact that many acquired ideas were undermined, but questions were also raised about the ethical aspect of conducting genetic research on ancient burial sites, with or without the consent of the tribes still living there. The issue became especially sensitive in the context of Native American tribes: genetic insights could confirm or disprove a genetic lineage between current tribes and the bones found in burial grounds.

The genetic findings also allow to measure the effect of the caste system in India, demonstrating that despite the thousands of years of cohabitation, genetic distinctiveness of brahmins and untouchables has remained.

On the positive side, this new technology allows for a much more precise understanding of how we as humans are all the same species, with lots of common ancestors, who often intermingled and migrated in ways that were never even considered a decade ago.

It is fascinating, illuminating and highly promising for even more research findings in the coming decades.

David Szalay - All That Man Is (Penguin, 2016) ***

I was halfway through the first story when I realised that it was familiar, and by mistake, I was reading it again. Is this possible? Described as "a triumph" (The Guardian), and "sad masterpiece" (Daily Mail), it was somewhat less than memorable to this guy. "All That Man Is" is a collection of nine short stories with men in the leading role.

Because it was the only book I took with me on a trip abroad, when I realised I had already read it, that I read it twice. Now, trying to review it again, all within the same year, I still seem not to remember it too much. Yes, I recognise some of the characters, some of the settings. I remember being irritated by it, not only by the stupidity of the characters, their painful ignorance and my lack of spontaneous interest in them, but also by the way non-Brits are described, and especially eastern Europeans, the kind of ignorant buffoons that barely surpass the conservative British cliché about foreigners.

So, no, not really memorable.

Which book?

John Banville - Mrs Osmond (Viking, 2017)

I really liked Banville's "Frame" trilogy, "The Sea", and "Ancient Light", but less so this one. How many pages do you read before you realise you're wasting your time on a book that you're not interested in, that's not captivating enough, or not resonating with you. You can admire Banville's stylistic mastership of writing a sequel to Henry James's "Portrait Of A Lady", or even his courage to attempt it, but then it just does not manage to get my attention, concentration and emotional engagement. You read the sentences, the old-fashioned style, the petty concerns of the characters. I read till page 50, which is the minimum of pages when I decide it's worth putting the effort in it or not.

Stanley Redgrove - Johannes Baptista Van Helmont (William Rider & Son, 1922)

Jan Van Helmont was a Flemish alchemist, physicist and philosopher, as the subtitle of this biography explains. He lived in the 17th Century, not far from where I live.

He termed the word 'gas', as he discovered that there were more gaseous substance apart from air. He was a true experimentalist, which was very new at that time. He not only observed things that were happening, but he set up experiments to check and double-check whether his intuitions were right or what would happen if he mixed certain things. The fact that he was also an alchemist and believed in the existence of the Elixir of Life, may have helped him in his endeavours.

He also understood the importance of other agents to help digestion, such as enzymes, even if he did not know about how this actually worked.

Interesting how science and ignorance and superstition look from a distance. In some centuries people will look back at us in the same way, and wonder why we could not see what is so obvious.

David Grossman - A Horse Walks Into A Bar (Penguin, 2016) ***

This one of those books which gives very mixed feelings. It is painful, irritating, ridiculous ... but that's how it's meant to be. The story's main character, Dovaleh G, is an older stand-up comedian whose humour goes beyond sarcasm and cynicism even, it goes beyond the acceptable, exposing his own's life story on stage in a way that both intellectually, emotionally, and even physically results in rejecting by his own audience. There is no fun anymore, no humour, no smiles are generated, not even sympathy. How do you react when the story's main character only creates antipathy? You put the book aside, and go on with your life, or you keep reading, regardless, taking the unpleasantness with you. I did, even if I hesitated more than once. And that's exactly the effect Grossman intended: as a reader, you are part of the audience. Do you stay on to be insulted and morally aggressed by the unrelentless political incorrectness? Do you keep listening to someone whose obsessions are immoral and rejectable?

The main character has summoned the narrator to join one conference, as an older friend who once also participated in summer camp. The little history that binds them will become clear as the 'novel' develops, as is the actual reason why the narrator has been invited to attend. It's the kind of mystery that kept me going: you want to understand ...

It's a book about life, about the limits of divulging your own personal obsessions and fears with the outside world, about the cruelty of emotions that keep dominating people's lives for decades, about what is attractive and repulsive about it, about moral limits of emotions, thoughts and even physical integrity.

It's not fun too read.

Cormac McCarthy - All The Pretty Horses (Picador, 1992) ****

One of the classics of modern American literature, it had to be read, and I can highly recommend it to anyone who likes good prose, real characters and narratives that question the current world.

Two young men, John Grady Cole and his friend Lacey Rawlins, leave their hometown in Texas, and decide to move south to Mexico to find jobs as horsemen, which is their only skill. Both friends are 'true' characters, and the voice they receive from McCarthy is one of the real pleasures of the book. They are naive and experts, boys and already men, real friends but with questions for each other.

They meet a third, even younger man, skilled at shooting, out there on his own, needing help in a way, but without clear intentions or history. They travel together and encounter people, visit towns, come across natural challenges like rivers and storms, they get drunk, they find work, they get robbed, ... But below the surface, something more ominous is taking place: a world is changing. We are in 1949. We enter a new era. The old world is disappearing and a new world is opening up: the old western cowboy world with the new one, but also geographically, between the north and the south, between the local and the global.

A rich Mexican farmer expands: "They went to France for their education. He and Gustavo. And others. All these young people. They all returned full of ideas. Full of ideas, and yet there seemed to be no agreement among them. How do you account for that? Their parents sent them for these ideas, no? And they went there are received them. Yet when they returned they opened their valises, so to speak, no two contained the same thing. ... People of my generation are more cautious. I think we dont believe that people can be improved in their character by reason. That seems a very french idea". The solid foundations of simple community ideas seem to be shaken. What was taken for granted suddenly becomes shaken.

And then at an even deeper level below the narrative, other forces are at work.

When the boys drink to much and are vomiting their hearts out: "In the gray twilight those retchings seemed to echo the calls of some rude provisional species loosed upon that waste. Something imperfect and malformed lodged in the heart of being. A thing smirking deep in the eyes of grace itself like a gorgon in an autumn pool".

When lying in pain at night in the desert "He imagined the pain of the world to be like some formless parasitic being seeking out the warmth of human souls wherein to incubate and he thought he knew what made one liable to its visitations. What he had not known was that it was mindless and so had no way to know the limits of those souls and what he feared was that there might be no limits".

Describing nature after a storm: "The horses stepped archly among the shadows that fell over the road, the bracken steamed. Bye and bye they passed a stand of roadside cholla against which small birds had been driven by the storm and there impaled. Gray nameless birds espaliered in attitudes of stillborn flight or hanging loosely in their feathers. Some of them were still alive and they twisted on their spines as the horses passed and raised their heads and cried out but the horsemen rode on. The sun rose up in the sky and the country took on a new color, green fire in the acacia and paloverde and green in the roadside run-off grass and fire in the ocotillo. As if the rain were electric, had grounded circuits that the electric might be".

Or deep insights into the nature of horses: "Lastly he said that he had seen the souls of horses and it was a terrible thing to see. He said that it could be seen under certain circumstances attending the death of a horse because the horse shares a common soul and its separate life only forms it out of all horses and makes it mortal. He said that if a person understood the soul of the horse then he would understand all horses that ever were".

Or ranchers' truths: "There were two things they agreed upon wholly and that were never spoken and that was that God had put horses on earth to work cattle and that other than cattle there was no wealth proper to man".

Talking about the very poor Mexican children: "Their intelligence was frightening. And they had a freedom which we envied. There were so few restraints upon them. So few expectations. Then at the age of eleven or twelve they would cease being children. They lost their childhood overnight and they had no youth. They became very serious. As if some terrible truth had been visited upon them. Some terrible vision. At a certain points in their lives they were sobered in an instant and I was puzzled by this but of course I could not know what it was they saw. What it was they knew".

It is a western, with cowboys and horses, with a simple narrative that you read like a real page-turner, but don't go too fast. Cherish McCarthy's wonderful characters, and appreciate that below his style a whole world is lurking, poking holes in the surface fabric.

Tim Harford - Messy - How To Be Creative and Resilient In A Tidy-Minded World (Abacus, 2016) **

Financial Times journalis Tim Harford explains why "being messy" is an integral part of the creative process, and also helps in generating unexpected business results. On the other hand, he also gives examples of how mechanical thinking can lead to catastrophes.

Of course he is right on both accounts, but also possibly wrong. It seems critical to me to allow for lateral thinking and hence to break through the mechanistic concepts of thought, but at the same time you should also allow for some systematic approaches, and be very selective in which level of messiness you can endure. His elaboration on the dangers of automated systems without human intervention to avoid incidents, has in fact nothing to do with 'messiness', but it operates on a totally different plane.

There's a lot of name-dropping in the book, either of people Harford visited (such as Brian Eno), or whose works he read. Unfortunately, many of those quotes are only relevant at surface level. They don't add to the argument, but just serve as illustrative purposes.

In his endeavour to merge many different thoughts of sociology, business, art and psychology, he also tends to mix things up at the same time.

What you would have expected to find the right balance between messiness and order, not only that the former is important, because that's too obvious.

On the positive side, the book offers a lot of interesting anecdotes and stories. I only wish they were linked with a more rigid logic, instead of just beying a messy heap of unrelated events.

Neel Mukherjee - A State Of Freedom (Penguin, 2017) **

There is a lot of interesting and great literature coming from India, but this book is not part of it, despite the general acclaim. It's a book with five 'sections' or stories, talking about the challenges of life in rural villages and cities in India.

One of Mukherjee's stories is about the world of difference between the "americanised" young Indian visiting his parents in Mumbai and the servants working in the same house, one about a father visiting India with his six-year old son who was born in the US, one about a man training a bear to earn a living, despite the new law that forbids this kind of animal exploitation.

I read halfway through the book, then stopped because it's a waste of time. The writing is average, the stories not really gripping, the tensions between the worlds do not come to life, and since the book did not show any evidence of improving, my decision was made.

Leïla Slimani - Chanson Douce (Gallimard, 2016) ****

"Chanson Douce" is nothing short of a modern tragedy. It starts with the startling sentence: "The baby is dead", and then describes in detail the suffering of the other child and the bloody crime scene. The rest of the novel explains how this came to be, and gradually the story unfolds of a young mother who decides to pick up her professional life again after having stayed with the children for some years. They look for a nanny and find the ideal one, Louise, who indeed initially appears to be perfect, but as we all know and suspect: that is not the case.

The book's geography is almost limited to the flat of the young couple. It describes the intimate relationships between the three adults and the children, and the changing nature of those relationships and of the characters themselves. They all circle around each other with changing perceptions, intentions and moods, all asking questions about their place in life, to the level of being suffocated in their limited space. In a way, the end was inescapable. The space in the novel as well as the possibilities of each individual to grow and expand, slowly contracts as the story evolves, and the moments of trust, and joy, and personal development, are inexorably reduced to a small point in space, not because of some grand happenings, but rather to a multitude of little things that keep tightening the plot to its inevitable end.

Leïla Slimani is both highly acclaimed and denounced. For this novel she received the prestigious "Prix Goncourt", and several other literary prizes, and rightly so. On the other hand, her first novel "Dans Le Jardin de L'Ogre" received lots of negative reaction from the conservative (Moroccan) community because of its open sexual nature, including female sexual desire, which was then even exacerbated by her book " Sexe et Mensonges: La Vie Sexuelle Au Maroc" ("sex and lies: sex life in Morocco).

"Chanson Douce" is not very uplifting as far as the story goes, but it's uplifting to read a new voice in French literature.

Benedict Wells - The End Of Loneliness (Sceptre, 2018) ***

It's already a best-seller, translated in ten languages, 200,000 copies sold in Germany alone, winner of the European Union Prize for Literature, and more than 30 weeks in Der Spiegel's best-seller list. I don't need to add much to that. The original German title is "Vom Ende der Einsamkeit", and the author's name may sound English, but it is a nom-de-plume. The "Wells" is taken from the character of the orphan Homer Wells in John Irving's "The Cider House Rules". Benedict Wells was himself sent to boarding school when he was six years old, and spent his entire youth away from home, even though his parents were alive. Not so in this novel, where three children, two boys and a girl, are sent to boarding school after their parents died in a car crash. They have to find their way in school, and later in life. Even if all three lives bifurcate in different directions, at crucial points in life they meet again and help each other if needed. The narrator, the youngest of the three, recounts his story when meeting Alva again, a girl he was once in love with. The renew their friendship when adults.

The novel is of course partly based on true emotions and experiences: the loneliness of a child, the urge of the children to each get accepted as full individuals with their special character traits and personalities in the often hostile world of children and the ununderstanding world of adults. Even later in life, this craving to be loved remains one of the main driving forces of the narrator, as well as his biggest frustration.

It is sentimental. It is very emotional ... but to Wells's credit, he tries to stay on the right side of good taste, he does not overdo it.

Reza Aslan - God: A Human History Of Religion (Corgi, 2018) **

Reza Aslan is an Iranian writer, best know for his books on the life of Jezus, Islam, and fundamentalism. In "God", he gives an overview from early religions to today, obviously not in great detail, but with a grand sweep through history.

Aslan himself is a believer, switching from the Islam of his parents to the Christianity of his friends in the United States where he grew up, then abandoning official religion to currently believe in a 'dehumanized' god, a kind of spiritual presence, a pantheistic god.

You get the full history, from the depiction of gods in early caves dating back to 18,000 BCE, over the ancient Sumerians, Egyptians and Greeks, to our more 'modern' religions such as Islam and Christianity.

Aslan is not a historian, and also not a scholar, even if he presents himself as such. He makes a lot of claims in this book that are unsubstantiated and unreferenced.

For instance, I would be interested to know how many "villages (existed) with booming populations, building giant temples, creating great works of art, and sharing our technologies (with other villages), before it occurred to us to grow our food". This quote, without reference, should reinforce his claim that the Göbekli Tepe site in Turkey was no exception but rather the rule. But who says that? Where is it written?

He also claims that people that "the ancients simply accepted the idea that the world of the dead is just a continuation of the world of the living". The "ancients"? As if they are all the same. Again, who wrote this, who demonstrated this, and where is it published? Having read a lot of the "invention of heaven", this is clearly not correct. Another example: "When we organized ourselves in small, wandering packs of hunter-gatherers united by blood and kinship, we envisioned the world beyond ours to be a dreamlike version of our own, bursting with hordes of tame animals, shepherded by the Lord of Beasts for our spirit ancestors to stalk with ease". What? Really? Says who? Claims such as this one - and there are many examples - are ok in fiction, but not in a book with a claim to scientific (even if popular) evidence.

On the positive side, there are some interesting and factual stories.

If you're interested in the history of religion, I recommend you to find more reliable and scientific sources.

Mario Livio - Brilliant Blunders (Simon & Schuster, 2013) ***

"Brilliant Blunders" is not about how blunders turned out to true, and the subtitle "Colossal Mistakes By Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding Of Life And The Universe" is clearly erroneous. It should actually read "Colossal Mistakes By Great Scientists Who Changed Our Understanding Of Life And The Universe", or in other words, the mistakes were mistakes and they didn't change our understanding of life and the universe.

Yet despite these semantics, the Mario Livio's book gives a deep insight into the theories of well-renowned scientists, and their emotional attachment to them, which often resulted in initial rejection when new theories were brought forward that went against the ones that made them so famous and renowned.

The scientists under review are not of the least: Darwin, Lord Kelvin, Linus Pauling and Albert Einstein. On top of the explanation of their core theories, the blunders look like blunders from our own current perspective, but could not in all truth be called 'blunders'. The stupidity of it only depends on clinging to one's own insights and intuitions, which in hindsight appeared to be wrong. More importantly, it shows that science is a journey with many bifurcations and dead ends, with theories exploring new possible explanations, only to be proved false by new evidence or more coherent theories.

An interesting book.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Mike McCormack - Solar Bones (Canongate, 2016) **

In the span of one hour, engineer Marcus Conway reflects on his life, his work, his family, the joys and the tensions, presented as one long 'monologue intérieur' without punctuation, as one endless sentence. Conway's life is disintegrating, his wife left him, his son lives in Austrialia with an uncertain future, his daughter is close yet he does not understand her, and then he gets hit professionally too.

Reading the story with its good cadence and rhythm quickly turns it into a mesmerising experience, but of course a novel is too long to read in one session, so you have to break it up and get into it again, and unfortunately, the story itself and the main character did not really resonate with me, and as the narrative progresses, I did seem to care less and less about Conway's predicament.

Paolo Cognetti - The Eight Mountains (Harvill Secker, 2018) ***

Like Henry David Thoreau in "Walden", Italian documentary maker Paolo Cognetti decided to leave his city life and move to the mountains in the north of Italy. The story in "The Eight Mountains" is partly autobiographic, and it describes the friendship of Pietro, a young Milanese boy who goes on holidays every year to the same place in the mountains, with Bruno, the only boy in the remote and half-deserted village. Even if they only meet once a year, their friendship becomes solid, not based on words or common interests, but at some deeper understanding of life. Their worlds could not be more different, including the relationships with their parents, although both boys, as can be expected do not understand the whims and strange character traits of their parents, for Pietro primarily his father, for Bruno his mother.

Efforts for both worlds to meet in a more structural way, and outside of the holidays, fail, as if there is a border that cannot or should not be crossed. Pietro's universe becomes the world, including frequent stays in Nepal, whereas Bruno never actually lives his village. The mutual understanding of both boys and later as young men, is maintained despite the changes in their lives, both personal and professional.

Cognetti writes in a very accessible and balanced way, well integrating memories and reflections in the action, yet he's most convincing when describing nature and the ambiguity of relationships. It's a story about leaving the rat race, and about getting a deeper understanding about the beauty and harshness of nature. It is a little mellow at moments, but somehow that only emphasises the authenticity of the writing.

Hans Rosling - Factfulness (Flatiron, 2018) ****

If you don't know Swedish epidemiologist Hans Rosling, it's high time you find out about him on the internet, via his Gapminder Foundation, or through this book, which was published posthumously. 

Rosling is an incredible educator and big picture thinker, who managed to show the state of the world through very interesting visualisations of the evolution of poverty and wealth, of diseases and of demographic changes. 

"Factfulness" describes in a comprehensive way all his teaching, youtube presentations and TED Talks. 

This book should be mandatory reading in all schools across the world. It will bring both humility and hope for everybody. He demonstrates that most countries in the world are currently having the same living standards as the richest countries somewhere in the middle of last century. He shows how things improve for many people across the world, and how our categorisation of the world in "developed" and "developing" countries is completely outdated. 

One of the best things about his lectures, is that Rosling always submitted his audiences to a quiz before his presentation, only to show how most of us have completely wrong assumptions about the state of the world. And these audiences included politicians, journalists, WHO and IMF collaborators, who in general and with great majority gave the wrong answers. 

And that includes both you and me. So you'd better read this book too!

Steven Pinker - Enlightenment Now (Allen Lane, 2018) ****

We know Pinker, we love Pinker. "Enlightenment Now" is subtitled "The Case For Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress", and that's exactly what the book does. The good thing is that Pinker gives a very high level overview of the progress that's been made in the last centuries, thanks to the insights of the enlightenment philosophers, scientists and politicians who radically put evidence and democracy at the heart of society. This led to better science, better understanding, but also better justice and well-being to many.

This book is a kind of sequel to "The Better Angels of our Nature", in which he describes how society has become less violent over the millennia.

He tackles the big picture topics of wealth, equality, happiness, peace, safety, terrorism, democracy, equal rights, the environment, ... and he is right: based on all evidence, things are getting better, despite the growth of the population.

His appeal to reason and democracy are a deep cry from an entire intellectual community who sees populism on the rise across the world, with 'fake news' and 'alternative facts' increasingly dominating our news and social media.

As with so many books, this one will also be preaching to the converted. Its main advantage is that it give the converted a very strong overview of facts to support their arguments. Nothing new here, just very well presented and documented.

If I had his skills and knowledge, this is the book I would write.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb - Skin In The Game (Allen Lane, 2018) **

Ha! I couldn't keep thinking throughout the book that mathematician and stock broker Nassim Nicholas Taleb was contractually bound by his publisher to write a book yet had no idea what to write about. "Skin In The Game" is about people making choices that influence other people's lives without having 'skin in the game', and therefore are also not impacted by the choices they make. By itself this seems like a good angle to comment on today's society, but the book never delivers on its promise. Rather, it is a long and repititive tirade about how clever he is, and how dumb the rest of the world, especially the Intelligent Yet Idiots (IYI), which include people such as Stephen Pinker and Noble Prize winners for economy Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz. He complains that his papers against the rhetoric of Thomas Pikkety on capitalism never got the attention they deserved.

Taleb's fascination with his own self is so omnipresent in the book that you start wondering which childhood trauma lies at the basis of it. He has to show off that he speaks and reads in several languages, that he is as comfortable in quoting Aristotle, the bible and quantum physics, that he understands all aspects of religion, history, philosophy, economy, psychology and finance better than anyone else. Taleb is able to judge everybody in every discipline of thought because clearly he is the cleverest of them all.

You find quotes like this on almost every page: "For it looks like you need a lot of intelligence to figure probabilistic things out when you don't have skin in the game. But for an overeducated nonpracticioner, these things are hard to figure out. Unless one is a genius, that is, has the clarity of mind to see through the mud, or has sufficiently profound command of probability theory to cut through the nonsense".

In contrast to "The Black Swan", which I can highly recommend, this book is more a collection of musings and unrelated ideas and accusations with no immediate use in daily life, and yes, his starting point is interesting and true, but not really elaborated upon in a systematic way.

That being said, many of his ideas are thought-provoking and give a different angle to many assumptions that are at least worth considering. Personally, I can agree with many of his ideas, including about Krugman and Stiglitz, but please, do something about your self-obsession.

Jim Crace - The Melody (Picador, 2018) **

The retired singer and widower Alfred Busi is attacked by a further undefined creature in his home. This brings him into contact with his deceased wife's sister and his son, a real estate agent, and the neighbours whose villa will be sold soon. Busi has become a lonely and sad figure, still performing as a singer, but now for smaller crowds of elderly people, and even if was once immediately recognised and famous, he is now reduced to a life on the edge, somewhat outside the bustle of society, outside of where the action is.

Jim Crace's stylistic lyricism is as good as ever, and most sentences are a real pleasure to read, the story itself is somewhat lacking in real tension. The theme is about solitude and of no longer being center-stage, about justice, both personal and political, about greed and compassion. Even if it is sad, it somehow lacks tension, or the captivating and compelling literary and memorable universes he created in "Quarantine" or "Harvest".

If you don't know Crace, I would recommend to start with these two novels.

Richard Flanagan - First Person (Chatto & Windus, 2017) ***

Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan can be highly recommended for his "Gould's Book Of Fish", and "The Narrow Road To The Deep North".

In "First Person" he tells the story of a young writer who sells his soul to a publishing company by willing to act as the ghost writer of a biography by a white collar criminal who is waiting for his trial. He is desparate for money, and accepts the deal to deliver the book in six weeks. Unfortunately, Siegfried Heidl, the book's subject, appears to be a very unpleasant, whimsical, erratic and uncooperative person ... and a liar. He creates quite some fog about his own history, leads the young writer in wrong directions, and with time pressing, the story becomes increasingly elusive.

Heidl is a con man, who fraudulently extracted $700 million from banks, and he keeps explaining to Kif Kehlmann, the ghost writer, how truth is nothing else than a story well told.

The story is extremely irritating. As it is to Kehlmann who does not make any progress. It is enervating, irritating, frustrating, discomforting, disheartening, ... Even if minor changes happen in the narrative, the core events are repetitive: meetings between Heidl and Kif where nothing is actually said, apart from clichés about truth and story-telling. And of course because of a lack of material, both protagonists' lives become to fuse on paper. Kif has no other choice than to fill in the blanks, creating a grey zone full of moral and personal confusion. Whose story is this in the end?

Is it recommended? Yes, if you have sufficient peace of mind for a narrative that keeps circling back to square one, if you are willing to go with the author and experience the narrative rather than just read it. No, if you are of the nervous type who want things to move forward, if you dislike being the victim of the author's cheap tricks to be played on you.

Dan Barker - God, The Most Unpleasant Character In All Fiction (Sterling, 2016)

I once made the effort to summarise all the atrocities of the Bible, both Old and New Testament, because if one thing is obvious, it's the high level of selectivity with which clergy cite from the bible, giving the impression of a benevolent and moral god. My manuscript - in Dutch - was rejected because deemed blasphemous, despite only offering passages from the bible.

Anybody who has actually read the bible will confess that god is nothing less than a monster by today's standards, and I think Dan Barker's title is even a soft description of what the bible actually tells us.

In this book, Barker - a former evangelical preacher - enumerates all the atrocities in the bible, ordering the chapters by theme : the jealous and proud god, the unjust god, the unforgiving god, the misogynistic god, the ethnic cleanser, the genocidal, infanticidal, the vindictive, the bloodthirsty, the megalomaniac, ...

Most of us have no idea about this side of the bible, because it remains hidden in sermons and speeches. It also shows the hypocrisy of people who use the bible for reference to take moral positions against for instance gay people, but then not applying the good rules of the same bible to stone a girl to death because she was raped.

This book is not one to read, because it actually only lists passages from the bible according to the characterisations I described above.

It is 300 pages long. It is 300 pages of absolute horror. Not one person in his right mind would follow the moral guidance of its lead character. Unfortunately, too many do, which says a lot about their ignorance, irrationality and lack of intellectual curiosity.

I'm just afraid that only atheists will dare buy this book.

Alice Roberts - The Incredible Unlikeliness Of Being (Heron Books, 2015) ***

A interesting book, one that creates a wonderful parallel between biological evolution and the growth of a child after conception. The idea is of course obvious and simple. Somehow, we all go back to the same ancestors so many millions of years ago, and this ancestry is still clear in the splitting of cells, in the growth of the foetus and the embryo. Roberts show what parts of our bodies we have in common with all other living things and how the function of some of these changed over time.

Alice Roberts is a professor of anatomy and television documentary maker. She is specialised in paleopathology, the study of disease in ancient human remains, receiving the degree in 2008. She worked as Senior Teaching Fellow at the University of Bristol Centre for Comparative and Clinical Anatomy, where her main roles were teaching clinical anatomy, embryology, and physical anthropology, as well as researching osteoarchaeology and paleopathology.

 In a very methodical way, she takes the reader through all the organs of the body, explaining the common origins with other species, the comparative and different use these body parts evolved into over time: heads and brains, skulls and senses, speech and gills, spines and segments, ribs, lungs and heart, guts and yolk sacks, gonads, genitals and gestation, limbs, legs, shoulders and thumbs.

The earliest creatures, interestingly, evolved from simple cells to take in nutrients, process them and discard them: a mouth and an arse is all it needed to get us started. And the result is absolutely fascinating: well told, easy to understand for lay people and with many drawings to illustrate her points.

Colson Whitehead - The Underground Railroad (Fleet, 2017) ***

In "The Underground Railroad", American author Colson Whitehead describes the escape from slavery by Cora through the famous 'underground railroad', the escape route for slaves which linked various houses of volunteers as so many stations on a virtual track to freedom.

The 15-year old Cora escapes the plantation where she lives in Georgia, trying to follow her mother Mabel, who escaped before, deserting her child. This fact is what keeps tormenting the main character, wondering why she did this.

Whitehead is a great story-teller, with vivid scenes and strong characters. Especially the first chapters describing life in the plantation is strong, then gradually the narrative becomes thinner, possibly written faster than the first chapters, and expanding the narrative too much instead of keeping intense and concentrated density. Why the virtual 'underground railroad' becomes a real train underground in the novel remains a mystery to me, especially because it deflates the importance of the real efforts to move above ground from one shelter to the next. It somehow turns the gravity of the real events into something more fantasy-rich and hence lighthearted.

Be that as it may, the story is captivating, and any story that can describe the horrors of what people lived through in times of slavery is worth telling,

Jon McGregor - Reservoir 13 (4th Estate, 2017) **

As much as I enjoyed "If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things", "Reservoir 13" left me totally uninterested.

It's the story of a village in England where a girl went missing. She was never found, and life continues. People do what people do. Some leave, some stay. The original story remains in a kind of undercurrent flow in the lives of all the characters presented here. The problem is: none of them is interesting, and neither are their lives. You expect the story about the missing Rebecca to be resolved, and you can admire McGregor's twist to move away from the cliché thriller or police novel, but at the same time it takes away the sense of anticipation and tension.

McGregor uses a quite distant, almost reporting style to describe what's happening in the village, using a lot of passive sentences to put the reader in a kind of voyeur position, almost intruding in the intimacy of other people's lives. It's clearly not their story. They are observed, analysed, described. But despite all the good writing, and the interesting approach, there is no interest in what's happening at all. At least not for me. I was never drawn into the story, which is a quite essential thing for a novel.

Nice try. Next time better.

Roy Jacobsen - The Unseen (MacLehose, 2016) ***½

The literary trick to use an isolated place to represent the word, as a microcosm symbolising the larger place we live in, is of course not new, but here, Norwegian author Roy Jacobsen brings it to a new level. A small family lives on an island - actually not more than a rock a few miles long - carrying their name. The novel tells the story from the perspective of Ingrid, the girl in the family, who eventually tries to keep this little universe intact, to keep its family together despite all the hardships of a brutal life in a pittiless nature. The island is called Barrøy like the family's name, and giving up the island seems like a betrayal to the entire family's ancestry, a betrayal of the hardships they endured to bring the island to its current state.

Jacobsen makes the allegory a story about the hunger for freedom and emancipation, the ties and loyalty to family tradition, and the sacrifice of personal ambitions and the need of siblings. His prose is simple, and his narrative pragmatic. The story is not about the big words in the previous sentences, but about the daily struggle of a small family that rather defies the relentless violence of nature than submits to the changing rules of a new society that advances to their stronghold. They work the land, they row to the mainland, they fish, they work with their animals, they build extensions to their house, and the boat house ... and despite all the efforts, there is no progress, quite to the contrary.

Jacobsen depicts simple life, with everyday challenges of a family with all strong or special characters. Despite their differences, they care for each other, because that's the only glue that keeps them together. The family he creates is beautiful, and you cannot but feel sympathy for their daily struggles. Jacobsen's writing style is equally strong, lyrical and economic at the same time, pragmatic and meditative.

A highly enjoyable read.

Colm Tóibín - House Of Names (Viking, 2017) ****½

Irish author Colm Tóibín lives in a class of his own. With "Brooklyn", "Nora Webster" and "The Testament of Mary", he tells stories from a strong female perspective, in a velvety style and compassionate tone. His characters are subtle, nuanced, and real in the depth of their emotions and their relationship to other people. In those novels, there is no real evil, no real malevolence, yet he manages to create tension in his narrative, leaving the reader no choice but to keep reading.

In "House of Names", he brings us back to ancient times, to the legend of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. After Agamemnon has his daugher Iphigenia killed as a sacrifice to the gods in order to obtain military victory, their house is doomed. Clytemnestra seeks revenge, and allies herself with Agamemnon's enemy.

Tóibín does not tell us the story as we know it from the ancient Greek authors Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles and Homer, but he uses it as a springboard to tell his own story about love, loneliness and betrayal. As in his other novels, the main characters are only minor figures in a much broader context, that remains vague and uncertain. The ongoing wars are never truly explained, and neither are their causes clear. The characters move around each other, with different perspectives on good and bad, each caught in a web they never created, yet which they made more complex by their actions. And then at an even deeper level, the characters are prisoners of their own feelings, their own uncertainties and unspoken fears.

Tóibín's style is as usually exquisite. It is rhythmic, well-paced and lyrical.

One example to illustrate:

"An image came to him then of his mother and Aegisthus. He was not sure when it was, but it must have been the morning, a morning when he had come to the room earlier than usual, and his nurse at the doorway had pulled him back but not before he had caught a glimpse of his mother and Aegisthus, and saw them naked and making sounds like animals. The image stayed with him now, became as solid in his mind as the image of his father's face as it brightened when he returned, and the memory of his father's voice and the cheering all around, and the smell of horses and men's sweat and the sense of happiness he felt that his father was home".

... and appreciate how the entire tragedy is captured in young Orestes' mind: the conflicting feelings of betrayal and happiness, the reference to animals and horses in the shifting memories and feelings.

In "House Of Names", Colm Tóibín brings humanity in a Greek tragedy, not only by giving his characters a voice with today's sensitivities and psychological complexity, but also by making humans no longer the puppets of the gods, but the victims of their own doings.

Don't miss it!

Bart Ehrman - The Triumph Of Christianity (Oneworld, 2018) ***

One of the most mysterious things to me is why people believe in the existense of a supernatural being, call it god, who has created and who governs all things. As such, I have been an avid reader of all the books by Bart Ehrman, a former believer and theologian, who has written some of the most insightful books on early christianity.

In "The Triumph Of Christianity", he takes a few centuries further in history, covering the expansion of the early views of a jewish eschatological sect. He explains how the sect grew under the guidance of (saint) Paul, the man who was responsible for expanding the sect among non-jews until the time of Theodiosius in the fourth century, when christianity became the state religion.

The history of christianity is a bloody one, full of intolerance against the christians in the early days, with torture and martyrdom being inherent in the way people looked at other groups. The Romans were usually tolerant towards other religions of conquered nations, as long as they showed respect for their own Roman gods, which was of course inacceptable to the christians. Once christianity became the state religion in the 4th century, they became as intolerant against other religions as what they had experienced themselves. Theodosius at first issued legislative measures that proscribed pagan sacrifices, worship in temples and such other religious rituals, then later also in the privacy of the home.

Even if christianity was still the religion of the minority of the population in the regions ruled by the Romans, the number of christians quickly increased significantly across the entire region, not because  people believed it, but because they had no choice.

Even if not his best book, Ehrman writes well, with the many historical facts not disrupting the narrative. He gives a good insight in the religious and political thinking in those times, also demonstrating that things could have been completely different today if some individuals had not made the choices they made then.

Robert Sapolsky - Behave (Bodley Head, 2017) *****

Truly amazing. In "Behave", Robert Sapolsky, professor in biology and neurology at Stanford University, gives a big picture overview of all the processes that make us do what we do. He uses the simple act of pulling the trigger of a gun, but he could have used any other action. He then analyses all the biological (hormonal, genetic, ...), psyschological, cognitive, genetic and cultural elements that drive that specific simple activity, by moving back in time, starting with the first seconds preceding the act, step by step back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. In fact, Sapolsky tries to go beyond the traditional academic distinction between the sciences of behaviour.

As is often the case by such sweeping overviews of current scientific insights, academics will criticise the lack of true in-depth and up-to-date knowledge of each of the disciplines presented, and especially in their own field of interest, but that is unavoidable in books with the ambition to popularise and create such a broad canvas. The big advantage is that it brings together the incredibly complex processes behind our everyday actions. It shows were our limits are, allowing to become more conscious of why we do what we do, and therefore also to become smarter, and as Sapolsky advocates, also wiser.

Sapolsky's ways of presenting human behaviour in all its complex processes, should be mandatory for all schools in the world. If everybody understood some of the essential drivers of our current behaviour, the way our hormones work, the way our brain functions, the way adolescents brains differ from adult brains, understanding how us-versus-them thinking drives moral choices, how apperent personal moral decisions may have deep emotional roots that can only be overcome by becoming conscious of them ... the world would definitely be a better place.

And that is the great value of a popular science book such as this one. It's insightful, humane, wise and compassionate.

One of the best books of the year.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Best Books of the Year 2017

Some heavy lifting this year, with more non-fiction than fiction, 44 books in total. Trying to understand the big picture of the world : our universe, the evolution of life on earth, its various destructions, our cognition, our psychology, our morals. Sean Carrolls' "The Big Picture" wins the race. The most enlightening book was surely Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber's "The Enigma of Reason", with the caveats mentioned.

I read less novels than last year, but they were better. Michael Cunningham's "A Wild Swan" is an absolute delight of story-telling. And Julian Barnes' "The Noise of Time" is both profound, psychologically horrifying and stylistically brilliant. For once I also added a graphic novel. Check it out.

The year's more overrated books, or at least my greatest disappointments were Yuval Noah Harari's "Sapiens", as well as John Banville, Dave Eggers, Christian Kracht and Boualem Sansal, maybe because I expected too much from them after some great books in the recent past.


  1. Michael Cunningham - A Wild Swan *****
  2. Julian Barnes - The Noise Of Time *****
  3. Haruki Murakami - Men Without Women ****
  4. Manu Larcenet - Le Rapport de Brodeck 1/2 & 2/2 ****
  5. Carlos Castán - Bad Light ****
  6. Maylis de Kerangal - Réparer Les Vivants ****
  7. Michael Chabon - Moonglow ****
  8. Juan Gabriel Vásquez - Reputations ****
  9. Colm Tóibin - The Blackwater Lightship ***
  10. Karl Ove Knausgaard - Dancing In The Dark - My Struggle 4 *** 

  1. Sean Carroll - The Big Picture ****
  2. Barbara Tuchman - The March Of Folly ****
  3. David Wootton - The Invention Of Science  ****
  4. Lawrence Krauss - A Universe From Nothing ****
  5. Giles Milton - Nathaniel's Nutmeg ****
  6. Paul B. Wignall - The Worst Of Times ****
  7. Hugo Mercier & Dan Sperber - The Enigma of Reason * & ****
  8. Carlo Rovelli - Reality Is Not What It Seems ****
  9. Lawrence Krauss - The Greatest Story Told ... So Far ****
  10. Steven Sloman & Philip Fernbach - The Knowledge Illusion ****