Saturday, 25 December 2010

Laurent Gounelle and Dieu Voyage Toujours Incognito

In the spirit of Christmas, one of the most sacred Christian holidays, I wil talk about God today. Most specifically, about God, who always travels incognito. I am not a passionate Christian; in fact I rarely go to a church. I do not believe in God in the religious sense; yet I believe in the power of the human mind. I believe that God dwells in us as us (as Elizabeth Gilbert said in her Eat Pray Love). All we have to do is find that inner strength of ours and apply it. Sometimes, though, people need a bit of help. And that is when God appears in the most unexpected ways.And as Laurent Gounelle points out, Dieu Voyage Toujours Incognito.

Laurent Gounelle managed to become one of my most favorite authors with exactly two books. Both focused on the spiritual search of happiness and stability; both featuring the difficult, yet incredible paths one must travel to reach one's dreams. In Dieu Voyage Toujours Incognito (God Travels Always Incognito) Alen Greenmore is a 24-years-old desperate man on the verge of a suicide. Grown up without a stable father figure, trapped in a job he doesn't like, and left by his beloved girlfriend, Greenmore doesn't see any reason to continue living. He decides to commit suicide in the most "fashionable" Parisian way - jumping off the Eiffel Tower. That is when he meets God (or in his case an old man), who offers him a deal. The stranger promises to save Alen's life in exchange of the man's strict subordination. Alen starts the journey of his life, trying to overcome his fears and to transform himself into a confident and stable individual. The tasks given by the stranger seem easy; however they affect the weakest aspects of Alen's character, prompting him to take risks, to realize his own potential, and to bravely follow his dreams. Who is this old man and what is his motive behind helping Greenmore? Gounelle gives the actual answer at the end of the book and the spiritual one in its title.

Gounelle, a writer and a psychologist, continues the amazing trend set by L'Homme Qui Voulait Etre Heureux. While his first literary piece was short and more philosophical, the second one resembles more a novel. Still, the author adresses the metaphysical questions of stability, inner piece, and happiness. In a unique and enthralling way Gounelle presents us with a story of a human quest towards self-understanding. Lately, I am more and more into philosophical books and I am exploring different cultures and nations. So far Gounelle's style is the closest to my character. I just love the simple and understandable way in which the author tracks the changes in his characters. Greenmore transforms from a weak and insecure man into a mature and strong individual. His meeting with "God" helps him discover his potential. It makes him more confident in approaching other people, in defending his opinions, and in following his dreams. After all, that is what all of us attempt to do.

Going back to the subject of God and Christianity, I must admit I believe in God. I believe in that person (whether it is someone else, or I myself) who will be there for me to help me and take me down the right path. So far, there are no suitable candidates so the strength is left to myself. It is good though that I have the help of my books on the way. In fact, I liked Gounelle's novel so much that I decided to follow the strange man's advice. As if I am Alen Greenmore on the top of the Eiffel Tower and I meet my God, who takes me on a journey. The only thing missing is love.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Robert Langdon Searches for the Lost Symbol

I was a bit skeptical when I started reading Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol. Having read The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons (and subsequently having seen both movies) I didn't think there was anything that Mr. Brown could write that is worth reading. After all, both of the above novels are essentially the same - they feature the recurring themes of symbols, keys, cryptography, hidden secrets, secret societies, etc. I admit that Dan Brown has a great imagination and an enthralling style of writing but still, I do not wish to read the same thing over and over again.

However, I was pleasantly surprised by The Lost Symbol. Of course, you can immediately tell who the writer is. Robert Langdon, the clever Harvard professor of symbology is again trapped in a chase-and-run situation, in which he has to solve the mystery of the lost Mason symbol and unlock the ancient secrets. Whoever possesses these ancient secrets, possesses the greatest knowledge in the world. The stake is the life of the greatest Mason and Langdon's friend and mentor Peter Solomon. There is the absolutely crazy antagonist, who is obsessed with weird Christian rituals and is determined to stop the world from acquiring this knowledge and to pray himself a sacrifice. At the end in a typical American manner good conquers common sense, the ancient secrets are revealed (you will be surprised here) and the "bad guy" is punished.

Still, The Lost Symbol is an enthralling reading, which you cannot leave until you have read it cover to cover. Brown has this manner of posing questions and giving answers several chapters ahead. Where he poses another question, which absolutely leaves you no choice but to keep reading. And of course, you keep asking yourself "What could these ancient secrets possibly be that they give their owner access to the ultimate knowledge?" Having in mind that Brown's literature may be exaggerated but it is never fantastical, this question becomes even more itching throughout the novel. I simply couldn't go to sleep without finding out. At the end, as with all complex ideas, the answer is pretty simple. I will not spoil the fun for those of you who haven't read it but I am more than sure nobody thought of that interpretation.

As a whole, The Lost Symbol is hardly a masterpiece. But, the author doesn't even attempt it to be so. It is just a thriller novel, which demonstrates Brown's extensive knowledge about secret societies, Christianity, and history. It is worth taking time to read it. Bear in mind, even though the author claims at the beginning that all societies and symbols are real, after all this is fiction. Even if you wished there were hidden treasures and symbols all over Washington (and Paris for that matter) I sincerely doubt it.

PS: The greatest disadvantage of having seen the Hollywood adaptions is that I kept picturing Tom Hanks while reading about Robert Langdon. Spoils the experience a little bit.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway is a big name in American (and in world) literature. He is one of those authors of whom you have most definitely heard a million of times and you think you must have read something by him. I thought so too but it turned out I hadn't. While searching through my library and looking for a book I haven't read I saw three heavy volumes by Ernest Hemingway. That is when it hit me - I hadn't read anything by him and I didn't have even the slightest idea about his writing style. Having to correct this error, I started with For Whom the Bell Tolls

The novel tells the story of Robert Jordan, an American attached to a republican guerrilla in the Spanish Civil War. He is assigned to blow up a bridge during the attack of the city of Segovia and thus stop the offense of the enemy's troops. In this case, the enemies are the Fascist (having in mind of course that the year is 1939, a little bit before the beginning of World War II). For Whom the Bell Tolls comprises exactly 4 days and 3 nights, throughout which Jordan together with several Spanish partizans prepares the blowing of the bridge.

Hemingway wrote the novel in Cuba in 1940 inspired (or should we say disillusioned) by the outcome of the Spanish Civil War. In 1939 Madrid falls under Fascist rule and Hemingway exclaims: "There is nothing left for me to do but write". And indeed he does. The events in the novel are inspired by the author's own experiences in the Spanish Civil War.

In For Whom the Bell Tolls the author discusses the theme of death, and especially the theme of sacrifice for the greater good. The protagonist, Robert Jordan, and the other partisans are faced with a difficult task, which will most probably lead to their death. The story is told from a third person point-of-view but throughout it we get acquainted with Jordan's feelings and thoughts about war and sacrifice. The protagonist is faced with an awful choice - he has just met the love of his life Maria in the partisan's group but he knows he is meant to finish up his mission. Jordan realizes he has experience the peak of his life by spending several days with Maria. An interesting trivia fact is that the relationship between the two is claimed to be one of the greatest love stories written in the 20th century. When you get acquainted with the novel, though, you will find that the way Robert and Maria talk is strange - their conversations are characterized by an extensive use of archaisms and medieval way of talking. You will hardly expect people in the 20th century to talk that way. Yet, Hemingway amazingly portrays this love story in the middle of war, violence, and death. Suicide, the alternative of being captured and tortured is considered weakness by Jordan, mainly because his father committed suicide. Jordan considers him a coward but at the end of the novel injured in the face of the enemy Robert makes one last desperate attempt to contribute to the cause and then kill himself. The author does an amazing job in depicting brave and strong men, who faced with death act with dignity and sense of purpose for a greater cause.

Hemingway faces both appraises and criticisms for his novel. Some accuse him of being a communist, while others claim it to be among his greatest works. Understandably, he is nominated for a Pulitzer price in 1940 but the award is never given. The title is rather interesting and deserves mentioning. For Whom the Bell Tolls is a citation by John Donne. What's more, initially Hemingway wrote two more chapters to describe what happens to the guerilla and the generals that attacked Segovia. Later, the author chose to delete them and instead finish off with the destiny of Robert Jordan, the main protagonist.

I quite enjoyed For Whom the Bell Tolls. Even though it is a war story (and I am not particularly fond of war stories) Hemingway's style is easy and enchanting to read. And he is definitely a must-read author, whom I will continue to explore.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Laurent Gounelle Teaches Us How to be Happy

My quest for self-understanding and happiness continues and it takes me again to Bali. Laurent Gounelle's The Man Who Wanted to be Happy is the first book I bought from the Sofia Book Market. It is only 130 pages, which I read for exactly 4 hours. I couldn't let go of the book, I was a human possessed. Gounelle's style is simple and easy to follow. The book is a light reading on a very difficult issue - the issue of individual happiness.

Laurent Gounelle is a famous French writer and psychiatrist. He has travelled the world, meeting with different people to discuss the problem of human behavior and balance. It is safe to say that his novel is as close to an autobiography as it can possibly be. L'Homme Qui Voulait Etre Heureux (I just love the French title) combines a novelist story with popular psychology to arrive at a story that is familiar to each and every one of us. After all, the quest for happiness is why we live on Earth. Many people though mistakenly believe they are happy because they possess material goods that society claims to be vital. Gounelle shows us that true happiness can be achieved only when an individual acts according to his or her moral principles. In that way and in that way only happiness and balance will become an integral part of our life.

The protagonist is spending a few weeks in Bali, when he decides to meet with a popular local healer. Even though his health is in good shape, Julian is not happy. He has been trapped in the reality of his perceptions and beliefs, which interrupts his ability to be content. The healer invites him on journey of self understanding, which shows to the American tourist that the world he has come to percept is not real. What's more, the way he percepts himself affects his relationships and his successes.

Gounelle uses simple examples to illustrate the main flaws of contemporary society. People tend to believe something about themselves, which is often destructive and unreal. Whether they believe they are beautiful or ugly, boring or interesting, thin or fat, these beliefs tend to shape their reality. People start perceiving the world according to this modified reality of theirs. This tendency to believe fallacies about ourselves may be caused by a troubled childhood, by problems with friends and relatives, or by several failures.Through several straightforward examples and stories the healer changes Julian's view of the world. He shows him that reality depends on your attitude towards it. If people are positive and happy, they tend to see the beauty of the world around them. If they are scared and suspicious, this will affect negatively their relationship with others and with the world.

I really loved Gounelle's novel because of the simple way the author describes all these ideas. I came to the understanding that I know all of these staff but in reality I fail to apply them. I lack to a large extent confidence in myself, which badly affects the way I behave towards other people. I am mostly negative and thus I tend to notice only the problems in my life. That is why I fail to see how many things I need to be grateful for and I mistakenly claim life to be terrible and unfair. This simply theory of how to be happy is not so simple to apply. What I (and people in general) need to do is change my attitude. I remember last summer, when I was positive and inspired. I liked communicating with people and I wanted improve my skills and to meet new people when I was an intern. Thus, my whole summer was a paradise, where I achieved what I wanted and I liked my life. Similarly, the following year I had some issues and I started perceiving everything in gray colors. I was disappointed by my failures and I believed I will always fail. Thus, I saw only my issues and I hated my life.

Simple, isn't it? In The Man Who Wanted to be Happy Gounelle shares this amazing story to show the individual that he/she is the only barrier to his/her own happiness. Gounelle claims that the only way to find balance with yourself is to follow your dreams and to act according to your morals. Whenever you feel down, remember, that your thoughts and your beliefs shape your life and not the other way around.

In The Man Who Wanted to be Happy the setting of this quest for self understanding is again Bali. Just like in Eat Pray Love. I am seriously thinking that the first place I will visit when I have the resources will be indeed Bali. I just long to touch this spirituality myself and to feel what many writers have felt themselves. Maybe even I can then write a novel about my journey. Hopefully towards understanding who I am and what I want so that I can finally be happy.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Committed - The Disappointing Sequel of Eat Pray Love

Why is it that the moment a nobody author accidentally writes a besteller, he or she immediately decides to continue in the same direction with the given bestseller's sequel? Is it some king of diluted self-confidence? Is it all about money and fame? Or is it something else?

I do not know the answer but I do know one thing - the sequels for such bestsellers are more or less absolute distaster. Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert is a very good example of that. After the amazing Eat Pray Love, which became every woman's guide towards pleasure and devotion, which make females around the world believe in themselves and in their right for happiness, Gilbert ruined all that great work with her sequel. Committed is by far (and I am not exaggerating here) the worst piece of non-fiction (and fiction for that matter) that I have read for a long time. I adored Eat Pray Love and I was amazed by Gilbert's style, sense of humour, and originality. That is why I didn't hesitate to order the sequel. Worst money spent ever. I want them back.

In Committed the reader meets Liz and her lover Felipe two years after they became a couple. Felipe is refused entry in the USA and the only way to get pass the Homeland Security regulations is for them to get married. Skeptical about marriage (as we learn in the first book), Gilbert decides to investigate the topic and "find peace with it". I hope she did, but I couldn't find any peace with her writing. I was just irritated and disappointed.

Committed is basically a trivia about marriage. Elizabeth Gilbert pours out an enormous amount of information about marriage, its history, its customs, and its traditions. Finally (how useful) she gets to the conclusion that after all marriage is not that bad. She twists information and data to make it work for her case, she scores points for and against marriage, but at the end she is forced to get married by law, whether she likes it or not. It seems to me as the popular fable about the fox and the grapes. The fox can't get the grapes so it is not delicious any more. In the same way, Gilbert is forced to get married and she is determined to convince herself (and the readers) that despite her criticisms against marriage in the first book (and her solemn vow that she will not ever marry) after all marriage is actually great. At the end, she even arrives at the conclusion that marriage is a form of protest agains authorities that attempt to control the masses. I do not even want to start on how she arrived at that conclusion but it is obvious she is trying to justify her actions.

Why don't give us to it straight - if she wants Felipe to live in the US, she has to marry him. She is forced to do so, so she does it. Enough of this bullshit that at the end the reason is that she wants to. No, she doesn't want and if it weren't for the Homeland Security she never would marry. And I wouldn't have pushed myself to read Committed.

The only thing Committed did was ruin the pleasure I had from reading Eat Pray Love. For the sake of it, I refuse to accept that whoever wrote a brilliant insightful and clever book such as Eat Pray Love can end up with such a weak nonfiction literature piece. For me, the only thing that Elizabeth Gilbert ever wrote remains Eat Pray Love.

My Experience on the Sofia Book Market

The annual Sofia Book Market is a fact. From 7th to 12th of December the National Culture Palace becomes the center of a reading fever. All publishers and bookstores are there, presenting their most famous bestsellers and trying desperately to make the ever so poor Bulgarian reader spare some money on a new book (s). Of course, there is 20% off on every novel you purchase, which is a very good reason to at least think about improving your library.

I do not need to mention that I was there the first day the market opened. I spent 2 blissful hours going around it, checking out new and old books, making a list of all the novels I wanted to buy, smelling new books, asking questions. Basically, I has having the time of my life. I was pleasantly surprised by the initiative of the French Institute. The latter created a reading cafe in the middle of the market, where one can sit, go through some of the contemporary (and no so contemporary) French pieces of literature and just read. Basically, you can sit there the whole day, surrounded by the smell of books and read with no fee at all. You don't have to buy a book or pay anything; you are entitled to read as much as you want. I took advantage of this opportunity and that is how I stumbled on a book, which I bought afterwards.

Laurent Gounelle's L'Homme Qui Voulait Etre Heureux (The Man Who Wanted to be Happy) attracted me firstly with its title and then with the description on the back. Gounelle is a French psychologist and writer, who explores the problems of human happiness and mental equilibrium. As my mom says lately I am more and more into psychological books, novels that explore the nature of human content and stability, novels that help you discover who you really are and what you want out of life. By exploring so many different aspects, I get closer to understanding myself and my dreams. I also realize I am not the person I thought I was. I realize the dreams I thought would make me happy upon achievement do not bring anything but mere resentment and disappointment because I am still not happy. That is why I am determined (and actually fascinated by the possibility) to read as many self help, self understand, or whatever those books might be called. Some are very good (Eat Pray Love) some do not work for me (Froth on the Capuchino) and others just transform my world view completely (Ayn Rand's literature, although she is not really a self-help type of writer). I can't wait to see what Gounelle has to say about the subject since once more I will have the chance to touch the Buddhist culture and way of thinking through exploring L'Homme Qui Voulait Etre Heureux.

Of course I didn't want to limit myself to only buying one book but unfortunately due to budget restraints I had to. I nevertheless made a list of all the books I wanted to buy eventually (so that I do not forget) and I attempted to convince my mother that I absolutely desperately need all of them. She was not that sure at all, given that my room starts to look more like a library than like a living space ( I literally have no space to accomodate my books already) + she doesn't really believe in buying books. She is the type "I will borrow from the public library" type. I am different, so I am determined to own these novels one way or another. So here is my wish list for next couple of months:

1. Anne Heller - Ayn Rand and the World She Made
2. James Clavell - Shogun
3. Ray Bradbury - All
4. George Orwell - Animal Farm
5. Arthur Clarke - A Space Odyssey

If you still haven't visited Sofia Book Market, I urge you to do so. We must support this amazing initiative and prove that Bulgarians still read and are still ready to spare some cash for a good book.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Life of PI by Yann Martel

"I have a story that will make you believe in God, " says a strange Indian man to a Canadian novelist. That is how the latter encounters the unbelievable story of Piscine Patel (or Pi), which he shares from first person point of view in this amazing novel. Life of Pi combines strong believe in God (in all of its forms) with extensive knowledge about animals and zoology. Sounds like the two areas have nothing in common but Martel combines them to create a revolutionary and original novel, one that keeps surprising the reader up until the very end.

Piscine Patel is a young Indian boy, whose parents own a zoo in Pondicherry, India. In the late 1970s, when the political situation is unbearable, the whole family decides to flee its home country on a cargo ship through the Pacific Ocean and into Canada. The cargo ship is like Noah's ark - Pi's father is bringing along all of the animals to sell them in the US and in Canada. After the tragic sinking of the ship, the only survivors are Pi, a hyena, an orangutan, a zebra, and a Royal Bengal tiger. All trapped on a small solitary lifeboat. That is how Pi's adventure towards salvation begins.

I was given the book by my roommate. To be honest, when I read the title I had no idea what the book will be about. After all, Life of Pi can be the life of ANY person, animal, or creature. When I read the back cover I was disappointed. It sounded like an adventure story about children, where good overcomes common sense. To be honest, the first couple of pages didn't change my mind. However, the following ones did. And the end was extraordinary. Definitely got me thinking.

Life of Pi is structured as a story within a story. The narrator (not necessarily Yann Martel) encounters the story when he is visiting India and tells it from Pi's point of view. Pi's name, which resembles the irrational number 3.14 is essential to the story; pi is a number that goes on forever without a discernable pattern and is used in the calculation of a circle's radius and diameter. In the same way, Pi's life on the lifeboat and his struggle of survival are also irrational; trapped with a tiger the little boy has to overcome all challenges and difficulties while floating without direction or purpose in the Pacific ocean.

understanding about religion is another part of the novel that attracts attention. Born as a Hindu, the boy is fascinated with Christianity and Islam as well. Confronted by the three religions, Pi refuses to pick just one; for the Indian God is one and he loves all people. This rather liberal understanding of religion is unique to the story; it helps Pi through the difficulties on the lifeboat, it allows him to store his courage and strength and to survive.

I come to the most interesting part of the novel. Pi is rescued and he is telling his tale to Japanese officials of the Ministry of Transport. The boy shares two stories with them - as he refers to them "the one with the animals" and "the one without". I personally have my opinion about which of the stories is the real one. Faced with the strive for survival, people exhibit their worst characteristics - they become savage, selfish, and ruthless; they rely on their instincts rather than on their feelings. Just like animals, the strongest will survive. My understanding is as follows: Pi chooses to tell his story with symbolic animals - each representing one of the sole survivors of the sunk ship. When the officials claim his story unreal and unbelievable, he tells another one - "without animals". Whatever the truth is, as Pi points out it doesn't matter - he has lost his family, he has suffered, but he has survived. Quite brightly, thus, he asks the Japanese officials whether the "animals story" is better than the other one.

The narrator's point of view is obvious in the following quote - "That's what fiction is about, isn't it? The selective transforming of reality?" Life of Pi is a unique and original novel, which has many layers to be explored and discussed. I rarely say that about a book, but I would have definitely loved to have studied it in school. The author's logic and psychology is so deep and enthralling that I am disappointed to say I feel I only understood a very little part of the novel. Looking like a shallow children's book on the outside, Life of Pi is a very ADULT (if there is such a definition) novel about the challenges we face in life and the strength and courage needed to overcome them.

I sincerely thank my roommate for sharing this book with me.