Ever since I was a child reading was one of my favourite pastimes. It started with my parents & on occasion my aunt reading to me, alongside the most magnificently imaginative stories my paternal grandfather made up for me every morning before breakfast, when I was staying with him and grandma. As I grew up, I truly caught the reading bug from my parents, who were voracious readers. I could lose time reading and exploring the world through books, but now that I am older and have two kids of my own, time for my own reading, unrelated to children or work, is becoming more precious, if not scarce. For me reading is akin to a love affair, which takes you on an amazing journey into unchartered waters. Recently I was lucky to experience the magic of Boxwalla February book box and in a way it reignited my love affair with reading, ensuring that I actually make time for daily reading, no matter when or where – I simply have to read, even for half an hour!
Lavanya and her husband, founders of the Boxwalla, are ‘nerdy aethetes’, according to their own description, and they offer monthly or one-off book, film, beauty or food ( US only ) subscription boxes. Lavanya is clearly an intellectual, yet her choice of books is hardly intimidating, even for those who like ‘easy’ reading. She selects the most unusual books from the authors around the world, chooses the theme and fills each box with ‘things that must be experienced’. All of the chosen books & writers are ‘must reads’, even though some aren’t as widely known, as they deserve to be – Lavanya considers each author they feature to be a ‘prospective Nobel Laureate’. Even though one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, sometimes you innately start with exactly that. When I caught sight of one of the book covers in the February’s box, themed ‘Once Upon a Time I Loved a Bear’, I felt like a child in the candy store, simply NEEDING to get my hands on “Memoirs of a Polar Bear’. Lavanya very kindly indulged me and has sent me the box.
The timing couldn’t have been better and when the postman delivered the box straight into the open palms of my hands, I felt like a small girl on the cusp of an amazing discovery. Inside the box were three books and a beautiful Maika Goods bucket, which you can use in a variety of ways – place a flower pot in it, fill it with nuts or dry fruit, small toys, jewellery – I use it as a charming holder for all my writing paraphilia – pens, pencils, colouring pens, scissors & little trinkets that my kids made or gave me. It now stand on my work desk and reminds me of a beautiful moment and a kind gesture from a lovely woman who lives across the ocean from me, yet with whom I feel a ‘bookish’ connection.
‘Brief Loves that Live Forever’ by Andrei Makine, translated from French by Geoffrey Strachan, published by Graywolf Press
I have read several of Andrei’s books in the past in French and in a way it feels somewhat strange that both the reader and the writer, being Russian by birth, are experiencing & expressing things through the language that isn’t their native tongue. Yet, his prose flows so naturally in both French & English, it feels as if I am reading his books in our mother tongue. While his books make me feel predominantly sad, I am drawn to his powerful use of words and the fluidity with which they come together into sentences & paragraphs, transporting me into another universe. Such writing is a gift that can be nurtured, but with which you have to be born. Andrei comes from Siberia, but has lived in France for many years – and he writes like a Frenchman. Having said that, Russian and French languages, while sounding completely different, have many things in common – the romanticism, the complexity and variety of present, past and future tenses and the way you can express one thing in so many different ways. French is a popular language in Russia, in part due to the affection and fluency that Russian Czars and nobility had for France in the past. My own great grandmother actually spoke French to my father when he was little and it was a natural choice for me at University, with Russian and English already under my belt. Until this book arrived in the post, I have read Makine only in French and so was a little apprehensive about comparing English translation with the French original. I shouldn’t have worried – the beautiful language, precision of description of people & their experiences, ingrained poesy and melancholy were present on every page. Russians are prone to melancholy when it comes to love, but what drew me in is the description of life during Soviet times that I experienced in my childhood, yet which seems to be buried deeply in my brain. I haven’t experienced many of the things that Andrei described, yet the book draws on the painful memories from the Soviet past that resonate in our day and age.
‘The future you talk about is wonderful but complicated.’
Drawing on the theme of freedom and the inability to experience it, as people were supposed to live & breath the collective spirit, communism broke many lives and this book, while giving you moments of joy, will also offer glimpses of immense heart-break. History can’t be undone, but one can draw on the lessons of the past in order to prevent certain events from happening in the future. Seems a particularly timely read in this moment in time, when unity seems to come apart at the seams of the fabric of society. I recommend reading it on dark, melancholic evenings, accompanied by a strong cup of Earl Grey Tea with lemon & or a glass of red to fortify your spirit.
‘What strikes us is the short time it takes to catch up on the more than two dozen years during which the crucial part of our adult life has passed. Sharing the fate of all our generation, bruised by the collapse of the USSR, Pyots tried a thousand trades since then, traveled a lot, forever seeking to convince himself he was coming to grips with this modern life, not feeling behind the times.’
‘Windward Heights’ by Maryse Conde, published by Soho Press
‘Once upon a time, Emily Bronte wrote Withering Heights, set in England. In another time, Maryse Conde, took the story to Guadeloupe & it acquired a life of its own.’
Remember what I said earlier about not judging the book by its cover? Well, this book grabs your eye and when you start reading it, it fairly quickly captures your heart as well. Maryse Conde wrote this book in such a way, that it reminded me of the fairy-tales that I read when I was a little girl, yet appealed to my grown-up mind as well. Her sentences captivate you & make you want to turn page, after page, after page, even though the story that she tells is incredibly tragic. Look at the cover again, breath in & …. don’t count on it to raise your spirits. It will, however, make you reflect mot just on the subject of love, but things like racism & slavery and the way it continues to effect our world in the current day & age.
Maryse reimagines Emily Bronte’s beautiful novel as a tale of obsessive & detrimentally all-consuming love between the ‘African’ Razye and Cathy, the mulatto beauty & the daughter of a man who takes Razye in & raises him. With one of the main themes of the book being the pain of lost love and its consequences not just for the main characters, Conde sweeps you off to the Cuba & the Caribbean islands and paints an engrossing tale of the divided society in the wake of emancipation & political change. Each chapter will show you different angles & perceptions of different people when it comes to obsession & cruelty that love can bring to the people, no matter what their age. The masterful translation of the book from French into English by Maryse’s husband showcases a wonderful synergy of the husband & wife team in a truly magical way. An unforgettable book that won’t let you out of its powerful grip, even when you read the last sentence.
‘Memoirs of a Polar Bear’ by Yoko Tawada, translated by Susan Bernofsky, published by ND Books
The book is written by a Japanese novelist Yoko Tawada, who currently lives in Germany and writes in both Japanese & German. Interestingly, Yoko majored in Russian literature in Wasoeda University & this novel actually begins in the Soviet Union, before the action moves to Canada & Germany. Yoko’s writing process is intriguing to say the least, as she can write in Japanese, then translates it into German and then, and only then, the book gets translated into English – all this makes nuances of her books particularly fascinating. In a way, her writing process reminds me of the Turkish author Elif Shafak, who writes every book of hers in English, then has it translated into Turkish, after which…she re-writes it. Elif herself called her writing process ‘insane’, but says that she ‘loves the commute between the languages’. To truly appreciate the complexity of the process and the talent of the writer, one needs to be a linguist, but to me as a reader reading a book like ‘Memoirs of a Polar Bear’ becomes doubly fascinating, knowing how much work and creativity went into it, before it makes an appearance in the shop or comes into contact with the reader’s hands via the tablet or laptop. I will profess my love for real books here though – nothing will replace my affection for the paper copy, no matter how the technology evolves.
‘Memoirs of a Polar Bear’ is divided into three parts – the first is written by the matriarch of the bear, yes, you read it right, BEAR ! family, who writes an autobiography in the Soviet Union. In Part Two, her daughter Tosca, who lives in East Germany, takes part in a thrilling new act at the circus and in Part Three you get to meet Knut, Tosca’s son and learn about his life & his keeps in the Berlin Zoo.
When I started reading the book it wasn’t apparent from the beginning that it is the voice of the bear that speaks to you through the pages of the book, as you turn them & I found it thrillingly fascinating to ponder what was going through the mind of Yoko, as she was writing the book. I will also admit to finding first part pretty sad, the second more upbeat somewhat or maybe it just appealed the most to me and the third quite interesting to take time and contemplate the relationships between animals and zoos, where they are kept for our supposed pleasure. What intrigued me, even though it turned out to be not the easiest book to read, is the way that each part was written, at times, seemingly, by slightly different people with very distinct voices. The sum of all three parts left a lasting, but cloudy imprint in my mind, like a grey, overcast day, when you want to hide yourself under the cover from the sadness that the world elicits sometimes.
P.s in my soon to follow blog post I will give you a closer introduction to the wonderful people behind Boxwalla, who take you on the wonderful journey of discovery around the world & make you dream of all the wonderful things that are yet to happen to us.
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