1765 Companions
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lono

What I am reading

this is the highly subjective way I read and interpret literature

(the emphasis lies on literature, so you'll only find a couply of trashy readings here and there)

Secularisation in Europe…what a time

Der Fürst - Herfried Münkler, U. W. Rehberg, Niccolò Machiavelli

Machiavelli was definitely smart. Considering that he wrote Il Principe in the early 16th century, I am truly amazed about how insightful he was and how good he was in seeing through and analysing politics as well as power structures.

Basically, he takes a good, honest look at mankind and their historical behaviour. Based on that, he advises his reader on how to gain and secure power, providing numerous examples of wins and fails of previous sovereigns next to a realistic description of how home and foreign affairs work in European reality. Honestly, they worked very much in the same way as ours do today.

After having read the classic utopian novels written by Morus, Campanella and Bacon at more or less the same time as Il Principe, I actually enjoyed Machiavellis pragmatic and non-preachy way of looking at politics as objectively as possible in contrast to the utopian wishful thinking and all those mirrors for princes in which the authors painted this unrealistic ideal monarch with infallible morals and ethics.

In spite of our notion of a Machiavellian character/politician to be ruthless and to do everything it takes to rule, I don’t think, that Machiavelli actually considered man to be inherently evil, I think he simply distrusted everyone.
I can also see, why the church hated this book so much, but from a contemporary point of view, Il Principe is by far not as relevant any more, as a lot of people claim it to be, because (luckily) most of it is public knowledge by now.

Bradbury strikes again with two novellas

Now And Forever: Somewhere A Band Is Playing & Leviathan '99 - Ray Bradbury

Considering the fact, that this is a „miscellany“ of only two novellas, I’ll try to keep this review short.

Somewhere a Band is Playing
I surely appreciate the short introduction in which Bradbury writes about the different impressions and inspirations he gathered over the years that went into the making of Somewhere a Band is Playing. I especially loved the fact that he mentions Jerry Goldsmiths soundtrack suite from The Wind and the Lion which apparently inspired Bradbury to write a long poem, which in turn became one of the many pieces of his novella. I cannot explain why, but in a strange way, the music adds a lot of dimension and depth to the story.
Talking about story and plot. Initially, I didn’t know what Bradbury was going for, it could have been anything from a romance to a supernatural horror story. It turned out to be more or less something in between. It was weird, but in a good way.

Leviathan ’99
Those of you, who have been following my reviewing journey for a while, have surely noticed my appreciation for Herman Melville. He is one of those authors from whom I cannot seem to get away, because in one way or the other, he consistently pops up. This was again the case with Leviathan ’99 which was originally produced as a radio drama and in the shortest and simplest way I can put it, is a version of Moby-Dick in space (it is not really a science-fiction novella, because, since this is not really Bradburys genre, there’s a lot of fiction involved, but not so much science).

I love Moby-Dick, I love space, ergo, what could possibly go wrong here? I really enjoyed Leviathan ’99.

Under the Udala Trees (whatever that is exactly)

Under the Udala Trees - Chinelo Okparanta

First of all, I am not sure how I stumbled across Under the Udala Trees. As a novel by a contemporary African female writer about a lesbian Nigerian girl growing up during the Biafra civil war, this checks a lot of boxes, but nevertheless it isn’t really something I would normally pick up. Maybe it was a subconscious effort to expand my literary horizon beyond the borders of Europe, Russia and North America or to read more books by female authors or more contemporary works? I don‘t know. But here we are.

Initially, I thought I liked Under the Udala Trees, but as I progressed, my enthusiasm slowly started to vanish until the end of the novel when it just dragged on and on. I noticed, that a number other readers have had issues with the protagonist Ijeoma being too young to have sex or to talk about marriage. But come on… Even though 13 might be a bit young, I am sure we all had at least one friend who actually lost his/her virginity at that age, this is by no means absurd. Also keep in mind that this part of the novel is set in Nigeria in the late 1960’s / early 70’s when girls were primarily brought up with the goal to get them married and have children asap. So, considering the setting, 13 to 14 year old pubescent girls talking about marriage is also not absurd.

But there’s something about Ijeomas age that actually made the novel weird for me as well, because there is an enormous discrepancy between her age (somewhere between 12 and 14) and the language in which her thoughts, feelings etc. are conveyed. Her direct speech was absolutely fitting, but the narrative parts were rendered so logically and eloquently, it was ridiculous. There is no way a teenager could argue like her, the thought processes were just way too mature and thus, there was this huge gap between plot and discourse that bothered me so much.
And talking about the initial maturity of the protagonist… while she was incredibly mature in the beginning, the older she got, the more childlike she became (childlike in the sense of helpless, depending on her mother a lot, letting others control and dictate her life). I was also no fan of this development.

Her mother was a pretty one dimensional character as well, although I found her just hilarious, especially during the Bible lessons. I know those chapters should have been tragic, but her mom interpreting every biblical story in order to show her daughter that heterosexuality is the one and only way to live was so damn stupid, it became funny.

But besides all of the above mentioned, Under the Udala Trees is still a relevant novel, if only to remind readers about the consequences religion and strong (and very outdated) traditions have on the daily lives of everyone who dares to challenge these norms.

Reading progress update: I've read 94 out of 328 pages.

Under the Udala Trees - Chinelo Okparanta

So far, I like it ok, but the protagonist already seems to be way too mature for her young age.

You might wanna read this one on a bright happy day and in a good mood

Erwachen im 21. Jahrhundert - Jürg Halter

I first encountered Jürg Halter when he was participating in the Bachmann Prize in Klagenfurt a couple of years ago (if you don‘t know, this is an annual festival for German-language literature) and for me, he was the top candidate to win the prize that year. Unfortunately he didn’t, but regardless of that, I started following his work and was thrilled when I heard that he published his first novel in prose (so far, he has already published a couple of poems, but since I am a sucker for prose, I skipped them).

The fact that Halter is primarily a poet and not a prose writer is apparent from the very beginning. He crams way too much into each and every sentence - moral, metaphors, various information, satire, cynicism, social critisism, allegories, allusions, despair, fear of the future, nostalgia, and sometimes even more. Combined with the already quite poetic and ornamented language, it quickly becomes too much to process and you either get exhausted after a couple of pages and are forced to take a break or your mind shuts itself off and you stop thinking along. I presume that Halter (like many contemporary writers) is very much aware of the linguistic traits he intends to use and due to a poets natural love for language, he was trying to make each and every sentence stand out and seem extra special. This results in some neat writing, but at the same time, each sentence and each sequence constantly try to overpower each other and you as a reader are left somewhat overwhelmed and partially clueless about what to do with this text.

Besides being quite critical of society, this novel is also very cynical. It is filled with exactly the kind of everything-is-shit-and-the-whole-world-is-going-down-no-matter-what cynicism which we have way too much of nowadays. While I can’t argue, that the protagonist isn’t right or justified in his cynicism, he clearly takes the easy way out since it is easy to complain about everything and everyone, without trying to provide any solutions or suggestions. Cynicism can be fun in moderation, but in this case, it wasn’t not helping.

In the end, Erwachen im 21. Jahrhundert is a postmodern (kind of pessimistic) analysis of our contemporary Central European society that is written from the perspective of a societal dropout and given the form of fleeting images, self-reflection and dialogues (even old school letters) between partners who talk but who cannot (or do not want to) communicate with each other. It is also an effigy of modern (digital) communication structures, which are dominated by the constant switching between more or less coherent metaphors, images, topics, opinions and views up to the point where nobody can grasp the big picture any more, because too much is happening way too fast.

I guess, what I am trying to say here is, that this novel needs getting used to and although it is partially really dissatisfactory and it brings you down, it is well written and therefore in a weird way still somewhat fascinating.

Reading progress update: I've read 165 out of 227 pages.

Erwachen im 21. Jahrhundert - Jürg Halter

I don't know about this one.

It is partially good and partially bad, so I don’t love it, but I also don't hate it.

Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury

I remember reading Fahrenheit 451 for the first time when I was somewhere between 14 and 16 years old. Back then it didn’t strike me as special and I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about, because I was way too young to understand about passions and convictions you’d stand for with your life. I am not saying, that I understand about that now, but I definitely have a better grasp on it. Just think about it, would you be able to stand aside while all of your books are being burned to ashes?

I also cannot belief, that I haven’t noticed the superb writing style of Bradbury before, his use of language and imagery is amazing and right on point. Needless to say, Fahrenheit 451 still holds up today and raises some terrifying questions concerning mass entertainment, mass stultification, estrangement from one another and the constantly increasing speed of everything and anything. Like Bradbury asks, why bother reading the original Hamlet, if you can save time by reading a summary or even the summary of that summary?
Speaking about saving time: this novel is quite short, therefore the pace is fast, Bradbury is not pausing to prattle on about anything, but he nonetheless manages to create three dimensional, round characters (if I’d be really nit-picky, I had to say, that some characters could have been better with a little bit more work put into them, but in such a short novel, you can hardly do any better than that).

While it has some minor flaws, I will say, that Fahrenheit 451 earned its status as a canonical work of dystopian fiction and Bradbury status as one of the most innovative writers of the 20th century is well deserved.

Dinosaurs!

Sauriergeschichten - Ray Bradbury, Fredy Köpsell, Andrea Kamphuis

This is a collection of six short stories/poems about dinosaurs written by Ray Bradbury at various points during his career. Differing a bit in quality (as is always the case in short story collections), one was cute, one was smart, one was funny, one was heartbreaking, one was exciting and one was though provoking.

Beautifully written, very imaginative and full of dinosaurs – I loved it!

Job reloaded

The Undying Fire - H.G. Wells

This is H. G. Well’s version of the bet between Satan and God (Satan being the way more charismatic character by the way) for which „modern day“ Job Mr. Huss has to carry the can.

The undying Fire consists of very long and monologic dialogues, touching mainly on education or the controversy between a scientific and a moral world view and, of course, the big questions are dealt with: can there be good without evil? Is evil necessary to constantly challenge us, because this is the only way to unfold our full potential as human beings? Is there a god after all? If there is, can it be a good god considering all the horrible things going on in this world? If god isn’t good, is he/she/it bad or simply indifferent or incompetent? Is success in life a sign that you are on a morally correct path? And so on, and so on.

To be honest, the beginning was very promising, some bits and pieces were interesting, but for the most part, this is a long rigmarole.

Smokin’ basics

Box Like the Pros - William Dettloff, Joe Frazier

This book covers the basics, and when I say "basics", I mean the very hands up, chin down, eyes on your opponent and keeping the balance basics. So you’re for sure not going to be boxing like a Pro, but, I guess, you’ll be boxing after all, if you want to.

The fact that I enjoyed this one quite a bit despite it being targeted at absolute (probably pre-first boxing class) beginners shows, how much fun it is to read. Besides offering some helpful training advice, it gives good and clear explanations on why you are doing certain things the way you do them. And let’s all be honest, you can never be too advanced to work on your technique or too experienced to freshen up the basics every now and then.
Smokin’ Joe also includes a brief, but solid history on the sport itself (up to the time shortly before Tyson bit off a part of Holyfield’s ear). I highly value the fact, that he respects and treats all the weight classes evenly, so you get a balanced view beyond the prestigious heavyweight class.

But with all due respect, I absolutely disagree with one thing he emphasises: getting in shape before joining a gym. I mean, of course, you need a basic fitness level just to survive a training session, but the level Joe Frazier suggests having before even starting to box is way too ambitious, unless you are serious about it and want to turn pro asap.
Does it help to get in shape beforehand? Yes, definitely. Is it necessary? Absolutely not.

It was nonetheless reassuring to read, that even an iconic and successful boxer like Smokin’ Joe got nervous before fights (I wish I had known that before my first round of sparring), but neither Box like the Pros, nor any other book on the subject substitute going to the gym and training with a coach. Fighting is simply nothing a book can teach you, but I guess, people mostly read it for the same reason I did: curiosity about Joe Frazier and what he has to say.

Reading progress update: I've read 84 out of 240 pages.

Box Like the Pros - William Dettloff, Joe Frazier

So far so good. This is very basic, but easy and fun to read. Knowing how Smokin’ Joe talked during interviews, I highly suspect that either a ghostwriter was involved here, or this is one hell of an editing job. Either way, I love the sarcasm coming through here and there.

 

What if…

Der Große Weg hat kein Tor - Masanobu Fukuoka, Ronald Steinmeyer, Cecile Sprenger

Fukuoka is (or was) one of those people who are plagued by the two most troublesome words of mankind – what if
So he started asking himself, What if I stop doing this? What if I would not do that? And he wrote a book about it: The One Straw Revolution (with the strange German title Der Große Weg hat kein Tor).

 

He wrote this as early as 1975 and at that time, he had already spent over 30 years cultivating his own, pesticide-free, completely natural way of farming which turned out to not only produce healthier foods and fruits with better taste, but to also be way cheaper and less work. He demonstrates how most agricultural problems (barren earth, insects, pesticides, illness-prone plants,…) are only getting worse the more mankind is trying to artificially fix them – for instance, if a farmer uses pesticides against vermin, he will also kill all beneficial organisms on his fields, thus completely destroying the natural balance. The plants growing on such a field never develop any kind of healthy defence system against potential enemies, are therefore weaker than usual and in the long run even more prone to illnesses or other species of vermin which again have to be taken care of with different pesticides and the whole vicious circle starts from the beginning. Plus, they absorb at least some components of the pesticides which we in turn eat, so no one comes out of this as a winner.

Decades ago Fukuoka found a way to avoid all of this by simply working with and not against nature and in the course of that, he also explains how to compensate and repair the damage mankind already caused. He shows how he transformed the soil on one of his orchards from hard, dry clay into fertile earth in the course of some years - without the use of machinery, artificial fertiliser and without a lot of work in general. The quality of his soil is still improving on a year to year basis, because once this process is started, it continues and takes care of itself.

He also deeply opposes the capitalist notion (and practice) that naturally grown, biological food can be sold at higher prices. Fukuoka is convinced, that they should be the cheapest goods available, because it took the least amount of work and resources to grow and harvest them.

This mixture of an agricultural treatise, science bashing and philosophical (and even a bit religious) thinking shows, that he was an idealist who nonetheless knew exactly what he was talking about. I love how in his argumentation he does not limit himself to specific aspects, but keeps the big picture in mind, including everything from the soil, climate, insects, the appearance of the plants, bad weeds, sunshine, seasons, the size of the plants right up to the shape of their leaves.

Reading progress update: I've read 56 out of 180 pages.

Der Große Weg hat kein Tor - Masanobu Fukuoka, Ronald Steinmeyer, Cecile Sprenger

It’s spring, gardening season is starting (or has already started), so it’s the best possible timing to read Fukuoka’s book about natural, ecological farming.

And so far, it is beautiful!

Hermann, schieß dem Fenster!

Swastika Night - Katharine Burdekin, Daphne Patai

You really have to bear in mind that the date of origin is 1937 and for that, I am pleasantly surprised that it is not more preachy or propaganda-ish. Of course, there is a lot of inner-European nationalism and racism in the text (to be fair, if there was any time to be a racist nationalist, the 1930’s would have been it), of course, the protagonist is a smart Englishman and of course, the English will probably save the world from the homosexual Nazis – at least according to Burdekins novel.

 

I understand, why there is a lot of fuss about Swastika Night in feminist circles, but I would not claim the degenerated status of women to be the main focus of the text. As far as I am concerned, Burdekin’s novel deals mainly with the deliberate erasure of history and the consequent making up of your own stories by the people = men in power (yes, mayor 1984 flashback and although there is no being sure about it, it is very likely that Orwell borrowed heavily from Swastika Night). I am actually really sorry that only the feminist aspect stuck with it and Orwell snatched away the whole meddling with history discourse, because Burdekin not only brought this issue up 12 years prior to him, but she executed it in a much more elaborate way as well.

 

Oddly enough, I felt some very homophobic tendencies despite the central bromance between Alfred and Hermann. She highly propagates the Christian family model consisting explicitly of father, mother and children and once she even states that "normal" equals "not homosexual", but I guess it was the 1930’s after all.

 

Now about the whole language thing… well, her efforts of mixing in some German here and there are quite cute in the beginning, Burdekin obviously took pride in this, but soon it just made me cringe and I wished she would have abandoned the idea completely. We are talking the Die Hard German level of a Hans Gruber – no wonder, Karl didn’t have a clue what to do, after Hans yelled „Karl, schieß dem Fenster!“ at him.
But despite using some incorrect German, ignoring the existence of every single Umlaut and treating the article of der Führer as if it would be part of the name and needn’t to be grammatically altered (I get it, it is a tough language to learn, mistakes happen and I am still glad, people make the effort), her use of language in this setting is simply confusing. It was hardly ever clear to me, in what language the characters were conversing with each other (not that it matters much, but it felt very forced and strange sometimes), for example, in one of the earlier chapters, the Knight von Hess, Alfred and Hermann have a conversation about history and real life Hitler, so von Hess explicitly states in the beginning that he will speak English: "I think," he said, "that I will speak in English. […] I want to make absolutely certain that Alfred understands everything I have to tell." And just four pages later this happens: "it is certain, that he never married, but whether he had intercourse with women in a sexual sense or not, we do not know." "Married?" said Alfred. "I’m sorry, sir, that’s a German word I don’t know."
I might be picky here, but did I miss them switching the language somewhere along the way? Did Burdekin foresee the infamous Denglisch? The whole book was like watching Inglorious Basterds in translation, without all the linguistic nuances that make up the best part of the movie. Now, I know, she could never have written her novel in German, but it would have made so much more sense to just come up with any excuse to let her characters speak English! And why did she herself bring up this whole issue in the first place?

 

Overall, the book could have done without the Christian propaganda towards the end also, the democracy bashing really came as a surprise. But despite that, Swastika Night is a solid dystopian novel, unjustly reduced to its feminist content.

Reading progress update: I've read 16 out of 196 pages.

Swastika Night - Katharine Burdekin, Daphne Patai

Oh boy… One chapter in and I can already tell that this text has the potential to be good, but at the same time, there will definitely be some eye-rolling on my part.

Kallocain

Kallocain: Roman aus dem 21. Jahrhundert - Karin Boye, Helga Clemens

First published in 1940, Boye creates an uncanny and throughout above-average dystopian novel in which the protagonist Leo Kall invents the drug Kallocain, which, once injected, forces you to say the truth for eight minutes straight while being fully conscious and aware of it – all of this in a totalitarian, paranoid surveillance society.

 

And what happens? It turns out, that everyone, even the most faithful poster citizen is hiding something. Not necessarily a crime, but everyone has his or her personal skeleton in the closet he or she is trying to hide from the state, from their families and/or even from themselves. Of course, an invention like that is easily exploited, especially, after a law is passed according to which one can be convicted on the basis of their thoughts and intentions only, because with the help of a little Kallocain, you have no other choice than to tell it all (Minority Report problems, anyone?).

 

It is the old, but unfortunately still relevant tale of exchanging freedom for assumed security which in the end results in a state of terror, because the omnipresence of surveillance creates fear and paranoia instead of security. The novel starts a bit slow, but picks up speed quite soon and stays exciting throughout despite having a relatively predictable plot and mostly ok characters with the exception of the protagonist, his wife and the chief of police - those three are great, multifaceted figures.

 

Despite its flaws, Kallocain offers a number of strong scenes, ideas and images, many of them concerning human relations and let me tell you, that some of them really go deep. There is a gruelling forlornness lingering in this text, but Boye shows an amazing finesse in dealing with it.