A World Tour of Books: The Belly of Paris by Émile Zola (France)

For the country of France, the place where I spent most of my childhood, I wanted to read a book in its original language. French has a special poésie to it which simply can’t be translated. I once tried to read through an English version of one of Rimbaud’s poems and found it utterly depressing how the almost musical touch of the words got lost in translation.

I looked through my parents’ library is search of a French book I hadn’t read yet and found Le Ventre de Paris or The Belly of Paris as it is called in English.

Émile Zola being one of the greats of the genre of Naturalism, which I would like to describe as hardcore realism, I immediately became interested. The era of Naturalism is, in my opinion, one of the best periods in literature and its proponents’ determination to portray fearlessly the realities of life is a personal inspiration to me as a writer.

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The Belly of Paris tells the story of Florent, who returns to the French capital after years of exile in South America. Having been sent there after being convicted of a crime he didn’t commit, he is full of resentment towards the Second Empire of Napoleon III.

He reconnects with his younger brother Quenu, who is now running a successful charcuterie alongside his beautiful wife Lisa.

Florent takes a job as an inspector in the now gone marketplace known as Les Halles. There he witnesses the affluence it brings to the city, but also the misery that exists within its walls. A distinction is made between the fat and the thin – the rich and the poor.

Although Florent lives with Quenu and Lisa, who are both unmistakably among the fat, he remains thin both in the physical and figurative sense. What he hungers for more than anything is justice and he begins to dream about a great revolution.

But while the thin might envy the fat, the fat are full of suspicion towards the poor. The idea that you should never trust a skinny man is expressed by several affluent characters throughout the book. And it is that very suspicion which will make sure Florent’s dreams remain only that.

The Naturalist beliefs of Zola are obvious in The Belly of Paris. Both in the milieus (I don’t think I’ve ever read such detailed descriptions of piles of vegetables or stinking fish) and in the dialogues. I sometimes caught myself feeling like I was reading the scenes of a documentary rather than of a novel. Although it felt a bit excessive sometimes, like when the narrator suddenly starts giving an incredibly thorough image of piles of cheese in the middle of one of the most suspenseful conversations of the story, but it does the trick. I feel quite confident that if I somehow could travel back in time to the Paris of the late nineteenth century, that I could find my way around Les Halles as if I had been there before.

The Belly of Paris is a great novel about a time and place which witnessed big changes in French society. If you are interested in history, or the Naturalist genre, this would be a good book for you.

 

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A World Tour of Books: The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna (Finland)

From the country of Finland comes this humorous and charming story about a man and his hare.

Vatanen is a bored journalist who leads a passionless life in the country’s capital. One day, while he’s out on an assignment, the car he’s riding in hits a baby hare. The animal survives but has an injured paw. Suddenly gripped with compassion for the poor creature, Vatanen decides to save its life.

He leaves everything behind, including his job and his wife, and travels across Finland with his new companion. They get into many comical situations and meet many interesting characters, including a hungry raven, an angry bear and a conspiracy theorist who believes the president has been replaced by a look-alike.

 

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The Swedish translation of  The Year of the Hare

 
The Year of the Hare a feel-good book. It’s going to make you smile, laugh and maybe even pause and wonder about your own life. Vatanen’s escape from the stress of modern civilization might make you feel jealous and urge you to search for your own adventure from the drudgery of everyday life.

This 1975 book by one of Finland’s most popular authors has been translated into 18 different languages and has been adapted twice into movies, including a 2006 French film featuring Christophe Lambert.

It’s a beautiful story about the special bound between a man and his hare and has touched many hearts far beyond Finland.

Book Recommendation: The Male Brain by Louann Brizendine, M.D.

Whenever you bring up the topic of neurological differences between men and women people often assume you are trying to make a point about superiority. Because if two things are different then one must be better than the other, right?

Not at all says neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine. Author of the best-selling The Female Brain, she followed her success with The Male Brain and nowhere does she ever try to make the point of one sex being intellectually superior to the other. On the contrary: studies have shown that men and women can solve the exact same problem but will use different parts of their brains to do so.

According to Brizendine, accepting our differences and learning to understand each other can help bring more peace and success in our personal lives.

The Male Brain follows the man’s brain throughout the stages of life, from fetal development to old age, and explains how the masculine brains circuits along with a man’s changing hormones affects male feelings and behaviour. It explains for example why a man’s reaction to a woman’s problem can be perceived by her as insensitive while it is in fact a sign of his concern and affection.

And why do so many boys like rough-and-tumble play? Why are their games so competitive rather than cooperative? Why are certain adult males such players while others are strongly monogamist? Why do men become calmer and more affectionate with age? These and many other questions can be understood by learning about the male brain, male genetics and the effect of male hormones.

As a transgender man, the topic of male-female brain differences has long interested me. Obviously, if male and female brains were exactly alike people like me could not exist. One cannot feel like a man or like a woman if there is no such thing as a male or female brain.

Reading through this book helped me understand myself a little better, although it never mentions anything about trans people. I have now a better understanding of why I preferred “boy games” as a child and why I process emotion differently since I started taking testosterone.

Because not all gender differences are made in utero, at 8 weeks gestation when the neurocircuits for gender identity are believed to be laid. Hormones create certain changes also, as this book explains.

The Male Brain is mostly focused on the heterosexual male brain, which is understandable as the straight male brain is the average male brain. But there is also a very interesting although short appendix on the gay male brain. Studies have shown that homosexual men have a similar pattern to heterosexual women in the parts of the brain that affect sexuality, for example the parts that control how someone responds to male pheromones. But there are often similarities in other areas, such as the parts that effect verbal abilities.

One thing I really like about this book is that it is thoroughly well-research with plenty of references to scientific studies. In fact, the notes and references part make up almost half the book.

I would recommend The Male Brain to everyone. If you are a woman wondering how the hell the men in your life think, this book is for you. If you are a man, you could learn something important also. Through knowing oneself, it is possible to learn how to best overcome one’s weaknesses and how to best use one’s strengths.

Yourself is after all the person you need to learn to know best since it is who are going to spend every moment of your life with.

 

A World Tour of Books: The Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu (China)

I have long been fascinated by the psychological phenomenon known as flow, that feeling when you are “in the zone” and your actions seems to come without effort. It is through reading about flow that I came across the Taoist concept of Wu Wei.

Wu Wei, or effortless action, is the art of doing without striving to do. Sounds paradoxical? In a way, it is. And yet, anyone who has ever experienced this state of mind will recognize what it means.

There are several theories by different Chinese sages on the best way to reach this state of being. For Lao Tzu, the supposed author of the Tao Te Ching, the way to go is to return to nature and live in accordance with it. Simplicity and contentment are highly emphasised in this ancient writing and are seen as a way to avoid unnecessary distractions from the important things.

The book also highlights the value of cultivating such qualities as compassion, caution and humility and of keeping a calm and clear mind. In these ways, Taoism has certain similarities with Buddhism.

Tao Te Ching was written in the fourth century BCE and is one of the two foundational texts of Taoism. The other, the Zhuangzi, was written in the third century BCE.

The central teaching of Taoism is that one should follow the Tao, meaning the Way. This mystical force is what holds the universe and everything in it together. By following its laws one can find harmony with oneself, others and the world around us.

The Tao Te Ching explains these laws in 81 short chapters and often uses parables to make them easier to understand. Not that it always is simple to grasp the meaning of what the author was trying to say. Many sayings are paradoxical in nature and even seem contradictory. This is a book that will make you stop and meditate on what you just read.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the subject of philosophy. There is a reason why this writing has been cherished by many for over 2000 years. Its wisdom is timeless and thanks to its old age it is also copyright-free and doesn’t have to cost a dime. You can find it for free online and as an audiobook on Librivox.

Not that its knowledge could ever be valued in gold.

A World Tour of Books: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (Nigeria)

For the country of Nigeria, I have picked what is probably the most well-known African novel of all times: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. Set in the late 1800’s, it tells the story of a brave warrior by the name of Okonkwo. He is a hard-working man and resilient even in the face of setbacks and adversity. Driven by a desire to never be like his father, whose laziness often led his family to the brink of starvation, he always does his best.

Like all good literary characters, he does not only have good traits. His fear of being weak leads him to rule his family with an iron hand and he frequently beats his wives and children. Although he still does feel love for them, especially his daughter Enzima.

 

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The Swedish translation of Things Fall Apart

 

Okonkwo makes a name for himself in his village and earns titles to show that he is a great man. But things will fall apart. First, he and his family will be exiled for seven years after he accidentally kills a man. Then the white people will come.

Bringing with them not only a new and to the Igbo people strange religion, but also military power like they have never seen before. Shortly after hearing of the white people, Okonkwo learns that another village has been eradicated and its population almost entirely decimated because some of its members killed a white man. After that, things will only get worse.

Things Fall Apart was first published in 1958 and is one of the most important novels about the European colonization of Africa. Previously, Africans had often been portrayed as dumb, animal-like and without any culture. But through this book many outside Nigeria learned about the complexities of Igbo society: its beliefs, values and its social order.

Sadly, many societies not only in Nigeria but all throughout Africa would be torn apart by people who thought they came with the light of civilization and of God himself. The bloodshed and suffering it led to is a truly shameful chapter of human history.

It is a known fact that history is mostly written by the winners. This is why books like Things Fall Apart are so important: to give a voice to the stories the colonisers of Africa would have preferred never to be heard.

I found this book to be very well-written. The way Achebe depicts the characters makes you feel for them even with all their flaws. Realism is the genre that best describes the style of writing. Achebe does not romanticize anything and doesn’t look away from the tragic, the disturbing as well as the beautiful.

Some of my favourite parts of the novel were when people shared stories with each other. As a writer I have a deep interest in the art of telling stories and I was fascinated with the glimpse I got into the rich tradition of Igbo storytelling.

In conclusion, this is an important and fascinating book. Truly one of world literature’s great treasures.

A World Tour of Books: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (Russia)

I haven’t written a World Tour of Books post in a while and that’s because I have been reading a very long book: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.

When I first came across it while shopping at a bookstore, I thought that maybe I should find something a little shorter but after reading on the back cover that this is considered by many to be the best written novel of all times, I just knew I had to read it.

 

Karenina
At over 800 pages, Anna Karenina is quite a thick book!

 

So it was with great expectations that I began to read the story of the forbidden love between Count Vronsky and Princess Anna Arkadyevna Karenina. To my surprise I found that I felt little sympathy for these characters. To try and seduce a woman you know is married, like Vronsky does, seems not very moral to me and he comes across as kind of a douche.

As for Anna, she accepts his invitations, cheats on her husband then leaves him for her new beau and even abandons her own child in the process.

Probably, I would have not disliked Anna’s character as much if her husband and been abusive towards her. But he’s actually a good person who shows an impressive patience with his wife’s childish behaviour. He is so kind-hearted that he even feels love and eventually adopts a child he knows is not his.

So, the two main characters I felt not very strongly for even if their love story is superbly written.

The character that did touch my heart was Levin. A socially awkward but highly intelligent landowner, most of the plot following him is centered around his love for Kitty, whom he later marries. But this happy ending love story is not what I enjoyed most when reading about Levin. Rather it is his ponderings on religion, philosophy and politics that made me like him so much. He is a deep-thinking individual and a lot of times I was actually annoyed with his overly emotional obsession with Kitty, which I felt often distracted him from more important endeavours.

Interestingly, Levin is based on Tolstoy himself. I highly suspected this due to the similarity of their names (Lev is the Russian version of Leo) and the fact that Levin expresses many opinions that Tolstoy was known to have. As I’ve long been fascinated by this writer, it is no surprise I really liked Levin as a character.

One thing that I found irritating with this book is that sometimes in dialogues there are whole sentences in other languages. Luckily for me, most of them where in a one of my two mother tongues: French. Still, it’s quite annoying when you have to put down a book to consult Google Translate because you can’t understand what it says. At least, there should have been translations on the bottom of the pages.

Overall, I really like this book. I don’t know if it the best novel ever written (how do you even determined that objectively?) but it is definitely one of the great treasures from the history of literature.

​A Modern Classic: Forbidden Colours by Yukio Mishima 

TW: There will be mention of suicide.


A while back I started to read up on Japanese literature for my World Tour of Books post series. Eventually I picked a book by Kenzaburo Oe but there was another writer I could not get off my mind: Yukio Mishima. 

This beloved Japanese writer became infamous in 1970. Seeing that Japanese Traditionalism was being replaced by Western values with all its empty materialism, he attempted to incite a coup d’état along with his own private militia. But the attempt failed miserably and, dishonoured, he killed himself by seppuku.

Many believed his motives to have been genuine. But others saw in his actions a sign of psychosis. Yet others believed that Mishima had always planned for the coup to fail so that he could end his own life, this due to his disgust with the idea of getting old. Which reminds me of a quote that stood out to me in Forbidden Colours:

“What is the death of the body, after all, compared with the unbearable death of youth?”

But whatever his motivations were, there is so much more to Mishima than him being “that Japanese writer who killed himself like a samurai”. Three times he was nominated to the Nobel Prize in literature and during his career he would publish 25 novels and write 80 plays. He also starred in movies, became a skilled martial artist and a bodybuilder and even directed his own film. 

Seeing what a fascinating man this Yukio Mishima was, I felt I had to read something of him. I picked the novel Forbidden Colours, I must confess mainly due to its gay theme. 

In retrospect I should have started my journey into Mishima’s literature with the semi-autobriographical Confessions of a Mask but Forbidden Colours was still an amazing read.

Telling the story of Yuichi Minami (notice the resemblance with the author’s own name) it is believe to be also somewhat autobiographical. One summer he meets an elderly writer by the name of Shunsuké who in his books praises women but in reality despises them. His hatred stems from his numerous failed relationships and in his bitterness he wishes to punish women. 

In Yuichi he finds the perfect tool for this. The young man’s unusual beauty catches the opposite sex’s attention without effort and his homosexuality ensures that he will never reciprocate any woman’s feelings. Under the guidance/manipulation of Shunsuké he marries a woman, trapping her in a loveless marriage. He also charms two other women, making them fall in love with him but never loving them back.

But Yuichi will grow weary of being Shunsuké’s puppet and will realise his own power, much to the elderly writer’s dismay. 

What can I say about this book? Because it is not simply a story written down, it is a work of art. Filled with meaning boiling below the surface, it grabs your mind and demands attention. It is both beautiful and sort of ugly in its descriptions. The way the author writes about the characters’ inner life is moving but also disturbing at times. 

Shunsuké especially is a quite dislikable personality, with all his selfishness and bitterness. Yuichi is more sympathetic but he too grows cold with time. Melancholy is the word that springs to mind when I think about the spirit of the book. Hopelessness also. But somehow Mishima knew how to make the tragic beautiful. 

Forbidden Colours is considered to be one of Yukio Mishima’s lesser works and if it is then I can’t wait to read those books of his that are seen as masterpieces. Either way, I am definitely not done with his literature. 

​A World Tour of Books: The Dhammapada (India)

At the end of last year I was feeling pretty down. Personal health issues and the election of Trump had made me start to lose hope. To try and find some peace I took up praticing daily meditation again. It is through my renewed interest in this practice I would come across writings on Buddhism and quickly become fascinated with this ancient philosophy and religion.

Buddhism was, it is said, founded by a prince by the name of Siddharta Gautama sometimes between the sixth and fourth century B.C. Distraught by the endless suffering of humanity, he sought to find a way to end it. 

He saw that much of the pain we experience is due to something called tanhā. This Pali word is often translated as desire in English but is more correctly described as thirst or greed. To stop suffering we must therefore extinguish our tanhā and let go of the unnecessary cravings that weight us down. 

As a help to achieve this goal the Buddha showed what is in Buddhism called the eightfold path and consists of right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right concentration, right effort and right mindfulness. According to Buddhism, if we follow the example of the Buddha and walk down this path we can achieve enlightenment and the end of suffering. 

Whether Buddhism is a religion or more of a philosophy has been up to debate. Some, often Westerners who identify as secular Buddhists, are adamant that is was always meant to be only a philosophy. But the early texts of Buddhism, amongst them The Dhammapada, have many references to such things as heaven, hell, demons, and reincarnation so it seems to me that it was initially meant to be a religion. 

But just as a anyone, not only Christians, can find wisdom in some of the sayings of Jesus of Nazareth, even those who do not believe in anything supernatural can learn something from the ancient  Buddhist writings. This why I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Dhammapada.

Originally written in Pali and containing 423 verses, The Dhammapada is a collections of sayings attributed to the Buddha himself. It is a short book but full of unvaluable wisdom. 

How do you live a happy life? How do you find peace and serenity within yourself? What is the proper way to treat other beings? These are questions most people will ask themselves at one point or another. The teachings of the Buddha have life-changing advice on these issues. 

More than 2000 years after it was first written down, The Dhammapada is a still as beautiful a piece of writing as it was then. Its words are timeless and it’s lessons more valuable than anything money can buy. 

P.S. Since it is such an old book it has no copyright and you can actually get it for free both as an ebook on Open Library and as an audiobook through Librivox.  

A World Tour of Books: Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids by Kenzaburo Oe (Japan)

​This post will contain spoilers.


I have to admit that until recently I knew very little about Japanese literature (unless you count manga into that category). Haruki Murakami was the only Japanese author I could name and only because he has such an international success.  

I started looking into different writers from the land of the rising sun and one stuck out in particular: 1994 Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Oe. 

Oe is a writer who often writes about social issues and his style of writing (which he himself refers to as “grotesque realism”) points at the injustices in society. Many of his characters are marginalised people who challenge the statues quo and who, as the outsiders they are, can see through its lies and hypocrisies.

The Oe novel I have chosen to read for this post is his first published fiction work Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids. It tells the story of a group of reformatory boys who are evacuated to a remote mountain village during World War II. There they are despised by the villagers and treated very poorly. When a plague breaks out they are forced to bury the animals that have died from the illness. Because the villagers couldn’t care less if these reformatory children catch the disease and die.

The next day the boys realise that they have been abandoned. Apart from them is just the corpse of a woman who has already died from the plague and her surviving daughter who refuses to leave her side. 

The boys try to make the best of their situation. Without the oppression from the villagers who hate them they enjoy a relative and short-lived freedom. They meet a Korean boy name Li, who teaches them the hunt small birds and together they organise a festival. The narrator and main protagonist even experiences his first love with the girl left behind by the villagers.

But she is soon infected with the plague and dies. Shortly thereafter the villagers return. 

After having disemboweled and killed a runaway soldier who was hiding in the village, they threaten the children and tell them to lie about the fact that they were abandoned for days. All the boys agree, except for the narrator. At the end of the novel he is chased into the forest by the villagers. What happens next is never revealed.

It is believed that the village in the novel is inspired by Oe’s own home village on the island of Shikoku. There he witnessed how war tore apart the people and the cruelties it led them to. His experiences during World World II led him to become a pacifist and peace activist, which he is to this day. 

Nip the Bud, Shoot the Kids is not for the faint of heart but it is an important and powerful story. A great place to start if you want to become more acquainted with Oe’s work and with Japanese literature in general.

A World Tour of Books: Zeina by Nawal El Saadawi (Egypt) 

We are now at the third stop on our world tour of books and at the first stop on the African continent: Egypt.

For this country I have picked a book by a brave and fascinating woman by the name of Nawal El Saadawi. She is a well-known social activist in the Arabic world and has been fighting for decades against social injustices such as the oppression of women. Her writing has caused her to be imprisoned and later having to flee her country. Still, she persists to fight for what she believes in. 

El Saadawi’s novel Zeina is about an esteemed literary critique named Bodour. She lives a comfortable upper-class life with her husband and daughter and it seems she should be enjoying herself. But Bodour is plagued by shameful secret: when young she abandoned her newborn baby, a child born out of a forbidden love. 

That child grows up to be Zeina, one of Egypt’s most beloved entertainers. Despite growing up as a poor child on the streets she becomes a singer and poet, fearlessly rebelling against social conventions through her art. 

Her classmate Mageeda both admires and envies the beautiful and talented Zeina. Not knowing that they are in fact sisters and have the same biological mother, Bodour, who tormented by memories is writing a fictionalised account of what happened in her youth.

But the novel goes missing. Who stole it? Will Bodour ever find it again? 

Zeina is one of the best written books I’ve read in a while. The prose is amazing and the way El Saadawi dissects both the emotional life of her characters and the hypocrisies of her culture is merciless and often shocking. 

One thing which was bit confusing at first was how often the perspective changed between characters, sometimes after just a few paragraphs. But you get used to it after a while and overall Zeina was a great read. I now understand why Nawal El Saadawi is so often named as a candidate to the Nobel Prize in Literature.