Friday, July 31, 2015

Kirinyaga, Mike Resnick Mother of Arthur Clarke, I loved this book. I've kept recommending it to friends as a "best kept secret" or "hidden treasure" since I've read it. It is a stunning, intelligent, profound, and unique collection of short stories, even though it reads more like a novel because each story is set more or less in the same location and with similar characters.

Kirinyaga is the "most honored book in the history of science fiction", based on the fact that each story was nominated and won many prestigious awards. And deservedly so.

The novel / collection is based on a simple but powerful concept: an elderly Kenyan rich man, Koriba, leaves Earth to live on a chartered, terraformed planetoid called Kirinyaga, where he reverts to the old ways of the Kikuyu, after realizing that the old Kikuyu culture in real Kenya has been fatally contaminated by modernity. 

As their mundumugu, he’s the repository of the collected wisdom and customs of the tribe, living alone and apart from the rest but participating daily in their lives, the most feared and venerated among them, feared even by Koinnage, the paramount chief. Only Koriba possesses the technology (a computer) that allows him to communicate with Maintenance, which can change the orbit of Kirinyaga to maintain or alter climatic conditions. Koriba uses this facility, unknown to his people, to his own advantage, bringing rain or drought as he sees fit, often to fulfill his own prophecies and prayers to Ngai.
Each chapter presents Koriba with a new problem that threatens the Utopia he and the others have created. Invoking tribal laws with a fanatical stringency, he tries to find solutions. 
Koriba is a megalomaniac visionary, in love with the Kikuyu but cruel in the strict execution of his dream, in a way that the reader is simultaneously repelled by and sympathetic to him.

I found that Kirinyaga reflects a lot of today's reality, especially our world's constant changes, and its many anachronisms and contradictions. This fast-changing background brings great new things but also a lot of pain and nostalgia. Koriba's adventures will stay with you for a long, long time. His ambivalence will haunt you until the end of the book.

Resnick loves Africa and has a great knowledge of East Africa, and it shows in that the stories are infused with a lot of real Kikuyu traditions, sayings and fables.

A must read. One of the few truly great science fiction books.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The quiet light, Louis de Wohl

I read the Italian version of this book, and I find the Italian title to be more meaningful than "The quiet light". The Italian title translates to "The freeing of the giant", a title that captures the two main themes in the book: 1) the power of Saint Thomas's work in reconciling catholic faith with Aristotelian philosophy (Aristotle being the giant); and 2) the story of how Saint Thomas, as a kid, had been imprisoned by his own family who didn't want him to join the Dominican order, and how he ultimately was able to escape and go on to become one of the most brilliant stars of the catholic world (Thomas being the giant in this case. He was also quite a big guy).

"The freeing of the giant" is a historical novel. Luis De Wohl was a German-Hungarian writer who, in the '30s, left Germany and moved to live in London. His specialty were historical novels, and after WWII he committed to writing about the life of the saints. He was himself a catholic and had a face to face chat with the Pope before writing this book. The Pope asked him to write about St Thomas, and so he did with this book. It should be noted that this is not a novel about religion, but rather about history.

While the book certainly does not have great literary value, it is written in a really engaging style, it is well researched and also well balanced between history, philosophy/religion, and fiction, to the point that I'm wondering why this author is not better known.

Writing a historical novel is no easy feat, even if you know your history well. You need to get the details right, and the spirit of the time you are writing about. Moreover, writing a novel about a Dominican Saint who did little else in his life other than read, pray and write, sounds like a real challenge.

But I think De Wohl nailed it on the head. He uses one single fictional character, Sir Piers, to give the novel the dynamism it needs, a little romance, but most of all as a tool that allows him to weave together in one coherent plot various historical characters like emperor Frederick II, his court, Saint Albert the great, and even some contemporary Muslim characters.

The second half of the 13th century was a very interesting time: Frederick II had an immense power over Europe, however the European region was under a lot of pressure from Islam, that was pushing from both the west (Spain) and the East (Turkey). Muslim culture was peaking. On one hand, you had the military conflicts, between the Sacred Roman Empire and Islam, through the Crusades and other battles. On the other, there were cultural battles, no less fierce, among the various intellectuals of that time: on one hand, Averroe and his school of thought were trying to use Aristotle as a way to weaken Christianity, by separating everything religious from what was "rational", and arguing that Aristotle would have never given in to anything but pure rationality and experimentation. On the other, you had the Church, who specifically requested Saint Thomas, one of the finest minds of those times, to find a way to reconcile Aristotle with the Christian faith. And that's what he did, in his "Summa Theologica".

To make things even more complicated, the emperor's relationship with the Church kept worsening, ultimately resulting in a real conflict, that had Frederick II as the end loser, and Italy torn between pro-church and pro-emperor factions.

De Wohl touches on all of these historical and philosophical elements with great simplicity, but never with a heavy hand or in a tacky way, always respecting the known facts in a graceful manner.

In particular, St Thomas's personality comes out of this book as a shining light, as he is depicted as a truly humble, shy, good and highly intelligent man. Yes it is a work of fiction but these personality traits have been well documented.

Sometimes I think that back in those days, "intelligent" people were much smarter than what we are on average today. Or perhaps, they were intelligent in a very different way. They used to have dialectical, rhetorical, and mnemonic skills that today you probably cannot even find (maybe because they are not required anymore?).

You don't really learn history by reading these type of books, although it's clear that De Wohl had done his homework. It will help enjoying the book more if you already know the main historical facts (or keep Wikipedia close to your thumbs). However, this kind of book is able to bring history to life in such a vivid way, that in a sense you do learn about history. It's history for right-brainers.

Overall, a truly enjoyable read for lovers of historical novels, and if you are interested in the history of Catholicism.

PyongYang: a journey in North Korea, Guy Delisle

Delisle's art is so effective: peculiar, essential but very expressive. I also enjoyed some of the humor and seeing some of North Korea through the author's eyes.

"PyongYang: a journey in North Korea" is a diary - in graphic novel format - of a two months period when the author lived and worked in North Korea as Graphic Director of an animation team, employed by a French company. During his stay, Delisle stays at the Yanggakdo International Hotel, and visits other foreigners in the Koryo Hotel. Accompanied by his guide, he visits the massive statue of Kim Il-sung, the Pyongyang Metro, the legation quarter, the Diplomatic Club (former Romanian embassy), the Arch of Triumph, the Juche Tower, the International Friendship Exhibition, the USS Pueblo, the enormous Ryugyong Hotel, the Taekwondo Hall, the Children's Palace and the Museum of Imperialist Occupation.

If you, like me, know very little to nothing about North Korea, this book will shed some light on the basic facts, some of which might shock you. However, bear in mind that this novel is, at its core, a comedy, therefore nothing is taken seriously and, in the tradition of French comedy, the tone keeps shifting from the irreverent to the blatantly offensive.

There are some really funny moments. However, I did not like the author's attitude towards the locals. Too often he comes across as immature and disrespectful, for someone who is a guest in a foreign country (example: in the museum, when he says he would like to try some of that "torture" on his guide because she's so good looking. Or, the way he is poking fun at everyone as if they were not real people), and often as narrow-minded (example: "she decided to show me some example of their musical genius").

New Regency was working on a film version of Pyongyang, with Steve Conrad to write the script and Gore Verbinski to direct the film, and to star Steve Carell, but this was canceled in December 2014 in the wake of threats made by hackers believed to be tied to North Korea to movie theaters over the film The Interview, which mocks the North Korean regime. The film started pre-production in October 2014, and at the time of cancellation was still without a title. New Regency revealed that the scheduled distributor, Fox, pulled out after the incidents with The Interview.

Delisle does not expect to return to North Korea, writing: "I don't think I would be welcome there anymore."

How the world was: a California childhood, Emmanuel Guibert

French cartoonist Emmanuel Guibert's art has a special something that elevates it a notch above most comic artists. In particular, he has a real knack for drawing people, and he gets all the expressions, positions and proportions pitch-perfect right.

In 1994, Guibert befriended an American veteran named Alan Cope and began creating his new friend's graphic biography. "Alan's War" was the surprising and moving result: the story of Cope's experiences as an American GI in France during World War II. "How the World Was" is Emmanuel Guibert's return to documenting the life of his friend. Cope died several years ago, as Guibert was just beginning work on this book, but Guibert has kept working to commit his friend's story to paper. Cope grew up in California during the great depression, and this graphic novel details the little moments that make a young man's life.

If this sounds boring, it's because it sure as heck is. That's where the problem with this graphic novel is - and the same reason why it's so hard to find really great graphic novels. It's so rare to find greatness in both the art and the writing (or content). Since Alan Cope, the real-life friend of Guibert, was an elderly guy who agreed to have his memories recorded by Guibert, the book reads exactly like that: an old guy telling you about his distant past. Unfortunately, he does not come across as an interesting guy at all. I'd say there are some curious bits, and a disturbing WTF/TMI passage about his mother and his penis, but the fact remains that Cope had an entirely ordinary California childhood, with no special event taking place during his formative years.

So don't feel bad if you'll find the book boring and might wonder what was interesting about this. Frankly, this is not a "story worth telling" per se. If Alan Cope had not been a friend of Guibert, his childhood would never have been become a published story.

My advice is, read this book if you want to enjoy Guibert's art, but not for the narration. The artwork is incredible: his style is so confident, essential and elegant that you should immerse yourself in his drawings without thinking of the narration.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Il gusto del cloro, Bastien Vivès

"Il gusto del cloro" means "The taste of chlorine" in Italian. That is the fundamental sensory experience of going to a public pool. Unfortunately there is no English version of this beautiful graphic novel, but given the very limited dialogue, I believe anyone can enjoy it, whether you speak Italian, French, or you don't.

One of the fascinating characteristics of the comic as a form of art is its ability to tell with few images what typically would require hundreds of words. This characteristic is even more remarkable when you narrate events that are minimalistic, small daily events almost meaningless if it were not for the upheavals in the inner worlds of the characters. This is what happens in "The taste of chlorine", the fourth work of French artist Bastien Vives , winner of this year's award "Essentiel Revelation".

The story takes place in a pool where two unnamed characters meet every Wednesday evening: a boy suffering from scoliosis, swimming with difficulty and with a bit of reluctance, merely for therapeutic purposes, and a girl with a past as an athlete, who is an expert swimmer. It is a story of silences and absences, designed with very little dialogue and no caption, where the souls of the two kids seem to move closer, slowly overcoming the initial awkwardness.

The greatest strength of this graphic novel is the graphic and the elegant design: the things the author was able to accomplish with the coloring, the contrasts and the positioning of bodies in space are unbelievable. If you've ever been to a public swimming pool, at some point while reading this book you will smell chlorine in your nose, there is no doubt about it. This is how immersive this graphic novel experience is.

The soothing, hypnotic green-blue is everywhere, and even though the location is always the same, a public swimming pool, the reader has access to at least a hundred different points of view, above and under water.

Don't go looking for a strong plot, because there isn't one. But then that's not the point of this work of art. Unfortunately, the ending is inconclusive and unsatisfying, in desperate need of an editor. I felt let down by the open-ended conclusion. The author does not explain or conclude anything. I hate that, because even if I have nothing against minimalistic stories and thin plots, I've always found that authors do that as if to say "I am so different and sophisticated!", but really what it is, it's a sign of a lack of imagination. Or at best, a sign that the author doesn't know how to write a story, or he was too lazy to do it. Readers who love the artsy-fartsy world will love that ending. Anyone else won't.

In any case, the drawings are so powerful that you will happily forgive the author for this sin.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Deogratias, a tale of Rwanda, Jeann-Philippe Stassen

A truly impressive graphic novel. The drawings, with their Van Gogh-esque thick black contours, the clear colors and the essential style make every object and person jump out of the page.

It's the story of Deogratias, a Hutu kid who lived through the times of the genocide in Rwanda. The horrors he's been witnessing cause him to lose his mind and he gradually becomes an alcoholic. There are many flashbacks to the time when he was younger and healthier, but I did not find that confusing. I think it's a story well told.

The story begins after the genocide. Deogratias is at a bar and meets an old friend, a French sergeant. Deogratias has flashbacks to his life before the genocide. He remembers the crush he had on a girl, and how he tried to spend time with her. In the flashbacks, Deogratias wasn't always a good person.

The editor's idea of writing a brief summary of Rwanda's recent history as a forward to the book was a very good one. This way, Westerners who did not have the chance to familiarize themselves with those events can learn a lot from this small book. And this is what makes this book so important: in our culture, there are some tragic facts of history that somehow seem to have been prioritized, and some others that are almost forgotten. For example, we are constantly reminded by the media about the WWII holocaust, but not much about what happened during the 20th century in Congo, or the unimaginable suffering that the poor people of Rwanda had to endure, on both sides, Hutus and Tutsis.

The graphic novel storytelling is powerful and eloquent. In part, this is a history lesson told from the eyes of a young boy and an older man, but also from natives and white immigrants, soldiers and missionaries. Once again, like in The Photographer, the choice of using the comic form succeeds in portraying a harsh reality, but at the same having a soothing or detaching effect, because the drawing elevates the objective reality to something a little idealized, almost abstract, and therefore not as hard to swallow.

As an aside note, the author doesn't seem to have a great esteem of Rwanda's missionaries and priests, as they come across as hypocrites and cowards in his story. One priest in particular, seems to be always trying to run away from any potential danger, having his own skin as a top priority, and not caring about anyone else. I'm sure this character is based on a real person, given that Stassen, the Belgian author, spent himself a lot of time traveling across the African continent and some time in Rwanda as well.

Read it, it's a gem.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Photographer, Didier Lefèvre

The PhotographerThis book is a stunning work of beauty. In 1986, French photojournalist Didier Lefèvre took on an assignment to document the efforts of Doctors Without Borders in Afghanistan. The story is told sometimes through the black and white photographs that Didier took during his trip, and sometimes - or more often - through the form of comic strips.

The concept of a "visual diary" sounds fairly simple, but it is the story that's incredibly absorbing and powerful. Through the photos and narration, we're immediately transported to Afghanistan, just right beside Didier Lefèvre. The essential drawings and the raw, evocative photographs work together to transport you precisely there, where the author was. We get to see what he sees, hear what he hears. We walk along the same hazardous mountain paths, always on the lookout for Russian helicopters. And we better understand the work done by Doctors Without Borders, the history of Afghanistan in those terrible years, and most of all the people of Afghanistan. I have to say that despite all the reporting news BBC-style or CNN-style that I have read about Afghanistan, it was only when I read this book that for the first time I had a glimpse of Afghanistan's people as real human beings, and not abstractions or statistics. And this is probably a testament to the power of great comic as an artistic tool, and the most important side of "The photographer".

As for the graphic structure: it is magnificent, to the point that I was often spending more than 5 minutes just looking at a single page, to absorb and enjoy every detail. The mix of photos and comics works in such a perfect way, maybe because that's how sometimes our own perception of reality works: when things get too harsh, we find ways to detach, to see things under a different, more bearable light, which is what the comic format does so well. Also, notably, the comic artist is Emmanuel Guibert, who is a master at drawing human beings, expressions, human nuances. So the quality of the art is really high. 

In terms of the content, this is a true modern day adventure with substance. The main charachter's ineptitude often sticks out, but in the end it's the same ineptitude that most of us Westerners would display in those circumstances, and that makes it easier to get drawn into the narration and live the adventure through his skin. And you can learn something in the process.

At a certain point, Didier decides to go cross back into Pakistan by himself. That's a decision that he would regret for a long time, and that put his life at very serious risk, as documented in the book. It was clearly a silly dedision, also given that what drove that decision was a comment by a teammate who said "I feel like the real work will start when you leave". Paraphrasing that in the language of apes (or translating that into its real meaning). that comment was really: "Didiere, you are here as a tourist, while I am here doing the real tough work, therefore I am a bigger ape than you and I piss on your head" (yeah, that's how most of our communication would sound like if you were to really strip it of all bullshit). That's not important per se, but it made me reflect on our human nature, and how - consciously or unconsciously - we cannot escape our desire to see ourselves "surpass" the others, to be on some higher level in our own personal narrative of our life. Even among people who are doing incredibly useful work, like MSF, everyone needs to find their own "illusion of slight (or great) superiority" in order to feel good about themselves. Another example of this phenomenon, as observed in the book, is when one of the doctors tells Didiere that he does not want to go back to a "cushy" job in a "cushy" French hospital. As if doctors in Western hospitals were not just as useful as MSF doctors. Same human nature, right there, over and over: the need for an "illusion of superiority".

All in all, I've never read anything like "The Photographer". It's pure art, it's raw, powerful and incredibly beautiful. Do yourself a favor and read this true masterwork. 

The Greenhouse, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

The Greenhouse
This is the story of the Icelandic Forrest Gump. He is called Lobbi, and he has an intellectually disabled brother. Athough this is never ackowledged throughout the book, he has some serious mental issues too. Some readers might see Lobbi as a real, regular, almost typical 22 years old kid. But unless I am missing the point because I am ignorant of some purely Icelandic way of approaching reality, I will put it out there: Lobbi comes across as border-line autistic. I will explain this a bit further down.

I don't like summarizing plots, but in this case it's really simple: Lobbi's mother is dead. Their shared love of tending rare roses in her greenhouse inspires him to leave everything and travel to a remote village monastery to restore its once fabulous gardens. While transforming the garden under the watchful eye of a cinephile monk, he is surprised by a visit from Anna, a friend of a friend with whom he shared a fateful moment in his mother’s greenhouse, and the daughter they together conceived that night. That is the whole book. There is little else in terms of plot development, and depending on your taste or mood, this can be really good or really bad.

is an Icelandic author. I read the Italian translation, titled "Rosa Candida" (nota al traduttore e all'editore: carissimi, su "do" di "io do" l'accento non ci va. Un errore ripetuto spesso in questa edizione. Ma dove avete studiato?).

Back to the main character's personality: things happen to him and to his body often as if he was watching them on a screen. Yes, teenagers do live a bit like that, with that out-of-body detachment, but they don't rationalize that condition constantly like this guy does, and they tend to express themselves in one way or the other, while this guy is totally passive and uncommunicative. 
Rosa candida
Now, is that particularly Icelandic? Or is this something the author wanted to create? I have no idea. I know that, aside from the normal issues of a twenty year old, this man has other, very peculiar issues: very serious communication problems, and as I said, some autistic traits.

Let me be frank. If this simple, delicate book was not from an Icelandic author, I don't know if anyone would have published it. The young father with baby plot has been used many times, and with better, more coherent results, by Nick Hornby and other writers. "Iceland! A book from Iceland!" is the reason why I, and probably many others, ended up reading this book, for curiosity.

The cinephile monk might have been a strong feature, but no, he has nothing to add to the blandness of the story.

On the other hand, simplicity and quiet are the actual charm of the book, so I understand the readers who fell in love with it for its powerful soothing effect.
But quiet and delicate are attributes that very easily overlap with bland and diluted.
Nothing stands out in the whole story, nothing jumps off the page, an idea, an individual, a feeling.
It is like one of those sweet melodies that might be pleasant to listen to while they're playing, but that, once finished, are immediately forgotten.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Unflattening, Nick Sousanis

Unflattening by Nick Sousanis"Unflattening" is an experiment in visual thinking. A scholarly discourse through the form of comics. Very possibly, the only one ever produced so far.

The author, Nick Sousanis, earned his Ph.D. in interdisciplinary studies last year from Teachers College Columbia University, where he produced his dissertation entirely in comics form.

Harvard University Press decided to publish the dissertation as a book, the first time the press has printed a comic. This fact - in itself - can explain why, unfortunately, the content of the book is not as exciting as the concept itself of "writing a PhD dissertation using comics". It's just not as strong and stimulating as it could have been.

The drawings are beautiful, inventive, and the author's love for comics is palpable all through this book.

Overall, Sousanis argues in defense of multiple perspectives on reality and the power of visual literacy: "For centuries, words have been considered the superior currency of intellect. So much so that our reliance on the written word, like any other kind of dominant perspective, is so pervasive that we don’t even realize our role in perpetuating it", he argues.

The question he fails to answer is the following: is this really a dominant perspective that we all follow sheepishly, or is it rather an evolutionary achievement driven by the need to find the most effective, practical and articulate mean of communication?

But beyond that point, this argument seems to ignore that a big part of the Western world has already evolved, or it is moving on from the limitations of the written word, by embracing a kaleidoscopic mix of words and images. Snapchat. Emojis. Memes. Most young people use their mobile devices more than they read books. Or look at the Kahn academy, at all the new approaches to teaching, the youtube-spin-off educational tools, and any type of internet-based graphic-related serious study.

So  here is the first issue with this work: the fundamental concept doesn't seem to be that solid to start with. Within the academic world, the concept of a dissertation in comics might be extravagant and very exciting (not "oo-hoo! Party!" exciting, but you know, university exciting) , because here is a comic about a serious research work being made of comics instead of words.

But outside of the academic world?

Ok, let's agree with the author's postulate: a university dissertation should not necessarily and strictly be a thing made only of words. That is a thing of the stuffy, rigid past. Images, drawings and comics can be widely used to express complex arguments of philosophy, science, religion, whatever else. Let's agree with the author.

Unfortunately, though, I really do not see how anyone would care for a split second about this, given that academic language is a niche, an extremely limited area of interest. 

Second issue: more importantly, not a single one of the ideas presented in the book is new or even slightly original.

Third issue: the dissertation should have been better articulated, the concept conveyed with stronger arguments. It's good that someone is thinking about shaking things up a bit in the world of dissertations, but let's not forget that this is still, ultimately, a doctoral dissertation, and as such, one would expect much stronger and stimulating arguments.

Instead, the grounds for the dissertation's arguments are actually pretty weak and vague. Is it maybe my snobbish-European-who-studied-philosophy point of view?  I don't think so. Sousanis doesn't go much further in his argument than stating that everything can be seen from different perspectives, and that "people" (never contextualized, never specified who or where) see things in a flat way, never stepping out of their habitual way of thinking, and doing things "just because they've always been done this way".

I kid you not, the author hammers on this simplistic common-sense concept for more than two thirds of the book, using different metaphors and examples to repeat the same concept over and over.

Even worse, these metaphors are conveyed through negative, bleak, pessimistic drawings, as if this lack of out-of-the-box, ever-evolving imagination was a social disease instead of an absolutely normal aspect of being human.

The main practical problem of this view is that keeping a steady point of view, albeit rigid and illusory, is a very healthy thing that a human being can do. People who question their assumptions less than others live more comfortable lives, this is just a fact. Evolution, in its millennial wisdom, has set things up so that only a few people need to make the effort to look beyond the limits of their usual point of view, and provide new ideas, inspiration, new points of view. Not the majority. Because being like that is painful. It's generally the outliers who come up with the best ideas. But here is the thing: either you are, or you are not. A book, in prose or graphic novel format, is not going to change anything at all.

So why argue this point? Just to make an over-long introduction to the real point, which is "comics can communicate as well as words or even better sometimes, even in dissertations like this one?"

What is surprising is that this real point is very thinly argued. The argument, I gather, is supposed to be the book itself. However, trying to prove that using different points of view is a good thing is hardly the most cogent and specific proof that using comics in a doctoral dissertation can be useful. That is too broad, too weak, just not enough.

Yes, there is also a good section about the value of drawings and comics in general, but there are many other arguments that the author could have explored and he left out. Facts, proof that in different world cultures the value of images vs. words changes, and that in many cultures visual literacy was/is higher than in ours, with successful results. What about the power of ideograms? What about the neurobiology of word-based vs. image-based language?

Only one time the book touches on something useful to his argument, that the author should have expanded on, that is the presence of visual literacy and visual communication in other cultures (i.e. Pacific Islanders maps). Had he found more examples of that, he could have made his argument a little stronger, but no, the book ends a few pages later, offering yet another couple of metaphors about, again, how we need to shift our points of view!

So in the end, ironically, this book seems to prove that the comics form, although very powerful, is not as good as the literary form as a mean to convey arguments and to write a scholarly dissertation. If we base our conclusion on "Unflattening", this is certainly true. However, I don't think that is the case. Images can say more than words, if handled with the proper intellectual strength and wisdom.

Finally, a note about page 14: here we find a hugely misguided "good old days" narrative that goes: "This creature [man], who once [again, when?? In Da Vinci's times?] attempted to define the universe through its own proportions, now finds itself confined, boxed into bubbles of its own making.... What had first opened its eyes wide, darting, dancing, has now become shuttered, its vision narrowed". In other words: we used to be able to think with an open mind, look for example at Humanism, but now we are not anymore, and everything is shit because of that. Oh Lord... I'm sorry but this one is so lame. Do you realize that not even 1.5 % of the European population studied or cared about philosophy in Da Vinci's times? By quoting Da Vinci, you are actually proving the opposite point, that it has always been the outliers who brought truly original thinking. In every age, there have been people thinking in a uniform lazy-standardized way, and a few people who thought in new, original ways. There wasn't a golden time when "people used to be all so open-minded". There just wasn't. That is an academic abstraction.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Mediterranean Winter, Robert D, Kaplan

Mediterranean Winter by Robert D. Kaplan“Mediterranean Winter” is a wonderful read. A book that should be read on vacation, when you have more mental space to stop and think, and wonder. It is subtitled: “The pleasures of History and Landscape in Tunisia, Siciliy, Dalmatia and the Peloponnese”. It is in essence a travel book that Robert Kaplan wrote in 2004 about a trip he took back in the ‘70s. The focus of the book is actually on what it says: history and landscape, and how they influence each other.

I already knew Kaplan as I read “The Ends of the Earth”, another fascinating travel book that describes his journey from the poorest areas of West Africa (Laos, Togo, Benin) to Iran and Turkmenistan. Kaplan was a regular reporter when Bill Clinton was spotted with his book “Balkan Ghosts” tucked under his arm during his presidency. That propelled Kaplan’s popularity like a rocket, and he was suddenly advising the US government on various foreign policy matters.

I was familiar with his style, which I would define as that of an introverted left-brainer. Let me explain: the reality in which Kaplan seems to move in is a reality made of facts, objects, and geographic and historical data, rather than people. The real-life dialogue with local people is kept to a real minimum, while most of what he presents is filtered through his own eyes and through the (innumerable!!) books he has read and he keeps referencing. This is fantastic for a book lover, because you get to hear about many wonderful books that you didn’t know about, but, on the other hand, it shifts the writing towards the cold and dry side. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

In Tunisia, Kaplan becomes more aware of the Roman Empire and its vast influence on the North Africa regions. He also makes a compelling case for the history of Carthage being at the roots of Tunisia’s more modern and enlightened current politics, as opposed to other Muslim countries.

In Sicily, he becomes aware of ancient Greece, and the struggle between Athens and Syracuse. And in Greece, he reflects on Byzantium.

For every city or region he visits, he provides a summary of the main historical events that shaped that place and its people. Given the broad geographies described in the book, these summaries are necessarily sketched, but they often provide a good enough insight into the main events.

One of the things that I love the most about travel books is when the author gets his hands dirty and talks to the local people, gets their colors and perspectives about their city, country or history. Kaplan doesn’t do  much of this. He is more of an intellectual traveler, who often prefers the connection with long-dead people through books rather than the face-to-face talking and listening experience.

However, while “The Ends of the Earth” came across as too US-centric, from a cultural perspective, I preferred this book as it is free from any “I am a U.S. geo-strategy adviser” attitude.

Having said that, I read that Kaplan initially was a strong supporter of the Iraq war, but he now regrets that position completely, and he now thinks the war was a mistake. So what have all those thousands of books on history and strategy taught him?

That necessarily makes me wonder: is history able to teach us anything at all, really? Is “Historia magistra vitae”? Probably not. It might be in the future though, once Artificial Intelligence will start advising governments. Not as outlandish as you might think.

In essence, a great travel book for lovers of literature and history. Sometimes you get the impression that Kaplan travels to complete the literary experience he's had, when he read what Flaubert, Maupassant, Gibbon, and other great writers said about certain places and their own visits there. Almost as if those books were more real to him than the actual travel.

Foundation, Isaac Asimov

Foundation (Foundation, #1)I don't think it would be a stretch to say that anyone who has ever read at least a little science fiction is familiar with Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy. This superbly original work, first published in 1951, tells the tale of a future Galactic Empire, its fall and its gradual reconstruction over the span of some centuries. Star Wars, Star Trek, and all the other diluted spin-offs owe a huge debt to Asimov and to many of his contemporary Sci-Fi authors.

The foundation series won the one-time Hugo Award for "Best All-Time Series" in 1966. Asimov began adding to the series in 1981, with two sequels: Foundation's Edge, Foundation and Earth, and two prequels: Prelude to Foundation, Forward the Foundation. The additions made reference to events in Asimov's Robot and Empire series, indicating that they were also set in the same fictional universe.

The premise of the series is that the mathematician Hari Seldon spent his life developing a branch of mathematics known as psychohistory, a concept of mathematical sociology. Called forth to stand trial on Trantor for allegations of treason (for foreshadowing the decline of the Galactic Empire), Seldon explains that his science of psychohistory foresees many alternatives, all of which result in the Galactic Empire eventually falling. If humanity follows its current path, the Empire will fall and 30 thousand years of turmoil will overcome humanity before a second Empire arises. However, an alternative path allows for the intervening Middle-Age period to last only 1000 years, if Seldon is allowed to collect the most intelligent minds and create a compendium of all human knowledge, entitled Encyclopedia Galactica.

If the plot sounds vaguely familiar, it is only because Asimov based the concept for this book on "Decline and fall of the Roman Empire", by Gibbon, and the "period of turmoil and little progress" between Empires represents the Middle Ages, as perceived by Asimov in his fictional history of the future.

Asimov's writing is unique in that it doesn't focus much on people, characterization or - even less - visualization. He was not a visual author at all. His heart is in the logic that propels the plot forward. His style can be considered vaguely similar to Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie. It makes me laugh how, despite this story is set 14,000 years in the future, everybody, on every planet, keeps smoking cigars and cigarettes as if their life depended on it. Also, when they want to gaze at the stars, the characters pull "heavy drapes from the windows". It's stunning. Asimov clearly doesn't give a crap about these details, what he's writing about is big ideas and logical tricks, not people, not emotions, not a credible future reality.

Plus, let's keep in mind: what Science Fiction is really about, always, is the present, not the future.

Personally, I love this series, but I prefer Asimov's robot series, I find it more engaging. The weakness of the Foundation series lays in the ultimate goal of decreasing the "Middle Ages" turmoil period from 30,000 years to 1,000 years. If you think about it for a second, it just doesn't make too much sense, and it does not help the reader to invest in the story, especially when the characters necessarily change with each of the 5 stories included in this book.

In conclusion: this is a masterwork.No doubt. Big ideas thinking on steroids, from one of the 3 great masters of Science Fiction. Still, some might find Asimov's writing to be too dry. This book will appeal much more to left-brainers than right-brainers.

Cuore, Edmondo De Amicis

Cuore by Edmondo De Amicis"Cuore" means "Heart" in Italian. This "classic" book by Edmondo De Amicis describes the life of an Italian school class a few years before 1900, as seen through the eyes of a boy, Enrico.

Given that the book was published in 1886, as a "libro per ragazzi", or "book for Young Adults", in a sense it is an ancestor of the dreadful YA books that nowadays are selling like hot cakes, although "Cuore" is so much more. The book was later utilized for political propaganda by many governments, not only in Italy, and there are some fascinating aspects to the book's history. But before touching on that, I'd like to say this is at its core a very poetic, touching little book. So despite all the political and ridiculously patriotic themes, I really liked it as it stands as a fine portrait of pure feelings, and innocence. Some readers found it sad, I didn't. The author explained how he was inspired to write it by his own son, Furio, and his love for school.

The book reads as an utopian and moralistic fable. Everything and everyone in "Cuore" is idealized - the book was meant to teach school kids the moral values and model behaviors of an idealized Italian citizen. To better understand the source of these values, we need to consider that De Amicis was part of the Italian elite, and his father held a high government post. The people who engineered the unification of Italy in 1860 had one common arch-enemy: the Pope and the Church, who opposed the inclusion of Rome in the new Kingdom of Italy. As a consequence, the school kids in "Cuore" spend their entire school year without ever mentioning, thinking, seeing, or going to a church, which is clearly unrealistic given that (for good and for bad) the Catholic Church has always had an immense influence in the day to day life of Italians. Even Christmas is totally ignored.

Interesting fact: the book was taught in many Italian schools, and that's often the best way to make you hate a book: "Oh, God, please no, not Cuore! I want to kill myself!"

Back to the political themes: it's not too clear whether De Amicis wrote this as pure propaganda for the King, or that was just part of the process. One thing is for sure: according to this book, the perfect kid is the one who sacrifices his own life for his nation and his King. I like to think that this was just a reflection of the author's beliefs, after all patriotism was a widely shared value in those times.

Through its sensitivity to social issues such as poverty, "Cuore" has been initially linked to left-leaning ideologies. De Amicis was later to join the Italian Socialist Party. Because of this, the book remained influential in countries of the European Eastern Bloc. However, its patriotic message was later adopted by Mussolini's government (not exactly your typical lefty group of people) and there are still people who remember "Cuore" being used as fascist propaganda.

In conclusion, I don't know what the author's true purpose was, I just want to remember this book in a good light. Many Italians, when reading this book, comment "These were times when values still mattered!". I don't think that is correct at all. A more precise statement, in my opinion, would be that "Cuore" reminds us of a time when things were much simpler than today (ok, largely because of lack of information), and, as a consequence, it was easier for everybody to point out the right and the wrong.

Despite its honey-drenched soppiness, and the utopistic and moralistic tendencies, "Cuore" is still a very poetic and inspirational book.

A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia, Aaron L. Friedberg

A Contest for Supremacy by Aaron L. FriedbergHow far away in the future is China's predominance as a global power?  Should you be worried about it, if you are American? This is a solid analysis of China-US relations and geo-strategic policies from both sides, very well articulated. If you want to go deeper into this topic, this book is a perfect start, as it also includes a useful overview of how this relationship has been evolving across the centuries and especially the last decades.

The author's opinion belongs to the hawkish side of the house. I agree with many of his points, although at times his conclusions seem a little simplistic, and sometimes just wrong (see end of review as to why).

Aaron Friedberg criticizes the current US government's policy of "enhanced engagement" with Beijing. However, he is never truly convincing when bringing the reasons for his hawkish stance. A large portion of his argument is based on the fact that "Beijing has not yet made any progress towards democratization". He seems to put too much emphasis on this point, and despite acknowledging the possibility that China might turn out to be a very successful and internationally engaged country even without a western-style democracy (which is most likely), he keeps banging on this point as if he does not consider that possibility at all. I found that disappointing.

Friedberg wants the US to increase its military presence in the Western Pacific, and to consider China more as a rival than an ally. This is very confusing to me. In international relations, don't you always do both at the same time? Why should we see this as a black or white choice? He seems to give very little consideration to the fact that the world has changed (a lot) since WWII, and his tone often borders on the alarmist.

The book even has its own "baddies", and they actually have a name: they are the Shanghai Coalition, a loose group of lobbyists, corporate executives and other US investors who benefit from commerce with China, and therefore want to maintain the current status quo of peaceful engagement between the two countries. What they should do instead is unclear and, at best, totally impractical. Anyway, Friedberg paints them in the most negative light.

I always wonder if this type of book reflects solely the author's opinions, or if there is some other type of driving force behind it (like for example the Koch brothers being behind the Cato Institute and its publications). I say this because the book reads like an argument, rather than an objective analysis. Friedberg is trying to sell something to us.

In any case, aside from the author's own opinion, this is still a useful and interesting read, especially for someone like me who does not spend much time at all thinking of Sino-American relations. It was also interesting to hear about what Chinese analysts have to say. In particular, look out for Chapter 9, where Friedberg finally talks about "hard power", the most interesting part of the book.

Here is an excerpt from a NY Times review of this book, that I find myself in agreement with: "Friedberg takes issue with what he describes as the “Shanghai Coalition,” those in the United States who advocate engagement with China rather than containment, accusing them of self-interest or worse, and he mounts a fierce case for developing new military systems for projecting American power, including “long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles, submerged or low-observable ‘arsenal ships’ loaded with precision weapons, long-range conventional ballistic missiles and perhaps a new intercontinental-range stealthy manned bomber.

In addition to a more assertive approach to China, he calls for a new security framework in Asia that includes the United States, now largely excluded from regional organizations, and what he describes as a “community of Asian democracies” designed specifically to neutralize Chinese ambitions.

Essentially, Friedberg seeks to counter China’s rise in its own region by the deployment of hard power. This will inevitably lead to a more tense and dangerous international environment, quite possibly a new cold war. It is also highly doubtful whether it can be successful.

What the author seems to forget is that America’s problem, ultimately, is not military but economic, a point also made by Kissinger. If the Chinese economy, as projected, overtakes the American economy in about 10 years, and is almost double the size by 2050, then hawkish responses to China’s power are misplaced. Instead, two very different emphases are required. First, America must concentrate on economic regeneration, including huge expenditure on modernizing its infrastructure and education system. Second, it must come to terms with the fact that China’s rise and America’s decline are not just a result of a failure of policy, but are rather one of those massive and highly infrequent historical shifts that governments can do relatively little to affect, let alone prevent.

We live in water, Jess Walter

We Live in Water by Jess WalterEach one of these 13 short stories shines like a bright gem. Many of the stories take place in the north-west United States: Seattle, Portland and Jess Walter's hometown of Spokane, Washington. The topics range from poverty to addiction to infidelity, but fundamentally these stories zoom in on individuals who, through bad choices or simply through fate, find themselves on the unlucky side of life.

You could say that the background theme for most of these stories is the recent economic recession. As I said in my review of Walter's "Citizen Vince", it takes a lot of skill to write fiction with a clear background theme, or a sub-plot that gives a certain flavor to the entire work. And Walter handles it with incredible style.

I am just mesmerized by Walter's ability. How can he breath so much warmth and life into everything he creates on the page, and how can he make me care so much about anything he writes? 

To achieve the "Walter level" of quality, which is the equivalent of a Volume level 11 in the 1 to 10 scale, there are two steps that a writer needs to do, both of them very challenging to pull off:

1) first, you need to infuse your writing with a certain music, a music that comes from the genuine empathy or sympathy you feel for your characters, and for their struggles. You need to go down deep, to the heart of matters. Staying on the epidermic level of thinking about words and crafting sentences won't cut it.

2) second, once you are there, despite it being the last place where one would expect it, you activate your sense of humor and sparkle your writing with funny moments that soothe the reader's heart and make the misery of what is being described not only bearable, but also much more interesting because it keeps reminding you that our human perspective is absurd to start with, therefore the best thing to do is to smile.

I've asked myself, what makes me prefer Jess Walter over editorial legends like Ian McEwan, Cormac McCarthy, Jonathan Franzen, or other big names in contemporary fiction.

Very simply, I think it's Walter's heart. He's got a lot of it. Too many writers, especially the ones who get the loudest choirs of halleluiahs from the critics, are wonderful wordsmiths but they don't have much heart and soul. I understand, it's also personal chemistry. But read "The road" or "Saturday" or "Enduring Love", or the highly acclaimed "Freedom", and you'll know what I'm talking about: I really don't care about phenomenal style and structure if your story feels cold, and it has the heart of a scientist.

We live in the Era of Technology, but what powers human beings is Emotion. Pathos. That is what we are made of. Written words are a tool that can preserve emotions, and transmit them to someone else.
Also, a note about the last story, the one about Spokane, with numbered paragraphs like a list. It's really inventive as it looks like a bureaucratic publication, but I noticed that how there is a perfectly balanced narrative arch in that story, too. With the main topic being Walter's relationship with his town. Brilliant.

What can I say? I love this author. He's about 50 years old, so even if he publishes something new every 3 or 4 years, that makes it at least five or six more books that I am looking forward to reading!

The fault in our stars, John Green

The Fault in Our Stars by John GreenI confess I cried a lot ---  because of the money I spent to buy this book.

Given that I am very vocal about how YA literature sucks, it's only fair that I try to keep in touch with it, right?

Well, I bought it, read it, and I heartily regret every second I spent reading it.

I intensely despise anything that falls under the "Young Adult" category, that only in this millennium has started to amaze legions of supposed adults as well. I genuinely believe that anybody older than 18, if not seriously dyslexic, can write a "YA" book. All it takes is stolid determination, like climbing a mountain. It doesn't take any wordsmanship, imagination, or experience.

This book's main flaw is its unbearable flatness and lack of any minimal hint of originality. "The fault in our stars" shines for being mediocre under every aspect. Its mediocrity doesn't come across immediately, it hides behind the "cancer" theme like a kid who hides behind a plant while you can see his arms and legs perfectly well.

As a positive note, the author certainly did an excellent job at capturing the voice of the two teenagers - but then, where on earth is that a difficult task? 

Readers who said "nobody talks like that!", meaning the 2 main characters, are wrong. The author has a pitch perfect ear, and there are many teenagers who talk exactly like that. They are called "intellectuals" in Europe, and "nerds" in America, and they talk precisely like that, with a desperate need to distinguish themselves by using an unnecessarily articulate vocabulary.

So, in conclusion, here is my recommendation: on a general level, read a ton of Young Adult novels if you think your brain is not an important organ of your body. In the specific, go ahead and read "The fault in our stars" if you want to spend some time in the company of two teenagers who will shower you with fake cynicism, abundant self-hate, dull awkwardness, and unfunny irony.

Status Anxiety, Alain De Botton

Status Anxiety"Status Anxiety" is a uniquely sparkly book that, for the most part, I enjoyed immensely. However, like other readers, I have some problems with it.

First of all, a gentle reminder to everyone who approaches a "philosophical" book like this one: all this rationalizing of reality can be helpful sometimes, but it is often overestimated, especially by academics. Even though it should be obvious, people tend to forget that reality stays exactly the same, with or without philosophical analysis. The immense respect that our society gives to the rich and "officially successful" doesn't change an inch. Philosophy therefore achieves little more than providing perspective, or what could be described in ancient Greek as "shooting the shit". We need to keep that in mind.

The book can be summarized as follows: we are all anxious about our sense of status in the world. Today's problem is our egalitarianism. We no longer believe that people who are worse off are “unfortunates”, as that was the old term for them. Instead, they are now “losers”. It is their fault. So we fear failure more than ever, because it is our fault. This is the flip side of meritocracy, which we consider a good thing, but which is really a tyranny of expectations. Also, we envy everybody who does better, at least in our eyes.

De Botton sets out five causes of status anxiety (lovelessness, snobbery, expectation, meritocracy, dependence) and provides what he believes are five cures for the ailment (philosophy, art, politics, religion and bohemia).

From the start, this set up my hopes quite high, because other books on sociological topics (i.e. Zygmunt Bauman's books on consumerism) do not do anything more than analyzing a problem, which leads everybody sane to the ultimate question: "So what?". At least, I said to myself, De Botton made the effort to offer some solutions to the problem he presented. Yeah, well... while that is true, I will explain why his solutions are really not satisfactory, and why this is overall a rationalistic and therefore unrewarding kind of book.

But first, let me complete the positive part of my review: some reviewers blame the author for being "pop", for lowering the fine abstractions of philosophy to the level of corny self-help manuals. They are wrong. De Botton is a deep and erudite thinker, certainly more than capable of writing a brick-heavy dissertation on any philosopher, but he also wants to reach out to many readers, who cares whether that is for a high concept of sharing wisdom with the masses, or for a desire to sell as many books as possible, or for both reasons?

As for his presented solutions, the book concludes by recommending that we simply spread our risks and take advantage of the vast variety of ways in which success and failure can be defined. If we are depressed by our uselessness, then we should simply change our reference points. I found this stance a little too weak, unsatisfactory and commonsensical.

But what I found annoying is the transparency of the author's personal preferences, hidden behind an appearance of total objectivity and utter absence of any opinion. And this is a very typical problem with philosophy in general.

Let me explain: De Botton chose an academic career path in a world (our Western world) where they will often tell you "he who can, does; he who can't, teaches". Where, in fact, academic success is considered nowhere near the highest graces of success in business, and, in particular, success in making tons of money in general. So it's not such a wild guess to say that, as a very competitive individual, De Botton has probably always been bothered by rich businessmen, lawyers and bankers who often get more respect and love from society than philosophers and professors. And if he hasn't, at least he does a lot in the book to build a huge damn case against these rich lawyers and bankers, they who achieved the success commonly recognized as success. Can he be totally objective about it?

Another problem: in the chapter "religion", he treats faith as "just another way to cope with anxiety", absolutely interchangeable with "philosophy" or with politics or with being a Punk. I guess De Botton likes too much his own atheist or non-religious perspective, to be able to speak about religion with any type of real understanding. He keeps referring to Christianity and Christian values without ever giving the slightest hint of whether he thinks it's all great or it is all a load of crap. I find this type of fake detachment to be slightly cowardly: you are not talking about minerals and rocks. You chose to talk about the most important topics of human existence, of which you, Alain De Botton, are fully a part, therefore posing with such a detached attitude is equivalent to position yourself on a higher ground. It comes across as arrogant and, at times, frustrating ("so what?"). It gives the impression of a very cold scientist who is looking at his experiment or his study, not because he cares about any of the people involved in the study, but purely because he enjoys the study itself. Where is his heart, in all this beautiful philosophical talk? Aside from his love for art and literature, no other emotion transpires. Nada. And while this "forcing the emotions out" might be the very distinctive sign of the philosopher's "profession", I find it useless, dehumanizing and unrewarding.

The chapter on religion is not even about religion. It is about the concept of death, and, in one single sentence at the end, De Botton gives an imprecise interpretation of the concept of God. So is it fair to present it as a solution at all, when you provide such a limited and biased perspective on it?

The chapter on Bohemians is the one where De Botton's "objective detachment" most clearly fails, because he LOVES this solution so much, and it shows. After a great eulogy of Henry Thoreau, he goes on to say that the delightful punks across all the Earth, the haters of the bourgeoisie, have actually understood the secret of life, or something along those lines.

Then again, why "Bohemians"?? Why choose this peculiar definition to end a list of very general and wide categories, like philosophy, politics, religion? I am confused. It's like saying: "here's what I'm going to talk about: sport, food, wheather, and cheerleaders' choreography". What about the hundreds of other similar movements, like Grunge, Punk, whatever else? Why not "vegetarianism", then, why leave that one out? Anyway, in this chapter, he aptly and perhaps unconsciously offers the most valid proof of the fact that nobody is immune from our basic instinct of trying to climb on top of each other's heads like monkeys. Because the very best man is, at the end of the day, the one who reads and thinks and loves art and writes all the time. And, oh! guess what De Botton does all day long?

But please, I really don't want to be unfair. I truly enjoyed the book, very much. At times, De Botton's deep passion for history, literature and art jumps at you in such a genuine form, that is inspiring and almost moving. His love for quoting famous works of the past and the present, the delight he takes in doing that, how he chooses really interesting "pearls", anecdots and quotes, is not something I see much as a trick, but rather as a sign of his true deep love for literature and art. Like the love of a dedicated collector. There lies, in my opinion, the real beauty of this book.

And this is ultimately why I would recommend it and why I enjoyed reading it!

Finally, I have to say that I listened to the audiobook. I think the reader is a very good one (I heard his voice before, in some books about Pacific Ocean travel) but he should have toned down his own sense of humor, because at times he gives a sense of arrogant sarcasm to De Botton's voice that does not make it look good at all, and you are left wondering if it was really intended to sound like that.

Inventions, Rube Goldberg

This is a hilarious collection of comics by Rube Goldberg. I admit I did not know his name or his work before finding this book, but I understand he was one of the most popular comic artist in America, and based on the ingenuity and creative power of his art, I can certainly see why.

Goldberg's comic strips were published on newspapers in the years around 1920 and 1930. And that's part of the the fun of reading this collection: the feeling of "another world" that America was in the 20's.

Most of the drawings included in this book are "Rub Goldberg machines": fantastic creations that are supposed to simplify everyday life, but in reality they are impossibly convoluted ways to complete a simple task, like pouring a glass of water, getting out of bed, or even a "Simple way to take your own picture" (the grandpa of the selfie!).

Today, this cartoonist's work inspired even an ongoing educational event: the Rube Goldberg Machine Contest (RGMC) is an annual national competition that challenges teams of students from middle school to college age to compete in building the most elaborate and hilarious Rube Goldberg Machine.

But what are we talking about here? Well, a Rube Goldberg Machine is an overly complex contraption, designed with humor and a narrative, to accomplish a simple task. Some of these machines are truly hilarious, and I found the written "instructions" next to each machine even funnier. Look at this one for example:

As I mentioned above, what I also enjoyed a lot is the sense of everything that was going on in Goldberg's times, as filtered through his drawings, the objects he chose to include, and the tone of his humor, delightfully cheeky and elegant.

Phonographs, old radios, hammers, springs, steam-powered machines are everywhere in Goldberg's mechanical world.

Vignettes that would be unacceptably offensive on today's newspapers are also found everywhere in his work: midgets and dwarfs are ever-present as parts of the machines, as something to be laughing at. Animal cruelty abounds as in dogs or birds being strangled or stabbed for the purpose of making the crazy mechanism function.

I enjoyed more the Goldberg machines that might potentially work in reality, rather than the ones based on nonsensical steps, based on abstract concepts or wordplay. I think that is the same reason why I prefer science fiction to fantasy: I find that creating a certain "believability" is a harder task and requires a bigger mental effort.

Read this book, it will at the very least improve your mood!

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Christ stopped at Eboli, Carlo Levi

Cristo si è fermato a Eboli by Carlo LeviCarlo Levi was sent in exile to a Southern Italian village (current name Aliano) in the mid 1930's as a political prisoner because of his anti-fascism. This book is his recollection of one of the three years he spent there.

The village is very small, isolated, and ridden with misery and illness. What could have been a dreadfully boring memoir becomes a beautiful, poetic work of art under the artistic sensitivity of Mr Levi's pen.

What gives the book a true soul, and really elevates it, is the deep, heartfelt sense of longing and love that Levi has for the people he lived with in this village, and, in particular, for the farmers.

He focuses on the misery of the farmers' condition, their fatalistic and pessimistic worldview, their stubbornness, their eternal patience, their living untouched by history's grand schemes, and uncared for by the state, by anyone.

These farmers live in one-room houses, with their animals under their bed, and their infants hanging over their bed, in cribs. On the walls, each of them have two images: a black Holy Mary, and, fascinating fact, President Roosevelt. That's because "America", for many southern Italians in those times, was something like paradise. Some came back from America, only to live the rest of their lives in regret.

Being Italian, I'm amazed at having missed this book until now. Even at school, they didn't try to shove it down my throat as they often do in Italian schools (the best way to make you want to burn a book and go kill its author with your bare hands is to teach it at school. This trick really works wonders if delivered with a nasal voice, an under-average sensitivity, and a massive dose of stupidity).

Christianity had a very diluted flavor in these lands, that's why the farmers live with ancient pagan traditions that have nothing to do with christian religion, like magic potions, legends, in a world where people, animals and imagination are just one thing, and nothing is too complicated or dramatic, including death.

What Levi keeps hammering on is a sense of inevitable defeat of the farmer as a citizen of the state. He sees good people being exploited by whoever has money and power, and he says that the state should be a state for the farmers as well. All very well, although he often comes across as idealistic, too theoretical and naive, especially in his political reflections, articulated at the end of the book. Or perhaps he wasn't naive at all, and he was just painting himself as the man who loves the humble and defenseless, since by the time he wrote this book he had already joined the Italian communist party, and he was later elected in the Senate. But my bet is, he was a rather idealistic man.

Now, what I really saw through this book was a privileged member of the Italian society of the '30s (Levi's family was very wealthy), a good, well educated man with an artistic sensitivity, spending 3 years as the revered "smartest guy in the village", doing nothing but painting and reading, in sunny southern Italy. How's that for an alternative to prison? Even better than being a convict in Finland. Where do I sign up?

On a more serious note, Levi's book is perhaps the only autobiographical book I've read where the author doesn't talk much about himself at all. Sure, a wise approach for a young politician, but also a breath of fresh air.

Recommended for readers who want to immerse themselves in the silence of a primitive, ancient reality that is light years from our neurotic lives of today, but at the same time feels more deeply authentic. For those farmers, and I guess for most farmers, life has always been stripped bare, to the bone. A white, shining bone that we 21st century soft and plump westerners often forget.

A hard-core experience to live through the eyes of an artistic outsider.

JFK and the Unspeakable, James W. Douglass

JFK and the Unspeakable by James W. DouglassAs the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination recently went by, there seems to be an increased animosity between those who believe the conclusions of the Warren commission about Lee Oswald, the lone gunman, and on the other hand the ones who believe that JFK was murdered by a group of people who conspired and benefited from his death.

I certainly am not a lover of conspiracy theories, but what makes this subject so interesting is that so far nobody has been able to present conclusive proofs about one or the other theory. Not the official commission, not the conspiracy lovers and not the conspiracy bashers. Not even the arrogant ones who titled their work "Case closed".

This extremely well-researched book by Jim Douglass is more serious and credible than most of the JFK literature out there for two reasons:

1) it is not trying to sell you a specific theory or tell us who shot JFK (by the way, it doesn't even mention the single / magic bullet theory), but rather it tries to find some coherence in all the hundreds of facts and information that we have about the assassination.

2) it doesn't focus on "who did it?" as much, while it spends most of its pages on the most important questions: "why they did it, and why does it matter today?".

Douglass makes a compelling argument that is not pointing at one single reason (for example, they shot him because he wanted to end the Vietnam war, or because he pissed off the CIA in numerous occasions). He takes a truly holistic approach at JFK's main policies in the last years of his life, and where they were headed for the years to come. In particular, JFK's determination to end the Cold War through diplomatic strategies and back-channels communications with Krushev and other communist leaders, was an extremely unpopular stance with most of the government people who surrounded him, the military apparatus and of course the CIA, that JFK had sworn he would "splinter in a thousand pieces".

The writing is not great, there is no doubt about that. And yes, Douglass tends to repeat concepts and entire sentences along his book.

But overall, this book strikes me as the result of really honest hard work, including in-person interviews, and - at the very least - it makes you question the official version that has been presented to the public about this assassination.

As for the event itself, what strikes me as really odd is not that 60% of Americans today believe there was some sort of conspiracy. What strikes me as odd is that many of the remaining 40% are aggressively promoting the Warren Commission's version of the "lone gunman". Maybe they should read this book from cover to cover.

One of the conspiracy bashers is Stephen King. His book 11/23/63 has an afterword where King states that anybody rational must believe at 99% probability that there was no conspiracy. He doesn't explain why though. Very, very odd.

Another massive recent public-influencing event about this topic is Tom Hanks's movie "Parkland", which is nothing more than the reenactment of the official version of the events. What's the point of that? Why even make the freaking movie? But most importantly, how can a big-budget movie about Parkland hospital completely ignore the documented fact that 15 doctors who saw JFK's body said that they saw an "entry wound" in his throat?? Were they just all so utterly incompetent, that Tom Hanks decided to dismiss that fact as non important?

It's more probable that this is effective propaganda. Hollywood has been re-writing history for many decades now.

Look, this is the mystery of the century. So it's not like anyone is going to solve it any soon.  Anything could have happened. In my opinion, JFK was killed by a conspiracy, either because of some behaviors or plans he had that would have potentially endangered national security, or because of a secret coup d'etat.

Some more food for thought now.

To believe that Oswald killed JFK by himself, you must also believe the following things:

1- Two witnesses saw Oswald carrying a bag into the Texas School Book Depository on the morning of the assassination. They insisted that it was too small to contain a rifle and must have been mistaken.

2- Julia Ann Murcer claimed that she saw a man going up the grassy knoll carrying a rifle one hour before the assassination. She said a man looking like Jack Ruby waiting for him in a parked truck. Murcer was not called by the Warren Commission. She must have been mistaken.

3- The 51 eyewitnesses claimed to have heard gunshots from the grassy knoll and saw smoke or smelled gunpowder coming from that direction must have been mistaken.

4- The 15 Parkland Hospital doctors who said there was an entrance wound in President Kennedy’s throat must have been mistaken.

5- Doctors and witnesses who claimed to have seen a large exit wound located toward the back of Kennedy’s head must have been mistaken.

6- Pathologists at the autopsy who were insistent that the entry wound on President Kennedy’s skull was lower than the large exit wound and that there was no entry wound high on the back of the skull must have been mistaken.

7- John Connally, who was sitting directly in front of Kennedy, and who maintained under oath and repeatedly in later interviews that he and Kennedy were injured by separate bullets, must have been mistaken.

8- The paraffin tests on Oswald’s hands and cheek indicated that he had not fired a rifle on the day of the assassination and therefore must have been incompetently administered.

9- It was just a macabre coincidence that seven top FBI officials due to testify at HSCA died within a 6 month period in 1977.

10- Although the probability is one in 100 billion trillion that at least 26 of 1100 witnesses sought in four JFK investigations would be murdered, it was just a coincidence and does not prove a conspiracy.

Having said all that, this book also works well as a history book, especially in its coverage of the Cuban crisis, the Bay of Pigs, the beginning of the Vietnam escalation, and the very tense relationships between JFK and his Joint Chiefs.

The problem of powerful internal warmongers, it seems, is a problem that every non-military leader has always had to face. Krushev had a similar situation in Russia.

Read this book if the JFK assassination mystery is of any interest to you.

The brothers, Stephen Kinzer

The Brothers by Stephen KinzerFascinating fresco of the early Cold War era as seen through the lives of the extraordinarily powerful Dulles brothers.

John Foster Dulles was secretary of state while his brother, Allen Dulles was director of the Central Intelligence Agency. In this book, Stephen Kinzer places their extraordinary lives against the background of American culture and history.

The author is pushing the message that the Dulles brothers and Eisenhower made terrible foreign policy mistakes that America is still paying for, and that they are responsible for the disastrous present conditions of many countries like Congo, Guatemala, and others where the US executed covert operations to topple governments. This position embraced by the author, although based on clearly documented facts, is very broad-brush and it left me perplexed. YES, in those years the United States overthrew many foreign governments through covert operations, in Iran, Guatemala, Congo, and other countries, YES, from the moral standpoint some of these operations were "dirty work", YES, Foster Dulles was very close to many big US corporations that often benefited from these policies, and YES, these covert activities were heavy-handed and often messy (some of them were even complete disasters, and that has been acknowledged by many CIA officials), BUT I see Kinzer's overall narrative as a bit shallow and not completely objective, in that he is too quick to dismiss the Russia of the '50s as "non interested at all in sponsoring regime changes or in influencing other countries governments". It makes me think. Yes, Russia was doing everything possible to hide the real extent of the country's poverty and limited resources, but how could the United States back then know for sure? And here they come, the evil Dulles brothers and their boss, Eisenhower, making huge irreparable damages only to defend the interest of the evil of ALL evils: the US corporations. Simplistic as it sounds, that seems to be Kinzer's opinion.

Kinzer's view seems a little unbalanced, although always faithful to the facts that today we have access to.

Kinzer believes that the communist threat was over-estimated (sometimes on purpose) especially by Foster Dulles, and his reaction to it exaggerated, and he might be right on both counts. However, he fails to indicate any realistic alternative geo-strategic policy that would have actually led the US to prevail in the Cold War. Let-live diplomacy and isolationism? What would have been a different and more effective policy, that would have brought more benefits to the US? The point is, we are actually not sure what would have happened to the world's balance of power if America had pursued such a different policy in those years. We can only guess. As these powerful men, with all their flaws and their ultra-privileged background, could only guess back then.

Having said all this - despite not agreeing with the author's main ideas, and perhaps finding it a little too high-level, I enjoyed the book immensely, as it is very well-written and it provides a thoroughly researched description of a piece of history that is not very much talked about.

Asterios Polyp, David Mazzucchelli

Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli"A dazzling expertly constructed entertainment...that is a satirical comedy of remarriage, a treatise on aesthetics and design and ontology, late life Künstlerroman, a Novel of Ideas with two capital letters..." –The New York Times Book Review

Together with "Daytripper", Asterios Polyp is my all time favorite graphic novel. Let me say upfront, I don't like Japanese manga, and I don't like Marvel comic books. There - this should have stopped 90% of people from reading this review.

The plot revolves around the main character, a middle-aged, philandering architect who loses everything in a fire. It takes all of the author's skills as an artist to express the deep, often unseen differences among individuals, as he takes us through a parade of characters who talk, think and act in very different ways (they are even drawn in different styles, and their speech bubbles look different). This delicate insight into the inner lives of the various characters reminded me of that Chinese saying: "Two thirds of what we see is behind our eyes". A lot of this novel is about that crucial aspect of human existence.  

I love stories that are original, powerful, clever, meaningful, warm and visually stunning (Mangas and marvel comics are generally not original, not clever and generally cold). That is what "Asterios Polyp" is: it's extremely creative and exciting. Rich with inventions and emotionally charged. Review] Asterios Polyp | David Mazzucchelli

Even though it is much more than that, I see Asterios Polyp  fundamentally as a love story, and a story about the communication challenges that we experience because of our differences. The way humans interact with each other is visualized with such elegance! But what I loved the most is that his novel has a living and breathing soul, a true soul that you can see much better in the second part. I found myself to be really moved towards the end. And also I think I found a certain kind of wisdom, that sees through selfish attitudes and behaviors as something that needs to be overcome and understood, in order to grow up, stop reading YA crap and become real adults.

Asterios and Hana are one of the most unique, fascinating and real couples I've ever encountered in fiction. Bravo, David!! Straordinario!!

Citizen Vince, Jess Walter

Citizen Vince by Jess WalterJess Walter has that magic something that puts him a notch above most contemporary novelists. There are so many ways in which this novel about a small time criminal living in Spokane, WA in a witness protection program could have gone wrong. Basic plot elements, style and characters could easily have led this book straight into the immense garbage bin where not-that-good crime novels belong. But Walter adds his secret ingredients and this potentially weak noir story becomes a unique, brilliant, powerful, living and breathing work with the complexity and the cohesion of the best novels ever written.

Some reviewers said this is a book about citizenship as a conquer, and they are right. Some other reviewers said this is a book about redemption, and they are also right. Someone else said this book cannot be categorized or clearly labeled under a genre. I agree with that, too. 

These are the main elements that elevate this book:

- the unusual level of depth and intelligence (many memorable sentences and moments when you think "wow, that is actually right")
- the ability to make his characters jump out of the page and be true and alive. You know how sometimes you feel a character in a book is being played by a b-movie actor? Well, it's as if Walter's characters were played by some of the best movie stars.
- the smart, omnipresent sense of humor.
- and, of course, the political sub-plot, centered on the presidential elections of 1980 and the meaning that political participation can add to an individual's life. Now, let's talk about this for a second. Too often I've seen authors trying to give me the "sub-plot" thing, while in reality what they were doing was just patching together different pieces of thoughts and failing miserably. One example of this kind of failure, even if I am referring to a movie, is "Killing them softly", with Brad Pitt. They tried to infuse that film with a "political sub-plot", failing in a spectacular way. While the main simple plot develops, TV screens with Obama speeches go on in the background. Those TV scenes in the background and a final cynical comment made by one character, do NOT make a political subplot. In "Citizen Vince", EVERYTHING converges to that focal point: the relationship between the individual citizen and the wider community, expressed in the right to vote. The meaning of your life as part of a much wider thing, the responsibility that comes with that and the privilege that it is to be a part of the democratic process, without any excessive patriotism or idealism, with all the proper doubts and questions posed at the right time, but with a message that comes out loud and clear despite the apparent simplicity of the plot.

I'm in pain. To know that I will never be able to write like Jess Walter is a childish but really painful thought.