No Touching by Ketty Rouf | Book Review

No Touching by Ketty Rouf | Book Review

“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 :

“(…) 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.”

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Invisible Ink by Patrick Modiano | Book Review

Invisible Ink by Patrick Modiano | Book Review

“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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The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak | Book Review

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak | Book Review

‘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 Yishai Sarid | Book Review

The Memory Monster by Yishai Sarid | Book Review

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?

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.

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The German Room by Carla Maliandi | Book Review

The German Room by Carla Maliandi | Book Review

“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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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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