Great, absorbing books and films showing life in different times and places
July 12, 2008 3:53 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to broaden my horizons by getting a better understanding of life in different cultures and time periods. Please recommend great books or films (fiction or non-fiction) which paint a broad, immersive, reasonably accurate picture of a place and time.

The question is inspired by recently seeing a fascinating film called Atanarjuat, which spends a lot of time showing Inuit life.

Sorts of things I'm looking for: family life, relationships, spirituality, arts, economics... the whole deal.

Other examples of times and places: medieval europe, pre-history anywhere, roman empire, modern rural India... but anywhere and anywhen, as long as the portrayl is good and vivid.
posted by MetaMonkey to Media & Arts (29 answers total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
I love, love, love the Horatio Hornblower novels, set in Napoleonic Wars-Era Britain and the Colonies.
posted by mamessner at 4:27 AM on July 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

The Icelandic Sagas.
posted by bricoleur at 4:30 AM on July 12, 2008

I can't speak to accuracy, but I'm currently reading The Skull Mantra by Eliot Patterson, where the main character is a Chinese police inspector who has been released (following his disgrace and arrest) from a Tibetan work camp to investigate a murder in Tibet. The novel deals a lot with the Chinese occupation of Tibet from the political, practical and spiritual angles, and seems to my unexpert eye to be extremely insightful and illuminating.
posted by Shepherd at 4:52 AM on July 12, 2008

The Quiet American by Graham Greene is a well-written, interesting read and takes place in Saigon during the French Indochina War.
posted by xholisa13 at 4:53 AM on July 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Try the Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver for an engrossing read about scrabbling for the basics of life in postcolonial Belgian Congo.
posted by ebellicosa at 5:05 AM on July 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Try the Asian Saga from James Clavell, which ranges from Feudal Japan to the founding of Hong Kong to the fall of the Shah of Iran in the 70's. I don't think everything is accurate in terms of historical events, but you get a wonderfully in-depth idea of the various cultures and how people lived in all these places.
posted by ukdanae at 5:07 AM on July 12, 2008

Also, Shantaram is a wonderful picture of life in India in the 80's, going into great detail about life in the slums, prisons, and general life in Mumbai from an outsiders perspective.
posted by ukdanae at 5:11 AM on July 12, 2008

José Saramago's Baltasar and Blimunda. A magnificent mix of historic characters and ficticious ones. It's beautiful, really.

From Publishers Weekly
Saramago has blended fact and fiction in much the same way as Marquez and others use magical realism, to create an elegantly written, surrealistic reflection on life in 18th century Portugal. It is a time of astonishing excess autos-da-fe, the Inquisition, an outbreak of the plague, colonialism and the two central characters, Baltasar, a soldier just home from the wars, and Blimunda, a clairvoyant who can actually see inside people, are enlisted by the renegade priest, Bartolomeu Lourenco de Gusmao, to help him construct a flying machine. (A mad genius, Bartolomeu actually existed and is now considered a pioneer of aviation.) The machine does fly, but with disastrous consequences for all involved. This is a dark, philosophical tale that shows off the talents of Portugal's premier contemporary writer.

posted by neblina_matinal at 5:21 AM on July 12, 2008

Not only is Kristin Lavransdatter a great read, Undset is/was highly admired for her accuracy. It's also a film, but I haven't seen it so I don't know if it's any good.
posted by esilenna at 5:27 AM on July 12, 2008

I liked Shogun and the other books in the Asian Saga by James Clavell.

Many people like James Michener's books, but for some reason I can't get into them.

Both authors have been so popular that their books are easily found in used book stores and libraries, so the cost of giving them a whirl is very little.
posted by Houstonian at 5:44 AM on July 12, 2008

After a look on my bookcases, Irving Stone is also quite good. They are biographies, but the settings, people, and era are fully fleshed out. My favorite of his was The Agony and the Ecstasy, which was about Michelangelo and the Renaissance era -- a truly excellent book.
posted by Houstonian at 5:50 AM on July 12, 2008

For a look at India, specifically the slums of Calcutta, the book you should read is The City of Joy by Dominique Lapierre.
posted by carmelita at 6:41 AM on July 12, 2008

I can't recommend Underground by Haruki Murakami highly enough. It's a series of edited interviews with survivors of the Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway and with members of the cult. While the attack is always the focus of the interviews, the details revealed by the people interviewed about their work and families and the way the attack affected their lives all builds up to a fascinating picture of life in mid-90's Tokyo.

Murakami's other work, which is mostly fiction, is less wide in scope and has been accused of being Americanised. He spent a number of years living outside Japan, so in his best work there's a sense that he's functioning as both an outsider and an insider, both observing the culture and participating in it. I'd suggest The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, which includes a lot of material that focuses on the Japanese occupation of Manchuria. Like a lot of his fiction it includes some elements rooted more in fantasy than reality, so it might not be what you're looking for.
posted by xchmp at 7:01 AM on July 12, 2008

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber is a great evocation of prostitution in Victorian London.

Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose" contains well researched details of what life was like in a medieval monastery.
posted by rongorongo at 7:06 AM on July 12, 2008

How about some books by anthropologists?
I'd recommend all of these as highly engrossing and entertaining.
Wisdom from a Rainforest
One River or The Serpent and the Rainbow by Wade Davis
The !Kung San: Men, Women and Work in a Foraging Society or the The Dobe Ju/'hoansi by Richard Lee
Or, The Forest People
I also liked The People of the Deer by Farley Mowat, and Secrets of the talking Jaguar by Martin Prechtel, though their factual accuracy is disputed.
posted by mjewkes at 7:19 AM on July 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle (volume 1, 2, 3) gives an exhaustively detailed look at life in Europe and around the world between 1666 and 1740 or so.
posted by Doctor Suarez at 9:34 AM on July 12, 2008

No list would be complete without The Tale Of Genji.
posted by rhizome at 11:04 AM on July 12, 2008

Half of a Yellow Sun is compelling and beautifully written. The story takes place in Nigeria around the time of the Biafran war.
posted by madokachan at 11:16 AM on July 12, 2008

Another Nigerian suggestion: Chinua Achebe's amazing novel Things Fall Apart is set in a Nigerian village in the late 19th century and deals with the arrival of white missionaries.
posted by vodkaboots at 1:01 PM on July 12, 2008

Tous les matins du monde
posted by homunculus at 2:44 PM on July 12, 2008

My Name is Red
posted by Artw at 4:08 PM on July 12, 2008

For actual china, and not the glossy hong kong fare, try any of Zang Ke Jia's films. My favorite one is Platform, but they are all quite good and do just what you say... give you a clear sample of another -very different- life...

As for Iran, there are so many... i love Abbas Kiarostami. Sadly, his first trilogy, composed of Where's my friends house?, And life goes on and Through the olive trees is not available on dvd. But you can find it on vhs, if you have a good videostore near you, and they are just lovely.

If you are interested in gypsy life, try any of Tony Gatlif's films. I especially like Latcho Drom, a wordless music documentary about gypsy music from india to spain. again, available on VHS not on dvd.

And, finally, there are a lot of kiarostami influenced film makers in argentina. for a very simple approach to how things seem to be over there, try Ana y los otros. Mind you, all these films (except for Gatlif's) are very low key. Meaning, they are slow and not much happens. But that leisurly pace allows you to get a sense of that otherness that you look for...
posted by MrMisterio at 4:21 PM on July 12, 2008

Historical fiction, icons bawdily woven together, the Flashman series...
posted by dragonsi55 at 4:54 PM on July 12, 2008

Ronan Bennett's The Catastrophist set in the Congo as it achieves independence and Havoc, in Its Third Year set in 17th century horthern England are both good reads.
posted by Abiezer at 11:32 PM on July 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you like Atanarjuat, then try reading Kabloona by Gontran De Poncins. A couple of other films from the Native perspective set in the present day: Pow Wow Highway and Smoke Signals. A bit flawed but interesting, a couple of other films: Black Robe and The Snow Walker. The New Zealand films Utu and Once Were Warriors are excellent, also Dersu Uzala is very good.

Keep in mind also that some of the classics of what is called travel literature, particularly by British authors for some reason, probably fit your criteria, and also memoirs and autobiographies.

I also cannot recommend highly enough A Time of Gifts and Between The Woods and Water by Patrick Leigh Fermor. Also, in no particular order, try Aké: The Years of Childhood by Wole Soyinka, In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin, News From Tartary by Peter Fleming, Cut Stones and Crossroads by Ronald Wright, Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger, The Places In Between by Rory Stewart, Out of Africa by Isaac Dinesen, My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell.
posted by gudrun at 12:47 PM on July 13, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks everyone, lots of great things to investigate.
posted by MetaMonkey at 12:47 PM on July 13, 2008

The novel Tipping the Velvet is a fascinating look at the different ways of being a lesbian in Victorian England. It's really detailed on the intricacies of the dirty underbelly of London, the sex trade, the entertainment industry, class differences, and the ways different people in different times negotiate their sexualities and sexual identities. Avoid the BBC miniseries, though. All of the scintillation, none of the character or history.

Also: it makes me so happy to hear that other people have seen Atanarjuat. That same studio made another Inuit film a few years later called The Journals of Knud Rasmussen. I haven't seen it yet but I've heard it's amazing.
posted by arcticwoman at 7:19 AM on July 18, 2008

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