Reading Update May/June 2015

This update actually covers my reading during both May and June. As mentioned previously, I haven't had the time to write my May update. So it's going to be a rather long list.

1. Susan Cain - Quiet

The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking

Being an introvert, lots of people have been puzzled how I managed to work in a call center (for a large ISP) when I was in college. While some aspects of it were a bit of a struggle ("You need to show more empathy", "You need to use the customers' names more often", "You need to follow the script" etc), all customer feedback was actually very possible. I got their issues fixed in no time, and they felt they were taken serious and weren't talking to a mindless script-following drone.

The reasons this job worked for an introvert like me were these: While I threw out the "script" on the first day, every call was basically the same. I knew what people were calling about, how to troubleshoot most efficiently and how to fix their issues. Besides that, if I needed a moment for myself, I could simply put my phone on "busy" for a while, not following the script allowed me to handle calls much quicker, so my call volume was above average even if I'd take a 15 minute breather.

Reading "Quiet" was a real affirmation for me. It clarified a lot of suspicions I already had and talked about techniques for dealing with them in a world that's too loud. I feel a lot less guilty for shutting myself off from the world regularly, now that I have the image of a battery for dealing with new situations in my mind. Sometimes I just get depleted, and need to recharge.

Unfortunately much of the world expects extroversion from people, so often I'll have to "fake it". That is mentally and emotionally draining for me, and I would try to avoid these situations as much as possible. This is obviously not a very productive tactic. This book has thought me a better way to deal with it: pacing and preparation. Planning time around events to "recharge" and prepare by thinking through it. Who will be there? What are their roles? What is their background? What's expected of me? etc.

The book contains lots of stories, inspiration and encouragement, but is most of all a celebration of introversion.

2. Kenzaburō Ōe - The Changeling

Let me start off by saying that the blurb on the back of this book gives an entirely wrong impression of what the book is about. It sounds like it was written by a marketeer trying to hype up the book to sell more copies. While not factually wrong, it makes the book appear to be some kind of ghost story, which it isn't.

What fascinated me while reading, is that it remains unclear throughout the book how much of it is autobiographic. The protagonist is a writer in his sixties named Kogito. He's become estranged from his childhood friend, now brother-in-law, a famous movie director named Goro. Recently Goro has started sending Kogito cassette tapes with recordings of himself talking about anything that's on his mind, and reflecting on their shared history.

One night, while listening to the tapes, Kogito's wife rushes in and announces that Goro has just jumped to his death in an apparent suicide. Kogito becomes obsessed with the tapes in trying to understand what could have driven his old friend to kill himself. Through flashbacks, reveries and parts of the tapes we learn about THAT. A traumatizing event they shared just after the war, something which they've avoided discussing ever since.

What's interesting about how the book is written, is that various pivotal events are described from different viewpoints at different times, like pieces of a puzzle that only fit together in the end, or a way to show that things aren't always as clear-cut as they first appear. The story managed to keep me wondering throughout, not only as to what is fiction and what is real, but also about THAT and it's implications.

3. Thomas J. DiLorenzo - The Real Lincoln

A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War

Two sayings immediately came to mind while reading this book: "History is written by the victors" and "In war, the looser is always the aggressor". As a European, I never knew nor cared much about the American civil war. But even I knew Lincoln fought it to free the slaves. Turns out I couldn't have been further from the truth.

DiLorenzo does something that's almost unheard of in American history writing, he goes back to the source: the speeches and writings of Lincoln himself, instead of rehashing his hagiographers. Through his own words, we learn a lot about the Real Lincoln, a ardent racist that fought for legislation to keep "the Negros" out, a micro-manager that clearly knew about, but never forbid his soldiers from raping, massacring and pillaging the South, a man that would have sent every single Negro, free or slave, back to Africa if he could. We learn that he sacrificed 600,000 American soldiers, not to free the slaves, but for the dubious agenda of instituting the supreme federal rule over the states.

All of this starts with the federal government attempting to levy high import duties on manufactured goods, in an attempt to protect American manufacturers. Southern states with largely agricultural and relied on imports for virtually all manufactured goods, either from Northern states, or from Europe. These taxes would cause a massive increase in the costs for Southerners, causing them to opt for secession (a right they constitutionally had, after all, the US was formed by seceding from the British Empire) and refusing to levy the taxes. As a result, almost all international trade shifted from the North to the South, to avoid import duties.

While it is true, that the slaves were freed as a result of the civil war, this is merely a coincidence. As the war, that was promised to last weeks, not months (where have we heard that again?), dragged on, victory for Lincoln became less and less apparent. In a last-ditch attempt to start an uprising in the South, Lincoln declared the slaves in Confederacy controlled territories free. Not those in areas under his own control though. As a result tens of thousands of Northern soldiers defected, they didn't want to "fight to free the Negro".

I highly recommend people to read this book and think long and hard about everything we learn today, in schools and through the media.

4. Stephen R. Donaldson - Lord Foul's Bane

The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, #1

It's interesting to read the reviews on this (and the next) book, there are lots of people who not just dislike them, but actually loath them. Hate them. Wish they'd never read them. I first read this series in my teens, and I enjoyed reading them again.

The protagonist, Thomas Covenant, is a very unlikable character already. As a 20th century outcast due to his leprosy he arrives into a kind of parallel world through magical means. Throughout the book, he refuses to accept this world as "real", justifying it as a dream he has to go through in order to wake up again.

The primary reason for his disbelief is that shortly after his arrival in this new land, he finds himself cured of his leprosy, which in our world is impossible. He promptly proceeds to rape a young girl that has been taking care of him since his arrival. He does feel guilty afterwards though, and this guilt is what drives him through much of the remainder of the story.

The people of the Land see him as a reincarnation of their greatest hero, due to his missing fingers and the mystical white-golden wedding band. White gold doesn't appear naturally in the Land, and apparently it has a supreme magical power, though Thomas refuses to use it, or even to consider it.

While the story is obviously inspired by "Lord of the Rings", I like to think it was written as a kind of anti-fantasy. There are the rock-people (not dwarves), tree-people (not elves), horse people, friendly giants and others. The magical ring. The trip to warn the High Lords of the Land that they must prepare to fight against the evil Lord Foul who is plotting to destroy the Land, the epic battle in a lone mountain, need I go on?

Yet the Land is interesting, the magic system plausible, the side-characters, though a bit two-dimensional, believable and Thomas' refusal to accept any of it refreshing.

5. Stephen R. Donaldson - The Illearth War

The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, #2

Thomas Covenant is once again summoned to the Land, only to find some four decades have passed in the short weeks since he got away last time. He finds the High Lords in dire needs. While they've learned much since the last time he was there, they're moving closer and closer to the impending doom, and do not have the power to avoid it.

The immortal Lord Foul has gotten his hands on an ancient source of evil power, the Illearth Stone, and it using it to turn the Land into decay. But this time, Thomas is not alone. Another man from our world has been transported to the Land earlier, a blind guy named Hile Troy, who turned out to be a military strategist (conveniently). You'd think that with such proof Thomas no longer could deny the reality of the Land, but you'd be wrong.

It's nice though, to have a second POV in the book. A large part of the middle half of the book is from Hile Troy's perspective. He turns out to be a much more positive person, accepting the Land hook, line and sinker, a good contrast to Thomas, especially when a woman, the High Lord Elena, gets between them.

While Hile Troy goes off to lead the armies of the Land in a war against the army of Lord Foul, consisting of all kinds of inhabitants of the Land corrupted by the Illearth Stone, Thomas and Elena go off in search of knowledge, following an automaton in the form of a young man, that has been wandering the Land invisibly for some millennia.

6. Trevor Aaronson - The Terror Factory

Inside the FBI's Manufactured War on Terrorism

Aaronson describes very aptly the "six week cycle" (as popularized by the No Agenda Show) Basically, a continuous cycle of high-profile FBI cases in the "War on Terror". As it turns out, the overwhelming majority of these cases depend heavily on direct FBI involvement, they would never have amounted to anything without their prodding and material support.

The book documents how, after 9/11, the FBI was transformed from a law enforcement agency into a proactive counterterrorism organization, that needs to produce a constant barrage of threads to justify the billions of dollars spend each year in the "war on terrorism".

When they're unable to find an actual terrorism plot, they manufacture one by searching out some petty criminal or someone with mental issues, hand him the scenario, the money, the weapons and prod him to carry out the crime. After the "perpetrator" takes the first step, the FBI arrest them, or better yet, kills them, and announces with much fanfare how they've stopped a major terrorist attack.

This is a must-read for anyone concerned about terrorism, government over-reach and NSA snooping.

7. Haruki Murakami - The Strange Library

A young boy, on the way home from school, is wondering how taxes were collected during the Ottoman Empire. Something I could instantly relate to, as I wondered about all kinds of weird things from when I was a toddler. I would drive my parents insane with incessantly asking "Why", until they would answer with a single "Just because".

He decided to pop in to the local library, to see if there's any book on that topic, and is directed to a special "reading room", where he's imprisoned by a strange old man and forced to memorize three thick books on the subject word-for-word, before he'll be allowed to leave.

Later we learn that things are quite a bit more sinister than they seemed at first: the old man intents to eat the boys brains after he has memorized the books, because they'll be most delicious at that point. While imprisoned, he meets a sheep-man and a mysterious girl who "talks with her hands", though the boy seems to understand her well enough anyway.

Will he succeed at escaping before it is too late? And what will his mother make of his disappearance?

This story has all the makings of a classical fairy tale. Though it's often filed in the kids section, probably due to the rich illustrations, it's a typical Murakami story. The mysterious elements of the story are left vague enough, which causes the reader to fill them in with their own imagination. A perfect book to bring a smile to your face, and tickle your imagination, when you have a free afternoon.

8. Kenzaburō Ōe - Aghwee the Sky Monster

This mildly supernatural short story/novella is about a teenager who comes to work as a companion to a young composer who apparently had gone mad after the death of his infant son. Ever since the death, he's frequently visited by the spirit of his son. He feels the compulsion to show this spirit the life that it would never have.

The composer, only referred to as "D", describes this spirit as floating down out of the sky, whenever he goes outside, and looking like a fat baby in a white cotton gown, big as a kangaroo. Later we learn that "D" had killed his infant son himself by starving him, because he was born with a severe brain injury. When, after the death, "D" learns the brain injury was actually a benign tumor, he goes mad and shuts himself off from the world around him.

As the story progresses, the unnamed narrator becomes less and less convinced that this spirit is actually just a figment of a mad men's imagination, as he witnesses the (one sided) interactions of "D" and eventually even feels a had on his shoulder when no-one is there.

In the end, while the narrator is taking "D" out in the city, "D cried out and thrust both arms in front of him as if he were trying to rescue something", while stepping into a busy street. He's hit by a car and later dies in the hospital, leaving the narrator wondering if all of it was just an elaborate scheme, planned ahead to cover up "D"'s suicide.