Author Archives: Mirjam van Olst

The Secret River – how a lack of understanding can lead to a disaster

The Secret River is loosely based on the story of Kate Grenville’s ancestor Solomon Wiseman, but it’s a work of fiction.
It’s incredibly well written. The book tells the story of William and Sal and it feels heavy from start to finish.
William and Sal meet as kids in London. William has a big family with a lot of brothers and sisters. There isn’t enough food for everyone and he’s often cold. Sal’s an only child and her family is a bit better off. William and Sal end up being some of Australia’s early settlers.

Usually, when reading I try to identify with one of the main characters. In this book, I’m on the outside looking in. None of the characters are very likable. I felt sorry for them, but at the same time, they don’t seem to handle their circumstances very well. It’s easy to say that while being sat on a comfortable sofa with tea and a biscuit of course.

In a way, the book shows the worst sides of humans. There is a total lack of empathy for other classes and people with a different background and culture. Those in a position of power treat the people that need their kindness and support the most with contempt. As they gain power people behave like their former oppressors, even though they are aware of how that behavior hurt them in the past. They take the full force of their self-loathing out on others.
Throughout the book decisions and actions lead to crashes in slow motion. With horrible consequences. While it’s easy to see it happening from a distance it does make me wonder if I would be able to see it happening if this was my life and these were my decisions and actions.

The Secret River is a strong reminder of how important it is to be open to other people and to try and understand what’s driving them. The characters in the book are unable to truly connect and reach each other and shame and entitlement is stopping them from really trying. It’s painful to watch.
The more different people seem to be at first glance, the harder it can be to connect. We should look for ways to communicate and not give up because it’s hard. We shouldn’t feel embarrassed because we are trying and not succeeding the first time.
This is a reminder for myself as much as anyone. Especially being prepared to try to connect, fail and try again. It’s ok to be uncomfortable and as today’s world is becoming smaller and more diverse it might be more important than ever.

The Secret River made me feel some of the painful history of Australia. It also made me realize while I learned about the facts of Dutch colonization, I have little awareness of the feelings and the emotions that must have been part of it. The violence, pain, and injustice.
I want to find a book like The Secret River that can teach me about the pain and injustice that are part of my own past.

I learned about The Secret River through this Youtube video.
If you are lucky enough to have an Australian iTunes account I think the Secret River mini-series will be well worth a watch.

The Secret River

Macbeth – A tale of ruthless ambition

Macbeth is the second Shakespeare play that I read. Before I tried, I didn’t think I’d be able to understand, let alone enjoy Shakespeare. Last year I visited Shakespeare’s Globe during a weekend trip to London. I found these cute little books from the Macmillan Collector’s Library that didn’t seem too daunting, so I decided to try one. Some of the words look a bit different, but often reading out loud will make it easier to understand.

The books in this series start with an extensive introduction, which explains the outline of the story. There’s also an overview of the names and roles of the most important characters in the play. With names like Macbeth, Macduff, and Malcolm this is helpful.

Macbeth is a story about how ambition and greed can make ordinary people become violent and ruthless. It’s called the Scottish play, as most of it is set in Scotland and focuses on the fight for the Scottish crown.
Macbeth is a general in King Duncan’s army. When three witches tell him that he will one day be king Macbeth’s ambition gets the best of him. He decides not to wait for “one day” and takes matters into his own hand. At first, Macbeth is hesitant about killing, but Lady Macbeth is ruthless and even asks the spirits to fill her with cruelty.
After having killed the roles are reversed. Macbeth develops a taste for it while his wife is being consumed by guilt and slowly loses her mind.

There is a lot of violence and death in the book, but the most heartbreaking part is when one of the noblemen has to deliver the news of the death of Macduff’s wife and children to him in England.
“Let not your ears despise my tongue for ever,
Which shall possess them with the heaviest sound
That ever yet they heard”

Needless to say that the writing is beautiful. It’s easy to be so focused on the story that you forget to pay attention to the beautiful sentences. There are several parts of the book that I read multiple times because I wanted to focus on the beauty of the prose rather than just read and understand the story. I know that I’m a couple of centuries late to this party, but I feel it’s worth noting as there might be more non-native English speakers who shun away from Shakespeare, thinking it will be too difficult to read. It’s doable and worth the effort!

By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes

How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World

I expected to just read this book by Francis Wheen as a reference (and therefore for it to be a bit boring). I thought it would be like a Ben Goldacre book, super interesting, but not necessarily written to entertain a large audience.
The beginning of the book is almost the opposite. I was immediately absorbed in it and couldn’t put it down. It’s much more Harari than Goldacre.
The book is not just interesting though. It’s also devastating and if the news today isn’t enough to make you feel like we’re screwed, this book might do it.

Wheen starts out by explaining The Enlightenment or the Age of Reason. This is a movement that started in the 17th century and was based on the idea that “rational inquiry leads to objective truth”.
After this upbeat start of the book, Wheen uses the remainder of the book to show how the humane values of the Enlightenment have been abandoned since 1979. 1979, incidentally, is the year in which I was born but I promise I had nothing to do with this betrayal of reason.

The late 20th-century movement that rejects objective facts, science, reason, and logic is called post-modernism. The movement was popular among progressives and made it a hip thing to talk nonsense and be as vague as possible. Few progressives who didn’t subscribe to this epistemic relativism dared to criticize it for fear of being ridiculed. This feeling was justified as it’s almost impossible to argue against bogus ideas if notions of truth and falsity no longer have any validity. It’s scary and depressing that this seems to be just as relevant today and that we still haven’t found a way to counter it.

What shocked me is the totality with which the world has seemed to reject reason. World leaders whom I have looked up to all my life (even if I might not have agreed with some or even most of their policies) turn out to have been enthusiastic believers in the power of mumbo-jumbo. If world leaders fall for the charms of charlatans, it’s not hard to imagine that entire communities can fall under their spell.
The personal beliefs of these world leaders have led to a lot of spending of public resources and money on all sorts of nonsense and to vulnerable people being exploited.

Man once surrendering his reason has no remaining guard against absurdities

I expected the book to mostly be about alternative medicine and spiritual beliefs, but a lot of it is focused on economic mumbo-jumbo. The book describes examples of how the west in general, and the US and the UK in particular, have used and are using their power to extend their own power and wealth and to slow down the growth of developing nations. Leaders like Thatcher and Reagan were among the first firm believers in the “trickle-down” effect”, meaning that when the rich get richer, they will share their wealth with the poor, without intervention through taxes and the government. I don’t think anyone still believes this today. The gap between the rich and poor is increasing at an ever greater speed and the further the poor fall behind, the harder it becomes to catch up.

Wheen also explains how the stock markets have gone crazy, especially over internet start-ups. A company nowadays can be worth many millions on the stock exchange without having made any profit and in some cases without realistically being expected to ever do so. As in this case value is literally “in the eye of the beholder” that value can also be diminished if people decide to start selling their shares. This means that people and companies trading stocks can gain a lot of money in a short amount of time, but they can lose it just as easily.

History shows that most people are unable to believe that a large group of people would follow someone who would use violence to oppress opponents, people of a certain race or of a different religion. Even when it happens right under our noses it’s very hard to believe it. Until it’s too late. We all think we wouldn’t fall for it and things will work out in the end. After all, we can clearly see that Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot were despots. Surely we are able to spot the next one coming along and prevent similar atrocities from happening again. Unfortunately, we are too gullible and because of that at risk of letting history repeat itself.

If you are willing to have your mind blown and if you think you are able to stomach reading all about how mumbo-jumbo conquered the world I’d urge you to read this book. It provides an eye-opening background story to recent history and hopefully if enough people become aware we can work together on a more reasonable future.

Creativity, Inc. – Constant change requires continuous improvement

In Creativity, Inc. Ed Catmull, the co-founder and until the end of 2018 president of Pixar Animation Studios shares his story and what he learned along the way. It’s a comfortable read and it’s not pedantic.

Despite the fact that I work for a consultancy company and systems integrator and not for an animation studio there are a lot of learnings in the book that feel very relevant. The three most important insights are:

  • Trust your teams
  • Change is constant and necessary
  • You will have blind spots, even if you are actively trying to avoid it

Trust your teams
The first insight is universal and doesn’t depend on the type of work you do. If you are a leader you should trust your teams and your people.

You are in charge. If a significant problem pops up the person who’s responsible, is ultimately you. Perhaps people weren’t comfortable sharing their concerns with you, or perhaps the processes you put in place don’t have the effect that you thought they would have. If a problem occurs, try to find the cause and therefore the first step to avoid similar problems in the future. To be able to think and act like this requires both self-confidence and a lack of ego. I find this idea very inspiring. When looking for improvements, start by trying to be better yourself.

You should of course also work with your teams to support all team members in their growth. People need to feel empowered to take decisions within their area of responsibility and to find solutions to resolve mistakes. Those solutions can include informing you, or asking for your help, but they don’t necessarily do.

Change is constant and necessary
The world is constantly changing. Hanging on to something that works today and not wanting to change it means you will eventually fall behind. You have to make decisions, even if you’re not sure. If it turns out it’s the wrong decision, admit that you were wrong and adjust the course. Finding ways to experiment can allow you to fail quick and cheap, thus saving time and money.

Because the world is constantly changing it’s also important to keep a learner mindset. It’s not just your organization that has to constantly adjust to the changing world around you. You have to adjust personally too, which means that you need to continue to update your knowledge and skills.

You will have blind spots, even if you are actively trying to avoid it
As a leader, you need to actively look for things that don’t work, in your company and in your leadership. Even if you are looking for potential challenges, you might still miss them. It’s almost impossible to look at your own company and leadership objectively.
Finding the issues in your organization is also made more difficult because issues will often be hidden from leaders. People do not talk to their leaders the way they talk to their peers. Even if you think you are very accessible and open, there will always be a barrier, simply because you are a leader. That shouldn’t stop you from trying though. If you are actively looking to find potential issues you will always find more than if you are not looking at all!

Please note
I enjoyed the book. I’m not a huge animation nerd, but the story was interesting and engaging. Some of the tips are quite specific for companies that have creativity at the core of their business, but many of them are applicable to working with people, regardless of the industry.

I should mention though that in the book Ed Catmull paints a very positive picture of John Lasseter. I had not heard about him, but shortly after I finished the book I found out that he has been pushed out of Pixar and Disney after reports of sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and groping female employees. As far as I’ve been able to find Catmull has not distanced himself publicly from John Lasseter, which I think is a mistake.

Finding all this after finishing the book has a significant impact on my feelings about the book. I will not read it again.

Good Omens – The end of the world as we know it

Good Omens was written by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that it’s smart and funny and unusual. The book had been on my reading wish list for a while, but I must admit that what got me to pick it up was the trailer of the series that will premiere at the end of May on Amazon Prime. It will come to the BBC 6 months after that.

Good Omens is about the end of the world. There’s a demon who likes to annoy people, but who also has a soft spot for them. And an angel who wants people to be kind, but who also likes to tease them. And who loves books. A lot.
They have both lived on earth since The Beginning and have grown rather fond of it. While their respective bosses are anxiously waiting for Armageddon (or the great war between heaven and hell and good and evil), they would like things to stay as they are. It’s hard to hide things from God and the Devil, which means that both get in trouble for trying to avoid Armageddon.

The book is a great work of fiction and you can read it as just that and enjoy it immensely.
There is another layer in it though, that mocks the concept of witch hunts and that exposes false dichotomies. In Good Omens, heaven and hell do equal amounts of damage by the absolutism of the ideas that they promote. Both are pushing towards the ultimate battle between good and evil, which they know will destroy the world, regardless of who will be victorious.

You might expect that a book based on the premise of the clever plotting of the end of the would feel dark, but it doesn’t. The story is always light and funny and it keeps moving fairly quickly. The characters feel very real, and everyone is subtly mocked in equal measures.

While the “about the authors” part in most books is informative at best, in this book it’s almost as entertaining as the rest of the book. Reading about the friendship between Terry and Neil is heartwarming. The way in which they both describe the process of how they wrote Good Omens together is a joy. It even makes writing fiction sound more like fun than just like a lot of hard work in solitude. Perhaps writing together will be the key for me to one day write fiction after all.
I will definitely read Good Omens again and I can’t wait for the series to come to the BBC.

Good Omens Series

Milkman – The power of gossip and social pressure

Milkman by Anna Burns is a gloomy story about rumors and gossip and the life and death consequences. The city where the story is set is divided by religion and politics. The city is not named, but the Anna Burns is born in Belfast in Northern Ireland.
The protagonist is “middle sister”. None of the characters are referenced by name. They are referenced based on their relationship with the protagonist, or the most consistent gossip about them in the community.

Men are getting killed because of something they did, something they didn’t do, something they might have done, or simply by mistake. Women are not seen as a thread. When all the “ordinary” women unite though, for instance, to get rid of a curfew, the men in power have no choice but to give in to their demands.
The impact of divide and distrust on everyday life is all-consuming to the protagonist. It feeds her self-doubt to the point where she completely isolates herself and forgets who she is, or at least who she used to be.

While thankfully I have not lived in an environment as described in the book, it’s easy to feel the emotions and the undercurrents described in the book. I guess in a way high school can be seen as a micro-version of such an environment. A place where who you are associated with, what group you belong to, where you live, what rumors are made up and how they take hold or disappear determines how (un)comfortable life is.

On top of that, you are falling in love, discovering your sexuality and getting your heart broken. But also you might break someone else’s heart, either on purpose or by accident.
It’s a place where most men seem less mature than most women, but are at the same time they are more powerful. This leads to violence, misunderstanding and in extreme cases to physical and mental abuse.
It’s a unique book, both in the way issues are addressed and in the style in which it’s written.

The emotions in the story are gripping and dark and the relationships are complex. It’s a very interesting and enjoyable read. If you feel like you can deal with the gloom I would recommend reading Milkman.

On writing – Writing advice from Stephen King

I’m not a Stephen King fan. I saw the film Misery with my classmates when I was a first grader in high school. I tried to hide my fear, but I was so scared I never got close to anything related to Stephen King again after that. Until this book. I figured that a book on writing should be safe enough.

The first 30% of the book is a biography. I don’t know why he decided to structure the book like that, but it works. It provides context for the writing advice and it made me trust him.

When he does talk about writing he explains that he doesn’t believe in plotting a story. This is interesting to me because it’s 100% opposite to the premise of Story Genius by Lisa Cron that I read a few months ago. Stephen’s explanation is that you can’t plot life. Plotting a story is likely to suck the energy out of it. It will become artificial.

The thing I like most about this is that I’m pretty sure I won’t have the patience to plot a story the way Lisa Cron proposes to do it. Stephen King compares a writer discovering a story while writing to an archeologist uncovering a fossil. While it’s still a lot of hard work it sounds like a lot more fun than plotting out every little detail before starting the actual writing.

For King, a story starts with a situation. There is no plot to start with and characters are flat. The characters come to life when the situation starts to develop. While he’s writing and excavating the story from where it’s buried the plot will become visible.

He completes his first draft without sharing any of it with anyone. This helps him to maintain the energy and speed. While writing a first draft, any outside input, whether praise or criticism, could impact the development of the story. Once the first draft is finished a small number of “important readers” get to read it, ask questions about it and give feedback. You should also read your first draft yourself. According to King, this is a very positive thing that you will likely be looking forward to at that point.
I’m not convinced I’d feel that way, but who knows, maybe I would.

I don’t know if I’ll ever write a novel, but if I don’t it won’t have anything to do with On Writing or Stephen King. I’ve gotten to like him through reading this book. I’m not sure if I like him enough to get me over my trauma and try reading one of his other books, but I’m considering it. It won’t be Misery though, that’s for sure!

When asked how do you write