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.

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.