Five World Book Recommendations

It’s World Book Day – Thursday 6th March 2014. All over the country primary schools are alive with young people dressed as their favourite book character. I’m using World Book Day to recommend five reads from beyond the UK. (Nothing is implied by the order in which these are presented.)

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1. Donal Ryan (2012) The Spinning Heart

This is post-crash, rural Ireland. Many people are suffering because of trickery and corruption, or because benefits and services have been reduced, or from the fallout from a murder and a kidnap. The format of the novel is original and effective: it is narrated through the individual voices of the many villagers who feature in the story.

This narrative form helps perceptions develop, especially of the man Bobbie Mahon. Some of the voices/characters don’t quite ring true, for example the two kidnappers. The men emerge as very focused on sex, as violent and physical. The women die young, or put up with a great deal from their menfolk, and some get on with life.

82 Spin HThe novel evoked the life of a small community in Ireland only glimpsed on my brief tourist visits.

Winner of the Guardian First Book Award 2013. Long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2013.


2. Hanna Krall (2006) Chasing the King of Hearts

This was a hard, sometimes excoriating read. It follows the search by a Polish and Jewish woman Isabel for her husband in the second world war. I started it, left it, went back to it and read it from the beginning again.

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One of its themes is how war makes normal codes of moral behaviour quite redundant. For example, it is hardly shocking that Isabel allows a man who has raped her to describe himself as decent, because he didn’t demand more of her, turn her in or shoot her. Or that she volunteers to use her nursing skills to work with Mendel and survives. On the other hand a curious economy of exchange and favours emerges to which she is faithful, including bargaining with God. Nor does everything come good at the longed-for moment of reconciliation. War changes everything, even love.

The novella is written in a rather bland, flat style, which means that the accumulating atrociousness of the situation can be told as one thing after another. Teeth are knocked out, shoulders dislocated, escapes made, suicides committed, poison bought, names exchanged until nothing matters any more than anything else. This too is horrific.

Another novella from the excellent Peirene Press. Translated from the Polish by Philip Boehm

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3. Jhumpa Lahiri (2013) The Lowland

From India and USA

This family saga followed Subash and his family from childhood in Calcutta to old age in New Hampshire. There were two very different brothers and the reader is curious – how will their paths differ? The more outgoing Udayan, joins the Naxalites and is summarily executed in front of his parents and wife. Subash marries his wife Gauri because she is pregnant. The story then follows her move to the US, her frustrations with being a mother, and wife to her brother in law. She leaves for a career in California when the child, Bela, is still quite young,.

From this point the novel presents parenthood in various forms – Subash’s who lets everyone believe he is Bela’s father, Gauri’s who left her daughter behind, and Subash’s parents in Calcutta. Bela matures and we know that she will have to confront the truth about her parents, and how her life in America relates to her family’s roots in Calcutta.

Jhumpa Lahiri is a neat writer but while the novel is crammed with events, they are narrated in short paragraphs, with little differentiation between their significance. The questions about family, obligations, genetics, political action vs personal fulfilment, involvement in political murder –are hardly posed, simply offered.

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2013

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4. Ruth Ozeki (2013) A Tale for the Time Being

I loved this novel from Canada and Japan, which had some important things to say about the world and old women! You will find my review here.

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2013.

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5. NoViolet Bulawayo (2013) We need new names

From Zimbabwe and USA

Darling lives with her friends in Paradise a shanty town in Zimbabwe. Life used to be better, but during Mugabe’s rule it got worse. Darling and her friends view the adult world through eyes of innocence, games, tree climbing, thieving trips to the affluent suburb of Budapest. This section of the novel is very strong on Darling’s voice, on her ambitions, hopes etc.

She escapes to America, to live with her aunty, in ‘Destroyedmichygen’ and grows up fast as a strange talking illegal African girl. We get snapshots of episodes in her life: a wedding, an illicit trip to the mall, watching x-rated movies with school friends, and a discursive chapter on why people leave. What comes through are the pains of exile, of not living at home.

I enjoyed the strong voice here, the evocation of children’s lives in Zimbabwe. The feistiness and inventiveness of children living in poverty.

This is the fourth of my recommendations nominated for the Man Booker Prize 2013. What a good year it was for world books.

82 WBD logo grWhat books from around the world have you read in the last year?


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Filed under Books, Reading

6 Responses to Five World Book Recommendations

  1. The Spinning Heart is very definitely on my must-read list. This debut novel was rejected 49 times before it found a publishing home – that’s the kind of tenacity and self-belief a novelist has to have. I wrote about the author being a role model on my blog and he was in touch within half an hour to talk about his experiences in a self-deprecating way…

    • Caroline

      OK 49 rejections and then to win prizes… definitely some thing needs addressing within the publishing business.
      He sounds like a good man. Thanks Bridget. Looking forward to visiting your blog very soon.

  2. It is one of my reading intentions to read around the world and across cultures and last year I read just above one book a week and by authors from 22 countries. For the first time I wrote a post having asked myself What Do We Read?
    Some of my favourites outside the UK/US were:

    The Honey Thief by Najaf Mazari – stories from the oral storytelling tradition of the Hazara people in Afghanistan.
    Portrait of a Turkish Family by Irfan Orga – a wonderful story of a family growing up in Istanbul and how their lives change after the husband is sent to war.
    The Mussel Feast – by Birgit Vanderbeke – another great Peirene book – quietly waiting for her husband to return home from work, a family contemplates their situation and in the hours that ensue ponder challenging it. Riveting.
    The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-mi Hwang – a best seller in Korea, a wonderful fable-like story of a battery hen who dreams of keeping an egg and seeing it through to a chicken she can care for.
    The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo by F. G. Haghenbeck – wonderful to read a version of the life of Frida Kahlo by one of her compatriots, the Mexican writer F. G. Haghenbeck. It’s a retelling of her life bringing out her superstitions and belief in the apparition of Death, including recipes that she may have made for friends or as offerings to keep death from her door.

    • Caroline

      Claire, thanks so much for your comments on my blogs. I can only just bring myself to thank you for adding to the list of wonderful books I plan to read. This looks like a great list. I reviewed The Mussel Feast on the blog quite a time ago – still available in the archive. I agree that it’s a very fine book.
      Looking forward to visiting you blog and following up your comments.

      Please visit again and make more suggestions – but not too many good reads for a week or so!


  3. Eileen

    Oh all these wonderful books to read and now all these wonderful blogs and responses to read – how can I read them all? I know I will never be able to so when I come back again I will have a book shop and read several novels a week.
    Write a blog Caroline about how to fit more reading into your life. Love, e x

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