Reviews of Books

Poetry to die for

I always thought that everybody but me knew this story. It's hard to escape: It's sometimes assigned in school, the play is still performed in theatres, there's film adaptations in close keeping to the text like Romeo and Juliet (1968), and those taking some… creative liberties like Gnomeo & Juliet (2011). That's why I was quite surprised when I learned that a couple of my friends didn't even know that the two titular lovers commit suicide at the end—which is already revealed in verse 6, so don't you worry about spoilers.

But even if you know the basic plot of this tragedy and have seen a few adaptations, you'll probably still be surprised to find some plot details that are commonly changed or omitted.

And yet, the plot is not the main selling point of this play, the language is. The text is so full of puns, double entendres, and otherwise witty usage of words, that it's a real joy to read. Shakespeare's English is a bit difficult to understand for the modern reader, so I'd definitely recommend getting an annotated version that can help understand the text in all its meanings—I was happy with my copy, annotated by Burton Raffel.

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Das Cover verrät es schon: “Pick Me”

Dieser Band besteht aus 17 Abschnitten, die eine Mischung aus Memoir und feministischem Essay darstellen. Jeder Abschnitt setzt einen groben Themenschwerpunkt und versucht anhand persönlicher Erfahrungen allgemeinere Rückschlüsse zu erlauben.

Themen sind zum Beispiel Essstörung, Scham, Mode, Filme, und das Erwachsenwerden. Der Schreibstil ist witzig, nahbar und herzlich, und die kurzen Kapitel lassen dieses Buch leicht durchblättern. Es eignet sich also auch gut für den Couchtisch oder als Geschenk für junge Frauen (vielleicht 14 bis 22 Jahre).

Damit soll der Inhalt nicht entwertet werden; Der lockere Stil ermöglicht einen leichten und schnellen Zugang zu Themen, was auch zu einer überraschenden Fülle an Themen führt, die mit überraschender Tiefe abgehandelt werden. Trotzdem leidet die Tiefe dann insgesamt doch und wir werden ohne größere Theorien oder wissenschaftliche Unterfütterung zurückgelassen.

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Gute Ernte mit interessantem Geschmack

Liss, Mitte 40, lebt allein auf ihrem Bauernhof, bis ihr eines Tages die 17-jährige Sally zuläuft. Sally ist gerade aus einer Klinik abgehauen und sucht ein Versteck vor den Therapeuten, Psychiatern, der Polizei und ihren Eltern. Damit beginnt dieser Roman, in dem sich die beiden Frauen aneinander abarbeiten werden.

Liss und Sally sind zwei gut getroffene Persönlichkeiten, die ihre eigenen Sichtweisen und Probleme mitbringen und damit den Antrieb für die Erzählung liefern. Ihre Perspektiven färben die Narration abwechselnd und bereichern das Leseerlebnis. Veränderungen ihrer Charakterzüge und ihrer Beziehung werden in einem realistisch langsamen Tempo erzählt, was zwar nie langweilig, gezogen oder repetitiv wird, die Leser*in am Ende dann aber doch mit weniger zurücklässt als auf diese Seiten gepasst hätte.

Themen wie Melancholy, Trauma, Einsamkeit, Unpässlichkeit, Vertrauen, psychische Gesundheit und Natur werden interessant ausgekundschaftet und in Relation gebracht. Gerade in der Verknüpfung der letzten zwei—psychische Gesundheit und Natur—birgt sich die Gefahr, Natur zu stark mystisch aufzuladen und einer dubiosen Ablehnung der Moderne gefügig zu werden. Es bleibt letztlich der Leser*in selbst zu urteilen, ob der Roman seiner eigenen romantischen Erzählung eines Leben auf dem Lande zu sehr verfällt.

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Outrages tale quickly turns stale

A man suddenly makes it his hobby to emotionally hurt women by going out with them and first earning and later abusing their trust. He cruelly exposes their insecurities and reveals his own interest as an act. This story is presented from the man's perspective as an unreliable narrator telling his own tale. Much like Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita we share the POV of a morally abhorrent deviant. Unlike Lolita, this book does not let the reader feel sympathy, but bored apathy.

Right off the bat you are drawn in by the shock of crass language and vulgar opinions, but very quickly they lose their provocative allure and instead become an obnoxious chore. The narrator also reveals himself to be not only unreliable, but also unskilled; Long phrases are repeated verbatim making you question whether you've turned pages the wrong way, and passages of the protagonist doubting whether anyone will read his ramblings become boring from the second time they appear.

Neither the writing nor the—admittedly very interesting—themes of cruelty, blinding love, alcoholism, class, or career, are able to carry this brief read of 150 pages.

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Congratulations to the Women who don't have to deal with these Men anymore

This collection comprises seven short stories centred around men that have in some way or other lost their wives or partners. Now these men without women are struggling to move on. Sometimes they are lost in grief, sometimes they are looking for a form of closure. Regrettably, only a couple of stories can transcend being simple sob stories of men wallowing in self-pity.

Yesterday and An Independent Organ are very straight-forward in their approach to the topic. In the former two 20-year-old men are navigating their first relationships and breakups, while the latter is about a doctor in his fifties falling into depression about an affair not working out. All three of these men, not just the two 20-year-olds, are portrayed as emotionally immature and naïve to the point of making the reader cringe.

The story Kino tries to construct a metaphor where a man that's just up and left after finding out that his wife had an affair is haunted by some mysterious force. Could it be… his unprocessed grief and hurt? (Yes.)

The two stories Men Without Women and Samsa In Love1 leave more questions unanswered than these previous examples. Through this they succeed in letting the reader explore loss and grief on a more personal level and bringing in their own feelings about the topic.

Lastly, the stories Drive My Car and Sheherazade have both been reworked into the excellent film Drive My Car (2021). The first story provides the protagonist, who suddenly loses his wife to cancer and—rather than having to deal with sadness—is left looking for closure. The second story—through a framing device—provides the story of a 17-year-old girl repeatedly breaking into the house of her crush.

Both of these stories are more nuanced and interesting than most of the rest found in this collection, but the film greatly succeeds in adding even more nuance and interesting layers.

In conclusion, this collection is only able to provide the reader with a very narrow peek at grief and loss as it pertains to relationships. It often does not even leave enough room for the reader to project their own feelings and ideas into the space between the lines.


[1] Also found in the collection Desire.

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Not just the “good parts”

This abridged edition of Morgenstern's classic1 claims to leave only the “good parts”. And sure, much of it is the “good parts” that we used to reference on the school yard: “Inconceivable!”, “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya; you killed my father; prepare to die.” and the Dread Pirate Roberts generally. But, there's also a lot of bad parts.

For example, this book has a weird voyeuristic obsession with bodies that don't fit the norm, mainly fat people and disfigurements. And it's not in a good way like raising awareness that we all have our “flaws.” No, characters are outright shamed for their bodies by the narration and it seems to take delight in ridiculing characters for their appearance.

Except for the main characters Buttercup and Westley. Those two, destined for True Love are the only good looking humans. And for Buttercup that comes at the cost of everything else as she's exceptionally stupid and helpless leading to her having close to no agency in the narrative.

Weirdly, this body shaming and misogyny has also rubbed off on William Goldman, who in his notes is hateful to his wife as well as his fat son just like his hero S. Morgenstern2. His writing style is also suspiciously similar, as he also enjoys (1) these weirdly formatted lists and (2) parentheticals.

In conclusion, I'd recommend the film over this book as it contains most dialogue word for word. It contains all the “good parts,” but overall also less of the bad.


[1] I know, but let's pretend. [2] Shush.

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Monumental Work, Good Translation

How does one review such a titanic work? Maybe by mirroring its structure and transitioning between topics with more or less elegance. Ovid mostly is successful in weaving elegant transitions between the stories he tells. The reader is pulled along and—were it not for the chapter headings that the translation adds—would sometimes even miss the point where one tale ends and another begins.

Similar to the segues the translation itself flows quite nicely. Written in blank verse (i.e. 10 syllables per verse, no rhymes) the rhythm can pull the reader along even through the occasional uninteresting tale. Because, as should be expected, not every little tale in this work can be as gripping as the best of them.

Which are “the best” then? Obviously it's going to depend on the reader and their tastes, but there are many famous tales, like those of Icarus or Hercules. There's some other ancient celebrities like Cerberus, Julius Caesar, Pythagoras, Achilles, Apollo and Orpheus. Some stories explain the creation of the world, cities, sunflowers, and more audacious origins.

These tales most always contain transformations of some kind (hence the name), but apart from that they touch on themes of love, identity, honour, shame, ambition, duty, and desire. These themes are so timeless that the modern reader will find a great deal of value and not much of an issue in relating to the action. The only issue one might encounter is with the amount of physical violence and rape, which these myths are infamous for.

Another hiccup might be this translation's very occasional strange choice of words. Only a couple of times was I startled by a word that seemed too modern or otherwise too out of place. I have not read other translations nor the original Latin to verify how true to the original text it is, but had to mention it here.

Let me close with answering this question: Should we still read Ovid today? The answer is simple: Yes! Beautiful and thought provoking in its form and content, this truly is a timeless classic. I would not advocate strongly for this translation in particular, but it's also not a wrong choice.

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Interessante Texte zu Mode, Fitness und Überwachung

(Herausgegeben vom bpb)

Dieser Band versammelt fünf Texte über Digitale Bildkulturen. Die ersten zwei, “Gifs” und “Meme” sind realitätsfern, was heutige Internetkulturen angeht.

Weiter geht es mit “Modebilder”, einem spannenden Text, der Instagram-Infulencerinnen in einen geschichtlichen Kontext der letzten 50 Jahre setzt. Wenn es um die immer gleich erscheinenden Bildmotive geht, wie sie Bo Burnham in “White Woman's Instagram” kritisiert, wird hier auch ein interessantes Argument konstruiert, welches diesen Bildern sehr wohl schöpferische Selbstbestimmung zuspricht. Und auch zur Kritik an repitiven Designs in High-Fashion wird ein Gegenpol eröffnet.

“Bodybilder” handelt von der Gestaltung von Gyms und den Social Media Kanälen von Fitness-Infulencer*innen. Hierbei wird ausgelotet, ob nun die Spiegel oder die Selfie-Kameras die “Wahrheit” über abgebildete Körper offenbaren und wie Corona das Denken über Fitnesstraining beeinflusst hat.

“Gesichtserkennung” schließlich befasst sich mit biases der Gesichtserkennung und geht über das Argument “Garbage In, Garbage Out” hinaus und stellt auch die Architektur von Gesichtserkennungssoftware in Frage. Maskierung und Bildgeneration sind auch noch kurz Thema.

Obwohl die ersten zwei Texte wenig wert haben, setzen die anderen drei Texte spannende Schwerpunkte, die sie genügend breit—aber auch tief—ausleuchten.

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Where does Anarchism succeed and where does it fall short?

The two planets Anarres and Urras are each other's moons, yet the people living on them hardly know what it's like on the other planet. All they know is that Urras is an archist society, while the people of Anarres are anarchists.

In this book we follow Shevek, a scientist from Anarres, who travels to Urras in a mission to facilitate interplanetary understanding. Every other chapter switches between past and present (or future and further future) and we thus get introduced to Shevek on Anarres and what led him to go to Urras while we also learn about him on Urras and how his mission is going.

But the book is not actually that interested in Shevek's story. Much time is spent showing us the workings (and failings) of Anarres' anarchist society: The education system, job distribution, living arrangements, romantic partnership, etc. Similarly, the chapters on capitalist and archist Urras further explores anarchism through Urras' people arguing with Shevek. Of course, we also learn about Urras' society, but any politically literate person should already know about such topics as wasteful production, poverty, police brutality, greed, etc.

Urras is obviously not presented as “the good ones”, but Anarres isn't shown through rose-colored glasses either. It too is corrupted by power and is by no means a paradise. It's still a society made up of humans that can be shitty to each other.

In the end world building takes a bit of a backseat as Shevek's story becomes more important, but he is a stand-in for anyone. This story is not about a physicist—or an anarchist diplomat. It's about what justice, shame and greed are. What role art and science plays in politics. It's about what freedom means in a society.

But the otherwise compelling narrative is soured by a sexual assault that occurs somewhere in the middle. I don't have a problem with that topic popping up in general, but the way it enters into this story is just baffling: The people of Anarres are always painted as very conscious of power imbalances, going so far as describing sex as “copulating” as that is supposedly the only word that does not carry heavy undertones of something being done by one party to the other, but rather something done together. And still one of these folks does not understand the concept of consent! And it's not portrayed as that one person being “one of the bad ones”. It would have needed more set up or explanation to be valuable.

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Coping with Brexit through humour

This novel takes a satirical look at Brexit and the populism surrounding it. It is quite humorous in its descriptions of politicians' day-to-day and a quick read. Its ties to Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis are loose and only extend to mirroring the opening lines describing a human-insect-transformation. Neither the writing style nor the explored topics are very Kafkaesque.

The focus is disappointingly shallow, namely the politicians and the absurdity of their politics and behaviour. How exactly this fits with (the will of) the people is not explored to a satisfying conclusion. After reading—as before—we are wondering how such a thing as Brexit could happen and why the politicians went through with it and why the people voted for it.

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