Catching up on my reading
Reclaiming my weekend means having more time for reading. When I moved to the Netherlands, I didn’t have much to do so I read a lot. I even posted some book reviews in this blog, some of which you could still find here.
When I started to work and travel a lot, I somehow drifted away from this hobby. I am picking up on it now.
It is not easy to go back to reading books. My attention span has significantly dwindled because I read less books and magazines but shorter Internet articles. It takes extra effort not to take a photo of a line I’ve highlighted so I could post it on Instagram and check the likes it gathers afterwards. My English grammar also suffered from social media and speaking Dutch often, so there are many big English words that I have already forgotten.
To be able to focus, I banished all gadgets from the bedroom. Instead, I installed two thick dictionaries on my bedside table. Now every evening, Robin and I bury ourselves in books.
Maybe it has something to do with getting old but I am gravitating toward memoires in my current choices of books. I discovered several new authors, of whose words I have devoured incessently. From Dostoevsky to Nietszche, I have also started reading a lot of philosophy books. Sharing some of my current favourites:
Slow train to Milan + other works, Lisa St. Aubin de Teran
I picked up Slow Train to Milan from the antiquariat near my office when I was searching for a light read after finishing Dostoevsky’s Demons. Lisa St Aubin de Teran will put any travel blogger to shame (even the most successful ones) with her unbelievable collection of adventures. If the current trend among young people of “pack your bags, leave everything behind to travel the word” motto had been invented by someone, it would have been by Lola Lisa (how I and my bookworm friend Nats call her). She eloped to Italy with a man 30 years her senior when she was 16 years old, then moved with him to Venezuela when she was 18 and became a haciendera, had three husbands, several love affairs and even managed to raise three children. She is now a 50-year old philantropist living in Mozambique, just her latest adventure I suspect. Since Slow Train to Milan, I’ve finished two more of her memoires, Off the Rails and Mozambique Mysteries. St Aubin de Teran is such a funny novelist and her words flow as smoothly as a quiet Dutch canal.
Consolations of a Forest, Sylvain Tesson
When one cannot go back to Russia yet, one reads about Russia. While searching for Russian books, I chanced upon Consolations of a Forest online. Frenchman Sylvain Tesson spent six months in the Siberian forest to get away from the noise of the modern world and to test his body and spirit. A tabasco and vodka-infused book, Consolations of a Forest is filled with contemplations about our modern life and how we need isolation to go back to what’s important. Full of humour, satire and drunken Russian men, I think any man who love the outdoors and anyone who is searching for an adventure will enjoy reading this.
Submission, Michel Houellebecq
If I’ve Googled Michel Houellebecq first before finishing his book Submission, I would have thought that he writes twisted fairy tales like that of the Grimm Brothers. He even looks like a witch himself. Certainly among the league of stereotyped writers.
Michel had been dubbed as Wizard Houellebecq when this book came out on the same day as the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Set in 2022, Submission tells of an Islam take-over in France, with the Nationalist Party losing the election and the Muslim Brotherhood party governing the country, firing professors who don’t to convert to Islam and using Saudi oil-money to buy up schools like the Sorbonne. The novel’s main protagonist is an under-achieving literature professor who is apathetic when it comes to the political and social affairs in his country.
I was halfway through Submission when Paris was attacked by ISIS terrorists in November 13. While reading the part where the professor temporarily left the city because of an imminent danger caused by the elections, Robin came to the room and announced the attack. The news sent chills down my spine. I immediately put the book down and picked up another one so I won’t be dreaming about it. Since there were no tablets or phones in our bedroom, I didn’t read the full story until the next morning. It made me sad and angry and I finished the book on the same weekend to find out what happened to Houellebecq’s professor and his beloved France. He finally agreed to go back to teaching and convert to Islam, blinded by money and the promise of a sexually-active life with carefully-selected wives. French and Belgian governments were now ruled by Muslim parties while Tunisia, Turkey and Egypt have all joined the EU. Women will go back to domestic life, leaving school after secondary education to focus on having children and raising a family.
It was a sad ending, an attempt by a frustrated Frenchman to express fear, disappointment and biases after witnessing how his country was attacked, time and time again, by extremists and religious terrorists. While many accused the novel and the author of being racist, I think Houellebecq actually cited many good sides of the Islamic religion. They maybe tinged with sarcasm but when you’re someone like me who hasn’t read a single Houellebecq book, you’d say he is quiet sincere in showing this side of Islam.
Robin and I had a very meaningful discussion after I finished Submission. The current situation in Europe is becoming alarming and hard as I try to throw my biases out the window, I won’t lie, I am also afraid. I think it is human instinct. To quote the author in this interview with the Guardian:
“Is he Islamophobic? “Yes, probably. One can be afraid,” he replies. I ask him again: you’re probably Islamophobic? “Probably, yes, but the word phobia means fear rather than hatred,” he says. What is he afraid of? “That it all goes wrong in the west; you could say that it’s already going wrong.” Does he mean terrorism? He nods. Some might say that’s a tiny percentage of people, I begin … “Yes, but maybe very few people can have a strong effect. It’s often the most resolute minorities that make history.”
Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol
The inspiration of literary giants Dostoevsky and Kafka. I’ve never heard of Gogol until this year and with an introduction like that, one is deemed to be curious. I love Dostoevsky’s novels (no matter how excruciating they are to read) and I’ve read a couple of Kafka’s too, that’s why I bought Dead Souls. I’m just starting with the book but I could already see what they meant when they said Gogol is a funny and satirical novelist. I already loved the book when the author (as himself) apologized to his Russian readers for taking too much space to describe the lackeys of his protagonist because he knows that a Russian couldn’t be bothered by stories of the lower class. Such a stinging statement.
Waarover ik praat als ik over hardlopen praat, Haruki Murukami
In an effort to improve my grasp of this language, I read books in Dutch every once in a while, with the aid of a dictionary and a marking pen. Short novels like In het Het van de Leeuw by Juan Pablo Villalobos about a Mexican drug lord and his son who wanted a dwarf hippo and recently the interview with Dutch philosopher Rene Gude Sterven is doodeenvoudig. Iedereen kan het, are easy to read. I also have Vladimir Nabokov’s Lente in Falta which will probably take me 50 years to finish. The difference in difficulty of these Dutch translations is worlds apart.
I’ve been experiencing a running dip lately due to the colder weather so I bought Waarover ik praat als ik over hardlopen praat hoping that it’ll bring me some inspiration to lace my shoes and go out. Surprisingly, I am inspired to write more than to run more. The book is of course not something like a guide to running your next marathon but it offers a glimpse into the life of Murukami and his truly Japanese kind of discipline and passion.
Any interesting book you’ve read lately?