All the world's a book, and all the men and women merely characters
April 16, 2013 4:14 PM   Subscribe

Recommend novels to help me learn more about the world!

Recently, I've read some (fictional) books that told a good story while simultaneously teaching me something about how people outside the U.S. live(d). The ones I'm thinking of are The Kite Runner (Afghan Revolution/ the Taliban), War & Peace (Napoleonic Wars), and A Suitable Boy (post-independence, post-partition India). I'd like to read more books like these!

What books would you recommend that are fictional, yet still cover important events in a country's history? Books written by people from the country in which the book is set are ideal, but I'm open to all suggestions. I'm mainly looking for fiction, but non-fiction books that look at history or current events through the lives of a country's people are fine too (think Behind the Beautiful Forevers).
posted by therumsgone to Education (29 answers total) 63 users marked this as a favorite
Probably my favorite novel that I've read recently is City of Thieves. It gets recommended on AskMe all the time, and for good reason. It tells a tale set during the Nazis' siege of Leningrad.
posted by Durin's Bane at 4:30 PM on April 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

The White Tiger
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 4:32 PM on April 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

Life and Death in Shanghai
posted by nickrussell at 4:33 PM on April 16, 2013

Winds of War and War & Remembrance, Herman Work, is a good approach to WWII, also a darn good read
Regeneration Trilogy, by Pat Barker. Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, The Ghost Road, about WWI. Barker is an excellent writer.
Memoirs of a Geisha
by Arthur Golden
Here's a good list of Historical Fiction from the Guardian
Goodreads is a great resource.
posted by theora55 at 4:38 PM on April 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Homage to Catalonia
posted by pompomtom at 4:42 PM on April 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

The Caligrapher's Daughter, by Eugenia Kim.

I recommended this one in another thread recently, and I think you'll like it too: it covers the life of a Korean woman and her family from Japan's takeover of the country in 1910 to the end of WWII. There's a lot of history covered, but it's done in the context of the changes in the family's circumstances, from their upper-class background to trying to survive the war years.
posted by easily confused at 4:43 PM on April 16, 2013

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Mountains Beyond Montains by Tracy Kidder
posted by dawkins_7 at 4:43 PM on April 16, 2013 [5 favorites]

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck is about modernization in China. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis is about time travel to Medieval England. Charlie Wilson's War is non-fiction but is a really good story where you learn about Pakistan and Afghanistan etc. Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi is a non-fiction autobiography about a girl growing up in Somalia etc., then going to Denmark as a woman.
posted by catquas at 5:44 PM on April 16, 2013

The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz "follows the life of the Cairene patriarch Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad and his family across three generations, from 1919 – the Egyptian Revolution against the British colonizers – to the end of the Second World War in 1944. The three novels represent the three phases of the Cairene socio-political life, a panorama of Egypt, through the life of Abd al-Jawad and his children and grandchildren." (Wikipedia)
posted by Lorin at 5:57 PM on April 16, 2013

Half of A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which is set during the Biafran War in Nigeria.

The Harmony Silk Factory by Tash Aw, set in 1940s British-ruled Malaya.
posted by peripathetic at 6:11 PM on April 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

I keep recommending Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy, which I first read about here on Metafilter, because it's really that good. Everyone I've recommended it to has been as impressed with it as I was. It is non-fiction but reads very much like a novel (in a similar way, I think, to Behind the Beautiful Forevers). I read it nearly two years ago and it is still vivid in my memory.

from the official description:
In NOTHING TO ENVY, Demick follows the lives of six people: a couple of teenaged lovers courting in secret, an idealistic woman doctor, a homeless boy, a model factory worker who loves Kim Il Sung more than her own family and her rebellious daughter.

Demick spent six years painstakingly reconstructing life in a city off-limits to outsiders through interviews with defectors, smuggled photographs and videos. The book spans the chaotic years that saw the death of Kim Il-sung, the unchallenged rise to power of his son Kim Jong-il, the devastating effects of a famine that killed an estimated twenty percent of the population, and an increase in illegal defections.

While many books focus on the North Korean nuclear threat, NOTHING TO ENVY is one of the few that dwells on what everyday life is like for ordinary citizens. With remarkable detail, Demick brings to life what it means to be living under the most repressive totalitarian regime in the world today. She gives a portrait as vivid as walking oneself through the darkened streets of North Korea.

posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 6:20 PM on April 16, 2013

Santa Evita was pretty interesting for a take on Argentina and Evita Peron.
posted by mannequito at 6:27 PM on April 16, 2013

They were published in the late 1800s so they're a bit out of date, but Noli Me Tangere (free version) and El Filibusterismo AKA The Reign of Greed (Free version) are a pair of novels by Jose Rizal, the Filipino "Father of his country," about the injustice of the 300-year Spanish occupation and the way it affected the Filipino people. They portray a fictional uprising against Spanish rule. Spanish authorities sparked an actual uprising against Spanish rule when they executed him for writing those subversive books. To this day they're both still required reading in schools throughout The Philippines.

Those two are probably less gripping reading than modern thrillers, though.
posted by Sleeper at 6:44 PM on April 16, 2013

Love this thread!

I also recently read City of Thieves and it's great. I read Memoirs of a Geisha in high school and enjoyed it.

A coworker recommended Cutting for Stone and it's fabulous. It takes place mostly in Ethiopia.

Little Bee take place partly in New York and partly in Africa. You learn a lot about the African girl's life.
posted by radioamy at 7:19 PM on April 16, 2013

For Russian history: Olga Grushin's The Dream Life of Sukhanov (which someone recommended to me on metafilter ages ago) or The Line, both are fantastic. Also Bulgakov's bizarre and wonderful The Master and Margarita is obviously fantastical, but it's very much metaphorically about a specific time and place. As to nonfiction, it's impossible to oversell Volkov's St. Petersburg: A Cultural History.

If you want historical sci-fi, any of Connie Willis's time travel novels are delightful — To Say Nothing of the Dog (Victorian England) is a great place to start, but they can be read in any order — Blackout/All Clear are about the London Blitz, and Doomsday Book is about the black plague. Actually, you might want to start with Fire Watch, her short novella (available online at that link).

And if you're up for a lyrical memoir, Beryl Markham's West With The Night is outstanding.
posted by you're a kitty! at 7:38 PM on April 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and a Tale of Two Cities.

Also, reading Gone With the Wind is basically as close as you can get to experiencing the life of aristocratic (?) southerners and the Civil War without a time machine.
posted by windykites at 7:43 PM on April 16, 2013

Oh and, have you already read The Diary of Anne Frank?
posted by windykites at 7:45 PM on April 16, 2013

It's not fictional, but it reads like a novel, and I learned an life's worth about life from The Education of Henry Adams.
posted by vecchio at 8:12 PM on April 16, 2013

Ken Follett's Fall of Giants and Winter of the World, covering life in the UK, Germany, and Russia during the First and Second World Wars. Basically, Follett takes various major historical events (e.g., Battle of the Somme, Russian Revolution) and places his characters smack dab in the middle of them. At the same time, Follett writes in exquisite detail about the everyday life of his characters, for example, life in a small, Welsh mining town at the turn of the 20th century.

Len Deighton's Winter: A Berlin Family, 1899-1945 covers similar ground, but with greater focus on life in Germany.
posted by Bokmakierie at 8:16 PM on April 16, 2013

I'm not sure many of these meet your criteria exactly but they're in the ballpark.

The first one I thought of was George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman series. They are not, I repeat, not for the fainthearted, as they follow the comical adventures of a seriously awful British Empire buffoon as he cavorts his way across the Empire. But Fraser is making a point, I think, about what it was like to be ruled by Britain during very formative colonial times, and Flashman ends up a lot of historical and cultural and military turning points that I, even as someone who enjoys history, had never heard of.

Candide might be another candidate. It's pretty massively influential in terms of popular culture, but it is also a great satirical novel that covers a lot of Enlightenment ideas that were popular at the time of writing. It's kind of more a history of philosophy novel than a history novel, but it's entertaining and wonderful.

Things Fall Apart is a lyrical, beautifully written classic that covers the arrival and influence of Christian missionaries from the perspective of an Igbo native.

If you haven't read The Grapes of Wrath yet, that's sort of the seminal novel on the Great Depression, and well worth a read.

The Terror
is about Franklin expedition to find the Northwest Passage, which I didn't know a thing about until I read it. It's a novelization with some interesting fictional twists, but Simmons really captures the combined soul-cracking boredom and terror of being trapped out on the ice. Good stuff.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom is probably fictional enough to count as a novel, even if it was originally published as all-fact. It's Lawrence of Arabia's memoir of the Arab uprisings during WW2, aided and assisted by him.

Ironfire is a heartbreaking action adventure novel that deals with the Siege of Malta in 1565. I don't know if that qualifies as a historical turning point, but it's a ripping good yarn and really gives you a taste of what Ottoman and Christian enmity meant in the 16th century in ways that are still echoing through Western culture.

Also, not fiction, but reads like fiction and is just bloody wonderful: Beryl Markham's memoir West with the Night covers a British-born white African woman, who became the first female pilot in Africa and mixed freely with the Happy Valley set (who were in many ways the first "leisure guests" of Africa.) It definitely deals with minor historical benchmarks, many of them set by Beryl herself, but also gives a revealing and wonderful flavor to the context of African colonialism.

And last but not least, I'm not sure how much interest you have in English Renaissance-era history (although it was staggeringly influential, turns out, on the intellectual developments of the next several hundred years), but when it comes to historical novels, I always have to recommend the great Lymond Chronicles. It is frequently joked among fans that if you manage to make it through them, you come out the other side with a history degree.
posted by WidgetAlley at 9:04 PM on April 16, 2013 [4 favorites]

I'm surprised that nobody has yet mentioned Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels (Master and Commander, and so forth). A great read, with rock-solid historical and cultural setting. In the introduction to the first one, O'Brian mentions that all the naval battles are real battles which he has rewritten from contemporary accounts -- on the grounds that he couldn't make up anything more impressive than the contemporary reality!
posted by pont at 9:48 PM on April 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Alan Furst novels, for life in Europe up to (and including) WWII.
posted by Rash at 10:39 PM on April 16, 2013

Midnight's Children is wonderful and so evocative of Bombay (Mumbai). It covers a similar time period to A Suitable Boy, but a rather different perspective.
posted by peacheater at 5:59 AM on April 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I quite enjoyed Edward Rutherfurd's New York: The Novel. It followed the history of the city from its Dutch founders to almost present day, tracing a family line and incorporating many of the city's major milestones. It appears he also has books on Dublin, London, Moscow and Paris.
posted by Liesl at 6:52 AM on April 17, 2013

Amitov Ghosh's Ibis trilogy (set at the beginning of the Opium Wars) paints an amazingly rich picture of what it was like to live in the globalizing nineteenth century.
posted by LeeLanded at 6:58 AM on April 17, 2013

Lark Rise to Candleford, Flora Thompson's semi-autobiographical account of an English countryside village at the turn of the 20th century, an important time because of industrialization and urbanization in England.

Fifth Business, by Robertson Davies, the story of a man from small-town Ontario and his experiences as a Canadian fighting in France during WWI and as a teacher in a Canadian boys school.
posted by CheeseLouise at 10:42 AM on April 17, 2013

My Brilliant Career (about a fiesty and somewhat snarky young woman growing up in regional NSW) and Picnic at Hanging Rock (spoooky disappearance of a bunch of private boarding school girls) are good if you're interested in learning something about Australian history.
posted by Jilder at 12:36 PM on April 17, 2013

Tahmima Anam's "A Golden Age" sets it's tale around the Bangladeshi war of independence in 1971 and paints a vivid picture.
posted by inbetweener at 1:06 PM on April 17, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great answers, everyone! I'm not marking any of these as best answer, as that would mean I'd have to mark each one.

Some that I've read and loved are Gone With the Wind, The Poisonwood Bible, Things Fall Apart, and Memoirs of a Geisha. I picked up A Fine Balance as my next read, and I've added a ton of these to my to-read list!
posted by therumsgone at 8:00 AM on May 7, 2013

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