I often read books to escape, to explore, and to travel. And in that journey, I almost always end up learning about something, someone, or myself. Thus, reading books from around the world not only allows me to escape, but it also allows me to learn about the world around me. Whether the story is big or small, every writer brings a little bit of their history to the table. These ten books are rich in life and culture from other countries that are sure to pull you in and never let you go.
England: If you want to travel to England, what better way to do it than through the power of storytelling along the river Thames? At an ancient inn, the regulars pass the time by telling stories when a stranger bursts in with a lifeless girl’s body in his arms. Hours later, the girl wakes up and the people in the inn begin to question if her awakening is a miracle, magic, science, or something else entirely. To make matters more complex, the girl has fallen mute. Three families all come to claim her, believing she must be a relative they have lost. But all these families have secrets that must be exposed before the girl’s true identity can be discovered. Diane Setterfield has beautifully crafted an atmospheric myth that is sure to wash you away.
Nigeria: Set in Nigeria, STAY WITH ME is a marriage story of parenthood and fertility, as well as the clash of modern vs. traditional ideas. Both Yejide and Akin tell the story of their marriage and the forces that threaten to destroy it. They have been happily married and in love for four years, and ever since they began their relationship they agreed that polygamy is not for them. That is until Yejide is still unable to get pregnant and Akin’s family shows up with another woman, introducing her as Akin’s second wife. Yejide is overcome with shock and jealousy, but her genuine love for her husband also shines through. Now, Yejide is out of time and knows the only way she can save her marriage is by getting pregnant. Yejide and Akin are both willing to do whatever it takes for Yejide to conceive, but is it really worth the cost?
Sweden: Fredrik Backman’s stories are always so filled with heart and humanity, but A MAN CALLED OVE is probably my favorite of them. Set in Sweden, A MAN CALLED OVE follows the story of Ove, who truly is a curmudgeon of an old man with strict rules and a short fuse. To everyone in the neighborhood, he’s considered the neighbor from hell. That is, until a friendly and very chatty new family moves in next door and, of course, accidentally flatten his mailbox. What follows next is a comical story of unexpected friendship as Ove’s tough exterior hides a story of sadness. Backman always impresses me with his ability to take a simple premise and explore it in an in-depth and profound way. He weaves heart and comedy and sadness together in a manner that becomes universally relatable to life.
“If you like to laugh AND feel moved AND have your heart applaud wildly for fictional characters, you will certainly fall for the grumpy but lovable Ove (it’s pronounced “Oo-vuh,” if you were wondering).”
Mexico: UMAMI is a rich multi-narrational story that centers around the effects of grief, heartbreak, and illness on families and communities. Still grappling with the mysterious death of her younger sister years earlier, 12-year-old Ana decides to plant a milpa garden in her backyard. As Ana digs her hands into the soil, the people in her community dig into their pasts as secrets seep out and questions bloom. Jufresa’s portrait of contemporary Mexico is honest and compelling and filled with equal measure of whimsy and heartbreak.
Deep in the heart of Mexico City, Ana copes with the mysterious death of her younger sister and plants a “milpa” (a corn crop) in her backyard—an act that dredges up the grief, secrets, and haunting questions of her neighbors’ pasts as well as her own. UMAMI is a dazzlingly inventive and immersive portrayal of life in contemporary Mexico.
France: Read LIE WITH ME in Besson’s original French or pick up a copy of the translation—either way this novel will move you to pieces and stay with you forever. This is a short and lyrical story that follows Phillippe as he looks back on the hidden love affair he had with a boy named Thomas in his last year of high school. While the two boys rarely acknowledge each other in school, they stole time together and formed a passionate and unforgettable bond in this coming-of-age story.
“I remember the movement of his hips pressing against the pinball machine. This one sentence had me in its grip until the end. Two young men find each other, always fearing that life itself might be the villain standing in their way. A stunning and heart-gripping tale.” —André Aciman, author of Call Me by Your Name
A New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice
The critically acclaimed, internationally beloved novel by Philippe Besson—“this year’s Call Me By Your Name” (Vulture) with raves in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, NPR, Vanity Fair, Vogue, O, The Oprah Magazine, and Out—about an affair between two teenage boys in 1984 France, translated with subtle beauty and haunting lyricism by the iconic and internationally acclaimed actress and writer Molly Ringwald.
In this “sexy, pure, and radiant story” (Out), Philippe chances upon a young man outside a hotel in Bordeaux who bears a striking resemblance to his first love. What follows is a look back at the relationship he’s never forgotten, a hidden affair with a boy named Thomas during their last year of high school. Thomas is the son of a farmer; Philippe the son of a school principal. At school, they don’t acknowledge each other. But they steal time to meet in secret, carrying on a passionate, world-altering affair.
Despite the intensity of their attraction, from the beginning Thomas knows how it will end: “Because you will leave and we will stay,” he says. Philippe becomes a writer and travels the world, though as this “tender, sensuous novel” (The New York Times Book Review) shows, he never lets go of the relationship that shaped him, and every story he’s ever told.
“Beautifully translated by Ringwald” (NPR), this is “Philippe Besson’s book of a lifetime...an elegiac tale of first, hidden love” (The New Yorker).
Armenia: This is the beautiful story of an isolated village in Armenia and the people who live there. With the only connection to the outside world being an old telegraph wire, the tight-knit community sustains themselves with farming, cleaning, gossip, and making baklava. They support each other through good times and bad, but when the residents of Maran plot to bring two of their most stubbornly single people together, everything turns upside down. Like reading a series of folktales and fables, Abgaryan masterfully creates an atmospheric and enchanting story of resilience and friendship.
An unforgettable story of friendship and feuds in a remote Armenian mountain village
In an isolated village high in the Armenian mountains, a close-knit community bickers, gossips and laughs. Their only connection to the outside world is an ancient telegraph wire and a perilous mountain road that even goats struggle to navigate.
As they go about their daily lives – harvesting crops, making baklava, tidying houses – the villagers sustain one another through good times and bad. But sometimes all it takes is a spark of romance to turn life on its head, and a plot to bring two of Maran's most stubbornly single residents together soon gives the village something new to gossip about...
Three Apples Fell from the Sky is an enchanting fable that brilliantly captures the idiosyncrasy of a small community. Sparkling with sumptuous imagery and warm humour, this is a vibrant tale of resilience, bravery and the miracle of everyday friendship.
Italy: Set in Naples in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the story follows Lila, who is perfect, talented, and beautiful, but stuck working for her father’s shoe business, whereas Elena has a chance to escape her life through education. On its surface, it’s the story of two best friends, but beyond that, it is the story of a neighborhood and the story of a nation. With a large cast of characters and events, MY BRILLIANT FRIEND is a sweeping ride and a revolving door as you dive deeper and deeper into Elena’s and Lila’s relationship and the heart of a friendship that connects them.
Stuart’s Fictional Dinner Party Guests: Elena and Lila
I’d like to host a dinner with an eye on close friendships. Friendships are fascinating because they are the one relationship in life that you aren’t required to be in because of birth or bound to by law. Those in attendance would ideally have a multiple-decade friendship like Elena and Lila of MY BRILLIANT FRIEND. And even though he’s not fictional, I’d love for my best friend to be sitting at the table, too.
Poland: This is a book of short stories, of scenes, of images, and thoughts in dedication to the traveler. Whether a body in motion or on physical transportation, FLIGHTS is about movement. As each story unfolds, each begs the questions of where am I from and where am I going? Traveling across time and place, Tokarczuk explores movement, freedom, and human decisions through stories: a returning to poison her terminally ill high school sweetheart, a child who suddenly disappears and then reappears, and so many more. All of these haunting tales circle each other to create this unforgettable collection.
Argentina: I couldn't agree more with the description that this novel is a “living ghost story,” as it explores the deadly reality of toxins and desperate families. This story immediately draws you in and Scweblin does an incredible job in painting a feeling of dread over her imagery. With an air of strong psychological menace,FEVER DREAM is the stuff of nightmares as Amanda lies dying in a rural hospital. She’s visited by a boy named David; he is not her son and she is not his mother. But together they tell an incredible story of broken souls.
Korea: THE VEGETARIAN is a story of metamorphosis and self-discovery while breaking from societal norms and social customs. After Yeong-hye is plagued with nightmares of blood, she sets out to purge her mind and decides to cut out all meat from her diet. Embracing her plant-life existence is a shocking detour from her society's customs that leads to scandal, abuse, and estrangement. This is a dark contemporary novel with so many layers as you delve into Yeong-hye’s fears and nightmares.
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