Books of Note: WEEK #13 & #14 – The Physicists by Friedrich Dürrenmatt and What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

14 weeks into my 2017-52-book-challenge and I am well on track; I read two very different books this week: Book #13 was “The Physicists”, the timeless Dürrenmatt play from 1961, and book #14 was “What I talk about when I talk about running”, which are thoughts about running and writing by the wonderful Murakami.

What they are about:

The Physicists: Three crazy men in an closed asylum who think they are famous physicists

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: Thoughts about running and writing by Japanese author Haruki Murakami

Closed asylum is the best place for geniuses

Why they matter:

The Physicists might be one of the finest plays ever written. Its theme is the timeless question: what is the social responsibility of scientists? After all physicists’ discoveries could doom mankind to extinction. Dürrenmatt asks the provocative question if a closed asylum is the best place to keep genius scientists so that they cannot unleash their lethal discoveries upon the world.

The Physicists became one of the most-performed dramas over the last half century and has been part of the canon of high school literature classes in Switzerland, Austria, and Germany ever since.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running gives intimate insights into the shy and creative mind of Haruki Murkami. This book is as close to an autobiography as the rather reclusive author probably ever will get us. Also it gives the aspiring writer some ideas of what it takes to become a professional writer. First rule according to Murakami: Quit your day-job and focus solely on writing until you run out of savings. Give it all you have.

An unhealthy soul requires a healthy body

Favourite Sentences:

The Physicists: “There are risks which are not acceptable: the destruction of humanity is one of them.”

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: “An unhealthy soul requires a healthy body.”

Storytelling elements:

The Physicists is a classic two-act drama but presents a big bang revelation at the end nobody would have expected. At least not me. Actually there are two big twists in the second act even some of the more experienced readers would not have predicted. I will not spoil it. Read it. Also this play is an interesting genre mix as it is half dark comedy, half drama with some elements of a farce.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is an essay or a stream of consciousness about Murakami’s two greatest passions: running and writing. It is interesting how he jumps back and forth in time and philosophizes about life of an artist while he actually intended to write about running.

Chain-smoker turned triathlete

Some trivia:

Murakami started running in the early 1980s and since then has competed in over twenty marathon, one ultra marathon and two triathlons. Not bad for an ex-bar owner and heavy chain smoker.

What others said:

” With eloquent brevity, Dürrenmatt’s play reveals the paradox of the twentieth century: at the supposed apex of reason and science, and under the banner of scientific and social progress, man became guilty of some of the most barbaric atrocities ever committed.”

– Samuel Matlack, The New Atlantis

“This book is in some ways the story of the workings of Murakami’s mind, dressed up as a book about running. “

– Alastair Campbell, The Guardian

 

Two notable books which I enjoyed reading.

The journey continues.

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Books of Note: WEEK #11 & #12 – The Vegetarian by Han Kang and The Pearl by John Steinbeck

 

11 weeks into my 2017-52-book-challenge and I am right on track; I read book #11 and #12: The Vegetarian, a post-modern erotic drama from South Korea, and The Pearl, a classic US parable by John Steinbeck.

What they are about:

The Vegetarian: The downfall of a family after the youngest daughter decides to become a plant.

The Pearl: A fisherman´s family´s downfall after he finds an invaluable pearl.

Why they matter:

The Vegetarian won the prestigious Man Booker International Prize in 2016. Actually it became the first recipient of the award after its reconfiguration in 2015, prior to which it was awarded to an author’s body of work rather than a single novel. In addition, the Vegetarian became one oft he most read Korean modern novels in the western world. Who would have thought that about a book that is about a mentally unstable woman who wants to become a tree? The language of this book is beautiful and poetic and dives so deep into the sick psyche of his characters that it becomes unbearable to read at times.

The Pearl was heavily influenced by Steinbeck’s interest in the philosophy Carl Jung and his archetypes. Steinbeck wanted to address the themes of “human greed, materialism, and the inherent worth of a thing“. The Pearl is still part of the literary canon in most US colleges and regarded as one of Steinbeck´s finest works. If Grapes of Wrath is too long for you as an introduction to Steinbeck, try this one and see if you like him.

A town has a nervous system

Favourite Sentences:

The Vegetarian: “Even as a child, In-Hye had possessed the innate strength of character necessary to make one´s own way in life. As a daughter, as an older sister, as a wife and as a mother, as the owner of a shop, even as an underground passenger on the briefest of journeys, she had always done her best.”

The Pearl: “A town is a thing like a colonial animal. A town has a nervous system and a head and shoulders and feet. A town is a thing separate from all other towns, so that there are no two towns alike. And a town has a whole emotion.”

Storytelling elements:

The Vegetarian is told in three different parts with three different narrators; narrated respectively by the protagonist’s husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister. This gives the reader a 360 degree view oft he protagonist´s psyche and her slow decay.

Humans should be plants

Some trivia:

Han Kang, the author of the vegetarian, first got the idea for her book at university when she was writing about vegetation and she stumbled over a quote saying that all humans should be plants. Han Kang: “While writing The Vegetarian, I was harboring questions about human violence and the (im)possibility of innocence. On the reverse side of the protagonist´s extreme attempt to turn her back on violence by casting off her own human body and transforming into a plant lies a deep despair and doubt about humanity.“

Inspiration is everywhere.

What others said:

“It’s a bracing, visceral, system-shocking addition to the Anglophone reader’s diet. It is sensual, provocative and violent, ripe with potent images, startling colours and disturbing questions.

– Daniel Hahn, The Guardian about The Vegetarian

“The Pearl is a triumph, a successful rendering of human experience in the round, in the most economical and intense of forms.”

– Howard Levant about the Pearl

 

Two beautiful books written in a beautiful languages.

The journey continues.

Books of Note: WEEK #9 & #10 – The Thirty Nine Steps by John Buchan and Fup by Jim Dodge

 

10 weeks into my 2017-52-book-challenge and I read books #9 and #10: The 39 steps, a classic UK thriller, and Fup, a cult college hit from the US.

What they are about:

39 steps: A man-hunt in the Scottish highlands on the dawn of WWI .

Fup: A grandson who lives a reclusive and eccentric farm life with his grandfather.

Why they matter:

Well, the 39 steps is a classic and one of the first man-on-the-run thriller archetype, a story type that almost became a cliché in Hollywood more recently. Also this book has spawned more than half a dozen films and plays, most notably by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935, most weirdly as a London west-end comedy in 2012.

Fup became an instant cult book when it was first published in 1982 and has not been out of print ever since. It is not only memorable because of his eccentric characters and the sheer fact that a 80 year old drunk raises his grand son who is 76 years his junior. The grandson`s greatest passion is digging postholes for fences and his granddad makes his own whiskey which, and he firmly believes that, gives him an eternal life. Together they decide to raise an overweight, paranormal duck and try to teach it how to fly. Sounds weird? Yes, it is, but in a very sweet way. Interestingly, Fup is now a set text in many colleges and high schools in the USA.

Everything yearns to be wild

Favourite Sentences:

39 steps: “If you are playing a part, you will never keep it up unless you convince yourself that you are it.”

Fup: “You white men desire to tame everything , but if you just stand still and feel for a moment you would know how everything yearns to be wild.”

Storytelling elements:

The 39 steps is technically written in a road movie structure with its protagonist constantly changing his location and meeting numerous people on the run. It is very episodically narrated and thus a precursor of a lot of Hitchcock thrillers. It also cleverly weaves in the political and historical context of the dawning WWI.

Fup starts with two totally unrelated stories and the reader only finds out later how these stories are interrelated. Also there is a lot of magic realism in the book; strange occurrences that cannot and should not be explained.

“If people make it out here, I talk to them”

Some trivia:

Fup´s author Jim Dodge is an ex-gambler who lives a secluded life on a North Californian ranch and he has skilfully avoided publicity. He is not quite as seclusive as JD Salinger though. Dodge recently said: “If people make it out here, I talk to them.” Might be worth the trip…

What others said:

” It doesn’t matter that the reader has no clue where he is being taken or, when he gets there, how the thing happened as it did. All that matters is that once you’ve started, you can’t put the book down.”

– Stella Rimington, The Independent about The 39 Steps

“The novel’s faux-homespun style, plus its quirky design and distinctive illustrations by British artist Harry Horse, have marked it out as a bankable cult success.”

– Vanessa Thorpe, The Independent about Fup

 

Two beautiful books which I enjoyed reading.

The journey continues.

Hannah Arendt – A political storyteller

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„The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.“,  Hannah Arendt

 

Some of my blog posts are about famous storytellers. This blog is about Hannah Arendt and a  belated celebration of International Women’s Day and also dedicated to recent political events in the US and the UK. Hannah Arendt was a German born Jewish American philosopher and political theorist. But Hannah was also a brilliant storyteller, which helped her getting her message across. It is said that she loved to tell stories with a charming disregard for mere facts but always focussed on the life of the story.

Hannah once said that poetry comes closest to our thinking process. Knowing about the enormous power of stories and propaganda there is another memorable quote from her: “Storytelling reveals meaning without the error of defining it.” Too true.

Hannah Arendt once notably reasoned that politics are best assumed as a power relationship between private and public. And storytelling, she said, forms a crucial bridge between these sides, where singular passions and standpoints can be challenged and mingled.

Life in a story structure

Even her life followed a story structure with tough times, ups and downs and, thanks god, a happy ending: Born and raised in Königsberg and Berlin she studied philosophy with Martin Heidegger.

After she had been briefly imprisoned by the Gestapo in 1933, Hannah fled to France where she worked to support and aid Jewish refugees throughout the 1930s. Being stripped of her German citizenship in 1937 she sought refuge in New York in 1941. Hannah was stateless for 13 years, as she only became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1950.

Under the impression oft he Holocaust, Hannah wrote a seminal theory of totalitarianism, which is still being studied today: “The origins of totalitarianism”. Since the rise of Donald Trump and Brexit it has been often referenced and it had to be restocked by many booksellers despite it being long, complex and demanding.

Anti-muslim orders to be nipped in the bud

In this book Hannah writes that during the economic depression and in times of imperialism, “antisemitism became the catalytic agent first for the rise of the Nazi movement … then for a world war of unparalleled ferocity and, finally, for the emergence of the unprecedented crime of genocide”.

If Hannah would be still alive today, she would probably say about Trump´s anti-muslim orders, that these things have to be nipped in the bud.

Hannah was very clear and vocal about the sheer evil enormousness of the Holocaust. In a 1960s TV interview she said: “The decisive day was when we heard about Auschwitz. Before that, we said: ‘Well, one has enemies. That is natural. Why shouldn’t people have enemies?’ But this was different. It was as if an abyss had opened. Amends can be made for almost anything, at some point in politics, but not for this.”

The world became colder without her warmth

After she became a US citizen she still criticised social injustices in her new home country. She saw in the American way of life ‘a basic contradiction of political freedom and societal slavery’. She never held back criticising her new fellow countrymen the same way she criticised Germans and Jews before; and her opinion never fit into any political direction.

Hannah came to New York as a penniless refugee and died there as one of the most respected intellectuals. She gained respect and fame through the power of thought and the eloquence of her speech.

Hannah Arendt died in New York City in 1975. The philosopher Hans Jonas said in his funeral speech: “The world became colder without your warmth, Hannah.”

Oh, and the asteroid “100027 Hannaharendt” was named in her honour.

May you stay strong, Hannah, on whatever orbit you might be.

 

 

Books of Note: WEEK #8 – Media Control by Noam Chomsky

 

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On my 52-books-journey I stumbled over Chomsky´s very subjective analysis of U.S. government propaganda and media bias; written in 2004 it seems very topical today.

What it is about:

The US government´s PR and propaganda since WWI.

Why it matters:

The book eloquently explains how the modern PR (public relations) industry started and who gave rise to the way propaganda is used in modern society. Chomsky describes the media as a tool that keeps the truth from the citizens in order to keep them subdued and unaware of the government’s real plans. A lot of food for thought to say the least. Especially in times of Trump.

Favourite Sentence:

“It is … necessary to whip up the population in support of foreign adventures. Usually the population is pacifist, just like they were during the First World War. The public sees no reason to get involved in foreign adventures, killing, and torture. So you have to whip them up. And to whip them up you have to frighten them.“

Be a Martian journalist

Storytelling elements:

The narrative is quite sarcastic and very subjective for a non-fiction book; it reads more like an essay. The book takes us on a journey from the beginning of modern media propaganda during WWI until the Gulf war. At the end there is a transcript of a more recent speech of Chomsky who recommends to take the position of a Martian journalist when writing about current events; a Martian looks at the world´s events from a complete outside perspective. Interesting thought.

Some trivia:

Having always been a political activist, Chomsky only endorsed one presidential candidate in his long career: Bernie Sanders.

What others said:

” It’s back to moral truisms: it’s of little moral value to criticise the crimes of someone else – though you should do it, and tell the truth. I have no influence over the policies of Sudan but a certain degree over the policies of the US. It’s not a matter of expectation but of aspiration.”

– Noam Chomsky about his motivation

 

Interesting read.

The journey continues.

In what jobs you better be a good storyteller

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I was recently asked in one of my business storytelling workshops a simple but important question: In what professions are storytelling skills important?

I thought a bit about it and the answer I came up with is: in pretty much every!

Well, you might think know, that this guy has to say exactly this since he is blogging about the importance of storytelling; and you´re absolutely right!

But think one moment about what storytelling is actually good for: it is good to explain things and especially to make complex things easier; it is good if you want people to remember things; it is a really good persuasion tool; it is a good tool to trigger action; it is good to motivate people and create empathy; it is good as a planning tool and, yes, storytelling is a really, really good selling tool!

So in which professions do all these skills come in handy? Right! … in pretty much every profession!

Narrative medicine and lying politicians

Think about some unrelated professions and how having storytelling skills can help you succeed in those:

Historians – They always have write stories of the past and make connections to future ages. Actually since school history books are written in a story format, the retention rate among students went significantly up.

Medics – “Narrative medicine” is actually a new buzzword I recently stumbled over. Professors in renowned medicine schools use doctor stories, written by famous authors to teach students to go beyond clinical diagnoses by listening fully to patients´ stories as a way to connect emotionally with them.

Psychotherapists – Similar to doctors. Storytelling can be a catharsis for the patient and story listening on the part of the therapist can open a productive communication with the patient. Stories can also be a really good sense-making tool.

Teachers – If they are good, they tell stories to deliver knowledge and make facts more entertaining and memorable .

Lawyers – Especially in the Amercian law system, lawyers better tell good stories to persuade the judge about their position. For them it is mainly a persuasive tool.

Economists – Economists constantly have to put complex data and analysis in concise and sense-making future stories. They also use future scenario stories as a decision-making tool to help the government forming a decision.

Politicians – They have to create scenarios about the future and convince people to follow them. For them it is mainly putting positive outcome stories in other people’s heads.

…and so and so on… (storytelling is especially powerful of course in media, the arts and business related professions)

So go out there now and strengthen your storytelling skills. It will do you good.

Promise.

Books of Note: WEEK #6 & #7 – Comet in Moominland and We have always lived in the castle

 

The last two-weeks´ books I read were Comet in Moominland by Tove Jansson and We have always lived in the castle by Shirley Jackson.

The first one is a children´s book about the moomins, which are roundish fairy tale characters with large snouts that make them resemble hippos. The second one is a creepy family story which is set somewhere in rural Vermont.

Dark and philosophical reads

What they are about:

Moomins and their friends who prepare for a comet that is about to hit their valley.

Two sisters who live reclusively in a castle after a murder mystery killed the rest of their family.

Why they matter:

Comet in Moominland is the second of seven moomins novels and this is by far the darkest. Mostly written during the Second World War it deals with the philosophical question of how people should deal in moments of crisis and an external menace.

Shirley Jackson is one of the masters of the ghost story and ‘We have always lived in the castle’ was her last book before she died an early death at the age of 48. As the main characters in the book, Shirley was very troubled towards the end of her life, which is reflected in the book. The book is widely hailed as Jackson´s master piece and has influenced modern writers like Neil Gaiman and Stephen King alike.

“With any luck I could have been born a werewolf”

Favourite Sentences:

“It´s strange”, said Moomintroll, “but it seems to me hat we aren´t as afraid as any of those people, although we are going to the most dangerous place of all, and they´re leaving it.”

“I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had.“

Storytelling elements:

Comet in Moominland has a surprisingly complex plot with loads of small plots inside the main one. All characters they meet on their journey have their own little backstory told. In that respect it is almost like a little predecessor oft he hobbit for younger readers.

We have always lived in the castle is narrated from the point of view of the 18-year old sociopathic Merricat Blackwood. In storytelling terms this is called an unreliable narrator, as the reader can never trust the credibility of the events they are told. In the end the reader has to re-evaluate the point of view of the story and the way they experienced the story, which makes the read interesting yet chilling.

Children characters based on German philosophers

Some trivia:

The muskrat, a character from the Moomin book, which is described as something wet and miserable, with shiny black eyes, is based on German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer who was notoriously grumpy.

What others said:

“They seem to grow in wisdom and delight every time I read them” – Philip Pullman about the Moomins

“If you haven’t read We Have Always Lived in the Castle … you have missed out on something marvellous” – Neil Gaiman

Two beautiful books which I enjoyed reading.

The journey continues.

Books of Note: WEEK # 5 – Muhammad Ali: A memoir by Michael Parkinson

 

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This week´s book was Muhammad Ali: A memoir by Michael Parkinson. I was inspired to read this book as I went to a reading by Michael Parkinson in Covent Garden last week and had his book signed afterwards. When talking about Ali, Parkinson still had this sparkle in his eyes; the same sparkle people have in their eyes when they just experienced something extraordinary.

What it is about:

It is about the life story of Muhammad Ali framed by four interviews he gave to Michael Parkinson from 1971-1980.

Why it matters:

Muhammad Ali was probably the biggest sports personality of all times; getting a first-hand and personal insight from one of the best British talk show hosts about Ali´s life and their relationship is invaluable. It is interesting to see how both of their lives progress over the course of the four interviews and how their relationship deepens. The fourth and last interview is heart-breaking as Parkinson begs Ali to stop boxing as it could ruin his health. Ali didn´t stop and the rest is history.

Favourite Sentences:

“The real reason he fought for so long was that which him a great champion: his indomitable courage, unyielding resolve, unquenchable willpower. To expect him to take a careful approach to his life, to work solidly and cautiously towards a pension, is to misunderstand the soul of a prize-fighter.”

Storytelling elements:

The book contains full transcripts of Parkinson´s interviews with Ali. Those interviews are used to frame chronologically the real life events around Ali.

Some trivia:

Michael Parkinson interviewed hundreds of celebrities over five decades but the only one he wrote a book about is Ali as he thought he was the most “singular” of all of them.

What others said:

“Journalists are lucky in terms of the access we have to famous people. But only a few make you think: ‘That was a privilege – what an extraordinary person.'”

– Michael Parkinson being asked about his interviews with Ali, BBC –

 

Good life, good interviews, good overall read.

The journey continues.

Books of Note: WEEK # 4 – ‘But you did not come back’ by Marceline Loridan-Ivens

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This week´s book was the haunting, beautiful and moving Holocaust memoirs of Marceline Loridan-Ivens. The book is also a love letter to her Loridan-Ivens´ father who she lost in the concentration camp at the age of 16.

76,500 Jews were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in the 1940s, only 2,500 came back and 160 of them are still alive. Loridan-Ivens is one of them. This book tells the story of her unlikely survival.

‘She already looked like her limp, lifeless doll’

What it is about:

It is about the life of a French Jew who survived the holocaust in Auschwitz.

Why it matters:

Reminding us on the biggest atrocity in human history is extremely important. Getting a first-hand and unvarnished account of the inhuman events in those days even more so. The author of this book was mentally so damaged that she tried to commit suicide twice after the war. Two of her three siblings were less lucky and eventually took their own lives: they were “sick from the camps without ever having been there”.

Notable Sentences:

“From my cell block, I could see the children walking to the gas chambers. I remember one little girl clinging to her doll. She looked lost, staring in space. Behind her were probably months of terror and being hunted. They´d just separated her from her parents, soon they´d tear off her clothes. She already looked like her limp, lifeless doll.“

‘An unwavingerly honest testimony’

Storytelling elements:

The memoirs are directly addressed to Loridan-Ivens´ dead father, which make the book even more intimate and personal. The father somehow managed to smuggle a letter to her while they were detained in neighbouring camps in 1944. Loridan-Ivens cannot remember the content of the letter, which haunted her for her entire life. This book is Loridan-Ivens poetic response to her father´s letter; it took her 60 years to respond. Also the book jumps back and forth in time and covers over 70 years of her life and even touches on some post-modern events like the student revolt in China and 9/11.

Some trivia:

Loridan-Ivens married the dutch film-maker Joris Ivens in the early 1960s and together they made some acclaimed frontline documentaries about the Vietnam war.

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What others said:

„Very occasionally a book comes along that demands to be published, to be read, to be talked about. A book about pain and suffering, about cruelty and humanity, about grief and love. But You Did Not Come Back is an exquisitely written, beautifully translated and unwaveringly honest testimony; a story we will all do well never to forget.”

– Hannah Beckerman, The Guardian –

Thanks, Hannah.

Very moving read indeed and very recommendable. I will now watch some of Loridan-Ivens documentares.

The journey continues…

Storytelling is a decision-making tool

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I recently stumbled over a very interesting story that involves the prominent neurologist Dr. Antonio Damasio from the USC and his patient Elliot.

Elliott had lost a very small portion of his prefrontal cortices during a surgery for a brain tumor. Before his illness, Elliott held a high-level corporate job and had a happy, thriving family. After the surgery he lost everything.

The interesting bit is that on a rational level everything was still fine with him: Elliot still scored in the 98th percentile in IQ, he had a high-functioning memory, and had no problem analysing and quantifying every possible solution to a problem. On a superficial level, we would think that he is very capable to be a good businessman.

Decision making process is driven by emotions

What was his real issue? One crucial thing he couldn´t do anymore is: taking decisions. Not even what colour pen to use or how to get his tasks in order.

Why? Because the damage to his brain left him unable to experience emotion. But wouldn´t that be a good thing in a hard-boiled business environment!? Intuitively we would think that Elliot would be free to make rational decisions, right?!

But the real problem was that without emotions Elliott had no way to gauge what mattered and what didn´t.

This case and further studies from neurologists such as Dr. Antonio Damasio have indicated that decision-making, once thought to be an activity of the logical, rational brain, is actually a process driven largely by our instincts and emotions.

People don´t need facts – they need meaning

And this is where stories kick in.

I worked in M&A for a couple of years and have seen identical assets being sold for completely different prices. The sellers who achieved the significantly higher prices for the same assets simply had the better stories to tell.

People are not price sensitive if they really want to have something. Think about it; this is basically the core of good branding. Evoking emotions make people pay a premium for, well, ‘premium’ brands; even if their products might be on a purely rational/technical level identical to other competing brands´ products (or even inferior).

So next time you want to influence decision-makers, don´t just show them the numbers –engage their emotions! Storytelling is one of the simplest, quickest and most effective ways to create emotions in your listener.

People do not need more facts – they need meaning.  Story helps provide meaning, shape and relationship to the data.