All my Antics, Mostly Reviews

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Closeup of an eye in greens and turqoises

From Excess to Transport

A Review of Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

Cover of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks

I first read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat around January 2016, more than 4 years ago. I, recently, had started listening to the backlog of the podcast Radiolab and had learned to love the voice and insight of neurologist and author Oliver Sacks. I read this book on my commute to university and back and loved the various case stories and how much they told me about my brain.

So when 2020 hit with its CoViD-19-related lockdowns, I first picked it for readings to dispel the quarantine boredom and loneliness. Its separate chapters lent themselves well to being read aloud in a voice call. And so, for a few weeks, I took an hour each evening to read one or two chapters of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. However, this didn’t continue indefinitely, and with the ongoing pandemic, demand and energy to continue these almost daily readings to my friends fizzled out.

This left me with around a quarter of the book unread. Only now, months later, I picked it up again to finish the last chapters on my own. I have to admit I forgot a lot of details about the first half of these accounts. But I remember it fondly, just like Sack’s other books I read, like On the Move, or Gratitude.

Now, I am in a very stressful time in my life. I’m working on my transition. I’m trying to cope with the fact, that I have ADHD which took more than 22 years to diagnose, and I’m dealing with the shit show that is higher education while being disabled and trans. All that is culminating at the moment, with me starting HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy) just last week, so please bear with me, if this is becoming a review a lot less extensive than usual.

A Mental Landscape, green hills, a giant calendar sticking up, weather symbols streaking across the sky, musical notes as trees

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat has brought me a lot of joy and wonder in my world. I love the voice Oliver Sacks finds to tell the world about medicine and neurology, and I’m enthralled by the way he manages to lift up mere case studies int0 human stories with real connections.

I don’t have the experience to examine the influences on his case study writing, Sacks lists — among them Russian neuro-psychologist Alexander R. Luria — but I am content with appreciating this little blue paperback with its broad pages for what it is, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

drawing inspired by medieval illustrations in the manuscripts of Hildegard von Bingen

The only thing that mucked up the waters for me is my general discomfort around medical language, especially around cognitive disabilities. And while Oliver Sacks argues to view these disabilities not as mere lists of defects, but as part of a whole person with their own will, and thoughts, and ideas, I can’t separate that from the usage of words that are so intrinsically linked with medical and cognitive ableism.

First published in 1985, of course, this book carries the signs of its time, especially in the field of neurology and psychiatry, where changes in activism have moved a lot once immovable truths of life.

As a whole, this book just remains very enjoyable, informative and moving. And if you, like me, have an intense interest in how our brains work and interpret the world I could not recommend this book more highly, though you definitely have to be prepared to live with the medical ableism this book contains by virtue of its origins and time.

This book isn’t a systemic review or a case and argument for a certain method or clinical praxis, it is mostly just a view into the weird world of the brain. And so as it moves from the man who mistook his wife for a hat, to the autistic young adult who lights up at the chance to draw, you might catch the sense of wonder I did, even if that was again and again tarnished by the disregard for autonomy that is so inherent in mental health care.

Other books by Oliver Sacks I have reviewed so far:
Gratitude

My last book review was about the way less wonderous Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall. My last fiction review was about the wonderful Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. Up next is probably Hank Green’s An Absolutely Remarkable Thing or East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

If you liked my review, you can, as always, support me on ko-fi. Or you can get prints, stickers and other items with some of my designs on redbubble, at chwiggy.redbubble.com

An Icebreaker moving through the edges of an iceshield

Where are the Maps?

A Review of Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography

This book was infuriating. And I’m glad I bought it only for half price at London Heathrow Airport. A sticker on its front cover still reminds me of that with the somewhat cryptic Buy 1 get 1 Half Price. The subtitle of this book, Ten Maps that Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics, promised greatness and so the thought, of what I’ll have to write about its maps in this review saddens me before I’ve even started to put pen to paper.

I also wanted this review to be a bit different than usual. I’ve been feeling a bit stifled by the strict format of my reviews lately. Multiple sections and subheadings are probably helpful if you want to see if you’d like a book, but to me, they also seemed like an obstruction to improving my writing. I wanted to try more wandering approaches to writing. I wanted to explore my thoughts around a book and its topics more than to be a straight-up guide if you should buy a book or not. Of course, this isn’t going to mean, that I won’t give my recommendation, but I don’t think I want to break down my opinions into clear bullet points, I check off with every review, anymore.

Let us go back to that day in early 2019 at Heathrow waiting for my flight back home. I had held the German translation of this book in my hands many times when I was perusing the local bookstore in Freiburg. I had always been fascinated by its cover, the striking colours, the map, and well the title too. It promised a fascinating look into how geography, history and politics interacted, but in the end, I always opted to lay it back down, and pick another book or 10.

But there at Heathrow, I was in the mood for non-fiction, and since it was a “buy two, get one free”-type of deal, I picked this right after Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. I don’t think, I had even flipped through its pages. Nevertheless, I had convinced myself that this book would make for a few interesting hours of map-nerdery. After all, at that time, I was studying History and Geography at the University of Freiburg. This should have been right up my alley.

Topological Map of Germany
This was never meant as more than a nerdy joke.

Prisoner of Geography ticks a few boxes for me. Its style is gripping and direct. Its knowledgeable tone reminded me of reading Henry Kissinger’s On China when I was about 14 years old. But the air of knowledge this book surrounds itself with is more of a veil. Behind it, there are a lot of easy explanations for complicated problems and unchecked biases.

A historian would probably call this book’s approach to history teleological and therefore flawed. When they say teleological, they mean nothing else than putting the cart before the horse, i.e. explaining history by its result. There are good arguments for why Tibet is strategically important for China. But were Tibet not de-facto part of China, many of the geographic arguments, especially around Tibet’s inaccessibility, could run the exact opposite way.

And that’s at least one of the aspects that make this book disappointing. It fails to question the authors and the reader’s assumptions. It tells you nothing that keeping up with the news couldn’t have told you. And its point about resource distribution and the value of natural borders isn’t exactly a new or groundbreaking idea. Nevertheless, the book promises to break the ground for you while it fails to question why empire, why war, or how a certain government comes to power even.

Especially in its chapters on China and the US, Prisoners of Geography fails to consider path-dependencies and interdependencies in government beyond the geopolitical and well manages an inexplicable weird leap in characterising Mexico/US-Relations as solely defined by a notion of the illicit drug trade that foregoes any examination of why things come to be illegal or not.

A bear head, in front of a floating map of russia

And I get it. This book devotes a chapter to one continent or giant country at a time. There’s not much room to bring out the nuances; as such Marshall’s arguments remain a description of what is, without the imagination to think through the consequences of that weirdly gripping argumentation.

Frankly, I didn’t expect groundbreaking arguments from this book. That’s not what it sets out to do. It sets out to illustrate the world of geopolitics with eye-opening maps. That’s what the book’s subtitle promises, and something I’m willing to indulge in a lot. I spent hours watching the short weekly show Le Dessous des Cartes on the Franco-German television channel Arte when I was a kid. It always was a delightfully interesting view into maps and politics, just detailed enough to fill a 10 min tv show. Prisoners of Geography, however, misses that mark by leagues.

The maps in this book are disappointing. They are bog-standard political maps in black and white. Bearing only hints at topography and one detail each, that genuinely fails to impress. Drawing arrows to illustrate the Greenland-Iceland-UK-gap is just not even close to mapmaking that could open eyes.

Marshall didn’t even integrate these bare-bones maps into the text. There is no reference to them in writing. And it seems like this book was written with the maps as an afterthought, preserving the possibility to read it on text-only e-readers without trouble.

Summary

Potala Palace underneath a blue sky with scattered clouds.

In the end, this book fails to impress me. While Marshall manages to find a style that’s gripping to read and authoritative at once, this book falls down on multiple levels of actual content. The promised maps are bland and next to useless, and the argumentation contains little more nuance than the writing of a foreign-policy hawk who sees a military threat in anything. At least to some degree, I wish this book had kept the old idiom in mind: “If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”.

Would I recommend this book? I don’t think so. There are better ways to spend your time reading or learning about geopolitics. This book serves just enough information to satisfy those who agree with its political assumptions and don’t already know a lot about geography.

My last book review about the beautiful Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. The Blue of Distance was my last non-fiction review, and up next is Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

If you liked my review, you can as always support me on ko-fi. Or you can get prints, stickers and other items with some of my designs on redbubble, at chwiggy.redbubble.com

a landscape and sunset, three trees in the foreground, 2 mountain ranges in the background

Two Strands

A Review of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing

Cover of Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

When I picked up this book, I wasn’t aware of the journey this book would take me. Now almost two years later, now that I’ve read it from start to finish, I’m saddened I hadn’t picked this up earlier. I started reading Homegoing by Ghanaian-American author Yaa Gyasi, last month at the height of Black Lives Matter Protests against police brutality in the US and around the world. I couldn’t bear to use my usual random method to select books to read next from my to-be-read list, and so I deliberately picked a book by a woman of colour from my bookshelf.

Not that it should need an explicit occasion to do so, but sometimes it needs a jolt to recognise the privilege and exclusion that is prevalent in publishing. I’m aware that as a white reader, especially in Germany, I will encounter books predominantly written by white authors in any book shop I patronise. And it takes conscious effort to break simple habits and to seek out the voices of authors with less privilege.

That said, there’s no point in putting up with bad books. So this review will serve as a recommendation for an enthralling novel written by a woman of colour.

The Physical Book

a wooden stool

I own the 2016 Vintage paperback edition of this book, and it’s a very floppy book. Holding it out horizontally by its spine, the far edge of the book drops down to a 45°-angle. The cover is soft and somewhat coarse, and the same extends to the paper it’s printed on. The only high-gloss page is an insert of blurbs that juts out as a yellow stripe behind the shortened front cover at the right edge of the book.

And while the physical qualities of my edition don’t leave a particularly solid impression, the cover art is just something I fell in love with. The colour choices are impeccable, and I regularly strive but fail to recreate this kind of texture in my own art.

The Setting

Cape Coast Castle with a sunset

Homegoing is set in our world. The plot sets out in the late 18th or early 19th century in what we, nowadays, would call Ghana around the city of Cape Coast. But with history and slavery, one plotline at least moves to the US and there with historical events through different parts of the country.

Gyasi manages to describe, notably the Ghanaian settings, with enough care to make them feel lively and lived in. I think, for places in the US, she is more reliant on a shared understanding, of what these places look like. Nevertheless, these descriptions feel vivid enough for me to supply the right backdrop to the characters of this novel.

The Characters

Intergenerational as it is, Homegoing follows two Asante lineages, starting with two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, the daughters of a woman called Maame. Effia and Esi grow up in separate families. Their paths cross without their knowledge when Effia marries the new commander of Cape Coast Castle and Esi is held in that very same castle for transport to the Americas as a slave. From there, two separate family histories develop.

Portrait of an Unnamed Woman

Every main character gets their chapter in chronological order, alternating between one side of the family tree and the other. Since they are all part of family history, one of the side characters in each chapter becomes the point-of-view character in a subsequent chapter. This allows each point-of-view character an exceptional depth and roundedness. We learn about their whole life, not only what they did during their adulthood. We get to know them during their formative age, and we learn how they imprinted on the next generation in their old age.

To me, this emotional depth to each character makes this novel solid. You rarely get this many different people in one novel without losing depth to each of them. In some regard, this feels as if every character got their own short story, but each short story provides the context for the next. Even if especially the American chapters, make their characters into the messengers of a history lesson a bit too often.

And these characters, surely, are varied in their outlook in life and their emotional struggles. We find women and men who hold together families, but also women and men who pull them apart. On top of that, there’s something hidden in James’ chapter, that made me happy or at least look up in curiosity. James seems to feel love for his best friend, that goes beyond platonic love. And I’m definitely up for covert homoromantic representation.

The Plot

Stone necklace and chained shackles

Considering this is a debut novel, bringing the format, the characters and the plot together into one book, seems like a gargantuan task. And I’m quite sure a more distinguished reader than me, would find more fault with it than I do. Nevertheless, I think a more experienced writer could have given this book a more consistent throughline overall.

For me, much of the tension of this novel came from the spoiling glance at the family tree, printed in front of the first chapter, and my anticipation that the youngest family members with chapters of their own, Marcus and Majorie, would meet eventually.

As such, this novel is held together by a pull of symbolism that caries through the generations on the African side of the story. And a particular current of demographics and history, especially on the American side of the story, where characters exist somewhat driven only by historical events and not by their independent plotline.

For the Ghanaian characters, that is much less true. Their struggle and is guilt and blame more than anything else, in the words of Laura Miller:

“Homegoing”—the title is taken from an old African-American belief that death allowed an enslaved person’s spirit to travel back to Africa—is rooted, like the Bible, in original sin. Unlike the Biblical transgression, however, the source of the curse that dogs an Asante woman’s descendants through seven generations defies pinpointing and straightforward assessments of blame; you might as well shun your own hand. 

Laura Miller (2016): Descendants, in The New Yorker

The Writing

To me, the writing was mostly unremarkable. A better writer could have maybe pulled the plotline together more coherently or elevated the story with more elaborate prose. But after all, this was Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel with considerable scope, so I can forgive non-remarkable writing without much trouble. Especially, as I think there is much potential in Gyasi’s writing, that will and could improve with more experience and maybe a less sprawling topic.

Summary

For me, this debut novel is without a doubt worth a recommendation. While its sprawling nature and largely unremarkable writing might make it fall flat for some readers, it presented an interesting, captivating story for me. Of course, this book isn’t worthy of a Nobel prize in literature, but that is an overly pretentious expectation for a writer. This book has its special pull for me, even if that didn’t come from the plot itself, but from my expectations and a collection of great characters.

As a whole, I enjoyed the depth, the unique structure of this book gave its characters, especially the strand of the family that remained in Ghana. And I enjoyed the look into Ghanaian history, that gave me the appetite to look into it more. The same unfortunately can’t be said for the view into US history. Though it certainly offers a unique perspective of slavery founded in the loss of family history, that is stark in contrast to the other strand of the family.

My last book review was Where the Terrors Keep. My next review is probably going to touch on Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography.

If you liked my review, you can as always support me on ko-fi. Or you can get prints, stickers and other items with some of my designs on redbubble, at chwiggy.redbubble.com

Where the Terrors Keep

A Review of Edgar Wallace’s Terror Keep

John Flack – Book Cover, 1982, Goldmann

Crime stories have been a staple of my childhood, long before I picked up any science fiction or fantasy books, I was most likely engrossed in some thriller. My reading started with a lot of German books that combined crime with humorous story-telling. When I started to read English language books, I had moved on from my obsession with crime stories. Now I return to one with fresh eyes in this Review of a German translation of Edgar Wallace’s Terror Keep, which is the first entry in the series of books about the detective J.G. Reeder. The German title is John Flack.

Really in light of current events, I feel it is even more necessary to point out, that this work should at least be read with the idea of “copaganda” in mind. Terror Keep neither accurately reflects current or historic police work, nor does it offer any worthwhile views into mental health. Any story about fighting crime in the traditional sense centres a view of crime that ignores any socio-economic factors, and makes police officers into heroes as they fight “real evil”. This book offers no different perspective. It at best entertains, but you can’t escape the ideas that fiction of its kind normalises. Crime in the real world is rarely as devoid of social context as it is here.

The Physical Book

Back to the book at hand. My copy is a 1982 paperback edition hand-me-down published by Goldmann. Of course, this book has seen better times, the paper has browned with age and feels coarse, and the jacket is showing signs of wear and tear as well, but it’s holding up reasonably well for the time it’s spent being read and being stored on various bookshelves and in numerous storage boxes. It isn’t particularly long, and about 30 pages are devoted to informing the reader of various other books in the publisher’s catalogue.

The Setting

Now, Terror Keep is set in 1920s UK, predominantly in London and an imaginary town called Siltbury on the cliffed coast of southern England. Both places are treated as backdrops that only need description where it figures into the plot. Siltbury is left to the reader’s imagination and familiarity with southern English towns, and London stars as the world-famous city it is with a handful of recognisable places.

More important than Siltbury itself, however, is the mansion in which much if the second and third act of this book takes place: Lamar’s Keep. It’s a cliffside manor, with a horrifying dungeon and curious inhabitants and visitors.

The Characters

Cliffed Coast, with a wall atop and white clouds drawing over a clear sky

Most of the characters show up at Lamar’s Keep and its surroundings over time, but that’s not the interesting thing about them. Well, the interesting thing about them is that they are not interesting in and of themselves. They are pretty flat, maybe some of them are more well rounded over the entire length of the series, but they stick closely to archetypal versions of a detective story.

We have in order of appearance the mentally insane, empathyless and driven villain, who happens to be a criminal mastermind. He, fundamentally, is just an ableist trope. We have the well-experienced investigator, who doesn’t shy away from a fight. We have a love interest for the investigator, who becomes a damsel in distress. We have multiple other policemen, who are either characterised by incompetence or as mere cannon-fodder and, finally, we have multiple henchmen of the villain, who all get a weird name pointing to earlier wrongdoings.

The most striking departure from this character template has to be Miss Bellman, ostensibly the damsel in distress and love interest, who at least for first half of this book seems to hold out pretty competently and well for herself, but the realities of 1920s ideas of womanhood will get to her soon enough.

The Plot

JG Reeder fighting his way up the rigged stairs

The characters aren’t, what makes this book a gripping read though. The thing that kept me riveted to the book was the ease of how different elements of the plot flowed into each other, how the characters, setting, and plot intertwined. And lead from one page to the other.

There’s not much to be said about the plot that wouldn’t spoil it, but it’s constructed with clear intent, keeping the reader guessing without alienating them with too contrived plot-twists. Some explanations and crimes mentioned within this story fall onto the gimmicky side of plots, but they were not gimmicky enough to rip me out of the flow of reading this book. There’s a well-crafted tension that was pulling me along throughout the entirety of the book.

The Writing

Edgar Wallace wrote many of his books by way of dictation, and the casualness of his writing certainly shows, the point is not to tell a story in its most beautiful manifestation, but a good thrill and a gripping story. In this vein, the writing is mostly unremarkable.

There were a few moments and passages in this book where certain word choices pulled me out of the book, but I think I have to pin those down on the translation, which certainly seemed somewhat clunky at times. Often maybe through no fault of the translator. After all, there’s at least one passage of basically untranslatable wordplay around the suites of playing cards, which the translator solved by annotating explanations of these jokes. But there might have been more passages where the translator was considering such annotations but eventually decided against them to avoid interrupting the flow of the book.

Summary

This book certainly is a gripping read and a fun one at that, but it isn’t a book that makes a good point about life or anything. It’s not meant to be. It’s just a fun story meant to entertain a reader, sitting in bed on a stormy night, or watching the waves on a sunny beach.

There are, without a doubt, problematic parts in this book, that suggest ideas about our world that might not be worth repeating because they’re demonstrably untrue. And these parts make me question if this book is worth reading in 2020. I’m not saying you’re not allowed to enjoy it. Far from it, I enjoyed it myself, but I don’t want to recommend this book. It’s a well-crafted thriller from almost 100 years ago. It’s showing its age. That doesn’t make it a bad book per se, but there are also better books to search out. It’s probably a guilty pleasure for me.

My last book review was about Terry Pratchett’s The Long War: The Long Wait. My next review will be about the wonderful Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi: Two Strands.

If you liked my review, you can as always support me on ko-fi. Or you can get prints, stickers and other items with some of my designs on redbubble, at chwiggy.redbubble.com

The Long Wait

A Review of Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter’s The Long War

It took me quite a while to get to this book, maybe a bit too long. I remember loving the first book of The Long Earth series, but it’s now nearly 4 years since I finished The Long Earth. And maybe my love for the first book of this series needs an update because The Long War, the second book of this series, definitely didn’t conjure up feelings of love from me. A fit of anger every 50 pages seems to be a better description of the feelings I hold for this book. Nevertheless, I managed to soldier through even if it took me unusually long between reviews. That’s not the fault of the book alone, a global pandemic certainly didn’t help my focus, but the book certainly had its part. So, without further ado, I’ll bring to you my explanation of why I am so angry with this book and why I still kept reading it to the bitter end.

The Physical Book

My 2014 Corgi Edition of this book, is a pretty standard paperback book. After a month of reading and at times abusing this book, the soft touch foil lamination started to fray off the cover’s paper at the bottom edges, but this is definitely not a remarkable book in this regard. A younger me would have probably destroyed the cover by peeling the lamination of completely at this point though.

As for the cover art, I think it continues the trend of being unremarkable. It’s not bad, it’s not great, but from the struggle I myself had with the art for this review, I know this book isn’t easy to translate into art, it’s to inconsistent to develop objects or scenes that would be striking or lastin in memory.

The World-Building

I think the world-building is truly the strongest suit of this book and the entire Long Earth series. The series is set on Earth around the 2040s, but in The Long Earth humanity at large learns to step into stepwise adjacent worlds, worlds that are similar to so-called datum earth, but took a different path in the probability tree that characterises earth’s geological history. And there are plenty of these worlds, to both the so-called East of the datum and to the so-called West of the Datum. Not all of these worlds are habitable, some are pretty lush places to settle.

These worlds are only shown in vignettes or broad descriptions, only certain places in the vastness of the Long Earth are visited or described. The singular places that are described feel real enough, but also don’t show much character necessarily.

The Characters

This lack of character that plagues some of the worldbuilding, is even more rampant in the actual characters. As a sequel, this book, naturally, doesn’t have to put much effort into setting up new characters, but at few new characters are set up nevertheless making this book pretty large in scope of characters. This, of course, is an opportunity to represent a certain diversity of characters, but it also makes some of these new characters quite shallow or into mere plot-devices.


Spoilers for Specific Characters

Roberta Golding, for example, is set up as a young girl that just knows everything but has an absolute lack of empathy. She feels to me like she is coded as autistic, and her framing as the smart kid made me viscerally angry quite a few times. For most of the book, she’s accompanied by a group of minor characters that seem solely characterised by their Chinese nationality, which seems questionable to me to say the least. Not that any of her actions would matter for the plot of this book. Roberta isn’t even mentioned as a character in the list of characters for this book on its Wikipedia article.

The best addition to the cast of characters in this book is probably the priest Nelson Azikiwe, who represents a refreshingly unique perspective, even if his plotline also ends abruptly and without any character growth.

End of Character Spoilers


And this is probably the main problem with the characters. There are too many of them to give them all at least small but satisfying character arcs, and the structural issues of the plot, make even the character arcs of those lucky few, that are supposed to have development, end too abruptly.

The Plot

And the plot is where the real issues lie. The plot is what made me hit myself with this book multiple times and once even made me throw it away in anger mostly for not resolving plot lines properly, what follows in the next few paragraphs contains spoilers, so be warned, but I can’t explain the structural issues properly without referencing how they end.


Spoilers

The main problem I see is that this book continually hints at something larger, some epic fight to come, some epic exploits to follow, but every time, the plot builds to the point where the reader is hooked, the plot isn’t resolved, but either you are sent into an unrelated chapter, things are fixed by the AI Lobsang in a Deus ex Machina fashion or, the plot is just resolved post facto, by a garden party where you get to know that everyone is alive and maybe a few hints as to what happened between the height of suspense and the narrative now.

As stated before this wrecks a lot of potential for character arcs. And while I understand that not every story necessarily needs characters that grow, there isn’t any big overarching mystery set up, except maybe the expectation of a war to come, that never arrives, and ends in a complete fake-out.

End of Plot- Spoilers


I think the amount of characters doesn’t make this easier, but I even struggle to summarise the plot without making obvious spoilers, because for the most part this book has characters in search of a plot, and if they find a piece of plot they are almost always robbed of concluding that plotline satisfactorily.

The Writing

As for the writing style, this book again is pretty unremarkable, it’s reasonably well written but that just doesn’t overcome the structural issues with the plot or the assortment of characters to bring under one roof.

Summary

Now, would I recommend this book? Hell no! I know a few people who really were engrossed by the world-building and who really enjoy the whole series of books, but to me with hindsight even the first book had some of the issues of this book.

If you really like world-building this book might be a pretty enjoyable and rompy read, but don’t expect a good story. I think you can read it for the vignettes of worlds, but the book is absolutely bereft of growth. For the most part it’s characters in vague search of a plot and the titular long war that never comes.

My last book review was The Blue of Distance about Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost. My last review of a fiction book was Who Let the Dogs out! about Wolfgang Schorlau’s Der Freie Hund. My next review is about the gripping Terror Keep by Edgar Wallace.

If you liked my review, you can as always support me on ko-fi. Or you can get prints, stickers and other items with some of my designs on redbubble, at chwiggy.redbubble.com

The Blue of Distance

A Review of Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost

I first read this collection of essays about a year ago. Then it was the book discussed in Life’s Library Book Club. Now I read it again, with different eyes, more discipline and a stressful world around me. With the COVID-19 epidemic going on around me this book got a whole other depth of meaning. Now it was not only the book I read to participate in fruitful discussions with friends but also the book that I needed to quench my thirst. My thirst for the far, my wanderlust, my “Fernweh” – as the Germans call it – had never been as pressing as now when the boundaries of my travels weren’t financial hurdles, but the need to save struggling healthcare systems.

When I first read this collection of essays, I remember not particularly liking it. It seemed verbose and I was getting lost in it, which to be fair would have been an apt accomplishment for a book titled A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Now on a second read, I have more thought about Solnit’s very personal stories all connected by the common theme of loss and getting lost.

Rebecca Solnit

On this second read, this became a deeply insightful collection. And it inspired me to a lot of artistic productivity, so much so that I struggled with placing it all in conjunction with this article. There’s a depth to Solnit’s writing, depth of references that not only makes you feel being lost, it lets you smell, and see and hear getting lost. What I had interpreted as verbosity on my first struggling read through this book, that took me months, I now saw as a deep richness. Certainly, that was helped by already knowing the gist of the stories Solnit was about to tell me, but it also helped to read faster, more precisely, not stopping in the middle of a thought but at the end of essays.

In a sense, the last time I read this book, I was getting lost in it, and now again I’m getting lost in it but in a very different way. Then I was getting lost by missing the point the direction to understand where I was; now I was getting lost in an experience.

Solnit’s writing still is dense like a thick forest. And I don’t fault anyone for finding it too dense. Especially on a first read, this book might really make one feel lost at reading it, but now after I read it a second time, I can only shake my head at what I missed.

Now I almost wish I had more to say about it. I wish I could give you a song to navigate this book, I wish I had taken more notes to talk about the intricate details of this book, but that possibly has to remain something for the future because I still was too lost to write plentiful annotations; still, this book was too dense for me to see outside the thick of bush. Still, it was too dense for me to not get lost in details, still too thick to give you an adequate overview.

There’s no argument to this book really. Unless, you accept “get lost and experience the world around you with new eyes” as an argument. This book is just an eye-opening journey of thought through the landscapes of North America. And that probably is the worst you could say about this book. It is at points very American. But then these are personal stories. The Author is American. An expectation of an un-american experience would to an extent be misguided.

Summary

I can only recommend you to get lost in this book, full well knowing that getting lost in this book might not be possible for every reader.

There’s a real chance you might get too lost at reading this book, and I won’t fault you for putting it down and never returning. This book isn’t for everyone. You need a tolerance for frustration for dense prose, for feelings of being lost and alone. But if you’re ready to accept these feelings, if you tolerate being frustrated, this book is a treasure. A wealth of nature to behold opens up before you if you manage to get lost in these experiences of home and of far away.

My last book review was about another essay collection. Gratitude by Oliver Sacks. And my next book review will very probably still be about Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s second entry in their Long Earth Series: The Long War.
If you like to, I would really appreciate your support on ko-fi. A few bucks help a long way and if you want to you can find some of my art on redbubble for sale as stickers and posters.

Thanks

A Review of Oliver Sacks’ Gratitude

This is quite a short book and I suspect it will also be a short review for that exact reason. And well for other reasons as well. I find myself within the turmoil of a global pandemic and the response to it. I’ve spent multiple days with too much anxiety to even care for myself. And now with the help of my friends, I’m slowly adjusting. So I want to display my gratitude as well, say thanks, to my friends and my family who keep me company albeit virtually. But I also want to thank the people out there who are first in line. All the doctors and nurses and hospital staff who risk their lives, and their and their family’s mental health to save others. Thank you.

Without much more ado, I’ll talk about Oliver Sacks’ little collection of essays, published posthumously, written shortly before or after his eventually lethal diagnosis with cancerous metastases from an earlier melanoma in his eye that had spread to his liver.

These essays have a special place in my heart. I’ve read the three essays within this book many times over, but they never fail to warm my heart. They are filled with the titular gratitude for a well-lived life and full of wisdom, fun, and a gripping curiosity that fills so much of Oliver Sacks’ writing.

If you can I would honestly recommend you to pick this little book up or at least search out the essays within. At this point, however, I don’t think there’s much to say. So thank you for bearing with me and this extraordinarily short review in extraordinary times.

Stay safe and take care.

Other books by Oliver Sacks I have reviewed so far:
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

My last book review was about a German crime novel: Der Freie Hund. And my next book review is The Blue of Distance about Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost.
If you like to, I would really appreciate your support on ko-fi. A few bucks help a long way and if you want to you can find some of my art on redbubble for sale as stickers and posters.

Who Let the Dogs out!

A Review of Wolfgang Schorlau & Claudio Caiolo’s Der Freie Hund

Again, this is a German book. And I don’t really know why I’m still doing these reviews of new German books in English, but apparently, this is what I’m doing now. As with my last review, I got this book as an advanced reader copy through vorablesen.de where you can find a short review of this book (German). This is a crime story coming out later this spring. Its authors are the quite prolific writer of political crime thrillers Wolfgang Schorlau and the relatively unknown Claudio Caiolo who seems to be an Italian actor, I’ve never heard about before. That, however, isn’t surprising because I’m not really knowledgeable in the world of the famous.

Now with the last book, there was in my opinion pretty solid hints that an English translation could at some point be available. For this book, however, I don’t think that is at all likely to happen. The primary author doesn’t even have a stump of a Wikipedia page in English, and as far as I can tell none of his books is available in English. So why am I writing this review in English? Well because I want to!

The Physical Book

This book as the last one was published by Kiepenheuer & Witsch as a paperback. This one a bit more sturdy, with thicker paper, and thicker cover, even with flaps folding out from the inside of the cover. God knows, what they are called. Maybe, one of you will enlighten me.

The cover is I think a pretty classic one for a crime story, a photo of Venice with a cruise ship beneath the dark looming clouds of a storm. Not un-striking, but also not particularly interesting in my opinion.

The Setting

Venice is a beautiful city. Perhaps, it is too beautiful for its own good. Considering the torrential outpours of tourists it receives every day. Capturing a city so fundamentally torn apart in a crime novel is definitely an interesting idea, even though a famous one. After all, that’s what Donna Leon has been doing in by now almost 30 instalments of her Guido Brunetti series, that has found a wide TV audience in Germany by way of our public broadcasting’s thirst for crime shows.

As a setting now for Schorlau and Caiolo’s novel, Venice takes an interesting role. Especially the tourism and the political, environmental and structural problems it poses are integral to the setup of the quite political plot. That aside, however, Venice also lacks descriptive depth for me. At no point did I really feel at home, felt included within the city of the novel. We did get a tour through the city by the way of a somewhat shoe-horned in love affair of our protagonist, being an architectural student. Even the auditory experiences our protagonist experiences on a short trip to Cefalù on Sicily, let me feel more at home there than in Venice. And while that discrepancy actually fits in quite well with the emotional connections the protagonist is experiencing, it left me a bit too distant from the main location this book takes place in.

The Plot

The plot of this book is relatively straightforward with a few twists that genuinely took me by surprise strewn in. At times, it gets quite violent, and the authors don’t shy away from describing splattering blood, death and crime scenes.

At the very least this plot manages to navigate within a very interesting field of topics between politics, corruption, and the Italian mafia. Repeatedly there are hints to past tragedy and a long history of the protagonist with the mafia, that work as an interesting subplot to the story of a murder. Little time is spent on forensics, more so on personal relations and a somewhat uncanny ability of our protagonist to unveil the lies of others.

The plot however definitely does take a while to pick up and really only captured me in the second third of this book. Especially the romantic encounters the protagonist Antonio Morello experiences took me out of it too much from time to time.

The Characters

As with the plot, there’s not really much I have to say about the characters. Our protagonist Antonio Morello is reasonably well fleshed out, some minor characters lack a bit of depth and motivation beyond that what would generally be expected in a whodunit.

Morello is an interesting character, between his relationship with the mafia in Sicily and his transfer to Venice, we learn a great deal about his history and the reason why he seems incredibly adept at picking up sensory clues beyond the visual. And while the trope of disability coming with extraordinary savant-style advantages is definitely tired, I don’t think this leans too heavily on the experience of Morello’s blindness in childhood.

As for representation, this book definitely venters around heterosexual men. There’s a gay character, but his homosexuality is framed more like an extension of his role as a villain than as something that adds anything to the plot. It’s not queer coding per se, just a weird addendum in an otherwise presumed to be a straight world of characters.

Especially in the way the authors describe women that only show up once or twice within the book, there’s an excellent example of what one could call the straight male gaze. Appearances are described with the underlying intent of explaining which woman seems worthy of sexual attraction. Now don’t get me wrong I’m not male and still attracted to women, but there’s a degree of objectification in describing the stockings of a maid, even if it furthers the characterisation of one of the police officers as a sexist, that gets resolved later.

The Writing

And this sexism is not at all a problem of plot and characters alone, it manifests within the writing or at least diminished my enjoyment of it. I just don’t really want to read objectifying descriptions of women. What I found interesting, however, was unique stress on experiences outside the visual. Descriptions of auditory and olfactory sensation were incredibly immersive to me and went beyond what the average crime novel offers in my experience.

Other than that the writing seemed acceptable to me even if I especially at the start before I got used to it, sometimes the abrupt switches between scenes and characters made me think I had jumped a page accidentally.

Summary

I don’t think I would really recommend this book. It was an okay read, thoroughly captivating at points, but also somewhat flawed in its writing and treatment of women and LGBTQ characters. It brings an interesting mix of ideas to the table, but that didn’t suffice to convince me to want more of this book or more of this as a series.

If you’re really into political thrillers and crime stories involving the political this book may be worth picking up, but I wouldn’t be too disappointed if this book never gets a release in English. I’m not sure if I’m interested in picking up more books from the same writer, but I also wouldn’t frown at getting one for my birthday.

My last book review was about Qube by Tom Hillenbrand. And my next book review is about the very short collection of Essays Gratitude by Oliver Sacks.
If you like to, I would really appreciate your support on ko-fi. A few bucks help a long way and if you want to you can find some of my art even some of the works I created for this book review on redbubble for sale as stickers and posters.

Qubism

A Review of Tom Hillenbrand’s Qube

For a change, this is a review of a book I got as an advanced reader copy. It’s a German book by an author who has been translated into English before, so there is a realistic hope that this book will be translated into English at some point. Ostensibly I’m writing this review only in English because my audience i.e. at this point still almost exclusively my nerdfighter friends are mostly English-speaking and only in small parts speakers of German.

Though that probably isn’t the weirdest part of this review. No, crown probably goes to the fact that this is part two within a universe called Hologrammatica by Tom Hillenbrand. I have in fact not read part one yet, and I don’t know if I will, just for logistical reasons, so bear with me should that first part have substantial influences on your reading of this second instalment. But without much further ado, let’s get into this review of Qube.

Though I probably have to make the disclaimer here, that I received this book as an ARC, and didn’t pay for it. I’m trying to not let this really influence my review of it, but this is called transparency. Here’s my review on vorablesen.de (German).

Physical Book

Now, holding a book in your hand that’s only about to be released to the wider public has a special feel to it. This book is a pretty standard German paperback though. That means it’s nothing special, but it also isn’t crap. The cover design is simple yet intriguing, so basically the way I like my covers to be, even if I’m as of late a bit bored with red and black and white cover designs. Yes, yes those are striking colours, and easy to combine in ways that look good, but I just want something more daring.

The Setting & World-Building

Qube takes place in a future post-climate-change, after the advancement of computation into the realm of true artificial intelligence, or short AI. And while you might want to insinuate that this book might be a bit too much in love with technology, this nevertheless remains a world you can find yourself swallowed in without the immersion being broken by inconsistencies or other problems of world-building.

Sometimes however the technobabble masks too much of the plot and its really interesting themes though. Sure, there’s a plethora of technology to explain in this book from holograms, to mind-uploads and body swaps to the ins and out of information security and AI, that might be too much for a technologically non-interested reader, but sometimes I would have preferred to have more of that outsourced to the glossary, at the end.

I’m not going to dissect the world of this book in regards to its plausibility in regards to being a prediction of the world in 2091. That is a road I don’t want to travel on. There are definitely technologies in here that sound more like magic to me than like technology, but as Arthur C. Clarke’s famous adage states:

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Arthur C. Clarke

The Plot

Beneath this splurge of technology hides a quite multi-faceted plot. Hillenbrand, especially in the first half manages to juggle multiple interlace threads of plots, separated by almost torturous cliff-hangers. Sometimes, of course, a particular thread was more interesting and cut short by an intermezzo of all the other plot-threads, but that is the price you have to pay for this interspersed way of telling a story with multiple main actors spread around the earth and at times the solar system. Yes, this novel contains space travel, though the main plot remains steadfastly on the earth.

There the plot starts rolling with a headshot that almost kills Calvary Doyle, an investigative reporter on track to solve a mystery around the last incident around AI in 2049. The police investigations into Calvary Doyle’s attempted killing prove to be more complicated than a simple case of attempted murder however and start to involve multi-billion-dollar companies, AI, death and a plethora of body-swaps.

The Characters

And who carries out these body swaps? Mostly Commander Fran Bittner, sometimes Francesco or Francesca depending on the appearance of his current vessel. And that is probably one of the most interesting points in regards to the characters. We get to enjoy some form of non-binary, maybe genderfluid, maybe bigender representation. Of course, it might be stifled by German’s lack of gender-neutral pronouns and also might not be really concerned with much of what the LGBTQ community is concerned with, but the main character’s gender is explicitly discussed at least once as “outside of the binary”.

Other than that the book is just filled up with a normal amount of solid characters. To me, none of them feels overdrawn or like paper cut-outs to fill the story, but all of our main characters seem to have understandable motivation. The main characters are of diverse genders, though definitely lack in racial and ethnic diversity if not as Fran Bittner body swapped into a body of another race. Only side characters get to be of another background natively in this regard.

One last criticism of the characters I have to mention: their naming. And this criticism is somewhat in keeping with the aforementioned technobabble this book succumbs to. The names Hillenbrand throws around, are too stereotypically English. They are exactly what you think a German would make up when tasked with finding stereotypical names. They sometimes don’t read as names at all, and sometimes are just funny. Especially, in the first couple of chapters, these names really got to the point where they ripped a hole in the hologram of my immersion

The Writing

Naming and technobabble are probably the points that hurt Qube‘s writing the most. There’s a little issue of pacing towards the end of the plot, though if that actually is an issue or just a plot-twist probably depends on your reading of the book, for me at least it was a hump I had to drag my ADHD brain over to then get back to enjoying the book quite a lot.

In terms of writing, this book seems to be a pretty standard sci-fi thriller. There’s nothing that sticks out like a sore thumb in here, but also nothing that is egregiously well written, except maybe for the plot interlacing.

Summary

And I think that is also a good summary for this book. It’s an interesting and solidly written sci-fi thriller. It’s genuinely gripping at points, but it’s no masterwork.

There are a whole lot of great thoughts and ideas here, from immortality via body swaps to artificial intelligence. There’s some non-binary representation, but a lack of racial and ethnical representation. I think a bit more focus on one of these ideas, a smaller scope wouldn’t have harmed this book, but as it is it’s still an enjoyable and thought-provoking read. And you definitely don’t need to have read part 1 of the Hologrammatica series to understand Qube. At least I didn’t even notice there was a part 1 to this.

My last fiction review was about Gabriel García Márquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera. And my last book review was about Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. Is There No Alternative? My next book review concerns another German book: Der Freie Hund by Wolfgang Schorlau and Claudio Caiolo.

If you liked my review, you can as always support me on ko-fi. Or, and this is new, you can get prints, stickers and other items with some of my designs on redbubble, at chwiggy.redbubble.com

Realistic Expectations

A Review of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. Is There No Alternative?

This is a first for these book reviews. This time I’m reviewing a work of non-fiction instead of a fictional story. Of course, this doesn’t fit into my usual structure of book reviews, so please excuse if this get’s established as it goes and is maybe a bit rougher around the edges than usual. But let us get started: This is a very short book. It only contains roughly 80 densely packed pages, but these are ram-packed with insightful information and thought-provoking ideas. It describes our reality through an interesting philosophical lense and examines the influence capitalism has on the perspective and framing with which we view our world, our lives and our surroundings.

I first found this book through somewhat unusual circumstances. Well maybe, these circumstances aren’t too weird in a modern globally-connected world. I found them through a YouTube video by PhilosophyTube. Namely Olly’s first video on mental health and suicide, I put below. [Content Warning: light flashes, talk about suicide, self-harm and mental health]

But back to the book, which itself talks about mental health in a different light as Olly Thorne does.

Physical Book

This book is an exceedingly short book, it’s almost more of a collection of continued essays or maybe a lengthened scientific article. For my 2009 Zero Books paperback edition that comes packaged as a very thin book with wide pages more resembling the ways scientific articles are printed than how books in fiction are presented. As it’s thin it’s pretty flimsy but doesn’t suffer from the troubles of thick paperbacks with strong backs.

The Argument

The main argument within this book is that there is a worldview, which Mark Fisher calls capitalist realism, that permeates society in late-stage capitalism and hinders efforts to leave capitalism behind by creating the illusion that there is indeed no alternative to capitalism.

Fisher generally sees one way to break down this veil behind which capital is hiding. Namely, he thinks. we need to find the real that destroys our preconceived capitalist reality. He sees a few big contenders for general topics that could manage to rip the curtain of capitalist realism down: the ecological crisis caused by capitalism and so inherently unsolvable by capital, for example, climate change, mental health and education.

There’s one particular point about the interface between education and mental health Fisher draws that almost made me stop reading this book. My gripe essentially is that while yes, I can see an inadequate blaming of mental health issues on individuals, I also think this book ignored the very real troubles of mental illness that would still persist even within a society where the systemic causes or external stressors of our current society were removed. Especially, his mention of ADHD, from which I personally “suffer”, elicited that reaction in me, because I genuinely feel problems arising from my mental health that are not caused or even exacerbated by society, but just are part of how my brain works.

The Writing & Style

Fisher draws upon tons of sources, especially Slavoj Žižek and finds a ton of analogies in pop culture, especially movies and books. His style is one I found very typical for philosophers of the late 20th and early 21st century. Somewhere between academic and free-flowing essay. What makes this book hard to read are its presumptions of prior knowledge. The expectation that you are familiar with the thoughts of a broad range of philosophers and jargon of anti-capitalism.

There’s at least to some extent a thread running through this book that kept me on line with reading it, but I struggle to put into words what that thread was. Maybe it was just the idea of having finished a book quickly soon. It was short enough to do that, even if the ableism around page 24 irked me enough to slather a “Fuck You” into this book.

Summary

In the end, I wonder why so often I’m drawn to books on philosophy when reading them so often leaves me dissatisfied or angry, and exhausted at the lengthy sentences.

I don’t think I really would recommend this book to a general audience. A broad and deep knowledge of philosophy, which I do not possess, is probably required to get the full extent of insight this short book provides. It draws references to other philosophers and pop culture again and again, and it does a disservice to not understand those references.

For a general audience, this book remains too conceptual to be of much value, and it stays too much in the description of the de facto world we live in instead of actually pointing to a liveable alternative except in the last few pages where Fisher points to actionable strategies in the fight against capital, but those are somewhat removed from the main thesis of this book.

Now I would cringe at the idea that a book needs to be actionable to be of value, but I think together with this and the hints of ableism and anxiety about change dispersed within, this book isn’t ready to be read by a general audience, it is more a working paper, for others to expand upon. Being well versed in anti-capitalist theory definitely improves this read.

My last book review was Sickening Love of Privilege? about Gabriel García Márquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera. Up next a review of the German book Qube by Tom Hillenbrand: Qubism.
If you like to, I would really appreciate your support on ko-fi. A few bucks help a long way.

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