​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.

A World Tour of Books: The Road by Jack London (United States)

When starting my World Tour of Books I decided to not go by any specific order. That way it will make things more interesting as my reader will not know from post to post where the next stop on our journey will be.
So, after having read the first book in the tour I had not specific plan on where to continue next.
One evening I was lying in my bed and happened to look up at a bookshelf in my room when my eyes landed on the two novels The Call of The Wild and White Fang by Jack London. These were my two absolute favorite books as a child and it hit me that I associated a lot of things in London’s work with the United States: rugged individualism, the great Western wild and what we call “The American Dream”.
I decided that one of London’s book would be a great choice for our stop in the US of A. I looked through a bibliography of Jack London and became immediately interested in his autobiographical work The Road when I learned it inspired Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which just happens to be my favorite book of all times.
In The Road London tells of his time when he was a train hopping hobo. It was in the 1890s and the US was experiencing its worst economic crisis in its history up till then. London would travel from town to town and often had to resort to begging for a living. It was during that time in his life that he first mastered the art of storytelling, as he would make up sap stories to try and win the sympathy of those he begged from.
During his travels and his stay at the Erie County Penitentiary, where he spent 30 days for vagrancy, London met the poorest and most marginalised of society. He witnessed the desperation of his time, but also the resilience and ingenuity of people just trying to survive. This influenced him greatly and he would later become a passionate social activist.
The Road was a great read about a fascinating man in a difficult time. This book as well as Jack London’s other works are a must-read for anyone interested in American literary history.

A World Tour of Books: In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park (North Korea)

So I began my world tour of books in what can seem an odd choice: the closed dictatorship of North Korea. Finding an honest book from this country would be hard since all books published there must be approved by the state and most are filled with propaganda about how great the leader is and how North Korea is the best place on earth, which is very far from the truth.

That is why I have chosen a book that it not technically from NK, as it wasn’t written or published there, but instead a book written by the human rights activist and NK defector Yeonmi Park.

In her biography In Order to Live, Park recounts how it was to grow up under one of the most violent and authoritarian regimes in the world. For a short time in her life Park and her family had a decent standard of living. At least compared to most of the population of North Korea, where great poverty is the rule rather than the exception. But after her father was arrested for smuggling (something he had to do to take care of his family) and sent to an internment camp, her family faced great poverty and risked starvation. For a while the then eight year old Yeonmi and her eleven year old sister were left on their own while their mother worked to get their father out of the camp. During this time they would scavenge nearby mountains to find anything edible but still suffered from severe malnutrition.

Years later, after their family was finally back together, her sister disappeared after informing them that she would try and escape to China. Yeonmi and her mother went to try to find her, crossing the border at night with help from human traffickers. But once on the other side they were taken by the people who they thought were going to help them. The second part of the book is about their time in China, where they became victims of trafficking. What happened during that time was horrific as they both experienced frequent sexual abuse and were often seen as nothing more than merchandise. Yeonmi’s mother was at one point sold to be a man’s slave wife for a price equivalent of about 2100 US dollars.

At the same time they could not ask the Chinese authorities for help, as they were undocumented immigrants and would have been sent back to NK to face severe punishment and possibly execution.

The eventually found a way to escape to Mongolia by taking the dangerous journey through the Gobi Desert at night. They were then incarcerated and later flown to South Korea, where NK defectors are welcomed and helped to adapt to life in their new country.

Yeonmi and her mother were able to start a new life in SK and were even eventually reunited with Yeonmi’s sister. Yeonmi Park is today a human rights activist fighting to help bring awareness of the horrors the Kim dictators have brought on their own people. She is a woman of great bravery, especially since she is living under threat of retaliation from the North Korean government.

In Order to Live was a moving read about not only the oppression happening in North Korea but also about human bravery and strength in the face of what seems like impossible odds. I warmly recommend this biography of a remarkable woman.

Revealing my secret blogging project: A Word Tour of Books

In my post about my goals for 2017 I wrote that I had a secret blogging project in the making and now the time has come to reveal it.

Last year I came across this TED-Talk about a woman who spent a year reading a book from every country. It inspired me so much I decided to do the same thing.

Although I haven’t set a deadline because I’m kind of slow reader and don’t think I could pull off reading 197 books in one year, even if I will listen to many books on audio to save time.

There is some controversy as to what exactly constitutes a country but for simplicity’s sake I will go by nations that have been internationally recognized as independent states. I have printed out a list of all these countries from this website and will check them off as I go along. Depending on what happens in the world in the coming years I might have to update that list.

The books I will read will be both fiction and non-fiction and I will try to focus on books that have a strong connection to that country’s culture.

The first post of this Word Tour of Book series will be published either later today or tomorrow. So stay tuned and don’t hesitate to subscribe!

And of course I will still blog about other things like politics, writing and my transition.

Book Recommendation: The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher

Of the many shitty things that happened in 2016, the passing of the amazing Carrie Fisher was among those that saddened me the most. As a borderline fanatic Star Wars fan I knew her primarily as the actress who played the legendary role of the rebel princess Leia Organa. And while that is a pretty badass thing to be remembered for, there was so much more to Carrie Fisher than that.

She was also a writer, humourist and advocate for many important causes such as animal rights, LGBTQ-rights and the rights of people living with HIV and AIDS. She was outspoken about her struggle with drug addiction and mental illness and helped lift the stigma around these issues.

Far too often you don’t realise what you have until it’s gone and when she passed away I realised I had never taken the time to read anything by her. I immediately tried to order her most famous novel Postcards from the Edge but it was out of stock, probably because people rushed to get their hands on a copy when they heard she was no longer with us.

So instead I bought the audiobook of her latest book on Audible and started listening. It kind of hit me in the feels when I heard Carrie Fisher’s voice.

With the rare honesty that was hers she tells in The Princess Diarist the story of her life during the shooting of the first Star Wars movie. How she got the role, where they shot the movie, how come she got that famous hairdo and other such things a Star Wars nerd like me loves hearing about. But also about her struggle with depression, her drug use and her three month affair with co-star Harrison Ford. The later which gives a whole new perspective on their on-screen chemistry.

While I loved hearing Carrie Fisher read (which she does with great feeling), my favourite part of the book is the one that in the audio version is read by her daughter Billie Lourd: the journal entries Carrie wrote during the shooting of the film.

What I love about them is that they show what writing can mean to a person, even if it’s at the time without the intent for anyone else to ever read it. Through writing you can pour your heart out. You can without holding back or censuring yourself express what you really think and feel. It’s the greatest source of therapy I’ve come across and it’s addictive in the best, non-destructive way possible.

I was also impressed by the prose and poetry in her journal entries. They are definitely the best written part of the book and truly show what a talented writer Carrie Fisher was.

I can warmly recommend The Princess Diarist.Fisher’s wittiness will have you smiling and laughing and her frank honesty will touch you deeply. Her final book is a great read that will make you miss her even more.

Book review: The Dark Defiles by Richard Morgan

So I have finally finished reading the last book of the A Land Fit for Heroes series by Richard Morgan and here are my thoughts. (I have also reviewed the first and second parts of the trilogy)

But first I really want to mention something I love about this series: the fact that one of the main protagonist is a masculine gay man. Considering that most gay male characters in popular culture are the same typical sassy BFF it’s a breathe a fresh air to see something different for a change.
Because Ringil is everything gay men aren’t supposed to be: masculine, strong, independent and though as nails. He knows what he wants and doesn’t take crap from anyone. I really wish more authors would create queer characters who defy stereotypes  and show there are many diverse ways to be lesbian/gay/trans/bi etc.

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The Dark Defiles was a great read. Morgan is a very skilled writer who not only knows how to really draw the reader into the story but he also does it with an impressive mastery of the English language. The book has many interesting expressions and one-liners that had me laughing out loud. Just to name one there is the moment when a character describes a pain as “stinging worse than getting head from a cactus”, which I find absolutely hilarious.

After following the adventures of Ringil, Archeth and Egar for two books I was excited to see how it would all end and I would say Morgan brought together all the loose threads quite nicely, answering the questions raised along the way. It was sometimes tricky to figure out exactly what this answers were due to the complexity of the world Morgan writes about but they are there to find.

Like in the previous two books Morgan mixes science-fiction elements into the story. So much in this book that he sometimes balances on the line between hard fantasy and science fantasy. I find it gives another depth to the story and I am thinking about using it as an inspiration in future works.

The favorite story line in this book was the one following Archeth. I feel like she really developed as a character and it was fascinating to follow her adventures and evolution as a warrior. I also love how the ambiguous ending gives a hint that it may not at all end in the way she thinks but at the same times never really gives the answer, which you could interpret as either frustrating or up to the reader to decide what they believe will happen.

I would give this book a rating of 4,75 out of 5. Can recommend, as well as the whole trilogy.

 

Book Review: The Cold Commands by Richard Morgan 

When I bought the first book of the A Land Fit for Heroes series at my favorite sci-fi and fantasy bookstore, the woman behind the counter gave me a look I interpreted as pleasantly surprised and said: 

“An excellent choice! This is a great series.”

I had the feeling it wasn’t very popular, at least at that particular bookstore, since the price of the books were so low. Each book of the series was only 99 Swedish crowns and it’s hard to find any book under the price of 290 crowns nowadays. I don’t know how popular these books are elsewhere but I hope it’s a lot, otherwise this got to be one of the most underrated series I have ever read!

I loved the first book, titled The Steel Remains (I have written a review for it which you can find here), and I loved the second book just as much. 

The Cold Commands takes place a short time after the events in The Steel Remains. Archeth is still working as an advisor to the cruel emperor Jhiral Khimran II and trying her best to serve and help keep the peace in the southern Empire. 
Egar the Dragonbane is living with her and working as her bodyguard after having fled his natal steppes in the north. He leads a bored existence and longs for some adventure. Which, lucky (?) him, he won’t have to wait long for since, to put it mildly, shit is about to go down in the great city of Yhelteth.

Meanwhile, Ringil Eskiath is on the run after being exiled from his home and from the slave traders who don’t really appreciate him using his newly found powers to attack their caravans and free their slaves. 

The three friends’ paths will cross again in this new adventure where they will have to fight hold enemies up to new and mysterious plans. 

This book, just like the first one and I assume the whole series, is not for the faint of heart. It is quite rarely I read something which sends literal chills down my spine but parts of this story (especially one involving an execution and gross octopuses…) certainly did.

Like the talented writer he is, Morgan knows how to make the reader really feel things. The complex characters and fascinating milieus he describes sucks you right into the heart of the story and the vivid way he writes fight scenes is a personal inspiration to me as an author.

One quirky thing I liked is how Morgan incorporates sci-fi elements in his worldbuilding, which he also did in the first book. As he prior to this series mostly wrote science fiction I guess he couldn’t help himself and the results are pretty cool.

Apart from that I loved learning more about Archeth’s background as well as seeing the way Ringil’s character developed. Even Edgar’s adventures were quite interesting to read about, which is a plus compared to the previous book where I actually found him to be the least sympathetic and most boring of the three protagonists.

The Cold Commands is a great sequel to The Steel Remains and an exciting and intriguing prequel to the next book. I was planning to read and review another novel before continuing with this series but I just can’t wait to dive into the third book, The Dark Defiles, so that will have to wait.

I would give The Cold Commands a rating of 4,5 of 5. Can definitely recommend.

Book recommendation: Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley 

​After writing my latest book recommendation I started to ponder about what other books I’ve read I could write about. That’s when it hit me that I should write a post about one of the best novels I have ever read: Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley.

First published in 1818, this novel is considered by some experts to be the very first science fiction book in history. It tells the story of a young, ambitious scientist by the name of Victor Frankenstein (hence the title) who creates life through some unorthodox experiment. Frankenstein is initially very optimistic about his research. But when his creation finally comes to life Victor is terrified by its ugliness and runs away. He escapes back to his hometown of Geneva and tries to forget all about what has happened. But the past will inevitably catch up to him and his path will once again cross with that of the being he created. 

What I liked about this book is that it urges the reader to ask themselves some deep questions. Such as: Should humans try to create life or end death? Why do people despise ugliness? When does scientific experimentation go too far? 

I also felt quite fascinated with Shelley’s style of writing. Her emphasis on the emotion and turmoils of the characters is typical for the romantic era and might seem strange if you are used to more modern litterature but it fits quite well with the dramatic nature of the story. It creates a certain ambience which is a big part of the reason why this masterpiece has chilled the blood of readers ever since it first came out until this day. 

If you are interested in this book, then I have good news. As it is in the public domain you can get it completely free. Get it as an ebook here or as an audiobook here.