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Review: “The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin”, Steven Lee Myers

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Lee Myers’ book is a fascinating and detailed biography of Putin’s life; from early childhood in a poor family in St. Petersburg; as a low level KGB officer; a loyal adviser of the St. Petersburg major Sobchak in the early 90s; and then suddenly and unexpectedly as first prime minister and then president of Russia at the turn of the century. The story includes detailed political and personal events up until the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Lee Myers balances the personal anecdotes, which give glimpses of Putin’s character, with overall political history and background. Throughout, all is very well researched and referenced, with the list of references taking up some fifty pages of a five hundred pages book.

Although some of the sources are clearly biased, as they come from stories told by Putin himself, his wife, or other loyal to Putin, Lee Myers paints a picture of Putin as extremely hard working, determined and goal oriented. Clearly, his unquestioning loyalty was something which got him forward in his early political career in the 1990s. Later on, and especially as president, he has expected the same unquestioning loyalty and servitude from his subordinates and even business interests. Where there has been opposition and resistance, it has been crushed decisively and sometimes brutally, including assassinations and other KGB style methods.

Putin’s upbringing and early life in Soviet Russia and background in the KGB, and also briefly as director of its reincarnation FSB, is a central part of his character, and still shapes his presidency and politics today. The US and the West is still seen as the enemy or at least opposition of Russia, and the politics and wars in Eastern Europe, Yugoslavia; Chechnya; Ukraine; Crimea, as well as the Middle East; Iraq; Afghanistan; Syria must be seen in this light. Thus it becomes clear why Russia is against the Americans in Syria: It is not to support Bashar al-Assad, but rather to avoid American forces on the footsteps of Russia, and furthermore to keep their naval base in the Mediterranean sea at Tartus at the east coast of Syria.

Lee Myers’ book ends in 2014, but hints at the next milestone in Russian politics: The upcoming presidential election in 2018, where Putin legally can sit a second term (which overall would be his fourth term). If he does, it means he will rule until 2024, since he extended the presidential term from four to six years while prime minister under Medvedev in 2011.

Most interesting

As mentioned, Lee Myers’ book is fascinating and a page turner, which is a good achievement when writing about politics. The blend between political and historical events, and personal anecdotes make it entertaining, and also something to quote. Personal favorites include the story from the business meeting between Putin and US business leaders, among them Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots football team. He showed Putin his Super Bowl ring, who understood it as a gift, and put it in his pocket. Mr. Kraft was forced to announce it as a gift to avoid at diplomatic embarrassment.

Understanding Putin’s Russia goes a long way to explain many key world events and decisions over the last decades. Given that it looks like he will be at the head for another seven years, for almost quarter of a century in total, his reign will shape world affairs for decades to come.

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Review: “Dreaming in Code”, Scott Rosenberg

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What makes software so hard? Why does it take so long to develop? Why is it always late, always full of bugs, always over budget? In “Dreaming in Code” by Scott Rosenberg, he explores these questions from a historical perspective, and through anecdotes from the Open Source Applications Foundation (OSAF) project “Chandler“. The story of the Chandler project, founded and funded by Mitch Kapor in 2002, serves as an anchor to which Rosenberg attaches the history of software development and management. It turned out to be an interesting choice, since the Chandler project came without a deadline, with “unlimited” funding from Kapor’s pocket, and with very enthusiastic collaborators. Nevertheless, they hit the same hurdles as pretty much any large complex software project have, including being stuck in “software time”, communication overhead, planning and time estimate problems, delayed releases, and thousands of bugs.

Between the project anecdotes, Rosenberg surveys the software development and management literature, and gives a brief glimpse into its history. He frequently comes back to Fred Brooks’ “The Mythical Man-Month” and concludes that the communication overhead grows exponentially, even with today’s online always-connected tools. And there is still no silver bullet to solve it. He touches on various methodologies and processes, including the Capability Maturity Model (CMM); Team Software Process (TSP); Rapid Application Development (RAD); Agile Software Development; Extreme Programming. All of which were supposed to assist a software project and guarantee some kind of success, but which in the end come with their own short-comings and pitfalls.

Given that Chandler is already history, it is not a spoiler for the book to mention that the project failed. It was designed and planned as a native application, right before AJAX and Web 2.0 become buzzwords, and much of the functionality it tried to deliver have now been covered by large web services like Google’s Apps suite, Microsoft’s Office365 and similar. Still, there is plenty to learn from its story.

Learn from it

Rosenberg himself, as well as authors he quote lament the fact that many developers do not take the time to read and study their own profession and history. I have no basis to say whether this is holds or not, however, if it is the case, this book is a good entertaining pick. Despite its age, it is just as relevant today.

If you are or have ever been part of a software project, either as a developer, designer, tester or manager, this book will come with a lot of deja vu moments. Every team believes to some extent that their project, their company, or their goal is special. And because it is special, conventional rules and wisdom does not hold. Usually, history tends to get the last laugh as it repeats itself over and over.

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Review: “Amusing Ourselves to Death”, Neil Postman

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In “Amusing Ourselves to Death” by Neil Postman, he warns against the perils of television as a communication channel for serious content, and explores why typographic media should be preferred over visual in public discourse, especially in politics, education and religion. He gives examples of how “the medium is the message”, that is, how the channel a message is sent through shapes the message itself. He worries that visual media, television in particular, transforms every message into entertainment, void of context, serious content, or troubling information. He references the fiction in the dystopian worlds of “1984″ and “Brave New World”, to point out “the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right”. (The original foreword and the last chapter argues this eloquently). In other words, we are not suppressed by a surveillance state and dictatorship, but instead distracted by bread and circuses.

Postman’s argument has two main parts: The historical value and importance of the written word as a medium of communication for serious content and public discourse; and the distractions and lack of context in visual communication, especially with television tending to morph every message into brief bits of entertainment.

From typographic to visual media
In the first part of the book, he considers how politics in colonial and 19th century America was mostly conducted and presented through long public letters, or by today’s standards, very long public debates, stretching over many hours in front of local audiences. He is amazed by the attention-span the citizens at that time commanded, and how engaged they were in the politics and arguments of the various politicians. He claims many people at the time would have recognized famous politicians by their writing, but not necessarily by appearance, which is of course the opposite of today’s situation.

In further chapters, Postman looks at how first the telegraph and later the photography changed the media landscape, and how those media shaped the content they channeled through. He traces the beginning of the irrelevant and out-of-context news bits to the telegraph, where snippets from afar could awake as much emotion, if not insight, as local business and news. He continues with discussion about the photograph, and asserts that a picture contains no context but itself. Any additional context is from information surrounding it, or prior knowledge we inject into it.

The medium is the message
To illustrate how the medium shapes and constrains the message, he uses the example of smoke rings for communication: Although they can be used to send very brief messages, it is not possible to conduct a philosophical discussion through that medium. Similarly, Postman argues, television cannot be used to convey serious content, since the visual presentation demands most of the viewer’s attention, and the narration or discussion will tend towards short sound-bites. (As an example of this, look at a site like euronews.com, which transcribes the audio of most of their short video clips. It is surprising how little text, read in 10 to 20 seconds, which goes with a minute of video).

In addition, most public television is of course funded by advertisement. This directly interrupts and distracts any and all programming, but also dictates the content. The message must be optimized to maximize the number of viewers, and thus eyeballs on their ads. The result can only be one thing: entertainment. Thus, whether the content is news, politics, education or religion, the viewer can never be allowed to get bored, challenged nor offended, lest he skips to another channel.

Must-read

Postman’s book was first published in 1985. In the 2006 edition, his son, Andrew Postman, points out why his father’s book is even more relevant now. Today, we are surrounded by visual content and entertainment, through the Internet; mobile phones; computers; never-ending TV station streams. Had Neil lived to see our world, he would probably have been even more shocked than he was back then, when an actor was elected US president in 1980.

What makes the book so approachable and readable, is its timeless message about the relevance of the written word for serious communication. Thirty-two years ago, the strongest opposing force was television, while today the Internet brings the same visual entertainment to large parts of the Western population. In fact, the lack of context have gone even further, with services like Facebook, Instagram, Reddit centered around streams of completely random pictures of irrelevant content, often from people we hardly know.

Recent political communication has taken this to a sinister level, when messages are now tailor-made based on a user’s profile. As a result, we might vote for the same party and candidate, but based on different promises automatically designed to appeal to our emotions. The choice of policy is based on the entertainment value of the candidate, or whether he seems like a guy we’d like to sit down for a drink with.

Today, “Amusing Ourselves to Death” is a must-read.

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Review: “The Internet Is Not the Answer”, Andrew Keen

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Andrew Keen is a bitter man. He longs for the time when his family ran a tailor business in London and middle class people could afford to buy clothes from their store. He resents the fact that his own music Internet site failed, while seemingly similar sites like MySpace, Spotify came to be valued in billions. For some reason he mourns the demise of Kodak and its film roll processing centre in Rochester, NY. And most of all, he despises rich folk, but not any billionaire, just those who happen to have made their money through the Internet. Keen’s book “The Internet Is Not the Answer” reads a bit like a rant towards all these things, while blaming it all on Silicon Valley and The Internet. The solutions he favour are mostly based on government regulation: six strikes laws for copyright infringement; antitrust and monopoly busting; mixed with labor unions.

Even though Keen’s book has a bitter tone throughout, he does touch on important points regarding increasing wealth disparity, middle class jobs being replaced by automation and far fewer specialized jobs, monopolistic mega-cooperations, centralized services. He takes on Amazon, Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, WhatsApp. He has done thorough research, and his book includes a substantial reference section. It is just that his conclusions doesn’t always align with actual causes and effects: Take the downfall of Kodak, where he spends a full chapter lamenting Instagram for the killing of film processing. Companies like Canon and Nikon which developed and sell high quality DSLR cameras and thus more directly caused the replacement of film are not mentioned.

Similarly, Keen reviews the history of the early days of the Internet, and its inventors and pioneers like Paul Baran, Bob Taylor, Bob Kahn, Vint Cerf, Tim Berners-Lee and points out how altruistic and anti-commercial they were. He contrasts this to “winner-take-all” companies in today’s economy. However, he does not discuss the seemingly obvious conclusion that what we’re lacking from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter are common open standards and protocols, which is what made early technology successful and long-lasting. Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) does not enter Keen’s field of view at all.

Maybe not worth it

If you already work in tech, and have good insight into these topics, Keen does not bring much new to the table. In fact, he disappoints in that regard. However, if you are interested in gentrification in San Francisco, Kodak in Rochester, or just want to hear a different point of view, give the book a try.

What Keen does have going for him, is that he is a very good writer. He writes almost poetically, albeit with great sarcasm, about topics like Internet economy, government regulation, and pretentious billionaires. Sound bites like the one below at least make the book entertaining.
While talking about the cult and praise of “failure” in tech-companies:

“Instagram actually represents the reverse side of Silicon Valley’s cult of failure. In the Valley, the rich and famous claim to be failures; on social networks like Instagram, millions of failures claim to be rich and famous”.

Finally, although it’s no way to be sure, it sometimes feels like the writes of Silicon Valley, the TV comedy series, have studied the book thoroughly and lifted several ideas from Keen onto the screen. What Keen scorns, like the double-speak; the feel-good big-company efforts and speeches; and the general Valley culture has made the TV series a hit. Keen’s book makes the series even more fun to watch.

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Review: “Flashpoints – The Emerging Crisis in Europe”, George Friedman

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In his latest book, “Flashpoints – The Emerging Crisis in Europe”, George Friedman gives a summary of various events through European history, focusing on the 20th century wars, inter-war years, and cold war eras. Although the book tries to sell itself as being about future predictions, he spends more than half of it looking at the past. In the second half, he tries to foresee various possibilities and outcomes for the regions of Russia / Eastern Europe; Germany; France; the Mediterranean region; Turkey and Britain. However, most of the attempt at analysis remains limited, shallow, and biased.

The problem with Friedman’s book, is that it seems he didn’t quite decide what it was supposed to be about: his own and his family’s escape from war in Europe; his travels across Europe in later years; a history of Europe; or as the title suggests, about future emerging crisis. It turns in to a bit of everything, and becomes colloquial and incoherent. Between the endless anecdotes, it seems what Friedman is missing is an editor who can cut away the cruft. Totally irrelevant stories covering taking a leak behind a border office in Ukraine or that some hotelier in Sarajevo reminds him of his aunt, are just some of what could have been left out.

Skip it

Frankly, this book is a waste of time. Although the history of Europe is important in order to understand the present and the future, this book is not a good summary. If any section of it had been part of Wikipedia, it would have been littered with “citation needed”. In fact, Friedman hasn’t included any references at all, and sometimes it seems he has not done his homework very well, with plenty of inaccurate facts.

This makes the future predictions in the book rather worthless. They are not based on any hard facts or research, but rather what Friedman could imagine. Furthermore, the book shows some age, despite being republished this year: In the chapter on Britain, he completely missed the risk of Britain voting to exit the EU, while it’s mentioned briefly in the after-word.

Overall, this is not a book worth spending time on.

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Review: “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror”, Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan

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In their book “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror” from early 2016, Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan give detailed insight into the Islamic State, its origin, key members, alliances, critical battles, and strategy of terror. The story begins with the early ties between Ayman Mohammed Rabie al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden in the 1990s, and the later split between them and the more radical and extreme Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Their disagreement on who are their enemies, crucially whether it includes Muslims or not, has underlined the split between al-Qaeda and ISIS / Islamic State. In later chapters, the rise of the current leader, theology professor Abu Bakr al-Baghdad, is investigated. The book goes into great detail about several key battles in Iraq and Syria, and analyses positions and outcome. Finally, some of the terror attacks on civilians in Europe and the US is put in context.

Sunni vs. Shia

There are a few important take-aways from the book: The divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims is usually at the core of most of the conflicts. Crucially, the numbers goes a long way to explain the various positions: Word-wide, Sunnis are in majority at around 85–90% while 10–15% are Shia. However, in Iraq and Iran this is reversed, where 80% and 95% are Shia respectively. An important point is the fact that Saddam Hussein was Sunni, and his mostly Sunni minority Baath party ruled over the Shia majority. When US invaded and ended their rule and tried to create democracy, the stage was set for bitter conflict. Furthermore, Paul Bremer (presidential envoy to Iraq) fired the mostly Sunni Iraqi army, along with most other official positions. So around 2003 a large part of the previous Iraq elite was suddenly jobless, but with plenty of military experience and even weapons on their hands. al-Zarqawi exploited these fault lines to his fullest, and ignited the ensuing civil war.

A similar setup, but again reversed has been the background for the civil war in Syria. There, Bashar Hafez al-Assad and his party are Alawites, a branch of Shia, but in a minority at around 13%. When the spring revolutions in 2011 swept other Muslim countries, al-Assad pitted themselves as under attack by the Sunni (74%) majority. al-Assad’s regime has support from Iran and Hezbollah who are also Shia. The opposition in Syria has many factions, and ISIS has time and again proved that they are experts at driving a wedge between opposing forces to divide and conquer.

Enemy of my Enemy

From small tribes, to national organizations and rebel groups and all the way to international alliances, the relationships network is extremely complex. A graph like this hardly scratches the surface. Furthermore, alliances shift frequently, and often the short term strategy is “the enemy of mine enemy is my friend”. This can be seen going far back, and characterizes much of US and Russian involvement in the various conflicts: During the Cold War; the US backing of Iraq against Iran in 1979; later US attacks against Iraq; US backing of the Kurds. Iran and Russia have tended to back the opposite groups, and Iran in particular has now infiltrated much of the Shia resistance and politics in Iraq.

The book goes into detail on several of these fluid alliances, and looks at the decisive battles and opposing personalities. The point is made many times over that in order to understand the conflicts, one has to understand the tribal politics. At a higher level, the relationships are often more pragmatic: Although ISIS is waging war across Syria, and also against al-Assad forces, they have a business relationship in the oil trade, where ISIS is selling back oil to al-Assad’s regime from the oilfields they have captured. al-Assad benefits since ISIS also fights the rebels in Syria. The enemy of mine enemy is my friend.

Read it

Weiss and Hassan have done plenty of research and interviews for this book, and it shows through all the details revealed. They have also done a good job of explaining the background history, religious underpinnings, and political motivations for the parties involved in the conflict. However, it can get somewhat tedious to go through all the nitty-gritty, and the writing style can be trite with the occasional odd analogies.

Overall, the book is definitively worth a read if you are interested in the current conflict, want to understand the terror attacks. Regional and international politics become more clear with the information provided by this book.

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Review: “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army”, Jeremy Scahill

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In journalist Jeremy Scahill’s exposé of the American private mercenary company Blackwater, he documents its origin, its founder Eric Princ’s life and family history, the early start as a North Carolina military and police training facility, later involvement in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, its close political and military ties, and several of the controversial and deadly contracts and missions, including the infamous Fallujah ambush, Najaf siege, Blackwater 61 plane crash. He goes on to investigate some of the characters involved with the company, some right out dangerous like Cofer Black from CIA; while other more comically incompetent like Pentagon’s Inspector General Joseph Schmitz.

As an investigation and documented history of the company and its conduct, Scahill has done an extraordinary job in revealing all the details. Albeit it can get somewhat long when every bullet fired is included in the narration, as almost seems to be the case with the Najaf siege. Further details of the preceding contracts, and following lawsuits of wrongful death paints a picture of a company shrouded in secrecy and with deep far-right political and military connections.

It is perhaps in revealing these connections the book raises above a mere critic of the private mercenary company, and shines light on the power brokers of Washington and Pentagon. It is not a coincidence that the same names and the same circles always repeat: Donald Rumsfeld set the stage for privatization of the military; always working closely with Paul Wolfowitz. Of course Dick Cheney is there; as well as Scooter Libby. On the military and intelligence side, Paul Bremer (Presidential Envoy to Iraq) and Cofer Black (CIA) move through the revolving doors multiple times. Tying much of it together are the Council for National Policy (CNP) organization and the influential Project for the New American Century (PNAC), which William Kristol (son of Irving Kristol) and Robert Kagan founded. CNP in particular acts as a meeting point between conservative politicians, donors and activists. Here the Prince family huddles with prominent neoconservatism like Jerry Falwell (evangelical Southern Baptist pastor), Gary Bauer (1999 presidential nominee), Wayne LaPierre (NRA), and more. The focal points center around conservative politics, Christian evangelical and to some degree Judaist religion, and aggressive military foreign policy. As Scahill’s book shows, the military industrial complex is not an abstract entity or idea; rather it is a surprisingly small network of public and private figures who yield immense political and military power.

Scahill book is well worth a read, to gain insight into the private side of the US military industrial complex, its incredible cash-flow, and deep connections. Although he is clearly skeptical of both the mercenary company and several of the political figures involved, his presentation is factual objective and well written.

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Review: No Place to Hide, Glenn Greenwald

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In his latest book, No Place to Hide, Glenn Greenwald gives a brief summary of the events since Edwards Snowden first contacted him 1 December 2012, up until UK government’s harassment of David Miranda at London Heathrow airport on 18 August 2014. He gives an overview of some of the released NSA documents, showing the scope and detail of the illegal surveillance.

It is however the last two chapters of the book which makes this a must-read. Here, Greenwald examines why ubiquitous surveillance is so dangerous and damaging to all of society, and why the “nothing to hide – nothing to fear” argument is misguided and naive.

In the final chapter, Greenwald describes the toxic climate of modern journalisms, and how challenging state power is the exception rather than the norm in many newspapers.

Besieged by state surveillance

Glenn Greenwald’s examination of the harms of mass state surveillance is an indispensable read for anybody debating the topic. He explains why privacy is essential to all humans, on an individual level, as well as for society as a whole. Without privacy, we automatically conform to written and unwritten rules and expectations of behaviour and and thought.

Surveillance stifles self-expression, creativity and experimentation. On a state level, its very purpose is to hinder deviant and radical thought and action. As such, surveillance and lack of privacy is an obstacle to political and cultural progress. The goal is to freeze the status quo with its current power structure and current authority.

Herein lies the rebut of the “nothing to hide – nothing to fear” argument. Rather than grasping for fringe groups and special circumstances, Greenwald shows that this argument is narrow minded, egoistical and hypocritical. Given that mass state surveillance harms us all, our individual relation with the state authority is nonessential to the debate. It is irrelevant if you yourself is involved in politics, opposition groups, and protests. In many ways, surveillance harms everybody, depriving us of freedom, and hindering political, cultural, and human progress. It makes us complacent, unable or unwilling to question authority.

Furthermore, Greenwald points out that state surveillance is masked in secrecy, often with little oversight. It makes the surveillance a one-way mirror: They can see you, but you cannot see them. This is by design, and Greenwald examines multiple examples of why this works so well in controlling the population. He shows why it is important to break this one-way mirror; to shine light on government activities so its power cannot be used for harassment and control.

News as state propaganda

In the last chapter, Greenwald gives an introspective look into the failures of US media. Journalists and newspapers are nicknamed the Fourth Estate, because they were supposed to challenge the other three branches of government. However, many have become mere propaganda outlets for those in power.

What’s worse, Greenwald was attacked by fellow journalists across the political spectrum for publishing his stories based on the NSA documents. UK in particular has gone very far in attacking anybody working with these documents. There is no Forth Amendment or similar law protecting free speech in the UK. As a result, the Guardian was threatened with lawsuits and shutdown by GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) agents. Through an ultimatum, they destroyed the computers belonging to the newspaper which they believed contained copies the NSA documents.

Later, Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, was detained using an anti-terrorist law while in transit through London Heathrow airport. As Greenwald put it, UK agents grabbed him out of non-British neutral territory. Lacking anything to charge him with, the UK police later acknowledged that this was an harassment tactic, to send a message to anybody working with Snowden or Greenwald.

Read it now!

If you haven’t kept an eye on the Snowden and NSA story, Gleen Greenwald’s latest book is an excellent and brief overview of the important events and facts. Still, even if you have followed the details of the NSA documents, the last half of the book is refreshing and worth the read.

State propaganda with its excuses to justify surveillance is as prevalent as ever. It is essential that we all know how to refute those arguments. Also, putting an end to the “nothing to hide & fear” argument will be important if we want to repel mass state surveillance.

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Review: Aleph by Paulo Coelho

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Paulo Coelho’s book “Aleph” (2011) interested me because it directly refers to Jorge Luis Borges’ short story with the same name (published in the collection “The Aleph and Other Stories” in 1949). Indeed the preliminary of Coelho’s book contains the quote:

“The Aleph was about two to three centimetres in diameter, but all of cosmic space was there, with no diminution in size. Each thing was infinite, because I could clearly see it from every point on the universe”.
Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The Aleph’

Borges’ short story, as many of his stories, has a melancholic slow phased plot, filled with references, both implicit and explicit, part fictional part real. It is because of Borges’ emphasis on references that it is interesting to see what another author makes of a reference back to Borges. Indeed, as Borges pointed out in “Kafka and His Precursors’”: “The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.”

So how does Coelho’s work stand up? Unfortunately, I’d say he falls short. Although the Aleph is a central plot device, it does not create a significant reference to Borges, so it ends up feeling slightly pretentious to invoke it. Coelho’s Aleph is of a slightly different kind than Borges’ in that it is not a tangible object, but rather a specific point in time and space, created by the presence of specific individuals. It has the added property of carrying those individuals (or at least in their minds) to a different point in time, in a previous life, where they re-experience a disastrous event.

The bulk of the story centers around the various personal drama of the party travelling by the Trans-Siberian Express, and the main character’s (supposedly Coelho himself) struggle to resolve the conflict in his previous life, within the Aleph. Throw in a bit of populist self motivation and realization, plus some sexual fantasies (because sex sells, right), and we have another Coelho success. It’s an easy read, if you manage to ignore the pretentious “grand motivational speeches”.

If there’s anything to be taken away from Coelho’s advice in the book, it’s that a warm relaxing shower is a perfect time for reflection and peace of mind. Then again, if you haven’t figured that out by now, you probably have a rare case of severe aquaphobia, or you might want to change your boiler.

To sum up, “Aleph” disappointed, and if it hadn’t been for the Borges reference, it wouldn’t have been of much interest at all. It is a typical Coelho formula to fame and riches: a feel-good populist message, an easy read, and the appearance of intellectual content.

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