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.

Corvus: A Life With Birds, by Esther Woolfson

Of all of them, it has been the corvids, the rook, magpie and crow, who have altered for ever my relationship to the rest of the world, altered my view of a hierarchy of form, intellect, ability; my concept of time. The world we share is broad, the boundaries and differences between us negligible, illusory.

Corvus: A Life With Birds

Rating: 4/5
Author: Esther Woolfson
Genre: non-fiction, nature writing
Publisher: Granta Books

Esther Woolfson offers a fascinating insight into the lives of birds -mainly corvids- in this book, part nature writing and part memoir.

Woolfson has particular trouble defining herself as a bird expert, bird-owner or bird-keeper, favoring a definition that leans toward that of a housemate instead. Her relationship with birds begins rather abruptly when given a chance to look after some doves. Until then, she admits not giving much thought to them. What follows after is how this unplanned encounter became a turning point that shifted her perception dramatically, giving way to sharing a life with rooks, magpies, cockatiels, and parrots under the same roof. Drawing parallels between the experiences of caring for pets and wild birds would not be entirely reasonable. Cats and dogs were bred for centuries to live alongside humans, while most birds remain outside the human scope, despite their proximity to us. Indeed, Woolfson emphasizes the wild nature of birds, their freedom to come and go wherever they please, often reflecting on the decisions that she has made regarding their upkeep. However, the birds that usually land on Woolfson’s footstep are those that she found impossible to reintroduce to the wild or whose prospects, considering the circumstances, weren’t especially promising.

Consequently, Woolfson inadvertently became the go-to person whenever a bird was misplaced, unwanted or damaged in her community. There is room for both joy and sorrow in these stories. In particular, her experience adopting parrots is heartbreaking, to say the least. As it is often the case with adopted pets, past experiences can also imprint the character of an older bird. In other words, a mistreated bird may show reluctance to contact with humans, be permanently afraid of certain things, or even emit sounds that would give away the time that they have spent in unsuitable places. Most of the time, owners give up these birds due to lack of knowledge, especially concerning their display of high-pitched voices.

Soon after the doves, they found Chicken (short for Madame Chickeboumskaya), a fledgling rook. Through Woolfson’s experiences with this young rook, we learn about the extraordinary characters of corvids, capable of showing affection, humor, anger, and playfulness. Beyond Chicken’s unique character traits, her study also covers other remarkable aspects of these species, such as their unusual sight, their intense drive to cache and its implications with memory and brain, how they experience seasons, the learning process behind bird-singing, etc.

If there’s anything to be taken away from this book, is how little we actually know about other living beings that surround us. Corvids, rats, doves, and squirrels are a common sight in urban emplacements, but how much do we know about them? Where do doves and corvids’ reputation as ‘flying vermin’ stem from? Can we tell a rook, a crow, a jackdaw and a raven apart? Woolfson argues that fear -both physical and psychological- may have a played a significant role in our perception of corvids. In response to our combined lack of awareness and apprehension, superstition and popular culture often fill in the blanks, either attributing human-like qualities to them or regarding them as intrinsically dumb or loathsome.

Woolfson’s prose is intimate and lyrical, mirroring her passion and admiration towards birds, which she manages to convey flawlessly. Corvus invites us to open our eyes and take a closer look at our surroundings, including those living beings that have miraculously managed to coexist with us. We may be surprised to learn that they have more to offer than what meets the eye.

As a side note, Helen Macdonald’s fans will be glad to know that she is in charge of the beautiful illustrations found in Corvus.

Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

He pushed her in. And then he pulled her out. All her life, Lydia would remember one thing. All his life, Nath would remember another.

Rating: 3/5
Author: Celeste Ng
Genre: fiction, contemporary
Publisher: Penguin Random House

Everything I Never Told You tells the story of the sudden death of Lydia Lee, marking the end of an idyllic domestic façade made up of lies, secrets, and yearning. Soon enough, they find out that solving the mystery of her death means answering an even more crucial question: who was Lydia Lee?

The influence of family relationships is unveiled through interweaving narratives that depict a family far from picture-perfect. It starts with Lydia’s parents: being unable to pursue a career in Medicine, Marilyn is disappointed to find out that she has inadvertently fulfilled her mother’s wishes, while James is stuck in a job where he conceals his insecurity by trying to be like everyone else. They become so engrossed in making sure that their children -especially Lydia- stay as far away from their own experiences growing up that they don’t even realize that a path is already being laid out for them, one defined by high hopes and inherited dreams. In the end, Marilyn and James’s clashing definition of ‘success’ makes it ultimately impossible for their children to please them. Expectations carry a heavy weight to them, sometimes one impossible to bear.

Despite its short length, Celeste Ng manages to tackle complex themes, such as racism, sexism and gender identity in the 1970s. Character development is what makes the plot move forward as we are led to the events surrounding Lydia’s death, making it a compelling read.