SEPTEMBER READING - What The Dog Saw; The Breaking of Eggs


The late 1980s/early 1990 saw the collapse of the communist states in Europe; symbolised most potently by the destruction of the Berlin Wall. Democracy and capitalism poured into a myriad of new states and countries and everything became well with the world again. But, as usual in these economic and political upheavals very little if any thought is given to the peoples going through the upheavals. In this novel, 61 year old Feliks Zhukovski, Polish born, long term resident of Paris and citizen of France, die-hard leftist, and successful writer of a travel guide book to the communist bloc countries is one of those people.

The fall of the Wall is the catalyst that shakes and rattles the cage of a life that Feliks has carefully created for himself since his mother shipped him as a 9 year old boy and his older brother off to Switzerland shortly after the Germans took over Poland. Being half-Jewish in Poland in 1939 was not the place to be. The end of the war found Feliks one of the many millions of people displaced in Europe and he found himself living and working with those of a communist persuasion, finding a sense of belonging and meaning in all the chaos that was post-war Europe. And as the years go by, he remains convinced of the glories of communism and life goes on. Quietly and uneventfully.

So to be confronted in 1991 with all the stuff from his past leads to Feliks going on an unexpected adventure of personal discovery, and in the process laying all the demons of his past to rest. And that is all I will say about what happens!

What really struck me while reading this was how drastically and irreversibly war and conflict affects the ordinary man/woman at the bottom of the heap for the rest of their days. Over the past seventy years we have been saturated with war survival stories - fiction and non, movies, TV mini series until you would think that we scream "Enough!" But no, it just does not seem to happen like that. And a war survival story told like this one continues to keep the interest level high. I really enjoyed this story, lots of feel good happenings and a few reality checks thrown in, but not too over the top on the emotion meter, although I did feel a tear well up at one stage!

The author would appear to be very interested in the political and economic doctrines of the past couple of hundred years or so - democracy, capitalism, communism, socialism. He seamlessly interweaves all these into the story, and we watch Feliks move from one to the other as he tries to sort out his own meaning of life. But there is an awfully large amount of it through the novel and at times I did find it heavy going. However this does not detract much from what is a great story and very real characters.

WHAT THE DOG SAW by Malcolm Gladwell

What makes the writing of Malcolm Gladwell so interesting and compelling to read is that he looks at the everyday stuff of life just a little bit differently from the rest of us. He must have been an incredibly curious child, probably driving his parents completely crazy with question after question about absolutely everything. And most of the stuff he writes about is stuff that from time to time may flash through our minds, but there it stops. In 'Outliers', for example, he looks at why Asians are so good at maths. This is something we all generally know, but how many of us have actually given it any deep thought? Or in 'The Tipping Point', we accept fashion trends as something we follow because that is what in the shops. But Gladwell takes the example of the sudden and unexpected increase in popularity of people wearing Hush Puppies shoes, of all things.

His latest book is a collection of essays he wrote between 1996 and 2008 while he was working for 'The New Yorker' magazine. Should we really be banning pit-bull terriers, are they really as dangerous as they seem? Why do some people choke or panic when under stress, and what is the difference between choking and panicking anyway? Why are mammograms not necessarily as reliable as we think they are? And why, in the 1950s, did it suddenly become socially acceptable for women to start dyeing their hair when it had always been the domain of hookers and chorus girls? Malcolm Gladwell attempts to find out the answers to these curly questions and a host of others.

It is, of course, intriguing reading, funny, interesting, 'well fancy that'. And he writes it all in such an easy to follow fashion, despite all the facts, figures, reports, trials, examples, interviews that he uses to illustrate and prove his points.

If you look at the review in an esteemed publication such as the New York Times Gladwell does come in for some criticism over the lack of 'technical grounding' on his subjects, his tendency to be genarlise in his writing and to include the reader in his reasonings: the royal 'we'. But as another review observed, he does not profess to be an expert in any of the subjects he writes about. His overwhelming curiosity and writing ability are more than enough to keep the reader engaged, to make us think further about the world we live in and how we try to rationlise what is going on around us.