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Confinement reading list

20 June 2020

During the period of confinement, starting with the declaration of the state of emergency on 14 March, I have been working from home, cooking more than usual, and reading more than usual. The latter partly because I had to stay at home except to buy food and other necessities until early May (at that point daily bicycle rides became possible as well), and partly because there was no football on TV at the weekends, an activity on which I usually spend several hours Saturday and Sunday. We are no longer confined, and the state of emergency will end on Monday, but there are still many restrictions and I will be working from home until September (and that assumes no big “second wave” of infections). So I still consider myself semi-confined and will continue the reading list below until I go back to the office.

So, this is what I have been reading during the confinement. I am fortunate to be able to read all the books below in the original language, but I have provided links to the English translations on Amazon where appropriate.

Johannes V. Jensen: Kongens Fald (1901). A fantastic historical novel by the Danish Nobel Prize winner (1944), taking place in 16th century Denmark, with the 1520 Stockholm Bloodbath as one of the central events. It was elected as the most significant Danish novel of the 20th century in 1999 by two leading Danish newspapers. Available in English at Amazon.

Stanisław Lem: Solaris (1961). Science fiction is not among my preferred genres, but this book has been on my “to read” list for several years, and last year I picked up a new edition during a trip to Poland. It was interesting to read a serious novel in my native Polish, and it was hard to put it down. The richness of the novel lies in the psychological aspects of the main characters, rather than in the technological fantasies that are the focus of much other science fiction. The book is almost psychadelic. Available in English at Amazon.

James Joyce: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). Another classic, meaning a book that has been on my shelf for a long time but which I never got around to reading–until now. And what a book it is! The edition I have is from Oxford’s Word Classics, and there is a 40-page introduction which I frankly wish had been edited down to 10 pages. But once I got into the novel itself, I was transported to late 19th century Ireland and the harsh conditions there. But what the book really brings is the richness of Joyce’s language. It is not an easy read; but it rewards one with phrases such as this, from chapter V, as good a description of a writer’s lack of inspiration as I have ever seen: “His mind bred vermin. His thoughts were lice born of the sweat of sloth.” Reading James Joyce is an effort, but an effort that pays dividends.

Antoni Libera: Madame (1999). A modern classic, as far as I’m concerned. The action takes place during the 1960s and 1970s in Communist Poland, with the central character a secondary school student who falls in love with his French teacher. Sounds like a banal story, but Libera’s description of life in Poland in those dark days and the emotions of the young man are incredibly well crafted. I swallowed the 400-page book in 3 days or so. Available in English at Amazon.

Anne Griffin: When All Is Said (2019). Another Irish miracle. I bought it in Dublin last year, while browsing in a bookshop near Trinity College. It is Griffin’s debut novel. It is simply fantastic. As I write this, I am not done yet–I still have about 70 pages to go, out of a total of 266. But what I have read is sufficient to convince me that Ms. Griffin is a genius. The plot is simple on the surface. Quoting from the back cover: “At the bar of a grand hotel in a small Irish town sits 84-year old Maurice Hannigan. He’s alone, as usual–though tonight is anything but…Over the course of this evening, he will raise five toasts to the five people who have meant the most to him. Through these stories–of unspoken joy and regret, a secret tragedy kept hidden, a fierce love that never found its voice–the life of one man will be powerfully and poignantly laid bare.” This is not false advertising. This is the truth. Do yourself a favour and read this book.

And finally a work of non-fiction, but it reads like a novel, and is sadly relevant in these times of virulent racism and violence against people of colour, especially in America but also elsewhere. Patrick Phillips: Blood at the Root (2016) describes, in harrowing detail, the lynching of two black men in Forsyth County, Georgia in 1912, followed by the forced expulsion of all black people from the county, a case of ethnic cleansing that persisted until the late 1980s and arguably still persists. If you want to understand the background for the BLM movement, this is as good a place to start as any.

If you want to see what we have cooked during the confinement, you can look here.


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