Category Archives: Fiction

Inspired by fiction

Fahrenheit 451 – a classic that makes you think

After The Handmaid’s Tale, this book by Ray Bradbury is another classic and another book describing a dystopian US future. Guy Montag is a fireman and a fireman’s job is to burn books. When some secretly hidden books are discovered, usually through a tip from someone close to the booklover, the alarm in the fire station will sound and the firemen will rush out to burn them. The fire chief explains to Montag that it used to be ok to be different and read books. When the population grew ever bigger and denser it became important for the authorities to make sure there were no outliers and individualists. When everyone is the same there is no reason to compare yourself to others, thus taking away a major source of dissatisfaction and unhappiness.

This reasoning is interesting, as in The Handmaid’s Tale underpopulation and the need for people to focus on simply reproducing as much as possible is cited as a reason to keep people from thinking for themselves.
We see this in the real world too. Different leaders come up with a myriad of reasons to explain why it’s important that they get more power. Most authoritarian regimes come into power because at least part of the people feel that they might have a point. Most of them will come to regret this later when the veil hiding the regime’s selfish wish for more personal power evaporates.

Both in Fahrenheit 451 and in The Handmaid’s Tale it is suggested that by taking away people’s opportunity to read you take away their opportunity to learn and think for themselves. Both societies were dreamt up by authors and it makes sense for authors to feel that books being banished and reading being forbidden is a disaster.
Personally, I love learning through reading books, but I think there are also other ways to learn and educate yourself on a whole range of different topics. Not reading books doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not actively working to learn and grow. You could watch TV shows that make you think or watch online documentaries. You can read blogs, listen to podcasts and listen and talk to other people and learn from them.

Entertainment in Fahrenheit 451’s society is provided by interactive shows that do nothing to educate or challenge people. The shows are displayed on large screens. The ultimate setup to strive for is for all four walls of your living room to be replaced by the screens. The people in the shows are described as “family”. Montag’s wife Mildred loves the screens (they have three walls covered) and proclaims that she is happy talking to her “family”. When she’s not watching the screens she has earbuds in her ears that allow her to listen to the radio or to the sounds of the sea or the jungle. They are noise canceling, so she can’t communicate with others while wearing them. Mildred doesn’t like disruption and she doesn’t want to be challenged to think. Neither do her friends when they come and visit.
There aren’t many women in the book and most of them aren’t painted in a positive light.
Thankfully Clarisse, the girl who lives next door to Montag, is one of the heroes. She makes him wake up from his apathy by asking him seemingly simple, but provocative questions. She makes him think for himself.

This is also what the author is challenging us as readers to do. Think. Don’t just live your life on auto-pilot, but think about what you are doing and why you’re doing it. This comes back to David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech “This is Water” that I wrote about here. If we are the fish from the speech it’s important to make a conscious decision to recognize the water that we’re swimming in. Even when it’s always there. Especially when it’s always there.

After coming back from holiday last year I noticed that I didn’t feel good at the end of my evenings. I needed the disruption of the holiday to even notice this. I live alone and when sitting down with a cup of tea in the evening I always turned on the TV. I thought I felt better with the TV on because it provided some background chatter. Often I ended up watching though, even if nothing decent was on. When bedtime came around I felt like I didn’t get anything out of the evening. To conquer that feeling I stayed up longer, hoping that watching some more TV would make me feel better. It never did, but going to bed late certainly made me feel tired.

It’s been almost a year now since I stopped watching TV on weeknights. I also canceled my Netflix subscription. Instead, I read and I started to learn to play the piano. Both reading and playing the piano give me a lot of joy. It makes me feel like I used my time wisely and like I did something that I will still feel good about in the morning (do you ever consider when you have trouble going to bed because you think just one more episode won’t hurt, whether you will you feel better or worse in the morning because you watched that extra episode?). When I read or practice instead of watching TV I feel like I’ve had a longer and more fulfilling evening. It makes it easier to go to bed on time (sort of, I’m still a night owl).

Your experience might be completely different. You might not enjoy reading and watching TV or Netflix might genuinely make you feel good. If that’s the case then please continue to watch TV or Netflix! The point is to stop and think about it. Are you living your life on auto-pilot? Or are you at least occasionally appreciating the water that you’re swimming in? You need to make a conscious decision to snap out of auto-pilot, as our brains prefer to just do what we always do. The brain is the organ that uses the bulk of our energy and to use it efficiently it usually leaves its System 1 monkey brain (as described by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow) in charge.

I know this all too well. I love structure, rhythm, and regularity. It means that I can use my energy on the important stuff like being kind and trying to empathize and having too many meetings and still giving everyone the attention that they deserve. And to occasionally ask “How’s the water?”.

How's the water

The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a classic. I hadn’t read it before and I haven’t seen the series. I was triggered because Atwood has a new book out, The Testaments, which is a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a future version of the US. A revolution has taken place and the result is a dystopian society.

The population is shrinking so much that the government is interfering to make sure that as many women as possible get pregnant. To achieve this, powerful childless couples are assigned handmaids. Our protagonist is one of them. Her name is Offred. That’s not her real name, but her commander’s name is Fred, which makes her Offred. She is dressed in long red dresses and coats and wears red flat shoes, like all the handmaids. On their heads, they wear white caps that cover their hair and that stick out well past the side of their faces, so they can’t easily look around and others can’t see their faces.

It’s creepy, it would be reassuring to think that this can’t happen in real life, but real-life has gotten to a point where it’s often weirder or crueler than most stories are. I no longer think things can’t happen. Many countries do terrible things to (part of) their people and we mostly let it happen. Leaders can order hitman to kill their subjects abroad and we only complain for a few weeks. World leaders are openly misogynist, racist and foul-mouthed. They break the laws of the country they are supposed to lead repeatedly and they can stay in office.

There are people who are trying to rebel against the regime. Some are actively fighting near the Canadian border. Moira, our protagonist’s friend, escapes and lives an undercover life. Ofglen is part of a resistance organization that exchanges information. It’s unclear if any of it has any significant impact.
As time moves on our protagonist starts breaking more and more rules, but not with the intent to hurt the regime. At first, her commander and his wife ask her to break the rules, both in different ways. Because the commander and his wife have the power to get her shipped off to the colonies or worse, she doesn’t really have a choice. Later on, temptation gets the best of her and she breaks the rules for herself. For love, to break the monotony of her terrible life, as a distraction? Maybe for all of those reasons.

She apologizes for her behavior to us, the readers, suggesting that it doesn’t paint a very positive picture. I felt it did make her more human though. I can easily put myself in her place and imagine doing the same. At the risk of starting to sound like a broken record for those who regularly read my posts: I would very much hope that I would actively try to contribute to bringing the regime down. But if I’m completely honest I think it’s more likely that I’d behave exactly as Offred does. I do hope they would come up with a better naming scheme though. And like our protagonist, I don’t look good in red.

The handmaid's tale - still from the series

I would have expected to get upset by the story but I didn’t. I felt detached. Maybe that’s also because so many horrible things are happening on a daily basis that I’m numb. Maybe it’s because it seems to me that everyone’s life in the post-revolutionary society is terrible. Not just the lives of the handmaids or even just the women. It doesn’t feel right to get upset on behalf of a single person.
I’m also developing a theory that I have trouble getting emotionally involved in a story when the narrator narrates mostly thoughts and theories instead of conversations. I’m not sure about this yet. The feeling I had while reading The Handmaid’s Tale is similar to the feeling I had while reading Less by Andrew Sean Greer. If you have any ideas about the commonalities between Less and The Handmaid’s Tale I’d love to hear them.

I enjoyed reading The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s a very interesting story and the world that Atwood creates is very thorough and plausible. There’s no need to read it as a warning, you can just turn on the news for that, but it does invite you to think about where we could be heading in more concrete terms and examples.
The ending leaves a lot of room for a sequel and I’m curious about what will happen next, so I’m pretty sure I’ll be reading The Testaments too at some point.

To Kill a Mockingbird – heart-rendingly relevant

This week I read a classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, written by Harper Lee. It had been referenced in many of the books that I read over the last few weeks, which meant that it was top of mind for a while already for me. I was also curious to learn if there is a link between one of the main characters in the book, who is called Atticus Finch, and Tim Minchin’s character in Californication, who is called Atticus Fetch. It seemed too similar and unusual to be a coincidence, but I haven’t found the link if there is one.

I did find that another element of pop culture was inspired by the book. As a teenager, my favorite song was Wake Up Boo by The Boo Radleys for years. Boo Radley (whose real name is Arthur Radley) is the neighbor of the protagonist and her family. They haven’t seen him in years, the kids are even unsure if he’s still alive, although their father assures them that he is. He just stays inside the house.

The story is set in the 1930s in Alabama. It’s told from the point of view of an 8-year-old white girl. It’s an anti-racist story. It should be a story about how things used to be. But it’s so relevant today that at times I found it hard to read on. It’s heartbreaking.
The protagonist is Scout Finch, whose real name is Jean Louise. She has an older brother called Jem (short for Jeremy). Her father, Atticus Finch, is a lawyer. Scout’s favorite attire is her overall and she likes to play outside with her brother and their friend Dill.

At the beginning of the book, the kids are still young and pure. Their souls are uncorrupted and they are raised to be fair and just. Living in a racist environment that is very hard to retain. The hatred and disdain for people who are different are very strong in almost all adults in the book.

A black man is accused of raping a white woman. Before the trial starts people in the streets have already convicted him. Some of them even want to play judge, jury, and executioner themselves. The fact that there is strong evidence that he can’t have done it is completely ignored by most.
Atticus has been assigned to defend the accused and both he and the kids have to deal with a lot of hatred over it. It’s so persistent that it’s starting to taint their innocence.

The book is filled with examples of how standing out in any way can make you the target of gossip, exclusion, and hatred. I wish it was possible to think that this is just the small-minded people in a small town in Alabama in the 1930s. It’s not. Standing out today is still very likely to make you the target of derision and hatred and in some cases even physical attacks.

Unfortunately, our brain is designed in a way that makes it very easy to hate anyone who you perceive as being different from you. People who support a different sports team to you, people with different skin color, people with a different political preference, a different sexual orientation or from a different country, city or neighborhood. By hating others we feel like we are part of a tribe and that feels good. We all have more similarities than differences, but it’s easier and more rousing to focus on the differences.
We teach our children to do the same from a very young age. Sometimes just because we set an example through our own behavior, but it’s also considered acceptable to teach them to mock “the other”. Most of you will now be thinking about extremist parents, but many have taught their kids songs that make fun of the nemesis of their favorite football team at a young age. Or taught them jokes about people from a neighboring country. I’m sure you can think of more examples.

I plead with you. Next time you think about labeling someone as different, even if it’s just in your mind, try to challenge yourself. Are they really that different? Could they feel the same way about you? Can you think of something positive about the person? Can you put yourself in their shoes? We all once had a child’s innocence, but we lost it along the way and we replaced it with opinions and biases. Let’s try to shed some opinions and regain some innocence.

To Kill a Mockingbird is to destroy innocence. Let’s save the mockingbird. Let’s teach our kids to be respectful of others. To look beyond the first impression and focus on similarities. It feels like the world is in a pretty bad place right now, but we made it so. We can also make it better. One person at a time if we have to. Please.

I think there's just one kind of folks

The Alice Network – impossible to put down

I missed quite a few hours of sleep this week because I was unable to put Kate Quinn’s brilliant novel The Alice Network down. The main characters are so lively and real I couldn’t wait to get to know them better and learn about what happened to them and their loved ones. Some of the characters don’t just seem real, they were real. The Alice Network was the most efficient spy network of WW I, run by Alice Dubois, whose real name was Louise de Bettignies. Although she was well known by contemporary British intelligence and military men and fiercely hated by the Germans, she’s not very well known today.

Spying wasn’t cool before James Bond and Covert Affairs and female spies had it even worse. Despite the very difficult and dangerous circumstances in which they had to live they were supposed to behave like saints. If they didn’t they were quickly assumed to be whores. The book tells the story of Eve Gardiner (a fictional character), a file girl who desperately wants to prove that she is capable of greater things. Eve has a stammer, which makes people think she’s simple-minded and weak. She has a soft and innocent face but she is an exceptionally good liar. And not simple-minded at all.

The Alice Network2

The story of Eve, which plays in 1915, is alternated with that of Charlie St. Clair, which plays in 1947. Charlie is the daughter of rich parents. Her brother fought in WW II and was unable to adjust to regular life afterward. He killed himself, leaving her parents heartbroken and Charlie wrecked with guild. Charlie is a math wizard, but after her brothers dead she starts missing school and gets herself pregnant. To make things right with the world she wants to find her cousin Rose, who went missing during the war. It’s this search that makes the paths of Charlie and Eve cross.

Quinn very quickly makes you fall in love with the characters (or hate them in some cases). They are trapped in very difficult situations, but at some level, I still wanted to be both Eve and Charlie. Eve’s courage is incomprehensible and her strength is out of this world. If I compare Eve’s life with mine I’m not allowed to complain ever again (don’t worry, I still will) and yet she remains determined and brave and never gives up. Thinking about the role that women like her played in both wars makes me feel humbled and proud to be a woman.

Charlie loves very passionately and has a similar unwavering determination. She also has a problem that she tries to ignore, even though that’s proving impossible. She hates the fancy but inconvenient clothes that her mum wants her dressed in. While her mother sends her to college to find a good husband, Charlie actually wants to make something of her life. She’s not content with the idea of just being someone’s wife.

Books like this (and the news) make me wonder what I will do if a war would break out. It’s easy to argue that we are already at a point where we should all be fighting to try and save the world from overheating and getting covered in plastic waste. That we should fight against the rise of hate of everyone who is not exactly like you. When will I start to fight? I minimize the amount of plastic packaging that I use, I have a reusable tea mug at work, I eat very little meat, I’m kind to the people around me and I regularly check my biases, but none of this is revolutionary, nor is it going to save the world. I’m a terrible liar and all my emotions are clearly displayed on my face, so I will never be a spy (or a good poker player). But there are so many for other types of activism. When will I take action? What will it take for me to step up?

I have no idea and it worries me.

The Taming of the Shrew

It was another Shakespeare week. This time I read The Taming of the Shrew. Which before this I thought was called the taming of the screw. It didn’t make sense, but I figured that was just my somewhat limited understanding of the English language.

I felt that The Taming of the Shrew was easier to read than Hamlet and Macbeth. That the English used is more modern-day English. That doesn’t make sense, as it is thought that this might be Shakespeare’s first play. If you have read it I love to hear your thoughts.

The story is no more uplifting than the above mentioned two, although no one dies in The Taming of the Shrew. Baptista is a rich man from Padua. He has two daughters, Katharina (or Kate) who is the oldest and Bianca. Katharina is considered a difficult woman. Bianca is much more complacent. Several men are fighting for the right to marry Bianca, but Baptista makes it clear that Bianca will not get married before Katharina does.

Luckily for Bianca’s suitors, Petruchio shows up and he likes Baptista’s money and the challenge of trying to tame Kate. As they meet for the first time Kate slaps Petruchio. While Petruchio never physically touches Kate he creates an extensive scheme of emotional abuse and manipulation. He hits the priest that marries them and abuses his servants, under the pretense of feeling that they didn’t deliver the perfection that Kate deserves, all with Kate present. He won’t let her eat because the meat isn’t good enough. He won’t let her sleep because the bed isn’t good enough and the sheets aren’t clean enough. He starves Kate and keeps her awake at night under the guise of perfect love. He plays mind games on her until she gives up on all her ideas and opinions.

Eventually, he breaks her. Kate will serve Petruchio without ever questioning him. She will always agree with him for fear of what he will do if she doesn’t.
Apparently, there is a discussion about whether The Taming of the Shrew is a passionate love story or an examination of brute male domination. I don’t understand how this can be a discussion. If your partner thinks this is what passionate love looks like I advise you to run fast and far.
I’m happy to have read another Shakespeare play, to be able to tick it off the list, but it’s safe to say that this will not be my favorite.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – uncomfortable and gripping

I picked Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine because it kept coming up as a suggestion at several booksellers, both online and offline and because I was fascinated by the title. Whenever I saw the title I had images of Babar the Elephant pop into my mind. That’s not surprising as “elephant” in Dutch is “olifant”. For that reason, I also wondered if there was a link with The Netherlands.
I don’t think I’m giving away too much by telling you that the book is not about elephants and that there is no connection with The Netherlands. The book is set in Glasgow.

Eleanor is a thirty-year-old woman and her interactions with other people are a bit awkward. I cringed through the first few chapters of the book. At times it was so uncomfortable I wasn’t sure if I should read on as quickly as possible or if I should put the book away. Every time I opted to read on. I read while cooking, while having dinner and while making tea. I went to bed too late and then read some more in bed. I still find it hard to say what made it so hard to put the book down, but it is clearly brilliant writing from Gail Honeyman. It’s so good that it’s hard to believe this is Gail’s debut novel, but it’s also so fresh and original that it’s easy to believe it’s a debut.

Eleanor is unworldly. In many ways, she’s like an awkward teenager, except she’s thirty and seems to be immune to peer pressure. She reminds me a bit of my early teenage self in its worst moments. That’s not something I want to be reminded about, to be honest, but thankfully that’s where the similarities end.

One of the differences between Eleanor and my teenage self is that Eleanor doesn’t like hard rock and musical theatre. I loved both and hard rock was one of the things that finally helped me to fit in somewhere. To be part of a group. I was on team black t-shirts, black jeans, and army boots. Dressing up for family affairs meant wearing a black dress and army boots. I loved it. It was my way of rebelling.
Musical theatre was very much a family thing for me. The first time I saw a musical in real-life was when the whole family went to see Cats for my grandparents’ 50th anniversary. I was mesmerized. I don’t have high hopes for the film, but I will definitely watch it! Eleanor summarizes her opinion about musical theatre thus: “There is no such thing as Hell, of course, but if there was, then the soundtrack to the screaming, the pitchfork action and the infernal wailing of damned souls would be a looped medley of ‘show tunes’ drawn from the annals of musical theatre. The complete oeuvre of Lloyd Webber and Rice would be performed, without breaks, on a stage inside the fiery pit, and an audience of sinners would be forced to watch – and listen – for eternity.”
It made me laugh out loud.

It’s hard to talk about this book without giving too much away. There are many surprises in there and I don’t want to ruin them for you. I recommend that you read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine yourself. It’s a lovely, surprising and unexpectedly gripping book.

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

This book has the nicest and most on point prologue I remember reading. It’s almost worth getting the book just for the prologue.

So long, and thanks for all the fish is the fourth book in the Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy series. If you haven’t read the previous three it’s probably a good idea to start at the beginning, as there is some order in the chaos of traveling through the Galaxy. I do feel like the books are getting better with each one that I read, so if you can’t get into it right away it’s worth it to keep going.

Eight years after Arthur Dent was abducted by Vogons, which was seconds before the earth was destroyed to make room for a new hyperspace bypass, he’s back on earth. On earth, only a couple of months seem to have passed and Arthur has decided to slip back into his old life. This is surprisingly easy, as people have extraordinarily short memories.
There is one problem though. Arthur is not the same person he was eight years ago. Eight years of wandering across the Galaxy and experiencing all sorts of craziness alters your brain. Mind you, even ordinary experiences can alter our brains, so Arthur’s experience is hardly surprising.

Science has proven that once you have learned something new you can never go back to the way you were before that. You can’t even remember what it was like to not know this new thing that you learned. This makes it so hard for us normal people to have empathy for those around us who don’t already know what we now know. Arthur’s problem isn’t so much that he doesn’t have empathy, he would just like the Universe to stop doing whatever it’s doing to him.

I love all the funny and quirky references to science and the human condition in the book. You can enjoy the book without even noticing them but for me, they are the witty icing on the cake of a fun story. For example about confirmation bias and the fact that we have to apply critical thinking rigorously.
“He felt a spasm of excitement because he knew instinctively who it was, or at least knew who it was he wanted it to be, and once you know what it is you want to be true, instinct is a very useful device for enabling you to know that it is. ”
We shouldn’t just think critically about what others think and say, but we should also be critical of our own thoughts and intuition. We often see what we want to see and explain situations to fit our pre-existing narrative.

On his travels, Arthur meets a scientist who calls himself Wonko the Sane. He calls himself “the Sane” because so many people think that he’s crazy. He’s smart though and he says “You can’t possibly be a scientist if you mind people thinking that you’re a fool.”.
The world in general and social media more specifically make this even worse. Scientists are being called many names that are much worse than crazy for trying to share their knowledge with the rest of the world.

I admire the scientists who are able and willing to continuously endure this kind of abuse. You must be passionate about science and sharing what you learned to do that.
In a next life, I would like to be a scientist. I didn’t think this through but that’s ok because I don’t believe in a next life. It allows me to dream all I want.
I would find the abuse very hard to deal with, but I would love to work on discovering new things that would make the world a better, prettier, safer or nicer place. This is heavily romanticized, but it feels like it would be a wonderful way to make a difference to the world and the people on it.