Reviews of Books

A victorious book

After all the male warriors of the Indian principality Kampili are slaughtered in battle the left over women decide the best course of action to be suicide by fire. Only the nine year old Pampa Kampana decides not to follow the rest of her people into death.

This is how Victory City opens. It should be terribly tragic and shocking, but when reading Salman Rushdie's descriptions of these events I was laughing out loud a couple of times. He writes with such a levity and a good command of humour that the horror of these events only sets in when thinking about it long after closing the book.

I don't mean to imply that only bad things happen in Victory City. Pampa Kampana gets blessed by a goddess to raise a city from the ground and she and the city experience a wide breadth of positive and wonderous things next to some terrible ones. But all of it reads seductively fun and easy.

Victory City is written like stories from mythology, with magic, a grand scale, and full of meaning. Themes of motherhood, fate and power naturally present themselves and inspire thought. A smart and entertaining book.

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Extremely Boring

The author, Taylor Lorenz, sets out to tell a “social history of social media.” When I started reading the book I did not know what “social history” actually meant, but I imagined it to mean that social media's impact on society and culture would be explored. I've since skimmed Wikipedia's definition and I wasn't that far off. But in this book the author does nothing of the sort.

Most failings of the book can be attributed to the fact that Taylor Lorenz is a Washington Post reporter. First off, the clickbait. Yes, there's clickbait in this book. Many sections end with cliff hangers à la “but Vine wouldn't be around for long.” On an online news site these would make sense as they encourage you to read more online articles, but I don't see how they belong in a book I've already paid for. It might be a minor gripe, but it happened often enough for me to still be annoyed by it and to bring it up now.

A more substantial way in which the reporter's mindset impedes the book is its treatment of the rise and fall of social media platforms. Specifically, it focuses on some exemplary individuals who are most affected by the platform. Often this takes the form of anecdotal stories where we are first introduced to a “regular” person that then shoots to fame on one platform or other until that platform goes under and they either pivot to another platform or fade into obscurity. Rinse and repeat for each platform.

In the end, it's unclear whether these stories all sound the same because that's what becoming famous online is like or because that's the bias in the author's selection, not only of the people, but of the part of their lives she focuses on. Completely omitted are the stories of the people consuming content on social media, the stories of those that tried and failed to establish themselves online, and those that tried and had limited success. All these obviously make up a much larger percentage of the population and are, in my opinion, much more important in a “social history.”

Apart from these anecdotes we don't get much. The author refuses to provide commentary on the people, platforms, and culture she is writing about. Instead she cites fellow journalists or influencers, but these quotes often don't provide any additional analysis either. What we get is quite literally a report, an account of things that happened, names of companies that provided online platforms, and a list of people that were most successful on these platforms.

Speaking of platforms I was surprised that Reddit was suspiciously absent. I don't know why. The index tells me that it is mentioned six times one of which is a quote being attributed to “a redditor”, the rest are passing mentions of a topic also being discussed “on various subreddits”. But the author never talks about Reddit as a platform. Without acknowledging the fact anywhere in the book the scope was furthermore very much limited to the US. Platforms like the Russian VK or the German SchülerVZ are completely absent. Everything else that I'd expected was covered though, from MySpace to TikTok, even Snapchat, Twitch, Patreon, and OnlyFans.

Overall, this book provides a list of about 200 people and sorts them to the platforms that they were popular on. But that's mostly it. There's little in the way of describing online culture, no explanation of the dynamics of internet fame, and no exploration of how average lives were shaped by these platforms.

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The key to understanding society

Why do some people consistently misunderstand feminism to mean “more women CEOs”? Why did the enlightenment not lead to a complete abandonment of religion? Who are the people exploring new ways of developing themselves and their community? Where is politics headed? Why has democracy never delivered on its promise, but how and where is it finally starting to? What is Political Metamodernism?

Hanzi answers all these questions and more. And he doesn't go for the simple and incomplete answers. No, he dives deep and gives the most accurate and holistic explanation for contemporary politics to date. His complex ideas get broken down into and explained in an easy-to-follow way. His tongue-in-cheek writing style reflects the metamodern ideas he's advocating for.

The ideas will infect your brain and soon you will recognize patterns of thought and behaviour all around you and even in yourself. You will be like Neo, seeing the code of the Matrix, and you will begin to work on your ability to leverage that knowledge in practical ways. The understanding gained from this book will become so central to your understanding of the world that you will spend hours trying to summarize it to friends, family and strangers at parties.

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Nicht ganz zukunftsweisend

Kassandra ist nicht nur eine Erzählung, sondern ein “Projekt” von Autorin Christa Wolf. Zusätzlich zur Erzählung umfasst dieses auch ein Arbeitstagebuch und Vorlesungen. Ich habe nur die Erzählungen und Auszüge des Arbeitstagebuch gelesen.

Die Erzählung basiert auf dem mythologischen Charakter der Seherin Kassandra. Die Autorin schafft es ihrer Kassandra-Figur eine faszinierende Vielschichtigkeit zu verleihen und sie damit frisch und gedankeninspirierend zu gestalten. Erzählt wird aus ihrer Perspektive in Form von Erinnerungen womit sich Rückblick und Zukunftsvisionen auf interessante Weise überlagern. Der Erzählstil folgt dabei der Logik Kassandra's Gedankenwelt und ist damit voller Wiederholungen, Halbsätze die vorheriges revidieren oder präzisieren und Gedankensprüngen in mitten von Sätzen. Das ist zwar konsequent, erschwert die Lektüre jedoch ungemein.

Die Erzählung allein lässt die moderne Leser*in vielleicht etwas ratlos zurück. Die Auszüge des Arbeitstagebuchs haben mir jedoch einen Zugang ermöglicht, sodass ich abschließend Kassandra als Erzählung weniger, Kassandra als Projekt allerdings schon empfehlen würde.

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Not worth rag nor bone

This extremely short novella has been compared to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. I didn't enjoy Alice, so I don't know what moved me to give this a try. As was to be expected I did not like this either.

The characters in Treacle Walker all are peculiar and quirky, but always in ways completely devoid of depth or intelligence. Similarly the plot is wacky and dreamlike following its own child-like logic.

Other reviews applaud this “fariytale fashion” and find “more ideas and imagination than most authors manage in their whole careers”, but I was missing anything to grab me, neither characters, nor world, nor plot, nor prose were giving me a reason to care and before long (two hours) it was all over.

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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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Update: Mit etwas Abstand würde ich mein Fazit umkehren und von diesem Buch abraten. Inhaltlich stimmt das unten stehende Review noch, aber mich ärgert doch die Abwesenheit von Tiefe und Intelligenz.

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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Outrageous 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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