Last Updated on October 1 with new books from Fiji, Estonia, Indonesia, Iran, Israel. Read so far: 78 countries!
Afghanistan: Three by Atiq Rahimi | Atiq Rahimi
- Why I chose it: I first learned about Atiq Rahimi through Ann Morgan’s blog. Then a brief web search told me about Rahimi’s reputation, including winning the Prix Goncourt. Given the recent war in Afghanistan, I was intrigued to learn more about this country and its people.
- My thoughts: This book is actually a collection of three short novels: Earth and Ashes, A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear, and The Patience Stone. While each novel is very distinct, they work well in a collection. Earth and Ashes is a sparse, bleak fable that speaks to the impact of war as a father tries to reach his son. It resonates very much today with the situation in Syria. A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear was favourite novel in the collection, a compelling and nuanced view of living through the social and political upheavals of 1979 – upheavals that continue to reverberate to this day. The Patience Stone is an angry polemic against the violence against women living in Islamic fundamentalist society that at the same time speaks to the violence perpetrated against women everywhere.
- More info: Guardian review.
Albania: Chronicle in Stone | Ismail Kadare
- Why I chose it: Kadare is the most renowned novelist in Albania, and often cited as a Nobel Prize candidate. I had first become aware of Kadare when he won the first Man Booker International Prize in 2005, and had read his novel The Siege.
- My thoughts: Based on Kadare’s boyhood experiences in World War II, this is a wry, humane, subtly subversive novel. By using a child’s perspective, Kadare manages to capture the confusion and absurdity of war and the communist dictatorship that would follow. This book also points to the challenge of translations – while this novel was written in 1971 it was only available in English in 1987. I am looking forward to exploring more of Kadare’s work.
- More info: New Yorker
Algeria: Abduction | Anouar Benmalek
- Why I chose it: I sent out a request on Twitter for recommendations, and one person who I follow (@msentropy) suggested this book. Of course if you’ve never read Albert Camus, you should read him too.
- My thoughts: This grimly compelling thriller explores the complex legacy of colonialism and war. This is a harrowing read from start to finish. It made me read up a bit on the history of Algeria including the Algerian War of Independence from 1956 to 1962.
Andorra: Teacher of Cheops | Albert Salvadó
- Why I chose it: There are very limited books available in English from tiny Andorra, as I confirmed when I checked Ann Morgan’s blog. So I went with her pick.
- My thoughts: This is a meticulously researched, highly readable historical novel set in ancient Egypt. Not great literature, but I enjoyed it.
Angola: A General Theory of Oblivion | José Eduardo Agualusa
- Why I chose it: This book was already on my reading list, having been shortlisted the Man Booker International Prize this year (2016).
- My thoughts: This is a truly beautiful and humane book. Like several of the books I’ve read so far, it speaks to the long impact of colonialism and war, and does so with warmth, humour and empathy. It made me realize I know nothing about Angola. I have added Agualusa’s A Book of Chameleons to my future reading list.
- More info: Man Booker International, Independent
Antigua and Barbuda: Unburnable | Marie-Elena John
- Why I chose it: Ann Morgan mentions this book on her blog.
- My thoughts: I did not particularly enjoy this book, and was disappointed by its ending. Nevertheless, I appreciated that it gave me a window into a country and a culture I simply know nothing about.
Argentina: Ghosts | César Aira
- Why I chose it: Argentina of course has a rich literary tradition, and a large body of work in English. César Aira is one of the most renowned and prolific contemporary writers in Argentina, and I had never read this work. Time to start.
- My thoughts: This short novel is both playful and profoundly sad. This is the most avant-garde and stylistically challenging novel I’ve read on my quest so far. I plan to read more of Aira’s books in the future.
Australia: A Narrow Road to the Deep North | Richard Flanagan
- Why I chose it: Flanagan is one of Australia’s leading contemporary writers, and this novel won the Man Booker Prize in 2014.
- My thoughts: While I found the early part of the novel somewhat tedious, the book evolves into a powerful meditation on war and the cruelty of human beings towards each other, and the ways we cope. The book is strongest in its sections set in the Japanese POW camp in WWII. It lead me reading a bit on the Thailand-Burma Death Railway.
Austria: A Whole Life | Robert Seethaler
- Why I chose it: This book was already on my list, having been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize this year (2016).
- My thoughts: This short novel is an deceptively quiet and simple. As with many books I’ve read so far, war provides the backdrop for a beautiful meditation on life, and living. I need to read Seethaler’s book The Tobacconist soon.
- More info: Globe & Mail Review
Azerbaijan: Ali and Nino | Kurban Said
- Why I chose it: Given very limited availability of books from Azerbaijan in English, I was grateful for the recommendation by Ann Morgan on her blog for this one.
- My thoughts: While I found the book’s style overwrought at times, I appreciated the perspective it provides on a part of the world I know very little about, the cultural tensions between East and West, and the competing influences of Russia and Iran.
Bahamas: Pepperpot (story collection)
- Why I chose it: Ann Morgan wrote about this pan-Caribbean story collection, and it was one of the few works I could find from the Bahamas. I also looked forward to taking a break from novels to read a few short stories. .
- My thoughts: The story ‘Mango Summer’ by Janice-Lynn Mather is haunting.
Bahrain: Chronicles of Majnun Layla and Selected Poems | Qassim Haddid
- Why I chose it: This was a recommendation via Twitter by M. Lynx Qualey (@arablit).
- My thoughts: This was a challenging read for me, as the main poem builds on a legend that I’m not familiar with. Nevertheless, these highly narrative poems are often arrestingly beautiful in their language. It made apparent how difficult it can be to bridge the cultural gap between Easter and Western traditions. I’m glad I made the attempt, and grateful for the work of translators everywhere.
- More info: Check out https://arablit.org/
Bangladesh: The Good Muslim | Tahmima Anam
- Why I chose it: I’ve meant to read Anam ever since her first book, The Golden Age, was published to excellent reviews and won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. This book is the second in a trilogy of sorts. The final book, The Bones of Grace, was just published.
- My thoughts: I loved this book. Set in the aftermath of Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971, it depicts the competing forces – both religious and political -of a nation in turmoil through the lives of two siblings. It is exquisitely written, its characters are interesting and nuanced, and the plot picks up momentum towards a thrilling conclusion. Highly recommended.
- More info: Guardian review
Barbados: Pepperpot (story collection)
- Why I chose it: Ann Morgan wrote about this pan-Caribbean story collection, and it was one of the few works I could find from Barbados.
- My thoughts: The story ‘And the Virgin’s Name was Leah’ by Heather Barker is devastating.
Belarus: Wave of Terror | Theodore Odrach
- Why I chose it: In searching for novels from Belarus, I uncovered this book, which was published in 2008 thanks to the translation work of the author’s daughter, Erma Odrach. There is a Canadian connection as Theodore Odrach emigrated to Canada and lived in Toronto. I was intrigued by the reviews of the book that indicated it was based on first-hand accounts of living through Soviet occupation in World War II. As an aside, It is ironic that I chose this book for Belarus – the book makes fun of the fact that Russia chooses arbitrarily to make the town part of the republic of Belarus, even though it is culturally tied to Ukraine, and people only speak Ukrainian.
- My thoughts: This book, while somewhat uneven, is fascinating as it looks at the very beginning of Soviet totalitarian state, and the impact on the lives of ordinary people. The novel has many farcical scenes as people learn how to adapt to new Soviet occupation, yet there is an underlying feeling of dread given what we know about Stalin and the rise of the USSR. The book also feel topical given the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine and the conflict there.
Belgium: Fear and Trembling | Amélie Nothomb
- Why I chose it: I had heard about Nothomb and was intrigued by her work. This book won the Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française so it seemed like a good place to start. Although Nothomb was born in Belgium, she grew up in Japan, and the book is set in Japan. So perhaps this wasn’t the best choice for Belgium, but on the other hand this just reflects the global movement of people between countries and cultures that is so interesting
- My thoughts: The book is tautly written, and is both wryly funny and disturbing. While the book is very much about the cultural challenges of a European navigating Japanese corporate culture, it seems to me that it also speaks to the sexism that women face in the workplace, and the way that bureaucracies that become both absurd and soul-destroying. Highly recommend this one.
Belize: Pepperpot (story collection)
Ann Morgan wrote about this pan-Caribbean story collection, and it was one of the few works I could find from Barbados. The story ‘And the Virgin’s Name was Leah’ by Heather Barker is devastating.
Benin: As She Was Discovering Tigony | Olympe Bhely-Quenum
I was looking forward to reading this one. I had read about Bhely-Quenum being one of the foremost 20th-century authors from Benin, and back in January learned that this book, first published in French in 2000, would be available soon in May in English from Michigan University Press. Waterloo Library ordered it.
In the end though, I was disappointed. Whether due to original writing or the translation, the language is stilted, the dialogue unnatural. It feels like the author has a specific point to make – the exploitation of post-colonial Africa by multinational corporations – and so puts together a story to make this point. The book never came alive for me. I am nevertheless grateful for translators and publishers for making books available in English, and libraries for adding them to their collection.
Bhutan: Tales in Colour | Kunzang Choden
- Why I chose it: Choden is apparently the first person from Bhutanto write in English. Her first novel, The Circle of Karma, is probably her best known book but I decided to read her most recent one.
- My thoughts: This is a wonderful book of connected short stories that reveal the lives of women in a changing world and modern civilization and urbanization encroach on rural Bhutan. This is part of the world I know nothing about, and I enjoyed the gentle, empathetic approach that Choden takes to her characters.
Bolivia: Turing’s Delirium | Edmundo Paz Soldán
- Why I chose it: A cursory search on Bolivian literature surfaced Soldán as one of the leading modern writers. I was intrigued by this book in particular as it was described as sci-fi thriller.
- My thoughts: Given that this book was written in 2002, it is astonishing how contemporary it feels. The book has the pacing of a thriller, while looking dictatorship and its consequences, the impact of globalization and the anti-globalization movement, virtual reality, cyber terrorism (and counter-terrorism), anti-government hackers, not to mention a lot of cryptography history folded in as well. Astonishing that this book was written so many years before wikileaks. Just a joy to read. Highly recommend this one. I will be reading many more of Soldán’s books in the future.
Bosnia & Herzogivina: The Lazarus Project | Aleksandar Hemon
- Why I chose it: I somehow missed this book when it was published in 2008, despite reviews in the NY Times Book Review and The Guardian. Its subject seemed intriguing.
- My thoughts: The book is interesting when it explores the anarchist movement and anti-Semitism in early 20th-century America. I wish the book had spent more time on that story. Instead, the novel feels largely like a failure as it attempts to intertwine that story with a present-day story of a writer retracing that history and his own roots in Bosnia. Often it feels like Hemon is trying too hard to pull the strands of the story together. Ultimately an interesting disappointment.
Botswana: Far and Beyon’ | Unity Dow
- Why I chose it: There are not that many Botswana books available in English, and I had no interest in rereading the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. I was intrigued by the biography of Unity Dow, who is not only an author but has been a human rights activist, first female High Court judge, and now a government minister.
- My thoughts: This is Unity Dow’s first novel but what it lacks in literary sophistication, it makes up for in heartfelt exploration of women’s rights, AIDS, and human rights activism in Botswana.
Brazil: Crow Blue | Adriana Lisboa
- Why I chose it: I found Lisboa on a list of top contemporary writers in Brazil, and this was one of her few books to be available in English. A brief review on The Guardian made me want to read the book anymore.
- My thoughts: This is one of my favourite books so far. The main character, a 13-year old girl, is exceptionally well drawn and her narration is pitch-perfect. I loved how it deftly explores the experience of people moving between cultures and languages, trying to find family and and develop their own sense of identity. In addition the main story of a girl trying to find her father in the US, there is a compelling back story set in the Communist revolution in Brazil in the 1970s. Highly recommended!
Brunei Darussalam: Eventually | Amir Falique
- Why I chose it: Honestly, there just are not many books from Brunei available in English.
- My thoughts: This is a fun, quick read. No real literary value.
Bulgaria: East of the West | Miroslav Penkov
- Why I chose it: A quick search uncovered this book, which was the first by Penkov, and largely positive reviews.
- My thoughts: I really enjoyed this collection of short stories, which explore Bulgaria in various time periods and the impact of political changes on ordinary people, both in Bulgaria and among those who have left for the US. My favourites are ‘East of the West’, ‘Buying Lenin’, and ‘A Picture with Yuki’. Highly recommended.
Burkina Faso: The Parachute Drop| Norbert Zongo
This is a fierce book that looks at tyranny and corruption in a fictional West African nation. It is made all the more powerful by its backstory — the author was a respected journalist and outspoken critic of corruption in Burkina Faso, and was killed in a car bombing in 1998 that almost certainly carried out by the Burkina Faso government. Recommended. Read Ann Morgan’s blog entry on this book here. And buy it from Africa World Press.
Burundi: Weep Not, Refugee | Marie-Therese Toyi
I discovered this one on Ann Morgan’s list, and given the current refugee crisis, it felt very timely. In many ways this feels more like a polemic than a literary novel. I found the episodic narrative sometimes a bit hard to follow. Nevertheless, it shows a world that many of us cannot even imagine through the eyes of people struggling to survive and build a future for themselves.
Cabo Verde: The Last Will & Testament of Senor da Silva | Germano Almeida
This is one of the few books available in English from Cabo Verde, suggested by Ann Morgan on her blog). This is a charming, funny, and poignant story of a man who is both more and less than he seems. The conceit is clever – the story unfolds through the will that the man leaves and is read out after his death, slowly working backwards to reveal himself.
Cambodia: In the Shadow of the Vanyan Tree | Vaddey Ratner
- Why I chose it: This novel received excellent reviews from the The Guardian and The NY Times.
- My thoughts: It is impressive that this beautifully written novel is Ratner’s first. It tells the story from a child’s perspective of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the 1970s. The book provides a clear window into the horrors of that time, offset by a hopeful view on the resilience of human beings to survive. At the heart of the novel is the narrator’s relationship with her father, a poet, and the power of stories to heal and sustain. I highly recommend this book!
Cameroon: How To Cook Your Husband the African Way | Calixthe Beyala
- Why I chose it: Beyala, a Cameroonian-French writer, has won several prestigious awards. This particular novel was available in translation on my Kindle.
- My thoughts: This is a comical, irreverent novel that explores the experience of an African woman living in France.
Canada: Indian Horse | Richard Wagamese
- Why I chose it: Of course being Canadian I’ve read many, many books by Canadian authors. But I’m ashamed that I’ve read very few recently by indigenous Canadians aside from The Orenda (which I highly recommend). I tweeted CBC Books for help, and the pointed me to this excellent list of books from Indigenous Book Club Month.
- My thoughts: I loved this book. An Ojibway man, Indian Horse, tells his life story – and through it, we learn of the horrors of the residential school system, the systemic and casual racism facing indigenous peoples in Canada, the courage required to overcome. The voice of Indian Horse rings true throughout the book to the point where you really feel like he is sitting across from you as he tells his story. This should be required reading for every Canadian.
Central African Republic: Daba’s Travels from Ouadda to Bangui | Pierre Makombo Bamoté
First published in 1966 and translated into English in 1970, this remains one of the very few books from Central African Republic available in English. I discovered it through Ann Morgan’s blog. It provides a fascinating glimpse into life in CAR shortly after it gained independence from France in 1960, through the eyes of a young boy.
As Ann Morgan points out, the book has a distinctly nostalgic feel. This nostalgia rings somewhat false to me – it seems to gloss over both the hardship of traditional life and the impact of colonialism. It is certainly sad knowing what we know now about the history of CAR in the past several decades to the present day.
- Coming soon..!
Chile: Seeing Red | Lina Meruane
- Why I chose it: This web site listed Meruane on a list of contemporary authors.
- My thoughts: Intriguing, stylistically inventive autobiographical novel. Good reviews at World Literature Today and LA Times.
China: Four Books | Yian Lianke
- Why I chose it: Shortlisted for Man Booker International Prize
- My thoughts: A subversive masterpiece of brilliant, scathing satire.
Colombia: Sound of Things Falling | Juan Gabriel Vásquez
My thoughts: A compelling page-turner that is also a fascinating look at the legacy of Pablo Escobar and the drug trade, and a ‘deep meditation on fate and death’ (Edmund White in NY Times Book Review, Aug 1 2013).
Congo: Johnny Mad Dog | Emmanuel Dongala
My thoughts: Bleak, terrifying look at the aftermath of a coup in a West African country. What sets the book apart is its dual narration, alternating between two 16 year-olds, one boy and one girl, in very distinct voices. Scenes of Western embassies closing their gates struck a chord in the current political debate in US and Europe on refugees. See this excellent review in NY Times.
Cote d’Ivoire: Allah is not Obliged | Ahmadou Kourouma
This book is narrated by a 10-year old child soldier during the civil wars of Liberia and Sierra Leone in the 1990s. Unlike a book like Johnny Mad Dog (see listing for Congo above), the outlook of the book is fundamentally bleak, almost nihilistic. There is no hopeful ending here. Everyone is power-hungry, selfish and exploitative. Read this review at the excellent site Words Without Borders.
Croatia: Girl At War | Sara Novic
A harrowing, yet hopeful look at the Yugoslavian civil war in the early 1990s and its last effect on children. The first section, narrated by a 10 year-old girl watching her world fall apart, is particularly compelling. War seems to be most clearly viewed through the eyes of children.
Cuba: Dancing to ‘Almendra’ | Mayra Montero
This novel has a great historical setting, Havana in pre-revolutionary Cuba. Despite this, and some excellent writing in the noir vein, I couldn’t really get into this novel. The gangster intrigue seemed stale and unoriginal.
Cyprus – Gregory And Other Stories | Panos Ioannides
An interesting collection of stories and novellas that cover a wide range of time periods and subjects. Some stories, like Gregory and The Suitcase, feel like classics. Others I didn’t enjoy at all. Nevertheless, a compelling literary tour of Cyprus.
Czech Republic: Judge on Trial | Ivan Klima
Ashamed to say I had not heard of Klima until researching Czech authors. I’ve read Milan Kundera. Klima, who won the Franz Kafka prize, is an equally gifted writer with a very different style.
This book is a long, powerful meditation on the meaning of freedom. It deftly intersects the personal crises of the middle-aged central character with the political crises of the Czech Republic after the Prague Spring of 1968. It is a fascinating look behind the Iron Curtain at those who lived and worked in the Communist regime.
Check out this review.
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea): The Accusation | ‘Bandi’
The book, recently published by Anansi Press, has a backstory almost as compelling as the stories themselves. It was written primarily in the early 1990s by a writer in North Korea only under the pseudonym ‘Bandi’. Only in 2017 was the book smuggled out of the country for publication, and great personal risk not only to the author but to several others as well. It is apparently the only book to have come out of North Korea from a writer still living there.
The stories themselves offer a fascinating window into life under Kim Il-sung’s secretive totalitarian regime. It is harshly critical of the regime and its cruel (and often absurd) impact on the lives of citizens. In this translation by Deborah Smith (who also translated The Vegetarian), the writing is clear and precise.
Read this one!
Democratic Republic of the Congo: Tram 83 | Fiston Mwanza Mujila
This book, translated by Roland Glasser and published by Deep Vellum Press, is a crazy, beautiful view into urban life in the Congo. Set in a mining town, it follows the lives of writers, prostitutes, drug dealers struggling to survive. It manages to find a riotous beauty in these characters and their escapades, while offering a harsh critique of the exploitation of resources and people. It was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2016.
You can read an excerpt here.
Denmark: Of Darkness | Josefine Klougart
Recently published by the stellar Deep Vellum Press, this is the latest book by Klougart who is a young postmodern writer. It is completely different from any book I’ve read. As the publisher says:”Klougart mixes prose, lyric essay, drama, poetry, and images to meditate on death and loss through breathtaking, moving, apocalyptic writing”. It is a very challenging read, especially for someone more used to linear narrative novels.I sometimes struggled to understand it. Nevertheless, this translation by Martin Aitken has contains moments of beautiful and astonishing writing. It left my head spinning. It is a book I want to return to and reread (something I almost never do).
You can read excerpts here.
Djibouti: Passage of Tears |Abdourahman Waberi
This is fascinating book blends multiple genres: political thriller, spy novel, travelogue.
Dominica: Wide Sargasso Sea | Jean Rhys
Normally I’ve been trying to read contemporary fiction. In this case however, I decided to read this classic novel which for some reason I had never read before. Both a prequel and a rewriting of Jane Eyre, the book tells the back story of Bertha Mason, the ‘madwoman in the attic’. This is a brilliant novel. Its shifting narrations, changes in tense, and foreboding tone speak to the oppression of people by others throughout history — slavery, colonialism, racism, patriarchy. If you haven’t read this book, you should.
Dominican Republic: This is How You Lose Her | Junot Díaz
This is a book of connected short stories by the author most famous for his Pulitzer-prize winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The stories, set mostly in the US, revolve around the romantic and familial relationships of the main character, ‘Yunior’. While there’s no way for me to say for sure, the narrator’s voice feels authentic. It is certainly highly readable, funny, and heart-wrenching. Highly recommended.
Ecuatorial Guinea: Shadows of your Black Memory | Donato Ndongo
Set during the final years of Spanish colonial rule, this book looks at the conflict between traditional and colonial culture and religion and how it affects families and individuals.
Egypt: The Queue| Basma Aziz
I was put onto this book through the magic of Twitter, as I asked M. Lynx Qualey (@arablit) for recommendations, who then connected me to translator Lissie Jaquette (@lissiejaquette). Sometimes the Internet works for good!
This debut novel by Basma Abdel Aziz is published by Melville House. It is both a dystopian surrealist novel and a very real (and critical) look at life in the aftermath of Arab Spring and the rise of authoritarianism. This is writing as political protest, and deserves wide readership.
Read this review from the Globe & Mail.
El Salvador: Senselessness | Horacio Castellanos Moya
- This is a stylistically inventive novel that explores the terrible violence of El Salvador in the 1980s through the eyes of a sex-obsessed, paranoid, alcoholic anti-hero. Highly recommended.
Eritrea: The Consequences of Love | Sulaiman Addonia
I read about this book on Ann Morgan’s blog. Happily, it was available at my local library so picked it up. This is the first novel by Addonia, and you can tell. It is an earnest love story, with some arresting scenes marred by overwrought language. Nevertheless, it sheds a light into life in Saudi Arabia from the perspective of Eritrean refugees who fled there during Eritrea-Ethiopia war. Worth reading.
Estonia – The Beauty of History | Viivi Luik
This book, written in the early 1990s as the Iron Curtain fell and Estonia regained independence, is set a generation earlier in 1968 as change sweeps Eastern Europe with the Prague Spring and its repression by the Soviet Union. Unsettled by the events happening around her, the heroine grapples with past, present and future to make sense of things. The novel is written in a poetic, surrealist style that I often found difficult to follow. Nevertheless, it provides a harrowing impression of life under occupation, during a time of political uncertainty and upheaval. See also Ann Morgan’s blog entry on this book.
Ethiopia: All Our Names | Dinaw Mengestu
I had heard about Mengestu as a young up-and-coming writer, but had not yet read him. I was not disappointed. This novel, Mengestu’s third, brilliantly intertwines the stories, told by different narrators, of two friends caught in start of civil war in Uganda with a love story in the US. Together these stories tell of devotion and deception, love and loss. The writing is exceptional – understated and powerful. It is a bit of a stretch perhaps to have read this book for Ethiopia – the book alternates between US and Uganda, and Mengestu came from Ethiopia as a child to the US. Nevertheless, this is an excellent book that I highly recommended.
Fiji – Tales of the Tikongs | Epeli Hau’ofa
This short collection of tales provides a small window into life in the South Pacific in the early days of independence. While the over tone is light-hearted, the stories are often also quite biting, even bitter, towards the loss of culture and self-determination in the pursuit of wealth.
Finland: The Healer | Antti Tuomainen
This is an excellent mystery-thriller, made more interesting by being set in a near-future world beset by environmental apocalypse. Recommended!
France: Eyes Full of Empty | Jeremie Guez
This is an excellent addition to contemporary noir. Like the best noir, it uses a standard mystery plot to take a critical look at society – in this case France divided by race and class. The main character, Idir, is both flawed and likeable. Loved this book. It is the first by Guez to be translated into English. Can’t wait for more!
Gabon: The Moonlight Tales | Edna Merey Apinda
This is a charming collection of fables that I discovered thanks to the Map World Literature blog. While ostensibly written for children, the inclusion of concepts like infidelity and war hints at further depths.
The Gambia: Reading the Ceiling | Dayo Forster
This is an interesting book that explores three very different paths that one woman’s life can take. While the conceit is over-used – think the movie Sliding Doors – it allows Forster to explore the choices that face a girl in a girl in this part of the world, and consider what it means to live a good life.
Germany: The City of Dreaming Books | Walter Moers
This is a very bookish fantasy about the power of books and creativity. I’m not a fan of the fantasy genre, and while I tried to keep an open mind, I found its style cloying. I’m sure others would find it fun and inventive – and maybe I would too at a different time.
Ghana: Ghana Must Go | Taiye Selasi
This book selection stretches my criteria past the breaking point: although the book is partly set in Ghana, the author was born in London, England from Nigerian and Ghanaian parents. But rules are made to be broken right? I’m glad I did this in this case.
It is hard to believe that this is Selasi’s first novel. Much more experienced authors would have trouble delivering on a story this ambitious. The novel starts at the end – with the death of a father – and then traces the lives of his Ghanaian family as his children gather for the funeral. Interestingly, while this NY Times review calls the first section ‘slow’ it was my favourite of the three as the most focused and compelling. This is a worthy addition to many other ‘immigrant’ stories that have been written over the past several years. Highly recommended. Read this excellent review in The Guardian.
Greece: Ersi Sotiropoulos Landscape with Dog
This is an exceptional collection of short stories. With precise, poetic language the stories explore the many ways in which people misunderstand and hurt one another. Every moment feels fraught with the tension, and the threat of violence or danger lurks just beneath the surface. Highly recommended.
Grenada: Merle Collins The Ladies are Upstairs
A strong collection of linked short stories following the life of Doux on the fictional Caribbean island of Paz (presumably a stand-in for Grenada). Most of the stories are quite short and simple but taken together provide a fascinating view into a certain time and place with concerns that echo in the present.
Guatemala: The Polish Boxer | Eduardo Halfon
A beautiful short novel – almost a set of connected stories – that offer encounters and observations that explore how people search to make sense of their lives, the ways in which literature and reality intersect and inform each other, and the mystery of the human experience. Highly recommended.
Guinea: The Radiance of the King | Camara Laye
A literary classic from colonial period of Africa. The novel, which follows the journey of a white man who arrives alone and penniless in an unnamed African country, cleverly turns the stereotypes of the ‘white man in Africa’ inside out. Absurd, funny, and angry. High recommended.
Guinea Bissau: The Ultimate Tragedy | Abdulai Sila
This novel, the first to be translated into English from Guinea Bissau, provides a fascinating window into the period towards the end of Portuguese colonial rule.
Haiti: The Return | Dany Laferrière
This autobiographical novel, in a mix of poetry and prose, traces return of the author from Canada to Haiti on the death of his father. This is a compelling meditation on relationships between fathers and sons, relationships between people and their countries, life in exile.
Honduras: Never Through Miami | Roberto Quesada
A short, comic novel about new immigrants in New York. Irreverent and funny.
Hungary: War and War | László Krasznahorkai
A very challenging novel, often frustratingly so. Sentences go on for pages and pages, in loops that somehow mirror human consciousness. The whole book invokes a feeling of mounting anxiety and disorientation. Not for the faint of heart.
Iceland: Heaven and Hell | Jón Kalman Stefánsoon
I discovered this author thanks to his more recent book, Fish Have No Feet, being longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017. Heaven and Hell is a beautifully written novel set in mid 19th-century Iceland. It follows the life of a character known only as The Boy. This is an adventure story, a coming-of-age story, and a meditation on life. It has as very unique style, reminiscent of Icelandic sagas, told from the perspective of a god-like narrator. Its highly poetic language creates an intense, haunting effect. This is the first book in a trilogy and I’ll be sure to read the others. Highly recommended.
Indonesia: Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash | Eda Kurniawan
Despite the bad title, this book is a fierce, rollicking, fun book. It reads in part like a script for an action movie, with car chases, fights, and sex. It is often very funny. And yet underlying everything is an angry commentary on misogyny and sexual violence. Recommended.
Iran: The Colonel | Mahmoud Dowlatabadi
This fascinating, complex novel looks at contemporary Iran through the eyes of a former soldier and his children, who are all involved in various sides of the political struggles. It is a biting commentary on the failures and cynical compromises of the political left since the Iranian Revolution. The book make me realize how little I understand about the recent political history of Iran, and how much is lost in the simplified news bites we get in Western media. Highly recommended.
Israel: A Horse Walks Into a Bar | David Grossman
This book was the winner of the Man Booker Prize International in 2017. In it, a comic delivers a stand-up routine to an audience that includes several people he new in childhood. What starts as a fairly typical, funny comedy routine turns into something else. A brilliant tour-de-force. Highly recommended.
Italy: Carte Blanche | Carlo Lucarelli
Like all great crime novels, this book uses a crime mystery to explore complex themes of society, politics, and relationships. This is given extra weight here as the novel is set in Italy in 1943, in the dying days of the Fascist government. Thanks to the site Three Monkeys Online for pointing me to this one. Read their review here. I’ve read many international crime novels, and this ranks as one of the best. Highly recommended.
Lybia: The Return | Hisham Matar
A brilliant memoir that feels like many books in one: political polemic, travelogue, family history. The author explores the recent history of Libya through his tireless search for the fate of his father. This thoughtful, beautifully written book is by turns angry, sad, and hopeful. Destined to be a classic. Highly, highly recommended. Thanks to M Lynx Qualey for pointing me to this one. Follow her blog Arabic Literature in English.
Mozambique: The Tuner of Silences | Mia Couto
This brilliant novel follows the story of a boy trying to reconstruct his family history after being closed off in a former big-game park with his father, brother, uncle and a servant for most of his life. This is a strange, beautiful book written in poetic sometimes hypnotic language. It reminds me a bit of Cormac McCarthy with its bleak portrayal of a kind of post-apocalyptic world. Buy this book from Biblioasis. Highly, highly recommended.
Nigeria: Americanah | Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Finally reading this acclaimed book. Like so many of the books I’ve read on this quest, it looks at the life between and across cultures. The story starts and ends in Nigeria, but the bulk of the book takes place in the United States. Through a fairly simple but powerful love story, it explores contemporary Nigeria and the rise of a new middle class, race relations (and racism) in the United States, the tensions that exist as people make their way between and across cultures.
Adichie writes with a sharp eye for detail that brings the story to life. I often forgot I was reading fiction – the characters just seemed completely real. An absorbing, educational, and powerful book.
Peru: War by CandleliItght | Danial Alarcón
Yes, I know I’m skipping ahead! I picked this book up on a whim from a used book store (Old Goat Books here in Waterloo, Ontario) before going on vacation. Published back in 2005, this is a wonderful collection of short stories. Alarcón was born in Peru but raised in Alabama before returning on his own to Lima as a young adult. The stories are set in either Lima or New York and reflect a really interesting movement between cultures and places, often driven by violence. The stories have a journalistic style that is very accessible.
I’ll probably read another book for Peru by a contemporary Peruvian author, but for now I’m glad I found this book. A great reminder to me of how used book stores keep books alive. Sharing is one of many advantages that printed books have over digital versions.
Poland: Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg
Longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017, this wonderful collection of linked coming-of-age stories follows the life of a girl growing up in Poland in the 1980s. The writing, at least in translation, is beautifully understated and precise. Read this excellent review from The Guardian. Highly recommended.