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February 11, 2019

Reading Books by International Writers


For seven years, I’ve been an active member of a book club, Reading Books by International Writers, led by Fred Hapgood. Meeting in Brookline, Massachusetts, one Sunday afternoon per month, we discuss books from authors outside the U.S., more than half written in a foreign language and translated into English. However, many of our book choices are by authors from other cultures writing about their country, but in the English language. Most are fiction, but we also read nonfiction.

Why do we read books from other countries? I can only voice my own reasons, which have to do with a resistance to the America-centric orientation of the U.S., an interest in other cultures from the viewpoint of those native to another country, and an awareness that some outstanding fiction is being published internationally that receives little attention in our country. It is always exciting not only to be exposed to other cultural viewpoints, but also to discover some excellent novels that are not part of the American mainstream.

Here are some of my favorites that our group has read and discussed:

  • ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT by Erich Maria Remarque, translated by Arthur Wesley Wheen (exceptional writing and translation)
  • CHRONICLE IN STONE by Ismail Kadare, translated by Arshi Pipa (an Albanian perspective on WWII)
  • THE ART OF HEARING HEARTBEATS by Jan-Philipp Sendker, translated by Kevin Wiliarty (touches the heart)
  • GROWTH OF THE SOIL by Knut Hamsun, translated by W. W. Worster (no wonder it’s a classic!)
  • ALL FOR NOTHING by Walter Kempowski, translated by Anthea Bell (vivid experience of a WWII German evacuation)
  • SHIPWRECKS by Akira Yoshimura, translated by Mark Ealey (haunting and unsettling)
  • EVA LUNA by Isabel Allende, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden (rich storytelling)
  • THE DOOR by Magda Szabo, translated by Len Rix (superb characterization)
  • HOW TO LIVE: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, by Sarah Bakewell (Montaigne is a must-read)
  • CHILD OF THE JUNGLE: The Story of a Girl Caught Between Two Worlds, by Sabine Kuegler (true story of growing up in a remote tribe)
  • NOTES FROM THE WARSAW GHETTO by Emmanuel Ringelblum, translated by Jacob Sloan (the horror of the Warsaw Ghetto)
  • THINGS FALL APART by Chinua Achebe (a must-read classic)
  • COLORLESS TSUKURU TAZAKI AND HIS YEARS OF PILGRIMAGE by Haruki Murakami, translated by Philip Gabriel (original)
  • THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS by Arundhati Roy (my favorite book, a masterpiece)
  • MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING by Viktor E. Frankl (a must-read)
  • THE HUMANS by Matt Haig (an alien's delightful perspective of life on earth!)
  • A LONG WAY HOME: A Memoir, by Saroo Brierley (true story, made into a superb film)
  • PARTITIONS by Amit Majmudar (the bloody birth of Pakistan)

If I ask myself which books from the above list are most vivid in my memory and deeply moved me, two stand out in my mind, and for similar reasons. The exquisite sensory lyricism of THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS by Arundhati Roy combines with a plot that circles around a secret anguish that is eventually and explosively revealed. In my opinion, it is the greatest masterpiece of the 20th century.

Another heartfelt discovery was Erich Maria Remarque’s ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (translated by the incomparable Arthur Wesley Ween). It is far more than a war story from the point of view of a German; it is a vivid entry into the mind of a soldier attempting to come to terms with the madness he is experiencing. Like Arundhati Roy, Remarque blends vivid lyrical writing with the experience of painful realities. The superb sequel, THE ROAD BACK, should be read by anyone recovering from a war experience or who wants to understand the post-war disorientation of veterans.

In conclusion, to counter the emphasis in the U.S. on American writers, I encourage everyone seeking a quality reading experience that expands their mind to explore the literary wealth now available to us from other countries. There is a cornucopia out there of superb writing guaranteed to enrich your lives.

Tracy Marks is an author and instructor of continuing education literature and creative writing courses at Lexington Community Education and Newton Community Education in the Boston suburbs. She is also a leader of the LitnLife online book club at Goodreads, a small community for chapter-by-chapter discussion of pre-20th-century classics.