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 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.

Book-a-Day Challenge – Day 18

Elizabeth Gilbert’s „The Signature of all Things“ is a novel about the longing for completion and self-fulfillment of a woman who is intelligent, scientific minded and struggles with her longings and aspirations that are hard to fulfill for a woman in the 19th century.

Alma Whitaker is a child of the Enlightenment and something of a fictitious female Charles Darwin. She arrives at Darwin’s evolutionary theory on the survival of the fittest before Darwin publishes his book purely based on personal experiences. But self-doubt on her theories and a the nagging feeling that humans might not as easily be categorised into theories as plants and animals stop her from publishing.

“Take me someplace where we can be silent together.”

Alma is a complex and fascinating character who sort of personifies an area and the age of upheaval. Gilbert writes and also structures her novel a lot like a the classics of the 19th century. The book is impeccably researched and often very funny with some (not so 19th century) explicit sexual content.

Alma Whitaker, even though she is a classic Daddy’s Girl,  is one of the most memorable and relatable heroines I’ve come across of . The storytelling it wonderful and it is hard to put the book aside. It was a quick read even though the book is quite the door stopper. I loved who much I learned about plants, moss, medical plants and botany in general.

Gilbert is a great writer who’s characters are as lively as the world that they live in. The writing is poetic and we follow Alma on her odyssey of the natural world and beyond, the wonder of life shows itself in all its beauty.

This is the perfect gift for the aspiring botanist or anybody who is interested in the history of science and loves a good novel to get lost in.

Book-a-Day Challenge 17

„Fugitive Pieces“ is one of my favorite books and one I re-read a couple of times. It’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly it is that makes me go back to it, but I think it has something to do how books were the safe heaven for a little boy and I could relate to it a lot. All it needs to keep a kid safe is one person who loves it, something to eat and drink, a place to sleep and some books.

Jakob Beer is a little polish boy who had buried himself to hide from the soldiers who murdered his family. He is rescued by a kind Greek geologist who is not even sure he found a little human being in the mud until the boy starts to cry. He smuggles him back to Greece and fosters him back to life. He shows him the beauty of the world that is hidden in the library behind the covers of his books on plants, history, fossile, stones and slowly he helps Jakob transform from a wild Holocaust survivor to an artist.

I highly recommend this book to you, a novel about mysterious symmetries, loss, redumption and the triumph of love. I read somewhere a book that should not so much be read but you should surrender to it.

Accompany this book with Aaron Appelfelds „Geschichte eines Lebens / The story of a Life“ and Haruki Murakamis „Kafka on the Shore“

Book-a-Day Challenge: Day 15+16

The recommendation today comes from the deepest corners of the sea. This wonderful book about one of my favorite creatures: The Octopus 🙂

This extract from the publishers site tells you best why this is the book makes a great present:

„What if intelligent life on Earth evolved not once, but twice? The octopus is the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien. What can we learn from the encounter? In Other Minds, Peter Godfrey-Smith, a distinguished philosopher of science and a skilled scuba diver, tells a bold new story of how nature became aware of itself – a story that largely occurs in the ocean, where animals first appeared.

Tracking the mind’s fitful development from unruly clumps of seaborne cells to the first evolved nervous systems in ancient relatives of jellyfish, he explores the incredible evolutionary journey of the cephalopods, which began as inconspicuous molluscs who would later abandon their shells to rise above the ocean floor, searching for prey and acquiring the greater intelligence needed to do so – a journey completely independent from the route that mammals and birds would later take.

But what kind of intelligence do cephalopods possess? How did the octopus, a solitary creature with little social life, become so smart? What is it like to have eight tentacles that are so packed with neurons that they virtually ‘think for themselves‘? By tracing the question of inner life back to its roots and comparing human beings with our most remarkable animal relatives, Godfrey-Smith casts crucial new light on the octopus mind – and on our own.“

Published by Harper Collins.

Book-a-Day Challenge – Day 14

This is another book no bookworm should miss. It’s the perfect one to cuddle up with on the sofa, forget the world around you and immerse yourself into the world of books, poets, writers and literature.

Alberto Manguel who is a well known essayist moves from his first time he discovered books to the history of books and reading that goes back some 6000 years. He talks about reading as seduction, as an act of rebellion, the obsessed readers, the occasional readers and he traces the history back to the the first clay tabletts, to paper scrolls and to what was the latest in the 1990s when this book came out – the CD Rom.

This is a rich and wonderful book. A treasure chest of knowledge, reading, stories and really wonderful illustration – what a journey. It is incredibly engaging with lot’s of interesting explorations and knowledige bits about the history of the book and literature in general. It certainly makes you think about how you became a reader. Can you remember the first time somebody read to you or the first time you started reading yourself? What was your first book?

My grandfather read to me from a book every night called „365 Good night stories“ and I can still remember my frustrated begging for just ONE more story please please with sugar on top. I usually managed to get more than one story out of him at night but rarely more than 2 or 3. That was it! I had to learn mastering the little magical symbols so I could conquer the world of stories myself.

I was so proud, when I slowly and painstakingly mastered the most wonderful skills in the world when I was around 5. From that day one no paper with anything writte on it was safe from me. I devoured not just books, put anything written. Advertising flyers, billboards, closing credits on TV and of course books.

There was nothing I wanted and needed more. All the neighbors in our apartment block searched their flats for forgotten children books (most of them had grown-up kids already) and I also remember that first day I was introduced and registered at the local library in my hometown. This is a whole other story about this tiny little library that I completely fell in love with…

Ooops, I’ve gone astray, back to „A History of Reading“. Manguel shows us what happens when we read, how books form us, and how reading teaches us to live. It is a wonderful recap of why people read and will always read. It is a combination of personal stories, historical references and fitting illustrations that make the book not just informative but very enjoyable.

This is a must read and the perfect present for all you bibliophiles out there or the ones in your life. Combine this with Ella Berthoud’s book on Bibliotherapy.

So – what was your first book? Can you remember?