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.


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.


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.

A World Tour of Books: Terra Nullius by Claire G. Coleman (Australia)

Terra nullius is a Latin term which means “nobody’s land” and describes a territory free to be taken by whoever wishes to. Australia was declared such a terra nullius when it was colonised by Britain, despite the fact that it was the home of one of earth’s oldest cultures. Or rather cultures, as there are around 500 different Aboriginal groups.

The reason the British considered Australia to be nobody’s land was because they didn’t view the natives as human but rather part of the fauna, like kangaroos and koalas. They subsequently didn’t treat them with the dignity afforded to other humans and the history of the colonization of Australia is one filled with blood and oppression.

Terra Nullius is also the name of a novel by Aboriginal author Claire G. Coleman. It tells the story of the invasion of Australia – but with a twist.

This colonization does not take place in the past but the future, and the invaders do not come from beyond the ocean but from beyond the stars. Just like the British did not view the native Aboriginals as people, so do the new reptilian settlers not see the humans as their equals. They therefore do not allow them the same rights.

Many are kept as slaves, some women even used like breeding cattle. Children are taken from their families and communities, which are considered too stupid to take care of their own offspring. Everywhere, the colonizers of Earth are doing what they can to oppress the native humans and eliminate their desire to be their own people.

But there are still humans willing to fight for their freedom, despite seemingly impossible odds. Even a few reptilians, derogatorily referred to as “toads”, are prepared to stand by their side.

Terra Nullius is a fictional work but the truths it tells are very much relevant to us. It draws parallels between an imagine future and a real past to teach an uncomfortable but important lesson.

Lastly, I want to say: read this book. The story it tells will touch your heart and open your eyes.


A World Tour of Books: My Michael by Amos Oz (Israel)

The first time I read one of Amos Oz’s books was as a teenager. His How to Cure A Fanatic was in the curriculum of the religion course we were taking at school. I have a vague memory of what it said but I remember that I profoundly disliked it.

After being raised in a fundamentalist Christian cult, I had a very black-and-white view of the world and was not ready to accept the message of the book. Much time has passed since then and I’m thinking I need to read it again, now that I have such a different perspective on things.

But being curious about one of his most famous books, My Michael, I wanted to read it first.

The first thing you need to know about this book is that it won’t be your cup of tea if you like stories where stuff happens. My Michael is about the relationship between Hanna and Michael, who meet during the 1950s when they both study at the same university. They get married and have a child together.

Everyone expects Hanna to feel fulfilled but she can not. Probably because her husband and the life they share is so goddamn boring.

One would assume that the character whose name is in the title of the book would also be the most interesting. But Michael Gonen has to be one of the most painfully banal characters I’ve come across in literature. I find it no surprise that the mentally unstable Hanna seeks refuge in a fantasy world. The scenes where she does so are by far the best part of this novel.

I find I have mixed feelings about Hanna, from whose perspective the story is told. I find her childish and often annoying but at the same time I understand her frustration and her longing to really live, not just pass through a dull existence.

To conclude, I would say My Michael is a beautifully written, intimate portrait of a young woman falling deeper and deeper out of touch with reality. A great story, albeit a bit slow-paced.

A World Tour of Books: Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane (South Africa)

Johannes Mark Mathabane was not dealt the best of cards in the beginning of life. Born to illiterate parents in a ghetto of Apartheid South Africa, he was during his childhood surrounded by crime and poverty.

His homelife was turbulent and his often violent father, like many other men in the ghetto, took to alcohol and gambling to attempt and escape the oppression poured on him daily. There was also the many surprise raids carried out by the authorities and where black South Africans could be arrested for such “crimes” as being unemployed or not having their passports in order.

But in the midst of all misery, Johannes’ mother saw one hope: education. If he learned how to read and write, she believed her son could one day have a shot at a better life.
The boy was opposed to it at first but did go through school, which his mother struggled hard to be able to afford. Having learned to read, he developed a passion for books and in them found hope and inspiration.
He learned to play tennis and realised he was a gifted player. It was through his involvement in this sport that he eventually got his ticket out of poverty, through a sport scholarship at an American college.

What shocked me the most reading Mathabane’s autobiography Kaffir Boy was how awful the quality of life was for blacks during Apartheid. Of course, I knew it wasn’t good. But I was surprised by the depth of the oppression and the abject poverty most of them had to suffer through. There was also the bureaucratic hurdles put in their way to make sure even something like getting a permit to seek a job was as long and humiliating a process as possible. The whole system was designed to put black people down and have them stay there.

Kaffir Boy is one man’s story of growing up under an oppressive regime which despised him simply because of the colour of his skin. But it’s also about the resilience of the human spirit and about finding hope in the midst of despair. It’s one of the most moving books I’ve read and one I highly recommend.

A World Tour of Books: Gut Symmetries by Jeanette Winterson (United Kingdom)

Years ago, I was watching one of my favourite tv-programs, the Swedish literary show Babel, and it featured someone I immediately found fascinating: Jeanette Winterson.

I can’t recall what book(s) the inteview was about but I’ll never forget the impression she made on me. She had this wild, untamed hair, cheeky eyes and smile, spoke with passion about literature and she rode around on a motor cycle. In other words, she was a cool writer and I found myself yearning to be like her one day. I made a mental note to read a book of hers but then “something by Jeanette Winterson” got lost in my always expanding to-read list and I never got around to it. 

That is until I found a used copy of Gut Symmetries in a second-hand shop. I bought the book without even checking what it was about because I was so eager to read one of Winterson’s works. 

What it is mostly about, it turns out, is this most banal of things called a love story. But that’s about the only thing banal about this particular one and not just because of the bisexual twist. Quantum physics and Jewish mysticism play a large roll in this poetic book which looks at love in a greater, cosmic context.

 (GUT: Grand Unified Theory: the “theory of everything” physicists are looking for that will explain the entire universe.) 

I’m not much for mysticism myself. Love is in my eyes nothing but a sensation caused by chemicals in the brain to spur us to continue the species. But pretending is fun and I enjoyed reading this beautifully written book. The prose is amazing and the story moving. One of the most original love stories I’ve read so far.

A World Tour of Books: Summer Light and Then Comes the Night by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (Iceland)

Scandinavian melancholy is a well-known phenomenon. It’s a reoccurring theme in our literature and cinema (ever seen an Ingmar Bergman movie?). And can you blame us? We’re freezing up here and the days are dark almost six months a year. No wonder we get a bit moody sometimes.

Melancholy is interestingly the main emotion I felt when reading Summer Light and Then Comes the Night by the Icelandic author Jón Kalman Stefánsson. Set on the west coast of the island nation, in a small village of about 400 inhabitants, this novel has no main protagonist but tells stories from the lives of many different people. It reads more like a collection of short stories than a novel and the themes vary from the mundane to the strange and the tragic. Both the small and big questions of human existence have a place in this charming book where the lives of ordinary people are told against the harsh nature of countryside Iceland.

Swedish translation of the novel

What I liked the most was the stream-of-consciousness mode of narrative. I’ve read books in this style in the past, but most were hard to comprehend or just plain bad. Stefánsson’s words, on the other hand, run across the pages like water. They transport you through the stories seemingly without effort and it often feels like listening to a friend retell an account of events rather than reading a novel.

Overall, I really liked this book. I would even say this was one of the most pleasant reading experiences I’ve had in a while. Unfortunately, Summer Light and Then Comes the Night has not been translated to English yet. But several of Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s books, Fish Have No Feet and the Heaven and Hell trilogy, have been and published through MacLehose Press. 

I haven’t read them but if they are even half as good as Summer Light and Then Comes the Night, you will likely not be disappointed.