Ten Poolside Reads

I know, no one has time to read because everybody is busy. Therefore it is good for us Europeans that the law forces us to take some time off during the summer months. Because everybody is busy, I have put together a short reading list to ease the holiday prep. Not everything is hot from the press, but all of them are fairly recent, all written by women, and every one of them will give you instant street-cred when you take to your poolside lounger the way the Meisterstück When Life Gives You Lululemons never will. 

I have written about some of these books earlier and have linked to those blogposts. Herewith ten contemporary, indie reads:

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Despite the cover blurb announcing that this book will make you cry, consider it still (if not for hiding your tears, what else are large sunglasses for, anyway??). It’s a collection of self-reflecting short stories by the wonderful Irish Emilie Pine, and I call her wonderful despite not knowing her, because she’s had a remarkable life and has an extraordinarily touching style to tell us about it. Nearly every aspect of woman’s life will be dealt with. I repeat, this is not a tear-jerker, but a very good book about being a woman. 

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We shall move on with a stylish take on modern society by the British Olivia Laing. Crudo is a beautiful book (I was initially drawn to it because of the cover) about summer of 2017 when writer Kathy is getting married, Trump’s tweets are bringing the world to the brink of nuclear war and the Brexit has paralysed the UK (funnily the book is a novel, not a documentary). Crudo is kind of a real-time account of the apocalyptic summer and the protagonist, who is also the alter ego of the real-life Kathy Acker. Very difficult to put into words, but the book is really funny, and pairs extremely well with chilled rosé.

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Maggie Nelson’s Bluets is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. Despite it being rather a quick read given its form, I am quite sure you will keep going back to it. The narrator builds sort of a pillow book around the colour blue, and observes depression, sickness, alcohol, desire, and the end of a relationship through the colour and its appearance in various associations, such as music. Despite this highly shaky descriptions, Bluets is not at all some pretentious shit woodoo. It is a beautiful book, I really do recommend it.

Talent by Juliet Lapidos is a surgically poignant take on procrastination, wasting talent and meeting your full potential. Set in the world of academia, it will fulfil also the needs of those who gravitate towards campus-literature. Talent is hilarious, not funny ha-ha, but excellently to the point. I read a large part of the book while eating lobster ravioli with some rosé , and can thoroughly recommend this combination. 

For some reason I have photographed also my La Bouche Rouge -lipstick. I will share thoughts about that venture very soon.

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I wrote about Liar earlier, and am including some comments here: 

Set in Israel, the book tells the story of 17-year old Nofar who would like to spice up her teenage life, but is not quite sure how. Then a life-changing chain of events takes place in the ice-cream parlour where she works during the school recess, and she becomes a national celebrity overnight. Only her celeb-status is all based on a lie, or rather other people’s assumption she did not correct on time.

Things spiral out of control and it soon becomes evident to her that it is impossible to unscramble the scrambled eggs. And the fame feels delicious! The interviews, the attention, the free clothes, the sympathy! Her schoolmates’ interest! She’s finally someone!

The book is very summery, therefore perfect for the poolside. Don’t let the fact that the protagonists are teenagers scare you off. 

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If the first book on the list is going to make you cry, We are never meeting in real life. will most definitely make you laugh. Samantha Irby records her coming of age in a hilariously self-deprecating way, I recommended this one earlier and am much looking forward to reading her latest. If this book were a word cloud (why am I even coming up with examples like this? I hate word clouds) it would feature ​feminism, body image, race, sexuality, social standing, having a horrible cat for a pet. 

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If you watched Orange is the New Black, you will like Rachel Kushner’s Mars Room. It’s also set in women’s prison, or ​Women’s Correctional Facility, but as with “Orange”, it’s so much more. There’s the undercurrent of the events that led to Romy’s two consecutive life sentences in California. There are intelligent, not in your face -references to the struggles many women face as they are trying to muddle through their lives.  Kushner is a masterful writer and Mars Room a fantastic, entertaining, funny and dramatic summer read.

If you liked Donna Tartt’s Secret History (by show of hands, who did not like Donna Tartt’s Secret History???) you will likely enjoy Tangerine by ​Christine Mangan. It’s set in Tangier, Morocco and it’s constantly hot in there, so this book screams summer read. There’s a bit of psychological drama and suspense, and frankly I’m still not quite sure whether the two leading women were not in fact just one. An easy read that you will wolf down with some crisps and rosé. 

If you live on this planet, you will have noticed the hype around Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. The author was on a book tour in Brussels the other week and I went to listen to her talk about this book, which I loved. It’s basically about a young American woman who wants to fall to medicated sleep for an entire year, and almost reaches this goal with the help of one of the most incompetent psychiatrists in the world. Despite the subject matter, the book is not depressing. It might have a  slightly millennial feel to it, but on the other hand it takes place in 2000/2001, so it’s fantastically free from social media references and such. “My Year” was, and continues to be much hyped, but ​Moshfegh deserves much of the hype because her writing is excellent.

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Finally, you will want to pack My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. It is kind of a murder mystery/thriller-y deal, but without some of the traditional suspense. Set in Nigeria, it tells a story about two sisters, one of which turns out to be a serial killer who rather routinely does away with her lovers citing self-defence. Then, as luck would have it, the sisters fall for the same guy. Who gets the guy and who gets to live? Also, what is the role of family and family tradition? Less about slashing throats, more about sisterhood, the book is a mixture of family saga, loyalty, satire and slapdash – especially towards the end. 

Literary Bubble Gum

We shall establish the facts first: life is too short to read shit books. This applies to many other things as well, ranging from relationships to footwear to types of rosé wine. Shit is not good. 

I know people who plough through books even when they hate reading them, because apparently once a book has been started, it shall be finished. No, it shall not. Books have no feelings. They will not be offended. I have a 50-page rule. If the book makes no sense in the first 50 pages, I shall leave it. Life’s too short. Also there are too many really good books to read, which would take more than a lifetime anyway, so.

Against the aforementioned, the following probably makes little sense: I occasionally read bad literature (sometimes by pure accident, sometimes on purpose) so as to cleanse my literary palate, as it were. Even the most pretentious of chefs and culinary snobs sometimes go to McDonald’s to satisfy certain urges. This is perfectly normal. I am a literary snob, and on occasion read junk to again appreciate really good writing.

Airplanes are good places to indulge in such pleasures. This behaviour is facilitated by airport bookshops that specialise in selling blockbusters that rarely qualify as good literature. When a colourful When Life Gives You Lululemons -covercaught my eye recently, I had to have it. I knew exactly what I was getting – I had done my The Devil Wears Prada both in a movie – and book form (both aforementioned books – and many others of the same genre – are by ​Lauren Weisberger). It was kind of awkward, mainly because I was trying to hide the cover from the co-travellers, which made reading complicated, but at the same time kind of delicious, like wolfing down a Quarter Pounder (with cheese) meal. 

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My French teacher once asked me to bring some French books to the class, because he knew I read a lot by American and English authors. I had made the classic beginner’s error at Parisian La Hune earlier and bought books that were advertised as “current bestsellers”. I brought a specimen of my haul to my class, and my teacher was staring at the ​Katherine Pancol with certain disbelief “Can you explain, in French s’il te plait, why we are having this book here today?” I had bought the French equivalent to Lauren Weisberger, and had difficulties negotiating my way out of the situation.

In the next class we discussed the French translation of Joyce Carol Oates’ ​La foi d’un écrivain (The Faith of a Writer, an excellent essay about writing). ​Pancol was never to be mentioned again.

What Weisberger and Pancol have in common is the immense popularity of their respective literary oeuvres. It’s insane how many millions of books each of them have sold, and how many languages they have translated into – in the case of Pancol, some of her biggest bestsellers to over 30! Both have sold movie- and TV-rights to their books. The Lululemons -nightmare was a ​New York Times bestseller, a fact that does not restore my faith in humanity.

And there’s more! What’s probably more painful than reading clumsy novels is reading clumsy autobiographies. Another New York Times bestseller (I probably should stop considering this a relevant endorsement), by comedian, activist, TV-host, writer, ​Chelsea Handler’s Life Will Be the Death of Me… And You too!  was another recent experience that is complicated to put in words.

I like Handler’s political activism and the stuff she does about white privilege (a Netflix documentary coming up), so I was intrigued to see what she writes about her life. Turns out, an awful lot about her dogs Tammy and Chunk. Like a lot. The book is a jumpy breeze to read, but I sort of failed to see the point it was trying to make, except possibly time a book-tour to coincide with the launch of the Netflix-documentary. Also Handler has made a whopping fortune with her several books, such as Are You There, Vodka? It’s me, Chelsea.

I am not here to make fun of other people’s tastes and books (I for one have not published a single book myself so who am I to judge). Chick-lit is a difficult genre. There are the good, the bad and the toe-curlingly embarrassing. It’s not for me, but I see why many (apparently millions) people gravitate towards the literary equivalent of a Happy Meal. At best it is a perfect escape when sunning self in an exotic location, a mojito at arm’s length (it possibly helps to digest some of these books if one is in fact drunk while reading them). No judgement. 

Following these literary escapades I needed a quick detox, so I grabbed the trusty Virginia Woolf essay Am I a Snob? And to really bring home the point, I read it in the language of the people who do snob the best in the world – French. 

Why I Walk

I love walking, and walk almost everywhere. I cannot deal with public transport first thing in the morning, so I try to avoid it as much as possible, so weather permitting, I’m also doing my work commute by foot. The best walking, however, is flânerie, or boulevardier-ing. This means to wander around aimlessly, or with very little aim, absolutely without rush or particular purpose. Flânerie is my all-time top favourite pastime activity.

Until just a couple of decades ago, aimless wondering in the city was considered a masculine privilege – possibly also dictated by the realities of life: it was rare for women to have all kinds of time in their hands to think deep thoughts while pounding the streets. City streets were dangerous places for women, and any female caught walking around without a chaperone and without a particular purpose was most certainly considered a prostitute.

In the olden days camouflages were necessary, and the French writer George Sand was known for dressing like a boy to be able to lose herself in the 19th-century Paris. The emergence of department stores was a big, liberating breakthrough for urban women – finally a place to spend time, do lunch and catch up on goss and merch while feeling safe. 

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In a student coffee shop near NYU, two young women are talking.
​"Guess what?" one says. "I saw Romeo and Juliet on Broadway last week."
"Oh, yeah?" the other says. "Is that thing modern?"

I walk around cities to clear my head, to observe people (in a non-creepy way) and to find interesting things par hazard. Recently in New York I walked into one fashion shoot, one TV- shoot and went to check out how far the renovation work of ​Sarah Jessica Parker’s house had advanced (still ongoing).

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Each day I leave the house, I tell myself I’m going to walk up the East Side. Yet I seem always to find myself on the West Side. On the West Side life feels positively thematic. All that intelligence trapped inside all those smarts. It reminds me of why I walk. Why everyone walks.

Few observations about walking in cities:

Boulevardier is a solitary hobby,  best done alone. This consequently, unfortunately means there are safety issues to be considered. I only ever walk around on a daylight (in a city I don’t know, obviously this is less of an issue in a place I know well). I never take risks, which possibly makes me a boring flâneuse, but so be it. I’ve only ever had to take a sharp U-turn once. Parks: never after sunset.

– Google maps is your best friend, therefore a properly charged mobile phone is a must.

– I avoid the generic high streets of zero character (= the ninth circle of Hell with all the chain clothing stores and McDonald’s of this world) and the obvious tourist traps. In most cities the old towns are most interesting, have the best cafés, parks and urban landmarks, and small streets almost always come with more interesting, independent things to see, buy and eat than the big boulevards.

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“Did you hear?” the woman in pink says. “The pope appealed to capitalism to be kind to the poor of the world.”
The woman in blue responds, “What did capitalism say?”
As we’re crossing Seventh Avenue, the woman in pink shrugs.
​”So far it’s quiet.”

– I try to have as little stuff with me as I possibly can. Mobile, keys, wallet. If it’s hot, a bottle of water. Sometimes I take my camera. I can’t be bothered with umbrellas (generally in life). If I’m going to be doing hard-core people-watching, a book makes for a nice camouflage.

– Always sunscreen. Always, always. City favourites at the moment: Tatcha “Silken” with SPF35, de Mamiel “Daily Hydrating Nectar” with SPF30 and Drunk Elephant “Umbra Tinte Physical Daily Defense” with SPF30. I will go for higher SPF in the summer.

– Shoes. No heels, no ballerinas. Asphalt is tough on your feet. Have proper footwear. 

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New York belongs to me as much as it belongs to them: but no more so. We are all here on the Fifth Avenue for the same reason and virtue of the same right. We have all been walking the streets of world capitals forever: 
actors, clerks, criminals; dissidents, runaways, illegals;
Nebraska gays, Polish intellectuals, women on the edge of time. 
Half of these people will be lost to glitter and crime - disappearing into Wall Street, hiding out in Queens - but half of them will become me:
a walker in the city; here to feed the never-ending stream of the never-ending crowd that is certainly imprinting on someone's creativity.

Why do I walk? Because I want to explore places at my own pace. Because I want to see and do my own thing. To me it’s the only way to understand my surroundings. Some people do a bus/tram/metro –tour d’horizon in a new city to get an idea where everything is. I walk.

I also walk because I can, and because the joy of walking in the city belongs to me, too. Space is not neutral. Space is a feminist issue. As ​Lauren Elkin writes: The space we occupy – here, in the city, we city dwellers – is constantly remade and unmade, constructed and wondered at. A female flânerie not only changes the way we move through space, but intervenes in the organisation of space itself. We claim our right to disturb the peace, to observe (or not observe), to occupy (or not occupy) and to organise (or disorganise) space on our own terms. 

For aspiring female city-walkers I would like to recommend two excellent books about this exact topic, namely The Odd Woman and the City by Vivian Gornick (all quotes in cursive are from this book, which is a memoir about walking in New York City) and Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse (her book covers flâneuse-ing in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London). 

Not Sweet, Alabama

This week, I had the best and the worst of the land of the free and home of the brave. New York City, the centre of the universe, offered personal refuge in a liberal, literate La La Land where life is fast and exhausting, but possibility lurks around every corner and living can also be a shiny, spectacular and over the top dream. With lots of long hair.

Then Wednesday came and burst the bubble that I had firmly established in the SoHo and West Village coffee houses. Alabama made abortions illegal.

There are (at least) two ways to look at this: who has access to healthcare and who decides on behalf of women. 

I’m a white, European woman of comfortable means. I will never be affected by decisions like these. I am insured up to my eyeballs, and can access healthcare anywhere. Like most Europeans, I will get treatment. If not in my own country, then somewhere else in Europe. Such is the system we have created.

Famously, there is no system in the U.S., except that you buy your way out of sticky situations. Rich people will always get by. What happens when it’s the raped underaged daughter of a minimum-wage single mother whose employer does not cover family members’ health insurance? How do you explain the newly minted law to Alabama girls and women who are impregnated by their abusive family members or relatives??

The political swing to the right in the U.S. has set in motion a movement to overturn the landmark nation-wide ruling on women’s right to abortion, Roe v. Wade (Hello Ruth Bader Ginsburg!). There’s an excellent documentary about this called Reversing Roe v. Wade, and it should be still available on Netflix. It does a superb job in explaining the American sentiment around this issue. 

It’s not just the abortion procedure that’s being targeted. As collateral many states have already experienced cuts in services for poor children, medical care for pregnant women and affordable contraception for women as well as attempts to hinder sex education at schools.

The second question is who gets to decide. You are free to worship at whichever altar you wish,  I don’t judge/discriminate, but if we leave out the Jesus-factor here, the question is simple: why cannot women decide for their own bodies?  Or, more simply:

​Why do men get to decide over women’s bodies?

We should not watch the Alabama-spectacle as some soap opera unfolding before our eyes. Anything can happen anywhere. Including in Europe. People can walk backwards in here, too.

That women’s actual, physical bodies are still being used as a political playground in 2019 I cannot comprehend. If men could get pregnant, abortions would be handed out at every gas station and drive-thru across the world. For free. 

In case you are already half-way rereading your Handmaid’s Tale, let me suggest another American giant on this matter, again offering a tremendously moving context to the great abortion spectacle in the U.S.: A Book of American Martyrs by ​Joyce Carol Oates. 

Finally, for anyone who says that feminism has gone too far and we should instead focus on the equality of opportunity, I have but two words: Fuck off. 

I know it’s not you people, but I just had to put it out there. 

Feminist Press Review

The weather has forced me to stay indoors most of the weekend, which has been much welcome. The stacks of magazines and books had been piling up the last weeks and the last 48 hours were an excellent opportunity to read through most and report back here. We shall start with Vanity Fair

The international edition runs a big cover story about Beto O’Rourke and his fancies for becoming the next US President. The main show, however, is the big joint interview of ​Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph (there’s also a big picture spread from the VF Oscars afterparty, but I reckon we have already processed that). The official fun women of the United States and the ur-feminists of Hollywood, you could not go horribly wrong with these two. The interview is PR for their latest cinematic endeavours, which are personally not terribly much to my taste (I only really liked The Bridesmaids from this feminist slapstick-genre), and much else. I liked the “much else” part more: where Poehler and Rudolph explain how they started out, how it’s been for them in Hollywood, how does it feel to plough your way through in an industry where female characters still only have 35% of the speaking roles in top blockbusters. 

The French edition of ​Vanity Fair has #metoo -related speculation from France, involving movie director Luc Besson, who is the suspect in one of the latest bigger court cases in France. There’s a fantastic story about a former Parisian judge Constance Debré, who was born to a grande famille de la République, and then went through a huge reinvention of giving up her job, husband, bourgeoise life and the prestige and became a writer and started to live with her female partner instead. Does not sound like much, looking at it like this, but the point was that her family name made it hugely difficult for her to walk out of her life. She wrote a book Play boy about her experience. Have not read it, but might give it a shot. Also, the theme of tomorrow’s MET Gala, camp”, is discussed in the magazine, through Susan Sontag, who wrote a novel called such in the 60s. Thoroughly interesting in the preparation for the gala.

French ​Vogue has the usual gorgeousness (safari theme is back for summer), and on top interviews with Rebecca Solnit, the author of Men Explain Things to Me and ​The Mother of All Questions, the latter of which has just been translated into French. On an equally feminist beat, there’s also an interview of Anja Rubik, Polish model, activist and philanthropist. Amongst many, many issues, she also discusses the sex education in Poland. Rubik has fronted big campaigns in Poland by authoring a book about homosexuality and contraceptives. Highly interesting.

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Then, have you ever been caught up in a situation where you are directly challenged to quickly bring about concrete, actual examples of gender bias in everyday life and your mind just draws a complete blankThis is maddening, because your head will be bursting with examples the minute the situation is over and you are mentally gathering yourself from the floor. Since everybody nowadays wants to talk about artificial intelligence,  data bias is an extremely interesting topic even for a non-geek. 

Invisible Women is a very thorough take on this subject, and does not require any prior knowledge or particular interest in gadgets and nerdery. Much of Criado Perez’  findings rest on how women are excluded from the creation of basic algorithms and many societal norms, such as dosage of medicine (this part will knock your socks off). It’s all done in a very non-whiny way, and is a fabulously practical antidote to all those “aren’t we getting a bit paranoid here?” comments when this topic is being brought up. 

There’s much talk about the need to have more girls studying STEM and more women in tech, but without educated debate on why this is actually something to be encouraged and something that is absolutely essential, these messages might not hit home. There’s another book about biases in apps and algorithms which is very practical: Technically Wrong by Sara Wachter-Boettcher, who made her own career in the Silicon Valley bro-atmosphere, so she knows what she is talking about. Excellent read. 

Why Paying for Journalism is Non-Negotiable

I have tried to explain to myself why the world has gone so bonkers lately. Because I have not been able to do that, I’ve resorted to reading what other people have to say about it. It seems like all of the old cliches are true: politicians know what they should do, but do not know how to get elected afterwards. It is easier to please than to be right. Correct that: it’s more important to please than to be right.

If you were going to huff “Oh well that’s just how politicians are!” think again. This is how we are living our lives: begging for likes and followers and yearning to please so much that we have started to alter and filter our appearances online. How should politicians be any different from others? Why should facts mean any more than opinions, if the latter get more reactions on social media (and possibly votes)? Most people trust the opinions of their friends and acquaintances on their social media feeds more than newspapers anyway. 

Two things happened in parallel recently. I was reading the biography of war correspondent Marie Colvin when some Instagram influencers broke a story how their sponsored luxury trip to Bali had been everything but (they were made to stage the pictures, heavily manipulate the surroundings, even by using cardboard backdrops, and photoshop any locals off). While I apologise for a shaky analogy, it is an interesting thought all the same: a correspondent is sent abroad to report facts. She does this. We read the reporting, think it’s probably not true and/or biased propaganda and switch on to Instagram. We see a photoshopped-to-death picture of bikini-clad models larking around on Balinese beach, sponsored by a travel agency, and immediately think “​If I book flights to Bali now, my life will be like this! This is so real!” 

Exaggeration? Not really. Think about the thousands of people who were punk’d by the Fyre Festival -organisers. They forked out thousands of dollars each, basing their decision to attend solely on retouched adverts on social media, only to be completely ripped off in a tent-village in the Bahamas.

Colvin dedicated her life to reporting us what war does to people. Recipient of many prizes and decorations, she was a fêted war correspondent, who suffered both mental and physical damage during her extraordinary career. She reported from the trenches in Palestine, Chechnya, East Timor, Afganistan, Iraq and Syria, where she was killed in 2012. In Extremis is a biography about her, written by a fellow journalist Lindsey Hilsum, and I cannot but recommend the book.

There are the international superstar hero-journalists like Colvin and Christiane Amanpour, and then there are those who do not get their primetime-show on CNN, but end up writing literature with impact. I grabbed Wendell Steavenson’s Paris Metro in the bookstore because I read everything that says “Paris” in the title. Turns out, the book was less about sexy people idling away on the Rivé Gauche and more about a tangled mess of an Anglo-American journalist woman marrying an Iraqi- diplomat while covering the Middle East, and then returning to Paris with an adopted son, bumping into ex-husband’s Iraqi-relatives during a gig on Kos about the European migration crisis, and then suddenly being held in detention by the French police in the aftermath of the Bataclan-attack in Paris in 2015. 

Understanding anything Middle East, especially the political crisis, its origins and most of its consequences, is beyond my comprehension. This is probably a mix of my own ignorance and the sheer complexity of the issue. However, what is absolutely brilliantly explained in Paris Metro is the work of a journalist: You are not reporting your opinions. You are depicting life as it happens: always asking second opinions, verifying sources, calling just one more person to be sure. Often reporting about things you don’t like, things that scare you and disgust you, but you have not been sent away to write rants about your feelings, anyway.

Most journalists are not foreign correspondents, but still work according to the same principles: making shit up is not your job. I’m struggling to understand why we don’t believe the stuff they put in the news, and also why so many of us think they should work for free (such has been the reaction to paywalls). 

I am one of the last people to glorify journalists and journalism, and the first to acknowledge that yes, some of them do not always buy my spin and some of them are otherwise crooked little shits with their biases, and there are surely some downright corrupt ones (fun fact: journalists are humans). Still, all their pieces are run past more scrutinising eyes before publication than any Facebook status update of an opinionated friend. 

There are no excuses not to pay for journalism. This world will go to shits without free (and professional) press – and we are actually well on the way already. Pay for quality press like you pay for quality food, clothes and cosmetics. Should you have any interest in the insights of hardcore correspondent work, I recommend the two books above. Even if you don’t, Paris Metro is a masterfully thought-provoking, contemporary novel about European multiculturalism.

To finish, a quote by Wendell Steavenson, a former foreign correspondent herself: 

“I’m a bit less: Must go to Mosul. I’m more scared. I don’t know if it got scarier. I think it did. You just see the toll it takes and you lose too many people. There are too many people close to you kidnapped. I got scareder, no doubt about it.”

*This post is not sponsored by my journalist friends. But to anyone of them who’s reading, I am totally accepting drinks anytime.*