It’s been a while since I wrote about the books that got in my hands, and although I don’t have that much time to read as much as I would like to, I still manage to keep up with the “2 books per month” challenge. Here’s an overview of the books I read this year (I excluded the parenting books I focus a lot nowadays).
Looking back at the titles, I think the main focus this year was on books that talk about human condition, about labels we put on people, about judging based on religion, sex, color, about taking decisions based on the society you live in and its constraints.
The Good Soldier Svejk – Jaroslav Hasek
This is probably the best book I read this year and it competes with The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for the best book I’ve ever read. It’s incredibly funny and sarcastic, the kind of book that makes me laugh out loud when reading, with incredibly stupid situations showing a reality that you would imagine in the first place is far away from being funny.
Being thought initially to cover a total of six volumes, only four of them were completed before the death (heart failure) of Jaroslav Hasek in January, 1923. The novel is set during World War I in Austria-Hungary, a multi-ethnic empire full of long-standing ethnic tensions. Fifteen million people died in the War, one million of them Austro-Hungarian soldiers including around 140,000 who were Czechs. Jaroslav Hašek participated in this conflict and examined it in The Good Soldier Švejk.
Many of the situations and characters seem to have been inspired, at least in part, by Hašek’s service in the 91st Infantry Regiment of the Austro-Hungarian Army. The novel deals with broader anti-war themes: essentially a series of absurdly comic episodes, it explores the pointlessness and futility of conflict in general and of military discipline, Austrian military discipline in particular. Many of its characters, especially the Czechs, are participating in a conflict they do not understand on behalf of an empire to which they have no loyalty.
Svejk is the main character of the book and through his idiocy (possibly feigned) he constantly manages to annoy the Austrian authorities, creating all this comic scenes, with no way of coming out of them. It’s still not clear until the end of the book if Svejk is genuinely idiot and incompetent or he’s just or he’s just perfectly naturally acting like it, so as to stay away from the battle field.
We were the lucky ones – Georgia Hunter
We were the lucky ones was the book that made me cry not only once while reading it. The story itself, from beginning to end is tragic and what is even more tragic is that it’s a true story.
The book tells the story of a quite big Polish Jewish family during the Holocaust. Once the Germans invade Poland in 1939 their easy, peaceful and almost worry free life turns into a struggle to survive and the be together as a family. Unfortunately, during the war, the family is separated and go through all the Holocaust events – imprisonment, hard work, concentration camps, gulags.
Galapagos – Kurt Vunnegut
Kurt Vunnegut has an incredible writing style, so fluent and easy to read, that once you start reading one of his books, you can’t put it down before you finish it. With situations so hilarious and absurd, that make you understand what crazy and senseless world were actually living in, it’s impossible not to just devour each of his books.
Galápagos questions the merit of the human brain from an evolutionary perspective. The title is both a reference to the islands on which part of the story plays out, and a tribute to Charles Darwin on whose theory Vonnegut relies to reach his own conclusions.
Galápagos is the story of a small band of mismatched humans who are shipwrecked on the fictional island of Santa Rosalia in the Galápagos Islands after a global financial crisis cripples the world’s economy. Shortly thereafter, a disease renders all humans on Earth infertile, with the exception of the people on Santa Rosalia, making them the last specimens of humankind. Over the next million years, their descendants, the only fertile humans left on the planet, eventually evolve into a furry species resembling sea lions: though possibly still able to walk upright (it is not explicitly mentioned, but it is stated that they occasionally catch land animals), they have a snout with teeth adapted for catching fish, a streamlined skull and flipper-like hands with rudimentary fingers (described as “nubbins”).
Disgrace – J.M Coetzee
Coetzee always managed to shake my beliefs and values with every subject he has touched in his books and to make me rethink my sense of justice in the world. Disgrace is, of course, no different.
Disgrace won the Booker Prize and Coeztee was also awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature four years after its publication. David Lurie, the main character of the book, is a fairly average, twice-married, fifty something lecturer at a Capetown university who, accused of sexual misconduct with one of his students, chooses not to defend himself but rather to suffer his fate with a noble, slightly grumpy, stoicism. In his mind, Lurie has committed no offense; he prefers to get fired and suffer disgrace than endure a politically correct process of rehabilitation. He will not give his academic tormentors the satisfaction they crave. “Pass sentence,” he says, “and let us get on with our lives.” He retires to the country to live with his daughter Lucy, and address the meaning of this self-inflicted injunction.
At first, there is hope. Country life in the eastern Cape, and Lucy’s company, seem to offer the prospect of sanity. But the conflicts of South Africa will never go away. The farm is attacked by a gang of black men, Lucy is raped, and Lurie beaten up. His daughter refuses to press charges, even though one of her assailants is a former “dog man” on the property.
Racial hierarchies in South Africa, mid life crisis, family relationships, Disgrace has a full menu of situations that will make you feel angry, skeptical, judgmental and scared of the thinking about the direction this world is going into.
To Kill a Mocking Bird – Harper Lee
To Kill a Mocking Bird is undoubtedly a classical and a mandatory read for anyone who’s in search of great books that never go out of style, even if they were written centuries ago. I first read this book when I was in high-school and back then it turned out to be, for me at least, a path breaker in many directions – the American literature, the American realities, understanding racism, starting to build a set of moral values for myself.
After some 20 years, this year, I read it again and of course that age, life experience and others that have been going on in my life since high-school, made me go deeper into the sense of this book, to deeper analyze the situations, to think and over-think its story. It’s as powerful as it can be, it’s as actual as if it was written yesterday and it’s probably a subject that will never get old, with all our modern globalization and migration of people all around the world.
The story takes place during three years (1933–35) of the Great Depression in the fictional “tired old town” of Maycomb, Alabama, the seat of Maycomb County. It focuses on six-year-old Jean Louise Finch (nicknamed Scout), who lives with her older brother Jeremy (nicknamed Jem) and their widowed father Atticus, a middle-aged lawyer. Judge Taylor appoints Atticus to defend Tom Robinson, a black man who has been accused of raping a young white woman, Mayella Ewell. Although many of Maycomb’s citizens disapprove, Atticus agrees to defend Tom to the best of his ability. Other children taunt Jem and Scout for Atticus’s actions, calling him a “nigger-lover”. Scout is tempted to stand up for her father’s honor by fighting, even though he has told her not to.
To Kill a Mockingbird focuses, in all of its pages, on what’s right and wrong and distinguishes it from what the law says is right or wrong. Its message is so clear, a topic so often met even nowadays, that it should be heard in all the global conflicts we hear about in the news every day.
Bonus: Go Set a Watchman – Harper Lee
Although written before To Kill a Mocking Bird, Go Set a Watchman somehow is a continuation of it. The action happens some 20 years later from the plot of To Kill A Mocking Bird and it manages once again, maybe even more powerful than first time, to shake your values, moral ideas and beliefs. It shows how people tend to change their perspective as years pass by, influenced by society, by modernization, by close people in a small community.
In Cold Blood – Truman Capote
Talking about American literature, Truman Capote, a very good friend of Harper Lee, works in his book ‘In Cold Blood’ with the same dilemmas as Lee – what’s actually right or wrong (leaving aside the law of the time) and what’s morally accepted to be done.
In Cold Blood is a non-fiction novel, first published in 1966; it details the 1959 murders of four members of the Herbert Clutter family in the small farming community of Holcomb, Kansas. When Capote learned of the quadruple murder, before the killers were captured, he decided to travel to Kansas and write about the crime. He was accompanied by his childhood friend and fellow author Harper Lee, and together they interviewed local residents and investigators assigned to the case and took thousands of pages of notes. The killers, Richard “Dick” Hickock and Perry Smith, were arrested six weeks after the murders and later executed by the state of Kansas. Capote ultimately spent six years working on the book. When finally published, In Cold Blood was an instant success, and today is the second-biggest-selling true crime book in publishing history, behind Vincent Bugliosi’s 1974 book Helter Skelter about the Charles Manson murders.
The Book of Fate – Parinoush Saniee
Leaving aside the American continent for a while, Middle East is now on the spotlights with this amazing book, banned twice in Iran, that has become of one the country’s best sold book.
A teenager in pre-revolutionary Tehran, Massoumeh is an ordinary girl, passionate about learning. On her way to school she meets a local man and falls in love – but when her family discover his letters they accuse her of bringing them into dishonor. She is badly beaten by her brother, and her parents hastily arrange a marriage to a man she’s never met. Facing a life without love, and the prospect of no education, Massoumeh is distraught – but a female neighbor urges her to comply: ‘We each have a destiny, and you can’t fight yours.’
The years that follow Massoumeh’s wedding prove transformative for Iran. Hamid, Massoumeh’s husband, is a political dissident and a threat to the Shah’s oppressive regime and when the secret service arrive to arrest him, it is the start of a terrifying period for Massoumeh. Her fate, so long dictated by family loyalty and tradition, is now tied to the changing fortunes of her country. Spanning five turbulent decades of Iranian history, from before the 1979 revolution, through the Islamic Republic and up to the present, The Book of Fate is a powerful story of friendship and passion, fear and hope.
It’s a book that perfectly shows the realities of the Iranian society – family values, women position in the family and society, politics, religion, education, moral values of people. Reading the book as a woman living in a different society, it was many times hard to approve, understand and confirm certain decisions and actions of the main character. Especially the decision at the end of the book.
Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov
Satire, absurd, comic, everything in this classical Russian book.
The Master and Margarita written in the Soviet Union between 1928 and 1940 during Stalin‘s regime. A censored version was published in Moscow magazine in 1966–1967, after the writer’s death. The manuscript was not published as a book until 1967, and then first in Paris. A samizdat version circulated that included parts cut out by official censors, and these were incorporated in a 1969 version published in Frankfurt. The novel has since been published in several languages and editions.
The story concerns a visit by the devil to the officially atheistic Soviet Union. The Master and Margarita combines supernatural element with satirical dark comedy and Christian philosophy, defying a singular genre. Many critics consider it to be one of the best novels of the 20th century, as well as the foremost of Soviet satires.