“There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet, which fails so regularly, as love.” - Erich Fromm wrote in his wonderful meditation “The Art of Loving”. This month, as spring slowly comes upon us, we propose books that explore love and romantic relationships in all their complexity. As always, the books we have picked will transport you to other countries and cultures. They will explore how our contexts shape our private lives and intimate feelings and how our loves shape us. This month, we offer you a selection of 6 books; it was not entirely intentional, just got carried away by all this love, I guess! We also have a beautiful photobook that explores the results of 30 years of a creative partnership. So read on!
The Ruin of all Witches - Malcolm Gaskill
This book retells a true story that took place in 1636, in the town of Springfield, Massachusetts, at the frontier of the white settlement in New England. Gaskill is an academic historian specialising in witchcraft, magic, crime and the persecution of witches in the 16th and 17th centuries. Drawing from historical records, he reconstructs a story of a small isolated community of 45 residents that faced a constant threat of conflict with the Indians and a hostile natural environment. Gaskill recreates the atmosphere of this small town and draws vivid portraits of the main protagonists - a married couple whose marriage slowly disintegrates under the pressures of life in a small remote community. As superstition and paranoia grip this town, suspicions of witchcraft further erode their relationship. Contrary to what you might expect, the wife started spreading wild stories of her husband’s witchcraft, further feeding the community’s spiralling descent into darkness. This extraordinary book is likely to surprise you in many ways, and if you’re looking for a historical novel that reads as a thriller, this book may just be what you need.
Perumal Murugan - One part Woman
One Part Woman is the first novel of Indian writer Perumal Murugan to be translated into English. The novel is set in the state of Tamil Nadu, in Thiruchengode, the author’s home town, during the colonial era. It explores how the stigma of childlessness strains a married couple’s life. How far should they go to earn public approval? Can a husband accept that his wife sleeps with another man to conceive? Will this mean that he may discover it has all been his ‘fault’? As the protagonists grapple with these questions, the author explores the intricacies of family relationships and empathises with individuals pitted against the group. After the novel’s publication in India, the author faced a backlash from a right-wing Hindu group. They mounted protests, including book burnings, claiming that it denigrated a Hindu deity. Murugan received death threats and had to seek police protection; there was a petition to press criminal charges against him, but the court defended his freedom of expression. So this novel’s story is one with a somewhat happy ending.
Love in the Big City - Sang Young Park
Love in the Big City is the first novel of Sang Young Park to be translated into English and was longlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2022. Following the protagonist from his college years into his 30s, the book explores how his loves have defined his life. The novel is composed of 4 linked stories and is loosely based on the author’s own experiences and internal struggles. It is a vibrant and addictive read that explores the questions of self-identity and gay experiences in a conservative South Korean society where the queer community exists in the shadows. During his recent visit to Border Kitchen in The Hague, Sang Young Park spoke about his works and how his literary success went unacknowledged by his rather strict Catholic family: his parents have not read his books and tell their acquaintances that their son runs a supermarket. However, the popularity of Sang Young Park’s novel in his home country may be a sign of change.
How to Love - Thich Nhat Hanh
As several books in this collection explore relationships that do not turn out all that well, we thought it would only be appropriate to counterbalance them with a book that offers a more optimistic view of love. This wonderful little book offers a very simply worded but nonetheless very sincere and honest reflection on what it means to love. Every line in it is infused with wisdom and offers insight not only into romantic love but other human relationships as well. If you are not yet familiar with the works of Thich Nhat Hanh and are weary of fake ‘spiritualism’, worry not, this is not that kind of book. Thich Nhat Hanh, who sadly passed away last January at the age of 96, was a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, one of the pioneering thinkers who brought Buddhism and mindfulness practices to the West. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to him as “an Apostle of peace and nonviolence”. “How to Love” is a very meditative and reflective read that offers universal wisdom. Whatever your creed is, you will likely find solace in Thich Nhat Hanh’s works.
Black Vodka - Deborah Levy
“Black Vodka” by Deborah Levy, a British playwright, poet and novelist, is a collection of 10 short stories (occupying only 120 pages, so if you are up for a quick read, this one is for you). The title story features an ad copywriter working on an ad for black vodka, which “will appeal to those in need of stylish angst.” The same can be said about Levy’s book. Her slice-of-life stories will take you on an unpredictable journey into our experiences of love, loss, and search for identity. Levy brilliantly constructs a special mood for every story, immersing the reader in the scene and offering poignant psychological portraits. National and cultural identity is one of the topics you’ll find in most stories, where protagonists from different countries and backgrounds search for - or try to escape from - themselves. Loneliness, love, infidelity, fluid identities - you will find a vivid and humorous depiction of the international and cosmopolitan 21st-century society on these pages.
Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel García Márquez
This wonderful classic from one of the best-known Latin American writers is an ode to sensuality and romantic love. Following the lives of three protagonists entrapped in a love triangle, it will carry you to a remote, elusive, dreamy Caribbean coastal town. The novel advances slowly, its narrative dream-like and sumptuous. At times you may feel as if you are moving in slow motion through air heavy with humidity and the smell of camellias. This is a perfect novel for slow and thoughtful reading that will have you marvel at García Márquez’s descriptions of lush exotic nature and the protagonists’ love pangs.
Slant Rhymes - Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb
Slant Rhymes is a beautiful photobook by Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb, bringing together a selection of photographs taken by the couple in the 30 years of their friendship, marriage and creative partnership. This book is an unfinished love poem and a conversation between the creative couple where their images are paired and ‘talk’ to each other. Alex Webb is a street photographer, photojournalist, and Magnum Photos member. He captures ambiguous and enigmatic moments in his vibrant colour photographs, often infused with beautiful light. Rebecca Norris Webb is a poet and photographer known for her subtle and emotional images. She sees photography as a form of visual poetry and often pairs her images with text, making them three-dimensional in a way. This book is a wonderful visual and poetic tribute to this couple’s creative collaboration throughout their lives.