Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Is True, Honest, and Loyal Love Credible Today?

When I mentioned I intend to dedicate many reviews to the Russian literature, I was being very serious. However, I will jump almost two centuries ahead to present you with a contemporary Russian novel - Sergey Minaev's The Chicks.

Sergey Minaev is one of the most promising Russian authors. Every book he writes is a bestseller, every word is a precise criticism of the flaws in the modern world. Before The Chicks he has published two other novels - Dukhless denounces the defects of the satisfied society, whereas Media Sapiens shows the mechanisms used by popular media to manipulate people. Given I enjoyed The Chicks a lot, I will definitely spend some money on these two books as well.

The novel discusses some of the most pressing problems of contemporary Russian society through the portrait of a gossip writer. Andrey Mirkin is indomitable, ruthless, and manipulative and runs his own rap group. He dates two girls at one time - the ambitious businesswoman Lena and the model and PR manager Rita. His life is marked by endless partying - cocktails, clubs, reckless sex, alcohol, and drugs; until Mirkin meets the innocent Katya and falls in love for the first time. However, this encounter changes his life perceptions through a brutal face-to-face with reality. Andrey is confronted with the consequences of his carelessness, only to realize the vanity, falseness, and immorality of his way of life.

Similarly to Paulo Coelho, Minaev condemns society in the beginning of the 21st century. People have abandoned moral and ethical rules and worship only one God - the God of attractiveness. Everything has to be beautiful - botox has replaced wrinkles; how you look is more important than what you think; who you wear says more about you than what you say. Minaev proves people are getting stupider by the minute: they are fascinated by the glamourous life of the Superclass, failing to realize its shallowness, senselessness, and vanity. I love you has become an introduction just like How are you; the word has lost its value just as feelings have devalued. Thus, through the encounter between Mirkin and Katya Minaev questions: Is true, honest, and loyal love possible in this immoral and cynical world?

Do not be shocked by the vulgarity of the language in the novel. In The Chicks Minaev uses the jargon we hear on the street corner, in the cafe, and sometimes in the media to give a true, still sad portrait of the values (or lack of those) of contemporary society. People are aggressive and ruthless; they like ugliness and scandal; they do not care about friendship, compassion, and love, but about money, power, and sex. The worlds of Minaev in The Chicks and Coelho in The Winner Stands Alone are similar - worlds dominated by hedonists and consumers; worlds where everything is available, yet nothing is real and valuable.

I strongly recommend this book as a complementary reading to the Portuguese author's works. I enjoyed it even more than Coelho because it is a more faithful representation of our world. Paulo Coelho keeps up the good tone, whereas Mirkin describes reality the way it is - ruthless, vulgar, cynical, and unfair.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Glory, Power, and Success or Subversive Vanity?

I believe the best and most successful approach to forming my worldview is reading novels from various time periods, authors, and literary directions. Thus, I decided to read my first book by Paulo Coelho, one of the most famous contemporary authors. To be honest, I was a little bit sceptic due to the popular belief that models (not meaning to be offensive here, but you know what I mean) always claim his works to be their favorite. Thus, I expected something trivial, shallow, easy to understand, and without prominent virtues.

I was both right and wrong. His novels are indeed easy to understand as the language is clear and accessible. However, they are not trivial or shallow and they raise several important issues of society in the 21st century.

Paulo Coelho was born in 1947 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in the family of an engineer and a fervent Catholic. His parents do not accept his rebellious spirit and liberal mind and send him three times to a mental institution, where he undergoes different therapies, including electroshock. His career starts with songs, poetry, and articles preaching freedom, free will, and free thinking. The Brazilian dictatorship sees a threat in his face and he is arrested in 1974. The Alchemist, published in 1988, is the best selling book in Portuguese. His novels are translated in 68 languages and sold in 150 countries. He wins the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for Veronica Decides to Die and in 2007 he is chosen by the UN as a messenger of peace.

In The Winner Stands Alone Paulo Coelho condemns the destructive desire for glory, power, success, and recognition in contemporary society. He portrays the world of movie stars, models, famous producers and designers, where on the outside everything seems glamorous, easy, and carefree. On the inside actually these people are scared, insecure, depressed, and lonely.

Three of the four main characters that Coelho describes fall in this subtle trap. Igor, a Russian multimillionaire and an owner of a telecommunications company believes killing innocent people to be his high purpose - to save them from earthy pain and suffering and to win back his ex-wife. Hamid, a famous designer, begins his career in order to glorify his Arabic culture and traditions but finds himself a victim of a system, which uses his talent. Gabriela is convinced that glory is the most important and satisfying prize and strives to be a famous actress.

I liked Coelho's novel because it describes a world of hedonists and consumers, where most people believe power, money, and glory to be the highest virtues. Contemporary society has forgotten to search for inner beauty; it is now obsessed with outer appearance - botox, plastic surgery, and a perfect body are more important than a perfect soul. Ordinary people look up to the world of the Superclass with envy, ready to sacrifice their families, their self-respect, and their pride to become part of it. The Winner Stands Alone is a tough portrait of contemporary society, driven by desire for glory, power, and success. At the end, however, these people become victims of their subversive vanity, of their obsession with luxury and acknowledgement. At the end, all of them are unhappy, lonely, and depressed. At the end, all of them search for a salvation in sex, drugs, and alcohol. The reason being contemporary society has abandoned the virtues that really matter - love, compassion, and friendship.

@ Amazon: The Winner Stands Alone: A Novel (P.S.)

Thursday, 24 June 2010

George Sand's Beauty and the Beast

Remember the children's fairytale about beauty and the beast: a beautiful lady falls in love with a man despite his terrible and scary appearance and his evil character. With her love, compassion, and understanding, she manages to transform him into a loving and caring individual and as a bonus he turns into a beautiful husband.

There is a reason this plot found itself expressed in a children's fairytale. It is far too naive and simplistic, yet it teaches small kids to be good, compassionate, caring, and understanding. However, when it comes to adult novels, I believe such a moral is rather simplistic, shallow, and naive. That is why, I was highly disappointed by George Sand's novel Mauprat.

In Mauprat Sand portrays a young savage man, Bernard, who grew up without proper education or percepts, under the negative influence of his uncles - evil and cynical outlaws. When he meets his cousin Edmond, he falls deeply in love with her but throughout the novel she keeps rejecting him due to his imperfect nature. However, Bernard views her as the most beautiful, most perfect, and most innocent woman and swears to love no other until he dies. So far so good, although I don't really buy this part either. Sand draws a rather idealistic portrait of Edmond - she is caring, loving, smart, and wise. Edmond uses her love to transform Bernard from an intemperate, violent, and rude individual into a man she could actually fall in love and live with. Despite her strange, inconsistent, and at some points really annoying behavior, Bernard patiently bears everything to reach the expected happy end of the novel.

Amantine Aurore Lucile Dupin was born in the beginning of the 19th century in a noble family. In her time she was a model of modern and emancipated woman: she dressed in male clothes to overcome the strict social restrictions on women and get access to places, forbidden even for her social standing - a baroness; she smoked tobacco in public and she wrote under the pseudonym George Sand. Due to the unorthodox aspects of her life, she had to give up some of her privileges as a baroness. Faithful to her beliefs of the importance of love impulse and desires of the heart and soul over the smothery rules of society, she even divorced her husband in 1846. Sand participated in the revolution of 1948, fascinated by the spread of democratic ideas in France (obvious in her novel as well)

Although I admire Sand's lifestyle and choices, I wasn't impressed or touched by her novel. In Mauprat the author mixes love, philosophy, and sense of family idyll to arrive at yet another romantic story about the power of love to transform and humanize even the most evil individuals. She is highly optimistic and believes in human virtues, the power of proper education, and the saving role of the woman The novel is a light and easy reading and I must admit it is quite interesting. However, I still find it too idealistic and trivial for my taste. I don't believe in human transformation only due to strong and compassionate love. Bernard's idea of Edmond's virtues is exaggerated and we get a portrait of an ideal angel, rather than a true human being with its flaws and defects. In addition, throughout the novel Edmond acts inconsistently, only for the reader to understand at the end that she in fact loved Bernard.

Finally, if I could meet George Sand, I would ask her some important questions: "How can a woman love a man so much and still want to change him completely? Does this mean she doesn't love his present self and she just wants to transform him into someone she can live with and respect? Isn't true love accepting someone for his virtues and flaws altogether?"

Definitely something to think about. Still, if you fancy a light, positive novel about the power of female love, you might as well try out George Sand's Mauprat. I have to warn you, though, do not expect a masterpiece.

@ Amazon: Mauprat

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Small Things That Give me Big Pleasure

When I was having one of those terrible days, when everything seems colored in gray tones, my mother gave me a certain book to help me cheer up. It is one of those "self help books" I already mentioned in a previous post. However, Maeve Haran's Froth on the Cappuccino is entirely dedicated to women (I don't ever expect any self-respecting man to read it) and teaches depressed and lonely females to find enjoyment in the small things. 

Personally, I can describe myself more or less as a realist (sometimes even cynical). I am not romantic or optimistic so these kinds of novels simply annoy me. However, although I didn't actually read it (I only skimmed through it), Froth on the Cappuccino inspired me to produce my own list of things that make me smile. I figured, these are the things that make Haran smile. However, I have other aspects of life that make me happy and my personal list will be far more helpful in difficult times. So here it is:
  1. Putting everything in order - From my binders, to my books and my room, I like everything to be in order. It gives me the greatest pleasure when all the small things are in their right place. I feel secure, organized, and in control of my life. In addition, I simply love looking at my perfectly organized school binder, music or photo folder, library, or bed. 
  2. The first coffee in the morning - Coffee is indeed my favorite drink and I have it not to wake up but because I love the taste, the smell, the appearance. However, the first coffee in the morning is an unexplainable pleasure. I am still half asleep and I feel the warm liquid slowly going down my body and waking up every part of it. 
  3. The sun - People who know me very well are aware that I am extremely cold-blooded. That is why, I enjoy the sun and everything about it a lot. I enjoy feeling hot (not just warm, HOT), I love the sun rays on my body, I can't get enough of this feeling of calm and pleasure when outside is sunny and light. 
  4. My sunglasses - My favorite accessorize. I never go out without them, I even wear them when there is no need. I have these "kidney" type sunglasses, which are the only ones that fit my face. The other day I broke my last pair and I went straight ahead to buy new ones. I love the feeling of privacy sunglasses give you. You can observe the world around you safely. In addition, sunglasses are a necessary complement to every self-respecting woman. 
  5. Reading - Reading makes me not only smile. It helps me forget all the problems around me, escape the present, and dive into a world, where everything I wish is possible. I never ever go out without book (even when I go to the gym I have one). I spent every free minute reading (waiting in line, waiting for a meeting, traveling, even walking). Yes, my new passion is to walk and read. It is an amazing feeling, + the time passes by really quickly and you reach your destination in no time. The downside is that I keep bumping into people and several times I almost got hit by a car/bicycle or another moving object. However, I bravely go on.
  6. Sleeping in clean sheets - You know the feeling when you crawl in your brand clean sheets and prepare to fall asleep. They smell like flowers, rain, grass (depending on your fabric softener, or on your mood) and they bring such a great pleasure. I realized I sleep far better when my sheets just came out of the washing machine. 
  7. Taking care of myself - I love Sundays, when I intend to dedicate the whole day to myself. I get a long bath, I color my nails, I put on every face mask I have at home, I scrub my body;  I do all those women staff I rarely have time to do during the week. This is my end of the week ritual, which prepares me for the week to come and it is truly amazing because I feel being taken care of. 
  8. Seeing the sea for the first time - When I was a little child and I travelled to the seaside with my parents I couldn't wait to see the sea for the first time (after a long and cold climate). Usually, I started screaming and pointing. Even though I am grown up now, this pleasure hasn't change. Every year when I go to the seaside for the first time, I look out the train or bus window, waiting to see the blue waves, the sun, and the sand. I then remember my childhood and all the incredible memories. I also think of all the amazing things that expect me on the seaside this year. Because, let's be honest, the seaside trip is the best time of the year. 
  9. Having a gourmet dinner - Being a Taurus, I enjoy a good food. I not only like a well prepared meal but I enjoy it even more when it is nicely positioned and decorated in the plate. It is just a state of art to make a dish that is not only delicious, but looks delicious. I love eating out, whether it is on a special occasion or just catching up with a friend. You get to be served and taken care of. You enjoy a freshly prepared meal of your choice, you chat to your companion and you drink a glass of good wine. And of course, you don't get to clean up and do the dishes afterwards. Pleasure!. 
  10. Coming home - As I study in the UK, half of the year I am away from home. Although now my parents do not welcome me as passionately as during the first year (well I come and go every three months so it is not really anything that new and exciting) I still get that amazing feeling when I give my ID at the airport and wait for my luggage. My mother always waits for me, she has prepared a delicious dinner, she has cleaned my room and I am free to rest at home without having any obligations. 
After all, even the most shallow book can turn out to be quite useful. I already felt better just by writing this list. I know there are even more things that bring me pleasure on particularly low days and I will keep the list updated. I hope I inspired you to produce a list of your own. Trust me, you will feel much better. As trivial as it sounds, these little things indeed help when the big things seem to go all wrong. 

@ Amazon: Froth on the Cappuccino: How Small Pleasures Can Save Your Life

Monday, 21 June 2010

Gogol denounces...

Being a huge admirer of Russian Literature, from mid 19th century classics to contemporary authors, I was quite surprised when I realized I haven't dedicated to it a single post since starting my blog. Beginning with Gogol today, I will correct this mistake and I will try to keep you updated about all the amazing Russian novels I have read.

Nikolay Gogol, one of the most mystic and enigmatic Russian authors, was born in the beginning of the 19th century in the family of small landowners. The eminent poet Alexander Pushkin introduced him to the literature elite in Saint Petersburg. Gogol's work is characterized by satirical mockery of the serfdom, absurd bureaucracy, and corrupted Russian society in the 19th century. An acknowledged genius, the author denounces the stupidity, greed, triteness, and narrowness of the typical clerk or landowner.

Dead Souls was intended as a trilogy, similar to Dante's Divine Comedy. However, several years before his death, Gogol falls into a depression and mystic crisis and destroys the manuscripts, depriving the generations to come of yet another clever and cynical denunciation of human weaknesses and flaws.

In Dead Souls Chichikov arrives in a small town with a rather unusual purpose - he wants to buy dead peasants from the local serfs. Fraud, charlatan, or the pure devil, Chichikov encounters several typical Russian serfs, whose characters Gogol uses to criticize the degradation of the contemporary society. From the naive bootlicker Manilov, through the gambler and alcoholic Nozdriov, the greedy and cunning Sobakevich to the typical scrooge Plushkin ( I finally understood the origin of the popular saying "Pushkin" for a person, who keeps all kinds of useless possessions), Gogol creates an extensive and grim gallery of human flaws and imperfections. Of course, Chichikov's strange business is intended to benefit only himself, as the reader understands by the end of the novel. The character of Chichikov encompasses all that Gogol fights against: a clever, cunning, and corrupted hustler, ready to do anything for money, fame, and position in society.

Gogol's works are certainly not an easy morsel for every reader. The story is not that important; instead the author focuses on human values (or the lack of those), perceptions, actions, and motives. If you do not enjoy extensive descriptions and deviations, you might be bored or uninterested. However, Gogol's works are an essential tool to understanding the reality in 19th century Russian, the corruption and degradation of morality, honesty, and integrity. In that sense the "dead souls" are the serfs and clerks, whose characters the author ridicules and denounces throughout the novel. These men lack any virtues worth of respect; they are submerged in their simple life, where the norms of behavior are dictated by self interest, greed, deceit, and fraud. In addition, the author possess a rich fantasy and inimitable irony, which makes his comic novels worth reading and a vital part of your home library.

Interesting trivia about Nikolay Gogol: rumor has it that when his grave was opened by his heirs, the author was found lying on his belly. Several years before his death Gogol falls into numerous conditions between life and death and some believe he was mistakenly buried alive. Whether or not this is true, he remains one of the strangest and most mystic Russian authors.

@ Amazon: Dead Souls: A Novel

Friday, 18 June 2010

The Man VS the State - Rand in the USSR

We the Living by Ayn Rand is not another book about the communist rule in the USSR. It is not another propaganda or criticism. It is merely a novel about the Man against the State, about the continuous human struggle for individual happiness and satisfaction against the artificially installed responsibility towards society, about dictatorship whether it is in Soviet Russia or in Nazi Germany.

Ayn Rand (Alisa Rosenbaum) is one of the most influential American writers and philosophers. Born in Soviet Russia, she emigrated in 1925 to the USA. We the Living is published in 1936, followed by The Fountainhead and her masterpiece Atlas Shrugged. Rand is famous for her philosophy objectivism, which encompasses the following postulates: 1) reality exists regardless of consciousness; 2) individuals connect with reality through sense perception; 3) the proper moral purpose of one's life is the achievement of one's happiness or rational self-interest; 4) laissez faire capitalism is the only social system, which values individual rights and is consistent with this philosophy; 5) art is the transformation of one's metaphysical ideas into a physical form, which can be comprehended and responded to.

Rand's philosophy is largely influenced by her background: she spent her first 20 years in the USSR. In We the Living she depicts the Soviet reality after the 1917 Revolution, where human individuality is suppressed in favor of the greater social good. People are supposed to be equal (for those of you having never lived in a communist regime that means equally poor and deprived) yet some are more equal than others (if you know what I mean). Kira Argunova, the protagonist, is born in bourgeois family, which is a subject of constant suppression by the ruling communist regime. She is expelled from university, where she studies engineering, she has to pretend to believe in and love communism in order to receive the food coupons, and she is forced to live in poverty. Kira falls in love with a revolutionist, but she loses the war against society - at the end Leo's mind is corrupted; he becomes a faithless hopeless alcoholic. Andrey, her communist friend, is disillusioned by the discrepancy between communist theory and practice in the USSR. At the end Kira decides to flee her home country only to realize she can never escape the regime.

Rand is the main character, Kira Argunova. However, they do not look alike, they have studied different subjects, and their families are different. In that sense, Kira's story is not Rand's story, but her beliefs, ideas, and values are Rand's. That is why Ayn Rand claims We the Living to be her intellectual autobiography.

I enjoyed reading the novel as I enjoy everything Ayn Rand has ever written. She influentially portrays the horrors, deprivations, and sufferings of the Russians under the communist regime. Her story is a faithful representation of that time period as she was a witness, although a very young one. Having lived in a country once under the communist regime, I enjoyed discussing the situation depicted in the novel with what might have been in Bulgaria before I was born. According to my parents, it wasn't that extreme here, but still it was the same social system, which mistakenly assumes the only purpose in one's life is one's responsibility towards society. As Rand points out, the moral purpose of every individual's life is the achievement of his/her own happiness and well being.

The only thing I regret is the sequence in which I read Rand's novels. I started with The Fountainhead, followed by Atlas Shrugged and finished with her first novel We the Living. One can easily tell this is her first work devoted to the philosophy of objectivism, as Rand only starts focusing on individual happiness as the greatest virtue. However, her idea is better developed in The Fountainhead and reaches its apogee in Atlas Shrugged. Thus, I was still under the latter's amazing influence to be really that astonished by We the Living. I was already acquainted with her philosophy, and seeing it still undeveloped and unpolished in We the Living was not enough.

Still, the novel is very much worth reading. After all, Rand's style is highly intellectual, profound, and influential. If you have never read anything by her, I suggest you start by We the Living and finish with Atlas Shrugged. You won't be disappointed and if you are anything like me, her novels will change your perceptions and values. In contemporary society, people must be familiar with her works because they are as valid today (maybe even more) as they were more than half a century ago.

@ Amazon: We the Living

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Frankenstein - The Modern Prometheus

Prometheus secretly stole fire from the Gods and gave it to the people. When discovering this, Zeus punished him eternally by chaining him on a rock, where each day a bird ate his liver, only for the liver to grow back again during the night. Victor Frankenstein, the unfortunate scientist, is a parallel figure of Prometheus. He stole God's secret by artificially creating a human being. He was also reprimanded for his actions. Interestingly, Shelly views both Prometheus and Frankenstein not as heros, but as devils, who acquired God's powers to serve humanity but achieved the opposite effect - degradation, alienation, and loneliness.

Mary Shelley, born in the end of the 18th century, was the wife of the famous English poet Percy Shelley. She wrote Frankenstein, her most famous work, when she was only 19 years old. Many critics have wondered how a girl of her age possessed such a profound understanding and deep imagination. Thus, rumors have spread that the real author of Frankenstein is her husband, Percy Shelley. Whether he only helped her or wrote the whole story himself, Frankenstein remains one of the earliest examples of science fiction and a strong warning against the technological expansion. Although there is a castle in Germany, called Frankenstein, Shelley derived the name from a different source. "Frank" comes from Benjamin Franklin, who discovered the lighting cod, and "enstein" from a European medical doctor Eisenstein.

Victor Frankenstein is a prominent scientist, who discovers a way to create a real human being. However, his experiment goes wrong and the result is a hideous and scary monster. Disgusted by his invention, Frankenstein abandons his "child" in hope that it will just disappear by itself. The creature is never given a name, but often referred to as "demon", "monster", "devil". Left hopeless and alone, it attempts to find comfort, companionship and friendship among the people, who terrified of his appearance, respond with rejection, hate, and insults. As a result the "demon" decides to seek revenge from its creator, who brought it to life and abandoned it.

The novel raises numerous issues: scientists, using their knowledge and capabilities to act as Gods, the increasing levels of human loneliness and alienation, and the problem of judging others only by their outward appearance. As Frankenstein made a mistake with its creation, the world made a mistake with Shelley's novel. The author wanted to depict the creature as a tragic victim, who strived for human affection and understanding, but was denied it because of its appearance. She viewed the scientist, Victor Frankenstein, as the evil creator, who brought to live its invention and then abandoned it when seeing what it looked like.

The world named the creature after its creator and used it as a tool for fear and disgust. Somehow, we have misinterpreted Shelley's moral: she attempts to pose a warning against man acting as God and depicts the invention as the negative side of creation and creator. A warning as applicable today as it was back then in the light of the Industrial Revolution.

Check it out @ Amazon: Frankenstein.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Nancy Mitford - it was about time for some constructive criticism

A long time has passed since I had the unfortunate displeasure of running into a book that I simply cannot finish. The last one, which gave me such trouble, was Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. Frankly, I just don't get why Bulgarians picked it up as one of their 12 most favorite books. I may be shallow, but this magical made-up world of his was too much to bear. So after 200 pages (which seemed like ages) One Hundred Years of Solitude joined the sad (thank God really small) part of my library, dedicated to novels I simply hated.

I waited for my exams to be over to dive blissfully into Ayn Rand's third novel We the Living. A friend of mine, however, gave me Nancy Mitford's short novels and I decided to check them out before Rand. Wrong, completely wrong. 

Nancy Mitford was born in the UK in 1904 in the family of a wealthy baron. She didn't receive any proper education, not counting being taught to ride and speak French. Having read her novel I am hardly surprised. She indeed doesn't know what she is talking about. 

In The Pursuit of Love Mitford attempts to portray the life in the English high class between the two World Wars. Trust me, it took me 100 pages to understand the time period as she didn't mention it at all. Mitford doesn't consider the two most disastrous events of the 20th century THAT important to the story as her characters just floated in no time and space trying to figure out what to do with their life. The author depicts a wealthy family, where the children are not educated, as education is considered superfluous (going back to her background we understand why). Big surprise: they only ride and from time to time speak French. Indeed, Mitford overwhelms us with riding, hunting, and French as obviously those are the only things she really knows anything about. The main character is a spoiled rich uneducated girl in the pursuit of love. During this disastrous pursuit she changes husband after husband, becomes the mistress of a wealthy French man and at the end dies. Just like that. I read 150 pages without anything important, interesting, or provoking really going on. Mitford's obsession with wealthy high class lords and barons simply results in naive, simple, and uneducated characters, from whom a passionate reader cannot learn anything. And frankly, I don't see the point of JUST reading to pass by time, especially novels that are just words, black on white, with no meaning, no theme, and no moral whatsoever. 

Obviously, I didn't learn my lesson and decided to give her second novel, Love in a Cold Climate (considered her bestseller) a chance to interest me. However, as I encountered many of the same characters in the first 15 pages, I gave it up. Really, I have better things to do than torture myself with Mitford's attempts to write. 

Her biography says she took up writing "to relieve the boredom of the intervals between the recreations established by the social conventions of her world". Well, she may have relieved her boredom, but she certainly increased mine. 

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

The Power of the Self Help Book

Inevitably we fall. And when we do, we explore different ways of dealing with it. Some of us require help from friends, family, and lovers; others rely on themselves and solve the issue in isolation; and yet a third part just ignores the problem and waits for it to pass by.

Sadly, contemporary society views professional help as a sign of weakness, a potential source of embarrassment and pity. People who do ask for specialist help usually keep it a secret, fearful of social resentment and disapproval. And people who do not ask for it condemn those who do as incapable of dealing with life. This is just wrong logic. We were born alone and we die alone but we are not expected to live our life alone. And when we do encounter a difficulty, asking for professional help is the highest level of self help (YES SELF HELP) because we are mature enough to realize that by acknowledging the need of a specialist opinion, we take the biggest step in helping ourselves. 

When faced with relationship issues I usually attempt to solve them by myself or share and ask advice from friends. Last week, however, my flatmate offered me an opportunity I hadn't consider before - a self help book. As much as I believe in professional help, self-help books have always seemed to me rather ineffective and shallow. I didn't believe that a general approach to problems can be helpful when all cases are specific and unique. However, as I was totally hopeless and clueless, I decided to give it a try. After all, I could only lose several days. And potentially I could gain something. 

Indeed I did! John Gray is a bestselling author, lecturer, and relationships counsellor. His book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus teaches people how to deal with their significant other, when everything seems hopeless. The main point Gray draws is obvious from the title - men and women are from different planets. The author argues that relationship struggles are caused mainly by lack of understanding of our differences. One of the examples relates to men and women's diverse emotional needs. While Martians (that's how he refers to males in the book) seek trust, acceptance, and appreciation, Venusians (women, I mean) need caring, understanding, and devotion. The conflict arises because both parties tend to give what they want in a relationship and not what the other person needs. The result are huge misunderstandings, fights, and alienation. Gray points out, that by remembering men and women actually speak different languages, we can sort out any issue threatening to ruin our relationship. 

You might be still skeptical. Trust me, I was too. While reading I had several thoughts popping up all the time: 1. Where is the line between accepting and working on our difference and losing our true self in the  process?; 2. Wouldn't it seem insincere and offensive to our partner if we changed our behavior over a night?; How do we draw a line between understanding our partner and still keeping self respect? 4. What if we simply cannot work it out? 5. What happens if our partner doesn't notice or validate our efforts? 

Luckily, Gray gives answers to all of those questions. More importantly, he gives convincing and logical answers. No, we do not have to give up or female (male) self; We simply need to learn to be more acceptable of our different expectations and reactions. No, it is not insincere and offensive; on the contrary, it shows devotion and desire to work in the name of love. The line will appear when both parties learn to respect each other, to value each other's opinions, and to understand each other's differences. If we are consistent and hard working and if we really love each other, we WILL work it out. Yes, our partner will notice and validate our efforts but it doesn't happen over a night; it needs time, practice, and devotion. 

I was impressed by the book and its approaches. The most amazing thing about it was that it said things I already knew but never really thought about. When put black on white in a logical order I started realizing the mistakes I made in my relationship, as well as the mistakes my boyfriend made. I figured out the source of most of our quarrels and I learnt ways to decrease them. 

I am willing to apply consistently Gray's advice. I am not sure whether the results will be positive, but as a theoretical approach the book is a catch. Gray indeed gives a lot of examples of people having transformed their relationships quickly thanks to his approach. However, I am the "live it, learn it" type of person. I need to see it by myself to truly believe it. So now I am in the middle. I liked the theoretical part. I will keep you updated whether I succeeded on practice. 

Sunday, 6 June 2010

A book, some sushi, and a glass of wine

Ever since I read an interview with one of the editors of Capital Light (a Bulgarian newspaper), I've been dreaming of having my own literary club. As nerdy and boring as it might sound to some of you, I find the idea quite interesting and provocative. Having the possibility not only to enjoy a book but to share this experience with similar passionate readers has provoked me to search for possibilities to fulfill my dream.

You might now wonder what this "literary club" will do. No, we won't be keeping one of those terrible book journals they made us have in preliminary school. Instead, I imagine 5 or 6 very devoted readers gathering each month (or more frequently, depending on availability) to discuss a given book. The members will alternate to pick a novel and then the rest will have a certain amount of time to read it. When everyone is ready, we would simply gather in a fancy restaurant (I am a typical Taurus and I consider a good food and a good drink one of the greatest pleasures in life) to discuss, share, argue, and elaborate.

There are several reasons why I am so inclined to have a reading club. First of all, I would love to have some people sharing my passion. As lovely as this blog is, sometimes I feel this one way communication is not really effective. As I am highly fascinated by marketing concepts right now, I want to apply a certain marketing theory I learned the other day. The key to creating long-term sustainable and growing relationships is engaging in a two-way communication. Dialogue and feedback help manufactures understand the needs and desires of customers and thus improve the product or service they are offering.

In a similar way, I believe that having a reading club will improve my reading ability. I indeed post comments with great pleasure but I seldomly get any responses. And even if I do, the likelihood of a meaningful discussion is limited. Thus, my scope and understanding of the book remain the same as when I finished it. With a reading club, however, I will have the chance to elaborate and discuss the issues in the novel with fellow readers, to hear their points of view, and even to pay attention to a fact or idea I had neglected while reading. After all, we are all diverse people with different and unique perceptions and each one of us contributes to the awareness of others.

Most importantly, I believe that having a reading club will change the way I read. I don't mean I am an inattentive or negligent reader. Sometimes, however, I am so drawn into a given story that I can't wait to finish it. Thus I read rather quickly and sometimes I miss crucial points. Having a reading club will provoke me to be more attentive to details as I will have to discuss them later and eventually prove my point.

Let's not forget the part where everybody eats and drinks. I don't want my reading club to be another academic gathering. Instead I want to make it a nice warm place, where people with similar passions gather to share and enjoy themselves. Hence the good food and the drink. After all, a nice glass of wine and a piece of sushi stimulate a good and fruitful discussion and contribute to an enjoyable and pleasant time.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Freakonomics - The Hidden Side of Everything

When I share that I am studying International Business, Finance, and Economics, I usually get three responses from people having no experience in this area:
1. "Isn't business, finance, economics, accounting, and management all the same?"
2. "This sounds really boring and dry. "
3. "Well, good for you but I always found this subject to be really distant from me."

I gave up long time ago trying to explain the differences between finance, economics, accounting, and business (yes, they are as different as physics, chemistry, and biology). I also gave up convincing others that my studies do not encompass only numbers, calculations, and graphs. After all I find my course quite interesting and stimulating and I am sticking to my point. 

Personally, I have my preferences and I have always found finance to be much more exciting and challenging than economics and accounting. The former for me was just dry theories about consumer behavior, demand and supply, inflation and exchange rates, GNP and GDP. The latter - well I hate accounting as soon as I think of the endless balance sheets, income statements, and cash flows I had to calculate. 

Reading Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner I realized I judged economics far too quickly. It has the potential to be a really exciting, amusing, and unpredictable subject. It just depends on your attitude, your approach, and the questions you ask yourself. I strongly recommend the book to all those, who have no idea what economics is about and quickly judge it  "by the cover" and to all those who actually study it but hate its strict theoretical models, implications, and rules. 

Freakonomics is the product of a rather strange cooperation: Levitt is a young, eminent, and unordinary economist and Dubner is a journalist. Levitt graduated from Harvard University with a BA in Economics and received his Phd in MIT. Currently, he is a professor in the University of Chicago. 

The two of them came together to prove 4 basic points about economics: incentives are the main causes in modern economics, conventionality is often wrong, events sometimes have distant and strange causes, and experts use their knowledge in their advantage. Instead of looking at endless statistical data, equations, or tables, Levitt attempts to defend these four postulates by asking weird questions: Why do all drug dealers live with their mothers?; What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common?; What makes a perfect parent? You might consider these topics as far from economics as the sun is from the earth but do not be quick to judge before you read at least one chapter. Levitt is not just another mediocre economist, who decided to make some money by shocking people. He won the John Bates Clark medal, awarded to the most promising US economists under 40 (the equivalent of a Noble Price under 40, I would say) and was chosen by Time's Magazine as one of the "100 People, who shape our world". If this is not an inspiration to check Freakonomics out, than I do not know what is. 

Of course, this novel has many critics, who claim it is NOT really about economics as it parts from the conventional and strict economic theory. What I like about Levitt can be summarized in two points: 1) He found a way to show that economics is not a boring academic subject; in fact it is quite exciting and offers may new exploratory possibilities; and 2) He admitted he was terrible in statistics in university. Obviously, this did not affect his development as many consider him one of the most prominent and innovative economists of our generation. 

The Steven-Stephen tandem has published a sequel, Superfreakonomics, due to the unbelievable success of the first one. I can't wait to read what more startling questions and proves Levitt has prepared for us. What I will always remember from the first novel is how he defended and convinced that crime rates are not connected only to police control, laws, and income, but are highly linked to legalized abortion! Are you already running to the bookstore to find out why?

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Before the fashion, the Cosmopolitans, and Mr. Big

Reading my blog you might have already figured out I mostly enjoy serious and philosophical books, books that shake you to the core, change your perspective and make you questions everything you have ever believed or society has made you believe. From time to time, however, I enjoy something light and easy, which doesn't require a lot of thinking or analyzing. Sometimes I prefer books, which are great just for the sake of reading and which leave you with a satisfaction, a positive attitude, and a smile.

Candace Bushnell's The Carrie Diaries is one of those books. I know, I know, I started it just 4 days ago and even though I have exams, I managed to finish it very quickly. The reason is quite simple - the novel just reads itself. Bushnell's style is simple, yet amusing and light and once you start, you can't really feel the pages turning and turning. You just get completely sunk into the story of Carrie and her high school drama.

If you hate stories about high school boyfriends, friendships, betrayals, peer pressure, and cliques, you better stop right now. However, if you have enjoyed Sex and the City and if you are curious to learn more about Carrie before her fabulous New York lifestyle, you better check out this book. I have to warn you, there will be no fashion, no Cosmopolitans, and no rude and brutal sex talk the way we know it from the TV series. After all, Carrie is still 17 and we follow her ambition to become a recognized writer and to leave the little country town she lives in.

One might quickly judge the novel as superficial, simple, and naive. However, one of my mottos is that you can find a moral in every story and Bushnell gives us this moral straight forward: follow your dreams and never give up. Sounds trivial and simple but remember how many times you forgot that simple formula while being sunk into everyday problems, lies, and betrayals. Carrie, on the other hand, manages to overcome the typical high school drama, the boyfriends, the cheating, the jealousy and the peer pressure for sex. She consistently follows her dream to become a writer and finally ends up in New York with no money, no plan but with one very important thing - Samantha Jones's phone number.

I enjoyed the book as it was a great distraction from the boring and difficult exam reading. I can't wait to see the movie as well. After all, a girl always needs a little something to make her feel better... In my case   The Carrie Diaries were the fresh air I needed after hours of library time. I hope you will feel the same way.

Beware!!! George Orwell's 1984 comes to life

No, this is not some nasty joke. No, I didn't lose my sanity due to overstudying. And no, definitely, this is not another American movie. This is the story of the most secret country on Earth, the Democratic (stressing on the term "democratic") People's Republic of Korea.

Having finished Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, in my previous post I argued that we are closer to a softer, genetically engineered form of totalitarianism and that Orwell's hard and brutal controlled state is a unattainable fantastic vision. A BBC video I watched today shocked me and made me think that maybe Orwell was a relative to Nostradamus in some distant way.

The BBC reporter's visit to North Korea portrayed terrible revelations. The planned economy claims to produce enough to feed the population, yet 1/3 of the people do not receive a proper diet, the army has privilege over any food, power shortages are a common everyday, and many citizens live in primitivity and misery. People believe their Great Leader, the founder of the state, is immortal God and rules even from the after life. His son, the Dear Leader, is in charge of running things in this life.

I believe that the Dear Leader indeed has Orwell's 1984 on a special place in his library because he has thoroughly applied all the methods of planned economy and brutal totalitarian control in North Korea. Powerful propaganda has taught people to be submissive and content with their life. In the military museum one recognizes Orwell's model of rewriting history. Common people believe that the Dear Leader has provided modern houses and farm mechanization, yet citizens live in primitive and poor conditions and the only tractor one sees is given from the EU. The government has ingeniously realized the need of a hateful enemy to keep people scary and under control. In this case, the "bad guys" are of course the USA. Similarly to Orwell's model, any access to the outside world is strictly forbidden. The population has its own form of intranet, with information the leader believe they should possess. None of them have heard of the World Wide Web or Google. The only leaders citizens admire (after the semi-God, immortal, or whatever Great Leader and his son the Dear Leader) are Stalin and Mao. And the most "real reality" they are exposed to is the US movie The Sound of Music. Great source of reality, indeed...

Judging North Korean people's naivety and ignorance is out of the question. How are they supposed to know if no one told them? How are they supposed to know there is a life outside this planned and controlled state, when they are not allowed to leave the country? As scary as Orwell's novel appeared to me when I read it, I never believed it could actually be realized in our contemporary world. North Korea seems to be part of the 21st century, but it poses a threat to the safety and values of the rest of the countries.

Even children, the most innocent human beings, are under the powerful propaganda as they are made to sing songs about how happy they are with their current life and how they do not envy the West for anything. But how could they envy something they haven't seen or experienced?

The battle between Orwell's hard brutality and Huxley's soft promiscuity continues. I don't know who the winner will be yet but I am terrified if those are our only options for the future - horror, subordination, and control, or sex, drugs, and blissful unawareness. As Huxley said "You pays your money and you takes your choice".