Category Archives: Uncategorized

REVIEW: ON HAPPINESS

Mark Manson on HappinessMark Manson on Happiness by Mark Manson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Get it here. If you don’t want to give out your e-mail address, wearing a peg leg, an eye patch and dying of vitamin C deficiency might work for you.

We’re very, very bad at judging what makes us happy.
No matter what happens, everything’s going to be okay.
Be creative. Be grateful.

Sounds clichay, but it’s advice I’d love to be able to keep in mind always. and to his credit, Mark Manson made it sound profound. It is, actually, and it takes skill to turn a well-meaning but worn saying into something usable. The guy writes well and he seems to have a knack for the self-development genre, as his best articles comfortably show.

How long was that little .pdf pf the book? 30 pages? Something like that. Read it. I hope it’s as good for you as it was for me. Even half that would be great. Won’t take you more than an hour.

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REVIEW: HOW TO LIVE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional UniverseHow to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I read this on my phone.

Hey look! A novel about a guy in a corporate time machine killing/getting killed by his future/past self and getting all paradoxanalytical about it! That’s a word I just invented, by the way. It describes the way a lot of science fiction novels try to express and explain paradox just by throwing more words at you. It sort of works like writing a recipe for a cake just by using the chemical compounds and formulas involved, complete with instructions using moles for ingredient mass and the Kelvin scale for when it’s time for the cake to hit the oven.

Let’s get back to the book. It was just a ceaseless bout of self-reference. The premise was interesting and the writing had some inspired moments idea-wise, at least when it didn’t come out as narrated by a completely socially incompetent nerd – which the protagonist actually was, by the way… huh, maybe he was a well-written character after all and not just mirroring Mr. Yu himself… It didn’t take long, however, for all the meta to become too much for me. That and the oddly-used jargon too rigid to peer through, or the “science fiction” part of the story too often spoken about, described, but not represented in an engaging or memorable way. “Oh, this machine has permitted the existence, trademarking and patenting of entire universes”. Sounds great, it does, but where did you go with that Mr. YU?

It all felt like reading the diary of a Companion Cube (yes, I’m old) that suddenly through some bug in Portal’s code (the 2007 game we all loved) turned into a sentient hypercube and got existential agony. I respect the cube’s feelings but, yeah, I have no idea what being a hypercube would or should feel like. The protagonist was human, but his feelings came off as little more than the hearts the Companion Cubes have painted on them in Portal. Programmed into him, just like they were programmed into them, and just like they were programmed into the couple of sentient-like operating systems he had in his TARDIS – I mean time machine – I mean TARDIS; it even says in the book the time machine had the shape and size of a phone booth. Come on.

While in theory I should have enjoyed reading page after page of convoluted twisting thoughts on the paradoxical nature of time as part of the physical world and then some, I just couldn’t get into it.

Yes, left-brained. This book was left-brained through and through.

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REVIEW: TAO TE CHING: A BOOK ABOUT THE WAY AND THE POWER OF THE WAY

Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the WayTao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way by Lao Tzu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an edition of the Tao Te Ching adapted by Ursula K. Le Guin.

I was tempted to end my review here and now so as not to break the perfection of the above sentence. It’s an edition made with affection, seriousness and awareness of the changing permanence that has led us people of the 21st century looking for guidance and wisdom in books set in the distant future (Le Guin’s novels) and in the distant past (this book).

Tao Te Ching adapted by Ursula K. Le Guin. It’s as good as it sounds and then some: in my mind the definitive version of this widely-translated ancient book of wisdom for the contemporary person.

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REVIEW: ΑΠΟ ΤΗΝ ΑΥΤΟΕΚΤΙΜΗΣΗ ΣΤΟΝ ΕΓΩΙΣΜΟ

Από την αυτοεκτίμηση στον εγωισμόΑπό την αυτοεκτίμηση στον εγωισμό by Jorge Bucay
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Πώς να διατηρήσουμε την αυτοεκτίμηση μας: ένα σύντομο μνημονικό απ’ τον κύριο Μπουκάι:

Verdadero (πραγματικός/η)
Autónomo (αυτόνομος/η)
Limitante (οριοθέτης/ρια)
Orgulloso (περήφανος/η–με την καλή έννοια!)
Receptivo (δεκτικός/η)

Όλα τα αρχικά μαζί VALOR: αξία.

Βιβλιαράκι δανεισμένο από τον Γιάννη τον Καταζά το συμφάνταρο στη Σαμοθράκη, τον ωραίο τύπο που πήραμε μαζί άδεια για camping εκεί. Ο ίδιος ήταν πολύ ενθουσιασμένος με το βιβλίο αυτό· εμένα από την αρχή μου κίνησε την περιέργεια το εξώφυλλο που είχε memes για να δείξει τις διαφορετικές συναισθηματικές και ψυχολογικές κατάστασεις και βρήκα ότι ήταν πετυχημένο.

Το βιβλίο ήταν βασικά για τις ενοχές, τον φόβο και τα όρια.

Δεν είχα ξαναδιαβάσει Μπουκάι και βρήκα ότι ο αφηγηματικός τρόπους που χρησιμοποίησε εδώ, που δεν ήταν άλλος από ένα πάρε-δώσε, μια συνεχής ερωταπάντηση με μια φανταστική ή και πραγματική—δεν ξέρω—γυναίκα με την οποία υποτίθεται είχε πιάσει κάποτε την κουβέντα, δεν με ικανοποίησε. Η γυναίκα έκανε διαφορετικές ερωτήσεις από αυτές που είχα εγώ στο μυαλό μου και έτσι συνεχώς είχα την εντύπωση ότι η συζήτηση έβγαινε εκτός πορείας. Όταν κατάφερνα να συντονιστώ πάντως με τον οιρμό είχε ενδιαφέρον και βρήκα ότι οι συμβουλές του, αν και τώρα μήνες μετά δεν θυμάμαι και πολλά (εκτός από το αρκτικόλεξο που έγραψα στην αρχή) εκείνη τη στιγμή που φαινόντουσαν σωστές.

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REVIEW: Η ΤΕΧΝΗ ΤΟΥ ΝΑ ΕΙΣΑΙ ΕΥΤΥΧΙΣΜΕΝΟΣ

Η τέχνη του να είσαι ευτυχισμένοςΗ τέχνη του να είσαι ευτυχισμένος by Arthur Schopenhauer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Δανεισμένο απ’ τον φίλτατο Τοπούζογλου.

Βασικά πήρε του Σόπενχαουερ ολόκληρη τη ζωή για να καταλήξει στο ότι η ευδαιμονία, η απόλαυση σε καθαρά επίπεδο αισθήσεων είναι απατηλή—μόλις κανείς φτάσει εκεί, γρήγορα επιστρέφει στο baseline επίπεδο του «τι κάνεις; καλά μωρέ»—το οποίο σαν συμπέρασμα είναι πολύ κοντά σε αυτό που είχα δει σε ένα Ted Talk σχετικά με την «επιστήμη της ευτυχίας» (αλλά και στο βιβλίο του Mark Manson που διάβασα πρόσφατα με τίτλο On Happiness) το οποίο και αυτό έλεγε ότι βασικά είμαστε πολύ κακοί στο να προβλέπουμε τι θα μας κάνει ευτυχισμένους και ό,τι καλό ή κακό μας συμβεί που αλλάζει τη διάθεση μας δεν είναι αρκετό για να μας κρατήσει για πολύ εκεί.

Εκτός αυτού όμως, ο κος Μουντρούχος στο βιβλιαράκι του αυτό επέμεινε αρκετές φορές στο ότι είναι πολύ πιο σημαντική για την εξασφάλιση της ευδαιμονίας σε βάθος χρόνου η αποφυγή καταστάσεων που μπορούν να απειλήσουν αυτό το baseline και να μας στενοχωρήσουν/βασανίσουν/καταθλίψουν. Για αυτόν—και συμφωνώ απολύτως—το πιο σημαντικό αγαθό το οποίο συνεισφέρει στην αποφυγή της κατάθλιψης και της στενοχώριας είναι η καλή υγεία, αφού μόνο με αυτή μπορούμε να απολαύσουμε την ευδαιμονία· χωρίς αυτή όλα φαίνονται στενάχωρα και η ζωή δεν μπορεί να είναι απολαυστική.

Οι παρατηρήσεις του κυμαίνονταν λίγο-πολύ σε αυτό το επίπεδο της πλάγιας απαξίωσης της ευτυχίας/ευδαιμονίας ως επιθυμητής κατάστασης και στην εστίαση στην αποφυγή της δυσκολίας και δυστυχίας ως πιο σημαντικής από την ίδια την ευτυχία.

Σημείωση: η μικρή αυτή έκδοση ήταν πάρα πολύ όμορφη και σωστή, με πλήρη μετάφραση όλων των σημειώσεων και παραπομπών. Τα συγχαρητήρια μου για μια καλή δουλεία στον Πατάκη.

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REVIEW: THE FIRST FIFTEEN LIVES OF HARRY AUGUST

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry AugustThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Caught it in audiobook format.

I was expecting something in the vain of Replay, the book that, so they say, inspired the movie Groundhog Day. In Replay, the protagonist goes over the same ~25 years again and again and lives the period between the ’60s and the ’80s countless times. Here, it’s the period between Harry August’s birth in 1918 and his eventual death in the ’90s of the same illness every time (I forget what it is) that goes over and over and over.

Clearly, if you cannot see the point of time-loop stories such as these, the premise might sound boring. And in the case of Harry August it did get boring at some point. I thought character development was rather shallow for all the lives they had gone through; yes, they, because—minor spoilers ahead—Harry isn’t the only person to have the gift of apparent immortality in his world. There’s a whole club of them, in fact, but at no point during the story did I feel as if the lives and storylines of the other characters really matter. To top it all off, the bad guy’s motive was very hazy and his relationship with Harry could have been more meaningful and intricate. It was an opportunity lost, especially at a point closer to the end of the book when everything, or so I thought, pointed to Harry having actually fallen in love with the bad guy. Claire North didn’t go through with that, though.

I realise it must be very difficult to write characters that are immortal in the conventional sense while managing to weave a narrative that makes them neither amazingly powerful on the one hand— still somewhat relatable—nor too much like a mere mortal in their wishes, desires and motivations on the other. Harry August and many of the book’s other special characters seemed to fall closer into the latter part of the spectrum above—they had all this power, yet could do so relatively little with it to break their curse of what the Buddhist would call samsara, the pains of (repeating) earthly existence.

What’s more, the world itself didn’t change almost at all between Harry’s different incarnations (if you exclude the plot-related accelerating technological progress), which disappointed me a lot since half the reason I read books like this is for the alternate histories and timelines that emerge. Replay, again, did a better job.

All in all Harry August was an okay book. I found Claire North’s rationalistic, deterministic, somewhat strict writing style enjoyable and quite fitting, and props go to her for writing a book such as this in her ’20s. Regrettably though it fell short in most other respects. It didn’t use its own material sufficiently well, I found.

In other words, I would recommend Replay before The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August if you want to read about a character who goes through time loops.

PS: I went back and read my review for Replay. I seriously remember I had enjoyed it more. Well if you look at that!

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REVIEW: INVISIBLE CITIES

Invisible CitiesInvisible Cities by Italo Calvino
My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Zenobia, the city on stilts.  Vitoriana first told me about this book and sung its praise by describing the mental picture of this city in particular.

Invisible Cities is another of those difficult-to-review books I’ve been going through lately, although perhaps “trudging through” would be a more accurate description. Another one enjoyed in audiobook format, too, and another one I couldn’t concentrate on and retain as well as I would have liked. I have walking, running, wandering through wheat fields, traversing rocky capes and enjoying less-or-more-than-imaginary landscapes in Samothraki to blame. Or it could just be my complete inability to focus on three things at a time—in this case my ears, my visible eyes, and my inner eye. It does sound just a bit too much, now that I mention it.

What I can say is that Invisible Cities turned out to be a very interesting idea of a book—or is it a book of an idea? Marco Polo visits Mongol leader, tells him of his travels to incredible cities far and wide—most of them named curiously similar to ancient-sounding Greek and Latin female names, some rather common in Greece even today—and proceeds to have deep discussion with the Mongol leader (sounds a bit oxymoronic as I’m writing it) on the nature of language, experience, travelling, story-telling… the general business of empire-ruling and noblesse.

Those invisible cities of Marco’s all have some distinctive fantastical characteristic: one’s buildings have no walls, the pipelines defining the cityscape; Zenobia, pictured above, is built on stilts (like Venice, just without the water—Venice, as Marco Polo’s hometown, also plays a rather central role in this book, perhaps as the archetypical invisible city bar none, just as big a mystery to Kublai Khan as the rest of this book architectural and cultural urban menagerie); another still is a meeting place for merchants who trade stories instead of wares. One city is special in that all visitors remember it perfectly just by visiting it once, while another is its visitor’s memories of it. And so it goes.

Invisible Cities is highly structured yet defies usual narrative conventions; it is abstract, exploring imaginary realities through the kind of what-ifs I’ve most often found in science fiction, yet it does so by looking at human history and existence as a whole, rather than at just its future. Calvino’s language is descriptive while being poetic and profound, inviting the reader’s inner eye to see the Invisible. In all honesty, the vibe I got from this book is that of a geometry-twisting, meta philosophical indie video game in the vain of Fez or The Stanley Parable.

Would Italo Calvino have been a genius game developer had he been a millennial?

Invisible Cities is just one of these books that stands out just from how different and unique it is and how ahead of its time I perceive it today to have been. Or maybe it wasn’t ahead of its time at all: we’ve just internalised precious little about the intellectual zeitgeist of the ’60s and ’70s and the early days of radical postmodernism in literature. Could it be that instead of them being ahead of their time, it’s us who are lagging behind and have progressed less than we think we have, perceiving our intellectual maturity as greater than it actually is?

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REVIEW: SAMARKAND

SamarkandSamarkand by Amin Maalouf
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Went into this book completely blind apart from the name of the writer which sounded sort of familiar.

I quite enjoyed the book’s first part, set in medieval Central Asia. I don’t think I would have been able to follow the court intrigue the visionary poet Omar Khayyam found himself in as well as I did if I hadn’t played Crusader Kings II as an emir or sheikh a couple of times. You might take that as a suggestion to play Crusader Kings II before reading Samarkand, if you wish. Actually, no: you should definitely take it as a suggestion to play Crusader Kings II, even if you never ever end up reading Samarkand!

Apart from the plot involving the various characters, I thought the progression within the specific time frame worked really well, and I found the story of the Assassin fort and its spiritual liberation through Khayyam’s ambiguous poetry deeply satisfying. It’s historical fiction done well, with just enough details to help create vivid mental images and just the right amount of vagueness and mystery thrown in to make for a pleasant, flowing read.

That said, I still haven’t checked whether there’s any semblance of truth in Samarkand’s portrayal of the story of the book’s central piece, Khayyam’s magnum opus, the Rubaiyyat, nor have I really checked whether the poet Khayyam actually existed or not, or to what extent the story Samarkand tells is a story purely invented by Maalouf. I suppose there must be some truth in it, as the millennium-old poems themselves, wherever they appear in the book, were quite a pleasure to read, and believe me, you would never catch me saying that I’m big on traditional poetry. In any case, after this experience, I have zero interest in finding out the “true” story of Khayyam and his timeless tome, whatever it might be; some illusions are best left unbroken.

Sadly, the second part of the book which is set in 19th and 20th century Iran and tells the story of how the original manuscript ended up sinking with the most famous shipwreck of all time, the Titanic, I frankly did not care for at all, and that’s the biggest part of the reason why I’m not giving Samarkand at least an extra star.

Close-off trivia: famous musician Isaac Maalouf (whose music reminds me of Thanasis Papakonstantinou’s jazzier pieces) is the writer’s nephew.

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REVIEW: THE UFO PHENOMENON: FACT, FANTASY AND DISINFORMATION

The UFO Phenomenon: Fact, Fantasy and DisinformationThe UFO Phenomenon: Fact, Fantasy and Disinformation by John Michael Greer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Discovered this while eBrowsing for John Michael Greer eBooks.

It never ceases to amaze me how wide Mr. Greer’s education is. Not only can he write books like The Ecotechnic Future, The Long Descent and Not The Future We Ordered, all about what the future of humanity in the mid-collapse and post-collapse world will probably at least resemble: he can juggle between rationally arguing pro and against science, “conspiracy theory”, apparitions, aliens… He’s remarkably open-minded but somehow managing to avoid the negative traits the New Age or or other spiritual movements are associated with, e.g. naivety, or confusion of science and “pseudoscience”, a term I despise but which can be used to describe a lot of what New Agers say to portray their beliefs as valid and/or worthy of so-called mainstream scientific investigation.

To cut a long story short, Mr. Greer doesn’t believe that UFOs are actual spaceships piloted by alien intelligent life; his main argument is that most UFO sightings (Unidentified Flying Objects, remember?) have been the result of a shifting public consciousness: in over 70 years, people have learned to interpret mysterious lights in the sky in very specific ways, mostly because of science fiction and popular culture that goes back to the first half of the 20th century, in turn a particularly American cultural phenomenon that for geopolitical and social reasons went global.

“I want to believe” goes part and parcel with the clumsy moves involved in the change from a world dominated by religion to one were religion has been replaced by overwhelming materialism: when there’s nothing to believe in any more, something to believe in has to be invented.

In a recurring theme for Mr. Greer, he makes the point that it’s not just the “believers” that are looking for something to latch onto: scientism, materialism and positivism are the skeptics’ pacifier, and both believers and skeptics use flawed reasoning to win over the other side. The former states that UFOs exist but fails to imagine that there can be other answers to “what is that thing flying over there?” apart from “aliens, of course!”; the skeptics, on the other hand, fail because they restrict themselves to debunking the believers: either the believers are right or they are not, which somehow gets warped to “UFOs are alien or they do not exist”, which is a false dichotomy. They of course proceed to give all the reasons why any sighting must either be a hoax, or a hallucination, or “swamp gas”; Mr. Greer is right to ask “what if a UFO sighting is legit, that is to say, not a hallucination or a hoax, there really was a strange light in the sky, but it simply was not alien?”

Before listing his own attempts at explaining UFOs, he goes over how a hypothesis has to be disprovable in order to be scientific—in fact, that’s the very basis of the scientific method. He mostly leans towards American or Soviet secret/black budget projects, as of yet unexplained natural phenomena and aethereal/immaterial encounters, reports of which have been appearing in cultures all over the world for millennia.

For me the most interesting was the chapter on the black budget projects (think Area 51) and the secret aircraft: it would actually make sense that the US government through its denial and refusal of disclosure would fuel the fires of suspicion that what its Cold War secret military projects really were were alien spacecraft and in this way muddy the waters. Get your population as well as the Ruskies to believe that UFOs are a thing and you can fly any superweapon around and draw little suspicion as to what you’re actually doing.

Mr. Greer discusses these conspiracy theories with so much data and references to draw from and paints such an easy-to-follow picture, always within context, it’s just insulting to claim the material discussed is merely conspiracies at this point. Of course, each case is unique and some are still shrouded in true mystery, but that’s precisely what Mysterious Universe is for!

Great book, amazing and inspiring man. Couldn’t stop flicking my phone’s screen running PDF Reader.

Just one thing: for all that’s good in this world, do try and find a better cover artist!

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REVIEW: JOHN DIES AT THE END

John Dies at the EndJohn Dies at the End by David Wong
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In my mind, David Wong practically is
Cracked.com, and that’s where I first found out about his book John Dies at the End. Was it from the podcast? I don’t remember. Unsurprisingly, and not unwelcomingly (if that isn’t a word, it should be) it read just like his website: a pop and geek culture reference mishmash, teeming with intelligent factoids and random trivia sprinkled around the narrative, gruesome deaths, rich descriptions of unimaginable horrors and most importantly, lots of laughs: belly laughter, giggles, snorts, a mix of clever geek humour with an absurd twist—call me Douglas Adams— penis jokes… Yes, it is Cracked: The Funny Horror Novel.

I’m not giving it five stars because I’m sure I won’t remember too much of it down the road, i.e. it wasn’t memorable per se, or maybe it was too dense with quips and gags. Besides, there’s only so much exploding Lovecraftian monsters (“The ultimate evil in the universe that human minds cannot comprehend!”) you can fit in a few pages before it gets a bit too much, a bit too heavy, like drinking a bottleful of Soy Sauce, the drug of which a tiny consumption is the root cause of our heroes’ encounters with the other side.

Those characters weren’t that great, either, and that’s another reason why the book won’t stick with me. Then again I would never say that Douglas Adams’ strong point was his characters, but The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy wasn’t worse for it, or at least the weak characters added to its distinct style. Why shouldn’t it be the same with John Dies at the End then?

Since we’re back to John, I’ll admit I wouldn’t mind having a friend like him. Come to think of it, so does Wong, probably, and I’m not ruling out the possibility that he wrote this book just as a way to flesh out his cool imaginary friend/alter ego.

…scratch that, actually. I just checked, and John exists as much as Dave does, or at least the template for John in Wong’s head exists, but still. I mean, he himself, the writer, is the protagonist; do you think he’d be above doing something like that?

(some more Wikihopping later)

What?! Did you know that Cracked used to be a real magazine? Printed, sold and everything all the way back to the ’50s? I had no idea!

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