How’s it going with my Reading All Around the World project? At the beginning of the year, I was really inspired and read more than my goal of one per month. Lately I’ve drifted away from these international reads, but I’d really like to get back to them.
Here’s the list so far — in reverse order of my reading, starting with a new release this month.
Anxious People by Fredrik Backman, translated by Neil Smith (Sweden) — I requested this new book by the bestselling Swedish author from Netgalley because I thought it would be perfect for my project, but it turns out there is not much local color to it other than some jokes about “Stockholmers.” Still, I enjoyed this funny and character-full novel that starts off with a bank robbery gone wrong and romps a screwball comedy sort of path through some serious subjects, like divorce, suicide, depression and mental illness, and manages to be heartwarming rather than flippant or trivial. I’ll be looking for another book by Backman that may give me more of a sense of Swedish life.
Habibi by Naomi Shihab Nye (Israel/Palestine) — Nye, an accomplished poet who is the daughter of a Palestinian father and American mother, drew on her own adolescent experiences for this novel about a girl whose family moves to Israel. Liyana’s adjustment to her new life and culture and her first experiences of friendship-turning-to-love with a Jewish boy are sensitively and poetically portrayed.
Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor (Ireland) — A historically inspired drama that moves back and forth between the famine-ridden Ireland and a ship taking emigrants away to America. To learn about the tragic history of that era was fascinating (though horrifying), but I was less impressed by the sometimes contrived and pretentious “literary” trappings. The “document collection” premise did not work so well as in O’Connor’s Shadowplay, which I loved; it was too unbelievable, which distracted and annoyed me rather than being a playful enhancement.
The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain (Switzerland) — As I wrote already in my monthly review post, “I’ve no idea what connection British author Rose Tremain may have with Switzerland, or why she chose it as a setting for her novel, but from my foreigner’s point of view I think she did a good job at capturing some of the character of the Swiss, their strength and their vulnerability, and the conflicting realities behind the surface image that they like to present.”
In Pursuit of Disobedient Women by Dionne Searcey (various countries of West Africa, especially Nigeria and Senegal) — An interesting glimpse behind the scenes of a reporter’s life — the author was the West African bureau chief for the New York Times and was involved in covering the Boko Haram atrocities, among other fascinating but often overlooked stories. I was less taken with the portions about Searcey’s personal life, which I think could either have been given more consideration and thoughfulness, or left out altogether.
The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sunya Massey (India) — I was not that impressed by this popular historical mystery about a woman lawyer in 1920s Bombay. There were many interesting things to learn about this era, but the characters fell flat for me.
Married to Bhutan by Linda Leaming (Bhutan) — A memoir by a woman who fell in love with the tiny mountain country and ended up spending her life there. Interesting as an outsider’s perspective, though it would be good to read more from a native-born writer.
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (Iceland) — Beautifully written, harrowing, and full of a sad awareness of the fragility of life, this left me with a real sense of what it would be like to live in 19th century Iceland — and extremely glad that I don’t have to.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (Korea/Japan) — Usually I try to choose books that primarily represent one country, but this one is about the intersection between countries and cultures, linked by war, cultural dominance, and emigration. I didn’t know about Korean immigrants as an underclass in Japan, and this multigenerational saga brought that history to life.
All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes by Maya Angelou (Ghana) — As part of her full and amazing life, Angelou spent some time living in Africa, looking for her roots and a sense of home there. This proved elusive, but her experiences are, as always, told in a marvelously colorful and humanly embracing way.
The House of the Spirits (translated by Magda Bogin) and My Invented Country (could not find the translator) by Isabel Allende (Chile) — Allende’s first novel is the one that put her on the literary map, a semi-autobiographical tale of a Chilean family in turbulent historical times, written in a dreamy, fanicful style known as “magical realism”. I actually enjoyed her memoir more, as it revisits some of the same settings and people as the novel but with a personal (and non-fantastical) perspective.
It’s been quite a trip! Have you read any of these? What other books from countries I’ve not yet visited would you recommend?