Jean de La Ville de Mirmont (1886 – 1914) was killed at the age of 27 during the World War I. He was an author of a collection of poetry, short stories and a 1914 self-published novella, The Sundays of Jean Dezert. Mirmont was a close friend of another French writer and the 1952 Nobel Prize laurate, François Mauriac.
In The Sundays of Jean Dezert, Mirmont outlines a map of his times and shows the nuances of one singular life of an alienated, lost soul in the urban crowd who comes to terms with the banality of own existence.
The Sundays of Jean Dezert is a tale of urban solitude, alienation, and mundanity of prosaic life. Jean Dézert is a civil servant, an office worker employed by the Ministry of Welfare. We follow his life on the eve of the Great War (World War I) as he strolls through the city of Paris in quest for the meaning of life, something deeper and larger than his own existence. Even though The Sundays of Jean Dezert was written over 100 years ago, many contemporary readers will be able to recognize themselves in the life of Everyman, Jean Dezert. The feelings of no purpose, resignation, total alienation are well known to many of us.
Jean Dezert has a so-called good job and leads a fairly comfortable life in the eyes of many, but this life does not provide him with the emotional equilibrium nor heals his feelings of emptiness. Although his job does not define him, he perceives himself as a servant of nothingness, of empty existence. His occupation pushes him further into depths of depression and resignation. Jean “has never once gone on a long journey in his dreams.”
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Blue Skinned Gods by SJ Sindu is a compelling, thoughtful coming of age story exploring identity, belief systems, perception of the Other, sexuality, family relationships spanning across two continents, different cultures and traditions. Storytelling is beautiful, extremely moving and emphatic.
The protagonist of the book is a boy with blue skin called Kalki who is raised to believe that he is the incarnation of Vishnu, the Hindu god who has divine healing powers. Kalki’s father takes the advantage of his son’s unusual look to gain wealth and creates the entire narrative around it based on people’s superstitions by establishing an ashram in Tamil Nadu to exploit the desperation of the ordinary people where Kalki serves as a healer. With time the myth and illusion of Blue Skinned God is being dispelled causing Kalki’s confusion and disappointment with those around him. As he enters adulthood, Kalki moves to America to find his purpose in life, to define his own identity. The author also explores here the appeal of America, its culture, social media and the idea of opportunity.
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Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym published in 1977 (and nominated for the Booker Prize) is a poignant exploration of loneliness.
This is a story of four single people in their 60s: Marcia, Letty, Edwin and Norman who have worked together for several years in an office in Central London doing unspecified clerical work. They don’t socialise together out of work, they don’t have any close relatives, they live alone and lead what one could define as a rather quiet life. Romantic love has never been a part of their lives. Despite their advanced age, two of them still live in rented single rooms.
Barbara Pym is an excellent chronicler of an ordinary and unnoticed life with focus on single elderly people and their fate as they face health problems as well as housing and financial insecurity.
Quartet in Autumn has moved me deeply. It is a thought-provoking character study which portrays an emotional baggage of four characters as they grow old facing isolation and loneliness.
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“In the world we live in, we have been taught from a young age that traditionally masculine traits are what will make us succeed; intelligence is measured logically through tick-box tests, the loudest voice in the room tends to win the debate and we are told to be cruel to fight our way to the top. The world is dog eat dog – fast and hard. But what about those of us who are soft and slow?”
“As someone who is highly sensitive, I am sick of being told to grow a thicker skin or to build my resilience. I am still finding hard to understand why the working world would need this fierce characterisitc to be a baseline requirement for working with others if we are all trying to reach the same goal. Softness and sensitivity hold very little space in a skyscraper office. “
The Wheel is such a beautiful, tender and magical book. It is a truly soul-soothing read which takes a reader on a mystical journey of a (self-) discovery through wild landscapes of the British Isles filled with wonderment, gentleness, and magic. It is a nuanced, profoundly moving exploration of our connection with the nature, contemporary toxic working environment which many of us are forced to be a part of, and the healing power of witchcraft and ancient rituals. The Wheel is such a ray of sunshine, beautifully written, and extremely engaging.
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“Today , I don’t exist. Tomorrow, I probably won’t, either. (…)Today is the first day of school.”
“Exhausted. (…) Do your job. Hang on. (…) It is a truly wretched existence, one that drove me to seek stimulation by reading the great philosophers. Where the hell did I get the ludicrous idea of finding happiness in thinking? I wrapped myself up in concepts to forget my own misery, and the misery of existence.”
“(…) when you earn your entire monthly teacher’s salary in just a few nights of dancing, you suddenly forget all those books you’ve read and reread (…). Who said money can’t buy happiness?”
No Touching by Ketty Rouf published by Europa Editions UK in translation of Tina Kover tells a story of 35-year old Josephine, a high school philosophy teacher in one of the rundown suburbs of Paris. She gets through her day only thanks to antidepressants. Her pupils are uninterested and indifferent to her teaching. Her life appears to be miserable with no hope for any better future. In the evenings she goes for long walks across the city during one of which she visits the strip club where “women [are] exposed without being stripped bare, unassailable in their womanhood.” Josephine decides to sign up for a striptease dance class – “an hour and half when [she] feels alive.” At nights she starts working in a strip club in Paris where she creates strong friendships with other women and her emotional well being is deeply affected by her additional night job :
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“(…) no more suffering now. Here I am, stripped naked, finally. I’ve stopped taking antidepressants. No more therapy sessions. The night is my brightest day, a perpetual present of brilliance and well-being.”
“It comforted me to think that even if you sometimes have memory gaps, all the details of your life are written somewhere in invisible ink.”
“I did not want to quantify my life. I let it flow by, like mad money that slips through your fingers. I wasn’t careful. When I thought about the future, I told myself that none of what I had lived through would ever be lost. None of it. I was too young to know that after a certain point, you start tripping over gaps in your memory”.
Invisible Ink by Patrick Modiano is an enigmatic, dream-like, melancholic, beautifully written novel which contemplates the existentialism of memory, its gaps and its missings that make up one’s existence, growing old and how our perception changes over the years, the connections that we make throughout our lives and how we recall people, places and times written in invisible ink on the pages of our own history.
The title of the book, Invisible Ink is a metaphor for our memories. Our memory is like the page with invisible writing that reveals over time important details about our lives that were previously unnoticed.
On a surface, Invisible Ink tells a story of a private detective, Jean Eyben who thirty years earlier was briefly involved in the search of a missing woman, Noelle Lefebvre who vanished from Paris. That case continues to haunt him decades later. Despite the passage of time, the pieces of Noelle’s life story keep overlapping with the detective’s life throughout the years that follow. As he gets older, Jean learns to notice things he did not as a younger self and slowly comes to the realisation how much of that cold case involves his own life.
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‘Where do you start someone’s story when every life has more than one thread and what we call birth is not the only beginning, nor is death exactly an end?’
‘People on both sides of the island [Cyprus] suffered – and people on both sides would hate it if you said that aloud. Why? Because the past is dark, distorted mirror. You look at it, you only see your own pain. There is no room in there for someone else’s pain’.
The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak set in the 1970’s Cyprus and contemporary London of 2010’s is a tale narrated partly by a fig tree, partly by humans about the transgeneretional trauma, the burden of the past on the current and future generations when it comes to dealing with wars, pogroms, ethnic cleansing, enforced borders drawn on a piece of paper at one time in history and how it affects the lives of the future generations.
Elif Shafak has created a beautiful tale of wonder and nostalgia, pointing out to the connections between the past, present, and future as well as between the physical and the spiritual. It is also a profoundly moving ode to the natural world: world of non-human animals and plants.
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The Memory Monster by an Israeli writer Yishai Sarid is an excellent novel, one of the best books I have read on the banality of evil, memory, how we process the past, how we relate to the darkest chapters of the human history, how we understand human brtutality. Do we learn from the history, especially from such tragedies like the Holocaust? When the history becomes just facts and dates? When do we loose human connection with the ones who lost their lives during atrocities?
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Although this book specifically deals with the Shoah and the way we contemporarily commemorate its victims, it is also relevant to many other tragedies which occurred in the recent times: the Rwandan genocide, the Cambodian genocide, genocide of Yazidis, Srebrenica, and Soviet Gulags and the list goes on and on.
“No matter where I go, I’m still broken. And now I’m thousands of miles from home, in a place where I barely speak the language and I have no idea what to do.”
“Even if I crossed the whole world looking for a place to feel at home, I wouldn’t belong anywhere.”
The German Room by the Argentinian writer, Carla Maliandi published by Charco Press is a beautifully written novel and skillfully translated by Frances Riddle.
The German Room is an exploration of the meaning of exile, home, childhood, and loneliness. It offers a fascinating and nuanced mediation on the idea of exile: a forced versus a self-imposed exile form own life, taking a refuge in the illusionary idea of own childhood, and far from the current notion of reality.
There is this certain feeling of melancholy which is prevalent throughout the story. It evokes the quest for the place we call home, the place where we belong.
The story follows an unnamed Argentinian woman in her 30’s engulfed by the emotional turmoil as she leaves or rather flees her home and job in Buenos Aires for Heidelberg in Germany “with [her] life in a shambles, without having told anyone in [her home] Buenos Aires what [she] was doing”. Heidelberg is the city where the protagonist was born and lived for the first five years of her life where her parents were forced to exile in the 1970’s from the Argentinian military dictatorship.
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“Not all disasters catch your eye. The ones that become real issues are distinct. (…) The disaster has to be on a certain scale for busy people to take the time to sympathise or pay attention. (…) The empathy can fade too. (…) If you compared several disasters that had occurred at similar times and with similar intensity, you realised that the scale of harm wasn’t necessarily proportional to donations or public interest. Some ravaged cities appeared in newspapers as a few short lines of text before being forgotten, while others received extended interest (…). “
The Disaster Tourist by the Korean writer Yun Ko-eun is a fascinating, ambitious and unpredictable story. I have immensely enjoyed reading this book.
The Disaster Tourist offers a thoughtful take on the issues of abuse, exploitation, and predatory behaviour in a workplace, the meaning of one’s professional life versus personal life, dark tourism versus responsible tourism, and perception of the Other in the disadvantaged communities and how one digests news about human tragedies.
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Fresh Water for Flowers is the most extraordinary, moving tribute to the resilience of human spirit. I must admit that I don’t remember when last time I was so deeply touched by a story. This book hugs YOU, offers comfort and numerous moments of tenderness, as well as it evokes the spirit of profound emotions filled with many wonderful references to the French music and literature.
This tale evolves around a small graveyard in a small French town, Bourgogne. We meet an array of interesting, nuanced characters, including our main protagonist, Violette. The story of Violette’s life is slowly revealed to us through her own words or through the interconnectedness with the lives of other people: Violette’s difficult childhood, being born with nothing, her tragic marriage to Philippe, her daughter, her life working as a bartender, then as a level crossing keeper and finally her life as a cemetery caretaker.
“A man of fifty-five died from smoking too much (…). They never say that a man of fifty-five can die from not having been loved, not having been heard, getting too many bills, buying too much on credit (…). Noone ever says that you can die from having been too fed up, too often”.
At some point Violette says that others speak about her life as though she did not exist, as though she was a problem to be solved, not a person; as though she was absent from her own story. Throughout her life she was often diminished by others, degraded, mistreated, and looked down . I don’t want to share much about the story itself in order not to spoil the pleasure of reading this magnificent book for others.
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“Books — the closeness of them, their contact, their smell, and their contents — constitute the safest refuge against this world of horror. They are the most pleasant and the most subtle means of traveling to a more compassionate planet.”
Tahrar Djaout (1954 – 1993) was one of the most talented Algerian writers of the 1980s and early 1990s. Having witnessed the rise of the Islamic fundamentalism and religious fanaticism in Algeria, he always strongly supported secularism and freedom of speech. He was murdered by the Islamic extremists in 1993 because of his writing and beliefs. As Alek Baylee Toumi states in the introduction to this book, the spring of 1993 marked the beginning of the genocide of intellectuals in Algeria – the intellectuocide with the lists of people to eliminate posted in the mosques which is also described by Djaout’s in The Last Summer of Reason. Other prominent Algerian intellectuals murdered by the religious extremists around that time were Hafid Senhadri, Djillali Lyabes, and Laadi Flici.
In 1994 and 1995, Algeria witnessed more journalists being murdered than in any other country in the world. It is important to mention here that Djaout as well as many other murdered writers of that era often considered themselves Muslims, secular, tolerant, open-minded but their belief system did not comply with bigoted worldview of the religious and political extremists.
Tahar Djaout, as Toumi writes, spoke out “a little too well and a little too loud, and he paid for it with his own life”. Tahar Djaout took a courageous stand against exclusion and intolerance. In one of his articles, “Hatred in Front of Us”, Djaout wrote: “If fascism triumphed in Germany at the end of the 1930s, it is not because there were a lot of fascists, but because there were not enough democrats”.
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North Korea Like Nowhere Else is a photographic exploration of the life in North Korea from the unique perspective of the Westerner living in the capital city of Pyongyang between 2017 and 2019.
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Through a series of evocative as well as informative stories, anecdotes and captivating photos accompanied by the author’s very sensitive, insightful and respectful observations of people, their interactions and emotions, the reader is offered a glimpse into the everyday life of the North Koreans who have now lived under one of the most oppressive totalitarian communist regimes for many decades. The author, Lindsey Miller, is unbelievably emphatic, aware, humble, responsible and respectful observer of everyday life in North Korea.
This is not a book on geopolitics, but rather an attempt to present the humanity of the (North) Korean people. This book is a very touching and so badly needed tribute to the people of North Korea.
Internat also published in English under the title ‘The Orphanage’ by the Ukrainian writer Serhiy Viktorovych Zhadan (Serhij Zadan) is my favourite book I have read so far this year and definitely one of the best books I have ever read. Yale University Press published an English translation of this magnificent novel in April 2021 under the title ‘The Orphanage’ .
Internat [The Orphanage] is a novel about ‘the apocalypse’, occupation, helplessness and living in a constant fear when the reality surrounding us changes unexpectedly..
It is worth noting that the names of Donbas, Donetsk, Russia, or Ukraine are not mentioned in the book even once. However, we can assume that Internat is a portrayal of life in the war – torn Donetsk circa 2015. As per the 2020 OHCHR Report, during the war in eastern Ukraine 13 000 people were killed, 30 000 people were wounded, over 1 000 000 Ukrainians were internally displaced and around 900 000 people were forced to flee abroad.
Zhadan’s book is set in some dark, grim, covered in dirty snow and mud war-torn unnamed city [Donetsk, Eastern Ukraine] from which the main protagonist, Pasha, a 35-year-old teacher of the Ukrainian language, sets off from the outskirts to the centre of the city to pick up his nephew from the Internat [Boarding School / Orphanage] and bring him back to their family home. As we follow Pasha through his three-day long journey, we understand that there are some of us and some of them, fighting in every street. There is chaos, fear, hunger, confusion.
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A Bookshop in Algiers by the Algerian writer Kaouther Adimi is a literary feast. This book might be small in size, just under 150 pages, but it is dense with captivating literally anecdotes related to both Algerian and French titans of literature as well as with many unique perspectives on the history and culture of Algeria throughout the 20th century. This book offers a moving portrayal of Algeria, its capital, Algiers and its inhabitants.
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A Bookshop in Algiers is told in two timelines: one follows the life of the extraordinary literary figure in the French literature, Edmond Charlot (1915 – 2004), from the 1930s Algiers when he began his career as a bookseller and publisher through WW2, the 1950s / 60s Algerian War of Independence and the 1990s Algerian Civil War; the other plot line is set in the contemporary Algiers of 2017 where a young Frenchman of the Algerian origin, Ryad is hired to clear out the present day bookshop called Les Vraies Richesses in order to make a way for a new bakery. In real life, Les Vraies Richesses Bookshop was founded by Edmond Charlot in the 1930s Algiers.