Natasha’s Dance. A Cultural History of Russia
by Orlando Figes
Natasha’s Dance is a spectacular, fascinating, intelligent, and in places, a very touching piece of work.
Although it is about Russian cultural history, it often felt more like a psychological and philosophical study of the “Russian soul” throughout the centuries. As if Russia had been lying on a couch and was being analyzed by various artists, intellectuals, nobles, serfs, and statesmen who were all trying to figure out who she was exactly, what she wanted, and how she wanted to be seen in the world. Existential questions, really.
From Peter the Great who founded St. Petersburg in 1703 and wanted Russia to be more European to the horrific years of Stalin’s terror and then up to the 1960’s.
This is a huge subject and just the amount of research that must have gone into this 586 page book (plus notes and lists for further reading) is awe-inspiring. Orlando Figes covers big themes and cultural movements, much of it through the eyes of painters, writers, and musicians. I learned so much that I wouldn’t even know where to begin listing it all, but I was fascinated by the customs he describes throughout the centuries, both those of the nobles and the peasants.
Details and anecdotes give life to the pages and there is even a shopping list of all the things one nobleman wanted to have imported from Europe in the late 18th century, which included things like 240 pounds of parmesan and 24 pairs of lace cuffs for nightshirts. Only 12 pounds of coffee from Martinique though. I thought that a bit meager, considering how many pounds of coffee we drink in this household and we’re not in the habit of holding balls for thousands of people.
A section titled “Descendents of Genghiz Khan” starts off with Kandinsky’s travels to a remote Komi-region in 1889 to study Finno-Ugric beliefs because he thought he might want to become an anthropologist before he became an artist.
The bits about Tolstoy were also especially interesting as he seemed to be torn between
wanting to live a simple peasant life yet he enjoyed the luxuries of his large estate (funnily enough, Tolstoy himself would make a great character for a novel!) and Chekhov was one of my
favorites; I definitely want to read his works and also more about his life now. So you see, Natasha's Dance is kind of like a drug for those of us with a slight
addiction to books and reading—it just makes you want more of the same…
Natasha’s Dance is just the kind of history book I love. It’s so captivating and well written that I was literally immersed in a different world, much like what happens with a really good novel. Many a household chore was left undone because I thought I’d read just a few pages before getting to work… Now I’m excited to read even more, but first I’ll have to page through Natasha’s Dance again to take another look at the dozens of passages I’ve marked with little sticky notes.
Cпасибо, Mr. Figes!
Great storytelling, magical realism, and a Cuban-American detective in Miami.
What’s not to like?
“She hadn’t fallen in love with a fictional man like this since the day she met Jimmy Paz in the pages of Michael Gruber’s novels. Jimmy was a Cuban detective who could cook and had a weakness for intelligent women.”
(This is a passage from Chapter 19 of my own novel and even though I am not Vera, my character likes some of the same books I do.)
During the past few years I haven’t read many mysteries/thrillers in English because I came up with what I thought was a clever plan: to read books of this genre mainly in foreign languages so that I could get some language practice at the same time. It’s the only way to keep the “books I want to read” list under some semblance of control (Ah, the lies we tell ourselves…)
But one of the exceptions I made was for the Jimmy Paz novels and I ended up reading all
three of them like a woman possessed. Which makes sense since there is magic within the pages.
Jimmy’s mom owns a Cuban restaurant in Miami (where he often helps her out) and—as he eventually finds out—she also practices Santería. So when strange and gruesome murders start happening, things that can’t be explained by logic or science, her knowledge comes in handy during Jimmy’s investigations. In the first novel (Tropic of Night), he also gets help from a woman named Jane Doe who has studied unusual things during her travels in Africa. (Before you begin reading, it might be helpful to know that there’s a glossary of terms at the back of the book.)
The novels were so gripping that there must have been some kind of sorcery involved in writing them. At any rate, Michael Gruber is a wizard when it comes to storytelling, and the Jimmy Paz novels are definitely not your run-of-the-mill mysteries. I’m not exactly sure how to describe them. Maybe literary fiction wrapped around a mystery?
Here are the novels in order:
Tropic of Night
Valley of Bones
Night of the Jaguar
A Doghill History of Finland
by Mauri Kunnas
When my boys were young, I spent countless hours reading out loud to them from Mauri Kunnas books. They literally could not get enough of them, wanting to hear the same stories over and over again.
Luckily all books by Mauri Kunnas are fun for adults as well; both the stories and the illustrations, and they were also my favorite books to read out loud. So much so, that no matter how old I get, I still can’t resist buying them.
A Doghill History of Finland is a colorful and amusing romp through Finnish history, from the 16th to the 19th centuries with the typically delightful illustrations that make up all of Kunnas’ books. It seems that no matter how often you look at the pictures, you always discover something new, and in this one you will also learn something along the way. History does not have to be boring! It was published in 2017, when Finland celebrated 100 years of independence.
I would recommend any and all of the Mauri Kunnas books, they are the cutest children’s books you could possibly imagine.
Oh, and on the last page of A Doghill History of Finland there is a quote from Axel Oxenstierna, a Swedish statesman, taken from a letter he wrote to his son in 1648:
“Oh my son, if you only knew with how little wisdom this world is governed.”
Seems that some things don’t change much throughout the centuries…
After writing last week’s post, I remembered another Danish novel that I really liked:
Prophets of Eternal Fjord by Kim Leine.
I wrote about it in German a few years ago here, after hearing the author read at Slawski, a bookshop in Buchholz, where I used to live.
This epic novel takes place in Greenland in the late 1700’s, where Morten Falck has come as a missionary from Copenhagen, even though he’s actually more interested in the natural sciences and other things than in theology. He preaches the ten commandments yet breaks most of them himself in this wild frozen land where the Danish culture clashes with that of the locals and where not everybody is prepared to accept colonial rule.
I see that my copy of the book is riddled with little sticky notes to mark passages I liked, and the author signed it with the following sentence:
At læse er at rejse både indad og udad.
(To read is to travel, both inward and outward.)
This post is for you fellow language learning nerds…
Two years ago I wanted to see if I would be able to read Norwegian on the basis of knowing how to read Swedish, and I found that, with a truckload of time, patience, and effort, as well as a good dictionary, I could.
Now I decided to try the same with Danish. It was slow going at first, and I mean I REALLY just crept along. It took me over two hours to read the first twenty pages of this crime novel, but after that it started getting better.
It’s not that I actually want to learn Danish; I was just curious to see if I could read a simple novel in the language. I guess I needed some kind of mini-challenge for my brain.
Vådeskud by Katrine Engberg is a crime novel set in Copenhagen, actually the fourth in a series. I haven’t read the first three, but that didn’t make a difference. It was easy to follow the story and the main characters are interesting and likeable. These novels seem to be quite popular in Denmark at any rate, and they’ve been translated into many languages.
Since I love to read, this opens up a whole new world of books that I could potentially read in the original. One of my favorite novels is by a Danish author (Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg and beautifully translated into English by Tiina Nunnally) and at university I fell in love with the works of Isak Dinesen (aka Karen Blixen), also Danish.
So … if you’re able to read one of the Scandinavian languages and your brain is also hungry for a bit of a challenge, but not an enormous one, try reading something in one of the other languages. You might be surprised at how much you’re able to figure out in a relatively short period of time, which is, of course, pretty motivating and so increases the chances of wanting to continue. It doesn’t have to be a whole book. You could find an article on a subject that interests you online and start off with that. In my case, I would have to print out the article and read it on paper in a quiet place with no other distractions, because I’m better able to focus on an unfamiliar language that way.
I’m not saying that it doesn’t take patience and effort. It does. But it’s not all that much of a struggle, considering how much work it is to learn a completely new language from scratch. You already have quite a lot to work with in this case.
I would recommend getting a better dictionary than the one I had, though. Mine is a bit meager, as you can see in the photo!
An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments
By Ali Almossawi
Illustrated by Alejandro Giraldo
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”
(Richard P. Feynman)
I bought this book because I fell in love with the cover. The title (Bad Arguments) combined with the adorable illustration was just too irresistible.
Almossawi lists nineteen errors of reasoning and gives examples of them, often with humor, not at all as a stern lecture. Each example is accompanied by a cute illustration showing the thinking fallacy in action.
If you read them closely, you are sure to find examples in the real world showing how all of these bad arguments are used, and chances are, you probably won’t even have to look far. In our house, it’s sometimes the “appeal to hypocrisy”—when you point out that someone’s arguments conflict with their own past (or maybe even current) actions. It sounds something like “Oh yeah, well, YOU do this and that…” And it’s hard to catch yourself when you’re rolling down the “slippery slope argument.”
You can read the book online at www.bookofbadarguments.com in eleven languages (including Finnish! :-)), but it’s much nicer to own a copy because this is one to read through over and over again.
I was going to say that it would be a great book to give as a gift as well, but then again, the receiver might feel offended and think you are telling them that their arguments are bad, which may indeed be the case and that’s why they should read the book.
Ah, but you can couch it like this: say it will help them to see through other peoples’ bad arguments and then hope that they will recognize their own.
Because this book is so decorative, I placed it facing outwards on a shelf so that you
can see the front cover.
p.s. – if all else fails and you run out of arguments, good or bad, you can always revert to this phrase which I saw somewhere: “You may be right, but I like my opinion better.”
Every Time I Find the Meaning of Life, They Change It.
Wisdom of the Great Philosophers on How to Live
By Daniel Klein
Is life meaningless and everything we do futile?
Well, I don’t have the answers to much of anything in life, but I do know that reading Every Time I Find the Meaning of Life, They Change It by Daniel Klein feels neither meaningless nor futile. Quite the opposite.
I just reread it and loved it just as much as the first time I read it a few years ago. It is charming, amusing, and wise.
Some fifty years ago, Daniel Klein began jotting down philosophical quotes and in this book he goes through them again, adding his own reflections and musings, anecdotes, and memories. He’s able to elucidate complex ideas in an entertaining manner, and the book is worth reading just for the essay on Wittgenstein’s quote alone. And for Derek Parfit’s thought experiments, which may drive you half mad. (Maybe something to bring up at the next dinner party…?) And, and, and—just read the book.
I really liked that the ideas range from one extreme to the other: from the bible to a particle physicist, ancient Greek philosophers to modern day thinkers, hedonism to “Mr. Melancholia” (Schopenhauer).
“The art of life lies in taking pleasures as they pass, and the keenest pleasures are not intellectual, nor are they always moral.” Aristippus
“Life oscillates like a pendulum, back and forth between pain and boredom.” Arthur Schopenhauer
Reading it is kind of a mental roller-coaster ride in the best possible way (meaning that it’s exhilarating, not that it might make you feel ill!). Also, you do not have to know a single thing about philosophy in order to thoroughly enjoy this book; in fact it would be a perfect introduction to philosophical thought. It’s one that can be read over and over again because it feels somehow nourishing for the brain and there’s also something comforting about it.
“Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in the way in which our visual field has no limits.” Ludwig Wittgenstein
In the Nietzsche biography was a mention that “Dostoevsky made a lightning-strike connection” with Nietzsche when he read Notes from Underground. My brain lit up with an “Oh, I haven’t read that yet!” and this is how my reading pile grows…
I read the Vintage Classics edition, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. It’s a short book, only about 130 pages long, written in 1864, and, according to Wikipedia, it’s one of the first works of existentialist literature.
In the first part, the man in the underground is forty years old and he rants and attacks the world at large in a kind of monologue. He’s filled with loathing for others and himself. But he also philosophizes quite intelligently. In the second part he tells a story about what happened when he was twenty-four and at which point his life was “already gloomy, disorderly, and solitary to the point of savagery.”
This is a somewhat tortuous and intense portrait of a complete outsider in society, but the thing is, he’s smart enough to be completely aware of his actions (he analyzes them every step of the way) yet seems unwilling to change his behavior even as he knows he’s messing things up for himself but still somehow can’t stop himself from doing it. Maybe it would feel different if he were oblivious to the consequences of his actions—but he’s not, and I kept reading with a nearly painfully weird fascination as, for example, he goes to a dinner party where he knows he is unwelcome. It’s a very tormented self-awareness, and a part of him wants to be part of the crowd he so lashes out at, and at times he has wild fantasies about what it would be like to be loved and admired by all.
Do not skip the foreword by the translator, which also gives some background to the story.
Of course this isn’t novel in the “new” or “unusual” sense of the word, but literally, with a novel, which is my favorite way to practice reading foreign languages.
La Vérité sur l’Affaire Harry Quebert by Joёl Dicker is such a popular mystery that there’s no need for yet another article raving about it. I just wanted to say that if you’re learning French and you can read YA novels, then you can read this. The language is simple and straightforward, there are no convoluted sentences or abstract concepts which are often hard to understand in foreign languages. I don’t even know French and I was able to read it—with a dictionary, obviously.
Also, don’t be put off by the length of the novel—about 850 pages—but see it as a positive thing because once you get into it, the story will pull you along all the way to the end, and that’s a lot of (entertaining) French practice for just a few euros or dollars!
It took me about two and a half months to get through this because it is mentally taxing to read in a new language (okay, I did move into a new house in between too…)
At first I was only able to read about ten pages at a time, but somewhere around the middle I was surprised to notice that I was reading up to fifty pages an evening before my brain went on strike and refused to continue deciphering the text. Also, the further I got, the less I needed the dictionary. My friend Martina, an avid reader who does know French, surmised that it might be because authors tend to use the same vocabulary throughout their books and so at some point you just get used to it and recognize the words. I think she’s right. And, again, context is the most important key. Give it a try!
Another deep and influential thinker who’s been hovering around the edges of my life for the past few years is C.G. Jung, and so I thought a biography would be a good way to dip my toes into the water.
Once I’d started Jung. His Life and Work. A Biographical Memoir by Barbara Hannah, I could hardly put it down.
Barbara Hannah (1891-1986) was Jung’s pupil and a lecturer and training analyst at the C.G. Jung Institute in Zürich and she was also a close friend of the Jung family, so the biography felt intensely personal in many ways.
You get a good feel for what kind of person Jung was (remarkable, intelligent, driven, and extremely compassionate), and the themes and ideas he wrote and talked about, even if it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Especially the conscious and unconscious, but also the roles of mythology, religion, dreams, and symbolism, the idea of the anima/animus, to name just a few. His collected works make up some twenty volumes!
I liked the fact that although Jung spent so much time thinking and writing, he was also deeply entrenched in the physical world—his family and friends, patients and pupils, his houses (even building parts of his house in Bollingen)—because that is where we live, after all, that is where we have to put the theories into practice.
If I want to understand anything about psychology and the unconscious mind, then reading Jung seems essential. This biography was definitely a worthwhile read and made me want to find out more. And yes—to explore the shadows as well.
I Am Dynamite! A Life of Friedrich Nietzsche
By Sue Prideaux
“And beware of the good and the righteous! They love to crucify those who make for themselves their own virtues—they hate the solitary man.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, from Thus Spoke Zarathustra
It feels like Nietzsche has been following me around for years—he’s quoted everywhere I turn. However, reading his collected works would require more time and focus than I’m willing to spend at the moment, so I thought I’d start with a biography, and I’m glad I did.
I Am Dynamite! by Sue Prideaux gives a good sense of the times and places Nietzsche lived in. He spent most of his life basically as a vagabond, living at the houses of family or friends or staying at pensions in Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and France. He even had his own room in Wagner’s house. Yet he was both solitary much of the time, spending hours upon hours hiking in the mountains alone and this is when he came up with many of his ideas. He also suffered debilitating ailments that kept him bed-ridden for days, sometimes weeks on end.
I got the impression that Nietzsche was very bold and sure of himself regarding his thoughts and ideas, but that this confidence did not extend to his relations with women. He never married, although twice he did make somewhat spur of the moment proposals— and was rejected both times. (“And beware also of the grip of your own love! The solitary man extends his hand too quickly to those he encounters.” Thus Spoke Zarathustra)
But he was also riddled with doubt and anxiety at times. And no wonder, considering that he attacked many (most?) of the morals and ideas of the times—people don’t really like that, do they? Still, his confidence in his own ideas was so great, that even though his books hardly sold, he wrote that he would be understood at some point in the future—which is exactly what happened.
I pretty much tore through the book in a few days because it was so well written and because Nietzsche was such an extraordinary character. His sister Elisabeth horrified me though, and reading about her was like being in the middle of a soap opera. A rabid anti-Semite, she manipulated, schemed, and told the most outrageous lies.
Sadly, it wasn’t until after he went mad that he became popular and his books began to sell, so he never reaped the benefits. Elisabeth did though, in a frightening manner. It was heartbreaking to read about his last years when he was kept locked up, first in an asylum, and then in an upstairs room in his family’s house.
Nietzsche influenced a great many artists, writers, and intellectuals in Europe in the 1890’s—and here I had to stop reading and look up Edvard Munch’s painting of both Nietzsche and Elisabeth. Apparently, “The Scream” was also inspired by Nietzsche’s writings.
Many bits and pieces of Nietzsche’s writings and letters are included in the book and you get a good sense of the themes that occupied his thoughts. But as far as I can tell, it seems difficult to order Nietzsche’s philosophy into a neat and clear package, because his writings appear to go all over the place. So for the time being, I will content myself with the aphorisms and short but profound commentary taken from various books. That’s enough food for thought for a very long time.
More great biographies:
Imagine the founder of a company walking naked through the fields while talking about their products. It wouldn’t be a German company, that’s for sure…
Click on the link and then on the video near the top of the page, the one titled
“Kyrö Distillery: Presented by a naked man”.
I’ve tasted their gin (“Finnish summer in a bottle”) and it’s good, and I’m looking forward to sipping the whisky (“rich and sophisticated, so you don’t have to be”).
They Know Not What They Do
A novel by Jussi Valtonen
(Original: He eivät tiedä mitä tekevät)
Joe Chayefski is an American professor of neuroscience, whose life gets turned upside down because he didn’t know what he was doing, did not realize the consequences of his actions or lack thereof—and nobody else really knew what they were doing either.
Twenty years ago he spent a few years in Finland and had a son with a Finnish woman, but he left them and didn’t keep in touch, only sending a card once a year. But his son Samuel did not forget him, and now Joe’s past is messing up his life in ways he never could have dreamed of.
And what is this new iAM device that his daughter comes home with one day? The one where you don’t need to tap or click any buttons, that doesn’t have a screen, that can literally read your thoughts and provide you with content as fast as you can think? What is the company behind the device really up to at the school? And what are these little neuro optimizer pills he finds in her purse? And who broke into his lab and is terrorizing his family and why?
Jussi Valtonen is an absolute master at describing characters, how people feel and how they justify their behavior. It was literally a joy to read, for the language alone, and I often found myself smiling at how he’d phrased something so eerily well. How Joe views Finns and what the Finnish characters think about Americans, made me laugh because I’ve heard them all too, from all sides, so the author definitely got that right. (Still, I do want to mention that in the novel, Joe is in Helsinki in the early 90’s and the city has changed a lot since then!)
Valtonen tackles seemingly everything on every level, big and small themes, all rolled up into an entertaining story that keeps you hooked.
Consequences of past actions. Misunderstandings that last for years. Personal relationships, moral dilemmas, cultural differences, technology, and social media. How things aren’t always what they seem to be. Are they ever, really? And how do you even define that?
It’s a work of fiction, but it’s deep, and it will make you think about a thing or two during and after reading it. Just the kind of story I like.
I can’t say anything about the translations, but I assure you that the Finnish original is fantastic. In fact, He eivät tiedä mitä tekevät won the Finlandia Prize in 2014, the most prestigious literary award in Finland.
The English title is They Know Not What They Do and in German it’s Zwei Kontinente. I assume it’s been translated into other languages as well.
He eivät tiedä mitä tekevät has been on my shelf for years, so long that I had no idea what it was even about. But, wanting to read something in Finnish, I plucked it from the shelf without a moment of hesitation, somehow sure that this was it. Maybe I liked the title. Or the fact that it looked nice and thick. Since I’ve been reading non-fiction books about the brain and have been listening to a neuroscience podcast, it felt like a very weird and wonderful coincidence to have pulled out just this book, in which the main character is a neuroscientist.
The Brain that Changes Itself
By Norman Doidge
Neuroplasticity is something I am nearly obsessed with these days.
Almost everyone I know, myself included, wants to either learn something new or change some behavior.
But how many times do we say “I can’t”, “I could never do…”, “I’m just not good at…”, “this is just the way I am” or some other variation of these?
I’m in the process of proving myself wrong on a number of these things and so I know the value of neuroplasticity firsthand—even though, as I write, Word is trying to tell me that there’s not even such a word as neuroplasticity and insists on underlining it in red. (I have a really old version of Word, so maybe the newer ones have caught up with the science…)
Okay, so the things I’m learning are small in comparison to the mind-boggling transformations Norman Doidge describes in The Brain that Changes Itself: how people with strokes can learn to speak and move again, how a woman who was literally born with only half a brain is able to function in life, how learning problems can be solved, what we can all do to keep our brains healthy, and so much more. He also writes about the scientists who worked on figuring out all of this. Most fascinating to me is how your thoughts can literally change your physiology.
Also, there is no such thing as being too old for this; we can learn new things until the day we die. Maybe not as effortlessly as an eight-year-old, but hey, you probably have some other advantages in life now, that you didn’t have when you were eight!
The Brain that Changes Itself is captivating and inspiring, and after reading it, it feels as though both the world and your own mind are filled with exciting possibilities.
Another great book about the brain is 7 ½ Lessons About the Brain
When Nietzsche Wept by Irvin D. Yalom
You must be ready to burn yourself in your own flame: how could you become new, if you had not first become ashes?
Thus Spake Zarathustra
When Nietzsche Wept is a novel written by psychiatrist Irvin D. Yalom (Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Stanford University), and it weaves together a story of psychology, philosophy, Nietzsche, and fin-de-siècle Vienna, all fascinating subjects unto themselves.
Yalom’s colorful descriptions drop you right into the Vienna of 1882 when Franz Joseph I was emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, psychotherapy was just being discovered, and Freud was a 26-year-old medical student.
In the novel, the bewitching Lou Salomé persuades Doctor Josef Breuer to take Nietzsche on as a patient to cure his despair. “The future of German philosophy hangs in the balance,” she writes.
Breuer manages to do so, and an interesting relationship develops between him and Nietzsche, one that he often discusses with young Freud. And this is what I liked most about the novel, all the psychological and philosophical conversations between the characters, their observations and questions about human nature.
Josef Breuer, Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche, Nietzsche’s sister Elisabeth, Breuer’s patient Anna O., Lou Salomé, Breuer’s wife Mathilde and their five children, Paul Rée—they all existed, although Breuer and Nietzsche never actually met in real life, so the novel is a blend of fact and fiction. Yalom also adds a note at the back of the book detailing which is which.
I devoured this story, but I didn’t literally chew on the book. That was Indy when he was still a puppy and was developing a taste for literature.
I just moved from a house we’d rented to the house we’ve been building, and the only book I had time to read during the moving phase was The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman.
This book is oh so good!
I’m reading through it a second time now, one page every day, because that’s how it’s set up. For each day of the year there’s a quote from either Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, or another philosopher, accompanied by an explanation or commentary.
Each month also has a theme; June’s was “problem solving,” which is something one needs to do a lot during the last phases of constructing a house and moving—especially when you move an entire household on your own without a moving company.
My favorite page was from June 8th: the heading for the day was “Brick by boring brick” (you see how apt that was!) and the quote for the day was from Marcus Aurelius:
You must build up your life action by action, and be content if each one achieves its goal as far as possible—and no one can keep you from this. But there will be some external obstacle! Perhaps, but no obstacle to acting with justice, self-control, and wisdom. But what if some other area of my action is thwarted? Well, gladly accept the obstacle for what it is and shift your attention to what is given, and another action will immediately take its place, one that better fits the life you are building.
—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 8.32
I read that page multiple times…
On January 1st I sent my sister a photo of the December 31 page, which is titled “Get Active in Your Own Rescue,” and a few hours later she’d ordered herself a copy based on that one page! Since then, we’ve had numerous WhatsApp conversations about The Daily Stoic, mentioning quotes we liked or thought were especially relevant, and—maybe because we live so far apart, she’s in Southern California and I’m in Northern Germany—there’s something very pleasurable about knowing that we’re reading the same texts every day.
Practicing languages has helped keep me sane during this interminably long lockdown in Germany. Something about learning a new language is both invigorating and calming for me—although probably not both at the same time.
I've been teaching myself to read French. It’s purely passive learning, but it’s better than nothing, and I haven’t given up hope that in-person language classes will be a reality again soon. I’ve been slowly working my way through children’s books because I find that context is the most entertaining way to learn. It also feels different to read a “real” book written for children than it does to read texts for beginners in language books, and the stories are much better.
It takes me forever to get through even a short children’s book, and my dictionary’s already starting to fall apart at the seams (yes, I use a paper dictionary). Sometimes I can get through multiple paragraphs without having to look anything up, which is the magic of context. You don’t have to know every single word in order to get the meaning, but this also means you have to experiment a little, try out different texts to see what the right level is for you.
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
Projects you want to do but can’t get started on?
Peeved with yourself because of the above?
Pressfield has written the book for you.
If you’ve ever spent an hour or two scrolling through blogposts about procrastination (who, me?) instead of starting on a project you need or want to do, then this is the book for you.
Steven Pressfield has a name for all the excuses, justifications, and rationalizations—both conscious and subconscious—which we use to justify why we “can’t” do something.
He calls it Resistance.
While he uses writing as an example of how resistance sabotages our plans, it’s applicable to anything we want to do, be it starting a new exercise regime or a new business.
Pressfield is tough and raw, but also kind and nonjudgmental. He’s been there. He’s speaking from experience. In the first part of the book he lists every form of Resistance out there. He sees through all the bullshit. His own and mine and probably yours as well.
He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how. (Nietzsche)
So many people talk and write about the importance of having meaning or purpose in one’s life, but so far nothing I have heard or read has been as impactful as what Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning. In his case, this literally saved his life. For most of us these days, it might mean the difference between actually living, and just trying to get through the day.
Viktor Frankl was a Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry in Vienna, and he also survived three years in concentration camps during World War II, including Auschwitz and Dachau.
Man’s Search for Meaning, his most popular book, was first published in 1946. It’s both an easy read and a tough read.
7 ¹/₂ Lessons About the Brain
By Lisa Feldman Barrett
Right off the bat, Dr. Feldman Barrett tells us that our brains are not made for thinking.
Well, I’m sure we can all come up with a few people for whom that certainly appears to be true …
I won’t tell you what she says it’s for though—you’ll have to read the book to find
Dr. Feldman Barrett dispels some myths about how the brain works and says that many of the metaphors used to explain the mind are often mistaken for actual brain structures.
That said, the author uses many helpful metaphors herself (always pointing out when
she’s doing so) to explain how the brain is wired into a network of neurons that constantly chat with each other. Having read her descriptions, I can now better understand how this incessant
communication can also lead to gossip being spread around in your mind—you know, all those things you thought were true, but maybe aren’t, after all. (“You’re not good at learning this or that”
being one of the most widespread. Time to do some fact checking because that could just be fake news that spread like wildfire throughout your neuronal network while you were growing
Fascinating too, how the brain can make predictions on what will happen and adjust your
physiology accordingly. For example, I did not know that it takes water 20 minutes to reach the bloodstream. So why does my thirst feel quenched almost immediately after I have had a glass of
water? Read Lesson 4 (Your Brain Predicts (Almost) Everything You Do) to find out.
I wish all politicians and decision-makers would read this book, especially Lessons 3
(Little Brains Wire Themselves to Their World), 5 (Your Brain Secretly Works With Other Brains), and 7 (Our Brains Can Create Reality) and then take action based on this information.
All in all, this short book (just 166 pages, including the appendix which is also well worth reading) will make you think about human behavior, especially your own. (Dr. Feldman Barrett does NOT claim that we don’t think, because obviously we do, it’s just not the primary function of the brain.)
Last month I saw the term buveur d’encre on a list of translations for bookworm in different languages. My dictionary only had one translation for bookworm and that was rat de bibliothèque, so I googled buveur d'encre and pictures of this book came up.
A few days later, a copy of Le buveur d’encre by Éric Sanvoisin & Martin Matje showed up in my mailbox.
Buveur d’encre means ink drinker and I think it’s a fabulous term!
Also, I am teaching myself to read French, so this little book (for ages 7 and up) was the perfect resource.
My grasp of the language is still weak, so it took me some time to read it and I definitely needed my dictionary, but I wanted to know what happened. Most language book texts are rather dull and I need to practice with something that keeps my interest. I find it nearly impossible to stay motivated when I don’t really care what the next sentence is.
Odilon is a young boy who hates books and whose bibliophile father owns a bookstore. One day, a strange customer floats in and begins to drink out of a book using a straw, and so Odilon decides to follow him even though he’s scared.
And then … oh, but the book is only a few pages long, so I’ll stop here so as not to write in any spoilers.
So, if you are looking for a book for a budding ink drinker, this is it. I noticed that there is a whole series of them, nine at least. And I loved the illustrations as well.
Also, I just realized that what a great excuse (as
if one would even need one!) to buy cute children’s books even after your own kids have moved out—you just read them in a foreign language and so they count as language resources. Serious
J’adore ce livre!
Happy ink drinking :-)
p.s. – this series is also available in English
Predictably, a few Finnish characters found their way into my novel, An Unconventional Marriage …
Elsa, the woman who Vera observes plunging into the icy water at the beach; Jukka, the hunky “Nordic god”; and his cousin Mia, who knows how to fly a helicopter but doesn’t know how to make coffee. Jukka is a chef, and during the story, Vera bakes a blueberry pie using one of his recipes.
In August, a friend of mine sent me a message saying that she was out picking blueberries and would I please send her my blueberry pie recipe (that’s how I knew she was reading my book). Unfortunately we were busy moving and I had packed all my recipes away already, so I found the traditional Finnish recipe on the internet and translated it into German for her.
I have decided to give you my sister’s version—she tweaked it a little and converted it into US measurements. I will mention that one of the many fabulous things about my sister Marjaana is that she has a culinary school degree and knows her stuff when it comes to food and recipes. Not only that, this version was printed in Sunset magazine some years ago!
The original recipe calls for the Finnish dairy product kermaviili, a curd cream made with buttermilk culture which is near impossible to find outside of the Nordic countries. Fortunately, sour cream works just as well, as do Schmand and Quark if you are in Germany.
Hyvää ruokahalua, Guten Appetit, and enjoy!
An Unconventional Marriage
by Liisa Rinne
A humorous and irreverent novel about the difficulty of long-term monogamy.
Vera cherishes the comfort and security of her family life and she is deeply attached to her husband Ben. It’s not a bad marriage, but the sparks are gone and they are more like buddies than lovers.
At 48, Vera feels too young to resign herself to a future with no promise of passion, hot sex, or the thrill of a new relationship ever again.
Some people divorce, some have affairs, and others just plod along and pretend everything is fine. But what if there was another, less conventional alternative?
When Vera suggests they try out an open relationship, Ben is at first shocked and then intrigued. As Vera’s friend Rita points out, what man could resist being “allowed” to have sex with other women?
However—Vera knows that this will only work if Ben has a lover before she does and so she sets out to find one for him. This turns out to be more complicated than she had anticipated, and along the way she has a few unexpected adventures and discovers things about herself that she has kept buried for years.
Walking onto the grounds of the Frankfurt Book Fair each year is exciting. It’s like entering an enormous treasure chest glittering with new publications. You rush around from stand to stand, seduced by beautiful book covers and posters advertising the clever new book by your favorite author. Each volume you greedily reach for might hold the promise of hours of entertainment, knowledge, innovative ideas, or that piece of wisdom you’ve been searching for all your life.
It’s exhausting but fun. The Frankfurt Book Fair is colorful and lively, buzzing with publishers from all around the world, readings, live interviews, authors signing books, food trucks and coffee stands, booklovers milling around or sitting in armchairs completely engrossed in some new find, and I love the fact that there are cosplayers in fantastic costumes everywhere. The atmosphere is casual and friendly – you rarely see a grumpy face there. (At least not on the weekends when the general public is allowed in…) If you should get tired of looking at books, you can always escape to the Gourmet Gallery, Stationery and Gifts, or Calendar Gallery. The Self-Publishing area seems to grow each year as well.
Leonardo da Vinci. The Biography
Most of us make to-do lists, but I would bet that hardly anyone has items such as “Draw Milan”, “Get the master of arithmetic to show you how to square a triangle”, or “Describe the tongue of a woodpecker” on it. Mine certainly don’t. But Leonardo da Vinci did, and these are just a few of the numerous examples scattered throughout this fascinating biography.
The author, Walter Isaacson, used Leonardo da Vinci’s countless notebooks as his starting point. I can’t even imagine how much time he must have spent sifting and reading through the over 7,200 pages crammed with notes, sketches, anatomical drawings, calculations, riddles, ideas for weapons and fortifications, lists (including lists of all the books he owned and wanted to have!), and pretty much everything else under the sun.
The quote above is from Thomas Jefferson.
J. Kevin Graffagnino
Only in Books: Writers, Readers, & Bibliophiles on Their Passion
“Without disparaging the other forms of collecting, I confess a conviction that the human impulse to collect reaches one of its highest levels in the domain of books.” Theodore C. Blegen (1891 – 1969)
Not that booklovers need an excuse for overflowing shelves, stacks of books on windowsills blocking the sunlight, or the myriads of to-be-read piles scattered about the house – but if you are in need of moral support, Only in Books will provide more than enough. This is what I turn to over and over whenever I need a good quote about books and reading.
I’m not sure how many quotes are collected here, but it’s a treasure trove, especially for those who think like Samuel Pepys (1632 – 1703) who said:
“I know not how to abstain from reading.”
And should you have a spouse who complains about the money you spend in bookstores, remind him or her that a book costs less than a few beers in a bar and certainly cheaper than a pair of shoes or a cordless drill.
“No entertainment is so cheap as reading, nor any pleasure so lasting.”
Mary Wortley Montague (1689 – 1762)
And if the argument above doesn’t work, here’s one to ponder:
“Reading goes ill with the married state.” Molière (1622 – 1673)
And just imagine the shitstorm that would ensue should anyone today utter the following in public!
“I am persuaded that foolish writers and readers are created for each other; and that Fortune provides readers as she does mates for ugly women.”
Horace Walpole (1717 – 1797)
I’ll stop now, before I end up re-printing the entire book here. But I have to end with a quote from Oscar Wilde (1856 – 1900). This is for you writers out there. :-)
“The play was a great success. But the audience was a failure.”
The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston has all the ingredients of a great adventure story. A dense jungle far from human habitation, where one could easily get lost by just wandering a few meters away from the camp, disease-bearing insects, close encounters with fer-de-lances, (large, aggressive, venomous snakes), in short a place where the team was equipped with two former SAS soldiers whose job was to ensure their survival. A lost city somewhere in the jungles of Honduras, known as the Lost City of the Monkey God or Ciudad Blanca (White City) which until then had been nothing more than a myth, a story passed down through generations. Oh, and to top it all off, the city was said to be cursed. Sounds like I’m describing a Hollywood film, doesn’t it? But this is the true story of an expedition that took place in 2012.
Babel No More. The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners
Babel No More by linguist Michael Erard won’t teach you how to learn a new language, but it will certainly motivate you to “apply the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair”, grab that grammar book and dictionary, and start learning. Scattered throughout the book are a few pointers given by various hyperpolyglots (in the book the term was used for people who knew at least eleven languages) and at the back of the book are two pages with answers from an online survey in which Michael Erard asked people for their top three methods for learning languages.
But this book is mainly a trek across the globe and into the past in search of historical and living hyperpolyglots. There’s the Italian Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti who was said to speak 72 languages in the 19th century, the cranky German diplomat, Emil Krebs (1867 – 1930), who was said to know over sixty languages, and the Hungarian translator Lomb Kató (1909 – 2003) who at 86 years of age was learning Hebrew as her seventeenth language, and a multitude of other interesting characters.
The most effective way to learn a language is to use it as much as possible. Speaking is preferable. But what if there’s nobody around to talk to in your new language? Or if you simply don’t like the thought of skyping with strangers in order to practice? My primary objective in learning Swedish is being able to read. This may change at some point, but it’s what I’m concentrating on at the moment.
In March I bought a Swedish magazine and – being opimistic – Häxan by Camilla Läckberg. (English translation: The Girl in the Woods)
I had practiced about 20 hours of Swedish when I started trying to read the magazine. Normally I never buy magazines because they are filled with advertisements, most of the articles are too short and rather trivial, and when I’m finished reading, the magazine gets tossed or given to a friend.
But funnily enough, the very reasons I don’t buy them make them a perfect language learning tool!
You can highlight words and phrases and jot notes onto the pages. I don’t do this with books. Ads are a great way to learn important new words like ‘anti-rynkkräm’ (anti-wrinkle cream), fuktighetsgivande (moisturizing) and stiliga stövletter (stylish ankle boots). Short trite phrases and loads of photos make it easy to understand what’s meant. I literally read the entire magazine, ads and all and I doubt there’s another woman out there who has spent so many hours poring over this particular issue of Femina! There’s a huge range of subjects to learn vocabulary from because these are frequently used words and phrases, you can see how sentences are structured, and the grammar is fairly simple and up-to-date. (Remember, you should probably not look for the equivalent of The Economist right in the beginning!) Specialty magazines would be fun to use too – sailing, outdoor, equestrian, cooking, and so on, if you are interested in a particular subject and want to learn the related vocabulary.
The reason I haven’t posted anything for ages is because I have spent the past 3 months obsessed with re-learning Swedish. After learning it nearly thirty years ago, I haven’t used it since, so maybe re-learning isn’t the right word. At the beginning it felt like I was starting nearly at square one again. Regarding the brain in general, there’s the saying „use it or lose it“and this applies especially to languages. If you don’t work at maintaining what you’ve learned, it will gradually rust away. So why Swedish?
Because I was irritated with myself for having let it rust away. Last time I moved, I found Tove Jansson’s Bildhuggarens Dotter and realized that I had been able to read it once upon a time, but was no longer able to do so, and it’s not even a very complicated text.
For some reason I had always believed that I don’t have the self-discipline to teach myself a language, that I’d always need a classroom to learn. And now I live in a place where there are no suitable language classes close by. So I plan on proving myself wrong!
My goal is to be able to read Swedish novels in Swedish by the end of 2018. I must have at least 50 books on my shelves that have been translated from Swedish into English or German, and I have decided that if I want to re-read them, I will do so in Swedish.
From Here to Eternity.
Traveling the World to Find the Good Death
By Caitlin Doughty
From here to Eternity felt like perfect travel reading for a trip to Helsinki in March to attend a memorial service.
The author, Caitlin Doughty, is a mortician who runs a non-profit (!) funeral home called Undertaking in L.A., and she has written a witty and thought-provoking book about funerary customs around the world and through history. What she describes here is not even remotely like the customs I have experienced in the USA, Germany, or Finland. She has traveled to Indonesia, Belize, Bolivia, Mexico, Japan, and Spain to see how other cultures take care of their dead. And maybe those are the key words here. We don’t take care of our dead. As soon as somebody dies, they are handed over to a funeral home, i.e. a company, because we wouldn’t know what to do anyway. We haven’t learned anything about this.
Contrast this with the place in Indonesia which she visited, where the dead are kept in their families‘ homes for the period of time between their death and the funeral. (This can range from several months to several years!) There are descriptions of an open-air pyre in Colorado, a facility in North Carolina which is experimenting with turning bodies into compost, an un-embalmed natural burial in California (I’ve often wondered why all burials aren’t like that, it seems much more natural), a hypermodern funeral home in Barcelona, a high-tech columbarium (building which stores cremated remains) in Japan, and ñatitas (human skulls or mummified heads) in La Paz, Bolivia which are revered and thought to be able to grant certain favors.
My favorite ritual is the Días de los Muertos celebrated in Mexico. I wish we had something similar here. I love the idea of going to the cemetery in Helsinki with my whole family, bringing food, drink, and candles, decorating the place with bright flowers and hearing a band playing in the background. I’m pretty sure my aunts would be pleased by the idea too. The cemetery officials in Helsinki probably less so…
Despite the subject matter, From Here to Eternity is anything but a somber and morbid read. It’s written with a healthy and lively dose of dark humor and I hope it gets translated into many languages! After all, it’s a subject that affects each and every one of us sooner or later, and of course reading it makes you think about your own mortality and how you want to be ‚interred‘ when the time comes.
“Finnish is sooo hard to learn!”
I couldn’t even count the number of times I’ve heard that phrase (strangely enough, mostly from people who’ve never even made an effort to find out if that is true or not.)
Well, maybe it is, but learning English has its difficulties as well, especially when it comes to colloquialisms. Here’s a link to a YouTube video of the Finnish comedian Ismo Leikola on the Conan O’Brien show in January, explaining why the word “ass” is the most difficult word in the English language. (Apparently the video has spread like wildfire!)
View these books as a mental toolkit, a compendium of ideas from philosophers, psychologists, scientists, and economists. Tools to help one make better decisions and to become aware of what sort of “thinking errors” are most common. Some ideas have been around for ages (from Seneca, Boethius, and other Stoics), but he also includes modern theories by Daniel Kahnemann, Warren Buffett, and Charlie Munger, to name just a few.
Just as you don’t need every tool in a well-stocked toolbox, you probably won’t need each one of these mental tools. I don’t agree with each and every one either, but they will certainly make you analyze how you make decisions or behave in certain ways.
Now, how cool is this? It seems I have a foreign correspondent in Taiwan!
In between hanging out at local bookstores, our lovely, intelligent, and altogether lovable niece is studying there at the moment. She is one of those rare and brave German girls who has been learning Chinese since seventh grade, and is at HSK Level 3 * now.
Harry Potter will always be one of her most-loved book series, but recent favorites include The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater and Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport (which she doesn’t really need, diligent as she already is…)
* Test takers who are able to pass the HSK (Level III) can communicate in Chinese at a basic level in their daily, academic and professional lives. They can manage most communication in Chinese when travelling in China. (from: China Education Center Ltd.)
Some books hook you right from the first page.
Mies joka kuoli by Antti Tuomainen hooked me before I even opened the book, just because the premise is so unusual.
Here is a translation of the back cover of the Finnish original, so you can see what I mean:
A murderously fun thriller about love, death, betrayal, and, of course, mushrooms.
Jaakko Kaunismaa is a successful 37-year old mushroom entrepreneur who receives surprising and shocking news from his doctor: he is dying. Further tests reveal that he is the victim of long-term poisoning – in other words, somebody is murdering him, slowly but surely.
Bibliomysteries – A perfect gift for booklovers
“What treats you have in store!” – Ian Rankin
Ian Rankin’s quote on the front cover of this deliciously fat volume is so true!
Even if you’re not generally a fan of short stories, these lethal literary tidbits are perfect for long dark winter evenings. Not so hair-raising that you can’t fall asleep afterwards, and can be read when you’re alone in the house with the wind howling outside.
The stories are diverse, set in different epochs, countries, and social situations. For example, one is about a Mexican drug lord whose weakness for first editions becomes his undoing. Sigmund Freud has an uncomfortable encounter in another. A magical library changes the life of Mr. Berger in John Connolly’s story, and a private detective searches for the book carrying a dead Mafia Boss’s secrets in It’s in the Book by Mickey Spillane & Max Allan Collins. Also, book club members may not be as innocuous as one might assume…
There are fifteen short stories set in the world of books and bookstores, written by renowned authors exclusively for the Mysterious Bookshop in New York City and edited by its owner Otto Penzler. I checked out the Mysterious Press website and saw that there are many more bibliomysteries available, mainly as e-books though. I hope that Mr. Penzler will bring out a second volume of collected bibliomysteries very soon!
Murderous delights for your favorite booklovers - be sure to start with yourself!
In Helsinki I had a few hours before my flight, so I set off to explore some antiquarian bookshops. Actual shopping was not really feasible since my suitcase was already full, including six books (in my defence – three of them I’d received as gifts), Pentik bowls and towels, rye bread, and probably a kilo of chocolate among other things. But one can always just browse, right? One of the books in my suitcase was Koiramäen Suomen Historia (Doghill's History of Finland) the newest one by Mauri Kunnas – one can never be too old and jaded for these, they are great fun for kids and adults alike - and since Finland is celebrating 100 years of independence on December 6th this year, it did not seem like an option to not buy it!
Originally I’d planned to visit at least three or four second-hand bookshops, but then I walked into Kampintorin Antikvariaatti (centrally located at Fredrikinkatu 63) and I was sold.
Frankfurt has much more to offer than just a fabulous Book Fair each October. Christiane (my sister-in-law) has lived in Frankfurt all her life and she planned a perfect day on Friday before the fair.
We started off with literature/culture and toured the Goethe-House which is definitely worth a visit. This is where Johann Wolfgang Goethe was born on August 28, 1749 (supposedly just as the clock struck twelve noon). It’s a spacious house with four floors and there are nice descriptions of what each room was used for. It’s easy to picture Goethe in the writing room, hunched over his early manuscripts at the desk or standing at the high desk, his pen (quill?) scratching across the paper, line after endless line. In the library filled with leather bound volumes, Christiane and I noted that there were books in at least four different languages: German, Latin, French, and English. Goethe’s father had collected about 2,000 books in all different fields of study.
After we’d filled our minds, we needed a little something for the body; luckily, the Bitter & Zart Salon was just a few minutes walk away. Coffee and a slice of decadent dark chocolate raspberry cake worked miracles. The atmosphere is as luscious as the cakes and their adjacent shop is full of chocolaty temptations.
Anyone trying to squeeze their way through the crowds at the Frankfurt Book Fair each October would be inclined to disagree that the printed word is losing ground. For my sister-in-law Christiane and me, the annual book fair is part pilgrimage to a holy site and part intense but enjoyable work (we most certainly don’t come here to play ;-))
The Frankfurt Book Fair is huge and the first few hours are overwhelming – we’re like kids set free in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, psyched but also a little edgy. How on earth will we get through this all in just two days? “This” meaning some 7000 exhibitors from over 100 countries presenting about 400,000 titles. Of course we’re only interested in a fraction of the wares, but it takes time to get from stand to stand when you’re sharing the space with 100,000 other visitors (and this is only the approximate number of general public visitors on Saturday and Sunday. The total including the trade visitors is somewhere around 270,000 for all five days!)
Hour by hour, as our lists steadily grow, our legs and feet begin to tire, it’s too hot in the halls, I forgot to bring a water bottle, and we get annoyed with feverish fans blocking the aisles waiting for autographs from some author with rock star status. Yet it doesn't matter - I wouldn’t miss it for anything in the world! Events, interviews, author readings, a self-publishing area, indie publishers, digital media – it’s all there. But the main focus is still the printed book. This is our idea of a perfect weekend.
Each time we move, some visitor inevitably stands in front of my bookshelves with an expression of horror, imagining that it will take me days to pack all my books. Lest you think I live in an immense library, there are only about 2500 books in the house, including all the children’s and YA books – so maybe just slightly more than in the average household…
Of all the things one has to pack, books are probably the easiest. At least the physical act of boxing them up. The psychological anxieties that accompany the process of placing of all ones beloved books out of reach for a few weeks, is, of course, a whole different story. One that I have to deal with on my own, since I prefer to spend the money on books rather than on psychiatrists.*
A few months ago I gathered up enough courage to cull some books from my overflowing shelves. I was doing pretty well and had two boxes full when Michael Dirda’s Bound to Please. An Extraordinary One-Volume Literary Education caught my eye. It’s been years since I read this, so I thought I’d just page through it for a few minutes. It ended up being toted around the house for the following month because this is one of those fabulous books you can just open up to any random page and begin reading. I also had Readings. Essays and Literary Entertainments, so that soon joined Bound to Please (love the title by the way, with its triple meaning) on the coffee table and nightstand. I’m a sucker for books about books so it wasn’t long before it occurred to me to see if he’d written even more – and, oh glory, I found Browsings, which I promptly ordered. He has written more than these three books, but I do practice moderation now and then, and so did not order them all. I could not, however, resist buying William Morris. A Life for Our Time by Fiona MacCarthy, due to Mr. Dirda’s essay on the biography of this Renaissance man (in Bound to Please).
This year, summer reading around Hamburg can be summed up as follows:
When it’s warm and dry, you can read outdoors.
When it rains, you read inside.
Here are four books suitable for the backyard, the beach, or the sofa, as well as for planes and trains if you are traveling.
Narconomics. How to Run a Drug Cartel
What Big Business Taught the Drug Lords
Ebury Press 2016, 254 pages
NO…this is not a step-by-step guide to setting up your own drug cartel!
In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Tom Wainwright, a writer for The Economist, has analyzed the way drug cartels function from an economist’s point of view. Many of the strategies used in this extremely violent and profitable business are the same as those of any large company.
He starts off with the coca farmers, barely eking out a living at the lowest end of cocaine’s supply chain, and points out the similarities between the cartels and Walmart, both of which are able to dictate prices to the suppliers. This means that no matter how many coca farms are destroyed, the ones who suffer are the farmers. Retail prices are not affected enough to put off consumers, even with mark-ups of up to 30,000 percent from the price of coca to the final retail price of cocaine.
No, I’m not referring to The Game of Thrones, but to Catherine the Great & Potemkin. The Imperial Love Affair by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Granted, there are many similar elements here, but the dragons are missing…
Simon Sebag Montefiore
Catherine the Great & Potemkin. The Imperial Love Affair
Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2016, 557 pages
(first published in 2000 as Prince of Princes: The Life of Potemkin)
The book nearly flows over with nearly three-quarters of a century of battles, conquests, annexations, diplomatic missions, political intrigues, plus background information on various historical figures, all interspersed with love affairs. I couldn’t keep track of it all, nor of Potemkin’s seemingly endless parade of mistresses. He became quickly enamored, but apparently grew bored with most of them just as fast, but this didn’t pose a problem as there were more than enough women craving his attentions. Catherine, in turn, had her “favourites” (I lost track of them as well), the last one being only 22 years old (Catherine was 60 at the time!)
The Picture of Dorian Gray
We started off the New Year with me reading The Picture of Dorian Gray, one of my all-time favorite books out loud to Ralf in the evenings. It’s taken awhile to get through it, because he’s been out hunting wild boars quite often. (It just occurred to me what a sharp contrast these two activities are!)
What is it about Dorian Gray that fascinates everyone so much?
Is it the dream of youth and beauty he is able to maintain for years? Or do we all carry some secret wish within us to be able to commit sins and crimes without repercussions – at least for a time? Or is it merely a kind of voyeuristic pleasure, reading about Dorian Gray’s transformation from an innocent lad to a full-blown narcissist who has no regard for anyone but himself?
Part of the charm certainly comes from Oscar Wilde’s style. The novel feels so opulent, perhaps due to the unbridled luxury of the characters’ lifestyles. (Although Wilde does ramble on about the jewels and the tapestries, doesn’t he?) And of course it comes to life through the character of Lord Henry, with his sharp wit and cynical manner which would liven up any dinner party, even today.
Oscar Wilde is also my favorite source of quotes (with Dorothy Parker coming in a close second). There’s even a quotation about quotations from him:
Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit. (Oscar Wilde)
So…does anyone know of a good portrait painter in the Hamburg area?
(I’m kidding – I realize I would’ve had to have this done about twenty years ago! :-D)
I’m going into hiding for the weekend (And, yes, I know – Tyrion and all the other characters would only scoff at this paltry amount of wine…)
Game of Thrones Season 6 was just released (maybe unleashed would be a better word?) on DVD and my younger son has roused my curiosity with countless cryptic comments (but zero spoilers).
This is one of those rare instances where I love (am addicted to?) the movie version and have never even read the books. Not that I don’t think I’d like them. Quite the opposite. But if I started one, I’d inevitably continue until I finished the series, and the dog would slowly starve in the meantime. My boys are old enough to feed themselves, so that part wouldn't worry me so much...
It occurred to me last night that I should find an appropriate book for Halloween.
Something horrific and truly frightening.
I’ve had H.P. Lovecraft’s Great Tales of Horror on my shelf for years, but still haven’t gotten around to reading it, so I can’t very well recommend that one. The only other book that may count as a horror novel is Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill which I read so long ago that I can’t remember what it was about. I’m pretty sure I liked it though. Joe Hill is also the author of Horns which was made into a movie starring Daniel Radcliffe and which I thought was very good.
Then I realized that one of the scariest books I have was right in one of my current to-read piles, one that I have been meaning to re-read for the past couple of weeks. So I picked it up last night and after about fifteen minutes, I was already breaking out in a cold sweat. This is not something for the faint-of-heart.
Since I arrived early on Friday afternoon, my sister-in-law, Christiane (the one who orders an entire laundry basket of books after each book fair – see blog post from November 25, 2015 in the German section) showed me Frankfurt. I can certainly recommend the marzipan cake at Café Mozart (Töngesgasse 23) and next time we are definitely going to the Bitter & Zart Salon on Braubachstr. 14 (https://www.bitterundzart.de/). Römerberg is worth a visit, as is the Stadel Museum located directly on the River Main.
Saturday and Sunday were spent at the Book Fair, where else? We made it to the wake-up slam on Saturday, with Micha-El Goehre and David Friedrich – the perfect way to start the day! Halls 3.0 and 3.1 were – as always – filled to the brim with visitors, so I spent a lot of time in the halls with international exhibitors and in 4.1 where you find smaller publishers and the art books. Sadly, the hall with the English language publishers had pretty meagre pickings – most of them were already packing up their wares when I arrived.
Browsing through the thick books at Gestalten was a highlight. Honestly, if one were to start collecting books from a certain publisher, well, this is probably where I’d start. (We already have one: Rock the Shack). Absolutely gorgeous. This kind of stuff literally makes my heart beat faster.
It hasn't been easy figuring out how to work a pair of awesome shoes into a book blog...
I wasn't so sure I believed in love at first sight until I spotted these in a shop in Hamburg. I tried them on and racked my brain for just one reason to buy them, but then gave up, figuring I'd be perfectly capable of finding that reason at home later on. ;-)
So the photo is here to serve as an example of inappropriate footwear for the Frankfurt Book Fair which is starting today. I will be in Frankfurt on Saturday and Sunday, logging countless kilometers, traipsing from one enormous hall to another. But not in these shoes! The Guest of Honour this year is Flanders & the Netherlands.
More about the Frankfurt Book Fair next week when I return.
p.s. - the shoes are from Navyboot Switzerland and it's Vivienne's fault, really. (See her quote on impressive clothes in the post from September 8th.)
"If you want the American dream, go to Finland."
The Nordic Theory of Everything
In Search of a Better Life
HarperCollins 2016, 333 pages
Every now and then I run across a book so excellent that it should be required reading for everybody. After a few chapters, I thought I must recommend this to all the teachers I know. And those who work in health care. Some pages later, I realized that I wanted to recommend this book to every single person I know who lives in the United States, regardless of their age, occupation, or income. Every single person is somehow affected by issues such as healthcare, child care, education, taxes, and aging. Or, more accurately, by the lack of equality in health care and education. (Nobody is actually naïve enough to believe that everybody has an equal chance at succeeding the way things are set up now, are they?)
Vivienne Westwood & Ian Kelly
Picador 2014, 417 pages
„Vivienne often wakes early and her passion and her routine is to read in bed. Most mornings she will do this for more than an hour, ….“ (p. 405)
Right. So this is about a fashion designer, but books play an important role in her life, so it all ties in nicely.
Vivienne Westwood is an inspiration, a role model, an activist, someone who obviously cares deeply about the world we live in. She not only has a sense for fashion, but also for history, for tailoring, for quality.
This is a most fascinating, well-written biography about an incredible woman. The chatty tone often made me forget I was reading and not listening to people actually talking, reminiscing, and telling funny anecdotes. Her life story is as enthralling as any work of fiction and it kept me hooked from the first page. From making distressed and punk rock clothing and dying and printing t-shirts – literally by hand – to sell in her shop on King’s Road to running this enormous fashion label, wow, did I mention how inspiring she is? :-)
(I also learned two new terms: brothel creepers and winkle-pickers.)
Here's another quote: „You have a much better life if you wear impressive clothes.“
So if you’ll excuse me now, I’m going to change into something more impressive than the jeans and Alaska Brewing Co. tank top I’m wearing at the moment. (Although I do love this top - and not only because their beer is tasty…)
As far as accessories go then, I'd say this book is a rather fashionable one. Tuck it under your arm; it’ll look better than a sequined clutch.
I just noticed that The Almost Nearly Perfect People by Michael Booth has been translated into Finnish! :-)
The title is Pohjolan Onnelat and it has been published by Docendo.
The Almost Nearly Perfect People. Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia.
Vintage 2015, 393 pages
I’d say this would be the perfect gift for your favorite Scandinavian, but you’ll probably end up keeping this for yourself.
Michael Booth is a British gentleman (read the book and you'll understand why I use this particular word!) who lives in Denmark and has traveled throughout the Nordic countries in order to take a deeper look at the societies and peoples of Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Finland, and Sweden. He has interviewed politicians, historians, philosophers, scientists, artists, and Santa Claus.
This book made me laugh every few pages and I’ve spent the last couple of days reading passages out loud to the rest of my family.
And I’m not raving about this just because he writes: „I think the Finns are fantastic. I can’t get enough of them. I would be perfectly happy for the Finns to rule the world. They get my vote, they’ve won my heart.“ (Well, maybe a little...we’re all suckers for this kind of flattery, aren’t we?) It’s his unpretentious style and dry British humor combined with loads of cultural, historical, and economical information that makes this worth reading.
He tries to find out why Denmark is considered to be the happiest place in the world, gives a short description of the economic crash in Iceland and there’s a bit about elves too (they had nothing to do with the crash), and delves into how the discovery of oil has changed Norway (and explains why the country ran out of butter in 2011).
His sauna experience in Helsinki will make you (or any Finns reading this anyway) laugh out loud, as will his description of the day he decides to go about Stockholm "behaving as un-Swedishly as possible, the theory being that, by acting in diametric opposition to Swedish social norms, I would be better able to identify and observe said norms.” (So read the book and find out what happens when he crunches through a bag of chips and slurps his coke next to a ‚no eating or drinking‘ sign at the Nobel Museum, crosses the street while the light is still red, and so forth.)
After you’re done reading, you can take a couple of minutes to watch the youtube video he recommends, titled simply ‚Danish Language‘ before booking a flight to the Nordic country of your choice.
Also, I’m almost nearly sure that it’s the Scandinavians who will be most amused by this book!
After more than four months of focusing my attention on other projects, I thought it’s time to wake Bookthirsty from its self-induced coma – or is hibernation a more appropriate word? Lately I have read so many fabulous books and am starting to feel guilty about not sharing them with others.
Cold Storage, Alaska
Soho Press 2014, 294 pages
Cold Storage is a tiny town in Alaska, so small that the inhabitants have a sort of ‘sex radar’, which alerts them to who is sleeping with whom. It is home to Miles, a former Army Ranger medic who now enjoys the quiet and fishing (even though it has been years since he caught a king salmon) and who works at the local clinic, curing the locals’ ailments, both physical and mental. When Miles’ brother Clive gets out of jail and comes back home, he brings with him not only an ugly dog, but also a former ‘business partner’ who wants to track him down and kill him, and a disagreeable state trooper who begins to snoop around.
The cast of quirky characters, the amusing dialogues and surprising turns of events make this a thoroughly entertaining read. And of course the setting itself.
Graphic Arts Books 2015, 251 pages
Nobody really knows how old Old Keb, a half-Tlingit, half-Norwegian elder, is, but he has outlived his wife, his friends and his three sons and now he tired - of a lot of things - and thinks it may be time to die. When his grandson James is injured in a logging accident, losing both his chance to play in the NBA and his will to live, old Keb decides it is time to build one last canoe.
This twenty-five foot red cedar log in the carving shed soon becomes somewhat of a community project and when it is finished, Old Keb and James leave on a journey towards Crystal Bay, where the Jinkaat Tlingit came from long ago. A last journey for Keb and a reason to believe in something for James.
Lingo. Around Europe in Sixty Languages
With contributions by Jenny Audring, Frauke Watson and Alison Edwards (translation)
Atlantic Monthly Press 2015, 284 pages
How can I not advocate a book which explains why Finnish is easier to learn (to spell at least...) than English? :-)
Anybody who is interested in languages will love reading Lingo – it is a collection of essays on sixty European languages and dialects, each just a few pages long, but full of interesting facts. I thought I’d enjoy a couple of chapters daily, but ended up racing through the entire book in just two days.
Steve Hockensmith with Lisa Falco
The White Magic Five and Dime. A Tarot Mystery
Midnight Ink 2014, 326 pages
The White Magic Five and Dime caught my attention at the Frankfurt Book Fair, mainly because the cynical heroine with the smart mouth sounded like such a fun character to read about.
Alanis McLachlan hasn’t seen her mother in twenty years and now gets a message that her mother was murdered and has left a will. Alanis travels to Berdache, Arizona only to find that she has inherited a Tarot shop of all things. Highly sceptical because, after all, her mother had been a con-artist, Alanis nevertheless decides to stay long enough to figure out who the murderer was.
Like 2015, 304 pages
Norma is an unusual young woman who is suddenly left completely alone when her mother dies. Was it suicide or was she murdered?
Norma’s thick hair grows up to a meter a day and it can actually sense things. If anybody found out about this, she would be in great danger. Without her mother to protect her, she does not know who she can trust.
Norma has the key to something the Lambert family wants, of that they are sure, and they will stop at nothing to get it.
is about organized crime, trafficking of surrogate mothers and human hair, about our obsession for beauty,
all set mostly in Helsinki in a not so distant future and spiced with a splash of
Picador 2015, 273 pages
I mentioned Sasha Abramsky’s The House of Twenty Thousand Books for the hard-core bibliophiles and then Wanted! Ralfy Rabbit, Book Burglar and The Snatchabook for the absolute beginners.
So now here is something in the middle. Not just for booklovers, but for anybody who loves a great story with quirky characters.
Twelve-year old Bobby Nusku fears spending time at home. His mother is gone and his best friend has moved so when Bobby meets Rosa and her mother Val who cleans a mobile library, he also discovers books, and the summer begins to look brighter. Then things start going wrong, and the three feel their only choice is to run away – in the mobile library.
While the book is entertaining and fun to read, there is also this running undercurrent of really bad ideas kids have (including a few spine-chilling scenes), bullying, child abuse and neglect, and the effect that ignorant and nasty gossip can have.
However, along the way, Bobby, Val and Rosa befriend a stranger, have the adventure of their lives and forge themselves into a family – and Bobby discovers that stories really do happen to people like him.
And really, if one had to run away, what better vehicle to go in than a mobile library?!
I just noticed that Synkkä niin kuin sydämeni by Antti Tuomainen is now available in English.
It is titled Dark as my Heart and translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers.
Published by Harvill Secker in October 2015.
Back when I wrote about this (October 2014), it was only available in German.
And for some reason I am unable to link this to that post, which is unusual. :-(
Here are two adorable children’s books to read out loud, and which will entertain the adult booklover just as much as the little ones. Both are stories about impossibly cute biblioklepts but they are very different and because it will be difficult to choose which one to get, sooner or later you will probably end up with both of them on your shelves…
Wanted! Ralfy Rabbit, Book Burglar
Bloomsbury 2014, 32 pages
Ralfy Rabbit is the ultimate little bibliophile – he wants to read books all the time, he dreams about them and makes lists about them. But then he begins to steal them and that’s when the trouble starts… a very funny little story!
The House of Twenty-Thousand Books
New York Review Books 2014, 327 pages
How can I not pick up a book with a title like this? If I had to sum up my feelings about The House of Twenty-Thousand Books in one sentence, it would be: I loved this book! Actually, I think I may have wanted to physically live inside it... Truly a ‘book about books’!
Sasha Abramsky has written a fabulous account of his grandparents, Chimen and Miriam Abramsky and their obsessive collecting of both books and people, and also the times they lived in. Chimen is described as a polymath and bibliophile, Miriam was very intelligent and warm-hearted and they lived in a house which was stuffed with books in every room (except for the kitchen and the bath) and a table just as fully laden with seemingly never ending platters of delicious food (do not read this on an empty stomach) and always, always, interesting company gathered around for political debate. Nourishment for both body and soul.
Here is the text from the inside jacket cover:
The fact that I haven’t posted much during the past months does not mean that I haven’t been reading.
Here are six praiseworthy books more or less devoured during the summer.
Two amazing novels by Don Winslow:
The Power of the Dog and The Cartel are sweeping complex tales of epic proportion describing the so-called War on Drugs, which of course is anything but that, because it is being ‘fought’ on the wrong fronts.
An incredible amount of research has gone into these tomes and you will read every bit of news on the subject in a different light after reading them. At
times I forgot I was reading novels, that's how authentically he writes.
Oneworld Publications 2015, 365 pages
Translated from the Russian by Lisa C. Hayden
Those who buy this book because they assume it is “Russia’s answer to The Name of the Rose”, as is printed on the cover, might very well be disappointed. Both are set in the middle ages and both fairly teem with monks, yes… But no.
And what is it with this marketing trend which tries to force every other new title into the spotlight occupied by an older bestseller anyway? Often quite misleading, and
once you’ve bought and read the book, you can hardly return it to your bookseller crying that it was nothing like The Name of the Rose, Dickens or
Borges or whatever other novel it claimed to have elements of, be the love child of, or have a new fresh take on. You’re not going to get your money back, no matter what kind of puppy eyes you make.
Kirjastonhoitaja Topi Mullo
Reuna, 2015 269 pages
Janne Nevala’s Kirjastonhoitaja Topi Mullo is an entertaining story about a young man who takes a summer job at a small library on an island. He has been left with precise instructions as to what his duties are, and these he takes very seriously (to the dismay of some of the visitors). But summer is when things happen on the island, and a veritable invasion of tourists and artists shake up Topi’s routines. A theatre ensemble ends up moving into the building, and the flamboyant actress Nika takes an interest in him. There is the beautiful red-haired cleaner, a gang of unruly boys, and a rich widow who lives in an enormous storybook mansion, to name just a few of the other characters. The tone of the book is humorous, especially Topi’s inner monologues, which often made me laugh out loud.
What? No wake-up slam at the book fair this year? What a disappointment! That was the best and most inspiring way to start each day last year.
Guest of Honor this year was Indonesia. The pavilion was divided into different ‘islands’, each with a different theme – old manuscripts, tables of colourful spices near the luscious cookbooks, a reading area and so on. Befitting
for a country composed entirely of islands (according to Wikipedia, Indonesia is spread over 17,508 islands, about
6,000 of which are inhabited!)
Dr. Jacqueline Hornor Plumez
The Bitch in Your Head.
Taylor Trade Publishing 2015, 173 pages
This one is mainly for the ladies…
Oh, so this time you actually thought I’d post a photo of some good-looking shirtless hunk, did you?
Well, sorry to disappoint you – it’s just about another book. Again… groan…
Before I start, let me say that this book is not going to magically transform your life by next week and much of what is in there, we’ve read or heard a dozen times over. Some of the advice is a bit simplistic or naïve. No, the reason I’m recommending this one is because of the basic idea here. It is something I understand well. And you will probably recognize it too.
My posts here stopped for some time, having started to question the point in keeping this up. It’s not the only thing I’ve been questioning lately; pretty much everything is being scrutinized and turned over in my mind. Except for one thing. No matter what chaotic thoughts abound, one subject always manages to poke its way to the surface as a matter of course, much like crocuses in the springtime, and that is, of course, books. Sometimes I feel like they literally anchor me to the world.
I just returned from visiting family and friends in Seattle and while there, my sister, my nephew, my younger son and I accompanied my mom on a short trip to south eastern Alaska. She has wanted to go there for years, so the trip was a birthday gift when she turned – um… when she had a birthday. Shortly before we arrived in Juneau, I looked at the mountains and passages of water through the plane window and thought to myself that should I ever move back to the USA, I would move to Alaska (note that we hadn’t even landed yet…)
Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country
National Geographic Directions 2003, 141 pages
This is a mini road trip through islands, books, nature, Ojibwe words, traditions and myths.
To the enormous Lake of the Woods in Minnesota and Ontario with about 14,500 islands, some of which have rock paintings. And then to Mallard Island on Rainy Lake where the adventurer Ernest Oberholtzer built a number of houses and filled them with more than 11,000 books.
Louise Erdrich travels to these places with her new baby and a stack of books. She writes about her observations, teaching the reader much along the way. I like her dry sense of humor, for example as she writes about her baby picking blueberries (miinan) straight into her mouth. “I show her how. This is the one traditional Ojibwe pursuit I’m good at.”
She reads Austerlitzin a cheap roadside motel, explains a bit about the Ojibwe language (Mazina’iganan is the word for books…:-)), and deftly blends traditional and modern life, slowing down to look at and contemplate things, making everything somehow matter. I could easily begin reading this book again immediately.
Other books by Louise Erdrich that I have read are: The Crown of Columbus (written together with Michael Dorris), Tales of Burning Love, The Painted Drum, and Shadow Tag.
Auntie Mame (An Irreverent Escapade)
Originally published in 1955
I just had a lot of fun re-reading this truly irreverent novel!
When ten-year old Patrick is orphaned, he is sent to live with his only living relative, Auntie Mame in New York. Flamboyant, impossibly wealthy and able to “charm the birds off the trees”, Auntie Mame chain smokes, drinks like a fish and is quite possibly the funniest aunt that I have read about. She dives headlong into new experiences, changing manners, diction and wardrobe, from an Irishwoman in tweeds to a southern belle, to suit the situation, and always at the center of attention. But she does take care of the boy, and starts off with his vocabulary, giving him a pad and pencil so that he can write down words he hears but doesn’t understand. Soon thereafter, he has words like daiquiri, narcissistic, Biarritz, psychoneurotic, and relativity on his list.
Thoroughly entertaining and not nearly as ‘fluffy’ as it may sound.
The first chapter can be read on the publisher’s website: http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/39555/auntie-mame-by-patrick-dennis/
The Serpent and the Rainbow. A Harvard Scientist’s Astonishing Journey into the Secret Societies of Haitian Voodoo, Zombis, and Magic
Simon & Schuster 1985, 267 pages
I can’t even remember how this book got onto my to-read list. I’m certainly not a fan of zombie books or movies. World War Zis the only one I’ve watched - that I can think of.
Standing in front of the Fiskars Gardening Tools at the local hardware store with my younger son a few years ago, I did get a lesson in how useful these high-quality axes, hedge shears, garden forks, spades and so forth would be in the face of a zombie apocalypse, though…
Un viejo que leía novelas de amor
First published in 1989
(English: The Old Man Who Read Love Stories)
I can’t remember the last time I read a book this intensively. Probably never.
I enrolled in a second Spanish class taught by my teacher, solely because I heard they were reading this novel together. All of the other students are a couple of levels higher than I am, and I had to read through each chapter carefully at home, sometimes having to look up every other word (even though many translations are already given in this Reclam version especially for students) or puzzling over sentences for minutes on end, until I finally figured out – at least in most cases – the meaning.
It was slow going. But worth it. I loved it. Both the book and
the experience. Of course you can do this on your own without a class, but I don’t always have the self-discipline to do this on a regular basis without that little extra nudge of having to
prepare for class.
I haven’t posted anything for ages and have a couple of excellent reasons for that (see photo) plus any number of super lame excuses… So I'll change the subject. How about books?
What is the most important thing to consider before leaving on a trip?
Exactly... How many and which books to pack. (Obviously. That was too easy.)
Wsoy 2013, 236 pages
Pietari Kutila leaves a shelf of old pipes to his daughter, and to each pipe there is a story about its owner. In his letter he says that up to this point (1945), he has told stories about war and the fear, the pain and the distress suffered by people torn from their homes. But, he writes, there are other tales as well…
And so we are swept away to African slave ships, the favelas in Rio, the Volga, St. Petersburgand Berlin. Each story is separate, yet they are all tied together like pearls on a string. Exotic, erotic, colourful tales encompassing the whole range of human emotion and behaviour from the most despicable to the altruistic and loving, Ín turns, bold, magical and horrifying.
Perfect. This book easily became a favourite and now I am looking forward to reading Katja Kettu’s novel The Midwife, which was published in 2011.
For more Finnish books click here.
Tunnel in the Sky
Pan Books Ltd, 1968, 222 pages
Rarely do I read Science Fiction novels, but Ralf brought this one home from a business trip last month and I was curious; one of his customers had lent it to him after some conversation they’d had about The Knowledge by Lewis Dartnell.
First published in 1955, Tunnel in the Sky takes place in a future where people travel to other planets easily enough through special gates.
Rod is a senior in high school and his final examination in Solo Survival takes him to an unknown planet for up to ten days. But something goes wrong and the exit gate back to Terra never appears. Rob and the other students stranded on the planet are left to their own devices for an indefinite amount of time. They must hunt, find water, build shelters and – as their group grows in number – build a society, which is not an easy task.
Robert Heinlein wrote 32 novels and 59 short stories in his lifetime, in addition to other works!