It's All About Culture: Great Books in Foreign Lands

shelved under Travel & Places

What I love about books are characters whose lives are not only believable, but rendered in a way that makes me care about what happens to them so much so that I am still thinking about them, wondering what they’re doing (yes, even the fictional ones), days after I’ve finished reading the book.

The books on this list (4 memoirs and 7 novels) have all those qualities, plus the added bonus of being infused with the flavors of other cultures, which is a dominant feature of each book and one that I particularly enjoy. I hope you’ll enjoy them, too.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

by Jamie Ford

Paying homage to the resilience of love, in all its incarnations, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet transports the reader back and forth between the America of the 1940s and that of the 1980s. Beautifully depicting the forbidden love that develops between Chinese-American Henry and Japanese-American Keiko, this story interweaves the historic facts surrounding Japanese internment camps with the evolving relationships between father and son over generations, the endurance of friendships across age and race, and ultimately, the reconciliation of the past with the present. All in all, a very moving book.

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Waiting

Waiting

by Ha Jin

The ideas surrounding duty, responsibility and how people choose to define happiness, specifically in a Chinese context, are sometimes disquieting aspects of this novel — but always thought-provoking. Suspended between two very different Chinese worlds, it is not so much the collision but the overlapping of the worlds that provides the book’s tension.

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Angela's Ashes

Angela's Ashes

by Frank McCourt

Set in Ireland and steeped in its culture, Frank McCourt’s recounting of his childhood made me laugh ’til I cried, at times, and then moved me to tears without the laughter at other times. The added beauty of this memoir is that regardless of how dismal the family’s life becomes, his story is neither sugar-coated nor maudlin, but authentic and stirring.

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Paula

Paula

by Isabel Allende

A sometimes-harrowing journey into South America, this book is a cathartic outlet for its author as she sits at the bedside of her comatose daughter, Paula, penning this combination memoir and historical narrative. I found myself transfixed by the coups and other tumultuous events of Chilean history, while devotees of Allende’s novels will relish the insights into her unconventional background. Absorbing!

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A Thousand Splendid Suns

A Thousand Splendid Suns

by Khaled Hosseini

Compelling and haunting are the words that best describe this book. Khaled Hosseini does a masterful job of giving the reader a window into the female experience in Afghanistan by first introducing us to each of the protagonists individually and then weaving their lives together. As the book advanced, I found myself feeling so many emotions simultaneously, with compassion being dominant and with tears often near the surface. But ultimately this is not a bleak tale of despair, but rather a story of triumph over numerous adversities.

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Shanghai Girls

Shanghai Girls

by Lisa See

Through the atrocities of war, the degradation of Angel Island and the co-mingling of joy and sorrow with life and death, this historical novel seized my heart from the beginning and wouldn’t let go. Lisa See’s vivid, yet elegant infusion of a Chinese sensibility into the universal theme of family is searing in its authenticity. Spellbinding!

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Under the Tuscan Sun

Under the Tuscan Sun

by Frances Mayes

Part memoir, part travelogue, and part recipe book, this book is all good. Wonderfully evocative and descriptive, it induced me to smell every flower, taste all the meals, feel each breeze and just vicariously experience Italy. And the neighbors are quirky and interesting, too! Long after Mayes has finished renovating Bramasole and you’ve finished reading about it, you’ll remember this book... and the old man with the flowers, and the coat over his shoulders. Maybe I’ll finally rent the movie now...

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The Color of Water

The Color of Water

by James McBride

Two cultures, Orthodox Jews and African Americans, combine in this memoir, in alternating voices. The African American voice belongs to James McBride in this lovely tribute to his Polish-American mother. Expressed through his recollections, interspersed with her reluctant interviews (with the racial turbulence of the times a constant undercurrent), it’s his mother’s voice that I found particularly resonant and that makes this book riveting.

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The Poisonwood Bible

The Poisonwood Bible

by Barbara Kingsolver

Tightly binding culture and religion to each character in a different way, this book was fascinating to me as what was then the Belgian Congo is seen through the eyes of each female member of a missionary family from Georgia. While the shattering of 1950s racial attitudes might be expected by the reader, a myriad of unforeseen events literally left me with my mouth open.

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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

by Annie Barrows, Mary Ann Shaffer

Set in the Channel Islands during 1946, the entire novel is a series of letters, primarily between a London newspaper columnist and the members of the literary society. The letters are beautifully written, nicely showcasing the lost art of letter-writing, while providing full yet nuanced character development. Laced with humor, the letters are at times laugh-out-loud funny. Yet, filled with their writers' experiences during the German occupation, they are also often quite poignant. This book is a gem worthy of reading on its own and particularly good for discussion groups.

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Memoirs of a Geisha

Memoirs of a Geisha

by Arthur Golden

Stunning! It's hard to believe that this book is not, in fact, a memoir, but a novel. From the first page, Arthur Goldenís uncanny ability to speak in a distinctly female voice disarmed my skepticism about the incongruity of title and author. Unfolding each layer of Sayuri's life, Golden immerses the reader in the intricacies of becoming and living as a geisha in early 20th century Japan, revealing a character who is both complicated and vulnerable. It's powerful.

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