As you may or may not know, my family is having a fantastic year hosting a lovely exchange student from South Korea. So, I thought it was only fitting to have today’s post recognize the little-known, yet perfectly relevant, holiday: International Student Day. Happy day, m’dear international student!
Although she is not generally a fan of reading, I did discover that there is one author whose work she absolutely loves. It’s none other than my new favorite author and Japanese mystery writer, Higashino Keigo. We had a fantastic time the other night talking about him and discussing his novels, some of which have yet to be published in English. It turns out that we liked a lot of the same things about his books, which led to shared recommendations about other authors in the mystery genre. The best part was using books to find a connection across cultures, languages and ages. Look at that — uniting the world through reading!
Hosting an exchange student has truly underscored what I already know to be true: that by and large, people are the same everywhere. They have good days and bad, make smart choices and poor ones, but overall, what most people want from life, is at its essence, the same. They want to be safe. They want to be loved. They want a roof over their heads and food on the table, and they want the same for the people they love. People are people no matter where they are.
So this all got me thinking, there really is a lot to be said for reading globally. Different places, perspectives and voices — they make you think, make you laugh, make you grieve for and about people and places you might not otherwise have a chance to know. Fiction or non-fiction, comedy or mystery, it doesn’t really matter to me. The time I’ve spent exploring authors from around the globe is counted as some of the best time I’ve spent as a reader. So, I thought I’d share with you some of my favorites from authors or settings outside the United States. Some are serious, some are lighthearted, but all spoke to me in a certain way, making me think about others (and how I treat them) in ways that I might not have otherwise.
- Australia: The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion — This one is a funny, charming little book with an unexpected romantic lead: a man with Asperger’s. Autism gets a lot of press these days, but it often seems like people with it are discussed more as a cause to be championed or a problem to be fixed. It’s like those with it are different class of citizens, almost a different kind of people. Somehow, Simsion manages to get past all that. The Rosie Project is just about a man, going about his life, making choices and trying to figure it out like we all do, but he just so happens to have Asperger’s. People are people, and nowhere is that more true than in this book.
- China: Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng — At the top of my favorites list, this is an autobiographical account about one woman’s survival of China’s Great Cultural Revolution. Riveting and heartbreaking, her story of resiliency and hope inspires me.
- Germany/Transylvania: Night by Elie Wiesel — Longing for peace, desperate for survival, fifteen year old Elie Wiesel shares the harrowing tale of his time as a prisoner in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. This was assigned in English class to our foreign exchange student, who is also fifteen. The Holocaust is something she had never learned about in her schools in South Korea, so teaching her the horrible history alongside helping her read this first-hand account of the Nazi atrocities left a deep impression on all of us. It’s a short book — less than a dozen chapters long — but what’s contained in the pages underscores the universal need for love, peace and healing and paints an all too vivid picture of what life can be like when hate is left unchecked.
- India/Pakistan: Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh — Originally assigned by one of my political science professors back in college, this unassuming little book has sat on my shelf for nearly twenty years, now read so many times that the spine is pulling away from the yellowed pages, many of which are falling out. A work of fiction, Train to Pakistan is said to perfectly capture what so many experienced during the partition of India in 1947. Forced relocations destroy ancestral homes and the stability they provided. Little villages where Hindu and Muslim lived in peace for centuries are thrust into violence. Nearly a million are dead and millions more flee as refugees, hoping to spare the lives of themselves and their loved ones. Written in 1956 by one of India’s most celebrated yet controversial writers, Train to Pakistan remains incredibly relevant to this day.
- Japan: Momotaro the Peach Boy — This is a timeless Japanese folk tale about a little boy born in a peach and raised by a kindly elderly couple. With the love and compassion shown to him, Momotaro had the strength and courage to embark on a quest to fight the evil demon who was terrorizing the land. Along the way, he shows kindness to strangers, befriending a menagerie of animals, all of whom agree to help Momotaro in his quest. Working together, Momotaro and his friends defeat the oni, restoring peace and happiness to the land. Not only is it perfectly adorable, but this child’s tale packs some powerful messages. Momotaro’s journey shows the importance of treating others with compassion and love, while the victory illustrates that even those who are very different can work together to overcome the greatest adversity. That’s a lot to learn from a little boy born in a peach.
- South Africa: Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton — There is a reason this heart-wrenching tale of life under apartheid is on many required reading lists across the United States. Lush prose richly details an unforgettable story that will stay with you long past the last page. With the implementation of apartheid came the destruction of the tribal culture of South Africa. With their past destroyed and no future to speak of, millions of native South African lives were adversely impacted by this dark period in South African history. Cry, the Beloved Country follows one man, Reverend Stephen Kumalo, as he tries to heal the wounds brought about by these changes and secure a future of peace for his family.
I hope you get a chance to read some of my favorites from around the globe. I truly believe that so many problems, in our homes and beyond, are due to a lack of understanding, compassion and love. Reading is but one way to gain perspective and hopefully sway the tide of hatred and ignorance in the other direction. What are some books that have changed your perspective? In what way?
Until then, happy reading!
Little Book Reviews