I decided a few years ago to start reading my way around the world because, as you may know, my nerdliness knows no bounds. I chose maybe 5 to 10 books from each country (mostly those I could find for free through Hoopla or my local library) that were set in each country, and preferably written by an author from the country. I went in order of population, but skipped the US since I live here and I’m now reading books by state. These are a few books from each of the first five countries (minus the US) that stand out in my memory, because book lists are fun! I’ll probably do the next five in another post.
Books from China
The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck
This book is not written by a Chinese person but rather by a western missionary who lived in China, I believe. That being said, it is one of my favorite books ever, with flawed, interesting, and memorable characters, and a plot that basically tells the story of a family over many years, while also describing many aspects of historical life in China (pre-communism).
Snowflower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See
The descriptions of foot-binding made me ill and I thought about it for many days, so if you’re sensitive to reading about little girls being subjected to extreme pain, you may want to skip that part, or the entire book. Aside from that, I loved this book. It explores a deep friendship between two girls as they grow up during a time when life in China was much different from today.
Empress Orchid, by Anchee Min
This was a fun read, describing the life of a young girl selected to be a concubine who grew to assume power in ancient China. Historical fiction, but based on the life of a real historical figure – Empress Dowager Cixi.
Red Scarf Girl, by Ji-Li Jiang
This was a memoir of the life of a woman who was very young when communism was beginning to take hold – she joined the party (around 12 or 13 years old) and the book details her experiences and the experiences of those around her resulting from the rise of communisms in the 1960’s. It is a straightforward, plainspoken account from the point of view of a young person as she enthusiastically embraces the ideology of communism, and then slowly begins to question it as the terrors of communism-in-practice unfold around her.
Books from India
The Tiger Ladies, by Sudha Koul
I really enjoyed reading about what life in Kashmir was like before it was torn apart. It seemed so idyllic and beautiful, and the author recreates the world in such a way that her nostalgia is palpable, as is the lost setting of this beautiful area in the Himalayas before it became a flashpoint between India and Pakistan.
The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga
This story of a man born into poverty in India who works (and murders) his way to success, was dark but not so dark that it wasn’t enjoyable to read. It certainly painted a clear picture of class differences in India and to me felt like a very believable scenario.
The Accidental Apprentice, by Vikras Swarup
This lesser known book by the author of Slumdog Millionaire is.. well… not as good as Slumdog millionaire. But, it had an interesting (albeit unlikely) premise that the CEO of a multi-million dollar company selects a random girl to inherit his business and subjects her to 7 tests to see if she is worthy of it. Sort of strange, fun to read, but a weird ending.
Books from Indonesia
The Red Bekisar, by Ahmad Tohari
I immediately enjoyed the vivid description of the setting in this book – a small village of people who made a living (barely) by tapping palm oil to make sugar to sell. It follows a young woman who leaves the village to find herself turned into a “bekisar” (a fancy bird that adorns rich households) for wealthy men. Although there was a lot of poverty, the description of the village was very appealing. The book did have some important things to say about Indonesia – but it was also reminiscent of an Indonesian version of a telenovela at times. I really enjoyed it.
Beauty is a Wound, by Eka Kurniawan
This was an interesting and super weird book about a woman who is a beautiful prostitute, and later a ghost. I basically kept reading to see what the next weird thing was going to be. My understanding is that it is reminiscent of folk tales and traditional Indonesian shadow puppet plays, which was probably why it struck me as so unfamiliar. It was also a critique of various elements of Indonesian history – colonialism, mass murder, dictatorship, etc., which could certainly be understood, but can be better appreciated if you know something about Indonesian history.
The Girl from the Coast, by Pramoedya Ananta Toer
The story of a beautiful young girl from a fishing village who finds herself in an arranged “marriage” to a wealthy man and at home (confined) in his mansion. It is beautifully written, sad, and insightful. It is loosely based on the author’s grandmother’s early life.
Books from Pakistan
The Pakistani Bride, by Bapsi Sidhwa
I loved this book, though a few parts were hard to read. It was fascinating in terms of describing a very different culture, but it also explored the characters in ways that made them easy to relate to, and the universality of being trapped within the histories, expectations, and foibles of one’s culture. It was the story of a tribesman who moves to Lahore and adopts a daughter, then betroths her years later to a tribesman whose culture is very different from her own. It is high action, but also does thoughtfully examine certain elements of Pakistan in depth, including the violent separation from India, the intensity of the patriarchy, and the varied (and sometimes clashing) cultures of those from different areas of the country. It contains beautiful descriptions of the Kohistan region especially.
Cracking India, also by Bapsi Sidhwa
This was a look at the partition of India in the 1940’s through the eyes of a young girl who meets a wide array of characters through her well to do parents, and especially through her Ayah (nanny), who is a very central character. Again, there are some very difficult sections in terms of violence, but also a lot of lighthearted humor from the innocence of a child’s perspective. I really enjoyed it.
The Upstairs Wife, by Rafia Zakaria
Another one written about adult subjects from the perspective of a child, this book explored the situation and feelings of a first wife who is essentially left behind for a second wife. It was sort of a sad read, and also showed the dark side of the Islamitization of Karachi, especially for women.
Books from Brazil
The Seamstress, by Francis de Pontes Peebles
I love this author’s writing, so much in fact that I included both of her novels in this list. I know others found them too long, and they are long, but I read them quickly because I enjoyed them so much and could have kept going! The Seamstress is about a young lady who basically joins a band of rebels and lives with them in the desert, while her sister lives in the city as the wife of a wealthy man. It is set in the 1920’s.
The Air You Breath, also by Francis de Pontes Peebles
What can I say, I love this lady’s writing. This one is about a band, including the star and the song writer, as they come of age together and become successful. I would say it is about friendship, connection, and finding meaning and joy in life (or failing to do so).
The Invisible Life of Eruidice Gusmao, by Martha Batalha
An odd and interesting little book about a wife who finds many passions and is successful at all of them, until she has to give them up due to the disapproval of her husband. There were also parts about her sister, also unhappy due to her marriage, and about the bond of the sisters. It was apparently set in the 1940’s when womens’ roles were more restricted, and that certainly came through as a theme. I really liked Eruidice’s character.
Nemesis: One Man and the Battle for Rio, by Misha Glenny
This was an interesting look at the life of a drug lord in the favelas of Rio, written by a journalist who researched extensively and interviewed Nem many times in prison. I didn’t feel that it particularly vilified him or that it was terribly sympathetic – it was just the story of a human. It was certainly enlightening in regards to the favelas – their history and aspects of life there.