What not to read on a summer vaction

The following is a recipe for disaster; don’t read the following books.  Not in the order I did anyway.  For the past two months, I’ve been on a literary titanic and fortunately, I slipped away on a lifeboat just in time.  Whatever you do, do not re-create this perfect storm!

Ok, now that I’ve got your attention and obviously you aren’t heeding my warnings, here we go 😉

  1. It all starts with Gravity’s Rainbow.  This is an innocence-taking novel.  Readers that hang on get the high without inhaling, so to speak.  If you find yourself constantly asking, “what is going on,” apparently you are on the right track.  Out of all the literature I’ve read, this one made me physically gag over four, image-scarring pages.
  2. With the prologue now complete and the zen-like beginner’s mind prepared, one is now ready to accept the next few novels in rapid succession.  Enter Life of Pi, stage right.  This New York Times-bestseller should be a feel-good softball, right down the middle.  Not after GR, no.  An island of carnivorous algae full of meerkats?  This is Slothrop’s dreams in the White Visitation all over again.  It builds the question: choose religion or choose science, they both require a leap of faith.
  3. Chase Life of Pi with Homo Faber for a downer.  A middle age agnostic technologist experiences a depressing, Elektra-complex filled journey.  If you feel your life is going great, this book will bring you down.  A series of tragic events, on the level of the great Greek tragedies, has this technology-can-fix-all-problems guy question whether or not there is a greater purpose.
  4. Smear with Luminarium, by Alax Shakar.  A twin-brother and tech startup co-founder is strung along on life support.  Meanwhile, his dopplegänger (true to the word in this case) finds that his twin is infecting the company’s virtual world, slowing bringing it to its knees while appearing as a Hindu-avatar.  By the way, the non-comatose brother is volunteering for scientific experiments design, through electrotherapy, to simulate the emotions of faith, through a “faith without ignorance” approach…
  5. Finally, top off with Gothic High-Tech, a collection of short stories by Bruce Sterling.  On a normal day, I would have enjoyed this collection.  It’s the cyberpunk of the new millennium, where Europe and America have crashed and high-tech meets urban-grit.  But after this journey, Sterling’s creative stories that subsequently make one question the reality around them, it was all just too much…

Then I saw the next book on my queue, Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf and I realized I had to get off this sinking ship.  Somehow, subconsciously I’ve been attracted to these faith-shaking novels.  Despite my most recent vacation, it’s been 15 months since I’ve been home.  I’ve passed the time well enough I think.  I’m on my 5th graduate class, I’ve read 15 books in 2012 and I’ve kept this blog going since then.  But I’ll be very relieved to bring my pre-war life back into order.  Maybe then my book selections will reflect a content temperament.

I think I’m going to take a breather from fiction for a while and go back and finish the nice, peaceful, non-fiction books that are lying around.  Liars and Outliers should be an easy ride, but I’ll continue to mix in the rest of Gödel, Escher and Bach just so I don’t get too comfortable…

Literaturhaus NYC

For those visiting NYC Upper East Side, I recommend the following half-day trip, which happened to be my Monday morning.  Start off with Breakfast at Café Sabarsky at 86th and 5th.  It’s a quiet, Viennese style café in the Neue Galerie Museum.  It has the distinct European café feel, where they make real caffè lattes (milchkaffee) and where one can sit with a Newspaper stick and enjoying leisurely reading.  Café Sabarsky reminds me of my other favorite café in Berlin, the Literaturhaus Berlin.  Like Sabarsky and as its name implies, the Literaturhaus café is designed for reading.  And not the kind of reading one does with a highlighter or with the swipe of the finger, these cafés are the battlefields to tackle Joyce, Foster, Dostoyevsky, or Pynchon.  None of whom I brought, since I had excellent company at the time.  But I semi-frequently go to restaurants by myself just to read, which I recognize is not a normal habit…

So, after a European breakfast topped off with Sachertorte, walk down (or through) the Park to the south-east corner of Central Park at 60th and 5th Avenue.  There you will find two kiosks.  One, is the Vendy Award winning Belgian Waffle stand: Wafels and Dinges.

Waffles and Dinges Cart

Skip that for now, since you just had Sachertorte, but remember to go back one day and try a waffle with Speculoos.  Instead focus on the stand of one of the great NYC companies: The Strand Bookstore.  This kiosk is a mere speck of the books offered in the main bookstore which contains over 18 miles of books and where one can order books not only by the author, but by the foot.

The Kiosk, open 10 AM to dusk April through December, weather permitting, is the reverent flame for the book against its barbarian attacker: the eBook.  Even mentioned in this recent WIRED article, the book benefits from what the eBook readers lack: good

Strand Kiosk on the SE Corner of Central Park

design.  Now, I own a Kindle and it has its place for me, but there is something about browsing through table-tops of books at the entrance to central park.  And if the location and availability hasn’t won you over, the pedigree of books on display will.  Of course, at the kiosk, the Hunger Game Series and other popular fiction are available, but the majority of this corner shop is the boxes of half-priced (slightly) used classics.  I had to limit myself to three: Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf (natürlich, I would try to read it in German, but Kafka is still difficult for me.  And I tend to collect German books and not finish them.  So, I really want to read Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann in German, but you see, I’ve just purchased these books…), Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale, and The Redbreast, a Jo Nesbo novel.

While this may not be the itinerary for first time New Yorkers, stay an extra day next time to give this a try.  Or, if you forgot to bring your copy of The Brothers K., try the trip above in reverse and pick up a copy at the Strand Kiosk on your way to Frühstück.  As of Monday, there were three copies left.

The Catch-22 to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Trial

The nightmare in Kafka’s The Trial is not too far from reality.  Ok, maybe the scene where two bodyguards are thrashed for over twenty-four hours while seemingly no time has passed by to the narrator is a bit far-fetched, but besides that…  If you have no good reason to read Franz Kafka, read The Trial so that you can know what it is like to have a nightmare described to you, in its complete obfuscated form.  In The Trial, the bureaucracy makes a man so burdened by guilt over his innocence, it destroys him.

But for me, Kafka and Douglas Adams are two sides of the same coin. In a classic Infocom game created by Adams, called Bureaucracy appropriately enough, the dark side of Kafka is replaced with satirical wit.  The game (which can be downloaded and played with a Z-interpreter) initially asks the player to fill out a form which, among other things, will

Franz Kafka Museum in Prague Русский: Музей Фр...
The entrance to the Kafka Museum in Prague. When I stumbled upon this museum, I was surprised to learn that one can text a phone number and the men will pee the message... (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

automatically change Mr. to Mrs. and vice versa.  Throughout the game, the player is referred to by the incorrect title.  Adams confronted Bureaucracy by acknowledging its stupidity, as shown in this hilarious letter.

Kafka’s characters tend to implode while Adams’ tend to explode.  While insatiable guilt is a major theme across most of Kafka’s work, I much prefer the system-squashing works like the Trial and the Castle.  For me, they are much more horrific.  A perfect example of a Kafka guilt stricken character is Gregor Samsa in the Metamorphosis, who after waking up as an insect, immediately had angst over the fact he was late to work and how he should explain the situation to his boss.

Authors like Kafka, Adams, and even Joseph Heller perhaps resonate more with me due to my military experiences.  All three write about how the bureaucracy can dehumanize.  Compare the excerpts below from The Trial, Catch-22, and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on the ideas of bureaucracy vs man.  One thing governments are consistently good at: coming up with euphemisms on how to make somebody irrelevant.

Do you know what this means?  This means, that you will simply be deleted!  (Auf deutsch: Weißt du, was das bedeutet? Das bedeutet, daß du einfach gestrichen wirst.) (The Trial)

It doesn’t make sense. It isn’t even good grammar. What the hell does it mean to disappear somebody?
(Catch-22 Yossarian is told by Nurse Duckett that officials are planing to “disappear” Dunbar, Chapter 34: Thanksgiving.)

What do you mean you’ve never been to Alpha Centauri? Oh, for heaven’s sake, mankind, it’s only four light years away, you know. I’m sorry, but if you can’t be bothered to take an interest in local affairs, that’s your own lookout. Energize the demolition beams.
(Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Chapter 3.  The Vogons are incredulous as to why mankind did not follow a straightforward administrative procedure, which will now result in the demolition of Earth.)

And now I’m adding a new author to that list, Thomas Pynchon, as I’ve just started to read Gravity’s Rainbow.  Already in characteristic Yossarian-style, one character in GR, who is supposed to be researching the German V-2 rocket attack locations, instead plots on a graph of London where the most attractive women are, prioritized by color.  Maybe GR inspired this man to rank all of his online-dating dates in an excel file, only to have it posted on the Internet!  My guess is that he probably hasn’t read the book…