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Shift Happens! by Robert Holden

Shift Happens: How to Live an Inspired Life...Starting Right Now!Shift Happens: How to Live an Inspired Life…Starting Right Now! by Robert Holden

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I seem to be in a Robert Holden kick these days, and for good reason I think: this guy obviously knows what he’s talking about. He practices what he preaches, and it seeps through every word, every sentence he writes. He is honest and transparent, and doesn’t hide potential challenges to his philosophy.

Because, let’s get this straight: Holden’s work presents a philosophy of life. It may be wrapped in self-help paper, but dig a little and you have a fascinating, and eminently positive, conception of human beings and human life.

I think that Shift Happens is a great place to start if you’re new to Holden. It is comprised of short, punchy essays that develop an idea or a topic, such as feeling stuck, relationships, and struggling. It is filled with inspirational quotes and stories of transformation, of people who were just a miserable as you feel and discovered that there was a better way.

However, I’m starting to hit a wall with Holden: as much as I am inspired by his writing, I’m having a hard time finding ways to do what he suggests: letting go of guilt, fear and expectations. He routinely suggests to release control and give it up to God (not the Christian God but rather a general idea of divinity). Not being especially religious, I sometimes have trouble relating to this advice, but I admit that everyone needs some spiritual nourishing in their life. So here I am, trying to understand this concept of God and trying to give my struggles up.

There’s also a lot of talk about mediation, but little instruction on how to do it. In Holden’s world, it seems to be simply a matter of sitting down somewhere and being still. And it might just be as simple as that, but a single paragraph giving basic instructions would be appreciated, if only in appendix.

If you want a quick inspirational read, I strongly suggest this volume. However, if you want to delve deeper into Holden’s philosophy and approach, you can get Happiness Now!: Timeless Wisdom for Feeling Good FAST, which I have reviewed earlier.

This book matters because it is filled with wisdom that we simply have forgotten and need to relearn. If you even only read one chapter a day, you’ll feel more inspired, more positive and definitely more hopeful. The secret? Live in the present.


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Call for the Dead by John le Carré

Call for the Dead (George Smiley, #1)Call for the Dead by John le Carré

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One of the most important thriller novelists of the 20th century, John le Carré has literally written the book about spy stories. As I found myself interested in reading spy narratives, I decided to begin with him, and his first novel.

I find it fascinating that his first spy novel, Call for the Dead, showcases a tired, cynical spy who wants out of the job. George Smiley is an experienced intelligence officer who’s lived through the Second World War, but who’s not that excited about the job anymore. He’s become tired, cynical and is more or less ready to retire. One morning, he receives a note that an agent, whom he interviewed because of an anonymous denunciation of being a Communist, has committed suicide. Smiley is sent to Fennan’s home as a matter of course, only to suspect that the man has been murdered. After his boss refuses to look into the murder, Smiley quits to solve the crime on his own.

Follows a mystery involving old pupils, theatre, a phone call mystery and classic spy tradecraft. I think that strictly speaking, this isn’t exactly a spy story, but rather a murder mystery involving spies. And yet, the story was satisfying and well-crafted.

Let’s begin with Le Carré’s style. The first thing I noticed was the razor-sharp, no-frills writing that goes straight to the heart of any person, place or action. There are no superfluous words or sentences, nothing but the essential. This makes for a very tight reading experience–sometimes to the point of wondering if it won’t break. It often feels more like a report than a story, and the writing swings uncomfortably between the two.

Indeed, I found myself a bit startled at many points in the novel. The characters are often introduced without much ado, and we are given very little chance to know who they are before they start affecting the story. Therefore, I had often trouble differentiating Mendel from Guillam and figuring out who was who for the minor characters. The point of view also often changed abruptly, making me wonder whose perspective or action we were witnessing at the moment.

The mystery, mysterious as it was, eventually gets solved. The book would have ended well if le Carré had avoided the final report which basically summarizes the entire story in writing that’s even more economical, if that was ever possible. I think this section could easily have been omitted, as the book is already short enough and doesn’t require a final “here’s what happened in the book” chapter.

Despite its faults, though, I found myself rooting for Smiley and his friends. Smiley is weirdly sympathetic for being so cold and cynical. But maybe that’s part of being a spy: you can’t let yourself have feelings or be hopeful, as you’ve seen the worst of human guile and evil. Murder, blackmail and manipulation are matters of course for fictional spies; how can one remain happy and hopeful in such an environment?

Thematically, the book explores the breakdown of traditional British society after the Second World War. Characters live in neighbourhoods that they “shouldn’t” live in; a Jewish man works in the Foreign Office, a traditionally very British and classist environment; the threat of communism is ever-present as East German spies, trained by the British, start popping up everywhere; Smiley and his friends keep this old-style “club” maintained by their old Oxford (or was it Cambridge?) landlady. It’s not as obvious as in second book, but you can see a hint of interest in this topic in this first book.

This book matters because it’s the first from one of the major writers of the second half of the 20th century. Call for the Dead gives us a glimpse of the talent and abilities of an up-and-coming thriller writer, whom everyone will want to emulate within a few years. I am definitely looking forward to the next novel!

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You Are A Writer by Jeff Goins (review)

You Are A Writer (So Start Acting Like One)You Are A Writer by Jeff Goins

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Given the reviews on Amazon and the personal recommendations I received about this book, I was expecting much, much more.

If you’re looking for a motivational primer to get you to write, it’s a good 3$ spent.

However, if you’re looking for direction as to how to get yourself read or self-marketing tips, well, you’re out of luck.

I started this book rather hopefully, but I lost interest quickly. Good thing the book is really short, because it was starting to get repetitive.

Among things that annoyed me, at the beginning he tells you how to never have to send a pitch again… and then tells you how to send a pitch. Confusing.

At least, Goins doesn’t promise you instant fame or money. He doesn’t tell you to quit your job to become a full-time writer/blogger/internet marketing bullshitter. I can appreciate that kind of honesty.

So, if you are a writer, you probably already know it. If you don’t write, no amount of books can convince you otherwise.

So sit down in your chair and write, if you think this is what you are meant to do.

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The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins — Review

A few weeks ago, when I got really sick, I decided to give The Hunger Games a try. Sure, it’s young adult literature (so is Harry Potter, actually) and some of the comments I’d heard vilified its bad use of punctuation, but the general hype and mostly positive reviews convinced me to give it a try.

And if you haven’t yet, you should too.

If you haven’t heard about the books yet, here is a very short summary of what they are about (or you can always just watch the movie trailer).

In the country of Panem, every year there is a “reaping”, where one male and one female between 12 and 18 are randomly chosen in each of the 12 districts to participate in the Hunger games, a sadistic game of survival where the last person alive wins comfort for themselves and glory for their district.

Katniss Everdeen lives in the poorest district, #12, that relies on coal mining. In order to save her younger sister from the reaping, she volunteers to participate in the Hunger Games along with Peeta, the baker’s son. From this fateful decision begins an adventure that will bring Katniss to the heart of Panem politics, and involve her in a plot to overturn the dictatorship of the Capitol.

I have a soft spot for science-fiction. I may have studied Victorian literature, but I admire the ability of science fiction to imagine whole new social systems and technologies and turn them into believable worlds. I will break my review down in three parts for each book.

Book 1: The Hunger Games

It didn’t take very long for the story to grip me. The dystopian world, the sympathetic characters, the quick-moving plot: everything works to make this book in a page-turner.

We meet Katniss as she prepares for hunting in the woods, which is illegal  but widely accepted by the authorities of the district, as they also gain from it. Katniss is responsible for her mother and her little sister, Prim, since her mother suffered a breakdown after the death of her father. She hunts with Gale, her best friend, and they share skills and resources to feed both their families.

The book begins a few days before the Reaping. We get Katniss’ point of view as she reflects on the consequences of the reaping and its injustice. At their core, the Hunger Games are a version of Roman gladiator shows: a way to control the outer provinces and provide entertainment to a blasé, luxurious capital population. In the book, the history of the Hunger Games begins with a war, after which the Hunger Games are implemented to “remind” the people, every year, of the Capitol’s power over them. Attendance to the reaping is mandatory, and so is watching the Games. Think “Gladiator” meets “Big Brother” in a dictatorship.

I felt instant sympathy for Katniss. In a world where living illegally is the only way to eat enough, where social injustice is rampant (and in fact institutionalized) and where children are held hostage against rebellion, her struggle to act morally despite the cruelty around her is heroic.

As soon as the Games start, the plot picks up its pace and keeps you turning the pages all the way to the end. Her true/fake love affair with Peeta, which keeps both of them alive, is particularly fraught with teenage anxiety around relationships and desire. But ultimately, this is about survival. Who do you live for? What are you willing to do to survive?

The writing, despite its slight faults, is gripping and evocative. Collins has a way to describe horrific scenes in a way that retains the violence, but maintains respect for the human victims. The book left me hungry for more.

Book 2: Catching Fire

Given the way the story of The Hunger Games ended, it was obvious that a second part was in Collin’s mind. The second book explores Panem society a bit more in depth, and still includes everyone’s favourite part, another round of Hunger Games.

The book begins as Katniss and Peeta get ready to go on the customary Panem-wide winner’s tour. They are paraded throughout the country to, mostly, twist the knife into the wound of all the losing districts. But she also realizes that her act of defiance against the Capitol has spurred a spirit of rebellion in Panem. Ambivalent as to her involvement and desire to be part of such a difficult entreprise, Katniss is ready to move on to a more peaceful and wealthy life in her District. But a forced wedding between herself and Peeta forces her to remain in the spotlight, until the new round of Hunger Games are announced, with all the rules changed. Katniss and Peeta are forced to participate in the Games, once again.

In Catching Fire, the main focus is Katniss’ growing anxiety at her feelings for both Peeta and Gale. Collins artfully captures the flightiness of teenage desire, which remains constant despite a world torn by trauma and pseudo-slavery. In this second round, the rules of the game also change drastically, increasing Katniss’ sense of loss of control over her life.

Although there is less attention given to the actual Games in this book, we are given ample time to see Katniss suffer from PTSD. I think that Collins’ depiction of the effect of PTSD on teenagers, which she deepens in Mockingjay, is the highlight of this book. Katniss’ heroic act from The Hunger Games takes its toll, and Collins has no problem depicting her heroine as capable of breaking down and being weak.

The writing also gets better in Catching Fire. Collins shows a stronger mastery of the craft and, while still addressing teenagers, is capable of drawing in adults on her own merits. The senselessness of violence and the consequences of repeated trauma are definitely major concerns of Catching Fire.

My only gripe with this book: I wish I had learned more about Panem society. Collins kind of opens up the topic by providing an interesting description of one district, and then drops it completely. We do learn from other districts through their competitors in the Games, but it really isn’t the same. Somehow I was expecting something a bit more complex, but Collins decided to keep the focus on Katniss herself rather than expand the world she so convincingly sketches, even if lightly.

Book 3: Mockingjay

This is where I started losing my interest a bit. This book reminded me of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, in that the main character, supposedly the heroine, spends most of the book disabled by PTSD  and medication. Even though the final heroic act is hers again, it’s hard to see her as the strong character in this last installment. She spends most of her time in a medical haze, or crying, or hiding in a closet.

Katniss, now living in discreet, long-lost District 13, has to deal with the trauma of two Hunger Games and the weight of the liberation of Panem on her shoulders. Through her actions in the first book, she has become a symbol of rebellion used to rally the Districts against the Capitol. Much less happens in this third book than in the first two. There are a few battle scenes, and the final one, but otherwise, this book is much more introspective than the other two.

But at the same time, this book is among the strongest example of the mental and physical consequences of war and violence on people. It is introspective because Katniss has reached her breaking point. She is exhausted, emotionally and physically, and cannot sustain more trauma. So the book becomes not so much about the liberation of Panem, but about Katniss’ eventual, slow liberation from PTSD.

The end, although satisfying on a character level, left me wanting on the world-level. We don’t know what has happened to Panem, in the end. Is is better for Katniss’ intervention, or has it remained the same? I think we’re supposed to make a link between Katniss’ and Panem’s healing, but it’s not as obvious as it should be.

General thoughts

These books are rough. Brutal. They don’t pull punches and describe war and violence without euphemisms. It’s refreshing, in a sense, because it stands in stark contrast with the official-speak so condemned by George Orwell, back in the day. Collins, I’m sure, sees teenagers as able to handle the truth. She doesn’t sugar-coat the horrifying acts of violence in both Games and the war.

Although the books do live up to their hype, somehow, they don’t live up to their potential. The world of Panem deserved much more development than it did. Maybe it’s the fan of complex fictional social systems, à la Middlemarch, in me speaking, but I do think that the world of Panem could have been the site for a much deeper critique of the current state of power and capitalism. It’s dystopian–we get it. But how did it become that way? What happened between now and then that the site of American power moved to possibly Colorado (I suspect Denver) and its social structure turned back to medieval times? I’ve read a lot of anticipatory science-fiction that gave enough information to infer how the world might crumble. Not so with The Hunger Games.

All in all, it was a mostly satisfying read. It took me 3 days to read all of them, which makes them a quick and entertaining read. And I must admit I did cry at the end (or that might have been how tired and sick I felt. You’ll never know, hah :p). My desire for a more complex world aside, considering the audience, I thought they were excellent examples of what the best YA literature can do.

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The Fat Years by Chan Koonchung (review)

In translation theory, there are two main factions: the “naturalizers” and the “foreignizers” The naturalizers think that literature should be translated in a language that feels natural to the reader, as if it had been written originally in their language. The foreignizers, on the other hand, think that the best way to honour a text is to keep the translation as close to the source language as the target language will allow. In other words, the first group would have the English sound English, while the second would have English sound as Chinese as it can.

The Fat Years is definitely a case of foreignization, and I think the bad reviews of this book don’t really take into account that this was written in Chinese. Not only is there the strange rhythm and sound of Chinese echoing through the English, but Western readers are probably also unaccustomed to the foreign structure of a Chinese text.

I don’t know much about Chinese narrative structure–all that I know is that it’s different, very different, from our Western conception of a story. Despite the definite Western influences of this novel (mystery narrative, science-fiction), the novel feels as foreign as, I expect, visiting Beijing would.

Yes, it has a lot of exposition and not much action. Yes, the last part of the novel, the long speech by He Dongsheng, seems to go on forever and ever. But there’s a pleasure in reading this–a pleasure of, somehow, listening to another tongue, another culture, and hearing it in English in your head.

The Fat Years is the story of Taiwan-born writer Lo Chen who, one day, sees an old female friend, an ex-judge and now career activist Little Xi, who doesn’t seem to be as happy as he is. Because everyone in Beijing is very happy. She, and another old friend, tell him that there’s a month missing in China: 28 days in 2011 that disappeared from collective memory, and that only a few of them can remember. Chen’s doubts are aroused, and he seems to lose the happiness that he sees all around him. There begins a quest to find the missing month, among political intrigue, elite ultranationalist student shenanigans, underground Christian churches and, eventually, love. It’s the conflict between choosing to live “in a counterfeit paradise or a real hell”. Which one would you choose?

This is definitely a novel for the intellectual-minded. Koonchung presents a lot of political and economic analysis–either to educate the Western reader or to wake up the Chinese one, I’m not really sure. But, according to the translator, it’s not that farfetched, except for a few details. If you know nothing about China, you’ll be illuminated. If you know a little, or a lot, you’ll probably find the point of view interesting.

The Fat Years asks a lot of difficult questions that even Westerners should grapple with. How much freedom do we really have? Is the government really working in our interest? Is democracy a political system doomed to failure because it cannot achieve anything “big”?

If you like non-stop action, stay away from this book. You’ll get bored. However, if you enjoy a text that plays with high political stakes and isn’t afraid to call a dog a dog, I strongly suggest you grab a copy.

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Persuasion by Jane Austen (review)

It’s been a while since I dove into a classic work of literature. When I mean “classic”, I mean something that’s more or less part of the English literature canon.*

I’m more of a Victorianist than a Regency-ist, but I have a special place in my heart for Jane Austen. One professor once told in class that her stories are so tightly constructed that you cannot pull out a single thread without unraveling the entire story.

Persuasion is Austen’s last, and arguably best, work. Yes, better than Pride and Prejudice.

Persuasion introduces Anne, a 28-year-old woman unfortunately living in a family with a vain and spenthrift father and older sister, and an already married younger one. She is discreet, circumspect and smart; she is also surrounded by proud, vain relatives who don’t see her value and basically ignore her.

This book is a treasure of exploration of the character of men and women. More than any other book of hers, Persuasion explores the idea of constancy and inconstancy, of short-fleeting lust and of love that endures almost a decade of separation. As I was reading it, it became a celebration of slow love, of that love that takes its time but is able to endure anything. This is also when Austen explores the value of the British Navy more in depth than any other book of hers I’ve read. Her last paragraph is basically a celebration of the value of sailors and their worth in war and peace.

Love hearts by laradanielle on Flickr.

Reading Persuasion made me long for the slow, confident but durable development of feelings over time. I started thinking about our fast-everything society: fast food, fast fashion, fast communication. Fast love, too. Is love that is found and consumed within days better than feelings that endure an 8-year separation?

It just might be my current mood, but I found the lack of sexuality refreshing. Sure, men are handsome and ladies are pretty, but Anne has “lost the bloom of youth” and yet Wentworth still finds her beautiful. If that’s not a proof love, I don’t know what is. I felt more happiness in their story than in the sleep-and-go culture we have now.

And I know that there are many issues with this: a different time period, feminist theory, etc. I realize all of that, and yet I found myself imagining living in Austen’s world, sexless and all, and finding a possibility for happiness. Yes, even with my modern mind.

*The idea of “canon” is hotly debated even within the academic field of literature, but I am basing myself on my own education here, so don’t shoot me down.


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