Around the World in Eighty Pages
December 30, 2013 8:01 PM   Subscribe

I am trying to read my way around the globe. Can you please recommend me international fiction/memoirs that frame the contemporary culture, customs, and values of the country that it is set in?

I have so far read and liked:

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles (wasn't relevant to culture, but beautiful descriptions of the landscape of Northern Africa) and
The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk (Turkish culture/high society in the '70s)

I am now starting The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al-Aswany (present-day Egypt). A book I have in queue is Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick.

I realize that there is no substitute for being able to travel and actually meet people from other countries; however, time and money does not allow, so I am attempting what I think is the next best thing. Just to clarify, I am not looking looking for travel memoirs/travelogues.

Thank you all in advance!
posted by sevenofspades to Society & Culture (12 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
A Year of Reading the World may be helpful, either for suggestions or for comparison as you take a path through different stuff. (I'm sure I read about it here somewhere, but I can't find the post.)
posted by Monsieur Caution at 8:35 PM on December 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Cutting for Stone is about Ethopia (and is also a lovely story)

Americanah takes place partly in the US and partly in Nigeria, and tells a lot about Nigeria as well as the experience of a Nigerian in the US (and the author has said that much of the story although not the exact plot are based on her personal experiences)
posted by radioamy at 8:44 PM on December 30, 2013

Reading the World
posted by TheRaven at 9:25 PM on December 30, 2013

(I read about 'The year of reading the world' on could probably find the interview with a little googling)
posted by sexyrobot at 10:19 PM on December 30, 2013

The UNESCO Collection Of Representative Works was a United Nations project to translate the literature of small countries / minority languages into more accessible languages. Selecting "Language: English" in the "Translation" section of that page, then clicking on Search, will give you the complete list of literature translated into English. You can also choose the original language or area.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 10:49 PM on December 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

What are the languages you prefer to read in? Might be helpful to know.

For more about African countries, mostly Mali, I would recommend the Ségou trilogy by Maryse Condé. It's a hefty read but once you're 'inside' the story, you'll want to read on and on. It's a great window on history and culture of several African countries.

For New Zealand, I'd take The Bone People by Keri Hulme. One of my favourite books ever.
posted by Too-Ticky at 3:13 AM on December 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Australia: He Died With a Felafel In His Hand
posted by pompomtom at 4:50 AM on December 31, 2013

The Hope Factory was a very enjoyable story set in modern-day India - poverty, politics, family dynamics, and a small start-up business all rolled into one.
posted by DrGail at 4:54 AM on December 31, 2013

Kenya (Memoir): One Day I Will Write About This Place by Binyavanga Wainana
Sierra Leone (fiction): The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna
Cote d'Ivoire (Graphic novel): Aya of Yopougon
The Balkans (fiction): The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht
posted by ChuraChura at 5:43 AM on December 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Japan (fiction): The Woman in the Dunes
posted by cda at 6:58 AM on December 31, 2013

These are all fiction recommendations. I'm assuming, rightly or wrongly, that you don't mean North America.

North Korea: The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

Sri Lanka [mostly]: Anil's Ghost by Michael Ondaatje

China: In the Pond; The Bridegroom; The Crazed, all by Ha Jin (and almost anything by him)

Sweden: The Kurt Wallander series by Henning Mankell
Borkmann's Point by Hakan Nesser (another detective story)

Norway: When the Devil Holds the Candle, Karin Fossum (detective)

Ireland: Broken Harbor by Tana French

India: The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
Freedom Song by Amit Chaudhuri

Japan: Out by Natsuo Kirino
The Housekeeper and the Professor, Yoko Ogawa
Amrita by Banana Yoshimoto

Australia: The Lost Dog by Michelle de Kretser
The Secret River by Kate Grenville (not a contemporary account but an amazing book with a lot of background about Australia)
The Tax Inspector by Peter Carey

Faroe Islands: Far Afield by Susanna Kaysen

Antigua: At the Bottom of the River by Jamaica Kincaid; A Small Place by the same author for an extended essay

Haiti: Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticatt

South Africa: Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee

Indonesia: anything by Pramoedya Ananta Tor

UK: Saturday by Ian McEwan

For excellent fiction from former British colonies, check out previous Man Booker prize winners and finalists. While often historical accounts, these novels provide excellent background and setting for numerous countries, and many are contemporary stories.
posted by la ninya at 1:29 AM on January 4, 2014

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