Medallions by a Polish novelist and essayist, Zofia Nalkowska (1884 – 1954)
Medallions is considered the masterpiece in the world Holocaust literature, deeply influences by Nalkowska’s experience as a member of the Commission for the Investigation of Nazi War Crimes which was established in 1945. During that time, she visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek, Treblinka and many other sites of mass killing and extermination. She conducted many interviews, listened to survivors’ and eyewitnesses’ testimonies recorded just a few months after the end of the war in 1945. Nalkowska was profoundly affected by her work as a member of the Commission.
Medallions consists of eight short reportages in which survivors, eyewitnesses speak for themselves. There is no mythologisation of the victims: they are neither the heroes, nor the martyrs. In her writing, Nalkowska managed to preserve a deeply personal character of individual experiences. Nalkowska’s style is concise, somewhat laconic, almost economical. The most striking aspect of her reportages is the description of silences where the words are simply too weak to relate the experiences of the protagonists. She records the survivors’ intonations, gestures, postures, emotions of shame, fear, shock as they struggle to relate the atrocities they witnessed. Nalkowska is aware that much of their experiences is left unspoken as there are no words to describe it.
Medallions is not merely a record of one of the darkest chapters in the human history; it is also an incomparable portrayal of the human suffering as nothing else that I have read before.
“If someone asks you how you are, you are meant to say FINE. You are not meant to say that you cried yourself to sleep last night because you hadn’t spoken to another person for two consecutive days. FINE is what you say.”
“Time only blunts the pain of loss. It doesn’t erase it.”
“I took one of my hands in the other, tried to imagine what it would feel like if it was another person’s hand holding mine.”
– Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine constitutes a meditation about isolation and loneliness among young people in the modern world. Gail Honeyman said somewhere that what inspired her to write this book was reading an article about the experience of one young woman who said that she did not speak to anyone from the time she left work on Friday evening until she was back at work on Monday morning.
For me, the story of Eleanor is very realistic especially after living and working in London for so long. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine portrays a life of a young woman working in Glasgow ; and, it is rather a grim portrayal of the mundanity of everyday life.
“Marcel Proust, Iike all writers of genius, had succeeded – and he more than any other – in this transmutation which is the very essence of literature: a spirit and soul embodied in a rectangle of bound paper, living on after them.”
“The Readers’ Room” by Antoine Laurain
This little mystery book serves as a vehicle to escape the current reality of uncertainty. It is a beautiful and overwhelmingly charming piece of writing combining mystery, murder, love, intrigue and ode to literature and writers.
There is this profound tenderness to Laurain’s writingwhich allows the reader to plunge into the reality of wonder and nostalgia.
The Beekeeper of Aleppo is beautifully written, but it should be mainly read for its subject matter. Christy Lefteri portrays the journey of Syrian refugees in a realistic, emphatic, and respectful manner.
The Beekeeper of Aleppo tells a story of Nuri, a beekeeper from a beautiful ancient Syrian city of Aleppo and his wife, Afra, who worked as an artist. Before the war, they led a peaceful family life surrounded by their loved ones and friends. Then, suddenly everything changes; they lose their son, Sami due to the bomb blast in their garden; they witness beheadings, killings, tortures. Afra due to the blast and shock after losing her child becomes blind. They are forced to flee Syria to survive. We accompany Nuri and Afra as they travel through Turkey, Greece in order to reach the shores of England where Nuri’s cousin, Mustafa lives.
We observe the broken world that Nuri and Afra must pass through in order to find a new ‘home’. The themes of human trafficking, emotional and physical abuse that refugees are subject to, severe depression, post-traumatic stress disorder that most people fleeing war, conflict, ethnic cleansing experience, child trafficking, unaccompanied child refugees, uncertainty encountered in new countries, dealing with inhumanity of asylum application in the UK as portrayed in the book are explored here.
My stress levels have been skyrocketing over the last weeks and months due to the current situation related to pandemic. For that reason I have been in need of reading something heartwarming, soul-healing, soul-soothing and gentle.
And, this little gem of a book, Lost For Words by Stephanie Butland brought me solace, so needed moments of joy and peace. Stephanie Butland wrote a book which should be prescribed as a medicine to heal one’s soul and to calm one’s heart.
It is an exquisite and profoundly touching storytelling, with many layers of depth and hidden meanings. Lost For Words is a tale about an introverted, quiet, withdrawn and sensitive woman, Loveday Cardew who prefers books to socialising with people. Loveday works as a bookseller in a second-hand bookshop, based in a magical town of York, which is the only place where she feels safe – it is her refuge from the surrounding world and the events from her pasts. It is clear from the beginning that she has some deep-rooted traumas. Lovedayleads her life with as little human interactions as possible. With the arrival of a box filled with books, she is forced to face the events from her past and as the story progresses we learn more about Loveday’s family and childhood.
Through literature, Loveday connects with the inner self and the rest of the world. This is a tale about the importance of books and bookshops in one’s life.
Lost For Words is a very pleasant, gentle and delightful read. If you are an introvert, a bibliophile, I am sure that this book will become very dear to you.
Lost For Words by Stephanie Butland serves like a balm for a soul.
If you enjoy books such as 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeymanor The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George, you will also fall in love with Lost For Words by Stephanie Butland.
“At night, here in the library, the ghosts have voices. (…) But at night, when the library lamps are lit, the outside world disappears and nothing but the space of books remains in existence. ”
– The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel
The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel is one of the greatest ‘bookish’ books I have ever read.
The Library at Night is a meditation on the meaning of libraries and the process of reading; it constitutes a homage to libraries of any kind and to the freedom of thought.
Alberto Manguel takes us on a fascinating voyage through the libraries across the centuries and civilizations ranging from the ancient China, Rome, Egypt, Greece, the Aztecs, private libraries of Jorge Luis Borges, Dickens, Aby Warburg, the library of Alexandria, the British Library and many more.
The Library at Night is divided into fifteen chapters, with each one being an essay on a particular meaning of the library as understood by Manguel, ranging from the library seen as myth, oblivion, home, imagination, power, survival, identity …
Each essay contains plethora of quotes, anecdotes, wealth of knowledge, magical stories, and yet each chapter overflows with warmth and charm. These comprehensive, meticulously researched essays allow the reader to learn a lot about libraries, its locations, cataloguing systems, including Dewey Decimal System.
Furthermore, The Library at Night offers many reflections on the nature of literature itself and what it means to be a reader.
This book offers beautiful writing and delights with a very sharp approach to the question of identity, “cultural power”, cultural clashed between the West and the East in a context of the dominance of one powerful country such as the United States (US) prior and after the attacks on the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001.
The themes in the ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ are diverse and portrayed in a very nuanced manner. In one of the interviews, Mohsin Hamid said that the objective of this book was to be like a mirror to the reader, to confuse the reader in order to show that the characters in this book are as complex, multidimensional, can be many things, with many identities as the people in our world.
There is no reference to religion, faith, or spiritualityanywhere in the book. It is fair to say that the term: ‘Fundamentalist’ often carries the meaning associated with religion but NOT here. ‘Fundamentalist’ refers tothe business activitywhich will be explained in more detail later in the text.
Let me introduce you to one of my favourite writers, Anita Brookner (1928 – 2016)
Anita Brookner was an English novelist and art historian, born into the Polish – Jewish family in North London. She was appointed as Slade Professor of Fine Art at the University of Cambridge in 1967 and was the first woman to hold this position. Anita became a laureate of the 1984 Man Booker Prize(then the Booker-McConnel Prize) for her novel Hotel du Lac which was also beautifully adapted into a 1986 TV movie featuring Anna Massey in the leading role.
Brookner spent most of the 1950’s living in Paris and completing her doctoral studies at the Ecole du Louvre on the French government scholarship. She never married and cared for her parents as they aged. In one of her interviews, Anita famously called herself “the loneliest woman in London”.
Anita started writing considerably late in life. Her first book “A Start in Life” was published in 1981 when she was 53. She wrote a total of twenty-seven novels and I have given myself a task to read all of them.
Loneliness, solitude, the position of single women and men in the society as they get older, complex, and multi-layered family relationships, including the ones between older children and their elderly parents are the recurring themes in Brookner’s novels.
The Distance by a wonderful South African novelist, Ivan Vladislavic is a magnificent and stunning literary achievement. This is a remarkable, thoughtful read and a real feast for all the bibliophiles. This book is both, global and local; universal and South African – Praetorian; ordinary and surreal; alien and familiar. The ‘distance’ in the book is both, metaphorical and real.
The Distance is a profoundly moving study in family relations during the political and social changes offering a very intimate insight into snippets of the South African society of the 1970s, as well as that of the present day. The story features the variety of themes including love, memory, loss, immigration, our own perception of who we are and its impact on how we perceive the world, race relations in the 1970s and a present-day South Africa and the limitation of language.
‘When we walked side by side, did I not feel his humanity most profoundly? Only now did I begin to understand why it was not always through words that people sought each other out and came to understand each other.’
I was profoundly moved by this gem of a book. In ‘Madonna in a Fur Coat’, Ali portrays the deepest corners of the human soul. We, the readers, witness the development of the feeling called ‘love’ from the perspective of a young, extremely sensitive Turkish man, Raif Efendi.
Ali’s writing offers probably one of the best description of a sensitive man, deeply emphatic soul.
“Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature” is one of the boldest opening sentences I have ever read. The main protagonist, Ruth, turns to books for comfort while navigating through many ambiguities in her daily life such as taking care of her elderly ailing mother, failed relationships, finding the meaning to her life. Brookner’s prose is as always profound and illuminating, portraying the inner life of the protagonist in the most exquisite manner. Published in 1981, it is Brookner’s first novel which delights with poetic language, beautifully crafted sentences, and painfully authentic characters.
‘The Architect’s Apprentice’ by a Turkish writer, Elif Shafak
Through a young apprentice, the Indian boy called Jahan, we travel to the 16th century Istanbul during the times of the Ottoman Empire under the reign of three sultans: Suleyman, Salim and Murad. We meet many historical figures including Mimar Sinan, the famed architect of that era responsible for construction of over 300 buildings such as the Suleymaniye Mosque, the Selimiye Mosque, Mehmed Pasha Mosque and the bridge on the River Drina in Bosnia and Herzegovina. With Jahan, we also travel to the 16th century Rome, Agra in India during the time of Taj Mahal building. We learn about the Ottoman Empire and Mughal India.
‘The Architect’s Apprentice’ resembles ‘Thousand and One Nights’ consisting of many vignettes. The language is poetic, elegant, sublime, imaginative and just delightful; and the mixture of historical facts and fiction is remarkable.
“I am single today, and I have been struggling with my thoughts. And after so many years, I want to know what it is just to be two. United. One. I’ve never had that experience. People say they ‘fall’ in love. That word is so negative. I want to ‘rise’ into love. That’s exactly what I want to do. I want to rise and fly.”
Ketty Amacin, 57, beautician
Amour. How the French Talk about Love was written by a French-American journalist, Stefania Rousselle who has spent most of her professional life reporting on terrorism and the bleakest events of the recent years. Following the terrorist attacks in Paris in November of 2015, the loss of her friend during the massacre in Bataclan and her relationship breakdown, overwhelmed by pain and sadness, Stefania set out on a journey across France in search of so-called L O V E.
‘Returning to Reims’ by Didier Eribon moved me profoundly. This book is about suffering, pain and shame related to one’s social background. Through showing his personal story of social exclusion, cutting ties with his working class origins, Eribon explores a number of important themes including the history of France over the last 100 years, how France political sphere has changed, how working class people moved from voting for the left-wing to now the right-wing parties.
‘Returning to Reims’ is partially a memoir, partially a sociological study.
Eribon was born into a working class family ina small town in France. He left it to pursue an academic career to become a well known social theorist.
A large part of this book is dedicated to the issue of shame related to one’s SOCIAL IDENTITY in context of SOCIAL and ECONOMIC INEQUALITIES.
“For a long time I searched for the black stone that cleanses the soul of death. When I say a long time, I think of a bottomless pit, a tunnel dug with my fingers, my teeth, in the stubborn hope of glimpsing, if only for a minute, one infinitely lingering minute, a ray of light, a spark that would imprint itself deep within my eye, that would stay protected in my entrails like a secret. There it would be, lodging in my breast and nourishing my endless nights, there, in the depths of the humid earth, in that tomb smelling of man stripped of his humanity by shovel blows that flay him alive, snatching away his sight, his voice, and his reason.”
‘This Blinding Absence of Light’ by a Moroccan writer, Tahar Ben Jelloun narrates a story of political prisoners who took part in a failed coup against King Hassan II of Morocco in 1971. This story is based on real events and author’s interview with a former prisoner Aziz Binebine.
Following the attempt to oust the King, sixty people were incarcerated for eighteen years in a secret prisoncalled Tazmamart which was located in the Sahara Desert. The conditions in that prison were horrid, atrocious. The prisoners were literally buried alive, kept in a complete darkness in a single underground cell of five foot high and nine foot long where they could not stand up nor sit up; scorpions and other insects occupied the cells with the prisoners, with one small hole for air and another hole in the ground used as a lavatory. They only received enough food to make it until next day. The only time they were allowed to go out was to bury other prisoners.