Leiden International Studies Blog

Winter vacation reading tips

Winter vacation reading tips

What are you reading these Christmas holidays? Check the tips from your lecturers at International Studies and (ask Santa to) order at your local bookstore!


Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1994)
Recommended by Walter Nkwi Gam

This important book illustrates Africa or Igbo society in its original setting long before colonialism.

How Europe Underdeveloped Africa by Walter Rodney (1981)
Recommended by Walter Nkwi Gam

This key publication shows the damaging effects of European capitalism on Africa.


Language and the Woman’s Place by Robin Tolmack Lakoff, edited by Mary Bucholtz (2004 [1973])
Recommended by Eduardo Alves Vieira

According to many specialists, Language and the Woman’s Place (LWP) is the foundation for the intersectionality of language and gender studies. The 2004 edition is particularly refreshing because it brings comments by the author where she re-contextualizes the text written in 1973 showing that the book remains indispensable. Likewise, it has commentaries from different scholars explaining the contexts and concepts of the book, as well as how LWP and Lakoff’s writings have influenced the academic debate on femininities, power, woman’s places, and sexualities.

The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon (1961)
Recommended by Sai Englert and Walter Nkwi Gam

Easily one of the most important texts of the 20th century, the Wretched of the Earth is a collection of Fanon’s reflections on imperialism, colonialism, and the struggle against it. Mixing political, economic, and social thought, the book was aimed at a mass audience struggling for independence and written from the perspective of Fanon’s own participation in the struggle for Algerian decolonization.

Gay Propaganda: Russian Love Stories edited by Masha Gessen and Joseph Huff-Hannon (2014)
Recommended by Kati Cousijn

I enjoyed reading this book very much. It brings together original stories, interviews and testimonial, presented in both English and Russian, to capture the lives and loves of LGBT Russians living both in Russia and in exile today.

Man’s Search for Meaning (1946) Viktor Frankl
Recommended by Jessica Elias

What would a psychologist stuck in a concentration camp observe about the human experience? Frankl was an accomplished psychologist before he was detained and taken to Auschwitz and perhaps that fact is what kept him alive long enough to transmit his findings to the readers of this book. An interesting short read for students looking to find purpose when their surroundings are not exactly how they want them to be (think Auschwitz!)

Shadow King


The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste (2019)
Recommended by Anne Marieke van der Wal

The much praised and recently shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize, Mengiste’s ‘Shadow King’ does what Fiction can do for the historical narrative, it leaves aside historical explanation and instead creates space for the personal reflections, emotions, dreams and aspirations of the historical characters involved. Through the characters of Hirut and Aster, Mengiste writes the story of the forgotten female soldiers who fought in Haile Selassie’s army against the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Whereas the historical facts of the unimaginable atrocities committed by the Italian army are not absent from the story, the book’s main aim is an exploration of female power and tenacity. As such Mengiste writes an inspirational story of female determination as well as gives a voice to the subaltern of Ethiopia’s recent past.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (2014)

Recommended by Astrid van Weyenberg.

In this very topical novel, a flu pandemic wipes out 99% of humanity. But not all is lost. We follow the Travelling Symphony, a band of actors and musicians who perform Shakespeare and who take their motto from Star Trek: "survival is insufficient". There is also a mysterious comic book titled Station Eleven which takes on an important role in the unfolding narrative. Ultimately, the novel is not about how a pandemic wipes out a large part of humanity, which would be a rather bleak message to give our students under the current circumstances. Rather, the novel shows the importance of art and culture for humanity. Now that is a message that I wholeheartedly support!

The Corpse Washer by Sinan Antoon (2013)

Recommended by Judith Naeff

This is a beautiful piece of fiction about life and loss in post-invasion Iraq, centering on a young man who desires to embrace life and the arts, but finds himself forced to return to the profession of his father and grandfather: to wash and shroud the dead. An additional reason to read this book in the coming weeks is that it would allow you to join the MENA reading group’s first session on 5 February 2021, an informal space to talk about literature from and about the Middle East and North Africa. Please sign up at j.a.naeff@hum.leidenuniv.nl .

Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)

Recommended by Judith Naeff

This is one of those classics that everyone should read at some point in their lives, and what better moment than after a year in which the Black Lives Matter movement got momentum and international support? A rich and intense narration of the devastating trauma of slavery in which the supernatural is such a self-evident presence that ordinary life after closing the novel seems rather empty without the dead. Beautiful prose permeated by the deep-seated pain of loss and suffering.

Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami (2020)

Recommended by Casper Wits

A fascinating look at three women in modern-day Japan, dealing with such issues as single motherhood; hostess bars; and growing up poor in Osaka.

Inspector O series by James Church (2006-2016)

Recommended by Casper Wits

A series of crime novels centred on North Korean detective Inspector O. Through the adventures of Inspector O and the Pyongyang police squad we get a unique insight into the seedy underbelly of DPRK society. Recommended for its accurate depiction of North Korean life and crime, and as a window into the humanity (despite everything) of the North Koreans. James Church (a pseudonym) is assumed to be a former spy in charge of the North Korea desk at the CIA, which explains his extremely detailed knowledge of the country and its people.

Human Acts by Han Kang (2014)

Recommended by Casper Wits

Perhaps the most important novel in South Korea that deals with the 1980s democratization movement and its place in Korean society. Han focuses on the Gwangju massacre and its reverberations by looking at different interconnected stories of those who lived through it.

Gibran Khalil Gibran

The Prophet (1923) Gibran Khalil Gibran
Recommended by Jessica Elias

There is little wisdom that Gibran did not share in this tiny book. He does it in small sections by way of conversation between a mysterious prophet walking in the sands of a timeless city and the locals asking him to tell them about friendship, work, pleasure, etc. If you don’t feel like reading, you can also have an intimate narration by Thandie Newton as Gary Tarn directs footage from Serbia, New York, Milan, Lebanon and London. It is the kind of book you get online for free so you can refer to it like you would a dictionary (of life matters). Perhaps it is the only book that I know by heart in English/Arabic/even as a song by Feyruz. Disclaimer: There is no telling for how many years you will keep discovering new understandings and how many loved ones will receive this book as a gift from you!

Men in the Sun by Ghassan Kanafani (1962)
Recommended by Sai Englert

A powerful short novel, usually published alongside other short stories by the same author, Men in the Sun tells the story of three Palestinian refugees in Iraq trying to get to Kuwait for work. It is a powerful story of migration, dispossession, and struggle and touches on important themes of the political economy of the MENA region. Kanafani was an active participant in the Palestinian struggle for liberation and the book also has an important symbolic quality to it. The book was turned into a movie, The Dupes [Al-Makhdu'un] (Tawfiq Saleh, 1972), that received wide ranging critical acclaim in the early 1970s and is well worth watching.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler (1993)
Recommended by Bram Ieven

I am an avid science fiction reader and Octavia Butler is one of my all-time favorites. There’s much to choose from (I would recommend the xenogenesis trilogy, though it’s rather long) but Parable of the Sower is both a classic and quite topical.

The heroine of the story is the highly empathic African American teenager Lauren Oya Olamina, who chronicles her life in a deeply racist and unequal world destroyed by climate catastrophe and political fascism. It is not a pretty sight and not an easy read: it might affect your own mood and I would advise you not to read this if you are not feeling well and in good spirit. But the truth of the matter is, Lauren is a deeply empathic character whose enduring effort to build-up a new, more inclusive community in the aftermath of catastrophe is absolutely inspiring. Lauren was and is a role model. We need more people like Lauren.

Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges (1935-1983) including two tips:

Ficciones (Borges, 1944)
Recommended by Dennis Bus

A classic and a must read for anyone interested in Latin American literature and for anyone interested in literature more generally. A collection of short stories that might be considered post-modern before it’s time.

The Aleph (Borges, 1949)
Recommended by Jessica Elias

Borges traces infinity and what that would mean to the human finite experience in this book… Try to see if you could locate this quote and put it in the wonderful context it belongs to!

“Like Cornelius Agrippa, I am god, hero, philosopher, demon, and world – which is a long-winded way of saying that I am not.”

Amulet by Roberto Bolaño (1999)
Recommended by Dennis Bus

Centred around the Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico of 1968, we follow Auxilio (help, in Spanish) as she wanders through time and space in Mexico City. This novel is not only a reflection on the traumatic nature of this event in Mexico, but establishes a connection to the fate of Latin America more in general.

Zambra and Calvino

Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra (2006)
Recommended by Dennis Bus

A more recent critically acclaimed author internationally, Bonsai is a short novel that has been snipped, cared for and curated in the same way a bonsai tree would be. This is a love story in miniature: only the essential elements of the story remain.

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (1924)
Recommended by Morena Skalamera

A book that I think would be interesting to read over the winter break (if, admittedly not a "light" reading) is Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain. I like its allegorical style, the story is very creative and interwoven with philosophical discussions about the conception of time, identity, and other essential issues presented in a subtle manner, as if they were effortlessly embedded in the plot. I also think that the Davos mountain setting is nice for a Christmas reading.

The Baron in the Trees (1957) Italo Calvino
Recommended by Jessica Elias

A young baron climbs a tree one day and disappears into a fictional life where he can travel the forests of the world as long as his feet do not touch the ground, or so his brother says.

Verzet by various authors (2020)
Recommended by Judith Naeff

Are you an international student and interested in delving into the literature of your host country? Apart from the dusty canon usually included in online lists of recommended Dutch literature in English translation (Harry Mülisch, W.F. Hermans, Gerard Reve), I suggest selecting a piece of fiction by one of these younger and less well known authors, such as the absurd short stories in the collection The Dandy by Nina Polak.

Graphic novel

Big Black: Stand at Attica by Frank "Big Black" Smith, Jared Reinmuth, Améziane (Illustrations) (2020). Recommended by Bart van der Steen

This graphic novel tells the story of the Attica Prison riot, which lasted from September 9 to 13 in 1971. In response to the brutal conditions of the prison, a group of inmates took their jailers hostage and demanded improvement. Instead, the prison revolt was forcefully repressed, resulting in the deaths of 33 prisoners.