The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-eun | Book Review

The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-eun | Book Review

“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 by Valerie Perrin | Book Review

Fresh Water For Flowers by Valerie Perrin | Book Review

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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The Last Summer of Reason by Tahar Djaout | Book Review

The Last Summer of Reason by Tahar Djaout | Book Review

“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 by Lindsey Miller | Book Review

North Korea Like Nowhere Else by Lindsey Miller | Book Review

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.

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.

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Internat [The Orphanage] by Serhiy Zhadan | Book Review

Internat [The Orphanage] by Serhiy Zhadan | Book Review

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 Kaouther Adimi | Book Review

A Bookshop in Algiers by Kaouther Adimi | Book Review

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.

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.

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A Month in Siena by Hisham Matar | Book Review

A Month in Siena by Hisham Matar | Book Review

“I found something in Siena, for which I am yet to have a description, but for which I have been searching, and it came (…) at that strange meeting point of two contradictory events – the bright achievement of having finished a book and the dark maturation of the likelihood, inescapable now, that I will have to live the rest of my days without ever knowing what happened to my father, how or when he died or where his remains may be.”

“Then we sat in silence that seemed touched by an oblique sort of sadness, as though time itself were a burden that had to be carried doubtfully and with a quiet show of egret in case fate might decide to double the load. We said goodbye” 

A Month in Siena by the American-Libyan author, Hisham Matar explores the relation between life and art. It is also a meditation full of beautiful observations on grief, loss, solitude, belonging, linguistic identity, friendships as well as our relationship with our fathers. The book is full of references to art, music, and literature (Ibn Battuta, Montaigne, Camus, Ibn Khaldun). Art here constitutes a refuge for one’s emotions and the way one can connect with the oneself. Siena as a city offers “that unobservable emptiness” that many might have sought for many years.

A 𝐌𝐨𝐧𝐭𝐡 𝐢𝐧 𝐒𝐢𝐞𝐧𝐚 is a short, gentle read, with accompanying illustrations that Matar reflects on. I highly recommend this book so that you can join Hisham Matar on one of his daily walks and visits to the museums and look at the medieval paintings. While Siena and its art offered solace to this sensitive writer in a time of the great sadness, then his book is incredibly soul soothing for the reader and brings up calmness, even to the most cynical heart.

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Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman | Book Review

Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman | Book Review

If you are not familiar with a wonderful Dutch historian, Rutger Bregman, I would highly recommend you to watch his 2017 TED Presentation: ‘Poverty Isn’t a Lack of Character, It’ s a Lack of Cash.’ Also, I would encourage you to watch his now viral talk at the 2019 World Economic Forum in Davos where he criticised the event and its participants for its focus on philanthropy rather than tax avoidance. Both talks are available to watch on YouTube.

“This is my first time at Davos, and I find it quite a bewildering experience, to be honest. I mean, 1500 private jets have flown in here to hear Sir David Attenborough speak about, you know, how we’re wrecking the plant. I mean, I hear people talking about the language of participation and justice and equality and transparency, but then, I mean, almost no one raises the real issue of tax avoidance, right? And of the rich just no paying their fair share. I mean, it feels like I’m at a firefighters’ conference and no one’s allowed to speak about water, right?”

I previously read Utopia For Realists by Rutger Bregman which was such an insightful, well-researched and interesting book. The idea of the society being in a need of dreams rather than nightmares has deeply resonated with me

In Humankind, Bregman takes a multidisciplinary approach to the history of the humankind using modern findings across from biology, economics, anthropology, history, archaeology, and psychology to demonstrate that human nature is fundamentally good. In my view, this book should be widely read and have its own spot on the bookshelves of every household.

Bregman offers a compelling theory of New Realism backed up by the abundance of scientific research from various disciplines. Modern capitalism, democracy, and the rule of law operate on the premise that people are selfish. Based on the modern research the current political, economic, and social institutions function based on the mistaken model of human nature. Bregman asks if we can design new institutions which will operate on a different, more positive view of human nature. What if our schools, businesses states expect the best of us instead of presuming the worst?

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Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri | Book Review

Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri | Book Review

Whereabouts was originally written in Italian by the Bengali-American writer, Jhumpa Lahiri who also translated the book herself.  

“Solitude: it’s become my trade. (…) It’s a condition I try to perfect”.  

Written in forty-six short vignettes, Whereabouts portrays daily wanderings and inner workings of the narrator’s mind who is a solitary unnamed woman in her mid -40s working as a teacher and living in the unnamed city in Italy. 

Whereabouts is an exploration of urban solitude, alienation, loneliness, growing old, with the narrator’s beautiful ruminations and perceptive thoughts infused with a profound sense of nostalgia veiled in gentle melancholy, on the meaning of living a solitary life, inspired by the locations of daily errands. Reading Whereabouts one feels not merely like an observer of the narrator’s life, but also as if one were an integral part of her life 

Over the period of one year, we follow unnamed woman as she wanders outward from her home experiencing snapshots of daily life: going to the shop, antique fair, swimming pool, the stationery shop, the beautician’s, visiting her mother, sitting in the waiting room at the doctor’s, buying a ticket just for one to see theatre spectacle, travelling by train.  Reader gets a glimpse into the narrator’s childhood and family life, in particular the relationship with her parents, her late father, and her mother for whom the passage of time and solitude triggers a great deal of sadness.  

The narrator is a very sensitive and astute observer of other people’s words, emotions, and gestures. She often reflects on how we cross our paths with others on our daily errands, often without exchanging any words, often just having the presence of other person as a reference point.  The narrator often thinks about people who currently frequent or might have frequented the same places that she does. 

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Anna Langfus | Introduction

Anna Langfus | Introduction

I would like to share with you a lit bit about one of my favourite writers who is almost unknown these days to the anglophone audience. I hope that some of my French followers might have read some of the books by this remarkable author of a profound sensitivity.  

Her name was Anna Langfus (1920 – 1966) who was a Polish – French writer of Jewish heritage. She was a Holocaust survivor; she escaped the Lublin Ghetto and then the Warsaw Ghetto. Her first husband, Jakub Rajs, her parents, and closed member of her family perished during WWII. After WWII ended, she moved back to her hometown, Lublin in Poland but she found herself devastatingly alone there as none of her family members survived. Anna moved to France as a refugee in 1946 where she worked as a math teacher at the Jewish orphanage. In her attempt to rebuild her life, she married her second husband, Aron Langfus in 1948 and settled down in Sarcelles, one of the suburbs of Paris.  

Anna started writing in the 1950s and she used French language which was her second acquired language as a form of expression which is remarkable. She died in 1966 at the age of only forty six due to her heart condition. 

Today, in Sarcelles, where Anna lived, there is a public library named after her name. 

During her short life she published three novels in French and some short plays. All of her work deals with the time after the Holocaust and focuses on the ones who survived and tried to learn to live again in the aftermath

Anna Langfus was one of the first writers who mentioned these issues in literature similarly to Elie Wiesel or Primo Levi.  

Anna won the Swiss 1961 Prix de Charles Veillon for the best novel written in French, Le Sel et le Soufre followed by the 1962 Prix Goncourt, the highest French literary award for Les Bagages de Sable translated into English as The Lost Shore. At that time, she was the fourth woman to win this prestigious Goncourt award for the book written in French (taking into consideration that the Prix Goncourt has been awarded since 1903).

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Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley | Book Review

Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley | Book Review

Hot Stew is the second novel by Fiona Mozley whose debut novel, Elmet was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize.

Hot Stew is a wonderful ode to London’s Soho providing a sharp social analysis of life in a modern metropolis. The book tackles the issues of gentrification, social class, stigmatisation, poverty, privilege, London’s housing crisis, the meaning of home, the relation between one’s identity and the place as well as the feeling of alienation and displacement.  

Readers are introduced to the plethora of various characters representing complex and diverse society as well as to the rich and vibrant history of London’s Soho.

Soho is centrally located, former RLD (red light district) of London. Roughly form the 18th century until the 1980s it was considered a hot spot of the UK’s underworld. it was a centre of London’s erotic industry, with many sexually oriented businesses, often associated with exploitation, trafficking, drugs, and notorious crime scene. However, it is also worth noting that for many decades Soho has been a welcoming place offering home to the immigrants, outcasts, and those living on the peripheries of the society. 

Hot Stew evokes a very strong sense of place, with many references to the real places one can locate in this central London district. Soho is portrayed as a separate character, playing an integral role in the lives of all the characters and as a place with its own complex and nuanced personality Soho is a place of greed, viciousness, and ugliness but also of compassion, community spirit, long-term friendships, sometimes happiness covered in a veil of permanent nostalgia. Soho and its residents have created a sort of symbiotic relationship – they are separate organisms containing each other. One cannot exist without the other.

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The Photographer at Sixteen by George Szirtes | Book Review

The Photographer at Sixteen by George Szirtes | Book Review

“Displacement hits you later than you expect, just when you think you have settled down and become part of the world all over again. That is when it begins to ache, when a certain inarticulable desolation creeps in. Your body is not where your body ought to be (…). It is as if you had ghosted in but left your soul behind.”

“Life, as learned, was composed of relatively brief episodes, each seeming an eternity at the time, none of them suggesting stability, let alone permanence.”

The Photographer at Sixteen by George Szirtes is an exceptional memoir.  It constitutes an exploration of Szirtes’s Romania-born Hungarian – Jewish mother’s life.  The book also provides a compelling commentary on Europe’s darkest chapters from the 20th century and its consequences on a singular life.  

This memoir is a beautifully written, profoundly moving and extremely thoughtful portrait of one woman living through the tumultuous times of the European history. The narrative is a mixture of delicate, sharp prose intertwined with Szirtes’s poetry. Throughout the book, tape recordings photos, letters, and historic facts are used to (re-) construct the life of Szirtes’s mother, Magda (Magdalena).

There is also an exploration of the multifaceted identity – a complex idea especially for the ones, like Magda who lived in Central and Eastern Europe in the first half of the 20th century. Magda was ethnic Hungarian, yet Romanian by birth, born to secular Jewish parents. Magda’s identity was partially created by the political and frequent border changes. As her identity and status kept changing throughout her life, it left indelible marks on her feeling of belonging, loss and lack of security.

The book traces Magda’s life backwards; this form has been inspired by Anthony Hecht’s poem ‘The Venetian Vespers’ in which the poet imagines snippets of life backwards.

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El Excluido [‘The Excluded’] by David San Jose Martinez | Book Review

El Excluido [‘The Excluded’] by David San Jose Martinez | Book Review

El Excluido’ [‘The Excluded’] by the great Spanish writer, David San Jose Martinez.

This book is a wonderful literary achievement, beautifully written with a very rich language, a veil of nostalgia and profound emotional sensitivity. It is a novel but its form – the collection of vignettes, somewhat separated, somewhat connected, is very innovative.

El Excluido is a nuanced character study, exploring the complexity of multilayered relationships, human nature and all the emotions accompanying people while they navigate the alleys of love, friendships and deeper mutual understanding. We witness the protagonists dealing with overwhelming feelings of loss, self-worth, self-doubt, anguish, emptiness, selfishness, jealousy, affection, finding one’s place in the world among others. El Excluido also constitutes the meditation on the identity and its importance on how we relate ourselves to others and how it affects our behaviour.

El Excluido is a demanding and ambitious book that requires a full attention on the reader’s part. In return, the reader can experience a magnificent, compelling and delightful literary feast.

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In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri | Book Review

In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri | Book Review

“Why do I write? To investigate the mystery of existence. (…) To get closer to everything that is outside of me. (…)Writing is my only way of absorbing (…) life.” 

In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri   constitutes an astonishingly beautiful discourse exploring the subjects of identity, the meaning of exile, belonging, cultural displacement, alienation, mixed and ‘third’ culture background, as well as learning a foreign language, and quest for a place called ‘home’ and the language called ‘mother tongue’.  

We witness the author’s anxieties, her self-imposed linguistic odyssey into the depths of Italian language in order to reshape her own personal identity.  

It is a kind of a confessional memoir but with a very few details about Lahiri personal life. It is important to mention that In Other Words was originally written in Italian, Lahiri’s third language which she learnt as an adult. The book was also translated into English by another writer and not Lahiri herself.  

Undeniably, In Other Words is a beautiful ode to Italy, its culture as well as  language and to self-discipline of acquiring a new language.  

By reading In Other Words, we have a privilege of observing an inquiring mind and a sensitive soul of a wonderful writer during her creative process.  

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Cockroaches by Scholastique Mukasonga | Book Review

Cockroaches by Scholastique Mukasonga | Book Review

“Nothing in Rwanda was left in me but a wound that could never be healed.” 

“Humiliated, afraid, waiting day after day for what was to come, what we didn’t have a word for: genocide. And I alone preserve the memory of it. And that’s why I am writing this.”  

“Where are they? Somewhere deep in the anonymous crowd of the genocide’s victim. A million of them, their lives stolen, their names lost. What is the point of counting up our dead again and again? From the thousand hills of Rwanda, a million shades answer my call.” 

This book is a remarkable homage to her murdered family during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and is dedicated to “everyone [who] died at Nyamata in the genocide” .

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