Christmas Gifts 2014

So even though my reading has been seriously lacking in the second half of 2014, I still got some beautiful books for Christmas. Lovely, lovely books that hopefully can get me back to reading regularly.

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My boyfriend and I have watched the Outlander tv-series and really enjoyed it – and it made me want to both start over on the series as well as read one. Outlander is a great series but I sometimes forget how much I enjoy reading it.
My Brother got me this second-hand version of Isabel Allende’s Paula, the book she wrote to her comatose daughter, Paula. I have been wanting to read more by Allende – and even though I’m pretty sure that this one will make me cry, I’m still looking forward to it.

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I also got the final book in Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy. I enjoyed the first book but haven’t read the second one, so I think I’m going to read the entire series now. And I got the first book in Stephen King’s new trilogy, Mr Mercedes. Not much to say about that – I like Stephen King.

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And I got two non-fiction books. The Danish Aarhus University publish a series of books that introduce various subjects in an engaging way. The one I received is written by Dan Ringgaard is about litterature and argues, that litterature is the art made with language – whether it’s on paper, digital or something else.
Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow, argues that there are various ways of thinking and discusses why we make the choices we make as it delves into human rationality and irrationality.
So I had a wonderful Christmas time where my kids also got some great books I’m looking forward to reading to them. I hope you all had a great bookish Christmas as well and are ready for what 2015 will bring.

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Bob Tarte: Enslaved by Ducks (review)

EnslavedbyDucks‘In days gone by, if anyone had asked me if I owned any pets, I could readily rattle off their names. To answer the same question now, I would have to excuse myself, find a pen and sheet of paper, sit by myself for several minutes, and try to sort the problem out.’ (p. 249)

So I think I have a lot of animals. Or, rather, my boyfriend thinks I have a lot of animals. I don’t think so. Does one dog, one hamster, three bunnies (with one more moving in soon) count as a lot? Even if I had considered it a lot, I wouldn’t any more after reading this book. Bob Tarte and his wife have a lot of animals and a lot of animals moving in and out of their home. At one count they have three rabbits, two cats, three parakeets, a dove, two parrots, three turkeys, two geese, a canary and nine ducks. Now that is a lot of animals!
So what this is, is an account of the chaos that ensures when you keep on adding animals to your household. Animals who almost all have their own needs and wants and are very vocal about getting them met. So vocal in fact that for some periods, Tarte’s wife eat her lunch outside in the car to get away from the birds demanding to taste.
Tarte is a very funny writer. I don’t know much about birds but I can easily visualize the troubles they got from Binky the bunny. As I always say, bunnies are terrorists and escape artists and Binky is just another proof of this. I loved reading about Binky!
It’s also about a man from the city finding a purpose in his life through these animals. Bob is struggling with depression and slowly realizing, that the structure needed to care for these animals as well as the love he starts to feel for them, is actually helping him overcome his disease.
I had a lot of fun reading this book. Only issue I had with it was, that they kept adding animals to the household without any knowledge about them. It was a bit discouraging to read about them acquiring animals and having these die in their care. However, as I read one, they became more knowledgeable and it clearly shines through that they love all their animals and care for them to the best of their ability. Still, I was sometimes a bit put off by smaller things – like them not going to the vet immediately when something happens to one of their animals or going to bed, leaving one of their birds to die on its own in the basement.
Still, it is clear that they care about the animals and it is very entertaining to hear about their inabilities to construct pens or their attempts to eat a quiet dinner while simultaneously catering to a host of birds or trying to get a bunny to leave it’s chosen hiding place.
It is a light cozy read for the animal lover and as such, it’s very enjoyable – even if it has as many characters as your average Russian novel.

First lines: I should have known I was doomed to write a book about our animals. Since they had taken over just about everything else in my life, it was only a matter of time before they commandeered my word processor, too.

  • Title:  Enslaved by Ducks
  • Author: Bob Tarte
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books
  • Year: 2003
  • Pages: 308 pages
  • Source: Own collection
  • Stars: 3 stars out of 5

Sonali Deraniyagala: Wave (review)

the-wave

‘How can I sleep? If I sleep now I will forget. I will forget what happened. I will wake believing everything is fine. I will reach for Steve. I will wait for my boys. Then I will remember. And that will be too awful. That I must not risk.’
Is life always worth living? At any cost? I don’t think so. I think there are times when people should be allowed to choose to end life. So if you loose your husband, your two young sons and your parents in one day – is life worth living then?
For Sonali Deraniyagala, this is exactly what happened to her in 2004 when she was vacationing in Sri Lanka with her family and visiting her parents. On December 26th 2004, the whole world learned what a tsunami is. I for one had never heard of it before and I think my own reference for it was the movie The Abyss. But some got a much more cruel lesson than others. Whole families were wiped out. And that’s almost more kind than being left behind, the only survivor.
Sonali is with her family in a hotel room, talking to a friend. Just after the friend has commented on how Sonali is living the dream, she looks out the window and notices that there’s something wrong with the ocean. And then they run. They run so fast that they don’t even stop to warn Sonali’s parents in the hotel room next door. And still – it’s too late. The last thing Sonali remembers is sitting in a jeep and seeing her husband more afraid than ever before, frightened by something behind her, something she can’t see.
The next thing she knows, is a certainty that she’s going to die. But miraculously she survives and is found by a couple of men who drives her to a hospital. And then the waiting begins. Eventually she learns that she has lost her entire family.
And then the struggle begins. At first, it’s more of a struggle to be allowed to kill herself than anything else as well as a fight between memory and grief. How much can you allow yourself to grieve without drowning in it? For a long while, Sonali tries not to think too much about her family because it hurts too much but slowly, slowly, she is ready to start remembering them again. It takes almost two years before she goes back to their home in London for the first time…
This was a hard book to read. It feels like Sonali wrote these things down to help herself, like it was never meant to be published and because of this, it becomes a very raw honest book about how you survive the unthinkable. This also means that it’s not a book that leave you feeling uplifted or impressed by the human spirit’s ability to survive. Yes she does survive but even eight years later, she’s still grieving and still trying to figure out how to live on without her family. Without Steve who seems to be just a perfect fit for her and without the two boys.
Ah, those two boys. It’s heartbreaking to think about these boys. Vikram and Malli. Seven and five years old. The boys come to life again in this book when she share special family moments, details things the boys have said or done and what their special interests was. This book really feels like her way of keeping her family alive – and it is so hard to read.
Her unflinching honesty means that she also shows the darker sides of herself – and of grief. Like how she doesn’t grieve her parents for a long time because of what she calls a pecking order to her grief. There’s simply a limit to how many she can grieve over at one time. Or how she’s not sure if a boy in an ambulance is her son or not. Or how she starts drinking and taking pills to cope. Or how for months she harass the family who buys her parents’ home because she wants it back. But it’s all very understandable. When you loose someone, the places you lived and spent time with them suddenly becomes important. And this is also a memoir about these places. The house in Colombo, Sri Lanka where she grew up. The house in London where she and Steve made a home for their boys. The things they did there, the way they lived there.
I’ve been asking myself why I wanted to read this book, why anyone would read a book about another person’s suffering, why a mother would read about another mother loosing her children. And I’m not sure I can answer it. When I heard of this book, I was immediately drawn to it and knew I wanted to read it. But why? I think my best answer is that when people have suffered so much, the least you can do is read about it. I’m not sure this reason is quite valid and I know I don’t always live by it but this – and the more standard reason that literature allows you to experience things which you (hopefully in this case) never experience yourself – is the best reason I can give right now.
So is it worth living after loosing your entire family? I think the answer for Sonali Deraniyagala is probably yes. Not because she’s over her grief, far from it, but because she is keeping her family somewhat alive by living.
‘They are my world. How do I make them dead?’

First line: I thought nothing of it at first. The ocean looked a little closer to our hotel than usual. That was all.

  • Title: Wave
  • Author: Sonali Deraniyagala
  • Publisher:
  • Year: 2013
  • Pages: 240 pages
  • Source: Own collection – Kindle
  • Stars: 4 stars out of 5

Paul Kropp: How to Make Your Child a Reader for Life (review)

Few things are more important to me than to make sure that my children becomes readers. Not only because of the obvious – I love to read, it would be amazing if they grew up to become readers and we could talk books. No, the main reason is that if you become a good reader, then you can (almost) have your pick of educations and that means, you can choose the future you want. I want that for them. So that’s my reason for reading this book. I want hints and suggestions to how you succeed in getting your children to read and to keep them reading.

I have a 4-year old and a 2-year old and their father and I already do a lot of things to get them to read. We read to them at bed time, sometimes during the day as well. We read ourselves and they see us read and there are a lot of books in the house, both in their rooms and in the living room. We take them to the library a lot and we talk about books. So we have the basics down. But is this enough or do we need to do more?

Why yes, we do. Or at least, we need to continue doing what we do for a long time. Kropp stresses the importance of the parent through the entire childhood: /…/ your attitude toward reading is the strongest predictor of whether your child will be a reader or not. (p.24) It’s important to read to your child and help them with early reading – but it’s also important that you keep talking to them about their reading, make sure that there’s quiet time so your child – or the entire family – can sit down and read. It’s also important to buy or borrow books and to serve as a model of adult reading. He thinks families should always read together – and that we should think of reading as sharing. As bloggers, that’s rather easy to get on board with!

He has three rules, the three Rs, that will make you and your child go far when it comes to reading: Read with your child every day. Reach into your wallet to buy books for your child and yourself. And Rule the media. Turn it off to make time for reading. (p. 6).

He also identifies three danger zones where kids have a tendency to stop reading: When they enter kindergarden, around grade four and when they enter high school – and gives suggestions to handle these so your child will come through it with flying colors and continue reading. Basically, just keep reading with your child, buy reading materials and make time for reading! Chapters are also dedicated to the reluctant reader and how to nurture the gifted reader.

One thing that makes the book really useful is, that he dedicates chapters to various ages and then focuses on what is specific for that age group and how you handle your child’s reading at that stage – as well as give suggestions to books appropriate for this age group. Of course these suggestions will be more helpful for English speaking parents than for me.

Naturally he spends a lot of sentences on why reading is important and what you gain from it – but that’s just preaching to the choir! I do sit back with a sort of awe that children are able to learn how to read – and do so rather easily (most of them, at least) when you think of how much is involved in reading. Not only learning the letters, but learning that the letters make words that have meaning. Or that a book in the English language – and Danish! – is read from front to back and the words is read from left to right, pages from top to bottom. It’s a lot more complicated than it seems when you have done it for many, many years.

I do like that he stresses that you can’t read favorite books too much. I read my favorite books over and over as a child, and as a parent, you just have to suck it up and read the same books again and again if your child so wishes. According to Kropp, these will be the first books that your child will read for itself.

He also recommends that school work should take place at the kitchen table – or anyplace where there’s an adult close by at all times so the child can easily ask questions and get help. Again – this makes it more of a social experience.

Overall, I think this is a very important book. However, it has some flaws. I know it’s written to an English speaking audience, but he almost makes it seem that if you don’t read English language books to your child, it will be worse off and feels it necessary to point out that if English isn’t your first language, you can read books in your own first language … Duh! Of course, I’m not going to read English language books to my Danish speaking daughter! That’s kind of a no-brainer!

I think it’s a very positive thing that he says that no child has been hurt by reading bad books or junk – schlock, as he calls it – as long as it’s not the child’s entire reading diet. That said, he seems to be on some sort of vendetta against an author like Stephen King. Now, I have to admit King is one of my favorite authors but I think this labeling him a schlock author is wrong. He might have been back in the days, but he’s definitely not any more. Just had to get that out there…! Vack to business! With my daughter loving to read Disney princess books, I’m glad that he says it won’t hurt her as long as we read other books as well (or – at least won’t hurt her reading skills!). Kropp just recommends to encourage variety.

The final issue with this book is that it’s old-fashioned. The 2000 edition I read, has a chapter added about computers – but still. In the text, you’ll find Kropp advising to not let your teenagers have their own phone line or television set and to buy a computer even though they cost a thousand dollars … Well, every home has computers now and every child has a cell phone… Too late to stop that! He also lists how adults pick books and mentions things like reading about it in a paper, seeing in a bookstore, conversations with friends – but fails to mention the internet (blogs, goodreads etc), podcasts and the like. He never mentions e-books… But if you can look past these things, you should, because the rest of the book is informative and enlightening and the advice is sound.

The focus in the book is that reading is an attitude – not a skill. The skills will come if the attitude is there. It’s important to keep it fun and keeping it social by reading together with your child. Reading together with your child and letting your child see you reading also means, that reading gets value in the child’s eyes – so those of us who have children now have an excuse to read even more: We read to make sure our children read as well. Lovely!

  • Title: How to Make Your Child a Reader for Life
  • Author: Paul Kropp
  • Publisher: Random House
  • Year: 2000 (1993)
  • Pages: 318 pages
  • Source: Own copy
  • Stars: 4 stars out of 5

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David Millar: Racing Through The Dark. The Fall and Rise of David Millar (review)

Reading Jørgen Leth’s book about professional cycling Den gule trøje i de høje bjerge and Lance Armstrong’s book about the beginning of his career, his battle with cancer and his way back to the sport, made me even more appreciative of cycling and the Tour de France. However, Millar’s book is exactly the opposite. It makes me even more aware of the dark side of cycling.

Coincidentally, I began reading this book on July 13th, 2012. I had timed my reading of books about Tour de France and cycling to coincide with this year’s Tour de France – but I hadn’t expected that I would start reading this book on the same day as David Millar won yet another stage in the Tour.

Source: The Telegraph

Millar is racing again. As everyone who follows cycling knows, he’s back in the peloton after his fall from grace – he is one of the contenders. But how did this young Scott fall so deep?

What Millar describes, is a sport where doping is the rule more than anything else. From describing his childhood and how he got started with professional cycling, doping is something he’s quickly aware of – but staying away from. He doesn’t want anything to do with it but eventually he succumbs to the pressure and starts injecting, first just with various supplements, later with the real stuff.

Millar’s story is a typical example of how ‘what’s normal’ changes. When you’re constantly living in a world where it is normal to dope and to have various tactics to avoid the doping controls, you are gradually changing your perception of normality. Slowly, Millar’s aversion towards doping lessens until his defenses against it, is completely gone.

Still, throughout it all he claims that he never viewed the victories won when doped, as real. ‘If I won doped then it meant nothing, I was very clear on that.’ (p. 174). But his changed perception of normality as well as his curiosity get the better of him: ‘I’d proved what I could do clean – how much more could I do if I was doped?’ (p. 177). With all his struggle against it, you would have thought his first time doing EPO would have been a huge deal – instead it turned out to be something of an anticlimax. He describes it as the easiest injection he ever had and the whole procedure as very tiny process, over in a couple of minutes. Of course, he had been slowly conditioned to this through a long period and was completely used to self-injections of various supplements.

Millar comes out of it all as a crusader against doping. He wants to save his sports, he wants to make it clean and show that you are actually able to win even if you’re racing clean. And this is how he comes across in his book. As a very honest Scot who loves to race and ride his bike clean and who wants everyone else to do the same. However, I did check out a few things online while reading this book and apparently Millar has changed his story from he testified till he wrote this book. So he might be a bit of an unreliable author, there are names he doesn’t share and there might be things he doesn’t tell us. It’s hard do tell. But he does come across as very honest and the book is very interesting to read.

One of the dominating riders in this period, has of course been Lance Armstrong. Millar does say that the riders winning the big races like the Tour, the Giro and the Vuelta, were the ones using doping. However, he doesn’t say Lance doped: ‘I can’t say definitively if Lance doped or not. Yes, there are all the stories and rumours, but I never saw him dope with my own eyes. If he did dope, then, after all that he has said and done, it would be unforgivable. Certainly, his performances in the Tour were extraordinary, unprecedented, but then he’s unlike anybody I have ever met, a force of nature. /…/ He is a phenomenal human being – I would never argue against that. He lives life on a different level, controlling his world in omnipotent manner, leading by example but also be fear. His ability to motivate, based on his absolute self-belief and complete fearlessness of failure, is legendary. His own lack of fear brainwashes those around him to believe in everything he does.’ (p. 297-298). He also says that the riders riding alongside Lance, were for the most part taken for doping when no longer riding with Lance – and several of these are the ones now accusing Lance of doping. I guess we’ll know eventually if he did dope or not what with the current investigation going on – although I rather doubt that anti-doping will ever get this period of professional cycling completely under control.

Still, this is not a book about Lance. It’s a book about one man’s love of the sport of cycling, and luckily, this shines through throughout the book – except for these instances where doping has cast such a dark shadow over the sport that Millar plans on never riding again.

For a lover of professional cycling and the Tour de France, there’s plenty of good stuff in this book. In fact, it’s a really interesting book and definitely worth reading to get an inside look on the doped years of professional cycling as well as David Millar’s career and the portraits he gives of other riders. I’ll leave you with this beautiful quote about wearing the yellow jersey in the Tour de France: ‘I wasn’t wearing the yellow jersey; the yellow jersey was gracing me.’ (p. 127).

  • Title: Racing Through The Dark. The Fall and Rise of David Millar
  • Author: David Millar
  • Publisher: Orion Books
  • Year: 2011
  • Pages: 354 pages
  • Source: Own Collection
  • Stars:  4 stars out of 5

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Lance Armstrong: It’s Not About the Bike (review)

Lance Armstrong. Probably one of the most well-known athletes in the world. A 7 times Tour de France champion. Founder of Livestrong. A dedicated fighter against cancer and for cancer treatment. This is his story – from childhood to cancer survivor.

First of, I have to say that I am a fan of Lance Armstrong. I enjoyed watching him win his many Tour de France victories and these days, I follow him on Twitter. Still, while reading this book I definitely didn’t like the young Lance. There’s no doubt that he had a troubled childhood in some ways but still, boys setting balls on fire and then playing catch are just not my cup of tea. Anyway, this is not what this is about.

Lance details how he started biking and shows how he was very focused, even as a young boy and how huge an influence his mother has been on both his life but also 0n the way he views his career, teaching him to never give up and always fight. Two abilities, that was hugely important to him when he was diagnosed with cancer.

There’s no doubt that he was lucky to survive. As a professional cyclist, Lance was used to dealing with pain and ignoring it and so he did too with the fact that his testicles changed both color and size. This meant that his cancer was discovered very late, it meant that it had spread to both his lungs and his brain and it meant that he had to endure some very tough treatments to be able to beat it.

I really like how candid he was about the toughness of the disease, how hard he had to fight to just endure the treatment and how far out he was before it turned and he started getting better. This is definitely a book that shows how tough cancer is. I also liked how he seemed to have changed as a human being, becoming much more sensitive and having more empathy after the disease and being able to see clearly, that he had not always behaved very nice before he was ill. I know that some will say that he still don’t behave very well and that he’s arrogant – I don’t know if I would like him if I actually met him but I think that to win Tour de France and to do well in (almost) all professional sports, you have to be arrogant.

I also liked how he is very open and candid about his and his wife’s trouble with having children. Of course, he had to freeze his sperm before being treated for cancer and this means, that his wife have to go through a lot to get pregnant – as all women/couples have to if having trouble getting pregnant. I know several couples who have had these issues and I know that it is a struggle for all, and therefore, I am glad that Lance addresses this and shares his and his wife’s story.

Of course, it’s a bit bittersweet to read about his relationship with his wife and how perfect she is, when you know that they are no longer together and that Lance has been having a bit of trouble finding the right partner since.

There are a few things I don’t want to discuss – or even talk about. It’s kind of a joke, but still – just don’t go there. One is that Sir Cliff Richard has never had any plastic surgeries – the other is that Miquel Indurain and Lance Armstrong never used doping. My boyfriend challenges all these three – but I don’t care. I just don’t want to discuss them. Being that as it may, you can’t really mention Lance Armstrong without talking doping – even though that’s really not what this book is about.

Lance mentions doping a couple of times. As with other professional cyclists writing biographies and talking about doping, you really have to hope he is telling the truth – with the claims he makes, he will loose all credibility otherwise and with the current doping investigation against him, doping is once again rearing it’s ugly head in Lance’s life (for what it’s worth, in my opinion, they should just stop investigating the doping in professional cycling in the 90s and early 00s. If Lance is found guilty, well, then they can start investigating the rider who finished second – and so on and so on. Just stop and focus on keeping cycling clean now!).

Anyway, back to what Lance himself says: ‘Doping is an unfortunate fact of life in cycling, or in any other endurance sport for that matter. Inevitably, some teams and riders feel it’s like nuclear weapons – that they have to do it to stay competitive within the peloton. I never felt that way, and certainly after chemo the idea of putting anything foreign in my body was especially repulsive.’ (p. 205) This of course sounds like Lance could never even dream of doping – the only thing is that this argument is not the best one since a lot of the drugs riders are using to enhance their performance, are the same drugs being used by doctors to battle cancer – which means that these drugs are not foreign to Lance.

Still, he has never been tested positive. The newest tests that have been made public, does not necessarily mean that he was doped – according to doping experts. I hope he will never be found guilty in doping because I cling to my belief that Lance won because he could fuel his body with anger – and Lance was a very angry man!

This is not a book about cycling per se – as the title also says. This is about one man’s battle with cancer and it is a very fascinating account. The writing is rather plain as it is in all sports biographies but the book is worth reading if you’re interested in Lance, cancer or – to a lesser extent – professional cycling and Tour de France.

  • Title: It’s Not About the Bike. My Journey Back to Life
  • Author: Lance Armstrong
  • Publisher: Yellow Jersey Press – Random House
  • Year: 2001
  • Pages: 294 pages
  • Source: Own Collection
  • Stars:  4 stars out of 5

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Jørgen Leth: Den gule trøje i de høje bjerge (English title: The Yellow Jersey in the High Mountains) (review)

Do you love the Tour de France?  If not, this book is not for you.

With that said, let’s talk about it anyway. In this book, he covers specifically the Tour de France but also other events in professional cycling. The book is originally published in 1995 so the amazing year (1996) where the Dane Bjarne Riis won the Tour is not covered, neither is the victories of Marco Pantani, Floyd Landis, Jan Ullrich, Alberto Contador – or Lance Armstrong. Well, except in a brief foreword to the 2009 edition for some of them. And this is my main problem with the book – I started following the Tour in the early 90s so I don’t know that much about the years before and while it is interesting and Leth writes it well, I would have loved to have read more about the riders I knew and know and the races I’ve watched. This is flashbacks to Leth’s personal highlights of the Tour, his thoughts on professional cycling, doping, food in France, working as a film director and a commentator and more. And it’s fascinating.

As I’ve written earlier, Jørgen Leth has a way with words. And even though this is a non-fiction book about a bike race, it’s wonderfully written. And I don’t think the beauty of it’s writing is only because Leth is a poet and has a way with words. It’s also because he writes about what he loves.

Jørgen Leth loves bike racing and he writes about this love, specifically about his love for the Tour de France. He writes about his heroes, how he in particular love the tormented riders, the ones who has a bit more to fight against than just the stages and the mountains. He is drawn to the underdog, the rider who has weak knees, who doesn’t believe in himself, who struggles against inner demons. He loves the riders who can attack and shake everything up. And maybe that is because of his poetic eyes which see the beauty in the struggle, the beauty in the lone rider struggling across the highest mountains pursued by a chasing peloton, the beauty in an attacker cheating the sprinters of their finish.

As he puts it: ‘Bike riders ride bicycles. They ride from one place to another. They ride up, and they ride down. The first to arrive at the finish, has won. Along the way, things happen. It’s as simple as that.’ (p. 303 – my translation). And it is as simple as that. But what he then goes on to point out, is, that out of this, people emerge, looking directly out of the pictures, trying to create something extraordinary. And when that happens, Leth is ready to see it and frame it. To spot the moment which steps out of itself to become something durable. Something to remember and look back on.

And that’s exactly what he does – both as a commentator and as a writer. He spots the extraordinary in the ordinary. He sees the beauty in the struggle, he praises the courageous and cheers the fighters. His sharp eyes separates the contenders from the pretenders – but praises the pretenders when they dare, even if they fail. As long as they fail in an epic way. And he frames it all in beautiful words for the rest of us – along with commentating on the landscape, the weather, the geography, all of which add that extra dimension to both the race and extraordinariness of it all.

Such a pity that this book hasn’t been translated.

  • Title: Den gule trøje i de høje bjerge
  • Author: Jørgen Leth
  • Publisher: Gyldendal
  • Year: 2009 (1995)
  • Pages: 330 pages
  • Source: Own Collection
  • Stars: 3 stars out of 5

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Haruki Murakami: Underground (review)

‘The date is Monday 20 March, 1995. It is a beautiful clear spring morning. There is still a brisk breeze and people are bundled up in coats. Yesterday was Sunday, tomorrow is the Spring Equinox, a national holiday. Sandwiched right in the middle of what should have been a long weekend, you’re probably thinking “I wish I didn’t have to go to work today.” No such luck. You get up at the normal time, wash, dress, breakfast, and head for the subway station. You board the train, crowded as usual. Nothing out of the ordinary. It promises to be a perfectly run-of-the-mill day. Until five men in disguise poke at the floor of the carriage with the sharpened tips of their umbrellas, puncturing some plastic bags filled with a strange liquid…’ (p. 7)

This is a strange book. I don’t know what I expected but it wasn’t quite this. Most of the book consists of interviews with victims from the gas attack in the Tokyo subway in 1995. Then, the second part, is interviews with members of Aum, the group responsible for the gas attacks. There’s an introduction where Murakami explains why he wrote the book as well as the process with gathering the interviews and writing the book and there’s an essay, ‘Blind Nightmare: Where are we Japanese going?’ which finishes the first part.

There were 5 members of the Aum group who released Sarin gas in various subway trains. Murakami has collected the interviews so each of the 5 trains has it’s sections so what you read, are several eye witness accounts from the same event, one after another, before moving on to another train, another attack and the eye witness accounts from that. This means, that it does get a bit repetitive and this was the first thing I noticed. There are small differences in the accounts, but the main story are the same, of course. Each eye witness account tells a part of the story – each account is equally important because when taken together, they give a picture of what happe: ‘Even if there are some details inconsistent with reality, the collective narrative of these personal has a powerful reality of its own. This is something novelists are actively aware of, which is why I regard this as fitting work for a novelist.’ (p. 214)

Murakami is on a mission with this book. He wants ‘/…/ to recognize that each person on the subway that morning had a face, a life, a family, hopes and fears, contradictions and dilemmas – and that all these factors had a place in the drama.’ (p. 6). Even it if was very difficult for Murakami to find people willing to participate in this book, he wanted to show how it really felt for the people suffering the effects of the gas.

As I said, it’s a strange book. Interview after interview with survivors. All telling somewhat the same stories about experiencing symptoms like darkened vision and coughing, being confused about why and hospitals not knowing how to help. A lot of the victims still suffers from the effects when Murakami talks to them. The attack hit all types of people – some were traveling on those trains everyday, some was there only by chance, some used the subway maybe once a year… – the attack truly hit randomly, and I guess thereby hurt the most.

One of the things I found most interesting in this book was the informations about how life is in Japan for normal citizens. The interviews reveal a lot about the Japanese psyche – about work ethics and how many meet in maybe an hour or more before the work day starts, how many of the victims got back to work very very soon, even if they were suffering serious symptoms. Also how many live with their parents and siblings well in to their 20s – or how it doesn’t surprise Murkami that a man gets up at 3 in the morning to clean his entire house before going to work.

I found the interviews with the Aum members very informative. These interviews were not with people who were actually participating in the gas attacks, just people who had joined a religious group in order to find peace and a higher state of mind. Most of these were just people searching for something to give meaning and purpose to their lives and while reading these interviews, I couldn’t help but think how similar all cults are – and how dangerous it is, when we give our own choices over to others and these others are led astray by their own corrupted visions. A lot of the members of the cult had no idea what was going on and didn’t believe it really was Aum that had performed the attack until members started confessing, after being arrested.

For Murakami, what is needed after the attack is for the Japanese to take a good long look at themselves and to realize that the people who were members of Aum, aren’t that different from everyone else: ‘Now of course a mirror image is always darker and distorted. Convex and concave swap places, falsehood wins out over reality, light and shadow play tricks. But take away these dark flaws and the two images are uncannily similar; some details almost seem to conspire together. Which is why we avoid looking directly at the image, why, consciously or not, we keep eliminating these dark elements from the face we want to see. These subconscious shadows are an “underground” that we carry around within us, and the bitter aftertaste that continues to plague us long after the Tokyo gas attack comes seeping out from below.’ (p. 199).

This was a fascinating read. A bit repetitive at times, but the repetitiveness is important since it’s Murakami’s way of showing the importance of each individual victim. I thought Murakami succeeds in exploring the gas attack and the Japanese psyche and how each influence the other.

This is definitely not a book for everyone. It’s repetitiveness might put some readers off, for starters, but so might the subject. If you are interested in Japan or in terrorist actions, Murakami created an excellent testimony which is very much to the honor of the victims.

  • Title: Underground. The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche
  • Author: Haruki Murakami
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • Year: 2002 (original 1997)
  • Pages: 309 pages
  • Source: Own Collection
  • Stars:  4 stars out of 5

China: Jung Chang: Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (Review)

I have been fascinated by China for several years. I think what really sparked my interest was reading Jung Chang’s amazing family saga Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China. I want to learn more about China so I’ve decided to create a reading list about China. I want to read both non-fiction and fiction, both Chinese writers and others. I’m really looking forward to diving into this huge nation and learn more about this fascinating country with an amazing culture but also such a devastating history.

Of course, my first read had to be Wild Swans.

Wild Swans is the story of the author and her family. The interesting part is that their lives take place in one of the most fascinating periods of history. Jung Chang’s grandmother lived before the Communist took over in China. She was one of the last generation to suffer the traditional foot binding and was a Concubine before she was married to a ver kind man, a doctor. This marriage, however, caused a lot of pain in the doctor’s family since his family didn’t want this woman to have power over them. They don’t care about their father’s happiness – instead they care about their own roles in the family and their status. The doctor insists however, and though this causes one of his sons to commit suicide in protest, the doctor still marries Jung Cheng’s grandmother and ensures that her mother finally has a happy childhood.

Jung Chang’s mother grows up when there’s a civil war in China – various parties fighting to gain power. The victory goes to Mao and his Communist Party and both Chang’s parents are supporters of this. We then follow their lives and how they fight for Communism, meet each other, get married and have children.

Maybe the most fascinating person in the book is Jung Chang’s father. He is a Communist to the core. He believes in Mao and he believes that the Communist party will do what’s right for China and her people. He thinks that one of the main issues in China so far has been the tendency that people in power always helped their families and made sure they got influence and power as well. He definitely don’t want that custom to continue so he almost goes to far in the other direction – not letting his wife ride with him in the car on long and dangerous travels, not protecting her or taking extra care of her while she’s pregnant and after she has given birth etc. He always puts his work and the party first, his family second. It takes a lot of hardship and pain for him and his family before he begins to question the Communist party and Mao and it takes even longer for him to admit that he has been a lousy father and husband – and that with the way things are going, he may not want to continue being a Communist.

I’m so fascinated by how Mao could create a China where everybody was ready to tell on everyone else. He didn’t need a secret police or anything – the entire population was always ready to tell on each other, encouraged in this by Mao himself. He turned students against teachers, workers against their bosses, children against their parents.

When reading this book, I sometimes wondered how anyone could believe that they were doing the right thing when they were tearing down anything old and beautiful, when intellectuals are condemned and sent to the country to learn from the peasants, when they are having huge gatherings with the purpose of yelling at some poor soul and beating him/her up …

How anyone can think the steps taken in the Cultural Revolution was a good idea is beyond me. And if it’s true that Mao knew that some of his ideas and politics were wrong and in fact hurt both his country and his people, but still continued with them because he didn’t want to loose face … What can you say about that? To say it’s so fundamentally wrong is just too weak.

This is a very hard book to review. This type of book is. I felt the same book when I reviewed When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up Under the Khmer Rouge. How do you put a star rating on people’s suffering? What can you write in a review that can put a hundred years of a country’s history, a hundred years containing so much suffering, in to perspective? In the end, I guess all you can do is just recommend this book and hope that we actually do learn from history.

Natascha Kampusch: 3096 dage

Natascha Kampusch: 3096 dage, Gyldendal 2011. (English Title: 3096 Days).

Everyone knows the story of Natascha Kampusch. It was all over the world when this 18 years old girl suddenly appeared out of thin air, after having been disappeared for 8 years – 3096 days to be precise.
Kampusch was abducted when she was 10 years old and walking to school. Her kidnapper, Wolfgang Priklopil, kidnapped her and told her that he was doing it for some other people. When these never showed up, Priklopil took her home and put her in a tiny cellar and shut her in. She spent 6 months here before she was allowed up into his house the first time.
Slowly, Kampusch was allowed out of the cellar more and more often but always with Priklopil watching her. In the beginning, he was rather kind to her – gave her whatever she asked for and since she thought that he was keeping her safe from a group of child molesters, she grew somewhat close to him. But as she grew up, he started changing and got more and more abusive to her. He used her to clean his home, to cook dinner for him, to help him with various building projects and whenever she didn’t live up to his expectations or did exactly what he told him to do, she was beaten or kicked or both, put in the cellar, denied food, denied light, denied everything.
As time went by, her prison became more and more in her mind. She believed that he had wired explosives to all windows and doors, she believed that he would kill anyone she came in contact with if she tried to escape. Even when he pushed her outside the door and told her to run, she was more scared that anyone would see her naked beaten body than she was staying with Priklopil. Even when he took her outside the house on shopping trips, she was too scared, to beaten down, to dare try to run away. And the one time she dared to try to speak someone, the woman was Dutch and didn’t understand a word.
Kampusch is very frank and open about most of her captivity. However, she doesn’t want to go into the sexual abuse she suffered. I’m not sure how I feel about this – in some ways, I can understand that she wants to keep a few things to herself. On the other hand, when you read a book like this, you want to know what happened, all of it. You want every detail. And she does provide that to a certain extent – for instance by including a week from her diary where she details all the abuse she suffered in just one week< which is absolutely heart breaking. To think about such a young girl suffering so much. The most frightening part of it however is that she has lots of bruises and injuries that she can’t even remember how she got.
But this leads me to wonder why we read books like this. As I sad, you do it because you want to know what happened, you want all the gory details. And therefore, you get disappointed when she doesn’t come clean about the sexual abuse. But why? Why do you want or need to know more than what the media reported?
According to Natascha Kampusch, we want to see what true evil is like – and probably be comforted by the fact that true evil can be conquered. But as she points out throughout the book, Priklopil wasn’t all bad. She says she tried to focus on the good parts in order to survive while still keeping in mind that he wasn’t doing her a favor when he kidnapped her, as he tried to convince her he was. She says she has been almost ridiculed for not seeing him as the epitome of evil and for not accepting that she was suffering from Stockholm syndrome – a label, she hates. I don’t think her arguments against the label is persuasive enough but I do accept that she had to find something good to cling to and some way to exist with this man as he was the only human being she had any contact with for 7 years.
I’m fascinated by the fact that people like Natascha Kampusch who has been held in captivity for so long, are brainwashed by their captors – and afterwards, when they are free, they have to be brainwashed to be able to exist in what the rest of us perceive as the normal world. But just because there are more of us than of her, it doesn’t mean that our way of looking at the world is the right one. She might be able to see some things more clearly than we can, because she has been away from it for so long.
That being said, of course she needed help to heal herself. To be able to live in the world outside of Priklopil’s property. But unfortunately, the help she has received makes this book read in parts as a psychoanalysis of why she did what she did or why she behaved in certain ways. There’s no doubt that she has been through a lot of therapy – and that shines very clearly through in the book. Too clearly, in my opinion. I would prefer a more raw approach, without lists of symptoms people suffer after having been kept in isolation and without a sometimes detached, psychological explanation.
I’m still not completely sure why I wanted to read this book – but I wanted to ever since I heard about it. Of course the main part is curiosity – I want to know how he did it, what he did exactly and how she survived it. I don’t have a perception of Priklopil as the face of evil – I see him as a somehow damaged human being with some kind of mental disability. As Natascha Kampusch do.
Of course, her being able to see him this way is much more impressive.