During last year's restrictions, I thought the best way to spend leisure time was reading. In the normal times I would have loved to have that much time to tackle a growing pile of books next to my bed. But 2020 was an abnormal year that stretched everyone's nerves to the point of snapping - not only with the pandemic, but also with the craziness surrounding the US presidential election and the aftermath. So I could not concentrate on any serious book. Only after the inauguration and the early 2021 vaccination campaign, tensions began to ease, and I was again able to read more than just news headlines. So here is a potpourri of the works I've read in the past year and a half.
I don't recall in what order I read the works, so I will start with the most memorable: a shortish novel by Syrian writer Khaled Khalifa, titled Death is Hard Work. The summary, which said the book is about three siblings taking their father's dead body for burial through conflict-ridden Syria, was not at all promising. I expected more of the newspaper-style chronicling of the atrocities in the war-torn country. But instead of dwelling on the horrors of war, Khalifa's novel offers a portrayal of a disconnected family, further estranged by the political conflict. The head of the family is charismatic rebel leader Abdel Latif al-Salima, respected and perhaps even loved by his community, but feared and avoided by his children. The outwardly strong authoritarian figure is plagued by a tragedy from his youth, which could have been avoided if he had had the necessary strength to act on his conscience. He makes his three adult children promise they will take him across conflicted country to his native village to be buried next to his sister. They never quite understand why it is so important to him, but feel that their promise is sacred and must be fulfilled.
Abdel Latif's two sons and a daughter are as different from each other as can be, and feel no familial bond either with their father or with one another. During the travel, confined in a van with the decaying corpse, the estranged siblings examine their lives, each painfully aware of past delusions and ultimate inability to take control of their destiny.
Fatima ruminates over her adolescent belief that she was beautiful and desirable because she had many marriage offers. By now divorced, she is painfully aware that her former husband always despised her and married her only to elevate his social status through the connection to her father. The youngest son, Bolbol, understands that fear has turned his life into a complete failure. In the past, he did not have the courage to marry the only woman he had ever loved because she was Christian, and in the present, he lives in fear that his father's rebellion will cost him his job in the government-controlled area. The eldest son, once cocky and boisterous Hussein, becomes taciturn during the journey. After delivering the corpse to the remaining relatives in father's native village, the siblings separate to rush back to their own lives with no intention of ever seeing one another again. The father's body, delivered in a terrible state of decay, had to be buried in the nearest available place and that was nowhere near his sister's grave.
Despite its relative brevity (cca 190 pages), the novel had the same impact on me as the comprehensive classic family sagas, such as The Buddenbrooks or The Thibaults. The conclusion reveals Abdel Latif's painful secret and the reason why he wanted to be buried next to his sister. The determination to atone for his failure to save her makes him more humane in the eyes of the reader, though not in the eyes of his children. Although the conclusion is well-founded and logical, it is not predictable, and it made this novel a real treasure for me! I am so glad I found it.
I also joined an online book club last year, which I had sworn I would never do. I did it not to discuss books as much as to get an idea what new publications are out there that might inspire me to read again. The first listing I came across, the award-winning Trust Exercise by Susan Choi, was wasted on me, except that it gave me an idea where the contemporary fiction might be heading: toward complicated writing that needs to be deciphered and explained to be understood. The characters change names and faces as we move along, making it hard to identify with any of them. Sometimes you don't know who they are and where they come from. Once stripped of these special effects, the plot boils down to a condemnation of child abuse, a worthy cause to be sure, but why be so convoluted about it?
The next few books of the month at the Vox book club, including a vampire trilogy, were never going to make it to my bedside table, but then came Akwaeke Emeze's The Death of Vivek Oji, which sparked interest. I had seen it at my local bookstore and was wondering whether it was worth reading, so the book club gave me the necessary nudge. It was worth it. The book is a classical tale of parent-child disconnect, but what made this one especially interesting was the context in which ancient Nigerian traditions and superstitions push against the contemporary trends and western influence. It was a good insight into the increasingly diverse world we live in and a revelation that similar social changes take place everywhere, not just in the west. I also learned about the so-called Niger-wives, foreign women who marry Nigerian men and settle in Nigeria. The title character's mother is Indian. The description of his waist-long black hair made me wonder whether it was curly like his father's, or straight and slick like his mother's. What also makes this book a compelling read is the suspense that keeps you on edge from the very first page till the end, when you learn how Vivek died.
Perusing through used books in a thrift store some months later, my attention was drawn to the only name I recognized: the more famous Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I had been thinking of getting Americanah, but Half of a Yellow Sun at 50 cents could not be passed up. And what a fortunate find! Everyone growing up in the Balkans has heard of very slim individuals being described as "coming from Biafra." The phrase was inspired by news media images of emaciated children, dying from starvation in the area that fought for independence from Nigeria. I had forgotten all about Biafra until Adichie's book, which looks at its history through the eyes of different people.
One reason that may have contributed to my enjoyment of the book is that I read it immediately after Douglas Stuart's highly acclaimed Shuggie Bain. While the novel about an alcoholic mother and her three children living on the outskirts of Glasgow is well written, it is so depressing that I had to take long breaks in between chapters and ultimately struggle to finish it. The misery of the people, relentlessly pounded in your brain, page after page after page, desensitizes it to the point where you can't feel any compassion. The title character, the youngest of the three siblings, is additionally "different" from other kids and therefore the most vulnerable, and clinging to his mother the longest. But the book is more about his mother Agnes than about him. Instead of sympathizing with the victimized children and unfortunate parents in the impoverished Thatcher-era coal mine areas, the unending ugliness coming at me from every page alienated me from every character in the book and made me think: surely even the poorest and most helpless people have some happy moments every now and then in their lives. Critics seem to think differently, and the book has received nothing but praise. Hardly anyone dares to admit they did not like it, except some Glaswegians who fear the book is giving the Scottish city a bad reputation.
I also combed through my own library, knowing there are books in it I have not yet read. One of them is a collection of writings from the Boka Kotorska area (an Adriatic Sea bay not so far from Dubrovnik) collected and lovingly presented by my friend Slobodan Prosperov Novak, a great linguist, literary researcher and top authority on Croatian literature. The 300-page book contains mostly poems, but also folk tales, letters and articles and from the Boka region, written between the late 15th and early 19th century. The most surprising piece I came across was a letter written to U.S. Congress in April of 1782. Signed by Warta (one word only and does not sound like a Slavic name) the letter appears to be in response to a message sent to the writer by members of Congress. The author praises the revolution against the English rulers and advises congressmen to avoid modeling their government after Plato's Republic or Thomas More's Utopia, which he says are unviable, but to create a new type of monarchy. Instead of placing on the throne a real person, the letter writer suggests they should make their king from oak to ensure his longevity and worldwide admiration. This strange, metaphoric letter ends with wishing the U.S. lawmakers success and their young country long-lasting independence. It is dated April 15, which is four days before the Netherlands recognized the United States, the second country to do so after Morocco.
Then came a contemporary Croatian book Dark Mother Earth by currently the most exciting Croatian writer, Kristian Novak. I read it in the excellent English translation by Ellen Elias-Bursac, which is available on Amazon, unlike Novak's newest and best book Ciganin, ali najljepši (Gypsy, But the Fairest of Them All ), which has not been translated yet and one has to ask why. Meanwhile, Dark Mother Earth displays all of the writer's best qualities, except for a somewhat banal opening. It would be a pity if that opening made someone put the book aside, because once you get past it, the work is mesmerizing. A young boy living in the Croatian backwaters north of the capital Zagreb, is haunted by nightmares, or so we think, until we learn that his seemingly unreasonable fears are inspired by the true evil around him. Adults only whisper about the crime in their midst, but pretend not to see. The boy's childhood memories fade once the family moves to Zagreb, but deeply buried dark visions resurface when least expected, and affect his behavior. They follow him to young adulthood, but having forgotten their origin, he is not aware what prompts him to act weird, until he delves deep into his past to free himself. Extraordinary book and highly recommended.
Linked loosely to the same part of the world, is Tea Obrecht's Tiger's Wife, which was widely praised as a first book by a young author in America when it came out in 2011. Obrecht is an immigrant from former Yugoslavia, but the book did not seem to go well with her fellow expats who could not recognize any of the "folk stories" in it. Tigers do not normally appear in the folklore from the Balkans, but the author may have used the exotic animal to underline the uniqueness of the woman in the story. I read the book because someone gave it to me, explaining that I knew the man who had married Obrecht's mother. Is this a good reason to read a book? Who knows. After a somewhat dull beginning, Obrecht's "folk legends" brought the book to life. True, they do not have much to do with the region. Perhaps that's exactly why credit must be given to the author’s imagination. Obrecht has written another book since, titled Inland, but somehow I am not tempted to read it.
My greater ambition: to finish Alex Ross's grand opus Wagnerism during the Covid-induced paralysis was a total failure. The main reason was my inability to concentrate on any reading last year, but knowing much about Wagner already had an effect too. Do I really need to know what every single European intellectual, no matter how obscure, said about Wagner? Ross is to be commended for this scrupulous study of Wagner's influence on the world during and after his lifetime, but I enjoyed his earlier book The Rest is Noise much more. About a third way through, Wagnerism was put aside and I have not yet been tempted to take it up again.
Among the new titles coming out this fall, I have noticed a new, never-before-published book by the 20th-century feminist icon Simone de Beauvoir. Apparently, Beauvoir and lifelong partner Jean Paul Sartre had decided this manuscript was not worth publishing, but her descendants thought otherwise. I am more inclined to trust Beauvoir and Sartre. Having read Beauvoir's novel She Came to Stay before and during Covid (yes, I actually did do some reading in 2020) I was bored to tears with tedious "intellectual" conversations that are all but meaningless today. Supposedly based on her own "open" liaison with Jean-Paul Sartre, this work of fiction tackles a ménage-à-trois comprising a sophisticated middle-aged Parisian couple and a young provincial girl whom the two have taken under their wings. The younger woman gradually takes over the man and ruins the once solid relationship between the intellectual equals. The only way to get rid of her is to kill her. Blah. Beauvoir is best known for her non-fiction work The Second Sex, a study of the treatment of women throughout centuries.
The new publication, titled Inseparable, is due in the book stores any day now. It deals with Beauvoir's lifelong friendship with a woman, and perhaps she has some insights to offer into how that works. But if it is anything like She Came to Stay, the book may topple the avant-garde icon from her pedestal.
I have read a few more books in the past months that are not worth mentioning.
If you have any good ones to recommend, please make your comments bellow. I am looking for something that will really knock me off my feet.