A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1)

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A review for A Game of Thrones. Boy oh boy.

The world of fantasy feels so different now from what it must have looked like back in 1996, before even Lord of the Rings, the film that launched high fantasy of this variety into the wider public consciousness, had entered pre-production. Compare who gets to read this now with this book’s conceivable target audience back in the day. It’s a completely different world.

20 years later, fantasy of all sorts is mainstream, especially Game of Thrones the series. But has the game-changing success of the HBO blockbuster altered the way we should look at the original book’s standalone value?

I’ve got to be honest with you: I only read the book because of the show. Season 7 got me all hyped again come July, and after I was a couple of episodes in and I’d started itching to learn more about the characters I’ve been following for so many years again, I decided to take the plunge and make the commitment.

For make no mistake, this one’s long. Taking my sweet, sweet time, it took me 3+ months to go through its 780 pages of tinyish print. Assuming that each page took me about 1.5–2 minutes to read (including going through passages more than once to make sure I understood, or to reread for pleasure, which I’m happy to say happened quite a lot), that would make us… 20–25 hours at least? Shit — I just realised that I’m now counting hours with books, too; I thought I reserved this stressful habit for games and series only.

I’ll be honest with you again: I’m glad this book was made into a series and I got to watch it before reading the book. Mr Martin’s style is rich and flowery, but while reading it I sometimes thought, especially with some of his detailed descriptions of places (using obscure medieval masonry lingo) that he could have used a more eager editor. Just like with Lord of the Rings, it seems to me that it takes a certain kind of focused, detail-oriented person, the same kind who reads his/her favourite books again and again instead of looking for new books to discover, to truly enjoy these long-winding epics on the first go.

Thus, it definitely helped that I was already familiar with the characters before jumping in; I enjoyed reading more details about their backstories and fleshing out the space Westeros inhabits in my head, but the stories on their own I don’t think would be sufficiently interesting to capture my imagination had I gone in a complete ASoIaF virgin. I can clearly picture myself picking this book up blind, attempting to penetrate its world, and failing miserably.

That would have been a shame indeed because one of the series strongest points is its characters. They have clear, believable motives which are never easy to pinpoint as ‘bad’ or ‘good’. Reading about them in much greater detail made me feel as if those people and their families had actually existed a long time ago, in a feudal society far far away.

On the other hand, I did find some of the differences between the book and the show jarring, e.g. how much younger everyone was (Ned & Catelyn in their mid-30s, Robb 14, Sansa 11, Arya 9—children really did mature quickly back in the day!), or how different some characters looked compared to their counterparts on the show: e.g. Arya and her “horseface”, the bald, ugly Jorah or the bald, whiskered Tywin.

I also found that some of Martin’s descriptions of clothes, appearance, hairdos etc. were random and a bit all over the place and not as
majestic and authentic-looking as they were in the show (even though Martin says it was a conscious decision and I can see where he’s coming from and now I feel a little bad for badmouthing him for it!)

One thing I liked in the book a lot that would have been pretty difficult to successfully transfer from it to the show (I mean, if they could do it, I’d be totally for it) was the structure. The storytelling went from one character’s perspective to another (e.g. from Arya’s to Jon’s etc), with always some ‘off-screen’ time passing from one chapter to the next. This often allowed for the undisclosed resolution of one chapter’s cliffhanger to be the unspoken backdrop of the next, something which made reading much more engaging and suspenseful.

That said, one of the reasons I’m happy GoT was made into a show and not a movie series is that in the HBO show they managed to follow the original plot and scene progression so well, though I would have still liked to see Tyrion climbing the Eyrie, or Clegane walk Sansa to her chambers after the tournament banquet (this scene was apparently used to cast Rory McCann for his role as Sandor Clegane, pity it didn’t make it into the show’s script intact and Sansa hears about the Hound’s backstory from Littlefinger).

All in all, I quite enjoyed A Game of Thrones. Yet, I can’t give it five stars, and this is the elephant in the room of a question that’s been bothering me: is there a point after which a book of fiction or a fantasy series just ends up being too long? Do we all have some kind of personal threshold? I know A Song of Ice and Fire isn’t even the worst case of an XL series of XXL books (something-something-Wheel of Time—I’m too scared to touch them, honestly), but seriously: the prospect of reading another huge book like that, and then another, and another, and another, and another, and then yet another, especially since I already know what’s going to happen, feels two parts exciting and five parts “hey don’t mind me, I’m just gonna be picking up that Murakami, Bill Bryson and Graham Hancock at some point, k?”

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that with the show and the series and all those infinite other TV and fantasy series out there, in a world that’s so darn interesting by itself and with so many exciting or actionable things happening around us, we just might be spending a bit too much of our life watching, reading, discussing and worrying about imaginary kingdoms, imaginary dragons, fictional incest and fascinating ultraviolence. It all feels like a giant distraction, a never-ending circus.

I’m not saying that you or anyone else shouldn’t be reading fantasy or fiction, not at all—evidently, I’m not impartial to it either. What I’m saying is that I’m not sure I should be spending my limited book-reading time with books like it. I’d compare it with the hip burgers at restaurants like Hot Hot or Μπαρ Μπεε Κιου (Bar Baaah Cue) in Athens and others like them in almost every wealthy city around the world: they are expertly made, hip, trendy, absolutely huge, do well on Instagram and are tasty as hell. But they’re still made of brutally grown meat, and, at the very end of the day, against all appearances… they’re still junk food.

Burgers and Game of Thrones – the 21st-century panem et circenses?

Just for argument’s sake, another comparison: Book 1, 1996 and Season 7, 2017. Taking both of them into account and the apparent incapability of this series’ writer to give it a proper ending (what has led us to where we are now), would you be able to say what this white hot mess is ultimately all about?

I’m fully aware that stories and (adult) fairytales are some of the cornerstones of our humanity. But what about the content of these stories? What role does it play, if any? Are all distractions, entertainment and/or myths created equal?

My reluctant answer would have to be no.

PS: If you’re interested in some worthwhile, engaging, slightly pretentious criticism of A Game of Thrones, check out this top Goodreads review and the related discussion that caught my attention, written before the HBO series was a thing. The reviewer’s list of books that in his opinion ‘are really radical and surprising, unlike aGoT which was entirely predictable despite claims’, might also be worth a couple of looks into.

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The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are

The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brené Brown
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First approach: Once again, my review could just be delicious quotes taken straight from this little gem — it’d be easy, straightforward, powerful and much better than anything I could write myself, probably. I just might come back at some point and add some of them.

I’m not giving it 5 stars because I thought the layout and ‘guideposts’ idea was kind of messy and didn’t lend itself to a single, strong point, to the extent I’m not sure what the book was about. I felt the title was misleading in this respect (it’s not exactly about imperfection), and was a bit all over the place. But I’m the kind of person who can live and enjoy going all over the place. Let’s just say it wasn’t as memorable as it could have been?

I’ll check my Kindle notes and come back.

25/01/2018 EDIT: I can’t believe it. I stuck to my word. Go me!

My emphasis.

“Until we can receive with an open heart, we are never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help.

“One of the biggest surprises in this research was learning that fitting in and belonging are not the same thing, and, in fact, fitting in gets in the way of belonging. Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.

“Shame Resilience 101 Here are the first three things that you need to know about shame: We all have it. Shame is universal and one of the most primitive human emotions that we experience. The only people who don’t experience shame lack the capacity for empathy and human connection. We’re all afraid to talk about shame. The less we talk about shame, the more control it has over our lives. Shame is basically the fear of being unlovable—it’s the total opposite of owning our story and feeling worthy. In fact, the definition of shame that I developed from my research is: Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.1″

It’s not so much the act of authenticity that challenges the status quo—I think of it as the audacity of authenticity. Most of us have shame triggers around being perceived as self-indulgent or self-focused. We don’t want our authenticity to be perceived as selfish or narcissistic. When I first started mindfully practicing authenticity and worthiness, I felt like every day was a walk through a gauntlet of gremlins. Their voices can be loud and unrelenting.”

“’Who do you think you are to put your thoughts/art/ideas/ beliefs/writing out in the world?’”

“Perfectionism is self-destructive simply because there is no such thing as perfect. Perfection is an unattainable goal. Additionally, perfectionism is more about perception—we want to be perceived as perfect.

“Get Deliberate: A good friend of mine heard this wonderful intention-setting reminder during a Twelve Step meeting. I love it! It’s called the vowel check: AEIOUY. A = Have I been Abstinent today? (However you define that—I find it a little more challenging when it comes to things like food, work, and the computer.) E = Have I Exercised today? I = What have I done for myself today? O = What have I done for Others today? U = Am I holding on to Unexpressed emotions today? Y = Yeah! What is something good that’s happened today?”

“Without exception, every person I interviewed who described living a joyful life or who described themselves as joyful, actively practiced gratitude and attributed their joyfulness to their gratitude practice. Both joy and gratitude were described as spiritual practices that were bound to a belief in human interconnectedness and a power greater than us. People were quick to point out the differences between happiness and joy as the difference between a human emotion that’s connected to circumstances and a spiritual way of engaging with the world that’s connected to practicing gratitude.”

“When I’m really scared or unsure, I need something right away to calm my cravings for certainty. For me, the Serenity Prayer does the trick. God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen!

“The Hopi Indians have a saying, ‘To watch us dance is to hear our hearts speak.’ I know how much courage it takes to let people hear our hearts speak, but life is way too precious to spend it pretending like we’re super-cool and totally in control when we could be laughing, singing, and dancing.

“Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It’s about cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough. It’s going to bed at night thinking, Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.

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The Present

The Present by Michael Smith
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Divine love = attention + compassion.

This little e-book is supposed to be telling the ‘truth’, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It kept hammering on that what I was holding in my hands (or listening to an artificial voice narrating through my earbuds) was humanity’s quintessential distilled wisdom and what we would need to take our 600 million (sic) years of evolution to the next level. Only this way were we to leave the animal mind behind and become spiritual beings!

What I think I got from The Present:

-when we die we re-incarnate as the closest member of our bloodline.
-if we’ve been given the truth in our lifetime and we squander it by not paying attention, be go back to being cyanobacteria in the Marianna Trench eating sulfates from underwater geysers thousands of meters below the surface of the ocean and then we have to evolve all over again from the beginning.
-everything is balanced. If you’re rich, beautiful and lucky in this life, you’re going to be unattractive, poor and and born a cripple in the next. Why? Because… physics and the law of action and reaction! It only makes sense that whatever’s true for particles, celestial bodies and energy should hold for immaterial spirits that re-incarnate and defy every single law of physics as we know them today. Apart from quantum mechanics of course! 😉
-the Beatles were prophets and if you listen to their music with an open heart you can also learn the truth from there.
-heaven is just a techno-utopia.
-40,000 years ago, Homo Sapiens didn’t know how to light a fire. Wait, what?! This is so wrong, I don’t know where to start. As if this wasn’t a hot mess already!

OK, enough cherry-picking. For a book that tries to drive the point that it holds the ultimate truth, it sure mixes up its science, its rational thinking and its talking out of its behind. The writer couldn’t decide if he was going to be a prophet and just be a channeler to the divine or if he was just going to be looking at the facts. No, don’t you go all rational high and mighty on me and then in the next sentence start talking about re-incarnation as if it’s self-evident.

Sigh… it had some good points, some honestly well-put concepts, and the message that the present is all we have, as well as the first sentence I’ve quoted at the top of the review, is a spiritual takeaway as great as any. But I can’t take any book that in all honesty tells you that you should only read it and no others for the rest of your life seriously.

This is like Conversations with God gone wrong. Check it out if you want to see some good material squandered by pompous and misguided writing.

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What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been running for several years now. The frequency of my outings has gone up and down, but I’ve tried to never let go of this habit, never abandon this one activity that saves me from couch potato-, or rather, desk tomato-dom.

Nevertheless, despite the running theme (pun unintended), it is not what kept me with this autobiographical work; Mr. Murakami inspired me with his diligence, with his single-minded dedication and his authentic and honest story. As usual, it’s his way of looking at the world, his zen-like point of view and his way of putting it into words – humble, romantic and unpretentious – more so than the content of his writing that tuck me along the most. The man could be writing about his days cleaning glasses and wiping bars in his 20s and I would still find it interesting and inspiring, I’m sure. He’s a true stoic.

The main take-away I got from this one has obviously less to do with running, and more to do with writing, which according to Murakami-san requires a similar skill set. “Talent, focus and endurance” is what, according to him, makes a novelist. As someone who wishes to write more in my life, I feel as if this man and his suchness has a lot to teach me about trusting myself, my goals and who I really am and allowing it to shine through…

“As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve gradually come to the realization that this kind of pain and hurt [of being criticised] is a necessary part of life. If you think about it, it’s precisely because people are different from others that they’re able to create their own independent selves.

Take me as an example. It’s precisely my ability to detect some aspects of a scene that other people can’t, to feel differently than others and choose words that differ from theirs, that’s allowed me to write stories that are mine alone. And because of this we have the extraordinary situation in which quite a few people read what I’ve written.

So the fact that I’m me and no one else is one of my greatest assets. Emotional hurt is the price a person has to pay in order to be independent…”

What is this emotional hurt? Is it worth the price?

“I don’t think most people would like my personality. There might be a few–very few, I would imagine–who are impressed by it, but only rarely would anyone like it. Who in the world could possibly have warm feelings, or something like them, for a person who doesn’t compromise, who instead, whenever a problem crops up, locks himself away alone in a closet?

But is it ever possible for a professional writer to be liked by people? I have no idea. Maybe somewhere in the world it is. It’s hard to generalize. For me, at least, I’ve written novels over many years, I just can’t picture someone liking me on a personal level. Being disliked by someone, hated and despised, somehow seems more natural. Not that I’m relieved when that happens. Even I’m not happy when someone dislikes me.”

And here’s the solution – or one solution:

“Even when I ran my bar I followed the same policy. A lot of customers came to the bar. If one in ten enjoyed the place and said he’d come again, that was enough. If one out of ten was a repeat customer, then the business would survive. To put it another way, it didn’t matter if nine out of ten didn’t like my bar.

This realization lifted a weight off my shoulders. Still, I had to make sure that the one person who did like the place really liked it. In order to make sure he did, I had to make my philosophy and stance clear-cut, and patiently maintain that stance no matter what. This is what I learned through running a business.”

Thank you Mr. Murakami for motivating me to take the next step.

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Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The book’s conclusion:

‘The world is changing faster than ever before, and we are flooded by impossible amounts of data, of ideas, of promises and of threats. Humans relinquish authority to the free market, to crowd wisdom and to external algorithms partly because they cannot deal with the deluge of data. In the past, censorship worked by blocking the flow of information. In the twenty-first century, censorship works by flooding people with irrelevant information. People just don’t know what to pay attention to, and they often spend their time investigating and debating side issues. In ancient times having power meant having access to data. Today having power means knowing what to ignore. So considering everything that is happening in our chaotic world, what should we focus on?

If we think in terms of months, we had probably better focus on immediate problems such as the turmoil in the Middle East, the refugee crisis in Europe and the slowing of the Chinese economy. If we think in terms of decades, then global warming, growing inequality and the disruption of the job market loom large. Yet if we take the really grand view of life, all other problems and developments are overshadowed by three interlinked processes:

1. Science is converging in an all-encompassing dogma, which says that organisms are algorithms and life is data processing.
2. Intelligence is decoupling from consciousness.
3. Non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms may soon know us better than we know ourselves.

These three processes raise three key questions, which I hope will stick in your mind long after you have finished this book:

1. Are organisms really just algorithms, and is life really just data processing?
2. What’s more valuable – intelligence or consciousness?
3. What will happen to society, politics and daily life when non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?

I read the book Homo Deus is the sequel of, Sapiens, in audiobook form last year. It kept me eloquent, rational company in my first months in the Greek Army, an organisation that likes to think it possesses those qualities in abundance, but is frightfully misguided. I liked Sapiens a lot, but I think my inability to take notes diminished my enjoyment and what I truly got from it in the end. So I decided to properly read the sequel by holding it in my hands and taking notes as I went through it.

Even though I like underlining my books, I have to admit that I rarely go back to actually reading the parts that stood out for me. However, that is precisely what I did now, just before writing this review. I thought it would help me write a more accurate representation of how I feel about it, but the only feeling I’m noticing at the moment is my powerlessness to convey the sheer sense of awe Mr. Harari has impressed on me. Hm, perhaps that description is pretty accurate in the end!

Mr. Harari has brought together consciousness science, religion, informatics, ethics and more, to write a revealing, interconnected history of all these fields and paint a convincing picture of what could be the true challenges humanity will face in the 21st century. All the while, his writing is incredibly lucid, easy to understand and follow, and extremely quotable.

I was actually tempted, as I have done for some of my other reviews in the past, to fill this one with whole passages on amazing, perspective-shifting facts about the world today and leave it that, but it was just too difficult to choose and make it seem as coherent as Mr. Harari has woven his book together to be.

This is obviously a very intelligent man, but what I found most interesting about his writing is that, despite his extremely rational way of thinking, he wasn’t afraid to write about spirituality, consciousness and religion.

Even if I don’t agree with some of his conclusions or fundamentals, such as the inexistence of an immaterial component of consciousness, or a soul, I can appreciate how he writes rationally about the topic within the given materialist paradigm without ever turning into a dogmatic academic – he even admits, on the book’s acknowledgements, that he would have never had the clarity of mind to write this book without having practiced Vipassana meditation for more than fifteen years.

Even if I also disagree with him about our chances of having the raw resources or the social cohesion in the future to meaningfully reach for the revolutions that will give us human godhood, I can only say that this is an open-minded, clear-headed, spiritual intellectual, and Gods know we need more of his type. Also, he raises some of the strongest points against animal cruelty I have yet to see, which counts for a whole lot as far as I’m concerned.

This is a book for the reader who’s thirsty for meaning and ready for contemporary intelligent insights into our chaotic world; insights that convincingly connect history with the present to create predictions and guidelines for life in the 21st century.

Reading this right after The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight just feels so right.

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The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight: The Fate of the World and What We Can Do Before It's Too LateThe Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight: The Fate of the World and What We Can Do Before It’s Too Late by Thom Hartmann
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I found out about this book through Conversation with God 3 which I “read” in audiobook form. It was recommended as a really important book to read by the words of God him/herself through the writer Neale Donald Walsch (I’m fully aware of how corny this sounds but I just don’t care because Conversation with God is just so amazingly good) and just by hearing the utterance of the title I knew it would be something special.

Then, one year later, I found out my father’s wife actually had it. It was sitting half-read in her bookcase in Aegina for more than a decade. I promptly borrowed it from her, complete with underlined passages with “!!” jotted down on the sides.

This book basically says that everything around us, especially life forms and organic matter, is literally sunlight – energy that comes to Earth from the our precious sun and is stored in varying densities in the form of plants, animals and yes, humans: we’re made out of sunlight (link to an excerpt from the book that discusses this part in beautiful detail). So what is ancient sunlight? Condensed, conserved sunlight in finite amounts that had been trapped in the ground for millions of years: oil and fossil fuels.

The last hours of ancient sunlight is our time. It’s the period in humanity’s lifecycle when we realize as a species that the whole foundation of our great modern civilization is based on a limited resource; that everything we’re so proud of can be attributed to a very sudden rise in available energy, directly comparable to the “extra food” that leads to a population boom of bacteria in a petri dish or in yesterday’s pasta, or of cats in an environment were humans deposit up to 50% of our food production in specially designed vessels.

This is basically what it boils down to:

Ancient sunlight and other sources of cheap energy have fueled our expansion. Soon we’re going to run out, and our population will dwindle to a number which won’t need extra food, or ancient sunlight, in order to be sustainable. But of course there’s a long, painful way to go until that day comes, and no-one can guarantee that a sustainable population of humans will actually exceed zero.

This book, then, is split into three parts:

1. The part where it tells the story of exactly how deep in the shit we are.

2. The part where it makes the distinction between our Younger Culture, which has existed ever since civilization created scarcity and vice versa, and Older Cultures, whose existence was/is based on sustainability and “making decisions with the well-being of up to seven future generations in mind”.

3. The part where he goes over what’s actually possible to do “before it’s too late” if we want to change things. Spoiler alert: it’s not solar power, it’s not a revolution, and it’s not colonizing Mars.

The first part is the one with the “!!” marked by Vasso on the sides of the pages. It was shocking, worrying and depressing, but it was incredibly concise – presented in a way that made me feel hopeful just by the fact that there was someone out there who had written about these things so clearly. So lovingly. It felt like warm sunlight shining over me. It also felt like I was standing waist-deep in industrial waste, but at least it was a clear, beautiful day…

The second part, which went on anthropological and historical forays, was also amazingly done. Sometimes it did feel as if it was romanticizing the “noble savage” concept a bit too much, grouping together whole bunches of tribes and peoples like it did, but the premise actually made sense, so perhaps I was seeing a “noble savage” caricature just because I was expecting to see one. Older Cultures were just masters of sustainability and had been around for much, much longer than the Younger Cultures that destroyed them – it’s just a matter of fact.

Some may be quick to point out that that is how evolution and “Darwinism” works and that our greedy, unsustainable Younger Culture has actually “won” by annihilating all that was weaker than itself… but, pray tell, do cancer cells or tumors “win” at the game of evolution by spreading to a different organ of their host’s body?

The third part, where Mr. Hartmann went on “what we can do before it’s too late”… This book’s first edition was first published in 1997. Perhaps there was still some hope left back then that the culture could change before the point of “too late” had been crossed.

Alas, one look around you is enough to see that, whatever the point of no return used to be, we’re way past it now. True, the point of no return has this nasty habit of also changing like a moving goalpost, and “too late” (for what, I wonder?) tends to always be around one decade into the future. Still, it would be far from unreasonable to think that perhaps it never was anything but “too late” – in fact, the only useful question I can think of regarding this topic is what we do with the knowledge that it’s too late. Right now, the most popular way of handling it is depression and indifference, but once we stop grieving over the loss of our feelings of entitlement to perpetual abundance, or that growth is something self-evident and unquestionably good (a painstakingly constructed illusion at any rate), then we might start moving in interesting and creative directions.

That said, if we’re going to look into survival, we better return to the Old Culture way of looking at sustainability: making sure that not only we or our children have everything we need to live a happy, fulfilled life, but also that our descendants 7 generations down the line will have the “luxury” of choosing a fulfilled life over a terrible one. What that would constitute is a difficult discussion, but that’s precisely the point: it shouldn’t be.

My only qualm with the third part is that it goes into American politics and tries to hammer across the point of just how bad the Republicans are. It seemed to presuppose that the reader was American and I found that this detracted from the still-fresh quality of the rest of the book.

That is probably though my only qualm with The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight. Mr. Hartmann displayed through this work his unique and enviable talent of writing clearly while being scientific and citing sources, but without being restrained by science by refusing to talk about things outside of it. He used this talent to write an amazing book that just might help you change your life, and hopefully, by extension, the future of humanity. God from CwG was right: it really is a very important book.

The afterword by Neale Donald Walsch starts with this phrase:
You have just read one of the most important books you will ever read in your life. And because you have gotten this far in this extraordinary book, you are one of the Crucial Ones. You are one of the people who will play a key role in co-creating our future on this planet. You may not have thought of yourself in that role, but if you’ve gotten this far in this book, you’ve been given it.

Yes. You should read it.

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Earth AbidesEarth Abides by George R. Stewart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Here’s a quote from close to the start of the book – I find it so powerful, so detached yet timeless and all-encompassing, it could be the beginning of the introduction to the post-apocalypse manifesto. I’ll split it in three parts, scattered throughout this review.

*Stretched out between its rivers, the city will remain for a long time. Stone and brick, concrete and asphalt, glass–time deals gently with them. Water leaves black stains, moss shows green, a little grass springs up in the cracks. (That is only the surface.) …*

I discovered Earth Abides on what I think was this Reddit thread on great post-apocalyptic “rebuild the world” books – yes, I pick up book recommendations on Reddit. Only sometimes, okay?

Written in 1949, it was conceived during a time when people weren’t exactly discovering the threat of human extinction for the first time, but when the distinct possibility that it could come to pass was more prominent in the popular imagination than it ever had been before (that we know of). As such, I consider it one of the granddaddies of today’s post-apocalyptic fiction – a genre whose popularity has become reflective of our times in the same way puritan, sexless Victorian ethics once paved the way to timeless romantic novels.

* …A window-pane grows loose, vibrates, breaks in a gusty wind. Lightning strikes, loosening the tiles of a cornice. A wall leans, as footings yield in the long rains; after years have passed, it falls, scattering bricks across the street. Frost works, and in the March thaw some flakes of stone scale off. (It is all very slow.)…*

In Earth Abides, a rapidly-spreading deadly disease wipes out almost everyone on Earth (everyone in the continental US, at least). Our protagonist Ish survives only by what could be understood as coincidence. In the aftermath of the catastrophe, he discovers in fine practical as well as poetic detail all that was left behind, living off the utilities and commodities that would still keep running and existing for a short time without any input from man. Let’s say it involves a different sort of road trip across America.

He quickly discovers he is not alone, and what happens next is telling of where humankind came from and where it might soon be heading towards.

I found Earth Abides entertaining, thought-provoking and very poetic, in the sense that many parts of the book dealing with everyday things were looked at from a completely different perspective – all just by using unusual or, at least for us, outmoded manners of speech. I found that unexpectedly fulfilling. It seemed to capture perfectly the outlandishness as well as the perfect ordinariness of the situations and scenarios at hand.

On top of that, what surprised me was how fresh it all felt, how much of it could still have been written today, barring some very sexist, racist or discriminatory stripes that could be attributed to the writer just being a man of his era. If I were to be perfectly honest with you, even they were more fascinating to look at than offensive, like an old photograph depicting socially unacceptable things that were commonplace not so long ago. It’s interesting how many things seem to have changed, but maybe haven’t – including, of course, our interest in stories telling of our inevitable demise and virtual extinction. Virtual is the key word here, for: Men go and come, but Earth abides.

It’s a solemn and soothing feeling.

I’m giving it 4 stars because I thought it was a bit too long. It felt epic, sure, just a bit drawn out. I recommend it to all who like thinking about what the world would look like without us and the thought fills them with calm instead of terror.

* … The rain washes quietly through the gutters into the storm-drains, and if the storm-drains clog, the rain runs still through the gutters into the rivers. The snow piles deep in the long canyons, drifting at the street corners; no one disturbs it. In the spring, it too runs off through the gutters. As in the desert, a year is like an hour in the night; a century, like a day.*

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The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

We yearned for the future. How did we learn it, that talent for insatiability?

Written in 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale was very clearly influenced by George Orwell and his let’s say less than optimistic view of things to come: the cracks of the system being more treacherous than the wall itself; the pervading ritualistic masochism which looks normal, even necessary, within its own context; the simplest, most basic joys of life succumbing to humanity and civilization, turning into acts of rebellion – and treated as such.

The question that keeps popping in my head is: why? How can the forces of evil (because I lack any other words that aren’t as strong), forces that go against everything that’s right and good, prevail? Because the forces of good are really crap at winning. Maybe it’s because winning doesn’t concern them per se. Or maybe it’s because they never really get to fight; the moment they use force, which of the two sides actually wins the fight becomes irrelevant – the victor gets to write the story of what happened, the good and bad roles are reversed, and that’s the end of that story – the good guys have won. It might not even be this way, but it certainly feels this way.

Yet Atwood’s dystopia is a notch less extreme than 1984, which only made it even more chilling. Few in Gillead are brainwashed to the extreme they enjoy the new ultra-religious status quo, but that only makes it that even just a few (literal or figurative) breadcrumbs casually thrown to them is enough to keep the parts of the system.

Sex, which is the whole point of the book, still exists of course, it’s the whole point of the book and Atwood’s feminist (I’d say “pro-life” but that term has been hijacked) look on it was quite refreshing to read. However, in The Handmaid’s Tale, the purpose and function of sex has been twisted to such an extent, the new concept has become a pillar of that society’s culture, making it much more difficult to replace than if sex was simply forbidden.

Finally, in the book, the system itself has not been in place for time immemorial, or rather, it’s not placed outside of time like 1984’s Big Brother is: the protagonist had a life she can remember before “the revolution”. Yet, the mere fact on its own is neither consolation, nor a springboard for action. It scarcely even acts as a safe haven for her or a source of encouragement. It’s just backstory, as seemingly unreal as anything else in her world. It makes us ask ourselves: were we in her place, wouldn’t our story, our ideals, our upbringing, our relationships, our memories of what came before, be enough to kick us into action? Perhaps not, and that, frankly, is the scariest part.

I’ll finish off by sharing something I recall Atwood saying about this book connected to current events – I think it was in In Other Worlds, which I curiously read before really getting to know and adore Atwood’s real style. When she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, she didn’t really believe any of this was possible or maybe remotely close to happening, that humanity could mutilate itself on its own accord so terribly and in such haste. But now (surprise!) she thinks we’re closer to that happening than ever. Reading the passage in the book about the intrusion in Washington and abolition of the US Constitution reminded me of that.

But hey! You know what’s fun and exciting about the 21st century and a sign we’ve progressed as societies? All this could happen without any use of force or violence at all! The good guys will have won. Thank God.

Is that how we lived then? But we lived as usual. Everyone does, most of the time. Whatever is going on is as usual. Even this is as usual, now.

We lived as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.

Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it. There were stories in the newspapers, of course, corpses in ditches or the woods, bludgeoned to death or mutilated, interfered with as they used to say, but they were about other women, and the men who did such things were other men. None of them were the men we knew. The newspapers stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives.

We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom.

We lived in the gaps between the stories.

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The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good LifeThe Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life by Mark Manson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mark Manson hit the life advice sweet spot with the deceptively-titled Models and came back for more with The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. What can I say? I loved it.

It’s not that this book is revolutionary or never-before-seen material. Far from it: a lot of it has he seemingly copied from his blog (not that that’s a bad thing – I enjoy his writing a lot). Listening to it as a whole though (yeah another audiobook) I got the feeling the whole was more than the sum of its parts.

I’ve been stressing over this review and avoiding it cause I don’t remember many details from the book itself – I didn’t take any notes while listening to it (I never do) and it’s already been 3 weeks since I finished it. What should I write here for you to read my review and make it worthwhile?

But hang on a second. Why am I stressing over this?

Fuck off, you part of me that makes me think that writing something here needs to be amazing and super-expressive and indicative of my true thoughts, so much so that it can often induce low-level anxiety on me. What a load of crap.

Fuck off, you part of that makes me need to play passive-aggressive smart and makes me avoid saying things as I really see them (especially if my viewpoint is banal) because I’m scared of looking inadequate/uninteresting.

You know something? This could be nothing more than an average review. Perhaps it’s even worse than average. Maybe I could write a better one if I really tried, but it doesn’t matter now because I don’t really want to try harder. Can’t be fucked. That’s fine, it’s okay. I embrace it.

In all honesty, what’s this “average” business? What does it even mean? Since when is this a competition? What am I after? Who cares if my little review is good or not?

I’m done with this. There are more important things to give fucks about than this review, and I’m off to find them – life is short, don’t forget!

There. That felt good!

Get inspired, check Mr. Manson out. Thanks for reading!

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Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop TalkingQuiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Every second person you know is an introvert in some way, shape or form. The reason you might not have noticed is that there’s a certain social stigma and many misconceptions attached to introversion which are forcing many introverts to feign extraversion, maybe even getting half-good at it in the process.

Introversion has an unjustifiably bad rep – argues Quiet author Susan Cain – considering introverts are in general terms more knowledgeable and academically accomplished, thorough, sensitive and other positive personality traits often overlooked in favor of the more reserved, closed and self-conscious aspects of introversion.

At the end of the day, introverts need to believe in ourselves and own our special powers, not feel ashamed for being different – not isolate ourselves either, but recognise that the way we operate is fundamentally, in part biologically, different, and that social pressures and expectations might not always be coming from a right place. Introverts rarely agree with the dominant value system anyway, so we shouldn’t be stressing too much over it.

I get all that, and I agree. Susan Cain made a brilliant point with this book which, apart from a feel-good guide for struggling introverts everywhere, could act as a great introduction to one of the cornerstone dichotomies of personality typology. If you’re interested in the topic, I would recommend having a look at this summary of the book’s concepts — check out “Pitfalls of the Extrovert Ideal” in particular.

My main qualm with the book, although not directly linked to its content and argument, is that I feel it encourages a kind of tribalism and entitlement within the ranks of introverts, especially the kind which is visible on the web. I see many people identifying quite strongly with being introverts: acting proud of how nobody gets them, showing in little -or big- ways how special they and their own little world are, not making any efforts to communicate whatsoever, etc.

Don’t get me wrong, I myself am guilty of indulging in introvert exceptionalism from time to time. The difference is that many introverts out there identify so strongly with their introversion and make it such a big part of their persona they will outright reject invitations to social gatherings, shun new experiences that could help them grow in some way and feel justified in being avoidant. Some may even end up with what would be superiority complexes, if the notion of extrovert superiority wasn’t ingrained in us so deeply it will never truly be overwritten by a genuine “introvert supremacy” ideal- probably the point of the book in the first place, to be honest.

Susan Cain says that “introverts today are where women were in the 1950s and early 1960s—a population discounted for something that went to the core of who they were” and thinks society is getting more and more ready for a change of perception about them, just as it did with women. Looked at this way, I suppose the outspoken introverts (no pun intended) are the natural consequence of a “a population on the verge of coming into its own” – as have been the feminists identifying with being a woman more strongly than any other part of themselves. From that perspective, it’s something healthy and empowering.

What I’m concerned about is how social exclusion and isolation is becoming the new normal – just look at Japan and how its young people rejecting society and the real world around them are making a dent in the country’s demographics. I wouldn’t be surprised if in a couple of decades from now it will be the extraverts who will be forced to pseudo-introversion if they want to have any hopes of making it… “socially”.

Is the whole world going to become so self-absorbed and proud of it, we’ll forget how introversion is actually only a part of a dichotomy? Only time will tell.

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