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Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Countries in distress - books John Stefanidis has read

If you are a reader of books in paperback, hardback or kindle:

I like to read in batches, two or three novels or essays by the same author, or by periods in time.  I recently read the excellentLe Trois Dumas’  by André Maurois out of print and in French – was it ever translated into English? [Alexandre Dumas 1802-1870].

France at the end of the 19th century [1840-1902] Emile Zola’s ‘Joie de Vivre’, andNana’ and ‘La Carée’  which gives one a flavour of the times followed by Manpassant’s ‘Bel Ami’ and his short stories.

Flip to the 18th century, I re-read after many years, Nancy Mitford’s ‘Voltaire in Love’.  Her writing is bliss and she certainly evokes the time in which he lived.

Iraq has been a preoccupation for the West, the war controversial and painful, not least to the poor Iraqis.  It has not been easy to keep up, or indeed understand, the well meant interventions or the politics.Occupational Hazard’  by Rory Stewart describes the chaos [without the journalistic jargon] of this unfortunate country.

Countries in distress led me to a book I have wanted to read but no-one had written on the history of Eritrea, its occupation by the Italians, the British Mandate during World War II, after which it was handed over to Ethiopia which led to a war lasting thirty years.  This thoroughly researched book by Michelle Wrong has the worst title imaginable: ‘I Didn’t Do It For You – How The World Used and Abused A Small African Nation’.  It is moving and heartbreaking, and a book of great interest to me as I spent years of my childhood in this mountainous and mythical country.

Read also Asmara: Africa’s Secret Modernist City’  by Edward Denison, whose avant-garde, pre-war architecture has remained intact until this day – excellent and comprehensive.

‘Motherland’  by Dimitri Kakami, more about exile and the march of time, a minor work, but heartrending.

It is difficult to resist a Man Booker Prize winner.  They can be disappointing, but not so ‘Wolf Hall’  by Hilary Mantel - what a good read! Every character came to life.  History at it’s best?

‘Eight White Nights’  by Andre Aciman, recently out and very well reviewed.  I cannot arouse any interest in it but I shall leave the book about and try again, or put it on the pile for donation to the Red Cross. Thin out your bookshelves and throw out any books you will not read again!

During a trip on the Nile, not long before the marvellous eruption of Tahrir Square, I read ‘Gustave Flaubert’s Letters’ [1821-1880], written to his mother from Egypt, while sailing, as was I, on the Nile.  In search of contemporary, Egyptian literature, I ordered book from, ‘Sunset Oasis’  by a leading Egyptian writer, Bahaa Taher – quite fascinating but, translations you cannot ‘hear’, the language a pity as Arabic, as spoken in Egypt, is quite wonderful. 

Books bought in 2010 that you can dip in and out of in 2011 and for a lifetime:

‘The Landmark Herodotus’, edited by Robert B. Strassler, a wondrous book with maps and illustrations.

‘An Ottoman Traveller, A Selection from the Book of Travels’  by Erlya Celebi – a seventeenth century writer who travels widely and describes the most bizarre events, vivid and believable and shows that times have never been tranquil.

A treasure trove for references, full of instructive, refreshing ideas is the impeccable [illustrated of course]A History of the World in 100 Objects’  by Niall MacGregor, the brilliant Director of the British Museum, based on the hugely successful BBC radio 4 series.   

On the theme of change, persecution and exile, three outstanding books:

‘The World of Yesterday’  by Stefan Zweig
‘Alone in Berlin’  by Hans Falla
‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’  by Edmond de Waal

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