Recently in books II

About 6 min reading time

This is a long overdue post on some books I’ve read since the last update.

“Ishmael” by Daniel Quinn

My father in law borrowed me this one, not without a glimpse in his eye. It’s hard to describe this novel. It’s not what it seems to be in the first few pages, which is about a man who starts talking with a gorilla via telepathy. The bulk of the novel is the philosophical conversation between the odd couple, where the gorilla acts as the teacher for the man, who acts as narrator.

My immediate thoughts about this book are these:

  1. It’s really “on topic” right now (year 2020).
  2. It’s eye opening, challenging, provoking, and story telling.

For the first point: one of the book’s core themes is around planet Earth – the environment and how we humans are ruining it. Whereas other books in the climate genre is a lot of numbers and facts, “Ishmael” tells a different, more philosophical, story.

The second point: the book does exactly what (I think) a philosophical novel should do. It taught me things and how to see myself, my culture, and whole of humanity and its history in a different light. I knew already that our modern culture — capitalist and infinte-growth aspiring — isn’t viable and sustainable. “Ishmael” confirms those thoughts by anchoring them in a spiritual and cultural arguments, using terms as Myths, Stories, and Cultures.

The book affected me in the sense of reiterating that Balance is everything. Humans have messed up that ecological balance in nature, by telling ourselves we’re above the laws of nature, and that we possess the power of deciding over “who’s to die, and who’s to survive”.

If you can bare with the kind of long introductory part, I’d really recommend getting through it. Pair it up with the popular science piece “Sapiens” for a full picture.

“Cosa Nostra” by John Dickie

A non-fiction book about the Sicilian mafia - the Cosa Nostra.

I had a real “mobster Spring” where I went through a couple of mafia movies and books (this and the next one I write about below). Am I getting this old already?! I like good non-fiction books, and this one was good. It’s essentially about how the mafia grew from local gangs in Sicily in the 1800s, into a loose but worldwide organisation in the 1900s.

It’s a fascinating read if you’re that kind of person. Note that the author focuses mostly on the Sicilian mafia, and not the American offspring that was born in the early 1900s. Perfect vacation paperback read, I’d say.

“The Godfather” by Mario Puzo

Here we go. The absolute number one piece of mafia literature.

I’ve seen the movie(s) countless of times, but still enjoyed the book a lot. That’s because Puzo’s language and skill in writing a captivating plot is outstanding. Everything is intense: the dialogue, the characters, the situations.

It, naturally, does a better job telling the backstories of the characters of the Corleone crime family than the movies. I’m usually a sucker for the fates of “anti heroes”, such as Michael Corleone: about their early innocence, ascent to something they did not anticipate, and final fall from their throne (this is not pictured in “The Godfather”).

In the end, what fascinates me with Puzo’s work is his way of creating emotional bonds between the reader and the characters (while you know they’re bad!) but in an ice cold way describe horrible fates and acts.

“Herakles” by Theodor Kallifatides

The author is born in Greece but now lives and works in Sweden. The book is a fiction novel about the Greek hero Hercules (“Herakles” in Swedish). I think everybody knows the core story, from the Disney movie or from the origin myth, in one way or another. This book is more detailed, dramatised version of the original story about the hero’s adventures.

I’ve always loved reading about religion and myths. I recall revisiting a factbook about Greek mythology my parents had when I was little, so all the names are stuck with me.

The book focuses on Hercules’ birth, upbringing, adventures, and death — an all the sorrow and tragedies therein. Greek mythology is full of tragedy! So when you read about our hero, there are a couple of moments of “Goddammit Hercules, now you really screwed up!”. And he screwed up a lot.

I liked the personal tone the author writes in. The style is modern but serious. Howver, it still contains that sterile prose in the way that these old myths should be told in. “Oh, Hercules beat somebody to death with his bare hands. No big deal, carry on”. But “Herakles” manages to go beyond the regular death and violence in the myth, and add some everyday empathy for our hero. And that, I appreciate: some nuance.

In the end, it’s a good story.

“Normal People” by Sally Rooney

A book praised by critics, winner of great awards, made into television series. “Normal People” is about a guy (Connell) and a girl (Marianne) in a high school in Ireland. They develop a non-trivial romantic and physical relationship, and we get to follow them over the years they’re together and apart.

I like the very boiled down stories in these kinds of plots. The variations are usually infinite, and the quality of the work is determined by the prose and flow in the text. Sally Rooney writes wonderfully. The core plot of “boy and girl like each other but it’s complicated” is taken care of very delicately. As mentioned, everything is very boiled down, and the text follows both Connell and Marianne in their thoughts. The pacing is good, as a new chapter might bring a jump over a few years in their lives.

The author manages to capture That Feeling that occurs in romantic relationships in the ages 18-30. On the inside, you’re ready to explode by a broken heart, but on the outside it’s “Oh god, why do you kids make it so complated?! Just talk to her/him!”. Stuff in “Normal People” is complicated. Rooney brings that forward, drags it out, and makes sure that the characters themselves don’t know what they want over the course of the novel.

There’s also darkness in the shapes of abusive relationships, tragic family history, social class issues, depression, jealousy, drugs, and alcohol. The whole buffet of adolescent troubles, that is. The text treats these subjects in a very cold and objective manner. They are slowly appearing throughout the storyline, like bad mold spots in a cheese.

I enjoyed this book. It doesn’t bring anything new to the table, but it doesn’t have to. The prose and the strong characters in Connell and Marianne do enough.

(I actually watched the TV series before reading the book, and the former does a pretty good job capturing the bleakness and desperation from the book. The acting and camera in the series are terrific.)

“About A Boy” by Nick Hornby

I think most people have seen the film, but now I got around reading the book.

It’s good. It’s fun. It’ll entertain you for some days. It’s got darkness coupled with absurdity, all tied together in weird conversations and thought patterns of the main characters. The Britishisms in Nick Hornby’s language are everywhere.

I don’t think I have anything more to say.

(Hugh Grant literally is Will Freeman to me.)

“Jag Kan Ha Fel” by Björn Natthiko Lindeblad

(This is a Swedish book 🇸🇪.)

Björn dropped out of a brilliant career in economics in his mid-twenties and became a Buddhist monk in the jungles of Thailand. He stayed a monk for 17 years. This book is about his time as a monk, and what happened afterwards. Like raisins in the cake, he mixes in quotes, conversations, and thoughts from himself and Buddhist friends. To be honest, I came for “the wisdom”, but was touched by the author’s story.

Björn received some help in writing the book, and the text is very tender, personal, and humorous. Björn has a lot of humour! This is also my first real look into a Buddhist monastery environment, and it’s very enlightening (pun intended). Björn’s story gave me a human insight into the Buddhist monk lifestyle and daily life. He attended both Western and Thai monasteries while in Thailand, and later moved to British and Swiss monasteries. It was really interesting to hear about the mix of different people in the Thai monasteries: they are very diverse. Both culture wise, but also in personalities, as some people really aren’t doing the hardcore, stereotypical monk thing. They’re just there because they had nothing else to do.

The story is also personal, as it describes how Björn and his family dealt with the passing of his dad (by euthanasia). It continues with Björn finding love, and ultimately about his own fate in getting the diagnose of the ALS disease.

Everything in this book is so human. It touches upon a lot of stages in life, and thanks to that concerns us all. Like a universal book in a very light hearted but well put language. The author isn’t out for doing some self-help Buddhist thing aimed at Western readers. It’s his own life where he shares his thoughts, fears, and experiences. It is what it is.

(For Swedes, I recommend Björn’s talk in “P1 Sommar” from June, 2020.)