And I thought of myself too, of my foot, and of Oddball’s thin, wiry body; it seemed shot through with appalling sorrow, quite unbearable. As I gazed at the black-and-white landscape of the plateau I realized that sorrow is an important word for defining the world. It lies at the foundations of everything, it is the fifth element, the quintessence.
I started reading this excellent book recently and I very glad I picked it up in the bookstore. His writing is vivid, impassioned, and influential. I came across this quote today and it resonated immediately:
There’s nothing so terrifying as an unpredictable power, because unpredictability makes it impossible to adopt a survival strategy and turns the dial of insecurity up to the maximum.
– Soares, 2016.
Of course I cannot comprehend the conditions of which he writes, the cliche that hides the truth and the history of this city. Recent homicide rates for Brazil in 2017 do not make great reading, but there is more this country, and more to this city, then the cliches. I recommend this book if you are interesting in South American history, social history, and travel.
In Kazan and Poltava provinces, the governors had nervous breakdowns. Others lost their head. “You risk your life, you wear out your nerves maintaining order so that people can live like human beings, and what do you encounter everywhere?” complained Governor Ivan Blok of Samara. “Hate-filled glances as if you were some kind of monster, a drinker of human blood.” Moments later Blok was decapitated by a bomb. Placed in a traditional open casket, his twisted body was stuffed into his dress uniform, a ball of batting substituted for his missing head.
– Stephen Kotkin’s 2014 publication Stalin: Paradoxes of Power 1878 – 1928, volume I of III.
In the past year or two my fiction and non-fiction reading has generally tended to become focused on the Nordic and Russian/Slavic countries, by pure chance, and I’ve unearthed a great wealth of rewarding material. For example, my interests in Russian and Soviet history has dovetailed greatly with the rich and rewarding trove of literature that the citizens of the east have produced, and continue to produce. The latest novel that I find myself reading is the Soviet-era classic Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman, a thoroughly documented and powerful kaleidoscopic panoply of a Soviet society which finds itself engaged in total war with the fascist threat from Nazi Germany and her allies. It is a novel which very nearly did not see the light of day due to the harsh censors of the Soviet Union, but thankfully the volume was smuggled out and printed elsewhere.
However, it is a little collection of books that I’ve read recently that remind me that fiction and reality aren’t always so clear-cut, and that they often inform one another with varying viewpoints. I had the pleasure to read one of my favourite travel writer’s recent publications, Horatio Clare’s Icebreaker: A Voyage Far North (Penguin), over the festive holiday and was ably transported once again to somewhere quite new (and rather cold) as he undertook a mission to accompany a Finnish icebreaker crew.
Another recent publication is The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat & Other Stories (Puskin Press), edited by Sjón & Ted Hodgkinson, which brings together a wide range of Nordic writers producing short sagas set in the fantastical north. This reminded me of a volume I read a few years ago which was entitled Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov (Penguin), edited by Robert Chandler, which took a historical approach to understanding the cultural importance of magic tales that underpin Russia’s literature over two centuries. This is an exquisite volume, one that allowed me to appreciate the form and beauty of often simple moral tales which bled into the surreal via the use of anthropomorphism. This can be seen in some of the works produced before and during the Soviet period (Platonov’s ‘The Foundation Pit’ say, or Bulgakov’s ‘The Master and Margarita’).
This was just a quick view into some of my recent reading habits and where they have led me. Let me know below if you’ve been having fun exploring literature and fiction from around the world!
My room, I realize, is covered in books and CD’s. Stacks of both poke out from under my bed, bulge on shelves, take root on free patches on the floor. I have boxes of academic books and reference texts resting below where I sleep, buried alongside those are boxes of CD’s and cassette tapes, filled with yesterday’s music and recorded jam sessions made during the proclivities of my youth. They are, it appears, my media of choice for consuming the experiences and thoughts of being human.
To be human, as to recognize to being alive, is temporary but what a beauty that it is in itself:
‘But the stars twinkle above our heads, the sun shines, the grass grows and the earth, yes, the earth, it swallows all life and eradicates all vestige of it, spews out new life in a cascade of limb and eyes, leaves and nails, hair and tails, cheeks and fur and guts, and swallows it up again. And what we never really comprehend , or don’t want to comprehend, is that this happens outside us, that we ourselves have no part in it, that we are only that which grows and dies, as blind as the waves in the sea are blind.’
From My Struggle: Part 2. A Man In Love (2014) by Karl Ove Knausgaard.
It was late at night and I was driving home from work, driving smoothly over the flyover that was lit up like a tarmaced roller coaster in the dark. The road was clear and empty, the air was cold, and the stars shone brightly above. In short, it was beautiful. For the first time since I had started driving I understood what the freedom of the road meant. It was just me and the machine, cocooned in a nest of startling music. I was listening to Sonic Youth’s 1995 album Washing Machine and I had the last song on the album playing on the CD player, a 19 minute magnum opus titled The Diamond Sea. It was getting deeper and deeper into the trance like guitar work of Lee, Kim and Thurston, where I could hear the undercurrents of the bass notes, the swirling effects of the chorus shimmer, and the delay of the treble notes slowly build and build. The feedback mounted and at times almost over-powered the car itself. I was lost in a revere of beauty that these musicians has sucked me into.
Then suddenly, and without warning, those few lead guitar notes hit, penetrating the noise jam and instantly heralding a new direction in the song. It almost knocked me sideways in my seat. The guitar scratching started in earnest, and the incessant dissonant roar of the feedback curled in and over itself. It was beautiful. A wake up call.
Recently I’ve been re-reading chapters of Michael Azerrad‘s Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991, a delightful and eye-opening book documenting and discussing the impact of the underground scene in America, which has lead me to re-discover some of my favourite bands and helped uncover new ones mentioned only briefly in passing in the body of the text itself (such as Glenn Branca). I also recently ordered a copy of Azerrad’s 1993 book ‘Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana‘, and I am currently holding a copy of Kim Gordon’s recently released autobiography, ‘Girl In A Band‘. Suffice to say I am looking forward to rediscovering both of those bands, their influences and their backgrounds. In short I am looking forward to learning something deeper about both the music and the musicians behind the music.
If you need me I’ll be found curled up on the bed listening to, and reading about, some of the most important bands to me.
Bookshops, especially independent bookshops, are becoming a dying breed. This saddens me deeply. What other type of shop is so full of ideas, that speaks so loudly of the vitality of the creative story, of the human voice? None that I know.
Here I present some of my favorite books of 2012 (and a few from before). You’ll notice they are mostly travel/history books in one form or another, often about places outside of my home country. Reading for me often opens up the mind, and I tend to gravitate towards travel as this opens up the realms of history and prehistory for the writer, something I’m particularly keen in. However I am keen on a good novel, so please let me know if you come across any, and I am always open to reading about travel writing, no matter where in the world. I’d heavily recommend you take a look at the blurbs of the books as they are awfully interesting, and I’m happy for any suggestions to add to my pile. I’ve put ‘Anna Karenina’ by Leo Tolstoy on this list, but I’ve only just managed to hunt down a copy from my local library after having to hand back in my University copy unfinished. Rest assured though that Oblonsky, Levin, Vronsky and Anna will live long in my imagination. Click the links to learn more about each book.
- ‘Roads To Berlin: Detours & Riddles in the Lands & History of Germany‘ (2012 updated hardback edition), by Dutch novelist, poet and journalist Cees Nooteboom.
- ‘Viva South America! A Journey Through A Restless Continent‘ (2009) by the British journalist Oliver Balch.
- ‘The White Rock: An Exploration of the Inca Heartland‘ (2002) by British explorer and writer Hugh Thomson.
- ‘And Quiet Flows the Don‘ (1978, USSR 1920) as the first part of the Don Epic by the Russian Nobel Prize winning novelist Mikhail Sholokhov (I think the Melekhov family will be with me always).
- ‘The Don Flows Home to the Sea‘ (1978, USSR 1940) as the second part of the Don Epic by the Russian Nobel Prize winning novelist Mikhail Sholokhov.
- ‘In Europe: Travels Through the 20th Century‘ (2008) by Dutch journalist and historian Geert Mak.
- ‘Germania: A Personal History of Germans Ancient and Modern‘ (2010) by the British writer and editor Simon Winder.
- ‘Anna Karenina‘ (1995, serial installments 1873-77) by Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy (not pictured).
- ”The Philosopher and the Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death and Happiness‘ (2008) by the British philosopher Mark Rowlands (not pictured).
- ‘The Periodic Table‘ (2000) by the Italian chemist and writer Primo Levi (not pictured).
- ‘To Your Scattered Bodies Go‘ (1974) by the American science fiction writer Philip José Farmer (not pictured).
- ‘A Single Swallow: Following the Migration from South Africa to South Wales‘ (2010) by the British travel writer Horatio Clare (my favourite travel book) (not pictured).
- ‘Love in the Time of Cholera‘ (1988) by the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez (not pictured).
- ‘Timequake‘ (1997) by the American novelist Kurt Vonnegut (not pictured).
- ‘The Stranger‘ (also known as The Outsider, or L’Etranger in the original French version) (or.1942) by the French author and philosopher Albert Camus (not pictured).
Of course this is just a selection of some of my favourite recent books that I have come across. Every time I enter a library I feel honoured to share the same space as so many great works of literature and art. The beauty of the written word never ceases to amaze me, whether it is from a novel, a poem or a piece of travel writing. It can open up new ways of thinking about every day events, or provide new views on events or people you thought you knew. It can move you to the edge of tears, or terrify you to point of horror. The sign of a truly great book is one that keeps you hooked, long after you should have been asleep after a busy day.
I shall forever have treasured and fond memories of volunteering in a Oxfam book and music store, and mulling over which book I should buy next when my shift ended. One of the pure joys of books is passing them onto friends once you have finished it to lend it out or give it to someone else to enjoy. I haven’t included any brief synopsis’ of the books here because I want you to take a minute or two to click the link and have an explore, and see what you think is interesting.