Category Archives: Fiction

Inspired by fiction

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

I just read The Perks of Being a Wallflower for the first time, I hadn’t seen the film either.
The book is about 15-year old Charlie, who we get to know through his letters to an anonymous friend. The target audience of the book is probably young adults and not 40-year old’s but I enjoyed reading it.
It’s very different from most books and it kept surprising me until the very end.

Charlie is a bit different from most kids at his school but I felt he was easy to empathize with. Charlie struggles to make friends and has no idea how to connect with other people, let alone fit in.
His English teacher Bill encourages him to “participate” more. And as Charlie tries to please everyone around him he does try to participate.
While he doesn’t interact with his classmates and peers much, he does become friends with a group of seniors. At times he almost comes across as well-adjusted but internally Charlie still suffers. He doesn’t talk about his problems. He turns to alcohol and drugs to take the edge of his feelings. He chooses alcohol and drugs because it means he doesn’t have to bother anyone else with his problems.

The perks of being a wallflower3

Towards the end of the book, Charlie’s friend Sam tells him to stop trying to please everyone else and to say and do what he wants and needs. To me, this was the most touching part of the book. It made me realize that it’s a fine balance to find between trying to please everyone and forgetting about your own needs and being egocentric and only seeing things from your point of view.
We see plenty of the latter around us. Characterized by a lack of empathy and sometimes (like when people are protesting for the end of lockdowns) by a lack of intelligence. We don’t hear so much about people-pleasing others to the point where they forget about themselves. It’s not as visible and it’s usually silent.

I often lean towards the pleasing side. I don’t like conflict and I have an abundance of empathy. This makes it easy to find excuses for people’s inconsiderate behavior. For long stretches of time, the approach seems to work well until the pressure of small annoyances and not standing up for myself builds up too far. At that point, it has to come out and because it has been building it doesn’t always come out in a well thought through and moderate way.
Like Charlie, I should speak up more often.

All the working from home these days creates an interesting opportunity for experimenting. Because so many variables have become fixed it’s easier to consciously tweak the ones that are still flexible.
During the first weeks of lockdown, I felt confused and shocked, like most people I think. Once I had gotten used to it I was a bit ashamed to feel excited and happy. No commute means a lot more time to do other things. Without distractions during the day I can work very efficiently. Not having any events and dinners means that my evenings are all mine to spend as I like. I felt like life was finally being lived on my introvert terms, creating a lot of mental space and freeing up oodles of energy that would normally go towards socializing and attending events and dinners.

For a couple of weeks, I’ve spent the extra energy on running (a lot of running) and practicing piano more often. This last week being at home and in almost complete control of what happens, things have gotten too flat. I only recognized this as I finished reading the book, although I had felt restless for a couple of days. Running is only physically challenging. I’m not good enough on the piano yet to set myself a significant challenge on it.
I miss being pushed out of my comfort zone occasionally. The best solution would be for me to challenge myself more. That way I can decide the type of challenge I want to set and how hard I want to push.

One challenge that I keep thinking about is “how to be a rebel and fight injustice like an introvert?”. I would like to convince people of the errors of their ways through rational arguments and respectful conversations and exchanges of ideas. It’s probably a utopia and it’s unlikely to happen, but I’ll think about it some more.
If you also have some time and energy on your hands I recommend reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower and letting it surprise you. Who knows what unexpected inspiration it might provide for you.

The Last Smile in Sunder City

Fetch Phillips is in his early thirties, but he has lived more lives than most of us will in a lifetime.
He is by no means a traditional protagonist, but author Luke Arnold did a great job creating a character with many layers. Fetch has some admitted, significant character flaws but I found him easy to empathize with. He has a knack for making the wrong decisions or perhaps is just very unlucky in the way his decisions work out. Most likely it’s a combination of both.
I started reading The Last Smile in Sunder City at the recommendation of Tim Minchin and I recommend that you read it too. I loved this book.

Fetch is a Man for Hire. He is hired by the principal of Ridgerock Academy, a cross-species school. He is asked to find the school’s history and literature teacher Edmund Albert Rye. Rye is a vampire, but in a world where all magic has disappeared vampires are old and frail. Most vampires are languishing after the coda took their powers away. Not Rye though, he has made peace with the situation and is enjoying passing on some of his knowledge by teaching at the school and tutoring kids on the side too.

When the magic disappeared the world became bleak and dark and life became harsh. The elves named the moment the coda reasoning that the world had been singing a song since the day it was born, but that it was about to come to an end.
A very fitting name, looking at the definition of coda on Wikipedia:
“In music, a coda is a passage that brings a piece to an end. Technically, it is an expanded cadence. It may be as simple as a few measures, or as complex as an entire section.”

Fetch tries to live a good life and feels much better when he’s helping people and generally being a good person. However, he slips up easily and often and it makes him feel bad. Feeling bad makes him drink and fight, which makes him feel even worse. He hasn’t had it easy. He has lived with heartbreak for most of his life and he has always felt like an outcast.
Fetch, like a lot of us, shows his best side in the face of adversity. We work better together when we are trying to overcome an evil that is bigger than ourselves. Unfortunately, as soon as a glimmer of hope appears we’re willing to kill each other for it.

A lot of The Last Smile in Sunder City feels like it was written as a metaphor for the situation that we are in today. Professor Rye writes:
“And thus, we enter this strange new world. A simpler world. It may not be as bright or as loud as the eons leading up to it, but this is the time that fate has chosen for us. Life once felt so grand and meaningful. This new world is hushed. … If there is a future, that’s how it will be determined. Not by winning wars or medals or fame, but by searching out into the darkness and, when you find it, holding up the light.”
It seems fitting, but the book could also be a metaphor for being human in general. It’s about our struggle to do the right thing and how to deal with feelings of disappointment and guilt when things don’t work out as we had hoped they would.

Fetch looks towards alcohol and books to allow him to escape into another world for a bit.
I, in turn, enjoyed following him around and experiencing a bit of life in Sunder City.
I’m happy to be back home now, but I’m looking forward to visiting Sunder City again in the future.
Luke Arnold has created an intricate world and he has written a marvelous book about it.

The image has a red background and shows the title of the book, Animal Farm in black, and the name of the author, George Orwell in grey. The image also shows the profile of a pig in pink with white letters displayed on top of the pig stating "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than the others."

Animal Farm

I read Animal Farm by George Orwell in high school, but I must admit I didn’t remember much of it, other than the high-level premise and “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”. A sentence my father used during my childhood whenever someone tried to apply double standards or argued for doing so.

The original introduction of this book, written by Orwell himself is added to the back of the edition of the book that I read. I found it very interesting to read the introduction, but it was probably a good decision to place this text after the main story. The introduction is almost as long as the entire book and I’m not sure I’d have gotten to the main story had I tried to read the introduction before the rest of the book. This qualification needs a little bit of clarification. The introduction is really long for an introduction to a book, but also, the book itself is very short, it’s only 69 pages. A lot of people probably know this, as it was this characteristic of the book that meant the book got chosen to be on many a high-school reading list.

The main story is about a farm where the animals chase the human owner, who they feel isn’t treating them well, away.
At first, the animals are very happy. They have more autonomy. Even though they still work hard, they feel like they are working for themselves and each other and morale is soaring. All the harvested crops and earnings go to the animals, so they benefit directly from their hard work.
Together the animals draft seven commandments that help the animals to govern themselves and the farm and that provide a framework that they should live by:
1. Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy.
2. Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend.
3. No animal shall wear clothes.
4. No animal shall sleep in a bed.
5. No animal shall drink alcohol.
6. No animal shall kill any other animal.
7. All animals are equal.

These commandments might sound good and sensible if you’re an animal and they are. Theoretically. Unfortunately, the pigs in the story, like humans in real life, are unable to resist the temptation of power.
After a while, the pigs slowly start to take more power and allow themselves some privileges. They also slowly change the (written) commandments, but they do it by only making one small change at a time and each small change doesn’t seem bad enough to fight.
Eventually, the pigs end up being mean, hypocrite and lying dictators, living a comfortable life, while they work the other animals to death.

Orwell wrote the book in 1943 and it was published in 1945. The story reflects the events leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Stalinist era in the Soviet Union following that. If anyone wasn’t able to recognize the story Orwell helps a bit by letting the animals address each other as “comrades”.

Even though the story was written a long time ago, it’s still relevant today, and not just in Russia. The small steps that are taken to break down democracy and that don’t appear to be worth protesting about are visible in many countries around the world. Trump has already gone through many small steps in the US. In Australia Scott Morrison’s government had journalists’ houses raided to try and find the source of an article they felt shouldn’t have been published. In the UK Boris Johnson wants to put the BBC up for sale.
Communism doesn’t have a patent on slowly destroying democracy in favor of a power-hungry dictator.

I hope we won’t let history repeat itself, but I’m afraid that we will. Decent people are just too…decent. And perhaps too scared and too comfortable. We might not start fighting back until it’s too late.
These power-hungry thugs don’t play by the rules. They break as many of them as they can and then change them to suit their needs.

I’m not any better than anyone else. I will avoid conflict if I can and lay low instead of stepping into the ring to stand up to thugs and bullies until I get angry and emotional.
This isn’t easy, but let’s try and stop the thugs before they take over the world.

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.