I don’t always read as many books from other countries as I’d like, and I often find reading translated works challenging. This summer and fall I read quite a few books set in other countries, so I wanted to share these mini-reviews. I try to read books that are by authors that are from those countries, or whose families come from the countries they are writing about.
Three Apples Fell From the Sky by Narine Abgaryan, translated by Lisa C. Hayden (Armenia): I loved this book about a remote Armenian village. The village has suffered in recent years, from war, drought, and landslide, and only a handful of older residents remain. One of its residents, Anatolia, is preparing for her death. She’s experienced several days of heavy bleeding and so she lies down and awaits the inevitable. Only that isn’t what happens. This is a book that deals with sad subjects in a lighthearted way, with magical realism and folklore, but mostly with neighbors that are kind to each other. A new life awaits Anatolia, and similarly the village isn’t so dead after all. There are many characters, especially with a jump to an entirely new family about a third of the way in, and with the foreign names it could be hard to remember who was related to who. A family tree would have been helpful.
The title comes from an old Armenian saying,
And three apples fell from heaven:
One for the storyteller,
One for the listener,
And one for the eavesdropper.
I have to say that sometimes books that are marketed as “heartwarming” are way too cutesy for me (the endorsement on this book calls it “a balm for the soul”). But there was nothing cute about this book, just a kindness and warmth and subtle humor throughout. It’s a book I’d like to read again, since I know I probably missed a lot.
Convenience Store Woman (Japan) by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori: This is a rather odd story told from the perspective of someone who I thought was on the autism spectrum, although since this is Japanese her character might be perceived differently there. The main character, Keiko, is about thirty years old and works at a convenience store. She’s struggled to build a career anywhere else due to her difficulty understanding other people, but she loves everything about the convenience store and her focus and attention to detail make her great at her job. Still, she struggles with the concerns of her family and friends. A series of events leads to a co-worker moving in with her — he needs a place to stay and she decides a fake boyfriend will make her family feel better about her life. I won’t say more, but I found this book deeply sad (though also humorous and sharp), mainly because Keiko knows who she is and is comfortable with that, but the people in her life who care about her don’t understand her.
Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi (India): I had mixed feelings about this book. One the one hand, this story of a troubled mother-daughter relationship resonated with me. Antara is the opposite (even in name) to her mother Tara, who lived a free-spirited life, leaving her husband and joining a commune when Antara was a child. Antara never received stable, unconditional love from her mother, and now her mother is suffering from dementia and needs to be cared for. While I found parts of this book moving, Antara was a difficult character to warm to, frequently lying to her husband about important things. She just seemed aimless and unemotional, and it was hard to understand her motivations or even what she does with her time (her work as an artist seemed underdeveloped). I struggled with the second half of this book, though at times it is deeply moving.
The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba by Chanel Cleeton (Cuba): Cleeton is Cuban-American and is writing about her own family history in Cuba, and I found the historical story fascinating. At the turn of the century, Cuba has been colonized by the Spanish and its people are treated cruelly, many of them forced into camps and starving. In the U.S. a young woman is trying to make her way as a journalist, either working for Joseph Pulitzer or William Randolph Hearst, as the two battle for newspaper supremacy. Hearst follows a story about a beautiful young woman imprisoned in Cuba for assaulting a Spanish commander. Hearst doesn’t just want to write stories; he wants to be the story, so he sends a team to break Evangelina Cisneros out of Cuba’s harshest prison. I loved the true aspects of this story. Unfortunately, like with a lot of historical fiction, I found the fictional elements overly dramatic and a bit cliché. For example, Cleeton writes about a true romance between Cisneros and one of her rescuers in a way I found moving. But she creates a fictional romance between her female journalist and a Cuban-American that mostly made me groan. It was interesting to me that the most nuanced portrayals in this book were the historical figures — Cisneros, Hearst, and Pulitzer among them — where the fictionalized characters seemed either overly heroic or overly villainous. You might be wondering, why wouldn’t you expect melodrama with a title like “Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba”? But in fact the title is actually referring to the overly sentimental way the papers sold Cisneros’ story. Sadly, some of the same melodrama creeps into this story, and I would have preferred more history than drama. It’s a fascinating time for both Cuba and the U.S.
Interested in other books set outside the U.S.? I highly recommend How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House (Barbados), The Mountains Sing (Vietnam), and Seven Fallen Feathers (Canada). You can also see recent reviews of Rizzio (Scotland), Against the Loveless World (Palestine), She Who Became the Sun (China), and Certain Dark Things (Mexico).
You can find my Reading Around the World list from the last five years here (though I only list one book from each country so it does not include everything I’ve read).
Do you have any books from around the world you recommend?