A World Tour of Books: Ten Women by Marcela Serrano (Chile)

When I first stumbled upon this book while searching for something to read for this project, I dismissed it. Ten women just talking about their lives didn’t seem that fascinating. Memories came to me of having to accompany my mother when she went to have coffee with her friends and chat about things that bored the holy life out of me.

It just wasn’t the kind of book I typically read. But then I thought maybe that’s exactly why I should read it. I started this project precisely to discover literature I wouldn’t otherwise.

Ten Women ended up being a more interesting read than I expected. The women in the novel all had their unique stories and challenges, ranging from upper-class first world problems to heartbreak and tragedy. They are all different but also alike in some central themes of their lives: family, love, loss, a search for meaning. They are alike, in other words, in the way all people are alike. And this is what makes their stories and this book so very human.

They represent also the different social classes and generations of Chile. Some are young and struggling with modern problems while others have lived through more tumultuous times in the country’s history, such as the Pinochet dictatorship.
This ten women are in a sense a representation of the many faces of Chile, a microcosm of the wider Chilean society.

I’d recommend this book not only because it is well-written but also because it has something to teach. About the country’s modernity and history but also about the fact that all people, everyone of us carry within them a story waiting to be told.

Advertisements

A World Tour of Books: The Symposium by Plato (Greece)

What is love? Where did it come from? Why does it exist? And why is it universally considered to be the highest of all virtues?

These are some of the questions the Greek philosopher Plato tried to answer in his work The Symposium.

Written in the form of a series of dialogues and monologues, it takes place at a banquet where someone challenges the attendants to each give a speech in honor of Eros, the God of love and its personification. Among those present are many famous characters such as the philosopher Socrates, the playwright Aristophanes and the tragedian Agathon.

The content of the monologues can be surprising, even shocking, to people raised with Judeo-Christian values. Here love between men is not only praised but considered more virtuous than love between men and woman. Although, the reason is rather misogynistic: men are considered more noble in character than women and therefore more worthy of love.

One of my favourite parts is the part of Aristophanes’ speech where he explains the origin of romantic love according to legend. A story you might already be familiar with if you’ve seen the movie Hedwig and The Angry Inch.  Truly, this is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve heard.

But the highlight of the story is Diotima’s theory of the Ladder of Love or Ladder of Eros. In it she explains that all forms of love, even the lowest such as mere sexual attraction, are rungs that can lead up to higher forms of love and eventually to love of Love itself.

The Symposium is a timeless classic and a treasure of Western philosophy. A book to read for enthusiasts of philosophy and lovers of Love alike.

PS. The audiobook is free on Librivox and Youtube.

A World Tour of Books: I Remember Abbu by Humayun Azad (Bangladesh)

Humayun Azad was one of Bangladesh’s most influential and prolific writers with over seventy published books. His works often dealt with socio-political issues such as women’s rights, free speech and the negative effects of religious fundamentalism.

This led to him getting a lot of animosity from conservatives and Islamic fundamentalists and it culminated on the 27th of February 2004 in an attempt on his life, when two assailants struck him several times with chopping knives. He survived the attack but was found dead in his Munich apartment in August later that year. Likely it was the result of a murder but justice has been slow and a trial will not happen until June of this year.

The book of his I chose for this blogging project is I Remember Abbu. It’s short, only 144 pages (2 hours and 50 minutes in the audiobook version) but a poignant read. It is told from two perspectives; one is in the form of diary entries from a professor during the struggle for independence from Pakistan. The other are the memories of his young daughter and tells how she discovered the world’s danger and uncertainty when war came to her country.

What makes this book so gripping is how it speaks the reality of war through the eyes of a child. The sound of bombs at night become the loud steps of giant monsters, the Pakistani soldiers become demons from who the family must flee. And her father, her abbu, is a handsome warrior going away to liberate his nation from the demonic forces.

What follows with every page then is the slow and torturous death of innocence. One that is repeated whenever a child has to face the atrocities of our world.

I Remember Abbu is a heart-breaking tale of family tragedy, national trauma and personal loss. A well-worth read from a brightly talented man gone too soon.

Sharing a book I wrote years ago

When I was 23 I made what I consider to be my best decision ever: I left the cult I had spent all my life in.

That cult is the Jehovah’s Witnesses and being part of it had destroyed me mentally. I won’t go into great lengths about what life as a JW is like but let me say that alcoholism, abuse and depression had become normal things to me because of how rampant it is in that community. I had witnessed so much pain and suffering brought on by the Watchtower organisation’s inhumane policies, such as their ban on blood transfusions, that I couldn’t imagine life not being constant struggle and despair.

After leaving I felt an obligation to warn others and let them know what life in this cult is like. So I wrote a short novel and published it online. It deals with issues such a homophobia, brainwashing and the covering up of abuse within the Watchtower organisation.

It intended to set up social media pages and spread it as much as I could. But then I came to terms with being transgender and started focusing more on getting my transition started. I also felt weird about having written a lesbian story and under a female pseudonym. It felt wrong somehow, like I was appropriating an experience that had never truly been mine.

But I’ve decided to share this book now because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I went through and I felt a renewed obligation to warn others about some of the ways this dangerous cult hurts people and destroys lives.

The book, titled The Apostate, is available at Smashwords and Amazon, both in English and in Swedish.

A World Tour of Books: The Essential Rumi (Turkey)

Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, more commonly known as simply Rumi, was born 1207 under the Khwarezmian empire in what is today Afghanistan. When he was young his family fled the invading army of Genghis Khan and settled in Turkey. It was there Rumi spent the rest of his life and had the greatest cultural impact.

If you’ve ever been to Turkey, you might have witnessed first-hand the Sufi whirling dervishes. This fascinating dance, believed to bring the ones doing it closer to God, is said to have been started by Rumi. Legend has it that he one day while walking through the market heard goldbeaters recite the words la elaha ella’llah (arabic for “there is no God but God”) in rhythm with the beating of their hammers. Rumi became so ecstatic that he raised his arms in the air and began to spin around in circles.

You see, Divine love was the thing that most fascinated Rumi. The majority of his poetry is about it. To him, all love is an expression of the supreme Love.

The son the a muslim theologian and preacher, Rumi had been taught in the ways of religion since early childhood but an encounter with the wandering sufi Shams of Tabriz opened his eyes to a deeper understanding of spirituality. Rumi came to believe love was the very heart of the Divine and that the ultimate goal of any religious practice is to be reunited with our Source.

He saw all religions as seeking the same ultimate goal and he promoted tolerance between faith. His believe in God as love led him to be the very antithesis of a fundamentalist.

Reading the Essential Rumi (translation by Coleman Barks) is quite interesting as an agnostic who isn’t sure God even exists. I understand the desire for union with something greater. Certain of the state of consciousness Rumi writes about are familiar to me as I’ve a few times managed to reach them during meditation. When I think back on it, it seems almost impossible to me that there wouldn’t be a greater reality than these life.

Regardless, I share Rumi’s belief that love should be the ultimate goal of our existence and permeate everything we do.

Because this Love really is EVERYTHING to Rumi. In all things we should act, he wrote, as if we were doing it for The Beloved.

Anyone interested in poetry and/or the topic of love should read Rumi. I’ve read a lot of poetry and I’ve read many books on spirituality but nothing can match Rumi’s writing. There’s a good reason he has been called “the poet of love” and “the greatest poet to ever live”.

To not read Rumi when you can would be a mistake.

A World Tour of Books: Don’t Leave Me by Stig Sæterbakken (Norway)

Trigger warning for mentions of depression and suicide.

The first thing I want to say about Stig Sæterbakken’s novel Don’t leave me is: don’t read this book if you’re depressed. In it is a story that goes to some very dark places and enmeshes the reader in a sense of deep hopelessness.

Beginning after a young man named Aksel has been left by the only woman he’s ever loved, it retraces their relationship from end to start and further back. It tells how his self-loathing and jealousy slowly destroyed the bond between them and gives some explanation as to why he became the way he is.

A dark cover for a dark tale.

Here and there through the story are short moments of happiness and hope but as one reads on, they are crushed and it becomes increasingly clear how utterly hopeless everything was from the start.

Worth mentioning is that the author Stig Sæterbakken was a man familiar with despair. He struggled against depression for many years and lost the fight in 2012 when he took his own life.

Don’t leave me (released in 2009) is a disturbing journey into a young man’s personal darkness. It will shock and upset you. Despite its simplistic format and language, it will make on you a deep impression which will be hard to forget.

A World Tour of Books: The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea (Mexico)

One of the first things I noticed about this book is that the main protagonist Teresa Urrea shares the same last name as the author. It turns out that it is because she is based on a historical person who happens to be the great-aunt of Luis Alberto Urrea.

The Hummingbird’s Daughter is a fictionalized account of her life in Mexico. Born to a wealthy ranch owner and an Indian ranch hand, Teresa is raised in poverty by her mother and later by a bitter and abusive aunt.

Only as a teenager does she learn about the identity of her father, after which she is allowed to move into his house.

 

Teresa
Teresa Urrea, the real life saint this novel is based on.

 

From a young age, Teresa shows some unusual talent such as astral projection. An Indian medicine woman, Huila, takes her under her wings as an apprentice. With her she learns about plants and healing prayers. But Teresa’s powers will grow stronger than anyone could have imagined.

After a terrible event, she falls into a coma and dies. Only to rise again at her own wake and with new powers.

From that point on, words travel about the amazing healing Santa de Cabora and pilgrims from all over come to seek her help and guidance. Teresa is more than willing to help. Having met God in death, she is driven by a deep love for all.

But not everyone appreciates her works. Her message of love over dogma is seen as a threat by the Catholic Church. As for the state authorities, they fear her denunciation of their oppression of the indigenous people.

Even some she considers her friends will distort her words to fit their lust for violence. Teresa is in danger.

Luis Alberto Urrea worked for twenty years (!) on this book and the result is a masterfully written story about family, love and the sacrifices people make for it. Whether or not one believes the miraculous things the historical Santa de Cabora is claimed to have done, this novel will impress and the magic realism style of Urrea’s writing will enchant.

Reading or listening to this book feels like being taken on a fantastical journey. In many ways it reminded me of another book I listened to for this blogging project: One Hundred Years of Solitude. If Urrea’s writing is consistently this amazing, he could very well be a future candidate to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, like Gabriel García Márquez before him.

A World Tour of Books: Gaza Writes Back, Short Stories From Young Writers in Gaza (Palestine)

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is without a doubt the most well-known one in the Middle-East region. It has been going on for over 70 years and still there seems to not be much hope of a peaceful agreement in sight.

You may or may not have taken a side in the conflict and may or may not have an opinion on how to solve it (I lean personally towards a two state solution) but either way what must not be ignored is the real human suffering involved.

Gaza Writes Back gives an insight into this reality. An anthology of 23 shorts stories by young Palestinians, it tells of life in the Gaza strip. Of people trying to live their lives in the midst of war and political instability. Bombings, displacement into refugee camps and shameless land grabs by the Israeli army are all part of what the Palestinian people have been and continue to be put through.

The extreme ways some have responded to this oppression is in no way justifiable, especially when innocent Israeli civilians are targeted. This however does not change the truth of the misery millions of Palestinians have suffered ever since the Nakba.

The fifteen young writers (13 of whom are women) of Gaza Writes Back are through this book speaking their truths about life under occupation and giving insight into the sorrow, anger and despair that many Palestinians live with.

The question is: will the world listen?

I found many of the short stories beautifully written. The topics are often tragic but sometimes also funny and hopeful, a reminder that warmth and love can exist even in the midst of terrible conditions.

It saddens me that such so much potential and talent has to struggle against colonization and suppression. I can’t but recommend this great anthology.

A World Tour of Books: The Doll’s House and other short stories by Katherine Mansfield (New Zealand)

Katherine Mansfield did not have a long life. She died only age 34 after a five year long struggle with tuberculosis. Her life prior to that had sometimes been turbulent.

She was born in 1888 in a wealthy family and had by her own account a happy childhood. As an adult she had relationships with both men and women but living in a time and place where same-sex relationships were not accepted she tried during certain periods of her life to force herself to get rid of her attraction to women.

Two years before her tuberculosis diagnosis, she experienced one of the greatest tragedies of her life: the death of her beloved younger brother Leslie as a soldier in World War I.

But despite everything she went through and her too-short time on earth, Katherine Mansfield made an impressive contribution to world literature. She wrote poetry but is mostly known for her many short stories.

Despite what the creepy cover may suggest, The Doll’s House is not a horror story.

For this blogging project I listened to an audiobook version of an anthology of six of her short stories: The Doll’s House, Honeymoon, A Cup of Tea, Taking the Veil, The Fly and The Canary.

Despite their shortness, there is a surprising depth in these stories. They are like brief moments in time captured with sensitivity and warmth by the author. In a few pages, Mansfield says more than certain writers can in an entire novel.

In each there is also a lesson, something for the reader to ponder and mediate on. Themes such as kindness, grief, love and class are reoccurring throughout the anthology.

After listening to The Doll’s House and other stories, I understand why Katherine Mansfield is one of the most well-known New Zealander writers.

I’d give the book a rating of 4,5/5. One of the better literary discoveries I’ve made in this blogging project.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba (Malawi)

In the mid-2000s a severe drought struck Malawi. Crops failed to grow and a famine ensued. With the country, one of the least developed in the world according to the Human Development Index, having poor infrastructure and an unhelpful government the results were especially disastrous.

One family affected was that of a thirteen year old boy by the name of William Kamkwamba. They eventually became so poor because of the crisis that William had to drop out of school since they no longer could afford to pay for the tuition fee. But the boy was so eager to keep learning that he would regularly sneak back into school.

It was there, in the library, that he one day found a physics textbook on energy and how to use it. From what he learned, he realised that he could build his very own windmill.

With parts of a bicycle, wood from Blue Gum Trees and things he found at a scrapyard he set about his task. People thought he had gone mad and many mocked him. His own family did not understand what he was trying to do. His mother worried that he was too odd and would never find a wife.

The audiobook version can be found on Audible

But all were proven wrong on the day William started up his windmill and it worked! He soon connected the machine to a generator and supplied electricity to his home. Later, he created another windmill to operate a water pump to spare the village’s women from spending hours each day walking to get water.

Word travelled about William’s feat and he was invited to hold a TED talk in Tanzania. From there, doors to opportunities he could have never dreamt of opened. He was accepted into the prestigious African Leadership Academy, a South African college which aims to train the future leaders and entrepreneurs of the continent. He later attended Dartmouth College in the US state of New Hampshire and he works today as an inventor and engineer.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is a inspiring true story about what resilience, determination and ingenuity can do. It’s message is in William’s own words: “Trust yourself and believe. Whatever happens, don’t give up”.

P.S. I couldn’t finish this post without mentioning the reason I became interested in listening to this book in the first place: Netflix has just realesed a movie based on it!