Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

a nutshell: from Somalia to the US via Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Kenya and the Netherlands, this polarising public figure’s memoir follows her journey through an unimaginably turbulent childhood into an adulthood that pivots on her vocal disavowal of her former religion, Islam

a line: “Drinking wine and wearing trousers were nothing compared to reading the history of ideas.”

an image: while describing the period of her childhood spent in Mecca, the writer conjures up a strikingly vivid contrast between what she sees as the cool, beautiful, kindly space within the Grand Mosque and the intensely hot, filthy, cruel space outside the mosque’s doors

a thought: I was intrigued by Ali’s fairly understated comment on p.94 that novels were what saved her from submission – reading fiction gave her glimpses of another world, which ultimately sparked the sense of rebellion that changed her life, but once she had landed in the other world she refers only to non-fiction

a fact: Ali and I occupy very opposite ends of the political spectrum – and while I do try to read widely, which necessarily includes views I disagree with, my interest in the book waned as it went on; I felt like it became less a reflection on Ali’s life story and more an engine for promoting her hostility towards Islam

want to read Infidel? visit here

The Cost of Sugar by Cynthia Mcleod (tr. Gerald Mettam)

The Cost of Sugar book with Sarith and Minimini on front cover under big leaf

a nutshell: set in the 18th century, this utterly absorbing novel weaves together stories of love and cruelty during the period of slavery in Suriname – a raw exposé of life under the chief sugar colony for the Dutch

a line: “Five cents for a pound of sugar, and how many hands, arms, legs and human lives were sacrificed for this!”

an image: many parts of this book were heart-wrenching – one of these moments was the scene in which a child throws himself between his hateful mother and his beloved slave to protect the latter, reflecting how family dynamics were twisted in these oppressive households

a thought: I haven’t been so addicted to a book in a long time – I was reading it at breakfast, on my lunchbreak, right after work – I even had to be comforted by a colleague when I was visibly upset by one plot twist; McLeod is an absolutely masterful writer

a fact: the book was made into a major motion picture, framed differently from the book but still potentially worth a watch!

want to read The Cost of Sugar? visit here

The Black Lake by Hella Haasse (tr. Ina Rilke)

the black lake cover with dark butterflies symmetrical and against a backdrop of leaves

a nutshell: published in 1948, The Black Lake (or Oeroeg) was a staple novel for generations of Dutch schoolchildren – it’s the story of a doomed friendship between the son of a Dutch plantation owner and the son of an Indonesian servant

a line: “Here for the first time we were at a point where we each faced the other in all truthfulness. He levelled his gun”

an image: the scene in which the narrator blurts out his fraught questions around the idea of Oeroeg being “any less” than himself is one that eloquently summarises the absurdity of seeing difference as quantitative

a thought: there were several moments that moved me deeply in this short novel, but particularly the last few pages – I was so wrapped up in the narrative that I overran my lunch break!

a fact: born in 1918 in Batavia (now Jakarta), the capital of the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), Haasse is often referred to as having been ‘the Grand Old Lady’ of Dutch literature – and has an asteroid named after her!

want to read The Black Lake? visit here

The Ministry of Pain by Dubravka Ugrešić (tr. Michael Henry Heim)

a nutshell: taking on two semesters of teaching ‘Yugoslav literature’ at the University of Amsterdam and very much grieving the loss of her country of origin, Yugoslavia-born Tanja coaxes her fragile students towards ‘Yugonostalgia‘ – and there begins Ugrešić’s stimulating exploration of exclusion, memory, language, identity…

a line: “Retouching is our favourite artistic device. Each of us is a curator in his own museum.”

an image: breaking down after admitting she got lost in her old Zagreb neighbourhood, Tanja tries to express to an unmoved passenger on a plane how the trauma of exile hit her where she had least expected it 

a thought: I picked this book up from my local library and thought it sounded interesting – but now, since Ugrešić seems to have taken a vehemently anti-nationalist stand after war broke out in 1991 in her native former Yugoslavia, I’m a little uneasy about putting it out there as my ‘Croatia’ book for the project (esp. given the author in fact holds Dutch citizenship); in time perhaps I’ll come to swap in another

a fact: Ugrešić worked for many years at the University of Zagreb’s Institute for Theory of Literature, which explains the many literary references interweaved into the pages

 

want to read The Ministry of Pain? visit here