The beginning of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is one of heartbreak and despair. It’s January 1939 and we’re on a train that’s on its way to Munich. We’re traveling with a 9-year-old girl, her mother, and her younger brother. All of them are cold, sick, and hungry. The mother is bringing her children to a foster family in Munich in the hope it will give them a chance at a better life. Unfortunately, the boy never makes it. He dies on the train.
The family is taken off the train at the next town by two guards. Two days later, the boy is buried there. It’s where the book thief steals her first book. It’s her most prized possession, even if she can’t read. Even if the book is a grave digger’s handbook. After the funeral, the girl and her mother continue on the journey to Munich, where Liesel Meminger meets Rosa and Hans Hubermann, her foster parents.
The narrator of the book is Death. I don’t mean that the narrator died. The narrator is Death itself. Death was never far away in those years, so it’s quite convenient to have him narrate the book. He was there anyway. His unusual point of view gives the book and the story something special.
After the painful start, you expect the entire book to be full of heartbreak. That’s not the case. A significant part of the book is about learning to read, being a family, making friends, accordions, helping those who need help and making more friends. I did read most of it with my teeth clenched, expecting the world to end any moment now. It meant that I had to pace myself through the book.
The book is beautifully written. But in the end, the world does end. Most of it anyway. The second to last chapter made me cry the most. It also felt awfully short. I wanted to read much more about it. I wish I had known Liesel and Hans Hubermann and Max. They were able to create joy and beauty under terrible circumstances. They defied the harshness of the world around them and continued to be kind, to love music and reading and life. And they shared these gifts with others where and when they could. They gave hope in a hopeless time.
The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander describes twelve practices. As so often I was fascinated and inspired by the first half of the book. While most of the practices weren’t completely new to me, the build-up to them and the angle from which they are introduced made me feel excited about trying them.
I don’t think the practices in the second half of the book are less valuable. Maybe I was too impatient. Maybe I should have paused my reading of the book to let the meaning of it and the ideas in it sink in. Or maybe the practices that are discussed in the first half happened to have been closer aligned to the challenges that interest me most right now.
The chemistry between Ros and Ben is clear, even in the writing. The completely different angles from which they approach life and this book lift each other up. The back and forths are highly enjoyable and I wish I could have a conversation with the two of them. Their writing is joyous and inspirational. I hope they are as happy together as they seem to be.
The most important rule described in the book is rule number 6. I’ll share the story that introduces rule number 6 in full. Two prime ministers are sitting in a room discussing affairs of state. Suddenly a man bursts in, apoplectic with fury, shouting and stamping and banging his fist on the desk. The resident prime minister admonishes him: “Peter,” he says, “kindly remember Rule Number 6,” whereupon Peter is instantly restored to complete calm, apologizes, and withdraws. The politicians return to their conversation, only to be interrupted yet again twenty minutes later by an hysterical woman gesticulating wildly, her hair flying. Again the intruder is greeted with the words: “Marie, please remember Rule Number 6.” Complete calm descends once more, and she too withdraws with a bow and an apology. When the scene is repeated for a third time, the visiting prime minister addresses his colleague: “My dear friend, I’ve seen many things in my life, but never anything as remarkable as this. Would you be willing to share with me the secret of Rule Number 6?” “Very simple,” replies the resident prime minister. “Rule Number 6 is ‘Don’t take yourself so seriously.”‘ “Ah,” says his visitor, “that is a fine rule.” After a moment of pondering, he inquires, “And what, may I ask, are the other rules?” “There aren’t any.”
This might be a silly story but I know a lot of people who could benefit from rule number 6, myself included. The jobs most of us do didn’t exist a hundred years ago. We made them up fairly recently. Hunters and gatherers didn’t have “operations leads” (my job). And yet none of our ancestors ever wished they had or were an operations lead. Just this little fact should be a reason for me to smile at the silliness of it all when I get overwhelmed by the (amount of) work that I feel I have to do.
I tend to carry the weight of the world on my shoulders. Not just in work, but in life too. To worry about everyone’s well-being. An especially daunting task these days. I tend to be very hard on myself when I feel I’m not doing a good enough job, when I’m not a kind enough person, when I don’t give everyone the attention that I feel they deserve, when I don’t go running enough, when I skip abs, snack too much, or go to bed too late.
It’s impossible to always be happy and patient and full of energy. The more you feel like you have to be all of these things all of the time, the quicker you’ll drain your energy and feel the opposite. Wouldn’t it be nice to treat life as a game a bit more? I’m saying this and immediately my mind goes to how seriously many of us even take games today. You have to fear for your safety if you support the wrong sports club at the wrong moment in the wrong place, which is ridiculous if you think about it. But let’s be optimistic for a bit.
I’ve mentioned before that I’m learning to play the piano. I’m not talented but I love it and I’m stubborn. Every time I sit down behind the piano it’s an opportunity for expression and growth. I can learn something new and get better. If I mess up I start over and try again. We do the same when we’re playing a sport. When hitting a hundred balls on a tennis court some will be beautiful and others will end up at the bottom of the net. But each ball is an opportunity to try again and get better. How much more fun would life be if we could look at it and ourselves like this? If we could allow ourselves to try things and be ok if they don’t work out. We try, we fall, and we try again. We hopefully learned something. No need to pull ourselves down. Because if we never fail or mess up, we’re almost certainly playing it safe and that means we’re not growing.
I’m practicing to take life as it is, not as I think it should be. When I’m out for a run in the pouring rain – again – I can get frustrated and grumpy. That’s the easy response in that moment. And I can tell you, it’s tempting. But I can also accept the rain. Be grateful that I’m running. Laugh at my feet soaking in my shoes. Laugh at myself for insisting to go for a run despite the dreadful weather. If I start from what is without fleeing, blaming, or attempting to correct it gives so much space and peace of mind. It saves buckets of energy and allows the sky to open up, at least metaphorically.
If you could use a nudge towards acceptance and positivity I highly recommend checking out The Art of Possibility. You’ll get to spend some quality time with Ros and Ben in the process.
I’m writing about a book about writing. I read about writing regularly because I’m always looking to learn something. In Several Short Sentences About Writing, Verlyn Klinkenborg takes the magic out of writing. He breaks down the art of writing into manageable chunks, better known as sentences. He assures us that we don’t have to effortlessly churn out large amounts of text to qualify as a good writer. Even good writers should write one sentence at a time. Many people assume that creativity and precision are at odds with one another. That there is a conflict between scrutinizing and revising your writing and allowing your writing to be interesting and original. This is total nonsense. Even the most creative story is much easier and more pleasant to read if it’s written using strong and well-built sentences.
Klinkenborg warns against paragraphs that effortlessly flow out of your head straight onto the paper or screen. A paragraph like that probably contains one or more sentences that are cliché or redundant. It might sound tedious to write one sentence at a time, but to my surprise, I find it liberating. The task of writing one sentence doesn’t feel overwhelming. I can start writing without knowing what the result will look like. I write a sentence. Then read it back in context. Then I think about ways to improve it. Klinkenborg also advises reading out loud. Reading out loud allows you to understand the rhythm -or lack thereof- in a text. If something sounds funny it needs reworking until there’s a flow.
Once you know how to write, the next question is at least as important. What to write about? The answer is as simple as it is challenging: Anything that interests you. Unfortunately, we have been taught to ignore what interests us. We assume that others have already determined what’s interesting and worth noticing. We don’t ask questions because we don’t want to be seen as difficult. When I’m having a conversation, reading a book, or listening to a webinar, questions might pop-up in my mind, triggered by what I’m hearing or reading. Most of the time I’m not even fully aware of these questions. I don’t consider asking them. Sometimes I realize the missed opportunity later but just as often it doesn’t register at all.
I do notice things but I ignore them. I shelf them away immediately. My noticing is passive. I subconsciously assume that anything I notice will have been noticed by everyone else too. That the world has been completely pre-noticed, sifted, and sorted by everyone else, by people with real authority. This is why it’s so hard to come up with topics to write about. Topics that are original are probably not worth exploring. Otherwise, someone more knowledgeable would have done so. Topics that others have written about are done and dusted. Who am I to assume that my opinion is worth expressing when more qualified people have already expressed theirs?
We need to learn to notice our thoughts and be patient in the presence of them. Don’t dismiss them. Pay attention to the ideas that interest us. Interrogate them. Do more research to broaden or deepen them. Take our time to discover and think. Readers are like us. They will be interested in things that we find interesting. We need to muster up the courage and the audacity to guide them on the journey through our ideas. One sentence at a time.
The Only Plane in the Sky is a compilation of stories about the attacks on September 11, 2001. There are stories from firefighters who fought fires at the World Trade Center in New York on that day. Over the next few days, they searched for survivors. Finally, for many weeks or even months, they searched for bodies. There are stories from spouses of the people who fought the hijackers onboard American Airlines flight 93. And from the airline employee who checked them all in earlier that day. Some people from the press corps traveling with President Bush that day share their experiences. And there are stories from kids as young as 5 years old. They all talk about how they remember that September 11 and how it has influenced their lives since. The author, or rather the compiler of the book, is Garrett M. Graff.
I was 21. I remember where I was. I had my own company and I was designing and building a web application. I was at my colleague’s (and friend’s) house. I was on my own. I don’t remember what triggered me to turn on the TV. When I saw the fire burning in Tower 2, I thought a terrible accident had happened. I saw the second plane fly into Tower 1. I was confused. Were they showing a film on CNN? I could not believe that someone would intentionally fly a plane into a building. They flew three planes into three buildings before the day was over. It would have been four if it wasn’t for the brave people on American Airlines flight 93.
The facts about the attacks have been well documented. The FBI, the CIA, and several other organizations across the world have investigated the attacks and the attackers. If you are interested in the details there is a lot of material out there that you can read. There won’t be many people alive today who haven’t heard of Al Qaeda. Or of Osama Bin Laden. A lot of people know that after a long manhunt, Bin Laden was finally killed in 2011. The United States Army had been trying to find him for 10 years. The intricate tunnel complex that Al Qaeda created in Afghanistan did its job of protecting the organization and hiding its people very well.
On September 11, 2001 2977 people were killed. Among them 343 firefighters and 72 law enforcement officers. Parts of the New York fire department were decimated overnight and had to be rebuild from the ground up. All these numbers are a testament to the viciousness of the attacks and the devastation that they caused. Yet it’s highly unlikely that you will be crying because of what you’ve just read. Numbers don’t trigger emotional reactions. They are too factual and sterile. What happened that day can’t be described by numbers. To get a sense of the real impact of the tragedy we need stories. And that’s where this book comes in.
The Only Plane in the Sky tells the story of the day as it was experienced by many different people. I listened to the audiobook, which is performed by a cast of 45 people. It made the stories come to life in an incredible way. Most of the narratives are taken from interviews and people’s memories, but there is also some original audio. The speech that President Bush gave and some of the 911 calls for instance.
The audiobook is 16 hours long and I was crying or on the verge of crying throughout most of those 16 hours. Some of the stories triggered my memories but a lot of them show what happened that day from a point of view that I had never considered. It’s a remarkable and incredibly emotional book. If you think you can stomach it I highly recommend it. This book does a much better job of getting the horror of that day across than all the facts and figures will ever be able to do.
This year will make it into the history books of the future. Kids will likely read about 2020 (let’s hope it will just be 2020) for generations to come. It was also an excellent year to be a reader for several reasons. First of all, there was more time to read than in most years, because there weren’t many places to go or to be. Second, reading allows you to change your scenery and even your life for a little while. Mason Cooley’s quote “Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are.” seems to have been made for this year. It wasn’t unless he’s a sort of Nostradamus, Cooley lived between 1927 and 2002. He was a professor emeritus of French, speech, and world literature and he was known for his witty aphorisms.
I used the stories in books a lot this year to get away from the sofa and to other places and worlds. 70 times to be exact. I read more this year and I wrote less. Most posts take me about 5 hours to write (and about 5 minutes to read, it’s better that I don’t dwell on that), and having to put aside 5 hours each weekend is a big investment. I’m happy with the current rhythm, so I plan to stick to it in 2021. The full list of books that I read in 2020 is listed below. For my reference as much as for yours. When I set out to select my top reads I expected it to be mostly filled with non-fiction. How wrong I was. There are only three non-fiction books in my top 15 of 2020. There are also 2 plays on it and 10 fiction books.
It feels a bit pretentious to write about my top 15 but I love reading about other people’s top reads and I often find new “to be reads” on these lists, so here we go. If you don’t care about lists you can skip the rest of this post. The books are listed in the order in which I read them.
Mindset by Carol Dweck In Mindset, Carol Dweck explains what a growth mindset is and what a fixed mindset is, and why it’s good to have a growth mindset. The term growth mindset is used by a lot of people, not just in self-help books, but also in business. Not everyone who uses the term knows what it means though. Everyone is somewhere on the spectrum between a growth and a fixed mindset and it can shift a bit depending on the topic or how you are feeling. Teaching yourself to have a growth mindset is worth it. It helps both you and the people around you. The possibilities of what you can do are (almost) endless, you just have to believe in them!
The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold Luke Arnold’s debut novel is special. The world that he has created is imaginative and well designed and the story gripped me from the start. It has exactly the right level of darkness in it and it kept surprising me. Arnold’s released his second novel, Dead Man in a Ditch”, also featuring Fetch Philips in 2020 and it’s definitely on my “to be read” list for 2021.
The Curious Incident of a Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon In this classic tale, the narrator is 15-year-old Christopher. Mark Haddon does an excellent job of taking us along Christopher’s train of thought. Christopher is very good at math and facts and not as good as people and feelings. He prefers to stay close to home but when he finds that the neighbor’s dog has been murdered wants to find out what happened and who did it. The answer is surprising to both Christopher and the reader!
The Inheritance by Matthew Lopez The Inheritance by Matthew Lopez is the first play that I read in 2020. It’s an emotional story about difficult subjects, told in an understated way. It was powerful to read, I can only imagine how powerful it must be to watch it as a play. If I ever have the opportunity to see the play I won’t hesitate. The story is about a group of men wanting to write a book and we are following along as their story takes shape. The writers are “young man” 1 to 8 without specific backgrounds and stories. Two of them are Eric and Toby and they also tell the story of Eric and Toby and their friends.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard The second play on this list is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard. This one is a classic that has been performed by some very interesting performers (I haven’t seen it be performed, unfortunately). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two supporting characters from Hamlet and in this play, we get to experience what happens to them when they are not on stage in Hamlet. It’s clever and funny. It will surprise no one that the version I would have most liked to see is the version with Tim Minchin and Toby Schmitz in the title roles in 2013 at the Sydney Theatre Company. But the version with Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire at the Old Vic Theatre in London in 2017 would also have been a memorable treat.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz I listened to the audiobook of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz. I picked this book because it’s narrated by Lin Manuel Miranda. It’s a heart-warming and heart-wrenching story and the narrating is as good as you’d expect from Miranda. It was a treat to listen to the story of Aristotle and Dante discovering who they are and what their place in the world is.
Spirit Level – Why Equality is Better for Everyone by Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett In Spirit Level – Why Equality is Better for Everyone, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett explain why we should all want there to be more equality. Instead, the world that we live in gets more and more unequal and the corona crisis is increasing the gap even further. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The poor are also facing worse consequences of the crisis in non-monetary terms. I’ve always been an economic socialist and I wish there was a way to imprint the results of the research that is referenced in this book and the summary of the book itself into the collective consciousness of everyone who has an above-average income or significant assets.
Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston is a romance novel. It was a close call between this one and Beach Read which one would make it onto this list. Both are great reads for when you long for a book that doesn’t require your brain to fire on all cylinders. Red, White and Royal Blue is about the son of the President of the United States, Alex Claremont-Diaz, and his nemesis, the British Prince Henry. The two of them get into an altercation and both their families demand that they publicly show that they get along perfectly fine to avoid an international incident.
The Midnight Library by Matt Haig We all take hundreds of decisions every day and each decision taken differently could have led to a different life. In The Midnight Library by Matt Haig, Nora feels like all of the key decisions that she took were the wrong ones. She’s let everyone she cares about down. One night when things are particularly bad Nora ends up in the midnight library. The library contains all the books describing the lives she could have lived had she made different choices. And she gets to try them on too! This book is another great story in which Haig plays with time in a very clever way (I can also highly recommend How To Stop Time).
The Color Purple by Alice Walker The Color Purple by Alice Walker is a classic. And for good reason. It’s a heartbreaking and very painful story that is set in the south of the US in the 1930s. It’s told through the letters that the sisters Celie and Nettie write to each other. Somehow this way of telling the story makes it a lot easier to digest. Especially the strength and calm that Celie displays in her letters make the atrocities seem bearable. Alice Walker is a magician.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas is a young adult novel. I had this book on my e-reader for a long time before I started reading it. I was afraid I would be put off by the darkness and (or) the fact that it was written for young adults. Neither happened. It’s a great story and it gave me a lot of insights about living in a poor neighborhood in the US and about the impact of race on black people’s everyday life.
The Simple Wild by K.A. Tucker I pretty much read The Simple Wild by K.A. Tucker in a single sitting. It’s a romance novel but it’s more than that. I got attached to all the characters in the book. I was very happy to discover that there’s a sequel (Wild at Heart) and I bought that immediately. So far I haven’t read it because I’m afraid I will be disappointed after enjoying The Simple Wild so much. Either by the story itself or where it takes the protagonists, Calla and Jonah. But I will read it…soon!
Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo I listened to the Clap When You Land audiobook, which is narrated by the author, Elizabeth Acevedo. Another great story with valuable insights (for me) about immigration and black people’s everyday experiences. There is a lot of heartbreak in this story but it never felt too dark to continue listening. The desire to know where the story would lead Camino and Yahaira, and to listen to the beautiful phrases and storytelling always tempted me to listen just a little bit longer…
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr In the stunning novel, All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, we meet Werner and Marie-Laure. It’s 1934 and Werner is a German orphan. He and his younger sister Jutta live in an orphanage in the mining town of Zollverein. Marie-Laure lives in Paris with her dad, who is the principal locksmith for the National Museum of Natural History. At six years old, Marie-Laure loses her eyesight. Then the war starts…
The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz & Janet Mills The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz and Janet Mills is a short book that’s both inspiring and moving. It’s more spiritual than books that I would normally recommend or enjoy, but it’s just as powerful when you ignore all of that. This book made me feel calm and confident in a tumultuous period. It’s an excellent read for this extraordinary time.