Book-a-Day-Challenge Day 5

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„I was finally doing something that really mattered. Sleep felt productive. Something was getting sorted out. I knew in my heart—this was, perhaps, the only thing my heart knew back then—that when I’d slept enough, I’d be okay. I’d be renewed, reborn. I would be a whole new person, every one of my cells regenerated enough times that the old cells were just distant, foggy memories. My past life would be but a dream, and I could start over without regrets, bolstered by the bliss and serenity that I would have accumulated in my year of rest and relaxation.“

This book certainly gets the reactions going. In our bookclub it was pretty much love or hate. I really enjoyed this novel even though it was not at all what I expected. After I had managed to overcome that tiny bit of annoyance that the protagonist doesn’t use her year of rest and relaxation to read tons of book I was all in.

I found the book smart, ironic, funny and very dark. The protagonist does what I would like to do: Put my life on pause for a while, until the Trumps, Erdogans, Putings and other assholes have disappeared and I come back to life and all these last years of bullshit were just a bad dream. Wouldn’t that be wonderful.

Well our nameless protagonist goes into hibernation for an entire year. But when you think sandy beaches, or comfy pyjamas, hot beverages and good books you are very wrong. She is off to a completely different kind of hibernation.

She is most of the time of this year completely strung out on a concoction of different super strong drugs, whilst also juggling her partly unwanted friendship with her best friend, her shitty ex-boyfriend and her feelings about her dead parents.

The story is set in the year 2000 and she hibernates hoping to come out of it a completely new human being. She manages to find the worlds worst and funniest psychiatrist who gets her every perscription drug mankind has ever heard of and by this helps her to sleep away a year of her life.

 “This was how I knew the sleep was having an effect: I was growing less and less attached to life. If I kept going, I thought, I’d disappear completely, then reappear in some new form. This was my hope. This was my dream.”

The book feels like a strange endless fever dream with its repetitions and its haziness. The protagonist blacks in and out of her life, walks to a nearby Bodega to buy old VHS tapes only to head back to the sofa to fall back asleep. Sometimes she is awake without noticing, goes on telesales shopping binges, finds her phone in the oddest places, phones her ex boyfriend etc. Her black outs can last for days sometimes but she is more astonished by them then horrified and thinks of ways to hide her phone from herself to stop making orders or appointments.

Even though she mainly sleeps, her observation skills of the outside world are spot on. I don’t wanna get into describing the narrators relationship with her distant father and her cold abusive mother. It is definitely the main reason for her escapism and her avoidance of everything.

Oh and then there is her best friend from university, try-hard Reva, who is so desperate to fit in, to stay slim and to be liked. She is always reading the latest hyped self-help book, is having an affair with her boss and if only to have some drama in her life that she can continously chew over with her her friend. She is in every way the absolute opposite of our apethic heroine.

I thoroughly enjoyed this bittersweet story but I’m aware Ottessa Moshfegh is not a writer for everyone. One has to have a bit of a thing for unlikeable protagonists and should ideally not be squeamish about body fluids, descriptions of odors etc.

Check out Ottessa Moshefegh’s previous novel „Eileen“ which I liked even better and makes for really good winter reading.

„My Year of Rest and Relaxation“ is available in German as „Mein Jahr der Ruhe und Entspannung“ in Liebeskind Verlag.

Book-a-Day-Challenge Day 4

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Richard Feynman is a physicist who taught at Cornell and Princeton, worked on the Manhattan Project and won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1965.

Feynman was not a big fan of formalities and this dislike is a big theme throughout the book. His father was a sales man who dealt with a variety of people and he saw that underneath people were all the same. He passed these ideas on to his children and Feynman disliked formalities so much, ne nearly did not accept his Nobel prize.  I really liked the idea that the son of a sales man and a homemaker would win this prestigious price.

No question, Feynman was a brilliant physicist with a varity of interests and the stories told in this book are based on these interests mainly were the were linked with his work in physics. From his childhood interest in radios, his observations on human behavior, his laboratory at home, all the tricks and gimmicks he developed make fun stories to hear.

“You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It’s their mistake, not my failing.” 

But unfortunately there is a big but. I am happy to oversee his huge ego because well he was indeed an exceptional clever person so ok but being brilliant and sometimes ahead of his time did not stop him from being a pretty sleezy womaniser and I am sadly missing my blessed ignorance about this side of him before I read the book.

Saw this picture somewhere and it is spot on.

But beside that I enjoyed reading about his time at Los Alamos where he worked on the Manhattan Project and the stories about the time he spent in Brazil and Japan as well as the chapters on education.

Most of the stories he tells are about him having a hidden talent, using it often for some prank on others and then being applauded for it by others (or himself). He is not only a great physicist, mathematican, musician, safecracker, code breaker, drawer of naked girls etc. He is unfortunately showing off quite a bit and that can come across as him being a bit of a jerk.

I know I’m not doing a great job here advertising the book, but there were also parts I really liked and I really recommend this method he came up with and that is named in his honor:

The Feynman Learning Technique:

  1. Choose a concept you want to learn about
  2. Pretend you are teaching it to a child
  3. Identify gaps in your explanation;  Go back to the source material, to better understand it.
  4. Review and simplify

He might not be the world’s most interesting and funny storyteller (as he believes to be) but there is still enough good stuff in the book for me to recommend it to you and follow up with one of his great lectures, for example this one on Gravitation:

Are you good at distinguing between the artist/scientist and the book?

Check out Sabine Hossenfelder’s book „Lost in Math. How Beauty leads physics astray/Das häßliche Universum“, this biography on physicist Lise Meitner and  theoretical physicst Lisa Randells book „Knocking on heavens door“

Book-a-Day-Challenge Day 3

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Jenny Erpenbeck’s powerful novel „Gehen, Ging, Gegangen / Go, Went, Gone“ is one of the most moving and clearsighted books I read this year. Richard a former classics professor in the east part of Berlin is getting used to his new routine as a pensioner. He has a big house with an even bigger garden near a lake where a man drowned in the summer who is still lost in the water and he rather disturbingly remains lost for the entire book.

The lost swimmer who died by accident to never return to the surface is probably a metapher for the many refugees lost in the sea on their way to Europe and of the uncertainty of the ones that made it to Europe who are now drowning in a sea of paper with the crazy german bureaucracy.

It’s never entirely clear to Richard or his readers what exactly made him actually go to Oranienplatz where 10 African refugees carry out a protest and a hunger strike to make the public aware of their terrible situation. He hears about the protest on the news and realises that he was there on Alexanderplatz the same day and just didn’t see the men.

That’s how invisible refugees are in our day-to-day life. When the protest ends Richard is sad and attents a town-hall meeting in a previous school in Kreuzberg where the fate of the refugees is being discussed. Like Homer’s Odysseus who called himself „Nobody“ he refuses to say his name when his turn comes and leaves the meeting. But something draws him back to these men and he goes and finds them in their new accomodation.

He interviews and befriends different men from Nigera, Ghana, Burkino Faso, Lybia and other places and learns about their extraordinary often brutal stories of their young lives. Most of the men are traumatised, they are bored with nothing to do all day and terrified of not belonging anywhere. They feel redundant, nobody seems to need and want them.

Richard listens to their stories, writes them down even though he is not quite sure to what end. It becomes very clear to him that even a highly cultivated academic like him knows very little about Africa. He has no idea where Burkino Faso is or if Niger is at the ocean but he works hard to learn as much as possible about African history, geography, immigration law, the different causes that make people voluntary or involuntary leave their homeland etc.

„Most of the men, from various African countries, were violently expelled from the refuge they had sought in Libya, when conflict began there too“

Richard (and also his old friends) become a lot more empathic and he experiences immense intellectual and social growth by listening to the narratives of his new friends and his studies. He goes back to his beloved classics and experiences them quite different than before. He has known the classics all his life but thanks to his new knowledge is all comes together in a new divergent way.

I also really enjoyed how the author demonstrates with Richard being from the former east of Germany that you don’t need to go into excile to become estranged from a place you used to know.

The book was written in 2015 but we still life with this moral catastrophy of dozens of refugess drowing in the sea each week on their way to Europe. Jenny Erpenbeck has not necessarily all the answers but she certainly asks the right questions. An important well written book and I was glad to see that Jenny Erpenbeck landed on quite a few „best translated novel“ with this book and the previous one „Heimsuchung/Visitation“

„Going, went, gone“ was translated into English by Susan Bernofsky and published by Granta books.

„Gehen, Ging, Gegangen“ erschien im Knaus Verlag.

Check out Moshin Hamid’s novel „Exit West“ for another take on becoming a refugee and leaving everything behind.

What is your favorite novel by Jenny Erpenbeck?

Book-a-Day-Challenge Day 2

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Gerda, an old lady living in an old peoples home, is looking out at the stars. She is considering wether she had a happy life or not. While she tries to master living in her final new home, she remembers her youth in the 1960s, her excitement for astrophysics an area that was pretty much off limits for women then, some hard choices she had to make during this sommer of her life: Having to decide between her love to her husband and a career abroad…

I do have a soft spot for old ladies having grown up with my Grandmother and this wonderful graphic novel has totally torn me apart. I loved the story so much and especially the exqusite drawings by Barbara Yelin.

I bought the book last year at the „Markt der unabhängigen Verlage“ in Literaturhaus in Munich as a Christmas present for my wife and the illustrator was there and actually made a wonderful little personal drawing for it which made it even more special.

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You can’t go wrong with this one, it really is a perfect gift. Check out Alison Bechdel’s „Fun Home„, Apostolos Doxiadis‘ „Logicomix“ and Marjane Satrapi’s „Persepolis“ for more inspiring graphic novels.

Are you a fan of Comics, Graphic Novels or Mangas? Any more recommendations for me?

„Der Sommer ihres Lebens“ erschien im Reprodukt Verlag.

Meine Woche

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Gesehen: „Solaris“ (1972) von Andrei Tarkovsky mit Donatas Banionis und Natalya Bondarchuk. Dieser Film ist ein Meisterwerk, der mit jedem mal sehen besser wird.

Mythos Suhrkamp“ Reportage von Sigfried Ressel. Die Republik – ihre Diskurse – ihr Verlag.

Leonardo da Vinci – die Welt malen“ Dokumentation von Sandra Paugam anläßlich des 500. Todestages des Universalgenies.

Gehört: „Solaris“ – Eduard Artemiev, „Weihnachtsoratorium“ – Johann Sebastian Bach

Gelesen: How my local library changed my life, Margarete Stokowskis Vorschläge zur Gleichberechtigung, Robert Macfarlane why we’re drawn into darkness, Das „Last Supper“ Gemälde einer Nonne aus der Renaissance macht sein Debut, The biggest lie tech people tell themselves and others, If you don’t want kids you don’t have to want a career instead, On the 19th century invention of the madwoman und diese Kurzgeschichte von Olga Tokarczuk

Getan: den Markt der unabhängigen Verlage besucht, die Erika Mann Ausstellung im wunderbaren Hildebrandhaus besucht und den Bookclub bewirtet

Geplant: Firmen-Umzug innerhalb des Gebäudes organisieren

Gegessen: veganes Sushi im Kansha und Lebkuchenmännchen

Getrunken: unter anderem diesen, diesen und diesen wunderbaren Wein auf der Mövenpick Weinverkostung 20/20

Gefreut: über diese vielversprechende Mukoviszidose Behandlung, über meinen großartigen Adventskalender, eine spannende Virginia Woolf Biografie aus Berlin und ein sehr großzügiges Wein-Geschenk

Geweint: nein

Geklickt: auf Sasha Baron Cohens inspirierende Rede, 73 questions with Olivia Cole, auf Neil Gaimans Gedanken zur Liebe, Hannah Gadsby on being diagnosed with autism und auf 15 commercials directed by David Lynch

Gestaunt: A timeline of 7 million years of human evolution, Are we living in a simulation? und über diese großartigen Fotos aus Wales

Geärgert: nein

Gelacht: über die großartige Tweetsammlung von Frau Kaltmamsell

Gewünscht: Baby Yoda, diese Lampe, dieses Outfit

Gefunden: nix

Gekauft: dieses Buch von Stefan Zweig aus dem Topalian & Milani

Gedacht: “Don’t limit your challenges, challenge your limits.” // Martonek Jr

Book-a-Day x-mas Challenge

It’s this time of the year again and I’m introducing a book a day that caught my interest. You will find old and new, obscure and mainstream titles next to each other so hopefully an interesting mix.

I would like to start today with a book I had picked from the shelves for the wonderful #autorinnenschuber and got sucked into it before I could place it back on the shelf.

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Mind you, this is no comfy feelgood literature. This book is hard, it hurts and it is one of the most painful description of the horrors of WW2 that I ever read.

Agota Kristof (1935-2011) was a Hungarian author who lived Switzerland, and the wrote in french. Das große Heft (The Notebook in english) is the first volume of a trilogy. It quite difficult to describe the ambiance of this weird and chilling story. I have read a lot of books on WW2, but can’t think of many that that made such a strong emotional impression on me.  It paints the impact of war on the people enduring its horrors in cold and dark pictures.

The story is told in the first person plural by twins named Claus and Lucas, who were taken by their mother from the city to the countryside where they should stay with their grandmother until the war is over. This granny is not a warm and welcoming spirit, she is quite mean and unwelcoming and in response to their harsh environment at home and with the war outside, the both numb themselves. They practice surpressing their emotions and harden themselves in physical excercises.

They response to life and its uncertainties in a pragmatic and often amoral way, taken advantage of any situation that promises them a benefit. But there are also moments of altruism that come about very unexpectedly when they help others even less fortunately in life than themselves.

 The book ends in a very unexpected way and left me pretty speechless.

I rarely encountered a book as terrifying, numbing and painful as this one. It has immense emotional power which is only increased by the minimalistic language and will haunt you for a long time. I highly recommend this slender book even though it is a tough read.

Combine Agota Kristof’s „The Notebook“ with Ilse Aichinger’s „Die größere Hoffnung“ and Anna Funder’s „All that I am/Alles was ich bin„.

I’m looking forward to seeing you back here tomorrow where I promise it will be a little more light-hearted.

Do you know the book? What was your impression and did you read the rest of the trilogy?

„Das große Heft“ was published in Piper Verlag.

Women in Science (24) Blattgeflüster – Hope Jahren

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Dieses Mal habe ich für Women in Science auf Esthers wunderbarem Blog „Esthers Bücher“ geklaut, da werde ich immer wieder einmal fündig, sei es für meine Women in SciFi als auch diese Reihe. Der geistige Diebstahl wurde abgesegnet und somit freue ich mich euch heute eine Geobiologin vorstellen zu dürfen:

Hope Jahren ist eine amerikanische Geobiologin, die in diesem Buch über Pflanzen und ihr eigenes Leben erzählt, wobei der biografische Teil überwiegt. Es ist also weniger ein Sachbuch über unsere Flora, obwohl das Buch alleine schon wegen den bildhaften Beschreibungen des pflanzlichen Lebens lesenswert ist. Viel eher ist es die ergreifende Geschichte einer Wissenschaftlerin, die sich in einer von Männern dominierten Welt behaupten muss.

Was ist aber Geobiologie? Hope Jahren buddelt oft in der Erde, sammelt Pflanzen und verbringt sehr sehr viel Zeit in ihrem Labor (Doppelschichten sind bei ihr die Norm!). Das beschreibt schon mal ganz gut die Tätigkeit eines Geobiologen. Diese Wissenschaft ist nämlich „eine interdisziplinäre Forschungsrichtung, die die Methodiken der Geowissenschaften i. w. S. und der Biologie miteinander verknüpft, um Wechselwirkungen zwischen Biosphäre einerseits und Lithosphäre, Erdatmosphäre und Hydrosphäre andererseits zu erkunden“. (Wikipedia) Dabei folgt Jahren ihrer eigenen Methode, die in dieser Disziplin eher selten ist: Sie versucht die Logik der Pflanzen zu verstehen, und daraus Schlüsse zu ziehen. Für sie sind Bäume nicht einfach nur Bäume, sondern Lebewesen, die immer einen trifftigen Grund dafür haben, was sie gerade tun.

Ich versuchte, mir eine neue Umweltwissenschaft auszumalen, die nicht auf einer Welt der Menschen basierte, in der eben auch ein paar Pflanzen lebten, sondern auf einer Welt der Pflanzen, in der auch ein paar Menschen herumspazierten.

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Es ist nicht einfach, in der Männerdomäne der Naturwissenschaften sich als Frau einen Namen zu machen, das muss Hope Jahren immer wieder erfahren. Dass sie für ihre Forschung dann auch noch einen Weg wählt, der völlig ungewohnt ist, hilft ihr dabei nicht unbedingt. Ständige Geldprobleme machen es schwer, ihr Labor aufzubauen und ihre Kollegen zu bezahlen. Und als würden sich nicht bereits genug Hindernisse ihr in den Weg legen, muss sie auch mit einer Angststörung und den Auswirkungen ihrer manischen Depression kämpfen.

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All das scheint sie aber nicht zu verlangsamen, im Gegenteil. Sie arbeitet bis heute, wo sie bereits eine etablierte und mehrfach ausgezeichnete Wissenschaftlerin ist, Tag und Nacht. Das liegt sicherlich auch an ihrer medizinischen Kondition, aber auch an ihrem unbändigen Interesse am pflanzlichen Leben. Stets an ihrer Seite ist Bill, der im Buch ohne Nachnamen erwähnt wird, nach kurzer Recherche weiß man aber, dass es sich dabei um Bill Hagopian handelt. Bills Figur ist mindestens so faaszinierend, wie die von Hope Jahren. Er ist ein Einzelgänger, der in seiner Jugend im Garten seiner Eltern ein Loch gebuddelt und dort gelebt hat. Er liebt es nun mal, in der Erde zu graben. Er folgt Jahren überall hin, auch wenn seine Existenz meistens nicht gesichert ist. Denn während Jahren als Professorin immer über ein Gehalt von ihrer jeweiligen Universität erhält, muss Bill aus anderen, oft nicht vorhandenen oder sehr spärlichen Mitteln bezahlt werden. Das führt dazu, dass er teilweise kein Dach über dem Kopf hat und in seinem Auto oder verbotenerweise im Labor übernachten muss.

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Hope Jahren und Bill Hagopian. Foto: Gunhild M . Haugnes/UiO. Lizenz: CC BY 4.0

Bill ist es, der immer in der Lage ist, Jahren zu beruhigen, oder sie immer wieder zu motivieren, wenn sie aufgeben würde. Und Hope Jahren lernt nach und nach, was dazu notwendig ist, ihr Forscherteam nicht nur am Leben zu erhalten, sondern auch zum Erfolg zu führen. Man bekommt das Gefühl, dass sie ohne einander verloren wären und es nie soweit geschafft hätten, wo sie heute sind.

Und diese fast schon symbiotische Beziehung ist in ihrer Welt der Pflanzen nicht unbekannt. Das Überleben für eine Pflanze ist keine Selbstverständlichkeit. Nur ein kleiner Bruchteil aller Samen wird irgendwann mal zu einem Sprössling. Und nur ein Bruchteil dieser Sprösslinge wird mal zu einer erwachsenen Pflanze. Dass eine Pflanze lange überlebt und sich sogar fortpflanzen kann, bedarf so vieler glücklicher Umstände, dass man sie kaum aufzählen kann. Diese Parallelen zwischen Pflanzen und der Lebensgeschichte ihrer Erforscherin sind leicht zu entdecken und ergeben sich aus der Struktur des Buches. Scheinbar vermischen sich pflanzenbezogene Kapitel wahllos mit biografischen, doch da steckt eine tiefere Logik dahinter.

Ein tolles Buch, das mir so viel mehr gegeben hat, als was ich erwartet habe. Ich war auf ein Buch über Pflanzen vorbereitet, und habe mich darauf gefreut, mehr über sie erfahren. Und diese Erwartung wurde auch nicht enttäuscht. Womit ich nicht gerechnet habe, war Hope Jahren mit ihren immer wieder neu aufgebauten Laboren und mit ihrer Leidenschaft (oder Besessenheit?). Aktuell bereitet sie ihr nächstes Buch vor, das im März 2020 unter dem Titel „The Story of More“ erscheinen soll. Ich freue mich schon darauf.