A Reader’s Diary in 2018

South America, spectrum and culturedness all the way down

6 Books

1. Mario Vargas Llosa: The Feast of the Goat

Heard of it: in this NYT article.

This was the first book I finished this year, its story is based on the actual events of the assassination of Rafael Trujillo, a dictator of the Dominican Republic for 35 years.

The story itself is a great tale of how a dictatorship is maintained through manipulation, greed and violence, and of how power is held and exercised, And finally how it erodes when the coffers run empty (and you lose the support of the US).

This is the historical context of the book. But the story is character-driven, it is quite a personal one. It tells how absolute power “can colonize even the intimate lives of countrymen.” — (NYT)

That’s where the greatness of this book lies in: connecting the detached and abstract way of politics with the personal, across many the parts of the Dominican society.

For me, it demonstrated the end-game of a mock-democracy, where institutions are worthless, and power (wealth and arms) is concentrated to an absolute degree.

Something negative:

  • some characterisations were a bit rushed, due to the number of characters and the demand for historical accuracy
  • the framing for the assassins’ storyline could’ve used a bit more variety. You have 6 characters sitting in cars, waiting for the dictator to appear: starting every chapter with “Is the dictator coming!? Not yet…” -> flashback to assassin X’s childhood, was getting too old too soon

It must’ve been a huge undertaking, it’s a story worth telling, and it was told well: 4.5/5

2. Jorge Luis Borges: A Personal Anthology

Heard of it: from my friend Peter, who said that one must read Borges to be even remotely cultured. Thus I have taken it as my goal to be cultured remotely.

A Latin American book again. A collection of short stories, compiled by the author himself.

Magical realism is indeed an exciting technique to compose a story with.

If you have no other reference point, think Kafka. When you read Borges (as you most probably will, my well-cultured reader), you will see how wide-ranging this style can be.

The basic setup is, that all is described as a matter of fact, in a realistic way, but what is described is a kind of magic: realism is nonchalantly disturbed by something strange and unreal.

Borges plays with space and time — narrative and character often become unreal, they connect across short stories, revealing the fictional nature of .

The pieces are all very dreamlike, all very strange, logically consistent, and clever… a bit too clever if you ask me.

Something negative:

Personally, I do not enjoy riddles or trick questions or convoluted narratives. I get a chuckle out of these, but I wish there was some more plot, more characterisation, more real in the mix to connect with. Without these, it often feels empty.

When you already have a harder than average text, then what’s the purpose of omitting the aforementioned basic elements of a story?

Yes, brevity is the soul of wit, but to be witty shouldn’t be the sole purpose of a story.

Personally this is a 3/5. Pretty good, I’d recommend it for mathematicians or people who enjoy being clever.

3. Mark Haddon: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

I heard of it: from my girlfriend, who said I should read something easy after the brooding latinos.

A dog is dead on the neighbour’s garden, it was murdered with a pitchfork. A teenage boy starts to investigate the incident.

Oh, and he is on the spectrum, so… he cannot pick up on human emotions or social clues.

The story describes this boy’s endeavours, and the family and life around him. The challenges with his autism, but mainly the mystery of the dog’s murder.

I really enjoyed this book. It is narrated very simply (since it is narrated from the point of view of the boy) and the author creatively tells experiences of the other characters through their actions. It also avoids many cliches and tropes from movies and other media about autism.

The story becomes more involved with the family, but never too heavy.

Something negative:

  • Could’ve been a bit shorter, it was lagging quite a bit at the beginning of “act three”

As a YA novel, it’d be great. It’s considered to be written for adults, but it’s still pretty good 3.5/5

4. Boris Vian: Mood Indigo

I heard of it: a friend of mine liked the movie, multiple other friends liked the book (please don’t take this personally).

“Though told as a surrealism and contains multiple plot lines, including the love stories of two couples, talking mice, and a man who ages years in a week. One of the main plot lines concerns a newlywed man whose wife develops a rare and bizarre illness that can only be treated by surrounding her with flowers.” — Wiki.

I can’t write an intro to this, for it bores me too much.

It must’ve been the case of the reader and the book not matching, because this kind of repulsion, for a book loved by so many, I haven’t experienced before.

The book starts with two antipathetic characters, bumbling around in a surreal version of Paris, which resembles something from Douglas Adams sci-fi — that is, if all the casual elegance and fun was sucked out of it, and was filled with the pretentious horniness of a 20 something toff.

Self-absorbed, not fun, not clever.

It is not well written, flat, rhythmless, boring. I am sure the original is better in French, I heard people criticising the English translation.

I am also sure that French surrealism has more to offer than this.

Again, this is a question of taste: some random button in my head was pushed by something, I can imagine people enjoying this book.

I got until 35% but I could not finish it.

5. D. H. Pink: Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

Heard of it: it was in the company library, but I also heard this title many times from different places.

A management/motivational book. The author says that autonomy is good. Let people be free, and they’ll learn and master stuff on their own. They’ll find purpose in their work, and they’re going to be motivated. The old model of punishment and reward is bad.

I couldn’t finish it. Ironically the book fails to motivate this reader to keep reading. /s

To be honest, I wholeheartedly agree with the premise, that after a certain point, money doesn’t provide motivation and punishment causes stress which only lowers productivity.

Currently, I’m employed at a young-and-free tech company which already works with these principles, so I felt like this book offers me no new insight.

I was also previously annoyed by the management and self-help books in general and this hit the same nerve, even if it wasn’t as bad as many others (looking at you, 7 shmabits of shmighly shmeffective shmeople). (See this parody I wrote.)

I wish Mr. Pink the best, I hope he spreads the word and consults with a bunch of old-fashioned companies to create better working environments.

6. John Green: Turtles All The Way Down

Heard of it: I follow vlogbrothers on youtube and listen to their podcast, and in general, I think they are good people. That being said, this is the first John Green book I have read.

Partly because all of them are for young adults, but mainly because I used to be a jaded and cynical person who thought that he is too cool to read YA books written from the perspective of a young girl, especially after seeing the trailer for the latest one.

But if John Green, a 40-year-old man, is ready to write as the character of a teenage girl, then I am certainly prepared to suspend my disbelief and dive in, all the way down.

In the end, I liked it. I think John Green is an experienced writer, and he must’ve worked a lot on this book, and it shows. Many themes and symbols are used and worked with, the characters are believable and their struggle seems relatable. The book overall has a solid plot, great pacing and the structure is well thought out.

Not to mention it also writes about the mental issues of the character and does a great job in showing how relentlessly annoying and disturbing a mental problem like OCD can be, but still keeps the book far from being preachy.

Something negative:

  • it’s not a masterpiece since there are some John Greenesque annoying things in it, eg. the constant resigned melancholy of the characters and their concerns with death and oblivion

Still, I read it, no regrets, you go John, I’d be curious to read anything written about old people. Not even adults, but like, super old people.

4/5