Month: May 2016

On My Bookish Existential Crisis

Posted May 31, 2016 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Project 5000 / 8 Comments

lots-of-booksHave you ever stopped to think about just how many books you may read in your lifetime? I have, and I had an existential crisis thinking about it. It all happened when a BookTube friend (time to read!) was talking to me about the amount of books she will read in her lifetime. I was sitting in a church thinking about the numbers and I began to freak out. My wife got really worried and obviously asked me what was wrong. I said that if I read a hundred books for fifty years I will only read five thousand books and this is not enough books.

I freaked out about the numbers for a few days and while I do not recommend having an existential crisis, I think it is very valuable to think about your reading in terms of numbers. Think about the books you want to read and the books you have read. Does your reading history reflect the type of books you want to read, or are you willing to try everything. I am of the believe that there is literary merit in all genres but that does not mean I want to spend my time reading books in those genres trying to find something great.

I have a reading goal of reading the entire 1001 Books you must Read Before you Die list, which would be a fifth of my reading journey. But then you think about the changes that are made in each update (why has there not been an update recently?), this list might end up consuming a quarter of your reading journey if you pay attention to all the books that were on the list.  The 1001 books list has served me well in the past, especially when I started my reading journey. This list gives me a way to close reading gaps and the chance to try different genres and styles to see what I like. I know now what my reading tastes are, so I often wonder if this list still has a purpose in my reading journey.

Having thought about the amount of books I will or will not read in my life, I decided I needed to focus on what I want to read. I have a limited amount of time, so I should be reading what I want to read. I began a reading project which I called Project 5000, to remind myself to be more focused. My plan is to read what interests me and remind myself not to waste time on books that do not instantly grab my attention. I talk a lot about Project 5000 a lot on BookTube and on Twitter, because I was looking at ways to remind myself to be more focused in my reading.

The suggestion I was given was to pick ten books and put it on my nightstand, and only allow myself to read from those choices. This still gives me a little variety and allows me to pick books that are interesting me at the time. It also means that I can feel like I am accomplishing something as I watch the ten books dwindle down to nothing. I want to be reading what interest me but I also need to find a balance between my main literary interests and trying other books that sound great.

I know I am interested particularly with post-war literature. By this I mean post-World War 2 till the end of the cold war. There are so many changes happening in the world that fascinate me. From the birth of pulp literature, counter-culture, punk rock, dirty realism and post modernism. There are so many interesting socio-political event and technological advances that helped shaped the world. The idea of impending doom allowed for some interesting changes in people and literature. While my reading extends to other topics, like transgressive and translated literature, I am just fascinated by the world before the internet closed the gaps in globalisation.

My first ten picks

  1. City on Fire by Garth Risk
  2. Fever at Dawn by Péter Gárdos (translated by Liz Szasz)
  3. Chess by Stefan Zweig (translated by Anthea Bell)
  4. The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov (translated by Andrew Bromfield)
  5. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (translated by Christopher Moncrieff)
  6. Nightwood by Djuna Barnes
  7. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (translated by Edith Grossman)
  8. Ask the Dust by John Fante
  9. When the Doves Disappeared by Sofi Oksanen (translated by Lola Rogers)
  10. Solzhenitsyn : A Soul in Exile by Joseph Pearce

I was very happy with the choices I made, I thought it was an accurate representation of what I wanted to read and I had found a solution that would work for me. However this was not the case, first of all I had a huge pile of books from the library waiting for me to pick up. This threw a small spanner in the works of my reading but ultimately I did not want it to take away from my focus. While I did detour with the library books, I am up to my last two books from the list, When the Doves Disappeared and Solzhenitsyn : A Soul in Exile.

I learnt that organisation is impossible when it comes to reading, I need to allow for library books, book-club and other random mishaps to take me on a detour but I will always end up getting back to the books on my nightstand. I have no idea how to fit re-reading into Project 5000; that is another complex question that I need to answer. It is a struggle to focus on the books I have picked and not get distracted by other books but I think I am better off in the long run. I have picked my next ten books to put on my nightstand and I do hope this solution continues to work for me. Allowing me to plan my reading and still give me the freedom I desire.


The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

Posted May 25, 2016 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Short Stories / 4 Comments

The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony MarraTitle: The Tsar of Love and Techno (Goodreads)
Author: Anthony Marra
Published: Hogarth, 2015
Pages: 320
Genres: Short Stories
My Copy: Paperback

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When I first read A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, I knew I had found a new favourite author in Anthony Marra. I was constantly recommending the novel to everyone and always took notice when someone suggested a book was the next Constellation. They were right with both All that is Solid Melts into Air and Girl at War. When I heard that Marra had another book coming out I was so excited. Then when it was released, there was no Australian publication and it would cost about $50 to get a copy delivered to me. I thought about just getting the audiobook but I really wanted a physical copy. Thankfully the Perth Writers Festival announced Anthony Marra as a guest and we quickly got an Australian edition of The Tsar of Love and Techno.

Unlike A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, The Tsar of Love and Techno is a collection of interconnecting stories. While it could be considered a collection of short stories, there is a common thread that allows this book to be read more like a novel. Beginning in 1930s Leningrad where a failed portrait artist finds himself with the task of airbrushing people out of existence. The people being removed from the pictures are the people the state have sent off to the Gulag for their counter-revolutionary behaviours. He finds himself removing his brother from pictures but instead of whipping him out of the memories completely he ends up putting his face in the crowds of other pictures.

There is something wonderfully captivating about the writing of Anthony Marra, and I think it goes further than just my love of Russian literature. I cannot help but be absorbed in his stories, eager to know what happens next. I love the way he explores Russian history and looks at ideas of war, censorship, family, love and the soviet government. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena does a good job of exploring the lives of ordinary people during war and The Tsar of Love and Techno is all about the people living in Russia during different periods of time.

While I think A Constellation of Vital Phenomena will always have a special place in my heart and everyone should read that book, The Tsar of Love and Techno is still worth the attention. I know some people have issues reading short story collections but I think this works as a novel. I am eagerly waiting the next Anthony Marra novel but I know I will have to wait a while. I just hope I do not have to suffer the same fate with The Tsar of Love and Techno, and Australia will release at the same time as the rest of the world.


The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Posted May 23, 2016 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic / 4 Comments

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor DostoevskyTitle: The Brothers Karamazov (Goodreads)
Author: Fyodor Dostoevsky
Translator: Constance Garnett
Published: Dover Thrift, 1880
Pages: 736
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Paperback

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Written in the final years of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s life (he died four months after it was published), The Brothers Karamazov is probably his most philosophical novel. It tells the story of four very different brothers who all got involved in the murder of their own father. While similarities can be made between this novel and Crime and Punishment as they share similar themes, they are still vastly different. Rather this book deals more with life, death and the meaning of life.

“The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.”

At the start of the novel we meet Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, who fathers three sons during his two marriages and is rumoured for have fathered a fourth illegitimate son. He often makes the list when people talk about ‘the most disgusting characters’ in literature, or similar topics. This forms the basis of the plot and the brothers grow up with very different lives, separated from their father and each other. As a result these four brothers are very different; Dmitri is a sensualist, Ivan a rationalist (an atheist), Alexei is a novice in the Russian Orthodox Church and Pavel, well let’s just say, silent and sly.

The very different personalities of these brothers is what allows Fyodor Dostoevsky to explore all his philosophical ideas. One of the major themes in this novel is that of religion and while questioning faith is a common theme in modem literature at the time, in Russia it was considered big deal. In 987 Vladimir the Great sent out envoys to study the various religions of neighbouring nations in order to pick the right religion for Russia. Seems a little unorthodox (no pun intended) but eventually the nation adopted Orthodoxy. What became Russian Orthodoxy was embraced by all of Russia and had its own vision of creating a country of love and humility.

This is important because The Brothers Karamazov is not about questioning the existence of God but rather the role of the church when it comes to morality. It should be noted this was at a time where the Russian Socialism movement was gaining some traction and their goal was to create heaven on earth. With characters of vastly different ideals, Dostoevsky was able to explore the ideas he had floating in his head from different angles. Was Christianity simply a mask for the authority? In one of the most famous chapters Ivan talks about “The Great Inquisitor” which is a powerful argument of scepticism and against religious faith.

Other major themes found in the novel are that of fate and free will. This is closely connected with the ideas around religion. For Alexei, he has the freedom to commit to the order of the church, something that seems like a paradox to someone like Dmitri. Fyodor Dostoevsky explores the psychological makeup of control by society and authority. This plays into the Socialist debate at the time; do we have free will, when we are being controlled by the church or the Tsar. Or maybe we have the freewill but blindly follow the laws put in place by the church and the authority without question.

For Ivan, he lives by the philosophy that “everything is permitted”, which leads to another major theme, that of justice and morality. The murder of Fyodor Karamazov is at the centre of this theme, as well as the trail the follows. The Brothers Karamazov essentially wants the reader to question life, question their beliefs, and the roles of earthly or divine justice. The justice system found in the novel appears to be weird and problematic. The innocent are found guilty, the jury are manipulated by lawyers and the book even questions harsh punishments; like exile to Siberia. It is here we wonder about the different between morality and the laws imposed upon us.

There is so much more you can get out of The Brothers Karamazov (for example family) but for me, this reading through was about questioning life in the lead up to death. I really liked how Fyodor Dostoevsky used the different brothers to explore the different angles and question his own beliefs. Dostoevsky often wrote about society, religion, politics and ethics, however in his final years while writing The Brothers Karamazov, we get the sense that he was thinking more about his own life and his legacy. In fact his tombstone is inscribed with the verse from John 12:24; “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it dies, it bringeth forth much fruit.” Most people know that I’m a fan of Fyodor Dostoevsky and I am so glad to have read The Brothers Karamazov however next time I plan to read it in the David McDuff translation, rather than this one translated by Constance Garnett.


Submission by Michel Houellebecq

Posted May 18, 2016 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary / 0 Comments

Submission by Michel HouellebecqTitle: Submission (Goodreads)
Author: Michel Houellebecq
Translator: Lorin Stein
Published: William Heinemann, 2015
Pages: 256
Genres: Contemporary
My Copy: Paperback

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(or visit your local Indie bookstore)

Have you ever picked up a book and then wanted to cancel all your plans just so you can spend time reading? It is a nice feeling and one that I experienced with Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission. I know this not an experience you would want to have all the time, but I am sure my wife was happy to spend more time playing Dragon Age. However, I think it is a rare treat to be so captivated by a book that everything else needs to be placed on hold. I have been wanting to read Houellebecq for a very long time and now that I have experienced his writing, I am upset that I waited so long.

Submission takes place in the near future, 2022 to be exact. France is about to hold their presidential election and two candidates are looking to be the favourites. The next leader could be Marine Le Pen of the Front National party or Muhammed Ben Abbes of the emerging Muslim Fraternity. Turning the political debate into one of Nationalism or the embrace of a new party with religious ties. The nationalist believe France should be for the French, while the Muslim Fraternity would be a big shift in France’s culture. For starters, it would be the first non-Catholic religious party to gain power, not to mention the impact this will have on the country, both religious and culturally speaking.

At the heart of this novel is François, a middle-aged academic who feels like his life is slowly disintegrating into nothing. His lifelong obsession with the ideas and works of nineteenth-century novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans (best known for his novel À rebours, published in English as Against Nature or Against the Grain) has gotten him nowhere. He is alone and even more concerning to him; his sex drive has diminished completely. While the political backdrop makes for a very interesting novel, Submission looks at the ideas of isolation, love, change and faith.

Michel Houellebecq has been the centre of a bit of controversy, he has a tendency to say things that offend and comes across as vulgar; he’s been accused of being a nihilist, misogynist, cynical and Islamophobic. This is often the persona Houellebecq puts forward in interviews, but it is worth remembering he is a satirist and the persona they put on is not necessarily a true reflection of their actual personality. Michel Houellebecq often writes about controversial topics in order to get people to think about the topic. Atomised (known as The Elementary Particles in America) in 1998 took on cloning and Platform (2001) was on sexual tourism as well as having Islamic themes. In fact, if you look at all his novels, he often explores sex (cloning), tourism (or art) and religion. Even went as far as to have Houellebecq charged in 2002 with racial hatred towards Islam but he was later acquitted by the court.

The novel Submission was published on the 7th January 2015, that day Michel Houellebecq was on the front of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. On this day brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi forced their way into the offices of Charlie Hebdo with assault rifles and sadly killed 11 people and injuring a further 11. This sad event was not a result of Houellebecq being on the cover but rather a macabre coincidence.

I never felt that Michel Houellebecq’s Submission was anti-Islamic, or hate filled in anyway. I did think this was dangerous writing, I suspect the author is an arsehole, but still think this novel is exploring an important topic. Houellebecq has a great ability to make the reader think about life, religion, and philosophy. I had such an enjoyable experience with this book I went and picked up another one of his novels right away.