A World Tour of Books: The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli (Italy)

The term Machiavellian refers to someone who is cold, calculated and unscrupulous when working towards his goals. It comes from the name of the Italian Renaissance man Niccolò Machiavelli, who was a man of many gifts. He was a poet and playwright, a philosopher, a diplomat and politician and well as a historian.

What he is most known for is his book The Prince. A political treatise, it deals with how Machiavelli believed a monarch ought to rule and what he must do to stay in power.

Since remaining on the throne is a prince’s main goal, Machiavelli prescribed that he should not be guided by mere morals but do whatever it takes, including using cruelty and deceit.

If for example someone would try to take his throne, the prince must crush them and their family so utterly that the he never has to worry about retribution. As one of the most famous quotes from The Prince states:

If an injury has to be done to a man it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared.

Interestingly, Machiavelli believed the prince should act this way in a sense for the greater good. When the ruler is merciless in dealing with external and internal enemies of the state, then the state remains stable, peace abounds and the people are happy. Or at least that was Machiavelli’s theory.

Machiavelli used famous examples to illustrate how a ruler should and should not act. Some were from history but others were more recent, things he had himself witnessed during his career as a politician and diplomat.

He goes in length into different types of states and historical events and I don’t know if it’s his style of writing of what but at times I found this book a bit boring.

Still, I found it overall interesting. The Prince is a historically important document and one of the most famous political treatises in history. But its lessons can be surprisingly useful in different areas, such a business and personal relationships. Even if you are yourself not inclined to Machiavellian tendencies (not that you should be), knowing for example the art of manipulation could prove useful, at the very least in helping you recognize it.

It is fascinating that book written in the 16th century could prove relevant 500 years later and that gives me a certain respect for the man who wrote it, even if I don’t share his views on morals.

 

As this book as no copyright, you can listen to it for free on Youtube and read it as a free e-book online.

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A World Tour of Books: First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung (Cambodia)

It’s rarely that I come across a book that shakes me to the core and bring real tears to my eyes. Loung Ung’s autobiography First they Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers is one of those books.

Through it she retells her experience of the tyrannical rule of the Communist Khmer Rouge. It starts in April 1975, when the Khmer Rouge forces invade the capital Phnom Penh and Ung’s family have to flee for their lives. They move from village to village and have to hide their true identities in order to survive. They come from a privileged background and that is enough to deserve death in the eyes of the Khmer Rouge. Even something like wearing glasses could get someone killed since it made them look intellectual and “bourgeois”.

This is an aspect of what happened that I think is important to read about for anyone interested in politics. It is crucial to never let the struggle for more equality degenerate into hatred for those who have more. It has in the past and can still lead to bloodbath and, ironically, to more oppression. Concern for people must be what motivates and not ressentiment towards the privileged classes, less we turn into monsters.

The Khmer Rouge eventually found and killed Loung Ung’s father and the rest of the family had to separate and disperse to get a better chance at survival. Loung ended up in a work camp for children where she was trained as a child soldier. Even the blood of children was considered worth spilling for the sake of the Khmer Rouge’s hypothetical communist utopia.

After the Vietnamese liberated Cambodia, Loung was reunited with her surviving siblings. Later she and one of her brothers travelled to a refugee camp in Thailand, from where they were accepted by American sponsors and immigrated to the United States.

Today, Loung Ung is a human rights activist and has campaigned for important issues such as an international ban on landmines.
There was a happy ending for her after going through hell but for two million Cambodians it wasn’t the case. This is why stories from survivors like her are so important, so that the truth of what happened is told and we hopefully learn something from it.

First They Killed My Father was also adapted into a movie available on Netflix. It is worth a watch if you want to learn about this dark chapter of the 20th century.

A World Tour of Books: Maghnia – sökandet, by Mohamed Hocine (Algeria)

In the early 1990s, a conflict rose up in Algeria when the government refused to give up power to the Islamic party who had won the election. This angered more radical Islamist groups and an armed struggle ensued.

During this time, many people accused of being involved with the opposition mysteriously disappeared. Some were active members of the Front islamique du salut or FIS, others were sympathizers but being suspected of involvement with the group could be enough to be taken away by state security, never to be seen again.

Meanwhile, the various armed groups making up the opposition targeted civilians as well, sometimes massacring entire villages and forcibly “disappearing” a great many people also.

The result of this civil war was a death toll of between 44 000 and 200 000. It also led to the still unsolved disappearances of over 7000 people.

Maghnia (with the subtitle Sökandet – meaning the search) by Mohamed Hochine tells the fictional story of one such disappearance. One day armed men storm the home of Rachida and Brahim, a young couple expecting their first child. Brahim is falsely accused of being involved with the FIS and arrested.

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Eleven years later, Rachida is raising their daughter Maghnia alone and still waiting for an answer to what happened to her husband. She hasn’t heard a word all this time from either Brahim or the authorities who took him away. Sick of waiting she decides to leave Maghnia at a home for girls and to travel to the capital Alger to try and find the answers to her questions.

Rachida will meet others in her situation, people who are also searching for their missing loved ones. She will meet people who will try their best to help her. But others will be eager to use her desperation to their advantage. As for the authorities, they will be unwilling to even acknowledge the issue. Can she find out what happened to Brahim after all these years? Is there any hope that he is still alive?

Meanwhile, Maghnia will make new friends at the home and discover mysterious things about the place her mother has temporarily left her at. What are those files hidden away in the attic? And what is the purpose of that strange cave in the garden?

This is as mentioned a fictional story. But the heartbreak it portrays is sadly very real for over 7000 families in Algeria. 17 years after the end of the war, the authorities still haven’t made any effort to reveal the truth about what happened. Maghnia sheds light on the devastating consequences this silence has on many families.

 

The book has been published only in Swedish and can be purchased here. It is the first of a series and the second book can be found here.

A World Tour of Books: The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru)

I didn’t plan to read a book about a man being a woman’s slave right after reading a book about a man being a woman’s slave but it’s what happened when I picked the first book I found by an author I’ve wanted to read for a long time: Peruvian Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa.

The Bad Girl starts in the 1950’s when the narrator Ricardo first meets the girl who will use him for many years to come. She is fifteen then, claims to be from Chile and calls herself Lily.

He will meet her again throughout their lives and in different parts of the world. Her chosen names will be as varied as her made-up backstories but one thing will be consistent: Ricardo crawling back to her whenever and wherever she appears.

Always choosing rich and powerful men over him and using him as a lover and source of comfort, the bad girl seems to not have much of a conscience about what she is doing to poor Ricardo and it is hard for most of the book to feel much sympathy for the character.

One also feels annoyance at Ricardo for being such a wimp and not breaking things up with someone who treats him so terribly. But his love for the woman, although undeserved, is just too strong and he will follow her loyally to the very end.

This is a book I think primarily about the irrationality of love. Maybe it’s a cautionary tale or maybe it’s an ode to unconditional love; but it’s probably a bit of both. The Bad Girl is a beautifully written book with complex characters who will both charm and infuriate you. I feel the author is a man with great understanding of human nature and I found this work of his to be of inspiration to me personally as a writer.

The milieus in the book also make the story come to life. From the 60’s hippy period through political revolutions and the AIDS crisis, The Bad Girl tells the story of the later half of the twentieth century as well as it does the story of a cruel love.

If all or even most of Vargas Llosa’s books are as good as this one then his 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature was definitely well-deserved.

The end of a trilogy and the beginning of new adventures

Yesterday I published the third and final ebook of the fantasy series I’ve been working on for the last three years. I think it might be the best of the three but I guess that’s for the reader to decide.

Due to being short on cash I recently decided to restart selling the books instead of giving them away for free. I reuploaded them on Amazon because that’s the only place they really sold, although I prefer if people would buy them from somewhere else because I take some issues with how Amazon treats its workers.

Part three of The Sorcerer’s Sword can by bought on Smashwords and Amazon as well as Barnes and Noble.

I’m happy to share what I’ve written with the world and think it was great fun to write it but I’m looking forward to moving on to new things. I’ve already begun writing my next project and have no shortage of ideas for future books. The Sorcerer’s Sword was a self-publishing project but my long term goal has always been to get a contract with a regular publishing house and hopefully one day make a living doing what I love.

The competition is fierce and I know there is a high likelihood of failing at that goal. But I write because I love it. Gaining a book contract, and with it money and a larger audience, would be amazing but has never been the main reason I sit down and write everyday.

A World Tour of Books: Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (Austria)

Even if you have never heard of the name Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, it is likely you have at least once heard of the fetish named after him: masochism. This particular sexual inclination was a theme in many of his books and most famously in his work Venus in Furs.

It tells the story of Severin, a man who falls in love with a wealthy and beautiful widow by the name of Wanda. So enamoured is he by her that he asks to become her slave and for her to do with him whatever she wishes, even be cruel towards him.
At first she is disturbed by his fantasies. But because she also loves him she agrees to help him live them out.

Things are good between them at first and Severin gets to experience his kink but because Wanda grows to resent his submissiveness and lack of masculinity, she becomes increasingly vicious towards him to the point where the suprasensual Severin begins to regret his choice.

When I first heard of this book about ten years ago, I remember being intrigued by how a man could be so obsessed with a woman that he would willingly become her slave. It seemed pathetic to me but also a bit poetic.

I didn’t read it then because after being raised as a ultra-conservative Christian, I thought it immoral to read erotica. I have gotten over that pseudo-moral silliness since then and was now able to enjoy this piece of literature, which isn’t that erotic by today’s standards.

Interestingly, the point of the book was not merely erotic thrill but there is a moral to the story. It was part of a planned but never finished series titled The Legacy of Cain, which would be categorised into six different themes relevant to the author’s worldview. Venus in Furs was a novella in the first book, Love, and Severin’s conclusion about love between men and women is given at the end of the story:

“That woman, as nature has created her, and man at present is educating her, is man’s enemy. She can only be his slave or his despot, but never his companion. This she can become only when she has the same rights as he and is his equal in education and work.”

This view would explain Sacher-Masoch’s support of women’s emancipation, which was a controversial topic at the time the novella was written and whether or not you agree with his views, Venus in Furs is an intriguing and provocative read (or listen).

 

A World Tour of Books: Desert Flower by Waris Dirie (Somalia)

Waris Dirie is a world famous model. She has strutted the catwalks of Paris, Milano and New York and been featured in advertisement of brands such as Chanel and L’Oréal.

But her life started far from the glamour of the fashion world. Born to a family of nomads, she spent her childhood years trying to survive in the harsh Somali desert. The threat from thirst, starvation and wild animals such as lions made every day a struggle and several of her siblings did not survive into adulthood.

At 12, Waris Dirie ran away after finding out that her father was planning on marrying her off to an elderly man. She escaped to Mogadishu to live with relatives and from there she would move to London to work as a maid for her uncle, the Somali ambassador.

It was in the British capital that she would years later be discovered for her rare beauty and begin her long and successful career as a fashion model.

But her most important work as been as a UN Special Ambassador and activist against the practice of female genital mutilation. Having herself been subjected to it as a child, she knows first hand the horrors of it. Her experience on the day she suffered the mutilation is retold in the book and it is not for the faint of heart, so just be prepared for that.

FGM is today still practiced in Somalia as well as in many other countries. It is estimated that around three millions girl and women are subjected to it every year. To fight this, Waris Dirie started the Desert Flower Foundation. You can visit the website to learn more about FGM and what you can do to help fight it.

Desert Flower is an important autobiography from a brave woman and I’m glad I read it. I learned a lot about a country I quite honestly knew little about. You can tell that Waris Dirie loves her country of origin and that it is much more than one problematic tradition. This is definitely a book to recommend.

A World Tour of Books: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (Spain)

Not so long ago I began to see Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s books popping up in the recommended section of many book stores. I made a mental note to check them out eventually to see what all the fuss was about but never got around to it.

The reason I finally got my hands on an exemplar of his novel The Shadow of the Wind was because it was gifted to me by an aunt. She is also an avid book reader and had a feeling I would like this particular one. And she was right.

The Shadow of the Wind I would say is a book for book-lovers, which is probably why it is one of the best selling novels of all times.
It tells the story of Daniel Sempere, a little boy who is one day taken by his father to a secret library called The Cemetery of Forgotten Books. He is told to choose one book to take home and protect for the rest of his life. The one he picks is a novel called The Shadow of the Wind, a tragic odyssey about lost time and unhappy love.

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Fascinated, Daniel tries to find out more about its mysterious author Julián Carax. But it turns out to be more difficult than expected since his books have only been printed in a couple hundreds copies each. To make matters worse: an unsettling figure calling himself Laín Coubert, the name of the devil in Carax’s novel, is tracking every remaining book to burn them.

Years pass as Daniel investigates what happened to Julián Carax and why. Strangely, his own life starts to resemble Carax’s. Will the same tragedy and heartbreak befall him? And will he once and for all learn the truth about the author and why someone is so desperately trying to erase every sign that he ever existed?

The Shadow of the Wind is a heartwarming novel about love, loss and redemption. It is melancholic but sometimes humorous and has many complex characters, both likeable and unlikable. It is a real page turner which most definitely has earned its immense popularity.

 

 

A World Tour of Books: Raif Badawi: The Voice of Freedom: My Husband, Our Story by Ensaf Haidar. (Saudi Arabia)

In 2013 a Saudi man by the name of Raif Badawi was sentenced to 7 years in prison and 600 lashes. The next year, it was increased to ten years and 1000 lashes. His crime? Creating an internet site where he criticised Saudi Arabia’s authoritarian government and where people could freely discuss political ideas.

Since modern Saudi Arabia is a theocracy based on Wahhabism (an ultraconservative, fundamentalist branch of Islam), the authorities do not tolerate any criticism of the country’s cleric or any promoting of secularism. When they saw Raif Badawi do both these things, they decided to make an example out of him and gave him this cruel sentence.

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This book tells the true life story of the love between Raif Badawi and his wife Ensaf Haidar. It began when they unintentionally ended up talking to each other when Raif called on Ensaf’s cell phone, which her brother had borrowed to call his friend Raif a few days earlier. Ensaf and Raif fell in love and a conflict ensued with her family who found their relationship inappropriate in a culture where men and women who aren’t relatives are not supposed to have any contact.

Eventually, they were allowed to marry and had three children. Raif ran a school and made a good living for them. But everything changed when the authorities discovered Raif’s website.

A long campaign of harassment began, both from the religious authorities and from Raif and Ensaf’s own families. Eventually, they decided to leave the country. Ensaf moved away first with the children but before Raif could join them, he was arrested.

Ever since, Ensaf has campaigned to bring attention to her husband’s situation. Many human rights organisations have taken an interest and Raif Badawi has won many awards for his activism. But as of 2018, he is still not free and has 950 lashes left on his sentence.

Raif Badawi: The Voice of Freedom: My Husband, Our Story is a shocking but inspiring tale of two brave people’s struggle for freedom in one of the world’s most conservative countries.

For more information on Raif Badawi’s situation and how you can help, please visit: https://www.raifbadawi.org/

A World Tour of Books: The Vegetarian by Han Kang (South Korea)

The first thing that intrigued me about this novel when I saw it in the bookstore was its titel. Being a vegetarian myself, I felt compelled to pick it up and after reading the synopsis I knew I had to give it a read.

The topic of vegetarianism is briefly touched upon in this novel but isn’t really the main theme. Through the story of Yeong-hye, a housewife in a traditional Korean marriage, Han Kang examines the potential consequences of a person rebelling against conventions.

When the homely and quiet Yeong-hye one day decides to stop eating meat, she is met with staunch opposition from the people in her life. Her parents, husband and even her sister all try to persuade her to give up her new diet. The situation soon turns into a power struggle which is about much more than just what Yeong-hye wants and doesn’t want to eat.

How much can a person take? What does it do to a person to not fully own herself but to be restricted by tradition and the opinions of others? What happens when someone finally breaks or rebels? These are some of the questions asked in this Man Booker prize winning novel which will leave you feeling shocked, moved and disturbed.