Monday, May 20, 2013

Island reads: Paradise lost & found - with Mather in New York, with Taylor in China, with Miller in Big Sur & with Maron in Berlin

This blog post is inspired by the "It's Monday! What are you reading?" series, which now finally made me get my island reading notes together. More about the series and further reads, at the bottom of this post.

So good to have this island time, and with it, time to read. And interesting how the books that I found and brought connect to a larger theme: civilization, the dream of a better world, of paradise, and the way those dreams can disrupt into dystopia. Let's start - in winter, in a megacity:

A Technology Blackout:   
"Cyberstorm" by Matthew Mather 

Remember the fear that roamed the world when the new year 2000 and the fear of the 2K-bug approached? When experts warned of computer failures, even expected a domino of bluescreens, maybe even a worldwide blackout? Nothing happened, luckily. But of course, all the technology our modern world is made of also brings evermore risks. Matthew Mather is both an author and a computer expert, and in his new book "Cyberstorm", he takes us right into such a massive technology drama, and tried to make it as realistic as possibl - in his author note Mather says: "thanks to the members of the cybersecurity community who lent me their time and insight into making this as realistic a scenario as possible of what a full-scale cyber event could like."

Cyberstorm, set in winter, in New York, is a thought-provoking read that makes you look at your surrounding from another angle: all the technology we take for granted. Here's a book description: 
"Cyberstorm is ... a haunting description of what would happen in case of a cyber attack - all systems failing one by one. First, we only see some issues with our direct internet connections, then the infrastructure gets hit: supermarket checkout counters stop working, ATMs as well, TV feeds are failing, power goes down, and so on.... To make things worse, the protagonists of the story live in New York, and it is around Christmas, just in time for blizzard season. Initially, people huddle together and share, and even help each other, but as resources get scarce, they start the slow descent from human to animals that just want to survive."
The e-book was released in April, and still is available with the promotional release price of 0.99$, direct link: Cyberstorm


While reading Cyberstorm, i remembered my first trip to Asia. I visited Thailand, took a train to Chiang Mai in the North, spent a couple of days there, and from there, joined a day-long bus tour to the Golden Triangle: the place where the borders of China, Myanmnar and Thailand meet at the Mekong River. It's a beautiful, hilly region, and we also visited a tranquil hill town with an amazing view. "That would be a perfect place to retreat to for a while," we concluded.

There was no electricity, though. No running water. If a cybestorm hits, its one of the places where life will move on, self-sustained. It's of course also a place where the young people move away from, to find their luck in a larger city. "And at night, the region is not all peaceful," our tour guide explained. "There are hidden drug fields here in the hills. In the night, there's harvest traffic of the different kind, and police patrols guard the borders of the Mekong."

It were those memories that made me pick the next e-book, set in Asia, in a hill town:

A Dream of Paradise that goes wrong:
"Harvest Season" by Chris Taylor

Chris Taylor's novel could be described as "The Beach" meets "Shangri-la" in China: "In a remote mountainous valley in southwestern China, it's harvest season. The ganja is coming down off the mountain slopes in baskets. Paradise. What could go wrong?" ...

The author was once guidebook author for Lonely Planet and/or the Rough Guide, and in the book, he uses “Rough Planet” as title for the guidebooks – one of the core themes of the book is how charming, innocent small places that are like paradise for the first couple of travelers who stay there then in time turn into travel hotspots and lose their charm – while the bandwagon of travelers who look for those charming spots moves on, and the cycle repeats, in an endless chain of touristifying the world. 

The other core theme is respect of culture, and the dream of a Shangri-la opposed to the reality of the rough world… and drugs as a way to escape, only that in the book, (surprise..) most of the trips aren’t good ones.

It's not an easy book, but especially if you travelled with a backpack at some point in your life - or thought of doing so - I would recommend it. It also gives some clues to Chinese culture, and the new generation in China. For some excerpts from the book, and some travel notes from his current trip through Thailand, like this one with unusual travel advice:
Next time your bus breaks down... Blog about it. Really. It helps. You’ll get busy taking pictures, talking to your fellow travelers as they stand in the sun batting away flies and grimacing at the yelping neighborhood dogs, for whom a sudden invasion of foreign-smelling foreigners must be something like a canine iteration of the zombie apocalypse. .. In other words, I’m not saying blogging is the answer to everything, but twenty minutes out of Chumphon, which I will also blog about before too long, it helped.
More over at the author's blog. And here's the book link Harvest Season 


From the remote hills of China in our present time .. to the remote coast of Big Sur in 1940 and to Berlin. That's where the next 2 book lead, and both were chance finds from the fabulous telephone box book exchange (here's a photo)

Between freedom and censorship:
"Big Sur" by Henry Miller
"Big Sur" is a collection of notes and essays written while Henry Miller was struggling with being censored, and living on a tiny budget on the Western shore of the US - here's the book summary:  "First published in 1957, Miller tells the story of his life on the Big Sur, a section of California coast where he lived for fifteen years. Big Sur is the portrait of a place—one of the most colorful in the U.S.—and of the extraordinary people Miller knew there ... he has a fine touch for comedy. But this is also a serious book—the testament of a free spirit who has broken through the restraints & cliches of modern life."

Reading in it is like overhearing a self-conversation of a man stitting at the ocean, full of thoughts, reflections, ponderings, pleadings, and stories from living out there, at the edge of civilization and wilderness. Here are two quotes, to give a feel for its atmosphere:
"One's destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things" 
 "There is an old saying that if you do not — that if you do not know where you are going, any road will take you there.‎"

When utopia turns into dystopia: 
"Stille Zeile Sechs"by Monika Maron
I picked the book for its curious title: "Stille Zeile Sechs" translates to "Silent Line Six", which in the book is an address of a house: number 6 in the street called "Silent Line". But you can read it as meta-instruction, too: the lines in the narrative that are missing, that are lingering in between, silent, but almost graspable.

The book itself is fiction, but reads like its woven from autobiographic reflections and obstacles - it's set in the former East Germany, in the mid eighties, and not easy to sum up. The official description says:
"Rosalind Pokowski, a historian decides to free her head from work. A once powerful official offers her an opportunity to work and to write his memoirs. It situates these texts on the border between autobiography and fiction, or the "documentary" and the fictional; within the discourse of memory; and within German-German discourse both before and after the Unification in 1990. -  And as in Maron's other novels, the characters are victims and victimizers at the same time."
The nature of narrative, history and biography:
Altogether, Maron created a brief but thought-provoking read that adresses the nature of narrative, history, and biographic stories. H
ow much of our life narrative do we adjust? How much of personal and historical memory is constructed? Written in first person, the story challenges the reliability of the narrator, especially when it switches to third person in a critical scene, where she shows a side that hasn't appeared before.

The other huge theme of the novel is the dream of a better society - Socialism in the East of Germany, and in the other Eastern States. This hope of a better, fairer, more just world. And all the measures that were taken to construct this better society - only that it didn't work out, and instead of a better society, the measures lead to a totalitarian system - and the ones in power didn't want to accept that, and instead added pressure and measures, and tried to cover up the things going wrong, to keep up the dream, and at some point, to keep up their power. The tragedy of utopia: the way it can easily turn into its counterpart. And then creates another generation who makes a plan for a better world...

Previous reading blog entries are collected here: bookshelf: currently  reading... there also is a visual bookshelf, just click it to get there:

More monday reads from other bloggers: link list at book journey

And my own new book... is Worl(d)s Apart. True.


Kathy Martin said...

Looks like you traveled widely in this past week's reading. Come see my week. Happy reading!

Anonymous said...

Looks like you travel through reading :) I have Turn Right at Machu Picchu on my TBR pile - set in the Andes. I have to have it read by June 12 for book club meeting.

Rose Milligan said...

I'm reading The Host by Stephenie Meyer. You travel to a few places, but they are all in the US.

Dorothee said...

Thanks for the feedback! "Turn Right at Machu Picchu" - i think i have this one, too, as e-book. Looking forward to your reading notes.

And yes, i traveled widely while sitting at the beach :)

Debra Mauldin said...

Big Sur is a book I've always wanted to read. :)