Kinga's Books

I'm willing to give anything a go but I could be very cruel to badly written books (regardless of the genre).


I am Kinga from goodreads -

Magdalena Bożko - Kobalt

Kobalt - Magdalena Bożko

I found this little book in a discount bookshop on one my trips to Poland. It cost something equivalent to 30p or 50 cents and as books cost about the same in Poland as they cost in the UK (that’s a story for a different time) it was a crazy bargain.


After reading and enjoying it I did what I always do – went on the internet to see who agreed with me.  And here is the shocking bit and the reason I feel I owe the world this review – it seems that no one in the whole world wide web has read Kobalt. It was published in 2003, when the internet was already doing quite well even in Poland, so I really don’t understand why no one admits to having read it. Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only person in the world that has read this novel. Maybe there really is only this one copy that somehow found its way to me ten years after the publication. I was its first reader and until then the book had been a virgin. Of course, that way madness lies.  You let your mind wander that way and you end up like the characters in this novel. A stock/commodity broker working on the still fairly young Warsaw Stock Exchange who develops a master plan to make a fortune on cobalt and a journalist who develops a crush on the broker. I absolutely loved this unique blend of a thriller and existential tale of gentle madness set in the early days of Polish capitalism. 


I feel like it was a story about how, despite traumatic experiences, new  year resolutions, promises to loved ones, in the end people revert to their personalities and everything else is an aberration that’s eventually corrected by the universe. But maybe that’s completely not what this story was about. I could have misunderstood it and I am obliged to put this disclaimer here knowing that this will be the only review of this book to be found online, so that’s obviously an enormous responsibility.


I would also like to point out that this book came as a surprising aid during a particularly brutal Trivial Pursuit game when I got ‘a chemical element and a shade of blue’ question.  There was nothing trivial about my victory then, let me assure you.


Anyway, if you like the sound of it and you read in Polish, come speak to me I’ll lend you my copy. If you don’t read in Polish (still for some reason), then start learning now, I suggest.



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Par Lagerkvist - The Dwarf

The Dwarf - Alexandra Dick, Pär Lagerkvist

The Dwarf is a strange little book written by a Swedish Nobel Prize winner some time during WWII. It’s a rather allegoric story narrated by a dwarf living on the court in an unnamed Italian city probably in the 15th century, but actually all the hints point us in the same direction as Machiavelli’s Prince who was modelled on Cesare Borgia. In The Dwarf we also find Master Bernardo who is obviously Leonardo da Vinci (and who coincidentally also resided in Cesare Borgia’s court often.)


The plot is rather simple and fable-like, it consists of war, tragic romance and a plague, so really all your renaissance staples. The twist is our little narrator, though. He is so unabashedly evil and full of hate for almost everything and everyone, that I must admit I found it occasionally laughable. The unnamed dwarf finds excitement in conflict and battle. It’s only then that he can achieve a state that could be described as happiness. He takes no joy in food and finds the idea of sex absolutely repulsive. He is the agent provocateur and the catalyst for all the terrible decisions that the Prince (and some other characters) make. He schemes and plots always aiming for the worst possible outcome. 


Of course, you don’t need a PhD in literature to figure out that this is all a metaphor for a little dwarf that lives inside all of us. That little creature that pushes us to do despicable things for the thrill of it (apparently). It’s what's little in us that really rules, the smallest and pettiest. It’s not even the sophisticated kind of Machiavellian evildoing; his outbursts are more like toddler tantrums – "I don’t understand it therefore I hate it and want it gone". Generally, it’s a rather sad summary of human condition but then it was written when it still looked like Hitler might win, so who could blame Lagerkvist for being a little disillusioned with the humanity. 


Personally, I found this metaphor rather heavy-handed and not particularly original or thought-provoking. Someone at my book club mentioned that it was quite representative of Swedish (or Scandinavian in general) fiction not to strive for ambitious symbolism but settle for the very obvious. This, of course, is completely anecdotal so do not argue with me in the comments, but apparently it’s perfectly acceptable and apparently lauded even by critics (hence the Nobel Prize).


Having said all that, I must admit some of the paragraphs were quite amusing and I wish I could quote them. Alas, I read the book in its Polish translation and if I translated it to English now we would probably end up with something spectacularly different from what it was originally in Swedish. Overall, the narrator finds humans confusing and most of the time simply idiotic. His observations could be compared to those of a child trying to understand an adult world by herself or an alien trying to make sense of the life of on Earth. The Dwarf doesn’t understand why humans are convinced there is some greatness to life, he is bemused by how quickly people move between enthusiasm and joy and hopelessness and despair and he is forever baffled by the idea of physical love or any other kind of love for that matter. And what he doesn't understand, he hates. Simple as that.


And now, to wrap it up, let me get all PC on you. Was I really the only person made slightly uncomfortable by this idea that ‘dwarves’ are some sort different non-human species and representing all the evil inside all of us?

Yes, a metaphor of course. But if I were a little person reading this book, I think I would be pretty damn pissed off to be the butt of that metaphor. This was written during the reign of Hitler and let’s not forget what he had in store for people with disabilities.

Filip Springer - Miedzianka

Miedzianka. Historia znikania - Filip Springer

I always have a hard time explaining the phenomenon of Polish reportage to non-Polish people. The word itself, ubiquitous in Polish, is a bit of a rarity in English. While in Poland reportage has its awards, festivals, dedicated shelves in bookshops (or even entire ‘reportage bookshops’), in the UK or US those books are spread between various categories, such travelogues, essays, history or just general non-fiction. In Poland there are publishing houses dedicated mostly to publishing ‘reportage’, and every self-respecting publisher will have a reportage imprint, so most Polish people assume that the term ‘reportage’ is recognised everywhere. It’s not. If you want to know what Polish people mean when they say reportage, think of Kapuściński – the father of Polish reportage (there have been others before him, but he really started the franchise), think of some of the New Yorker pieces (‘reporter at large’) or think of any non-fiction book which uses many techniques normally reserved for fiction writing. The subject of your reportage could be anything: a place, a person, a phenomenon, an industry, a crime – it doesn’t matter, what matters is that it is a reportage, the pinnacle of literary achievement in Poland, where fiction writing is treated as a frivolous and trivial pursuit.

Springer did what every good reporter should do – he spent two years researching the story, found the documents, photographs, newspapers and talked to the people. He then blended it all together and produced quite a beautiful tale of a small town of Miedzianka in south-west Poland, which disappeared almost entirely, and that, ironically, is its claim to fame. Miedzianka literally fell on itself, and now there is only a church left sticking out like a sore thumb from the grass and shrubs. But once upon a time, there was a thriving little town here, with cafes, hotels, a brewery, even a cinema, and mines, of course.

The story of Miedzianka is pretty much a miniature version of Polish history. It has it all: Germans, Jews, Polish, Roma, partitions, wars, repatriation refugees* and communism. This tale starts about 700 years ago in a biblical way – with fratricide. And to this day there is a cross with the word ‘Memento’ on it, commemorating the event. Maybe that was what put the curse on the town? Or maybe it was people’s greediness in trying rip out the treasures from the mountain: silver, copper and, finally, uranium.

Whatever it was, Miedzianka is no more. There are 82 people left there according to the 2008 census (and honestly, God knows where they’re hiding – just look at those photos, taken by Jacek Zych)
Coppferberge, later Kopferberg, later Kupferberg, later Miedzianka (all meaning, more or less, Copper Mountain) burnt down many times: during the Thirty Years’ War it was burnt down by Croatians fighting against Swedish-French alliance in 1637. Six years later the Swedes did it again. There were more fires in 1728 and 1824 but surprisingly the two big world wars passed it by. They made the best beer in the region there, and it was for a short time a popular tourist destination. Now, all of it disappeared.

After WWII, when Poland shifted to the West, Kupferberg became Miedzianka. Here was Poland now! The Germans were unceremoniously kicked out by the Poles, who in turn were kicked out from the Eastern parts of former Poland. The newcomers were poor and did not care to preserve the German heritage. What they found in their new homes they often destroyed, or left it to waste. There was a sense of transiency, the fear of the ‘German’ returning and taking back what was his. It’s when Springer talks about Miedzianka’s postwar history when the book really picks up. The town comes to life with its vibrant cast of characters.

The chapter that followed was the most fascinating one to me – probably because of my fixation on the history of communism in Poland. It was discovered that the Copper Mountain had something more valuable than copper to offer - uranium. A super secret mine was set up. There were no signs of it in official documents, even the cans to store uranium were manufactured on site so as not to give anyone any clue as to what is being dug up there and how much of it exactly. Once dug up, the uranium quietly disappeared in the USSR. The whole operation was overlooked by the Soviets and the Polish government had little say in it and of course didn’t see any profits from it. Many of the people hired in the mine were the so called ‘enemies of the state’ of various kinds and no one told any miners about how dangerous their work was and there were basically no safety measures to prevent radioactive contamination. Sometimes a friendly Russian would warn his favourite miner not to eat his lunch underground but come up instead. Some miners disappeared when they became somehow inconvenient but by then Miedzianka was used to disappearances of all sorts. At some point there was even a Belgian spy working underground. He was discovered but could’ve still escaped if he didn’t foolishly fall in love with one beautiful resident of Miedzianka. He didn’t want to leave without her, was captured and sentenced to death. That should teach you to fall in love with Polish women.

In 1969 all of it was just a memory. All that was left of all the mines of Miedzianka were just holes in the ground that would sometimes swallow up a cherry-tree in your garden, or a cart and two horses, or part of your house if you were particularly unlucky. Therefore the government ordained evacuation and relocation of all its inhabitants to the newly built estate on the outskirt of the local town of Jelenia Góra (formerly Hirschberg). But was that the real reason or did the government just want to literally bury their shameful uranium secret? And who really ruined Miedzianka? Germans said it was the drunk Poles and the Poles said it was the wild Roma gypsies, and so it goes, just like in many other Miedziankas all over Poland.

I enjoyed this book, especially the second part, although Springer’s style gave me a bit of vertigo occasionally. It was too chaotic, zooming in, zooming out, speeding up and slowing down. Nonetheless I’d like to praise the author for his objectivity. I read an interview with him where he reveals his very angry feelings (deservedly so) towards the actions of the new postwar inhabitants of Miedzianka, who not only completely destroyed the German heritage but also desecrated the old German cemetery (playing football with skulls, anyone?). I’m surprised he kept that anger in check in the book.

*- “The term repatriation was often used by Communist governments to describe the large-scale state-sponsored ethnic cleansing actions and expulsion of national groups. Poles born in territories that were annexed by the Soviet Union, (referred to by Poles as the Kresy) although deported to the State of Poland, were settled in the annexed former German territories (referred to in Polish as the Regained Territories). In the process they were told that they had returned to their Motherland.” As per Wikipedia

Christopher Hitchens - Hitch-22

Hitch-22: A Memoir - Christopher Hitchens

I first heard of Hitchens on the day of his death – in my defence I was still quite new to the UK and was just getting familiar with the intellectual life here (insert a self-mocking chuckle here). What I managed to gather from the news that day was that he was UK’s no. 1 atheist, so that immediately put him on my radar and when I bought a Kindle this was the first book I bought for it (it was also a Kindle Daily Deal). It was an updated edition which included a heart-felt introduction Hitchens wrote when he already knew he was dying.

“When I first formed the idea of writing some memoirs, I had the customary reservations about the whole conception being perhaps “too soon.” Nothing dissolves this fusion of false modesty and natural reticence more swiftly than the blunt realization that the project could become, at any moment, ruled out of the question as having been undertaken too “late.”"

Of course, he also emphasises that coming to terms with his mortality did not make him find Jesus, contrary to what many religious people predicted would happen. Personally, I find it quite offensive when people imply I will ‘start believing’ in God once I find myself in a very difficult situation or discover I have cancer. It also speaks rather poorly of the foundation of their faith.



So, Hitchens, eh? What a guy. 

Before we talk in more detail about him, let’s just get one thing out the way – Hitchens was a sexist. Maybe not a militant misogynist, but most certainly sexist. The world he presents in his memoir is a world almost completely devoid of women. We will only find an idealised portrait of his glamourous mother and some paragraphs praising Susan Sontag. Other than that, it’s a man’s, man’s world. There are influencers, thinkers, friends, gay-lovers, enemies – all described in painstaking detail, sometimes mind-numbing details (like here-is-the-first-time-I-saw-Martin-Amis and here-are-the-first-words-Martin-Amis-said-to-me) and they all have dicks. If there is a passing mention of a woman editor or someone it is always accompanied by a qualifying adjective referring to her looks. His first wife is nowhere to be found in this book, his second wife lurks in the margins. One might hope it was done to protect her privacy but during one interview Hitchens, when asked who Carol was, couldn’t really say anything other than that she was his wife (and seemingly that was her only life accomplishment).


His bromance with Martin Amis gets a lot of air time here. Hitchens even goes on describing various word-games he played with him and his other pals – they basically consisted of replacing various words in book or movie titles with expletives, something I’m sure his 11 year old readers will find very amusing. These bits are very self indulgent, but on the other hand, if there is one work where a certain self-indulgence is permitted it must be one’s memoir. The same goes for all the inane name dropping (or ‘carpet bombing’ as one reviewer described it). Hitchens had seemingly endless caches of ‘dear friends’ and all were absolutely best at what they did. For example, he insists that his best mate Amis is a linguistic genius but the examples to back are of this sort: Amis called some men at a black tie event ‘tuxed fucks’. I spent a good part of a day wondering if there was some super clever pun there I missed but sometimes Hitchens’ sense of humour is just very juvenile.


I have asked many people what they thought of Hitchens and discovered that he was both disliked and respected by both the left and right. A worthy achievement, for here is a man who didn’t just adopt a certain political stance and accepted it with benefit of inventory. He cherry-picked according to his own moral code and thus made enemies everywhere he went. You might disagree with some of his views (it would be unlikely for you to disagree with ALL of his views) but such a political courage must be admired (even if his dogmatism, absolute lack of any self-doubt and occasional pettiness might infuriate).

In his own words:


“I am often described to my irritation as a “contrarian” and even had the title inflicted on me by the publisher of one of my early books. (At least on that occasion I lived up to the title by ridiculing the word in my introduction to the book’s first chapter.) It is actually a pity that our culture doesn’t have a good vernacular word for an oppositionist or even for someone who tries to do his own thinking: the word “dissident” can’t be self-conferred because it is really a title of honor that has to be won or earned, while terms like “gadfly” or “maverick” are somehow trivial and condescending as well as over-full of self-regard. And I’ve lost count of the number of memoirs by old comrades or ex-comrades that have titles like “Against the Stream,” “Against the Current,” “Minority of One,” “Breaking Ranks” and so forth — all of them lending point to Harold Rosenberg’s withering remark about “the herd of independent minds.” Even when I was quite young I disliked being called a “rebel”: it seemed to make the patronizing suggestion that “questioning authority” was part of a “phase” through which I would naturally go. On the contrary, I was a relatively well-behaved and well-mannered boy, and chose my battles with some deliberation rather than just thinking with my hormones.”


All that aside, Hitchens is an intellectual of the kind that we don’t often see in public life anymore (lamentably). Despite his sexism and some of his views, I will happily admit that I am insanely jealous of his erudition. When I grow up, I will be an intellectual too. His prose is marvellous – try as I might, I couldn’t find any fault in it. In fact, it was just so full of quotables that despite my previously mentioned reservations, I enjoyed myself tremendously reading this book. Here are some of his clever soundbites. 


On religion:


“But since then I have had every chance to become sickened by the very idea of “martyrdom.” The same monotheistic religions that condemn suicide by individuals have a tendency to exalt and overpraise self-destruction by those who kill themselves (and others) with a hymn or a prayer on their lips.”


“When the late Pope John Paul II decided to place the woman so strangely known as “Mother” Teresa on the fast track for beatification, and thus to qualify her for eventual sainthood, the Vatican felt obliged to solicit my testimony and I thus spent several hours in a closed hearing room with a priest, a deacon, and a monsignor, no doubt making their day as I told off, as from a rosary, the frightful faults and crimes of the departed fanatic. In the course of this, I discovered that the pope during his tenure had surreptitiously abolished the famous office of “Devil’s Advocate,” in order to fast-track still more of his many candidates for canonization. I can thus claim to be the only living person to have represented the Devil pro bono.”


On the very British phenomenon of the boarding school experience:


“The great J.G. Ballard, who had had the reverse of the Ian Watt experience in that he’d been interned by the Japanese (Empire of the Sun) as a small boy, before being sent to the same house in the same boarding school as me, once did jokingly say that the food at The Leys was inferior to the Lunghua camp in Shanghai, but was later to admit that he’d been agreeably surprised by how comparatively little torture there had been.”


On nationalism:


“I have often noticed that nationalism is at its strongest at the periphery. Hitler was Austrian, Bonaparte Corsican. In postwar Greece and Turkey the two most prominent ultra-right nationalists had both been born in Cyprus. The most extreme Irish Republicans are in Belfast and Derry (and Boston and New York). Sun Yat Sen, father of Chinese nationalism, was from Hong Kong. The Serbian extremists Miloševi and Karadži were from Montenegro and their most incendiary Croat counterparts in the Ustashe tended to hail from the frontier lands of Western Herzegovina. Falklands nationalism was too mild to stand comparison with any of these toxic movements, but the loyalist atmosphere on the lawn that night, with a Navy band playing and ancient settler families inquiring after one another’s descendants, was of an unquestioning and profound and rooted kind that one almost never encountered in the rest of a declining and anxious Britain. It was a bit much even for Commander Hitchens, who privately thought the islands slightly absurd and probably undefendable. When the time came when his old Royal Navy was sinking and shattering the Argentine fleet, the cadet school of which was a training camp for torture and rape, I was one of the very few socialists to support Mrs. Thatcher and he was one of the very few Tories to doubt the wisdom of the enterprise. So it goes.”


On squirrels:


“Until some time after the war, the squirrels of England had been red. I can still vaguely remember these sweet Beatrix Potter–type creatures, smaller and prettier and more agile and lacking the rat-like features that disclose themselves when you get close to a gray squirrel. These latter riffraff, once imported from America by some kind of regrettable accident, had escaped from captivity and gradually massacred and driven out the more demure and refined English breed. It was said that the gray squirrels didn’t fight fair and would with a raking motion of their back paws castrate the luckless red ones. Whatever the truth of that, the sighting of a native English squirrel was soon to be a rarity, confined to the north of Scotland and the Isle of Wight, and this seemed to be emblematic, for the anxious lower middle class, of a more general massification and degentrification and, well, Americanization of everything.”


(I really hope those squirrels never make it to Poland to replace the lovely red ones.)


The only time I really gritted my teeth was when Hitchens talked about Poland. Not because there was anything wrong with what he was saying but because he seemed to follow this outrageous trend that every English book seems to adhere to and that is of always getting the spelling of Polish names of people or places wrong. Always. Even the simple ones*:


“The first is that of Jacek Kurón, who with his colleague Karel Modzelewski had newly written a “socialist manifesto” from within the forbidding walls of a prison in Poland.”


Hitchens claims Kuroń was one his greatest heroes, and yet he misspells his name each and every time. And I’m quite positive it is Karol, not Karel. It actually really drives me crazy because it happens all the time and I don’t understand why. I have seen ‘Kapuściński’ spelled in so many different fantastic ways I started to think that if they do occasionally get it right it’s just down to statistical chance. I used to take photos of all of those misspellings in various books until I had to stop because it was too depressing. It just strikes me as seriously disrespectful because it takes about 5 seconds to check the correct spelling on Wikipedia. But oh, who cares, let’s just throw together some random consonants in a random order and it’s bound to be Polish.


“The reactionary and anti-Jewish crackdown of 1968, presaged by the arrest and imprisonment of Kurón and Modzelewski, had put all this into reverse. Kolakowski had, like so many of the intellectual leadership of Eastern Europe, been partly deported and partly self-exiled.”


Oh, congratulations. You got ‘Kolakowski’ right, although technically it should be ‘Kołakowski’ but I’ll let you off with this one.

I think my favourite misspelling would be what Hitchens called the Polish equivalent of The Guardian:

“Gazeta Wyborzka,”

(I understand that this will be somewhat amusing only to people who speak Polish).

I know this review does not really have a flow to it but if I were to try to connect all these scattered thoughts into some cohesive narrative, this already long review would turn gargantuan.

What’s my final verdict on Hitchens? I guess I will take a page from his own book - he talks a lot about the danger of meeting your heroes and of finally realising you can criticise them and continue to admire them.

I will leave you with this moving quote on ‘starting over’:


“I once spoke to someone who had survived the genocide in Rwanda, and she said to me that there was now nobody left on the face of the earth, either friend or relative, who knew who she was. No one who remembered her girlhood and her early mischief and family lore; no sibling or boon companion who could tease her about that first romance; no lover or pal with whom to reminisce. All her birthdays, exam results, illnesses, friendships, kinships — gone. She went on living, but with a tabula rasa as her diary and calendar and notebook. I think of this every time I hear of the callow ambition to “make a new start” or to be “born again”: Do those who talk this way truly wish for the slate to be wiped? Genocide means not just mass killing, to the level of extermination, but mass obliteration to the verge of extinction. You wish to have one more reflection on what it is to have been made the object of a “clean” sweep?”


If you would like to read an actually good review of Hitch-22, read this brilliant piece from the New York Review of Books:


Ian Buruma’s review might be a little more critical than mine and features an especially apt dissecting of Hitchens’ Iraq stance, where (bizarrely) Hitchen’s arguments and logic are so weak it could be pulled apart by a reasonably intelligent high school student.

Or if you’d like to see Hitchens ripped to shreds so completely that you almost sense something personal, delight in this New Statesman’s review:


Actually, reading all the reviews of this book, from the left, centre and right leaning media and from both sides of the Atlantic (and even Australia) was almost as fascinating an experience as reading the book itself, as invariably every reviewer started off by declaring and justifying his position on the Hitchens’ love or hate scale.

*- I realise that these errors might have appeared only in the ebook version and are not Hitchens' fault.

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Kristin Cashore - Fire

Fire - Kristin Cashore

‘Fire’ is the second book in the ‘Graceling’ series, although it takes place some forty years earlier and in a different world from the first installment This a good thing actually, because otherwise we would be dealing with the unavoidable Book Two Love Triangle.


While I didn’t love ‘Fire’ as much as I loved ‘Graceling’, it’s still a fantastic book which again manages to sneak in a powerful feminist message. I must believe Cashore does it on purpose – she pushes her feminist agenda and good on her!


In ‘Graceling’ she nicely juxtaposed the supposedly ‘female’ and ‘male’ characteristics and swapped the genders normally associated with them. In ‘Fire’, although it might not be obvious to a careless reader, she talks about sexual violence and victim-shaming, because this is the premise – Fire, the main character, is beautiful beyond reason (yes, I know, it sounds terrible, but bear with me, Cashore makes it good) and it literally makes men go mad. She is the last human monster – a creature who can control minds and possesses an irresistible allure. She refuses to use her mind-controlling powers because she doesn’t want to end up like father but that leaves her vulnerable to attacks by sex-crazed men. She seems to be hated and adored in equal measures and if that strikes you as strange I suggest you visit any online forum where men discuss beautiful celebrities. Each time women talk about prevalence of sexual harassment, some men get offended (remember #notallmen on Twitter?) and of course, it’s not all men (why do I even need to get defensive here?) and the narrator reiterates this point as well.


 “For every peaceful man, there was a man who wanted to hurt her, even kill her, because she was a gorgeous thing he could not have.”


The important message here is that rape is not about sexual desire but the control, power and submission. And even when Fire covers her hair so as not to ‘entice’ them, it’s made clear that she is never to blame but those who lack control and whose minds are weak.



Of course, this is not a story about a girl avoiding rape. It’s your good old fantasy romp with a refreshingly understated love story. It’s also worth mentioning that the controlling, obsessive guy is NOT the one she is supposed to end up with (even if his feelings are genuine). Fire is a strong character in her own way, she is not as tough and rough as Katsa, doesn’t mind wearing dresses and does yearn for children (but makes a conscious decision of not having any of her own) but she has a backbone.

Susan Sontag - Death Kit

Death Kit - Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag was more of a figure than a person. Intimidatingly intelligent and self-assured, she was an embodiment of an intellectual. Suffice to say there is only one woman Hitchens talks in any length about in his memoir (other than his mother) and it’s Susan Sontag. Even Hitchens, the notorious woman-ignorer (if not necessarily a woman-hater) couldn’t ignore Sontag.

It felt good to be reading Susan Sontag. Also I sure looked good reading Sontag, walking around with black and white Penguin Modern Classic that just spelled class. I milked it, taking the Circle line and going in circles for hours basking in my intellectual superiority, looking down on my fellow commuters reading Fifty Shades of Horsecrap or some hyped thriller of the day. (I didn’t really do that. That would be crazy. I’m not crazy.) I even took a photo, so that I could post it on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and let everyone know just how smart I was. (But for some reason I decided against brushing my hair that day.)


Susan and I


Of course, if I were taking this intellectual adventure seriously, I’d be reading Sontag’s essays, not novels, and they obviously are on my four or five thousand items strong to-read list but meanwhile let’s have a quick look at this (post)modernist trip.


Sontag was not a great novelist, mostly because she was a great critic and it seems you can’t be both. (I really hope that means I will be a great novelist). But that is not to say that this ‘Death Kit’ is completely without its merit – even though the book seems too calculated and self-aware, there passages of unexceptional brilliance.


Diddy, the protagonist, barely deserves to be called the hero of the novel because he is just so unmemorable and pedestrian. If I were to compare him to a famous figure, it would be Nick Clegg. I don’t know about you but I have to Google him every time to remind myself what his face looks like (I just did it again). 



So we have Diddy: "Diddy, not really alive, had a life. Hardly the same. Some people are their lives. Others, like Diddy, merely inhabit their lives." Diddy, who tried to take his non-life but failed and after having been released from hospital embarks on a non-adventure, where things might or might have not happened. He might have killed a railway worker and might have started an affair with a blind girl. But of course the air of ‘is this all a dream’ pervades the novel and causes a mild frustration to the reader (or at least it did to this particular reader). It’s all very Kafkaesque, and now that I’ve actually read Kafka, I can say it with some authority.


As many critics writing novels Sontag uses this rather poor excuse of a plot to continue writing essays about art and philosophy and what’s real and what’s not real, and how real is real anyway, but really these ruminations should have never happened in the mind of her ‘Diddy the bland’ protagonist. He’s just really not that kind of guy. As a result we have embryos here – an embryo of a novel and an embryo of a collection of essays. And they could potentially grow into something fabulous but they just never have the chance. So sad.


In her Paris Review interview Sontag says:


 “Oddly enough, the plot is what seems to come all of a piece—like a gift. It’s very mysterious. Something I hear or see or read conjures up a whole story in all its concreteness—scenes, characters, landscapes, catastrophes. With Death Kit, it was hearing someone utter the childhood nickname of a mutual friend named Richard—just the hearing of the name Diddy.”


I know we shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth but, Susan, some gifts are just not that great.

However, having read this entire interview with Sontag (, I am now convinced she is my spirit animal. (Although you can see how she is better at talking about her novels than writing them.)


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Kristin Cashore - Graceling

Graceling - Kristin Cashore, Emma Powell

Every now and then I venture into the so called ‘young adult’ literature realm and each time I’m surprised by how we completely redefined what constitutes the acceptable reading material for this age group. And I don’t mean it in a bad way. Not at all. In fact, I’m excited over the sheer volume of stuff for teenagers that gets published these days. It might be because I grew up in the post-communist Poland but I’m sure the choice was nowhere near as broad. Additionally, the books the librarians put in my hands seemed so tame in comparison to the current offerings. They even seemed tame compared to my own life, which is why eventually my own life won over and I stopped reading for a few years (until I was ready for proper adult books).

However, the thing that excites me most of all about the current YA books is the proliferation of kick-ass heroines. When I was a girl, there were few heroines I wanted to be. There was Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter, maybe, but generally it was boys who had adventures. Girls did their homework and were afraid of mice.
This is why I loved Katsa, the heroine of Graceling. She definitely wasn’t afraid of mice, or anything else for that matter, being the most fearsome killer in the kingdom with some ultra ninja skills. In the beginning of the book she meets Prince Po, who is quite of an awesome fighter as well but not match for Katsa’s superpowers. They get to train together but of course she still has to pull her punches, so as not to kill him. Well, if this isn’t love…

The adventure they will embark on together will teach Katsa a lot new things, like accepting her own weaknesses, learning to trust someone else with her safety and generally handing over control when needed. It’s Prince Po who knows about people’s emotions, fears and motivations, while Katsa is just a killing machine and occasionally a bit of a dickhead actually, but then most teenagers are. I really like what you did there, Kristin. And I really like how it’s still sexy and very clever, even if the quality of prose is really nothing to write home about, but that’s ok, for that I have Mario Vargas Llosa.

I noticed some reviewers were actually genuinely offended by the fact that Katsa liked her hair short, didn’t like wearing dresses, didn’t want to get married or have children. They were even spouting nonsense that this book is some sort of ‘militant feminism’ or what not. As if Katsa being the way she is, means that all women should be exactly like that. I literally read sentences such as ‘I was offended by the fact Katsa didn’t want to get married.’ I can only hope they were written by time-travellers from the 18th century.

Kseniya Melnik - Snow In May

Snow in May - Kseniya Melnik

‘Snow In May’ was a special book for me. Those stories of a far east Siberian town resonated with me on many levels. There is a common ground, some shared experience of all those who lived in the Soviet Bloc during communism. It’s quite amazing how the themes and tropes would repeat itself thousands of miles away from Warsaw, somewhere at the end of the world. And yet, the world behind the Iron Curtain was a unique experience, difficult to explain to outsiders but wordlessly recognizable to anyone who’s lived there.

It’s a world where the constant fight for basic survival still left room for producing world class pianists, chess players or ballet dancers. A person might worry about the shortages of food and their three hour daily piano practice all on the same day. It’s a world which formed individuals particularly unfit to survive in rampant capitalism. Melnik paints this world exceptionally and adds a special Siberian flavour to it.

The stories often mingle, letting some of the characters return and then they walk away from each other. Like any good story collection, it is striving for the human and universal and it succeeds. Ex-Soviet Bloc inhabitants might recognize themselves in details but anyone can relate to the bigger themes of the usual stuff of human experience, loss, love, pain and what have you.

I think Melnik is particularly successful with stories featuring children and teenagers. It might be that I just relate to them better because I was once was a child behind the Iron Curtain, or maybe Melnik writes them better because she was one herself before she left Siberia to move to Alaska. I can see she must have got tired of snow at last as she now lives in Texas. I must say I’m terribly jealous of her talent and success but will try not to hold that against her.

These scattered, cryptic comments probably don’t the book justice, so just take my word for it – it’s simply beautiful and I hope it will be noticed and appreciated. Melnik is definitely an author to watch.

Marguerite Kaye - Unwed and Unrepentant

Unwed and Unrepentant (The Armstrong Sisters) - Marguerite Kaye

Unwed and Unrepentant – just ponder a little at the brilliance of this title.
Alliteration is common among historical romance titles, see: ‘Tryst with Trouble’, ‘Dancing with the Duke’, ‘To Defy a Duke’, ‘How to Master Your Marquis’ etc. etc. These playful titles go to show that the authors don’t take themselves and their novels too seriously, so don’t you even start with ‘anachronistic this’ and ‘anachronistic that’. Let’s accept that these books take place in an alternative universe called Victorian Lalaland, where Lady Cordelia Armstrong can go to Scotland and have an amazing one night stand there. This obviously caused me to have unrealistic expectations and when I had to make a few trips to Scotland myself recently I was very disappointed to only get a dinner and a handshake. I guess those were different times.

Have you ever had a one night stand that was so good and magical it freaked you out? No, me neither. How is that fair that those romance novels heroines get not only a happily ever after but they also get way better one night stands than us, the regular 21st century girls?

This is the last one in the Armstrong sister series. One last sister to be married off by their mean, calculating father. All his previous plans failed or backfired; his daughters running off with foreigners or worse, so I guess he is a bit tired (also knows his last daughter is damaged goods so his prospects here are limited) and decides to shift this last one on the first man who comes along, and it just happens that the first man to come along is his business associate Iain Hunter.

So now I want you to picture this: it’s the first time you see your father in ages and he announces he’s found you a husband, here, meet Iain. And to your horror you realise it’s the very same guy you had a one night stand a year ago. But Cordelia and Iain decide to play along and take all the benefits they can from this situation, so enter: Pretend Engagement! How I love pretend engagements! (note to the UK Visas and Immigration Office: NOT in real life, I would never do that, I promise.) Of course, you know what happens with pretend engagements in romance novels and so it happens here as well, but not before the hero and heroine go across the world. Iain and Cordelia’s relationship is all fire. Sometimes I thought maybe too much fire, just because I’m cynical like that. Additionally with that much fire their reluctance was baffling. Nonetheless the writing is superb as Kaye’s writing usually is.

And the irony - for once the evil father got his way! He successfully married off one of his daughters. He’s got 20% success rate. And in the end it still seems the joke is on him.

Michel Faber - Under the Skin

Under the Skin - Michel Faber

Sometime in March Craig posted on our book group Facebook page the following message:

“Hello Group,
At the risk of sounding alarmist, I want to alarm you all.
I am currently rereading Under The Skin for about the sixth time, and I noticed today from tube adverts that the film adaptation is out March 14 or 15. Now, I utterly hate it when things are oversold to me, but if you ever want to experience this novel - which is among the most extraordinary I've ever read - in the manner in which it was intended, I beseech you to read it within the next 4-6 days, before the hype machine amps up and partially spoils it for you.
I may have spent a portion of this afternoon drinking 15% beer, but I assure you, you should not allow Hollywood to ruin this for you.
Well, I tried.

See, I’m not normally the one to go out and buy a book right after someone’s recommend it to me. Usually I just add it to my never-ending to-read list where it sits waiting to be chosen like a puppy in a dog shelter. But then, Craig is not normally given to being dramatic, so I thought maybe I should heed his warning and to my amazement I dropped everything I was reading, went and downloaded ‘Under the Skin’ and started reading it right away.

Craig was right, ladies and gentlemen. Now all I want to do is tell you nothing about this book but somehow convince you to read it. Maybe I will say that it’s about a woman who drives around Scottish frontiers and picks up hunky hitch-hikers. The opening might be erotically charged but the irony of it will hit you later. It’s a book that asks the readers for their definition of what it means to be human and then forces them to take sides.
Nothing new here but presented in a such mind-bending way that we just have to admit that our claim to evolutionary superiority is very weak. Our arguments are arbitrary and self-serving. We’re all animals.

While including as few graphic details as possible, it manages to be one of the most disturbing things I have ever read. At some point I really wanted not to want to read it anymore. I think the greatest twisted strength of this book was that it made me form alliances with the characters before I knew the whole story, or at least all the sides to the story. Once all is revealed, you can’t get out of it without exposing yourself as a hypocrite. And yet, in all of this, there is somehow room left for gentle emotions, melancholy, evocative descriptions of the landscape and a hint of a love story.

The descriptions in this book are superb. You can see clearly all the characters, sense something off about some of them but at first can’t quite lay your finger on what it is. You see Isserley, the main character, through the eyes of different hitchhikers and it is quite amazing how different their impressions are but in the end they form in your head a cohesive picture of the woman. I don’t know what Scarlett Johansson is doing starring in the adaption of this book. This makes no sense whatsoever. Read the book.

It might or might not be a coincidence that some time after finishing this novel I had this genius idea: hey, maybe I should try to be vegan for a while. Of course, the message of this book not subtle but somehow I had no problem with it at all. Michel Faber is currently the best thing you can find in Scotland.

R. Lee Smith - The Last Hour of Gann

The Last Hour of Gann - R. Lee Smith

I have read this because Jill made me. Every now and then we force each other to read books we probably would not have read otherwise. I’m not going to lie - many times during reading this book I was asking myself: what is this? Why am I reading it?

And yet, it’s clear to me there is a five star book hidden in this 1000 page long behemoth of a novel. R Lee Smith is a fantastic storyteller but she could use a good editor to just trim her production. There were so many repetitive scenes, and don’t get me wrong, they were all fairly well-written but I got the point the first time round. There is no need to beat me with it in the head.
On the other hand I can’t see any mainstream publisher taking this weird number on because their marketing department would go mad trying to figure out which of the neat publishing boxes to stick into. Is it sci-fi? Epic fantasy? Post apocalyptic survival? Paranormal romance?

There is no point in summarizing a 1000 page long book in a review but the basic premise is this: It’s sometime in the future and of course the world has gone to shit. Amber and her annoying sister find themselves in dire straits and decide to sign up to colonise some distant planet. Things go wrong and they crash land somewhere further they ever meant to go with only a handful of survivors.
Lots of things happen and Amber meets Meoraq, an alien looking like a cross between a lizard and a man. Surely they will eventually fall in love but the romance develops slowly, understandingly, as both of them at first consider any relationship between as a form of bestiality. So they have to get over that first. And the reader has to get over things like snouts instead of faces and retractable penises. Retractable penises! Sexy times.

Except for Amber, every other surviving human is an idiot and an asshole, especially Scott, the self-proclaimed leader who hates Amber’s guts. This is where the book gets a bit confusing, because while I can understand why Amber wants to stick with those human assholes despite everything (they are on an alien planet, they are the only humans she will ever see again, I get it, I’ve spent enough time in some God-forgotten places to know how quickly your standards for what is acceptable human company drop) but why do all these morons follow Scott is beyond me. In normal circumstances populist idiots like Scott get voted into governments because they can wax poetic about all the fantastic things they are going to give the people because those people have no idea how the economy or government work so it’s easier for them to buy that sort of crap. But on that alien planet all Scott’s theories are put to test immediately and he fails repeatedly. It’s Amber who brings them food and guarantees their survival. Even if they don’t like her, their self-preservation instinct should’ve kicked in and told them who to stick with. I understand that you had to be either very stupid or very desperate or both to join that foolhardy mission in the first place but it’s still amazing how poor Amber found herself on an alien planet with 50 of the stupidest humans the Earth had to offer.

I hope it doesn’t sound like I didn’t enjoy this book because I enjoyed it a lot. It’s not an escapist read – which is what I normally want from my romance novels. I would never want Amber’s reality over my own reality, even if hers comes with this larger-than-life love. No hung lizardman is worth going through such a fucking ordeal that includes murder, rapes and near starvation. I’d do anything for love, but I won’t do that.
One of my favourite aspects of the book was the very clever meditation on religion and society. Amber is a sarcastic atheist while Meoraq is serious and fiercely religious. Props to the author for making their romance feel authentic. Bizarrely, this book reinforced my atheism while according to another reviewer it strengthened her belief in God. It really was very balanced.

Narration was also very good. I particularly remember that one bit when suddenly things became weird and distorted and after a while you realise Amber got hit in the head.

And then there is the world building, of course. It was very clever and so internally coherent that it would be a shame to classify it as a simple romance novel.

Inga Iwasiów - Blogotony

Blogotony - Inga Iwasiów

Today my sister and I sat down to talk about a book by a Polish writer, literary critic, university professor and a feminist. Below you will find the transcript shabbily translated from Polish by me.


Kinga: Some time ago I asked you: Basia, do we like that Inga Iwasiów or not? And you told me that we didn’t have an official position on that yet and then you went and bought me ‘Blogotony’ which we read together. What are your impressions?


Basia: ‘Blogotony’ consists mostly of Inga Iwasiów’s blog published in a book form. It’s hard to describe my feelings about it in one word, because, as usual with different collections, I was taken in by some chapters and irritated by others. However, if you asked me now if we like that Inga Iwasiów , I would tell you that we do.

Before we proceed to talk about the book in detail and the reasons why I decided for both of us that we like Ms Iwasiów, I wanted to ask you if you think publishing an Internet blog in a book form makes sense?


Kinga: I suppose you can say, it doesn't make sense, because it’s all already been published on the internet so what’s the point? However, I dare to say that a book is a slightly more mainstream product and, in a way, it elevates the blog. Anyone can write a blog, but a book published by an established publisher is only achieved by some. A blog in book form is like a seal of approval and, of course, it’s another (tiny) revenue stream for our forever broke Polish men and women of letters. On the other hand, there is a problem with such a book because a blog, by its nature, describes everything as it happens, and without its temporal context it might appear undecipherable and in need of footnotes.


Basia: Indeed. I agree with you about publishing things earlier available on the internet. They say nothing is ever lost on the internet but why tempt fate?

Some time ago W.A.B. published Jacek Dehnel’s essays, which can be easily found online, but I’m happy they've been published in a book form. The problem with ‘Blogotony’ is that they are not essays but your typical blog posts, often commenting on current events, and some of them long past their due date, like the one talking about the rape joke about a Ukrainian cleaner spoken on air by Figurski and Wojewódzki. The issue which Iwasiów writes about will sadly be valid still for a long time, but here it appears as a comment on a micro-event which won’t be remembered a few years from now, and I assume while reading a book you don’t want to have to go on the internet all the time to understand what’s going on. That’s why I think the book would’ve been a lot better if the author implemented some changes in the text before publishing it.

But since we are talking about that post about Wojewódzki and Figurski, I’d be interested to know what you think about it. Do you agree with the author that there was nothing funny about it or do you think that maybe there is some truth to the stereotype that ‘feminists don’t have a sense of humour, especially if they are the butt of a joke’?


Kinga: Feminists have an amazing sense of humour, a case in point being that they don’t find Wojewódzki and Figurski’s jokes funny. The issue here is the kind of humour. I expect more originality and finesse from my comedians than just spitting out crass, done-to-death, sexist lines. Maybe one day, when sexism in Poland stops being such a pressing issue we will be able to make jokes about it. Right now those are not funny because they are just too close to the sad reality. For the same reason I don’t find funny jokes about Slavic girls, who are Poland’s main ‘natural resource’ and ‘most precious export product’ (vide: Polish Eurovision entry this year), because human trafficking of women from Eastern Europe is a real issue and I’d rather we didn't reinforce the stereotypes that Slavic women are a commodity.

Anyway, feminism in Poland is still strange. I have lived abroad long enough to forget that in Poland educated men and women are still using the word ‘feminist’ as an insult so they distance themselves from it just in case. Here, I would say the majority of my friends of both sexes would call themselves feminists. Before our conversation I read a few reviews of ‘Blogotony’ on the internet and almost every one of them mentioned in the beginning that Iwasiów is a writer, university professor, literary critic, but also…, and here a pregnant pause, a feminist. As if Iwasiów were a hermaphrodite unicorn. And obviously in the next paragraph the reviewers would reassure their worried readers that they were not feminists themselves, they disagreed with feminist views but generally they praised the book. In none of those (rather uninspired) reviews did I find a single mention of any of those revolutionary views that the reviewers disagreed with.


Basia: Maybe those from the post where Iwasiów explains why she thinks reading romance novels can be harmful, even modern ones, or maybe especially those, because while we know exactly what to expect from Monika Szwaja or Małgorzata Kalicińska, some younger authors fool us with their liberated, independent heroines, while really presenting a distorted image of male-female relationships.

to cut it short, the fact that women are cunning and men are childish. […] Because men are never good, and being a housewife is terrible, it is necessary to use some mythical female potions and con men. There is no room for understanding, openness, dialogue, community. In this narrative men and women really do come from different planets, they are enemies, but they have to (I feel so sorry for them!) live together. […] Ladies, luckily, have their little ways. They never forget to put make up on, the bra strap […] Brrr! Just thinking about such a life, where you can’t tell your life partner the truth […], you always have to act, always look pretty […] fills me with dread. […] Men and women fit together only anatomically, and manipulation is the only way for both sexes to co-exist.”

Maybe those women who declare they are not feminists because it’s repulsive to them prefer to live in a world where there is a never-ending war between sexes because we come from different planets.


Kinga: I really find it hard to believe that any emotionally mature person would want to play such games. That constant strategising to fool the other person, bend them to your will. Many men (as well as women) like to accuse feminists of starting some war with men, which is total nonsense. It’s the feminists who want to be equal partners to their men, they want to play on the same team. I feel that people with limited and superficial interests are more prone to such dysfunctional antagonistic attitudes. If he only cares about football and beer, and she only likes chocolate ice-cream and shoes, then it’s easier for them to get involved in such a guerrilla war, because they have no common ground they could meet on. Additionally, all this insisting on what men and women should be interested in has a negative impact on their ability to communicate with each other, because it reinforces that idiotic notion that we are so different from each other that we need manuals and articles in magazines to learn how to deal with one another. This is what feminists are trying to fight against and it should be in everyone’s interest that they win.


Basia: So this is what we agree with Iwasiów on. And what didn’t you like?


Kinga: I disagree with Iwasiów in her vendetta against pop culture. Of course, there are many aspects to it I don’t like, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Iwasiów says “I believe, however, that feminism today has more to lose than to win from its flirting with popculture”.  I don’t think that’s true. But then Iwasiów and I have a very different vantage point – she treats feminism as an academic discipline and my approach is more pragmatic – I actually want to change the world (yeah, still haven’t outgrown that). And to change the world you need to appeal to it and speak its language. Another thing is that I find it really hard to divide all cultural production into two camps: high culture and pop culture. It’s all fluid and more of a spectrum than a dichotomy.  That is not to say I am ok with the degradation of high culture and I agree with Iwasiów that the intellectual effort required to commune with is an important value but I would focus on promoting the pleasure that effort brings. Just like physical effort, intellectual effort can bring pure, almost hedonistic pleasure.


Basia: I agree with you to an extent but I also understand that Iwasiów’s view is coloured by the frustration of someone whose students insist on discussing ‘Dom nad rozlewiskiem’* in class and I feel we are also giving up too easily. I have seen different campaigns in defense of bad romance novels, because it’s supposedly better if Polish people read that than nothing at all. I’m really not sure it’s like that – that you start from ‘Dom nad rozlewiskiem’ and then evolve towards Faludi’s ‘Backlash’ .

What I didn’t like, though, was that occasionally the author, who insisted people stop using stereotypes, was using them herself, like when she was judging elegant women on business trips to be the ones who would never read her books. And it’s not like that. I used to be one of those women from corporations, not because that was what my heart told me to do, but because that was what life made me do. So I feel like on this occasion Iwasiów lacks some sensitivity and humility.


Kinga: Yes, I was struck by that as well, because, it’s worth mentioning, I’m conducting this conversation with you from a company laptop from a company flat, where I live temporarily while shuttling between London and Scotland, carrying Iwasiów’s ‘Na krótko’ in my suitcase. Of course, I dream of a life like the kind Iwasiów leads, but things just didn’t work out that way. I feel that Iwasiów inhabits a world drastically different from ours. She even admits that herself, and I suppose she finds it hard to believe that that her works could make it over to the other side. But she shouldn’t worry because they find us here just fine.

Just as a quick after note about some other things I liked about the book – it’s of course our idee fixe – women in literature. Iwasiów doesn’t say anything new about the problem, but why should she if the old problem is still unsolved. Men’s stories are universal, and women’s stories are women’s. I really liked this quote:

“The blood of childbirth, the blood of menstruation can only cause condescending smirks. It’s hard to call this a blood taboo because in our world of birth and tampon ads, no one is still seriously perpetuating the myths about the impure nature of women. Female blood is simply trivial, unworthy of poems or novels. Unlike male hangovers.’

Of course we only touched on a slice of subjects discussed by Iwasiów, because it would be impossible to go through them all. We would need to be talking for two days and we have to go to work tomorrow, so let me just end this with a reiteration that our official position on Iwasiów is that we like her.


 * Dom nad rozlewiskiem - (tr. House by a Marsh) is a sappy uber-successful Polish novel about a woman who escapes the city and moves to a village in a lake region, where I assume she finds love and happiness. I have only managed to read two pages because the writing was absolutely dreadful. It has also been turned into a very bad TV Series.

Philip Roth - Nemesis

Nemesis - Philip Roth

Roth’s last book and my first Roth’s book. As any of my school teachers could tell you – I have absolutely zero respect for authority, so I approached Philip Roth with exactly as much reverence as I would have for any first time writer in their 20s. Additionally, I find Roth’s rabid fanboys the most annoying demographic ever, so if you are one of them you might want to do yourself a favour and stop reading right here.
Alright, let’s see what this male Joyce Carol Oates has to offer. As a side note – isn’t it interesting how Oates is literally being accused of being over-prolific but no one says that about Roth?

This is a review of Nemesis but I’m also now reading American Pastoral and it’s hard not to comment on some obvious similarities. I hope the remaining 30 books of his are about something else. So what do we have here? An all-round American golden boy (even if Jewish) – athletic, honourable, burdened with a great sense of duty, decent and deprived of any sense of humour, whose life comes apart due to some perverse tragedy that God Roth sends his way. Roth, himself generously endowed in the irony department, deprives his golden boys of any sense of it, which in turn makes them so tragic. They cannot comprehend their own failure and the injustice of fate.

The above is true for both American Pastoral (or at least the first 120 pages of it I’ve read so far) and Nemesis. But let’s now focus on the latter one. Roth starts it with a plural first person narrator but, thank God, it’s just an opening gambit, quickly abandoned. I’m all for experimentation but a plural first person narrator is mind numbing.

It’s a summer in 1940s and the town of Newark is struck with an epidemic of polio. The first half of the book is gripping, emotional and authentic. It’s the sort of story that you have to keep reminding yourself is just a book of fiction so as not to cry for all the broken lives there. The only false note there was Bucky’s, the book’s hero, questioning and eventually rejecting God. It just seemed so out of character for him that for a moment he sounded like a mouthpiece for someone else.

The story is still told by a rather mysterious first person narrator, who is really just an insignificant observer (another similarity with American Pastoral) and we forget about him until the final part of this book where he suddenly makes his presence known and comes forward to literally explain the whole thing to us. Now, I can see that this sort of fourth wall breaking is very much part of Roth’s style but completely unprepared at the time I had a very ‘WTF’ reaction to it. Completely abandoning the golden rule of ‘show, not tell’, the narrator proceeds to explain to the reader what Bucky was all about and what it all meant, how his big sense of responsibility was the cause of his downfall, etc., just in case the reader missed the point. Frankly, I was irritated and felt I was being patronised by the freaking narrator who didn’t trust me to get the book without him beating me on the head with the explanation. It didn’t work for me, it took me out of the story and also I’m out of a job as a reviewer, because Roth’s already reviewed the book in its final chapters. Something similar happens in American Pastoral, where the narrator is at the same the author who writes the book but it’s done a lot better there. Clever, even.

All in all – great book, shame about the ending.

PS. My favourite quote - “So unschooled was he in extravagance that he took the presence in a house of more than one bathroom as the height of luxurious living.” This was true for me as well. I remember when I first visited a house with two bathrooms I was absolutely blown away and decided it was a benchmark of having made it in life.

PPS. In an interview posted on Paris review website Roth says: “But you know, I don’t believe that the biography of a writer has anything to do with his books.”
I mean, LOL, Roth, LOL. (In another interview from 2010 Roth says he would never stop writing because how could he).

Barbara Taylor - The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in Our Times

Hurt Imagination the - Taylor Barbara

The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in Our Times. This title, distilled to the three keywords: "asylum, memoir, madness" is what caught my attention. Together, of course, with a photo on the cover depicting the longest corridor in a mental institution – the thing that Will Self called so beautifully ‘the North Circular of the soul’ (I promise myself this is the only nice thing I will ever say about Will Self).

Barbara Taylor is an accomplished historian who went quite mad during her early thirties. It started off innocently enough but soon enough she was doing psychotherapy five times a week, and eventually ended up in a ‘looney bin’.
Now, I wanted to feel for her but it was hard, because Taylor is no Sylvia Plath and her descriptions of her psychoanalysis and her descend into madness are not very interesting. To be perfectly honest, to this lay reader it seemed that it was the daily psychoanalysis that was making her so unstable. I am a very practical person who has gone through a short period of being very unwell mentally and I know for a fact that if I spent my days vivisecting my childhood then, I would be medicating heavily now.

The problem I had with Taylor’s account was that I could never understand what her madness really was, how the psychoanalysis was helping her and how she finally got better. Blame my low empathy levels but I haven’t read about a person struggling with her own mind and her demons. I have only seen a baby-emperor (as she once aptly called herself). She makes it almost impossible to feel any empathy towards her. She was young, she didn’t have to work 9-5, she drank a lot, had lots of sex with unsuitable men, had anxiety attacks and horrible dreams. That’s me and half of my friends on any given weekend. Thank God, I absolutely cannot afford twenty one years of psychoanalysis. Twenty-one! Daily.

Frankly, she doesn’t make a good case for psychoanalysis. She quotes constant shouting matches with her therapist and then even in the chapter called ‘Cure’ I couldn’t see how the cure had anything to do with those years of therapy. She presented it as if she just grew out of it. I don’t doubt that she gained a disturbingly deep knowledge of herself but I don’t see how knowing what makes you ill can make you better. Additionally, her sister who obviously grew up with the same set of parents turned out perfectly fine. So what’s the point of this torturous analysis?

She does a way better job in the second part of the book where she takes on a role of a historian and observer and treats us to a crash course of the mental health system as well as insightful observations of her fellow patients. Those parts are definitely the highlights of this book. She describes asylums (now almost all gone) as generally safe places offering a respite from life with all its obligations once those obligations became unmanageable. She also describes warmly the community feel of them, even despite the fact they were often violent places full of hostile patients. Now the asylums are gone and have been replaced by the so called ‘community care’ which emphasizes independence and self-reliance. For people weakened and often basically paralysed by a mental illness it doesn’t seem to work very well. Despite its many flaws Taylor is a defender of 'bins' and I guess, so am I.

So what’s the lesson and note to myself here? Don’t go mad, Kinga. Don’t go mad. Don’t go mad because if you go mad there will be nowhere for you to go.

Zadie Smith - On Beauty

On Beauty - Zadie Smith

Before we talk about Zadie Smith, let’s talk about me first. Here is something you should know – I was a serious book-worm up until I turned 16 (more or less) at which point I lost all interest in anything that wasn’t parties, boys, alcohol, drugs or sex. There, I said it. For the next five years my brain didn’t see much action (I somehow managed to finish high school and got accepted into the University of Warsaw but generally I found education a big distraction to my social life). I was about 21 when finally the fog surrounding my brain cleared a little and I decided to go to my local library. I had no idea what to read or how to choose. I was just browsing idly when I saw a book called ‘White Teeth’ with an interesting cover. I checked it out, went home and started reading. Soon I was mesmerized. I had no idea there were books like that, that there were stories like that and that people were telling them. I can’t quite recall now what it was about ‘White Teeth’ that spoke to me so but it was as if a curse was lifted and I could read and use my brain again.

For this OCD reason or another, a decade had to pass before I read another Zadie Smith’s book. I am more cynical now and not so easily impressed as I was back then. I felt l could see what Smith was doing there; I was onto all her tricks. Nonetheless, I enjoyed this book tremendously. All this mixing of race, politics, academia, art, love and death – what’s not to love? Even if some of the observations were not particularly revelatory to me I have to give it to Zadie – she knows how to write people. That’s what the characters in ‘On Beauty’ were – people, rather than characters. They were so well put together I feel I would recognize them if I chanced upon them at a party (you know, I still go to parties). Zadie Smith is at the same time cruel and merciful towards her subjects. She won’t hesitate to point out all the silliness of their lives but allows us to feel compassion for them and look upon their futile attempts to practice what they preach with forgiveness.

Also the climax was quite astonishing. I begin to believe that the ability to write a good climax, to make the reader understand you knew exactly what you were doing from page one is exactly what separates great writers from everybody else.

But we shouldn’t forget humour either:

‘[…] A brother don’t need a gate – he jumps the fence. That’s street.’
‘Again, please?’ said Howard.
‘Street, street,’ bellowed Zora. It’s like, “being street”, knowing the street – in Levi’s sad little world if you’re a Negro you have some kind of mysterious holy communion with sidewalks and corners.’

And descriptions. Here is my personal favourite (for obvious reasons):

The African women in their colourful kenti cloths, the whippet blonde with three phones tucked into the waistband of her trucksuit, the unmistakeable Poles and Russians introducing the bone structure of Soviet Realism to an island of chinless, browless potato-faces, the Irish men resting on the gates of housing estates like farmers at a pig fair in Kerry…

Bone structure! You can thank us for that later.

Jonathan Fenby - The Penguin History of Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850-2008

The Penguin History of Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850-2009 - Jonathan Fenby

I spent at least three months reading this fat volume and about the same time answering questions from my friends as to why I was doing this. Why in hell am I reading the History of Modern China? Of course, the simple answer is that I compulsively read anything l lay my hands on but then I’m also on the mission the most knowledgeable person in the world, so that my arrogance is backed up with some erudition. Sadly, I’m no Mike Ross and I have retained at best 10% of the facts in this book.

How does one review a book like ‘The Penguin History of Modern China’? It’s not like I have read other histories of Chine to compare it to, or knew anything about the subject beforehand. I had to trust Jonathan Fenby when he bombarded me with facts, dates and names. I appreciate he was trying to spice things up with funny or curious anecdotes, which sometimes produced almost a comical effect, like when he writes things like:

“Mao went back to his house in the country , received a few faithful followers, taught his bodyguard to read, and fell badly ill with malaria, his temperature shooting up to 105 degrees.”

The second half of the book is filled almost entirely with accounts of purges and paranoia, so typical for any dictatorship. This is the history that has already repeated itself thousands of time and you would think that people would finally wise up to those methods. But no, they fall for it each and every time.
I must say that Fenby wrote a lot about the early Mao, the bullied loser. And it made him into an almost sympathetic character – this is not the effect I wanted the book to achieve. Sometimes I am just not interested in a three-dimensional portrait of the history biggest assholes.

So what’s to happen with China now? Is it a colossus with feet of clay? Yes, probably. It is possibly true that China is not ready for a multi-party democracy. It wouldn’t fare any better than the so called ‘biggest democracy in the world’, India. But then how will it ever make itself ready if not true trial and error? (Luckily, at least China doesn’t have to worry about the US ‘bringing democracy’ to them).