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.

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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. 

A World Tour of Books: The King’s Day by Abdellah Taïa (Morocco)

Abdellah Taïa is one of the most interesting Moroccan writers. In 2006, he became the first openly gay Moroccan author and is to this day the only one. Him being opened with his sexuality is probably helped by the fact that he is based in Paris since 1998. Homosexuality is still illegal in Morocco.

The book of his that I’ve picked is The King’s Day, a story about the complicated friendship between two teenage boys. Omar is poor and taking care of his father, who has fallen into depression and alcoholism after Omar’s mother left him. Khalid is rich and has supportive, successful parents. Everything seems to be separating the two boys, but there exists between them deep love and caring.

That is, until Khalid is named best pupil in Morocco. As a reward, he will get to kiss the hand of king Hassan II. But he keeps this secret from his friend and when Omar finds out he sees it as a great betrayal. After that, nothing will ever be the same.

 

taia pic
The Swedish translation of Le Jour du Roi, or The King’s Day as it could be called in English.

 
The style of writing in The King’s Day is simplistic but somewhat poetic, although probably not as much as in the original French. I’ve said this many times: the French language has an inherent poésie which is untranslatable.

The themes which are dealt with are not only that of class and frienship, but also of sexuality, gender, race and, in a lesser degree, gender identity. Despair and melancholy I would say are the primary feelings in this story.

The King’s Day is a beautiful and thought-provoking book and I get why it won the precious literary award Prix de Flore. But unfortunately, it has yet to be translated to English.

I often found myself thinking while reading that the story would be unusually adaptable to the big screen and as it turns out Abdellah Taïa is also a filmmaker. In 2013, he directed the movie Salvation Army, based on his book by the same name. It was the first movie in the Arab world with a gay protagonist.

Both Salvation Army and another novel of his, An Arab Melancholia, are available in English and published by Semiotexte.

A World Tour of Books: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia)

While pondering what book I was going to read next I realised I hadn’t read anything from South or Central America yet. I remembered that a man from Colombia had won the Nobel Prize in Literature a few years back but I couldn’t recall his name. After a bit of internet searching I realised I had remembered wrong. A Nobel laureate from Colombia had passed away a few years back, 2014 more precisely. 1982 is the year when Gabriel García Márquez won the Prize.

Nicknamed Gabo or Gabito in Latin America, García Márquez was a journalist and author who is considered by many to be one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. He was one of several Latin American authors who popularized the genre of magic realism and even inspired in a way the counter-genre of McCondo; a name derivative of Macondo, the town in which many of García Márquez’s books take place.

This fictional village is the setting for the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. Telling the story of the Buendía family over the course of 100 years, this whimsical book is one of García Marquez’s most popular works.

The man reading the Audible audiobook version had a really pleasant voice.

The magic realism is always present in Macondo, where strange things happen without the people thinking much of it. Whether is people passing by on flying carpets, a woman ascending to heaven or ghosts wandering the Buendía family’s house, none of these things are considered very out of the ordinary. This makes Macondo kind of its own surreal universe, where the reader can never be too sure of what will happen next.

But the town also goes through some more realistic things, both good and bad. War, colonialism, political conflicts and everyday events like people falling in love and having children.

Themes many can relate to, such as love and solitude, are woven into the dreamlike fabric of the story and making One Hundred Years of Solitude a fascinating book unlike anything I’ve read before. 

A World Tour of Books: Aicha by Bene Batako (Togo)

“If you want to know what life is like in a small village in West Africa, read this book.”

These were the words of the nice middle-aged lady who sold me Aicha at the Gothenburg Book Fair. One of the main reason I started this World Tour of Books journey was to learn more about the world, so I bought the book and started reading it on the train back home.

Aicha
Aicha tells the story about the impossible love between Karim and Aicha. They were previously engaged but while Karim was away in the city to study, Aicha’s parents sold her to the wealthy merchant Aladji to be his fourth wife.

Karim is devastated to learn this upon his return. And the troubles have only just begun.

He starts to work as a school teacher in the village and soon one of his students falls ill with malaria. Karim wants to get him access to modern medicine but the boy’s parents only trust the traditional medicine of the local marabout (a kind of witch doctor). Will Karim be able to persuade them to take the child to a hospital before it is too late?

But not everything is going bad in the village. The winds of change begin to blow when Rachida, Aicha’s aunt, refuses to let her daughter undergo female circumcision/female genital mutilation. A great debate starts among the villagers and more and more women will realise the power of making their own decisions about their bodies and their lives.

Aicha is in many ways about the conflict between tradition and the individual’s longing for self-determination. But it’s also about the power of change and progress to free people’s minds and expand their horizons.

Aicha has only been published in Swedish and French but if you know any of these languages, consider giving this thought-provoking novel a read.

 

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.

emil

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.

 

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.

 

Hare
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.