Book micro-review: 84K by Claire North

If the conservative vision of the corporate future is mildly annoying, this left-wing dystopia is terrifying. The main character who’s real name we never learn is called Theo. He should be called Winston. He doesn’t work in the Ministry of Truth but in Ministry for Justice assigning costs for crimes to be paid by the perpetrators.

It’s unsettling to see seeds of the dystopian future in the present. Public-private partnerships. Segregation by wealth. Monetisation of convicts’ labour. Use of apprentices as a cheap labour with short self life. Uselessness of university degrees in the absence of “connections”.
Schools curriculum being skewed by commerce – a recurrent topic in modern SF and “The Simpsons”.

Book review: by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler colours in the other, yin side of the Great American Novel. While some writers – mostly men – construct sweeping epics about the state of the world, she describes the human condition in exquisite details.

In Noah’s Compass (2010) a teacher on a cusp of retirement is fired, gets whacked on the head, falls in love with a woman that achingly reminded me of myself twenty years ago. In The Beginner’s Goodbye (2012)  a man is followed by a ghost of his wife. A Spool of Blue Thread (2015) describes the rise and dispersal of an all American family via the history of a family house.

Anne Tyler’s books are hard to put down. But after the downing, it is difficult to describe what it was all about and to pick it up again. The characters are fallible without redeemable features. Beyond prying, it’s hard to care about these random humans. The large picture of society is a negative space, absent like on Eastern paintings.

This is Chekov reborn as an American a century later. I never liked Chekov.

But it’s possible that I try reading Tyler’s book at a wrong time in my life. I tried to read ”Mrs Dalloway” when I was in my early twenties and couldn’t. The book rushed at me and drowned me, there was too much happening at once. I read it a decade later and loved it.

Maybe when I slow down in a decade or two and finally despair of the wider world, this will be the time to read the rest of Anne Tyler’s novels.

Two decent French SF series on Netflix:

Transfers” – (sort of) cops from “Spiral” investigate illegal personality transfers in a very near future. Only French can get away with a 12-year-old girl (with a 50 y.o. old smugglers’ mind transfer) offering a blow job and jabbing a needle in a would-be-pedophile scrotum.

Osmosis” – AI-mediated search for a perfect mate and waking people from a coma as an unintended aside. Everybody is unbelievably beautiful including a shaven head person of indeterminate gender. Would have been irritating if it was Hollywood, but they are French.

Book review: “Infidel” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Suddenly I am fascinated by the book presented to me for the new year. Written by a Somali refugee that became a Duch member of Parliament, Ayaan Hirsi Aly “Infidel”. She is two years younger than my brother, her grandmother is the age of my grandmother, the mother my mother’s. I can also emphasize with somebody who moved to the West from a different culture as a young adult.

The book is a well-written, detailed account of a personal journey and social history of East Africa the life at the end of the 20th century. The author’s father was in opposition to the dictator, who was trying to build Soviet-style “socialism” in Somalia. During her childhood, Hirsi Ali had to live in the capital and rural Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Kenya, and later in Germany and Holland.

Mosaic of tribes, clans, and religions in African countries she describes is amazing. She vividly describes the rising popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood, causes and development of Somali Civil War. The civil war in the Western press usually explained as “nomads against settled” or “Arabs against blacks”, but the author sees this in a completely different way: the clan against the clan.

The relationships within the clan are fascinating for me as somebody from a country with much looser nepotism culture. The personal name itself is more of a genealogy. Everyone is obliged to help the others belonging to the clan. Which sounds fabulous until you recognise the suffocating power of each decision making an impact not only on yourself but your family and wider clan.

The family relationship was complicated. The father married four times not always troubling himself with divorce: the first time the wife was Somali, then another Somali, then an Ethiopian, then the first Somali. There were children from each marriage and nobody was supposed to show any jealousy.

There was also a rural grandmother and mother, who tied and beat children with a stick and dumped all the homework on Hirsi Ali quite early. The grandmother arranged the genital mutilation of 6 and 4-year-old granddaughters in the absence of the mother. FGM was not the worst kind – the clitoris and small labia were excised and sewed up and sometimes all external genitals cut off. The consequences of this are also described, and terrible.

Women who have had unsuccessful sex – except virgins, I don’t know if there are such women – can imagine sensations when everything is sewn up to such an extent that the urine does not flow, but drips and this scar is broken by a penis.

Hirsi Ali is a very controversial figure, she was expelled from Holland, where she illegally obtained asylum. To escape the heart of darkness, anybody would lie and cheat.

But this is the case when the power of the work makes you close your eyes to the imperfection of the author as a person. Even if Hirsi Ali didn’t do a day’s work anymore the book more than pays back for the kindness of Duch people

Book review: “Cold Comfort Farm” by Stella Gibbons

For those who like their English Classic Literature obscure and humorous. If P. G. Wodehouse was a woman and switched from describing city gents and their true masters to rural settings, he might have approached the blend of apt descriptions and sarcasm of “Cold Comfort Farm”.
You will never hear the word ”woodshed” as an innocent description of a place to store logs.

If you can get it, I recommend the Penguin Classics edition as British writer Lynne Truss’ preface contains perfect information about the writer and as to why the book was forgotten for almost a hundred years after an initial wild success.

Gibbons (no relation) committed several sins that doomed her in the manner of books by D. H. Lawrence she parodies. Firstly, she was a woman, which disqualified her from being funny. Secondly, she was a journalist. Then she mocked both Arts and Crafts and Bloomsbury set. Finally, she sold too many copies of her debut novel and collected several awards irritating my beloved Virginia Woolf and Co.

I don’t think the novel is perfect. The urbane heroine, Flora an orphan with meager £100 annual income decides aginst earning her keep or going to a jolly set because she would have to share a room. She goes instead to live on the title farm. Here ignoring reigning inbreeding, doom, and portents she effortlessly rearranges life of farm inhabitants including a quartet of cows named Graceless, Aimless etc. I kept expecting her plans to find at least a minor obstacle to overcome, but everything went swimmingly.

In three weeks, Flora remodels her cousin Elfine from a wild child fleeting in disheveled hair and clothes on the moors similar to Perdita from Mary Shelley’s ”The Last Man of Earth” to an elegant and dull debutante worthy of becoming the young squire’s fiance. Flora categorically decrees her cousin to stop writing poetry and Elfine complies.

The most irritating is the finale (spoiler alert). After arranging all escape routes for her farm relatives, she is rescued by a knight in a canvas plane – a lot of plot development relies on planes taking off from rural fields – that invited her to live with him at the beginning of the book. Domestic bliss beckons.

It’s all well to join in mocking erotic symbolism and the Bloomsbury set after they won and became the next Establishment, but Woolf had had a right to be irritated by clever and funny trolling while the culture battle was ongoing.

Your skin zoo has a beast I didn’t know about

My life will never be the same. If you are squeamish, stop reading now.


A scanning electron micrograph of a female dust mite, size  0.25mm to 0.50mm.  (Image by CSIRO via Wikimedia commons. CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Many people know about microscopic dust mites Dermatophagoides that live in our houses. Hordes of them live in the dust, in the mattresses, curtains and even in books. They quietly chew dandruff. I do not mind them, let them chew, there is no dust mite allergy in our family. I am happy to participate in the circle of life via discarded matter.


Demodex under the microscope.  (Image by Blauerauerhahn~commonswiki via Wikimedia Commons. GNU 1.2)

But I was told about “the other” mites, Demodex, which live on the skin of almost everybody. Demodex especially love to hang the tail in the hair follicles and sebaceous glands while chewing on fat and bacteria. If the host’s immune or hormonal system is weak, they can become a problem.  Demodex are everywhere but they are not contagious.  

As a microbiologist, I welcome bacteria and yeast on the skin but in my opinion, mites are too much. The mites should look like the dust one – insect-like, with a body and legs. Demodex with its long tail and various protuberances near the head reminds me of something completely different, see below

Dune Worm by zubzub93
The spice-making giant worm from Frank Herbert’s “Dune”. (Image by zubzub93 via