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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)

Currently reading

What I Loved
Siri Hustvedt
Progress: 84/367 pages
A Modern Utopia
Francis Wheen, Gregory Claeys, H.G. Wells
Fifty Egg Timer Short Stories
Richard Bunning

Reading progress update: I've read 84 out of 367 pages.

What I Loved - Siri Hustvedt

So I am nearing the part in this book, where I quit reading last time and although I admittedly do not remember very much story-wise, I do remember what made me stop reading back then: there are way too many exhaustive descriptions of artwork! For pages Hustvedt is dwelling on paintings, sculptures, installations, cut-outs of various figures in various colours and materials and whatnot. Those descriptions are too long, too detailed, they interrupt the decently interesting storyline, and above all, they've already become repetitive.

Going Under

Untertauchen - Lidija Čukovskaja, Swetlana Geier

This is another truly great novel by Lidija Čukovskaja.
The story takes place in a convalescent home for writers and artsy people a little bit outside of Moscow in 1949. So the Great Purge is over, but the USSR is still under Stalin’s rule, antisemitism is thriving, you still have to watch out what you are saying in front of other people and the Khrushchev Thaw is still a few years away.

Like many other novels taking place in a sanatorium, Čukovskaja portraits a handful of people who went there in order to be cured of whatever sickness they might struggle with, but also to find some peace and quiet to work and to battle their own demons. In the case of the protagonist, this means trying to deal with the loss of her husband who should have returned from the Gulag two years ago, although she doesn’t even know, if he made it that far or if he was simply shot right after his interrogation twelve years ago.

The writing is once again amazing. Just breathtaking. Čukovskaja has a very clear and simple prose, through which she conveys an enormous array of emotion. In only two or three words she can create a complex imagery that would take Tolstoj probably up to ten or fifteen to develop. Needless to say, many parts of her writing really go under your skin, even more so because she is often quite straight forward and does not sugarcoat anything.
I tremendously enjoyed Going Under, although I have to admit, that The deserted House had a bigger impact on me.


W.U.R. Werstands universal Robots - Karel Čapek, Otto Pick

This is the drama which introduced mankind not only to the word ‘robot’ but also to the concept of an inevitable war between humans and machines. R.U.R. (or W.U.R. in this German translation – a strange, yet very smart translation of the title) was written in Czechoslovakia in 1920 and holy crap, this is an awesome piece of literature!

In a certain sense, Čapek wrote a timeless piece. Kind of like the 1993 Jurassic Park movie, some technology got used which is very much outdated by now, but everything else is still fresh as heck. I belief, that the reason why we can still enjoy R.U.R. almost 100 years after it was written so much, is, that it is a very human drama. One that deals with the very basic and never changing motifs of love, empathy, fear, ambition, greed, human hubris (kind of like Jurassic Park, now that I think about it) and on top of that it throws in a bunch of robots.

The structure of the drama is great, the characters are great, the plot is great, the dialogues are great, R.U.R. is just plain great!

1984 in Russia

Reise meines Bruders Alexej ins Land der bäuerlichen Utopie - Aleksandr Čajanov, Krisztina Mänicke-Gyöngyösi, Christiane Schulte, Rosalinde Sartorti

Another social Utopia. As already implied by the title My brother Alexei’s journey into the land of peasant utopia, this time it is an ideal prospect focusing on agriculture and countryside living in Russia where all the power rests in the hands of the social class the author considered to be the most important one – the farmers. Čajanov chose the classical approach of the protagonist falling asleep, miraculously waking up in the future (in the year 1984 to be exact) and then getting a guided tour through this new world in the course of which he listens to various monologues and gets lectured about the social and economical organisation of said state.

As this is openly a very anti-bolshevik utopia, I am surprised that its publication in 1920 was even allowed and I am quite sure that if Čajanov would have written it only a year or so later, the text had never been able to pass the Soviet censorship. There are some hints towards the end that not everybody is treated in the same, generous way in this peasant utopia, but this issue is definitely cut short. I suspect that the author planned on dealing with it in a second part which was never written.

Way more interesting than the actual My brother Alexei’s journey into the land of peasant utopia are the additional texts included in this edition. First there is a preface written by Vaclav Vorovskij which is an excellent expression of the early 1920 Russian zeitgeist and then the appendix on the Russian peasants by Maksim Gorkij.

Reading progress update: I've read 6 out of 367 pages.

What I Loved - Siri Hustvedt

This is my second attempt in reading What I loved.

The last time (must have been 4 years ago) I managed to make it to page 92, let’s see, if I can hang on for longer this time.

Invitation to a Beheading

Einladung zur Enthauptung - Vladimir Nabokov, Dieter E. Zimmer

I am a bit torn here, because I love the concept, the idea, the language and the implications on an intellectual level, but do I love Nabokovs execution of it all? (To be clear, I am not talking about the execution of his protagonist, but of the actual novel)

Not so much.

The deserted House

Ein leeres Haus - Lidija Čukovskaja, Melissa Mathay

This is an everyday story no one could simply make up from scratch. It is a tale about Olga Petrovna, an initially happy soviet stenotypist, model citizen and proud mother of a smart, thoroughly communist son. She is basically minding her own business, believing the propaganda she reads in the Pravda even when they write about alleged crimes of former, now arrested friends, acquaintances and colleagues. Because no innocent soul would be falsely convicted of anything in the Soviet Union, right?

The plot takes place during the time of the Great Purge, so at one point her son gets arrested and Olga is torn out of her comfortable, naïve word and thrown into the harsh and bureaucratic reality of the Soviet Union where you cannot trust anyone anymore. Čukovskaja hereby impressively documents the way in which the Stalinist regime operated and what that looked and felt like for ordinary citizens. What it did to thousands or even millions of mothers, fathers, siblings and friends.

The whole story is told in a simple, pretty straight forward way that definitely makes an impact on the reader. Although you only experience Olga’s deep frustration and her helplessness secondhand (or even thirdhand), it is still enough to give you goosebumps.
It is a short novel, so not too much is said, but also not too little, yet everything that is written between the lines speaks volumes.

Forever Peace

Peace & War - Joe Haldeman

As the last one of the Forever "trilogy" Forever Peace is not really a sequel nor a prequel but in some way it is still related to The Forever War and Forever Free since it is taking place in more or less the same universe as those two, so I’m going to call it a spin off, although it is not really one of those either.

Instead of an intergalactic war in time and space, humans are fighting their own battles against each other in this novel. This time, you follow along the protagonist Julian, an increasingly depressed soldier with a pacifistic conviction and a suicidal tendency, who is thrown into what reads like a very Vietnam-ish scenario. I enjoyed the story, it has a good concept, there were some nice and unexpected twists and turns, yet it was too lengthy. After a good, but already extended first half, the story slowed down almost to a point of redundancy, and shortly after it had slightly picked up the pace again, everything was suddenly crammed into the last 5 pages.

Furthermore, Haldeman is constantly alternating between first and third person narration, switching back and forth after each chapter. Since the chapters are quite short (around 1 - 3 pages) the perspective shifts quite a lot. You get used to it, but most of the time it is unnecessary and hence a bit annoying. Other than that, Haldeman has a fluid and entertaining writing style and seems to be getting increasingly fond of using punchlines to conclude a chapter. It was quite funny and cute the first couple of times, but is very much overused in Forever Peace.

While reading I had so many Pacific Rim and Avatar flashbacks, that I wonder if some of the script writers of those movies are secretly some hardcore Haldeman fans.

Forever Free

Peace & War - Joe Haldeman

Forever Free is the sequel to Haldeman’s The Forever War, written with a time lag of 25 years. It features the same protagonist as in The Forever War as well as some other characters from the first novel, but unfortunately, their common history doesn’t really matter since the latter function as secondary characters only and are of no real importance to neither the story nor the protagonists general emotional well-being. On the other hand, maybe that’s exactly what the novel is trying to convey – that in the end everybody is expendable, interchangeable?

The stories’ premise goes as follows: a bunch of veterans of the Forever War went back to civilian life on a wintery planet lovingly called Middle Finger, which they share with some of their former enemies, now allies: the Taurans as well as with a number of Man (yes, with a capital M since this is what mankind has become in the future – a group minded clone species). The veterans cannot seem to settle neither into their everyday life, nor into the coexistence with Taurans and Man, so they plan to escape. But it wouldn’t be a science fiction novel if they simply went to a different point in space, for they are trying to escape to a different point in time, the future.

The one thing this novel lacks the most is character development since everybody (but one hardly featured character) stays exactly the same as they were presented in the beginning, assuming they didn’t explode in the course of the novel. By itself Forever Free is still entertaining, but it is not even coming close to the quality of The Forever War.

A great example of Science Fiction writing

Peace & War - Joe Haldeman

This edition contains the three novels The Forever War (1974), Forever Free (1999) and Forever Peace (1997) by Joe Haldeman, this review only deals with The Forever War since I haven’t read the other two so far.

The novel has a very plausible premise: mankind starts a war against the first alien species they come in contact with (although, of course, they claim that the Taurans started the war…), a war that literally drags on forever, mainly because it is very convenient for the government. First of all, it stimulates the economy  and secondly, it gives the people in power the excuses they need to gain even more power while uniting mankind against an abstract, yet common enemy – from an American perspective, it is sort of an interstellar Vietnam.
By taking the relativity of time into consideration, Haldeman takes interstellar fighting to a whole new level and this is exactly what makes this novel special. While one training and/or combat mission takes only a year or two, decades or even centuries can pass on earth and the returning survivors are not only traumatised by their experiences, but they are confronted with completely different social and political structures and friends and family are long dead. As if it wouldn’t be weird enough for any soldier to return into civilian society (which is a whole theoretical minefield on its own).

What’s really great about this novel is, that not unlike Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, it doesn’t focus much on action and actual combat, but mainly on human emotions and strains during times of waiting and travelling – which is what soldiers probably do most of the time. Not glorifying the few actual battles further emphasises the pacifistic intentions, but the most striking theme in my opinion is the increasing alienation and isolation of the veterans. The protagonist, who was in the war from the very beginning and is therefore centuries older than everybody else on his ship, has a hard time relating to anyone, basically because due to the changes in language, cultural background as well as social behaviour, the humans are as alien and incomprehensible to him as the actual aliens.

I must say that as a child of its time, The Forever War is pretty occupied with sex and especially the topic of homosexuality vs. heterosexuality (as if anyone cares…), but unlike for example Stranger in a Strange Land, this is a really great example of smart science fiction and I am pumped for the sequel!

In the Year 802701

Die Zeitmaschine - H.G. Wells

Being seen as the first dystopic and/or science fiction novel, The Time Machine has an indisputable historical value. Not only was the term time machine coined by this novel, but the concept of intentional time travel was introduced in here as well, providing endless material for future novels, comics, movies, artworks etc.

As H. G. Wells was no stranger to (critical) utopian thinking and a keen and smart observer of the social problems of his time,  it is no wonder that he painted such a grim picture of our future in which mankind has evolved into two separate species, based on the strong separation between social classes. Talking about species, to me both Morlocks and Eloi are equally „human-like“, because although the Eloi kept an outer human appearance, I think that the Morlocks actually have more human-like character traits.
First and foremost, Morlocks are a curious and inquisitive people, they build and maintain machinery, transform their underground environment according to their own needs and they care and provide for their food source. Sounds pretty human to me. Eloi on the other hand are naive, not interested in anything, pacifistic, indifferent and helpless. If it wasn’t for the cannibalism thing (which is definitely debatable given the fact that they are two already differentiated species), I can see no reason for the time travelling protagonist to despise the Morlocks as much as he does. They even cleaned his time machine for crying out loud!

Bottom line, I appreciate The Time Machine mainly for the contained ideas and concepts, not so much the execution (the writing and structuring is average). If you expect an action packed novel, you will be very much disappointed, but you’ll get your money’s worth if you are up for an ok-written, yet thought provoking story.

Secularisation in Europe…what a time

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

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 lot of 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.