Monday, 31 October 2011

I am back! And gain of love, hope, and justice - Katrin Pancol's La Valse Lente des Tortues

It has been nearly two months that I have been someone else. Being someone else is quite exhausting; it takes all of your time to forget who you are and remember what the other one, the one you are trying to be, is. It is all about restricting your desires and your words constantly and substituting them with your "wanna-be" self's. It took me so much time to do this that I literally had no time to read or write. Fortunately, my schizophrenic phase is over. I quite enjoyed it while it lasted but I feel that I couldn't take care of two people simultaneously. One (real me) is enough so this me is back. With a favorite author of mine and a favorite topic of mine - love.

She is again here and I've missed her a lot. Josephine. Shy, insecure, not self-confident, and clumsy, she is the kind of character that always wins your heard. This is so for a simple reason; she is just a good person. The ones that don't belong to our cynical world. The ones that care and love innocently, without playing games, without pretending, and without acting. You meet them so rarely that you have no other choice but to embrace and to love them. Jo is a real person; one not fooled by the rules of society, one not putting on a mask, one opening her heart to people completely and utterly. In Les Yeux Jaunes Des Crocodiles (The Yellow Eyes of the Crocodiles) I met Jo for the first time and I recognized so many of my traits in her. I couldn't wait for the sequel. Finally, La Valse Lente des Tortues (The Turtles' Slow Waltz) is a fact in Bulgarian and I am sure I was amongst the first ones to buy it. I wasn't disappointed.

Katherine Pancol is the writer I remembered. Always believing in the good in people, always claiming that at the end everyone gets what they deserve. Quite hopeful for our cynical society but also quite enjoyable to read. In the second part of the trilogy we find Jo at a difficult point in her life. She is trying to deal with the recent tragic death of her ex-husband, who was eaten by crocodiles in Kenya. Unfortunately, hope is still alive as the girls receive letters that look like from their father, claiming he is alive. The truth about Jo's book, which she wrote for Iris is out now, so Jo's spoiled sister is curing her broken nerves in a mental institution. Josephine, on the other hand, is rich now. Her older daughter, Ortance, is in London, ready to do anything to become a fashion designer. Josephine's relationship with the mysterious Luca is on the verge of a breakdown because of his total lack of understanding and care. On top of all, Jo starts falling in love with the worst possible man. In order to make the situation even "more enjoyable", Pancol adds a few mysterious murders.

Despite this unsuccessful attempts to incorporate murder in a family drama (I say despite them because they really ruin the book) I loved the sequel. Mostly, I enjoyed the metaphor with turtles - animals that advance slowly but at the end they always reach their purpose. Of course, having to endure ridicule, humiliation, and pain. Although Katherine Pancol is quite naive and cheesy at moments, she still makes me believe in justice. Justice that will triumph only for those who deserve it - Jo, Ortance, Philipp, Shirley, Marcel, and Zoe. She makes me believe that there exists love that doesn't demand, doesn't criticize, doesn't attempt to change, but simply loves, accepts, and cherishes. That you don't have to be someone else to be loved and that there is nothing in the world you can do to make someone love you and know you if he/she doesn't want to.

Katherine Pancol is an easy read. It says simple things about simple events in a simple life. I like her literature even though it is far away from my actual preferences. It doesn't provoke my thoughts, it doesn't make me read until late at night, and definitely it doesn't make me jump out of the chair saying "Oh, wait, this is genious!" However (there is always a but in every aspect of life) in times I need some nice trivial stories that bring me back up when I have spent too much time down. For this purpose, Pancol is amazing. For the metaphysical questions and the purpose of life - please seek elsewhere.

Friday, 21 October 2011

One night, one war, one love story - The Night in Lisbon

Where do memories live? What happens to them after we die? Do they continue floating as little pieces of our soul or are they buried along with our body under the ground? What does one do if he has lost everything but wants his story to live even beyond his life? He shares. The Night in Lisbon by Erich Maria Remarque is a novel about sharing. Sharing at the edge of death, at the peak of WWII, at a moment when you just want to feel the presence of another human being amongst the beasts of the war. Two strangers meet and spent a whole night that brings them closer together than if they had spent their whole lives next to each other.

Who are these men? Refugees from WWII. They are unique yet they are like the millions other refugees trying to escape from the long hands of Gestapo. Do we know their names? I am not sure they even know their birth names. They have changed personalities, passports, names, and faces so many times that now they just know they exist. And we don't even need to know who they are. Lets just call them Talker and Listener. Where are they? They are in Lisbon, two men, who at some point in their lives dreamt of boarding a ship to the land of dreams - America. What are they talking about? Life, love, war, betrayal, hope, deceit, death. Why is this novel important? Because it tells the life story of an ordinary man, one of the many enemies of the Reich, who had to flee Europe at the edge of the war. It could have been anyone of these poor souls, who attempted to oppose Hitler and his army of blind believers. And yes, it happens over a night.

The Talker and the Listener meet at the edge of hope - the Lisbon port from where salvation begins, the long dreamt off America. The talker offers a simple deal - he will give the Listener 2 tickets and 2 visas, something unbelievable during these days in exchange of one night of talking. The deal seems suspiciously good. However, despair and hopelessness are all around; one would do anything to escape the land of evil. Numerous bars, several dishes, and constant drinking later the reader knows the story of the Talker. He has fled Germany, he has lived as a refugee, he has come back to take his wife, and he has lost her in between. He has run, lied, suffered, killed, but at the end Gestapo won. In this tale of bravery and love, the power of love is immeasurable but the legacy of German evil - infinite. The talker needs to tell his story; he feels that there must be someone who knows it even when he will no longer be there. Memories will continue living as long as there is someone to remember them. In that sense the deal for him is priceless. Having lost every hope and every will to live, he needs this night in Lisbon to relive the happy memories, to unburden the pain, to remember once again the woman he loved. The role of the listener is far more difficult than it sounds. He has to understand, bear, support, calm, and above all, listen well to the stranger in front of him. Sometimes telling it is easy; comprehending it becomes the tricky part.

The Night in Lisbon is very different from the previous two novels by Remarque I read - A Time to Love and a Time to Die and The Black Obelisk. It is much more static, yet it explores the feelings and doubts of a man faced with impossible choices. The strength of the Talker is sometimes overwhelming. Risking his life, he returns to Germany to save his wife. Overcoming his man pride, he forgives her infidelity. Trying to protect them both he commits a most dangerous murder. At the end, though, he fails to defeat death. He passes on to the Listener not only his life story; he passes to him hope. Hope in the form of the saving two tickets. Hope in the form of advice how to live and how to love. Hope in the form of assurance that you must do the right thing and leave yourself in the hands of destiny. Hope that there is always hope. Even in Nazi Germany. Even in the hands of Gestapo. Even when it seems the whole world has gone mad and has forgotten what love and compassion actually meant.

The unshakable bound these two men form is for life. They have shared a sacred moment, and at the end they even share a name. A legacy passed on from one to another. The death of one becomes the key for a new life for the other. A great novel, where you experience a whole lifetime in a single night. Erich Maria Remarque once again proves he is the most educated author about the two world wars and the sentiments and feelings associated with them. I am planning on a big research on his biography in order to get a thorough understanding of his dedication to this topic. I hope I really got you excited about exploring the amazing philosophical world of Remarque, an experience I so far cannot compare to any other author I have read.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Insanity in The Black Obelisk - Germany between the two world wars

I continue with the absolutely amazing Erich Maria Remarque and of course with the topic of war. Unlike A Time to Love and a Time to Die, which is set during WWII, The Black Obelisk examines the period between the two wars. Set in a small German town, the novel portrays a period of hyperinflation, disillusionment, post-war suffering, and rising of nationalism through the eyes of Ludwig, a naive post-war veteran trying to find his place in a greedy and insensitive world. More philosophical than descriptive, Remarque again denounces war and condemns its terror, brutality and senselessness.

War is terrible. On that there are no two opinions. We have had an enormous amount of literature, both fiction and non-fiction on the subject so we know how it affects people, how it awakens their most animal traits, and how it destroys compassion, love, and emotions. But what about the period between the two wars? How did Germany and its people recover from the disastrous defeat and what spirits and thoughts led to a even more disastrous war? Didn't Germans suffer enough? Didn't they learn their lesson from WWI or did they think the new nationalistic movement was going to restore Germany's fading glory? Remarque attempts to give us an answer in The Black Obelisk, where the insane, the disillusioned, the opportunistic, the impostors, the nationalists, the crippled, and the naive shape the richness of characters and moods in 1920s Germany.

Ludwig, like most of the men, is a post-war veteran trying to find another occupation and another life. Ironically, his destiny has brought him again close to death, working as an assistant in a funeral house. Proximity to death allows Ludwig to analyze people. How else would you know the true character of someone if you don't see him facing and handling death. Some cry, others get depressed, and third ones celebrate. But it is in the way we deal with it that our true character emerges. Through Ludwig's constant interactions Remarque gives an exhaustive portrait of the German population of that time. Hyperinflation has made the DEM invaluable. People receive money in the morning, which by the afternoon cost absolutely nothing. Poverty and desperation is everywhere. Suicide is sometimes the only choice. The ones that actually carried on their backs the WWI are suffering the most. Post-war veterans without legs, arms, and with terrible wounds are begging on the streets. The government does nothing. Nobody cares. It is just the way it is. Some of them are disillusioned and blame the war. Others long for the old military discipline, for the greatness of the German state, for the prosperity. These people are exactly the ones who turn to the nationalist movement, hoping it will eventually restore stability and bring Germany back to the world powers.

There are also the men who prosper. Opportunistic soulless people, who speculate with stocks, money, and people's lives. The exploite the system and become quickly (but as we see unstably) rich. They use ambiguous ways, they visit the trendiest restaurants, they are surrounded by pretty but shallow women. They are on top of the poor German state. But like everything in post-war Germany, this power is fleeting. One day you are rich and alive and the other day you are broke and disillusioned. It was hard surviving the war but at times it feels difficult actually living after the war. Remarque faces us with some of the ugliest human characteristics; he shows that even if human beings are primordially good, unfair and difficult life can turn them into beasts. They are not to be blamed; they are to be understood. Sometimes, though, it is difficult to read and accept the unfairness, the senselessness, and the dispair of the situation.

Ludwig doesn't belong to this world. He was just born in the wrong time, wrong place, wrong surroundings. He is sensitive, naive, and poetic. Even though he works for a funeral house, most probably the least compassionate place, in his free time he attempts to keep his soul. He is a poet, a teacher, a musician. Women take a great part of his life but unfortunately, they always leave him at the end. Understandably. Ludwig cannot survive and win in a world of power and greed. He looks at things and asks questions. He doubts religion, God, money, power, love, sanity. He doesn't conform to established rules, he has his own moral, and he attempts to defend it. However, in a world where people don't feel but steal, don't think but flow, don't love but hate, don't care but corrupt, he is lost. Ludwig's women search for money and stability. He can only offer them romance and tenderness. Not enough for the corrupted minds of the 1920s.

I can probably go on for pages about the war and its devastation effects. But no, I want to talk about love now. Yes, there is and there can be love even in post-war Germany. It is just not the typical sane love you might expect. It is actually strange, unusual, even confusing at times. You hate the person and you love him. At times you don't understand him but that makes you love him even more. I will say that this is my second favorite love story after Florentino and Fermina in Love in the Times of Cholera. Exactly because both loves stories are NOT what you expect them to be and NOT what the world says they should be. The times Ludwig lives in are insane; what is then more normal than to fall in love with an insane girl. Isabel is a patient at the asylum, where Ludwig sometimes work. She is several different people at ones; she has suffered a lot and she has chosen the path of multiple personalities to protect herself from the world. Ironically, she is more sane than the others. Isabel, although being a schizophrenic looks at the world objectively, criticizes unfairness, asks questions, and refuses to oblige to imposed norms and questionable morals. Her beauty is in the way she doubts everything, from the color of the grass to the singing of the birds. Insanity is all around; the biggest irony is that sometimes one finds sanity in the most insane places. In fact, insanity was the only way to survive in Germany. You had to be crazy, you had to be different, you had to be unusual in order to bear the terror and the brutality. You had to lose your mind to find a purpose and a sense in everything that was happening. Insanity protected Ludwig's love; insanity made him connect to Isabel even more. Sanity then ruined everything. Sanity took away passion and connection; sanity destroyed love.

The Black Obelisk is a difficult novel. Difficult to read, difficult to understand, difficult to bear. I must say, though, with all my heart that it is probably one of the best books I have read. I wasn't only reading; I was thinking, doubting, asking, revolting, feeling, crying, and loving. I questioned my own beliefs, I looked at my own morals, I changed my perspective towards love and war and sanity. Erich Maria Remarque creates his own philosophical world and takes us slowly without condemning or criticizing openly. He just gives the facts, presents the conversations, describes the characters. At the end though, you are left overwhelmed with many more questions about the purpose of it all. Whether it is love, life, war, compassion, or sanity.

Starting to read Remarque was probably one of the best decisions I have had lately. I know it is the right time now. A few years back I would have been too young. A few years later I will most probably be too cynical to appreciate it. But now I am exactly the person to read it. Emotional, sensitive, slightly insane, and trying to adapt to a world, where these qualities will make you anything but happy.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Words of Wisdom Vol.1

For those that don't know, I have a pocket book, which I carry everywhere, but I don't show to anyone. No, I don't write there the names of the men I have slept with with some notes along (as in all of the cheesy movies we've seen). I'm a bit nerdy, so I write quotes. Obviously, quotes from novels I have read or quotes I have found inspirationalY. So far, I have accumulated quite a few of them and I decided it was time to share a bit of my so-called wisdom. Before closing the window with the idea that these are trivial quotes we all know and we all have read a million of times, I have to warn you, this is not the case. Indeed, some of them you might have heard, but I tend to like more unpopular ones, which meaning hasn't been lost because of endless repetition. In fact, I intend to make this a regular section of the blog, so here come Words of Wisdom Volume 1.

As a matter of fact, I tend to re-read them every time I feel the urge or need to do so. After careful investigation, I discovered I have a quote for almost every problem/issue/situation in life. I don't even have to think about what to say to my friends and relatives when they are having a hard time. I just open the pocket book and read them something. Unfortunately, most of them take it quite harsh, usually with the words "This is fiction. I am talking about real life problems here." I already expressed my opinion in a recent argument that literature as an art is NOT meaningless and pointless. I won't try to prove anything here. I will let you enjoy some of these quotes I have gathered and then think whether literature indeed can help you in some practical and tangible way.

"Time is the longest distance between two places."

"Prime numbers is what is left when you have taken all the patterns away. I think prime numbers are like life. They are very logical but you can never work out the rules even if you spend all of your time thinking about them."
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time - Mark Haddon

"Money is only a too. It will take you wherever you wish but it will not replace you as the driver."
Ayn Rand

"You must never give yourself a chance to fall apart because when you do, it becomes a tendency and it happens over and over again. You must practice staying strong instead."

"We need to make books cool again. If you go home with somebody and they don't have books, don't fuck them."
John Waters

"Our words are giants when they do us injury and dwarfs when they do us service."
The Woman in White - Willkie Collins.

"Women can resist a man's love, a man's fame, a man's personal appearance, and a man's money but they cannot resist a man's tongue, when he knows how to talk to them."
The Woman in White - Willkie Collins.

"In most of these universes, the conditions would not be right for the development of complicated organisms; only in the few universes that are like ours would intelligent beings develop and ask the question:'Why is the universe the way we see it?' The answer is then simple: if it had been different, we would not be there."
A Brief History of Time - Stephen Hawking

"If you loved someone, you loved him. And when you had nothing else to give, you still gave him love."
1984 - George Orwell

"All men fear death. It is a natural fear that consumes us all. We fear death because we feel we haven't loved well enough or loved at all, which ultimately are one and the same. However, when you make love with a truly great woman, one that deserves the utmost respect in this world and one that makes you feel truly powerful, that fear of death completely disappears. Because when you are sharing your body and heart with a great woman, the world fades away. You two are the only ones in the entire universe. You conquer what most lesser men have never conquered before you, you have conquered a great woman's heart, the most vulnerable thing she can offer to another. Death no longer lingers in the mind. Fear no longer clouds your heart. Only passion for living and loving becomes your sole reality. This is not easy task for it takes insurmountable courage. But remember this, for that moment when you are making love with a woman of true greatness, you will feel immortal."
Ernest Hemingway.

"No matter how busy you may think you are, you must find time fr reading or surrender yourself to self-chosen ignorance."

“My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”
Ain Rand

"Achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life, and that happiness, not pain or mindless self-indulgence, is the proof of your moral integrity, since it is the proof and the result of your loyalty to the achievement of your value."
Ayn Rand

"I swear, by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine."
Ayn Rand

"The only regret I will have in dying is if it is not for love."
Love in the Times of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Enough for now. Take whatever you need from this but don't get overexcited. To end with a quote, as Oscar Wilde said it: Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation."

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Erich Maria Remarque takes us through A Time to Love and a Time to Die in Nazi Germany

Recently I read an article about the topics you should avoid when speaking to a foreigner, depending on his country of origin. Unsurprisingly, the most popular topic one should never mention in front of a German is World War II. Germans are quite sensitive about Hitler, the concentration camps, and the Jews and they don't like discussing it or even mentioning it. However, this is the single most violent event of the 20th century and I barely know a person who has no or little opinion on it. After all, Bulgaria has spend 500 years under the Turkish yoke, but I still don't mind talking about racial issues and confrontations. Despite this German peculiarity (along with their many many other peculiarities, which I simply don't get) one of the authors who talks most exhaustively about World War II is exactly German. I present you Erich Maria Remarque.

A few weeks back a friend of mine, whose literary opinion I greatly admire, asked me an interesting question: "Is there a single author, whose complete works you have read?" I thought about it for a long time, and although I have read quite a few novels from Dostoyevsky, I cannot actually say I read it all. I don't even believe it is possible to read it all. Then she suggested I read all (or most of what) Erich Maria Remarque has written. I was ashamed to say that I hadn't read anything and I haven't even the slightest idea what, how, and why he writes. She immediately corrected my mistake and gave me quite a few books. The result is that a new era is about to hit Read with Style. Starting from today, I am going to read solely Remarque for the following months. Don't get me wrong, I don't want to bore you or to present you with only one side of literature. I believe my blog has been quite diverse so far, so I feel it is time for me to focus on a particular subject, or on a particular author. I start with A Time to Love and a Time to Die, not one of Remarque's most famous novels but certainly a very good first impression for the German-born author.

War is heroic, war is noble, war is protecting the superior Arian race. At least that is what gestapo was trying to promote to the common people during World War II and especially close to Germany's defeat. It is difficult (or almost) impossible to believe so when you are bombarded almost every other day, when you lose your house and your family, when your son/husband/father is fighting and dying on the front. Set through the eyes of a simple soldier, Ernst Graeber, the novel explores the cruelty of the war, the hypocrisy of the leaders, and the disillusionment of the people. Soldiers have no other choice but to go and fight for the cause. No one asks them whether they want to or whether they believe in it. No one gives them a choice. Some of them are born and raised under the Nazi rule. They believe in the postulates of the Party, they believe of the superiority of the Arian race, and they foolishly obey any order given to them. They are cruel, stupid, and ignorant. Yet they drive the Party and they cherish its development. Others, like Graeber, they think. They analyze what they have been told, they compare to the reality on the front and they realize the fatuity of the war, the hopelessness of the situation, and the unbelievable cruelty of the Party officials. Graeber attempts to stay patriotic even when he returns for a deserved leave after two years spend on the front. However, when he sees the damages the war has done to his closest people, when he falls in love with a girl, whose father suffers in a concentration camp, when he meets his old teacher hiding or his friends dying in the hospitals, he begins to question the purpose of it all.

There is a time to die but there is also a time to love. Unfortunately, soldiers are not given that choice. They are not given a choice at all. The hardest thing is to realize that what you are doing is cruel, purposeless, and doomed but yet to continue doing it because you have no other choice. The hardest thing is to know that you only have a couple of weeks to fall in love, to get married, to experience this love, and to separate. The hardest thing is to be completely unaware of the state of your parents and relatives. The hardest part is seeing your friends die and being unable to help them. The hardest thing is witnessing foolish and ignorant bootlickers, who have memorized Mein Kampf without understanding it, climb easily the stairs of power and influence. The hardest thing is seeing injustice and being absolutely helpless to change it. Yet, this was life for Graeber and for many others like him. War was not fair and it never will be. War doesn't ask you whether it is time to love or to die. War doesn't care whether you believe in it or not. And war doesn't care about what is fair or not. It is just war and it is a time to die.

Needless to repeat myself, my favorite subject is indeed World War II. The previous three novels I reviewed here, Sarah's Key, The Book Thief, and The Diary of Anne Frank focused on the personal sufferings of three children in different Nazi occupied countries. However, Remarque enriched me with a totally different perspective - the sufferings and the inner conflicts of the soldier, the main driver of the war. A driver that sometimes doesn't understand the war, doesn't believe in the war, even hates the war. A soldier that wants to love but it is actually his time to die.

Monday, 5 September 2011

A Brief History of Time - Where are we coming from and where are we going to?

I feel stressed when I don't have a plan about where I am going to. I care about the future and I worry about tomorrow every hour of the day but I barely think about the past. I don't wonder where I came from and how I got here and most importantly, I do not use this knowledge or experience to get more easily to where I am going. And even if sometimes I decide to crave on where I came from, I read philosophical non-fiction. I never thought I would actually read a book that combines physics, religion, and philosophy to arrive at a comprehensive understanding to all the theories about our origin. The famous scientist Sir Stephen Hawking (whom some compare to Einstein) presents a comprehensible picture of the way human beings thought about the beginning of the world and how they think now. Going from the Greeks, passing through Newton and Einstein, and arriving at the most contemporary theories, Hawking successfully transforms the largely misunderstood subject of quantum physics into something every non-specialist might understand.

A Brief History of Time is really brief. I don't know how, but Hawking manages to encompass all stages of the development of human thinking, to summarize them understandably in 200 pages, and to even make this readable and enjoyable. For those of you who hate physics (as I do) or simply don't get it (again as I do) there are no equations but Einstein's famous E=mc^2. Instead, the famous scientist and Cambridge professor includes numerous graphs, which help understand the complicated features of the uncertainty principle, quantum physics, light cones, time, etc. Most interestingly, though, unlike a typical scientist, Hawking doesn't exclude philosophy or religion from his reflections. He doesn't exclude the possibility that God created the world but of course he asks the relevant question "Why did he created it this way?" Did he want us to understand the complexities of the surrounding world and if not, why did he create it in such organized fashion? From philosophical point of view, Hawking implies that maybe if the universe had been different, we would not be here. In other words, only in a few universes would the conditions be right for complicated organisms to develop; and only these organisms will be able to ask themselves the question "Why is the universe the way we see it?" The argument goes round in a circle but Hawking manages to comprehensively read the leader to the conclusion.

Newton, Einstein, Kant, and the other great minds are no longer incomprehensible but rather clear and easy to grasp. Hawking departs from his mind of a great scientist and comes closer to the ordinary reader in his attempt to enlighten the masses on the history of time, on its current developments, and on its future endeavors to develop a complete theory about the origin of the world. One of the most impressive theories on time and on the concept of its three arrows explains why we remember the past and not the future, why we move forward and not backward, and why the universe expands instead of contracting. The thermodynamic arrow (direction of time in which disorder increases), the cosmological arrow (direction of time in which the universe expands), and the psychological arrow (direction of time in which we remember the past but not the future) coexist in harmony because if they didn't, we wouldn't be here to even ask these questions.

I am not a believer but I appreciate that the author doesn't exclude God from his equation. He admits his possible role and he even ends the book with an expression I liked very much: "If we find [a unified theory], it would be the ultimate triumph — for then we would know the mind of God."

I fervently recommend A Brief History of Time. I was determined to like it because it was a present from a very important person but I say with certainty that my desire to like it didn't in anyway affect my judgement. Indeed, it is a brief, comprehensive investigation of the deep and dark fields of physics, which, if it wasn't for one of the most cherished scientists of our century, I wouldn't have ever touched to. The fact that I still managed to extract philosophical conclusions about myself and my life from this book, speaks enough for me. I loved it. I just hope I really understood it since at times I was partially confused. Re-reading it is definitely in my short-term plans.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

The Kite Runner - There is a Way to Be Good Again

I don't even know how to start writing about Khaled Hosseini's first novel, The Kite Runner. Years ago I read his second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns. I was impressed by the shaking story of two Afghan women, whose destinies intercross in the violent reality of Afghanistan. The double standard for men and women is most evident in Hosseini's second novel, and as a woman, I was deeply shocked and startled by the Muslim culture and its attitude towards the so called gentle sex.

The author is Afghan himself, but he immigrated as a child from the turbulent environment. First the communists and then the talibans, performed unimaginable terrorist acts in the country. I would not go into detail; we all watch TV. I would simply say that the story feels much more real, much more compassionate, and much more touching through the eyes of a local, who has seen the terror, escaped it, and now describes it from the point-of-view of one of the most democratic countries in the world.

While A Thousands Splendid Suns is a "women's" novel, The Kite Runner is a "men's" novel. In both, though the Afghan terror meets the American dream in stories that reveal the most extreme human characteristics. Unbelievable violence is followed by great compassion; terror is opposed to love; betrayal receives loyalty; hatred is overruled by love. Hosseini is amazing in portraying the problems of his own country and the inner contradictions of the human soul. These qualities transform him in one of the best and most influential contemporary authors I have read lately.

The Kite Runner is a novel about children and adults. It can be read as a criticism against violence in Afghanistan and as an ode for the everlasting friendship and loyalty. Amir and Hassan are raised together but their lives are completely different; Amir is a rich Pashtun, the high class in Afghanistan, who suffers from his father neglection and spends his entire childhood trying to impress him and deserve his love. Hassan is his best friend and his servant; he is a Hazzar though, which means his social status is much lower than Amir's. When the communists and subsequently the Talibans come to power, the Hazzars are subjected to persecutions, murders, violence, and extreme terror.

Amir and Hassan are more than friends; they are brothers. Their childhood is marked by Hassan's immense loyalty and Amir's regular harassments and provocations. Yet, they are inseparable; they play together, they run together, they read together, Amir participates in the kite tournament and Hassan is the best kite runner in Kabul. All is good until an act of violence against Hassan and an even more terrible act of betrayal from Amir. The political situation forces him and his father to immigrate to the USA. However, nearly 16 years later, Amir has to return to his home country and to atone his sins against his best friend. The situation has changed; Afghanistan is now more brutal and more dangerous than the young boy remembered it. But he has lived with the guilt of betraying Hassan and upon returning to his home country, Amir realizes he has to sacrifice a lot to help those that need him.

The Kite Runner is the most real, the most inspiring, the most touching novel I have read in years. I loved Hassan for his loyalty and bravery, for his friendship and protection for Amir, even though he was the one needing protection. I mostly loved him for his ability to forgive betrayal, to accept human flaws, to understand and to accept. I loved Amir, even though he was the weaker and the more afraid. The author says several times: "Fathers were rarity in Afghanistan". Indeed, Amir had a father but not a father figure. His constant struggle to feel worthy, his fear of punishment and danger, and his need of protection forced him to abandon Hassan. But should we judge him so severely? He was only a child. And in Afghanistan, there were more children but less childhood. This is Hosseini's second theme - the immerse suffering of the most innocent ones in a political regime that deprives them from their childhood, from their friends, from their families.

Mostly, though, The Kite Runner is a novel about redemption. We all make mistakes, some more terrible than others. But there is a way to be good again. It is never too late to act accordingly, to protect the ones we love, to confront our enemies, and to forgive our friends. The strongest are not the ones that don't make mistakes; the strongest are the ones that face them, accept them, and then have the courage to change them. It is never never too late to be good. Thank you Khaled Hosseini for reminding me that. Thank you for showing me the terrors of your own country. Than you for giving me hope that it takes only 1 person to change someone's destiny. Thank you for making me cry and then thank you for making me smile at the end. One smile doesn't mark the end of suffering and the beginning of happiness but it is a strong start.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Sarah's Key - Jewish Girl's Sufferings in Nazi France

When my aunt told me "I have read a book that you might like", I was very skeptical. Not to be too full of myself, but my aunt's taste doesn't in anyway resemble my own. There is nothing wrong with reading sugarcoated love stories or predictable crime novels but I have always felt this type of literature is losing my time. With the abundance of great books to read, I just don't see the point of reading these, even with the idea of relaxing. Emotional and sensitive as I am, I don't use novels or movies to escape these emotions and feelings. Instead, I take even more emotions from the literature I read that I can bear. However, my aunt insisted that I would simply love Sarah's Key and that it even made HER cry. My aunt not only read a serious novel but she was even moved by it. In addition, she told me that it was about Jews, which is one of my favorite topics, so I went for it.

To be honest, I expected a little bit more from Tatiana De Rosnay's Sarah's Key. The idea is good - a little Jewish girl, taken together with her family by the French police and moved to a stadium, where the conditions are terrible. The Jews are left without food, shelter, water, and toilet waiting to be transferred to one of the hundreds concentration camps, where most of them find their death. Sarah, wanting to protect her little brother, leaves him in the secret wardrobe of their apartment, promising to return and unlock him. Hence, Sarah's key. Unfortunately, Nazi occupied France doesn't offer this sense of security and planning. The little girl is unable to save her brother or her family; a disastrous guilt that hunts her down all of her life, leaving her scared and unable to feel happy.

This one of the story lines. The other one, 60 years after the tragic events at the Parisian stadium, involves a 45-old American journalist living in France. Julia receives the task of writing an article about these Jews and starts digging in the story of Sarah and of the other children. Dealing with problems with her beautiful but unfaithful husband, her pretentious French family-in-law, her unfortunate pregnancy, and her obsession with the little girl, Julia discovers a secret about her husband's family that has been hidden for more than 60 years. The stories of two women from totally different generations and time periods entangles in a novel about loyalty, love, compassion, suffering, and forgiveness.

Even though the story is indeed tragic and emotional, I didn't cry. I just couldn't feel it from Rosnay. The plot has the potential of becoming something truly incredible and touching but at times I felt as if the author herself was not feeling it. The story, of course is made up; only the background events are real. Still, Rosnay's fiction is not enough to grasp the brutality and terror of separating a family, the pain and suffering of leaving your brother to die, the compulsive feeling of guilt that it was you that survived and not someone else. I felt sad because I kept imagining the events in my own head. But reading about them, I just felt a little touch of sadness and depression. I expected a lot more because the story itself is great. The way it was told by the author - not so much.

I would by far recommend the other two Jewish stories I read this year - The Diary of Anne Frank and Markus Zusak's The Book Thief. Both are about the sufferings of little girls in Nazi occupied countries. Both present a compelling story of how the most innocent accept and fight the terror inflicted upon them. One has a unfortunate ending, the other one - a more happy one. Even though the story of the little Anne locked in a secret house in Netherlands is very different from Liesel's destiny, told from the perspective of Death itself, both novels are examples of what good literature about this period should look like. Compared with them, Sarah's Key doesn't have the same influence or effect on the reader. Not that you mustn't read it; it is just a bit overrated for what it truly offers.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Should We Read the Classics?

This question didn't just pop into my mind in the middle of the night. I have been thinking about it greatly in the last few months. Partially by outside influence and partially by the fact that books are my recreational drugs, I deliberately abandoned the classics of world literature for quite a while and I dived in modernity. I bought contemporary French, American, English, Turkish, Bulgarian, younameit authors, and I was passionately reading and reviewing them.

The benefit of these novels is that they are closer to us. Indeed, they talk about the problems, issues, conflicts, and confrontations of the world now and today, and not in the 19th century. It is far more easier for a reader to identify with Lora, Cassia, Julia, August Brick, Amelie, Hannah, etc. These characters have our problems. They search for love in our way too complicated computerized world, they attempt to balance between jobs and personal life, they fight loneliness and family loss, they struggle with eating disorder, they try to survive the difficult teenage years. It is far more useful to read contemporary specialized non-fiction about your field of studies (economics, finance), which changes daily and thus every book older than a year or two is irrelevant already.

What about classics? How are we supposed to identify with the issues of 19th century women, who have to marry for the man their family chooses, and if they are extremely lucky, they will learn to love him? We cannot imagine separating from someone just because he has less money, social position, power, influence, etc than us. How are we to understand the sufferings of Mme Renald, when she cheats on her husband with the bright, but socially unequal Julien? How are we to really grasp the rebellion of Lady Chatterley and her lover? And what about the struggles and metaphysical questions of the Big Russians - the epic novels of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoi, the little problems of the peasants in Chekhov's world, the unrequited and painful love of Pushkin? Can we really grasp them? And should we read them? And if so, why lately more and more young people turn towards modern books and abandon the classics? Have they read them, have they left them for more mature years, or have they simply ignored them in favor of new and more applicable pieces of literature?

Yes. Yes. Yes. Triple times "Yes" we should read the classics. I wouldn't try to invent hot water in this post, nor criticize other people's personal choices of literature. I would simply point out things we know. The classics are great novels. Not because someone important said so. I wouldn't care even if God himself came down to me to tell me "This book is great. You must read it". I care about time. These novels are great because they have survived the most difficult thing. They have passed the longest distance between two places. They have conquered the one thing we people cannot still even get close to conquering. They have won over time. Years, generations, world wars, disasters, calamities have passed and we still read Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, Tolstoi, Chekhov, Orwell, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Pasternak, The Bronte Sisters, Poe, Lawrence, Marquez, Kerouac, Clavell, Rand, Bradbury, Hugo, Stendhal etc. And safe to say, we will still. There is something to it, isn't there?

I am far from claiming I have read all the classics that I should have. I would go further, I will say I will never read them. I am only 22 and I have read a tiny fraction of what world literature has to offer. And as I love to say "I am afraid this life will not be enough for me to read all that I want to". Yes, it won't be but I will try my best to read as much as I possibly can. And from my modest experience with both classics and contemporary literature I would say it with a plain sentence - Classic literature tells me things I know in a way that makes me stare and admire the talent, the choice of words, the writing style, the intimation, the feeling of greatness you knew existed but you never even imagined it to be so great.

Lastly, where do you think contemporary literature came from? It didn't just magically appear to fill in the bookshelves or to empty our pockets. It was inspired by the classics. And there is NOTHING wrong with it. I hate when people judge an author simply because he took his inspiration from someone great before him. Well, of course he will. Literature is like any other art, and any other profession for that matter. You see something amazing, something revolutionary, something contradictory, something deep and influential. Of course you will use it. You will add something to it from yourself, of course, but you will get the base. That's why we shouldn't be repelled by a novel, which seems to copy an idea already developed by another. We should be actually more impatient to read it. Because we know the author has read the classics, because we realize he is aware of their work, and because we are certain he has filtered the good from the bad and has used the first as the foundation for his work. The result largely now depends on this contemporary author's talent, motivation, and inspiration. But he has used the help given to him in the face of the great ones.

If I have offended someone with this post, I am not sorry. I don't judge contemporary literature; on the contrary, I adore it. Examples such as Zafon, Sagan, Nothomb, Pancol, Gounelle, Larsson, Giordano, etc make me optimistic about the future of great novels in general. But the past of great novels must not be disregarded or ignored. Before you judge contemporary literature, before you impose your opinion on others, before you take the great responsibility of recommending them what to read, be sure you have the basis to do so.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is a Huge Disappointment.

After being seriously impressed by Mario Vargas Llosa's The Bad Girl, I was more than intrigued to read more from the Noble prize winner. Quite a long time passed, during which I was filling in my gaps in classic literature but upon entering a bookstore and wondering between Llosa and a Bulgarian author, I decided to go for his most famous novel, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. This novel will not be soon forgotten for the mere reason that it is the novel I read for the longest time from War and Peace until now. Not because I didn't have time but simply because this is definitely NOT my thing. Once more, I have proven to be quite a diverse reader, who can hate one piece of literature and simply love another one by the same author. Gabriel Garcia Marquez was the first example. I simply couldn't stand his magical realism in 100 Years of Solitude and I chose to abandon it. But then, Love in the Times of Cholera is one of the greatest love stories. Mario Vargas Llosa (another South American author) joins the honorable list of authors, whom I both adore and hate.

I praised The Bad Girl a lot. The story of an obsessed man in love and a promiscuous woman, who ruins his life was brilliantly written and deeply psychological. Combined with the typical atmosphere of Peru, which now as I see it is present in both his novels, this piece of literature stands amongst my most favorite this year. You can imagine my surprise when I was totally repelled by Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter.

The latter is largely biographical. The main character, Marito, wants to be a writer and works in a radio in Lima, similarly to Llosa. He falls in love with his aunt Julia (not really related to him, relax!) and despite his family's opposition, marries her. Llosa also married his aunt. So far quite a trivial story, which doesn't get any better as you keep reading. We understand Marito loves the aunt but we don't see why or how. I simply didn't feel the passion, the connection, the intense pain that you cannot live without another human being. The love story was banal and boring so I was quite tempted to skip parts of it.

What is original about the novel, though, is that it is split between Marito's narrative about his unfortunate love affair, and Pedro Kamacho's stories. Kamacho is a brilliant Bolivian series writer, whose radio series exalt thousands of people. His relationship to Marito is explored quite superficial but we manage to grasp that Marito admires the writer. In Kamacho's story line, Llosa explores the drama of the artist and the genius, who slowly loses his mind. At the beginning the Bolivian produces quite popular and admirable series, but the tension and the fatigue play their role. He starts mixing people, places, characters, and story lines. His destiny of a great artist and a great talent is unfortunately to be admired when capable and to be abandoned when crazy.

Without the Kamacho story line the novel would have been a complete disaster. Indeed, the place of the artist is ingeniously explored but as for the aunt Julia story, I would say it is a complete failure. Trivial, shallow, and superficial, Marito and his aunt's love affair does nothing to provoke any feeling or impression in me. In conclusion, I am glad I finally finished this novel and I would need a lot of time before I turn again to Llosa. I have quite a bad taste in my mouth right now.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Love, Despair, Separation, Deceit, Hope, and Forgiveness in The Yellow Eyes of the Crocodiles

The Yellow Eyes of the Crocodiles is special for me. For the first time since I have a notebook with sentences from books I have read, I wanted to rewrite almost every single sentence. The simple story of love, despair, separation, deceit, hope, and forgiveness in the contemporary French society is full of ideas about life, originally expressed, which I need to stick in my head. Of course, I limited myself to only several sentences, but still, it is worth mentioning that I took so much from that novel that I cannot be thankful enough to Katherine Pancol for writing it and to my doctor for recommending it to me.

What is the worst thing that you fear might happen to you? Your husband (boyfriend) leaving you for another (younger) woman and travelling with her to Kenya to take care of crocodiles? Your teenage daughter hating you for being so submissive, ugly, afraid, unorganized, and pathetic? Your sister using you as her shadow writer, giving you all the money for the book but than taking all the fame, respect, and adoration? Your ex-husband taking a loan from your common savings, which you then have to repay? Struggling with money matters and being unable to provide everything for your family as a single mother? Do you think you can survive this and find the strength within yourself to continue, to survive and to be happy? Well, all of this happens to Josephine, the extremely aimable and lovable heroine of The Yellow Eyes of the Crocodiles.

I thought I had many problems. I seriously did. And every time I encountered one, I chose the easy way around - I stuck my head in the sand and I waited for the storm to pass above me. I didn't attempt to fight because I was afraid I would fail. I was afraid I will not have the courage and the strength. I was afraid of others judging me, of my family not loving me, of that boy abandoning me, of not passing my exams, of turning into a complete failure despite all of the hopes put in me. When I read Jo's story, I saw in fact the woman I want to be someday. My friend told me "You are not like your parents. You can choose the person you want to be and be that person". "But I am afraid," said I. Jo is afraid as well but she did it.

At the beginning when her husband leaves her, her teenage daughters accuse her, her family despises her, Jo for the first time takes a look at what her life has become lately. She had stopped taking care of herself, life had been passing her slowly, and she was merely the audience and not the actor in whatever happened to her. At the beginning she was afraid to change something. At the beginning she was the Jo everyone felt sorry for, everyone ridiculed, everyone secretly feared of becoming one day. Pathetic, lonely, afraid, unattractive. Change doesn't happen overnight but it does happen indeed.

This is a novel about so many things. It's about Josephine's friendship with Shirley, her grounded in reality positive best friend. It's about Josephine's book about 12th century, which she writes so that her spoiled but beautiful sister can experience some fame and excitement in her life. It's about the end of a marriage and the feeling that you will never love or be happy again. It is about hope and the butterflies in your stomach, that signify that love is again around the corner. It is about the difficult relationships between generations; the clash between the teenager and the mother, the growing girl and the adult woman, the old and the new. It is about learning. From your friends, from your family, from your children even. It is about being patient. It is about facing your fears and realizing what you are really afraid of; then confronting them. It is about life in all of its forms. It is about dancing with life, falling, getting up, but never ceasing to love it. Mostly, it is a book that teaches you how to love yourself, how to embrace yourself when there is no one around, how to slowly build up your future. It doesn't matter who you used to be. There is always time to become who you think you must be.

There are of course other characters, despite Jo, who fight. There is Jo's stepfather, who has spend an unhappily married life to her mother, a manipulative mercantile egoist. His quest for happiness leads him to his much younger secretary, who, however, loves him and is willing to give him the child he always dreamt of. There is Jo's sister, Iris. Always the more beautiful, the more admired, the more successful, she feels empty in her marriage to the successful Philippe. Searching for something to fill in the void in her heart, she uses her sister's talent to achieve fame and admiration. This fleeting happiness doesn't fill the emptiness of her failed marriage, her lost talent, her dysfunctional relationship with her son, her unrequited young love. The swan suffers while the ugly duckling flourishes. There is also Jo's ex-husband Antoine, a successful businessman, who after being fired, falls into depression. In search for excitement, he even travels to Kenya with a much younger woman, but his impatience, his lack of initiative, his boredom with life, his ignorance of his own characters, doesn't allow him to find peace.

I recognize myself in all of these characters but I mostly loved Jo, and I doubt there will be anyone who will not love her. For what she was, for how she fought, for who she became. Because beauty, success, and love is only part of it. Most importantly, Jo became a person, who loves herself. Something, which should be our highest purpose. Beyond fame, admiration, money, and success, there is the love for that special you that keeps you going.

Unfortunately, the sequels of this amazing journey are not translated and my French is still poor to read them in original. But if there is one thing this novel taught me, that is to be patient. I will be. For Pancol's following books. And for other things, which I have been waiting for for a long time.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

The Lord of the Flies Or Where Did the Series Lost Came From

We all know that the idea for the popular TV Show Big Brother came from Orwell's famous dystopia 1984. While we shamelessly enter the most personal lives of other people, while we watch them talk, communicate, fight, bath, go to the toilette, even have sex, we without any doubt don't realize the extremity of control in Orwell's world and the devastating effects of this control onto the human mind. But, as the Romans said it, people want bread and circuses.

Similarly, the TV series Lost, which last seasons I watched simply because I started to (otherwise they were complete bullshit) were inspired by a book. Not many people know it, but The Lord of the Flies by William Golding has strikingly similar plot to the popular TV show, and even one of the characters is named Jack. As always the original, the book, is far better than TV. But that is common sense of course.

The Noble-prize winner Golding tells about a group of British boys stuck on a deserted island. We don't know how and why they came her and frankly this is not important. The kids are left to what appears to be heaven. Without parental control and supervision, they should be free to play games, to enjoy the island, to hunt, to have fun, and in fact never to want to leave. Unfortunately, as life constantly shows us in the most painful way, sometimes the things we crave for are rarely the things we really need. The characters of the boys portray a wide picture of the human qualities and defaults. In that way Golding discusses the painful subject of human nature and individual welfare versus the common good. It is never stated but it is mostly implied that the story takes place during a possible Nuclear war. "The Reds" are mentioned several times, which of course points the mind to the Cold War.

The story is simple, the plot is trivial, but the impression and the intimation of the book are shocking and powerful. Three of the boys stand out among the huge crowd deserted on the island. Ralph represents the democratically elected leader. He is chosen not through coercion or persuasion but through the common democratic way - he wins the most votes in the beginning. Thus, the kids try to create their own mini-world where tasks are divided among people and the leader supervises and observes all. Unfortunately, their attempts are doomed to failure. The bifurcated human nature is predestined to rebellions, doubts, and conflicts. Ralph is a good leader but he lacks the most important leadership qualities - he is not forward-looking, inspiring, and convincing. At the beginning of the story he realized the importance of keeping a fire so that ships can see it and rescue them. As the boys spend more and more time on the deserted island, Ralph starts forgetting why they need the fire and most importantly, he forgets how to inspire and control the other boys. The result is anarchy.

Opposing Ralph is Jack. Jack, the hunter-boy, represents all the flaws in human nature. He is arrogant, impulsive, cruel, and selfish. Just like Ralph, he is born a leader, but when he loses the power, he starts an uprising to usurp it. The clash between the two boys shakes the stability and the peace on the island. Without cooperation, the salvation is impossible; the two opposing forces spend more time fighting each other than working together for the common good. Golding here is pessimistic about human nature. He realized that people will always strive to be on top for their own interests, disregarding what is best for the masses. Jack lurs the boys with promises of meat, fun, and freedom and is soon transformed into a form of semi-God. Ralph falls into exile slowly losing his supporters.

The most interesting character for me is undoubtedly Piggy. He is the most vulnerable to the ridicule of the other boys - with poor eyesight, astma, and weight problem. Piggy represents all those people in contemporary society who exist so that the insecure and powerless can have someone to exert their complexes on. Yet, Piggy is the most intellectual and wit of all the boys. Ralph's right hand, the boy represents the rational world and the adult figure. Unfortunately, he lacks leadership qualities and his advice to Ralph are not enough.

The world in The Lord of the Flies is not perfect; it is the conflict between the group and the individual, between morality and immorality, between the rational and the emotional thinking. Golding shows the strive of the civilization to live according to rules and the inevitable will for power and control from the strongest ones. This is not a story about kids; this is a story about adults and I see examples of it daily. How to ensure democracy and stability, how to obey the rules yet protecting our individuality, how to live as one, yet in a group, I still don't know the answers to these questions. After the terrible terrorist act in Norway a few days ago, I am even more pessimistic about human nature. There were, there are, and unfortunately there will be people, who see themselves as warriors for the world, who will attempt to change it through terror. Human nature is closer to the animals than we let ourselves to think; we are just not programmed to live in harmony and peace; we are doomed to self-destruction. It is our inherent trait, just like the original sin.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Life Can Be a Miracle, says Bulgarian Psychologist Ivinela Samuilova

You must have heard a million times Albert Einstein’s famous thought: There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle. I don’t like it. Probably because miracles haven’t happened to me, or I was too busy being negative to notice them. But I feel that throughout my whole life I have always worked for what I achieved and I have never received anything for granted. Let alone a miracle. Miracles have this unfortunate characteristic of not happening when you most need them. And when (if) they indeed happen, you realize it was a miracle very quite later on. Like the time I met a guy accidentally on the street while reading a book and several months later I had some (un) fortunate relationship with him. But at the time when he asked me whether I liked A Clockwork Orange I didn’t even expect this would turn into some kind of relationship. You may call this a miracle but I realized it might be so quite after that.

Secondly, Einstein’s thought is quite banal and trivial. These quotations never work for me. In my notebook for exquisite thoughts I only write down original, unpopular, unconventional sentences. I never do write the trivial ones because I’ve just heard them way too many times to even notice them. Still, there is one unarguable argument for banal phrases – they are banal because they are sometimes painfully true. So when I received Ivinela Samuilova’s novel Life Can Be a Miracle and I saw Mr. Einstein’s words on it, I felt something boring and trivial was ahead of me, in the style of Bucay or Andrews. However, it was not as bad as expected. Indeed, some parts were worth reading and reflecting upon.

The story is simple. Adi, the heroine (who astonishingly resembles the author herself) has everything in her life – a good job, a loving fiancée, honest friends, and a stable family. She hasn’t experienced any trauma or suffering and she hasn’t endured any sufferings. Her only problem is that she doesn’t know what her vocation is. Similarly, the author has studied religion, economics, administration, PR, journalism, and finally psychologie. Looks like we are dealing here with a confession of how difficult it must be to find a job that suits you. Adi feels something vital and essential for life is missing; her mind is filled with saudade. This is Adi’s favourite Portuguese word, which doesn’t have an equivalent in any language she knows of. It mainly refers to an inexplicable void, to a longing to something that is not there or may not exist, a feeling that something vital is missing. I loved that word. I identified with it. In fact, I read something similar in Nothombs’ The Life of Hunger and ever since this particular expression has become my explanation about what is wrong with me. One red point for Ms. Samuilova.

In order to find her vocation, Adi joins a psychological group with the weird and unconventional Alexei. These psychologists disprove the conventional methods of treatment and insist that Froid was a fool. In other words, you might have had the perfect childhood, the ideal parents, the best friends, and the coolest boyfriend, and still you might be unable to deal with your life. Adi enjoys this explanation and excitedly joins the group to try and find what she is supposed to do.

More or less the novel is predictable and simply written. There are rarely profound and deep investigations, conclusions, or ideas. Most of them we have read in one form or another or we have personally tried and found out they don’t work. The aspect I disliked the most was the concept about miracles. To say it plainly, you can transform anything in your life by writing a letter to the given problem (illness, love issue, work problems, etc) and release it. Adi used this technique upon some of her best friends and it worked immediately. Call me sceptic or cynical but this is never the way the world works. I need a positive book but mostly I need a REALISTICALLY positive book. Not some science-fiction about how happiness is just around the corner and all you need to do is write one f*cking letter.

On the contrary, the idea about “No” is great. We all know (or we should know) that “no” doesn’t work. All psychological books say that you should construct your positive statements avoiding the word “no” because the human mind is constructed in such a way as to avoid it. For example, you shouldn’t say ‘I will not drink beer today’ but instead ‘I will drink only juice today’. The words send positive waves to your brain, which it understands. Samuilova explains this amazingly using the simple example with the squirrel ‘If I tell you not to think about an orange squirrel, what did you just think about? An orange squirrel of course’. This ‘no’ concept also explains why the best way to seduce a woman is to ignore her. Women most of all simply do not get the word ‘NO’!

Samuilova scores another point by explaining with an original metaphor how the way we see the world shapes our life. Basically, she compares our mind to a map. We have a mental map and the world is one big territory. Depending on our map, the territory that will fill it is different. If we offer a positive card we will see that only good things happen to us and vice versa. A more original and interesting way to say that if you expect happiness, that is what you will get and if you only see the worst, the worst will happen to you.

In conclusion, most of Life Can Be a Miracle you have heard a billion times and you will find boring and predictable. However, the books is worth reading for these several passages I mentioned (and maybe a couple more), which offer a different perspective to conventional psychology.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

The Loneliness of the Individual in the Collective Society - Doctor Zhivago and The Russian Revolution and Civil War

Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago is an epic in the style of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoi. It encompasses a difficult and controversial moment in Russian history - the Russian revolution of the 1917 and the subsequent Russian Civil War - and most importantly how this period affects the individual. In the center of the story is Doctor Yury Zhivago - an orphan, whose father kills himself when he is just a boy. Yury grows up in a friendly family, where he meets his future wife-to-be, he starts a family, and he becomes a successful and respected doctor. However, he has the unfortunate chance of living in one of the most turbulent years in Russia.

In this period of changes it is of extreme importance to whom you are loyal - to the Red Army (the leftish pro-revolutionary groups) or to the White Army (the anti-bolshevik forces). Russia is devastated by war and fighting, blood and terror, torture and betrayal. People are starving, the son kills the father, the servant betrays his master, families are separated, children are left orphans. In this brutality the character of Yury Zhivago vividly stands out. Zhivago is sensitive, poetic, and idealistic. His principles contrast the brutality and the terror of the Russian uprisings. In his mind, Zhivago understands and supports the ideas of the Bolsheviks although he comes from the upper classes. Nevertheless, he condemns their methods of acting and eventually becomes disappointed with the whole ideology of marxism, which uses power, control, and coercion to artificially create a new world order.

Despite his will, Zhivago becomes embroiled in the war as a doctor in the Red Army. He spends several years apart from his family, fighting for a cause he doesn't believe in. He is not part of neither party - the Bolsheviks condemn him because he is royalty and the royals don't accept him because he fought (involuntarily) on the side of the communists. In his love life Zhivago is also bifurcated. Married to his child friend Tonia, his great love remains Lara. They meet numerous times in their early days, but eventually the war and the subsequent revolution glues them strongly together. One of the greatest love stories ever told, their life together is impossible in the new world order. Zhivago is not accepted by neither political party and Lara is also persecuted because of her husband, the infamous fearsome Red Army general, who later is considered to be a traitor to the communist idea.

In this unstable political situation individual choice and thought are suppressed, loneliness is common, and control over one's personal life is impossible. Zhivago and Lara's husband are both in love with the same woman and they long for a stable and secure family life. Unfortunately, they are embroiled in a civil war, which ideas soon become corrupted and misguided. Pasternak's epic novel is about the honorable Russian man faced with impossible choices, which contradict his ethics and beliefs. In such a situation even the sensible Zhivago is forced to kill other people, to abandon his family, and to even leave Lara behind. This is a period of great suffering, of personal sacrifices, and of unbearable terror. A novel that must be read not only because of Pasternak's unmistakable talent to depict the conflicts in the human mind, the suffering of doing something that largely contradicts your personal ethical norms, and the great love between two souls, but also because it questions the validity of the communist revolution. At first it was a struggle for social equality and justice. Politically, this became a perverse struggle for power and control over the body, mind, and soul.

Monday, 11 July 2011

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - The Mad Man Against the System

Vintery, mintery, cutery, corn,
Apple seed and apple thorn,
Wire, briar, limber lock
Three geese in a flock
One flew East
One flew West
And one flew over the cuckoo's nest

Nursery rhyme

The man against the system or the society - a conflict as old as the world itself. So many authors have devoted novels, non-fictional works, articles, investigations, etc on the subject that more or less we are familiar with the problem. The system strives for conformity; it hates the different because it fears them. The unconventional are the only ones who can shake the stable postulates of society and to invoke a rebellion. This is pretty much common sense. However, what about other non-conformists. The ones that are isolated from the world because they are harmful to themselves and to others. The ones that society voluntarily placed in the hands of the system to be transformed and returned as "normal" people, or in other words "people that fit". These are the mad men, the patients in the asylums, the ones that see a different world but are told this world doesn't exist because they are crazy. They are dangerous to society and they have been placed under the system - to be changed whatever the means.

This subject is explored in Ken Kesey's most famous novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Told through the perspective of the enormous but mentally disabled Native American Bromden, the book follows the rebellious Randel McMurphy, who after entering the asylum prompts the other patients to start questioning the system. McMurphy is an outcast, a man who pretends to be crazy to escape the hard labour. When he arrives in the asylum, the power belongs to Ms. Ratched - the tyrannical head nurse. She controls the hospital through the means of power, coercion, and fear. She doesn't hesitate to restrict the patients' access to basic needs such as medicine, amenities, television, etc. Whatever serves her goals, that is to transform these men into boneless brainless individuals, she is ready to do. Before McMurphy she didn't encounter any rebellion but with the appearance of this strange, fun-loving, rebellious worker, her power is about to be shaken.

McMurphy changes the atmosphere in the asylum. He prompts the other patients to doubt the status quo, to oppose the head nurse, to ask for amenities, and to see the limitations of the society order. Through little rebellions, mischiefs and jokes, soon he becomes the role model for the others, the one person who opens their eyes to the unfairness and cruelty that prevails under Ms. Ratched's rule. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest follows the inhuman methods used in asylums to supposedly "cure the patients". Electroshock, lobotomy, drugs, etc are used to suppress individuality, to control rebellions, to turn people into rabbits, and to safely release them in society. These mad men are not real men; they are emasculated by the system; their soul is destroyed by society. In this hopeless situation McMurphy organizes and performs his rebellion against the subtle and coercion methods used upon people, against conformity, against cruelty and power.

In that sense McMurphy and the other patients fly over the cuckoo's nest. They go beyond themselves, they enter into trouble, and some of them indeed are beaten by the system. But some are not. Some survive and escape Ms. Ratched, the electroshock, the asylum, the control, the madness. Others are defeated and lobotomized so that they stand as a manifest to all those, who dare fight.

Ken Kesey himself visits a mental institution, spends time with the patients, takes psychoactive drugs, and eventually starts sympathizing to this mad men. His knowledge of mental facilities, the way they operate, and the feelings of the patients and the staff are believable and convincing. I still must mention that it is a strange book, at times very difficult to read. Kesey takes us on a trip through the mind of the narrator, Bromden, who pretends to be deaf-mute. His visions are blurry, unrealistic, fantastical. Through them, though, a clear and witty mind is scarcely visible; however a mind that slowly rots under the shadow of The Combine.

McMurphy is one of the greatest characters in world literature. I cannot wait to see Jack Nicholson in the role of the ironic rebellious young man, who becomes the patron of a whole bunch of mad men.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Lady Chatterley's Lover - A Forbidden Pleasure

Our generation is doomed. We don't know the feeling of reading a forbidden book. A book that society deems unacceptable, a book that publishers do not want to publish, a book that people secretly and in fear of condemnation pass on one to another, a book that you read late at night so that your parents won't catch you. We can't have that book now. Freedom of speech. Freedom of love and sex. Freedom of choice. Freedom. Freedom is good, guys. But what about the feeling that you are reading something that you shouldn't be, something revolutionary and forward looking? Something so scandalous for its time that you cannot dare say it out loud but you constantly think about. And finally something that makes you doubt the rules and regulations of society, making you think that even if many people do it, this doesn't make it right.

Such a rebellion was D.H.Lawrence's novel about forbidden love Lady Chatterley's Lover. It was first published in Florence in 1928 and in UK in 1960. It took so many years for the English audience to accept and openly read it because of its notorious character. For us, the themes of the book are not revolutionary. Contemporary society accepts love in (almost) all of its forms; social class, religion, origin, and even sex differences are no longer determinants of love. Not such was the case in the beginning of the 20th century in England.

In the novel Lawrence argues that individual regeneration can only be found through a honest and passionate love and relationship between a man and a woman. He insists on the cohesion between mind and body; a feeling of impropriety is born only when the mind despises the body and is afraid of it, and when the body detests the mind and opposes it. Such was the situation in English society, where people suppressed their natural body needs for passion and love in return for a sublime spiritual life. Women and men are obsessed with money and success; they have left the purely animal desires behind, deeming them inappropriate and shameful. In such a conservative society the sin of Lady Chatterley and her lover, the gamekeeper is born.

Lady Chatterley is married to a paralyzed baronet, who doesn't care about sexual pleasure and is unable to provide her with it. Mellors, the gamekeeper, is also unsatisfied with his marriage, where his wife refused to give him pleasure. These two souls live in deprivation and unhappiness, in a world where their most basic need of human touch and sexuality is forbidden and refused. Their love is revolutionary on so many levels. They protect the importance of the true sexual act, which unites body and soul. They fight for social equality in love, as she stands way above him in the social hierarchy. They refuse to obey a purely spiritual life without sexual pleasure. They want to experience their love in every possible way; union of their bodies, minds, and souls.

Understandably, Lawrence was deemed controversial and unacceptable. In Lady Chatterley's Lover he depicts the nature of the sexual act with extreme detail using forbidden vocabulary. The passion that streams from the book, the logic with which it shakes the puncheons of English society, and the ardour with which it protects the right of a personal moral choice makes it a classics of 20th century. I almost feel sorry that I wasn't among those women secretly passing it on one to another, reading it through the night, and realizing that something vital for life is missing in their relationship with their husbands.

In that sense, Lawrence was an awakener. He anticipated the sexual revolution, which no longer positioned men and women as purely spiritual human beings but instead as flawed individuals, who understand the power of their body and the means to satisfy its growing needs. Spirituality is only attainable when the body and the ming coexist in perfect unison.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Edgar Allan Poe - A Mystical Grotesque Prose I Didn't Quite Enjoy

I didn't quite get Poe, to be honest. So far I had heard a lot about the American author but mostly I connected his name to the genre of the detective story. Reading a collection of his best prose, I was quite shocked by his style and most importantly by his themes. Horror, fantasy, neurosis, and excesses - this is Poe's imaginary world of fear.

Poe was the first well-known American author, who tried to earn a living by writing alone, resulting in a financially difficult life. To say it plainly, he was very poor and this constant struggle for money certainly affected his mood. He was known to be largely depressed and gloomy and so is his prose. Most of the short stories I read in this collection focused on death, its physical signs, premature burial, decomposition, living dead, dead alive, etc. Yes, the guy was spiritually and philosophically interested with the one concept most living and happy people tend to ignore. Yet, Poe goes deeply into the subject, becoming one of the most prominent authors of the dark Romanticism. These sinister stories, filled with puzzles and questions should not be read late at nate because even if you have very stable nerves, you will be still very tempted to look behind some dark corner.

Poe's prose put the beginning of the detective fiction and later the science-fiction. Out of the prose I read, I must admit I enjoyed the detective stories more. The Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Gold Bug were mysterious, suspenseful, and quite interesting. They kept me reading until the end and I was sincerely impressed by the author's logic and imagination.

The science-fiction ones, or should I say the ones obsessed with all forms of death, I didn't quite like or get for that matter. In Poe's world people are buried prematurely, the living are dead, the dead are living and walking among us, people reincarnate into their children or other people. Death is not certain in that world. Death is something to be doubted, examined, and thought about. Poe's obsession with this dark theme makes his short stories gloomy, depressing, and at times largely non-understandable. Mostly, I was quite confused by the following short story. In Loss of Breath, the main character loses his breath and starts searching for it. In the mean time he is killed and in the tomb he finds a man with two breaths, who in fact has stolen our protagonist's breath in the first place. Hm...either I am too shallow or this is totally incomprehensible.

Poe's pale mystical girls and ghostly creatures, his obsession with mysticism and after-death life, the burlesque and the satire create a world of constant fear and doubt. The American author's prose maybe on some level reflects his difficult and depressing life. Or on other level, it signals for a confused human being, who searches for the primordial questions in the field of death. Whatever the truth, I certainly didn't enjoy Poe's science-fiction. His mysterious short stories were quite fantastic, but the moment he starts talking and analyzing death and its numerous forms, I would say: "No, thank you".

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Matched - Condie's Dystopia Where the Society Decides How You Live, What You Work, Whom You Marry, and When You Die

I finished another dystopia in the style of the famous Zamyatin, Huxley, Orwell, Bradbury, and Burgess. Matched by the still young and inexperienced author Ally Condie learns from the best; yet the novel lacks the power, strength, gloominess, and total desperation of the famous predecessors. Still, a rather good read proving that dystopia is not dead and even more important now in the light of our technology-dominated world.

In Condie's world society controls everything - the way you live, whom you marry, what you eat, where you work, and even how you die. People live a life pre-determined by the Officials. Freedom seems a small price to pay in exchange for a well-regulated, healthy, and successful life. Cassia is a girl, who strongly believes in the Society and its means of guiding life. At the age of 17th she is to be assigned a life-partner based on thorough investigations about her character. She is to be "matched". In her lucky case, to her best friend Xander. His friendly face appears on the screen as the best match for a husband, securing a long happy life and healthy offspring. For a moment, though, another face flashes, the fase of the strange Ky. This sets Cassia to doubt the matching, to mistrust the society, and the oppose the choice that has been forced upon her.

Matched is a novel mostly about freedom of choice. Are we ready to abandon this luxury for a comfortable life? Indeed, through technological investigations society has established a perfect world. People are assigned jobs that match their character. All of them are specialists in their field knowing nothing about other fields though. They follow a carefully prepared personal diet that provides the exact amount of calories needed. They are matched to the most suitable member of the opposite sex and their children have the perfect genes. And exactly at the age of 80 people have to die. Society has decided that this is the perfect age to live the world and in a sort of way help people do so. In this obvious perfection, Cassia falls in love with Ky, who is a deviation. He is not "right" and "perfect" according to the norms of society. He is different. And the different are not to be tolerated or let to live according to their rules. In Matched, we see the imperfections of a perfect world, who limits the individuals. The only thing that sets them free is love.

The previous examples of dystopian novels also used love as a trigger for change. The characters in 1984, Brave New World, and We started doubting the status quo the moment they fell in love with the wrong person. In Matched, love is the central theme. The lack of freedom in love suffocates Cassia and prompts her to fight the Officials, to abandon the security, and to isolate from society in order to find Ky. This is a really wonderful love story in the light of dystopia. Although it doesn't have the literary qualities of the other dystopian novels and in times it is largely predictable, Matched should be read. At least, it leaves you with a good taste in your mouth and with a hope that may be totalitarian regimes could be overcome with the power of love. Something that Orwell, Huxley, and Zamyatin certainly don't believe.