Heyyy guys, another month, another reading challenge! This time, we're getting to know Poland, so pick a book that has been written by a Polish author or is about the country to participate!
Poland has a very long and interesting (often also extremely tragic) history. You can learn more about the country here, or just dive right into the books if you prefer. Here are 10 hand-picked suggestions, but as always you are free to choose something else.
Swallowing Mercury (Wioletta Greg)
OP note: YA short stories; historical fiction (Communist Poland). Nominated for a bunch of literary prizes and longlisted for the International Booker Prize!
Wiola lives in a close-knit agricultural community. Wiola has a black cat called Blackie. Wiola's father was a deserter but now he is a taxidermist. Wiola's mother tells her that killing spiders brings on storms. Wiola must never enter the seamstress's 'secret' room. Wiola collects matchbox labels. Wiola is a good Catholic girl brought up with fables and nurtured on superstition. Wiola lives in a Poland that is both very recent and lost in time.
Swallowing Mercury is about the ordinary passing of years filled with extraordinary days. In vivid prose filled with texture, colour and sound, it describes the adult world encroaching on the child's. From childhood to adolescence, Wiola dances to the strange music of her own imagination.
Solaris (Stanisław Lem)
OP note: A bonafide sci-fi classic, but if you've read this one already and want to explore more by the same author, this post explains some of his other works, including the book that allegedly inspired Futurama.
When Kris Kelvin arrives at the planet Solaris to study the ocean that covers its surface he is forced to confront a painful, hitherto unconscious memory embodied in the physical likeness of a long-dead lover. Others suffer from the same affliction and speculation rises among scientists that the Solaris ocean may be a massive brain that creates incarnate memories, but its purpose in doing so remains a mystery...
Solaris raises a question that has been at the heart of human experience and literature for centuries: can we truly understand the universe around us without first understanding what lies within?
The Last Wish (The Witcher #0.5) (Andrzej Sapkowski)
OP note: I wasn't expecting to love this series so much but it is campy, funny, tragic and smart all at once. (Also it's better than the tv show). For fantasy and short stories lovers.
Geralt the Witcher—revered and hated—is a man whose magic powers, enhanced by long training and a mysterious elixir, have made him a brilliant fighter and a merciless assassin. Yet he is no ordinary murderer: his targets are the multifarious monsters and vile fiends that ravage the land and attack the innocent.
But not everything monstrous-looking is evil and not everything fair is good... and in every fairy tale there is a grain of truth.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (Olga Tokarczuk)
OP note: Of course this list couldn't be without the Nobel Literature Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk, but if you've read this one, she has a lot of other interesting works to explore.
In a remote Polish village, Janina devotes the dark winter days to studying astrology, translating the poetry of William Blake, and taking care of the summer homes of wealthy Warsaw residents. Her reputation as a crank and a recluse is amplified by her not-so-secret preference for the company of animals over humans. Then a neighbor, Big Foot, turns up dead. Soon other bodies are discovered, in increasingly strange circumstances. As suspicions mount, Janina inserts herself into the investigation, certain that she knows whodunit. If only anyone would pay her mind . . .
A deeply satisfying thriller / fairy tale, Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead is a provocative exploration of the murky borderland between sanity and madness, justice and tradition, autonomy and fate. Whom do we deem sane? it asks. Who is worthy of a voice?
The King of Warsaw (Szczepan Twardoch)
OP: I randomly got this one for free on Amazon thanks to a World Book Day promo last year, maybe some of you will have as well? Twardoch is one of the most popular contemporary Polish authors.
A city ignited by hate. A man in thrall to power. The ferociously original award-winning bestseller by Poland’s literary phenomenon—his first to be translated into English.
It’s 1937. Poland is about to catch fire.
In the boxing ring, Jakub Szapiro commands respect, revered as a hero by the Jewish community. Outside, he instills fear as he muscles through Warsaw as enforcer for a powerful crime lord. Murder and intimidation have their rewards. He revels in luxury, spends lavishly, and indulges in all the pleasures that barbarity offers. For a man battling to be king of the underworld, life is good. Especially when it’s a frightening time to be alive.
Hitler is rising. Fascism is escalating. As a specter of violence hangs over Poland like a black cloud, its marginalized and vilified Jewish population hopes for a promise of sanctuary in Palestine. Jakub isn’t blind to the changing tide. What’s unimaginable to him is abandoning the city he feels destined to rule. With the raging instincts that guide him in the ring and on the streets, Jakub feels untouchable. He must maintain the order he knows—even as a new world order threatens to consume him.
The Birds They Sang: Birds and People in Life and Art (Stanisław Łubieński)
OP note: Hello non-fiction lovers. This cute cultural history of bird-human interactions was shortlisted for Poland's most prestigious literary award and won the reader's vote.
Birds have inspired people since the dawn of time. They are the notes behind Mozart's genius, the colours behind Audubon's art and ballet's swansong. In The Birds They Sang, Stanislaw Lubienski sheds light on some of history's most meaningful bird and human interactions, from historical bird watchers in a German POW camp, to Billy and Kes in A Kestral for a Knave. He muses on what exactly Hitchcock's birds had in mind, and reveals the true story behind the real James Bond. Undiscouraged by damp, discomfort and a reed bunting's curse, Lubienski bears witness to the difficulties birds face today, as people fail to accommodate them in rapidly changing times. A soaring exploration of our fascination with birds, The Birds They Sang opens a vast realm of astonishing sounds, colours and meanings - a complete world in which we humans are never alone.
Mrs Mohr Goes Missing (Profesorowa Szczupaczyńska #1) by Maryla Szymiczkowa (Pseudonym)
OP note: Historical fiction/mystery.
Cracow, 1893. Thirty-eight-year-old Zofia Turbotyńska has assured her husband's rise through the ranks to university professor and is now looking for something to fill her long days at home. To stave off the boredom and improve her social standing, she decides to organise a charity raffle. To recruit the requisite patronage of elderly aristocratic ladies, she visits Helcel House, a retirement home run by nuns.
When two of the residents are found dead, Zofia discovers by chance that her real talents lie in solving crimes. The examining magistrate's refusal to take seriously her insistence that foul play is involved spurs her on to start her own investigation, recruiting her quick-witted servant Franciszka as her assistant. With her husband blissfully unaware of her secret activities, Zofia ruthlessly follows the clues and gradually closes in on the truth.
Drawing on Agatha Christie and filled with period character and charm, Mrs Mohr Goes Missing vividly recreates life in turn-of-the-century Poland, confronting a range of issues from class prejudice to women's rights, and proving that everyone is capable of finding their passion in life, however unlikely it may seem.
The Salt of the Earth (Józef Wittlin)
OP note: A pacifist classic from 1935.
At the beginning of the twentieth century the villagers of the Carpathian mountains lead a simple life, much as they have always done. The modern world has yet to reach the inhabitants of this isolated and remote region of the Habsburg Empire. Among them is Piotr, a bandy-legged peasant, who wants nothing more from life than an official railway cap, a cottage with a mouse-trap and cheese, and a bride with a dowry.
But then the First World War comes to the mountains, and Piotr is drafted into the army. All the weight of imperial authority is used to mould him into an unthinking fighting machine, so that the bewildered peasant can be forced to fight a war as he does not understand, for interests other than his own.
The Doll (Bolesław Prus)
OP note: A classic Polish realist novel.
Bołeslaw Prus is often compared to Chekhov, and Prus’s masterpiece might be described as an intimate epic, a beautifully detailed, utterly absorbing exploration of life in late-nineteenth-century Warsaw, which is also a prophetic reckoning with some of the social forces—imperialism, nationalism, anti-Semitism among them—that would soon convulse Europe as never before. But The Doll is above all a brilliant novel of character, dramatizing conflicting ideas through the various convictions, ambitions, confusions, and frustrations of an extensive and varied cast. At the center of the novel are three men from three different generations. Prus’s fatally flawed hero is Wokulski, a successful businessman who yearns for recognition from Poland’s decadent aristocracy and falls desperately in love with the highborn, glacially beautiful Izabela. Wokulski’s story is intertwined with those of the incorrigibly romantic old clerk Rzecki, nostalgic for the revolutions of 1848, and of the bright young scientist Ochocki, who dreams of a future full of flying machines and other marvels, making for a book of great scope and richness that is, as Stanisław Barańczak writes in his introduction, at once “an old-fashioned yet still fascinating love story . . . , a still topical diagnosis of society’s ills, and a forceful yet subtle portrayal of a tragically doomed man."
Watercolours: A Story from Auschwitz (Lidia Ostałowska)
OP: Non fiction about a Holocaust survivor, from an author with a particular interest in Poland's Roma community.
A Czechoslovakian Jew who was imprisoned at Auschwitz, Dina Gottliebova-Babbitt (1923–2009) was saved by her artistic abilities. Gottliebova painted the walls of the children’s barracks with images of the Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. When Josef Mengele discovered her talent, he commissioned her to paint watercolor portraits of Roma prisoners. After the war, Gottliebova worked as an animator for Warner Brothers for many years, eventually marrying Walt Disney animator Art Babbitt. Many years later, Gottliebova’s Auschwitz paintings were recovered and displayed at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. When the artist requested that her paintings be returned, her request was denied. The dispute escalated into an international scandal with the American and Polish governments becoming involved. Gottliebova passed away in 2009 without having her works returned.
Watercolours is Gottliebova’s story. Journalist Lidia Ostałowska reconstructs Gottliebova’s time in Auschwitz, with an eye to broader issues of historical memory, trauma, racism, and the relationship between torturer and victim. Drawing on hundreds of accounts of the hellish camp, Ostałowska tells the story of one remarkable woman’s incarceration and battle for survival.
A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising (Miron Białoszewski)
OP note: Another non-fiction work, from an eyewitness to the last-ditch attempt of the Polish Resistance to drive out the Nazis before the Soviet occupation. It was the single largest military effort taken by any European resistance movement during World War II.
This book is both a work of memory and a work about memory. Miron Bialoszewski (1922-83), the great avant-garde Polish poet, memorializes the doomed uprising of the Polish population against their Nazi masters which began on August 1, 1944, and was eventually abandoned on October 2, 1944, with the physical destruction of Warsaw, street by street and house by house, and the slaughter of 200,000 civilians.
I know 10 book recs is not enough for a country with such a rich literary field, so here are some more lists for you to browse:
Fiction (and more fiction)
sources 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
what are your picks for this month, ONTD?