Resistance is the secret to happiness

WorldBookProject is going strong with some really good reads in the second half of November. I also enjoyed reading quite a bit in German – and I suspect the number of German translations I’ll read might actually rise, since it seems that translation into German occurs more than into English.

80 Dominican Republic: Julia Alvarez – Die Zeit der Schmetterlinge

I’ve lost count of how often I’ve already written ‘I had no idea …’, and Dominican history is part of this sad chorus. Luckily, ‘In the time of butterflies‘ has rectified that a bit. Beautifully written, the part I loved most was how the perspective was shifted from one of four sisters to the next. The story itself made your blood freeze at times, but it showed the resistance against dictatorship, censorship and discrimination is not futile. Vivas las mariposas!

81 Greece: Amanda Michalopoulou – Why I killed my best friend

Greek history after WWII – no idea … and in the case of this book I actually believe my understanding of the story might have gained from some help by the author (by using footnotes?) because of all the political parties and shenanigans between them. Having said that, the main story about a possessive and destructive friendship, or dependence, or emotional shackling, kept me hooked until the very last page. The title of the post is a quote from the book.

82 Mali: Modibo Sounkalo Keita – Bogenschütze

Superficially a crime novel, this book had plenty to it. The avenging archer who gave the story its title, corruption, issues with polygamy, environmental disaster – the story had it all. While on the whole I enjoyed most aspects of this novel, I have to say that the way it dealt with women was sometimes patronizing and in one or two scenes actually insulting.

83 Senegal: Mariama Bâ – Ein so langer Brief

‘So long a letter’ was honest, depressing, powerful stuff about how to live a meaningful and fulfilled life despite all the madness and evil that life (=other people) throws at you. This tiny book is a shining beacon in the pits so many women are still forced to exist in.



Giving a talk

At some point last August, I was kindly asked by a friend and former student of mine, Milo, to consider giving a talk at an upcoming conference called Dell3i. It was supposed to be something akin to a TED-talk; and after a week or so of weighing pros and cons I decided to say yes.

I want to use this post to do two things: firstly, thank all the people involved who helped me preparing my talk, and secondly give some sources for some of the ideas I mentioned. The reason for the latter is that I drew on a lot of things I have heard and read or experienced over the years, but some people were particularly influential. And I should probably add that this is not a Dell-sponsored post.

So, thank you (in no particular order):

  • Daniel, Monika and Milo for the rehearsals
  • Astrid for a wonderful walk through Oxford
  • Mark for being a (mostly) willing victim
  • Rhiannon, Emily, Pavol, Eva, Barbora, David, Lucia and Alica for listening
  • my colleagues and students for encouraging me
  • Marcel for the book voucher (it’s been put to very good use)

If you’ve been following this blog for longer, you’ll know that I’m doing volunteer work for the citizen science platform Zooniverse. The two photos in the talk, about Galaxy Zoo and Penguin Watch, are copyright of those respective projects.

As mentioned in the talk, Yuval Harari‘s ideas from his book ‘Sapiens’ are fascinating. I took part in his MOOC a few years ago, and I hope he’ll do a similar project again in the future.

Other people whose blogs or books I’ve recently read or who I’ve heard speaking and who had some bearing on this talk were Richard Dawkins, Tayie Selasi, Ann Morgan and Tom Hart. Any factual errors are my own 🙂 .

Now, what was it like? As a teacher, I’m used to being in front of people (I’ve taught classes of 50+ students, tricky to ‘un-front’ that), but having an audience of 100+ and on top of that the cameras was a wee bit otherworldly. And exhilarating, I’ve got to admit. If you want to watch it:

Dinosaur of the week: Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill


This Tockus leucomelas was part of a small group of ‘flying bananas’ which we encountered early in the morning in Kruger National Park, albeit a few years ago. Our guide was Jean Graham ( who showed us almost 100 bird species that day.

Exploring the East: Levoča

If you’ve been following this little series, there’s one more post to come after this. For now, let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of Levoča. This tiny town is part of Slovakia’s UNESCO heritage, and it has some splendid architecture and artworks to offer.levoca

The area has been inhabited for several thousand years. Visible now, on the other hand, are mostly structures from the Renaissance period or younger, plus a bit of gothic stuff. The museum inside the town wall will tell you much more.

The town wall is almost completely preserved. It makes for a lovely one-hour long walk to follow it around the centre, especially in the evening. There are also a handful of restaurants inside the wall, sporting their own terraces. Highly recommended.

There must have been quite a bit of reconstruction going on over the years, but there’s always something to be done.

The area around the main square looked really spick and span. I felt it was almost a bit too much to be real.archive

Levoca is well-connected to public transport as well as near to a major highway. What’s more, hiking paths do start right off the main square. The closest place to go to is a Basilica Minor on the hill north of the town.basilika

From the top of that hill one has fab views over the region of Spis. If you’re in Slovakia, this is a place not to miss.view-from-hill

November Blues

WorldBookProject continues. Here are some thoughts about four books by women writers.

76 Belgium: Marguerite Yourcenar – Ich zähmte die Wölfin: Die Erinnerungen des Kaisers Hadrian (Mémoirs d’Hadrian)

It was fascinating to learn about some of the history of the Roman Empire as seen through the author’s eyes. However, the awfully convoluted sentences and antiquated vocabulary took the joy out of the reading experience a bit too often.

77 Guyana: Oonya Kempadoo – Buxton Spice

The book didn’t impress me. Growing up in 1970s Guyana must have meant sex, violence and a combination thereof. On top of that, I found the usage of written dialect rather tiring. Maybe listening to this as an audiobook might make me feel different about it – I like guessing dialects both in English and German, but dislike reading them in either language.

78 Lithuania: Jurga Ivanauskaitė – Placebo

The best thing about this book was the plot device of a cat talking to the ghost of the deceased character. Very often, the author steered on the funny and ironic side of things. But every now and then she crossed the line with a sledgehammer to wage war against consumerism and other vices of contemporary Lithuania. I could connect to the changes people experienced after the revolution, having lived through something similar myself.

79 Mexico: Carmen Boullosa – They’re Cows, We’re Pigs

We’re a few hundred years ago, on Tortuga. Forget about pirates sailing the crystal blue waters of the Caribbean. The story, very well narrated by Ron Butler, describes the falling apart of a human being because of the cruelty and violence he’s subjected to himself and has to/ chooses to inflict on others. If one were to transfer the ideas of the main character into the now, I think it’d be fair to say that pretty much every soldier on this planet is a piece of broken flesh, and the same goes for their victims. This was a powerful book, and extremely hard to stomach.