The best me-against-the-world books

The Books I Picked & Why

Goat Days

By Benyamin

Book cover of Goat Days

Why this book?

In early 2016 I stayed in Kochi, Kerala, in the south of India, working on a novel. There I came across the local bestseller Goat Days by the Bharein-based Indian author, Benyamin, and was totally blown away. It's a powerful tale of a young Indian worker named Najeeb Muhammad, who, like many of his countrymen, goes to work in Saudi Arabia, dreaming of earning some money for his family back home. His dream turns into a nightmare when he is taken as a slave to a remote desert farm where he has to take care of the goats and dwell among them. He is forced to live alone in the desert with all its hardships, sandstorms, heat, and general dryness, treated like an animal by his Saudi master. Still, hope prevails. This is one of the ultimate "me-against-the-world" books. Its strength is underlined by the fact that it's banned in the Emirates and Saudi Arabia.


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Once Upon A Time in the East: A Story of Growing up

By Xiaolu Guo

Book cover of Once Upon A Time in the East: A Story of Growing up

Why this book?

The great Chinese British powerhouse writes about her childhood in a poor coastal village in post-Mao’s China where she’s made to live with her grandparents and life is rough and hard, especially for a girl. It’s a very atmospheric tale, that paints a vivid picture of this incredible society. It’s also a Cinderella story, about a suffering child that, thanks to incredible stubbornness and stamina, rises up to become one of the twelve (out of a million or so) applicants that are accepted into the Chinese Film School in Beijing each year. She later moves to England and her descriptions of the west are super fresh and priceless.


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Woman at Point Zero

By Nawal El Saadawi, Sherif Hetata

Book cover of Woman at Point Zero

Why this book?

A feministic milestone, a must-read for all activists and people engaged in the battle for a better society. It tells the story of Firdaus, a young woman coming of age in the male-dominant Egyptian society, who never eyes an escape from the hardships and trials imposed on her by senseless men. It’s such a strong description of women as an underclass, as slaves in a male dominant society, that it changes your basic outlook on life. “Every single man I did get to know filled me with but one desire: to lift my hand and bring it smashing down on his face.– Firdaus


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Römische Tage

By Simon Strauss

Book cover of Römische Tage

Why this book?

Germans have been in love with Italy since always, a love that found its culmination with Goethe’s famous Italienische Reise in 1816. It’s a love that lasts forever, for it’s a love that never finds fulfillment. Germans are like the stuffed up straight guy who’s in love with a lively beauty above their level, that is Italy; they’re forever stuck in the moment of enchantment, they can never grasp or really fathom their love, let alone turn it into a real affair or just begin to understand this incredible woman. Promising young German writer Strauss takes up residence in the famous Via Corso in Rome (close to Casa di Goethe), and tries to make his moment come alive under the heavy burden of history. Maybe not as urgent or dramatic as the other four books, but still here we have a one man-boy against all of Rome, all of our western cultural tradition.


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Hunger

By Knut Hamsun

Book cover of Hunger

Why this book?

The quintessential me-against-the-world book, the model that all later attempts are measured against. Knut Hamsun’s description of himself as a hunger-stricken artist in 1890’s Christiania (modern day’s Oslo) manages to create such reading hunger in the reader that he will almost refer to this book as his first real meal. The prose is simply electric. Imagine incredible Norway at around 1900 when this small nation could pride itself of four world-class artists: Henrik Ibsen (born 1828), Edvard Grieg (born 1843), Edvard Munch (born 1863), and Knut Hamsun (born 1859).


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