Tag Archives: Books

A fragile planet and the limit to new discoveries

Reading Bill Bryson’s “Short history of nearly everything” on a bad day can be slightly depressing. We, as in ‘we humans’, have not only a fragile body, we also live in a fragile place and actually can call ourselves lucky to be here at all. In the tiny bit of okayish documented human history – roughly the last 10.000 years –  no massive comet hit Earth, none of the super vulcanos (such as Yellowstone) blew up and there was no ice age. All of which happen regularly though in the history of our little blue planet…

On a normal day , Bill Bryson’s tour de force of natural sciences and how we came to know what we know about ourselves, physics, chemistry, astronomy, geology, and much else is as entertaining as it is insightful. A lot of facts, especially about the life of great scientists, their spleens, fights and discoveries, and plenty of knowledge, all of which amusingly written. Did you know that Marie Curie’s books are till today too polluted by radiation to be handled without protective clothing? Or that Darwin kept his paper ‘On the origin of species’ for 15 years in a drawer before publishing it? Or that the US were busy building their own, huge collider till Congress – probably wisely so – cancelled the budget?

It’s way beyond a short blog post to appropriately review this great book. Hence only two small notes. For one, scientists don’t seem to be any more immune to willful ignorance of scientific evidence than other people. Bryson gives several examples, usually from surveys of scientists not believing in something like, let’s say, plate tectonics. Or, to give a quote: “As late as 1988, more than half of American palaeontologists […] continued to believe that the extinction of the dinosaurs was in no way related to an asteroid or cometary impact.”

Another common misconception Bryson does away with, is the popular impression that everything important, the elements, physical laws, etc has been discovered, or would need a lot of money to research and understand – see hadron colliders. This is far from being true. There is still much left, even  on our planet what we barely understand. We know very little about what is under our feet, and why the Earth crust is on some places thinner or thicker than theory predicts. Antarctica remained ice free for a long time after it settled in its current position though, according to what we know, this can’t be. Dinosaurs appeared much further North than their physiognomy should have allowed them. Again, according to our knowledge. And, still the best of all: We have better maps of the moon than of our oceans…



3 books

First place: Shared between Jane Eyre and The Jane Eyre affair. Both for their great female characters, the second book for its craziness and the dodo.

Runner up: The road – Dark, threatening atmosphere. A book to be read quickly, impossible to put aside, disgusting and thrilling all at once.

Looser: The glassbook of the dream eaters. Good critics, good start but overdetailed boredom half way through.

3 movies

First place: The Wrestler – best performance of the year, great sound track, a movie where everything just works.

Runner up: Star Trek – good special effects, nice story, a bit of fight, a bit of love. Far more than a fan movie.

Looser: Public enemy – Lack of patina. A good story styled to death.

I love nerds

Caracter Interaction LoRI spent a ridiculous amount of time today admiring the movie narrative chart for LoR; trying to remember when the Sam wears the Ring for a short time, and deciding to bring my one volume copy of LoR back with me from my parents place. It would be cool to have this for more movies and books.

All credits and rights for the chart above go to xkcd.com. Thank you guys!

Words, words, words

Life of Pi – Yann Mantel**
Until the last, let’s say 10 pages, I was wondering why the hell I was reading this book. If it were not for the 300 pages before, it would have been absolutely great. Unfortunately, you need them for the understanding. Great reading but a 100 pages less would have improved the story line.

Stefan Zweig – 24 hours in the life of a woman*
Not a bad reading. I like Stefan Zweig but the image of women have changed quite a while since and all this talking about what a woman should not do because of social standards, family, etc. is too far from my reality.

Neil Gaiman: Sternwanderer
Worst book 2008 though the movie was nice. The book is a crude mix of fairy-tale, fantasy and porn. One of them would have been enough.

Nick Hornby: Fever Pitch**
The perfect book to prepare yourself for an important football competition. Alternatively, a good attempt to describe what football is about; even for people who haven’t a clue about it.

Anna Gavalda: Ensemble c’est tout***
Read the second time because I liked it so much the first. A romantic, slightly kitsch love comedy. Nothing I would ever watch as movie but the book is great.

Traudl Jung/Melissa Müller: Bis zur letzten Stunde***
The memories of one of Hitler’s secretaries contributed many years later to the movie “The Downfall”. A fascinating book from a fascinating woman showing again that the devil can have more than one human face.

Dan Simmons: Endymion I & Endymion II*
Following the great Hyperion novels, biggest disappointment 2008. For all those who enjoyed Hyperion: Don’t read it.

Sébastian Japrisot: La dame dans l’auto avec des lunettes et un fusil***
French polar with all elements a polar should have. An interesting main character, a slow revealing of a thrilling story, a powerful ennemi and an unexpected ending.

Jean Ray: Malpertuis*
Weird book about ancient gods who, captured by a sailor, live in an old house. I don’t think I fully understood the story. Not sure though if it was me or if there was nothing to understand.

Friedrich Dürrenmatt: Besuch der alten Dame***
A good, quick reading about how much power money has and that vengance, especially served cold, is the sweetest dish.

Eric Duchatel, Jean-Philippe Postel: Pandorre et l’ouvre-boite**
A book I only bought for the Wortwitz in the title and the idea behind. Two authors write the same polar but from a different point of view and with a different main character. Two books in one, so to say.

Phillipe Claudel: Les ames grises**
The title sets the tone: grey. Not a book with much jokes though well written. The murder of a young girl shows the limits of humanity in a small French town during the first World War. Others are more fund of it than I was.

Gothold Ephraim Lessing: Nathan der Weise**
One of those classics I wanted to read since long because we didn’t read it at school. The Ring Parable is one of the best examples of regligious tolerance and the best part of the book. The rest is too many emotional for my liking.
Eric Emmanuel Schmitt: Odette Toutlemonde**
Collection of short stories about love. Well written, good to read and feel well fast food for the soul.

Athol Fugard: Tsotsi***
One of those books I should have read before going to South Africa. Or at least while being in South Africa as it gives a good insight into what life was for black South Africans in the townships during the Appartheid. A young gangster “tsotsi” decides to take care of a newborn he kind of stumbles over. The tone, the story, the characters – undescriptible.

Gregory Maguire: Wicked*
Very good start and very week ending. Though, that’s not fair to say as the ending of the Wicked Witch of the West is known but the story in between could have got some more… punch.

Tad Williams: Otherland*
The first out of four novels. Five or more main characters are presented in their storylines and it took almost 80% of the book until I got  into it. There are many good ideas and some characters I really liked (Paul!) but it was not enough to make me buy the second.

Kenneth Cain, Heidi Postlwait, Andrew Thomson: Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures***A book to read in the metro or tramway just for having the fun of seeing peoples faces when they read the title. The authors, all working for the UN, meet for the first time in Cambodia and stay in touch though they find each other in very different zones of conflicts over the following years – Liberia, Haiti, Congo, Yugoslavia, etc. An excellent book for all idealists who still believe that humankind will eventually evolve towards something better. And an excellent book for everybody else.

Philippe Janeada: Le chameau sauvage*
Loooong story for a moral worth five cent. Well written but I was truly asking myself at the end if this was really it. Somehow the contrary of the very first book in this list.

Danniel Pennac: Messieur les enfants**
Easy reading for a busy end of the year. A few good laughs and a happy ending. What else do you want?


C’est complètement dingue – It’s totally crazy. That’s what I thought more than once while reading “La dame dans l’auto avec des lunettes et un fusil”. It’s one of these books I just enjoy reading, no need to understand every single detail. The structure of the novel is enough to keep me turning the pages as Dany Longo tells her story and you just don’t know who is lying: her, the others or maybe all of hem.

I found the book in one of these few book shops where I can come in and ask for something to read without feeling ridiculous. In Grenoble, it was the Décitre and here it is a second hand book shop (Nijinsky, I hope it’s written this way) where I can come with having but just a vague idea of what I want in mind. Instead of feeling awkward, I feel taken care of, taken seriously when being asked back: “OK, so what do you feel like reading: thriller, fantasy, suspense, etc?” Last time, it was a thriller I was looking for.

The girl presented me I don’t remember how many books until one caught my attention. I barely read the cover text before taking my decision while she showed me another one more fantasy like. I don’t remember what she said but it sounded good enough to make me take this book as well. J’adore ça.

Pas bien

Yesterday night I did something I usually avoid doing. I looked up the end of the book I’m currently reading. Result: I don’t want to read it anymore. It’s a pity, it’s the last volume out of four (Hyperion I&II, Endymion I&II from Dan Simmons) but contrary to Hyperion the last Endymion book is looooooong. After the 200 pages I already read, I just don’t see anything exciting coming. Hyperion was a quest, a great book, a complex story unfolding it’s multiple aspects one by one, and great characters.

In the Endymion the main character and narrative is quite boring. He stumbles from one problem to the other, from one critical situation to the next without a real story. At least this is my impression so far. I don’t feel the same thrill or excitement the first two books brought me. Maybe it would be a normal good adventure book if it were independent but following the first two it just can’t keep the level.

I’m still not sure if I will finish reading the book or not. Right now, I’m not in the mood so I’ll leave it aside. I think that my curiosity and this weird habit of buying and reading sequels even if I don’t like them anymore will lead me to do so at one moment in the future. But the page-turner feeling you have when you can’t stop reading a book, that’s gone. What a pity.

Reading books is for me

  • a way to relax
  • an opportunity to think about my life
  • a way to travel to foreign countries
  • a way to experience history
  • a way to discover new dimensions, universes, and worlds
  • a good discussion topic
  • a way to meet new (though imaginary) friends
  • a way to let my imagination run free
  • a way to escape from the world for a while
  • a way to live great adventures
  • good entertainment
  • a tool to learn something new
  • a good way to spend time
  • a treasure


Do to an unexpected and lucky coincidence*, I own now the following books:

  • Benoït, Pierre: L’Atlantide (reading right now), 1920
  • Corneille: Le Cid
  • Churchill, Winston: Mémoires sur la Deuxième Guerre Mondiale I-III
  • Hemingway: Pour qui sonne le glas
  • Simenon, Georges: Maigret à Vichy
  • Somerset Maugham, William: Le sortilège malais
  • Süpfle, Otto: Petite grammaire allemande 14è édition, 1934 (with the old German handwriting: Sütterlin)

* Cycling home, I saw a box full of books standing at a corner of a street. The box was obviously destined to finish its life in a local rubbish truck. Since I can not stand it when books are thrown away, I had a closer look at the books. Due to the limited space of the rucksack, I could not safe all them. Anyway, not all were of the same interest to me. So I took what was appealing to me and yeah, that’s it. I am not sure, if I am going to read all this, especially since I do not have all of the memories about the Second World War from Churchill and I would prefer to read them in English… However, I am happy to have them.

Cry the beloved country

Alan Paton
Cry the beloved country

Cry the beloved country - Cover

Written by one of the great, white liberals supporting the Anti-Apartheid struggle over more than 50 years, Alain Paton is drafting a powerful novel going beyond the limits of paper by picturing South Africa in its depth.

Cry the beloved Country is the story of two families, a white and a black one, separated by the race barrier, hundred years of development and nevertheless closely linked to each other. The Zulu reverend Stephen Kumalo searching in the Johannesburg for his son Absalom and the white farmer James Jarvis loosing his son Arthur.

The book was written in 1948 and describes the conditions in the black shantytowns in contrast to the white settlements. It details the problem of the unequal distribution of land, leaving to the black population only such a small part of their ancestral land, that their traditions can only be destroyed. This unequal distribution of land is the issue of important development struggles of South Africa at that time and today as: erosion, rural exodus, overcrowded townships, destroyed families and traditions, violence, and hatred.

Paton has a very own style, which first seems strange but develops soon in an intense rhythm. The story is told more as a tale in a repetitive style reminding some ancient legends. This style is not easy to read but makes the book all together more authentic.

Cry the beloved Coutry pictures life in South Africa as what it has been for a long time and what it is to some extend until today: the white minority closing the eyes to or simply not knowing the black majority out of ignorance, fear and a feeling of superiority. The black majority, half aware of its power but intimidated by hundreds of years of oppression, a feeling of inferiority and fear, torn between hope and rebellion.

After having been to South Africa for three months, I perceived this book as parabola to South African life and history: dead, desperation, seemingly destroying everything but against all odds, people rise above themselves, crossing the invisible but still powerful border of race and their own fear. Thus, they show their pride for this country, a sometimes surprising and strong optimism, and making a promise of a better future.

Paton describes South Africa as what is can be: beautiful, amazing, welcoming, cruel, violent, desperately human – extreme and overwhelming.

Best quotation among others: “I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they (the white minority) are turned to loving, they will find that we (black population) are turned to hating.”

Book review

Anthony Sampson

The authorised Biography


It is not easy to write about a book I did not really enjoy reading but since I did not have anything else to read…


Anthony Sampson, journalist and author of books like Anatomy of Britain or Black and Gold, met Mandela in 1951 when he was editor of the black magazine Drums in Johannesburg. Sampson was a close observer of SA politics and the anti-Apartheid struggle. He visited SA frequently and kept in touch with the political and social development.

The book is structured in three parts, the first from 1918 to 1964 describing the development from the country boy Mandela (still of royal origin) over the ANC Youth leader to the freedom fighter (or, according to the government of the period: terrorist). The second part until 1990 illustrates the time in prison, the country’s development and the changes in relation to friends, family, and political enemies. The last part finally is about the difficult transition from the Apartheid regime to a new South African constitution and country focussing on Mandela’s impact and influence.


This book is certainly nice to read when one comes to SA and wants to know more about Mandela, his comrades (Sisulu, Tambo, Mbeki, Kathrada, Winnie Mandela, etc.) the ANC and the whole system of Apartheid. It is interesting to see how other, international aspects and actors influenced South Africa: the Second World War, the Cold war, the issue of communism, the UK (especially Thatcher), the USA, the struggle of independence, the world economy, the UN, the developments in other African states/colonies and so on.

The principal focus is on the political being Mandela but even if Sampson does not forget the family man, I did not really get in touch with the “person” Nelson Mandela. I also believe that a biography should provide a minimum of entertainment. In this sense the book is a complete failure. It is an objective and unemotional report of Mandela’s life.

There are too many details, every single letter, speech, discussion, and meeting seem to have been taken into consideration. This is a pity in my point of view because there is so many drama, ups and downs in Mandela’s life and South Africa’s history. Sampson could have written an outstanding book if only he had allowed more emotions and a little bit more intimacy. In his effort to draft an overall biography, not judging, not praising, not sucking up, he forgets one important aspect: to reveal who Mandela is.

What I felt was missing, is a real feeling for the living conditions of the black majority. Sampson does not spend a lot of time and paper to describe this and without leaving a lasting idea of how it has been. Once again, Sampson describes it but he fails to bring it close, to make the reader feel it.

When I read this book I had the feeling that it would never end, especially in the first part, when I had the impression that the 1950s were stretching like old chewing gum.

Only interesting quotation: “… a human being has an amazing capacity for adaptation, getting used, in due course, to some of the most impossible situations”

I don’t agree with the statement from the Sunday Telegraph on the cover: “It is hard to believe that a better biography will ever be written.”

Hopefully, a better one will be written, Mandela and South Africa would both deserve it.