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October 1, 2017 9:26 AM   Subscribe

Recently I've been reading a lot of nonfictional accounts of various cultures, and I realized I have a preference for a specific type that is hard to search for. There is one snowflake.

I'm looking for nonfiction recommendations for books about various cultures, that are based on showing regular people's lives in their countries.

I prefer accounts that are told either by a journalist who remains an invisible channel for the people's stories, or by insiders to the culture. Not really looking for any more stories of Westerners moving to country X and describing in detail all they encounter in the new country from their POV - while usually they have good intentions, it often gives a hint of "oh these weird, wacky Danish people/Indians/Chinese".

Here is the full extent of my library on these topics right now:

Examples of books that I want more of:

Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie T. Chang: author follows several young women as they move from job to job in quickly industrializing China, gets invited to some of their village homes, tells their background and progress through life

Street of Eternal Happiness: Big City Dreams Along a Shanghai Road by Rob Schmits: This *is* a Westerner living in Shanghai, but there is almost nothing there about his life, he tells the stories of his neighbors

Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich: insider, journalist, tells stories of multiple people and many perspectives

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance: author is an insider and tells the story of the family and friends he grew up with

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korean by Barbara Demick: journalist telling stories of NK refugees

India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India by Akash Kapur: author was raised in India and comes back years later, describes the new India he encounters by telling the story of his family and friends he meets

The End of Karma: Hope and Fury Among India's Young by Somini Sengupta

Books that are okay but not quite:

The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia by Michael Booth: good overview of countries in general, not enough human stories

The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life by Anu Partanen: this is a Finn moving to the US and contrasting the country she left behind with a ruthless individualism of America (my words, not hers)

Examples of books that are not preferred:

The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World's Happiest Country by Helen Russell: while entertaining, this is a first-person narrative about the author moving to Denmark and encountering Danish life as a Brit

On my Swedish Island: Discovering the Secrets of Scandinavian Well-being by Julie Catterson Lindahl: same except with Sweden and an American

Reading over the above, maybe I should just avoid any book that has a subtitle "discovering the secrets of XYZ"...
posted by Ender's Friend to Media & Arts (23 answers total) 106 users marked this as a favorite
Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo. Literally could not be more tailor-made to your question.
posted by perplexion at 9:30 AM on October 1, 2017 [11 favorites]

Try Leslie Chang husband Peter Hesseler. My favorite Western writer on China. He started as Peace Corp volunteer and form deep connection to to Chinese culture and people and sensitively portray their lives. All of his books are great.
posted by Pantalaimon at 9:41 AM on October 1, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I don't have any specific reading recommendations, but I wonder if searching for ethnographies / stuff that might be on a syllabus for an anthropology course might get more of what you want.
posted by mean square error at 9:47 AM on October 1, 2017 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Have you tried any ethnographies? My library is decades out of date and some have been questioned as to accuracy and even motivation but many were written for a non-academic audience so it would be one search term to use.
posted by Botanizer at 9:53 AM on October 1, 2017

"Essential, influential, and recommended texts in cultural anthropology" is a front-page post with links to some classic ethnographies that might work for you. In your case, I'd suggest Bowen, Brown, and maybe Fadiman for their relatively journalistic style. They're available free online, though they may have to be checked out of the Open Library.

Another source of free material that comes to mind is the ANU's Pacific Institute. For example (quoting from a draft FPP I've had in progress for a long time while I read more of these ...), women's personal narratives about war and peace on Bougainville have supplements in articles about life before and papers presented during the conflict. There are also memoirs and biographies, e.g. about a guy from the Solomon Islands or about the Indo-Fijian experience.
posted by Wobbuffet at 10:08 AM on October 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

The Warmth of Other Suns
posted by dacoit at 10:13 AM on October 1, 2017

Best answer: I love this question. Also, I can't recommend Peter Hessler enough; as far as white guys writing about Asia (where there's so much potential to go wrong, or miss the forest for.., oh I dunno, a kind of small wooded area just off the edge of the road) he's exemplary.

Michael Meyer's book The Last Days of Old Beijing goes hand in hand with the Hessler recommendation. For a much slower-paced version of the same, books by Red Pine/Bill Porter. I read an excellent book last year, co-written by two young westerners who traveled through ethnic minority communities in rural China. Between the two of them, they spoke Mandarin, Korean, Uighur, and a smattering of other conversational bits. I wish I could remember the name.. I'll follow up soon, when I do.

Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin is an excellent book of narrative nonfiction about contemporary (circa 2011) Burma. The Rebel of Rangoon is another.
posted by tapir-whorf at 10:18 AM on October 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: As for ethnographies, I found Ghetto at the Center of the World by Gordon Mathews, about the traders in the low-end global economy of Hong Kong's Chungking Mansions compelling enough to spend several months in Hong Kong, working on a related (but much smaller) fieldwork-derived project of my own in the Chungking Mansions.

Oh! Turtle Feet: The Making and Unmaking of a Buddhist Monk (which is the silliest title ever) by Nikolai Grozni is an excellent--profoundly good, dark, hilarious--memoir of a western acolyte in Dharamsala.

Ted Conover's books Rolling Nowhere and Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing and all the others are excellent immersive journalism.

Jeff Sharlet's longform nonfiction essays for GQ, Rolling Stone, and others are lyrical and excellent.
posted by tapir-whorf at 10:24 AM on October 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

Ruth Behar has some super interesting participant observer ethnographies on Sephardic Jews in Cuba.
posted by yueliang at 10:35 AM on October 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman.

Home Town, and perhaps anything else by Tracy Kidder.

City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World's Largest Refugee Camp by Ben Rawlence.

Perhaps American Nomads: Travels with Lost Conquistadors, Mountain Men, Cowboys, Indians, Hoboes, Truckers, and Bullriders by Richard Grant is along the lines of what you're looking for, though it's more researched than his other books. (The others, Crazy River, and one set in Pluto, Mississippi, are also fantastic and much more narratively driven the whole way through.)

I remember really liking The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban by Sarah Chayes, but I wonder how it's held up over the past decade of definitely-not-post-Taliban Afghanistan.

Walls: Travels Along the Barricades by Marcello Di Cintio, Marcello was also excellent. And Don't Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle by Daniel Everett, which I remember being strikingly lyrical.

Finally, and then I'll lay off for a bit, Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans by Dan Baum. It's slightly fictionalized, apparently (and if you're okay with that, perhaps What Is the What by Dave Eggers would also be up your alley?), but probably no worse than Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which I [and many journalists I know] found deeply problematic in the way the "I" of Katherine Boo's voice and presence was so profoundly occluded.
posted by tapir-whorf at 10:43 AM on October 1, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Hobos, Hustlers, and Backsliders: Homeless in San Francisco by Teresa Gowan, an excellent and perceptive sociology text on can collectors living in and around the Tenderloin. Pair that with Sidewalk by Michael Dunier, about semi-homeless sidewalk booksellers in NYC in the early eighties, or Michael Desmond's Evicted, on housing instability among poor Blacks and whites in Milwaulkee, which--just let me know if you'd like to hear me rave about Desmond's structural approach to writing this!

Enrique's Journey: The Story of a Boy's Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with His Mother by Sonia Nazario

Opium Fiend: A 21st Century Slave to a 19th Century Addiction, a memoir by a western man living in Thailand, wasn't bad--and what he lacked in writing ability, he made up for in opium lore.

A better deep dive into the lore of a specific field (though quite different) was Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City by Robin Nagle, an anthropologist of trash and for a while the anthropologist-in-residence for the city.

The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession by Susan Orlean is unparallelledly fantastic, and she has a true ear (and elatedly bizarre affection for) the oddball personalities involved in orchid obsession (or anything-obsession) that make this a terrific read even if you don't know a thing about orchids.

Those Ted Conover books I recommended upthread but couldn't remember the full titles of, they're: Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America's Hoboes, and Coyotes: A Journey Through the Secret World of America's Illegal Aliens, and The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today. The first two are old, from 1986 and 1989 IIRC, but they're still as powerful and compelling as if they were current. He has a very tender, perceptive gaze and is a lovely, generous person.

I mentioned Gordon Mathews upthread. He's been doing research on Africans in Southern China for the past few years, and has a narrative nonfiction (i.e. aimed at a non-academic audience) book coming out at the end of November, The World in Guangzhou: Africans and Other Foreigners in South China's Global Marketplace (link).

Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter was a hit a few years ago, and if you live in the East Bay you'll recognize lots of streetscape. I remember loving it, but it might've been at least partly a fondness for the familiar landscape. The San Francisco punk analog to this is In the Lower Frequencies by artist and activist Erik Lyle.

Travels in a Thin Country: A Journey Through Chile by Sarah Wheeler is a bicyclist's travelogue, but I remember thinking it was beautifully done. Canar: A Year in the Highlands of Ecuador by Judy Blankenship was also quite good.

Might could also check out books by Ian Frazier, or Jonathan Raban. Mountain City by Gregory Martin. Books about the upper midwest by Kathleen Norris. Emily Hahn, a journalist and society lady, writes brilliantly about her time in Asia and Africa for the New Yorker. She's got a lot of books--truly--and some are vastly better than others so pick carefully.

I apologize if I took over your thread, but I think I'm finally done! Whew.
posted by tapir-whorf at 11:05 AM on October 1, 2017 [5 favorites]

Leaving Mother Lake, about the last matriarchal tribe in the China highlands, written by a woman who grew up there

Geisha, a Life, by one of the most successful geisha of all time
posted by ananci at 11:57 AM on October 1, 2017

About an American subculture (maybe a bad description): Random Family, by Adrianne (sp?) LeBlanc.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 12:30 PM on October 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

The Corpse Walker by Liao Yiwu was amazing. Also Underground by Haruki Murakami, about the sarin subway attacks. Both sound like they could be very sensationalised but they're not, just first person accounts of ordinary lives that seem extraordinary to others.
posted by Athanassiel at 1:10 PM on October 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

Coming in to Nth The Spirit Catches You And You Fall Down. It is an absolutely remarkable book, and one of my favorites, both as a reader and former bookseller. I can't tell you how many times I put that book into people's hands.
posted by bibliogrrl at 6:29 PM on October 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

I feel like Working by Studs Terkel is the American classic of this genre.

Also check out The Good Women of China and China Witness by Xinran.
posted by 168 at 8:17 PM on October 1, 2017 [3 favorites]

Lisa Dickey, Bears in the Streets, about three trips across Russia made in 1995, 2005, and 2015. Some stuff about the author's own experience traveling, but focused on the people she met/knew in Russia, and (for my tastes, anyway) a very engaging writing style.
posted by huimangm at 8:27 PM on October 1, 2017

As a professional ethnographer, I would stress that a lot of modern academic ethnography gets a little deep into high theoretical abstraction, my own included (hey it's how you get tenure) although you can usually read around it.

That said my favorite journalist-ethnographer (no theory) is William Finnegan. Start anywhere. But his recent *Barbarian Days* is a magnifcent memoir of Hawaiian surfing culture (which is substantially Native), and his classic *Cold New World* is an incredible tour of alienated youth subcultures in 1990s America that is only more relevant for being prescient.

And since I plugged it in a politics thread recently, I've been thinking about how much I loved anthropologist Catherine Lutz's book *Homefront,* a beautiful and moving ethnogaphy of a military base community and the costs of war for the community that supports soldiers. She's also a military brat and a committed peace activist. It's so deep.
posted by spitbull at 8:58 PM on October 1, 2017 [4 favorites]

You would really enjoy The Women of Deh Koh: Lives in an Iranian Village by Erika Friedl. It tells the stories of 12 women's lives, from their perspectives, and women from one chapter will appear in another woman's chapter, so by the time you're done you have a sympathetic understanding of them from inside and outside.

I agree with spitbull that most ethnographies have too much of the author in them -- not as a character (like the books you didn't enjoy), but as a cultural analyst and theorizer. There's also the problem that many ethnographies are Ph.D. dissertations, and the purpose of a dissertation is to show off to your faculty committee that you can talk the academic jargon, and defensively parry any potential objections in quibbling footnotes. The Women of Deh Koh is an ethnography, but it's a happy exception to this boring trend.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 9:05 PM on October 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story is really good. I'm reading it now and learning a ton about North Korea.
posted by jabes at 1:36 PM on October 2, 2017

I feel like Working by Studs Terkel is the American classic of this genre.

And his "Division Street: America".
posted by Chitownfats at 5:02 AM on October 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

There was a great recommendation of ethnographies in a somewhat similar question I asked a while back. (And thank you for asking this! I'm very interested in reading the recommendations here!)
posted by kristi at 10:34 AM on October 5, 2017

a documentary lens on taiwan perhaps: "Shot over a nearly 20-year period, Small Talk is a documentary on filmmaker Huang Hui-chen's attempts to connect with her emotionally distant mother Anu. While working as a Taoist priestess in Taipei, Anu maintained many romances with women in an era when homosexuality was taboo. While she never attempted to hide her sexuality, she also never discussed it with her daughter. Huang tries to break her mother's silence on her past, coaxing her through the film's titular chit-chat."
posted by kliuless at 2:02 AM on October 10, 2017

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