A World Tour of Books: Ten Women by Marcela Serrano (Chile)

When I first stumbled upon this book while searching for something to read for this project, I dismissed it. Ten women just talking about their lives didn’t seem that fascinating. Memories came to me of having to accompany my mother when she went to have coffee with her friends and chat about things that bored the holy life out of me.

It just wasn’t the kind of book I typically read. But then I thought maybe that’s exactly why I should read it. I started this project precisely to discover literature I wouldn’t otherwise.

Ten Women ended up being a more interesting read than I expected. The women in the novel all had their unique stories and challenges, ranging from upper-class first world problems to heartbreak and tragedy. They are all different but also alike in some central themes of their lives: family, love, loss, a search for meaning. They are alike, in other words, in the way all people are alike. And this is what makes their stories and this book so very human.

They represent also the different social classes and generations of Chile. Some are young and struggling with modern problems while others have lived through more tumultuous times in the country’s history, such as the Pinochet dictatorship.
This ten women are in a sense a representation of the many faces of Chile, a microcosm of the wider Chilean society.

I’d recommend this book not only because it is well-written but also because it has something to teach. About the country’s modernity and history but also about the fact that all people, everyone of us carry within them a story waiting to be told.

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A World Tour of Books: The Symposium by Plato (Greece)

What is love? Where did it come from? Why does it exist? And why is it universally considered to be the highest of all virtues?

These are some of the questions the Greek philosopher Plato tried to answer in his work The Symposium.

Written in the form of a series of dialogues and monologues, it takes place at a banquet where someone challenges the attendants to each give a speech in honor of Eros, the God of love and its personification. Among those present are many famous characters such as the philosopher Socrates, the playwright Aristophanes and the tragedian Agathon.

The content of the monologues can be surprising, even shocking, to people raised with Judeo-Christian values. Here love between men is not only praised but considered more virtuous than love between men and woman. Although, the reason is rather misogynistic: men are considered more noble in character than women and therefore more worthy of love.

One of my favourite parts is the part of Aristophanes’ speech where he explains the origin of romantic love according to legend. A story you might already be familiar with if you’ve seen the movie Hedwig and The Angry Inch.  Truly, this is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve heard.

But the highlight of the story is Diotima’s theory of the Ladder of Love or Ladder of Eros. In it she explains that all forms of love, even the lowest such as mere sexual attraction, are rungs that can lead up to higher forms of love and eventually to love of Love itself.

The Symposium is a timeless classic and a treasure of Western philosophy. A book to read for enthusiasts of philosophy and lovers of Love alike.

PS. The audiobook is free on Librivox and Youtube.

A World Tour of Books: I Remember Abbu by Humayun Azad (Bangladesh)

Humayun Azad was one of Bangladesh’s most influential and prolific writers with over seventy published books. His works often dealt with socio-political issues such as women’s rights, free speech and the negative effects of religious fundamentalism.

This led to him getting a lot of animosity from conservatives and Islamic fundamentalists and it culminated on the 27th of February 2004 in an attempt on his life, when two assailants struck him several times with chopping knives. He survived the attack but was found dead in his Munich apartment in August later that year. Likely it was the result of a murder but justice has been slow and a trial will not happen until June of this year.

The book of his I chose for this blogging project is I Remember Abbu. It’s short, only 144 pages (2 hours and 50 minutes in the audiobook version) but a poignant read. It is told from two perspectives; one is in the form of diary entries from a professor during the struggle for independence from Pakistan. The other are the memories of his young daughter and tells how she discovered the world’s danger and uncertainty when war came to her country.

What makes this book so gripping is how it speaks the reality of war through the eyes of a child. The sound of bombs at night become the loud steps of giant monsters, the Pakistani soldiers become demons from who the family must flee. And her father, her abbu, is a handsome warrior going away to liberate his nation from the demonic forces.

What follows with every page then is the slow and torturous death of innocence. One that is repeated whenever a child has to face the atrocities of our world.

I Remember Abbu is a heart-breaking tale of family tragedy, national trauma and personal loss. A well-worth read from a brightly talented man gone too soon.

Sharing a book I wrote years ago

When I was 23 I made what I consider to be my best decision ever: I left the cult I had spent all my life in.

That cult is the Jehovah’s Witnesses and being part of it had destroyed me mentally. I won’t go into great lengths about what life as a JW is like but let me say that alcoholism, abuse and depression had become normal things to me because of how rampant it is in that community. I had witnessed so much pain and suffering brought on by the Watchtower organisation’s inhumane policies, such as their ban on blood transfusions, that I couldn’t imagine life not being constant struggle and despair.

After leaving I felt an obligation to warn others and let them know what life in this cult is like. So I wrote a short novel and published it online. It deals with issues such a homophobia, brainwashing and the covering up of abuse within the Watchtower organisation.

It intended to set up social media pages and spread it as much as I could. But then I came to terms with being transgender and started focusing more on getting my transition started. I also felt weird about having written a lesbian story and under a female pseudonym. It felt wrong somehow, like I was appropriating an experience that had never truly been mine.

But I’ve decided to share this book now because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I went through and I felt a renewed obligation to warn others about some of the ways this dangerous cult hurts people and destroys lives.

The book, titled The Apostate, is available at Smashwords and Amazon, both in English and in Swedish.

A World Tour of Books: The Essential Rumi (Turkey)

Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, more commonly known as simply Rumi, was born 1207 under the Khwarezmian empire in what is today Afghanistan. When he was young his family fled the invading army of Genghis Khan and settled in Turkey. It was there Rumi spent the rest of his life and had the greatest cultural impact.

If you’ve ever been to Turkey, you might have witnessed first-hand the Sufi whirling dervishes. This fascinating dance, believed to bring the ones doing it closer to God, is said to have been started by Rumi. Legend has it that he one day while walking through the market heard goldbeaters recite the words la elaha ella’llah (arabic for “there is no God but God”) in rhythm with the beating of their hammers. Rumi became so ecstatic that he raised his arms in the air and began to spin around in circles.

You see, Divine love was the thing that most fascinated Rumi. The majority of his poetry is about it. To him, all love is an expression of the supreme Love.

The son the a muslim theologian and preacher, Rumi had been taught in the ways of religion since early childhood but an encounter with the wandering sufi Shams of Tabriz opened his eyes to a deeper understanding of spirituality. Rumi came to believe love was the very heart of the Divine and that the ultimate goal of any religious practice is to be reunited with our Source.

He saw all religions as seeking the same ultimate goal and he promoted tolerance between faith. His believe in God as love led him to be the very antithesis of a fundamentalist.

Reading the Essential Rumi (translation by Coleman Barks) is quite interesting as an agnostic who isn’t sure God even exists. I understand the desire for union with something greater. Certain of the state of consciousness Rumi writes about are familiar to me as I’ve a few times managed to reach them during meditation. When I think back on it, it seems almost impossible to me that there wouldn’t be a greater reality than these life.

Regardless, I share Rumi’s belief that love should be the ultimate goal of our existence and permeate everything we do.

Because this Love really is EVERYTHING to Rumi. In all things we should act, he wrote, as if we were doing it for The Beloved.

Anyone interested in poetry and/or the topic of love should read Rumi. I’ve read a lot of poetry and I’ve read many books on spirituality but nothing can match Rumi’s writing. There’s a good reason he has been called “the poet of love” and “the greatest poet to ever live”.

To not read Rumi when you can would be a mistake.

A World Tour of Books: Don’t Leave Me by Stig Sæterbakken (Norway)

Trigger warning for mentions of depression and suicide.

The first thing I want to say about Stig Sæterbakken’s novel Don’t leave me is: don’t read this book if you’re depressed. In it is a story that goes to some very dark places and enmeshes the reader in a sense of deep hopelessness.

Beginning after a young man named Aksel has been left by the only woman he’s ever loved, it retraces their relationship from end to start and further back. It tells how his self-loathing and jealousy slowly destroyed the bond between them and gives some explanation as to why he became the way he is.

A dark cover for a dark tale.

Here and there through the story are short moments of happiness and hope but as one reads on, they are crushed and it becomes increasingly clear how utterly hopeless everything was from the start.

Worth mentioning is that the author Stig Sæterbakken was a man familiar with despair. He struggled against depression for many years and lost the fight in 2012 when he took his own life.

Don’t leave me (released in 2009) is a disturbing journey into a young man’s personal darkness. It will shock and upset you. Despite its simplistic format and language, it will make on you a deep impression which will be hard to forget.

A World Tour of Books: The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea (Mexico)

One of the first things I noticed about this book is that the main protagonist Teresa Urrea shares the same last name as the author. It turns out that it is because she is based on a historical person who happens to be the great-aunt of Luis Alberto Urrea.

The Hummingbird’s Daughter is a fictionalized account of her life in Mexico. Born to a wealthy ranch owner and an Indian ranch hand, Teresa is raised in poverty by her mother and later by a bitter and abusive aunt.

Only as a teenager does she learn about the identity of her father, after which she is allowed to move into his house.

 

Teresa
Teresa Urrea, the real life saint this novel is based on.

 

From a young age, Teresa shows some unusual talent such as astral projection. An Indian medicine woman, Huila, takes her under her wings as an apprentice. With her she learns about plants and healing prayers. But Teresa’s powers will grow stronger than anyone could have imagined.

After a terrible event, she falls into a coma and dies. Only to rise again at her own wake and with new powers.

From that point on, words travel about the amazing healing Santa de Cabora and pilgrims from all over come to seek her help and guidance. Teresa is more than willing to help. Having met God in death, she is driven by a deep love for all.

But not everyone appreciates her works. Her message of love over dogma is seen as a threat by the Catholic Church. As for the state authorities, they fear her denunciation of their oppression of the indigenous people.

Even some she considers her friends will distort her words to fit their lust for violence. Teresa is in danger.

Luis Alberto Urrea worked for twenty years (!) on this book and the result is a masterfully written story about family, love and the sacrifices people make for it. Whether or not one believes the miraculous things the historical Santa de Cabora is claimed to have done, this novel will impress and the magic realism style of Urrea’s writing will enchant.

Reading or listening to this book feels like being taken on a fantastical journey. In many ways it reminded me of another book I listened to for this blogging project: One Hundred Years of Solitude. If Urrea’s writing is consistently this amazing, he could very well be a future candidate to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, like Gabriel García Márquez before him.

Spring Awakening

The alarm clock awakes me, blasting loud techno music without mercy.
“Shut up!” I yell at it like it has a will of its own and means to torment me.
Pushing the snooze button, I look up at the ceiling. It’s vast and white, like a big sheet of paper waiting to be written on. A place for me to let my imagination run wild.
From outside comes the sound of children laughing and of birds singing. Today is Saturday, the time is 10 a.m.
I pick my bathrobe from the floor and put it on so that I’m decent when I go to the window to open the curtains. Sunlight, gentle and warm, shines in on me and on my little apartment. Spring is calling on me, it’s feels, and it’s making me uncomfortable. I’ve grown accustomed to the shadows in the last four months. Shut away from the world, I made them my only friends.
Do I still have friends out there, into the light? Or has the world forgotten me? Would it notice if I was gone?
Too restless to make breakfast, I put on clothes, grab my shoulder bag and leave my home on an empty stomach. I walk among the apartments complexes that look like gigantic concrete blocks that some giant has aligned in neat rows and painted little windows on. The birds outside my building are fattest in the area, on account of the elderly at the old folks home across the street spending their days throwing breadcrumbs at them.
I walk by the grocery store where the local drunkards always hang out. Then I pass the school covered in graffiti and the church. Someone has spray painted a sickle and hammer in bright red on the side of the building.
I hear more children laughing, more bird singing. Everywhere the sounds of Spring follow me. They feel strange, foreign like noises from another dimension. From the world of the living, which I no longer feel a part of.
I take the tram down to the city centre. I keep the hood of my sweater up in case someone recognizes me. How could I allow them to when I don’t even recognize myself?
After a half hour ride, I get off at the stop near a small park. I buy stale yesterday donuts from a little shop and sit down in front of this statue of a Renaissance king whose name I never remember. In silence I eat my breakfast. It’s unpleasantly dry but covered in cinnamon sugar and only ten crowns for four donuts so it’s fine.
I catch a group of seagulls eyeing my food so I eat up quickly. They are particularly aggressive around here and have no scruples to attack people and steal their snacks.
With breakfast over with, I sit and watch people go by. I sit like I’m waiting for something. I don’t know what it is but I know it doesn’t come so I take the tram to another, bigger park. One that doesn’t have mean, food-stealing seagulls but a pond with gentle ducks and waterhens and big oak trees where squirrels run up and down the trunks.
I sit down on the wide grass field where children are running about while their parents take naps or drink from throwaway coffee cups. After taking out a notebook and my favourite fountain pen, I sit and write for a few minutes until the pain in my hands becomes too unbearable.
Looking down at the half-empty page, I want to cry. When the illness doesn’t steal my energy or concentration, it takes away my ability to do the simplest tasks. Regardless, I must keep on writing because in the written word, I am convinced, is my ticket out. My deliverance from the toil and the giant concrete blocks and the living in a place where young men get shot and drug addicts pass out and freeze to death in the snow.
But not from the pain. From it there is no escape, no cure.
I pick up my phone, fight the eternal urge to google useless stuff, and open the writing app. Using the voice-to-text function, I get about three hundred words down before I become suddenly tired and need to lie down. The sun above burns bright with all its midday fury so I lower the brim of my hat to give my eyes rest. Soon, I am asleep.
In my dream I see a sky, vast and free of clouds. I am hovering, rising up towards a light. I am a feather, carried with love by the wind. Something wants me, it’s calling me home. I let go and for a brief moment there is no pain.
Late afternoon is here when I wake. I leave the park, walk pass people on their ways to drink and party away the night. I stop and stare for an instant at the gargoyle outside that fancy French restaurant I allowed myself to waste money at that one time. So fancy it was even the salad tasted like Heaven.
Never one to party, even before the illness took all the joy out of dancing, I decide to take the tram back home, write a bit more and watch some TV. The sky is turning purple and pink with sunset when I get off at the stop near my home. I look up at the beautiful colours and for some strange reason I have a feeling this night will be followed by the beginning of a better day.
Children’s laughter follow me all the way this time also when I walk home but it doesn’t feel like mocking now. Blurry memories of being a child playing under the spring sunset come back to me and I remember the vaguely familiar feeling of being alive.
That night, after the evening’s writing and Criminal Minds watching has been done and I’m about to get in my pyjamas and under the covers, I text a friend for the first time in months. I email another friend. Re-download Tinder. Let the world know I’m back.

A World Tour of Books: Gaza Writes Back, Short Stories From Young Writers in Gaza (Palestine)

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is without a doubt the most well-known one in the Middle-East region. It has been going on for over 70 years and still there seems to not be much hope of a peaceful agreement in sight.

You may or may not have taken a side in the conflict and may or may not have an opinion on how to solve it (I lean personally towards a two state solution) but either way what must not be ignored is the real human suffering involved.

Gaza Writes Back gives an insight into this reality. An anthology of 23 shorts stories by young Palestinians, it tells of life in the Gaza strip. Of people trying to live their lives in the midst of war and political instability. Bombings, displacement into refugee camps and shameless land grabs by the Israeli army are all part of what the Palestinian people have been and continue to be put through.

The extreme ways some have responded to this oppression is in no way justifiable, especially when innocent Israeli civilians are targeted. This however does not change the truth of the misery millions of Palestinians have suffered ever since the Nakba.

The fifteen young writers (13 of whom are women) of Gaza Writes Back are through this book speaking their truths about life under occupation and giving insight into the sorrow, anger and despair that many Palestinians live with.

The question is: will the world listen?

I found many of the short stories beautifully written. The topics are often tragic but sometimes also funny and hopeful, a reminder that warmth and love can exist even in the midst of terrible conditions.

It saddens me that such so much potential and talent has to struggle against colonization and suppression. I can’t but recommend this great anthology.

A World Tour of Books: The Doll’s House and other short stories by Katherine Mansfield (New Zealand)

Katherine Mansfield did not have a long life. She died only age 34 after a five year long struggle with tuberculosis. Her life prior to that had sometimes been turbulent.

She was born in 1888 in a wealthy family and had by her own account a happy childhood. As an adult she had relationships with both men and women but living in a time and place where same-sex relationships were not accepted she tried during certain periods of her life to force herself to get rid of her attraction to women.

Two years before her tuberculosis diagnosis, she experienced one of the greatest tragedies of her life: the death of her beloved younger brother Leslie as a soldier in World War I.

But despite everything she went through and her too-short time on earth, Katherine Mansfield made an impressive contribution to world literature. She wrote poetry but is mostly known for her many short stories.

Despite what the creepy cover may suggest, The Doll’s House is not a horror story.

For this blogging project I listened to an audiobook version of an anthology of six of her short stories: The Doll’s House, Honeymoon, A Cup of Tea, Taking the Veil, The Fly and The Canary.

Despite their shortness, there is a surprising depth in these stories. They are like brief moments in time captured with sensitivity and warmth by the author. In a few pages, Mansfield says more than certain writers can in an entire novel.

In each there is also a lesson, something for the reader to ponder and mediate on. Themes such as kindness, grief, love and class are reoccurring throughout the anthology.

After listening to The Doll’s House and other stories, I understand why Katherine Mansfield is one of the most well-known New Zealander writers.

I’d give the book a rating of 4,5/5. One of the better literary discoveries I’ve made in this blogging project.