This year the theme of my reading list is Middle East and North Africa, or MENA, which includes 20 countries. I don’t really know much about the Middle East or North Africa. At first I thought I would only consider the Middle East, but then decided to extend it to cover North Africa as well.
Sometimes we over-estimate the simplicity of searching for information on the internet. It took me over a year to populate this year’s reading list. It wasn’t because there aren’t enough writers from the MENA region. It was due to the fact that only a few have been translated into a language I can read.
After a lot of research, I was able to narrow down the list to 2 authors per country. I also added some anthologies and collections to the list. My goal this year is to read 30 books, but perhaps I do finish all the books on the list (which can be found here).
Besides reading books written by authors from each of these countries, I will also be studying the religious texts from the religions that came out of this region. Five major world religions have come out of here; Judaism(the Talmud), Zoroastrianism(the Avesta), Christianity(the Bible), Islam(the Quran) and the Baha’i faith(the Kitab-i-Aqbas).
This year I will try to be better about posting my reviews of the books I have read.
Back in 2019, I came across an essay, which later turned out to be an excerpt from her book, written by her. She inspired my reading list this year. It wasn’t until I read her essay, did I think about the authors I mainly read. And of course, it was mostly men.
The Marginalized Majority is a very hopeful book. Published in 2018, its chronicles the sentiment after the 2016 US elections as well as the normalization of behaviors which were considered despicable not 10 years ago. However, it is not a book that will keep you up all night doom-scrolling. No, quiet the opposite. This book will make you feel hopeful.
Onnesha Roychoudhuri talks quite extensively about the power of protest. Despite the disdain of the mass media towards the Occupy Wall Street and the Women’s March protests in the last decade, she talks about how in fact these protests did help incrementally move society forward.
This book is a must read for anyone wanting to feel more hopeful, especially after living through 2020!
“To say that a moment is ‘very Barbara Pym’ is to say that it is a moment of self-observed, poignant acceptance of the modesty of one’s circumstances, of one’s peripheral position.”
Alexander McCall Smith, Excellent Women (page X)
I came across this book in 2018 via an article in the Guardian written in 2008 and decided to read it this year. This book took me quite a long time to finish. I am a slow-reader anyway, but this book took me very long indeed and in the beginning tried my patience a bit. However, I stuck with it and it turned out to be a very interesting and amusing read. It is one of the most poignant and nuanced books I’ve read in a long time.
Excellent Women starts off with new tenants moving into a vacant flat in the same house as 30-something, independent, unmarried and genteel, Mildred Lathbury. The Napiers are not your conventional 1950s married couple. Helena Napier is an anthropologist and Rockingham (Rocky) Napier is an ex-Navy officer. Soon after we are introduced to Julian Malory, vicar of the parish, and his sister Winifred Malory. We are also introduced to a colleague of Helena Napier, Everard Bone, who comes off as being rather arrogant.
A comedy-of-manners, Excellent Women is very witty. The book revolves primarily around Mildred, an excellent woman, the Napiers, the Malorys and Everard Bone.
“I was obviously regarded in the parish as the chief of the rejected ones and I must fill the position with as much dignity as I could.”
Excellent Women, page 190
An excellent woman is someone who is sensible, has been rejected and is therefore unmarried. Alas, Mildred is labeled as an excellent woman by everyone around her for precisely, she suspects, these reasons. Mildred is a humble, down-to-earth person, who sometimes laments the fact that she is a spinster. Her spinsterhood, unfortunately, leaves her open to the condensation of the men, and sometimes women, around her.
I would recommend Excellent Women to anyone wanting to read more British women authors or wanting to amuse themselves by poking fun at the condescension of other people. The book is full of quotable witticisms, so definitely read it with a pencil nearby!
I don’t remember what brought my attention to this book. Whatever it was, I am grateful for it. Nella Larsen was associated with the Harlem Renaissance and Quicksand is loosely based on her life. Our protagonist Helga Crane, like Larsen, has mixed-race heritage. A daughter of a Danish mother and West Indian father, Helga finds that she doesn’t really belong to either community.
I found Helga Crane’s life to be completely tragic, which made me feel quite sad for her. Throughout her search to belong somewhere, I was rooting for her, thinking the entire time that soon she will find fulfillment and happiness. But Helga Crane is not a pitiable character. She is in fact fierce, tenacious and resourceful. Every time she falls, she picks herself right back up again.
Her journey takes her from Naxos (based on the Tuskegee Institute) to Denmark, via Chicago and New York, back to the south. The book starts with a disillusioned and dissatisfied Helga, feeling herself to be a complete failure at Naxos and contemplating immediate departure. But first she must tie up loose ends, like breaking off her engagement to a fellow teacher and heading back to Chicago. Shunned by her uncle’s bigoted wife, Crane finds work with Mrs. Hayes-Rore who then helps her find work in New York. Helga’s life in Harlem starts out optimistically, but she soon feels out of place and disillusioned. As she begins contemplating leaving Harlem, she receives a letter from her uncle in Chicago with the address of her aunt in Denmark.
With the money left to her by her uncle, she books passage to Denmark, where she is greeted with enthusiasm by her aunt and uncle. Although in the beginning she really feels at home in Denmark, soon she realizes that she is simply viewed as an “exotic”. The old disillusionment and dissatisfaction resurfaces and she longs to come back to Harlem.
At the end of the book, we see Helga dissatisfied with her new family life in the south. Her search for belonging and contentment seems to have led nowhere. But perhaps there is still hope…
“We live and then we stop living. We exist and then we stop existing. That means I only get one chance to do a good job. I want to do a good job.”
– Lindy West, Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman
On June 17, 2016, This American Life aired an episode titled Tell Me I’m Fat. Through that episode I learned about the writers Lindy West and Roxanne Gay, and since then they have been on my to-read list. Lindy West’s memoir really inspired me. At times it was really funny and at times I found myself in utter despair. Overall though it was very uplifting.
“The ‘perfect body’ is a lie. I believed in it for a long time, and I let it shape my life.”
– Lindy West, Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman
The book can be roughly divided up into three parts, or as West puts it, her three “little victories”. The first part deals with her experiences with fat-shaming and the “role-models” (or lack there of) who were available to her in her childhood. According to West, Ms. Piggy seemed to be the only semi-positive role-model. She also discusses that women are conditioned for “chasing perfection”, which is a scam because “There is no perfection.”
West’s second victory was when she stood up to comedians who tell rape jokes in their routines. She received a lot of backlash from that. She spoke out against the misogyny prevalent in comedy and ended up being “on the receiving end of a viral Internet hate mob”. She decided to read out loud the most vile comments in front of a camera, and posted the video online. After the video went viral, she received support from many people, including some comedians, with many of them realizing that rape-jokes are not okay.
Not only does Lindy West deal with fat-shaming and online trolls threatening her with rape, she faces harassment on Twitter by a man who stole her father’s identity. Reading about her experience with that was just heart-wrenching. She decided to write about it and after some time, the troll sends her an email apologizing to her. I remember listening to an episode on This American Life about this. That story was really uplifting.
The memoir ends on a positive note. Lindy West summarizes her three big wins, towards her goal in helping build a better world:
*** My reading list for this year has been exclusively women. Why? Because I realized that I mostly read men and wanted to read more women. So I picked up a few books from my to-read list, added to that some recommendation from friends and then finished off the list with some spur-of-the-moment purchases . For the days leading up to Christmas, my goal to write a short review of the books I have read this year. ***
When we traveled to Japan, shopping at convenience stores became something of a ritual. Before you turn your nose up, the coffee we drank at some of the convenience stores was some of the best I’ve had! The good memories of my travels prompted me to get this book on a whim and I am so glad that I did. Convenience Store Woman, is about Keiko, 36, who works at, as the title suggest, a convenience store. She has been working there since she started university, and that is the only job she has had up till now. Not only does this job give her a sense of purpose, she is also very good at it. She is, in my opinion, the perfect employee any organization would love to have. Her dedication knows no bounds. One example of this is when she “walks around the area” in order to “glean valuable information”, such as if a rival store is closing down, in order to help the store run more efficiently and smoothly.
She doesn’t quite fit in, but isn’t oblivious to that fact. In fact, her powers of observation help her get by. After carefully studying the “normal” people around her, she starts to emulate them in small ways. Enter well-meaning, but worried, family and friends. They wonder why at her age, she has never had a boyfriend and why she isn’t trying to get one. In order to stop their pestering, she decides to take-in a colleague from work, who basically just wants someone, who will take care of him.
“The Nail That Sticks Out Gets Hammered”
– Japanese Proverb
As I was reading this book, this Japanese proverb came to mind. A friend of mine, who has worked and lived in Japan for a long time, mentioned it to me once. Keiko seems to have mastered a way to game this system of conformity. In order to avoid being “hammered in”, she just fakes her way through. She is indeed a clever protagonist!
On our way back home, we decided to stop at what would be the last UNESCO world heritage site for our trip. This wasn’t on our plan originally, but it was recommended by our guide in Brno. The Lednice-Valtice cultural landscape was the perfect end to our UNESCO road-trip. The Liechtensteins (yes, the one and the same who rule the principality of Liechtenstein) came into possession of a castle in Lednice in the 13th century. Over the course of 3 centuries, between the 17th and 20th, the Liechtensteins transformed this area into its current state.
We decided not to do a guided tour, but to simply walk around the huge park. However, if you’d like to know a bit more about the park, I would recommend you take a look here. We lucked out with the weather and as we made our way through the meandering paths, we came across a minaret. When I first laid eyes on it, I was absolutely confused but, at the same time awestruck. When we reached the minaret, we learned that in keeping with the aristocratic fashions of the time, the Liechtensteins built the minaret in their garden as a testament to international romanticism. For a much more detailed history of the minaret I would recommend that you go here. The article has pictures of one of the rooms as well, which was closed when we visited Lednice. However, we did climb up the 302 steps for a better view of the park, all the way to the chateau.
After getting down the minaret, we noticed that there was a boat-ride available on the river Dyje, which took us through the Lednice landscape. It was just what we needed to wind-down after our cultural mini-tour. Don’t get me wrong. I love learning about new cultures and taking in as much information as I can, but if I am honest, after a few days of sight-seeing and guided tours, I need some down time which allows me to recap everything I learned and experienced, as well as reflect on it.
The cool, refreshing breeze during the boat-ride, instilled in me a sense of renewal. Even as I write this in the year of Corona, I can remember the feeling of contentment and the renewal of hope, that describes what I felt during the boat-ride.
Brno at a glance
Birthplace of : Milan Kundera
Population: approx. 381,000 (as of 2020)
To note: Brno is home to the oldest theater building in central Europe
You know that feeling you get, when you arrive some place new, and immediately feel as though you have finally reached home? Like you have been there before? Like you belong there? That’s how I felt the minute we arrived in Brno. I can’t really pinpoint what about it made me feel this way. Whatever it was, I am really glad that we decided to make a stop here.
Brno is home to one UNESCO World Heritage Site, namely the Villa Tugendhat. Besides that, this vibrant city has been the birthplace of not only several notable people, but also ground-breaking ideas. In 1856, an Augustinian monk by the name Gregor Mendel (not to be confused with Mendeleev or Mengele) planted some peas in the experimental garden of the St. Thomas’ Abbey. This seemingly innocent act, would lead to Brno becoming the birthplace of modern genetics and Gregor Mendel its father.
Now for a little background on the monument we came to Brno for. Completed in 1930 and inscribed into the UNESCO world heritage list in 2001, the villa of Greta and Fritz Tugendhat was designed by the architects Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich. They designed the furniture inside the villa as well, producing the iconic Brno and Tugendhat armchairs. Not only is the Villa Tugendhat a testament to modern architecture, it also holds an important historical place for the people of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In 1992, Václav Klaus and Vladimír Mečiar, met here to bring into effect the division of Czechoslovakia into two separate nations peacefully.
I would recommend that you pre-book a tour at least 4-6 months in advance. We tried to book a tour 2 months in advance and they were already sold out! So unfortunately, we were only able to enjoy the garden of the villa and the views of Brno and the villa from the outside. Which was still pretty amazing! However, we were able to enjoy a virtual tour of the inside later-on, which I would highly recommend too (link can be found here)! What personally impressed me most was the heating and ventilation system built into the house.
After taking in the views of the city and enjoying the garden of the Villa Tugendhat, we made our way back to the city-center, strolling around taking in all the beauty and curiosities that make Brno so unique. From the crocodile on the ceiling of the old town hall to the four fools trying to hold up an entire building.
After strolling through the city under the late spring sun, we decided to stop for a nice lunch before heading back to our hotel to cool off. We had planned to visit the ballet in the evening and didn’t want to be too tired to enjoy Swan Lake. The Mahen theater was a relatively short walk from our hotel, so we decided to enjoy the balmy evening with a leisurely walk there. Built in 1882, it was the first public building to be electrified in Europe. The interior of the theater, as well as the performance, were breathtaking!
After Swan Lake, it was time to head back to our hotel. Brno at night is just as vibrant and full-of-life as during the day. We stopped at a pub for some beers, before calling it a night on what be our last in the Czech Republic. I only hope that someday soon, I will be able to visit Brno again.
Litomyšl at a glance
Birthplace of : Bedřich Smetana (composer of "The Moldau")
Population: approx. 10,429 (as of 2019)
To note: About the same latitude as Winnipeg
We arrived in Litomyšl as the sun set which made the entire, already picturesque main square, even more enchanting. Our hotel was at one end of the main square, which gave us a wonderful view of the sun-set. We took a leisurely stroll under the arcade before getting dinner.
After a good night’s rest, we woke up to greet a beautiful sunny day, ready to take in the beautiful world heritage sites and the Czech country roads. The birth-place of the composer Bedřich Smetana, Litomyšl, at the time of this writing in 2020, is home to one world heritage site. The Renaissance castle which sits atop Castle Hill, is a short walk from the main square. The moment we turned on to Jiráskova, the white sgraffito bricks nearly took my breath away. There was little doubt that we had indeed arrived at our destination.
It would be remiss of me, if I didn’t mention that the design on each of the sgraffito bricks is different. Of course, I didn’t check to see if this fact is accurate, but I will just believe the experts on that one. The motives on the courtyard walls depicted scenes from antiquity, which should come as no surprise really, since it is a Rennaisance castle. They were absolutely spectacular. I think one of them depicts the kidnapping of Helen of Troy, but I am not sure.
We opted to do a tour, which was in Czech, but they gave us a booklet in English so we could follow along. The tour took us through all of the rooms inside, which were decorated lavishly.The highlight of the tour though was the wooden theater, which opened in 1798. Located on the ground floor, the auditorium is two stories high, with the Duke’s box at the top. The theater reminded me a lot of the paper mâché queen’s theater at Versailles.
After our tour ended, we made a quick stop at the cathedral next to the castle, before making our way to Olomouc. I love visiting cathedrals, churches, or any other places of worship in other countries. I found the organ here to be really ornate. We lit a candle at the altar and made our way to the next world heritage site.
Olomouc at a glance
Oldest settlement: Paleolithic
Population: approx. 100,663 (as of 2020)
To note: In 1767 Mozart composed Symphony No. 6 in F major in Olomouc
We arrived in Olomouc a little after 1 o’clock in the afternoon. We had already booked an English tour beforehand, which started at 3, so we decided to get some coffee and a small bite to eat. Olomouc is home to one UNESCO world heritage site, but it is famous for one of the stinkiest cheeses of the Czech Republic. However, our tour guide told us that it actually originated in the neighboring town and was falsely attributed to Olomouc. You can only imagine the rivalry and bitterness that ensued. If you are interested in knowing about the Olomouc cheese, I would recommend going here.
After coffee, we walked towards the main square where we waited for our guide to arrive. There was to be an event in the evening, and so we were treated to the Olomouc Symphony which was practicing for the event. Their rehearsal made me wish we had tickets! Our guide arrived on time and we began our tour at the Holy Trinity column, which is the world heritage site we traveled to Olomouc to see.
The 35 meter tall Holy Trinity column was built between 1716 and 1754, to commemorate the Catholic Church and to show gratitude for the end of the plague. The column is adorned with statues of 18 saints and 15 biblical reliefs. The details on the reliefs are simply spectacular. The column is also home to an inner chapel, which is very mesmerizing. Four years after the column was finished, Olomouc was attacked by the Prussian army in 1758 and the column was hit by canon shots. The residents of Olomouc at the time begged the Prussian general to spare the monument, which he did. At the end of the war, the column was rebuilt and a stone replica of a cannon ball embedded in it as a reminder.
After the Holy Trinity column, we made our way to the northern wall of the town-hall. There stood one of the two astronomical clocks in Czech Republic (the other one is in Prague). Originally built in the 15th century, it was completely destroyed shortly before the end of WWII by retreating German soldiers, and rebuilt in the Socialist realism style. If I may be honest, although the Holy Trinity column is beautiful, I was more drawn to the astronomical clock. Even if it is not as ornate as the one in Prague, I found it nonetheless very impressive.
We made our way through the inner-city of Olomouc, visiting the 6 Baroque fountains (Hercules, Caesar, Jupiter, Mercury, Neptune and Triton) as well as the park along the old city wall. During our walk through the city we were also treated to the street art. There was an Alien sculpture which especially caught my eye. Olomouc is a university town and the vibe this city has reflects this.
We ended our tour at the St. Wenceslas Cathedral. The cathedral has very beautiful stain-glass windows and the atmosphere inside was very peaceful. Of course, I had to light a candle and just take a minute to soak in the peace and harmony.
After the tour, we walked back to the main square and decided to get some dinner. We braved it and got the fried Olomouc cheese as an appetizer. The smell is quite strong, but I kinda liked the taste. The meal was the perfect end to our perfect day of sight-seeing. With our bellies full, we made our way to Brno for a good night’s sleep.
Since I’ve been a homebody the last 5 weeks due to the COVID-19, I decided to quench my wanderlust, and use this free time, to post something here by reminiscing about the road-trip we took back in May, 2018. As some of you may already know, my partner and I like to take a road-trip each year to visit world heritage sites along the way. This time we decided to drive through south-eastern Czech Republic. There are in total 8 world heritage sites in south-east Czech Republic spanning the regions of Vysočina, Pardubice, Olomouc, Zlín and south Moravian. On our trip, we managed to visit only 5 of them because of time constraints. We started our journey in Vienna, visiting Třebíč, Litomyšl, Olomouc, Brno and Lednice over the next four days.
At a glance
Virtual Tour: Yes
Population: approx. 36000 (as of 2020)
To note: About the same latitude as Vancouver
After a 3 hour drive, we arrived in the town of Třebíč, which is home to the UNESCO heritage site Jewish Quarter and St Procopius’ Basilica, which as the name suggests, consists of two different cultural landmarks. The Jewish Quarter includes the Třebíč ghetto as well as the Jewish cemetery. The Jewish community was also part of the German-speaking minority of this region. We arrived just in time for our tour through the Jewish Quarter which we had booked through the Třebíč tourist center. The tour began at the Rear Synagogue, and at first we were led through the Seligmann Bauer house which is next door.
When you walk through the front door, you first step into a 1930s store-front. This was a very unique display for me. It looked like a storefront one would see in a period film. We continued upstairs where the kitchen, dining area and bedrooms were located. There was no running water in the building during the inter-war period, which was highlighted by the carefully placed washing tubs and wash basins throughout the apartment. Walking through the house was like traveling back in time. The house to me felt so cozy, even though it was sparsely decorated. The closets left an impression on me. Even though they were small, they weren’t overly stuffed. Of course, it could just be that the exhibit wasn’t really representing the times, but I read somewhere that before WWII, people didn’t really own that many clothes. We weren’t allowed to take pictures of these rooms, but luckily the city of Třebíč has provided a virtual tour of the house. Just click here for the semi-real deal!
After the tour of the house, we continued on to the Rear Synagogue which was built in the Baroque style. The walls of the Synagogue are painted with beautiful murals and also have Hebrew scripture written on them. This was the first time I had ever been inside a synagogue!
From the synagogue we walked through the quarter, taking in the serenity of the quiet lanes. We visited the old ceremonial baths as well. There were memorials to the victims of the Holocaust, in the form of small bronze squares, embedded in the cobblestones throughout the quarter. After our tour, we decided to walk up to the Jewish cemetery. The road up to the cemetery provided some really nice views of the Jewish quarter, the Basilica and the city center of Třebíč.
When we reached the cemetery, I was surprised to see that it was well-preserved and well-maintained. There were many beautiful tombstones there, but it didn’t sit well with me to take pictures. The virtual tour does have some nice shots of the cemetery though.
After paying our respects, we made our way back down to get something refreshing to cool-off. We found a cozy little cafe, where we drank some refreshing lemonade and waited for our guided tour of the St. Procopius’ Basilica. The namesake of Saint Procopius, the basilica was built on the site of an existing chapel of the Benedictine monastery. Saint Procopius, a Bohemian hermit, was canonized in 1204.
The basilica has a very interesting history. At one point, it was used as a stable for horses, with the crypts being used to store beer! Today, it is used as a place of worship, for which it was originally intended. The murals inside are well-preserved. In fact, to date, they are some of most complete murals I’ve ever seen! Also, some of the timber used in the ceiling, were from the old chapel which was at the site previously.
In my view, Třebíč is a testament to two different cultures co-existing in harmony, despite the fact that the city was indeed segregated along the lines of religion. It was definitely worth visiting Třebíč, and now you can visit it virtually too!
After the tour of St. Procopius’ Basilica, we drove on to Litomyšl, where we stayed the night. We stayed near the city-center, which is very picturesque. We enjoyed some delicious local fare and then headed straight to bed for some rest.