Books: 94 posts

Books and reading lists

Poetry and Enigma of Mike Johansen

Why not start Monday with poetry? I’ve selected my favorite poetry by Mike Johansen (1895-1937), a Ukrainian poet of the 1920s. Johansen described himself as an enigma–half-Ukrainian, half-Latvian German, fluent in dozens of languages and yet making Ukrainian the medium of his prose and poetry. Johansen represents the avant-garde movement of the 1920s and he was one of the brightest stars of the same group that included people like Vladimir Mayakovsky, Velimir Khlebnikov and Mykola Khvylovyi. What distinguishes his work for me is his playfulness and humor.

Although he was a gifted translator at ease with Latin, English, German, and a number of Scandinavian and Slavic languages, his poetry is impossible to translate. It relies so much on the sound of Ukrainian that in another language it becomes something else altogether. Yet, even without understanding the language, the poem is hypnotic.

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Learning Languages and Reading Techniques

Reading is one of the biggest pleasures for me, and often when I learn a new language, I relish the chance to read in it. It’s also a great way to expose yourself more to the language and to make it part of your life. People often assume that “studying a language” means sitting down with a grammar book and doing exercises or spending time in the classroom, but that’s not enough. You have to surround yourself with the language by filling every free moment with it. Listen to music, watch YouTube clips about a subject you like, read.

And so today I will focus on reading and share a few tips. These are classical approaches, but they’ve been invaluable to me. In general, I start reading as soon as possible, even when I know that the text is too difficult. The most important part is to want to read the story, not to want to read in Arabic/French/Italian, etc. If you’re learning French and you long to read 19th-century novels, go for it. I don’t like texts especially written for language learners or children’s stories, but I have a soft spot for traditional fairy tales.

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Make Time for Yourself and Banish Guilt

If a person with children and living in an extended family were to write my article How to Handle Self-Isolation and Not Lose One’s Mind, they would instead title it How to Survive Quarantine and Not Kill One’s Family. Then again, they probably wouldn’t even write it, because they would be too busy being a career professional, cook, cleaner, and school teacher. All of this in addition to the general anxiety. Since most of the household responsibilities fall on the shoulders of women, many of my female friends are finding this period of confinement stressful. Whether they live in New York, Tehran or Kyiv, the problems are the same–they are under pressure from their employers, schools and their families.

Far more qualified people than me can give advice on how to manage home schooling, household responsibilities and children. On these pages I can only provide comfort, distraction, and a reminder that taking a moment out of a day for oneself is crucial. And that such moments shouldn’t be tainted by guilt.

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À rebours (Against Nature) by Joris-Karl Huysmans : Scents in Books

“From black-rimmed plates they ate turtle soup and eaten Russian rye bread, ripe Turkish olives, caviar, salted mullet-roe, smoked Frankfurt black puddings, game in gravies the colour of liquorice and boot-blacking truffled sauces, chocolate caramel creams, plum puddings, nectarines, preserved fruits, mulberries and heart-cherries; from dark coloured glasses they drank the wines of Limagne and Rousillon, of Tenedoes, Val de Peñas and Oporto, and, after the coffee and the walnut cordial they enjoyed kvass, porters and stouts.”

― Joris-Karl Huysmans, Against Nature

His writing inspired Oscar Wilde—and corrupted Dorian Gray. As an art critic, he discovered Degas and Odilon Redon. Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907) was one of the most prominent stars of the European art scene at the end of the 19th century, and yet he remains little known to the general public. However, two events this year are putting Huysmans into the spotlight. First, the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, published by Gallimard, has added his works to their prestigious collection of classics. Second, Musée d’Orsay will hold an exhibition from 26th November 2019 to 1st March 2020 devoted to Huysmans’s contributions to 20th century aesthetics.

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5 Books for Language Lovers

Babel comes from the Hebrew verb meaning “to confuse,” and the story of Babel is the story of human folly in aiming to reach the heavens by building a large tower. To stop their efforts, God splintered their tongue into a dizzying multitude–and created the first language barrier humanity has experienced. Yet, one can find this diversity incredible, rather than regrettable. The 6,000 or so human languages that exist today are so rich that learning them, or learning about them, is a fascinating pursuit.

I’ve shared some of my tips on learning languages in three different articles, How I Learn Languages, How I Learn Languages: Where to Start, and How to Learn A Language by Reading and Listening, but today I would like to invite you to read about languages. I’ve selected five books that either explore the way languages developed or the way people use them. None of them are standard academic books, but rather works written by people passionate about words, sounds and letters.

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