Birds Art Life Death, by Kyo Maclear

Sometimes we falter not because the ground beneath our feet is unstable but because it’s exhausting to keep moving, to keep trying, to keep performing the same actions again and again. Strong one moment, vulnerable the next, we falter because we are alive, and with any luck we recover.

Rating: 4/5
Author: Kyo Maclear
Genre: non-fiction
Publisher: Harper Collins

Birds Art Life DeathBirds Art Life Death collects Kyo Maclear’s inner musings on the art of observation and how we can learn to appreciate the small things in life for what they are, without expecting anything in return. Maclear feels at a loss when her father, whom she has a close relationship with, falls gravely ill. From that point on, Maclear delves into what she calls a state of “anticipatory grief”; after all, her father had taught her that there is some protection that comes from expecting the worst, whereas relying on empty hopes makes you unbearably vulnerable. Faced with this situation, the author seeks to cling on to something – or someone – that propels her forward. She finds the answer in a documentary called “15 Reasons To Live”, more specifically, in a musician and bird photographer, whose work reflects images of animals that stand out in the urban environment; those imperfect, dirty and pedestrian places we call home. In a way, the photographs feature an unusual glimpse of beauty over the vulgar and flawed.

© Jack Breakfast

The book is made up of 12 chapters, following the 12 months during which the author decides to follow the photographer in his various walks through the city of Toronto. Maclear talks about regret, loneliness, lulls, waiting, and other topics that relate to art and creativity. Her observations, devoid of useless turns or pretentious wordiness, speak about the need to slow down and pay attention to our surroundings. Interestingly, the author finds it difficult to justify the most apparently meaningless creative outlets and wonders whether giving ourselves to them suggest some form of privilege.

Why did she turn to bird during this crisis? They symbolize that constant clash between beautiful and ugly, urban and nature, freedom and reclusion. Humans pride themselves on the free will that derives from their ability to make decisions. At the same time, it’s those decisions that lead us to stillness, whether this means a person or a place. The circumstances that we tend to value the most give us a false sense of comfort: I have a stable income, a family, and I feel comfortable in my environment, what else could I ask for? On the contrary, we can also decide to lock ourselves up out for fear of the unknown. Following this train of thought, is it possible to live locked up and not be aware of it? If you have only experienced captivity, would you recognize freedom and know what to do with it?

Throughout her journey, Maclear discards the idea of becoming stranded dreaming of abundance; instead, she learns to focus on the abundance we can create with limited resources, as well as how she uses these obstacles to flourish her artistic output. Any creative person will surely find something to ponder about after reading Maclear’s ideas.

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The Gloaming, by Kirsty Logan

To stay in the gloaming is to hold off the night. But if the night never comes, then neither can the day.

Rating: 3/5
Author: Kirsty Logan
Genre: fiction, magical realism
Publisher: Harvill Secker

The GloamingThe Ross family decided to move to a remote island with their two daughters to live a more peaceful life. A large, pink-ish and abandoned mansion makes for their new home; however, despite their feigned efforts, it will never be completely renovated. Truthfully, it will never be anything but a house in ruins. Come hell or high water, the Ross family seeks desperately for a place to stay grounded. Mirroring the family’s desire, the nameless island fights continuously against the dominant force of the sea. When its residents are about to die, they climb up a hill where they will become statues forever. Finally, they reach stillness, a place where their roots can cling to the earth.

The Gloaming is a story about hope, growing up, love and grief. Angela Carter’s influence in this book speaks volumes, offering that unique twist to fairy tales, those stories that talk of ferocious beasts, maidens with hacked-off toes or mermaids that kill children. Logan explores the real meaning behind these fairy tales; more specifically, gender roles, the oppression of women and the idealized concept of love. A fairy tale does not necessarily suggest a fairy-tale ending. Does happiness mean staying in the same place and fighting for what you love? Is there any happiness in abandoning and getting back to your old self? The Ross sisters had been exposed to sugar-coated fairy tales while growing up, and only their turning point occurs when they finally experience that suffocating feeling from a love that consumes everything, even your own identity. The fisherman snatched the selkie’s skin to force her to stay; however, no matter how much you give the selkie in return, she will always long for the sea.

Furthermore, the Ross family is inevitably involved in a constant struggle between stillness and change. This false sense of balance that they are striving to hold can waver as they approach a relentless storm, whose force is strong enough to sweep everything on its way, while also returning everything to its place.

How are these stories different from real life? Read the book to find out. You will be surprised to discover how a story full of fantastical elements conveys such a real message.

Death at Intervals, by José Saramago

Death where is thy victory, knowing, however, that he will receive no reply, because death never replies, not because she doesn’t want to, but because she doesn’t know what to say in the face of the greatest of human sorrows.

Rating: 5/5
Author: José Saramago
Genre: fiction
Publisher: Penguin

Death At IntervalsI’ll admit that the idea of ​​reading an author like Saramago intimidated me. I knew well in advance about his odd writing style, with scarce punctuation and long run-on sentences, which made me presume a dull and tedious reading experience. I couldn’t have been more wrong. In Death At Intervals, this style simply works: it will absorb you and make you get lost in the story. Isn’t that what we all look for when reading a book?

I was surprised to discover a story full of imagination, humor, and sensitivity. Saramago offers his particular vision of a society that has finally managed to fulfill humanity’s most coveted desire: escaping from death. Why do we die? Does an endless life mean eternal happiness?

The first part of the book covers the consequences of death’s absence in a relatively small country. Despite society’s immense delight, this prospect soon becomes a calamity for funeral homes, insurance companies, hospitals, homes for the elderly, the Church, etc. The gift of immortality does not equal eternal youth, either. Life goes on without interruptions, leaving thousands of people in that in-between state that cannot be classified as either life or death. As the prime minister says: “If we don’t start dying again, we have no future.”

During the second half of the book, death resumes her activity as usual. She decides to introduce some changes in her workflow after analyzing the outcome of her experiment. From this point on, the narrative shifts dramatically to give way to death (lowercase ‘d’) as the main character, whom we get to know in a strangely human façade that is experiencing failure for the first time. Unaware of the consequences, she tries to solve the mystery of an apparently ordinary cellist who constantly eludes her fatal effect.

Both parts balance each other flawlessly to convey an insightful message: life and death cannot make sense on their own. We cannot define life without death and vice versa. Reading this book is a unique experience that will inevitably make you think about our understanding of death and its implications in our society.

The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Missing a train is only painful if you run after it! Likewise, not matching the idea of success others expect from you is only painful if that’s what you are seeking.

Rating: 4/5
Author: Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Genre: non-fiction
Publisher: Penguin

The Black SwanThis book is definitely out of my comfort zone and not something I would naturally pick up, but I am glad I read it. Some of NNT’s ideas will persist over time; however, from my amateur standpoint, that may mean that I will only be able to measure their impact in hindsight.

NNT’s style may not be to everyone’s liking, but beyond that, the influence of being exposed to a theory to which we are all inevitably subject to due to our human nature is increasingly difficult to ignore. A Black Swan is an event that meets the following criteria: it is an outlier, it carries an extreme impact, and it becomes predictable or explainable only in retrospect (think 9/11, Google or cultural phenomena, such as Harry Potter).
Our mind is incapable of formulating events that will dramatically change our lives, though we will have no issue citing a list of explanations afterward, including all the apparent facts that led us up to that point. We rely on the past because it is the only thing we are sure of, as it successfully provides the narrative that we desperately cling to rationalize the present and predict the future. Consequently, we believe we know more than we do, which lead us to make decisions and take risks based on a series of strict rules, wherein extreme deviations from the norm and its subsequent impact are not conceived.

The goal of this book is not to offer solutions to aid us in the decision-making process. The very essence of the Black Swan theory hints the futility of predicting a Black Swan, conceding that such events will not be perceived equally by everyone. Following the analogy offered by the author, we can only do our best to identify areas of vulnerability and be more resilient to avoid becoming a turkey.

Solaris, by Stanisław Lem

Man has gone out to explore other worlds and other civilizations without having explored his own labyrinth of dark passages and secret chambers, and without finding what lies behind doorways that he himself has sealed.

Rating: 3/5
Author: Stanisław Lem
Genre: science fiction
Publisher: Faber & Faber

SolarisSolaris, by Stanisław Lem, is a story about the impossibility of establishing contact with other species, our ineffective approach anthropomorphizing the unknown and, lastly, a reflection on human identity.

Told from the perspective of psychologist Kris Kelvin, the story takes place on the extraterrestrial planet Solaris, composed in its entirety by a seemingly intelligent protoplasmatic ocean. Countless scientists (the “solarists”) have set out to study the true nature of this mysterious ocean endowed with senses and how to interact with it. There are plenty of discussions that revolve around the knowledge collected so far on Solaris; however, the studies have been somewhat unsuccessful past the descriptive scope of the ocean’s phenomena. After years of research, no one has been able to reach practical conclusions about the true nature of it.

These fruitless attempts to establish contact are not entirely exempt from an answer: for whatever reason, the ocean seems to be able to access and decipher the human mind’s nook and crannies. The three scientists aboard the space station receive unexpected -yet seemingly human- visits created by the ocean. Kris meets Harey, his ex-partner who committed suicide after ending their relationship. His reaction to her presence is, understandably, painful: his visitor embodies his guilt, as well as the memories of the happy and not-so-happy moments of their relationship. Despite its implausibility, Kevin cannot help linking the ocean’s existence to Harey’s return.

Consequently, the author brings forth three compelling issues. First, proposing an anthropomorphic approach is inappropriate when it comes to studying an alien entity (why do they do it? Is there any hidden reason? Do they want to tell us something?). Second, assuming that our reiterated desire to establish contact will reach a positive outcome. And, finally, our heavy reliance on the otherworldly to explain the limits of scientific knowledge. Indeed, ignorance is the reason that leads some of these scientists to consider the sea as a superior entity (i.e., the ocean’s seeming parallels with God).

Solaris sets itself apart from certain conventions within the genre (there is neither an answer nor a journey) and exposes the apparent arrogance of our desire to dominate and give meaning to everything. Ultimately, our human prism limits our ability to sustain purpose, yet our own identity remains a mystery to us.

Soviet Space Dogs, by Olesya Turkina

We were born to make fairy tales come true.

Rating: 3/5
Author: Olesya Turkina
Genre: non-fiction
Publisher: Fuel

Soviet Space Dogs

I found this book by chance in the Russian bookshop at Waterstones Piccadilly. They say we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but Soviet Space Dogs immediately stood out to me. Despite being a bit on the pricey side, it is such a quaint little book. Author Olesya Turkina is a Senior Research Fellow at the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg, and her knowledge shines through this volume. Much like a museum exhibit, this reads like an informative piece packed with facts and pictures all pieced together by a stunning design.

The subject matter was somewhat hard to swallow. The name ‘Laika’ (which, coincidentally, was not her only name) resonates strongly in popular culture; however, most details remained unknown until 2002. These stray dogs roamed the streets of Moscow and were deemed as worthy candidates for the space program as long as they met certain criteria (weight, size, sex, being photogenic, etc.). On the other hand, their lack of background gave Soviet ideology enough room to make up the rest of their stories as they saw fit. Ultimately, these four-legged cosmonauts served their purpose as symbols of Soviet ideology, heroes willing to sacrifice themselves to fulfill our life-long dream of space exploration and endless thirst for knowledge. Unlike their human counterparts, none of them volunteered or gave their consent to the inhumane tests they were forced to endure. Truthfully, even though Soviet Propaganda had successfully turned Laika’s story into a fairy tale, her death neither was justified nor deterred scientists from conducting further experiments.

Other dogs mentioned in this book include Belka and Strelka, which achieved fame during their lifetime and cast a new light to space exploration. While Soviet ideology celebrated their acts of heroism, others raised their concerns for the well-being of these animals. Fortunately, with the fall of the USSR, higher mammals were no longer being sent into orbit.

Despite its occasional lack of narrative structure, I think this book is a fair and well-deserved rendition of the sad lives led by these dogs. I was also surprised to find out that the details of Laika’s tragic demise had not been revealed until relatively recently.

The Soul of an Octopus, by Sy Montgomery

I have known no natural state more like a dream than this. I feel elation cresting into ecstasy and experience bizarre sensations: my own breath resonates in my skull, faraway sounds thump in my chest, objets appear closer and larger than they really are. Like in a dream, the impossible unfolds before me, and yet I accept it unquestioningly. Beneath the water, I find myself in an altered state of consciousness, where the focus, range, and clarity of perception are dramatically changed. Is this what Kali and Octavia feel like all the time?

Rating: 4/5
Author: Sy Montgomery
Genre: non-fiction, nature writing
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

The Soul of an Octopus“What is it like to be an octopus?” In The Soul of an Octopus, naturalist Sy Montgomery looks for answers while delving into the mysteries that encompass these odd ocean-dwellers. This book is not only a study of octopuses’ physical attributes and behaviors but also a chronicle of the emotional impact that the author went through while learning about them along the workers and volunteers at the New England Aquarium.

At first glance, the strangeness of these molluscs is distinctly apparent— yet, we both share the same world. Unlike humans, octopuses are comprised of body, head, and limbs, in that order. Their circular suckers not only account for their capacity to manipulate objects but also act as extraordinary sensory receptors. Imagine being able to taste food with your arms before taking it to your mouth, oddly located between them (what we would regard as ‘armpits’). Following this unusual anatomy, the head holds two eyes, one brain, and three hearts.

In her quest for knowledge, Montgomery becomes an observer of these species at the New England Aquarium. Her experiences with these octopuses tell of very different and remarkable personalities: tame, assertive, bossy, curious, bold, cheerful. As such, these specimens ought to be considered unique individuals; however, interpreting these behaviors through our limited human prism poses a significant problem. Given such disparity, how can we even begin to grasp the enigma that these creatures entail? Should we reject the concept of a single consciousness when talking about an octopus with a nervous system and sense reception so different than our own?

Montgomery decides to take her investigation a step further and expand her experiences beyond the aquarium in hopes of reaching a better understanding of their lives and natural environment. Despite her initial struggles, she ends up getting the required certification to practice scuba diving. From that point on, Montgomery’s delightful depictions of her underwater adventures make her enthusiasm almost contagious. Again, one cannot help but wonder about our lack of awareness about the vast ocean, which makes up 71% of the surface of the Earth.

Although Montgomery’s story leaves many issues about octopuses unresolved, she successfully manages to portray these species for what they are, rejecting all forms of previous prejudice and perhaps fading part of their ill-reputation as “monsters.” Differences draw forth rejection, while similarities -however fleeting- inevitably appeal to us (i.e., Octavia is no longer considered “disgusting” after being regarded as a creature with maternal instincts). Through unexpected encounters with these alien species, Montgomery not only satisfies our curiosity but also reveals surprising sensibility in a story that emphasizes the importance of community and human relationships.